Austen's "polished prose" not so polished: academic

Fri Oct 22, 2010 7:03pm EDT
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By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - She has been hailed as the perfect English stylist, but "Pride and Prejudice" author Jane Austen was far less polished and more experimental than people realize, a leading academic said on Saturday.

Kathryn Sutherland, professor of the Faculty of English Language and Literature at Oxford, has studied a collection of 1,100 original handwritten pages of Austen's writings and found blots, crossings out, messiness and poor punctuation.

The originals are a far cry from the revered English novelist's reputation as precise -- her brother Henry famously said in 1818, the year after her death, that "everything came finished from her pen."

"I think we have simply overestimated her as a perfect English stylist at the expense of how experimental she was," Sutherland told Reuters, adding that her discovery had not dented, only changed her assessment of Austen.

"When you look at the manuscript, you realize she wasn't writing like that at all.

"Her punctuation is much looser, the stuff is written as a complete rush and she's doing something that is quite experimental -- creating something much more like real conversation, not in polished prose, not allowing each other one paragraph each, but people talking across each other."

Austen set her works of romantic fiction among the English gentry, and her keen sense of satire and engaging female leads have seen the novels regularly adapted for the screen.