Jane Austen Revealed: World Book Day at the Bodleian

28 February 2012

Austen display at the BodleianThe Bodleian Libraries mark this year’s World Book Day (1 March) with a series of events dedicated to one of the greatest British writers, Jane Austen. These include a one-day display, a lunchtime talk and a book launch.

On display for the first time will be a decorative cross stitch sampler by Jane Austen and a newly-discovered portrait which has been the subject of recent research by Austen scholars. As both items are on loan from private collections specially for this one-day Austen display, this is a unique opportunity for lovers of Austen to see items directly linked to the writer.

The sampler is signed and dated ‘Jane Austen 17[8]7’ (some of the stitching from the ‘8’ has come away), and was made when the novelist was eleven or twelve. A note attached to the back of the frame states that an early owner ‘was related to Jane Austen the novelist’ and that she ‘received it as a memento of her (n.b. Austen’s) life.’

It was in her third novel Northanger Abbey that Jane referred to samplers when Henry Tilney playfully boasts to Catherine Morland that he has read far more novels than her: ‘Consider how many years I have had the start of you. I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!’ ‘Not very good I am afraid’, replies Catherine. While we can imagine the young Jane Austen dutifully embroidering this sampler at home, she was, by then, starting to write, and already showing the distinctive irony and literary intelligence that would characterize her great novels.

The recently discovered portrait was originally thought to be an imaginary portrait of Jane Austen. Drawn in pencil on vellum, the portrait is inscribed "Miss Jane Austin" on the back. This note provided the first clue to the owner, Dr Paula Byrne who received the portrait as a gift from her husband last year. She also believes that the sitter has a striking resemblance with the writer’s family given by the long, straight "Austen nose".

Since then, the portrait’s authenticity has been debated by Austen scholars and also made the subject of a BBC documentary. The Bodleian Libraries are joining the debate by putting the portrait on display and inviting the public to decide for themselves.

The portrait was acquired at auction by Paula Byrne's husband last April. Before then it had been in private collection for 30 years. There are currently just two recognised portraits of Austen - one sketched by her sister Cassandra in 1810.
Alongside these two items will be displayed Austen books and manuscripts from the Bodleian collections. The newly-acquired hand-written manuscript of The Watsons will be accompanied by Volume the First, a manuscript of Austen's juvenilia.

Richard Ovenden, Deputy to Bodley’s Librarian, said: ‘We are grateful to Mr and Mrs Feller and to Dr Paula Byrne, for allowing us to show the sampler and portrait alongside the Bodleian’s two manuscripts in Jane Austen’s own hand. The portrait and sampler are the subject of considerable scholarly debate and interest, so we are pleased to put them on display for the first time, together with the Bodleian’s manuscripts, to allow everyone who loves the works of Jane Austen to come to their own view of these compelling objects.’

About the World Book Day at the Bodleian Library

Each year the Library celebrates World Book Day by exhibiting its great treasures. Past displays include: 

  • The Gutenberg Bible (2004); 
  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the autograph manuscripts (2005); 
  • Shakespeare's 'First Folio' (2006); 
  • The original Wind in the Willows: the centenary of a children's masterpiece (2007); 
  • The Creation as told in the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an (2008); 
  • Uncommon Readers: St Margaret of Scotland to Queen Elizabeth I (2009);
  • There and Back Again: The Hobbit (2010)
  • John le Carré’s newly bequeathed archive (2011)


Related links

    Jane Austen: a literary genius at work
    10.00am – 4.00pm and during evening reception
    Divinity School
    The Watsons: Jane Austen Practising
    Professor Kathryn Sutherland (Professor of Bibliography and Textual Criticism, St. Anne’s College, Oxford)
    1.00 – 1.30 pm Convocation House
    Second Impressions by Dr Sandy Lernersequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
    5.30 pm: Readings by the author
    6 pm: Book signing and reception
    Convocation House and the Divinity School
    Please register in advance for the Book Launch e-mail: larisa.roberts@bodleian.ox.ac.uk
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