The grand dame of knowledge

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach…”

                Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A trip to London is not complete for me unless I can visit its grand dame of knowledge, the British Library. (Photo above: busts of some of its founders.)

As a writer, it is a hugely special moment for me to see original handwritten manuscripts of famed literature. On this trip I enjoy many such moments in Treasures of the British Library – a permanent and very spectacular collection of books, manuscripts, letters, music and more.

barrett-elizabeth-manuscript-066910
Photo: British Library collection

I hover before How Do I Love Thee, sonnet 43 in the collection entitled  Sonnets from the Portugese, by Elizabeth Barrett, written for her suitor, Robert Browning. Elizabeth’s actual writing captivates me.

Their love story was the stuff of novels. Her father had forbidden her (and her siblings) to marry. She was older than Robert and chronically ill. He was smitten. She had reservations, but wrote her way through them in the set of 44 sonnets that made her famous. Robert must have been very happy when he read sonnet 43. They finally married and lived happily for 15 years. The British Library says Elizabeth Barrett Browning “died in his arms after a long illness” in 1861. Sigh.

In another exhibit, I try not to laugh too loudly over a letter written by Michelangelo in 20160906_brit-lib-gate1550 to his nephew with advice on choosing a wife. The basic message was to be realistic and avoid being too picky because he was unremarkable in appearance. Readers could infer the august uncle might also have judged his poor nephew as ordinary across the board. To be a fly on the wall when that letter arrived!

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