Those of us who share that sentiment—and in this holiday reading month of August, who doesn’t?—still are excited by the recent auction at Sotheby’s in London of the last privately owned fragment of an Austen novel in the author’s own handwriting. It’s doubly delightful that the buyer was Oxford’s Bodleian Library, which paid $1.6 million for the 68 hand-cut pages that Austen herself bound into 11 small booklets, so the manuscript will remain in England, where it belongs. It will go on public display as early as this fall.
Another 12 pages of the abandoned novel, titled “The Watsons”, are in New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library. They were sold during World War I to raise money for the Red Cross. Austen worked on “The Watsons” in 1804 after completing early drafts of “Sense and Sensibility”, “Pride and Prejudice” and Northanger Abbey.” (Which is your favorite?)
“The Watsons’” narrator is a young woman who has returned home to her impoverished clergyman father after being raised by a wealthy aunt. The father dies, leaving the young woman and her sisters in very harsh straits—much as Austen’s own father would do the next year.
None of the author’s handwritten drafts of her finished novels survive, though we do have a handful of discarded chapters from “Persuasion” and the unpublished “Lady Susan”. What’s exciting about this manuscript is that it gives us the fullest picture of Austen the writer at work, editing words and phrases, inserting sentences, all in a tiny, wonderfully precise handwriting. All that’s missing is that magic that only a completed Jane Austen novel can bestow.