Jane Austen’s fiction manuscripts are the first substantial collection of creative writings in the author’s own hand to survive for a British novelist. They represent every stage of her writing life, roughly 1787 to 1817; that is from childhood (aged 11 or 12) to the year of her death (aged 41). They display a wide variety of physical states: working drafts, fair copies, and crafted ‘publications’ for private circulation among family and friends. Laid out in conscious imitation or parody of the formal features of book design, and labelled by Austen Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third, the teenage, handwritten notebooks (with the possible exception of Volume the Third) have long appeared to scholars to be finished artefacts. By contrast, most of the other manuscript writings consist of pre-print or rough drafts in various stages of development: the experimental novel later entitled The Watsons, a short, discarded section of Persuasion, and Sanditon, the final novel, unfinished when she died.  There is no evidence to indicate that Jane Austen saw the bulk of these drafts as anything other than provisional.  Hence the stark situation that no manuscripts appear to remain for works published or planned for publication in her lifetime (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey or Persuasion, the famous six novels). The assumption must be that their working and finished drafts were routinely discarded once replaced by print forms. There is only one exception: the two cancelled chapters of Persuasion, which represent an alternative ending to the one that made it into print.

The manuscript evidence therefore represents a different Jane Austen: different in the range of subjects, themes, and narrative experimentation they contain from the novels we know only from print; and different in what they reveal about the workings of her imagination: in particular, what they can tell us of the ebb and flow, the struggle or ease of creation. Because of the variety of their written states, because of their experimental range, and because of the way they extend the time span of her writing life (far longer than the single decade, the years 1811-1818, that saw the publication of the six printed novels), these manuscripts can claim a special place in our understanding of the evolution of the famous fictions and the writing laboratory of one of the greatest English novelists. Quite literally, they represent Jane Austen’s beginnings and endings as a writer.

Some 1100 pages in total, the fiction manuscripts were held after Austen’s death in 1817 in a single collection under the stewardship of her sister Cassandra. Evidence of wear to their physical structures supports family stories that during these years (1817-1845) they were frequently read and even copied within the extended Austen family. When Cassandra died in 1845 the collection was dispersed, according to the provisions of her will, among surviving brothers and nieces and nephews. There was a second major dispersal in the 1920s when manuscripts and other memorabilia shifted from family hands into the auction rooms. From the 1920s, too, printed editions began to appear, but shorn of the idiosyncrasies of hand and design that make authors’ manuscripts so fascinating. Crucially, the collection as Austen left it, has been unavailable for comparative inspection or simply enjoyment since 1845. Since 1845 it has not been possible to set all the manuscripts side by side.

The focus of the present digital edition is three-fold: the virtual reunification of this significant collection of fiction manuscripts by means of high-quality digital photographic images; the linking of these images to fully encoded and searchable diplomatic transcriptions; and the creation of as complete a record as possible of the conservation history and current physical state of these frail objects. Through virtual reunification, scholars and interested users are provided for the first time with the opportunity to compare the forms and texts of these dispersed manuscripts – their different physical construction, shifts in handwriting and presentation – to examine passages of erasure and revision, to question editorial readings in the transcriptions, and to make their own new discoveries about Austen’s working practices across her writing career.

Simply by being electronic, this is a new kind of manuscript edition. The history to date of the critical editing of Jane Austen’s fiction manuscripts has been bounded by the possibilities of the printed book and the selective facsimile representation of the evidence. The Austen we are most of us familiar with is the writer of six classic novels. All are works recoverable only as products of the printing press, since with one or two small exceptions all trace of their manuscript lives has been lost. By contrast, the manuscripts available to us, all of them unpublished in her lifetime, literally present a different face. These are Jane Austen’s teenage writings, a short novel in letters, and abandoned or otherwise incomplete drafts of later fictions. Where the finished published novels went through the normalizing processes that attend print – from the removal of signs of erasure and revision, to the introduction of paragraphing and expansion of abbreviations – the blots, interlinear insertions, and false starts of the irregular writing and rewriting hand of the manuscripts appear integral to their meaning. The best recourse for the editor might seem complete photo-facsimile reproduction of the primary documents accompanied by detailed diplomatic transcriptions: that is, something that looks like the real thing together with an informed interpretation of its inked marks and shapes. But even in Austen’s case, where the manuscript evidence is modest in size, facsimile reproduction remained through the twentieth century an expensive option.

The role of facsimiles

The incorporation of digital images, whether of printed books or manuscripts, is currently considered among the major benefits of electronic editions. The high standard of imaging technologies makes the case for the usefulness and value of visual evidence as a form of authentication and even as a check on the mediating role of the editor; in addition, the presence of the image serves a dominant view of editing that emphasizes the importance of documentary forms to the meaning of texts. Original manuscripts in the author’s hand make a compelling argument for text as the sum of the creative processes displayed. In Austen’s case, the re-unification and representation of this body of evidence is of particular interest since the majority of these texts were not submitted to the socializing processes of print until a hundred years after her death, by which time the documents themselves had been dispersed and were unavailable for comparison one with another.

For the present edition, the Austen fiction manuscripts have been digitally photographed to the highest current standard. 1 Yet, at the risk of stating the obvious, even the most exact reproduction cannot duplicate all the features and properties of its original. In the case of a digital image of a manuscript the medium itself is lost: we have the visual impression of paper and ink but not the physical materials of the original: its three-dimensionality, its feel and weight, and its substance. In the Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition, we have tried to remain mindful of this distinction while profiting from its paradoxical potential. For example, great care has been taken to limit certain kinds of enhancement (cropping, scale distortion, erasure of blemishes, flattening) all too frequent (and all too ignored) in the substitution of digital facsimile for original. At the same time, other enhancements are positively embraced: notably the capacity to magnify difficult words or passages and to focus upon manuscript’s graphic values. As a result, an edition incorporating facsimile images makes greater interpretative demands on compilers and users: fidelity to an original is always under critical scrutiny.

Facsimile versus transcription

In a non-facsimile, printed scholarly edition the transcription normally stands in for the manuscript, ensuring that it is not the manuscript that provides authority for the edition but the implied precision of the editor’s transliteration. By contrast, in the image-based digital edition the editor is continually on trial, open to account and correction. With the image always available for close inspection, some hard decisions become harder: is the expectation greater or smaller that a transcription will resemble what it transcribes? Which expressive equivalents between transcription and object transcribed are necessary, achievable, or possible? And, with the image of the manuscript available, do any expressive equivalents become redundant?

One obvious example of the power of the visual image to undermine transcription lies in the conversion of handwriting into typed letters. Print provides fewer choices than handwriting. As Walter Ong memorably put it: ‘print is comfortable only with finality’. Because print is a self-consistent system, ‘[i]t can convey the impression, unintentionally and subtly, but very really, that the material the text deals with is similarly complete or self-consistent.’ 2

Handwriting, by contrast, happily accommodates the quirks and inconsistencies of individual expression, taste, and personality, and a range of letter-shapes that grow and diminish in size regardless of rules of upper and lower case. In the print edition, where the print transcription both substitutes for and interprets the handwritten original, we largely take on trust the reliability of that substitution. We may, if availability permits, check the one against the other, but not continually. In the digital facsimile edition, image and print transcription can maintain a continuous relationship, which becomes a source of tension. A print transcription, we take it, will be faithful to the linguistic elements of the text – its words and punctuation. But to shapes? to spatial relations? to the graphic ‘noise’ of dashes of varying length and sub-semiotic marks? Ironically, the availability of facsimile images can lead to a raised expectation of fidelity in transcription. 3


See under Methodology: Imaging. Back to context...
Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word (Routledge: London and New York, 1982), pp. 132-3. Back to context...
This seems to be implied in the fascinating account of the procedure for making diplomatic transcriptions of Emily Dickinson’s fragments given by Marta L. Werner, ‘“A Woe of Ecstasy”: On the Electronic Editing of Emily Dickinson’s Late Fragments’, The Emily Dickinson Journal, 16.2 (2007), 25-52 (pp. 35-7). Back to context...