Report on “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy” at the Morgan Library


We paid a visit to the Morgan Library last weekend to see the current exhibition, “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy.” To say that it is Janeite heaven is not as hyperbolic as one might think. The artifacts on display were things we had heard of, or only seen in facsimile: The backwards letter! The letter with the lace drawing! The letter from James Stanier Clarke (who had really sloppy handwriting, by the bye)! The Plan of a Novel! The letter from Cassandra to Fanny Knight after Jane’s death (yes, we cried a little)!

Short version: if you call yourself a Janeite and are anywhere in the vicinity of New York or can get there by March 14, go. Just go. You will not be sorry.

When one enters the exhibit room, there is almost a feeling of: is this it? This one little room with a few things hung about and in cases is what we were so excited about? Just this one not-very-large room? But oh, the riches within. By the time we were through it, we felt gorged on good things. We took lots of notes (so many that we think we made the security guards nervous) and have much to report.

Most of the items on exhibit are letters from Jane Austen, mostly to her sister Cassandra. Many are exhibited standing free, so that both sides of the letter can be read, if one wishes to try to make out Jane’s handwriting. The letters are delightful objects: the paper carefully folded in half, and then written like a book: the front facing page first, then opened, the inner second and third pages, and then the back, which will be the part that includes the recipient’s address, carefully written to keep the contents private from the postie. Even the section that will be under the flap is carefully composed to leave space for the wafer that will seal it. The fold lines can still be seen; the whole thing is a marvel of epistolary engineering, which will be folded up and all the goodies tucked inside. The handwriting is tiny and the lines close together, though in some cases if there was sufficient space, the letter was turned about and the space between lines used for more content, and then sometimes even “crossed,” as were Jane Fairfax’s letters home. The “crossed” writing was somewhat larger, one presumes for legibility.

We were able to read just about anything we wanted, and were delighted when we made out familiar passages. Some letters had bits excised by Cassandra’s scissors, presumably that were overly-critical of family members or describing the indelicate details of ailments.

Also on display was the manuscript of Lady Susan. It is interesting to compare this ms., as an object, to the letters: the carefully trimmed paper (each sheet of which appeared to have been hand-cut to the perfect size), the larger, more careful handwriting, the neat and evenly-spaced rows. This was something written to be read by anyone, not just a family member to whom the handwriting is familiar and easy to read. (Check out the facsimile of the ms. on the Morgan’s website.)

Other items on exhibit included ephemera such as a listing of Jane’s profits from her writing; Cassandra’s list of the dates of composition for each work; and something that gave us great joy, a slice from the title page of “Susan, A Novel in Two Volumes,” which of course was published (with the heroine rechristened Catherine) as Northanger Abbey.

There also were some of the rare volumes from the Morgan’s stacks, including first editions of all six novels, several in the original boards; a first edition of the Memoir; several illustrated editions of the novels, including by Hugh Thomson, Charles Brock, and Chris Hammond, as well as original art by Isabel Bishop that were included in a 1976 edition of P&P. There also was a first edition of Debits & Credits by Rudyard Kipling (which contains “The Janeites” as well as a rather doggerel poem about Jane Austen), a copy of The Mirror of Graces and a bound volume of the Gallery of Fashion, both of which contained illustrations of current fashions. (We can hear Cub Reporter Heather L. salivating in Seattle.) There was Thomas Wilson’s book on dancing, which we have heard and read quoted by our friend Allison T. more than once. And it was even more amusing to see two volumes, carefully placed under glass so as not to be pawed over by the Unwashed Publick, that are actually on the Editrix’s own shelves. (Guess which two; they’re both included in the list above.)

We were amused by a letter to J.P. Morgan from his auctioneer, who explained in words of few syllables that no, there are no surviving manuscripts of any of Jane Austen’s six novels, so we cannot acquire them for you please don’t hurt us. We thought it so adorably naive of Mr. Morgan to inquire into the purchase of said manuscripts, and according to the accompanying placard, he required “repeated assurances” that no such manuscripts exist. One imagines him complaining, “I have more money than the Pope and the King of England put together, and I DEMAND A JANE AUSTEN MANUSCRIPT! I will not be thwarted by the non-existence of one!” However, the letter from the auction house also mentioned a lot of 41 Austen letters that Mr. Morgan could acquire were he interested…? More letters were bequeathed by Alberta Burke, who bequeathed the rest of her large collection of Austeniana to Goucher College. Mrs. Burke began collecting in the 1930s, and Mr. Morgan was acquiring in the 1920s, and does not seem that they overlapped, but imagine the fun of those two bidding against each other!

Other items included images of Jane Austen, mostly the usual suspects published in biographies, as well as an interesting miniature painting by the Unknown Fangirl/boy. There was a first edition of Fanny Burney’s Camilla, open to the subscriber page that included “Miss J. Austen, Steventon,” as well as a bit of the manuscript of the foreword to Cecilia, which could not have looked more different from Jane Austen’s precise handwriting. Another item we thoroughly enjoyed seeing was Walter Scott’s journal, open to the “big Bow wow strain” comment–how delightful to read it from the source!

There were some statements that we thought not quite accurate; for instance, it is commented several times, both in the display and in the accompanying film, that Jane “crossed” her letters to save paper because it was soooo expensive. Really they crossed the letters to avoid adding another sheet because it cost twice as much to mail two sheets as one, and as the recipient paid postage, it would have been rude to expect them to pay for two sheets. (Remember Mary Musgrove’s letter to Anne Elliot in Persuasion, in which she says that since Mrs. Croft offered to carry a letter to Anne in Bath, “I shall therefore be able to make my letter as long as I like” and added a second sheet.) We did not see this issue of postage referenced anywhere, but the expensive-paper motif was repeated several times. Also there was a statement in the explanatory placards with the first edition of NA/P stating that Cassandra Austen, Jane’s main heir, received over 500 pounds for these posthumously published volumes; that was more likely the total received for all six novels. (ETA: The total still seems unlikely to us, but checking a few reference books indicates that it is possibly correct. Like Mary Bennet, however, we are adjusting our ideas.)

We watched the accompanying film, “The Divine Jane,” which is available to view on the Morgan’s website and is screened both in a corner area of the exhibit as well as hourly in the library’s theater room. The day before our trip, we received an e-mail from an individual rejoicing in the self-imposed title The Publishing Contrarian containing a link to her own report on the exhibit, which e-mail, since we invite correspondence and links, we hesitate to characterize as spam, but apparently we were one of a large pool of recipients, one of whom complained about receiving the e-mail in the comments to the post linked, so: we report, you decide. We were not sure if we wished to notice this commentary, but since it was thrust upon our notice, we found we have some things to say in response. This individual took offense to the film, or at least to a couple of the Austen enthusiasts featured in it, to wit: Fran Lebowitz and Cornel West.

Interestingly, we were familiar with Fran Lebowitz’s work before we were familiar with Jane Austen’s, and though it has been a while since we read Ms. Lebowitz’s work, we recall that it was mostly about everyday life and the people one meets, so we can’t help thinking that she is probably not really a terrible choice to talk about Jane Austen. And we think it’s a fine idea to not invite anyone else to your dinner with Jane Austen! Keep her all to yourself!

We are completely unfamiliar with Cornel West or his work, but we do not recall that it is stated anywhere in the film that he is an “expert” on Jane Austen, which seems to be the individual’s complaint. He seems to have been presented as an enthusiast for her work, and we don’t think it a bad thing that the filmmaker sought to present a diverse group of voices. Besides, Prof. West made what we considered the most coherent statement in the whole film, which comes in at the end, when he talks about how Jane Austen’s work laid the foundation for those who followed behind her, from Dickens to Flaubert to the Russians, which is something we’ve been trying to point out for years. (And watch the raw footage of Prof. West’s interview–we think he has some very interesting things to say.)

We were much more amused that in the film Sandy Lerner is described as a “scholar” (though, it should be noted, not an Austen scholar) because really she is no more an Austen scholar than we are; like us, she is just an Austen fangirl, if a fangirl with really awesome toys. We salute and greatly appreciate Ms. Lerner’s contributions to the Janeite community, especially rescuing Chawton House from disrepair and giving it a noble future, but when you import your own Mr. Darcy for your Regency Ball, you are a fangirl, and Ms. Lerner seems to have embraced her fangirlism with both arms, a state which we heartily endorse.

After that bit of wandering off the path, and at the end of this oh so teal deer, we can only wrap up by saying how much we thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition. It got our jaded Janeite juices flowing again (OBVIOUSLY) and made us intensely happy. It was worth all the trouble and traveling we took to get there (and many thanks to Friend of AustenBlog Lorna for driving most of the way!). Do be sure to check it out if you are in the neighborhood.

21 thoughts on “Report on “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy” at the Morgan Library

  1. Sandra

    Fantastic report, thank you! I’ll be going in March.

    Also there was a statement in the explanatory placards with the first edition of NA/P stating that Cassandra Austen, Janeโ€™s main heir, received over 500 pounds for these posthumously published volumes; that was more likely the total received for all six novels.

    This is interesting; did they happen to mention anywhere that this is actually the full amount CEA inherited after probate for all of JA’s possessions?


    • Mags

      I’ve amended my report. I checked a few of my reference books, and while there is no breakdown, the totals of the earnings of Jane Austen’s books by Jane and/or Cassandra is more than I had originally thought. £500 still seems an unlikely total to me, but it’s just a hunch, not based on any real fact.


  2. Abbey

    If only I lived in NY! I spent a couple hours online at the site, which was nice and better than nothing, but alas, certainly nothing like actually going….sigh.


  3. Maria L

    Mags, you are too cool, teal dear indeed!

    Thanks for the wonderful report and it’s good to hear that your Janeite juices are back in good order.


  4. Mandy N

    Many thanks for your report on Jane’s Legacy; So fine a brush paricularly for Regency ‘epislatory enginnering’. ๐Ÿ™‚


  5. You have me green with envy, Mags! ๐Ÿ˜‰ I only wish I could go to NYC, instead, now I’m writing from Miami (in a visit to my brother and my SIL).

    it was even more amusing to see two volumes, carefully placed under glass so as not to be pawed over by the Unwashed Publick, that are actually on the Editrixโ€™s own shelves. (Guess which two; theyโ€™re both included in the list above.)

    LOL, may I venture to guess that they might be your illustrated Brock editions (those with the watercolours)?

    I do have a question. I remember that early on in December, there was someone struck that there was a piece of paper with the novels’ publication dates (not the Cassandra memorandum, mind) which was attributed to JA in the exhibition, but the problem was that Persuasion was mentioned by that name (we know that apparently that might have not been possible since apparently and according to tradition it was Henry who gave the title after her death). Is that piece still exhibited as by JA’s hand?


    • Mags

      Cinthia, there was one slip with composition dates that was attributed to Cassandra and another to “unknown, possibly a family member” or something like that. There was a slip in the same case with a listing of money made from the novels attributed to JA but it was only the first two or three novels if memory serves.

      As to the books–you got one of them. They had the Charles Brock-illustrated P&P and Emma on display, and I own the first. ๐Ÿ™‚


      • So I got one guess correct. I wonder what will be the second one :).

        As for the composition dates piece slips, I suppose that after some people pointed out that it might not be by JA, the one I mentioned was corrected to “unknown, possibly a family member”. The other one with the money obtained from the publications, if only has the first two or three novels listed, I could believe it to be by JA, after all, there are some of her letters where she mentioned how much money she was making. Thanks for your report, Mags. ๐Ÿ™‚


      • Mags

        Since no one guessed it–the second book is the first edition of Debits and Credits by Rudyard Kipling; though the cover of the Morgan’s edition was red, and the cover of mine is blue! But it is a 1926 American edition. Perhaps the Morgan has the British edition? I don’t know.


    • Deborah

      Cinthia — I attended a gallery talk at the exhibition in early December and asked the curator about the attribution of that exhibit to JA, even though the list mentioned Persuasion and Henry is thought to have titled the novel after JA’s death. The curator blanched visibly and said that, as far as he knew, the Morgan had always attributed this list to JA. But when I returned in early January, the wall card had been changed to attribute the list to “an unknown hand, possibly a family member.” I like to think it’s all because of me. ๐Ÿ™‚


  6. Hannah

    Thanks for such a wonderful review of the exhibit!

    If you don’t mind, I was wondering- Is the copy of ‘The Mirror of Graces’ you mentioned the same as the title that has been republished by R.L. Shep? And would this book be the title referred to in Chapter 30 of Northanger Abbey:

    “There is a very clever essay in one of the books upstairs upon much such a subject, about young girls who have been spoilt for home by great aquaintance: ‘The Mirror’, I think.”

    I’ve always wondered this, but have found no mention of it in my searches on the internet. I figured the Editrix would be the one to know! ๐Ÿ˜‰



    • Mags

      Hannah: I think it is the same Mirror of Graces. I don’t know if the modern edition includes the beautiful color illustrations, however.

      The Mirror in NA is a different publication; I believe it was actually a periodical, like the Spectator. I will see if I can find more info for you.


  7. victoria skelly

    Thanks for the amazing review! I attended this exhibit with my daughter in late December. While we found much to enchant us in the several hours that we spent there, the exhibition room was packed with people at that time. It was difficult to cull much information from the documents, as the glass cases were surrounded by Jane fans! Your review helps to fill in the blanks.
    I thoroughly enjoyed the movie (which is not shown in its entirety on the Morgan’s website). Several of the speakers are unexpected choices to be sure, but I feel that including the diverse likes of Cornell West, Fran Leibowitz and Siri Hustvedt underscored for viewers the timelessness and universality of Jane Austen’s works. It positively blew me away that Cornell West, an African-American philosopher, says that he feels that Jane’s themes are about “freedom”. What an endorsement! And that Colm Toiban, the Irish novelist, felt that his idea of perfect happiness was to take to bed with the novel, “Emma”, where taking to bed with a live person would not nearly approximate the experience for him of reading the novel!
    I read some of Cornell West’s essays in graduate school. As a philosopher he is concerned with defining what the good life should be, and Jane’s works describe a philosophy of life that appeals to many. The authors Toiban and Hustvedt celebrate the craft of Austen’s work. Fran Leibowitz is just plain funny. Hey, Austen is for everybody!


  8. So basically the paper was not so much expensive to buy as it was expensive to mail (or rather, expensive to *receive* via mail), hence the crossed writing. Thanks for clearing this one up for us Mags, and for your lovely and detailed report. Between this and the online material I *almost* feel like I was there. *sigh* why couldn’t this have been on last spring when I was in NYC twice?


  9. Marybeth

    Mags, how long do you think is enough time to devote to seeing the exhibit? I was thinking about going on a Friday evening when it’s open from 7-9pm but I’m worried that two hours isn’t enough time to see everything.


    • Mags

      We spent about two hours, and also went into other areas of the Morgan, so I think that’s enough unless it’s insanely crowded. It was pretty full when we were there, and we had to wait our turn sometimes to look closely at a particular item.


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