A collection of letters, clothes and sewing materials, alongside a portrait unseen for four decades and an alternative ending to her last great work, will help to decode the enigma that was Jane Austen.
The hoard of personal artefacts, put together to mark the 200th anniversary of her death, helps shed new light on the rector’s daughter whose masterworks have been scarcely out of print for two centuries yet who published them all anonymously.
The Mysterious Miss Austen, to be staged in Winchester, where they buried her at just 41, will have as its highlight the alternative text to Persuasion, a novel first published the year after her death.
The deleted chapters, composed because she was dissatisfied with the original ending, represent the only fragment from Austen’s six novels that exist in the original form, replete with crossings-out, The manuscript is usually stored at the British Library.
Also on loan from the library is a manuscript of earlier writings, including her spoof History of England, penned, apparently, when she was 16.
While she lived, Austen enjoyed a considerable reputation within a narrow circle of opinion formers, but she was unknown to the wider public. Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel, was credited, “By a Lady”, and her next, Pride and Prejudice, was “by the author of Sense and Sensibility”.
The newly-exhibited portrait of Miss Austen comes from a private collection and has not been seen in public for more than 40 years. The image is one of five, which will be displayed together for the first time.
The others include an 1869 watercolour and a pencil sketch made famous when it was published in Austen’s nephew’s biography of his aunt the following year. It was this volume which introduced Miss Austen to a wider audience.
A Friendship Book containing an 1815 portrait which some believe to be of the author, will also be in the show, and there is a pencil and watercolour sketch by Austen’s sister, Cassandra, as well as a hollow-cut silhouette by an unknown artist, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery.
The material will go on show along with the only surviving piece of clothing confirmed as having been worn by the author, a silk pelisse coat, emblazoned with an oak leaf motif.
Modern works celebrating Miss Austen include a large ceramic vase, decorated with detailed drawings of Georgian ladies enjoying tea, by the artist Grayson Perry.
Co-curator Louise West said: “The bringing together for the first time of five portraits of Jane Austen will, we hope, provoke reaction and excite argument, about the mysterious Miss Austen.
“This is a new way of exploring Austen’s identity and we are thrilled to be sharing this opportunity with the public.”
Professor Kathryn Sutherland, who is also curating the show, added: “If you think you know Jane Austen, think again.
“Jane Austen is our most intimate writer - the writer we each feel speaks to and for us - and yet we know so little about her.
“What we do know is built upon ambiguities, contradictions and paradox: even how she looked is something of a mystery.
“The Mysterious Miss Austen will celebrate and challenge the reputation of our best-known, unknowable writer.”