A fragment of handwriting by author Jane Austen has been painstakingly revealed by conservation experts. It was stuck to a letter discovered in a first edition of her memoirs which was written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh in 1870. The text is part of a sermon apparently composed by her brother, the Reverend James Austen in 1814.
The book and letter had previously been held in a private collection but were recently purchased by the Jane Austen museum in Chawton, Hampshire. Jane had written on both sides of the fragment of paper, but the reverse had not been seen since it was stuck down on backing paper 150 years ago.
“We were curious because we could see text on the reverse just peeping through,” Jane Austen House curator Mary Guyatt explained. “When so little of Jane Austen’s manuscripts survive finding some extra words…is something you have to pursue.”
The conservation department at West Dean College near Chichester, West Sussex, succeeded in loosening the adhesive separating the layers of paper. The text on the reverse can now be viewed on a light box.
The front of the fragment reads: “Men may get into a habit of repeating the words of our Prayers by rote, perhaps without thoroughly understanding – certainly without thoroughly feeling their full force and meaning.”
Jane Austen experts believe the text echoes a passage in Mansfield Park which was also published in 1814 – a few months before the sermon text was written.
Prof Kathryn Sutherland, of St Anne’s College, Oxford, told the BBC it showed earlier drafts of Mansfield Park at least influenced her brother.
“The scrap raises the possibility that the novel inspired James’s sermon and even demonstrates the cross-fertilization between Jane Austen’s creative writing and the wider life of her family.”
“I think that’s the big qiestion, whether she was as the younger sister…she was influencing what he would say or whether they composed it together,” said Mary Guyatt .
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