This Wednesday, Jane’s actual birthday, I went to the Morgan Library to see the exhibit A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy. I went with two writer friends–Liz Maverick, whose new book Crimson & Steam features a historical section, and Elizabeth Mahon, who is hard at work on her non-fiction book Scandalous Women (and who also does a blog with the same name).
The exhibition combines Jane’s correspondence–both from and to her–with prints of James Gillray, one of the caricaturists who lampooned society and politics with as broad a wit as Jane’s was subtle.
As might be expected, Jane’s letters were gently mocking of the life she observed around her, sharing candid appraisals of her friends, family and neighbors. But–and this is true of her writing, as well–she is never mean-spirited. Honest, direct, even blunt, but never mean. That delicate line is one of the things that makes her writing so special; yes, Mr. Collins is a pompous ass, for example, but she doesn’t exaggerate the ludicrousness of his personality, just describes it. That is damning enough.
If you click through to the exhibition, you can see samples of the letters, as well as a draft of Lady Susan, the only surviving complete manuscript in her hand. That is neat to see, because she writes with as firm a hand in her fiction as she does in her letters–no cross-outs, or scribbles, or anything that would indicate she had doubts about what the final version of the manuscript should be.
In addition to the prints and printed material, the exhibit featured a short film with reflections on Jane from a variety of intriguing sources: Cornel West, Siri Hustvedt and Fran Lebowitz, among others. My favorite was West, who was almost elfishly delighted with talking about how much he loved Jane. He came to her late, he said, only starting to read her in graduate school, but he clearly adored her work.
Like Jane herself, the exhibit was small but all-encompassing, revealing a witty, clever, loving woman who had a lot to share to a very intimate group. That group has expanded in the 200 or so years since her works were first given to the public, but that feeling of intimacy remains. Who among us, reading Jane, hasn’t felt as if she were sharing a private joke with us alone?
Thanks for sharing your wit, Miss Austen, and Many Happy Returns!