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Janes of note

Elizabeth Jane Timms

Which Jane Austen?
ST Lee Gallery, Weston Library
23 June to 29 Oxtober, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Among the many events taking place nationwide to commemorate 200 years since Jane Austen’s death is the major summer exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries. Which Jane Austen?, which runs until the 29th October, seeks to challenge previously held perceptions of the author by encouraging us to look at her afresh as a multifaceted and surprisingly modern personality. The exhibition portrays Austen as an ambitious businesswoman, quite topical, perhaps, given her recent and controversial appearance on the new £10 note.

Austen’s universal recognition today is so great that we might easily forget that this was not the case during her own lifetime. Indeed, we appreciate her contemporary fame more fully when we realise that the novels published whilst she was alive went to press anonymously and that her literary recognition more or less hid behind the seemingly modest authorship of “A Lady”, as she was first identified on the cover page of Sense and Sensibility in 1811. Subsequently, her works were attributed to the “Author of Sense and Sensibility”. Since her death, posterity has sought to atone for her anonymity in her own lifetime, although it was in fact her wish to publish Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma as such. Even Austen’s tombstone in Winchester Cathedral bears no witness to her literary life, a fact which has since been rectified by a memorial and later a stained-glass window, paid for by public subscription.

In Which Jane? we learn of Austen’s business correspondence with her publisher John Murray, whom she referred to as “a rogue of course, but a civil one”, as well as her commercial trips to London to assess the progress of her publications. One of the exhibits on display is a royalty cheque made out to Austen by Murray in October of 1816, the year that he published Emma. Austen’s first novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, had been published by Thomas Egerton. Murray had published well-known authors such as Lord Byron and Walter Scott, and took certain professional risks in publishing Austen: the sale subscription lists in the John Murray Archive show that the second edition of Mansfield Park (which Murray published in Austen’s lifetime) sold badly and that its trade price consequently had to be reduced.

The exhibition also casts Austen’s work in the international context of the Napoleanic Wars, emphasising her role as a writer on the home front. We may envisage Austen writing her own political commentary from her mahogany travelling writing desk, a 19th birthday present from her father, today a treasure of the British Library and one of the exhibition’s highlights. First edition copies of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Persuasion are also displayed, with the relevant pages open to passages relating directly to war. In these novels, the constant appearance of soldiers and sailors demonstrates how war was accepted as part of the general backdrop of the time. Where Austen’s characters might have served in the militia, their participation is typically viewed from a domestic perspective. Elsewhere, in Persuasion, we read that Admiral Croft, a Rear Admiral of the White, had been at the Battle of Trafalgar. The novel’s hero, Captain Frederick Wentworth, is an officer in the British navy who has profited in fortunes awarded to him following his capture of French vessels during the Napoleanic Wars. Through close readings and other personal items such as Austen’s brother’s military logbook, we get an impression of the ubiquity of war as a backdrop to social life. 

Which Jane also looks more closely at the far-reaching international influence of world affairs on Austen’s work, through the books that she read and the travels that her extended family made. We learn, for instance, that her cousin Eliza Hancock married a French count and army Captain, Jean-François Capot de Feuillide, who was guillotined in 1794. This international Austen influence is stressed through the display of diaries, letters and artefacts. Oxford University’s Professor Kathryn Sutherland, an authority on Austen and curator of Which Jane, who commented in the Bodleian Libraries’ June News feature on the exhibition, has moreover edited a book which accompanies it. Titled Jane Austen: Writer in the World, it discusses Austen’s wider world-views alongside contemporary newspaper articles and political cartoons.

Amongst the spectacular display mounted at the Weston Library, there are also items on loan from the National Library of Scotland’s John Murray Archive. Other exhibition highlights include hand-copied music books, the unfinished manuscript of Sanditon, her earliest surviving manuscript, The Watsons, and a copy of Volume the First, a compiled juvenile volume of short works, written before Austen was 18. Volume the First was purchased by the Friends of the Bodleian Library in 1933 for £75 and was later transcribed by R. W Chapman for the Clarendon Press. The unique effect of encountering these manuscripts in one place is powerful when we consider the scattered nature of other Austen material throughout the world.

Set alongside the astonishingly rich fund of the Bodleian Libraries own collection of Austen material are items on loan from such institutions as King’s College, Cambridge, Jane Austen’s House Museum, the British Library and the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Also included are several items from the private collections of certain Oxford colleges. Austen’s links with Oxford are perhaps not well known, but the most significant of these is the Austen family connection with St. John’s College. Her father, the Rev. George Austen was Proctor of the college and her brothers Henry and James both studied there. Today, St. John’s owns five letters written by Austen to her niece, Anna. Austen’s mother’s uncle, Theophilus Leigh D.D., was also Master at Balliol College. Austen herself briefly studied at Oxford at the age of seven, together with her beloved sister Cassandra and her cousin Jane Cooper, under the tutelage of Mrs Cawley of Brasenose College.

It seems then most appropriate that Austen should be looked at afresh within the Bodleian Libraries, which are host to one of the world’s three largest holdings of Austen material, but are also situated in a city that has important, if lesser known, connections to her.

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Elizabeth Jane Timms is a freelance writer, historian and journalist based in Oxford.