Bodleian buys Austen work for £1m

Dr Chris Fletcher

Dr Chris Fletcher

First published in News

THE manuscript of a Jane Austen novel will go on display in Oxford in September after it was bought by the Bodleian Library for almost £1m.

The Oxford University library yesterday announced it had bought The Watsons, an unfinished work thought to have been written in 1804, from a private owner for £993,250.

The 68-page manuscript will go on show from September 30 as part of its Treasures of the Bodleian exhibition.

The heavily corrected draft is the earliest surviving manuscript by the famed author and was the last of her major works to be in private hands.

It was bought with a £894,700 grant from the Government-funded National Heritage Memorial Fund, which buys at-risk treasures, and cash from supporters. The Bodleian put the total cost at more than £1m.

It tells the story of Emma, who returns from living with her wealthy aunt to her widowed father and three sisters, two of whom are husband hunting.

Head of western manuscripts Dr Chris Fletcher said: “We regard it as an obligation to be able to show this to the public.

“Jane Austen is one of the most popular English writers, second only really to Shakespeare.

“So to acquire this, to get as close as you can to the explosion of her creative imagination, is remarkable.”

Scholars will be able to view it on request, Mr Fletcher added.

It will live in a vault alongside treasures including the 1,121-year-old King Alfred’s Regula Pastoralis, the oldest surviving English language book.

Mr Fletcher said the Broad Street library had a substantial “war chest”, but declined to give its upper cash limit for Thursday’s London auction.

Auctioneers Sotheby’s expected the work – about a quarter finished to reach £200,000 to £400,000.

Mr Fletcher said: “I watched it online. It was pretty tense. It went up to about £400,000 and was slow and then it quickened as the bids dropped out.

“We were not complacent, but we were hopeful.”

Lottery fund chief executive Carole Souter said: “This was an unprecedented opportunity to acquire the earliest surviving original draft of a novel by one of our greatest popular writers.”

Cash also came from the Friends of the National Libraries, Friends of the Bodleian, Jane Austen’s House Museum and other supporters.

Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s senior specialist for its books and manuscripts department, said: “In the weeks before the sale we have been reminded of the remarkable appeal of Austen.”

Only seven of Austen’s manuscripts are known to exist including Persuasion, Lady Susan and Sanditon. The Bodleian holds her Volume the First, written in her youth. It recently launched its Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition at janeausten.ac.uk, which has all her manuscripts, including The Watsons.

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