June 2017 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Major Jane Austen Exhibition Opens

Jane+Austen+portrait copy.jpgOn Friday the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford will ask the question: Which Jane Austen?

In an exhibition marking the bicentennial of the author's death, Austen's world is broadened beyond her native Hampshire. The manuscripts, artifacts, and ephemera on exhibit aim to contextualize Austen as a businesswoman and as an avid spectator of global issues, including war and British empire-building. For example, her novels, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, are interpreted in the exhibition as wartime texts set alongside military treatises and political cartoons. Three of Austen's brothers served in the military; the logbook kept by Frank Austen as Post-Captain of HMS Canopus, open at his entry describing the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Admiral Nelson, is one of the show's highlights.

Oxford University professor Kathryn Sutherland, curator of the exhibition and leading Austen expert, said, "Contrary to popular belief, Jane Austen was no retiring country mouse. 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."

Jane+Austen+Volume+the+First_cover(1) copy.jpgOther highlights include "Volume the First," a collection of short stories, plays, and verse written by Austen between the ages of 12 and 18; manuscripts of The Watsons and Sanditon; first editions of her novels; her writing desk; and many family and professional letters. The Bodleian Libraries have one of the world's three most significant collections of Austen material. For this exhibition, several institutions, including Chawton House Library, Jane Austen's House Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the John Murray Archive, and others, loaned important items.    

A range of events are taking place across the UK this summer to observe the 200th anniversary of Austen's death (July 18), including The Mysterious Miss Austen, an exhibition at the Discovery Centre, Winchester (through July 24), and various tours, programs, and exhibits at Chawton House Library and Jane Austen's House Museum.

Images: (Top) A portrait of Jane Austen from the frontispiece of A Memoir of Jane Austen, a biography of the novelist published in 1869 by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh.The portrait is a steel engraving by an unknown artist and is based on a watercolor by James Andrews (1807-1875). Andrews, in his turn, based his portrait on a sketch made by Jane's sister Cassandra c. 1810. Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. (Middle) Front cover of the unique manuscript "Volume the First." Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.