Goucher College to digitize a rare 1816 edition of Jane Austen's 'Emma'

Tales of three literature-loving adventurers and obsessives

They are so small, those books, and so light that the pair rest comfortably in one outspread hand.

The 1816 edition of Jane Austen's "Emma" is a petite enough luxury that a 19th-century aristocrat could tuck the two volumes into a trunk alongside the necessities of daily life for a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. They're light enough that a later owner, a World War I soldier who read poetry in the trenches, might have carried them in his pack.

With good-tooled, calfskin leather binding, the compact little novel is so appealing that a subsequent possessor, a Baltimore woman, once wrote that she was tempted to "pet" it and other items in her extensive Austen collection.

But the so-called Philadelphia edition of "Emma" didn't just unite three people who once owned the volume and who lived unusually adventurous and enviably productive lives: the globe-trotting Countess of Dalhousie; the soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon; and Alberta H. Burke, the Goucher College alumna who developed a lifelong and near-obsessive devotion to her favorite author.

The book became the cornerstone of Goucher's 1,700-item Jane Austen collection, which school officials say is the largest in North America. Now the college hopes to use technology to introduce this rare edition — just one of six in the world — to a new generation of readers.

" 'Emma' was the only one of Austen's works published in the United States during her lifetime, and this edition is still unknown to many of her fans," says Kristen Welzenbach, Goucher's digital services librarian. "We're hoping to make a digital version of the Philadelphia edition freely accessible online in time for the book's 200th anniversary in December."

Some critics consider the novel of manners, with its kind-hearted but self-important heroine, to be Austen's most accomplished work.

Rich girl and would-be matchmaker Emma Woodhouse learns over the course of Austen's story to come to terms with her limitations of insight and character. Only after she stops meddling in other people's lives is Emma able to concoct her own fairy-tale ending with her neighbor and sole critic, the gallant Mr. Knightley. (Contemporary fans may recognize the novel as well as more recent film adaptations, such as 1996's "Emma" and 1995's "Clueless.")

Goucher hopes to involve the wider Austen community in the digitization project by raising $70,000 on the crowdfunding website Razoo, which specializes in working with nonprofit organizations.

"A lot of people don't know that this small, private liberal arts college for undergraduates has one of the largest Jane Austen collections in the world," says Tara Olivero, curator of Goucher's special collections and archives. "The Philadelphia 'Emma' is one of the treasures of the collection, and part of what makes our copy so special and worth studying is its provenance."

"Provenance" is how scholars describe the chain of ownership for an individual painting or manuscript.

"When you put your name in a book," says Juliette Wells, an Austen scholar and chairwoman of Goucher's English department, "you're putting your name and your history into that book."

Below are the stories of three of the temporary caretakers for the book — and how the collection is reaching Austenites today:

The Countess of Dalhousie

We know so little about the woman whose bookplate adorns Goucher's 1816 "Emma" — but what little we do know makes us want to find out more.

According to documents produced by Olivero, Christian Broun was a Scottish gentlewoman and the daughter of a legal advocate. In 1805, she married George Ramsay, and 10 years later he became an earl.

In the early 19th century, travel by boat was a risky undertaking, given the dangers of pirates and of the sea. Nonetheless, the Ramsays sailed twice to Canada (Lord Dalhousie became governor-in-chief of British North America) and later to India, which they reached by way of South Africa.

Lady Ramsay's main passion seems to have been botany. She wrote scientific papers on plants, established botanical gardens and sent thousands of seeds back home to Scotland. There's even a tropical shrub named in her honor.

What must she have thought when she read in her copy of "Emma" Austen's confident — and incorrect — assertion that English apple trees bloom in June?

"It's pretty obvious," Wells says, "that she wasn't reading 'Emma' to get landscaping tips."

Nonetheless, the countess clearly valued her book. Her bookplate is pasted on both volumes (the first American edition of "Emma" was divided into two parts) and she signed both title pages.

What's more uncertain is how the Philadelphia edition fell into her hands in the first place. Did this copy of the U.S. version of "Emma" make it across the Atlantic in the short period between its publication date and the time the couple left Scotland? Or did the Ramsays visit the United States during their first trip to North America?

"That's the kind of question we hope to eventually resolve," Welzenbach says, "by digitizing this edition and making it available to scholars and to the general public."

Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon was one of the leading poets of the First World War and later a staunch anti-war advocate. So a novel chronicling the mating dance among members of the English elite might seem out of place alongside volumes of verse graphically depicting the horrors of the trenches.

And yet, when Sassoon parted from his copy of "Emma" in 1941, his affection for Austen's heroine leaps from the page. On Dec. 3, 1941, Sassoon wrote to Percy Muir, the book dealer who had just sold the edition for $300. The letter is part of Goucher's Austen collection.

" 'Emma' returns to you in a twitter of excitement about 'going to California,' " the letter reads.

"She is sure that Mr. F. Hogan [the purchaser] is a very nice man, though she intends to be a bit sharp with him until she has got[ten] to know him."

But Sassoon's reading choices are in keeping with his well-established reputation for eccentricity.

Several Sassoon biographies mention the poet's wartime heroics in 1917, when he single-handedly captured a trench after using grenades to disperse more than 50 German soldiers. But then, instead of calling for reinforcements, Sassoon sat down in the trenches and began reading poetry.

Is it any wonder that Sassoon's fellow soldiers referred to him affectionately as "Mad Jack"?

Alberta H. Burke

To get a sense of the extent to which Alberta Burke worshipped her favorite author, a visitor need only open one of the 10 scrapbooks that she compiled chronicling Austen's impact on popular culture.

The scrapbooks overflow with letters, radio scripts and small strips of paper carefully pasted to the page. The margins around each document are crammed with Burke's handwritten notes. No reference seems to have been too trivial or insignificant.

If a B-list actress made an offhand reference to a character in "Pride and Prejudice," into a scrapbook it went. If a newspaper columnist quoted one of Austen's famous phrases, out came Burke's scissors. The scrapbooks contain theater programs, newspaper advertisements and crossword puzzles.

In a letter that Burke wrote in 1948 to Muir, the book dealer she shared with Sassoon, she exclaimed over some new purchases:

"The packet arrived yesterday, and I spent an exciting and delightful day collating the letters and looking over my new treasures. … I have had a wonderful time just handling and petting [word crossed out] gloating over my new acquisitions."

So it comes as no surprise that Burke and her husband, Henry, a lawyer and accountant, kept a second apartment in the Broadview just for their collection.

The Burkes were well off financially but not independently wealthy. Nonetheless, the result of a lifetime spent buying and annotating became what New York's Pierpont Morgan Library & Museum once called the "finest privately owned" collection of Austen memorabilia after the one assembled by Austen's family.

Some of the most valuable items in that collection, such as original letters signed by Austen, went after Burke's death to the Morgan, which was better equipped to care for them. But the remainder was donated to Goucher.

Today

Because the Austen collection is so extensive, the curators occasionally still discover a new document, volume or tchotchke.

For instance, Sarah Jubar was researching a class project as an undergraduate in 2008 when she discovered two previously unknown letters sandwiched between the inside cover and title page of one book.

"That experience made me feel like a genuine historian instead of an undergraduate student," says Jubar, now 29, of Mount Airy. "Getting your hands dirty in the documents was an enlightening experience. That was the coolest part for me — seeing history come alive."

Other Austen collections contain rarer manuscripts. But Goucher's collection excels at measuring the grip that Austen continues to hold on popular culture.

The college is in the midst of planning a slate of activities leading up to the December anniversary of "Emma," from a June tour of Jane Austen's England to be led by Wells, to a community-wide celebration in September that could include everything from a costume display to a demonstration of period dances.

Visitors to the collection will be able to browse through first editions of Austen books in 35 languages, as well as contemporary, lighthearted spoofs such as Seth Grahame-Smith's "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," and Arielle Eckstut's "Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen." (These titles were purchased after Burke's death with money that she'd earmarked for future acquisitions.)

"I have never bought anything for my Jane Austen collection because it was 'valuable' or because I thought that someday it would be worth more than at present," Burke wrote to Muir.

"The J.A. collection is the perpetual pleasure of my life. I bought each thing because I felt I could not live without it."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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