Tuesday, November 9, 2010

More Jane Austen!

Last week I heard a fascinating story on NPR that said Jane Austen had a brilliant editor. Her original manuscripts have been found and analyzed against her published books, and there were a great many changes, many grammatical or stylistic that are certainly in the purview of an editor. As a former editor, I was proud when I heard about this story, because occasionally older famous authors like Austen and Dickens and Shakespeare are used to prove that sometimes what an author writes is utterly perfect and doesn't need editing, therefore editors are useless and my book should be published exactly as is. Nevermind that Shakespeare's plays were workshopped, revised, and that he edited them constantly over decades (not to mention of course the debate about whether or not he even wrote them at all.) And that Dickens in fact did have editors - some people choose to just believe that in old-timey days there weren't editors (and frankly, after suffering through Bleak House, don't some of us wish that instead of being paid by the word, he was instead edited with a heavy hand?)
So I was surprised at the end of the story to hear that the researcher has gotten a lot of angry feedback. Apparently some Jane Austen fans think that her writing was completely perfect, and the fact that she wasn't perfect and she did need editing has tarnished their opinions of her. I think that's a bunch of bollocks. To think that a writer needing editing somehow makes them lesser is just obtuse. Writing and editing are different skills. For that matter, all the readers, agents, and editors that a manuscript encounters will have different areas of expertise that they might improve upon. I am very good at dialogue and character, not as good at pacing and at physical details. Other editors are better at those aspects. And then of course copyeditors and proofreaders are looking for different errors altogether. The fact that her novels didn't come out of her pen in final-draft perfection should in no way make anyone think of Jane Austen's reputation as marred. Was Michael Jordan a lesser basketball player because he had a coach? Certainly not, and Ms. Austen is still brilliant, perhaps even more so for knowing she could use some assistance in certain areas, and also in taking that editorial advice.

On another Austen note, I finally got around to listening to a podcast which I'd had in my iTunes forever, from Penguin Classics. Mostly it was just nice talking about Jane and why she's endured and what aspects of her books kids today relate to, but in discussing how her books have been adapted and her plots have been appropriated, I learned a new, shocking fact. Apparently Atonement by Ian McEwan was based on Northanger Abbey! Now, I haven't read NA since 1994 so my memory was sketchy, so I had to call my Mom (another JASNA-member). She hadn't read Atonement (yet, this might move it up on her list!) but she saw part of the movie, and she began talking about how in the book, Catherine thinks that Henry's father murdered his wife, and how really it's all about her overactive imagination, and how she's misinterpreted some things she's seen and how her imagination gets her into a lot of trouble. Immediately I could see the parallels with Briony's active imagination, and her misinterpretation of what happened between Cecelia and Robbie Turner, and how that gets everyone in trouble. My aunt piped up in the background and started to dispute that it was a retelling of Northanger, as the consequences in NA were negligible and in Atonement they were momentous, but my mother and I agree that while NA provided the framework, McEwan had never intended to make a strict parallel, and instead used it as a jumping-off point. Later, I discussed with K, another Austen fan, and we agreed that this fact wasn't widely known in the literary world. We'd read Atonement for our book club, and this never came up despite many of the members being the type to read Reader's Guides, and I am in the book business and read reviews widely, as does K, and neither of us ever heard this before.

I was planning in a few months to reread Pride & Prejudice, but now I'm thinking I'd also like to reread Northanger Abbey. Maybe in 2011 I'll reread all 6 novels throughout the year. Plus, I never read the juvenilia, correspondence, and Lady Susan. I have the book with all that material, but in my Austen seminar, my professor was unexpectedly bedridden with twins so we missed a couple of classes and got a little behind. But she pointed out this could be an advantage. When people clue in that we'd read all of Jane Austen and might therefore be a little nutty, we could honestly say "No, I haven't read all of Austen's works." But really I don't have any trouble with people thinking I'm nutty for that reason, so why not?


Deborah Y said...

I'm a writer, and I think good editors are worth their weight in gold, but. . . I have to correct a misimpression about the recent Jane Austen editing controversy. You say, "Her original manuscripts have been found and analyzed against her published books, and there were a great many changes." You can be forgiven for having gotten that impression from the coverage of this issue, because Kathryn Sutherland, the Oxford scholar whose work inspired all the press, has done nothing to dispel it. But the truth is entirely different, as any visitor to the web site where Austen's manuscripts are now posted (http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/index.html) can readily tell. In fact, NO manuscript of Austen's published novels survives, with the exception of an MS of the two last chapters of Persuasion, which we know JA heavily revised before submitting them for publication. The MSS we do have consist largely of her juvenilia, written when JA was a teenager and never intended for publication, as well as two novels she started and never finished; a fair copy of the novella Lady Susan, which she never submitted to a publisher; and a few other odds and ends. In other words, in NO case do we have both an MS that Jane Austen intended to submit for publication and a published version of the same work -- and therefore it's impossible to draw any conclusions about what Austen's editors may or may not have contributed to her finished work. It's this misrepresentation that has Janeites upset, not some silly argument that if you need an editor you're not "really" a writer.

Carin Siegfried said...

@Deborah Y - You're right, I totally didn't get that from the NPR interview. True, I should have checked out the links to the source material. And it didn't sound like Janeites I know to be shattered to find out Jane isn't perfect. But that's how it was presented on air. Thanks so much for clearing this up! Mea culpa.

Christy said...

That's so cool that Northanger Abbey was a jumping off point for Atonement! I did not know that. Thanks for spreading the word.

Kate said...

This was a great post! I included it at Kate's Library as part of the Friday Five!

Have a great weekend!

Denn Yee said...

More still by sutherland at