Historically, women authors get a lot of flack. Hardly any of them manage to struggle through the gauntlet of academic sneerage, the popular theory of “well it’s not like she wrote about anything serious” and The Great Specific-To-Female-Authors-Amnesia-Plagues that occurred regularly through the 20th Century.
But at least we have Jane Austen, right? Author of the Greatest Book Ever Written (ABC TV told me Pride and Prejudice was more popular than the Bible and I think that’s excellent news considering the lack of sparkling dialogue and pretty frocks in the Bible)
Only apparently, Jane Austen isn’t as brilliant as we all thought she was. Guess why. No, go on, guess. Cos she wrote about women and parlours and forgot to put in a few pithy remarks about Napoleon? Nope. Cos she couldn’t land a husband? Nope.
Apparently Jane Austen no longer counts as a literary genius because she didn’t singlehandedly arrange every piece of her own punctuation. Apparently (prepare those fainting couches, ladies) AN EDITOR PUT IN THE SEMI-COLONS FOR HER. Obviously all lady authors must give up now, our heroine forever sullied by this dramatic revelation.
Possibly my sarcastic tone of voice just got a leetle too high pitched, as all the dogs in our neighbourhood are sounding anxious. But, seriously. I get that new revelations about Austen’s writing style are actually newsworthy and of interest to the book reading world, but how is this beat up into some kind of scandal? Authors need editors. Having editorial input is not cheating, it’s now considered a vital part of the process, and if Austen’s didn’t do much more than replace some em dashes with semi colons, she was still far more lightly edited than any author these days who doesn’t have a close personal relationship with Lulu.com.
Once I calmed my ire and read the article properly, of course, I saw that it wasn’t actually proclaiming that Austen was a lesser author because she had the help in to tidy her manuscripts – though from the set up of the article that is certainly the initial tone, and others like this one have no problem with dismissing Austen’s contributions to her own books, despite the best efforts of the academic in question to steer the topic on to her more positive discoveries. The key to this literary “scandal” is that a myth has been exploded – the myth of perfection. One which was started not by Austen herself, but by her brother who claimed “”Everything came finished from her pen.”
So we have a great writer, built up into an impossibly perfect paragon by a male relative, and now that we have evidence that maybe she didn’t live up to that impossible ideal, who is going to be blamed? I really hope that this story doesn’t metamorphose into a vague sensation of “but you know she didn’t write it all herself,” one of those classic tactics of suppressing women writers that Joanna Russ identified. And yet… the headlines are way ahead of us, turning this story of interesting scholarship into a negative blow against one of the few women whose position in the literary canon is so ingrained that few have the bottle to try to kick her out.
The aspect that most interested me, reading through the sensationalist reporting to the actual quotes by Professor Kathryn Sutherland, is that Jane Austen’s personal punctuation style tended more towards the dash than the semi-colon… was, in other words, far more in touch with how most fiction writers work now than with her contemporaries (apart from, apparently, Lord Byron who was also prone to dashing about). I will be scouring the papers for a headline that reads JANE AUSTEN’S PUNCTUATION AHEAD OF HER TIME!!! or something equally positive but somehow I don’t think I’m going to find one.