Monday, April 4, 2011

Visiting The Morgan Library - The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives

The diaries of Henry David Thoreau
When I made my world wind run though the Jane Austen exhibit at the Morgan last year, having only arrived about 20 minutes before they closed, I did not choose to blog about the experience. So many other Janietes had already done so, in a far more thorough manner than I was capable of, so I thought I would be doing the exhibit a disservice by adding my fleeting observations to the conversation. Yesterday I was able to make a more leisurely tour of this awesome facility, and while there was no diary of Jane Austen's on display (what a treasure it would be!), so many other notable figures from the era were represented in the Morgan's current exhibition, "The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives",  that I just could not resist sharing some of the highlights with you.

The first diary, and by far one of the most enthralling, that I saw upon entering the gallery was Charlotte Bronte's. The entry on display was written when she was teaching at Roe-Head in Belgium, and anyone who has read The Professor (check out my review here), and more particularly Villette, will see massive similarities between this entry and and the content of those novels: an underlying scorn for foreigners, the isolation of being a Protestant in a Catholic world, and, most particularly, the incredible dream world that allowed her to survive the challenges of her existence, written in the overpoweringly beautiful and emotional language that defines her work. For example:
Last night I did indeed lean upon the thunder-wakening wings of such a stormy blast as I have seldom heard blow, & it whirled me away like heath in the wilderness for five seconds of ecstasy, and as I sat by myself in the dining-room while all the rest were at tea the trance seemed to descend on a sudden, & verily this foot trod the war-shaken shores of the Calabar & these eyes saw the defiled & violated Adrianopolis shedding its lights on the river from lattices whence the invader looked out & was not darkened.
This line in particular brought Villette to the forefront of my thoughts, specifically the scene in which Lucy Snowe wanders the town in a storm, depression, insomnia, and illness all combining to bring her crisis to a climax:
If the storm had lulled a little at sunset, it made up now for lost time. Strong and horizontal thundered the current of the wind from north-west to south-east; it brought rain like spray, and sometimes a sharp, hail like shot; it was cold and pierced me to the vitals. I bent my head to meet it, but it beat me back. My heart did not fail at all in this conflict; I only wished that I had wings and could ascend the gale, spread and repose my pinions on its strength, career in its course, sweep where it swept. While wishing this, I suddenly felt colder where before I was cold, and more powerless where before I was weak. I tried to reach the porch of a great building near, but the mass of frontage and the giant spire turned black and vanished from my eyes. Instead of sinking on the steps as I intended, I seemed to pitch headlong down an abyss. I remember no more.
How I would love to read this diary in its entirety! You can see the excerpt (written in Bronte's famously tiny print) and read a transcription of it here.

Also fascinating were the diaries of Sir Walter Scott, written towards the end of his life. Though these entries were not on display, the audio tour indicates that his thoughts on Austen's writing are recorded within, as well as several complaints about his difficulties and embarrassments of trying to verbally communicate after having suffered a stroke. My only complaint about the exhibit is that instead of showing passages that include such fascinating details, the curator often chose to highlight instead those recounting daily life events. That is the case in Scott's entry, written when he first began recording his thoughts in diary form. While his comments on taking Byron's approach to keeping a diary are interesting, I longed for access to more emotional or intellectual excerpts. You can read and see this page of Scott's diary here.

Although I have never had reason to discuss John Ruskin before on this blog, his diary is another from the 19th century that I was very excited to see. As with Scott's I was a bit disappointed. Two different pages were on display, one that did go far in depicting his eloquence and sensitivity and another that, while very poignant, left me wanted much much more. The latter showed two blank pages, left vacant during the time of his mental breakdown in 1878. When a mind like Ruskin's is under discussion, I would have much rather read the referred to pages that include his observations upon his own mental health and just had the audio tour make mention of these blank excerpts. You can read and see the pages on display here

A gentleman whose story I have had opportunity to comment upon previously on this blog, when I reviewed the 2006 film Amazing Grace (read it here), was also featured. John Newton's diary shows his struggle in trying to cleans his soul and make it more worthy, echoing the themes that we know so well fromt the hymn that made him famous. You can read his excerpt here. Another extremely touching diary was the one kept by Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia, each writing to each other in its pages (reminding me acutely of Dacy and Elizabeth in A Noteworthy Courtship by Laura Sanchez, my review of which you can read here). You can see the excerpt from that testament to romance here.

Several of the diaries that most excited me are unfortunately not available for view online, for example the diary of Author Sullivan, displaying his entry on the day that The Pirates of Penzance premiered (I absolutely adore Gilbert and Sullivan). Though far more modern than I usually allow myself to stray on this blog, I must also mention how fascinating was Albert Einstein's diary, mostly written in mathematical equation, and John Steinbeck's diary, written as a log of his progress while writing The Grapes of Wrath. You can see online Tennessee William's displayed excerpt (I guess I should confess that while I have never been overly enamored of 20th century novels, I do desperately love its plays), highlighting a moment of peace in happiness in an otherwise extremely troubled existence (read it here). And for Georgette Heyer fans who have read Beauvallet (read my review here), there is the diary of a real 17th century English pirate, Bartholmew Sharpe, on display. This massive log, complete with maps of his locations, is one of the most visually impressive in the collection (see it here).

The exhibit is on display through May 22nd, and I urge you to see it if you can get to New York in that time frame. There is also a small gallery displaying the Cobbe portrait of William Shakespeare, likely to be the only authentic painting of this greatest of playwrights produced in his lifetime, along with several copies. You can visit the Morgan online at for more info on current exhibitions and visiting. If you missed it last year, you can still see the video, The Divine Jane, that accompanied "A Women's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy".  Bibliophiles everywhere certainly owe J.P. Morgan a dept of gratitude in leaving this wonderful resource to posterity.


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