Home > Uncategorized > Dash it all – give Jane Austen the last word

Dash it all – give Jane Austen the last word

It is thrilling to see a great writer’s creative process at work, argues Ceri Radford.


Jane Austin's writing desk

Jane Austin’s writing desk Photo: Stuart Freedman

Such shocking and ungentlemanly impertinence! Jane Austen’s punctuation – or lack of it – has been cruelly maligned by the curator of a new exhibition of literary manuscripts at the British Library. “There is the odd comma, but not always in the most rational of places,” smirks Roger Walshe. It is enough to make Austen fans rise up in a fearsome bonneted mass and smack him on the head with their replica Regency fans.

Although manuscripts may yield the odd ugly truth about a writer’s style, they are still a beautiful thing to behold – and one which risks becoming increasingly rare in today’s digital world. The two draft chapters of Persuasion that will be on display show neat, looped writing, occasionally scoured out with thick, angry black lines. It is a visceral thrill to see a favourite writer’s thought processes on paper; to realise that the sentences etched on to the page with such elegant certainty were scribbled out and scrawled back in again. It draws a direct line between the book on your bedside table and the woman who sat frowning at her desk, nearly 200 years ago.

Manuscripts are also a reminder of the vastly differing approaches that writers take to their art. For every perfectionist Flaubert, who could spend a week agonising over one page of crabbed handwriting, there is a Kerouac, who tapped out On the Road in three giddy weeks of spontaneous prose. As with Austen, the paragraph breaks were inserted into the 120-foot-long typewritten scroll by an editor; in both cases, only the manuscript points to the original breathlessness.

In the era of Microsoft Word and Google Docs, the prospects for the romance and revelatory power of seeing the actual piece of paper that an author has laboured on appear bleak. Will the scholars of the future really be hacking into the tracked changes of an electronic file, or gasping in awe at snatched paragraphs on a long-dead blog? Perhaps – although plenty of modern writers are resisting the urge to change just yet. Will Self favours a manual typewriter, while lucky old Michael Morpurgo can write in longhand in bed, and get his wife to type up his notes.

For new writers, this is luxury to dream of. I wish I could say that I wrote my first novel, which is published next spring, in fountain pen on creamy cartridge paper, while gazing pensively out of my window. In reality, I typed on a mini-laptop sitting on a commuter train to Victoria, using my iPhone to make notes during the day.

Even this approach is fairly old-school compared to some Japanese authors, who write whole books on their mobile phones – which sell in their millions to readers who devour them on their own handsets. And while such modern writing tools may be less grandiose, and in some ways more impermanent, than the parchments of old, they offer up opportunities of their own. Great living writers such as Margaret Atwood are happily ensconced on the social network Twitter, sharing thoughts and ideas in the same way they might have once done in a literary salon.

If the evocative, yellowing manuscript ever dies out completely, supplanted by memory sticks or data clouds, it will be a sad day. But at least the novel itself isn’t under threat from new technology. And no theory on, or example of, how writers write is ever as interesting as the actual books. To give Jane Austen the last word, a novel is “some work in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language”. That at least will remain true, with or without the ink stains.

By Ceri Radford
Published: 7:45AM BST 20 Aug 2010


Categories: Uncategorized
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