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The Morgan to Present Exhibition on the Great - and Enduringly Popular - Novelist Jane Austen
Paul Sandby (1731–1809), View in a Park, 18th century. Pen and black ink, watercolor, over faint indications in pencil, 10 3/8 x 18 1/8 inches (264 x 460 mm) Purchased as the gift of the Fellows, 1963; 1963.1 Photo: Schecter Lee, 2009.
NEW YORK, NY.- The extraordinary life, work, and legacy of one of the greatest novelists in the English language, Jane Austen (1775–1817), are the focus of a new exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum from November 6, 2009, through March 14, 2010. 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.

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 such as Siri Hustvedt, Fran Lebowitz, Sandy Lerner, Colm Tóibín, Harriet Walter, and Cornel West.

“The greatness of Jane Austen’s writing is seen in her continuing popularity today,” said William M. Griswold, director of The Morgan Library & Museum. “Although she wrote about life and society in England two centuries ago, her witty, satirical approach to her subjects resonates with contemporary readers. The Morgan is fortunate to have such an outstanding collection of Austen material, and this exhibition provides a close, intimate look at the artist’s life and work.”

Jane Austen
Jane Austen was born in 1775 into a rural middle-class family. Her father, George Austen, was the rector at Steventon, a small village in the southern English county of Hampshire. Her mother, Cassandra Austen, was a member of a prominent family. Austen’s immediate family included six brothers and one sister, also named Cassandra, who remained Jane’s closest friend and confidante throughout her life.

At an early age, the two sisters were sent to Oxford for schooling. Both girls, however, caught typhus and returned home. Two years later, they were once again sent away to school. At the age of eleven, Jane Austen finished her formal education and returned home. It was in this environment, encouraged by her family—all enthusiastic readers themselves—that she began to write poems, stories, and plays for her family’s as well as her own amusement.

As Austen grew into adulthood, she continued to work on her fiction while taking part in the everyday activities of young women of her time—she practiced the pianoforte, assisted in supervising servants, sewed, socialized frequently at dances and balls, traveled to visit family members, and detailed these activities in numerous witty and amusing letters, mostly to Cassandra. She continued to write short pieces and shared them with her family.

Most likely first composed in 1794–95, Austen’s first surviving novel, Lady Susan, about a wicked yet enchanting widow who is determined to find a husband at any cost for herself and her retiring daughter, was written as a series of letters. It was a longer and more sophisticated story than were her previous efforts. Lady Susan was never published during her lifetime; it was not until 1811 that her first major novel, Sense and Sensibility, was printed. This was followed by Pride and Prejudice (initially entitled First Impressions; 1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), and the posthumous Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1817).

In 1816 Austen became ill but continued writing. She died in 1817, at the age of 41.

Exhibition Highlights
The exhibition is organized into three sections: Austen’s life and personal letters, her works, her legacy, and concludes with the documentary-style film.

Only a relatively small number of Austen’s personal letters have survived. The Morgan is a major repository of her correspondence, with one third of all surviving letters held in the department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts. These materials—from correspondence to her beloved sister, Cassandra, to a letter to her niece in which all the words are spelled backwards, to “crossed letters” (also known as “cross-hatching,” in which Austen, to save paper and reduce postal charges, wrote across the horizontal lines of text at right angles)—offer a remarkable glimpse into Austen’s everyday life and relationships, as told in her characteristically witty and confident voice. Some highlights include a letter dated 2 June 1799 to her sister, which includes a drawing of the lace pattern of her cloak, and a letter dated 20 July 1817, written by Cassandra to Fanny Knight, Austen’s beloved niece, reporting Austen’s death: “I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed.”

Drawings and prints of people, places, and events of importance in Austen’s life and times will provide visual context for the letters. On view is a Portrait of Mrs. Q (Mrs. Harriet Quentin) by William Blake. Upon seeing this portrait in London, Austen remarked that this was just as she imagined Mrs. Bingley (Jane Bennet, who marries Charles Bingley at the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice). There will also be numerous prints by James Gillray (1757–1815), an influential printmaker and social satirist, who touched on many of the same subjects and themes found in his illustrious contemporary’s letters and novels, including women’s fashions, marriage, and social rank.

The section on Austen’s works includes the autograph manuscript of Lady Susan (rewritten ca. 1805), the only surviving complete manuscript of any of her novels. Also included in the exhibition is an unfinished autograph manuscript of The Watsons (ca. 1805), which remained unfinished and is the only surviving manuscript of Austen’s novels showing her work in progress and under revision. Also on view is an autograph note by Austen, listing the date of composition of her novels Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Emma. Another note lists the profits of her novels.

The exhibition also incorporates rare books and manuscripts from the Morgan’s collections by authors who influenced Austen, including Fanny Burney, William Cowper, Samuel Richardson, and Lord Byron. After reading Byron’s poem The Corsair: A Tale, Austen wrote in a letter to her sister, “I have read The Corsair, mended my petticoat, and have nothing else to do.”

The legacy of Jane Austen is examined through later writers’ responses to her work. Beginning with a diary entry by her contemporary Sir Walter Scott, the exhibition also features comments by twentieth-century writers, including Vladimir Nabokov, William Butler Yeats, and Rudyard Kipling.

The influence and popularity of Jane Austen is also examined through the film at the conclusion of the exhibition. It features interviews about Austen with an eclectic group of artists and scholars.

A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy is organized by Declan Kiely, Robert H. Taylor Curator, and Clara Drummond, Assistant Curator, Literary and Historical Manuscripts, The Morgan Library & Museum.



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