Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Becoming Catherine Morland: A Cautionary Tale of Manuscripts in the Archive

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Becoming Catherine Morland: A Cautionary Tale of Manuscripts in the Archive

Article excerpt

LIKE CATHERINE MORLAND, we all dream of discovering that a manuscript tucked away in an archive, among dusty boxes in an attic, or in a mysterious chest in our guest room is really a long-forgotten work by a beloved author. This is the story of a collector who thought he had done just that--and a scholar who almost believed it. Fair warning: there is no new Austen manuscript at the end of this tale. Nevertheless, what follows does remind us of those very Austenian values of forsaking prejudice, embracing sense, and not allowing oneself to be persuaded too easily. (1)

In 1971, Duke University's Rubenstein Library acquired the manuscript of a nearly complete eighteenth-century novel, which it believed had never been published. The novel was entered into their catalogue as "Anonymous novel, 18th century." At some point, the title changed to "Hampshire, England woman's novel, [17--and the entry included the following description:

   Manuscript of an unpublished epistolary novel bearing some
   resemblance to the works of Jane Austen. The volume is accompanied
   by six pages of type-written notes discussing Austen's possible
   connection with the unknown female author of this novel.

My research team and I visited Duke in April 2017 as part of a larger project of collecting, describing, and transcribing manuscript fiction created during the age of print, 1750-1900. ft was not long before Hampshire (as I will refer to it for most of this essay) became one of our highest priorities. What we ultimately discovered changed what was known about the manuscript entirely. In what follows I will discuss the current state of research about the work, beginning with its known provenance and then using as my organizing principles the three subject areas that Duke has assigned to the novel:

   Austen, Jane, 1775-1817--Style
   Hampshire (England)--History
   Women authors, English--18th century


Duke acquired the manuscript at Sotheby's sale of March 16, 1971, through Winifred Myers, a London-based dealer. The final private owner of the manuscript is not mentioned in the catalogue, but it was almost certainly Brent Gration-Maxfield, a major twentieth-century book collector. We know that he owned the book during the mid-twentieth century: as with many of his other acquisitions, the manuscript now sports modern, fine orange morocco gilt binding with his name stamped on the front interior edge. The only initial oddity was that the majority of the Gration-Maxfield library was dispersed in a series of sales by Sotheby's that prominently featured Gration-Maxfield's name. In contrast, this manuscript novel was sold in a miscellaneous auction of "valuable printed books, music, autograph letters and historical documents."

The Sotheby's catalogue description of Item 611 "Eighteenth-Century Epistolary Novel" is dated "c. 1780" and gets right to the point: "There is considerable evidence to suggest that this apparently un-published novel was written by a Hampshire novelist belonging to the generation before Jane Austen's." The description doesn't stop there, noting, "The parallels with Jane Austen's world are obvious, just as it is impossible not to think of Darcy when Sir William's son 'found in himself a wish' that a young lady 'was not so handsome, as she had no fortune, nor was of a family equal to the one he was entitled to be connected with'" and that "Other detailed parallels exist between place and character names in the novel and those in the Austen circle" (Sotheby's 1971).

Sotheby's did not create these claims themselves. During his ownership, Brent Gration-Maxfield inscribed a similar claim inside the rebound manuscript under his ex libris:

   Whether published or unpublished, they [sic] is strong evidence of
   an association between this unknown Hampshire novelist and the
   Austen family. Internal evidence, construction, plot, characters,
   handwriting, paper, orthography, grammar, locale, etc. … 
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