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The Guardian view on marginalia: scribbles that can change the meaning of books

They are just straight lines down the margins of a book, but the peculiar magic of celebrity marginalia means that those 15 lines may turn out to be the world’s most valuable pencil markings. They appear in a copy of Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature, an eccentric assemblage of anecdotes and musings that once belonged to Jane Austen. The book, by the father of the future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, will be auctioned at Sotheby’s next week at an estimated price of up to $150,000.

A lot of speculation is involved in this valuation, starting with whether the markings were actually made by Austen herself. Given that she was just 16 when it was published, she probably read it in her teens when her literary project was forming. So it is interesting to see passages picked out such as a French scholar’s view of “English ladies”, as “fond of their ease and good living … [and] in raptures to marry a Parson”. Parsons, it noted, had “fat livings”, so were free to pick the most beautiful of them.

What the markings do not give away is the tone of Austen’s interest. As one of eight children born to a clergy family that was always dependent on the generosity of richer relatives, was her response serious or ironic? She certainly used marginalia to satirical effect in Persuasion, in which the status-obsessed Sir Walter Elliot scrupulously updates his copy of the Baronetage with every new addition to his family.

Marginalia exist at the intersection of scholarship and gossip. A lot of it, from medieval times onwards, has involved sex. But that is not to say it is not of value. It breathes new life into books that, like Curiosities of Literature, might seem unimportant. To those that are important, it gives new dimensions. Arguably it makes them into different books.

In a scholarly study of marginalia, the Canadian professor HJ Jackson pointed to one such example: the British Library’s purchase in 1998 of a second copy of Galileo’s work on sunspots. The only difference between the two was that the duplicate was heavily annotated in the handwriting of three different people. Given that nobody had yet decoded the notes, it was an educated bet: they could be an intellectual time machine, carrying current readers back to the very moment that Galileo’s theory landed.

Prof Jackson divided marginalia into three periods – up to 1700, when annotation was about learning and remembering; 1700 to 1820, when it was used as a record of evaluation, and from 1820 onwards, when mass availability legitimised a wider range of readerly responses. Austen’s austere markings fall into the second category, while the jottings of Marlene Dietrich, discovered in her large library after she died, fall into the third.

“All lies,” Dietrich scrawled in one biography of herself. It is interesting, given her derision, that she hung on to the book. Perhaps she thought her comments would direct future biographers. Given that, after her death, her grandson gave most of her 1,700 volumes to the American Library in Paris, she might have been right.

Dietrich’s marginalia are performative and explicit, where Austen’s are private and impenetrable. Both point to a new incarnation of books, which is in the mind of the reader of an annotated text. The next life of Austen’s Curiosities of Literature will involve speculation by scholars about what her pencil lines meant. It will say more about them than about her.