Jane Austen’s Errors

Jane Austen’s Errors

Turn Round, Jane. Watercolor by Jane Odiwe.

Something very reassuring to the author of Jane Austen fan fiction is the knowledge that she made mistakes, too. As I begin reading through my editor’s notes on Being Mrs. Bennet (look for it this July), I’m reminding myself of how many errors appear in Austen’s printed works. This is particularly comforting to those of us self-publishing, as we are typically not subject to quite the same rigorous editing process a major publishing house provides. My first book, First Impressions: A Tale of Less Pride and Prejudice, was edited by my relatives, and though all have a strong knowledge of grammar, they are not professionals and the poor novel is riddled with mistakes. Even the best efforts of the most excellent writers, beta readers, and editors will still leave something overlooked (as, in all fairness, do most traditionally published books – I rarely read anything without finding at least a few typos).

By today’s definition, Austen was also a self-published writer, as she paid for the printing, distribution, and advertising of some of her novels. The biggest difference between her experience and the contemporary one is the hand of the printer: it’s often impossible to know which mistakes are hers and which are his. Here are some of the most notable typos in Austen, which I was inspired to share by one of my excellent beta readers, who questioned the spelling in this quote:

It is not the object of this work to give a description of Derbyshire, nor of any of the remarkable places through which their route thither lay; Oxford, Blenheim, Warwick, Kenelworth, Birmingham, &c. are sufficiently known. – Pride and Prejudice

Yes, that was Austen’s typo, not mine. I know how to spell Kenilworth, and if even if I didn’t, spellcheck conveniently does. Austen would either have delighted in such technology or withered beneath it unyielding censoriousness, as her early writings are full of bizarre misspellings. Spelling wasn’t quite the standardized beast it is today, but it’s still pretty obvious that this was not Austen’s forte. Take a look at the short epistolary novel, Love and Freindship, in which she consistently spells friend “freind.” Austen wrote the story out in fair hand (you can view it here), providing ample proof that she was totally unfamiliar with the grammatical epigram, “i before e except after c.” She also seems to have been under the impression that “beautiful” contains two l’s, as demonstrated in the title of her incredible succinct and excessively diverting story, The Beautifull Casandra (read it here).

My favorite of the many errors in Austen’s prose isn’t in English and I believe to be deliberate, intended to expose the speaker as the pretentious fool she is. “I must do my cara sposo the justice to say that he need not be ashamed of his friend,” says Mrs. Elton in Emma. The Italian phrase, which translates “dear husband”, should be caro sposo, the adjective and noun both in the masculine form. By mixing the genders, Mrs. Elton reveals that she doesn’t speak the language. The argument could be made that Austen herself did not know Italian, inadvertently revealing not just Mrs. Elton’s limitations but also her own. David M. Shapard points to the fact that Emma repeats the phrase in its incorrect form. I, however, believe that Emma is quoting Mrs. Elton mockingly, hence the italics: “A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr. E, and her cara sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and under-bred finery.” Consider that any knowledge of Romance languages, like Latin or French, would tip one off that the gender of the adjective and noun must agree. Further, at this stage in her career, Austen’s novels were being put through a formal editing process by William Gifford. Such an obvious mistake, if not intentional, should have been caught prior to printing. I like to think on her use of “caro sposa” whenever I decide to intentionally break the laws of spelling and grammar, which I do rather more often than I ought. I can’t seem to squelch the instinct to rebel against such rigidity. How I envy Austen’s freedom of language! It would be wonderful to feel unbound from all the many rules we follow today.

Do you ever find grammar restrictive? Or do you cringe at every misused comma? Honestly, that’s probably my biggest transgression: the wayward comma. If you fall into the latter category, please accept my humblest apologies for any angst I may have caused you.

7 Responses to Jane Austen’s Errors

  1. Yes, I have trouble. When you have been out of school many [many] years… those lessons begin to fade. I really enjoyed this post.

  2. I loved this, Alexa. Yes, we are imperfect, and, definitely, the wayward comma is a pain. I wish we could write the way we want our story read: with pauses, with little rises in volume of the dialogue, etc. I think it would be much more fun that way. 🙂

  3. It is too amusing that on your last reference to Mrs. E’s little error, you twist it around just as wrong the other direction! Now, was that purposefull?

  4. Thank you for sharing this, Alexa. As a self-published author, I find this quite reassuring! 🙂

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