It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that, in all matters personal and domestic in 19th century literature, there is no higher authority than Jane Austen. With its exhibition "A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy," the Morgan Library & Museum is currently paying homage to novelist Jane Austen and her "wonderful fusion of wisdom and wit," as philosopher Cornel West said in a film featured at the exhibit. The actual exhibit, located on the second floor of the museum, holds a large range of artifacts from the enigmatic author's life. "I had the idea in the late spring/early summer of last year," Declan Kiely, one of the curators, said. "We actually didn't get the final go-ahead until January of this year. But it came together rather quickly, which is what you can do in an institution with a large holding of the particular author." "We still had to make a lot of choices about what would go into the exhibition," Clara Drummond, another curator, said. "We have 51 letters, more than any other institution in the world. We couldn't show all of them." Besides Austen's handwritten letters, there are also old editions of her six major works ("Sense and Sensibility," "Pride and Prejudice," "Mansfield Park," "Emma," "Persuasion," and "Northanger Abbey"). Additionally, the exhibit hosts rare manuscripts of two unpublished works—"Lady Susan" and "The Watsons"—artwork inspired by her words, criticism from her contemporaries, and a film tribute featuring the best and brightest of our time. "It was important to us to have a lot of visual material," Drummond explained when asked how the exhibited items had been selected. "We wanted a lot of variety. I mean the manuscripts are great, but it [the exhibition] can't just be manuscript after manuscript." While there are historical editions of the books on display, visitors may note the lack of manuscripts of Austen's six major works—but for a good reason. A placard informs museum patrons that there exist no surviving manuscripts of these novels anywhere in the world. But the abundance of interesting pieces on display includes Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov's handwritten lecture notes about Austen's novel "Persuasion." The curators of the exhibition have their own personal favorites. Drummond's is the crossed letter, a unique document Austen wrote not only horizontally but also vertically, forming a sort of cross-hatched piece of correspondence. "It was mostly just to save paper, but it's still very pleasing visually," she said. Kiely's favorite is "The Watsons," a fragment of an unpublished manuscript covered with marked corrections. "It's really the only manuscript we have that shows an artist creating literature," he said. "A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy" will be displayed at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Ave. at 36th Street) until March 14, 2010. Admission is $8 with student ID.
Columbia Spectator Staff