Sotheby’s, the London auctioneers, are to sell the manuscript of Jane Austen’s unfinished work The Watsons on July 14th this year.

This is, of course, one of the few manuscripts of her adult works remaining to us, the only others that remain being the cancelled chapters of Persuasion and her other unfinished novel, Sandition, which she worked on until just before her death. She put the manuscript aside on March 18th, 1817.

Written on paper watermarked “1803” , The Watsons was thought by Edward Austen Leigh to have been written in Bath before 1805. My research disagrees with this date, and I am of the opinion that the family tradition, held by Francis Austen’s descendants,  that Jane Austen began and ended her work on the manuscript in 1807, while she was living in reduced circumstances in Southampton, is more likely to be correct. It is thought that she failed to complete the novel because the heroine, Emma Watson’s impoverished circumstances  were too close  to the situation Jane Austen found herself in, both socially and financially, after the death of her father in Bath in 1805.

The manuscript has had an interesting history. It is now in two parts, the first twelve pages, on six leaves of paper, are owned by the Morgan library in New York, and can be seen here

 The next few pages,according to this report in the Guardian Newspaper, were inexplicably lost by Queen Mary College of the University of London which has had custody of the manuscript.

The college’s director of library services Emma Bull said it happened six years ago, before she arrived, and had resulted in a full investigation which, alas, “did not really come to any firm conclusions about what specifically happened.” There had been a hope that they would turn up, but clearly that is now highly unlikely.

The website, Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts tells us that

The manuscript descended from Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra to her niece Caroline Mary Craven Austen (1805-1880), the younger daughter of their eldest brother James. It was in Caroline’s possession when first published in 1871 by her brother James Edward Austen-Leigh. It passed to Caroline Austen’s nephew, William Austen-Leigh, and he presented the first six leaves (a quire of two leaves and a quire of four leaves) to a charity sale in aid of the Red Cross Society at Christie, Manson, and Woods’s on 26 April 1915. Lot 1520, it sold for £65 to Lady Wernher. Page 1 of this portion of the manuscript bears the two red stamps of the Red Cross Society and the Order of St John. R. W. Chapman made the first and only close scholarly examination of the entire holograph manuscript in 1924, by which time these six leaves were in the possession of Lady Alice Ludlow.  Soon afterwards this smaller portion was with the London dealer C. J. Sawyer, who, after unsuccessfully trying to purchase the larger part of the manuscript from its then owners, Lionel Arthur Austen-Leigh and his three sisters (the nephew and nieces of William Austen-Leigh), offered the fragment for sale for £385. It was acquired in 1925 for £317.5s.6d by the Morgan Library, where it remains. The larger portion of the manuscript was in Austen-Leigh family ownership (though much of the time on deposit in the British Museum) until 1978 when it was sold at Sotheby’s London for £38,000, to the British Rail Pension Fund. It was again auctioned in 1988, at Sotheby’s London, and was sold for £90,000. Since 1988 it has been the property of Sir Peter Michael and is now on deposit at Queen Mary, University of London, where Sir Peter was once a student.

Southey’s are selling the larger part owned by Sir Peter Michael. They are, of course, delighted to be the auction house chosen to conduct the sale and Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s senior specialist in books and manuscripts, says without exaggeration, in my humble opinion:

“It is very exciting. This is the most significant Austen material to come on the market since the late 1980s.”

He also commented on Jane Austen writing style from the evidence of the manuscript:

“Writers often fall into two categories,” said Heaton. “The ones who fall into a moment of great inspiration and that’s it and then you have others who endlessly go back and write and tinker. Austen is clearly of the latter variety. It really is a wonderful, evocative document.”

If you would like to see the facsimiles of the pages to be sold , then please go here

I will of course keep an eye out for the result of this auction and will let you know what price the manuscript fetches and, if known,  the identity of the purchaser…I have a sneaking suspicion that unless it is a public institution, that information will remain a secret , …don’t you?