February 6, 2009

Persuasion, a Love Letter

I want to tell you about my trip to the British Library the other day, the gallery in particular, where they keep all their treasures.

I want to tell you about listening to Virginia Woolf read on the BBC: "English words are full of echoes… Words belong to each other." I want to tell you about seeing an 11th C.
Beowulf manuscript that had been damaged in 1731. The edges of words destroyed in the fire. I want to tell you about seeing my namesake, the lyrics that is, on the back of a used envelope in Paul McCartney's hand (my brothers loved The Beatles and convinced my parents to name me after this song). I want to tell you about Ubu Roi in purple and yellow calfskin. About a tiny pocketsize book of Shakespeare's sonnets, published in 1640. About Sylvia Plath’s letter regarding a prize for her poem “Insomniac”: “sleeplessness has its own very pleasant reward.” About Lenin writing to the British Museum, requesting a ticket into the reader's room under the name of Jacob Richter because London did not require identification at that time (1902).

But more than this, I want to tell you about Jane Austen's desk, about the size of it—two pen lengths across (from tip to tip). About the black leather mat on top of the wood face with an embroidered design: three lines that marked the edges, that culminated into flowers in the four corners. I want to tell you about the hinges on either side that allowed the desk to fold in half and become a book/reading stand, about the closure points worn from use. About the secret drawer near the back. Or the way the desk slanted, an early ergonomic design. I want to tell you about four tiny cubbyholes, where in one, she kept a jar of ink. Where she might have kept her wedding ring, had she ever been married, or random coins. I want to tell you that the ink stains remained only in one slot—how careful she must have been with the quill not to blemish the other compartments.

I want to tell you how striking the desk was, in person, how I stood there for hours, sketching it so I would not forget, though I write this entirely from memory. How the brass handle on the left side looked sturdy, as if Jane could close the desk, lock it up, and take it on a trip, like a small briefcase. I want to tell you that I left the desk, looked at other things, but kept returning again and again. I’d make room for other visitors, so they could have their time with it; I’d listen to their conversations from a nearby bench; they were taken, but they hadn’t fallen in love; they’d found other lovers here in the dark.

And yes, the dark. The room was shadowy and cold. The temperature read 45.7 at Miss Austen’s desk. The light was dim with almost no direct illumination on these slats of wood. So dim that I almost missed the two black loops—one up top and one below with a metal slip lock to hold the frontispiece in place. Perhaps she filed papers underneath the leather mat. Or kept her manuscripts there. Or hid her childhood love letters and her random leaves from her daily walks. Or nothing. 

Or just blank paper for the day’s writing.

I want to tell you about her spectacles, so tiny, maybe three inches wide that lay above a draft of
Persuasion, without pomp and circumstance, with only the elements of utility. And yes, the manuscript. Her handwriting so swift, yet elegant, in the way you think of cursive with its loopy letters slanting across the page. The manuscript was written on slips of paper that were affixed to the pages of a blank notebook. She had revised this section, and multiple lines were crossed out. And on the right hand side, a draft atop another draft, where she had rewritten a section of the novel. I want to tell you that I wondered about the weight of the desk, the feel of the wood, and how one writes in...and on...such a small space.

And when I left, I found myself disheveled. My scarf nearly falling off and touching the floor...