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1243_largePrecious relics of the life of Charlotte Brontë are taking center stage this year in a pair of special exhibitions celebrating the author’s bicentenary.

At the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Charlotte Great and Small, curated by acclaimed novelist and Brontë enthusiast Tracy Chevalier, explores the contrast between Charlotte Brontë’s constricted life and her huge ambition. Growing up in the Haworth parsonage, Charlotte and her sisters lived in confined spaces, shared beds and worked together in one room. Despite being so contained, she had big ideas and longed to become “forever known”.

1183_largeExhibition highlights include Charlotte’s child-size clothes, several of the tiny books the Brontës wrote as children, and a scrap from a dress Charlotte wore to an important London dinner party. Another intriguing item on display is a moving love letter Charlotte wrote to her Belgian teacher, Constantin Heger, loaned by the British Library.

Additional objects from the Parsonage feature in the National Portrait Gallery’s Celebrating Charlotte Brontë, which transfers to New York’s Morgan Library this fall. The exhibition explores the story behind the only surviving portrait of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, painted by their brother Branwell. The painted was discovered folded on top of a wardrobe and subsequent acquired and restored by the Gallery in 1914.



“Lady Russell, convinced that Anne would not be allowed to be of any use, or any importance, in the choice of the house which they were going to secure, was very unwilling to have her hurried away so soon, and wanted to make it possible for her to stay behind till she might convey her to Bath herself after Christmas,” wrote Jane Austen in Persuasion, one of two novels for which she used the English spa town as a backdrop.

Literary travelers conveying themselves to Bath this month will find the Jane Austen Centre especially festive. The exhibit “Jane Austen’s Regency Christmas” illustrates how the holiday was celebrated in the Georgian period. For some additional good cheer, samples of mulled wine and Mrs. Austen’s plum pudding are offered. The exhibit runs through December 31.

Crafty Janeites can try their hand at making an Austen-inspired Christmas ornament. For everyone else, the Jane Austen Centre online gift shop (which ships worldwide) has a terrific selection of gifts, including pre-made ornaments, tea accessories, the ever-popular “I Love Mr. Darcy” tote bag, and a silver charm for fans of Northanger Abbey, the other novel Austen set in Bath.

[photo on right ©Jane Austen Centre]

The New York Public Library’s grand Beaux-Arts edifice at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, famously guarded by two stone lions named Patience and Fortitude, is one of Manhattan’s most iconic structures. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening of its Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the Library has dipped into its vast archives and created a special display.

250 of the Library’s millions of treasures are showcased in “Celebrating 100 Years: The Centennial Exhibition.” The items are organized into four thematic sections—Observation, Contemplation, Society, and Creativity—and range from intriguing to unusual. Among them: Charlotte Brontë’s writing desk; Virginia Woolf’s walking stick and the last diary entry she wrote before committing suicide; a snippet of Mary Shelley’s dark brown locks; and Jack Kerouac’s glasses, rolling papers, and pipe.

The exhibit is open until December 31st. Free tours are given Monday thru Saturday at 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. and Sunday (except July and August) at 3:30 p.m. Or ask for a brochure at the information desk and do a self-guided tour.

Next weekend, May 21st and 22nd, readers of all ages are invited to join the revelry at a public festival in honor of the Centennial with live music and theater, lectures, tours, gratis ice cream, and much more. For details, visit

[Photo © New York Public Library]

From Charlotte Brontë to Bob Dylan, a new exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City gives a glimpse into the innermost thoughts of writers, musicians, and other notable figures.  “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives” presents the private musings of the likes of Tennessee Williams, who confided his loneliness and self-doubt; John Steinbeck, who revealed his struggles composing The Grapes of Wrath; Albert Einstein, who worked out mathematical equations while traveling the world; and Sophia Peabody, who wrote about her marriage to novelist Nathanial Hawthorne. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the seminal journal of naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who sought “to meet the facts of life—the vital facts—face to face.”

“The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives” is on view through May 22, 2011.

Scotland is pulling out all the stops to honor its national bard.

This weekend is the grand opening celebration of the revamped Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. Set on 10 acres in Alloway, Ayrshire (a short bus ride from Glasgow), it replaces what was formerly the Burns National Heritage Park and encompasses several historic sites related to the poet. There is free admission tomorrow, January 22, along with live music, poetry readings, and fireworks.

The new museum building showcases more than 5,000 artifacts, some being unveiled to the public for the first time. Among the treasures are a manuscript of the original copy of “Auld Lange Syne” and a window pane from an old inn that Burns inscibred with a stanza of poetry. Also located on the museum grounds are the tiny, thatched-roof cottage (right) where Burns was born in 1759, Auld Kirk, the 16th-century ruins of a church featured in “Tam O’Shanter,” and other literary landmarks.  

The revelry continues on Tuesday, January 25, when bibliophiles commemorate the poet during Burns Night. The first recorded Burns Night Supper took place in 1801, and since then the evening’s line-up has barely changed. A traditional meal of haggis (sheep organ meats blended with oatmeal and spices), neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes) is served, washed down with whiskey. Festivities are capped off with the joining of hands and the singing of the bard’s great song of parting, “Auld Lang Syne.”

Restaurants, pubs, hotels, and dining halls all over Scotland celebrate this special night. London establishments are getting in on the act, too. Stateside, check to see if there are Burns Night festivities in your town. If you live in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, The Haven restaurant is putting on feasts January 24-26.

If you’d like to host your own gathering, has a Burns Supper Guide with tips on food, drink, attire, and entertainment. For iPhone users, the guide is included on a free Robert Burns App along with a biography, visual timeline of the bard’s life, and more than 500 poems and love songs.

[Photos: top © Robert Burns Birthplace Museum; cottage: © Joni Rendon; bottom two: ©]

2010 is the year of Mark Twain. April 21 marks the centennial of the writer’s death and November 30 the 175th anniversary of his birth. To commemorate the occasions, festivities are taking place at several sites in the U.S. related to the novelist, humorist, and travel writer. If you join in the literary revelry, be sure to enjoy yourself. Twain wasn’t fond of commemorative occasions, but he also declared that “a good and wholesome thing is a little harmless fun in this world.”

The Mark Twain House & Museum — an atmospheric Victorian Gothic mansion where the writer put down roots for 16 years — is going all out to celebrate Twain this year. Their line-up of events includes “The Mark Twain Séance” on April 21, with a recreation of a Victorian-era séance and a tour of the house led by a ghost investigator. Running through January 2011 is the exhibit “Legacy,” which traces Twain’s influence on America and the world. It explores how Twain has been perceived by the public over the years and features letters from celebrities expressing their thoughts about the writer—like humorist Roy Blount, Jr., who summed it up in three words: “He’s still funny!”

Twain described Hannibal as “a boy’s paradise,” and he immortalized the Mississippi River town as St. Petersburg in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Among the 2010 events at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum is a film festival; on the first Friday of each month a film version of one of Twain’s works is screened. At noon on April 21 is the “Time Capsule Ceremony.” Museum staffers will be joined by the characters Tom and Becky as they bury a time capsule filled with items related to the raconteur.

On display at the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College is Twain’s octagon-shaped writing studio (John Steinbeck was later inspired to create a similar workspace at his Long Island home). Special happenings in Elmira, where Twain spent summers for nearly two decades, include a reading of his correspondence on April 15, a reenactment of his burial at the town’s Woodlawn Cemetery on April 24, and “Dine Like Twain Dinners” featuring his family’s recipes April 21-23.

Other places to tap into Twain’s legacy: The Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site in Florida, Missouri (temporarily closed for repairs), and the Mark Twain Museum at the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada, a silver mining town where he began using his famous pseudonym while working as a newspaper reporter.

For a calendar listing of Twain events, visit

[Photos ©Mark Twain House & Museum, Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, and Center for Mark Twain Studies/Elmira College]

Austen Sketch“I beleive [sic] I drank too much wine last night,” Jane Austen wrote in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, in November 1800. She went on to say that she danced nine out of a dozen dances that evening and “was merely prevented from dancing the rest by the want of a partner.” This light-hearted missive is one of 51 on display in the exhibit A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

Austen penned some 3,000 letters during her lifetime, only 160 of which still exist. (Her sister destroyed many of them at Austen’s request.) Of those, the Morgan has the most of any institution in the world. In the letters Austen talks about her fascination with people watching and preparations for her family’s move to Bath after her curator father’s retirement. A highlight is a note she penned to her eight-year-old niece in which each word is written backwards.

The exhibit is an intriguing look at Austen’s world — her everyday life,  her novels, and the Recency era. Along with the letters, there are other items from the museum’s collection. Drawings by Isabel Bishop (above) depict scenes from Pride and Prejudice. Social satirist and Austen contemporary James Gillroy’s colorful prints touch on many of the same themes as in her novels, like women’s fashions and social rank. An engraving by William Blake of Portrait of Mrs. Q., a French painter’s rendering of Mrs. Harriet Quentin, piqued Austen’s interest. After seeing it in London, she remarked that it was just as she imagined Jane Bennet, aka Mrs. Bingley, of Pride and Prejudice. “Mrs. Bingley is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness,” declared Austen. (William Blake’s World: “A New Heaven is Begun” is at the Morgan through January 3, 2010).

The exhibit offers fascinating facts about Austen and her novels: in addition to prose she penned poems, 18 of which have survived; two previous titles for Northanger Abbey were Susan (the original name for the story’s heroine) and Catherine; and the price of a first edition of Emma was 1.1s pounds, at the time more than double the average weekly earnings of an agricultural laborer. Fewer than 20 books that belonged to Jane Austen are still around. On view is her copy of the journal The Spectator, which is given a mention in chapter five of Northanger Abbey

Connections between Austen and other literary figures are prevalent throughout the exhibit. In one of her letters she reports seeing productions of Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet and Macbeth, and in another reading Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem Marmion. While on a lecture tour to earn money to renovate the Norman tower he purchased in Ireland, William Butler Yeats told a friend in correspondence, “I read all Miss Austen in America with great satisfaction.” A copy of Fanny Burney’s novel Camilla contains in it a list of the subscribers who purchased the book, one of whom is Miss J. Austen, Steventon — the only time Austen’s name appears in print. (Her novels were published anonymously.)

A documentary created for the exhibit features contemporary figures talking about Austen’s literacy legacy. Philosopher Cornel West reveals, “She blew my mind” and notes that her works are “ironic and full of wit.” Writer Colm Toibin would seat Austen next to Freud at a dinner party and “feed them a lot of alcohol.” He adds, “I would love to see what Austen would make of Freud.” Novelist Siri Hustvedt is captivated by both the spoken and the unspoken dialogue in Austen’s works. “This is as pertinent and relevant today as it was then,” she says. 

A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy runs through March 14, 2010, and the museum is hosting numerous related programs, including film viewings and lectures. A Winter Family Day celebration on December 6th will celebrate the Austen exhibit and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (the original manuscript of Dickens’ holiday tale is on display in Mr. Morgan’s library from November 20 – January 10).

Austen’s letters are the most illuminating aspect of the exhibit, but the most touching is one written by Cassandra after the writer’s death. “I have lost a treasure, such a Sister,” she pens, “such a friend as never can have been surpassed.” –Shannon McKenna Schmidt

[Image courtesy of the Pierpont Morgan Library & Museum]

twain-house-2In today’s Hartford Courant, columnist Tom Condon looks ahead to 2010 and a trio of anniversaries related to writer and “world citizen” Mark Twain: the 125th anniversary of the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in February, the 100th anniversary of his death in April, and the 175th anniversary of his birth in November. 

Condon notes that the raconteur wasn’t fond of commemorative occasions and once said, “What ought to be done to the man who invented the celebrating of anniversaries? Mere killing would be too light.” But since Twain isn’t here to object, Condon says, Hartford—the city where the scribe spent 16 years and penned some of his most famous works—”should do this up big.” Events will take place throughout the year, many of them in April for the centennial of Twain’s death, including special exhibits at the Mark Twain House and Museum (above) in Hartford.

Stayed tuned for more information about Mark Twain 2010. We’ll be posting details on events and festivites at Twain sites across the country.

poe-grave-newBaltimore has made a year-long celebration of Edgar Allan Poe’s 200th birthday with its Nevermore 2009 extravaganza. The festivities continue with some appropriately spooky events befitting the master of the macabre. Click here for a listing of Poe-inspired happenings taking place from October 7 – 11, and beyond.

Attend an all-night candlelight vigil at the Poe Monument (left) at the Westminster Burying Ground or witness Poe’s funeral (he died a mysterious death in Baltimore). There are also walking tours and other special events, including an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, “Edgar Allan Poe: A Baltimore Icon,” on view until January 17, 2010. It’s divided into three sections—Love and Loss, Fear and Terror, and Madness and Obsession—and features prints, drawings, and illustrated books inspired by Poe, among them works by Gaugin and Manet. If you can’t make it for the Nevermore 2009 festivities you can always pay a visit to the Poe House and Museum, which is open April through November.

See what’s happening at these Poe sites:

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, Philadelphia
Poe Cottage, New York City
Poe Museum, Richmond
University of Virginia, Charlottesville

For those who want more literary haunts, later in the week we’ll have information on eerie events taking place this month at the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, and other sites.

book-of-kellsOne of the greatest treasures in literary-rich Dublin is The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript produced by Celtic monks around a.d. 800. Housed in the Old Library at Trinity College, the magnificent tome contains the four Gospels of the Bible written in vividly colored, decorative script and adorned with ornate illustrations.


A famous bibliophile who once marveled at The Book of Kells was novelist Eudora Welty. “All the wizardry of letter, initial, and word swept over me. The illumination, thbk-of-kells-2e gold, seemed a part of the word’s beauty and holiness that had been there from the start,” she recalled in her autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings.


Other than trekking to Trinity College, there is another way to garner an up-close look at the medieval text. The library shop offers a DVD containing images of the first digitized version of the manuscript — all 340 folios — accompanied by a narrative account of its history, symbolism, and themes.


In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, visitors are invited to view the Book of Kells free of charge. —Shannon McKenna Schmidt

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