Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
By now most of our fellow nerdy-history-lovers have heard of the recent sale of a rare Jane Austen (1775-1817) manuscript. The incomplete draft of The Watsons, 68 pages of a novel left unfinished at her death, was estimated by Sotheby's to sell for £200,000-300,000. But the continuing interest and appreciation of Jane Austen's works made that estimate meaningless, and the final realized price was a staggering £993,250 - over a million American dollars. See here for more details about the condition of the draft plus details of the sale. The first pages of the draft are in the collection of the Morgan Library in NYC; see it on line here.
While the identity of the buyer was unknown on the date of the sale, it soon became known: Oxford's Bodleian Libraries. The purchase was made possible by a large grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, plus several other generous groups and supporters. Austen fans and scholars around the world rejoiced. Instead of vanishing into a private collection, the manuscript will soon go on public display. Here's more about the Bodleian purchase, and their admirable plans for the manuscript.
This is, obviously, wonderful news for all involved. But as a fellow-writer, I couldn't help but wonder what Jane herself would have made of the sale. (Yes, I know, I've wondered in a similar vein before.) Of course she would have been shocked by the price; such a sum is amazing enough in modern money, but translated into early 19th c. value would be almost beyond comprehension. She likely would have been proud and pleased by the international recognition and celebrity.
But because fiction writing is such a solitary endeavor, most novelists I know (including me) have a wicked hard time letting go of our characters and stories. Like worrying parents, we want to make certain they are the very best they can be before they are launched into public, and to this end we polish and rewrite until the last possible moment (usually the one when the editor is begging tearfully on the phone.) The draft of The Watsons, c. 1804 is exactly that, a draft, full of strike-outs and blots, the lasting tracks of a racing imagination. It's a tantalizing glimpse of a favorite author at work.
Yet would Jane Austen herself have approved of having her creative process made so public? Compare the page, above, from The Watsons with this one, from a "fair" or finished manuscript copy of another novel, Lady Susan. No blots or changes here. Instead every word is the exact right one, in unblemished penmanship. Which version, I wonder, would Jane have wished to survive for posterity?
Eager to read more Jane Austen manuscripts? Check out the Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition here.