There’s an exhibit going on right now of Jane Austen’s letters, manuscripts, and some engravings at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan. Today’s Jane Austen‘s birthday. She was born on this day, December 16th, in 1775. If I could I’d go to the exhibit, but instead I’ll pull out my worn copy of Emma, which is one of my favorite books of all time. And maybe Ms. Austen would prefer that. In a review of the exhibit, Edward Rothstein says that, while we know Jane Austen the author, and while we’re intimately acquainted with her characters,
The difficulty comes, though, in imagining Austen herself. She was such a subtle reader of her characters’ manners, so knowing about their flaws and virtues, yet herself so opaque and mysterious a presence that it is hard to imagine her in the flesh. You have to read her the way her most sentient characters read their companions, attending to subtle signs, mannerisms and language.
Maybe she’d prefer not to be read as a person, though, and instead be read as a writer. There were times when she’d hide what she was writing under her sewing, keeping it a secret from family members, and yet she still published four novels–Sense And Sensibility, Pride And Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma–in her lifetime. For most of her characters marriage–and not just marriage of convenience, but happy, loving, romantic marriage–is the ultimate goal, and yet Austen herself never married. I don’t know if she felt something was missing or if she was happy with her own independence. Ultimately it doesn’t matter.
Included in that exhibit is a new year’s greeting written in 1817, the year she died, to her eight-year old niece Cassandra. Austen turned the letter into a game, writing every word backwards, starting, “I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey.” It’s a fun way to write a letter, and, in the spirit of that, yppah yadhtrib, Enaj Netsau.