WUDPAC Fellow saves Jane Austen

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  • Allison Holcomb. Austen’s signature appears at the bottom of this 1813 letter. Rose Lincoln/Harvard
  • Allison Holcomb, an intern at Harvard Library’s Weissman Preservation Center, repairs two 19th-century letters written by Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra. Rose Lincoln/Harvard
  • Allison Holcomb. Holcomb, who attends the Winterthur Museum at the University of Delaware, uses a micro-spatula to repair this letter written in 1805. Rose Lincoln/Harvard
  • Allison Holcomb. Through the microscope Holcomb can see minute details of the lettering. Rose Lincoln/Harvard
  • Allison Holcomb. Using her fingers and eraser crumbs, Holcomb cleans each letter. Rose Lincoln/Harvard
  • Allison Holcomb. This letter, containing a previous repair (upper left), will be restored to its original form. Rose Lincoln/Harvard

Harvard University's Houghton Library owns five complete letters by renowned British romantic novelist Jane Austen. Two of Austen's rare “autograph letters,” handwritten missives addressed to Austen’s sister and lifelong confidante Cassandra, were recently treated at Harvard's Weissman Preservation Center by third-year WUDPAC Fellow and Weissman conservation graduate intern Allison Holcomb.

From Corydon Ireland's article "Sensibly Saving Jane Austen" for the Harvard Gazette:

Austen’s fame is a problem for scholars in search of scarce clues to her life.  Consider, for one, the fate of her letters. By some estimates, Austen wrote 3,000, but only about 160 survive. Harvard’s Houghton Library owns five complete letters and one fragment. They are little storms of gossip, fashion, and drawing-room intrigue — novels in miniature that show off Austen’s ready humor and astute powers of observation. . . . For Harvard, it’s only a matter of sense and sensibility to treat the Austen letters well, with temperature and humidity controls, flat storage in acid-free folders, protection from ultraviolet light, and limited physical access. Add to those protections the expert ministrations of the Weissman Preservation Center, an arm of the Harvard University Library. Last month, experts there finished restoring two of the University’s Austen letters, one written in 1805 and the other in 1813. . . . The two letters are also full to the edges with Austen’s neat, small handwriting, in lines as straight as a ruler. “Keats wasn’t so tidy in his letters,” said Debora Mayer, the Weissman’s Helen H. Glaser Conservator. (Lowell’s Keats collection is ample and comprehensive.) But however neat the handwriting, she added, the Austen letters illustrate one joy of the conservation business: the thrill of proximity to the greats of history and literature. “We’re artists, we’re historians, and we like to be connected,” said Mayer of conservators. “Working on objects connects us, very much so … to another place and time.” Closest to the Austen letters was Harvard conservation intern Allison Holcomb, a master’s degree student in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. Late last year she examined the letters and wrote a detailed “proposal record” for repairing each. It’s a technical job, but a private thrill, said Holcomb. She emailed a friend about the project, filling in the subject line with exclamation points.

To read the full article, click here.

Images: Austen’s signature appears at the bottom of this 1813 letter. Allison Holcomb, an intern at Harvard Library’s Weissman Preservation Center, repairs two 19th-century letters written by Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra. Holcomb, who attends the Winterthur Museum at the University of Delaware, uses a micro-spatula to repair this letter written in 1805. Through the microscope Holcomb can see minute details of the lettering. Using her fingers and eraser crumbs, Holcomb cleans each letter. This letter, containing a previous repair (upper left), will be restored to its original form. All photos by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer.