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While studying 1,100 original handwritten pages of Austen’s unpublished writings, Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University found plenty of blots, crossed out words and sentences, and “a powerful counter-grammatical way of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.