I arrived in London just before noon from Reykjavik, where I’d been attending the wedding of a friend, ready to officially begin my Jane Austen Pilgrimage. I had a couple of suitcases and decided to go to the flat of my friend’s new husband to drop them off before venturing out further.
So, after getting up at 4 a.m to catch the shuttle to the flybus to the airport, then a plane, three trains, and one cab later (the cab driver called me ‘Luv,’ awesome), I was free of all my bags and went out again. I then got caught up in taking pictures of the very charming streets as I walked down to the tube station.
That, coupled with the train to King’s Cross/St. Pancras (below), the tube stop near the British Library, took up another hour, so I arrived after 4:00 p.m. and had to let go of my plan to also go to the British Museum as there just wasn’t enough time before they closed. Oh well, onward! The British Library was easy to find – it’s basically next door to St. Pancras (is that an amazing building or what? It’s also a hotel).
Once inside the Library (below) I had a VERY difficult time navigating the floor plan. There are several levels to the front lobby, perhaps I should say landings, and then other floor levels themselves off of the lobby, which are not clear via the map. Perhaps the fact that there is a lower ground, upper ground, and ground floor before you even get to floors 1, 2, and 3 and they are not full levels beneath one another or all reached by one flight of stairs or set of elevators that is the problem!
Eventually I located the Sir John Ritblat Gallery where the Library’s ‘treasures’ are, including Jane’s desk. Unless you know exactly which room the desk is in and what it looks like, and how deceptive the word ‘desk’ is, you will have just as much trouble, so let me tell you exactly what to do.
When you enter the building, by all means get the map, in case there are other exhibits you want to see or you want to eat at the café (most closed by 5 so I missed out on that pleasure). The gift shop is on the left, as is the entrance to another exhibit hall (more about that later). The info desk is straight ahead (where the maps are) and to the left are some stairs. Take those stairs. On the next level, stay to the left and take the first left into the ‘Treasures’ room. That’s where you want to be.
I can’t remember the actual layout of the room now because I did more wandering around, trying to find her desk for another half an hour, stopping to look at various manuscripts along the way. By the time I found it, I believe it was back towards the entrance to the room. I think if you turn left when you first come in, you should find it fairly soon as you make your way along the glass enclosed objects on that wall. It’s not a desk as we think of them – an actual piece of furniture. It is a sloped wooden box that can be placed on a table. It is in a case with manuscripts, including Jane’s, not in a standalone case.
Here is a map of the front entrance, lobby, and the room where you can find the desk – see it highlighted in yellow: http://www.bl.uk/whatson/planyourvisit/floorplans/upperg/index.html
Until that moment, I’d never worked so hard to find something in a museum in all my life. I was to work even harder the next day at the National Portrait Gallery however…
But back to the desk. It was donated in 1999 by Joan Austen-Leigh, the great, great, great niece of Jane Austen. It’s a sloped desk that looks more like a box when folded. Here is a picture of what it looked like (though not the actual one, one that was auctioned), then an article on the donation from the newsletter of the Australian JASNA, which includes a picture.
I took a picture of it but it came out much too dark because I was using my cell phone. Couldn’t use the digital camera because it would have required a flash and the guard had just walked by. On the left of the desk were the canceled chapters of Persuasion. On the right, the open manuscript of Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I suppose I should have been more impressed by the Magna Carta or the folios of Shakespeare, but I was not. Not by a longshot.
Here's the pic from the announcement about the donation if you don't want to go to the link to learn more:
It’s a funny thing to visit an object used, worn, or created by people you admire, whether historical, literary, political, or religious figures. There’s an immense satisfaction in standing in its presence. I had been to the Morgan Library in NYC for the exhibit of Austen letters, but there was something about the desk. It was an everyday object that had been important to her writing life. She used it to write amazing novels that outlive and outsell those of her contemporaries. Her glasses only heightened the sensation. There’s something so personal and intimate about a pair of eyeglasses. As if the person is there, looking at you.
There’s only so long you can stare at an object, however compelling, so I took myself off to the science fiction books exhibit they were having in the gallery off of the gift shop. When you walked in, this is what greeted you! (By the way, I've rotated and saved this picture four times. I have no idea why it won't stay in the right position. Turn your screen upside down so you can see the spaceship crashing into bookshelves. :) ).
A little blurry as I had to take it very quickly and surreptitiously, but very cool. The exhibit was fabulous. I made a long list of books I wanted to read that were displayed. They had even made a TARDIS, for those of you who know and love Doctor Who, with this note on the door:
I bought a few books in the gift shop and went back to the tube station.
The next day was a very busy typical tourist day: visits to Westminster Abbey, the Churchill War Rooms, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, lots of wandering around taking pictures, lunch in St. James Park. The most important part of the day was the visit to the National Portrait Gallery to see the sketch of Jane by her sister Cassandra.
I won’t bore you with another blow by blow of not being able to find the portrait. I’ll just tell you how to find it so you don’t have the same experience! It’s on the second floor in Room 18. And here’s why I couldn’t find it the first four times I walked around the room: it is in a case all by itself, not on the wall with the other portraits.
When you enter the room, look for a narrow case, about three and half to four feet high - I believe it's to the far left of the room. The portrait is tucked into this case, which is open at the front and back but has wooden sides. Only one person can look in at a time, which makes it a very personal experience, like a private greeting between you and Jane. The frame and portrait are small, but the colors bright. It is encased in glass, and tilted a bit to catch the light.
Despite the trouble in finding it, I thought the display brilliant. When you ‘meet’ her, it’s just you and Jane, and in between visitors, she is in her own little private space. The walls are so jammed with paintings everywhere, that I’m sure many people miss her entirely. Even so, if she could also be placed in an alcove, away from the bustle, it would be even better!
I tried my best to shut out the noise of the crowd and imagine the portrait in a sketchbook on Cassandra’s lap with Jane sitting (fidgeting) nearby as she’s being drawn. “Hi Jane,” I whispered, feeling joyful, not silly. Who cared if anyone heard me?
Now I felt like I’d really begun. I wasn’t just on vacation, I was on a pilgrimage. And, like any pilgrimage, there are ‘hardships’ along the way. (Take tongue in cheek as it’s meant!)
Unfortunately, no picture was possible. Too many people. I ran down to the gift shop to buy the postcard of the portrait and then back to get in line for Westminster Abbey (line is much shorter later in the day, around 4:30 p.m.).
Below are some general pics of London if you'd like a few more.
NEXT POST: Winchester Cathedral and Jane’s grave, the house where she died on College Street, the Jane Austen House Museum and the class I took there, and Chawton Great House and Cassandra’s and her mother’s graves at St. Nicholas Church. Hmmm. That might be three posts….
Thames and London Eye
When I first came out of the Westminster tube station, Big Ben was right above, chiming for the noon hour. It was pretty awesome. This a picture later in the day.
View of Buckingham Palace from lake in St. James Park.