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Earliest Austen manuscript fetches $1.6 mln at auction

By Clare Kane
/ Source: Reuters

By Clare Kane

LONDON, July 14 (Reuters Life!) - The earliest surviving Jane Austen manuscript, a handwritten draft for a book that was never published, sold for 993,250 pounds ($1.6 million) at Sotheby's on Thursday.

The manuscript for "The Watsons" was bought by an anonymous telephone bidder for more than three times the top estimate.

Also in the London sale focusing on rare books, the earliest codified rules of soccer, part of the archive of the oldest football club in the world, Sheffield FC, fetched 881,250 pounds.

Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby's senior specialist in the books and manuscript department, said he was delighted with the Austen sale.

"The sale of The Watsons has afforded an extremely broad audience an insight into the author's writing process and reworkings, which this manuscript uniquely displays," he said.

The manuscript comprises 68 pages, arranged in 11 loose gatherings and written in Austen's small hand, peppered with revisions throughout.

Probably written in 1804, it tells the story of Emma Watson, the youngest of four sisters who is raised by a wealthy aunt but then forced to return to her family while two of her sisters search for husbands.

The novel is only a quarter complete but critic Margaret Drabble described it as "a tantalising, delightful and highly accomplished fragment, which must surely have proved the equal of her other six novels, had she finished it".

The Watsons contains themes found in other Austen works and also displays her wit, with lines such as: "Female economy will do a great deal, my Lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one."

"The Watsons is quintessential Jane Austen in style and the influence of this novel on her later works can clearly be seen," Heaton said.

It was Austen's only literary work during the period between finishing "Northanger Abbey" in 1799 and starting "Mansfield Park" in 1811.

It is not known why Austen abandoned the manuscript, though it was possibly related to her father's death in 1805. Austen had told her sister Cassandra that the father in the novel, Mr Watson, would die in the course of the story.

The Sheffield soccer sale included handwritten drafts from 1858 and the only existing copy of the printed "Rules, Regulations, & Laws of the Sheffield Foot-Ball Club" dating from 1859, two years after the club was formed.

The rules offer an insight into the evolution of the game and state that pushing or hitting the ball with the hands was permitted, as was pushing other players, though tripping others up was prohibited.

Sheffield pioneered the idea of football as a spectator sport and the idea of inter-club matches with strong rivalries.

"We are delighted with the sale of this extraordinary piece of sporting history, the proceeds of which will allow Sheffield Football Club to develop its facilities and secure its future as the home of grass-roots football," club chairman Richard Tims said in a statement.