Murky Ethics: Jane Austen fragment found: but what’s behind it?

The news report below is from The Guardian. My brief thoughts on the ethics of this follow.


Jane Austen fragment found: but what’s behind it?

by Allison Flood (The Guardian)

Scrap of paper, transcribing part of a sermon by her brother, shows imprint of other writing on its reverse, which scholars are investigating.

A rare snippet of Jane Austen’s handwriting, part of a sermon on men and prayer, is to be scrutinised by experts in an attempt to decipher the shadowy words which lie on its reverse.

The text, on a scrap of paper just five inches by one inch in size, is believed to have been copied by Austen from part of a sermon by her brother, the Reverend James Austen, in 1814. It was discovered in a first edition of The Memoirs of Jane Austen, a book written by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh, attached to an 1870 letter from Austen Leigh to a friend. The book was recently purchased by the Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton.

The snippet shows Austen writing that: “Men may get into a habit of repeating the words of our Prayers by rote, perhaps without thoroughly understanding – certainly without thoroughly feeling their full force & meaning,” This was a subject she contemplated in her own novel Mansfield Park, which was also published in 1814.

“It has been stuck onto a slightly larger piece of paper, on which her nephew explains it is a piece of Jane Austen’s writing, but that it’s not her authorship,” said conservator David Dorning from the books conservation department at West Dean College. “She used to regularly write out sermons for her brother.”

A “shadow” of further handwriting can be seen on the reverse of the scrap, and Dorning and his fellow conservators at West Dean are now preparing to unstick and clean the paper to discover what Austen wrote on the other side.

“You can tell there is writing on the other side of it but you can’t read it because it’s stuck down,” said Dorning. “It is probably stuck with something which will be soluble in water … It is not likely the ink will wash off, but we do need to be careful, so we are planning to carefully humidify it, rather than put it in a bowl of water.”

He speculated that the reverse will show more of the same sermon. The snippet already visible, he said, “sounds like the sort of thing Jane Austen might have said about men, but it is text from her brother – maybe the whole Austen family felt the same way.”

The book and the snippet will feature in an exhibition at Jane Austen’s House Museum later this year to celebrate the bicentenary of Mansfield Park. “What especially intrigued us about this fragment is its apparent date, 1814, and the evidence that offers of the cross-currents between Austen’s family life and her literary reflections on prayer in Chapter 34 of Mansfield Park, published the same year,” said Mary Guyatt, curator at the museum.

Jane Austen fragment found: but what’s behind it? | Books |


I have mixed feelings on this. I love Austen and I adore her writing but she was very adamant about wanting to maintain her privacy. So much so, that she commissioned her sister, Cassandra, to destroy her letters so they would never become public.

I think Austen would be abhorred at the public detail paid to her private life and personal affairs. I think she also would hate the idea of a museum dedicated to her private life.

Anyone have thoughts on this they would like to share? I’m curious to hear other views. Do you think Austen scholars are truly paying tribute to her when they delve into her personal life?


4 thoughts on “Murky Ethics: Jane Austen fragment found: but what’s behind it?

    • It really is! As a scholar myself (of Shelley, not Austen), I constantly struggle with what is too much as far as privacy (personal artifacts, letters, etc) goes and how much can possibly be justified to further scholarship. With Austen, I think it’s clear cut since she very specifically stated she wanted her personal affects kept private. With Shelley, it’s not as black and white (for me, anyway) because he didn’t publicly declare such qualms and yet, obviously, there are things that someone would not want made public. Also, in general, I think it comes to a point of near stalking, as Marta pointed out. Can studying a poet’s baby rattle really offer any insight into their writing? What about their family background? Their romantic background? How far can you delve before it becomes too much? It’s a very slippery slope.

  1. Although I might relate with scholars and their curiosity, being an avid reader of everything Austen has ever written (including Lady Susan, Sanditon and The Watsons), I agree with you that she would probably appalled by this “over-eagerness” (borderline stalking, if you consider this behaviour in connection with a great writer who is still alive) in studying a very small scrap of paper with some writings on it. So I guess I’d opt for a modicum of restrain and respect her wishes about her private life.

    • Marta, you brought up some interesting points. I never specifically equated this type of scholarship with stalking, but it’s a really interesting and valid point. Studying this scrap of paper and trying to unearth what was pasted over is similar to someone dumpster diving to go through a celebrity’s trash bin!

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