Austen, not austen-tatious

If Jane Austen were alive today, she might be astounded to find herself as wealthy as one of her privileged literary heroes.Her novels and the films based on them have enjoyed steady popularity in recent years, and her unfinished manuscript The Watsons sold last week for nearly one million pounds to Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Auctioneers had only expected the piece to sell for a third of the final price.

Amid fierce competition from the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, the University’s central library purchased Austen’s manuscript The Watsons at Sotheby’s last week for £993,250. The Bodleian was assisted by a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, as well as by other contributors.

“The Bodleian is delighted to be able to add this manuscript to its extraordinary holdings of English literary manuscripts,” said Dr Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian and English faculty member. “The phenomenal financial support we received towards the total purchase cost came solely from benefactors and grant giving bodies, which is a wonderful vote of confidence in what we do to preserve and make accessible to scholars and the wider public items of great cultural significance.”
Fletcher addressed the risk of losing the manuscript to another institution abroad and said he and his colleagues felt it was crucial that the piece “come into a major research library like the Bodleian.”

The 68-page working draft containing liberal revision marks may lend insight into the great Austen’s creative process. The first 12 pages of The Watsons reside at New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library and were sold during World War I.

The plot of The Watsons, featuring a clergyman and his four unmarried daughters, draws parallels to Austen’s own life. The story is thought to have been written somewhere between the creations of Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. Austen abandoned the project before her death.

“Austen is probably second only to Shakespeare in her status as a major national literary icon”

Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections, Bodleain Libraries

Austen’s manuscript, which is the only copy of the story, will join other literary gems on display starting 30th September as a part of the ‘Treasures of the Bodleian’ exhibit. The Bodleian is also home to a manuscript of Austen’s juvenilia, Love and Freindship [sic].

“Austen is probably second only to Shakespeare in her status as a major national literary icon,” Fletcher said.