The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of American poet Peter Orlovsky (1933–2010), an important figure in the Beat Generation.
Orlovsky was the companion of fellow poet Allen Ginsberg for more than 40 years, and his papers reflect significant aspects of their relationship. Orlovsky’s collection comprises manuscripts, journals and notebooks, correspondence, tape recordings, photographs, and other personal documents, including unpublished poetry and prose works.
Around the time that Orlovsky met Ginsberg, he began to keep a journal, filling more than 140 notebooks before his death. Some of Orlovsky’s published poems appear in the journals, yet none of the journals have been published.
Correspondence in the collection highlights Orlovsky’s many connections with other poets, authors, and artists. There are more than 1,600 letters written to Orlovsky and/or Ginsberg, including 165 letters written by Ginsberg himself. Some notable correspondents include Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ken Kesey, and Robert LaVigne. Orlovsky also wrote regularly to his parents and siblings, and more than 65 of his letters are included in the archive.
The collection features more than 2,650 photographs taken by or of Orlovsky, documenting the years between 1970 and 2010. Also included are eight reel-to-reel tapes from the 1960s and more than 120 audiocassettes made by Orlovsky during the 1970s and 1980s, some recording conversations with Ginsberg.
The Orlovsky materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.
Ransom Center Humanities Coordinator Gregory Curtis writes about a piece of correspondence in the archive, revealing how a misunderstanding began between Allen Ginsberg and Diana Trilling.
Stacy Wykle is a graduate student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, where she is completing a certificate of advanced study in “Science, Information, and Cultural Heritage.” As part of her class “Rare Books and Special Collections” with instructor Michael Laird, Wykle studied the Ransom Center’s copy of Institutions de physique, by Émilie de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1740), an item from the Desmond Flower collection of Voltaire.
One item in the Ransom Center’s Desmond Flower collection of Voltaire is a work by the woman who is most often credited as having been Voltaire’s lover. It is far more fitting, however, that she be known for authoring the first French translation and commentary of Isaac Newton’s Principia, a work that is still considered to be the standard translation in France.
Over the last decade, interest in the life of Enlightenment intellectual Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706–1749) has flowered. In addition to two biographies that have been written over the last few years, Mme. du Châtelet has been the subject of two plays and an opera—Legacy of Light by Karen Zacarías, Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson, and Émilie by Kaija Saariaho. She is currently of great interest to public libraries and archives in France. Just last year the Archives de France and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France appealed to the French public for donations to assist in preempting the sale of the manuscripts of Émilie du Châtelet and Voltaire that were sold at auction in Paris by Christie’s.
Rather than merely being Voltaire’s lover, du Châtelet exemplifies the style of argumentation that accelerated the separation of science and philosophy during the Enlightenment. Although her famed translation of Newton’s Principia was published after her death, du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique is a rich example of the philosophical hybrid of the eigtheenth century that produced modern science. Published in 1740, her Institutions shows the influence of Descartes and logical premises from Leibniz that continued to govern scientific inquiry into the twentieth century, and illustrates the ways in which French thinkers challenged and corrected some of Newton’s mechanical theories.
It can be argued that her contributions to the development of modern science far outshine those of her more famous consort. This item is part of the Desmond Flower collection of Voltaire because of the author’s significant relationship with Voltaire. Yet the work could stand on its own as an important contribution to the history of science and to the spread of the commonplace understanding of Newtonian physics.
Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.
The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, film, photography, art, and performing arts materials.
The fellowship recipients, half of whom will be coming from abroad, will use Ransom Center materials to support projects with such titles as “Postirony: Countercultural Fictions from Hipster to Coolhunter,” “Elliott Erwitt: Early Work,” “Obsession: The Films of Brian De Palma,” “David Foster Wallace: The Form of His Fiction,” “Matisse’s Illustrations for Ulysses,” and “Doris Lessing’s Intuitive Style.”
“Support of scholarly research is one of the primary goals of the Ransom Center,” said Director Thomas F. Staley. “With what has become one of the largest fellowship programs of its kind, we encourage scholars from around the world to make new discoveries about the writers and artists who have shaped our culture.”
The fellowships range from one to three months in duration and provide $3,000 of support per month. Travel stipends and dissertation fellowships are also awarded.
The stipends are funded by individual donors and organizations, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Hobby Family Foundation, the Dorot Foundation, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at The University of Texas at Austin and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.
R. Colin Tait, a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Texas at Austin, has used the Ransom Center’s Robert De Niro collection as the basis for his dissertation, “Robert De Niro’s Method: Acting, Authorship and Agency in the New Hollywood (1967–1980).” Tait argues that De Niro has been a major intellectual and creative contributor to the world of film and acting and writes about his research in the De Niro archive. Tait shares how the papers reveal the actor’s commitment to his craft with examples of his “meticulous research, collaborations with directors, and extreme bodily transformations.”
In the above video, Tait discusses De Niro’s place in the film canon.
Heidi Kimis an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She visited the Ransom Center in December 2012 on a travel fellowship to research her monograph in progress, Invisible Subjects: Asian America in Postwar American Literature.
Some archival trips, like my recent trip to the Harry Ransom Center, are highly directed expeditions. I was on a mission to look at the revision of specific sections of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden (1952). But there is also always the pleasure of the archive, given time and an extensive collection like the Ransom Center’s, which draws a researcher to explore the small pieces of an author’s oeuvre that can shed light on the concerns of his more famous works.
One of the detours I took was to look at a piece of Steinbeck’s with which I was not familiar, a minor feature in the short-lived but highly ambitious fashion magazine Flair(the Ransom Center holds a rare, complete set of its run). In Flair’s July 1950 “All Male Issue,” several famous men, including child actor Brandon de Wilde and industrial designer Raymond Loewy, were asked to draw and describe their ideal woman. Steinbeck drew a curvaceous nude, a sketchy, muscular outline emphasizing her attributes. The caption read:
“Novelist John Steinbeck snorted as he drew, sounded off: “Guys that talk about the ideal woman just don’t like women. I don’t want an ideal woman. I just like dames. Anyway, the ideal woman is for kids. I think a couple of centuries from now people are going to look back on these times and think all babies were born from mammary glands…”
For any Steinbeck scholar, this brings up an all-too-familiar debate about his unrealistic or misogynistic depictions of women—certainly a fair critique in some respects. However, through this almost defiantly sexualized sketch, Steinbeck was also exploring a growing concern about the repression, conformity, and over-civilization of the postwar era, popularly identified with the 1950s. In his mind, this was far more perverse than the healthy animal sexuality and physicality he extolled in his 1930s naturalist works, sometimes to a degree that readers found uncomfortable. The best-known example is the ending of The Grapes of Wrath (1939), in which the character Rose of Sharon, who has just had a stillborn baby, breastfeeds a half-dead, starving man and smiles mysteriously.
I’m skeptical of Steinbeck’s flippant claim that he was “just” drawing a dame rather than an ideal woman, and that the ideal woman is “for kids” (implicitly only for kids). A domesticized dame who can make a home and family was decidedly his ideal woman, as embodied by Abra in East of Eden. She likes to cook and is also a “straight, strong, fine-breasted woman, developed and ready and waiting to take her sacrament,” that is a sexual awakening from her boyfriend, who is living in an ecstasy of religious purity. Similarly, Suzy, the prostitute with a heart of gold in Sweet Thursday (1954), is no good at “hustling” because she is “too small in the butt and too big in the bust,” a state of body that reflects her state of mind: affectionate, faithful, and nurturing. Steinbeck’s heroines have generous hearts and generous bodies.
This is not simply objectification; as a naturalist (or post-naturalist) writer, Steinbeck depicts one facet of danger to mankind as the unfitness or unwillingness to bear and nurture in a harsh world where, in Darwinian fashion, fertility of land, women, or even mind contributes to survival. As with animals, human fitness must be shown physically. The purely evil Cathy of East of Eden has a boyish body with undeveloped breasts that do not enlarge even during her unwanted pregnancy, seemingly through sheer willpower. Her body mirrors her stunted moral sense and her deviant use of sexuality as power, and symbolizes how unfit she is to be a force of good in Steinbeck’s myth-inflected narrative. In death, her already insufficient body vanishes from life and human history: “And then her eyes closed again and her fingers curled as though they held small breasts. And her heart beat solemnly and her breathing slowed as she grew smaller and smaller and then disappeared—and she had never been.”
Click on the four-way arrow in the bottom right-hand corner of the slideshow to convert into full-screen mode.
Many of the items discussed here are featured in the display “The Intertextual Sherlock Holmes,” which can be seen outside the Reading and Viewing Room on the second floor of the Ransom Center until April 21.
While fanfiction may seem like an Internet-dependent phenomenon, its origins stretch far back into the past, beyond even the age of print. Adapting others’ literary creations for new purposes is at least as old as the Aeneid, in which Virgil adopts a minor character from Homer’s Iliad, Aeneas, as the hero of his story. The scholar Henry Jenkins has argued for fanfiction as modern myth-making, “a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.” Just as ancient Greek storytellers could draw upon shared cultural knowledge to spin a tale featuring Theseus or Ariadne, their present-day counterparts seeking a similar resonance might instead turn to Harry Potter, Captain James T. Kirk—or Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes captured the imagination of other writers almost from his inception. In 1891, an anonymous author published “My Evening with Sherlock Holmes” in The Speaker, less than four years after the detective’s 1887 debut in A Study in Scarlet. One might argue that it was not long before other writers were more enamored of Holmes than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was himself, for Doyle attempted to kill off his obstreperous creation in 1893 in a thwarted effort to refocus attention on his historical fiction. Even Holmes’s apparent death at Reichenbach Falls did little to stem the rising tide of Sherlockian pastiches, parodies, and fanfictions, of which the Ransom Center holds a diverse selection.
Many of the early extra-canonical Holmes sightings crop up as brief, humorous episodes in newspapers or periodicals, often with absurd variations on the detective’s distinctive name. In 1892, The Idler featured the adventures of Sherlaw Kombs, while Punch followed in 1893 with tales of Picklock Holes. Even P. G. Wodehouse joined the fun, publishing “Dudley Jones, Bore-Hunter” in Punch in 1903. Andrew Lang, best known for editing the Blue Fairy Book and its sequels, took a more serious approach in his pastiche “At the Sign of the Ship” (Longman’sMagazine, 1905), in which Holmes applies his deductive powers to the unsolved mystery of Edwin Drood. Across the Atlantic, Arthur Chapman took time off from writing cowboy poetry to pen “The Unmasking of Sherlock Holmes” for The Critic (1905), in which Auguste Dupin derides Holmes as an attenuated derivative of himself. (The story ends with Holmes shamefacedly conceding his debt to Dupin.)
While Chapman leaves Holmes at home in London, other authors took Holmes on some distinctly American adventures. In A Double Barrelled Detective Story (1902), Mark Twain transplants the detective to a California mining camp, much to the chagrin of his murderous nephew, Fetlock Jones. In “The Sleuths” (1911), Austin’s own O. Henry re-imagines Holmes as New York private eye Shamrock Jolnes, whose “thin, intellectual face, piercing eyes, and rate per word are too well known to need description.” The Center holds unusual copies of both books: Twain’s is a signed first edition from the author’s own library, while Henry’s is a tiny volume originally distributed as a free prize in cigarette packets.
Alongside the proliferating Holmesian fictions, a tradition of tongue-in-cheek nonfiction also arose that treated Holmes and Watson as real people, with Doyle demoted to mere editor when he was acknowledged at all. In 1911, future mystery writer and Monsignor Ronald Knox regaled an Oxford audience with “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” couched in the stentorian style of Biblical exegesis. Knox’s disquisition not only presumed the actuality of Holmes himself, but also fabricated a bevy of rival Holmesian scholars, whose interpretations of the canon Knox demolished with great relish. Taken up by other enthusiasts, this practice of fan-nonfiction became known as the Higher Criticism or the Great Game. The Center’s collections include key entries in the genre by Vincent Starrett, H. W. Bell, S. C. Roberts, and Dorothy L. Sayers, among many others.
Fascination with Holmes soon expanded beyond his English-speaking audience. A German newspaper wrote in 1908, “It is certain that contemporary Europe is suffering from a disease called Sherlockismus […] a literary disease similar to Werther-mania and romantic Byronism.” The Bookman concurred, diagnosing Paris with “what may be described as a bad case of Sherlockitis,” and citing some alarming symptoms: “In connection with two recent sensational murders the Paris newspapers have been giving their versions of how these crimes were committed in the form of imaginary interviews with Sherlock Holmes.” Versions of Holmes also thrived on the Spanish stage, with several plays produced and published between 1908 and 1916. While some of these drew directly on the canon, many were original works that borrowed only the character (and sometimes no more than the name) of Holmes.
As Doyle’s frustration with Holmes’s popularity became more and more apparent, and new adventures appeared less and less frequently, fans turned to supplementing the canon with their own creations. After the publication of the final Holmes tales in 1927, a Wisconsin teenager named August Derleth started writing stories that both imitated and explicitly referenced Holmes, introducing his detective Solar Pons as “the Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street.” Derleth again translated his fan enthusiasm into action when he founded Arkham House to ensure the publication of H. P. Lovecraft’s works in formats more durable than pulp magazines. Arkham later published the Pons stories under the imprint Mycroft & Moran, with each volume featuring an introduction by a noted Sherlockian. Derleth eventually wrote more stories about Pons than Doyle did about Holmes.
The rise of organized fan societies created new venues for fans to communicate with other fans. In 1934, Christopher Morley founded the Baker Street Irregulars, which began publishing The Baker Street Journal in 1946. After a brief stint in the 1930s, The Sherlock Holmes Society of London re-formed in 1951, bringing out the first Sherlock Holmes Journal the following year. Both periodicals featured stories by fans alongside Sherlockian news, reviews, essays, and criticism. In addition to issues of both journals, the Center also holds the papers of Christopher Morley, including many documents from the early days of the Baker Street Irregulars. A limited edition pamphlet of the sonnet in which Vincent Starrett famously declared “It is always 1895,” a recreation of the portrait of Irene Adler that caused so much trouble in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and a self-published book of original songs about characters from the stories illustrate the wide range of creative engagement that flowed through these channels for fan-centered community.
The mythology of Sherlock Holmes continues to expand across media. Recently published fictions by Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, and Laurie S. King re-envision the classic Holmes in new contexts. On television, BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary each mix and match elements of the original adventures and characterizations to produce two very different modern takes on Holmes and Watson. Fanworks inspired by the original Holmes or his many reincarnations proliferate both online and in print. The Ransom Center’s collections illustrate that the current boom in re-imagining Doyle’s detective is only the most recent chapter in a long history of Sherlockian creative enthusiasm. The case-book of Sherlock Holmes is nowhere near closed.
In 2011, the Baker Street Irregulars published “Bohemian Souls,” a facsimile of the original manuscript of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” accompanied by annotations and commentary. This was followed by their 2012 edition of “The Golden Pince-Nez.” Both manuscripts are owned by the Ransom Center.
Dr. Sherre L. Paris—lecturer at The University of Texas School of Journalism—teaches her undergraduate class “A Cultural History of Photography” at the Ransom Center. During the three-hour-long-seminar, which meets every Tuesday in a classroom adjacent to the Ransom Center’s Reading Room, undergraduates work with primary source materials from the Center’s photography collections. “Cultural Compass” spoke with Dr. Paris about her experience teaching at the Ransom Center.
In 1958, Andre Dubus graduated from McNeese State University in Louisiana and joined the U. S. Marine Corps, thinking it would be “a romantic way to make a living as a writer.” Buoyed by a distinctive voice and a natural ebullience, Dubus’s work enjoyed moderate initial success. After six years in the Marines, he entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, received his MFA, and completed his first and only novel, The Lieutenant. From then on, he devoted himself to the art of the short story.
But it was tragedy that spurred his transformation as a writer and brought his works a broader readership. In 1986, on a highway outside of Boston, he stopped to help two motorists who had stalled in the middle of the lane. A passing car struck Dubus, severely injuring both his legs, one of which required amputation above the knee. He spent the remainder of his life in a wheelchair. Following the accident, his marriage ended, and he battled with depression.
Fortunately, Dubus continued to write after his injury, and the result was met with much critical acclaim. The notebooks Dubus kept while recovering in the hospital—which include drafts of stories—are just a few of the items found in Dubus’s archive, which has opened for research at the Ransom Center.
To help with Dubus’s mounting medical bills, a group of authors including Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Ann Beattie, John Updike, Richard Yates, and Tim O’Brien read from their works in a public benefit for Dubus. He later wrote to thank the participants because they “made me feel, during a very bad time, that I had hundreds of friends I didn’t even know.” In 1988, he published a book of Selected Stories and won a MacArthur fellowship. Three years later, he published a collection of essays titled Broken Vessels, many of which focus on the accident and aftermath. In a 1996 interview, he said, ”My condition increased my empathy and rid me of my fear of disability and misfortune.”
In addition to his notebooks of drafts and short story ideas, the papers of the Dubus collection include family correspondence and a series of journals chronicling his thoughts, personal and religious exercises, and housekeeping notes. The items span from 1925 to 2001.
His son, Andre Dubus III, a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin and fellow author, spoke of his father’s affinity for the city and university where his papers are now housed. Dubus received from his son a LONGHORNS DAD sticker, which he applied to the back of his writing chair. The younger Dubus reflects: “Sometimes I’d walk into his room before he was finished working, and I’d see my Longhorn father hunched over his desk, writing slowly in pen into a bound notebook, composing one of his masterful stories, all of which will now be in Austin.”
The Ransom Center is currently engaged in a one-year, grant-funded project to digitize, catalog, process and make the Frank Reaugh art collection available online, which will be the first complete collection of the Ransom Center’s new digital asset management system. The project is ongoing and is expected to be completed and available online to viewers by the fall.
The Frank Reaugh collection consists primarily of pastel landscapes on paper and board but also includes oil landscapes and portraits, charcoal sketches, and pen and ink drawings. Reaugh’s (1883–1937) favorite subject, the Texas Longhorn, is often featured within his untamed Texas landscapes. His work includes native subjects and locations ranging from the Texas Panhandle to the state’s western plains and mountainous regions and beyond the state border to New Mexico, Arizona, and Wyoming. Interest in Frank Reaugh has grown steadily over the years, as his contributions as an influential artist, arts educator, benefactor, naturalist, and inventor are being increasingly recognized by curators, collectors, and scholars. Access to the works has long been limited due to their delicate nature and to their sheer number and size.
Digitization of the framed and often fragile works is not simple. Many of the pastels have never before been removed from their original frames and mats, which were largely constructed by Reaugh himself. Thus far, the first half of the collection has been digitized, beginning with Reaugh’s distinctive small-format pastel landscapes. When the project is finished, researchers will not only have unprecedented access to the entire body of Reaugh’s work held by the Ransom Center but will also have the opportunity to peer beneath the frames.
During the process of removing these delicate pastels from their frames, there is often an unexpected surprise waiting beneath the window mat. Reaugh used his own technique to prepare the paper to hold the pastel media, and evidence of this applied fixative is easily visible in the margins of the paper support. A view of the margins of some of these pastels also reveals previously hidden inscriptions and areas where Reaugh tested his colors. One can see the well-delineated borders of his rectangular landscapes, which he sometimes stayed within, but more often allowed his strokes to extend beyond the intended space. Two pastels have even revealed outlined sketches on the reverse, offering insight into Reaugh’s preliminary drawing techniques. In addition to the works themselves, the framing materials and methods speak to Reaugh’s time on the cattle-trail, where it appears that he made use of whatever materials he had on hand.
Images of each artwork (including the fronts and backs, framed and unframed) will be available via the Ransom Center’s new digital asset management system in the fall. Funding for the Frank Reaugh project is made possible with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
Janine Barchas is an associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin. Barchas used the Ransom Center’s collections as she conducted research for her book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, published this past fall by John Hopkins University Press. She writes about working in the collections and how they guided her research.
Did I do a lot of research for my new book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen in the Harry Ransom Center? You bet!
True, many eighteenth-century books and newspapers can now be read online from the comfort of one’s home computer—and without having to attend to the time-consuming niceties of personal hygiene. As literary historians, we have books and documents at our fingertips (literally) that even five years ago demanded trips to far-flung scholarly libraries. E-tools are making historical research faster while also raising the bar of scholarship—since the skill is no longer in the mere finding.
In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, I argue that Austen’s novels allude to actual high-profile politicians and contemporary celebrities as well as to famous historical figures and landed estates. As the book’s jacket asserts, the “extensive research into the names and locations in Austen’s fiction” takes “full advantage of the explosion of archival materials now available online.”
Digital archives—scholarly databases as well as open resources such as Google Books and even Google Maps—were indeed a great boon to my research. Still, new e-tools do not replace traditional archival spelunking. Nothing beats the targeted serendipity of researching in the collections of a truly great library. In the end, my proximity to the Ransom Center proved just as great an advantage as the e-revolution.
I’ve been asked to identify a few Ransom Center items that shaped, propelled, or redirected my research into Jane Austen. I picked three: one book, one map, and one manuscript.
1) A BOOK
Humphry Repton’s Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Including Some Remarks on Grecian and Gothic Architecture. London: Printed by T. Bensley for J. Taylor, 1803. [-Q- SB 471 R427 HRC WAU]
The celebrity landscaper Humphry Repton is mentioned by name in Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), a novel slightly critical of the fashion for so-called “improvements” that would fell ancient trees just because they were planted in an unnaturally straight line. The Ransom Center owns Evelyn Waugh’s copy of Repton’s watershed Observations. It is a favorite show-and-tell piece among the Center’s curatorial staff, since the hand-colored illustrations have unique folding flaps that show the “before” and “after” views of the changes that Repton wrought at great estates and at great expense. The front of the book also boasts a list of the clients whose estates are mentioned as “examples” by Repton—his resume, as it were. Austen’s cousins, the Leighs of Adlestrop, appear among this client list. The complete list is a virtual who’s who of England’s wealthy and their landed estates. When, among Repton’s list of Britain’s most fashionable landowners, I recognized the telltale names of Austen’s leading men and women (including Dashwood and Wentworth), I began to wonder whether, long before James Joyce plucked names from city directories, she too had used works like Repton’s Observations as inspiration.
2) A MAP
“The N.W. Bank of Soundings by Captain F. W. Austin R.N. in 1808.” Published by the Hydrographic Office, 1816.
Slowly, I came to believe that Austen’s street names in, for example, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are not casual throwaways to mark the urban setting of Bath generally but compact interpretive clues that reward those with particular knowledge of such locations. At the Ransom Center, I pored over old maps and guidebooks—first of Bath, then Lyme Regis, and other locales mentioned in her stories. Hearing of my Austen research and my queries about old maps, librarian Richard Workman showed me a map of the island of St. Helena, published in 1816 by the Hydrographic Office, which is (in spite of the spelling variation) based upon the painstaking coastal measurements, or “soundings,” taken by Jane Austen’s seafaring brother Frank (Francis William Austen), a ship captain in the Royal Navy in 1808. The existence of Frank’s chart of St. Helena suddenly suggested the larger cartographic sensibility that surrounded Jane Austen. If Austen maps her fictional characters with uncanny precision, she may have gleaned this impulse from another cartographer in her family. While this map was not direct evidence, it offered a larger historical and family context for Austen’s own cartographic exactitude.
3) A MANUSCRIPT
Letter by James Edward Austen-Leigh (1788–1874) to Mr. Cheney, dated April 14, 1870.
Some years ago, in preparation for my first University of Texas class on Austen in 2005, I flipped through the manuscript card catalogue under “AUSTEN, J,” on the off-chance that the Ransom Center owned an actual letter by Jane Austen. It does not. Instead, I found a letter by Austen’s nephew and family biographer, James Austen-Leigh, who published his Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870. When I read it, I was surprised and intrigued. On the face of it, the note is a rather obsequious thank-you for “a kind letter of approbation” about his memoir, received from the brother of a former schoolfellow. In 2009, Deirdre Le Faye identified the recipient as Edward Cheney (1803–1884), whose brother was Robert Henry Cheney (1799–1866). The short letter also asks Cheney whether the cancelled Persuasion chapters should be published in a future second edition of the Memoir. Most suggestively, Austen-Leigh’s letter alludes to the difficulties of finessing the biography of his aunt:
In treating of a subject so mixed up with private matters, I have been chiefly anxious, by no means to offend, and, if possible, to satisfy my own family, & those old personal friends whom, next to my own family, I care most for.
He hints at the polite need to “satisfy” family feeling and keep “private matters” out of the biography. Is this letter a smoking gun? Since Cassandra Austen burned the bulk of her sister Jane’s letters, we know precious little about the author’s private life. Did family members who lived well into the Victorian age help whitewash and starch Austen’s reputation into the prim spinster of record? What might she have seemed like to us now if such “private matters” had not been finessed, repressed, and burned? In sum, this stray letter first sparked my interest and led to questions about what may have been willfully lost in the critical reception of her work.
Finally, in addition to tracking specific research leads, my work in the Ransom Center included old-fashioned reading pleasures. I cherished being able to touch the Austen family copies of Jane’s own novels that miraculously made their way from Chawton to Texas. I carefully turned pages in worn copies of Steel’s Navy List, where I searched, like the Musgrove sisters in Persuasion, for the names of ships, including those of Austen’s sailor brothers. In old editions of the Baronetage, I deciphered the cramped marginalia of former owners who, like the fictional Sir Walter, annotated their copies with details of deaths, births, and notable events. Maps in old guidebooks unfolded to show me the tourist sites of Bath as Austen would have known them in 1801, when her family relocated there. I even turned pages in the same books that Austen borrowed from the library at her brother’s Godmersham estate! No mere screen experience provides this type of thrill.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.