As spring fever begins to waft through the air, bringing with it beguiling hints that the long, cold winter is finally waving goodbye, I decided it was high time to take off my fuzzy synchilla sweatpants and venture outside of my cozy little writing room. I love sitting for hours on end at my computer, tapping out my stories with my patented two-fingered hunt-and-peck technique. But I also love research forays, which I find are like a breath of fresh air to the creative process.
Whether it’s a museum exhibit, a history lecture, a library talk—I always find something new and exciting to get my heart thumping. Imagination is a wondrous thing, and it’s fascinating to see how each of us has a unique perspective on the world around us.
My foray this week was to the Morgan Library in New York, where they were featuring an exhibit entitled: “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy. A small but fabulous show, it consisted mainly of her personal letters to family and friends, along with related prints from the era and early editions of her books. (The Morgan owns the largest collection of Austen’s correspondence, and much of it not been shown for over twenty five years.)
It was an incredible experience to see her actual handwriting, and read her astute observations and pithy comments! She becomes so very real as a person, and at times I was almost laughing aloud at her tart humor and acerbic wit. Not that it was any surprise, but it highlighted how much of her own personality is in her books. Here’s one of my favorite examples: in writing about a new acquaintance, Jane comments, “I do not perceive any Wit or Genius in her . . . She seems to like people rather too easily.”
Her brother Henry notes that Jane loved party-going and was very fond of dancing. (It is noted in the exhibition that most of her heroines and heroes were excellent dancers—Jane and Elizabeth Bennett included.) Indeed, one of Jane’s letters says, “I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne.” Not that I think she would give Paris Hilton a run for her money, but apparently Jane liked to cut loose on occasion!
Just to give you all a bit more of the flavor, I’m going to share some more actual quotes, as listed in the Morgan’s exhibit notes:
Austen's niece Caroline recollected: "As to my aunt's personal appearance, hers was the first face I can remember thinking pretty. Her face was rather round than long, she had a bright, but not a pink colour—a clear brown complexion, and very good hazel eyes. Her hair, a darkish brown, curled naturally, it was in short curls around her face. She always wore a cap." (Note, this painting on the right is an idealized portrait of Jane, taken from the unfinished sketch done by her sister Cassandra.)
In her letter dated 24 May, 1813, 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. (shown at left) Harriet Quentin was a mistress to George IV when he was prince regent. William Blake's 1820 engraving reproduces the portrait. In the same letter, Austen suspects that Elizabeth Bennet, later Mrs. Darcy, would have different preferences: "I dare say Mrs D. will be in Yellow."
In Austen's letter to Cassandra, written from Bath on 2 June 1799, 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." (The image at right is a detail from one of the Gillray prints that are part of the exhibit.)
I adore Jane Austen, and found this exhibit gave me an even deeper appreciation of her as a person and an author. How about you? Are you an Austen fan? Do you have a favorite book or character? (I love Lizzie Bennett and Anne Elliot.)