BOOK REVIEWS    Sue Parrill, Editor

Honing Her Style to the End

Jane Austen: A Students’ Guide to the Later Manuscript Works
By Brian Southam.
Concord Books, 2007. ix + 235 pages. 4 B/W illustrations.
Hardcover. $75.00.

Reviewed by Peter Sabor.

Students of Jane Austen have long been indebted to the British scholar Brian Southam, whose works include the pioneering Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts (1964), two volumes on Austen in Routledge’s Critical Heritage series (1968, 1987), and Jane Austen and the Navy (2000). His most recent contribution returns to the field of his first monograph: Austen’s literary manuscripts. As his Preface makes clear, this Students’ Guide focuses on the manuscript writings postdating Austen’s juvenilia: from Lady Susan, probably begun in the mid-1790s, through to Sanditon, begun in January 1817 and abandoned in March, four months before Austen’s death. Southam’s “Preface” also reveals that his work was originally undertaken for the Later Manuscripts volume of the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen, now being co-edited by Janet Todd and Linda Bree.

This Students’ Guide is an unusual volume: a comprehensive commentary without an accompanying text. An exception, however, is made for the three Prayers by (or possibly by) Austen, which have hitherto been published in inaccurate form; Southam here provides a fresh transcription. He also furnishes four well-chosen and clearly reproduced specimens of the manuscripts: from The Watsons, Plan of a Novel, and Sanditon. All show Austen at work, honing her style by making subtle adjustments to her syntax and diction, and they displayher generally very legible hand, as well as the difficulties arising when she obliterates material.

A Students’ Guide contains a general introduction, followed by headnotes and extensive commentaries on the various items. Since Southam’s notes to two of the longer works, Lady Susan and Sanditon, are keyed to chapter numbers, the passage being annotated can usually be found without much difficulty. But in the case of The Watsons, no chapter divisions exist. Southam’s notes are numbered from 1 to 205, and a reader seeking guidance with a particular point will have to search hard for the relevant annotation. One surprising omission is Sir Charles Grandison, the miniature dramatic adaptation of Richardson’s final novel which Southam first attributed to Austen in his 1980 edition—an attribution that has been contested. He excludes the comedy on the grounds that it “belongs to the same period as the juvenilia,” although in his edition he suggests that parts might have been written considerably later. Another surprise is the first sentence of the general introduction, in which Southam states abruptly that Austen’s transcriptions of her juvenilia into three manuscript notebooks were made “in the early 1800s.” This seems wrong, since Austen herself provided dates from the early 1790s in all three volumes, such as “6 May1792” for the Contents page of Volume the Third.

Southam’s commentary on the manuscripts goes far beyond that in existing collections of the later manuscripts, such as the Penguin and World’s Classics editions. There are, however, substantial editions of individual items: David Selwyn’s 1996 edition of the Austen family’s poems; Arthur Axelrad’s literal transcription of Sanditon, Jane Austen Caught in the Act of Greatness (2003); and a fine 2005 Juvenilia Press edition of Lady Susan, edited by Christine Alexander and David Owen, which Southam does not mention. Among the strengths of his commentary is his acute sensitivity to Austen’s language. In notes on the terms “Eclaircissement” and “Manoeuvres” in Lady Susan, for example, he makes good use of the 8th edition of Johnson’s Dictionary (1799) to show that both were still considered as French loan-words at the turn of the century. Southam also writes especially well on Austen’s literary allusions; the use of the poets Cowper, Burns, Scott and others in Sanditon is deftly and amply demonstrated. He also draws on his knowledge of the minutiae of Austen bibliography, as in his reference to a surviving page from a personal account book of 1807 which reveals that Austen was “scrupulous in recording the Austen household expenditure and her own personal expenses down to the last 1/2 penny.”

In his commentary on Plan of a Novel, Southam glosses the phrase “dark eyes & plump cheeks,” noting that these features are also present in “Ozias Humphrey’s portrait of Austen as a girl, a picture likely to be well-known to JA’s friends and relations.” This passing reference to the Rice Portrait is tantalizingly brief; Southam has more to say about it in his article “Old Francis Austen—the Rich Lawyer of Sevenoaks,” published in the Jane Austen Society Report for 2006, but he does not provide a reference to this piece. Here and on occasion elsewhere, he is unduly cryptic. There is, however, much invaluable material in Southam’s book, which well deserves a place on the shelf beside a copy of the manuscript works themselves.

Peter Sabor is Canada Research Chair in Eighteenth-Century Studies at McGill University. His edition of Austen’s Juvenilia was published in the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen last year, and he is beginning work on a biography of Austen for Blackwell.

See more book reviews

Return to Home Page