As every good Janeite* is probably aware, The Morgan Library in New York City is currently having an exhibition titled, A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy. I had the opportunity to see this once in a lifetime display, and Janeites, I was not disappointed!
One of the first things you may notice about this exhibition is how small the space is. Everything is contained in one room, which gives the appearance of it being a small display, but do not be fooled, there is much to be seen. A complaint I would have about the space would be that the displays are too close to each other which makes for a crowded experience. My advice is to avoid the exhibition on the weekend if possible, otherwise you are crowding around small documents with three other people.
The exhibition consists mainly of Jane Austen's letters which are accompanied by visual aids. James Gillray's satirical images serve as tour guides throughout the exhibit seeing as he was a witty contemporary of Austen's. They also serve as a visual breath of fresh air after all the reading you tend to do! The majority of the work on display is from Pierpont Morgan's personal collection. Yes, the Industrial-age banker was quite the Austen fan! He went through leaps and bounds in order to get his hands on anything Jane touched. For years Mr. Morgan searched for original manuscripts and was told more than once that these had all been destroyed. He was finally able to acquire the manuscript to Lady Susan as well as a partial one to an unpublished work. It is these side stories about how Jane Austen's work that affect other's peoples lives that is part of A Woman Wit.
On the opposite spectrum, there are also examples from people who influenced Jane. She was great fan of Fanny Burney, as evidenced through her name appearing in a subscription list -the only occasion in her lifetime when it would appear in print. Jane was also a fan of Lord Byron's poetry which is represented by one of his manuscripts written in his artful hand.
Other items on display were a selection of the various illustrations that would accompany Austen's novels, various book editions, and personal records from the authoress. One of the things I most enjoyed was a print of William Blake's portrait of Mrs. Q which Jane saw and reported to her sister that it was how she pictured Jane in Pride and Prejudice. I also am always entertained/tortured by letters censured by prudish Victorian relatives. One letter is censored right as Austen is about to describe Edward Bertrum. Fill in the blank here: I find Edward to be...
I didn't entirely know what to expect from A Woman's Wit but I left the exhibition very pleased. The Morgan Library does our witty author justice in displaying these small snippets from her personal life in which her snarky, funny, and loving nature come to life. The experience of a non-visual art display is also quite unusual and some may find all the reading (of both the work and descriptions) quite exhausting. But never-fear, that is why The Morgan serves Tea in their cafe; leaving you the perfect opportunity to discuss the experience with your companion. If you are in town up until March 14, this is an exhibition not to be missed.
*One of the many things I learned at this exhibition is that the term "Janeite" has been around since the last century.