15 july 2011

Saved for the Nation: Bodleian acquires last Austen manuscript


The Watsons
A page from The Watsons

The Bodleian Libraries have acquired at auction the autograph draft manuscript of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons. The last major Austen manuscript to have been in private hands, The Watsons is the most significant Austen item to have come to the market in over twenty years.

The acquisition which cost in excess of £1 million was made possible with a substantial grant (£894,700) from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF). Other generous funders are the Friends of the National Libraries, the Friends of the Bodleian, Jane Austen's House Museum (Jane Austen Memorial Trust) as well as other supporters.

Richard Ovenden, Deputy Librarian, Bodleian Libraries said: ‘The Bodleian Libraries are delighted to have succeeded in their bid to save Jane Austen’s draft manuscript of the The Watsons for the nation.  The manuscript is such a valuable part of our literary heritage and we are glad it will stay now in Britain. 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 indeed be a star item in our forthcoming exhibition Treasures of the Bodleian. Our thanks go to all our supporters for their enormous generosity in supporting this purchase and in recognising the importance of keeping this priceless manuscript in a British institution.’

Carole Souter, Chief Executive of the NHMF, said:  ‘This was an unprecedented opportunity to acquire the earliest surviving original draft of a novel by one of our greatest and most popular writers. It is fitting that NHMF, the fund of last resort for our national heritage, could step in – in the face of intense, worldwide competition - to help keep this exceptional work for display and scholarship in the UK.’

The Watsons is Jane Austen’s first extant draft of a novel in process of development and one of the earliest examples of an English novel to survive in its formative state. Only seven manuscripts of fiction by Austen are known to survive. The Watsons manuscript is extensively revised and corrected throughout, with crossings out and interlinear additions. It is a testimony of Jane Austen’s efforts to give shape to the earliest ideas as they pour onto paper, as she reviews, revises, deletes and underscores. The Watsons is the very genesis of fiction from one of the Britain’s greatest and best-loved writers.

The Bodleian Library already holds her Volume the First, a manuscript of Austen’s juvenilia. The University of Oxford leads research in Jane Austen and it has recently launched a digital resource The Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition which reunites in a virtual space all Jane Austen’s handwritten manuscripts for the first time since 1845 when her sister Cassandra dispersed the collection.