Today was a rare and special occasion. King’s College library was open to the public – and exhibiting one of the rare surviving Austen manuscripts. I was super-excited. Just to make you realize how important this is to me… I wrote my Master’s thesis on Austen studying at Cambridge – and no, there was no opportunity for me to see the manuscript then. I’ve been waiting for this chance ever since I have heard of the manuscript at King’s – for almost three years. I’d even been to King’s College library before, (which is gorgeous, by the way… ) to have a look at a critical work on Austen that was available nowhere else – but without a glimpse of the treasure that is the pride of its collection.
Sanditon, Jane Austen’s last and unfinished work, was given to the college in 1930 by Mary Isabella Lefroy. It was given in memory of her sister, Florence whose husband, Augustus Austen-Leigh, had been Provost of King’s College. In the letter attached to the donation, Florence says she was glad to have ‘saved’ the manuscript from the Americans…
The manuscript is a marvel to look at. The crossings out make clear the editing involved in Austen’s writing process. It made me feel much less bad about my horrible handwriting, or my horrible habit of crossing out words. It wasn’t that Austen could not write clearly – one can have a look at the clean and spotless copy of her letter to Murray, which was also included in the exhibition to see that her handwriting was faultless when she put her mind to it. But to try to ‘catch her’ in writing fiction and see her hesitating and crossing things out is somehow incredibly reassuring.
Sanditon was exhibited next to a printed page of the same text, making it easier for visitors to have a go at deciphering Austen’s handwriting. (If you want to have a try, check out http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/index.html which features digitalized Austen manuscripts and their transcriptions. )
The College Library also has a collection of first editions of Austen’s novels, which are great fun to look at – if only to realize how small a quarto format really is.
An award-winning undergraduate essay of E.M. Forster’s comparing Jane Austen to Sir Walter Scott was also on display. But my favourite object ( apart from Sanditon OBVIOUSLY) was Austen’s signed copy of Orlando Furioso.
Not only does it feature Austen’s signature – it was also owned by Virginia Woolf (!!!). It later belonged to John Maynard Keynes, the economist.
A book with a history if there ever was one. Maybe I should add Orlando Furioso to my to-read list?