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.