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Review of  In Search of Jane Austen

Reviewer: Dorota Lockyer
Book Title: In Search of Jane Austen
Book Author: Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 26.1457

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This monograph aims to provide a comprehensive historical sociolinguistic reconstruction of Jane Austen’s linguistic identity by a corpus-based study of the spelling, grammar and words in her letters. The monograph differs from traditional literary and linguistic studies of Jane Austen’s works by focusing on her letters which, for the purpose of this study, are claimed to be the closest representation of her private language, idiolect, and spoken language that scholars have been able to find. The monograph is divided into nine chapters, including the introduction and conclusion, and also four appendices, references and an index.

The introductory first chapter grounds the study in the previous literature (namely Phillipps 1970; Page 1972; Burrows 1987) and provides an overview and aims for the study. The author gives a general overview of the language of Austen’s letters (1.2), a brief introduction to the sociolinguistic analysis of Austen’s language and her letters (1.3 and 1.4), which leads to a discussion of the single-author, focussed corpus (1.5), and ends with the author placing the study in a wider perspective. This provides a clear entry point to the next chapters that discuss Austen’s practice of writing letters and her social network (1.6). Thus, the author situates her study within the relevant literature, sociolinguistic and corpus linguistic methods, and socio-historical context. The fact that “[id]iolectal studies are rare within historical sociolinguistics” (22) is acknowledged, and the author comments on “how fruitful it will be to focus on a much neglected topic, the language Jane Austen used in her letters - her ‘own’ language, in other words” (25).

Chapter 2, entitled ‘Letter-Writing’, covers the social function of letter-writing, the surviving and lost letters written by and to Austen (2.2), letter-writing materials such as pens and envelopes that were used by Austen and others during that period (2.3), the postal system (2.4), the activity of letter-writing as a social activity (2.5) and the dependence on the post (2.6). Overall, one of the main aims of the chapter is to “trace any evidence for the existence of letters either from or addressed to Jane Austen in addition to the ones we already know about” (51).

Chapter 3, ‘A Social Network of Letter-Writers’, moves from Austen’s letters to her social network, primarily “to be able to isolate her different styles of writing and thus to describe her variation in language use in as much sociolinguistic detail as possible” (51). The chapter begins with an introduction of those persons whom Austen wrote letters to and received letters from (3.1). In (3.2), the author shows, by year and number, the addressees of attested and unattested letters sent based on the nature of their relationship to Austen (e.g. relative – close – same generation). Next, the author discusses letter writing formulas of the time (3.3). She examines formality (3.3.1), opening formulas such as ‘Sir/Madam’ or ‘My dear sister/cousin’ (3.3.2), closing formulas, including the word ‘affectionate(ly)’ (3.3.3) and dating/signing letters (3.3.4). The chapter closes with section (3.4) on Austen’s correspondence network and the lost letters in order to provide “important information for the reconstruction of [Austen’s] social network” (75).

In Chapter 4, ‘The Letters as Corpus,’ the author describes the letters used as the corpus for the study. First, the introduction enumerates the letters or sections from letters which are included and excluded from the corpus (e.g. verse, French expressions, rhymes and indirect speech). For example, a complete letter had to be removed because it was written entirely in reversed spelling, while other instances required “removing other bits and pieces of text from the letters” (81). As a result, the complete letter corpus contained 144,002 words that are analyzed with the Wordsmith Tools software. Next, the types of letters are discussed in more detail. The differences between copied and holograph letters (4.2) are followed by discussion of Austen’s self-corrections (4.3) and her use of short forms, which include abbreviated and contracted forms (4.4) and dashes and capitalisation (4.5). Last, the author discusses the two corpora (holograph and non-holograph letters) used for analysis based on changes added to the copies by the copyists.

In Chapter 5, ‘The Language of the Letters: Spelling’, the author turns to an analysis of Austen’s spelling, investigating “the extent to which [Austen] was consistent in her spelling practice and whether she was a conservative speller… [and] whether her spelling changed as a result of the fact that she became a published author and was confronted with the spelling conventions used by the printer” (111). The question of whether Austen’s variation in spelling “correlates with formality of style...[or] whether she adapted her spelling when writing to the younger generation in her family” (111) is also mentioned. To answer these questions, the author first discusses the dual spelling system (5.2) comprised of a public spelling standard and a private one. In section (5.3), the author turns to ‘Epistolary Spelling’, particularly of contractions, phonetic spellings and “a category labelled ‘retention of older spellings’” (113). The author’s analysis shows that contractions “were characteristic of Jane Austen’s own spelling system” (115), particularly contractions of THOUGH and THROUGH, and variable spelling features that were common in eighteenth-century letters (e.g. ‘beleive’ / ‘believe’). Additional variable spelling features are discussed in (5.4), including a major group of “single- and two-word variants of compound pronouns and adverbs” (121), such as ‘some body’ / ‘somebody’. The author concludes that Austen’s spelling was consistent and idiosyncratic, even though it changed over time, particularly after she became a published author. In section (5.5), ‘Problems with the Apostrophe’, the author concludes that Austen “was somehow aware of the existence of a rule for the use of the apostrophe but that she had not quite internalised it herself” (125). The last two subsections of the chapter take a step back and consider spelling as evidence of pronunciation (particularly of Austen’s dialect).

Chapter 6, ‘The Language of the Letters: Words’, begins with Phillipps’s (1970: 103) question “whether Jane Austen can be considered ‘an innovator in English’” (131). To help answer this question, the author begins with a review of previous research on the vocabulary from Austen’s novels that reflect “Austen’s own linguistic fingerprint” (132) but also can be antedated by Austen’s letters. Next, the author examines Austen’s quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary (6.2), which at this time is still undergoing revision. Although the author considers Austen’s ‘first instances’ in the OED to be incomplete (e.g. lacking ‘anti-English’ and ‘out of hum’), the author calls for an update for several words, including ‘feu’ and ‘noonshine’. These example words support the claim that Austen creatively “engaged in all types of word-formation processes that are commonly found in English today: prefixation, suffixation, conversion, and compounding” (141), with the prefix ‘un-’ being most commonly used to create new words. These ‘first words’ were also found in Austen’s letters to her closest friends and family; thus, “linguistic creativity was therefore a feature that typically characterised her most private writing” (148). As in the previous chapter, the author describes Austen’s innovation of new words as not particularly unusual or numerous, and most likely due to the fact that she was not geographically or socially mobile and thus not as exposed to many features compared to many of her contemporaries. Similarly, (6.4) demonstrates that Austen used so-called vulgar words and intensifiers relatively rarely, and only to the younger generation or to her sister Cassandra. This finding is again reinforced in (6.5), where the author discusses linguistic involvement. In (6.6), the author discusses how Austen referred to close relatives (e.g. using ‘my mother’ when writing to her sister). Last, the chapter ends with (6.7), ‘Jane Austen’s Linguistic Fingerprint’, which brings together the features described in the previous sections to show us what was typical of Austen’s language.

Chapter 7, ‘The Language of the Letters: Grammar’, aims to describe “to what extent her use of grammar in the letters can be considered idiosyncratic” (166), and “the extent to which Jane Austen’s usage reflects ongoing changes at the time” (170). These aims are pursued in the following sections, namely (7.2), which examines self-correction, double negation, flat adverbs and double comparatives or superlatives in her letters and novels. In (7.3), variable grammar is discussed (e.g. the periphrastic ‘do’, pied piping and preposition stranding), followed by verbal ‘-ing’ forms in (7.4), and changing grammar (7.5), where it is argued that Austen’s “usage did not agree with the current state of development which particular features were undergoing at that time” (206). Thus, the author concludes that various external influences caused Austen’s grammar to be “subject to change” (207). However, “what these influences were is hard to say, but it is clear that she was receptive to ongoing linguistic developments around her, no matter how limited her circumstances were as far as social or geographical mobility was concerned” (207).

Chapter 8, ‘Authorial Identity’, uses the results found in the previous chapters to discuss spelling, grammar and words in Austen’s literary works, particularly in the drafts of her unfinished manuscripts. In (8.2), the discarded ‘Persuasion’ chapters are discussed, followed by different house styles for ‘Mansfield Park’ (8.3) and ‘The Watsons’ (8.4). Because of spelling and forms that appear in ‘The Watsons’, the author claims that it was written in 1805-1806 instead of 1804. Last, the author shows the importance of analyzing spelling (8.5) because it produces results such as suggesting “a more accurate date for her unfinished novel ‘The Watsons’; [thus], it is well worth our while to analyse an author’s private spelling habits, as these, along with their use of vocabulary and grammar, constitute their authorial identity” (224).

The monograph’s conclusion is presented in Chapter 9, which ties together the results found in previous chapters and presents suggestions for future research. Chapter 9 is immediately followed by four appendices: ‘Letters referred to in the text’, ‘Letters (sent and received) referred to by Jane Austen’, ‘Transcription of letter 139’ and ‘Jane Austen’s epistolary network’.


Overall, I found this monograph to be very accessible, well-structured, informative and pleasant to read.

The book very convincingly describes Austen’s writing practices and her social network, but perhaps most importantly, her ‘own’ language use. The quality of the primary research is clearly rigorous and benefited by the addition of substantial background material. The extensive historical background, from detailed writing/authorial practices of Austen’s time to the fine points of the postal system, all add to the sound argumentation prevalent throughout the book. Because of the limited number of surviving letters (about 5%), the data are limited to some 149,000 words (mostly correspondence to Jane’s sister Cassandra, while Jane Austen’s letters to her mother are completely lost, as is much of her correspondence to other family members and friends). Although the corpus is small, the author is able to adequately pinpoint many of Jane Austen’s linguistic idiosyncrasies.

The author has fulfilled her goal for the book; the line of questioning is made clear in the introduction and is followed through the course of the book, and the conclusion(s) are well-argued and made clear in each respective chapter and the Conclusion. In the introductory chapter, the author explains that the monograph is intended to fill in the rather large gap in scholarly literature dealing with a linguistic approach to Austen’s letters. To guide the reader, she states her argument clearly, asserting, for example, that “[w]hen trying to identify a writer’s idiolect, as Barchas aimed to do, I want to argue instead that the language of private letters is more suitable for analysis than an author’s narrative or fictional style” (4). The author also clearly states in several places that the aim of her study is “throw light on Jane Austen’s linguistic identity in as far as it can be reconstructed from her letters” (5); she fulfills pieces of this aim in each chapter, and her short concluding chapter recaps her results in the clear, approachable style and manner that is present throughout the book.

The book opens up avenues for future research. For example, the author states that further historical sociolinguistic research with “large-scale studies of Late Modern English [which] would allow us to place the language of an individual author like Jane Austen into a wider perspective” (225) is needed. Further studies like the one in this book would help scholars better “assess a particular author’s, or group of authors’, usage as either outstanding or not in relation to the time in which he or she lived, and to try and account for why this should be the case” (226). In this way, the author opens up areas for further research of letters written by other writers of Jane Austen’s period (or other periods) to “lead towards a rather more complete picture of the complexities of English usage in a fuller sociolinguistic context than ever before” (226). Despite the author’s thorough investigation of Austen’s letters, inevitably more needs to be done – other words could be focused on, such as emotive interjections or expressive features. Furthermore, the appendices present material that could be examined in more detail by specialists.

Last, the book is accessible and would be of interest to students and scholars of not only historical sociolinguistics, but also lexicography, corpus linguistics and the disciplines of history and English literature. Because the book is structured so that each chapter follows the other logically and smoothly with clear definitions and a pleasant writing style, the book is accessible to scholars of many disciplines and approaches.


Burrows, J.F. 1987. Computation into Criticism. A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels and an Experiment in Method. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Page, Norman. 1972. The Language of Jane Austen. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Phillipps, K.C. 1970. Jane Austen’s English. London: Andre Deutsch.
Dorota Lockyer is a PhD student in the Department of English at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Current research interests include expressive language in social media and fanfiction using corpus linguistics, discourse analysis, pragmatics, and stylistics approaches.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199945115
Pages: 304
Prices: U.S. $ 65.00