26 October 2010

jane austen couldn't spell this

Jane Austen didn't prepare me for this.

I have another thing to add to my list, my list of things in my life that Jane Austen {with her witty prose and her strong-willed women and her challenging men} did not prepare me for.

Or more precisely, could not have prepared me for. Jane Austen could not have prepared me for a spelling bee.

There's a professor at Oxford who analyzed Jane Austen's manuscripts and then created a tsunami in the English major world: she said that Jane Austen was heavily edited. By a man, most likely.

This author we've put on a podium—the one who excelled in a man's world by so clearly taking us into the mind of a woman—this woman's words were seriously changed by a man.

But Jane had to be heavily edited because she couldn't spell and grammar was low on her priority list. Who needs to think about subject-verb agreement when you're trying to create Elizabeth Bennet?

Aha, someone will say, aha! What if Jane Austen didn't really create Elizabeth Bennet as we know her today?

What if, at the end of the original draft of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth did not say:

"We will not quarrel for the greater share of blame annexed to that evening. The conduct of neither, if strictly examined, will be irreproachable; but since then, we have both, I hope, improved in civility."

Nor did she say:

"But think no more of the letter. The feelings of the person who wrote, and the person who received it, are now so widely different from what they were then, that every unpleasant circumstance attending it, ought to be forgotten. You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure."

Instead, she said {and as you read these, feel free to pretend there are spelling errors and grammar errors; I can't bring myself to write quite that lax}:

"Um, let's not fight about what happened that one time. I was wrong; you were wrong. Everyone was wrong. But I think we're nice now."

Or she said:

"Ok, get over your letter, your crazy letter that you wrote a long time ago. You've changed; I've changed. Move on, buddy. Move on. I mean, just be like me: I think about stuff only if it makes me happy."

Is Elizabeth Bennet still Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet?

I bet she is. I read in the Telegraph that the Oxford professor would describe Jane Austen's style as close to Virginia Woolf's. Stream of consciousness, jumbling together of dialog so that the reader is kept on their toes {wait, who's talking?}, a lot of internal thoughts going on as external action is described.

One main idea from this Virginia Woolf comparison tells me that Elizabeth Bennet, regardless of Jane's ability to keep track of the "i before e, except after c" rule, would still essentially be the same from first draft to the well-read copy on my bookshelf: stream of consciousness.

Stream of consciousness gets your ideas out on paper—quickly. It's messy, but I often find it to be the most revealing kind of writing, this trying to write without lifting your pen and certainly without stopping to judge what you've said. I've found in my own writing that allowing myself the freedom to write without constantly self-editing {self-judging, self-condemning, self-revising} has made me write more to the heart of what I want to say.

Stream of consciousness in literature—as in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway—is when you're given access to a character's inner thoughts, streaming along as they go about their day. You know, kind of like how you go about your day, driving to work but not really thinking about driving—instead, you're thinking about last night's conversation or what you'll have for lunch or the book you're reading.

Most likely, you're thinking about all of those things {and more} at once, so stream of consciousness aims to get you into a character's head so that you better understand them and their motivations.

{End English major discussion.}

I'm not saying that Jane wrote her books in one sitting, or that Pride and Prejudice is nothing more than an extended journal where she was simply getting down her thoughts without self-judgment. {Stream of consciousness, as a side note, works wonders for journalling when you're perturbed by something and need to get to the root of it}.

What I'm saying is:

Even if Jane Austen's original drafts were dashed together messes and even if her editor had to do some major work to get the books ready for print {and ready to be read by a public not quite ready for Virginia Woolf}...even if all that, I bet Elizabeth Bennet is still Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet.

I don't think the essence of Jane's characters were created by her editor as he put in commas and paragraph breaks. I'm an editor and a writer, and I know that you can only work with what you've been given: I bet Elizabeth came to the editor as the sharp-tongued girl we all love, contained there in the heart of messy scribblings and an inability to spell tomato correctly.

I'm going to keep Jane Austen on her podium in my mind. I might even raise the podium a bit, knowing that she was, perhaps, ahead of her time in terms of literary style.

Actually, yes, I'll definitely raise the podium, simply because I like Virginia Woolf and I like the idea of Jane Austen being compared to her.

Also, I think tomorrow I'll do some stream of consciousness writing in honor of Jane and Virginia.

{You should try it, too, and let me know how it goes.}

1 comment:

  1. I saw a little article in the paper the other day about this & wondered if you had read it. I KNEW you would have to comment if you had!



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