The Enduring Appeal of Jane Austen

18Nov09

by Emily Waldorf

The characters in Jane Austen’s brilliant novels inhabit your imagination indefinitely once you have had the pleasure of reading about their hopes and desires.  Who hasn’t encountered an overly passionate Marianne Dashwood or dashing but unreliable John Willoughby? Austen’s genius talent for social satire, despite being firmly planted in the world of 19th century England, is what still draws readers and audiences to her work today.

But who is Jane Austen?  If you are a real Jane Austen nut, you have probably already read Claire Tomalin’s well researched book about the notoriously elusive author, Jane Austen:  A Life.  And now you can view the Morgan Library‘s first Austen show in more than twenty five years, “A Woman’s Wit:  Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy,” curated by Declan Kiely and Clara Drummond.

The Morgan Library enjoys the largest collection in the world of Jane Austen memorabilia.  The exhibition includes many rare early editions, a revealing collection of letters written to her sister Cassandra and her niece Fannie Knight, and the Lady Susan manuscript, the only surviving complete draft of any of her novels.  Apparently, Austen wrote more than 3,000 letters in her lifetime and only 160 survive.  Most of the letters were destroyed after her death by her sister in order to preserve the family’s reputation.  This can be seen in the exhibition through letters that have been censored with whole sections cut out.

The exhibition seeks to challenge the widely held notion that Austen was a sheltered spinster.  According to Curator Declan Kiely in Vogue,

“We now understand, to the contrary, that Austen was extremely ambitious, incredibly perceptive, and wickedly funny—even scathingly so.”

No wonder her novels are so entertaining.  One of the other aspects of Austen’s novels that attracts readers is the strict code of etiquette and decorum that they are forced to operate in.  In his Wall Street Journal article, “What Would Jane Do?”  James Collins points out the 21st century appeal of Austen’s writing, arguing that it is her moral instruction that draws today’s readers :

“Austen’s moral instruction points one toward a more moral life—where “moral” refers not only to right principles but to conduct in general. Austen’s value system can be thought of as a sphere with layers. The innermost core might be called “morals,” the next layer we could call “sentiments,” and finally the surface “manners.” Morals are the fundamental principles: self-knowledge, generosity, humility, tenderest compassion, upright integrity.”

Perhaps it is because the twenty-first century lacks any coherent moral instruction that Jane Austen’s work has proved so enduring.

See the 16 minute documentary featuring Cornel West, Fran Leibowtiz and Colin Toibin on Jane Austen:

The Divine Jane: Reflections on Austen from The Morgan Library & Museum on Vimeo.

“A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy” runs through March 14 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street; (212) 685-0008; http://www.themorgan.org.

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