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The rare handwritten Jane Austen text that offers a tantalising link to Mansfield Park

a photo of a frontispiece of a Jane Austen novel with picture of the author

The Jane Austen text at West Dean College

Jane Austen scholars found a note – and got very excited

Such is the worldwide interest in Jane Austen and the dearth of handwritten manuscripts relating to her novels that any newly discovered piece of writing is pored over for insight into the workings of the great novelist.

In May 2014 conservators from West Dean College, working for Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, revealed a rare piece of text, handwritten by Austen in 1814, which could throw light on her thought processes relating to her great morality novel, Mansfield Park.

The small piece of paper, pasted into a letter written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, and attached to a First Edition of his Memoirs of Jane Austen (1870), has been revealed as containing part of a sermon copied in Austen’s own hand in 1814.

It is known that Austen often assisted her brother, The Revd. James Austen, in copying his sermons.

a highlighted piece of handwriting

The fragment causing excitement among Austen scholars

The words read:

“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 and meaning.”

After a painstaking process involving the introduction of small amounts of humidity, the shadow of further handwriting, which could be seen on the reverse of the paper but not read, has now also been revealed, which reads:

“…great propriety preserved. – Wherever |

wanted to be cleared of the Superstitious [address?] |

of Popery – or whenever new ones were to be |

composed in order to fill up & connect the Services, |

… with a true spirit”

a photo of a scrap of hadn written text

The Jane Austin text at West Dean. Copyright West Dean College

These mysterious fragments of writing were tacked on to the letter, dated 1870 and addressed by Austen Leigh to a friend in the clergy.

The discovery had scholars pondering its significance in relation to Mansfield Park, which touches on themes of religion and morality and was published the same year in 1814.

“If Austen-Leigh’s dating is accurate, the four line passage easily read on the recto (front) of the scrap holds echoes of a discussion in Mansfield Park, Chapter 34, on the ‘art of reading’ and its importance to the modern clergyman,” said Professor Kathryn Sutherland, a trustee of Jane Austen’s House Museum.

“The scrap raises the possibility that the novel inspired James’s sermon and even demonstrates the cross-fertilization between Jane Austen’s creative writing and the wider life of her family.”

Professor Sutherland said the newly revealed fragments on the reverse were “especially intriguing”.

“The temptation is to link them to the religious agenda for national revival outlined in Mansfield Park and referred to in Jane Austen’s letter of 2 September 1814, where she writes: ‘I place my hope of better things on a claim to the protection of Heaven, as a Religious Nation, a Nation inspite of much Evil improving in Religion.’

“Certainly topics of such high seriousness were under discussion among the Austens in 1814.”

The Memoirs of Jane Austen, containing the letter and rare piece of text, was recently purchased by Jane Austen’s House Museum with the aid of funding from the Jane Austen Society.

The museum commissioned West Dean College to carry out the conservation work ahead of a new exhibition later this year to celebrate the bicentenary of Mansfield Park.

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    [description] => Jane Austen's House Museum, Chawton, Alton, Hampshire.

Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life in this unpretentious cottage in the small pretty village of Chawton from 1809 until 1817. It was in this house that Jane’s genius flourished and where she was free to write. 

It was here that Jane was able to revise her earlier manuscripts and begin writing new ones in earnest. A 17th century house, it tells the story of Jane Austen and her family, and provides a lasting legacy to the great British author. 

The garden, now much smaller than in Jane's time, contains many varieties of plants and herbs common in the late 18th century and is still a peaceful spot.
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    [addressStreet] => Jane Austen's House, Winchhster Road, Chawton
    [addressTown] => Alton
    [addressCounty] => Hampshire
    [addressPostcode] => GU34 1SD
    [addressCountry] => England
    [latitude] => 51.13308975783458
    [longitude] => -0.9890062227539147
    [openingHours] => 2017- Jane Austen's House Museum will closed for the whole of January and February as we prepare for the bicentenary commemorations of Jane's death. We re-open 3rd March 2016. 

3rd March-May
Daily 10:30-16:30

June, July & August
- daily 10.00-17.00

September - 1st January
- daily 10.30-16.30, except 24th, 25th & 26th December

Closed: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day & Boxing Day

Last entry is 30 minutes before the advertise closing time. 

Please check our website for full details, up to date opening times and our event programme

    [charges] => 2016: 
Adults £8.00
Seniors over 65/ Students/Registered unemployed: £6.50
Children (6-16 years)  £4.00
Pre-booked Groups (15 or more) £6.50
Under 6 Free

Groups must book in advance. Coaches must park in the coach bays provided. These are in the public car park to the rear of the Greyfriar car park opposite the museum.

2017 Prices: TBC
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            [7] => Toilets
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    [facilitiesInformation] => There are no refreshment facilities on site; however Cassandra's Cup and the Greyfriar pub are just acerss the road, and Chawton House Library is close by. 

Visitors with disabilities: The ground floor, the garden and toilets are all accessible to wheelchairs.
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    [collectionsDescription] => The museum is a Grade 1 listed building as well as being the home of Jane Austen. 

The museum houses an attractive collection of items connected with Jane and her family including the table that she used to write her novels. There is some of her jewellery, and examples of her needlework skill. In the drawing room is a fine Hepplewhite bureau-bookcase and chairs that  oncebelonged to Jane's father. The collection ranges from 1st Editions, to jewellery, to letters and more. 

In the Old Bakehouse you will be able to see Jane's donkey carriage that she used when she was ill and too weak to travel far on foot.
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            [6] => Pre-booking service for groups
            [7] => Secondary school education service available
            [8] => Touch exhibits
            [9] => Volunteering scheme offered

    [travelDirections] => By car: From London/NE, take the A3/A31 via Guildford/Farnham. Chawton is clearly signposted from A31/A32 roundabout near Alton. From the SW follow the A31 from Winchester to Alton. Jane Austen's House is clearly signposted as is Chawton. Jane Austen’s House Museum is in the centre of the village.

By train: Trains run regularly from Waterloo to Alton and taxis can be found at the station.
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    [publicationDate] => 16/09/2005
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Jane Austen's House Museum

Alton, Hampshire

Jane Austen's House Museum, Chawton, Alton, Hampshire. Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life in this unpretentious cottage in the small pretty village of Chawton from 1809 until 1817. It was in this house that Jane’s genius flourished and where she was free to write. It was…