This year marks the 200Mansfield Park th anniversary of the publication of , Jane Austen’s most ambitious and controversial novel. To celebrate both the author and the cultural history behind this complex work, students in English Professor Janine Barchas’s fall 2013 graduate seminar curated two display cases relating to Austen and her culture. Below, students Chienyn Chi, Dilara Cirit, Gray Hemstreet, Brooke Robb, Megan Snell, and Casey Sloan share some of the items displayed.
From family correspondence to uniquely inscribed copies of the novels, the Jane Austen items held by the Harry Ransom Center allow us a rare and intimate view of this beloved author. Georgian fashion plates, landscape illustrations, and other Regency-era artifacts further help to illuminate the culture in which Austen lived and wrote. This display can be seen during
reading room hours through May 30.
One case contains items relevant to the world described in
Mansfield Park, first advertised as published on May 9, 1814. In telling the story of the modest and physically fragile Fanny Price, Austen created a complex and challenging work that critics often contrast unfavorably with the more popular Pride and Prejudice, in which the heroine is pert and talkative. Austen herself judged Pride and Prejudice “rather too light & bright & sparkling.” In Mansfield Park, Austen alludes to the vogue for large-scale “improvements” by popular landscaper Humphry Repton, sentimental drama and theater culture, and the Royal Navy’s role in the Napoleonic Wars. Such references reveal Austen’s awareness of the large cultural concerns of her day.
Joseph Haslewood's "Green Room Gossip" (London, 1809).
In “Mansfield Park,” Tom Bertram announces that his father's study “will be an excellent green-room” for private theatricals. At the time that Austen wrote Mansfield Park, the term “green-room” invoked a known genre of theater gossip literature. Mixing fact and fiction, Joseph Haslewood's “Green Room Gossip” (1809) gathered together stories about the scandalous or comical backstage lives of actors. David Steel’s "Original and Correct List of the Royal Navy," Improved (London, 1814).
Included in the display is a copy of what Jane Austen simply calls “the navy-list,” a monthly publication that affected both her literature and her family. Two of Austen’s brothers served in the British Navy, and her novels “Mansfield Park” and “Persuasion” (1817) feature central characters who pursue naval careers. Although multiple Navy lists were available from different publishers, the “Original and Correct List” associated with the name of David Steel (1763–1803) dominated the market during the years in which Austen’s novels are set. To keep costs low, these small, roughly sewn booklets were printed on thin paper with small margins. For a shilling, even a poor family like the fictional Prices could afford the proud pleasure of seeing a son’s name, or the name of the ship he served on, in the Navy list. Page from David Steel’s "Original and Correct List of the Royal Navy," Improved (London, 1814). Humphry Repton’s "Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening" (London, 1803).
Celebrity landscaper Humphry Repton (1752–1818) is mentioned by name in “Mansfield Park.” Repton’s watershed “Observations” contains colorful illustrations with unique folding flaps that demonstrate “before and after” images of his impact on numerous landed estates. The front of the book also contains a list of his major clients. The list, a veritable who’s who of the landed gentry, functioned as an advertisement for Repton. Only England’s most wealthy landowners could afford these grand-scale fashionable improvements. The list includes Austen’s cousins, the Leighs of Adlestrop. Charlotte Mardyn as Amelia in "Lovers' Vows" (n.d..)
After much debate, the characters of “Mansfield Park” choose the popular melodrama “Lovers’ Vows” (1798) for their private theatrical. This print features actress Charlotte Mardyn (b. 1789) as the character of Amelia in a production of “Lover’s Vows” staged one year after the publication of Austen’s novel. In “Mansfield Park,” Amelia is played by the beautiful and brazen Mary Crawford, Fanny Price’s competition for the love of Edmund Bertram. Edmund, who portrays Amelia’s tutor-turned-love-interest in the play, eventually judges Mary to be of inadequately “serious” morals. Mardyn herself went on to earn a notorious reputation for her rumored affair with Lord Byron (1788–1824) in 1815, allegedly provoking a separation between him and Lady Byron.
The items on display in the second case suggest that Austen's legacy cannot easily be separated from the realm of consumer culture. Despite the stubbornly anachronistic image of Austen as a spinster recluse working in isolation in her father’s rectory, she was thoroughly aware of the bustling world of Georgian commerce around her. New innovations in manufacture and technology placed late eighteenth-century England on the brink of economic revolution. Changes in machine production, urbanization, and consumption were speedily overhauling a traditional society based on agriculture. Jane Austen's novels teem with small-but-knowing references that place her work in this exciting cultural moment of great change. Not only do Austen’s works record shifts in shopping habits and fashion, but her own legacy has, today, become inextricably entwined with popular culture, mass entertainment, and a booming, modern-day market of Austen-related paraphernalia. A letter from James Edward Austen-Leigh (1798–1874) to Edward Cheney, dated April 14, 1870.
James Edward Austen-Leigh was the nephew of Jane Austen and author of “A Memoir of Jane Austen,” published in 1870. In this letter he thanks a family friend, a Mr. Cheney, for his approval of the biography and goes on to express his struggles in presenting a satisfactory image of his aunt. Austen-Leigh’s expressed anxiety raises questions about a particular representation of Jane Austen passed down from his Victorian era. A letter from James Edward Austen-Leigh (1798–1874) to Edward Cheney, dated April 14, 1870. Fashion plates from "The Ladies' Monthly Museum" (London, 1804).
Flighty characters in Austen's works are singularly devoted to the conspicuous consumption of fashion, and Jane's own correspondence with her older sister Cassandra reveals a fond preoccupation with the trivialities of women's dress. Austen’s characters—and perhaps the author herself—could study contemporary fashion through such magazines as the one shown here. For the reasonable cost of one shilling, “The Ladies' Monthly” provided short stories, essays, celebrity gossip, detachable embroidery patterns, sheet music, and brightly-colored fashion plates. Frances Burney’s "Camilla: or, A picture of youth" (London, 1796).
The subscription list prefixed to this 1796 edition of “Camilla” famously contains Austen’s first appearance in print, recorded as “Miss J. Austen, Steventon.” Family legend maintains that the subscription was purchased for Austen by her father. In the eighteenth century, authors like Frances, or “Fanny,” Burney (1752–1840) commonly offered pre-paid subscriptions to raise funds, as publishers often expected up-front payments for printing costs. In addition to receiving a copy of the work, subscribers had the satisfaction of seeing their own names in print in the published subscription list. Lists were organized alphabetically and according to social status.
Evelyn Waugh's copy of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" (London, 1894).
Known by collectors as “The Peacock Edition,” this object has become an elegant icon for all things Jane Austen and, today, is reproduced on t-shirts, bags, websites, and other bits of delightful pop culture bric-à-brac. Already a widely read work of literature by 1894, this highly stylized publisher’s binding by illustrator Hugh Thomson (1860–1920) was the first book cover to turn “Pride and Prejudice” into eye candy for the middle classes. Inside the book are many more full-page illustrations by Thomson. The Ransom Center’s copy was owned by novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903–1966).