After the recent Web 2.0 Expo NY–a sprawling, week-long conference and exhibition–I ducked into the Morgan Library to catch “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy.” A one-room show about an 18th century novelist seemed like the perfect antidote to a week of tech talk in the Death Star Javits Center.
As I’d hoped, the Morgan focuses on a handful of objects from Austen’s life, and the commentary is thoughtful. I was surprised, though, to find myself thinking that had Twitter been around in Austen’s time (1775-1817), she would likely have been a fan.
Austen wrote more than 3,000 letters, many to her sister Cassandra. They corresponded constantly, starting new letters to each other the minute they finished the last one and sharing the minutia of their lives. From reading Austen’s novels, I’d always assumed that people in her era spent a long time waiting for the mail. But the show mentions that during Austen’s life, mail in London and environs was delivered six times a day. Sometimes, a letter sent in the morning was delivered the same evening. Which makes snail mail sound a lot more like email or twitttering.
The speed of mail at the time and the content of the Austen sisters’ letters suggest that the desires to communicate instantly and to let other people know what you ate for breakfast aren’t modern phenomenon. Of course, Twitter lets you share your soy milk-to-cereal ratio with strangers and thus adds a layer of publishing to our updates. But people today often assume that email, Twitter and other relatively instant communication media have created a slew of brand new communication behaviors. The Jane Austen show at the Morgan suggests just the opposite: our human patterns are surprisingly consistent, and technology evolves to meet us.
Incidentally, the show doesn’t say when multi-daily snail mail faded, and I wonder if it passed out of fashion with the rise of the telegraph in the mid-1800s. Anyone know?