Denise Stout is an enthusiastic Janeite who was lucky enough to be able to visit the exhibition, Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen and the Cult of Celebrity at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She knows I'd have willingly joined her if only I didn't live on the other side of the pond, so she was so kind and generous to write a report for me personally and agreed to post it here at My Jane Austen Book Club. I hope you'll enjoy reading her musings as much as I did and will appreciate the pictures she sent me. Thank you, Denise!
When I first learned of the Will & Jane exhibit at the Folger, I knew I had to go. Living so close to Washington, D.C., the opportunity to view the items on display, especially the undergarment* worn by a favorite Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth, and known colloquially as The Shirt, was more than a goal, it became a must-see. As the weeks passed by, it seemed like the visit wouldn’t happen. My husband surprised me when he announced he would take off on a Friday to accompany me. He travels the Metro frequently, so there was little chance of missing the stop or riding the wrong line to the Capitol area.
We drove to a suburban Metro station and took a direct line to the Capitol stop. After emerging from the Capitol station, we were orienting ourselves when a gentleman asked if he could help us find our way. I mentioned we were going to the Folger. Serendipitously, he was, too—he worked there! We had a nice guided walk to the Folger, learning factoids about it, a shortcut, and a few things about the exhibit. I asked him about taking photos, and he said they were allowed as long as there was no sign forbidding them. He left us in the hands of a docent as he went to his office. She led us straight into the exhibit located in a galley abutting the lobby which, in turn, leads to the Elizabethan Theater where a production of Sense and Sensibility was the latest performance. The interior is Tudor in style and befitting the Bard. She left us to our own devices but made sure to let us know she was available for any questions. Most of the time, we were the only ones in the exhibit.
The exhibit compared and contrasted the lives and careers of William Shakespeare and our beloved Jane Austen. Excited to be there, I paced myself and didn’t run straight to The Shirt. Patience is not really part of my persona, but I forced myself. Since we were whisked into the gallery, I never saw a sign forbidding pictures, and I took a photo of nearly everything on my camera. No one ever approached me to tell me to not take photos. The staff member with whom we walked to the Folger is a high ranking administrator; we may have been given liberties by mistake or chance. I didn’t know photos were not allowed until the guard mentioned it when we were viewing the Elizabethan Theater where they are allowed! I had even joked with him when I took a selfie with The Shirt. It was too late by then. I had a lot of pictures.
The exhibit contained many artifacts, relics of their eras, some reproductions, original books, pop culture items, and even ephemera such as the screenplay from Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson’s notes. It was interesting to learn how the famous portrait of Jane was altered over the years, how Jane lived in the era of the 200th anniversary of the Bard’s death, and we’re now in the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and approaching the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death. Rubbings from their tombstones are on display. They’re both celebrated writers and each has attained a cult-like status in our lives. Their images have been used in advertising, knick-knacks, and many other varieties of memorabilia. Plus, movies and books of the original works and the variations abound as odes to both. A continuous reel playing of the famous shirt scene in the BBC’s Masterpiece series production of Pride and Prejudice is adjacent to The Shirt. The exhibit shared tidbits of their lives in their time and now. As an example: it’s now forbidden for people to have their ashes spread at Jane’s burial site.
It was a wonderful time spent oohing and aahing over “the divine Jane” and “the God of our idolatry” (Shakespeare). And, of course, The Shirt. A once in a lifetime pairing of objects, I’m glad I visited. And for those needing to take home memories, the gift shop was laden with objects relating to both literary celebrities.
Unfortunately, the exhibit is only open through November 6, 2016.
*Here’s a link explaining menswear in the Regency era for those who are confused about the reference to The Shirt being an undergarment: