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Oxford asks: Which Jane?

by Elizabeth Jane Timms

which jane?

As part of the 200th anniversary events to commemorate Jane Austen’s death, the Bodleian Libraries launched its major summer 2017 exhibition in June, asking the intriguing question to its visitors – “Which Jane”? The exhibition seeks to challenge previously held views of Jane, arguing that she was perhaps, driven by ambition, as we might understand a career woman in the modern sense. “Which Jane” is complimented by a superb array of Austen material – some of which will be on public display for the first time – and a programme of events which will run alongside the exhibition, such as the free lecture on the special project to recreate Jane’s brown silk pelisse coat, today in the collections of Hampshire Council. Other free lectures seek to explore Jane’s relationship with her publishers, Thomas Egerton and John Murray, to ask whether or not Jane’s experience as a woman writing at the time was a typical one, and whether in fact, they took professional risks in publishing her work.

Jane Austen had very definite links with Oxford, chiefly through her parents – (a special Blackwell’s Jane Austen Literary Tour of Oxford is being run until the end of October 2017 to mark the 200th anniversary of her death.) Her father, the Rev. George Austen was “the handsome Proctor” at St. John’s College, Oxford and her mother, Cassandra Leigh’s uncle, Theophilus Leigh D.D, was Master at Balliol and later the University of Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor. Jane’s favourite brother Henry Austen matriculated at St. John’s College, Oxford in 1788 and her brother James also became a Fellow there. St. John’s College Library contains six letters that relate to Jane Austen’s family and are bound in a guard book – one letter is written by her father, the Rev. George Austen, the remaining five were written by Jane to her niece Anna Austen, later Lefroy. Jane’s letters were given to the College by Anna’s granddaughter, Mary Isabella Lefroy in 1939. Interestingly, Jane’s letters provide advice to her niece as well as a certain literary criticism at Anna’s own attempts at writing a novel.

The Bodleian Libraries own as one example, Jane Austen’s so-called “Volume the First”; a priceless and remarkable manuscript, which was acquired in 1933 through the Friends of the Bodleian and published that same year at Oxford by R. W Chapman. The manuscript consists of a compilation of early Austen works in her own hand, a facsimile of which may be purchased from Bodleian Library Publishing. Jane wrote “Volume the First” in a blank bound notebook when she was only seventeen and it remains a document of unprecedented literary worth, not least because it allows the development of her writing life to be traced and the evolution of her own inimitable style to be charted. “Volume the First” contains such early works as Henry & Eliza, The Adventures of Mr Harley, and The beautiful Cassandra. The manuscript was subject to conservation treatment by the Bodleian Libraries’ Conservation and Collection Care Department. A compiled web source, the Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition was a project led by the University of Oxford’s English Faculty and consists of some 1100 pages, with the handwritten manuscripts collected digitally into one single, searchable source, thereby representing the first such compilation of the British novelist’s work to be presented in this way. These manuscripts had remained as one collection until Cassandra’s death in 1845, after which they were divided and later added to either private collections or museums.

“Which Jane” runs from 23 June – 29 October 2017 in the ST Lee Gallery in the Bodleian Libraries’ Weston Library and admission is free.

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a freelance writer and historian, specialising in royalty. Her blog can be visited on www.royalcentral.co.uk/author/ejtimms

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