2017 has been a very exciting year at Jane Austen’s House Museum. As part of the 200th anniversary celebrations of Jane Austen’s life, a number of objects from Jane Austen’s House Museum’s collections have been out on loan to exhibitions across the south of England.
It has been great to see so many Austen ‘treasures’ on public display in one year. Including those in our displays here at the Museum, a total of 11 Austen letters - nine by Jane, one by her mother and one by her sister - have been viewable to the public this year.
One perk about lending objects to other museums is, for me, the opportunity to closely examine the objects before they go on display. One such occasion this year led to a rather interesting discovery.
In June, I transported several objects to the Bodleian Libraries at University of Oxford for their exhibition, Which Jane Austen? One of these objects was a manuscript letter Jane wrote to James Stanier Clarke (Librarian to the Prince Regent) on 1 April 1816.
Whilst checking the condition of the letter with Andrew Honey, a Paper Conservator at the Bodleian, Andrew noticed something unusual about an ink smudge on the paper. What really caught Andrew’s eye was what appeared to be several faint swirls at the edge of the smudge. This curious pattern looked as though it could be part of a finger print!
Andrew and I got very excited as, if it was a fingerprint, it could only have been made by Jane Austen when she accidently smudged the wet ink on the paper. We were on a tight time schedule to get the object mounted and on display so, unfortunately, we did not have time to look at the mark any further. The smudge then got hidden away while the other side of the paper was on view in the exhibition.
Andrew and I were determined to investigate further, so we arranged to take some close-up photographs in the Bodleian’s conservation laboratory when I came to collect the letter at the end of the exhibition.
Fast forward to the end of October. After our initial excitement had worn off and four months had passed, we were starting to doubt what we had seen. Was it just a smudge that our imaginations had formed into a fingerprint? We tried to stay critical but optimistic when the time came to look at the letter again. An examination under a microscope didn’t yield any answers, so we took photos of the letter with a macro lens from multiple angles to try and determine whether what we were seeing was indeed a fingerprint. Below are the results of our photography – see what you think!
Some of the angles are more convincing than others, and there are definitely not enough swirls to make a whole print, but there is enough of an impression to make it tantalising all the same.