The Jane Austen Fiction Manuscript Archive Is Online: Explore Handwritten Drafts of Persuasion, The Watsons & More

I first came to Jane Austen pre­pared to dis­like her, reared as I had been to think of good fic­tion as social­ly trans­gres­sive, exper­i­men­tal, full of heavy, life-or-death moral con­flicts and exis­ten­tial­ist anti-heroes; of extremes of dread and sor­row or alien­at­ed extremes of their lack. Austen’s char­ac­ters seemed too perky and per­fect, too cir­cum­scribed and whole­some, too untrou­bled by inner despair or out­er calami­ty to offer much in the way of inter­est or exam­ple.

This is an opin­ion shared by more per­cep­tive read­ers than myself, includ­ing Char­lotte Bron­të, who called Pride and Prej­u­dice “an accu­rate daguerreo­type por­trait of a com­mon­place face.” Bron­të “dis­liked [Austen] exceed­ing­ly,” writes author Mary Stolz in an intro­duc­tion to Emma. The author of Jane Eyre pro­nounced that “Miss Austen is only shrewd and obser­vant,” where a nov­el­ist like George Sand is “saga­cious and pro­found.”

A cur­so­ry read­ing of Austen can seem to con­firm Brontë’s faint praise. Con­sid­er the first descrip­tion of her hero­ine match­mak­er, Emma:

Emma Wood­house, hand­some, clever, and rich, with a com­fort­able home and hap­py dis­po­si­tion, seemed to unite some of the best bless­ings of exis­tence, and had lived near­ly twen­ty-one years in the world with very lit­tle to dis­tress or vex her.

No great, shock­ing dis­as­ters befall Emma. She is buf­fet­ed nei­ther by war nor pover­ty, crime, dis­ease, oppres­sion or any oth­er essen­tial­ly dra­mat­ic con­flict. She ends the nov­el join­ing hands in mar­riage with charm­ing gen­tle­man farmer Mr. Knight­ly, con­tent, maybe ever-after, in “per­fect hap­pi­ness.”

Rarely if ever in Austen do we find the tor­ments, spir­i­tu­al striv­ings, sub­lime and grotesque imag­in­ings, pro­to-sci­ence-fic­tion, and world-his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness of con­tem­po­raries like William Blake, Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge, or Mary Shel­ley. Austen is “famous,” writes Stolz, “for hav­ing lived through the peri­od of the French Rev­o­lu­tion with­out ever men­tion­ing it in her writ­ings.”

To see this as a cri­tique, how­ev­er, is to seri­ous­ly mis­judge her. “She did not deal in rev­o­lu­tions of this order. Not a trav­eled woman, she wrote only of what she knew”: life in Eng­lish coun­try vil­lages, the tra­vails of “love and mon­ey,” as she put it, the every­day long­ings, cour­te­sies, and dis­cour­te­sies that make up the major­i­ty of our every­day lives.

We can see Austen doing just that in her own hand at the Jane Austen’s Fic­tion Man­u­scripts Dig­i­tal Edi­tion. A col­lec­tion of scanned man­u­scripts from the Bodleian, British Library, Pier­pont Mor­gan Library, pri­vate col­lec­tors, and King’s Col­lege, Cam­bridge, this project “rep­re­sents every stage of her writ­ing career and a vari­ety of phys­i­cal states: work­ing drafts, fair copies, and hand­writ­ten pub­li­ca­tions for pri­vate cir­cu­la­tion.”

This is pri­mar­i­ly a resource for schol­ars; much of this work has been pub­lished in print­ed edi­tions, includ­ing the Juve­nil­ia (read some of that writ­ing here) and unfin­ished drafts like The Wat­sons and her last, uncom­plet­ed, nov­el, San­di­ton. (One still-in-print 1975 edi­tion col­lects the three unfin­ished nov­els found at the dig­i­tal col­lec­tion). Each dig­i­tal edi­tion of the man­u­script includes a head note on the tex­tu­al his­to­ry, prove­nance, and phys­i­cal struc­ture, as well as a tran­scrip­tion of the text. There is also an option to view a “diplo­mat­ic edi­tion” that tran­scribes the text with all of Austen’s cor­rec­tions and addi­tions.

Yet any Austen fan will appre­ci­ate see­ing her wit­ty, inci­sive style change and take shape in her own neat script. In an age of super­heroes, his­tor­i­cal and fan­ta­sy epics, and dystopi­an fan­tasies, we are beset by “the big Bow-Wow strain,” as Wal­ter Scott self-effac­ing­ly called his own nov­els. In Austen’s writ­ing, we find what Scott described as an “exquis­ite touch which ren­ders com­mon­place things and char­ac­ters inter­est­ing from the truth of the descrip­tion and the sen­ti­ment.” She wraps her truths in wicked irony and a satir­i­cal voice, but they are truths we rec­og­nize as wise and com­pas­sion­ate in her domes­tic dra­mas and our own.

Austen knew well that her set­tings and char­ac­ters were lim­it­ed. She made no apolo­gies for it and clear­ly needn’t have. “Three or four fam­i­lies in a coun­try vil­lage,” she wrote to her niece Anna, “is the very thing to work on.” She also knew well the uni­ver­sal ten­den­cies that blind us to the vari­ety found with­in the every­day, whether our every­day is a sleepy coun­try vil­lage life or a tech-laden, 21st-cen­tu­ry city.

She almost seems to sigh weari­ly in Emma when she observes, “human nature is so well dis­posed toward those who are in inter­est­ing sit­u­a­tions” … so much so that we fail to notice what’s going on all around us all the time. She wrote nei­ther for mon­ey nor fame, and her work wasn’t even pub­lished with her name until after her death in July 1817, but she has since become fierce­ly beloved for the very qual­i­ties Bron­të dis­par­aged.

Austen didn’t miss a thing, which makes her nov­els as can­ny and insight­ful (and big-screen and fan-fic­tion adapt­able) as when they were first writ­ten over two-hun­dred years ago. Enter the Jane Austen’s Fic­tion Man­u­scripts Dig­i­tal Edi­tion here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Jane Austen

Down­load the Major Works of Jane Austen as Free eBooks & Audio Books

Jane Austen Used Pins to Edit Her Man­u­scripts: Before the Word Proces­sor & White-Out

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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