The Austen show at The Morgan Library & Museum transports its visitors to an Austen paradiso – pure Janeite heaven.
Down here on terra firma, we find the show a decided victory of librarian over cybrarian. The show’s impressive attendance – always a gauge of tastes and curatorial planning – affirms the continuing value of rare books and manuscripts in today’s fast culture of wireless downloads and instant communications. The Kindle will have its users, but the physical artefact of book and manuscript continues to summon respect.
Those who viewed the Austen show in the Morgan’s new Englehard Gallery were struck by the beauty of the exhibition’s design and its cultural authority. Austen cultists were refreshed, passion renewed; novitiates were captured by Jane.
The Morgan’s Austen show was the literary success of New York City’s 2009 -2010 Winter season; it also was the first major show on this English novelist in the United States. The event’s goal, as stated in the handsome silkscreen wall label in the gallery’s charming alcove (a 12 x 12’ entranceway), was to explore the life and legacy of Austen – what she achieved, what she left for us today, be we readers or writers. In a chat with Clara Drummond, co- curator with Declan Kiely of the Austen show, the exhibition’s challenges were a predictable subject:
“Well, the challenge of this project, in addition to content selection and then physical installation, was the variety we needed to lend to the entire effort. This required considerable planning and coordination with several associates here at The Morgan, at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, with video specialists, and with some of today’s most attractive literary personalities. Look for them in the show’s creative video: The Divine Jane. ”
The impressive achievement of The Morgan’s Austen show is its multimedia approach; it draws upon several mediums: printed book, manuscript, video, Internet, and interactive public programs, all aimed to engage and educate the world’s most diversified metropolis. With the Austen show, The Morgan Library and Museum affirmed its public role in the cultural life of a great city. It also set a high precedent in exhibition planning. As for variety, variety it had in spades.The exhibition's two busy curators did not merely 'hang a show': they created a portal – a ventricle -- to Jane Austen and her Regency world.
Their task was twofold: to show what Jane Austen produced (and also inspired in the work of others); and to situate Austen in her own era. The result was a thoughtful assemblage of 103 exhibits, a medium-size literary exhibition. The gallery, 29' x 52', was not a large space, but the installation of the many objects was economic and intelligent, so that visitors could move through the room unjostled and actually examine the displays close up. With the exception of a letter by Yeats and an excerpt from a lecture on Austen by Nabokov (both items loaned by New York Public Library’s Berg Collection), all of the show’s 103 items were drawn from The Morgan’s distinguished collection of Austen holdings.
First, the books. Austen’s published books, thoughtfully displayed in 10 large vitrines, were a major attraction of the show. In these glass-encased display cases, visitors saw handsome first editions of Austen’s novels in their original dark brown morocco boards, all in remarkably good condition and each with its own descriptive label. In the book selections, visitors could view a variety of book formats, as well as different bindings, typographies, and title page designs. The variety of the editions was impressive; for example, the curators offered two different editions of the first of Austen’s six published novels, Sense and Sensibility
. A Novel in Three Volumes. By a Lady
(London, 1811). Visitors viewed the 1813 edition printed for Austen by Roworth and published by Egerton, with the tipped in title page of the 1811 first edition as well as the decoratively-bound 1899 edition (London: George Allen), introduced by Joseph Jacobs and famously illustrated by Chris Hammond. The novel’s original 1811 title page is important as it shows Austen’s guarded approach to authorship and her high regard for privacy, especially as publishing women writers continued to be ridiculed by the English literary establishment as cheeky scribblers (yes, even as late as 1811).
All of Austen’s novels were published anonymously. Yet Austen admitted to her sister Cassandra, in a letter of 16 January 1796, “I write only for fame”. Evidently, the writer whom we know as Jane Austen had some unresolved and complex issues about her public identity. Back to the books. One of the largest and most popular of the display cases was a gathering of books by some of Austen’s favourite writers, amongst these Frances Burney, Laurence Sterne, Samuel Richardson, and a most special correspondent of Austen’s: Samuel Johnson (“My dear Dr. Johnson”). Some specialists may have missed in this gathering of literary influences book selections by some additional literary figures, primarily the Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth, so highly regarded by Austen (and so collected by The Morgan; over 80 entries in its online catalogue).
Perhaps space constraints precluded a book by Edgeworth. Interestingly, if we may pause over this point, Austen seldom, if ever, acknowledges her earlier sisters of the pen, such as two quite famous figures --one, English, one not -- whose names and writings could not have been unfamiliar to Austen, though never mentioned in her letters and writings owing to the sexual content of their work. These two predecessors are the famous Aphra Behn
, whose novels riveted the London book market in the 1680s, and Mariana Alcoforado, the jilted Portuguese nun whose five torrid letters of desire and betrayal fascinated London readers (Les lettres portugaises, 1669; English-language eds., 1681 through 1817, and thereafter; see online British Library Integrated Catalogue and NYPL/CATNYP); both women had woeful tastes in men, as they freely admit in their writings.
If Austen was concerned with fame, as she writes in family correspondence, she was certainly watching the commercial market, alert to what was selling and what was not; it is difficult to believe that she would not have known (and arguably benefited from) the work of these earlier women writers. Yes, these were earlier figures, but their work was sensational and still in circulation on the London market during Austen's time; moreover, Austen (as her concealed public authorship shows) was not indifferent to the phenomenon of the publishing woman writer. How could such high-profile writers such as Behn and the famous Portuguese nun be unfamiliar to any woman writer, especially a writer like Austen whose métier was women and men together (gender politics and its nuances)?
And this begs the question: What were Jane Austen’s actual reading tastes, and what did her private library really include? In view of the energetic research into early women writers – their public and hidden lives, their coteries and networks, their true selves behind the tidy exteriors -- we must wonder what Jane Austen will look like in the year 2050. In the present decade, she is highly valued as a novelist, and first editions of her books fetched high sums at a recent New York City auction.But literary tastes do change, and fame is a fickle, capricious thing.
Complementing the exhibition’s prominent display of books, the presentation of manuscript selections was thrilling to behold. Of the 160 (recorded) surviving letters of Jane Austen, The Morgan owns 51. Most of the show’s manuscripts are displayed on the walls of the gallery in glass-encased frames, all with detailed descriptive labels; some are displayed in the show’s four freestanding frames. Most of the manuscript selections are signed and dated letters from Jane to her elder sister, Cassandra Austen. Their affectionate, frequent jottings illustrate what Austen scholars have observed of this intriguing sibling relationship: Cassandra Austen was less an older sister and more a lifetime confidante and companion to Jane.
This close relationship between the sisters was almost a surrogate marriage, a 'sacred Friendship' between women, as one of Austen’s literary predecessors,Katherine ‘the Matchless Orinda’ Philips, described such a bond. And here, again, by 2050 we may know much more about the sisters Austen. Their letters are witty, relaxed exchanges about the "little nothings" of their lives, light and amusing chat about what they see and hear every day -- rumours, gossip, music, dancing, fashion trends, family tensions, local gatherings, and power politics between the sexes.
The Austen letters are important for what they tell us about the plots and characters in Jane’s novels; oftentimes, one will spot in the letters the seed of a major crisis or exchange in one of the novels, or a casual reference to a local coxcomb who later turns up at the hot end of Jane’s busy pen. Also noticed by the show’s visitors are the form, shape, and orthography of the letters. Some of them illustrate Austen’s own creative writing systems, letter-writing being a closely formalised and learned skill during Austen’s day (and much before). We see in some of the show’s letter selections her practice of interlinear 'cross-writing' (not an inch of space unused; Figure 5), and also (in a letter to her niece 'Cassy' Austen), an amusing instance of 'backward writing' where words are literally spelled in reverse.
In addition to the letters, the show’s literary manuscripts are especially valuable as they tell us of Jane Austen’s compositional habits. We see her working editorially (critically) on her own writing, and she is a first-class 'literary fixer': entire sentences crossed out, word choices improved, adjectives pulled, punctuation changed to better reflect spoken language, and so on. Viewing a manuscript, as opposed to a printed book, is a special experience. A viewer senses a body and a mind behind the sheet of paper. The manuscripts in the Austen show offer visitors an opportunity to engage creatively with the entire production of a written sheet: they can imagine Austen’s physical engagement. Here is the scene: She is sitting at a table or a writing-desk, hand poised above a blank sheet; she works her quill-pen hard, it moves briskly across the surface of the sheet; she pauses to read her words ... she resumes. There is an energy field in a writer’s own manuscript, a charge which does not transmit from a book, books being commodities constructed by hands outside the author’s personal orbit.
Also among the manuscript offerings are selections from Austen’s financial papers. In one of these exhibits (Figure 6), she has tallied up profits from the sale of her writings. As the item states, Austen invested the profits of her (first three) novels in “£600 in the Navy Fives”, being government stock which returned 5% interest annually, thus bringing her £30 a year. As scholars have shown (Claire Tomalin, for example), Austen’s overall profits from her published six novels could not have supported her; fortunately, she could rely on family money. Her financial account sheets are important to us today as they show her at work in a businesslike role as a serious career author with a view to income and the commercial value of her talent. The view that many early women writers published their stories, poems, and memoirs for their own (quaint) amusement was finally replaced in the last century by serious research into women writers as serious careerists who tracked the sales of their books, who corresponded regularly with publishers, and who sometimes collaborated with their literary contemporaries (just as women writers do today). Offering visual relief from the density of the show’s books and manuscripts are the curators’ selections of Georgian art, being delightful visual images from Austen’s era. Amongst the drawings and watercolours are memorable selections from Isabel Bishop and James Gillray. The show’s images, displayed on the walls of the gallery in glass-encased frames, serve as a parallel world to the books and manuscripts; for example, some of the images on view were inspired by moments in Austen’s novels, such as a lovely sketch by Isabel Bishop (Figure 7), adopted as the show’s logo: Other images, especially the caricatures, intersect with Austen’s acerbic wit in her novels and letters on the subject of bad marriages or ‘misalliances’ (Figure 8): Gillray’s familiar caricature of a new vogue in women’s hats for high plumes and ostrich feathers (Figure 9) serves as a comic analogue to Austen’s remarks in a letter to Cassandra about women’s tastes in fashionable self-display (Bath, 2 June 1799; Morgan Library MA 977.4). Writing of women’s penchant for assembled fruit on their hats, she observes: “Flowers and fruits are very much worn, & Fruit is still more the thing [on hats] – Elizabeth has a bunch of Strawberries, & I have seen Grapes, Cherries, Plumbs & Apricots ….” The masterstroke of the show, illustrating its modern multimedia design, is the video presented in the back area of the gallery in a blue cubicle (Images 2, 2a, above). The Divine Jane is a 16-minute documentary film directed by Francesco Carrozzini; its subject is Austen’s legacy. Six Austen devotées – three writers, an Austen studies patroness, an actress of Austen heroines, an academic -- speak on camera of their special connections to Austen. They are Fran Lebowitz, Siri Hustvedt, Colm Tóibín, Sandy Lerner, Harriet Walter, and Cornel West. The film is good viewing, and each speaker has a different 'take' on Austen and her reputation. Fran Lebowitz, in her amusing delivery, says that 'we've got it all wrong' and that Austen is appreciated today 'for all the wrong reasons; she is not a writer of romance novels, but rather a gifted ironist who knew how to observe and represent human nature'. Lebowitz has it right, for well before Henry James and Edith Wharton, there was Jane Austen and her novels of manners. Cornel West predictably reminds us that Austen’s principal interest is power, even if her canvas (the small domestic interior) is limited. He may challenge some viewers when he compares Austen to Shakespeare and Chekhov. Siri Hustvedt, herself an established novelist, speaks of Austen’s exactitude and economy of language. The film is not an adjunct to the exhibition, but an integral part of the entire event. The curators wisely made the film a physical component of the show by making it accessible within the gallery space itself. After an entertaining 16 minutes, visitors have a reliable set of reflections on Austen’s legacy by brothers and sisters of the craft, individuals in the literary arts who can appreciate the novels and the life in special ways.
The final medium used by the exhibition’s curatorial team is the Internet, exploited to good advantage. An entire Website
on the show was constructed, presenting not only the show’s film, but also a sampling of images from the show, as well as on-camera gallery talks by the curators and a schedule of the public programs which The Morgan organized, being workshops, lectures, readings, and an Austen gala of Georgian dances with live music to mark the close of the show (the wrap party). The website also includes links of a technical nature on the inks and papers used by Austen and other writers of her time. Sounding a low discordant note, it is regrettable that the exhibition’s curatorial team did not assemble a luxurious printed catalogue to be used both as a prized memento and resource by scholars, teachers, students, and many interested others. Viewers also would have appreciated a dedicated display of selected music from Austen’s era, such as Georgian-period song books, lesson books, and sheet music, all available in The Morgan’s distinguished music holdings.
Jane Austen was evidently a passably good pianist and an accurate copyist; we know from family correspondence that she played 'pretty tunes' on her pianoforte most mornings, and music is a principal motif throughout her novels. For further information on the musical Jane and her surviving song books, readers may consult the Chawton House Web site and the many recent recordings, now on CD, associated with Austen and her musical tastes. See also this recent essay offered by the Jane Austen Society of Australia. A final touch the exhibition might have included would be an interactive computer kiosk, placed in the gallery’s alcove, whereby visitors could access a prepared set of essential links on Austen’s life and writings; taking pride of place would be the advertisement on the current authoritative edition of Austen’s writings, published in a 9-volume set (2009) by Cambridge University Press, with Janet Todd as General Editor. Hats off to The Morgan for organizing an impressive homage to Jane Austen. By 2050, with continuing interest and research on this writer, we shall need another great Austen show. Let us hope to meet there. Acknowledgments The author takes pleasure in thanking all of the following: David Baldock, Laura Boyle, and Donna Lodge, Jane Austen Centre, Bath UK. Declan Kiely, Clara Drummond, Sandra Ho, Morgan Library & Museum, NYC. Philip Sheppard, cellist & composer, London UK. Matthew Hands and Todd Dunlap, FirstCom Music / Universal Music, Carrollton, Texas.
Note on the Author Maureen E. Mulvihill, a Scholar & Writer in Brooklyn, NY, and an elected member (1991) of The Princeton Research Forum (Princeton, New Jersey), is a broadly published specialist on English and Irish literature. Dr Mulvihill studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Yale Centre for British Art, the Columbia University Rare Book School, and (as an NEH Fellow), Johns Hopkins University. She was a visiting professor of Shakespeare and of Global Literature at St John’s University Manhattan (2005-2007); she also initiated and taught ‘Diaspora Paradigms & Early New York City’ at New York University (2007). Her investigation into the final weeks of Virginia Woolf, “Dancing On Hot Bricks”, with 8 images, appears in Rapportagemagazine (2009, Vol XII; Lancaster, Pa.). She is advisory editor, Ireland And The Americas, 3 vols (ABC-Clio, 2008), and the first editor of the Poems of Mary Shackleton Leadbeater (Dublin & London, 1808; Alexander Street Press, Virginia, Irish Women Poets series, 2008). She is currently at work on Irishwomen’s political writings pre-1800.