Monday 25 October 2010

Jane Austen and Latin

Professor Kathryn Sutherland, who, through no fault of her own, is an academic at St Anne's College at the University of Oxford in the county of Oxfordshire, has, in a paper much reported in the national press, suggested, to the surprise and consternation of many, that Jane Austen, who has for so long been regarded as the mistress of English prose, may have relied more than a little upon the corrections of William Gifford, a classical scholar in the employment of John Murray who was her publisher, a translator of Juvenal, and an imitator of Persius.

Christ, it's hard to write like Austen. Take the fourth sentence of Sense and Sensibility:

But her death, which happened ten years before his own, produced a great alteration in his home; for to supply her loss, he invited and received into his house the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it.

Now let's cut away the subordinated stuff:

Her death....produced a great alteration...for...he invited... the family 

The last seventeen words are apposite clauses relating to the possessor of the object of the second main clause. The extraordinary thing is that the prose is so readable, so lucid, despite being grammatically so distant from spoken English.

English doesn't like to be complicated. It's a bluff, crude language that likes to stride around in a series of main clauses. The spoken equivalent of that sentence would be something like:

She died ten years before he did. That changed things. He needed someone to replace her. So he invited Henry Dashwood's family to come and live with him. Dashwood was the legal inheritor...

In fact, spoken English isn't quite like that because the sentences of spoken English rarely end. But if you replace all the full stops with and then you'll end up with something approaching normal conversation.

As I say, it doesn't make sense in English, but it would in Latin. English likes to be simple because English has so few inflections. Unlike Latin (or German for that matter), you can't pin a suffix to the end of the word family to show how it relates to the main verb. This means that, in English, your grammar's complexity is your reader's confusion; unless you're very, very careful.

However, as Latin prose was thought the model of good writing, and Latin language the palace of good thinking, its grammar crept into our literature, if not our language. Milton read all the classics, and wrote poetry that Ezra Pound denied was English at all. Thomas Browne knocked out jormungandrian sentences that nonetheless delight. Over breakfast, De Quincey used to improvise translations of the newspapers into Greek. Dr Johnson wrote a Latinate English that nobody ever spoke, but which was, when Austen began writing, considered the peak, pinnacle and pineapple of prose perfection.

I always thought that that was where Miss Austen got her prose style. She imitated Dr Johnson and Dr Johnson imitated the Ancients and thus... well, thus that fourth sentence of Sense and Sensibility. But now I have a new suspect: William Gifford, possessor of a classical education, and the man to whom Austen's prose was entrusted.

I have, though, not read Professor Sutherland's paper and can't find it online, so this must be taken as nothing more than the suspicions of a suspicious suspecter.

N.B. I'm working on the basis that Jane Austen herself didn't know Latin. This is reasonably safe, as she once wrote in a letter that she didn't know Latin. However, some scholars think that she only pretended not to know Latin in order to avoid getting a job.

1 comment:

  1. This impressed me most of all: The last seventeen words are apposite clauses relating to the possessor of the object of the second main clause.

    Also, I was looking for your policy wonk post of some months back (the new Muslim mayor of Calgary - first EVER in Canada, as the press flutters - is also described as a policy wonk) and had a wonderful time just reading your post titles. What a magnificent collection.