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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Marked up

The world can be divided into two categories: People who leave their books unsullied, and people who mark them up. And if a prominent auction house is to be believed, Jane Austen fell into the second group.


Tomorrow, Sotheby’s will auction a 1791 book--Curiosities of Literature. Consisting of Anecdotes, Characters, Sketches, and Observations, Literary, Critical, and Historical, by Isaac D’Israeli, father of the Victorian prime minister Benjamin Disraeli--whose title page bears an authentic Austen signature attesting to her ownership of this particular copy.


That’s treasure enough for Janeites, but there’s more: Inside the book, wavy pencil-lines in the margins highlight nine sections of text. Austen’s own marginalia? Impossible to know for sure, but unsurprisingly, since any Austen annotation would immeasurably increase the book’s value, Sotheby’s insists the marks are “almost certainly” Austen’s own.


The main evidence is the existence of similar markings in other books known to have belonged to Austen, as well as the congruence between some of the highlighted passages—on, for example, the marital eligibility of clergymen--and themes in her own work. (On the other hand, it’s hard to see how highlighted passages on “Astrology” and “Spanish Monks” comport with Austen’s works, so this line of argument may have its limits.)


The book, which had been in private hands since 1945, is “a major rediscovery” and a “remarkable piece of history that sheds light on the author’s preoccupations as a reader as well as her process as a writer,” Sotheby’s official Kalika Sands said last month, in a statement quoted in the Guardian.


Sotheby’s estimates that the D’Israeli book will draw $100,000 to $150,000 at auction, but as of earlier this week, no one had bid on it. By contrast, five other items in the sale--first editions of all Austen’s novels—had each received at least one bid. Perhaps Janeites with this kind of cash to spend prefer their books unmarked.


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Dec 10, 2023

Am I alone in Austenland in doubting not only the underlinings, but the signature itself? Having had ample opportunity to examine the autograph formerly belonging to Edith Lank, and having looked online at other signatures from the letters, I fancy I'm seeing an extra curlicue in the capital A in the D'Israeli book that I haven't seen elsewhere.

Of course, if this book came from a collateral descendant of JA's who provided ironclad provenance, I'm all wet. But I can't help having my doubts--and perhaps prospective buyers had theirs. (Remember that JA had a namesake distant cousin almost her age, and that "t'other JA" didn't marry till 1799, so she could possibly have been the owner of the D'Israeli.)

Deborah Yaffe
Deborah Yaffe
Dec 11, 2023
Replying to

I see what you mean about the capital A, though I'm no handwriting expert, so I don't know what significance that might have. But the book ended up selling for more than 40 percent over the maximum auction estimate, so somebody must have thought it was authentic, I guess!

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