The Morgan Library Celebrates Jane Austen


In a rare and exceptional exhibition of Jane Austen’s life and work, the Pierpont Morgan Library presents A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy through March 14, 2010.

By the time of her death in July 1817, Jane Austen had published four major works: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). Two additional novels—Northanger Abbey and Persuasion—had been completed but published posthumously in 1817. Austen was 41 at the time of her death and in the months just before her passing, she was in the process of writing The Brothers (later renamed Sandition), but sadly, did not complete it.

It’s reasonable to assume that, aside from the actual novels, through the magic of film and television, most are familiar with this popular author and her work. But, even for Austen devotees and scholars, this exhibition reveals a number of interesting facts and a few surprises. It’s astonishing, for one thing, to learn that Austen’s formal education was completed by the age of 11 especially considering the breadth of her work. Also, scholars estimate that Austen wrote at least 3,000 letters in her lifetime though only about 160 are known to survive. Of those 160, the Morgan Library owns 51, more than any other institution in the world. In today’s age of social media, e-mail, tweets and text messaging, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking the time to sit quietly to pen a letter, longhand, but Austen and her sister, Cassandra, mastered the form to an art.

backward letter

Austen’s letters were filled with what she called “important nothings.” Amongst the letters on exhibit, there are a few notable standouts. In one dated January 8, 1817 to her eight-year-old niece, Cassandra, Austen intentionally spelled every word backwards for the personal delight of her young recipient. The letter is signed “Ruoy Etanoitceffa Tnua Enaj Netsua” or “Your Affectionate Aunt Jane Austen.” (Above)

cross hatched letter

Also, in the collection of letters, there are examples of a practice common to the period known as “crosshatching.” Paper was a costly and coveted commodity in Austen’s lifetime and waste was not an option. If the author ran out of space, she would turn the page sideways and continue the letter at right angles and across. (Above).

One of the absolute treasures of the exhibition is a moving and tender account of Austen’s final hours written by her older sister, Cassandra, to Fanny Knight, Austen’s favorite niece. In the letter, written just days after Austen’s death, Cassandra states, “Since Tuesday evening, when her complaint returned, there was a visible change, she slept more & much more comfortably; indeed during the last eight & forty hours she was more asleep than awake. Her looks altered & she fell away, but I perceived no material diminution of strength & tho’ I was then hopeless of a recovery, I had no suspicion how rapidly my loss was approaching.”

Austen’s letters were bequeathed to older sister, Cassandra, who bequeathed them to niece, Fanny. Cassandra made “excisions” after Austen’s death presumably censoring those sections seeming overly critical of family members or describing indelicate physical ailments.

In an interesting parallel to modern times, Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, originally titled Elinor and Marianne, was printed on commission, the equivalent of what we, today, call “self publishing.” Austen paid publication expenses but retained the copyright. In her lifetime, she never experienced major acclaim but Sense and Sensibility sold well and a second edition was printed in 1813. Austen wrote her brother, Francis, “You will be glad to hear that every copy of S. & S. is sold & that it has brought me £140 beside the Copyright, if that shd ever be of any value.”

Amongst the extensive collection of Austenabilia is the only surviving complete draft of any Austen novel, juvenilia Lady Susan, as well as an autographed manuscript of a plan of a novel, a portion of an unfinished novel, The Watsons, and a unique memorandum of Austen’s personal accounts which reveals that, in 1807, Austen spent “£13.19s.3d.on clothes, £8.14s.5d. on washing (the laundering of clothes), £3.17s.6d. on letters and parcels and £3.10s.3d. on charity.”

Austen cartoon

The exhibition is complemented by a number of prints and visual records of the day. The most significant of these is the variety of work on display by James Gillray (1756-1815), a popular caricaturist, satirist and contemporary of Austen. Gillray’s interpretations of current events, scandals, politics, royalty and aristocracy, changing fashions and social trends were similar in theme and flavor to that of Austen’s work. (Above).

At the conclusion of the exhibit is a specially commissioned film by Italian Director Francesco Carrozzini. The Divine Jane: Reflections on Austen is a 16-minute documentary film featuring interviews with artists and scholars including Siri Hustvedt, Fran Lebowitz, Sandy Lerner, Colm Tóibín, Harriet Walter and Cornel West. The film is accessible on the Morgan Library’s website: http://www.themorgan.org/video/austen.asp.

There’s much to learn from Austen’s surviving manuscripts and letters. The exhibition leaves you with the opportunity to examine Austen’s world and draw conclusions from a time which, eerily, mimics our own in many ways.

Related Programs

Gallery Talk: A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy
Friday, November 20, 2009 7:00 PM

Family Program: Winter Family Day Celebration
Sunday, December 6, 2009 2:00-5:00 PM

Lecture: A preview of Masterpiece Classic’s Emma
Wednesday, January 20, 2010, 6:30 PM

Film: Pride and Prejudice
Sunday, January 24, 2010, 2:00 PM

Lecture: From Gothic to Graphic: Adapting Jane Austen Novels
Tuesday, January 26, 2010, 6:30 PM

Reading Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
Wednesday, January 27, 2010, 3:00-4:30 PM

Reading Jane Austen: Emma
Wednesday, February 10, 2010, 3:00-4:30 PM

Reading Jane Austen: Persuasion
Wednesday, February 24, 2010, 3:00-4:30 PM

Film: Sense and Sensibility
Friday, February 12, 2010, 7:00 PM

Gallery Talk: A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy
Friday, February 26, 2010, 7:00 PM

General Information

The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street, New York

Tuesday-Thursday: 10:30 AM-5:00 PM
Friday: 10:30 AM-9:00 PM
Saturday: 10:00 AM-6:00 PM
Sunday: 11:00 AM-6:00 PM
Monday: Closed

$12.00 Adults
$8.00 Students, Seniors (65 and over) and Children (under 16)
Free to Members and Children, 12 and under, when accompanied by an Adult
Admission is free on Fridays from 7:00-9:00 PMImage Captions

Illustration Credits:

Mini Portrait:
Anonymous, British School, 19th Century
Miniature Portrait of Jane Austen
Watercolor on ivory
The Morgan Library & Museum; AZ078
Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009

Backward Letter:
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Autograph letter signed, written with every word spelled backwards: Notwach (Chawton), to her niece Cassandra Austen, 8 January [1817]
Purchased by J. P. Morgan, Jr., 1925; MA 1034.6
Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009

Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Autograph letter signed, cross written to save paper and postage: Southampton, to Cassandra Austen, 8-9 February 1807
Purchased by J. P. Morgan, Jr., 1920; MA 977.15
Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009

James Gillray (1756-1815)
Matrimonial-Harmonics, a satire on marriage
London: Published by H. Humphrey, 27, St James’s Street, 25
October 1805
Bequest of Gordon N. Ray, 1987; 1986.336
Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009

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