Monday, March 1, 2010

A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy

A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy

The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY

I recently had the pleasure of viewing this exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum.

The exhibit showcases letters, manuscripts, books and other items belonging to and relating to Jane Austen's life, works and legacy. For the non Janeites among us (the term was first coined in the 1890s, when Miss Austen's works enjoyed a resurgence in popularity), there are biographical panels that provide a timeline of her life.

The exhibition is organized into three sections: Austen's life and personal letters, her works, her legacy, and concludes with the documentary-style film.

An excellent selection of caricatures of James Gillray (1756–1815), a noted caricature artist of the day. He lampoons fashion, social conventions (including matrimony) and even royalty.

Temperance Enjoying a Frugal Meal (1792) (King George III)

The best part of the exhibit is of course Miss Austen's manuscript letters and fragment drafts of Lady Susan and The Watsons. The Morgan has the most Jane Austen letters in the world! (How can I be the curator of THAT collection?!) Jane's letters were often written on every available inch of paper, making them difficult to read, even for one practiced in reading old writing. Standing there, reading Jane's letters, seeing them in her own handwriting is awe-inspiring!

Jane Austen (1775–1817)
Autograph letter signed, dated Godmersham, 20–22 June 1808 to Cassandra Austen (detail)
Purchased by J. P. Morgan, Jr., 1920; MA 977.16
Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY

On one letter, she drew a lace pattern to show her sister. Some letters have small sections where pieces were cut out by her sister Cassandra. The sections are very small and were obviously cut with delicate scissors. The missing sections don't take away from the thrill of actually reading Jane Austen's handwriting! Cassandra cut out pieces that she considered inappropriate; perhaps Jane was writing critically of someone or writing about delicate health matters.

The 12 page fragment of The Watsons is an extreme rough draft version, complete with sentences scribbled out. The divine Jane Austen didn't produce the perfect novel in one shot! This is the most difficult of all the manuscripts to read because it is not a fair copy. Lady Susan, on the other hand, is a fair copy and easy to read. It's a little odd reading a letter in Miss Austen's handwriting but signed Susan!

Another section provides more visuals for Jane Austen's world, including illustrations from the books and portraits of what her characters may have looked like, including Portrait of Mrs. Q (Mrs. Harriet Quentin) by William Blake. When she saw this portrait in London, Austen remarked that this was just as she imagined Mrs. Bingley (Jane Bennet) to look.

William Blake (1757–1827)
Portrait of Mrs. Q (Mrs. Harriet Quentin)
Stipple etching/engraving with mezzotint, printed in dark brown on wove paper, 1820
Gift of Charles Ryskamp in memory of Michael S. Currier; 1998.36:4
Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY

I have seen this image in books and on the internet, but it is much better to see it in person alongside Miss Austen's manuscripts.

Other illustrations by later artists also provide visuals for Jane Austen's world.

Isabel Bishop (1902–1988)
Scene from Pride and Prejudice: "The examination of all the letters which Jane had written to her." 20th century
Pen and black ink, gray wash, over pencil
Gift of Mrs. Robert E. Blum in honor of Charles Ryskamp on his 10th anniversary as director, 1979; 1979.32:15
Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.
Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY

Other paintings show what the grand estates of the day looked like and other places Jane Austen may have been familiar with.

Paul Sandby (1731–1809)
View in a Park
Pen and black ink, watercolor, over faint indications in pencil, on paper, eighteenth century.
Purchased as the gift of the Fellows; 1963.Morgan Library and Museum, New York, NY
Steel engraving after a sketch by Cassandra Austen; evidently executed as a frontispiece portrait for James Edward Austen-Leigh's biography of Austen entitled A Memoir of Jane Austen
London: Richard Bentley, 1870
Purchased by J. P. Morgan, Jr., 1925; MA 1034.1

Jane Austen's legacy is astounding as the last section showcases. There are rare copies of early, illustrated editions of Austen's books. Austen's books were out of print from her death until the late nineteenth century when they were rereleased with beautiful, if maybe not quite accurate, illustrations. That's when the term Janeite was coined and women began to really read and admire Miss Austen the way they do today. Later writers enjoyed the works of and were influenced by Austen, including Sir Walter Scott, Vladimir Nabokov (!), William Butler Yeats, and Rudyard Kipling.

The many movie adaptations are also mentioned and a lovely portrait of Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy hangs on the wall. :swoon:

This is an incredible exhibit and a must-see for all Janeites! Even the most casual fans can appreciate and enjoy the manuscripts on display. It must be an archivist's dream come true to curate that collection! I loved seeing everything in real life and learning more about one of my favorite authors.

(Yoohoo Morgan Library, I'm available for hire!)

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