One of the most delightful discoveries of my new job is that my firm is populated with avid readers. This is not a surprise – when I interviewed, one of the attorneys made a joke about Franz Kafka, and I instantly decided, these are my people. But it’s been such a joy to find so many other book lovers at work and in two months at my new job I’ve already had more ecstatic water cooler conversations about Pride and Prejudice than in my entire career leading up to this job. One of the most ardent readers I’ve met at this job is – again, no surprise here – the firm librarian, who works three doors down from my office. It took about two weeks for me to discover that she is a true kindred spirit. And it was she who told me about Will and Jane: Shakespeare, Austen and the Cult of Celebrity, a special exhibition on display for two months only at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
“They have The Shirt,” she reported breathlessly.
Would you believe I’d actually never been to the Folger Shakespeare Library? I had wanted to go for years, but didn’t make it in the entire time I lived in D.C. from 2003 to 2013. Visiting the library was high on my list of things to do upon moving back, and a Jane Austen exhibit gave me the perfect excuse to go. Not wanting to miss out, I dragged Steve and the kids out first thing on Saturday morning of the exhibition’s final weekend.
I loaded Peanut in the stroller and literally – literally – skipped down the sidewalk with her, I was so gleeful at the prospect of finally making it to the Folger, and making it in time to see Will and Jane. On our way up the ramp, we stopped to snap a picture of the serene garden. I could totally picture myself lounging on the grass with a copy of my favorite Shakespeare play – Macbeth.
First stop when we got inside was the theatre. They were actually holding a children’s event in the theatre, and there were kids of all ages reenacting scenes from Romeo and Juliet onstage when we stepped through the doors. My little drama queen didn’t want to get up on the stage (doesn’t she know her mother once placed second in a school-wide Shakespeare competition? there’s a family tradition to uphold, kid!) but she did consent to a selfie inside the hallowed halls of the Folger Shakespeare Theatre you guys.
Enough stalling. We left the theatre, turned into the exhibition hall, and There. It. Was.
The Shirt. Bestill my beating heart, THE SHIRT.
I can’t imagine that I have any blog readers who don’t know this, but since the question came up on Facebook, NO DAD, THIS IS NOT THE PUFFY SHIRT FROM SEINFELD. The Shirt, as all Janeites know, is Colin Firth’s iconic white shirt worn in the lake-jumping scene from the 1992 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. (You can see her on the screen just behind The Shirt, in the picture up above this one.) A few things about The Shirt, which I am qualified to comment upon now that I have stood in its rarefied air, sort of (it was behind glass – boo):
- Initial disclaimer: as most of you no doubt know, the lake scene is not in the book. But I suspect Jane would have approved.
- The Shirt was every bit as magical as you would hope.
- I was inches away from fabric that touched Colin Firth. I WAS INCHES AWAY FROM FABRIC THAT TOUCHED COLIN FIRTH. I WAS INCHES AWAY FROM FABRIC THAT TOUCHED COLIN FIRTH.
- It was dry. This was less disappointing than you would expect, because it was still pretty adorably wrinkly. According to my firm librarian, the staff at the Folger Library told her the shirt couldn’t have been kept wet (by such means as a mister, for example) because it would damage the fabric. And of course, we can’t have that.
- I WAS INCHES AWAY FROM FABRIC THAT TOUCHED COLIN FIRTH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Steve was shockingly unimpressed.
I mean, look! He’s wearing The Shirt and he’s about to jump in the lake and get all wet and emerge looking brooding and disheveled!
All right, all right. Enough about The Shirt. You may find this surprising, but there was a lot more to the exhibit than just Colin Firth’s wardrobe. The theme of the exhibition was how a “cult of celebrity” grew up around both William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, and how Shakespeare’s celebrity influenced and informed Austen’s work. It was a fascinating take on both geniuses, and there were tons of cool artifacts.
Such as the playbill from a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice that Austen saw performed in London in 1814. Worlds colliding!
As is to be expected from the Folger Library, the exhibition also included a number of books of varying age and rarity. How stunning is the iconic peacock cover of Pride and Prejudice. Wish list, if I was a billionaire!
There were examples of how Shakespeare’s and Austen’s celebrity has lasted over the centuries – such as these grave rubbings from their respective tombs.
An illustration of how Austen’s image has been polished and altered to create the iconic Austen of today – starting with Cassandra Austen’s sketch of her sister and reworked posthumously until the popular image on the left came to be.
And examples of how both Austen and Shakespeare’s images – and those of their characters – have been coopted into everything from collectible figurines to children’s toys and literary kitsch – like these bobbleheads and action figures. (And Jane Austen band-aids! Weeeeeeeird!) They also had a copy of the “Cozy Classics” Pride and Prejudice board book – but in what I considered to be a shocking oversight, were lacking the books from the BabyLit series, even Good Night Mr. Darcy!
And of course, interspersed throughout were truly exciting bits of BBC memorabilia – like the wedding bonnet worn by Jane Bennet in the final scene, when (spoiler alert!) Jane and Elizabeth marry Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, respectively, in a fabulous double wedding.
Will and Jane was everything I had hoped for – and more. I’m delighted that I was able to make it there before the exhibition closed (even if I went down to the wire) and now I’m itching to re-read Pride and Prejudice (maybe I’ll pull out the gorgeous illustrated edition I bought a few months ago!) and get back to the Folger Library to see what it looks like when not devoted to a special exhibition.