One of the eleven booklets from the rare unfinished manuscript The Watsons will be displayed as part of an exhibition at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton.
The Watsons was last major Austen manuscript to have been in private hands, and apart from two chapters of Persuasion, none of her six published novels survives in manuscript form. It was purchased in 2011 by Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries for £1m, with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund , the Friends of the National Libraries, the Friends of the Bodleian, Jane Austen’s House Museum (Jane Austen Memorial Trust). The 68 pages were hand-cut and bound into 11 small booklets by Jane.
The Watsons was started then abandoned between 1804 and 1805 when Jane Austen was living in Bath. The story centres on Emma Watson who was adopted in childhood by a rich uncle and aunt. When Emma’s uncle dies and her aunt remarries, the nineteen-year-old is left without an inheritance and must return to her birth family, a clergyman father in failing health and three older sisters desperate to marry.
George Austen, Jane Austen’s father, died suddenly in January 1805, leaving his wife and daughters in a precarious financial situation. Jane, her sister Cassandra and her mother were forced to move into cheaper lodgings and had to depend on Jane’s brothers and Jane’s income from her writing. It is thought she may have abandoned the manuscript because the story reflected too closely to her own situation.
The exhibition, which started on September 18th and will run for three months, will examine how Jane worked, focusing on the particular way she prepared her small writing surface, demonstrating her discipline, and the materials and tools she used.
Watch an introduction to The Watsons, by Prof Kathryn Sutherland, Professor of Bibliography and Textual Criticism, University of Oxford.