Wednesday 8th March 2023 to Sunday 3rd September 2023

Venue: Chawton House

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, vast quantities of paper, ink and time went into creating and maintaining communities through letter-writing. Letters joined people across distances. The first novels were written in letters, capitalising on their ability to show us a character’s inner thoughts. Published collections of letters promised readers insight into the private worlds of the first celebrities. Manuals taught letter-writing as an art form, advising on the necessary equipment, handwriting, style and content to mark all occasions. Today, manuscript letters provide an unending and increasingly-recognised resource for understanding women’s lives–both material and imaginative–for piecing together their social networks, fleshing out their biographies, and uncovering the information they valued and shared.

Quills and Characters explores the art of letter-writing in the period. It answers practical questions: what tools were required and where did they come from? How did one achieve the ‘studied ease’ of a well-written letter? It then reconstructs some of the stories told by letters in the Chawton House collection that have never before been displayed: stories of science and scholarship, love, and literature. It introduces lesser-known women correspondents–the teenage Charlotte Jane St Maur, and the historical fiction writer Anna Eliza Bray–placing them alongside more recognisable women: mathematician Mary Somerville and her protégée Ada Lovelace, Quaker and abolitionist Amelia Opie, and Austen’s contemporary novelists Jane and Maria Porter. In doing so, we glimpse the learning, the relationships, and the writing processes that shaped their lives. 

Entry to the exhibition is included in general admission price.