“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in 
possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

These words come from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, an author known for her precise and witty language style.  But wait! It turns out she might not have been as precise or witty as we thought.

Research from one Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University suggests that the novels we know and love are actually the final product of Austen’s editor, who, after discussing the prose with the publisher, took his red pen to the paper with a judicious fervor.

Sutherland reviewed collections of Austen’s original manuscripts, which she found were drastically different than their published versions.  They had little of the precision they are so well known for, and were in fact quite “experimental” in style.  She also read collections of letters between Austen’s publisher and editor that discussed the extensive changes they felt should be made to the novels.

I don’t particularly love Jane Austen, but I’m still saddened by this news.  At first it’s just the principle of the thing that gets to me.  We assume that we’re getting the product of the author, perhaps influenced by editing, but certainly not rewritten. It’s one step below finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real, or hearing that your baseball idol was in fact ramped up so high on steroids he had muscles on his eyeballs.

After the initial disappointment wore off, I found myself displeased with the audacity of the editor.  It seems to me that it goes without saying that editors should work to improve the quality of an author’s work without stifling or changing its voice.  It also seems an unwritten rule that the editor should work in collaboration with the writer, not in isolation from them.

My first experience working with an editor was at my first journalism internship.  I turned in some pretty horrible content during my first two weeks.  It was wordy, overwritten in every way and generally not suitable for news publication.  But my editor was practiced: he could read a piece in two minutes and edit it down to news specs while still preserving the witty turns of phrase that I was so proud of.  That’s editing—what Austen got was more like editorial surgery.