- Autograph draft manuscript of her unfinished novel 'The Watsons'
Cassandra Austen, sister of Jane (d.1845); her niece Caroline Mary Craven Austen (1805-1880); her nephew William Austen-Leigh, thence by descent to Joan Austen-Leigh of Victoria, British Columbia; sold in these rooms, 25 July 1978, lot 322, £38,000, to the British Rail Pension Fund; their sale, in these rooms, 27 September 1988, lot 109, £90,000
Index of English Literary Manuscripts Volume IV 1800-1900, Part 1, comp. B. Rosenbaum and P. White (London, 1982)
K. Sutherland, Jane Austen's Textual Lives (Oxford, 2006)
Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts (http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/index.html)
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The only major Jane Austen manuscript remaining in private hands, and the most significant Austen item to have come to the market in over twenty years. This working manuscript gives exceptional insight into the creative process of one of the best loved novelists in the English language, with every page heavily marked with erasures, corrections, and interlinear revisions. It is evidence not just of how Jane Austen composed and revised her work, but also of how her other manuscripts must have looked before they were edited by her publishers.
The story told in this fragment takes us immediately to a world familiar from Austen's other novels, with the four Watson sisters hunting for husbands in the market towns of southern England. The youngest, Emma, has just returned to her clergyman father's home having been bought up by a wealthy aunt who has now contracted an unwise second marriage, and the novel begins on the day of the first ball of the season at D. (Dorking) in Surrey. The beautiful, refined Emma attracts the attention of those attending the ball, including the arrogant aristocrat Lord Osborne, his friends the flirtatious dandy Tom Musgrave and the shy intellectual clergyman Mr Howard, and various genteel local characters who are delineated with sly irony and wry humour by a few rapid strokes of Austen's pen. It rapidly becomes clear that Emma has much to contend with in her new home, aside from the unwelcome attentions of Lord Osborne. Although her eldest sister Elizabeth is affectionate, the other two are focused entirely on their blatant and desperate search for a suitable husband; her brother's wife is vulgar and grasping; her father is gravely ill; and her aunt's marriage means that she herself now has no prospects. The fragment ends with Emma at her father's bedside, finding a moment of tranquillity in which to dwell on her position:
"...she was become of importance to no one, a burden on those, whose affection she cd not expect, an addition in an House, already over-stocked, surrounded by inferior minds with little chance of domestic comfort, & as little hope of future support. - It was well for her that she was naturally chearful; - for the Change had been such as might have plunged weak spirits in Despondence..."
"It is", says Margaret Drabble, "a tantalising, delightful and highly accomplished fragment, which must surely have proved the equal of her other six novels, had she finished it." It was, however, left unfinished at Austen's death and remained unpublished until James Edward Austen Leigh, the novelist's nephew, included it as an appendix of the second edition of his Memoir of Jane Austen (1871), at which point it was given the title by which it is now known. Jane told her sister Cassandra about her plans for the novel, and these were also recalled by Austen Leigh:
"Mr. Watson was soon to die; and Emma to become dependent for a home on her narrow-minded sister-in-law and brother. She was to decline an offer of marriage from Lord Osborne, and much of the interest of the tale was to arise from Lady Osborne's love for Mr. Howard, and his counter affection for Emma, whom he was finally to marry."
The manuscript as it stands is of the utmost importance to understanding Austen's artistic imagination. In the words of its most recent editors:
"Virginia Woolf famously claimed that Jane Austen was the most difficult author to catch 'in the act of greatness'. If there are to be glimpses, some must come from the handwriting changes, elisions, and revisions in the few prose manuscripts that survive: the small, closely written pages that form the unfinished works now entitled 'The Watsons' and 'Sanditon' and the cancelled chapters of Persuasion." (Todd and Bree, xxxi)
Aside from the two cancelled chapters of Persuasion (at the British Library), there are no manuscripts for the six major novels, and aside from 'The Watsons' and her final, unfinished, work 'Sanditon' (at King's College, Cambridge), the only other surviving autograph novel manuscript is the fair draft of her juvenile work Lady Susan (at the Pierpont Morgan, New York). The rarity of Austen manuscript material is also reflected in the saleroom: in the last twenty years, the only material to have been sold at auction are five letters and a short poem.
Manuscripts of Austen are of particular significance as her characteristically nuanced texts were the result of careful reworking: we know that most of her other novels went through multiple revisions and this manuscript shows her in the process of rethinking and adjusting her text as it gradually develops towards the finished polish of the published works. The revisions in the manuscript of 'The Watsons' show Austen reaching for the right word or phrase, working on the rhythm and structure of sentences, crafting nuances and implications. They reveal how much Austen's imagination turned on the fine material detail of her world. She originally set the novel around "L." in Sussex, before revising this to "D" (Dorking) in Surrey, while smaller changes made to the text include the number of rubbers of whist won, the number of tables in the drawing room, and the number of windows on the frontage of a house. These apparently minor changes show how important it was for her to ensure that the external details fitted precisely with the story she was telling.
Given Austen's predisposition to revision – every page of the manuscript has substantial changes – the layout of the manuscript is somewhat surprising, since it made no allowance for revision. Many writers of the period left space for revision in their drafts, either writing only on rectos or folding the leaf vertically and only using one side, but Austen cut and folded her paper into small gatherings and wrote her text on all available pages. When she ran out of space she was compelled to insert additional leaves of paper. These are on a different paper stock from the main gatherings so were evidently produced later. The three inserts mark the most substantial revisions to the text, and show Austen's skilful honing of her novel by developing plot and character. Two mark important structural developments: one amplifies upon Emma's unfortunate circumstances, the second turns a piece of dialogue towards Mr Howard, developing an absent character who was to play a central role as Emma's preferred partner. The other insert (which is in fact the first in the manuscript) does not develop the structure of the novel but rewrites a section of dialogue between Emma and Lord Osborne and in so doing introduces the fragment's most famous exchange, when Emma replies to Lord Osborne's comment that if women have the inclination for something then "the means w[oul]d soon follow" with the words:
"Your Lordship thinks we always have our own way. – That is a point on which Ladies & Gentle[me]n have long disagreed – But without pretending to decide it, I may say that there are some circumstances which even Women cannot controul. – Female economy will do a great deal my Lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one."
'The Watsons' can be dated with some confidence to 1804 from a number of mutually supportive pieces of evidence: this date comes from the Austen family itself, albeit at some remove, in the person of Jane's great-niece Fanny Caroline Lefroy; the paper stock used for the bulk of the manuscript is dated 1803; and the text (as Todd and Bree show) includes a reference to counterfeit half-crowns that would have been particularly topical in 1804. This is therefore the earliest surviving mature novel manuscript by Austen. Although none of Austen's works appeared in print until the publication of Sense and Sensibility in 1811, she had already written three novels before she came to 'The Watsons': Elinor and Marianne (an early version of Sense and Sensibility) First Impressions (an early version of Pride and Prejudice) and Susan (an early version of Northager Abbey). However, First Impressions had been rejected by the publishers Cadell and Davies in 1797, and whilst she had sold the manuscript of Susan to another publisher, Crosby, for £10, he had failed to publish the work.
Numerous reasons have been given for Austen's abandonment of 'The Watsons'. Austen Leigh put it down to social class: "the author became aware of the evil of having placed her heroine too low". However, the most convincing explanations for Austen's abandonment of the project are autobiographical. The setbacks she had received from publishers gave Austen reason for disillusion with her writing. Moreover, with the death of Austen's father (who was, like Mr Watson, a clergyman) in January 1805, life began to imitate art in an uncomfortable way. Not only would the next passage in the novel, Mr Watson's death, have forced Austen to relive the death of her own father, but his death forced her into an uncomfortable and rootless life of financial dependency on male relatives very similar to that she envisaged for Emma. It seems likely that in these circumstances Austen had little appetite to follow the life of Emma Watson any further.
Although she abandoned the novel, critics have shown the debt her later novels owe to 'The Watsons', whether it be the economic pressures on a family of girls, which is a theme in Pride and Prejudice, or the reworking of specific scenes from 'The Watsons' in, for example, Mansfield Park. In its exploration of the harsh position of women in Austen's world it was also a crucial step in the development of her novelistic imagination. As is intimated by Austen Leigh's comments quoted above, Emma Watson inhabits a more humble position than Austen's other heroines in the hierarchy of subtle social gradations that is depicted with exquisite care throughout her work. Many readers have been struck by the fragment's bleak representation of the struggle for status and its representation of the shame of relative poverty. It is not the only such occasion in Austen's work, for example when Fanny Price leaves Mansfield Park to return to her immediate family their shabby home is described in detail, but this is only a brief interlude in a novel otherwise located at the grand country home of a baronet. Equally, the Watson sisters' desire to find suitable and solvent husbands has an ill-concealed desperation that is more acute than, say, Jane Fairfax's in Emma. This difference in social class from her other books is, of course, relative: the local aristocrat, Lord Osborne, still pays a visit to the Watson family, it is just that their unpreparedness and the early hour of their dining cause some social embarrassment.
The current manuscript does not include the full text of 'The Watsons' as written by Jane Austen. In 1915 the first six leaves of the manuscript were donated by William Austen-Leigh for a Red Cross benefit sale during World War I. Those leaves passed to the dealer Charles Sawyer and thence in 1925 to the Pierpont Morgan Library (for £317 5s 6d). The second section of four manuscript leaves has since been lost.