The Lookout

Secret bidder nabs Jane Austen manuscript for $1.6 million

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

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Portrait of Austen (Thinkstock)

An unfinished, handwritten manuscript penned by Jane Austen has just sold for more than three times its expected price at a Sotheby's auction, fetching a whopping $1.6 million from an unknown buyer over the telephone.

Entitled The Watsons, it is the only handwritten Austen manuscript still in private hands. No original manuscripts exist of her six finished works, making The Watsons all the more unique and valuable to Austen fans.

Associate Professor of English at Manhattanville College Juliette Wells tells The Lookout that it's "fascinating" the manuscript sold for so much more money than Sotheby's predicted.

"Anyone can go on the web and look at the facsimiles that just sold for 1.6 million dollars," she adds. "So why would you pay unless you thought owning them would bring you closer to Jane Austen in some way?" (Check out the manuscript online here.)

Austen has a very devoted following, and this book is the "most precious Jane Austen relic that's come up to auction in our lifetime," Wells says. Dozens of fan fiction spin-offs, movie adaptations and even, of course, a zombie-infused take on Pride and Prejudice have sprouted up in Austen's honor, nearly two hundred years after the writer's death.

The marked-up draft affords a rare glimpse into Austen's writing process, Wells adds. The 68-page manuscript is made up of booklets that Austen created herself by folding her writing paper in half.

The Guardian writes that the famous author began the novel in 1804, when she had just had one manuscript rejected and another spiked by a publisher. Some speculate that she never finished The Watsons because its story hit too close to home: the novel's heroine is worried her ill clergyman father will die and leave the family penniless, which happened to Austen in real life only one year later.

Even though she wrote the book during a difficult time, it shows off Austen's trademark wit. The critic Margaret Drabble called it "a tantalizing, delightful and highly accomplished fragment, which must surely have proved the equal of her other six novels, had she finished it," according to Reuters.

It's unknown whether the Austen devotee who won the bidding war will make the manuscript publicly available or keep it private.

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