I’d be lying if I said England did not instantly conjure scenes from novels. Walking the streets of London I envisioned Ebenezer Scrooge slouching by Christmas carolers as snow slowly falls from the sky. I saw Harry Potter pushing a cart in search of platform 9 ¾. Elizabeth Bennett arguing with Mr. Darcy. Mary finding her secret garden. Peter Rabbit running from Mr. McGregor. My attachment to these characters, so real and so vivid in my mind, drove me to England. By walking on their soil it would bring me closer to them. So it should come as no surprise that my first stop on my first full day in London was to the British Library.
There’s nothing that brings you closers to the characters your favorite authors bring to life, than to see the original manuscripts in which they were created. Walking through the British Library’s main exhibit, you walk past glass case after glass case filled with documents from some of literature’s most famous authors. There’s an original copy of a Jane Austen manuscript and a copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, in addition to countless other works.
The ancient Bibles and illuminated manuscripts make you regret the fact that people do not publish books that look like that any longer. As you move through the exhibit and the documents become more recent you can visibly see the change in handwriting that has occurred over the years, particularly after the invention of the typewriter and the computer. Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte succeeded in not only writing beautiful words, but in a period before lined paper, also writing absolutely straight. Handwriting use to be an art form. Something to be practiced and perfected. As someone whose penmanship is far from excellent, it makes me sad we do not write that way anymore. Novels use to exist in two forms: as a work of literature and a work of art. The novel brought to life characters but its beauty as a document was sometimes even more powerful.
As exhilarating and inspiring as the novels in the library are, it was just as humbling to see some of the sheet music on display. Original sheet music from some of the greatest classical composers, with their edits and scribbles on the side. Even some of the original lyrics composed by the Beatles (the remainder of the day I had Hard Day’s Right playing on repeat in my head).
Of the 4 copies of the Magna Carta in existence today, 2 are on exhibit at the British Library. Tucked away in its own private room, with its specialized lighting and climate control, it exists as almost a sacred place. Every school kid at the Library seemed to huddle into the room taking copious amounts of notes on everything from the content to the penmanship. As an American political science major I admire the Magna Carta as one of the earliest declarations of rights, but as I stared at the document, what struck me the most was how small the writing was. I’m not kidding. If the room hadn’t been plastered in quotes from the document I would have needed a magnifying glass to read it. Besides the extremely small font, I was also impressed by the quality of preservation. I don’t know much about how and why certain documents are easier to preserve than others, my only guess being that the type of paper and the type of ink used is somehow influential. But, having seeing the copy of the Declaration of Independence numerous times at the National Archives, I can say with certainty, that I do not understand how a document from the 1200s could be in better condition than a document from 1776. But, it was. The Declaration of Independence is so faded today that it is barely legible, but the Magna Carta, despite its small font still looks like it was written only the other day.
As I was walking out of the exhibit and onward to my next stop, several school groups piled in. Two things crossed my mind as I walked out and they walked: I wish I had field trips to libraries when I was a kid and I hope they appreciated the weight and significance of all the works they were surrounded by. I think if I could have a second life, do it all over again, I’d find a place to work where I would be able handle old manuscripts and documents. Because honestly, how cool would that be?