Spelling and Misspelling

Last year I read a fascinating book that touches on HRfA’s areas of interest, although it deals with an American family from a generation before Jane Austen: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore (Google Books Preview). Based on the evidence of letters and manuscripts, it tells the long-hidden story of Jane Franklin, younger sister and devoted friend of Ben Franklin.

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore, published by Knopf, 2013. (Google Books Preview)

Born into a poor Boston family of soap-boilers in 1706, Ben Franklin ran away, educated himself, and became the nascent United States’ most famous man of letters. Meanwhile Jane (born 1712) worked, raised and buried children and grandchildren, and struggled to find time to read her beloved brother’s writings.  Jill Lepore made the editorial choice to preserve not only the 18th century quirks of Jane and Ben’s writing (lots of capitalization, abbreviation, and variable punctuation), but also Jane Franklin’s extremely idiosyncratic spelling, a product of her scattered and scrappy early education. As a result, not only the differences in education of these two siblings but also their distinct voices came alive on the page. For Lepore, “Spelling is part of the story.” In contrast, the 19th century historian and editor of Ben Franklin’s letters, Jared Sparks, had “cleaned up” the letters so thoroughly that dirty jokes and slangy turns of phrase were tossed out along with quirky spelling and punctuation- none of it was dignified enough for Sparks’s reverent image of the founding fathers and their families.

Along with thoughts about women in history and the writing of history (Lepore quotes Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion on the lack of women’s voices in contemporary history writing), Book of Ages inspired me to think more about 18th and early 19th century rules for writing. To twenty-first century eyes, writing from those periods can seem anarchic- some words vary in spelling and some Words are capitalized, seemingly at random. Punctuation is sometimes bafflingly thick on the page, sometimes absent.  Some modern editors regularize punctuation of authors like Jane Austen so that quotations marks and commas are where we expect them to be.  Sometimes they go further and ‘correct’ Austen’s original spelling choices so modern eyes don’t stumble over words like “scissars” or “chuse.”

Joseph Banks, painted in 1773 by Joshua Reynolds. Image Source

I tend to prefer a light editorial hand. I would rather learn something by stumbling over an unfamiliar spelling or ambiguous punctuation.  When “Spelling is part of the story,” it becomes easier to see that rules grow and change over time, and the system we learned in school isn’t the only option.  It also becomes clear that education and intelligence don’t always lead to good spelling. Last year I also read a biography of Joseph Banks (naturalist, explorer, and long-time president of the Royal Society) written by Patrick O’Brian of Master and Commander fame.  Banks, born 1743, was a prolific writer of letters and journals and arguably the most learned man of his day, and yet O’Brian writes,

Banks had a highly personal approach to writing, with a fine disregard for convention in the use of capitals, spelling, and punctuation; but unhappily almost all his editors and copiers  . . . have seen fit to put him right.

I was relieved that O’Brian chose to let Banks’s idiosyncrasies stand in the quotations he included in his biography. The lives and writings of Joseph Banks and Jane Franklin are worlds apart, but both deserve to have spelling as part of their stories. Next time I’ll take a look at the conventions they flouted, and apply some order to the seeming anarchy.


4 thoughts on “Spelling and Misspelling

  1. Now I am very glad that my old Penguin copy of Northanger Abbey is mainly unaltered (aside from some punctuation), preserving spellings like ‘chuse’ and ‘shew’. When I first read it as a teenager, they did confuse me, but they also encouraged me to try a more variable writing style while using modern ‘standard’ vocabulary. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so interesting! I have two thoughts: (1) I wonder how the variable spelling, abbreviations, emoji etc of modern texting compare to similarly casual correspondce when it was actual writing on paper. (2) I love the idea that ” education and intelligence don’t always lead to good spelling” even though I tell my children that they have to study grammar in school because it is the mark of an educated person.


    1. Those are good points! I think that the people who get angry at ‘kids today and their texting lingo’ tend to believe that the past was a golden age of good spelling and perfect writing, which is totally not true! Most people, then and now, can become comfortable with different registers of writing and speaking, so the same person who texts in abbreviations and emoji might also write tumblr posts in tumblrspeak and essays in good academic prose.
      But on the other hand, I am also a grammar nerd that cringes when I see misuse of their and there, lose/loose, pore/pour, etc. And unfortunately, most people these days do make assumptions about intelligence and education based on spelling and grammar, especially if they are reading cover letters and resumes.


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