Jane Austen's manuscripts

Professor Kathryn Sutherland explores Jane Austen manuscripts, discussing the significance of her dense handwriting and lack of punctuation. Filmed at the British Library.

We're here in the British Library, the home of several of Jane Austen's manuscripts. Jane Austen is the first novelist for whom we have a substantial body of manuscript remains, ranging from fair copies of teenage writings, through to manuscript drafts of experimental or aborted novels and the novel she was writing in the year she died.

Writers not only reveal themselves in their choice of materials, they also reveal themselves in the way they use their materials. The first thing you notice when you look at one of Jane Austen's draft manuscripts in these tiny booklets, is how densely she filled the writing surface. Right from the very start, she starts at the top, she leaves no margins on either side, she leaves very little space between the lines – and she just writes forward continuously. It's as though she already has a sense of what she wants to say and that this is firmly in place before she begins to write. If she does indeed need to go back and correct, she squeezes in the corrections in the very small interlinear space.

You can also see from Jane Austen's manuscripts, patterns of composition and development. One of the things that you see time and time again, is that when she reaches a point where the characters are in conversation, her hand runs smoothly – often without a pause, often without a mistake, often without a slip or correction. In other passages where she's setting up a scene or introducing a new character and having to describe him with some detail – before he actually becomes animated by conversation – those are the passages she struggles with. But she does come through in the manuscripts as essentially and most confidently a conversational novelist. She doesn't use paragraphs – or very very rarely. Her favourite punctuation mark is a dash. She tends to avoid what we think of as correct, grammatical punctuation – so when she's not using a dash, she’ll happily use a whole series of commas and then eventually a full stop – usually followed by a dash.

This rather sits at odds with what we're told about her as a polished stylist. It's also much closer to the way that we might use punctuation, especially in our e-mail culture.

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