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A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy
November 6, 2009 through March 14, 2010

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Jane Austen (1775–1817)
Autograph letter signed, dated Bath, 2 June 1799, to Cassandra Austen
22.5 cm
Purchased by J. P. Morgan, Jr., 1920; MA 977.4

"My Cloak is come home, & here follows the pattern of its' lace. . . . I like it very much," writes Austen to Cassandra while on a six-week visit to the fashionable city of Bath with her parents. This letter is the earliest in the collection to show excisions, presumably by Cassandra after Austen's death, before she bequeathed the letters to their niece Fanny. Biographers suspect that the censored sections of the letters were either overly critical of family members or described indelicate physical ailments too vividly.

Jane Austen (1775–1817)
Autograph manuscript of a brief poem on Captain Foote's marriage to Miss Patten
50 x 115 mm
Purchased by J. P. Morgan, Jr., 1925; MA 1034.3

In Austen's time poetry was regarded as a more serious genre than prose fiction. Austen seems to have inherited her poetic talent from her mother, but she did not consider herself to be a serious poet and generally wrote occasional poems for events, such as marriages and births, that were playful, comic, or celebratory. For Austen, reading poetry was a serious pursuit, but her own compositions were a lighthearted pastime for personal and family amusement rather than publication. Eighteen poems by Austen—not all in her hand—survive. It is likely that she wrote many others that were subsequently lost or remain untraced. Although this poem is in Austen's handwriting, it was composed by her uncle James Leigh Perrot. Her final poem was written three days before her death.

Jane Austen (1775–1817)
Lady Susan
Autograph manuscript, written ca. 1794–95 and transcribed in fair copy soon after 1805
Purchased in 1947; MA 1226

See more images of this manuscript with audio »

Lady Susan Vernon is the eponymous antihero of Austen's romantic black comedy. Sophisticated, seductive, and amoral, she is characterized by the scholar Marilyn Butler as "a cruising shark in her social goldfish pond." The narrative focuses on the recently widowed Susan's strategic attempts to achieve advantageous marriages for herself and her shy but intractable daughter, Frederica. Her letters, written to multiple recipients, eventually reveal the full extent of her manipulative and duplicitous character. Austen's ironic social observation is sharp and witty and, according to the scholar Christine Alexander, Lady Susan combines "all the free-ranging energy" of Austen's juvenilia "with the polish and sophistication of her later writing."

Isabel Bishop (1902–1988)
The Examination of All the Letters Which Jane Had Written to Her
Pen and black ink, gray wash, over pencil, on paper
Gift of Mrs. Robert E. Blum in honor of Charles Ryskamp on his 10th anniversary as Director; 1979.32:15

In this scene from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is visiting her newlywed friend Charlotte and distant cousin Mr. Collins, and can only communicate with her sister Jane by letter. In reading Jane's letters, Elizabeth realizes Jane is gloomy about Bingley's absence, a situation for which she blames Mr. Darcy. The letters "contained no actual complaint, nor was there any revival of past occurrences, or any communication of present suffering. But in all, and in almost every line of each, there was a want of that cheerfulness which had been used to characterize her style." In a stroke of bad timing, it is just at this moment that Mr. Darcy expresses his love and proposes. Elizabeth cannot hold her tongue: "I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed upon to marry."

William Blake (1757–1827)
Portrait of Mrs. Q (Mrs. Harriet Quentin)
Stipple etching/engraving with mezzotint, printed in dark brown on wove paper, 1820
313 x 246 mm
Gift of Charles Ryskamp in memory of Michael S. Currier; 1998.36:4

In her letter dated 24 May, 1813 (MA 977.31), Austen reports seeing a painting of how she imagines Jane Bennet, who marries Mr. Bingley at the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice. "Mrs Bingley is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her." Scholars suspect that the painting she refers to is the Portrait of Mrs Q by the French portrait painter François Huet-Villiers. Harriet Quentin was a mistress to George IV when he was prince regent. William Blake's 1820 engraving reproduces the portrait.

James Gillray (1756–1815)
And Catch the Living Manners as They Rise
Etching and aquatint, hand colored
300 x 231 mm, on sheet trimmed to plate mark, 351 x 248 mm [London]: Published by H. Humphrey, No. 18 Old Bond Street, 7 May 1794
Bequest of Gordon N. Ray, 1987; 1986.393
Peel Collection; Peel Volume 10, Number 197

In Austen's letter to Cassandra, written from Bath on 2 June 1799 (MA 977.4), she commented on the style of contemporary hat decorations with evident amusement: "Flowers are very much worn, & Fruit is still more the thing.—Eliz: has a bunch of Strawberries, & I have seen Grapes, Cherries, Plumbs & Apricots—There are likewise Almonds & raisins, french plums & Tamarinds at the Grocers, but I have never seen any of them in hats." Gillray's caricatures satirized ladies who wore enormous ostrich feathers that needed to be glued in place with large quantities of goose grease and hair powder.

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Background images: Photography by Todd Eberle unless otherwise noted. © 2006 Todd Eberle.