Many of our supporters will know that this year is the bicentenary of the publication of Jane Austen’s novel Emma. It was published by John Murray II on 23 December 1815, with 1816 on the title page. Our current exhibition commemorates this landmark in Jane Austen’s publishing career. Items from our own collection, and the Knight family collection (belonging to Austen’s brother, and on deposit here) are used to talk about the world of the novel and its reception through the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And some unique manuscript material joins selected work from our own collection. This is the first time we have been able to solicit loans from other research libraries, and it’s all thanks to the generosity of individuals, and the Garfield Weston Foundation, who have provided us with funding to equip our Exhibition Room with state-of-the-art display cases.
There is no more fitting setting. Jane Austen’s Emma is the only one of her novels to focus exclusively on ‘three or four families in a country village’. This is the scope Jane Austen recommended to her niece Anna, herself a budding author. And certainly, there was something very pleasing about planning the exhibition in the village of Chawton, surrounded by ‘English verdure’. Although the fictional village of Highbury is in Surrey, not Hampshire, some have claimed nearby Alton is the model for it. It has also been suggested, over the years, that Donwell Abbey was modelled on Chawton House. And the names Knight and Knightley are tantalisingly suggestive.
We aren’t simply examining the country setting of the novel, however. Instead, our emphasis is on the global world of the novel, and early nineteenth-century publishing practices. We set the first English edition by Murray alongside the first American edition (also 1816, on loan from King’s College Cambridge), and the first French translation (also 1816, on loan from the University of Göttingen). Another section of the exhibition focuses on works mentioned in the novel – by Ann Radcliffe, Maria Roche and others. Yet another section concentrates on female accomplishments (painting,
music-making and embroidery) inspired by Harriet Smith and Emma Woodhouse’s activities at Hartfield. Here, display a manuscript music book in private ownership alongside a commonplace book (a manuscript book in which people would note down favourite quotations, proverbs, poems, riddles and extracts from literature, just as Emma and Harriet do in Emma). Another display case focuses on Austen’s use of Shakespeare in the novel, and his importance for women writers in the eighteenth century more generally. And in our Lower Reading Room, we concentrate on the reception of Emma, with – as an exciting highlight – Charlotte Brontë’s letter on reading the novel, on loan to us from the Huntington library in California.
Our largest exhibition area is our new Exhibition Room. Here, we highlight Austen’s move to John Murray II by displaying works by other women writers published by the house of Murray in the 1800-1820 period. We have first editions of many such publications, from Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis’s The Duchess of La Valliere (1804) to Susan Ferrier’s Marriage (1818), and non-fiction by writers from Maria Rundell to Germaine de Staël. Jane Austen famously said of John Murray II that he was “A Rogue of course, but a civil one”. Murray’s correspondence with Austen’s contemporaries Maria Graham, Felicia Hemans and Helen Maria Williams gives a more nuanced picture of this leading light of Regency-Period publishing.
The exhibition is included in the price of admission and will run until 25 September 2016.