The Bodleian Libraries are celebrating World Book Day today (1 March) with a one-day exhibition about Jane Austen.
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 177’ (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 to 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 for lending us the sampler and to Dr Paula Byrne, the owner of the portrait. I am convinced that these two star exhibits of the Austen Day at the Bodleian will raise a lot of interest from both the general public and the scholarly community.'