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••• The International Writers Magazine: London: Literary Origins

Visiting with the Treasures of the British Library
• Bonnie Devet
It’s a British morning, with its customary grayness suspended heavily from the sky. Eager souls, including me, are queuing along London’s Euston Road, alining a ramp before the entrance to the British Library.

British Library

We huddle a bit closer than the normal human distance strangers demand. Even so, a rainy chill—unrelieved by Styrofoam cups of bracing Starbucks—still penetrates us as we wait for the Library’s opening. Those lugging laptops draw them from their protective sheaths. Bored by waiting and ever fearful of not being connected, they tap into their latest E-mail and Facebook updates.  I’m here for a different kind of connection: a chance to experience the weight of the ages and the call of the greats.

Ritblat Gallery As the Library finally opens, I buzz right to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, where Great Britain’s national library displays, on a rotating basis, “Treasures” (as the British Library calls them) of manuscripts and books and maps from across the centuries. From the crowded line of scholars, I am now the first and, I most proudly add, the only person in this darkened room...alone, with just the company of Beowulf, Shakespeare, Milton.

The display cases’ lights, designed for viewing and preservation, can never be so luminous as the lights cast by the manuscripts themselves.

Here are rooms filled with “Oh, my gosh” moments. Over there, in its own room, is the Magna Carta (originally known as the Magna Carta Liberatum or “The great charter of liberties”) on which, in 1215, the English nobles forced King John to affix his seal in order to establish rights for the nobles. The first stirring of the rule by law. For once there were limits imposed on kings, unheard of before this document. But less known, until you see this original, is that the scribe copying the document accidently left out words, so he added them in the lower left-hand corner. No Microsoft editing available in the 13th century. Being only 3500 words total, with 63 numbered clauses, the Magna Carta is written as one long paragraph. A modern teacher of writing would have advised its writer to use paragraphing, even if sheepskin is extraordinarily expensive.

As the poet Philip Larkin remarks, it’s the “magical quality” of seeing the manuscripts themselves that fascinates us readers. Ian Fleming, famed creator of the British secret agent James Bond, has as insufferable handwriting as I do — a manuscript for a short story on Bond’s adventures in Berlin is, well, almost illegible. I wonder if his grade school teacher, like mine, assigned him extra copy exercises from a cursive copybook. Certainly didn’t help his scrawl (or mine).

In contrast, there is the well-crafted, fluid 1675 script of the notable architect Christopher Wren. In curly letters, like evenly spaced ocean waves rolling along the paper towards an imaginary shoreline, he describes his decisions about rebuilding London after the Great Fire of 1666. It is as if I am sitting in a lecture hall with the great man, hearing why, for instance, he decided not to place a Phoenix (the mythical bird arising from a fire’s ashes) on top of the Monument raised to commemorate the devastating London conflagration. “[B]ut upon second thought I rejected it because it be would be costly,” he writes, not to mention it would be hard to identify the mythical bird because it would “not [be] easily understood at that height,” and, finally, its expansion of wings might make it a “gargoyle,” vulnerable to winds. This practical, directly stated list of reason from nearly two and half centuries ago reveals Wren would have made an admirable 21st century technical writer.

The technology of the 12th/13th centuries comes back around again. In one display case is the less well-known Guthlac Roll,  that shares something with 21st century entertainment. This Roll, three meters long (a little over 9 feet), presents drawings about the life of the 8th century Anglo-Saxon Saint Guthlac of Crowland (a Lincolnshire lad). Unrolling the document reveals drawings of Guthlac’s life, including being tonsured, sailing to Lincolnshire, and suffering attacks from demons. In the 12th/13th centuries this document, with its installment viewing was high entertainment, the Netflix of its day.

No one gets it right the first time. John Lennon’s lyrics for “Ticket to Ride” (1965) show “Saint” John of The Beatles crossed out “She ought to do right. She ought to do right” substituting, “She ought to think twice. She ought to do right by me.” John (I feel on a first name basis when I see his loopy handwriting and his edits) probably wanted to make the lyrics more personal, though scholars are not sure if the song refers to a girl who left John or to a bill of health for prostitutes in Hamburg, where the Beatles played their earliest gigs. The creative process always needs to be shrouded in a lingering mystery.

The world’s masters of prose and art have their human side, too.  A smudge in Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Arundel (a notebook of ideas and jottings dating to 1480 and 1518) turns out to be a sketch of a man’s body, probably Michelangelo’s statue of David, according to British Library researchers. Da Vinci was on a Florentine committee that decided where to place the famous statue, and da Vinci, a rival to Michelangelo, probably “erased this drawing in a fit of jealousy,” as the commentary asserts. High drama in manuscripts.

Reactions to manuscripts always involve multiple readers, so a visit to the Treasures Room is as much about the other tourists as it is the artifacts themselves. Visitors engage in a flamingo dance, like birds jammed together on an African pond. Stepping to the side, shifting positions so the next person can peer into the displays, lowering their heads over the cases in feudal homage to the displayed manuscripts. British Library

Even in the muffled quiet of the room, the visitors’ comments break the respectful silence. “Oooh. Look. Here’s a copy of Tyndale’s Bible (1526),” a woman of about fifty explains to her fellow tourist. Her friend replies, “Well, if it’s only a copy...” “No, no,” answers the exasperated visitor. “Copy means ‘original’.” As the Treasures show, words do matter.                       

Another tourist (and the room fills fast with visitors) is different. He looks just under 15, wearing a teenager’s uniform of t-shirt and cargo pants with a cell phone nosing its way out of a pant’s pocket. Throwing himself face down on a hassock cushion, like a beached whale, he is, in teenage vernacular, “totally bored.”  He has not read Beowulf or Shakespeare or even heard of Thomas Hardy or the Qur’an. This teenager should be enthralled by the authentic nature of the manuscripts. In Holden Caulfield’s terms, no phoneys here. But he is not captivated by print. For him, manuscript, as in “hand-written,” means little.  He’s from the electronic age: the document itself is less important than the fact that a “copy” is readily available through a search and a click. Time and technology spur different reactions to the Treasures.

Visitors rub their arms, as the Treasures Room’s chilly air conditioning fights to slow time’s erosion of Qur’ans, Bibles, maps, World War I diaries, and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis.  In a world where the power of language can be exploited, the warmth of the word and of the manuscript attract and endure.

© Bonnie Devet June 18th 2018
Professor of English/Director of the Writing Lab
Department of English
College of Charleston
E-mail: devetb ta cofc.edu

The British Library website


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