BOOK REVIEWS     Sue Parrill, Editor

“The Making of England’s Jane”

Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood

By Kathryn Sutherland.
Oxford University Press, 2005. xix + 387 pages.
28 B/W illustrations. Hardcover, $95.00.

Reviewed by Laurie Kaplan.

“Punctuation,” Kathryn Sutherland says in her book Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood, “holds a key to Mansfield Park.” By focusing attention on Austen’s vocabulary, her dashes and ampersands, Sutherland encourages readers to question every semicolon and italicised word, every critic’s annotation. Critical analysis on the microscopic level of the comma is Sutherland’s forte. By collating multiple documents—Austen’s manuscripts, the first editions, Austen’s own corrections for the second editions, and selected nineteenth- and twentieth-century publications— Sutherland shows not only how the printed text defined the author, but also how the cult of the “Janeites” inhibited the development of serious
Austen studies.

“The Making of England’s Jane,” the first chapter of Jane Austen’s Textual Lives, introduces the topic of this book perfectly (and this phrase seems to serve as the descriptive subtitle for the book itself). Through an examination of biographies, portraits, manuscripts, films, and editions of the novels, Sutherland tracks the creation of Jane Austen as “a special cultural commodity.” From James Edward Austen- Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen (1870), which presents a “family-managed” biography of his relation, to the films, which sometimes bear only a passing relation to the novels, biographers, editors, and directors have “marketed” their own versions of “Jane Austen” to the public. Cassandra, Sutherland says, “did biographers a profound service when she censored or destroyed her sister’s private papers and correspondence”—for in so doing, Cassandra “licensed the imagining of fact.” Biographers, therefore, could control Jane Austen’s textual life. The author would “be” what the times demanded.

In her analysis of the massively popular illustrated Macmillan edition of the late nineteenth century, Sutherland shows how the drawings carried their own cultural baggage and yielded another textual identity of the author. Hugh Thomson’s cloyingly sweet illustrations offered up Austen’s novels as sugary nuggets, replete, as Sutherland points out, with “chocolate-box” packaging. What is important is that Thomson’s idealized scenes appealed to a specific late-Victorian reading public, whose sensibilities were lulled by Austen’s nostalgic tales of pre-Industrial England. Austen’s reputation for sweetness and light persisted during World War I, and Sutherland describes how reading material for the wounded soldiers was ranked “according to a ‘fever-chart’”; Austen’s novels were prescribed for the severely shell-shocked because, according to A. C. Bradley, “they make exceptionally peaceful reading.”

It was the editing work of R. W. Chapman in the 1920s that began the process of salvaging Austen’s literary reputation from family-managed hagiography and textual cuteness. In the immediate post-war period, Chapman sought to reclaim culture, order, and civility from the chaos of 1914-18 trench warfare. By asserting the “classic” status of Austen as a writer, Chapman saved her novels from “further textual deterioration”: he prepared the first “scholarly” edition of Austen’s work, included her novels in the otherwise completely male canon of English literature, and sorted out problems of biographical fact and fiction. But, in the process of editing her novels seriously—in the same way that the works of Aeschylus or Donne would be edited—Chapman also introduced errors into the texts, and it is those errors that Sutherland pursues in this painstaking and brilliant analysis of Jane Austen’s “texts” in all their variety. “To restore, and maintain [textual] integrity” may sound like a valid reason to tinker with an author’s art, but Chapman wanted twentieth-century perfection— an authoritative text that would fit a standardized pattern. All in all, Chapman wanted to make Jane Austen a picture of perfection.

“The Chapman edition,” that is, the 1923 Clarendon Press (Oxford) set, has served as the standard reference for Austen scholars for 80 years. The set is readable, readily available, and affordable for undergraduates and graduate students, teachers, professors, and libraries. In Jane Austen’s Textual Lives, however, Sutherland questions the extent of Chapman’s “intrusive” editing and “repunctuation.” She asserts that standardizing punctuation instead of understanding the difference between public (formal) and private (interiorized, and therefore ungrammatical) speech is an unforgivable intervention by the editor in a creative work. She raises important issues in general about editing creative works, an act that imposes the editor’s values on a text. (These issues are troubling scholars today with the publication of the first parts of the new, exorbitantly expensive Cambridge set of the novels.)

In a brief coda to the book, Sutherland examines Austen’s textual life in films. If the vagaries of punctuation can change the meaning of words, if pretty illustrations can obscure the seriousness of a text, then the visual shorthand of film— i.e., has the director added details that are not in the novels? has the writer remade the plots?—can turn the novels into contemporary cultural artifacts that appeal to a set of new consumers. It’s Jane Austen being repackaged—again. Sutherland tells the buyer to beware of the products, and her analysis of the history of Jane Austen’s textual lives shows us how to become better readers of the novels.


Laurie Kaplan was the Editor of Persuasions for eight years. She lives in England and is the Academic Director of the George Washington University England Study Center (London).

JASNA News v.23, no. 1, Spring 2007, p. 20

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