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The handwritten manuscript of the unfinished work The Watsons by Jane Austen was sold at auction house Sotheby’s in London on July 14. The work sold for £993,250 ($1.6M), three times the reserve price to Bodleian Libraries of Oxford.
It is an amazing prize, considering several pages are missing: some were sold during the World War I to raise funds for the Red Cross and are now at the Pierpoint Morgan Library of New York, together with a juvenile Austen’s novel, Lady Susan. Others, after being on deposit at Queen Mary’s library, University of London, were lost in 2005.
One of the few remaining Austen’s manuscripts in circulation, The Watson was furthermore said by Sotheby’s to be the only major by the author still in private hands. Also, thanks to a $894,700 grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Libraries of Oxford, which already owned Volume the First, purchased the new item from Austen’s descendant Joan Austen-Leigh.
“We are glad it will stay now in Britain”, said Richard Ovenden, the Bodleian’s deputy librarian. “We will make the manuscript available to the general public, who can come and see it as early as this autumn, when The Watsons will be a star item in our forthcoming exhibition, Treasures of the Bodleian.”
Probably one of her most autobiographical works, The Watsons was started by Jane Austen in Bath in about 1803, after her third novel Northanger Abbey and before the famous Mansfield Park. The heroine of the story in question is Emma Watson, the youngest daughter of a widowed clergyman, not by chance very similar to the reverend George Austen, the father of the author.
Young, beautiful and witty, Emma, after being raised for a long time by a wealthy aunt, at a certain point has no choice but to return home. Her arrival immediately breaks the fragile balance and economy of the family, especially provoking the envy of two husband-hunting sisters, not so strong and independent-minded like her. The manuscript deals with a violent domestic environment masterly depicted by the author, famous for her realism and her sharp observations about her 19th century polite society.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know how the story ends, since it remains unfinished. Though, as emerged from the correspondence between Jane and her sister Cassandra, at the end of the novel it was planned that Mr. Watson would die, probably at the fault of Emma.
Perhaps the author herself immediately stopped writing her novel after discovering reality could disquietingly follow the fiction: in fact, in 1805 George Austen actually died, leaving his unmarried daughter Jane in a precarious situation.
Was that when the author decided to abandon the story? It remains a mystery: what it is certain is that, different from many other stories revised afterwards, Jane Austen no longer took those pages in her hands again. “It may have been just too close to the bone when her own father died”, commented Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s senior specialist on books.
Although unfinished, the manuscript auctioned on Thursday in New Bond Street remains an item of unutterable value, and not just because related to the world-renown writer of Pride and Prejudice. Manuscripts retain the original pressure of hand, the unrepeatable energy flux of writing as it was in that particular moment of the creative process. You can touch or smell every page, connecting yourself physically with that unique state of mind of the author.
A direct contact which becomes ever impossible in our immaterial digital age. Moreover, philologically, a manuscript is an exceptional witness of the process of correction, of the doubts and afterthoughts of one writer. As it can be noticed with The Watsons, 68 heavily corrected pages, written with a tiny and elegant calligraphy.
When asked by BBC News arts editor Will Gompertz if it was worth purchasing the item at a so high cost, Gabriel Heaton replied: “Very rarely you would have the opportunity to buy something like this on the open market. And of course seeing Jane Austen’s handwriting, this object that she actually touched, is quite different from reading the printed book”.
So, yes, while universities tuition fees are constantly rocketing and humanities studies are increasingly underestimated, Bodleian Libraries thought it was worth spending £993,250 to get 18,000 words directly written by the hand of Jane Austen. Indeed, culture has still a market.