Conservation of a Jane Austen Manuscript Fragment

By Keira McKee

At the point of our last update on the blog about the Jane Austen project, we had just completed testing the inks present on the sample of Jane Austen handwriting that the Book Conservation Department has been commissioned to separate from the letter and book to which is was adhered. The project aims to stabilise the handwriting for exhibition at Jane Austen's House Museum, Chawton and enable the handwriting on the reverse of the sheet, concealed where the sheets are glued together, to be viewed.

We had tested the three examples of iron gall inks on the papers for the presence of ferrous ions, resulting in a positive result for all three samples. It had also been determined that the printing inks of the book page to which the Jane Austen handwriting sample was adhered were not likely to run or bleed with the introduction of moisture.

It was very likely that the sheets were adhered to one another with either an animal- or starch-based adhesive, both of which are soluble in water and can be softened with the introduction of moisture. We therefore used a humidity pack (see Fig. 2) to introduce a controlled amount of moisture to the adhered area of the sheet we wanted to humidify in order to separate the sheets.

A humidity pack is constructed of a number of layers. Firstly, a damp section of highly absorbent blotting paper was laid onto a flat surface over which was placed a layer of Gore-Tex.® Those familiar with Gore-Tex as a material in outdoor clothing will know it as waterproof -it will not allow through droplets of moisture-but it will allow moisture vapour to pass through. In the context of clothing, this allows a person to cool off and stay dry. For our purposes, it prevented too much moisture passing from the damp blotter into the adhered sheets at once, allowing us to add moisture at a more controlled rate.

Gore-Tex is an expensive material and sheets are used for as many treatments as possible before discarding them. With this in mind, two sheets of lens tissue were laid over the Gore-Tex as a precautionary measure to prevent any unseen dirt particles moving from the Gore-Tex into the paper. The book page, with the letter and Jane Austen sample still attached, was then placed upon the humidity pack to allow the moisture to start to penetrate the sheet from the reverse side. Placing sheets of Melinex,® a clear polyester film represented by a green line in Fig. 2, on either side of the pack trapped in the moisture and helped to create a humid environment to soften the adhesive holding the sheets together. Finally, a small glass plate was set down on top to add a small amount of weight and hold all the layers together in close contact.

This slowly softened the adhesive holding the sheets together, allowing them to be separated one layer at a time. The sheets were monitored closely, at first checking progress every 15 minutes by gently lifting the edges with a spatula, and then every 30 when it became clear that quite a lot of time would be needed to thoroughly soften the adhesive (it's not uncommon for this process to require several hours). After nearly three hours, the adhesive was no longer offering any resistance and the letter could be gently removed from the book page.

This process was then repeated with the next layer, humidifying from the reverse of the letter layer for two and a half hours after which the backing sheet of the Jane Austen handwriting could be lifted away from the letter.

At this point, we noticed that it was possible to see the handwriting on the back of the Jane Austen sheet through the backing paper to which it was still mounted. When viewed on a lighting pad, the writing was very clear.

After consultation with the museum curator, it was decided that it was not necessary to proceed with separating the final two sheets and that they should be kept together. This protects the object from further intervention and will preserve the original relationship between the Jane Austen handwriting and the attestation of its authenticity written underneath by her nephew.

Going forward, it is known that exposure to relatively low concentrations of moisture can initiate a corrosive reaction between iron-based inks and the paper they are written on, so the next step will be to stabilise the inks after this limited exposure to moisture. Finally, we will house the handwriting for safe storage and exhibition.


The conservation work on the manuscript was made possible through a donation by Mrs L D Matthews on behalf of her parents who were great supporters of libraries and the conservation and care of collections. The funding enabled a temporary post to be created to source and develop challenging and relevant projects for students. These were then timetabled in as part of their training on the full time Postgraduate Conservation Programme in the conservation of Books and Library Materials. All of the work sourced has been from publically accessible collections, a major aim being to provide support and make lasting beneficial links with museums, libraries and galleries. The project is curated by Su Fullwood who has many years' experience in running visitor attractions, collections management, interpretation, exhibitions, fundraising, training and partnership working.