Jane Austen Day at the Bodleian Library

22 October 2010

Volume-the-First_webFor 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 Austenís Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition (www.janeausten.ac.uk).  The website reunites in a virtual space all Jane Austenís handwritten manuscripts for the first time since 1845 when her sister Cassandra dispersed the collection.

The display is a celebration of Jane Austenís 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 Cassandraís 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, Kingís College London, and the British Library. Professor Sutherland said: ĎBeing able to view Austenís original manuscripts reveals fascinating details about the mechanics and quirks of her handwriting.  Her famous description of her way of working Ė ďthe little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labourĒ is borne out by the tiny homemade booklets into which she wrote Ė 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 Ďpí 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.í

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 stationerís 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 Austenís 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, Cassandraís copy flows smoothly, expanding Jane Austenís contractions, apportioning speeches, and inserting paragraphing.  Where the original is a working draft, Cassandraís version is a fair copy, interpreted or edited for family use. Jane Austen left the manuscript untitled but ĎSanditoní 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 Austenís first published novel. This copy was owned by Jane Austenís brotherís family, the Knights of Godmersham Park in Kent. 
  • the complete set of the first edition of Jane Austenís novels which belonged to Jane Austenís brother,  Edward Knight and subsequently to Marianne Knight, her niece and Edwardís daughter. 

The Virtual Jane Austen:
From Manuscript to Digital

    Monday, 25 October 2010
    Divinity School
    Bodleian Library
    Admission Free

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