Unfinished Jane Austen manuscript goes up for auction

The only surviving copy of Jane Austen's unfinished novel, 'The Watsons,' goes up for auction at Sotheby's on Thursday.

A portrait of Jane Austen.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a bibliophile in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a Jane Austen manuscript.

“The Watsons,” Austen’s unfinished, unpublished manuscript, will be auctioned Thursday by Sotheby's in London. It is expected to fetch between $330,000 and $490,000.

The manuscript, much of which is in Austen’s handwriting, is one of her few manuscripts that survived and, as a work in progress, offers a rare glimpse inside Austen’s mind as a writer.

(The only surviving manuscripts from Austen’s completed novels are two chapters of “Persuasion,” which are at the British Library, “Lady Susan,” at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York, and “Sanditon,” at King’s College, Cambridge, England.)

'It's very much a working draft,' said Gabriel Heaton, a senior specialist in the books and manuscript department at Sotheby’s, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. 'You can see how her mind was moving—how she's refining and sharpening her text as she revises.'

In 1804 Austen started “The Watsons,” after finishing “Northanger Abbey” in 1799 and starting “Mansfield Park” in 1811. She completed about a quarter of the novel (68 pages, or some 17,500 words), then simply abandoned the book. Why? Austen’s own life, scholars believe, started to imitate art.

“The Watsons” tells the story of four sisters, the daughters of a widowed clergyman. One of the daughters, Emma Watson, an intelligent, middle-class girl, returns to her family after the wealthy aunt who raised her squanders Emma’s inheritance on a botched second marriage. Back with her own family, Emma cares for her sick father and watches as her sisters court a round of rich suitors.

The manuscript ends here, but thanks to letters Austen wrote her sister Cassandra, scholars believe Emma’s father was going to die, thrusting the Watson girls into a difficult financial situation. A certain Lord Osborne, inspired by the character of Mr. Darcy, would likely emerge as Emma’s suitor and the girls would redouble their efforts to wed.

Austen’s story, it seemed, hit too close to home. Austen’s own father died in 1805, by which time neither Austen nor her sister Cassandra had married.

“That was most likely her reason for abandoning the project,” Mr. Heaton told the WSJ. “She had no appetite to continue with a story that was going to parallel her own life in fairly unhappy ways.”

For that reason, said Declan Kiely, curator and head of the literary and historical manuscripts department at The Morgan Library & Museum, “The Watsons” is Austen’s most biographical work.

That’s one reason scholars say “The Watsons” is the most important Austen artifact to be auctioned in more than 20 years, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for collectors.

“This unique manuscript provides scholars with important evidence, not just of how Jane Austen composed and revised her work, but also of how her other manuscripts must have looked before they were edited by her publishers,” Heaton told Britain’s Express.

Book critic Margaret Drabble described “The Watsons” as “a tantalising, delightful and highly accomplished fragment, which must surely have proved the equal of her six other novels, had she finished it,” according to Express.

One fortunate buyer will take the precious manuscript home Thursday. The rest of us, however, are not completely left out. “The Watsons,” along with the rest of Austen’s fiction manuscripts, have been digitized and are online in a complete digital collection, Jane Austen Manuscripts, available to all.

Husna Haq is a Monitor contributor.

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