Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Woman's Wit at The Morgan Library

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 He was finally able to acquire the manuscript to Lady Susan as well as a partial one to an unpublished work.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


  1. Heather, I can't wait to see this exhibit! I was thinking that 12/16 might be the right day to do it, but half the planet will be there on Jane's 234th b'day.

    Actually, I don't think I can wait that long! Thanks so much for your comprehensive review of the exhibit and the images you posted; it gives your readers a real feeling of having seen the exhibit themselves, while simultaneously whetting our appetites to head down to the Morgan in person.

  2. I thought this post was so illuminating. Thanks for warning us that the exhibit was in one room. While the library itself represents a large house, it is a small museum. I had planned on going during a weekend, but must alter my plans. Your image of Jane's crossed letter is astounding, and I love Blake's engraving of Mrs.Q, proof that women were not a size 0 as depicted in Ladies Monthly Fashion or Ackermann Plates. :)

  3. Great post, Heather. I think I'll have to find a way to get up there before the Ides of March. This sounds like such a great exhibit one might kick themselves eternally for letting the chance slip by. And I agree about the frustrations of censorship. What was Jane going to say? A biting critique? A little observation about him having nice legs? What, what, what? Ugh....

  4. Thanks for the wonderful review Heather. I love the Morgan but for some reason, it seems smaller now with the Renzo Piano additions. The wonderful thing about this exhibition is that I can see Jane and then see the Dicken's Christmas Carol at the same time.

  5. I'm glad I did it justice! I hope you all make it and enjoy it as much as I.

  6. I have a question about how Jane's letters were censored. Was the paper actually cut out? Blotted over with India ink? With modern forensic techinques, I wonder if scientists could image the words blotted out.

  7. @viridian

    I believe the words were cut out.

  8. Yes, Alannah is correct. In this case the words were literally cut out. So all you could see was the tops of the tall letters, gah!
    I often thought the same thing about the ink censorship, but unfortunately if we have that technology it is too pricey for the average researcher to use. Stupid prudish Victorians.

  9. They were big on censoring them letters Victorians were.