As I’ve mentioned, there is an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum right now about Jane Austen, and it’s pretty terrific. ( On view are many of her letters, the first twenty pages of her only surviving manuscript, Lady Susan, and assorted other documents relating to her life and work. Most of the letters are to Austen’s sister, Cassandra, but one particularly charming one is addressed to her young niece and its contents are written entirely backwards to make the correspondence into a game for the eight year old. Shown alongside the documents are the satirical drawings of James Gillray, a contemporary of Austen’s, who skewered many of the same social stereotypes as she did in her work, and as the exhibition shows, in her letters to Cassandra.

Austen made the most of her paper, filling ever bit of usable space and then some with news, gossip and conjectures–she cross-hatched her words across each other, wrote upside down between her lines, and at times was so catty that her words have been erased from posterity–excised by Cassandra. One can only imagine what she must have said in those missing fragments, because some of the gossip preserved by Cassandra is quite fantastically nasty. Austen made fun of people’s husbands’ pink necks, her suitors’ commands of the English language, the current fashion in ludicrous hats–she would probably have been the perfect person to gossip with in the corner of stuffy drawing room.

Because humor and cattiness are a theme in the show, I thought I would pull the same theme from Pride and Prejudice, which I finished this morning. As I said about Sense and Sensibility, I hardly presume to have something new to say about this book. So, I thought I would select a passage from early in the book that really shows how special it is.

From page 94: Mr. Bennet, the exasperated father of five girls, speaking to the second oldest, and his favorite, Elizabeth, about the man her eldest sister, Jane, had hoped to marry having skipped town. And, in case the sarcasm isn’t obvious when the excerpt is taken out of context, this is all sarcastic:

“So, Lizzy,” said he one day, “your sister is crossed in love I find. I congratulate her. Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It is something to think of, and gives her a sort of distinction among her companions. When is your turn to come? You will hardly bear to be long outdone by Jane. Now is your time. Here are officers enough at Meryton to disappoint all the young ladies in the country. Let Wickham be your man. He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably.”

And Lizzy says: “Thank you, Sir, but a less agreeable man would satisfy me. We must not all expect Jane’s good fortune.”