Reading Between the Lines

Gift: £894,700 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, plus support from Friends of National Libraries, Friends of the Bodleian, Jane Austen’s House Museum and other benefactors.

Novels are extraordinary acts of creativity that can be as fresh on the page as the day they were written. We imagine ourselves into the action, identify with the characters. Novels are the nearest thing we have to time travel.

Dr Christopher Fletcher is a Fellow of Exeter College, member of the English Faculty and Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library which recently acquired the autograph draft manuscript of The Watsons by Jane Austen.

“This handwritten manuscript from 1804 is a testament to the University’s commitment to acquiring and sharing important pieces of cultural history. It came up for auction in 2011 and being the only Jane Austen manuscript in private hands it went to the wire in a nail biting finish. We feared it would disappear into a collection where it could not be enjoyed by the public or scholars. Since acquisition the manuscript has already been on public display in a major exhibition of treasures and used for scholarly study.”

Two hundred years later we are still fascinated with Jane’s life. After Shakespeare she is probably the most treasured English author.

The Watsons is an abandoned novel. Jane reused parts of it in her later writing and it’s full of Austen’s typical concerns; frustrated relationships, social commentary and satire. In the Regency period, the novel was a way to express ideas on emancipation in an acceptable form. She was moving towards a kind of social realism and this gritty writing engages more with the real world than the world of the imagination.”

The intensively worked ink on the fragile and exhaustively used paper reveals the way she worked. The crossings out indicate changes in thinking and additions. It’s a struggle towards perfection, and the difference between the struggle and the finished thing allows us get into the author’s mind.

As Chris explains, part of the mission of the Bodleian Libraries is to preserve such evidence of the creative process, and not just in terms of manuscripts: “Jane is using the technology to hand to fashion these books. But we also feel a sense of urgency and responsibility to try and capture the contemporary as well as these astonishing evidences from the past. We will see less and less of this type of creative endeavour because people edit on a computer. Our digital archivist helps us keep pace with blogs, emails and electronic files so we are able to capture ‘born digital’ manuscripts too.”

As Chris leafs through the vivid handwriting, we feel as if Jane could have just popped out of the room to make a cup of tea.

“This is not only a museum piece, it is a wonderful icon, a great literary trophy, it has a power as an item in its own right. But it is also giving up more secrets about the way Jane Austen worked. People like to know it is in a public institution; a British institution. It will appear in more exhibitions and continue to generate research on Austen and the period.”