Glorious Day II

The train arrived at Grand Central about 3:30 on Saturday, so I had a few hours before Leslie’s concert. One of the benefits of receiving The New Yorker is that I now have an up-to-date calendar of events in the city – or would have if I managed to read each issue as it arrived. A couple of weeks ago I discovered that the Morgan Library had exhibit called “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life & Legacy.”

Figuring I’d have a pleasant hour-plus I caught the Times Square Shuttle and transferred to the train for Penn Station then speed walked to the library. Speed-walked by anyone’s standards except the average New Yorker.

Having decided to see the exhibit I wondered how the library intended to illustrate the life of someone who left behind only one known image, a dubious likeness at best. The Morgan has produced not so much a biographical portrait as the portrait of an era. Of course there are letters written to and by Jane, including the phantasmagorical note to her niece with every word spelled backward.

As I walked through the rather small exhibit, my first observation was that the paper and ink of her letters look as though they’d been produced yesterday. They are pristine and have survived in even better condition than my family’s correspondence from 100 years later that I used as the basis for Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters.

My second observation was that Austen practiced even more frugality than my family by writing in the margins and crossways to fill up every crevasse because paper and postage were so expensive, and she wrote a great many letters. Nevertheless her penmanship made for ease of reading. The library provided just enough transcription to convey the sense of each letter.

The third thing that I noticed with great dismay, even though I’d already known it was that her sister had expurgated the letters. What I had not realized was that Cassandra took scissors to paper so that there was no chance anyone could pierce through ink blotches and figure out what she didn’t want the world to know about herself or her sister or their family.

And of course I noted with great joy the manuscript of Susan, though scholars are eager to point out is a “fair copy,” not the original MS. Nevertheless it represents a treasure: the handwritten version of a novel by of one of the world’s most brilliant of novelists.

The library has supplemented this “word” offering with images that I found suitable and beautiful on the one hand and startling and still suitable on the other. The startling consisted of the caricatures by James Gillray. He serves up vicious portraits of middle class and aspiring to be middle-class English country residents. Even more startling, a great many of the people he depicted seemed to be overweight, either a little bit or a great deal. I had an image of middle and upper-class Regency Britain as a place and time where people were rather slim because they walked a great deal and angular they wore tight-fitting suits (men) and items that would balloon about one (women). The idealized portraits always showed those super-slim young ladies in their empire-waist dresses.

On examining Gillray’s work, I realized the denizens of the period were probably more like the middle-class folks that I saw in South America where it is a sign of wealth to be large because it meant having the money to eat large quantities of food, particularly beef.

I also loved Gillray’s take on the head-gear of the period, especially the huge feathers that floated above the women’s heads defying gravity. “And catch the living Manners as they rise,” is my second favorite. The first was a similar image but of two women whose feathers were nearly touching.

Another highlight was Isabel Bishop’s illustrations of the novels, especially “Longbourn,” the estate in Pride and Prejudice. From that same book, “Mr. Darcy holding out a letter.” And of course “I take no leave of you …,” in which the execrable Lady Catherine de Bourgh blows off Elizabeth.

Because my time was short, I decided not to watch the videos, but waited until I came home. They add depth, but there is no substitute to seeing the actual letters written by the actual author. The individual interviews introduced me to Colm Tóibín. I will definitely be reading Brooklyn, which he modeled on Pride and Prejudice. The exhibit stresses how much Austen offers for the twenty-first century, and Tóibín says that she remains popular because “nothing much has changed,”  a sentiment echoed by Fran Lebowitz and in much more complex sentences, Cornel West. Who knew he was such an Austen fan or that we agree that Emma is Austen’s masterpiece?

On the train home, I reflected on what a privilege it was to be part of the world of two geniuses – one musical, one literary.

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One Response to “Glorious Day II”

  1. What I’m Reading Now « Lizr128′s Blog Says:

    […] section on Jane Austen because of my adoration of her novels (see “Austen vs. Gaskell,”   “Glorious Day II,” “Killer Jane,” and because I know her works far better than those of James or Nabokov. I […]

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