With 'Pride,' without prejudice Near obsession: Goucher alumnus saw to it that all things Austen found a home at Julia Rogers library.

January 16, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Almost 180 years after her death, Jane Austen is suddenly everywhere. At the movies ("Sense and Sensibility," "Persuasion," the coming "Emma"), on television ("Pride and Prejudice," concluding tonight on A&E) and in People magazine, which named her one of the 25 most intriguing people of 1995. She even has her own site on the World Wide Web.

But for those whose Austen thirst is not yet slaked, there is only one place to go: Goucher College's Julia Rogers Library.

The country's Jane Austen fans -- Janeites, if you prefer -- have long known the college has the United States' best collection of Austen works and related materials. These are the people who quote lengthy passages from Austen's six books and who met for tea at the Harbor Court Hotel on Dec. 16, Austen's birthday.

But the collection's existence is a revelation to the Janeites-come-lately, those who needed "Sense and Sensibility" star Emma Thompson to pique their interest in the timeless pleasures of Austen's stories.

The collection was the labor of love of Goucher alumna Alberta Hirshheimer Burke, and her husband, Henry G. Burke. Over a period of 40-plus years, the childless North Baltimore couple assiduously collected all things Austen.

And we do mean all. While the Burkes' original plan was to concentrate on her most famous work, "Pride and Prejudice," they quickly branched out. At one point, they even owned a lock of Austen's hair, although they donated it back to Chawton Cottage, the Austen family home.

The result, by Mrs. Burke's death in 1975, is a collection so comprehensive that it borders on the obsessive. It not only includes first editions of her works, but translations, criticism and writings from Austen's lifetime that provide valuable context for scholars.

After his wife's death, Mr. Burke went on to start the Jane Austen Society of North America in 1979. Upon his death in 1989, the remainder of his other collections were divided between Goucher and the Baltimore Hebrew University. (Not all the Austen materials went to Goucher; the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York has several of the Austen letters and manuscripts collected by the Burkes.)

It is impossible to put a monetary value on the Goucher collection; a first edition of "Sense and Sensibility" now commands as much as $20,000. And rare book prices have exploded so much during the past decade that it is doubtful anyone could repeat the Burkes' efforts.

The librarians at Goucher can quickly show the collection's utility for even casual students.

"Imagine you were producing the film of 'Sense and Sensibility,' " college librarian Nancy Magnuson says in the college's security-conscious rare book room, where she has gathered only a few items from the vast collection. "These are the things we might show you."

She pulls out architectural books from the time, with illustrations of the "cottages" where Austen's characters might have lived. Then she opens a landscape gardening book by Humphrey Repton, filled with lush scenes of formal gardens. Finally, there is a popular periodical from the time, Ackermann's Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufacturers, Fashion and Politics, with its fabric swatches and wallpaper samples.

For a scholar, this is a treasure trove.

"I can say to my students: 'Feel this fabric. This is a textile from the period. Look at this wallpaper,' " marvels Laurie Kaplan, an associate professor of English at Goucher who has drawn on the collection for her research. "It is absolutely amazing."

As for the obsessive nature of Mrs. Burke's hobby, Ms. Kaplan says: "Well, it is an obsession and it borders on being amusing, unless you stop and think Goucher got all of this wonderful stuff. Someone had to do it. It also mimics a 18th and 19th century way of doing things."

In other words, Mrs. Burke, in her devotion to Austen, behaved as an Austen character might have behaved.

Take her scrapbooks. In 1936, she started the first of 10 black-and-white composition books she would keep over the course of her lifetime. Each one is filled with correspondence, bills of sale, reviews of plays and films inspired by Austen's work. There are even crossword puzzles with Austen-related solutions. Any mention of Austen was clipped and glued to the book with rubber cement.

Mrs. Burke was so thorough that, in 1964, she cut out a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. from the New York Herald Tribune. At first, one might not see the connection between the ** civil rights leader and the British novelist.

Then one notices the caption: "Of Prejudice and Pride."

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