My Christmas vacation was mostly about spending time with my nieces and nephews. But my gift to myself was a day in Manhattan to visit with two old friends—college roommate and artist extraordinaire Kelly, and Jane Austen. The exhibit A Woman’s Wit is still up at the Morgan Library.
I loved the letter Jane Austen wrote to her niece: Each word was spelled backward. I had to buy the postcard just to be able to spend quality time deciphering it with my oldest nephew. He looked at me a little suspiciously when I told him to expect all correspondence from me in the future to be written backward.
As with any exhibit of any artist that I am enthralled with, I was amazed to simply be standing there breathing in particles that a great artist touched. With letters, it’s a different sort of experience than paintings. Sure, you’re viewing something behind glass on a wall . . . and I, for one, love to see handwriting. But instead of just viewing and absorbing what we were seeing, we craned our necks and stood around focusing on the words, trying to read Jane’s (sometimes awful) handwriting. There were words scratched out, funky old-school spelling and writing oddities (like the letter “s” looking like an “f”), sentences criss-crossing . . . what a mess! I’ve never given a thought to how much paper costs, but looking at the way Jane scribbled sideways or crammed in corners of the paper, you really do get a different sense of how having paper was something of a luxury. I really wish they had a folded and sealed letter so you could experience the feeling of opening up a letter the way you open a much-anticipated gift!
For me, the highlight of the exhibit was not actually a letter written by Jane Austen, but one written by her sister Cassandra describing Jane’s last days. The letter expressed the raw emotions of someone who lost her closest companion.
I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself. I loved her only too well—not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others; and I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the Hand which has struck this blow.
—Excerpt from a letter from Cassandra Austen to her niece Fanny
Heartbreaking. It reminded me of my Aunt Helen (my grandmother’s sister) after my grandmother died. The two of them taught in the same school, lived three houses away from each other, and had tea together every afternoon. After my grandmother’s funeral, it hit me that my aunt had buried all of her siblings. Though stoic, she looked a little lost sitting in the church, knowing that she wouldn’t have her sister to talk to and drink tea with every day. I imagine that Cassandra felt the same way—though losing her sister at a much earlier age would be even more devastating.
I was expecting to simply enjoy the humor in Jane’s writing. The humor was there, but I ended up walking away with thoughts of Cassandra’s loss and a new appreciation for the art of correspondence and the depth of feelings conveyed on paper.
Photo credits: ©2009 Christine Osborne. All rights reserved.
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.