This is the third entry in an occasional series by Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library. You can read the other instalments here.

It’s almost two years since the Bodleian celebrated its hard-fought acquisition (nail biting auction) of Jane Austen’s manuscript draft of her abandoned novel, The Watsons. Thank you again National Heritage Memorial Fund, Friends of the Bodleian, Friends of the National Libraries, Jane Austen Memorial Trust and all supporting Janeites everywhere.

Once a manuscript has been fetched into the bosom of the Bodleian, repaired, shelf-marked, and safely housed, it needs to be studied. So it was that at a seminar with Professor Kathryn Sutherland, an authority on Austen here in Oxford and Andrew Honey, a senior Bodleian conservator, we set about the task of looking not just at the intellectual, textual intrigues of the manuscript – the deletions, corrections, false starts – but the essential, material qualities of the thing. We learned all sorts, including how to narrow the date range of composition: ingeniously, by overlaying images taken on a light box, Andrew matched up the paper stock and watermark of the manuscript with a letter written by Jane to her sister Cassandra on 24 August 1805 (and is now at the Houghton Library, Harvard University).

But the thing that really pricked the interest of the bibliophilic gathering was the pins in the manuscript. Before the invention of the paperclip in the mid-nineteenth century, pins were routinely used to gather together groups of paper, or to affix patches of paper to other bits of paper in order to add text or make corrections (these days we reach for the dreaded post-it note). For the purposes of preservation and handling in a library, pins need to be removed, with care taken to preserve the original arrangement of the material. I’ll wager that most archivists or conservators then generally toss them into the bin. Not us.

When examining the pins fixing various patches in the Austen manuscript, Andrew ordered up from the secure stack our boxed collection of ‘dated and datable pins’ (and indeed, paperclips). This extensive prickly taxonomy, whose contents date back to at least 1617, was formed over the years by archivists and conservators as they worked their way through our paper riches. Come across a pin? Remove it, examine it, establish the likely date from its form, or from the document to which it is attached, file it with its companions by sticking it in a sheet of paper that falls to hand (including staff holiday application forms), then file it in the box (below).

Why? To help date otherwise inscrutable gatherings of manuscripts, to trace changing patterns of arrangement over the years (what was assembled with what, and when) and, well, simply to record and celebrate the weird and wonderful world of pins. I’ll leave others to comment on further scholarly applications.  But I do wonder whether, on occasion, there is a more intimate motivation at work.  In Don Juan Byron mentions pins,

‘Which surely were invented for our sins, –
Making a woman like a porcupine,
Not rashly to be touched’

Is it not poignant to think that those patching together and preserving evidence of Jane’s textual struggle may once have fixed her pinny?

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Tags: Bodleian, History, Jane Austen, Literature, Non-fiction