Today, we welcome the wonderful Chris from Book Cougars, who is here with an absolutely fascinating discussion of Jane Austen archives. Stop by again tomorrow for a special giveaway sponsored by Chris!
The other day it dawned on me that I had no idea if there is a publicly available digital archive of Jane Austen’s manuscripts or papers. I set off to find out via Google.
A search for “Jane Austen archives” netted 8,160,000 results. The first half dozen results were hits on the Internet Archive which led to various texts by or about Austen. (Do check out archive.org if you’re not familiar — set a timer though, because you might find yourself going down a deep rabbit hole.)
The second to the last result on the first page was what I had in mind — “Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts”. This resource is the result of a three-year project funded by The Arts and Humanities Research Council. Led by Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University, a team of researchers set out to digitize and make available online all of Jane Austen’s manuscripts. This is no small task when a collection is in one location, let alone scattered in various institutions on different continents.
Why aren’t Jane Austen’s manuscripts in one place?
After her death in 1817, Jane’s papers passed on to her sister Cassandra. As is widely known and wildly lamented, Cassandra burned the bulk of Jane’s letters in 1843. After Cassandra’s death in 1845, Jane’s manuscripts and papers were dispersed among family members. Then, in the 1920s, they were scattered among various institutions and private collections.
What’s the big deal about manuscripts?
Manuscripts are invaluable for what they can tell us about a writer’s creative process and growth. Writers don’t always save early drafts of their work in progress. It is fascinating to see what changes a writer makes on a draft: different word choices made, sentences sharpened, whole paragraphs or more cut, sentences added between lines or in the margins. It is amazing that some of Jane Austen’s manuscripts have survived for 200 years.
It can be a magical experience seeing a favorite writer’s handwriting for the first time. Looking at a handwritten manuscript helps you picture them sitting at their desk, pen in hand, forming letters, words, beloved lines, and whole pages of a well-loved story. And then they pause and gaze out the window or perhaps come back to the page the next day and cross out whole lines because they’ve thought of a better way to write what they want to stay, like this example of Persuasion.
You can see the actual manuscript on the right and the transcription with Jane’s edits on the left.
Prior to digital archives, it was time and cost prohibitive for scholars to visit these scattered manuscripts in person. By bringing the manuscripts together in this “virtual reunification,” opportunities for studying Austen’s creative process have become accessible to all for the first time.
Unfortunately, digital files and the technology used to display them as intended are often much shorter lived than good old paper files. This is the case if you want to see a larger, zoomable image on “Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts.” The site was created using Adobe Flash Player for such display, a technology which is no longer supported. There is an editorial note on the home page explaining this and stating that they are looking for a new display option. However, don’t let that stop you from checking out the site. You can still see smaller images of the documents and read the transcription such as this example of a note Jane wrote.
If there are images you would like to see in full or zoom in on, there might be other options. The owner of each manuscript presented on “Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts” is listed. For example, the note “Profits of my Novels” is owned by the Morgan Library & Museum in NYC. You can access the digital copy on the Morgan’s site, zoom in, and also read details about the document in the accompanying notes. Below is a zoomed in screenshot of the note. Click the image to explore Jane’s note for yourself.
Professor Sutherland also edited a hardcover edition of the project which was published in 2018 by Oxford University Press: Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts.
There might be more Jane Austen digital archives out there, but this one will keep me busy during this year’s Austen in August. Do you enjoy poking around on digital archives? If you do, whether they are Austen related or not, please share your favorite(s)!
Thanks so much, Chris, for this interesting exploration! Austenites, remember to stop by again tomorrow, August 5th, for our first event giveaway, generously offered by Chris.