Since the much-anticipated release of the new £10 note, Twitter has been filled with people posting pictures of their very first Jane Austen bill. Why does this feel like such a historic moment? Firstly, there is a sense of triumph for a beloved national hero being acknowledged in this ubiquitous way, and second, the excitement that we are face-to-face with Jane Austen herself. However, the image on our banknote is not a faithful representation of the writer’s features. It is taken from a flattering engraving of her in a Victorian frontispiece, which was adapted from an earlier, more realistic depiction of Jane sketched by her sister Cassandra. ‘Which Jane Austen?’ at the Weston Library challenges politer public images of Jane Austen and unravels a rebellious portrait of the author that goes deeper than surface appearances.
In the dimmed maze of the exhibition room, Jane Austen’s writing desk stands out like a spot-lit star in the Austen universe. Preserved from the British Library, her portable writing desk was presented to her by her father in 1794. Despite the fact that it moved from place to place with its owner, its immaculate condition would suggest that Jane took excellent care of it. One can easily imagine her leaning against the desk to write, dipping her quill into the ink-pot and filing her drafts in the desk’s lockable drawer. It is also the item that feels most like the home of Jane Austen’s sensational novels, where each reader throughout the centuries has brought new perspectives or found within them glittering delights. ‘Which Jane Austen?’ understands this overlap between the author and her audience as it defies the systematic scheme of laying out an exhibition chronologically, and instead organises a fascinating scramble of Jane’s life interspersed with the reception history of her books. What this jigsaw of fact and fiction achieves is a bold picture of how her critique of society still informs our modern world.
The exhibition demonstrates how, rather than employing writing to retreat from the ardent issues of her epoch, Jane ingeniously engaged with her milieu by addressing the social climate and imagining preferable situations. We see how early on she relished the process of observing social norms around her and subverting them in order to envisage alternative orders. The exhibition holds a notebook containing a comedy in 2 acts written by Jane when she was about 14 years old. In the comedy, one of the female characters announces, “Come Girls, let us circulate the Bottle”, the joke pungently evoked in the gender reversal. Indeed, her acute awareness of the role of women would become more passionate and personal in her later comedies?. A rare artefact in the exhibition is an autograph draft of her unfinished novel The Watsons, in which she writes, “we must marry…it is very bad to grow old & be poor & laughed at”. After the initial humour, there is the bite of realism at society’s economic restrictions upon women. Jane would have certainly experienced the pinch of these socio-economic pressures as a woman, especially because she was unmarried and had no property of her own.
The exhibition also brings to life an especially illuminating link? between Jane Austen’s writing and Britain’s wars in the 18th century. Her books set in blossoming English country villages would seem far removed from the marching of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars of her era. However, the exhibition evidences how Jane was personally affected by the wars, which she chose to assimilate in her novels in subtle and morally concerned ways. Austen’s brother Henry served in the military in Oxfordshire, and by 1813 the South of England was pitched with military camps. In Pride and Prejudice, the writer describes Lydia’s excitement at visiting Brighton when “she saw all the glories of the camp; its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines”. In her novels, Jane presents this theme through the lens of the families who wait at home. Her aim was not so much to describe the war as to show that finding harmony between families could repair human conflict. Rudyard Kipling in his short story ‘The Janeites’ describes how Jane Austen saved the sanity of a shell-shocked ex-gunner in the trenches of WWI. It was the familiar pattern of family rituals described in her fiction that restored meaning to a world warped by violence. Though uninvolved in collateral action, Austen’s heroines often find themselves entrapped in a social battlefield and their struggle to be economically free, morally upright, and essentially happy in the world is an arc that has resonated with audiences throughout the ages.
‘Which Jane Austen?’ also unfolds an arguably under-explored relationship, namely that between Mansfield Park and its political context. It was not only the Napoleonic Wars that Jane Austen’s England vied with but also the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. At the end of the 18th century, the Abolition of the Slave Trade escalated in importance. At the same time, Britain’s consumption of the products from the trade (sugar and tobacco) increased. In 1772, the famous ‘Mansfield Judgement’, presided by the First Earl of Mansfield, ruled that no slave may be forcibly removed from England to be sold back into slavery. Jane would have known about slavery through her brother Francis who, during his naval work in the West Indies in 1805-6, developed a negative impression of the treatment of slaves in Antigua. The exhibition holds an edition of Mansfield Park from the year of its publication, 1814, and suggests that the title of the novel could be echoing the Mansfield Judgement. Indeed, the trade of sugar and slaves in Antigua permeates the novel. For example, Austen’s pious heroine asks Sir Thomas Bertram, “Did not you hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?” The novel says that the question was greeted with “dead silence”. Here we see a progressive Jane interrogating society with morally complex questions and raising public awareness. Britain would later pass the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, more than ten years after Jane Austen’s death.
Another memorable item in the exhibition is Jane Austen’s royalty cheque for her novel Emma. The cheque is for £38, 18 shillings and 1 penny, made from John Murray on the 21st of October 1816. The cheque, on loan? from the National Library of Scotland, was all that the authoress received for the sales of Emma. In the same period, the contemporary novelist of historical fiction, Walter Scott was cashing annual profits of a princely £10,000 for his writing. Perhaps it was because of the phenomenal sales that the historical novel genre enjoyed, which propelled Revd. J.S. Clarke to write to Jane Austen in 1816, suggesting that she should write a piece of historical fiction about the House of Saxe-Cobourg. Her response is one of the closest indications we may have of her distinct character as a writer. This letter is on display in the exhibition, on loan from Chawton House. Her sleek hand-writing reads, “I must keep to my own style & go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced I should totally fail in any other”. Although the ink has faded over the years, the decisive resolve behind the words still bleeds through the paper. It is a triumphant testament to her fidelity to both the form of the novel and her devotion to the sui generis message of her literature.
‘Which Jane Austen?’ accomplishes its aim, namely to show that her world was, in their words, “neither cosy nor confined.” The variety of artefacts on show and the preponderance of connections between them depict Jane Austen as actively engaged with the pressing issues of her era and as a scrupulous architect of social morality. The exhibition bursts at the seams with future possibility for research on the novelist by showing her relevance not only to England but to the wider world.