Deborah Yaffe

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Late arrival at the Janeite party

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 23 2014 01:00PM

From time to time, it’s useful to recall that not everyone knows as much about Jane Austen as we Janeites do.


Last week’s salutary reminder came in the form of a post on Slate’s history blog, The Vault, wherein writer Rebecca Onion shared with the masses a fascinating document in Jane Austen’s hand: Austen’s compilation of friends’ and relatives’ opinions about Emma and Mansfield Park.


“The British Library recently made the manuscripts available online,” Onion wrote. “Below, I’ve transcribed Austen’s collection of feedback on Mansfield Park.”


The piece left me befuddled. Was Onion under the impression that the BL’s digitization was making a little-known document widely available for the first time? ‘Cause Janeites know that’s just not so.


In fact, excerpts from the “Opinions” were first published in 1870, in James Edward Austen-Leigh’s famous Memoir of Jane Austen, and the legendary Austen editor R.W. Chapman followed up with a 1926 printing. (That history is reported here.) My 1996 Knopf edition of Austen’s minor works – the fourth printing of that edition, by the way – includes the full text of the “Opinions,” and the long-out-of-copyright minor works have been published in other editions, too.


Online, the text has been available at the Republic of Pemberley for I’m-not-sure-how-long (Pemberley was founded in 1997, and judging from the primitive interface, this item goes back quite a few years). Both a facsimile of the BL’s manuscript and a transcription of the text can also be found on the wonderful Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts website, which launched four years ago.


I hope Onion didn't strain her wrist with all that unnecessarily duplicative transcription. No news here, folks! Move along!


But still: the "Opinions" are well worth another look, if only to confirm that Austen readers have been puzzling over Fanny, Edmund and the Crawfords for as long as there have been Austen readers. And of course it’s always lovely when the rest of the world catches up to Our Jane.


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