'Earliest' and only privately-owned Jane Austen manuscript brings $1.6m

The last remaining Jane Austen manuscript under private ownership smashed its estimate at auction today (July 14).

The original draft of Austen's unfinished novel The Watsons sold for close to £1m at Sotheby's.

Written in 1804, this heavily corrected draft - which is the earliest surviving Jane Austen manuscript - tripled its £300,000 high-end estimate thanks to concerted efforts by four bidders.

The manuscript was previously owned by Joan Austen-Leigh, a descendant of the author, living in Canada.

The first 12 pages were sold during the first world war in aid of the Red Cross and are now in the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York.

The remaining sections, three to 11, last appeared at auction in 1988.

Written at a time when Austen wasn't yet a published writer, The Watsons was her only literary composition between Northanger Abbey in 1799 and the commencement of Mansfield Park in 1811.

"It is a tantalising, delightful and highly accomplished fragment, which must surely have proved the equal of her other six novels, had she finished it," comments author Margaret Drabble.

Jane Austen's The Watsons was never completed

The tale centres on a family of four sisters, the daughters of a widowed clergyman. Its heroine is Emma, the youngest, who has been brought up by a wealthy aunt.

Parallels have been drawn between the character of Emma and the author herself.

Austen's father died in 1805 and Jane Austen left the manuscript incomplete, prompting much speculation about the reasons behind her decision.

Collectors looking for literary memorabilia at a less eye-watering end of the spectrum may be interested in these items on the private market.

A first edition of Emma, inscribed on behalf of Jane Austen, made £180,000 at Bonhams in 2008.


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