Noisy perfection

I am sitting in the Bodleian Library with Dr Christopher Fletcher, a Fellow of Exeter College, member of the English Faculty and Keeper of Special Collections. On the table between us is a yellowing manuscript of translucent pages inscribed with a neat copperplate script in brown ink. It is the autograph draft manuscript of The Watsons, an unfinished novel by Jane Austen, recently acquired by the Library at auction for just under £1 million. Chris sets out its significance. “This manuscript was hand-written around 1804 when Jane was 28, and is a testament to the University’s commitment to acquiring and sharing important pieces of cultural history. It came down through the family, and being the only Jane Austen manuscript in private hands, we feared it would disappear into a collection where it could not be enjoyed by the public or scholars.”

The Watsons is a study in the harsh reality of dependent women in the Regency period. The heroines are the daughters of a sick and widowed clergyman who dies, leaving them impoverished. There is nothing romantic in Jane’s vision, because their only hope of escaping destitution lies in the whimsies and caprices of the marriage market. Jane’s father died in 1805, so maybe the collision between art and reality made it impossible to resolve.

Novels are extraordinary acts of creativity that can be as fresh on the page now, as the day they were written. We imagine ourselves into the action, identify with the characters, breathe the dialogue, and become entrenched in the plot. Our favourite books become communities and destinations that we return to over and over. Different elements appeal to us at different ages and we measure our lives against them. Novels are the next best thing to time travel. In this atmospheric building, the physical proximity to Jane’s manuscript is so intensive, we feel she could pop back into the room at any moment to take up her pen again.

The Watsons manuscript is made up of 68 hand-trimmed pages, split into 11 loose gatherings. A smaller portion is in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York and another element has been lost to history. Jane created homemade books, so it’s not just about the words, but every element of its manufacture tells us that writing for her was a tangible and tactile experience. She applied patched sections using glue and dressmaker’s pins, and then added additional lines. It’s a prototype, a work in progress that evolves from page to page.

The ingrained ink on the fragile paper reveals a struggle towards perfection. Her nuanced texts were the result of extensive revisions. The difference between the struggle and the final iteration allows us to peek inside the author’s mind. It shows not just how Jane composed and revised, but how all her manuscripts must have looked before the publisher’s edits.

Two hundred years later the world is still obsessed with everything about Jane’s life. Her legacy has inspired adaptions, prequels, sequels and parodies, societies and reading clubs, scholarships and dissertations, and cults of fanatical devotees such as the Janeites whose eccentric performances include dainty afternoon teas, costumed balls and dramatic reinterpretations. Chris puts the manuscript into context. “After Shakespeare, Jane is probably the most treasured English author. This is a substantial fragment of an ultimately abandoned novel. The Watsons contains many of Austen’s perennial themes and shows her genius for shrewd social observation. Jane reused parts of it in her later writing because it’s full of her preoccupations; frustrated relationships, social commentary and satire.” Jane published anonymously and was appreciated by an elite who were exponents of emancipation. The novel was the only way a woman could express ideas on feminism in an acceptable form. She was moving towards a kind of social realism, and her gritty writing engages more with the real world than the world of the imagination.

In her biography of Jane, Claire Tomalin comments on the complexities of writing at home surrounded by a close-knit family. ‘Jane managed the day-to-day routines of a novelist with an efficiency and discipline worthy of her naval brothers. She had almost miraculous powers of stopping and starting under interruption.’ A further account comes from Jane’s nephew. It shows the support that was so critical when the publishing establishment was run by men who thought women writers an irrelevance. ‘She had no separate study to retire to, and most of the work was done in the general sitting room, subject to all kinds of casual disruptions. She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper that could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper.’

Chris explains that part of the remit of the Bodleian Libraries is to preserve evidence of the creative process, and not just in terms of manuscripts: “You can see the dissatisfaction she is experiencing with all this scoring out. Increasingly we will see less and less of this because people edit on computer and publish electronically so that genealogy gets lost. Jane is using the technology available to fashion these books. We feel a sense of urgency and responsibility to capture the contemporary as well as these astonishing evidences from the past. Our digital archivist helps us keep pace with blogs, emails and electronic files so we are able to capture ‘born digital’ manuscripts too. The Watsons is not only a museum piece, it is a wonderful icon, a great literary trophy, it has a power as an item in its own right.”


Post script: As we know, writers are a modest, humble, selfless bunch who are super-sensitive to the reputations of a literary giants. Some have even kindly polished off Jane’s novel for her. Reviews have not been good (an outrage…shockingly bad…a travesty…Jane will be turning over in her grave) but I leave you to be the judge.

Thanks to Sophie Hiscock and Roger Hutchins at Oxford Thinking, Anoushka Rodda, Alan Dye and Chelsea Palmer at NB Studio, and Matt Stuart and Daniel Lillie.


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