On the Trail of Lady Susan: The History of the Manuscript

Manuscript of Lady Susan, Letter 19In 1805, Jane Austen transcribed a fair copy of an untitled manuscript that would later be named Lady Susan by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh and published in 1871 in the second edition of his book A Memoir of Jane Austen. This was the first publication of an Austen early manuscript. The text however, was printed from an inaccurate copy since the original was missing. He introduced the addition of the novella in his preface giving a short explanation of its history and its provenance in the family up until that point.


I HAVE lately received permission to print the following tale from the author’s niece, Lady Knatch- bull, of Provender, in Kent, to whom the autograph copy was given. I am not able to ascertain when it was composed. Her family have always believed it to be an early production. Perhaps she wrote it as an experiment in conducting a story by means of letters. It was not, however, her only attempt of that kind; for ‘ Sense and Sensibility’ was first written in letters ; but as she afterwards re-wrote one of these works and never published the other, it is probable that she was not quite satisfied with the result. The tale itself is scarcely one on which a literary reputation could have been founded: but though, like some plants, it may be too slight to stand alone, it may, perhaps, be supported by the strength of her more firmly rooted works. At any rate, it cannot diminish Jane Austen’s reputation as a writer; for even if it should be judged unworthy of the publicity now given to it, the censure must fall on him who has put it forth, not on her who kept it locked up in her desk.

Even though the manuscript was undated, scholars where able to determine from the watermark on the paper that Jane Austen transcribed the copy in 1805. As James Edward Austen-Leigh mentions in his preface, the Austen family believed it was an earlier work, but revealed no more. It is generally believed from the style and maturity of the writing that it was written between 1793 – 94, after Catharine in (1793),now classified as part of her Juvenilia, but before Elinor and Marianne (1795), also written in an epistolary format and later reworked into her signature third person narrative and renamed Sense and Sensibility. Austen obviously thought the novel worthy enough to make a new copy in 1805 and kept it safely among her papers until her death. Some scholars also believe that the conclusion of the novel was also written at this time. Why she chose to never re-visit Lady Susan we shall never know. I do think it humorous that Austen-Leigh attempted to forestall reproof of reception by blaming himself for its publication and not the author. Nice ironic touch worthy of Austen herself.

Upon her death in 1817, all of Jane Austen’s correspondence and manuscripts were inherited by her sister Cassandra Austen. Two of her novels from this collection, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion would be published posthumously in 1818, but not the untitled manuscript later known as Lady Susan. It would pass upon Cassandra’s death in 1845 to Jane Austen’s favorite niece Lady Knatchbull, nee Fanny Austen Knight. Along with other minor works and many of Austen’s personal letters, the manuscript was safeguarded by Lady Knatchbull for over twenty years until Austen-Leigh approached his cousin and proposed its publication in the second edition of his memoir of his aunt. Unfortunately, Lady Knatchbull now in her late seventies had safeguarded it so well, she could not find it, and an inaccurate copy was used in its place. In addition to this challenge, not everyone in the family thought it worthy of publication and Austen-Leigh’s half sister Anna was strongly opposed. Obviously, she lost the debate.

The manuscript would remain in the Knatchbull family for several more years passing with the death of Lady Knatchbull in 1882 to her son Edward Knatchbull-Hugessen, 1st Lord Brabourne. Luckily, he located the manuscript and other Austen letters among his mother’s paperwork. In what was now a family tradition, Brabourne would also promote his famous ancestor’s writings by editing and publishing the first collection of her letters into two volumes in 1884. The family had inherited Austen’s legacy safeguarding and profiting from it for many years until Lord Brabourne’s decision to sell the manuscript of Lady Susan in 1893 along with his collection of letters and minor works at auction. Even though Jane Austen was experiencing widespread popularity as a writer in the 1890’s, it is shocking that dealers Dupree, Barker, and Waller of London only paid £37 for it. Once the manuscript was out of family hands it could easily disappear, as some of her letters have, and it did – as it passed from dealer to dealer for several years. By 1925 it was in the possession of collector Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery who gave noted Austen scholar R. W. Chapman permission to study the manuscript and edit the first accurate text. Following the sale of Rosebery’s library by his heirs in 1933, the manuscript was acquired by bookseller Walter M. Hill of Chicago. Finally, in 1947 it was purchased from New York dealer James E. Drake by the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York where it resides today on display for all to enjoy. It is the only surviving complete manuscript of a Jane Austen novel.

If you would like to gaze upon Jane Austen’s manuscript of Lady Susan, don’t miss the new exhibit at The Morgan Library in New York, A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy opening on November 6, 2009 through March 14, 2010. Anyone fortunate enough to attend must report back. Like Miss Emma Woodhouse, we must have our news.

© 2009, Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose.com.

17 thoughts on “On the Trail of Lady Susan: The History of the Manuscript

Add yours

  1. The LS manuscript…a treasure indeed ! Wish I could visit this collection of letters in Jane’s own hand… Laurel Anne, many thanks for your time & research for the Lady Susan read. :)


  2. Wow – great post. I love reading the history of this manuscript. I was curious after reading the preface from Austen-Leigh. I only wish I lived closer to NYC and could attend this exhibit!


  3. Hello Laurel Ann,

    I have been enjoying your commentary, as well as yet another re-read of LS! She is quite the two-faced devil is she not? One wonders if Austen saw this behavior acted out before her very eyes [her cousin Eliza perhaps?] – or is it her very own devilish imagination at play? – and goodness, poor Frederica!

    Thanks for the post on the manuscript history – I love James taking on the blame for publishing it! – I will be at the Morgan exhibit- would not miss this for the world – The Morgan has more of Austen’s letters than any other institution and those will be on exhibit as well, all for the first time in many years – I promise to take voluminous notes and share it with everyone!

    Kudos to you Laurel Ann for giving this little undervalued Austen gem some much-needed noteworthy attention!


    1. Hi Deb, of course I am pea green with envy over your planned visit of the Morgan Library exhibit of Jane Austen material in their collection. We will expect a full report on JA in Vermont blog. ;-)


  4. Thanks for your research and sharing the history of the manuscript of LS, Laurel Ann! Much appreciated and highly engaging. Like everyone else, envious of those who can visit the exhibit at the Morgan Library. Looking forward to the blogs of Deb and all others regarding this exhibit!


  5. The manuscript would look like a piece of art to me. Such beautiful script. People just do not write like that anymore. It would also probably take me awhile to decipher the calligraphy.


  6. Having just discovered this site, I am doing the discussion in reverse. We are so lucky this work was found and kept together. I am trying to figure how I will be able to Manage a trip to NYC to view the exhibit.


  7. This was a highly informative blog–thank you! Is there any way you could tell me where you found this information? I am writing a research paper and this blog provided some great food for thought…


    1. Hi Kate thanks for your interest. The facts on the provenance of Lady Susan were culled from multiple sources including books in my personal collection and information available online. If you start at the Morgan Library website, you can follow the trial backwards. If you need my sources cited, please contact me personally and I will see what I can recover for you.


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