By Garland Rieman
Our rare-book exhibit at Wilson Library on Thursday, titled “Lost in Context: The Rise of Pride and Prejudice in the Popular Imagination,” aims to tell the story of “Pride and Prejudice” from a uniquely archival perspective. UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student Elizabeth Shand tackled the project at length by curating a number of firsthand sources that fill in what life was truly like during the Regency period and its reception in subsequent eras in England.
“I looked at sources that typify what we think of when we think of Austen – the dancing, the manners, the English countryside, etc.,” Shand says of her methodology. “And a number of original archival materials – such as a dancing booklet, a letter-writing manual, and a recipe book – showcase the aesthetics that are typically preserved in successive adaptations and editions.”
Shand’s collection of sources are key in showing the true nature of the gentry at the time Austen’s works were published. Shand was also able to compare the materials she found with “historical” interpretations of “Pride and Prejudice” in various adaptations over the years to see how well those adaptations stayed true to the period.
But Shand didn’t stop there; she took her research a step further, diving deep into the archives to look for any additional information about the time period that may have been overlooked in previous scholarship.
“I also wanted to look beyond the typical aesthetics of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ to remember the context that is often lost or forgotten,” Shand says. Eschewing the recycled context surrounding Austen’s novels, Shand’s collection aims to bring fresh perspectives and highlight fun new information to help bring Austen’s novel to life.
“Excitingly, we have a number of manuscript materials used by individuals from the 19th century,” Shand adds, ‘and even a doctor’s kit similar to the one that would have been used to attend to Jane Bennet when she fell ill at Netherfield!”
Items like these offer an immersive way to get a feel for the culture Austen highlights in her novels. In discussing the exhibit, Shand also notes how “Pride and Prejudice” in particular was received by the public in the years after Austen’s death, from the succeeding Victorian era to today.
“Austen’s legacy was inalterably changed in the 19th century to emphasize a sense of traditional domesticity,” Shand explains. “However, in my research, I also realized that what is typically left out of Austen’s popular image is her sardonic tone. Therefore, I included many items that are in conversation with her satirical edge.”
To fully color in how Austen’s works were received, Shand noted that several editions of “Pride and Prejudice” on display – including a first edition and a mid-20th-century edition designed for classroom use – help demonstrate how Austen’s cultural legacy has changed over 200 years.
“This year, we also purchased an item particular[ly] for the exhibit,” Shand says. “On display will be the first edition of ‘A Memoir of Jane Austen,’ published in 1870 by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. This work is crucial, as the biography is typically seen as launching the modern fascination with Austen!”
Below, Shand gives us a sneak peek at a few of the items on display, along with her insight on the items she’s curated.
“This illustration from a 1940 edition of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ depicts a scene from Lydia’s imagination: multiple officers simultaneously flirting with her. I love this edition because of the odd choice in illustrations. Rather than depicting popular and well-known scenes, only passing allusions or obscure references are pictured.”
“Some past attendees may remember this item from JASP 2017 when penmanship expert Benjamin Bartgis used this hilarious work to contextualize the common annoyances of 18th-century letter writing. This year’s exhibit uses ‘The miseries of human life’ to contextualize some of the common annoyances of living in the country.”
“UNC has over 30 years of day-books with meticulous records kept by a woman named Catherine Wood. The woman lived during the same period as Austen and her heroines, and her day-books offer an incredible account of the daily life of a woman from youth through marriage and childbirth. Two of her day-books will be on display: one from her youth, concerned with tea, walks, and even a dance; and one from her adulthood that tracks the travels of her husband.”
EXHIBIT INFO: “Lost in Context: The Rise of Pride and Prejudice in the Popular Imagination” is Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Louis Round Wilson Library on the UNC campus. Find shuttle information here.
Garland Rieman is an intern with the Jane Austen Summer Program.
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