Rosalind, As You Like it, Act 4, Scene 1
Rosalind’s words are the perfect introduction to the Morgan Library’s exhibition of Jane Austen’s life and works through its collection of her letters. Austen wrote about 3,000 letters, but only 160 survive and the Morgan owns 51.
I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was 14 and was immediately hooked by one of the most famous opening lines in literature, without understanding why. Since then, I must have read her books at least once a year. As I became older, I grew to appreciate the precision of her language, her ironic wit and cutting social commentary which lie just under the surface of her English gentility. Her letters are remarkably similiar in tone to the narrator of her novels:
15-16/9/1796, comments on a Miss Fletcher:
“She wore her purple muslin which is pretty enough, though it does not become her complexion.”
14/9/1804, comments on a Miss Armstong:
“I do not perceive wit or genius – but she has some sense and some degree of taste, and her manners are very engaging. She seems to like people rather too easily.”
8/2/1807, on the death of Mrs WK :
“I had no idea anybody liked her, and therefore felt nothing for any survivor.”
As well as her own letters, the exhibition also includes letters by other writers who admired Austen – which I knew nothing about and surprised me as many were by men. Walter Scott, one of Austen’s favourite writers, said:
“Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is some of the most wonderful I have ever met with.”
Rudyard Kipling wrote a story about Janeites, a group of World War I soldiers who were secret Austen devotees while WB Yeats had “great satisfaction” reading Austen when he toured America in the 1920s. Vladimir Nabokov initially excluded Austen from his course on the Masters of European Fiction at Cornell, until persuaded otherwise by Edmund Wilson, who wrote:
I would wholeheartedly agree.
The New York Review of Books’ take on the exhibition can be found here.