Inquiring reader: Recently I had the pleasure of viewing Jane Austen’s letters in A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy, an exhibit showing at the Morgan Libraryin New York City until March 14th. My observations are those of a layman and amateur. Nevertheless, I thought I would share my impressions. As Janeites know, several years before Cassandra Austen’s death, she ruthlessly censored Jane’s letters. In this image, taken from the Morgan Library website, you can see that an entire portion of the letter is missing. To the left of the same letter, Jane drew the pattern of a piece of lace, writing, “My cloak is come home, and here is the pattern of its lace.”
I was struck by how finely some of the portions had been cut out. In one letter that Jane wrote in 1814, Cassandra snipped only a few words and the cut was so unobtrusive that at first I did not spot the missing area. The sentence began with “Edward is quite…” Then nothing. Only a sliver of a line with several additional words cut out. Did the phrase reflect negatively upon Edward or Jane or another member of the family? We shall never know.
Franking letters was expensive for Jane, whose yearly personal budget consisted of £50 or less. She followed the common practice of cross writing. I noted how straight her lines were, and how carefully she placed them between the blank spaces of the lines on the other side. The letter below shows both practices. The Morgan Library website features this letter and allows you to enlarge it. Scroll to the bottom and study it in more detail. Learn more about crossed letters and the paper Jane used in this link.
Jane’s letters were not always crossed, nor did she always use both sides of the paper. In this delightful example, written to her niece, Cassandra, in the last year of her life, Jane takes care to keep a large amount of blank space around the lines. She also writes in a much larger script. Written entirely backwards with an unfaltering hand, the letter must have thrilled its young recipient.
It is estimated that Jane Austen wrote 3,000 letters in her lifetime. Of the 160 that remain, the Morgan Library has purchased 51. Not all of the lettters in this exhibit were written to family members. In the image below, the letter on the left was written by the Prince Regent’s librarian, James Stanier Clarke, to Jane. To the right of it sits one of her letters to him. I was struck by the brown color of the ink, which in some letters was still strong and vigorous, and in others had faded to a pale, watery color. Jane used iron gall ink, an ink common in her era, which is initially blue-black and then fades to brown.
It is composed of tannin (gallic acid), iron sulfate (known as vitriol in the nineteenth-century), gum arabic, and water. Because it is indelible, it was used for official documents from the middle ages onward. The ink is easy to make, inexpensive, and can be transported as a powder and mixed whenever needed. When first applied to paper, the ink appears pale-gray; as it is exposed to air, the ink darkens to a rich blue-black tone. Eventually, most iron gall ink changes to a brown color, as is evident in Austen’s letters and manuscripts – Thaw Conservation Center.
To learn more about Jane’s letters in the exhibit, I urge you to click on the Morgan Library website and study the few images that are shared with the public. Sadly, the Morgan did not publish a catalog, and much of the information in the exhibit is available only to visitors. Click here to view images from the exhibit. Click here to read about the technicalities of letter writing in Jane Austen’s day.
More links about the exhibit:
- The Morgan Library Celebrates Jane Austen: Woman Around Town – Excellent description of the exhibit and information about Jane’s letters at the Morgan Library
- At the Morgan, the Jane Austen Her Family Knew: The New York Times
- A Woman’s Wit at the Morgan Library: Duchess of Devonshire Gossip Guide
- Jane Austen at the Morgan Library: From this blog
More links on this blog about letter writing and the royal mail in Jane Austen’s day:
- Letter Writing in Jane Austen’s Time
- The Postal Service in 18th Century Britain
- Jane Austen’s Writing (Sloping) Desk