The queen of libraries

The British Library is a monarch – one of the largest libraries in the world. It’s so big that visitors are given a map to find their way around the six levels of collections. We visited just two areas and after several hours realized we’d never get to the rest. According to the Oxford Guide to Literary Britain and Ireland, the collection totals 150 million items.

Those besotted by books will want to spend their entire vacation here. I’m in the besotted category and my better half enters the building as an interested bystander. In the end we are both, to use a bit of fun British slang, gobsmacked by the original and illuminated manuscripts, historical documents, maps from antiquity, scientific notebooks from famous thinkers and more.

The venerable St. Pancras Hotel, next to the sleek, modern British Library building

We start at the temporary exhibit Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands featuring more than 150 literary works that explore landscape and place. For me, the most interesting part of the exhibition examines the “tension between traditional agrarian ways of life and the new era of industrialization.” That shift began in the mid-1700s and early observations are in the writings of John Dyer.

My better half cruised through and headed off to Treasures of the British Library, where he proceeded to be gobsmacked by that stunning collection. I stay to spend serious time among these letters, manuscripts and published works that examine a sense of place, home and belonging. There are famous authors in every aisle. Here is Tolkien, creator of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and lovely, folksy illustrations he painted of the hobbit realm in 1937. There is a proof copy of Far from the Madding Crowd, written by Thomas Hardy in 1874. Then a letter penned in 1844 by William Wordsworth to Prime Minister Gladstone, objecting to a planned railroad. He enclosed a sonnet that began, “Is no nook of English ground secure/From rash assault?” He did not prevail and the railroad still operates today.

I admire an original manuscript of Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, along with proof sheets from Hard Times. In the next aisle, I discover that George Orwell learned about the difficult lives of working people by staying in their homes and crawling through the mining tunnels where they worked, and then wrote The Road to Wigam Pier in 1937. There is Watership Down by Richard Adams, wherein rabbits contend with human-caused destruction and go on a quest for a new home. And here is a letter from Charlotte Bronte in 1849 describing “smoke-dark houses clustered round their soot-vomiting mills.” Down one more aisle I am riveted by a thick manuscript, completely hand done, of The Canterbury Tales from the 1400s. The illustrations are fabulous and include a portrait of Chaucer, the author.

As I walk through the collection, I feel much better about the constant revisions I make to my own writing. Many of the proofs and manuscripts are laden with changes and corrections. The authors each cared about the effect of their words – how they gathered and flowed to form a landscape in the mind and hearts of readers.

It’s time to go and visit other treasures and so I reluctantly exit. Around the corner, my usually taciturn husband tells me how completely amazed he is by the next exhibit. We head off into one more tributary of a vast river of words and knowledge.

Catch the train at St. Pancras to head to Europe
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