Almost immediately after her death in Winchester on 18 July 1817, Jane Austen’s family set about transforming the author into a fictional heroine of their own devising.
Her sister, and closest confidante, Cassandra, destroyed most of Jane’s letters — incinerating many thousands in the fire, and cutting holes into those she kept — apparently afraid of the response that they might receive. Worse yet were the publications of Henry Austen’s ‘Memoir of Miss Austen’ and The Memoir of Jane Austen (1869) by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh; these two works firmly established the conventional image of ‘dear Aunt Jane’ as the quiet country spinster for whom ‘neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed’ with her motives for writing.
It is this elaborately laid fiction which the Weston Library’s new exhibition, ‘Which Jane Austen?’, aims to dispel once and for all. The exhibit brings together a collection of objects — leather bound books, hand-written letters, political cartoons and one fabulous silk pelisse — which work to unlock the elegance, decadence, violence and scandal of the regency age which informed the writer. Instead of the staid domestic wit, they attempt to establish a Jane who was a business-like woman, politically and socially ambitious — anything but the retiring country mouse.
Austen Leigh’s memoir forms the first exhibit on display, the point from which nearly all our understanding of Jane Austen derives. From there the show traces a clear line through the first popular reprints of the novels, featuring covers illustrated with the most lurid scenes from her novels to the irony of current day mash-ups, like Fanny Price facing down the dragon Smaug. It builds up the comforting image of ‘Austenland’, with its country balls, tea drinking and genteel English summer, only to shatter it the moment you turn around.
Here stands one of the few remaining letters of Jane’s. It is addressed to her brother, Henry; written mere days before her death, she displays good humour and expresses her very real hope of recovery. Next to it is the unfinished manuscript of Austen’s novel Sanditon, open on the final page of writing. Ironically, it was her own final illness which forced Austen to abandon the novel in which she mocked the new-found fashion for hypochondria in the seaside resorts. Together these items form the most affecting part of the exhibition: they remind you that there was a real Jane Austen after all, a woman who died painfully before her time.
Moving along the cabinets around the edge of the room there are several touching family relics likely to delight any Janeite — her petite dark oak writing desk, a book case carved for her by her brother Francis, and a recipe book from Chawton house, which she almost certainly tried to avoid ever having to use. Far more striking are the letters and early manuscripts on display. One letter, written to John Stainer Clarke (the librarian to the Prince Regent) who dared to suggest she write a historical romance on the house of Saxe-Coburg Gothe, shows an Austen who is confident about the value of her own ‘pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages’ and unwilling to compromise on her own vision.
As you progress through the displays, back into Austen’s early life and influences, Cassandra Austen’s malevolent handiwork becomes apparent. The objects selected to examine Austen as a war time writer, influenced by the adventures of her sailor brothers are particularly weak. The captions around the exhibits resort to speculative ‘what ifs, ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybes’, which somehow works to obscure what Jane Austen’s opinions and attitudes towards the war even were. Perhaps it will always be the case with authors that if you want to understand what influences an author, you are better off reading their works.
The exhibition closes where it all theoretically began. A young girl’s neat hand marks ‘Volume the First’ on a collection of short stories, mini-plays and verses, written between the ages of twelve and eighteen. The notebook in which it is written was made by her especially for her writing. It is in these personal objects that bear her voice that the Weston Library gets it right. It is only her letters and the evidence of her careful produced early notebooks which produce the fleeting glimpse we get of Jane Austen in this exhibition — the rest is mere noise.
‘Which Jane Austen?’ runs at the Weston Library until 29th October. Free admission. To read more about the exhibition, please visit the library website.