It’s almost entirely possibly to look at England through the lens of its writers. At least that’s what I have been trying to do during my sojourn here in London.
When you walk through the streets, there are blue oval plaques attached to many houses. These plates list the famous people who once lived in that building. These are everywhere. And it is amazing who has lived here. Beyond the most obvious people, like Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Samuel Coleridge, there are people of other nationalities who have spent extended time in London. Karl Marx worked on Das Kapital here. Benjamin Franklin was here, as was John F. Kennedy. The city has been installing these plaques since 1896 and it’s a great way to bring history to life.
Then there are places that are firmly linked to one particular writer. We took a trip to Bath, which is rich in Roman and royal history. Despite amazing ruins and an extraordinary church, the town is closely identified with Jane Austen, who put Bath and its society at the center of many of her novels. When we took a tour of the city, the tour guide kept pointing out where scenes from Austen’s novels took place. There is the Royal Crescent, a set of Georgian houses, and the Circle where the actor Nicholas Cage just bought no. 7. There is the gravel walk that various characters used to stroll.
My 16-year old daughter adores Jane Austen. She has read most of her books and has seen the most recent version of Pride and Prejudice, the one with Keira Knightly, more than a dozen times. (We have a running debate in our family whether that version, or the one with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is better) So even though we walked through Bath, we felt compelled to go to The Jane Austen center even though the Rick Steves’ guide book said to skip it. The entrance fee was £10, more than $20, which was high. But what if we could extract one juicy morsel about Austen, a piece of trivia we didn’t know? So we forked over our money only to walk through a building whose centrepiece was an exhibit of costumes from a recent BBC movie about Austen called “Jane Austen Regrets.” The clothes were Ok. The best part of the center was the giftshop, which had great postcards filled with Austen trivia. In short, it wasn’t worth the entry fee.
In contrast, the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street was worth every bit of its £6 entry fee. (a little more than $12) The museum couldn’t buy 221B Baker Street -- the actually address of Holmes and Watson’s apartment in the books – but it is located nearby. Holmes is a fictional character, but somehow it didn’t matter. The museum has recreated his apartment with lots of great 19th century objects, and put wax figures representing some of Holmes’ most gruesome cases on the top floor. It was a lark.
On Monday, my daughter and I went to the British Library, the single most magnificent collection of manuscripts I have ever seen. How I long to be a reader there! As much as I enjoyed doing research at the Huntington Library, where readers (ie researchers) are coddled and honoured, it can’t compare to the pomp of the British Library. The library moved in 1998 into a new building which does a great job of showcasing its vast collections. As you walk up the stairs to the reading rooms, there is something called the King’s Library housed behind a four or five story high glass case. The shelves are filled with leather bound volumes. There are numerous tables all around so you can sit and work on your laptop and glance up every once in a while at all the tomes.
There is a special exhibition gallery for the Library’s treasures. In a one-hour period I saw the Magna Carta, one of Shakespeare’s folio’s, a Beowolf manuscript, John Milton’s Commonplace Book, Thomas Hardy’s much-revised manuscript of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Sylvia Plath’s handwritten version of her poem Insomniac, Captain James Cook’s 1775 journal, Lenin’s 1902 application for permission to use the British Library (he applied under an assumed name) and lyrics from the Beatles.
Very very fun.