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Jane Austen’s errors again

September 14, 2017

In honour of Jane Austen appearing on our ten-pound notes today, I am re-posting a comment I made some time ago about her word-choice and grammar. I don’t want my nit-picking here to suggest that I do not appreciate Jane Austen. I do. I am a thoroughgoing Janeite.  I think she invented the modern novel, with her innovation of writing through the character’s thoughts and impressions (see John Mullins’ excellent What Matters in Jane Austen, particularly the chapter, ‘How Experimental a Novelist is Jane Austen?’). I frequently re-read her novels, and have just now started on Persuasion for the fourth or fifth time. At the time I wrote this post originally, however,I had just finished re-reading Emma. See below. 

I’ve just been re-reading Emma. It is of course one of the most brilliant English novels of the nineteenth century; but I couldn’t help but notice that Jane Austen commits two of my most unfavourite solecisms.

One, she uses refute to mean deny. I’ve been trying to locate the passage, not having noted it when when I came across it, but although I’m fairly sure it was on the left-hand page, a quick riffle through didn’t turn it up, and brilliant though the novel is I don’t want to read all the way through it again. But it was in a scene where Emma disagrees with Mr Knightley about something and “refutes” an idea he presents. But no refutation takes place; Mr Knghtley turned out to be in the right, so Emma could not have refuted him. Odd to think of so pure a stylist making this mistake. (She also uses infer instead of imply, though not in this novel.)

Another mistake is that she confuses sank (past tense) with sunk (past participle). Or was that distinction not established in 1815?

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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5 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    This links back to your earlier post about editors Brandon. In Jane Austen’s case it appears to have been a William Gifford who was responsible for tidying up her grammar and punctuation; he did the same for Byron .Presumably many of the rules concerning grammar were relatively new at the time.
    In Annie Hall Woody Allen said something about photography being too new a phenomenon for a set of aesthetic criteria to have emereged. Could the same idea be applied to Jane Austen’s novel writing?

  2. “and though the accusation had been eagerly “refuted” at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her.”

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/158

    I only found this. It is not an error. The past and the passivity relays the old news. It is possible the that the accusation was actually refuted at that time. Plus, truth and validity of a refutation have no bearing on whether a refutation was made.

    • Well, the accepted definition of ‘refute’ is to prove wrong, so whether a refutation actually is one does depend on whether it’s true. All the dictionaries I’ve checked give ‘prove wrong’ as the primary definition and it has had that meaning since the 16th century. I know that many people today use it in the looser sense of ‘deny’; but I was surprised to see Jane Austen using it in this way in the early 19th century.

  3. “Well, the accepted definition of ‘refute’ is to prove wrong”

    But that is only in the sense that an act of refutation was carried out. With a denial, you do not make an attempt to “prove” something to be true but just comment on the truth-value of a statement.

    Say a scientist refutes someone’s proposition. But later this refutation itself turns out to be false. But refutation at that time was carried out. What else would we call a “refutation” that is later refuted?

    Therefore, it is possible Austen made a mistake, but you cannot say for certain that she did.

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