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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Too good to check

Journalists like to joke that some stories are “too good to check”: so juicily entertaining that the last thing you want is to attempt verification and discover they’re not true.

 

The current Janeite equivalent of this phenomenon seems to be the tale of Francis Austen’s seventy-eight-page memoir, written c. 1863, which Jane Austen’s House acquired at auction in 2023. As blog readers will recall, last month the museum launched a new exhibit about Frank, the fifth-oldest of Jane Austen’s brothers, by asking for volunteers to transcribe the sometimes difficult nineteenth-century hand in which the manuscript is written. Thousands of Janeites offered to help—so many that the museum stopped accepting applications almost immediately.

 

Although the memoir—probably an autobiography, although couched in the third person—is unpublished, it’s not exactly unknown. According to the museum, extracts have appeared in biographies of Jane Austen, and the auction house that sold the manuscript last year summarized its contents in an online listing.

 

In other words, the lack of a transcription doesn’t mean that no one has read the document—just that until last year, the manuscript was in private hands, and thus not easily available to academics. And for a serious historian or literary scholar, the ability to decipher old handwriting is a basic skill; as I’ve noted, the crowd-sourced transcription request was more publicity stunt than genuine cry for help.

 

 

I suppose it’s possible that, buried in a particularly crabbed and indistinct paragraph on page seventy-five of his third-person account, Frank wrote, “Few knew that Austen’s youngest sister—widely believed to be the respectable spinster daughter of an Anglican clergyman--was in reality a trapeze artist with a laudanum habit and a string of lovers, among them the Prince Regent himself.” If so, the person who has volunteered to transcribe that page is in for a rare treat.

 

But I have a sneaking suspicion that if Frank had written such a paragraph, the family members, biographers, and auctioneers who have examined his memoir over the past 161 years might have mentioned this blockbuster finding—if only because such a nugget would have exponentially increased the value of the manuscript, which Jane Austen’s House snapped up for a relatively modest £2,816 (about $3,500).

 

Of course, an absence of seismic biographical revelations doesn’t make the manuscript uninteresting for Janeites. On the contrary: Every scrap of detail about Austen’s family context matters to us, and her brother Frank--not only a beloved sibling who eventually married Jane’s close friend Martha Lloyd, but also a naval officer who served during the Napoleonic wars, traveled widely, and lived well into the Victorian age--is an interesting figure in his own right.

 

Alas, however, that’s rather too granular and nuanced for the Internet Hype-o-matic Machine, which is happier with breathless tales of mysteries and secret lives. Much better not to check this story.


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