After the amazing impression the Austen exhibition in King’s College, Cambridge made on me, you won’t be very surprised to hear that I travelled to Oxford in order to see the “Which Jane Austen?” exhibition at the Bodleian library. I had seen the manuscript of Sanditon the week before, now I hoped I would see The Watsons.
Sadly I don’t have any pretty pictures of mine for you this week – as I was told that the exhibition did not allow photography. “You will find it’s all online anyway”, the security guard helpfully told me. Well, sure, but I prefer to use my own photos in posts….
So is it worth taking a trip to Oxford to see this exhibition? If you’re a hardcore Austen fan, then I probably yes.
The exhibtion includes not only the Bodleian’s manuscript of The Watsons (a fragment of a novel which Austen stopped working on when her father died), but also some significant objects on loan from other museums – including Austen’s travel desk and some of her letters (on loan from the British Museum) and a fragment of Sanditon (on loan from King’s College, Cambridge – Austen wrote her novels in self- made paper booklets– that’s why it was possible for King’s to keep a bit of Sanditon for its own exhibition and lend a bit to the Bodleian). The exhibition also features painstaikingly collected historical documents that bear witness to the life Austen’s nearest relations – for example, documents relating to the trial of her aunt Mrs Jane Leigh-Perrot (who was accused of stealing lace).
We also have a copy of a ship’s journal kept by one of Austen’s brothers, a facsimile of Jane Austen’s silk pelisse and a nice shelf dedicated to the modern Austenmania.
My favourite object in the exhibition was probably a wooden letter-case with the initials “J.A.” which was a handmade gift from Francis, one of Austen’s brothers, who was in the navy at the time.
It’s a deeply personal object: to the person who made it, Austen was not primarily a writer but a dearly loved sister. It makes her seem more human. But the navy man who loved woodwork reminds one of the character of Captain Harville in Austen’s Persuasion. The wooden letter-case unites the sister and the writer into a seamless whole.
Having said all this, I did not enjoy this exhibition quite as much as the King’s College one – even though it had more Austen material. This might have something to do with the fact that it was hosted in a proper exhibition space rather than a quirky old library, and consequently, it felt a bit like a tourist trap.
Here’s an example- the exhibition featured a royalty cheque written to Jane Austen by John Murray.
A group of tourists approached it, and among them, a man with a hat who explained every exhibit with an air of authority – without reading the descriptions provided. I’ll call him ‘The Explainer’.
“This is the cheque Austen received for her first novel,” The Explainer said confidently.
“Erm?”, I thought, “I’m pretty sure Murray did not publish Austen’s first published novel… I think it was Egerton?” But, not being a particularly confident person, I said nothing.
“I can’t remember whether it was Sense & Sensibility or Northanger Abbey“ continued The Explainer.
At this stage, I was rolling my eyes at this nonsense…Surely you should know if you are attempting to explain things at an Austen exhibition that Northanger Abbey was published (together with Persuasion) after Austen’s death. Needless to say, I moved as far away as possible from The Explainer, but his voice was loud and booming – and it was really hard to get away from it.
That’s not to say that I think the Murray cheque would be easy to identify without a museum description – but for goodness sake, people should read the museum description! That’s what they’re there for!
Especially if they are planning on explaining the exhibition to their friends – they need to be kinder to the agonised nerd who is trembling with the urge to contradict them…
Grumble, grumble, grumble.
The other detail which interfered with my enjoyment of the exhibition was that there was no section devoted to Austen’s connections to Oxford. Given how much King’s College highlighted its connections with the Austen family, it seems a shame for Oxford to neglect its own connections – especially as both Austen’s father and two brothers were at St. John’s and her great-uncle was the master of Balliol. Her maternal grandfather had been a fellow of All Souls.
Jane Austen herself also spent some time at Mrs Cawley’s school Oxford when she was seven. A quick search has revealed that Brasenose College, Oxford has even released a book about the very Mrs Cawley whose school Austen attended (see here).
It seems a shame for the exhibition not to mention any this, even if it didn’t have any access to relevant documents (which I doubt, given that it was hosted by the Bodleian).
But all in all, it was a fascinating exhibition.
P.S. On a side note, I feel that this John Thorpe quote from Austen’s Northanger Abbey should be up on the exhibition wall to comment on Oxonian drinking standards:
“Oxford! There is no drinking at Oxford now, I assure you. Nobody drinks there. You would hardly meet with a man who goes beyond his four pints at the utmost. “