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At Goucher, the serious and silly sides of Jane Austen

Bicentennial salute to 'Emma' highlights the serious – and the silly – in Jane Austen.

Emma Woodhouse never had much romantic interest in the men in her 19th-century English social circle. But if she were a living, breathing character in modern Maryland, she'd be sure to fall head over heels for an exhibition now on display at a Baltimore County college.

Ms. Woodhouse is the spoiled 20-year-old protagonist of "Emma," the fourth major novel by British literary giant Jane Austen.

"Emma in America: Jane Austen's Novel Through Two Centuries," open at the Goucher College Library through next month, celebrates the book's 200th birthday.

And the exhibit is all about Emma — just as the self-interested heroine would have liked.

"I don't think she would mind this degree of attention at all," says Juliette Wells, an Austen scholar and English professor at Goucher who helped plan the exhibit. "She was clearly of the opinion that she deserved no less."

Austen, one of the most influential novelists in the English language, was known for creating lead characters of a certain type: women whose modest means forced them to seek the stability and status of a "good marriage."

Emma was different: Born wealthy, she felt little need to marry — or, in her privileged view, to change in any major way.

"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence," the author wrote in her much-quoted opening, "and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her."

The lines are half-serious, half-glib, a combination still enjoyed by Jane-ites around the world — especially in the many films based on her books.

"Emma in America" captures the sublime and the silly in all things Austen. The exhibit, which includes rare volumes, art, collectors' letters and more, has drawn more than 2,000 visitors so far.

Four members of the Goucher faculty gathered in the library one recent morning to discuss the exhibit, and the sprawling collection of Austen-related materials from which it was drawn.

Wells and Tara Olivero, Goucher's special collections librarian, regaled a visitor with stories from the life of Alberta Hirshhiser Burke, a 1928 graduate who began amassing Austen paraphernalia in the 1930s, kept doing so with her husband, attorney Henry Burke, and left most of their collection to the school upon her death in 1975.

The crown jewel of the 1,700-item collection — and the star attraction of "Emma in America" — is a rare edition of "Emma" published in Pennsylvania in 1816, a few months after the book first saw print in England.

Olivero fetched the two-volume set from a heavily secured, temperature-controlled storage area in the building, wheeled it into the room on a rolling cart, and placed it carefully on a special display frame.

The faded, calf-leather covers were edged in hand-painted gold. The pages, thick and yellowed, were cut straight along the edges.

Tracing her hand across the paper, Wells said the volume would easily fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the open market, but Goucher would never sell it.

"It's priceless," she said with a shrug.

Their discussion is a glimpse into the early 19th-century book business.

In 1815 and 1816, Austen's publisher, the widely respected John Murray, managed to get an unusually large first run of 2,000 copies to the presses in England, where the author's reputation was growing.

Across the Atlantic, Matthew Carey, a Philadelphia publisher of no special literary reputation, didn't even need to buy rights to the book, as international copyright law did not exist yet. All he had to do was have a printer typeset the text, run it off and start selling.

The only major change Carey made, other than introducing a number of typos, was to pack the standard three-volume format into two, leaving the text denser and more difficult to read — but saving on costs.

"He was a businessman out to make a profit," Wells said.

Her research suggests that Carey's print run consisted of 500 copies. Today, only six are known to have survived, including copies at Yale and Cambridge universities and Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

Members of the public can see Goucher's copy, complete with typos, including a few misnumbered pages and a chapter heading with a missing letter, as part of "Emma in America" — if they call ahead for an appointment with special collections.

Curators raised the money to get the volume digitized and posted online in February.

"Alberta [Burke] specified that she wanted us to make the collection available to any interested readers or scholars, and we honor that request," Wells said.

The exhibit, like most Austen fans, also has a lighter side.

Goucher's librarian, Nancy Magnuson, showed off a Jane bobblehead. The scholars debated the merits of various Austen-based films (Wells favors "Clueless," the 1995 Alicia Silverstone comedy that was loosely based on the book.)

And they mention the Jane Austen Society of North America, an organization co-founded in 1979 by Alberta Burke's widower, Henry, that has swelled in recent years to a membership of 5,000.

It meets every year, offering everything from scholarly talks to workshops on bonnet-making and period dancing.

"Make your own reticule!" joked Wells, a member and frequent speaker, referring to the drawstring handbags Regency-era ladies carried.

Outside Special Collections, a fourth-floor hallway bathed in natural light is home to a sprawling gallery of "Emma"-related stuff.

Goucher houses the world's largest collection of Austen translations — scholars worldwide can request Austen editions in dozens of languages — and most have covers specific to their time period and locale.

"Emma" covers in German, Arabic, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian and more adorn the walls, offering portraits of the heroine as slender, portly, curly-haired, grim, flirtatious and more.

Wells said a Chinese edition with a firecracker-red cover has been a student favorite.

It shows a bonneted Emma in gold silhouette.

"They say that's a fun one," she said.

A glassed-in display traces the provenance of the copy of the first American edition, from its original owner, a Scottish countess named C.D. Dalhousie, to the World War I English poet Siegfried Sassoon, to the American book dealer Frank J. Hogan.

When his collection went up for auction in 1945, Burke snatched it up for $160 — less than its appraised value of $225.

An English book dealer applauded the Goucher alum.

"I congratulate you on getting the copy of 'Emma' so cheaply," he gushed in a hand-written note.

Visitors can also see hand-colored illustrations of the landscape gardening, fashions and furniture of Austen's day, all of it available to researchers, and an early copy of the only known portrait of Austen, a dour-looking illustration produced by her sister, Cassandra, in 1810.

The major events associated with the exhibit happened shortly after its opening — speeches and panels, a book-release party for a bicentennial edition of "Emma" (introduction by Wells) and more — but the core of it remains open through June 20.

If Emma herself were to have any complaint about it, Wells said, it might be that a 2013 Goucher exhibition on Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" drew more attention.

That novel's smart and saucy main character, Elizabeth Bennet, its accessible love story, and its several popular film adaptations continue to make it a worldwide hit.

Emma Woodhouse, on the other hand, is a "snob" who doesn't need anyone, Wells said, and the novel that bears her name, while a favorite of critics, can seem slow-paced, subtle and difficult to read.

"We're thankful for the success we've had with 'Emma in America'," she says. "Emma can be difficult to love."

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