Hampshire & Isle of Wight

Jane Austen note: Hidden text linked to Mansfield Park novel

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Media captionThe sermon was written after Mansfield Park was published but may have been influenced by earlier drafts of the novel, experts think

A handwritten note by Jane Austen "hidden" for 150 years on the back of a fragment of paper has been revealed.

Experts have linked the text on both the front and back to themes in the author's novel Mansfield Park.

The fragment was stuck to a letter discovered in a first edition of her memoirs, written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh.

The revealed text is part of a sermon apparently composed by her brother, the Reverend James Austen in 1814.

The book and letter, written by Jane Austen's nephew in 1870, had been held in a private collection but was recently bought for an undisclosed sum by the Jane Austen museum in Chawton, Hampshire.

Image copyright Jane Austen's House Museum
Image caption Jane Austen would often visit her brother James (middle) who was James Edward Austen-Leigh's (right) father

Very few examples of Jane Austen's handwriting survive - there are no manuscripts of her famous books and many of her letters were destroyed after her death.

A team at West Dean College near Chichester, West Sussex, succeeded in unsticking the fragment, allowing the previously unseen writing on the back to be deciphered.

It reads: "...great propriety preserved - Wherever... wanted to be cleared of the Superstitious... of Popery... or whenever new ones were to be... composed in order to fill up & connect the Services... with a true spirit."

While the front of the fragment reads: "Men may get into a habit of repeating the words of our Prayers by rote, perhaps without thoroughly understanding - certainly without thoroughly feeling their full force and meaning."

Experts claim the text echoes a passage in Mansfield Park which was also published in 1814 - a few months before the sermon text was written.

They say it reflects a discussion in the novel on the "art of reading" and its importance to the modern clergyman.

Jane Austen's eldest brother, James, was rector at the church of St Nicholas in Steventon, and she would travel there to stay with him.

Historians believe she helped copy out his sermons for him.

Image caption Both Jane Austen's father and brother were rectors at the church of St Nicholas in Steventon

Mary Guyatt, museum curator, said: "What we have to go on is the nephew's transcription.

"He's cut up the sermon in around 1817 and he's written underneath it 'this is the writing but not the words of the author Jane Austen, my aunt.'

"He's very clear that it was his father's composition."

But Prof Kathryn Sutherland, of St Anne's College, Oxford, said it showed earlier drafts of Mansfield Park at least influenced her brother.

"The scrap raises the possibility that the novel inspired James's sermon and even demonstrates the cross-fertilization between Jane Austen's creative writing and the wider life of her family."

Historians will now study the note for clues to whether the sermon may after all have been written by Jane Austen.

It will go on display at the museum later this year.

Image caption The museum in Chawton recently bought the letter and attached note for an undisclosed amount

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