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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Written by hand

Gather ‘round, children, and let me tell you about the olden days, when elders such as myself spent long hours, in school and out, practicing an ancient art called “cursive.” Yes, back in the bad old days, we were expected to learn how to write by hand. Without using a keyboard. Mind-blowing, I know. Child abuse, basically.


Still, our terrible struggles may have predisposed us to succeed at a recently announced Austen-related task: transcribing a handwritten manuscript owned by Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, England.


Last summer, the museum bought at auction an unpublished seventy-eight-page memoir of the life of Austen’s fifth-oldest brother, Francis, who was born less than two years before she was, grew up to be an admiral, and lived to the age of ninety-one. “It is believed that the memoir is an autobiography, in Francis Austen’s own hand, although it is written in the third person,” the museum’s website explains. “Whilst the descriptive narrative moves swiftly, there are moments of deeper reflection and detail, indicating that it was a personal memoir.”


Although extracts have apparently been published in Austen biographies, I don’t remember ever hearing about this document, which was written c. 1863 and remained in family hands until 2023. The museum bought it at auction for £2,816 (about $3,500), along with an album of drawings and watercolors by Francis Austen and one of his daughters, which went for an additional £3,584 (about $4,500).


Both items are on display through July 7 at Jane Austen’s House, in an exhibit called “Travels with Frank Austen.” The museum marked last Wednesday’s opening of the exhibit by asking for volunteers to transcribe the memoir, written in a sometimes tricky nineteenth-century hand, to facilitate online publication. Predictably, Janeite enthusiasm for the project was overwhelming; within a day or two of the first media reports, the museum had received “thousands of responses” and had stopped accepting offers of help.


If all those volunteer transcribers are expecting to run across nuggets of gossipy new info about the most famous member of the Austen family, it seems likely they will be disappointed: The auction house summary of the manuscript suggests that Frank’s little sister is mentioned only in passing. Still, every scrap of detail about Austen’s context is precious, and so the new transcription will surely be widely read by scholars and nonprofessional Janeites alike. 


Which points up an inconvenient truth: This much-ballyhooed, crowd-sourced transcription request was entirely unnecessary, since there must be legions of enterprising Austen scholars—heck, legions of enterprising undergraduate English majors—who would be eager to take this on and could knock it out in under a week. Can you say “publicity stunt”? And a pretty successful one, at that.


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