In 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.