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Reading Britain

I went to the Writing Britain exhibition at the British Library recently.  Really fascinating.  The entrance was dramatic, with videos projected onto billowing sheets that called to mind sails and pages.  How appropriate for a writing exhibition in an island nation.

My favorite parts were the manuscripts and authors’ notebooks penned in their own hands.  There were handwritten notebooks from all sorts of writers: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, William Blake, J K Rowling, Ted Hughes, Daphne du Maurier, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sylvia Plath, Oscar Wilde… I was fascinated to see what they wrote on, what they wrote with.  Were their sentences fully formed or bare sketches of ideas?  Were there images?  Was their handwriting legible?  Neat?  Evocative?  Cramped?  Ruled paper or unruled?

Tiny blue sheets covered in tiny writing…enormous, wide ruled notebooks, thick as my forearm… scribblings-out, additions, addenda… writing on the back of medical pamphlets, in brother’s notebooks, in pen, in pencil…diagrams, maps, speech bubbles–speech bubbles!

I loved seeing what they all wrote on.  Physically wrote on.  Evidence of tired fingers, of effusive personalities, of precision and forthrightness.  Of dual lives, of thoughts taken down in haste, of correspondence reproduced, of meticulous, careful recordings of journeys, of diaries kept in drawers.  Red pencil, blue pencil.  Ink, ink, endless ink!

I peered at them all, too close to the glass, eyes shining with writerly fervence.

My favorite part was reading an extract of Jane Eyre, open (where else?) to the page where she sees Mr Rochester for the very first time.  Of all the writers that I knew well in the exhibition, Charlotte Bronte’s handwriting was probably the easiest to read (Jane Austen being much more slanty and illegible).  Open to that point in the story the image of young Jane in fear of the gytrash in the gloaming twilight was so engaging, it drew me right in.  But there were others too–the manuscript of Lorna Doone by Richard Blackmoore was there, penned in a squarish, methodical hand.  And Charles Dodgson’s (known to most of us by his pen name Lewis Carroll) diary of a day in Oxford with the Liddell family, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s neat, perpendicular words on the plans for his house Undershaw.

Even if you don’t make it to the exhibition, have a look at the BL’s Literary Landscape map: you can pin a piece of writing that represents a place you know to it, and explore the literature that defines the landscape of Britain for others.  (Inexplicably several people have pinned tales to the Republic of Ireland.  But whatever gets you in the spirit, I suppose.)  Oh, the charm of reading your way around Britain.

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