What can we learn about Jane Austen from her things, from the physical objects surrounding her and created by her? How much of her is contained in her handwriting, in the straight and even lines of her letters, and how much is contained in her work? If any writer’s soul is in her novels, what is there to be gained in discovering her personal artifacts? If anything calls for a field trip, these questions call for a field trip—and I love a good field trip. Last weekend, I visited New York’s Morgan Library and Museum (the sacrifices I do make!) to check out their new exhibit A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy.
The exhibit is much as Jane might have liked: a clean, well-lighted place for books filled with her letters (mostly to her sister, Cassandra), hand-written manuscripts, and artifacts of other pertinent writers and artists, as well as a darkened corner featuring the short film The Divine Jane. (There’s also one very zealous security guard who does not appreciate back-talk, or, uh, so I hear. What? I don’t know what you’re implying.)
Over a third of Jane’s surviving letters are in the Morgan’s possession and on display in the exhibit. In a sense, it’s frustrating not to be able to handle the letters—in Jane’s scrawl, written horizontally and then vertically and mounted for viewing, they aren’t exactly readable in the way that they might be if we were left to, say, hold them close, squint a bit, and follow the rabbit trail of beginnings and endings. The museum plaques accompanying each letter transcribe bits and pieces, but viewing them is not the same as reading them. My recommendation? For full appreciation, read a published version of Jane’s letters beforehand, bring it along, and pick out your favorites among the collection.
The same goes for the manuscripts—it’s lovely to see them, to read the interpretive plaques, and to admire the straightness of Jane’s writing and think of her pen scritch-scratching away, but the soul of them comes in the reading of them. On the other hand, the Morgan’s description of Lady Susan sold me instantly—a romantic black comedy! A “cruising shark in her social goldfish pond”! Delicious!
One of my favorite parts of the exhibit wasn’t by Jane at all, but by the illustrators willing to take on the challenge of her work over the years. There’s a sense that these are the pre-broadcasting version of the BBC miniseries, visual representations of Jane’s works according to the times, including notions of fashion and beauty—one Victorian illustrator, for example, had transposed the look of Pride and Prejudice into the key of his or her own style sensibilities. I was especially taken by the illustrations of Isabel Bishop (1902 – 1988), who dressed Elizabeth Bennet just as Jane would have, but struck me as particularly beautiful (though, of course, not made in the Regency style at all, if Cassandra Austen’s sketches of her sister are any indication). Lovely.
So where is the person of Jane Austen in all of this? In knowing the lace pattern of her new cloak (which she’s written out in one of her letters) or in finding her penchant for writing backwards to her young niece, do we know her any better than we did before? Can we see any more of her in the things that she called her own than we can simply by reading her works? I think the answer is yes—but only if we have read her works. Alone, they’re objects. Taken in tandem, they’re shading details on a picture we already know—a picture of wit, of humor, and of order. Jane’s spirit isn’t in her things, and her things aren’t the place to get to know her. But they may just be the place to appreciate the woman behind the work.
A Woman’s Wit: The Life and Legacy of Jane Austen appears at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City through March 14, 2010.A Woman's Wit, Cassandra, Elizabeth Bennet, exhibits, illustrations, illustrators, Isabel Bishop, Jane Austen, Lady Susan, Morgan Library & Museum, museums, The Divine Jane on Tuesday, December 1, 2009 · 2 Comments »