Jane Austen could write – but her spelling was awful

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The Independent Culture

Blots, crossings-out, messiness and bad grammar – Jane Austen's manuscripts were so messy that a pro-active editor must have been responsible for the polished prose of novels such as Emma and Persuasion.

That is the conclusion of an Oxford University professor who has been studying 1,100 of the writer's unpublished original manuscripts.

Professor Kathryn Sutherland, of the Oxford faculty of English language and literature, has come to the conclusion that an interventionist editor must have come to the rescue.

Austen's brother, Henry, claimed of her in 1818: "Everything came finished from her pen." Professor Sutherland's conclusions differ, however.

"In reading the manuscripts it becomes clear that this delicate precision is missing," she said. "Austen's unpublished manuscripts unpick her reputation for perfection in various ways: we see blots, crossings out, messiness, we see creation as it happens, and in Austen's case, we discover a powerful, counter-grammatical way of writing.

"She broke most of the rules for writing good English. In particular, the high degree of polished punctuation and epigrammatic style we see in Emma and Persuasion is simply not there."

She concludes: "This suggests somebody else was heavily involved in the editing process between manuscript and printed book."

Indeed, her publisher John Murray II acknowledged the untidiness of her writing style in a letter to his talent scout and editor William Gifford.

The manuscripts will be included in an online archive to be launched on Monday by Professor Sutherland, as part of a project backed by the Bodleian libraries, King's College London and the British Library with funding from the Arts and Humanities Council.