Yesterday I got to do what I’ve been looking forward to for months: see the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City. It was a great exhibit and part of wonderful day spent with Hobgoblin and our friends Suitcase of Courage and She Knits By the Seashore (the same couple with whom we visited Edith Wharton’s home on one occasion and Concord, Massachusetts, on another — we have quite a lot in common, but one important thing is obviously a love of literary travel).
Hobgoblin and I took the train into the city, a trip of about two hours, and about 1/3 of the way there we transferred trains and joined Suitcase and She Knits for the rest of the trip, giving us a chance to catch up a bit before we started the business of the day. From Grand Central Station, it was only a short walk to the Morgan Library, although it was such a cold day even a short walk was enough to leave us feeling thoroughly chilled.
When we got there, the exhibit was everything I’d hoped for. It was small, but in a way that let me see everything and read everything without getting too tired (large museums are wonderful, but small ones are more satisfying because you don’t feel like you’re missing lots of important things because you tire out after an hour or two). The highlight of the exhibit was the display of a number of Austen’s letters and parts of handwritten copies of her early novels Lady Susan and The Watsons (this one was never finished). It was amazing to look at the sheets of paper Austen wrote on and to see her handwriting. In some cases she would write her letter in the normal way, and then turn the paper sideways and continue to write in lines perpendicular to what she had just written, to save paper and postage. In one letter she wrote all the words backwards, as a little joke for her niece.
Austen’s handwriting wasn’t the only handwriting on display; the exhibit also had manuscripts from various other authors who either influenced Austen or who wrote about her and her works. I got to see manuscripts from Byron, Frances Burney, Walter Scott (in which he write positively about Austen’s fiction), W.B. Yeats (who also praised Austen), and Nabokov (who wrote up lectures on Austen to deliver at Cornell). There was also a handwritten copy of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, most likely penned by his daughter Lydia.
And there was more — early editions of Austen’s novels, books by writers from her time, conduct manuals and etiquette guides, prints from artists working in Austen’s day, manuscripts of notes written by Austen and her family members. There was also a short film on Austen and her legacy, although I didn’t watch it at the museum because I saw it’s available online.
I thought the whole thing was very well done. It captured Austen’s sensibility well — the chatty, witty letters, the family members she cared greatly about, the close relationship she had with her sister Cassandra, her interest in fashion and etiquette, and the literary world she lived in. It was wonderful to look at the things Austen looked at, wrote on, and read.
When we were finished with the exhibit, we still had the Morgan library itself to look around in. It consists of three rooms, each one full of books, in some cases two or three stories high with balconies (although unfortunately, you’re not allowed to look at the upper floors). We spent time looking through the collection of hardbound volumes and also had a chance to see the Gutenberg Bible on display, and also the manuscript of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, complete with his corrections and additions.
All that right there is enough to make a great day, but we weren’t finished yet. Because we were in Manhattan with a whole afternoon ahead of us, we got some lunch and then headed out to the bookshops. The first stop was The Strand, which was as fabulous and overwhelming as always. I’ll admit that as much as I love that store, it does get horribly crowded and after a while I get tired of fighting my way past people to browse the shelves. I usually head straight back to the literary nonfiction section, a place that’s relatively quiet and has a wonderful selection of biographies, letters, essays, and memoirs. Here I picked up a copy of Readings by Sven Birkerts and A Bolt From the Blue, essays by Mary McCarthy. From the fiction section, I happened upon a collection of four novels in one volume by Sylvia Townsend Warner that I couldn’t pass up, even if it was a heavy book to carry around with me the rest of the day.
Then we wandered across Greenwich Village to find Partners & Crime, a shop devoted to mysteries and detective fiction. At this point we were grateful for the chairs available for weary browsers, but we had fun looking through their selection of mysteries of all types from many different countries. Out of the $1 bin I picked up a copy of Deadlock by Sara Paretsky.
Then we headed just a few blocks away to Three Lives, which is one of the best bookshops I’ve ever been in, especially considering its small size. Its collection of books in translation and books by small presses is amazing. I picked out John Williams’s novel Stoner to take with me.
At this point we were thwarted in our attempts to see more shops; the next one on our list was unexpectedly closed and it was time to get some dinner and head home, which we contentedly did.
There are, however, quite a few bookshops we didn’t get to visit, which means we need to take another trip to the city as soon as we can.