1,100 Pages of Austen

Copy of Pride and Prejudice, opened to the title page
Thalita Carvalho, "Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen," Flickr, 2013.

Ever wonder what happened to the manuscripts of Jane Austen’s novels? The bad news: of her six major novels, only two handwritten chapters of Persuasion survive. The good news: you can now read those two chapters online—in Austen’s own distinctive hand—at Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition. The even-better news? The site offers high quality photographic images of every surviving bit of Austen’s juvenile writing—hundreds of pages of her boldest, funniest work—as well as the entire manuscript of her quirky novel Lady Susan, fragments of unfinished novels, and other writing-related personal documents.

When Austen’s sister Cassandra died in 1845, the surviving manuscripts were bequeathed as mementos to various family members. These texts are finally all in one place again, thanks to this digital project sponsored by the University of Oxford and King’s College London, with funding from the British Arts & Humanities Research Council.

The day I discovered this site, my husband felt compelled to peek into my office to see what my exclamations of “I don’t believe it,” and “This is amazing!” were all about. Seriously. Here’s my short-list of some of the features that make this site so fabulous:

Second page of Jane Austen's manuscript of Sanditon

Second page of Jane Austen’s manuscript of Sanditon, Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition.

1. Head notes: Each digital manuscript has a link detailing the physical text’s current location, condition, history of ownership, and other relevant facts. It’s interesting to know which family members inherited which works—a nice reminder that Austen was somebody’s beloved sister or aunt before she became “everybody’s dear Jane,” slated for the 10-pound note.

2. Text transcriptions: Austen’s handwriting is generally neat, but in case you’d like to double check, you can see a side-by-side view of a clean transcription and the manuscript image (or not, if you’d rather just read the images directly).

3. Page number pull-down menus: You don’t have to click your way through an entire manuscript unless that’s your cup of tea; you can head straight to your favorite spots.

4. Word search: How many times does Austen use the word “romance” in these texts? Or “pleasure”? Not only is the number supplied—the search feature links to the page where the reference occurs so that you can see the whole context (two for romance, 94 for pleasure, btw).

5. “Zoomify”: With the zoom function, you can examine every correction made to these pages. Austen’s works didn’t spring forth full-formed—she fussed and tinkered, and it’s intriguing to see. Makes you wonder if Emma might have been “attractive, smart, and wealthy” before she became “handsome, clever, and rich.”

And of course, there are the texts themselves. This wonderful digital edition covers every stage of Austen’s writing—from the earliest juvenilia to the cancelled chapters from Persuasion, considered by many her finest work, to Sanditon, the novel she was writing when she grew too ill to hold a pen. Having such easy access to her work in the hand that held that pen is like discovering Jane Austen all over again. A true pleasure!

Amy Elizabeth Smith

Amy Elizabeth Smith, originally from Pennsylvania, teaches creative and professional writing at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Her recent memoir, All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane, recounts a year spent traveling in six Latin American countries learning Spanish and holding reading groups on Jane Austen—and finding romance on the road, as well.

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