by Juliette Wells, PhD
In 2017 we mark the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death in July, and of her final publications—the novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion—in December. Lovers of Austen’s writings have many choices to commemorate her life and achievements. We can reread a favorite novel, perhaps in one of the richly annotated and illustrated editions recently published by Harvard’s Belknap Press. We can share Austen with our family and friends, either through one of the many excellent screen adaptations or an edition specially designed for first-time readers (such as my own reader-friendly Emma for Penguin Classics, which will be followed later this year by a comparable Persuasion). If we’re lucky, we can travel—or return—to England, to take in the many special exhibits planned in places associated with Austen’s life and novels.
But we don’t have to go all the way across the pond to see fascinating Austen material. Here are my top recommendations for open-access digital sites that will interest both those steeped in Austen and those making her acquaintance for the first time.
A must-see for anyone curious about Austen’s writing practices, this site brings together all the surviving hand-written documents from her career as a fiction writer. Highlights include the three volumes of short, creative works she wrote as a teenager; the original ending of her novel Persuasion; and the pieces she left unfinished or unpublished at her death, including the novella-in-letters Lady Susan (the inspiration for Whit Stillman’s 2016 film Love and Friendship). The website’s creator, Oxford professor Kathryn Sutherland, also narrated this short video for the British Library about Austen’s habits as a writer.
Austen was a prolific letter writer who delighted in the minutiae of everyday life. In this online companion to a physical exhibit from several years ago, The Morgan Library and Museum presents selected letters and documents from the institution’s extensive Austen collection, including period images and illustrations. A wonderful bonus is “The Divine Jane”, a short documentary in which noted authors and scholars muse on the importance of Austen’s letters (and get to touch them!).
As was typical for English gentlewomen of her time, Austen learned to play the pianoforte (a forerunner of today’s piano). She enjoyed practicing and playing for her own pleasure throughout her adult life. Because sheet music was expensive, she hand-copied songs and pieces for her own use. The University of Southampton has recently digitized several volumes of the Austen family’s surviving music books, including many items in Austen’s own notation. A lovely recording by Southampton performers brings Austen’s musical world alive.
Austen avidly attended cultural events, including theatrical performances and art exhibits. Two of the latter have been digitally reconstructed by a team at the University of Texas at Austin: a 1796 gallery of paintings inspired by Shakespeare, and an 1813 retrospective of the works of the famous portraitist Joshua Reynolds. See for yourself the pictures that stoked Austen’s imagination in her youth and, later, in the year that Pride and Prejudice was published.
What was it like to read the first Austen novel printed in the United States? Thanks to the Goucher College Library’s full facsimile of its copy of the exceptionally rare 1816 Philadelphia Emma, we can all share this experience. Goucher’s extensive collection of Austen materials was formed by Alberta Hirshheimer Burke, class of 1928. Items from the collection are available for viewing, by appointment: contact curator Tara J. Olivero for information on individual and group visits.
Founded in 1979, JASNA is the world’s largest organization of people who care about Austen. Information about regional groups’ meetings and activities, including those of JASNA-Maryland and JASNA-D.C., is available on the society’s website. Also available is a wide range of information about Austen, including the contents of JASNA’s respected journals, Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line. Accessibly written, these articles form a rewarding resource for teachers, students, and anyone who would like a deeper appreciation of Austen’s writings.
About the Author
Juliette Wells is the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Associate Professor of English at Goucher College. She is the author of Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination and is finishing a new book, Reading Austen in America.
The opinions expressed by guest contributors to the Maryland Humanities blog do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of Maryland Humanities and/or any of its sponsors, partners, or funders. No official endorsement by any of these institutions should be inferred.