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Jane Austen’s fiction manuscripts are the first significant body of holograph evidence surviving for any British novelist. They represent every stage of her writing career and a variety of physical states: working drafts, fair copies, and handwritten publications for private circulation. The manuscripts were held in a single collection until 1845, when at her sister Cassandra’s death they were dispersed among family members, with a second major dispersal, to public institutions and private collections, in the 1920s.1 Digitization enables their virtual reunification and will provides scholars with the first opportunity to make simultaneous ocular comparison of their different physical and conceptual states; it will facilitate intimate and systematic study of Austen’s working practices across her career, a remarkably neglected area of scholarship within the huge, world-wide Austen critical industry.
Many of the Austen manuscripts are frail; open and sustained access has long been impossible for conservation and location reasons. Digitization at this stage in their lives not only offers the opportunity for the virtual reunification of a key manuscript resource, it will also be accompanied by a record in as complete a form as possible of the conservation history and current material state of these manuscripts to assist their future conservation.