A RARE piece of text handwritten by Jane Austen, thought to be 120 years old, has been uncovered by a student at West Dean College.

College conservators were commissioned by Jane Austen’s House Museum, Hampshire, to remove a small piece of paper which had been pasted into a letter written by Austen’s nephew in 1870 and attached to a first edition of The Memoirs of Jane Austen, published the same year.

Dating from 1814, the front of the scrap of paper contains part of a sermon copied in Jane Austen’s handwriting. It is known that she often helped her brother the Rev James Austen to copy out his sermons.

More writing could be seen on the reverse of the paper, but was not legible.

Keira McKee, a student of the books conservation postgraduate programme, was given the delicate task of removing the scrap of paper from the letter by carefully moistening it.

She said: “By introducing a limited amount of humidity in a controlled way, I was able to soften the adhesive holding the sheets together.

“Exposing the inks to moisture can itself generate problems, due to the corrosive nature of the iron compounds used in such inks.”

Students often work on live projects as part of their professional training.

The lines of text on the reverse of the paper read: “…great propriety preserved. Wherever / wanted to be cleared of the Superstitious [address?] / of Popery – or whenever new ones were to be / composed in order to fill up & connect the Services, / … with a true spirit.”

It is thought the text reflects religious themes in Austen’s novel Mansfield Park, published in 1814.

David Dorning, books conservation programme leader, said: “With so few examples of Jane Austen’s writing still in existence, a conservation project such as this is rare.

“Working on live projects is great experience for a career in the top museums and collections.

“West Dean students are really lucky to work on prestigious items and they are encouraged to share their findings with the conservation community worldwide.”