Austen Sketch“I beleive [sic] I drank too much wine last night,” Jane Austen wrote in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, in November 1800. She went on to say that she danced nine out of a dozen dances that evening and “was merely prevented from dancing the rest by the want of a partner.” This light-hearted missive is one of 51 on display in the exhibit A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

Austen penned some 3,000 letters during her lifetime, only 160 of which still exist. (Her sister destroyed many of them at Austen’s request.) Of those, the Morgan has the most of any institution in the world. In the letters Austen talks about her fascination with people watching and preparations for her family’s move to Bath after her curator father’s retirement. A highlight is a note she penned to her eight-year-old niece in which each word is written backwards.

The exhibit is an intriguing look at Austen’s world — her everyday life,  her novels, and the Recency era. Along with the letters, there are other items from the museum’s collection. Drawings by Isabel Bishop (above) depict scenes from Pride and Prejudice. Social satirist and Austen contemporary James Gillroy’s colorful prints touch on many of the same themes as in her novels, like women’s fashions and social rank. An engraving by William Blake of Portrait of Mrs. Q., a French painter’s rendering of Mrs. Harriet Quentin, piqued Austen’s interest. After seeing it in London, she remarked that it was just as she imagined Jane Bennet, aka Mrs. Bingley, of Pride and Prejudice. “Mrs. Bingley is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness,” declared Austen. (William Blake’s World: “A New Heaven is Begun” is at the Morgan through January 3, 2010).

The exhibit offers fascinating facts about Austen and her novels: in addition to prose she penned poems, 18 of which have survived; two previous titles for Northanger Abbey were Susan (the original name for the story’s heroine) and Catherine; and the price of a first edition of Emma was 1.1s pounds, at the time more than double the average weekly earnings of an agricultural laborer. Fewer than 20 books that belonged to Jane Austen are still around. On view is her copy of the journal The Spectator, which is given a mention in chapter five of Northanger Abbey

Connections between Austen and other literary figures are prevalent throughout the exhibit. In one of her letters she reports seeing productions of Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet and Macbeth, and in another reading Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem Marmion. While on a lecture tour to earn money to renovate the Norman tower he purchased in Ireland, William Butler Yeats told a friend in correspondence, “I read all Miss Austen in America with great satisfaction.” A copy of Fanny Burney’s novel Camilla contains in it a list of the subscribers who purchased the book, one of whom is Miss J. Austen, Steventon — the only time Austen’s name appears in print. (Her novels were published anonymously.)

A documentary created for the exhibit features contemporary figures talking about Austen’s literacy legacy. Philosopher Cornel West reveals, “She blew my mind” and notes that her works are “ironic and full of wit.” Writer Colm Toibin would seat Austen next to Freud at a dinner party and “feed them a lot of alcohol.” He adds, “I would love to see what Austen would make of Freud.” Novelist Siri Hustvedt is captivated by both the spoken and the unspoken dialogue in Austen’s works. “This is as pertinent and relevant today as it was then,” she says. 

A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy runs through March 14, 2010, and the museum is hosting numerous related programs, including film viewings and lectures. A Winter Family Day celebration on December 6th will celebrate the Austen exhibit and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (the original manuscript of Dickens’ holiday tale is on display in Mr. Morgan’s library from November 20 – January 10).

Austen’s letters are the most illuminating aspect of the exhibit, but the most touching is one written by Cassandra after the writer’s death. “I have lost a treasure, such a Sister,” she pens, “such a friend as never can have been surpassed.” –Shannon McKenna Schmidt

[Image courtesy of the Pierpont Morgan Library & Museum]