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Restoring Jane Austen's Legacy


The original handwritten manuscripts of Jane Austen’s fiction have long been scattered in libraries and public collections around the UK and in New York. But an AHRC-funded project to digitise the documents allowed them to be viewed as a unified collection for the first time in more than 160 years.

Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts: A Digital Edition is an online resource that can be used free of charge by the general public and the academic community. The manuscripts represent Austen’s output from the age of 12 up to her death aged 41. They comprise teenage spoofs, adult experiments in novel writing, discarded chapters and the final poignant chapters of the novel left unfinished when she died. This unprecedented access to the work of one of the nation’s best-loved authors continues to provoke huge public interest which peaks around the regular release of new TV dramas and Hollywood films drawing inspiration from Jane Austen’s literary work.

Volume the Second, showing Austen's teenage collaboration with her sister Cassandra, who provided the cartoon images. British Library, London.

It’s clear that Austen treasured her manuscripts and was concerned that they should remain together. In her will, she left them to her sister, Cassandra, who kept them together until her death in 1845. By the beginning of the 20th century they were scattered and had started to appear in auction houses. “The online edition is a way of stitching together Jane Austen’s legacy and restoring what she intended, which was a collection of the manuscripts she regarded as precious,” says project lead Professor Kathryn Sutherland of the University of Oxford.

The project has also opened up to scrutiny a new Austen, adds Professor Sutherland. Draft forms of poetry have always received considerable attention from scholars, but this has not been the case with novels, she explains. “Jane Austen is one of the very first novelists for whom we have this kind of draft manuscript material. It doesn’t survive in significant amounts before the beginning of the 19th century. I thought it would be wonderful for people to see the actual manuscripts. They are different from print – they’re messy, and you can see creation as it happens. They are also intimate objects and give you the illusion that you’re very close to the author.”

The three-year joint project between the University of Oxford and King’s College London involved creating images of 1,100 pages of manuscript using very high specification digital photography capable of capturing minute detail. The equipment used was the same as that used in producing a digital version of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Persuasion, a section of a late page of the manuscript, British Library, London.

However, the project’s aim was to do more than just produce a photographic version of the documents; it was to create a live resource that could be manipulated by the user. This meant encoding – creating underlying descriptions – of elements such as crossings out and revisions, punctuation features and handwriting characteristics, that would enable users to search the edition, to identify patterns and to undertake more in-depth textual analysis.

A major challenge was that there were no common standards for encoding handwritten drafts so the team had to develop much of the code themselves. The project therefore represents important progress in the digital encoding of draft manuscripts and has provided a basis for future work in this area.

And lessons continue to be learned. A digital resource is a living entity which needs to be sustained, rather than just preserved, explains Professor Sutherland. “You can preserve digital material by freezing it in time and turning it into an archive, but then it’s no longer a live edition that you can manipulate. To keep it online and current you have to keep upgrading it and moving it to new platforms as the technology changes.” Within a year of the edition going live in 2010 the team noticed that lines of transcript, which sit alongside lines of manuscript text, were no longer matching up. It turned out that Microsoft refreshes its fonts every so often, and the tiny changes meant the lines were no longer synchronised. The solution was to embed the fonts to stabilise them.

The irony of digitisation is that paper is in many ways more robust. Accordingly, Oxford University Press is in the process of producing a five-volume print version of the edition, to be published in 2016. As well as being a complete record of the photographic images, transcriptions and rich textual notes, it will also include other material, such as critical essays on how Austen wrote.

For Dr Sutherland personally, the edition gave rise to new insights into the author’s work. “When you turn something into a two dimensional object on a screen, you have to reconstruct it as three dimensional in your head. It made me start to think for the first time about manuscripts as objects, about how Austen worked with her materials, and why she decided to use one kind of notebook as opposed to another.” For some of her manuscripts, she made her own small booklets and Dr Sutherland believes she may have used these to discipline the writing of her first drafts. Small booklets also reflect the fact that much of her work is concerned with the minutiae of everyday life and social mores. “There’s real synergy between object and text. As a writer, she works with a very small canvas – similar small situations looked at from different angles in each novel. This is something you also see at work in these booklets. The size of the booklet is in a way a metaphor for her vision.”

The edition has benefited academics all over the world, such as Michelle Levy, an English professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, who uses the manuscripts with her students. “They provide a window into the very different writing she produced within and for her domestic circle,” says Professor Levy. “This greatly expands our understanding of Austen, and of literary culture in the period generally, which was not all print-based. The edition truly revolutionises the teaching of Austen.”

It has also engaged a much wider audience, adds Professor Sutherland. “The feedback I get when I give talks is that people love looking at the digital site. Manuscripts are intimate things and people are fascinated by handwritten documents. I think there’s also an awareness that we are now at the end of the manuscript era. How many of us still write things out by longhand?”

Professor Sutherland expects interest in the manuscripts to peak once again in 2017 which sees the bicentenary of Austen’s death and major exhibitions planned in Oxford and in Winchester, where she died. To commemorate her importance her image will appear on the £10 note in 2017, replacing that of the 19th-century naturalist Charles Darwin, who has been on the notes since late 2000. "If the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death is anything to go by," says Sutherland, "we can expect to see some real Jane Austen fever during the course of next year. But the manuscripts will always offer a pathway back to the novels – and that’s reassuring."

Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts can be accessed online at janeausten.ac.uk


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