Just finished a review of the exhibition “Captured by Jane: A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy,” recently closed at the Morgan Library and Museum. If you follow this link, you can view the online version of the exhibition itself, including a fully-readable facsimile of “Lady Susan,” a short unfinished fragment.

The review has this to say about the exhibition and about the nature of literary influence, especially unacknowledged but obviously essential precursors like Behn and Alcoforado:

The Austen show at The Morgan Library & Museum transports its visitors to an Austen paradiso – pure Janeite heaven. Down here on terra firma, we find the show a decided victory of librarian over cybrarian. The show’s impressive attendance – always a gauge of tastes and curatorial planning – affirms the continuing value of rare books and manuscripts in today’s fast culture of wireless downloads and instant communications. The Kindle will have its users, but the physical artefact of book and manuscript continues to summon respect. Those who viewed the Austen show in The Morgan’s new Englehard Gallery were struck by the beauty of the exhibition’s design and its cultural authority. Austen cultists were refreshed, passion renewed; novitiates were captured by Jane (Figure 1).

The Morgan’s Austen show was the literary success of New York City’s 2009 -2010 winter season; it also was the first major show on this English novelist in the United States. The event’s goal, as stated in the handsome silkscreen wall label in the gallery’s charming alcove (a 12 x 12’ entranceway), was to explore the life and legacy of Austen – what she achieved, what she left for us today, be we readers or writers.


Back to the books. One of the largest and most popular of the display cases was a gathering of books by some of Austen’s favourite writers, amongst these Frances Burney, Laurence Sterne, Samuel Richardson, and a most special correspondent of Austen’s: Samuel Johnson (“My dear Dr. Johnson”). Some specialists may have missed in this gathering of literary influences book selections by some additional literary figures, primarily the Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth, so highly regarded by Austen (and so collected by The Morgan; over 80 entries in its online catalogue). Perhaps space constraints precluded a book by Edgeworth. Interestingly, if we may pause over this point, Austen seldom, if ever, acknowledges her earlier sisters of the pen, such as two quite famous figures –one, English, one not — whose names and writings could not have been unfamiliar to Austen, though never mentioned in her letters and writings owing to the sexual content of their work. These two predecessors are the famous Aphra Behn, whose novels riveted the London book market in the 1680s, and Mariana Alcoforado, the jilted Portuguese nun whose five torrid letters of desire and betrayal fascinated London readers (Les lettres portugaises, 1669; English-language eds., 1681 through 1817, and thereafter;…); both women had woeful tastes in men, as they freely admit in their writings. If Austen was concerned with fame, as she writes in family correspondence, she was certainly watching the commercial market, alert to what was selling and what was not; it is difficult to believe that she would not have known (and arguably benefited from) the work of these earlier women writers. Yes, these were earlier figures, but their work was sensational and still in circulation on the London market during Austen’s time; moreover, Austen (as her concealed public authorship shows) was not indifferent to the phenomenon of the publishing woman writer. How could such high-profile writers such as Behn and the famous Portuguese nun be unfamiliar to any woman writer, especially a writer like Austen whose métier was women and men together (gender politics and its nuances)? And this begs the question: What were Jane Austen’s actual reading tastes, and what did her private library really include? In view of the energetic research into early women writers – their public and hidden lives, their coteries and networks, their true selves behind the tidy exteriors — we must wonder what Jane Austen will look like in the year 2050. In the present decade, she is highly valued as a novelist, and first editions of her books fetched high sums at a recent New York City auction. But literary tastes do change, and fame is a fickle, capricious thing.

Also of real interest is this superb short film, “The Divine Jane,” which was central to the exhibit itself:

The Divine Jane: Reflections on Austen from The Morgan Library & Museum on Vimeo.

The video seems especially useful. Not just because it contains the reflections of academics, novelists, and actresses on the art and continuing vitality of Jane Austen, but because it gives us a palpable image of them registering surprise and delight as they examine the manuscripts. It also shows the full range of their response–they don’t just reflect favorably on Austen, they speak about her with such seriousness and thoughtfulness that it becomes clear that her impression transcends mere appreciation or analysis to inspire love and reverence. Not many authors have that effect on readers.