The secret life of one of England’s greatest authors, lost behind bad handwriting

A recently acquired memoir by Jane Austen's brother might reveal more about the famous author, but there's a problem — his handwriting is very difficult to read

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single museum in possession of a good book, must be in want of people to read it. Only 24 hours after launching a plea to the public for help in deciphering the ‘spidery’ scrawl of a certain celebrated novelist’s brother, the Jane Austen’s House museum in Chawton, Hampshire, had to halt its campaign after some 2,000 people volunteered. Such is the fervour of the Janeite.

Admiral Sir Francis William Austen (known to his family as Frank), was a year older than his sister Jane and outlived her by almost 50 years. Last year, the museum acquired his 78-page memoir, written towards the end of his life when his handwriting was affected by arthritis and which has ‘never before been seen outside of family ownership’.

Jane Austen died in 1817, aged 41, and, despite her novels’ posthumous fame and 161 surviving letters, very little is known about her life. This memoir could shed some light, if only it can be read. ‘We don’t have anything detailed from her so we have to look to the family to see what they were writing and recording,’ explains Sophie Reynolds, the museum’s head of collections.

A fragment from the memoir. Can you decipher it?

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‘We know that Frank and Jane lived together as children, before he went away to sea aged 12, and again in 1806–09, and they were very close,’ adds director Lizzie Dunford. ‘The memoir opens with his birth and early life, schooling and so on… once we have deciphered the pages… we will publish a transcript digitally.’

She adds: ‘One of the things we’re most looking forward to is the detail the memoir will bring to the life of Austen’s naval characters. We’ll find out what sort of things Capt Wentworth would have done when he wasn’t catching ladies falling from the Cobb in Lyme Regis. Naval life was harsh and adventurous. Frank was stationed all over the world, from the South China Seas to Canada, so his memoir should give us a global perspective.’

A new exhibition at Jane Austen’s House, where the author lived towards the end of her life with her sister, Cassandra, ‘Travels with Frank Austen’, opened last week and features the in-demand memoir, together with an album of 73 previously unseen watercolours and drawings from his 79 years at sea with the Royal Navy — painted by both Frank and his daughter, another Cassandra. Marking the 250th anniversary of his birth, it runs until July 7.