At 7:05 am yesterday, I caught the NYC-bound train from Baltimore with two friends, Shara and Clare. We were completely silly, taking pictures out the window, taking pictures of each other taking pictures out the window, taking pictures of the train (see pic). We all are terribly in love with train rides. I think that, if the plans for our day had just been to ride the train the whole time, we would have been almost as happy.
You'll have to wait for the rest. I had to use a disposable camera. This was from my phone and turned out okay, but it was too hard taking double pics with phone and camera, so I had to pick one. I'm the only person on the planet without a digital camera. I'm just not all that interested in techie toys.
Sharing our car was a group going to the flower show in Philadelphia, and a group of very excited 6-9 year old headed for the American Girl store in NYC with their dolls, ready for a day of hair styling and tea and other innumerable delights (they were on our return train as well).
We were at the museum a few minutes after it opened, fortunately, because the line stretched out the door moments after we got inside. The exhibit was on the second floor and when we opened the glass door and stepped inside, a hush fell over everyone, and remained throughout our stay. I know that’s usually the case in a museum, but this was something different – more than just being quiet. It was like everyone stopped breathing.
I wish I could say something magical happened to me when I stepped into that room. Thinking on that moment now, I was probably expecting too much and doing more observing of myself than being in the present moment. I did this strange thing – it took me several minutes before I could look at one of the letters. I read the initial description of the exhibit that’s always right there when you walk in. I read the descriptions of the first few letters. Everything but the letters. I was probably trying to delay my first encounter with her (as close as one can get to her, really!).
But then, I knew immediately that Jane would think me very silly for expecting a Big Moment. She would have laughed at all of us for visiting the exhibit. I could picture her at her little table, later, writing a satirical piece about all the characters she saw in us.
The letters seemed so small. Her handwriting flowing and so even. Feminine, but without flourishes. Even so, it was surprisingly hard to read them. The room filled up quickly so the exhibits were 6 people deep in places. You couldn’t linger. Most were on the walls, but there were also four or five in tall, narrow cases in the center of the room with the page in glass so you could read both sides. I was able to spend more time with those. There were first editions of her novels, and about 12 pages from her Lady Susan manuscript, a very early work, but marvelous and witty (you can buy it on Amazon, collected with The Watsons and the beginning of her last novel, Sanditon. You can also listen to the wonderful Harriet Walter read the first 25 pages on the exhibit’s website - here).
So what were my impressions, first and otherwise? I found myself looking for her signature on every letter. That’s what I craved. That, more than anything else, said to me, I’m here with you. I so wanted a ‘Jane Booth’ where you could sit and look at her, live – not a film of her, but a window into her own time. Why hasn’t someone figured out time travel yet??? Because of how crammed the letters were, and especially with the cross-hatching in places (turning a page and writing across it again, for extra space), I had a hard time finding her signature. I only really saw one – and it was brilliant:
All well and nothing in particular, J. Austen
Just your average person writing an average letter.
It was an odd mix of being in a room where someone revered was lying in state, and in a Lewis Carroll world, where the ghost of Jane flitted around you, whispering passages from her books and letters and laughing as you tried to catch her. Those vertical cases with the glass became both mirrors and trees behind which she hid, so you were winding your way through a wood of her words. (Sounds like I just began a poem, there. I’ll work on that offline!)
There was no way to catch her, she’s so very far away. And also not. Jane wasn’t in the ink and the paper of her letters, though it was important to me to see them and I wouldn't have missed the opportunity. We really meet her in books – when her voice is in our heads, a meeting of the minds in the worlds of her novels. She’s a wonderful friend telling us a story, making us laugh, making us see ourselves more clearly, making us better people.
God that sounded hokey, but you know what I mean.
I really just wanted to sit in that room all day (we should have had our hands stamped, so we could come back for one last visit before the train home – why don’t they do that?), but the gift shop beckoned and with visions of amazing trinkets to take home, so downstairs we went.
And were terribly disappointed. All they had were a handful of Austen-related books (101 Things You Didn’t Know About Jane Austen! Please no….) a couple of videos about her that looked very low budget, though one was PBS, a postcard of a letter she wrote to her niece in backwards handwriting (so you couldn’t really tell it was her), and another type of card with a facsimile of the list in which she listed the dates she began and ended her novels.
I would have settled for the postcard but, again, it didn't look like her letters. Writing backwards made her handwriting tight and curled, and the signature was backwards as well.
Badly done, Morgan Library!
From there the day took a serendipitous turn – we had lunch at Serendipity, then found ourselves on the Literary Walk in Central Park, turned onto another path and ended up at the Wollman ice rink from the movie. Hmmm.
And, yes, a bride and groom were having their pictures taken in the Park. It’s not Saturday in Central Park without a bride and groom having their pictures taken.
Two other things: super scary plastic surgery everywhere we looked. The size of lips - well, you can't even imagine. Don't try to. It will keep you up at night. And boots. Boots were everywhere. Boots with short summery dresses and tights. I'm so glad I live in Baltimore where we don't dress like everyone else. When it's cold we dress for cold weather - fashion be damned!
We collapsed on the train ride home, trying to be quiet in the quiet car (the only place with seats), as we unwrapped our pound bags of candy from Dylan’s Candy Bar. Still enjoying Necco Wafers right now….
My last impression: it's a start. An indirect introduction. Miss Austen and I have exchanged nods across a crowded assembly room.