Even Austen Needed an Editor

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that behind every good writer stands a good editor. Jane Austen was no exception, according to a BBC News story that’s been widely picked up by various news outlets.

While studying 1,100 original handwritten pages of Austen’s unpublished writings, Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University found plenty of blots, crossed out words and sentences, and “a powerful counter-grammatical way of writing.” Austen, she says, also was far more experimental and even better at writing dialogue than her published works suggest.

Sutherland says William Gifford, an editor who worked for Austen’s publisher, most likely was the one who polished and honed Austen’s prose.

Sutherland’s research forms part of an initiative by King’s College London, the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the British Library in London to create an online archive of Austen’s handwritten fiction manuscripts. The project will launch this Monday (October 25). As I’ve noted earlier, Austen’s history of England already is online.

Those of us who write for a living aren’t surprised by the fact that what one writes and what gets in print aren’t always the same thing. Nor are we surprised that Austen’s prose is constantly being edited and rewritten to render it suitable for a modern medium, film.

On its radio news, as an example of how Austen’s editor polished her scribblings into memorable prose, CBS featured a voice clip of Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice” passionately begging Lizzy “to end my suffering and consent to be my wife.”

While that declaration brings goosebumps to those of us who are convinced Mr. Firth was Mr. Darcy in a previous life, it does not appear anywhere in Austen’s famous novel. It’s an invention of screenwriter Andrew Davies.

Jane Austen Meets Fight Club

It’s amazing what creatively twisted minds can do with Jane Austen. Take “Jane Austen’s Fight Club,” which is just what it sounds like. This YouTube video is very funny indeed as the genteel set escapes “an endless surrender to propriety.” No corsets, no hatpins and no crying, ladies!

Samuel Clemens vs. Jane Austen: Never the Twain Shall Meet?

The Chicago Examiner recently ran a fun list of the “50 Best Author vs. Author Putdowns of All Time.” The collection of gloriously vicious insults includes one of Mark Twain’s many stabs at Jane Austen: “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Mark Twain in 1909

The irascible Mark Twain never tired of skewering Jane Austen.

Twain (Samuel Clemens to his friends and family) also wrote that “any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book,” and lamented that “it seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”

Ironically, that sounds just like the kind of barbed stuff Austen would write. Twain and Austen are two of my favorite authors, precisely because they are so adept at throwing literary darts. Austen had a much narrower focus and a much more contained life than did Twain, but in a lot of ways they aimed at similar targets.

I find Twain’s reference to “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ ” a trifle suspicious. Just how many times did he read it, anyway? I’m not the only one to think that perhaps Twain doth protest too much about Austen. An essay some years back in “The Virginia Quarterly Review” suggested that Twain’s hatred of Austen may have been at least partly a pose, and that he may have realized (albeit reluctantly)  that he and Austen shared a similar disdain for fools.

As for Twain, he didn’t escape skewering by other authors, either. William Faulkner called him a “hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe.” Ouch!

Jane Austen’s History of England, Virtually

“Jane Austen’s ‘The History of England’ ranks as one of the most precocious and engaging works of juvenilia ever produced by a leading literary figure,” according to the British Library, which provides a virtual copy of Austen’s manuscript on its website. (Scroll down the list of Most Viewed books, or put “Austen” in the search box.) You can view Austen’s original manuscript, turning the pages online, read the pages converted into regular text, or listen to an audio version. (You may need to install Microsoft’s Silverlight plugin.)

Written when she was 16 and charmingly illustrated by her older sister Cassandra, Jane’s history is a parody of Oliver Goldsmith’s “History of England,” published in 1771. You can already hear Jane’s voice come through loud and clear as she skewers pomposity, the monarchy and historians. For example, she writes of Henry VIII that “nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses & leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general…”

Thanks to the Jane Austen Addict Blog for alerting us to this marvelous online gift. So far, the library has put up only a handful of virtual books, but hopefully will be adding many more.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to page through Leonardo’s sketchbook…

New “Emma” Doesn’t Quite Hit the Mark

emma2009I felt as if I were watching “Emma” 2009 through smudged glass. I found it entertaining for the most part, but it never deeply engaged my emotions and it didn’t make me laugh enough.

PBS’ “Masterpiece” will air the BBC’s latest version of “Emma” (which debuted in the UK in fall 2009)  in three weekly episodes (a 2-hour episode and two 1-hour episodes), starting this Sunday, Jan. 24.

I’ll start by admitting that I wasn’t sure why we needed a remake of “Emma” anyway. We already have three filmed takes on Jane Austen’s comic novel: the very good 1972 BBC “Emma” with Doran Godwin, the excellent 1996 BBC version with Kate Beckinsale , and the wonderful 1996 Miramax feature film starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Then there’s “Clueless,” the cute 1995 movie starring Alicia Silverstone that transports Austen’s meddling heroine to modern times. Then again, it’s been 13 years since the last Emmas aired, enough time for a new generation to need introduction to Austen’s clueless anti-heroine.

In the new “Emma,” Romola Garai mugs her way through the title role; at any moment I expected her to say, “Omigod!” This version of “Emma” was no doubt designed to appeal to viewers younger than I. After the first half hour or so, I got used to Garai’s interpretation of Austen’s comic heroine, though I can’t say I ever fell in love with it.

While my heart will forever belong to Jeremy Northam’s Mr. Knightley,  Jonny Lee Miller’s performance in the new version probably comes closest to the Mr. Knightley of Austen’s novel. Northam (Miramax 1996 film) played up Knightley’s sense of humor. Mark Strong (BBC 1996) emphasized his more serious side. Miller skillfully blends the two.

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A Video Tribute to Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy

I’ve been playing around with iMovie, trying to put together a decent video tribute to Jane Austen’s beloved Mr. Darcy of “Pride and Prejudice,” featuring the various actors who have portrayed him. I did manage to cobble something together and get it uploaded to YouTube. I’ve had a lot of fun doing it, but rest assured that I have no plans to quit my day job…

‘Jane Austen Ruined My Life’ a Satisfying First Novel

austenruinedlifeJane Austen Ruined My Life, by Beth Pattillo (Guideposts Books)

Emma Grant blames Jane Austen for encouraging her to believe in happy endings. Happy endings are in short supply in Emma’s life. First she found her husband Edward and her teaching assistant in flagrante delicto, on her kitchen table, no less. Then the assistant, with the backing of now ex-hubby, accused Emma of plagiarism, destroying her career as an English lit professor.

Emma responds to this insult by fleeing to England to track down an alleged cache of previously undiscovered letters by Jane Austen.

In England, she runs straight into Adam, the former best friend who dropped out of her life when she married Edward. And she encounters an eccentric grandmotherly woman who claims to have access to an unimaginable treasure—thousands of letters by Jane Austen.

Beth Pattillo’s first novel (to be followed this February by Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart) is an entertaining, emotionally satisfying story. Emma Grant is an independent, likable heroine with a sense of humor and a set of scruples, keeping her true to the spirit of Austen.

Jane Austen Ruined My Life moves quickly, pays homage to Austen’s characters and stories without being totally predictable, and includes plenty of fun Austen biographical and historical tidbits. I’m looking forward to Pattillo’s second book.

Meeting the Austen Challenge

Oh my, time does fly. Back in July, I announced that I would be taking part in the Everything Austen Challenge. I more than fulfilled the requirement to read or watch six Austen-related books or movies before January 1. In fact, I easily met the requirements of the Austen Challenge X Two. Alas, I have been too busy this fall (well, OK, sometimes just too lazy) to post about my reading and viewing adventures.

I’ve got bits and pieces of reviews scattered over my hard drive, which I will gather up and post over the next week or two, but in the meantime, I ring in the new year with a list of what I have read/watched since the Challenge began in July.

  1. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Herman. I actually did manage to post a review of this.
  2. Jane Austen Ruined My Life, by Beth Pattillo. An entertaining, Austen-inspired modern tale in which the heroine is lured to London by the promise of a cache of undiscovered Jane Austen letters. The cover alone, featuring a swooning lass in an eye-catching scarlet dress, is worth the price of the book.
  3. The Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy by Pamela Aidan. These well-written books, told from Darcy’s point of view, include An Assembly Such as This, Duty and Desire, and These Three Remain.
  4. “Clueless,” the fun 1995 movie that transports Emma to a 20th century high school. Alicia Silverstone plays the clueless, matchmaking heroine. [Read more…]

What Killed Jane Austen?

Like everything else about Jane Austen, her death continues to fascinate us. Literary scholars and Janeites still wonder about the illness that plagued the author for more than a year before she died at the age of 41 in July, 1817. It was during this time that she finished Persuasion, the saddest and most pensive of her novels.

In 1964, Dr. Zachary Cope proposed that Addison’s disease, a rare disorder in which the adrenal glands don’t produce enough hormones, killed the famous author. Her symptoms included extreme fatigue and weakness, faintness, back pain, nausea, and pain in the joints.  To Cope, though, a vital clue was skin discoloration. “Recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour,” Austen wrote in March 1817. Addison’s disease can make the skin look bronze or mottled. (Reporters often wondered why U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who had Addison’s Disease, had a perpetual “tan.”)

In 1997, Austen biographer Claire Tomalin begged to differ, and thought Austen’s symptoms suggested lymphoma.

Katherine White, the coordinator for the Addison’s Disease Self-Help Group’s clinical advisory group in the United Kingdom, thinks something much more common killed Jane: bovine tuberculosis, probably from drinking unpasteurized milk. In a paper she wrote for the Medical Humanities journal, White (who is a social scientist, not a medical professional), argues that while Austen could have had Addison’s Disease, tuberculosis seems a more likely cause of her final illness and death.

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How Did Jane Austen Get So Famous?

janesfameThe Oxford Times has a short interview with Claire Harman, author of Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (Canongate Books), a book that I read as part of my Austen Challenge and definitely recommend.

Jane didn’t grow popular until decades after her death, but since then her books have remained constantly in print and now, nearly 200 years after the publication of her first novel, Jane Austen remains a worldwide cultural phenomenon.  The opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is almost as widely used (and abused) as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.”

Jane’s fame long ago eclipsed that of her novels. In fact, as Harman points out, a large number of Jane Austen fans have never actually read one of her books. (In the preface to Jane’s Fame, Harman shares an anecdote about a woman who sent the first chapters of Pride and Prejudice, bearing Austen’s original title of First Impressions and with proper names changed, to 18 British publishers. Not only did they all reject it, but apparently only one editor recognized it.)

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