Alice Spawls writes:
Claudia Johnson begins with a ghost story. One summer morning, as she sat by the leaded gothic windows of her Princeton study editing the Norton Critical Edition of Mansfield Park, she was stumped about where a comma ought to go. In the second sentence of the eighth chapter there is a discrepancy between the first and second edition of the novel: did Mr Rushworth’s mother come ‘to be civil, and to shew her civility, especially in urging the execution of the plan to visit Sotherton’ or, as the later version has it, to ‘shew her civility especially, in urging the execution of the plan’? Both editions were published in Austen’s lifetime, and she was involved with the re-editing of the second. Should Johnson follow the tradition of using the last edition overseen by the author? What if the comma was the work of an errant typesetter? ‘So: there I sat, that fateful summer morning in my office, wrapped in silent concentration, pondering small discrepancies … Again and again, I read the two sentences aloud … until … a startling thing happened: I heard Jane Austen breathe.’ She reeled around but saw nothing – she was ‘quite alone’. The brief visitation proved significant, though, because the breath had revealed the right place to put the comma: after the adverb. ‘This placement is just too odd, too distinctive, too ineffably good to be anyone’s but Jane Austen’s’; the fact that she had ‘inadvertently invoked Austen’s ghost’ confirmed it.