February 5, 2014
Rare piece of Jane Austen’s handwriting discovered
by Nick Davies
A book recently purchased by the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, England, was discovered to have a treasure beyond the book itself, which was a first edition of The Memoirs of Jane Austen by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh. But a Guardian story by Alison Flood reports that a small scrap of paper, just five inches by one inch, was found attached to a letter that Austen Leigh wrote in 1870.
The writing is believed to by in Austen’s hand, though not, as her nephew puts it, of her authorship; rather, it’s a fragment of a sermon given by the writer’s brother, the Reverend James Austen, that she copied for him, something that conservator David Dorning says she did regularly. The snippet of text reads, “Men may get into a habit of repeating the words of our Prayers by rote, perhaps without thoroughly understanding — certainly without thoroughly feeling their full force & meaning,” a sentiment Austen explores in Mansfield Park, published in 1814, the same year she transcribed the sermon.
The first edition book and handwritten snippet will be part of an exhibition at the Jane Austen’s House Museum this year as part of a bicentenary celebration of Mansfield Park. “What especially intrigued us about this fragment is its apparent date, 1814,” museum curator Mary Guyatt says, “and the evidence that offers of the cross-currents between Austen’s family life and her literary reflections on prayer in Chapter 34 of Mansfield Park, published the same year.”
Beyond what’s legible on the paper, there’s a “shadow” of more text written on the reverse side. Dorning and his colleagues at the books conservation department at West Dean College are working — extremely carefully — to unstick the paper from Leigh Austen’s letter and discover what else she wrote. He details some of the process: “You can tell there is writing on the other side of it but you can’t read it because it’s stuck down. It is probably stuck with something which will be soluble in water… It is not likely the ink will wash off, but we do need to be careful, so we are planning to carefully humidify it, rather than put it in a bowl of water.”
While the prospect of unearthing some long-lost work (however brief) by Austen is enticing, Dorning posits that it’s most likely more of the same, a continuation of the sermon that Austen transcribed for her brother.
Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.