Monday, November 16, 2009

@the Morgan Library

I went to the exhibit.

Actually, I joined the Morgan Library, so I could go repeatedly, the chance to see Jane Austen's actual letters being something that does not happen every day, even in New York. So I plan to go back.

Here, then, are my very first impressions: The exhibit is confined in too small a space. The Gillrays, however, are great. I had seen them reproduced in many books, and digitized in various British museums, but there is nothing like seeing an actual print, life-size, in front of you.

The letters of Jane Austen! Oh, what can I say? She has wonderful handwriting, tiny, perfectly even and perfectly spaced, with never a blot, matching to her what her younger relatives remembered of her being dexterous and clever in every handy undertaking: needlework, spillikins and cup-and-ball. Her handwriting is in fact so perfect you might be tempted to think this is something innate to people from the 18th century, were it not that Morgan had happened to also collect one of the letters to JA from James Stanier Clarke, the librarian to the Prince Regent, who wrote to JA after her visit to Carlton House, the Prince Regent's London home, in the fall of 1815. His handwriting is a sloppy, random disaster, something I might produce if you gave me a quill and ink. And he had been using a quill and ink all his life, unlike me. So perfectly spaced, perfectly composed handwriting, such as you see in the letters of Jane Austen or facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence are not ordinary, but examples of unusually orderly minds, and unusually dexterous hands.

@ the exhibit: numerous letters are on display, as well as other rare examples of words actually written by Jane Austen: manuscript pages of "Lady Susan," "The Watsons," the "Plan for a Novel, According to Suggestions From Various Quarters." And yet no transcriptions are provided, and I cannot help wondering why. It's not like we don't know what they say: they have all been transcribed. I have read them all. Despite the perfect evenness of JA's handwriting, they are not so easy to read that you can read them standing there over a glass case.

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