At the time of his death in 1936, thirty-year-old Robert E. Howard had published hundreds of works of fiction across an astonishingly broad swath of genres. His voluminous output, according to Paul Herman of the Robert E. Howard Foundation, is estimated to have been “approximately 3.5 million words of fiction, poetry, letters and articles.” Among those millions of words were the iconic stories of Conan the Cimmerian, a character whose popularity has firmly established Howard’s reputation as the father of heroic fantasy, parallel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s place as father of epic fantasy.
But while Howard was an extraordinarily prolific writer, he was also a somewhat disorganized one and left behind a trunk of unpublished works. The so-called “Howard Trunk” contained thousands of typewritten pages by Howard. These abandoned stories and early drafts were collected and published in 2007 by The REH Foundation Press as The Last of the Trunk.
One manuscript, however, baffled the Howard estate. The handwriting was not Howard’s. “Not even close,” laughs George Angell, professor emeritus at Brown University, who was asked to authenticate the manuscript. “I could see at a glance that it was one-hundred percent positively not his. Howard’s hand is tight and masculine. This was a beautiful script, almost calligraphic, and my gut told me it was English, about two hundred years old.”
In a story already filled with twists, it turns out that what Angell said next was the biggest shock of all. Angell recalls, “I was pretty sure I even recognized the handwriting. The date, the elegant hand—and above all that mannered voice—it pointed to only one person in the world. Jane Austen.“
Angell’s conclusion threatened to shake the scholarly foundations of two previously unconnected writers, so the researchers proceeded with caution. A facsimile of the first page was sent for handwriting analysis by noted Austen expert, Stephanie Johansen, who confirmed that Angell’s hunch was correct. Johansen recalls her excitement that a missing Austen manuscript might have been discovered, but she remained skeptical: ”I could hardly believe it, of course, and the idea that it could still be a fake was very present in my mind.“ That concern was set to rest when the National Archives in London verified that watermarks on the manuscript’s paper indicated an origin in England between 1795 and 1805, a hundred years before Howard’s birth. Later chemical dating of the composition of the ink also pointed to the late-eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Adding to the intrigue, these close examinations have revealed that Howard did, in fact, write on the manuscript: his faded marginal notes and comments, originally written in light pencil, are now visible only under ultra-violet light.
It remains unknown how or when Howard acquired this previously unknown piece of Austen juvenilia. What is clear, however, is the surprising influence that Miss Austen’s early manuscript had on his work, a fact that has Howard scholars scratching their heads. And Austen scholars, too, are being forced to reconsider long-cherished assumptions about her career, including the standard belief that the English novelist’s focus on writing naturalistic fiction was a reaction to the Gothic romances of the day. Much of her work, such as Northanger Abbey, has in fact long been assumed to be a mockery of the more fantastical melodramas her contemporaries wrote. Yet the newly discovered manuscript has caused some scholars to think twice about such perspectives. Lionel Torrens, professor of Austen Studies at Wadham College in Oxford, says of the manuscript: ”It makes me think that Jane Austen was, at some point, attempting to write Gothic romances and merely clung to the naturalism when those works began selling.“ Even more striking, the Howard manuscript contains a story that modern readers would recognize as pure fantasy. ”Well before Tolkien,” Torrens observes, “Austen was attempting to tread this fertile ground. If Sense and Sensibility hadn’t taken off, who knows where we’d be?“
In the same vein as her adult works, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, this newly discovered work is titled Sword and Sorcery. And here, for the first time, we offer a transcription of the first chapter of the lost novel of Jane Austen, as preserved in the trunk of Robert E. Howard.
Sword and Sorcery
Chapter the First
No one who had ever seen Conan in the earliest days of his life would have supposed him born to be a hero. His very situation, and the absence of his father and mother, his own person and disposition, were all equally against him. His mother had been a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, but had unhappily died in bringing Conan into the world. His father had been a blacksmith and a very respectable man in the country of Cimmeria, but between the years when the ocean drank Atlantis and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, had been killed by marauding hordes of Aquilonians. Leaving Conan thus, between them, an orphan.
As a child, Conan had a thin awkward figure, black-haired and sullen, a sallow skin without colour, and strong features—so much for his person. More propitious for heroism seemed his mind, which being given to excessive melancholy and excessive mirth, leaped quickly ahead of his fellows
It was that mind, which first attracted the attention of the savages after they finished the slaughter of young Conan’s father. The lad faced these murdering villains with no more than the dull knife he used to sup with. The gallantry of so small a boy caught the attention of the Aquilonian’s leader who took him up on his horse with the intention of adopting him.
King Numedides’s own child had been lost to the pox the previous summer and he felt it only fitting that the gods should provide him with a new son. As Conan was grieving the loss of the only parent he had known, he had no choice but to submit to restraint. He was taught to fight by his adopted father, all the while, wishing for nothing more than to take his revenge. Numedides saw these displays of wildness as a sign of Conan’s worthiness as a son and heaped approbation upon him.
It was not until sometime later, that Conan realized that, in his efforts to rebel, he had become a Aquilonian himself. Gone now, was the sullen-eyed child, replaced by a man with broad shoulders and sun-browned skin, who held sword in hand, and found himself to be a villain, a reaver, and a slave-merchant.
His every movement spoke of practised muscles knit to a keen brain with the proficiency of a born soldier. There was nothing that could be called either deliberate or measured about his actions. He was perfectly at rest or else he was in motion, with no transition from one state to the other.
He had used these resolutely acquired skills in concert with the quickness of his understanding to overthrow that same Aquilonian lord who had stolen him. Conan stood now as the monarch of the foreign land. Though it had seemed a bitter path at the time, the way had been far easier than he could have imagined as a child, dreaming of revenge. Sitting in his palace, those days of toil, intrigue, slaughter and tribulation seemed as though a dream.
When King Numedides lay dead at his feet and he had tore the crown from his sanguine head and set it on his own, Conan thought he had reached the ultimate border of his dreams. Prepared, he was, to take the crown, but not to hold it.
In the chambers, which he kept as his private place, Conan turned to regard the man who stood before him. This gentleman was occupied in his own affairs, for he had taken up the laces of his gold-chased armour, and whistled without thought—a singular performance, considering that he was in the presence of a king.
Conan envied this easiness of disposition. He longed to ride with his trusted friend. It seemed, in that moment, ages since he had last held a horse between his knees. Were it not that affairs in the city required his presence, he might have gone at once to the stables. ”Darcian, these matters of state are more disagreeable than any battle.“
”Consider your role, my dear sir. You are king—you must play the part. To that end, I urge you again to consider marriage for the kingdom needs an heir above all else.“
”And yet, I cannot with the current unrest in the kingdom. How can I turn my thoughts to courtship at such a time? The Picts have of late so violently assailed the boundary and you speak to me of marriage.” He scowled at the paper before him. “I should have ridden with the army.“
”These doubts are born of your baser instincts. Let the army tend itself. You must acknowledge that a king without an heir is in need of a wife. And you, my dear sir, are most certainly in the need of an heir. Your only danger is assassination, which, thank heavens, is but a thin threat with the members of the royal army guarding you night and day. Still, you cannot afford to make a long courtship in time of war.” In an effort to distract his king, the soldier came to the desk. “What are you working at there?“
”A map,“ Conan answered. ”The maps of the court show the countries of south, east and west, but in the north they are vague and faulty. I am adding the northern lands myself. Here is Cimmeria, where I was born. And—“
”Asgard and Vanaheim. By Jove, I had almost believed those countries to have been mere fancy.“
”You would have had no doubts, if you had spent your youth on the northern boundary of Cimmeria. Asgard lay to the north of us.“
”What manner of men are these northern folk?“ asked Darcian.
”They are contrary and savage. They fight all day and drink ale and roar their wild songs all night.“
”Then I think you are like them,“ laughed Darcian. ”You laugh greatly, drink deep and roar songs; though I never saw another Cimmerian who laughed, or ever sang save only to chant laments.“
”Can you truly blame them? What reason had any Cimmerian to laugh or to sing? Conquered. Murdered. Their fields ravaged “ answered the king. ”They are left with only the more dismal lands—all of hills, with dense wooded, under skies nearly always grey, with winds that moan down the valleys.“ And yet, it might be said that he missed the land of his birth with all his heart, even here in the sunny capital of Aquilonia. The sun oppressed him because it should cast light upon crimes and yet it seemed to make only the shadows deeper.
”Little wonder men grow melancholy there.“
”Only the conquest caused them to lose all hope,“ answered Conan. His thoughts turned, as always, to the memory of his father struck down in front of his forge. The god of his youth were Crom and his dark race, who ruled over the world of the dead. Was his father to be found in that place of everlasting mist? He busied himself with the cleaning his pen to hide the lowering of his spirits.
”Well, the dark hills of Cimmeria are far behind you. And now I go. I shall enjoy a glass of wine in your honour at Numa’s court. Are you certain that I might not tempt you to call upon him with me? He has several daughters who are said to be great beauties.“
Though it was the farthest from his desires, still Conan knew his duty; he must marry, no matter how little his desire. With a heavy nod, he set down his pen. “Very well. I shall accompany you, but do not press me to marry on of Numa’s daughters.” If he must wed, then he would seek a bride among the exiled nobility of Cimmeria.
Darcian’s agreeable laughter filled the chamber. And without attempting any farther remonstrance, he led Conan to his fate, a fate which, had not Conan’s heart been guarded in a way unsuspected by Darcian, might have been a little harder; for although there doubtless are such unconquerable gentlemen as are never to be persuaded into love against their judgement by all that talent, manner, attention, and flattery can do, I have no inclination to believe Conan one of them.
Jane Austen scholars recognize that even in this early effort, Miss Austen uses themes that motifs that she later explores more fully. Indeed, some of the text was repurposed later for Northanger Abbey. Beyond that, however, the name of her male lead has rocked the world of Robert E. Howard scholars more even than those of Jane Austen. Professor Rice says that upon reading the manuscript he ”nearly fell out of my chair. You can’t imagine the shock at seeing Conan’s forbearer appear in the Regency.“ It did, however, make many things more clear: ”I’d known that Howard had a dedication to Jane Austen in his first manuscript and had been asked to cut it. I didn’t know why, though.”
More work lies ahead for scholars of both Robert E. Howard and Jane Austen, who have found themselves involved in an unlikely collaboration as they begin the task of editing the text for publication and future study. “It’s an incredible tale,” Torrens says. “Between Conan’s bulging pecs and the straight-backed ladies at tea, there’s something for everyone in it.”