A clash of sensibilities

Claire Harman’s citation rows with Oxford scholar Kathryn Sutherland and Peter Sabor of McGill University demonstrate the bad feeling that can arise when popular writers and academics operate on the same patch. Melanie Newman reports

April 11, 2009

A second complaint against a respected writer has shed further light on the tensions that can emerge when the worlds of academia and popular culture collide.

Biographer Claire Harman strongly rejected recent claims made by Kathryn Sutherland, professor of textual criticism at the University of Oxford and her former tutor, that she had failed to credit the academic’s work appropriately in her latest book, Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World.

Professor Sutherland claimed that the debt the book owed to a study she produced in 2005 had not been sufficiently paid, despite Ms Harman pointing out that the work was cited in the text, notes, bibliography and index of Jane’s Fame.

Now Ms Harman has been forced to defend herself against a second academic critic, who has complained that his work was inadequately cited in an article she wrote for The Times Literary Supplement.

In a letter to Times Higher Education, Peter Sabor, Canada research chair in 18th-century studies at McGill University, Montreal, said that Ms Harman had attended a symposium in 2006 at which he presented a paper on Austen’s marginalia in Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England.

In the same year, he edited an edition of Austen’s Juvenilia, in which he covered the same ground more extensively.

Two years later, Ms Harman published a commentary piece on Austen’s Goldsmith marginalia in the TLS. In it she acknowledged Professor Sabor’s published work, but did not mention his earlier symposium paper, which was unpublished at that time.

Professor Sabor said Ms Harman’s article was “indebted” to his symposium paper, which was eventually published last year in a volume titled Swift’s Travels, but since Ms Harman’s TLS piece had been published first, “scholars unaware of the chronology might well assume that I was indebted to her”.

Ms Harman told Times Higher Education that she was “indeed indebted” to Professor Sabor’s conference presentation, as well as his edition of the Juvenilia. However, she said she “was not aware that there was anything in the former that was not incorporated into the latter”.

“It was to that publication, not his essay in Swift’s Travels (of which I had no knowledge until today), I referred in my TLS commentary piece in February 2008, with full acknowledgement of Professor Sabor’s research,” she said.

“The very first paragraph makes it clear what had prompted my interest: ‘[The marginalia in Austen’s copy of Goldsmith] have only recently been fully transcribed and annotated by Peter Sabor in his 2006 Cambridge edition of Austen’s Juvenilia.’”

Ms Harman argued that her published books followed the standard practice of sourcing all quotes and citing the earliest sources she could find for them.

“Hence, so many of the references in… Jane’s Fame take the reader to publications by David Gilson, Deirdre Le Faye or Brian Southam,” she said. “In my TLS article, I do not refer to Professor Sabor’s talk, but to his subsequently published research.

“While it is understandable and proper that academics defend their right to correct acknowledgement, I am dismayed to be held up by Professor Sabor and Kathryn Sutherland as an example of malpractice, having always attended to academic discourse with interest and attempted to represent it at its best to a general readership.”

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

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