Manuscript pages from Jane Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons sold at auction yesterday to the Bodleian library at Oxford for nearly one million pounds. To understand why these pages are so significant, we contacted Robert Morrison with a few questions. Morrison is Queen’s National Scholar at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, and the editor of our annotated edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, forthcoming this fall.
Q: Little survives of Austen’s manuscripts, and it’s unlikely that more will turn up. What has this scarcity meant for scholars studying Austen?
It has certainly meant that we prize the manuscripts that do exist. Manuscripts provide a unique opportunity for us to watch a writer’s mind in motion. Anyone who reads or studies Austen is bound to wonder how she put those sentences together. Where did it come from? How did she do it? The Watsons manuscript is fascinating to me not just because of what Austen wrote, but because of what she crossed out.
It is the same with the manuscript from Persuasion that I worked on when preparing the annotated edition for HUP. [A page of the manuscript is pictured at right.] Austen originally concluded Persuasion in July 1816, but three weeks later she cancelled the final two chapters and replaced them with the last three chapters of the published novel. The two cancelled chapters are the only section from any of her published novels to have survived in manuscript, and they offer highly illuminating evidence of her methods of composition and revision.
Austen’s prose can seem effortless. The manuscripts from The Watsons and Persuasion remind us how hard she worked at writing well.
Q: It’s speculated that Austen abandoned The Watsons because its plot began to run uncomfortably parallel to her own life. What do you make of that?
I think such speculations are accurate, though I don’t think they tell the whole story. Austen seems to have stopped working on the manuscript shortly before the invalid Mr. Watson was to die. This seems very likely to have been because at roughly the same moment in her own life her father died, and she could not describe Mr. Watson’s death without bringing fully into view her own father’s death. This cut too close to the bone, and so she put the manuscript down.
Why, however, did she not go back to the novel in later years, when the pain of her father’s death had receded? I think the answer is because she could see clearly how difficult it would be to find a satisfactory resolution to her plot. The thing that always strikes me on reading The Watsons is how grim it all is. There are a few flashes of light, and a great number of shadows. The novel possesses very little of the wit and irony that shapes her published work. If Austen could have seen a way forward, I think she would have pursued it. But the manuscript was too heavy and too cheerless. One of the reasons The Watsons is so fascinating is that it is the start of the most autobiographical novel Austen ever wrote, and it throws searching light on the difference between her life and her art.
Q: These pages from The Watsons sold for nearly one million pounds, about three times more than what was expected. Are you surprised at all by that number? What does it signal for you about Austen’s continued appeal?
From one perspective, that is an astonishing number. But from another it really seems hardly surprising. We have lots of Wordsworth manuscripts, lots of Keats manuscripts, lots of Lawrence manuscripts, lots of Woolf manuscripts. One of the reasons the price is so high is that there is no manuscript material related to Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, or Emma. So when an Austen manuscript—even from an unpublished and incomplete novel—comes on the market, it is bound to attract lots of attention.
But more than this, Austen’s cultural currency is very high and it continues to climb. For many people, her novels shape everything from what we think the past might have been like (it wasn’t, by the way) to what we mean when we say we have “fallen in love.” Thanks especially to movie versions of her books, to “fall in love” today still means in many ways to fall in love like Elizabeth and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, or—for me—like Anne and Wentworth from Persuasion, which I think is Austen’s greatest novel, and certainly her most modern and compelling love story. From this perspective, one million pounds for an Austen manuscript seems a bargain!