Jane Austen's House Museum via The Internet Archive
Jane Austen's House Museum via The Internet Archive

3 Pieces of Music Jane Austen Hand Copied Into Her Personal Collection

Jane Austen's House Museum via The Internet Archive
Jane Austen's House Museum via The Internet Archive

The background of Jane Austen’s novels are filled with music. Elizabeth Bennet plays the piano for Mr. Darcy, and they joke about her skill compared to his sister’s. “Without music, life would be a blank to me,” one of Jane Austen’s characters rants in Emma. And of course, what would a dance be without music?

Like many well-off women of her day, Jane Austen was a capable musician, able to entertain guests and family members in an age before radio or television with her singing and skills at the piano. She and other members of her family collected sheet music, copying popular tunes into their own personal albums. Thanks to a University of Southampton digitization project, the sheet music copied by Jane and the rest of the Austens is now available online; the 18-album collection contains more than 600 pieces.

“Jane Austen’s novels are full of musical scenes, and this collection will help literature scholars and Austen fans to better understand the real musical environment that fed the novelist's imagination,” Jeanice Brooks, the University of Southampton music professor who led the digitization project, explains in a press release. Here are three highlights of the collection that feature Jane's handwriting.

1. "DECK THE HALLS"

Jane Austen's House Museum

The familiar Christmas tune comes from the Welsh song “Nos Galan.” The English words to the song (substantially different from the Welsh) were first published in a London songbook called Welsh Melodies with Welsh and English Poetry, decades after Austen’s death, but the melody is the same as the one Jane would have played.

2. LES DEUX SAVOYARDS

This comedic French opera by Nicolas Dalayrac was extremely popular in the 1790s. It tells the tale of two boys who make their living showing their pet marmot at fairs. The boys were played by female sopranos.

3. JANE’S KEYBOARD MUSIC

This volume of solo keyboard music contains a flyleaf signed by “Miss Jane Austen.” It’s a compilation of music published between 1785 and 1795 (when Jane was between 9 and 20 years old), including anthologies like “Fourteen Favorite Sonatinas for the Harpsichord Piano Forte.”

The whole digitized collection of the Austen family’s music is on the Internet Archive

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AI Is Decoding the Vatican Secret Archives, One Pen Stroke at a Time
Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image
Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image

The Vatican Secret Archives comprise 600 collections of texts spanning 12 centuries, most of which are nearly impossible to access. The Atlantic reports that a team of scientists is hoping to change that with help from some high school students and artificial intelligence software.

In Codice Ratio is a new research project dedicated to analyzing the vast majority of Vatican manuscripts that have never been digitized. When other libraries wish to make a digital archive of their inventory, they often use optical-character-recognition (OCR) software. Such programs can be trained to recognize the letters in a certain alphabet, pick them out of hard-copy manuscripts, and convert them to searchable text. This technology posed a challenge for the Vatican, however: The many older texts in its collections are written by hand in a cursive-like script. With no spaces between the characters, it's impossible for OCR to determine what's a letter and what isn't.

To get around this, the research team at In Codice Radio tweaked OCR software so that it could recognize pen strokes instead of letters. The OCR can identify the pen strokes that make up letters in an alphabet by looking for spots in the text where the ink narrows rather than presents full gaps between characters. The strokes aren't very useful on their own, but the software can combine the pieces to form possible letters.

To help the software perform even better, researchers recruited students from 24 Italian high schools to check its work. As the researchers explain in their paper, the students were shown a list of acceptable versions of a real letter, such as the letter A, and were then given a list of characters the software had guessed might be the real letter. By selecting the characters that matched the acceptable versions, they were able to slowly teach the software the medieval Latin alphabet.

All this information, plus a database of 1.5 million Latin words that had already been digitized, eventually brought the OCR to a place where it could use artificial intelligence to identify real letters on its own. The final results aren't perfect—a good portion of the words transcribed so far contain typos—but Vatican archivists are a lot better off than they were before: The software can identify individual handwritten letters with 96 percent accuracy, and misspelled words can still provide important context to readers. The goal is to eventually use the software to digitize every document in the Vatican Secret Archives.

[h/t The Atlantic]

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Can You Decipher the Playful 1817 Letter Jane Austen Sent to Her Niece in Code?
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Jane Austen—homebrewer, musician, and, oh, one of the most famous novelists in the English language—didn’t limit her prose to the fictional world. She was a prolific correspondent, sending missives to friends and relatives (and occasionally soliciting feedback on her work). Some of these were quite playful, as a letter highlighted recently on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog shows.

Austen’s 1817 letter to her young niece, Cassandra Esten Austen, is a bit hard to read even if you are an expert in 19th century handwriting styles. That’s because all the words are spelled backwards. Instead of signing off with “Good bye my dear Cassy,” for instance, Austen wrote “Doog eyb ym raed Yssac.” The letter served as both a New Year’s greeting and a puzzle for the 8-year-old to solve.

A close-up of a handwritten letter with words written backwards
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

The letter is currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City as part of the museum’s "Treasures From the Vault" exhibition, having been donated to the institution in 1975 by a Jane Austen collector and Morgan Library regular named Alberta Burke.

While any of Austen’s communications would be of interest to fans and literary scholars, this one is particularly unique as a historical object. In it, Austen wishes Cassandra a happy new year and writes about a visit she received from six of Cassandra’s cousins the day before, telling her about the cake they ate, feeding robins, Frank’s Latin studies, and Sally’s new green dress.

A handwritten letter from Jane Austen
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

“Those simple details give a sense of the texture of Austen’s everyday life—and that she thinks to communicate them to her young niece makes clear that ‘Aunt Jane’ knew just the kinds of tidbits a child of that age would relish,” Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s literary and historic manuscripts curator, tells Mental Floss.

Austen would die just six months later, making it a valuable look at the end of her life. As far as we know, no other backwards-written letters like the one sent to Cassandra have survived in Austen’s archives, according to Nelson, but she says she wouldn’t be surprised if the famous author wrote more. “Given her love of riddles and linguistic games (which comes through, of course, in her novels), I have to believe that other family members were the recipients of similarly playful epistolary gifts,” Nelson says.

If you make it to New York City, you can go decode the letter yourself in person. It will be on display at the Morgan Library until March 11, 2018.

[h/t Two Nerdy History Girls]

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