Saturday, January 23, 2010
Travelogue: Finding Austen in New York City
Posted by JaneGS
I had a business trip this week that started on Monday with a flight to Tampa and ended on Friday with a free day in New York City. Doing what any sane Janeite would do, I visited the Morgan Library and treated myself to an hour and a half at the exhibit entitled "A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy."
The exhibition is primarily displays of documents that Austen wrote and that J.P. Morgan and his heirs acquired in the early years of the 20th century. Because Jane's sister Cassandra destroyed most of Austen's handwritten documents, the Morgan Library bulked up the exhibit by displaying first editions of Austen's works, examples of various illustrations of the novels over the two centuries since they were first published, and related documentation, for example the letter from James Stanier Clarke to Austen letting her know that she would not be turned down should she dedicate her next work to his boss, the Prince of Wales, the man who would become King George IV.
I enjoyed the exhibit immensely. As others have done, I marveled over Austen's neat, straight lines of tiny handwriting; was impressed upon seeing the copperplate manuscript of Lady Susan; enjoyed the illustrations, especially those of Isabel Bishop, with my two favorites shown here.
I wandered around, looked at everything, watched the movie, and kept on waiting for the WOW moment. I was starting to think that I was just too jaded, had seen too many facsimiles to be truly touched by the genuine article, and then at the center of the room I took my turn to view a front/back display of a page from Austen's unfinished work The Watsons. This document made me catch my breath because it, more than anything else there, caught Austen in the creative act. The Lady Susan document is a copied version and so has a sterile, frozen aspect to it. The letters are chatty glimpses into her life. The illustrations are other artists renderings of the images her words created. But The Watsons is forever a work in progress. It shows Austen's thought process. It shows her hand, unpolished and real. Some words she scratched out, and others are inserted. It has a vibrancy that touched me, perhaps because I know that she never finished it but might have had she lived even a few more years. I wonder why Cassandra didn't burn this document. Why save this one and not any of the other drafts? Maybe Austen herself destroyed her drafts when she finally got the story to the place where she wanted it to be. Maybe Cassandra thought there was something good albeit rough in The Watsons and couldn't bring herself to end its life.
In writing up this post, John Keats' Ode to a Grecian Urn sprang to mind and I thought about how he had written about everlasting fleetingness of the maidens and the men frolicking across the vase, "...For ever piping songs for ever new." Seeing the rough manuscript of The Watsons made me realize that it, like the maidens and men, is forever new. Wow!