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Armchair Travel

An English manuscript secured in England, an illustrated report from the Mexican-American War, photos of Hawaiian surfers, and books on China soar

“The Watsons”—A National Treasure Secured

Jane Austen, autograph draft of an unfinished novel, “The Watsons,” £993,250 ($1,601,218) at Sotheby’s London on July 14.

Jane Austen unfinished manuscript, now secure at the Bodleian Library. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Thought to date from 1804 when she had reached a mature style but had not yet had anything published, this tale of the four daughters of a widowed clergyman is quintessential Austen, and the unfinished story line contains many of the themes we associate with her other works.

In what Austen left untitled, but which later came to be called “The Watsons,” a foolish marriage contracted by a wealthy aunt with whom the youngest girl, Emma, has been brought up, brings a return to her father’s house. There she has to endure the crude husband-hunting of two sisters but forms a close relationship with the oldest and most responsible of them.

With the exception of two draft chapters of Persuasion, none of the manuscripts of Jane’s completed novels survive. Probably amounting to around a quarter of the planned book, this manuscript was only first published as an appendix to the 1871, second edition of her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen.

It later passed to Joan Austen-Leigh, a descendant living in Canada, who during World War I sold off the first dozen pages to benefit the Red Cross. Those pages are now in the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, but this larger portion is no stranger to the salerooms and was making its third visit to Sotheby’s in under twenty-five years.

In 1978, its was sold for £38,000 to the British Rail Pension Fund, during its years of art market investment, and ten years later they returned it to the rooms to sell for £90,000. This time it was sold to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, with the help of a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and will go on show from September 30 as part of a Treasures of the Bodleian exhibition.

The Prison Poem

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, £27,500 ($44,330) at Sotheby’s London on July 14.

Wilde’s famous Ballad, with handwritten letter. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Without the financial help of Leonard Smithers, not to mention a certain daring, given his client’s notoriety at the time, it is doubtful that Wilde’s Ballad could have been published in his lifetime.

Of course, Smithers was no stranger to controversy—in addition to publishing the saucier works of Aubrey Beardsley and Richard Burton’s more erotic writings, he also dabbled in pornography. Wilde once joked to Smithers that it was his habit to issue limited editions of three copies: “one for the author, one for yourself, and one for the police.”

Smithers’ motives were not entirely altruistic in taking on Wilde’s prison poem. In fact one critic describes him as treating it as another obscene book and resorting to his usual furtive measures for a special kind of sale and then being taken aback by the unexpected mainstream success it enjoyed.

A copy of the 1898 first edition containing a four-page related letter from Wilde to Smithers thus has very obvious appeal.

Writing from his lonely exile in Paris, Wilde’s letter discusses the trial of a Paris mushroom grower and his wife who had murdered a debt collector and burnt his body in a coke oven, a possible French translation of the Ballad, and arrangements being made for him by his loyal friend, Robbie Ross, a man who once described Smithers as “the most delightful and irresponsible publisher I ever met.”

Only one copy has made more this one, which, by the by, was last seen at auction New York’s Anderson Galleries in 1920, as part of John B. Stetson’s famous Wilde collection. At Christie’s 2004 sale of the Halsted B. Vander Poel library, a copy that Wilde inscribed to Robbie Ross himself realized £31,070 (then $56,860).

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