Sunday, March 14, 2010

The things we do in the name of research

Today found me northward bound, headed for New York City in the mizzling rain (with occasional dry patches and intermittent downpours) in order to get to the Morgan Library & Museum to see "A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy", which closed today. In fairness, I had every good intention of getting there in January, February, or earlier in March, but my life basically followed this arc: sick - snow - snow - snow - sick, with one or two weekends in which neither of those things applied but other demands were made on my time. And so it was that I arrived at 2:30 on the day the exhibit was closing.

Judging from the crowd (and from comments overheard about this being a large one, although in truth, it wasn't exactly crammed), I wasn't the only person to leave it until the 11th hour. In fact, I met a lovely lady who lives in NYC and hadn't managed to get there until today; at least the 2-hour drive gave me a bit of justification. Sort of. If one wants to make excuses. And I do. But I digress.

Where shall I begin? Which of all my important nothings shall I tell you first?

I will start by saying that the above quote, while from one of Austen's letters, was not one of the letters on display in the exhibit. There were more than a handful, however, for the reading (if you were so inclined), including at least 3 that were "crossed", meaning that after Austen filled the page in the usual way, she turned it sideways and wrote additional (larger) lines from bottom to top of the page, creating a checkerboard of handwriting. It was interesting to see exactly how big the paper was (something I'd never located a clear answer to in my research), and to see how small the letters had been folded - you could tell because you could still see fold lines on some of them, plus you could see how much (or rather, how relatively little) of the sheet had been left to be the "front" of the letter, on which the address appeared.

I smiled to see the letter in which she is gleeful on having gotten a new cloak while in Bath. She had ordered one for Cassandra, and made inquiries as to whether Cassandra might like the same lace or something different - in the process, drawing a small sample of "the pattern of its lace" so that Cassandra might judge.

I laughed aloud as I looked at her fair copy of her "plan of a novel, according to hints from various quarters", which was cunningly framed between panes of glass so that one could walk around it and read both sides. According to text versions of it that I've read, she put little superscript numbers in the text and identified the sources of at least some of the notions that enter her satirical outline of what would have been a truly terrible novel. And sure enough, there they were. She had left a much wider margin on the document than on her letters, and neatly wrote the names of the people who had given her unasked-for advice on what to write next (or, perhaps, on how to improve her writing).

I cried as I read Cassandra's letter to her niece, Fanny Austen Knight (later Lady Knatchbull), talking about Austen's death, which describes the manner of her death and includes this incredibly moving passage:

I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed,--She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, & it is as if I had lost a part of myself.

To see Austen's actual handwriting on the original papers was something indeed. You could see how she started so many of her letters with the best intention of legibility, and how she started to cram more and more lines in as she went on, writing smaller and tighter still as she ended, and sometimes flipping the paper to write another paragraph upside-down within the top margin she had initially planned on leaving free. You could see where her quill ran out of ink, and get a feel for the notion that she was using different quills at different times based on how fine the written lines were.

The exhibit included the first seven letters in the handwritten fair copy of Lady Susan, a novella written in epistolary form that is quite unlike any of the published novels, and is singular in presenting as the main character a seductive, attractive, conniving adulteress who schemes to "punish" her daughter by marrying her off to a guy the daughter doesn't care for, only to (eventually) marry her daughter's beau herself. It had a small scrap of cover material that was for "Susan: A Novel in Two Volumes". It's her handwriting, and that is the sum total of it. Susan eventually became Catherine, which was released after her death under the title of Northanger Abbey.

Other items that were written by Austen included a tally of her expenses one year, and a separate tally of her profits on her books, as well as a dedication written inside a book given to her niece, the aforementioned Fanny Austen (before her father changed their surname to Knight for inheritance purposes, and long before her marriage). It was truly an inspiring visit, and yielded me two pages of notes (no cameras allowed inside the Morgan, I'm afraid, and it was so rainy outside that I opted not to bother carting one along at all today).

Was it worth the trip in the rain, complete with traffic and tolls and exorbitant parking? I'd have to say "yes", even though I am now nearly exhausted. And now, I'm off to transcribe my notes, which were hastily scrawled and may not make sense to me the further from the Morgan I get in time.

Kiva - loans that change lives

No comments: