I took up my pen tonight intending to tell you all that “Jane Austen Loves Emoticons.” It would be a steep leap, I knew. She was not the girl for happy faces lying down beside her words. But—she was the woman for dashes—! Dashes of all kinds, & all sorts of other slapdash grammar by our standards;—Miss Osborne is going to go crazy when she sees this post. — She usually cleans up our punctuation. (That’s what you get for reading the blog-child of a writer, an editor, & a copyeditor.) But—Miss O—I’m saying lay off this one!—This is the homage to Miss A’s own crazy punctuation.
When I first read Lady Susan, The Watsons, & Sanditon as a teenager I was struck, by the plots, by the rawer picture they present as compared to the polish of the finished, longer works;—but also, by the punctuation. As a good little student, it had simply never occurred to me that punctuation could be a means of expression!—Not to mention the charming, erratic Capitals. Punctuation, until then, was a list of rules, not a playground.—So, I started Wildly Varying the style of my grammar, and even of my spelling. I used punctuation in my writing to indicate the Quality of different Types of Silences. . . the questioning silence —? . . . the shocked silence —! . . . the “I can’t believe my ears; how could you suppose I’d be so stupid” silence —?! . . . or —!? I even, you can see it coming, started drawing little happy faces beside my notes to indicate that I was being sarcastic (who, me?) . Though I never liked the winky face or the sad face; they seemed to me insincere at the time. Mind you, this was in the dark ages, back when I wrote LETTERS to people, and they wrote letters back to me. Now, everyone understands what those little faces mean.
It was Jane who taught me to play with punctuation, to make sentences read the way they sound in your head. Why then, am I not telling you that Jane Austen loves emoticons? — Two reasons: one, I have a feeling she’d think they were lazy (though maybe space-saving in letters); and two, flipping through my copies of the aforementioned works and the complete letters, I noticed that she uses dashes after almost, if not every sentence. — This is in addition to using them mid-sentence, and to using other ending punctuation after phrases and sentences.
What’s up with this? Was it a convention of the age, a stylistic peculiarity all her own, a device to make it easier to read cross-hatched letters, or what?—I sincerely hope some scholar of the age can enlighten the grammar geeks of Austenacious on this point, or we may be drowning in our own dashes. Though I have noticed scholars seem to fight passionately about editing Austen’s punctuation, so they may not have time for a simple question from the likes of me.
In the meantime, though I may edit other people’s work with the sparingness of modern punctuation, I reserve the right to be as profligate as I like with my own.
Photo credit:emoticon, interrobang, Jane Austen, Lady Susan, punctuation, Sanditon, The Watsons on Monday, November 16, 2009 · 12 Comments »