Posts in category Jane Austen

the ‘real’ Jane Austen, textual study, & historical linguistics

a Jane-ite trawling the internet would be confronted with an unimaginably large number of Austen biographies, fan sites, images, and editions – as well as an array of films and adaptations and even wilder extensions of the Victorian moral canon (in Google-ese: a search for Jane Austen returns about 22,400,000 results in 0.14 seconds).

While potentially tough to navigate, these many dueling Janes offer excellent fodder for serious discussion of digital editions and digital representations (esp. of primary source texts) and digital literacy in general, the kind of discussion that treats editions and digital representations as subjects for dissection, the kind that apply to textual studies and historical linguistics across genres and across historical periods. (and it’s Austen, so it’s fun)

For instance, the British Library publishes a beautiful, interactive, virtual version of Austen’s Volume II. The images are vivid; the pages are turnable; and if you’re unsure about the handwriting displayed on any page within the text, you can click the audio or text button to access an orally delivered or transcribed version. A wonderful resource – one I love to peruse and to share… but not one I would recommend (at least not in isolation) for serious literary or linguistic study.

When the British Library Volume II is assayed against the Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts (JAFM) edition of Volume II, students see almost immediately that the British Library version is incomplete, displaying only Austen’s The History of England, not the complete set of writings she compiled within the vellum binding. And when assessing an identical page from each version, quickly noted are disparities in pagination, which in the British Library edition is inaccurate (albeit deliberately & I think for end-user utility) and therefore misleading; the British Library transcriptions are undoubtedly meant to be helpful, but they’re unmistakably editorial, failing to correspond linearly with the original, failing to represent line-end hyphens, and failing to represent the insertions, deletions, underscores (and so on) which punctuate Austen’s hand (and on this point, they’re counter- end-user utility).

A particularly astute student of mine yesterday pointed out (happily, before I even needed to) the presence of the Head Note in JAFM, noting that it detailed critical textual attributes such as size and provenance, details, she suggested, which would matter in understanding the language, the text, and the author. Excellent. But stuff you won’t find in most Austen versions…

To be fair, the intentions of the British Library and JAFM versions are distinct. And the access the British Library provides to Austen as well as Carroll, and Blake, and Mozart – freely – is invaluable. Still, the scholarly utility of the British Library’s virtual books is finite, and I wonder if it needn’t have been.

The in-class dissection continues in the next few days as I introduce a Project Gutenburg version of Austen’s Persuasion and we compare it to the JAFM edition version, and as we press on to distinguish our synchronic study of Austen from the kind of diachronic analysis enabled by historical corpora, where again, consideration of a source’s scholarly intentions and its utility is critical (and where again, given the technology available to editors, I’m not so sure creating editions and corpora as distinct entities with distinct ends is necessary).

An in-depth technical how of JAFM and similar sources is tough to cover in a history of English class, but a little of the how beside a lot of the why is important, since our understanding of virtually every period in English’s pre-twentieth-century linguistic and literary history relies on text, and our understanding is only as good as our texts.

Jane Austen

With ease I could make a list of my favorite women writers. As effortlessly as breathing, I would type Donna Tartt (The Secret History), Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged), Norman Rush (Mating) – okay, he’s not a woman, but his female narrator is so brilliantly authentic that he earns honorary status, Ruth Heller (Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones), Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things), Ann-Marie MacDonald (Fall on Your Knees), Joyce Carol Oates (The Gravedigger’s Daughter), and Jane Austen (The Complete Works).

Austen merits her own special status. And it’s not because the titles that flow so instinctively from my thoughts form an unnaturally dark theme, amidst which her works provide a solitary bright spot. No, it is because among my favorites, it’s Jane Austen’s works that I’ve read and read and read again, viewed in numerous film adaptations, and shared with my husband (who, though he’s never read a word of her novels, has sat through nearly all of the film adaptations with me, has cultivated a compelling affection for an impartial interest in Austen, and has formed strong opinions about observed which actors, if someone must do it, play the best Darcy, the best Mr. Bennett, and so on…).

Austen as a topic is seduction enough to tempt me to read or view related (though nowhere near Austen in caliber) works such as The Jane Austen Book Club, Lost in Austen, and Becoming Jane. (I admit that even though I am familiar with what little there is of Austen’s biography, I wept with grief over fictional Becoming Jane’s heartrending goodness, where in a grand act of profound self-sacrifice and honor, Jane relinquishes her claim on her beloved, who, in my view, is a complete rogue when compared to the likes of Darcy and Wentworth anyway)

My favorite composer, Vivaldi, is often described as having composed the same work a hundred different ways (alternately, he composed his many different concertos in entirely the same way). For me, Austen is the Vivaldi of literature; her works are rhythmic and predictable; her motifs always repeat; and she’s instantly recognizable within the first line. Her heroines may be flawed, but they have strong, silent type suitors as tutors; pride and prejudice are always subdued, and the stories always end well.

So what if Austen’s morals are Victorian and her protagonists can’t inherit? Her plots offer commentary enough on the problematic social status of Victorian women, and I can’t imagine Austen espoused values such as honor, integrity, or charity will ever become passé.

When I lived in Iceland as a Fulbright scholar I was invited to various social gatherings at the US Embassy in Reykjavík, an art showing, a party for the retiring director of the Fulbright Program, and so on. The ambassador’s residence was elegant, by Scandinavian standards luxurious, and the gatherings were as gracious as the guests were interesting (that is to say wonderfully!). Even years later I can recall the fare as well as the floral arrangements, but it was the fact that the ambassador kept a Jane Austen collection displayed prominently where any guest might see it that most fully captured my imagination.

But I’ve never wanted to become an Austen scholar. I never wanted to ruin the pleasure I find in Austen’s moral tales, where deserving Elizabeths, Emmas, and Elinors win happy marriages to Darcy, Knightley, and Edward in spite of conspirings against them by ‘soul[s] of discretion’ [sic] like Fanny Dashwood and Mrs. Elton. No, I wouldn’t want to ruin my Austen by subjecting her to exegesis or (with all due respect) to some literary or feminist critique.

And I still don’t. But I am really, really thrilled about the new Jane Austen Fiction Archive, which appeals both to the Austen lover and the academic in me. This archive doesn’t ask readers to critique or analyze Austen’s plots (though readers might use the archive to do so). Rather, it invites readers to examine diplomatic (i.e. unedited) transcriptions of her writing, to view facsimiles of her manuscripts, and, in doing so, to gain a more intimate understanding of her work as a writer, an extraordinary writer who composes extraordinary fiction but a writer who in revising and editing engages in the writing process nonetheless.

What’s more, the archive presents occasion to merge two things I love: textual editing and Jane Austen! I’m in the midst of writing a post about the reasons I actually want to return to campus this fall. This archive is among them, as it will undoubtedly grant me (and many others) justification to assign a novel I happen to love to my students, whom I hope will appreciate reading it while working with the archive as a wonderful opportunity to engage Austen in an exciting new way.