The lesser known Jane Austen

The lesser known Jane Austen


“Ym raed Yssac,” it begins, “I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey.”

Every word in the letter is spelled backward, from that opening New Year’s wish to her dear Cassy to the signature, “Ruoy Etanoitceffa Tnua, Enaj Netsua.” The author, here as elsewhere, does not condescend to her readers, but she also knows who they are and how to give them pleasure. Imagine an eight-year-old girl, perhaps as precocious as her aunt, playfully deciphering these good wishes.
The difficulty comes, though, in imagining Austen herself. She was such a subtle reader of her characters’ manners, so knowing about their flaws and virtues, yet herself so opaque and mysterious a presence that it is hard to imagine her in the flesh. You have to read her the way her most sentient characters read their companions, attending to subtle signs, mannerisms and language.

And for anyone who has even begun to take her measure, there may be no greater pleasure than to visit the new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York,  ‘A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy.’ Like Austen’s own voice, the show is exquisitely informative while being almost laconic, displaying a wealth of material with careful explication, yet allowing the viewer to tease the writer’s sensibility out of the objects on display. The only thing out of character is a self-conscious, 16-minute documentary, ‘The Divine Jane,’ created for the show, in which contemporary figures speak about Austen’s importance — though little that Cornel West, Fran Lebowitz or Colm Toibin have to say comes close to what the documents communicate on their own.
The curator, Declan Kiely, the head of the Morgan’s Literary and Historical Manuscripts department, along with that division’s assistant curator, Clara Drummond, had the privilege of selecting from the world’s largest institutional collection of Austen manuscripts and letters for the museum’s first Austen show in more than a quarter of a century.

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