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I have been unable to travel to New York (Begone dull and dreaded credit crunch! ) to see the much lauded Jane Austen exhibition currently on show at the Morgan Library. Luckily for me , one of my good friends and superb fellow blogger, Karen of Bookish NYC, undertook this onerous task and visited it this week, on my behalf, promising at the same time to write a reveiw of the exhibit for AustenOnly.

Before reading her review, may I formally introduce you to Karen? ( though I think some of you may already be visitors to her witty site. ) Her blog is about her life in New York and her reading habits. She is a voracious reader -a trait we share- a fellow lawyer, and all round good egg. Her wickedly funny Seen on the Subway feature, which appears very Friday, always brightens up my day with its keen observations of her fellow New Yorkers and their sometimes surprising reading material.

Do go and explore her blog- I am sure you will enjoy it and her ;-)

And now to her review……..

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I finally got to see the superb exhibit at the Morgan Library  here in New York, entitled:  A Woman’s Wit:  Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy.   The Morgan, housed in a Renaissance-style palazzo specially built by Pierpont Morgan to contain his unparalleled collection of priceless manuscripts (later expanded and opened to the public by his son, J.P. Morgan), has amongst its many treasures the largest collection of Austen’s letters in the world.  (Scholars estimate that she wrote approximately 3,000; 160 survive; the Morgan owns 51.)

The title of this exhibition derives from Rosalind’s speech in the fourth act of As You Like It:

“Make the doors upon a woman’s wit and it will out at the casement; shut that, and ‘twill out at the keyhole; stop that, ‘twill fly with the smoke out of the chimney.”

Austen’s wit is in full evidence in the dozen or so of her letters that form the core of this exhibit.  The oldest letter in the Morgan’s collection dates from 15th September 1796, written from Rowling to her most constant correspondent, her sister Cassandra.  She write of a party at Nackington from which her party “return[ed] by Moonlight,” at which “Miss Fletcher and I were very thick, but I am the thinnest of the two – She wore her purple Muslin, which is pretty enough, tho’ it does not become her complexion.  There are two Traits in her Character which are pleasing; namely, she admires Camilla, & drinks no cream in her Tea.”

(Do note- you can enlarge all the extracts and pictures in this post by clicking on them- jfw)

Another letter given pride of place in the exhibition is an example of a “crossed” letter, in which, in order to save paper, Austen filled a page, then turned it ninety degrees and wrote over the original text, rendering it impossible for this modern reader to decipher it!   (In Emma, Miss Bates refers to having received such a crossed letter from her niece, Jane Fairfax.)   Austen’s letter, dated 8-9 February, 1807, was written to Cassandra from Southampton.  She begins the letter lamenting that she has “nothing to say,” but manages to fill four sheets, crossing two, and concludes,

There, I flatter myself I have constructed you a Smartish Letter, considering my want of Materials.  But like my dear Dr. Johnson, I believe I have dealt more in Notions than Facts.”


Perhaps my favorite of the letters in the exhibit was that written by Jane to Cassandra on 24 May 1813, from London, where she had gone with her brother Henry to a picture exhibition where she was

“very well pleased – particularly (pray tell Fanny) with a small portrait of Mrs. Bingley, excessively like her; I went in hopes of seeing one of her Sister, but there was no Mrs. Darcy; — perhaps however, I may find her in the Great Exhibitions which we shall go to, if we have time;  . . . Mrs. Bingley’s is exactly like herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness.  She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favorite colour with her.  I dare say Mrs. Darcy will be in Yellow.”


This teasing letter, in which Austen imagines the appearances of two of her most loved characters (Jane and Elizabeth Bennett), is displayed next to another treasure from the Morgan’s seemingly bottomless collection – a pristine engraving of the very portrait that she viewed that reminded her of Mrs. Bingley – Portrait of Mrs. Q (Mrs. Harriett Quentin), by William Blake:

But this marvelous exhibit contains much more than Austen’s precious letters.  There are pristine – and no doubt priceless – first editions of each of “The Six” (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion.)   Also displayed is a twelve-page fragment of a rough draft of The Watsons in Austen’s hand, full of revisions and cross-outs, and a fair copy, also in her hand, of the first six letters of the epistolary novel, Lady Susan.  (The Morgan has been able to date this copy to 1805, based upon the watermark of the paper on which it was written.)   I myself covet the exquisite 1907/08 edition of The Six with watercolor illustrations by Charles E. Brock, which was displayed in a case adjacent to the first editions.

One of my favorite aspects of the exhibit was the inclusion of several perfectly preserved cartoons by James Gillray from the Morgan’s collection.  Gillray, a contemporary of Austen’s, shared her satirical eye.  My favorite of these cartoons is a beautifully-colored three-parter satirizing the laboriousness of ladies’ fashions, entitled Progress of the Toilet:  The Stays, The Wig, and Dress Completed. The caption accompanying this display points out that Austen, while herself enjoying being as well-dressed as her limited budget would allow, had scant patience for those consumed solely by finery, such as the foolish Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey.

Regular readers of Austen Only may be familiar with the incident whereby Austen, after the publication of Emma, was urged by no less than James Stanier Clarke,

the domestic chaplain and librarian to the Prince Regent (despised by Austen), to write a new novel bearing a marked resemblance to Stanier’s own life.  The Morgan exhibit contains a Plan of a Novel, according to Hints from a Certain Quarter, dated 1816.  This document, in Austen’s hand, was obviously constructed as a fireside amusement, and in the margins indicates which of Austen’s friends and family suggested and/or improved upon certain plot points.  A wicked piece of fun!

The curator also decided to treat us to some Austen-related gems from the Library’s vast holdings.  There is a letter from William Butler Yeats to Lady Gregory, dated 14 June 1920, written while he was on a lengthy lecture tour of the U.S. “I read all Miss Austen in America with great satisfaction.”  Also featured are the original lecture notes of Vladimir Nabokov (of Lolita fame) while he was a professor at Cornell teaching a course entitled “Masters of European Fiction,” circa 1948.  His notes on Mansfield Park include his hand-drawn and detailed floor plans of both Mansfield Park and Sotherton, his sketch of a barouche (with a notation comparing it to a convertible), as well as a chronology of the novel.

The most poignant item in the exhibit is a letter from Cassandra Austen’s pen to Fanny Knight, relaying the details of Jane’s final hours.   Dated 20 July 1817, Cassandra laments her beloved sister as the

“sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow . . . “

The only fault of this otherwise faultless exhibition:  NO CATALOGUE!!  Not even so much as a flimsy pamphlet handed out in the gallery.  However, those who are interested in the exhibit but cannot make it in person may check out the Morgan’s website, on which one can watch a fifteen-minute film featuring various modern authors and Austen aficionados commenting on her work and what it’s meant to them.  This film was, frankly, the least interesting part of the exhibit, but does show a few of the original letters being handled in the Library’s archives.

The exhibit runs through March 14th  at the Morgan Library and Museum, 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street, New York, New York.

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Thank you so much, Karen. What a fabulous review- I almost feel as if I’ve been there ;-) I too lament the fact that no catalogue of any kind was published to commemorate this exhibit. And I daresay that I speak for deprived Janeites all over the world on that score. I’m sure it would have been a sure-fire best seller. Frankly, I’d have loved a facsimile edition of the Plan of a Novel etc.,  complete with scholarly introduction and explanatory notes… Ah, well.  Let’s see (D.V.) what 2017 will bring. Not too long to wait ;-)

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