The Watsons at Jane Austen's House Museum

10 September 2014

Manuscript providing a rare glimpse into the way Jane Austen worked goes on display at her Hampshire home

The Watsons manuscript imageA booklet from The Watsons manuscript, an unfinished novel by Jane Austen, will go on display at Jane Austen's House Museum, Chawton, Hampshire, on 18 September for three months. Apart from two chapters of her final work, Persuasion, none of the six novels published in Austenís lifetime, or soon after her death, survives in manuscript form.

The Watsons, which mainly consists of eleven homemade booklets, was bought at auction in July 2011 by the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, for just short of £1 million, with the assistance of many generous funders, including the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF), the Friends of the National Libraries, the Friends of the Bodleian, Jane Austen's House Museum (Jane Austen Memorial Trust).

The Bodleian, which also houses one of three surviving volumes of handwritten juvenilia, has generously agreed to lend one of the booklets for this exhibition. The exhibition will focus on the particular way Jane Austen prepared her small writing surface, demonstrating her great discipline as a writer. It will also examine the materials and tools she used.

On the few occasions in The Watsons where Jane Austen decided that considerable revision was needed, she applied paper patches to the manuscript, fastening them with pins. These inserts were tailored with precision, suggesting she knew how much space was required before she started to write.

A needle-case is included in the display, drawing attention to Austen's skill as a needlewoman as well as a writer. She makes numerous references to needlework in her fiction and letters, some of which compare the crafts of writing and sewing. 

The Watsons was started then abandoned between 1804 and 1805 when Jane Austen was living in Bath. The story centres on Emma Watson who was adopted in childhood by a rich uncle and aunt. When Emma's uncle dies and her aunt remarries, the nineteen-year-old is left without an inheritance and must return to her birth family, a clergyman father in failing health and three older sisters desperate to marry.

Before Jane Austen wrote about the domestic crisis that the death of Emma Watson's father would bring, real life events overtook fiction. George Austen, Jane Austen's father, died suddenly in January 1805. The Austen women, two unmarried sisters and their mother, were forced to move into cheaper lodgings. From this point to the ends of their lives they were financially dependent on Jane's brothers.

Between 1804 and 1805, a new novel based in the harsh circumstances of women's material lives came unexpectedly close to real events. It is possible that Austen abandoned the novel because reality and fiction became too closely entwined.

Kathryn Sutherland, Professor of English, University of Oxford, and Trustee at Jane Austen's House Museum said, 'Jane Austen's art is famously frugal. The densely filled and patched small pages of The Watsons' manuscript offer us a precious insight into that rich and mysterious frugality. This is a rare opportunity to glimpse Jane Austen at work and her fiction as she created it.' 

Dr Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections, Bodleian Libraries, said: 'we are delighted to lend this important literary manuscript to Jane Austen's House Museum. It is an evocative location which shows us how the domestic and the literary blend in intriguing ways.'

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