Uncovering Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that” this may be the most overused opening to Austen criticism in the world. I should know. I’ve spent the last 8 weeks researching the publication, and critical, history of Jane Austen’s works. From hagiography and misogyny to Colin Firth, sopping wet, wading through a lake, I’ve been exploring the changes in perception of Austen over the past 200 years.

Something which has been highlighted by my research is the importance of researching and restoring old books. Unless you’re insanely protective of your book collection like me, you don’t give a second thought as you pull a book off of its shelf and crack open its spine. It’s meant to be opened. That’s its sole purpose: to be read. What we don’t think about is the long-term damage caused by these seemingly innocuous actions. Like most things, books are worn down by each use and, eventually, will begin to fall apart. The top of the spine will be the first thing to go. Years of being pulled off of a shelf by its most accessible end, slowly weakening it, day by day. A book’s spine is much like the human spine, without it, we’re screwed. Once that weakens, the bind begins to deteriorate leading to loose pages and, in some cases, complete disintegration. I am not exaggerating. Some precious books must now be kept in unopened cases as the books will literally disintegrate if a page is turned.

A severely damaged copy of “La Belle Assemblée” from 1815.

Thankfully, this hasn’t yet happened to my collection, but I am regularly asked why I don’t just invest in a Kindle and get rid of my books.  It’s simple. Curling up on the sofa with a cup of tea and a piece of plastic just doesn’t appeal to me. Personally, nothing will ever compare to a physical book; the feel and smell of which is comforting to me. A Kindle, eventually, just hurts my eyes. Or needs charged. I quite like not having to be tethered to a wall to enjoy my favourite novels. Furthermore, if we give up on physical books and accept their eventual death, we could easily lose a large part of history.

As part of my research I have had the good fortune to be able to meet with book conservationists and observe their work. It’s a tough job, and an expensive one. It is often the case that, due to a lack of financial stability, some books just cannot be saved; the cost simply outweighs the benefits. When it comes to Austen materials, there are books that are missing covers or have been rebound, that are missing illustrations or title pages, or they are missing original dedications and inscriptions. With each lost page, we lose a small piece of Austen’s history. It has even gotten to the stage that places, such as Chawton House Library, run an “Adopt A Book” scheme in an attempt to preserve the history of early women’s writings.

A stunning copy of “Pride and Prejudice” which has been preserved.

So, what is the solution? Do we simply resign ourselves to that fact that eventually our books are going to end up in the bin? Do we continually replace our old books? Do we create adverts of books falling apart to sombre music while asking for donations? Or do we begin to rely more heavily on technology?

I, for one, hope that people begin to invest more in conservation work and help save the many beautiful books out there before it’s too late. Until then, I will settle for curling up and reading as many as I can.

Some wonderful, and accommodating, conservationists.

Special thanks must go to Lord Laidlaw for this wonderful opportunity; my amazing supervisor Dr Katie Garner, who will always gush about Jane Austen with me; Cat and Eilidh for their continued support and motivation; and the incredible staff at Chawton House Library for helping me extensively on my research trip and taking me in as one of their own.

In case anyone feels the urge… https://chawtonhouse.org/get-involved/support-us/adopt-a-book/ 😉