Editor’s Note: The Invisible Work of the Copy Editor

This is the fourth in a series of occasional articles on grammar and language.

The life of a copy editor is difficult because it is not possible to read anything without mentally (and often physically) correcting it. The past week has been especially painful because of the discouraging tendency of the public prints to cast doubt on the historicity of actual events by claiming that they “may not have” happened but for the occurrence of other events (see “Editor’s Note: Did It Happen or Not?“). But I also had an experience this week that not only reminded me forcefully of the need for copy editors but also reinforced my gratitude for them.

Lately I’ve been binging on Sanditon. For those who don’t know, “Sanditon” is an unfinished novel by Jane Austen. She began it shortly before her death in 1817 and had completed 11½ chapters before being forced by illness to abandon it. Her working title was “The Brothers,” but her family dubbed it “Sanditon” (the name of the town that provides the setting and is almost a character in the novel). It was first published in 1925 under the name Fragment of a Novel.

In her opening chapters, Austen sets the scene and introduces the main characters, whose salient personality traits are already evident, so the reader has some idea what to expect, but the ultimate direction of the plot is, of course, anybody’s guess. And there have been quite a few authors who have taken on the challenge. Wikipedia lists more than half a dozen “continuators,” as well as other works inspired by the book. My interest was piqued by the ITV television adaptation by Andrew Davies, recently aired on PBS as part of its Masterpiece series. As was the case previously with the Masterpiece adaptation of Northanger Abbey, viewing the series sent me back to the source, confident that the salaciousness of the TV version would not be found in the original.

In this instance, my first resort was the version by “Jane Austen and Another Lady” (later identified as Marie Dobbs, aka Anne Telscombe), which was the only version currently available at my public library. I’ve subsequently explored the other options at Amazon (finding that one is not only out of print but available only in a single copy for $1,099.99, and another is entirely unavailable). I’m currently slogging through one (described by its author as a “fairytale”) that is so badly written that I’m not sure I’ll make it to the end.

But the most intriguing offshoot is the adaptation by Reginald Hill in The Price of Butcher’s Meat (originally published in the U.K. as A Cure for All Diseases). In his dedication “To Janeites everywhere,” Hill acknowledges that “the seeds of this present novel were sown” at a meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, of which the theme was “Sanditon—A New Direction?” Presented as a part of Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe detective series, the story has Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel (who was blown up by a bomb in the previous installment) convalescing in the Avalon Clinic in Sandytown. Meanwhile, Charlotte Heywood (the heroine of Sanditon) has been brought to Sandytown by Tom and Mary Parker in a way that almost exactly parallels Austen’s story and is being introduced by them to Lady Denham, her nephew Sir Edward Denham and niece Esther Denham, and Clara Brereton, the “poor relation” Lady Denham has taken in. We also meet the rest of the Parker family, including the precocious daughter of the house, Minnie, and Tom’s siblings, including the dashing Sidney Parker, whom Austen seems to have poised to be the hero of the piece (and doubtless Charlotte’s intended mate). Needless to say, Hill takes the story in quite a different direction from that envisioned by the author (including a murder that brings Peter Pascoe on the scene).

As the book begins, however, the reader does not find the usual third-person narration. Instead, the story is told through the eyes of Andy Dalziel, speaking into a digital voice recorder (which he has dubbed Mildred after a tiresome aunt), given to him by the head of the clinic for recording his thoughts and feelings, and those of Charlotte “Charley” Heywood, whose perceptive observations are recorded in emails to her sister Cassie, a nurse in Africa. The latter I found rather trying because Charlotte, although she is represented as a psychology graduate doing research for a postgraduate thesis on “the psychology of alternative therapies,” presents herself as semi-literate, entirely omitting apostrophes (in both contractions and possessives) and spelling every ei/ie word with the vowels reversed.

Because I had returned the library book that contained Austen’s original text, I downloaded, for reference, a 99¢ Kindle version of the “Complete Works of Jane Austen,” which includes the text of “Sanditon.” Although the edition does not so stipulate, I assume that the text is taken from a Project Gutenberg transcription, presumed to be literatim. So imagine my astonishment to find such passages as this:

He took the peices of paper as he spoke, and, having looked them over, added, “I beleive I can explain it, Sir.”

Sure enough, Austen consistently spells “believe” with the vowels reversed. She also, like Charley, sprinkles dashes throughout her dialog. And she capitalizes words almost at random, as in this opening paragraph:

A Gentleman and a Lady travelling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex Coast which lies between Hastings and E. Bourne, being induced by Business to quit the high road and attempt a very rough Lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent, half rock, half sand. The accident happened just beyond the only Gentleman’s House near the Lane – a House which their Driver, on being first required to take that direction, had conceived to be necessarily their object and had with most unwilling Looks been constrained to pass by. He had grumbled and shaken his shoulders and pitied and cut his Horses so sharply that he might have been open to the suspicion of overturning them on purpose (especially as the Carriage was not his Master’s own) if the road had not indisputably become worse than before, as soon as the premises of the said House were left behind – expressing with a most portentous countenance that, beyond it, no wheels but cart wheels could safely proceed.

Or this description of Mr. Heywood:

The accident had been discerned from a Hayfield adjoining the House they had passed. And the persons who approached were a well-looking, Hale, Gentlemanlike Man, of middle age, the Proprietor of the Place, who happened to be among his Haymakers at the time, and three or four of the ablest of them summoned to attend their Master – to say nothing of all the rest of the field, Men, Women and Children, not very far off.

Even allowing for the difficulty of distinguishing capitals from lowercase in cursive writing, this is distracting. It is all very quaint, but if this is typical of Austen’s manuscripts, I am pleased that her publisher edited her books before printing!

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