Austen in Manhattan

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.


Filed under Books, Life, Reading

18 responses to “Austen in Manhattan

  1. You two have amazing stamina! It must be all the cycling – as much as I am always jealous when you write about your literary/bookstore marathons, I also imagine being totally wiped about 2/3 of the way through the events you describe. No matter, though – what a fantastic day, and the Austen exhibit sounds lovely. I remember seeing some of those cross-written Austen letters in the British Library; incredible that that used to be common practice.


  2. bardiac

    Wow, that sounds like a fabulous exhibit! I’d LOVE to see her ms of Lady Susan.

    Color me jealous!


  3. Dorothy, that’s one exhibit that I so want to see but don’t think I’ll make it to NYC anytime soon… not before March when it’s over. I’m glad you had an enjoyable time there. It’s just great that you have travel companions to do this sort of literary and book tours. I’m all envious! Thanks for sharing your wonderful experience here.


  4. zhiv

    Great report. I don’t think I’ll be getting to NYC and the Austen exhibit, tho my daughter saw it and got a couple of keepsakes. So thanks for your view.

    It’s not “a” manuscript (“manscript”–rare typo, and kinda Freudian too) of Christmas Carol, but pretty much THE manuscript, and the story behind Dickens sitting down and writing it, well told in a Les Standiford book I wrote about, is a really good one, especially enjoyable over the holidays. A friend is working on a CBC-Brit version of it as a movie, which might be interesting.

    Love to see you picking up McCarthy–I have that intriguing, rather compendious volume–and the Williams too. Stoner is pretty high on my list.


  5. I just saw the Austen exhibit yesterday! And yes, it was really nicely put together, just the right scale. And the Dickens… imagine writing A Christmas Carol not just in longhand, not just in six weeks, but in a bound book! That last one really gets me—not to be able to shuffle sheets of paper and reorder entire paragraphs. It’s a wonderful museum, the Morgan, and I hope to get back soon for some of the upcoming exhibits.


  6. I am green with envy! What a great day. How fun that getting to NYC for a day is so convenient. And the fact that you didn’t get to visit all the book shops you wanted to is a great reason to go back soon!


  7. Sounds like a perfect, literary day! When Tony & I were in New York back in November, visiting the Morgan library for the Jane Austen exhibit was one of the highlights for me. The Strand was pretty fun too!


  8. What a great way to spend the day. Thanks for sharing what the exhibit was like–I would love to see it, but I don’t think I will. I was just reading about letter writing in a novel where it was mentioned the page was turned to fit in more words. I can’t remember where I read it–maybe Wives and Daughters. Very cool to be able to see an actual example. Glad you had a good day (and found some good books to bring home as well).


  9. Thanks again for a wonderful day! SOC and I can’t stop saying how much we enjoyed ourselves with you and Hobgoblin (and how much we’re going to need more bookcases).


  10. I’m going to the exhibit next week, and am so excited. I only have about 2 hours to devote to the exhibit, and I’m assuming that will be okay (tough luck if it won’t) as my plane leaves at 3 and the Morgan doesn’t open until 10:30.

    >It was wonderful to look at the things Austen looked at, wrote on, and read.

    There’s something breathtaking about seeing tangible evidence like that.


  11. 3 Lives is one of my very favorite bookstores! Sounds like a lovely day.


  12. What a wonderful day! The exhibit, and then the bookshops, and friends–oh just wonderful.


  13. Fun, fun, fun. On cable here, they played a show called Lost in Austen. A modern day British woman finds a door in the back wall of her shower that leads to the Bennett’s attic. Elizabeth switches places with her and everything gets out of whack after that.


  14. What a fun outing. I totally agree about smaller museums. I love big museums but sometimes they are just so overwhelming you can’t help but feel exhausted in the end. Sounds like the Austen exhibit was done in a perfect spot.

    And, isn’t Three Lives great? Love that store.


  15. Emily — well, to be honest, I think we were all wiped out about 2/3 of the way through the day, although sitting down and getting some hot chocolate helped! It’s just hard to resist seeing one more thing when you’re in Manhattan and won’t be there again for a while. And those crossed letters seem SO hard to read! I remember reading about them in the Laura Ingalls books and the practiced seemed so odd.

    Bardiac — Well, you can see a fascimile here:

    Not quite as good, but at least it’s something 🙂

    Arti — it is really wonderful to have friends to take these trips with us. It makes the whole thing even more exciting and memorable. And yes, I’m very lucky to have a group of people to go on trips with!

    Zhiv — thanks for pointing out the typo and mentioning the story of the manuscript — I was vaguely aware of the background but forgot it when I wrote the post. That story makes the viewing all that much more exciting. I actually have another McCarthy book coming my way — The Company She Keeps is coming from Book Mooch. I thought of it because you mentioned it recently on your blog or in some comment. Thanks!

    Lisa — I SO agree with you about the Morgan Library and how wonderful it is! I really love looking through the library rooms and they consistently have such great exhibits. I’m glad you enjoyed Austen, and yes, the Dickens story is amazing!

    Stefanie — oh, yes, we do need to get back soon! It is wonderful having NYC so close by, and I only wish I made it there more often.

    Steph — yes, both things are memorable, aren’t they? How fun that you could see the Austen exhibit and the Strand. It’s such a great bookstore, and I always find so many things I want to bring home.

    Danielle — yes, it was fun seeing an example of those crossed letters; I was surprised to see that the crossed lines are spaced out fairly far apart from each other, which makes the whole thing easier to read — although not exactly easy!

    Debby — thank you for the great company and for making it such a memorable day! And yes, we both have some reading to do, don’t we 🙂

    JaneGS — I think two hours is plenty. I read and saw pretty much everything, and I finished in maybe 1 1/2 hours. I hope you enjoy it! I agree that seeing artifacts from writers’ lives is breathtaking — I always have a tough time taking it in that I’m seeing something Austen actually touched.

    Bookeywookey — yes, Three Lives is amazing. They do so much with their small space. Such a great variety of books!

    Lilian — yes, it really was wonderful! I’m a lucky person 🙂

    Bikkuri — I’ve heard of Lost in Austen, although I didn’t know what it was about. I’m kind of curious, although I have no idea what I would think of it.

    Iliana — another Three Lives fan! And a small museums fan 🙂 The Met is just so intimidating sometimes.


  16. Yeah, don’t make any special plans to see it. It is amusing, but not overwhelming. It was broken into four sessions on LaLa TV (that’s “For Ladies, By Ladies”) which means it is probably a bit long.


  17. What a splendid trip! But I agree with Emily – your stamina is amazing. Although bookstores are rejuvenating, it’s true. 😉 I also prefer small museums. You can appreciate a Madonna and Child, say, all the better when it isn’t one in a gallery of thirty Madonna and Childs…..


  18. Bikkuri — LaLa TV? Oh, dear.

    Litlove — we were really tired at the end of the day, believe me! I stayed home the next day and enjoyed the warmth and the chance to sit still for hours on end. Hobgoblin is the amazing one — he went on a three-hour bike ride!


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