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Archive for May 21st, 2011

Breaking news from The Guardian:  [and now all over the blogsphere!]

Jane Austen rare manuscript
up for sale

A rare, handwritten manuscript of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons is to be sold at auction at Sotheby’s in London.

by Mark Brown, The Guardian, May 20, 2011

An incredibly rare handwritten manuscript of an unfinished novel by Jane Austen – the only one that is still in private hands – is to appear at auction inLondon.

The neatly written but heavily corrected pages are for her unfinished work The Watsons, a novel which many believe could easily have been as good as her six completed works.

Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s senior specialist in books and manuscripts, said it was “a thrill and privilege” to be selling it: “It is very exciting. This is the most significant Austen material to come on the market since the late 1980s.”

It is unquestionably rare. Original manuscripts of her published novels do not exist, aside from two cancelled chapters of Persuasion in the British Library.

The novel is considered around a quarter completed and the manuscript has 68 pages – hand-trimmed by Austen – which have been split up into 11 booklets.

It is most but not all of Austen’s unfinished novel. The first 12 pages were sold by an Austen descendent during the first world war to help the Red Cross and are now in New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library, while the next few pages were inexplicably lost by Queen Mary, University of London which has been looking after the manuscript.

The college’s director of library services Emma Bull said it happened six years ago, before she arrived, and had resulted in a full investigation which, alas, “did not really come to any firm conclusions about what specifically happened.” There had been a hope that they would turn up, but clearly that is now highly unlikely.

The Watsons manuscript shows how Austen’s other manuscripts must have looked. It also shines an interesting light on how she worked. Austen took a piece of paper, cut it in two and then folded over each half to make eight-page booklets. Then she would write, small neat handwriting leaving little room for corrections – of which there are many. “You can really see the mind at work with all the corrections and revisions,” said Heaton.

Scene from Pride & Prejudice, by Isabel Bishop - Morgan Library

At one stage she crosses so much out that she starts a page again and pins it in. It seems, in Austen’s mind, her manuscript had to look like a book. “Writers often fall into two categories,” said Heaton. “The ones who fall into a moment of great inspiration and that’s it and then you have others who endlessly go back and write and tinker. Austen is clearly of the latter variety. It really is a wonderful, evocative document.”

The Watsons was written in 1804, not a hugely happy time for Austen professionally – she had one novel rejected and another bought by a publisher who failed to print it.

It was also a difficult time personally and one reason it was not finished may be because fact came too close to the fiction. The Watsons heroine is Emma, one of four sisters who are daughters of a sick and widowed clergyman. The novel would have had the father die leaving Emma in a precarious financial position. In real life, Austen’s clergyman father died leaving her in a similar pickle to her fictional heroine.

Had Austen completed The Watsons there are many who believe it would have been a classic. Margaret Drabble described it as “a tantalising, delightful and highly accomplished fragment, which must surely have proved the equal of her other six novels, had she finished it.”

The manuscript was bought by the present owner in 1988 when it was sold by the British Rail Pension Fund. It had been bought from Austen descendents in the 1970s when manuscripts, rare books and fine art seemed like perfectly sensible things for nationalised pension funds to buy.

The manuscript has been valued at £200,000 to £300,000 and will be sold at Sotheby’s in London on 14 July.

You can see this page from The Watsons at the Pierpont Morgan Library’s online exhibition A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy:

[Image:  The Watsons,  Pierpont Morgan Library Online Exhibition]

The Sotheby’s auction page is here, English Literature & History, Sale No. L11404, though there are no details yet online.  I will keep you posted! – and more on The Watsons in the coming weeks… you can read it online here at The Republic of Pemberley or a PDF version here,  or learn more about it here at Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts where you can also read along with the digitized copy.

Copyright @2011 by Deb Barnum, of Jane Austen in Vermont

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