22 October 2010
For only one day, the Bodleian Library is putting on public display a selection of manuscripts, first editions and papers related to Jane Austen, one of the most celebrated English novelists. The event takes place on Monday, 25 October 2010, to coincide with the launch of a new freely accessible online resource The Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition (www.janeausten.ac.uk). The website reunites in a virtual space all Jane Austen’s handwritten manuscripts for the first time since 1845 when her sister Cassandra dispersed the collection.
The display is a celebration of Jane Austen’s beginnings and endings as a writer. At its centre lie two manuscripts. One is her earliest collection of short stories and plays, written out in her teenage hand and entitled by her Volume the First. The other manuscript is her sister Cassandra’s handwritten copy of the last novel, known as Sanditon, which Jane Austen was writing in the final months of her life.
The AHRC-funded project has been led by Professor Kathryn Sutherland of the Faculty of English Language and Literature in collaboration with the Bodleian Libraries, King’s College London, and the British Library. Professor Sutherland said: ‘Being able to view Austen’s original manuscripts reveals fascinating details about the mechanics and quirks of her handwriting. Her famous description of her way of working – “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour” is borne out by the tiny homemade booklets into which she wrote – her style is obsessively economical, in her formation of carets from recycled elements of other letters, and her layered punctuation (the merging of a caret with the down stroke of a ‘p’ and a semi-colon with an exclamation mark), and her near compulsive use of the dash to maintain a material connection between her thoughts and the paper.’
Acquired by the Bodleian Library for £75 with help from the Friends of the Bodleian in 1932, Volume the First takes its name from the inscription on its upper cover. It is a fair copy (an exact clean hand-written copy of the original manuscript), written out in Jane Austen's own hand as a compilation of sixteen of her early short works in a variety of genres (stories, playlets, verses, moral fragments). Austen used a ready-made bound blank stationer’s notebook and, according to a final inscription, completed the transcription on 3 June 1793. The youthful form of the hand in its opening sections suggests she was composing the earliest pieces aged 11 or 12. Volume The First has recently been the subject of a conservation project by Andrew Honey, funded by the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust.
Cassandra Austen’s fair copy of the manuscript known as Sanditon was made in imitation of the three homemade booklets of the original manuscript. There is no attempt to reproduce the exact appearance of the original manuscript with its heavy revision and deletions. Instead, Cassandra’s copy flows smoothly, expanding Jane Austen’s contractions, apportioning speeches, and inserting paragraphing. Where the original is a working draft, Cassandra’s version is a fair copy, interpreted or edited for family use. Jane Austen left the manuscript untitled but ‘Sanditon’ seems to have been an unofficial title used within the Austen family at least from the mid-nineteenth century. Cassandra's copy is displayed by kind permission of its owner, Jane Austen's House Museum, Chawton.
Other items on display include:
- a first edition of Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s first published novel. This copy was owned by Jane Austen’s brother’s family, the Knights of Godmersham Park in Kent.
- the complete set of the first edition of Jane Austen’s novels which belonged to Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Knight and subsequently to Marianne Knight, her niece and Edward’s daughter.