Sunday, January 17, 2010

The New York Librarians Meetup Group at the Morgan Library

The New York Librarians Meetup Group at the Morgan Library

Visit to A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy Exhibition on
Sunday January 10, 2010

Photo Courtesy of The Morgan Library and Museum – view of J.P. Morgan’s private library looking out toward the foyer

Photo of Morgan Café courtesy of The Morgan Library and Museum

Dollops of whipped cream infused hot chocolate and scoops of colorful gelato laced with mint sprigs provoked exclamations of ohs and ahs among the twenty plus Library Meetup group members who gathered Sunday, January 10 to see the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan Library I can't tell you how welcome the sunlight cascading in the floor-to-ceiling glass windows felt as I sat in the Morgan Cafe sipping my pot of tea on a crystal clear but frosty winter day. Conversation quickly ensued as Stephanie introduced the group and told us about upcoming Library Meetup events, networking and volunteer opportunities such as helping compile the job and career resource list and co-hosting future events. Even though it’s hard to leave pleasant conversation, particularly while indulging in sweets, we finally sauntered off to see the Jane Austen (1775-1817) exhibit: A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy.

Silhouette of woman reputed to be Jane Austen - courtesy of the Jane Austen Society of Australia (JASA)

By happenstance, I wended my way down the winding staircase adjacent to the café area which led to the newly created performance hall. For those of you who aren’t challenged by vertigo and wish to navigate around the Morgan, I recommend stepping into the glass elevators in the center of the atrium which provide an eye-popping view of the soaring glass windows and lead invitingly to the exhibition space. Several members of the group waited and chatted in the red cushy auditorium seats for the next showing of the two alternating short videos, one about J.P. Morgan and his collection and the other, the delightful The Divine Jane: Reflections on Austen. Both films dazzled and had the same theme: passion. It’s easy to see why this financier had an eye for exquisite objects; his piercing eyes are his most prominent feature and implore us to gasp in awe at the illuminated manuscripts portrayed in brilliant color in the video. The narrator describes Morgan as a “sultan of a secret seraglio who wanted all the beautiful things in the world and assiduously acquired them. The Divine Jane video showcases the passion of several actors, authors and scholars for Austen’s work. Cornel West’s visage excitedly extols the virtues of Jane Austen’s literature. In no uncertain terms, West lets us know that her canon of works achieved Shakespearean status. I’m still haunted by West’s elegiac reminder that Austen departed this world at the age of 41. Perhaps, Colm Tóibín’s deadpan statement that he’d much rather take a Jane Austen novel to bed than a companion is the most memorable portion of the video. I embarrassingly laughed raucously at Tóibín’s exposition, but I wasn’t the only one to laugh. The visuals were likewise stunning; the creator of the film showed several of the interviewees either lovingly poring over Austen manuscripts or reading at a shadowed desk in front of a window invoking literary life circa early 1800s, Austen’s time period. For those of you who can’t make it to the Morgan before the Austen exhibit closes March 14, you can see it online:
The curators also wisely set aside a portion of the Austen exhibit area to show the film for those who bypass the performance hall viewing.

Once the movie ended, I conquered my fear of the glass elevator and glided up to the second floor Austen exhibit (with my eyes closed). The exhibit can best be described as “cozy” as it only occupies a medium sized gallery. However, the curators managed to cover Austen’s home life which included her father’s library of 500 volumes, her societal milieu, the works of her best-selling literary contemporaries and her short career within the tight gallery space. Since the Morgan holds the largest collection (51) of Austen’s correspondence out of her 161 extant letters the centerpiece of the exhibit was those letters along with her surviving manuscripts. Luckily, for tired eyes the curators only displayed a few of her letters to her sister Cassandra and relatives as the cursive writing of the day is difficult to read. The curators highlighted the contents of the letters in metal plates affixed to the glass cases protecting the precious correspondence. I particularly enjoyed one letter to her niece which summarizes the sentiment Austen expressed in many of her novels: “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.” An ironic statement in that Austen’s novels aptly portrayed the impossibility for many women of marrying for affection in an era when most women depended on men for financial support. Indeed, my favorite part of the exhibition and unfortunately hidden against the back wall was the description of Austen’s lesser known short novel, Lady Susan. Lady Susan, an epistolary novel, paints a scathing portrait of a “gold-digger” without a heart of gold. Marilyn Butler, a scholar depicted Lady Susan as a “cruising shark in her social goldfish pond.”

Therein lies the source of Austen’s enduring popularity; those who relentlessly search for a pairing of affection are still surrounded by cruising sharks in social goldfish ponds some two hundred years after Austen graced us with Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel.

Jodi Cantor

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