On preserving words

british libraryWednesday afternoon, I went to the British Library. I fully intending to wander around the whole thing, but ended up spending an hour and a half in the ‘Treasures of the Library’ exhibit. There were original manuscripts from Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, William Morris, Sylvia Plath, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, and even the Beatles. There were letters written by Henry VIII, Princess Mary, Elizabeth I, and also the original Magna Carta from 1215. I got quite emotional about the whole thing.

I was very moved by the idea of these words being preserved, of being thought important enough to conserve years after the death of their creators. I think I was especially affect because on the plane I had been reading a book called ‘People of the Book’ by Geraldine Brooks (which you should all read), which is about the conservation of a valuable Jewish book. Each repair the main character has to make, each piece of sediment that she finds, be it a drop of wine, a passage damaged by sea salt, or the hair of the paintbrush of the artist, in the next chapter the reader is told the story of how that sediment or damage comes to be. The book travels from the Second World War, when the book had to be hidden to avoid being destroyed, right back to the 1400s, where a young Muslim girl paints the pictures to thank the family who has saved her from slavery.

Seeing all the old books and letters and parchments, one dating all the way back to the 4th century, made me reflect on where they had come from, and the journey they must all have taken through the years and centuries to make their way to the British Library.

The next day (that is, yesterday) I visited the National Portrait Gallery, and spent a couple of hours looking at the portraits, which ranged from the Turdors and the Stuarts right up to World War One, and then contemporary photographs, including a portrait of Princess Kate from 2012. I found it so interesting to see the portraits of the Tudors, since I had seen letters from Queen Elizabeth, Princess Mary and their father Henry VIII. I found, however, that the portraits didn’t move me as much as seeing their writing – perhaps because I have seen images of them before, but perhaps because there is something so personal about seeing someone’s handwriting, and seeing their words. I know handwriting can be faked, and words can be curated, but a royal portrait can seem so stilted. Handwriting, and what you write, can reveal so much about yourself.



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