Jane Austen: A Woman’s Wit

Miss Austen
the smallness of life
to perfection.
She was
a great artist
equal in her small sphere
to Shakespeare…”

Alfred Lord Tennyson

I cannot imagine a lovelier way to spend a winter’s day than at the enthralling exhibition at the Morgan library currently featuring the life, work, and legacy of Jane Austen (1775–1817), one of the most widely read and most beloved writers in English literature. Offering a close-up portrait of the iconic British author, whose popularity has surged over the last two decades with numerous motion picture and television adaptations of her work, the show provides tangible intimacy with Austen through the presentation of more than 100 works, including her manuscripts, personal letters, and related materials, many of which the Morgan has not exhibited in over a quarter century.

Austen wrote perhaps 3,000 letters over the course of her 41 years, most to her sister, Cassandra, who burned many and expurgated others that she believed reflected badly on Jane or other family members. Only 160 survive; the Morgan holds 51, more than any other institution. This exhibition offers a healthy sampling, some with pieces cut out in Cassandra’s quest for decorum.

Here, in the trace of Austen’s hand, can be seen her vibrancy, fluency and discipline; the script is careful, clean, yet fast. In some letters, you can feel an almost ecstatic volubility. And the famous Austin wit is unmistakable.

In one of the crosshatched letters to Cassandra, Jane confides that she must have drunk too much at a ball the night before; she danced 9 of the 12 dances, she said, and “was merely prevented from dancing the rest by the want of a partner.”

Think of that physical energy modified and controlled to conform with social propriety, adhering to the manners that she both celebrates and mocks in her fiction. That energy erupts, again and again, almost mischievously.

“Mr Waller is dead, I see,” she announces. “ I cannot grieve about it, nor perhaps can his Widow very much.”

Because paper was expensive, Austen typically used a single sheet, folded in half to make four pages. But when she had more to say, she would fill all usable space, then (as was sometimes the custom) turn the sheet sideways and write perpendicularly over her own script. She completed one letter here by turning it upside down and writing between the lines. One must marvel at the unfathomable dedication required in the simple act of writing in the 18th century.

A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy also includes first and early illustrated editions of Austen’s novels as well as drawings and prints depicting people, places, and events of biographical significance. A highlight of the exhibition is a specially commissioned film by the noted Italian director Francesco Carrozzini, featuring interviews with artists and scholars that is rich, thoughtful and, dare I say, refreshingly, articulate.

“A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy” runs through March 14 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue,

The Divine Jane: Reflections on Austen from The Morgan Library & Museum
NYTimes: Exhibition Review

Image (top): Drawing by Isabel Bishop of a scene from “Pride and Prejudice.”




~ by eaesthete on 01/07/10.

4 Responses to “Jane Austen: A Woman’s Wit”

  1. Dear EA

    Lovely post. I’m fascinated by how she used every space on the paper to write, and with such fluidity and presicion. I wish I was closer to visit the exhibition.

  2. As a ‘Janeite’ myself, I regret that I don’t live anywhere close to NYC. But thanks for transporting me to the Morgan exhibit via your post.

  3. While at the Morgan Library, you should pick up a copy of “An Illuminated Life,” a biography of Morgan’s first curator, Belle D’Acosta Greene. She was an errant esthete if ever there was one. The Morgan is one of my favorite places in NYC – I’m jealous!

    • Rebecca,

      Thank you for the recommendation. I shall relish the reading of it and, perhaps, give the lady her due in an upcoming post. Again, many thanks.

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