A handwritten note by Jane Austen "hidden" for 150 years on the back of a fragment of paper

A handwritten note by Jane Austen discovered after 150 years

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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About The Author

Olga Hughes is currently pre-occupied with fairy tales, fantasy, misanthropy, medieval history and the long eighteenth century. She has a Bachelor of Fine Art from the Victorian College of the Arts and is currently majoring in Literature and History at Deakin. She has contributed to websites such as History behind Game of Thrones, The Anne Boleyn Files and The Tudor Society.

2 Responses

  1. Jasmine

    It’s astonishing what turns up in the most unexpected places. I visited Chawton a couple of years ago – it’s a wonderful place, filled with a lot of the Austin family possessions.. One of the exhibits is the table where she wrote – it’s quite small, so she must have been very neat with her papers

    Interestingly, one of her brothers had been adopted by a wealthy distant relative and lived in the big house at Chawton. He provided the small cottage in the village for his mother and two sisters.

    Having been to the big house as well on the same visit, I thought he was a bit niggardly in providing for his mother and sisters!

  2. Olga Hughes

    I have to admit, considering the huge desks we work at today, those little ladies writing tables baffle me. I just bought a lovely antique desk – I am sure mine is man-sized – but less than half the size of my normal work desk.

    I’d love to visit the museum one day. That is not surprising about her brother living in the bigger house, I am sure he felt he was entitled to more luxury than the women of the family!