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The Worlds Within Austen's Two Inches of Ivory: Exhibit Introduction

Jane Austen’s letters provide an intimate look at the world in which she lived and wrote. More so than her novels, the letters materialize the conditions of Austen’s life as a sister, aunt, friend, and author living within Regency England. In collaboration with the 2021 Jane Austen Summer Program, “Jane Austen’s World”—focused on Diedre LeFaye’s collected edition of Austen’s letters and Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life—this rare books exhibit features items housed in UNC’s Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library that bring us closer still to Austen’s world. 

It was once a commonly held assumption that Austen lived a quiet, circumscribed life. Her nephew, Edward Austen-Leigh, popularized this domesticized conception of Austen in his 1870 A Memoir of Jane Austen. In it, he writes, “Of events her life was singularly barren: few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of its course...Her talents did not introduce her to the notice of other writers, or connect her with the literary world, or in any degree pierce through the obscurity of her domestic retirement.”

However, successive scholarship has revealed Austen’s manifold interconnections to a dynamic period of social, cultural, and political changes. Part of the joy of reading Austen’s novels and letters today is the sharp insight leveled at her surrounding world from her perspective of “domestic retirement.”  In 1815, Austen wrote to James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian, that “I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.” We now know, as Austen herself seems to bemusedly acknowledge, that her surrounding contexts endowed her with a distinctly learned, informed perspective from which to write.

In this exhibit, we will see the diverse contexts from which she learned and better appreciate the contexts that informed Austen’s life and writings. The exhibit is divided into four complementary aspects of Austen’s world to bring attention to the dynamic conditions that affected her life and works. These contexts include Austen's domestic, political, and professional life; in addition, we have included objects that consider how Austen’s world is translated or, conversely, lost within her literary reception. You can navigate to these categories, in any order that you choose, using the tabs to the right.

Special thanks to Emily Kader (Rare Books Research Librarian), Nora Burmeister (Content Strategy Librarian), and the Rare Books Collection librarians and staff of Wilson Library for making this digital exhibit possible.

Created by Liz Shand and Jared Powell, Department of English & Comparative Literature
Last updated: June 15, 2021


Jared Powell, Elizabeth Shand