Page last updated at 08:32 GMT, Thursday, 5 November 2009

Rare Austen letters cause excitement

By Claire Prentice
BBC News, New York

A major Jane Austen exhibition, which has opened in New York, is creating a huge stir among fans and cultural commentators.

Jane Austen sketch
Only a small number of the author's personal letters survive

More than 100 items, including rare manuscripts and letters written by the British author to her family, have gone on display at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan.

"You can really get up close to the letters - get your nose in," says Morgan curator Declan Kiely.

"You feel you are getting to know Austen even though she is unknowable in some respects."

The letters - which is the largest collection in the world - are full of the author's famous stinging wit and her spirited sense of humour.

In one, written to her niece for her eighth birthday, Austen wrote each word backwards, creating a puzzle for the young recipient.

Only a small number of the author's personal letters have survived, and opportunities to see them in public are rare.

"There have been so many Jane Austen adaptations over the last 20 or 30 years. It seemed like a timely moment to show this collection," says Mr Kiely.

'Thoroughly modern'

Nearly two centuries after her death, Austen is more popular than ever, thanks in part to numerous book, TV and film adaptations of her work.

These have starred a host of Hollywood actors including Colin Firth, Anne Hathaway and Kate Winslet.

In October, BBC One screened a new version of Emma, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Romola Garai.

A highlight of the exhibition is the only surviving and complete handwritten manuscript of one of Austen's novels, Lady Susan.

There's no doubt people will still be reading her 200 years from now
Marsha Huff, President of the Jane Austen Society of North America

Composed in 1794-95, the story is a dark, satirical novel about a widow, determined to find a husband for herself and her shy daughter at any cost.

"We are very excited about Lady Susan. It hasn't been shown in public for many years," said Marsha Huff, President of the Jane Austen Society of North America.

"Austen's themes are universal, her characters are believable and her heroines are thoroughly modern.

"There's no doubt people will still be reading her 200 years from now."

An unfinished manuscript of The Watsons is annotated with detailed revisions.

It is the only surviving Austen manuscript which shows her work in progress.

Poignant letter

Other exhibits include a note in which Austen lists the amount of money she has made on each of her novels.

In another, she has written down her expenses, which included clothes, stamps and meat from the butcher.

But, perhaps the most poignant is a letter dated 20 July 1817, written by Cassandra to Fanny Knight - Austen's beloved niece - reporting the author's death.

Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle
Colin Firth famously played Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice

"I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed," it read.

Some of the letters on display have pieces cut out of them, most likely to be passages relating to health and other personal matters.

The Morgan's curators speculate that they might also have included criticisms of people the author knew.

"Jane Austen was like a guided missile of social satire. She was very frank which is why so many of her letters were destroyed or excised [by Austen's family]," explains Mr Kiely.

"She writes in one about people's fat necks and about people she's seen at parties.

"In one, she writes about women she's seen out in Bath wearing these elaborate hats topped with grapes and strawberries," he added.

Written at a time when paper and postage were expensive, the letters are also remarkable for their economy, with Austen cramming as many words as she could into each page.

In some letters, she used cross-hatching, whereby people at the time wrote both horizontally and vertically on the same side of one page to save money on paper and postage.

The organisers of the exhibition have also commissioned a documentary film about Austen's continuing influence, which features interviews with Fran Lebowitz, Colm Toibin and Cornel West.

A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy opens at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York on 6 November and runs until 14 March.

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