Coming to London to hang out with L gave me a very pared-down agenda. I had been there twice before and therefore had already been to most of the tourist highlights. I also was missing my art-loving husband, and so I did not want to spend time visiting art museums to which I would surely return. I had only a few things I wanted to accomplish in London: the Portobello Road market (a bit of a disappointment), delicious Indian food, a play, and the British Library.
The Library had only come to my attention via the Frugal Traveler…and I love to travel frugally. The Library is free entrance and is home to a large collection of original prints of Britain's great literary works. Even more impressive, many works are written in the author's own hand. So I was excited. We saw an original print of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the 13th century, heard James Joyce reading from Finnegan's Wake, and Samuel Johnson's Dictionary.
As we moved through the collection, I began to have moments of emotion. We came across a text written in John Milton's own hand in the 17th century. I was amazed and began to tell L the story of Milton's role in my life, of senior year advanced English, of how much I was moved by Paradise Lost and what great prose could be in my life. I began to cry, staring at the handwriting of a person who had so moved me by his writing centuries before I could ever read it. We saw the original copy of Jane Eyre, in Charlotte Bronte's pen; Persuasion written in Jane Austen's perfect handwriting; the very first copy of Alice in Wonderland that "Lewis Carroll" wrote and illustrated and gave to the girl who was the inspiration for Alice; and Sylvia Plath's erratic penmanship in an early draft of a poem, Insomnia.
And then came Mrs. Dalloway. The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, which was of course inspired by Mrs. Dalloway and featured Virginia Woolf, is my favorite novel. After reading The Hours, I read Mrs. Dalloway and came to love Woolf. As we moved along the row of originals, we came upon the original hand-written draft of Mrs. Dalloway, open to the first page. At the top of the page was written the original title of the work, The Hours. My breath caught in my throat and tears came to my eyes again. Remembering how much this book meant to me when I read it made me feel all the depth of that wonder all over again.
I turned a corner to be in the section of original music. Henry Purcell kept an anthology of his own works in his pen. Mozart's Horn Concerto in E flat, dedicated to his friend, the horn player for whom it was written. The original performance score for Handel's Messiah, open to The Trumpet Shall Sound. Ravel's Bolero. Schubert's An Die Musik, which fit on a single page. A work by Beethoven, with half of it scribbled out in edits. Mendelssohn's Wedding March. To be in the presence of the original scores of these great works was momentous. They also had lyrics by the Beatles, written on the backs of envelopes, scraps of paper, and the back of a birthday card to Julian Lennon!
There were other incredible highlights as well. The Library houses the oldest known complete Bible, and Psalms 1 through 3 written in Greek on Papyrus in the 3rd century. It has centuries-old religious texts from every religion, with the most beautiful illustrations. There's a Gutenberg Bible, of which there are only four. The diaries of great British explorers, like Captain RF Scott and Captain James Cook, and the earliest known written star chart. The Library is also the home of the Magna Carta, or the earliest known copies of the Magna Carta, which was the first instance of written and legally binding human rights. (There is no evidence of a single official Magna Carta, ceremonially signed by all negotiators, like there is for the Geneva Conventions or the Declaration of Independence, for instance.)
There's a page believed to be the only example of William Shakespeare's actual writing in existence, though it's not one of his plays---none of those exist. All we have to go on are the printings of his works that were done during his lifetime, of which a few were on display there. There are also pages from Leonardo DaVinci's journals, in which he famously wrote backwards in Italian. Somehow, being in the presence of the writings of these geniuses awed me in a way their works have not. Of course, to look upon a DaVinci painting or to read or watch a Shakespearean play (see earlier post) is one of the great treasures experienced in life. But to look upon their scrawling words made their genius more real to me, somehow. Beethoven, too, with his scribbled edits, and Milton with his stilted handwriting. These geniuses---who have influenced me in indescribable ways, moved audiences, onlookers, and readers for centuries, and will be known to the world for all future generations as those who make our civilization what it is---had a beginning. They had greatness pour out of them onto a page as their thoughts were bigger than their minds could contain. They made mistakes and scribbled them out. They wrote on scraps of paper as ideas came to them in odd places. They had messy handwriting and disjointed thoughts. They failed. They were frustrated. They were real people with all of the difficulties of all real people and yet they strived for better achievement in all things that they did. They failed and continued on. They had glorious successes. They painted the Mona Lisa and wrote Macbeth and Paradise Lost and the 9th symphony. Seeing their works in their hand helped me to understand the glory of human achievement and that greatness is the reward not of genius (though that helps) but endeavor.
The experience put my dissertation frustrations in true perspective. I can do this.