More treasures from the world of Jane Austen go on show as the Bodleian reveals a new side to the famous author for Jane Austen 200
An ambitious and risk-taking businesswoman and a wartime writer who was informed and inspired by the international adventures of her family and relations.
Jane Austen may not immediately come to mind in answer to this description but the Bodleian’s new exhibition for the bicentenary of her death makes the case by exploring a hitherto unknown side of the famous Regency author.
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Featuring a spectacular selection of Austen material displayed together for the first time, Which Jane Austen? delves into the myriad influences on her work such as war, the wider world and dealings with famous publishers of the day to unveil a woman who, despite living most of her life in rural Hampshire, was truly a writer of the world.
As with most novelists of the period, the Regency backdrop of Austen’s novels was undeniably one of war; Britain was locked into a struggle against Revolutionary France and Bonapartism for most of Austen’s life and the exhibition positions her as England’s novelist of the home front with the wars as the context for the quiet domestic lives of her characters.
The settings for novels like Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Persuasion may be outwardly parochial but here they are interpreted as wartime texts and set alongside other war writings including military treatises (of which Austen was an appreciative reader) and political cartoons.
Austen’s family, well-travelled to India, Scandinavia, Africa, China, Canada and the West Indies, also provided her with a rich international outlook. She also read many books that dealt with the far corners of the British Empire and the influence of these international links on Austen’s writing emerges through diaries, letters, naval logbooks and artefacts.
Among them is the logbook kept by her brother Frank Austen as Post-Captain of HMS Canopus, open at his entry describing the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Admiral Nelson.
“Contrary to popular belief, Jane Austen was no retiring country mouse,” says Professor Kathryn Sutherland, curator of the exhibition and world-leading Austen expert at Oxford University. “And while it is assumed that, as an 18th century female, her context was local and her outlook parochial, Austen was always very much a writer of the world.”
The Bodleian holds one of the best three collections of Austen material in the world and they have augmented their impressive holding with some key loans, including the Austen’s writings slope from the British Library and a royalty cheque made out to ‘Miss Jane Austin’, on loan from National Library of Scotland, which she counter-signed with the same mis-spelling, showing how important her writing income was to her.
Austen’s success as a professional writer and her frequent visits to London to oversee the publication process (and to relish the cultural and commercial life of the capital) is traced in rich detail, especially her relationship with John Murray II, the most glamorous publisher in London. Lord Byron and Walter Scott, the best-selling authors of the day, were also on Murray’s list.
The intriguing power of handwritten manuscripts – especially effective in bringing people closer to the author – is explored via The Watsons, the earliest surviving manuscript of a novel by Jane Austen in the process of development.
Probably composed in Bath in 1804-5, but for unknown reasons never finished, it tells the story of nineteen-year-old Emma Watson, adopted in childhood by a rich aunt and uncle, who following her uncle’s death and her aunt’s imprudent remarriage, returns after an absence of fourteen years to her birth family.
There’s also a copy of Volume the First, Austen’s collection of short stories together with mini-plays, verses and moral fragments that she wrote between the ages of 12 and 18. Transcribed later in the author’s own hand it contains some of her earliest fiction written into a ready-made bound blank stationer’s notebook. According to a final inscription it was completed on 3 June 1793.
Other treasures include the household recipe book used in Chawton Cottage by the Austen women, her hand-copied music books and a wealth of family and professional letters that reveal Jane Austen in her own words.
A 200-year journey ranging from Hampshire to the distant fringes of the British Empire, Which Jane Austen? promises more than just a glimpse into the many lives of Jane Austen.
Which Jane Austen? An exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries, June 22 – October 29 2017 at the Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.
For more on Jane Austen 200 see janeausten200.co.uk
The Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford form the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. They include the principal University library—the Bodleian Library—which has been a library of legal deposit for 400 years; major research libraries; and libraries attached to faculties, departments and other institutions of the…