Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jane Austen Still the Millions

Today, one of the few surviving manuscripts written in Jane Austen's own hand sold at Sotheby's in London for $1.6 million, tripling its estimate.  The draft is a fragment of a novel called "The Watsons," which Austen began in 1804 and never completed.  Today's sale included the 68 pages that form the latter part of the autograph manuscript; during WWI, the first 12 pages were auctioned in a Red Cross benefit and are now owned by the Morgan Library, where they are occasionally put on special display.

A number of journalists and bloggers reporting this news today express wonder at the buyer's desire to spend such a prodigious sum on pages that are now readily available online.  Thanks to Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts, a joint project to digitize and make freely available images of every known Austen autograph manuscript, anyone can fully access - up very close! - the auctioned fragment of "The Watsons," as well the portion owned by the Morgan, alongside other Austen works.  It is a three-year project that, in its finished form, hopes to bring together once again the over 1,000 pages of the Austen "archive" that were dispersed amongst the Austen family in 1845.

A page from the auctioned "Watsons" fragment.

But it isn't hard to see the appeal of the physical pages...even $1.6 million worth of it.  In an article about the launch of the Manuscripts website, Professor Kathryn Sutherland outlined an often neglected corner of Austen studies: her compositional and editorial processes.  Sutherland explains that even a cursory glance at Austen's manuscripts reveals how different the author's manuscript prose is from its published version, mostly thanks to her editor, likely William Gifford.  The article goes on to detail:
"Gifford was a classical scholar known for being quite a pedant. He took Austen's English and turned it into something different - an almost Johnsonian, formal style," Prof Sutherland said.
"Austen broke many of the rules for writing 'good' English. Her words were jumbled together and there was a level of eccentricity in her spelling - what we would call wrong.
"She has this reputation for clear and elegant English but her writing was actually more interesting than that. She was a more experimental writer than we give her credit for. Her exchanges between characters don't separate out one speaker from another, but that can heighten the drama of a scene.
"It was closer to the style of Virginia Woolf. She was very much ahead of her time."
Part of my time at Oxford involed a bibliography class taught by Professor Sutherland.  Her book on her study of Austen's manuscripts, Jane Austen's Textual Lives, had just been released, so (luckily for me!) many of her examples during the class were drawn directly from that research.  We were priviledged to hear in detail about the discoveries she had made simply by choosing to look at the manuscripts in this way for the very first time.  The book is fascinating and very readable, so if you have an interest in this subject, I highly recommend it.  For those of us who can't afford the $1.6 million to study the manusciprts ourselves, resources like these will just have to be next best thing!

Further Resources:
- Sotheby's catalogue for today's "English Literature, History, Childrens' Books and Illustrations" auction can be viewed here.  The Austen manuscript was Lot 51.
- If you're interested in learning more about the other surviving Austen's manuscripts, be sure to check out the Morgan Library's online counterpart to their recent exhibit, "A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy."  The e-exhibit includes a short but very well-done video and access (complete with super-zoom capabilities) to digital images of a number of the pieces in the Morgan's Austen collection - including the first 12 pages of "The Watsons"!

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