Today, after renewing my membership of the British Library and scoffing a brownie in the posh Leith cafe, I wandered into the British Library exhibition on writers’ handwriting. I only stayed in the building because it is calm and cool, and it postponed the crush of the tube ride home. The Sir John Ritblat Gallery is free, and, like the History of Carnaby Street exhibition I discovered last week, if you are a Londoner and you do not visit free galleries you are a fool. Your taxes and contributions have already financed them. Get thee to a gallery.
Of course, the Sir John Ritblat Gallery clearly was the result of a hefty donation to the BL from Sir Johnny R. But the British Library itself is free and funded by the Department for Libraries and Posh Cafes. Or something. You don’t have to be a member of the Library to visit the shop, exhibitions or Leith cafe. Anyway, I wandered into the exhibition on writers and the first thing I saw was something about Beowulf. Couldn’t understand a word of that, and apparently it’s a poem about some English bloke who goes off to Scandanavia and does stuff. Or least that’s what the sign said in the exhibition. Only 12 people in England fully understand Olde Englishe and I am certainly not one of them. I come out in a rash if I read anything that was published before the Brontes were born. This very important old document could have been some pre-English recipe instructions for boiling a boars head and eating it with a grilled peasant, for all anyone knows. Still, you have to stare at it for at least three seconds and look interested, like everyone else does.
Sir Philip Sidney is one of my favourite poets (all right, distinctly pre-Brontes but along with Shakey, an exception to the Bluebird’s rule…) and has an interestingly accessible hand, flamboyant and, strangely for the 16th century, legible. Jane Austen appeared to work with a miniature writing desk in a series of childhood exercise books, in which not a half inch of space is wasted. Her handwriting was very beautiful and heavily slanted. Her spectacles are there too – small enough to fit a six year old. Perhaps she was a dwarf. Thomas Hardy had the handwriting of a trusty, West Country solicitor (his hand-writing immediately made me think of Leonard Bast from “Howard’s End” – diligent, conservative, aspiring to aestheticism but ultimately held back by his own provincialism). If I was floating around Dorchester in the 1890s and found a nice house to buy, I would probably appoint someone with Thomas Hardy’s handwriting to do the litigation. If he wasn’t too busy trying to write novels banging on about the negative power of fate, that is.
Virginia Woolf had the handwriting of a frigid, fundamentalist loon, although a very tidy one. She seems to be using the most expensive pen. Her use of paper is suggestive of languid waste – tall looping letters on very high quality parchment in yer room of one’s own, Milady Woolf. The insensitivity and all-encompassing snobbery of the Bloomsbury Group totally enrages me and always has done. None of which detracts from the magnificence of Mrs Dalloway, of course. Her writing is unclear. I thought I read “She had not married him. They had fucked”. But I now realise this was actually “She had not married him. They had failed.”
Oscar Wilde’s handwriting is a breath of fresh air. Wide, circular letters, few loops, a straightforward, easily read flowing hand with a suggestion of coquetry. He also had a strange habit of joining the end of one word to the beginning of the next one whilst keeping most of the letters within the words separate. It smacks of the new century. It is strange that Woolf’s does not. Wilde’s writing is a draft of the Ballad of Reading Gaol written from his time in prison. Within the limitations of personal freedom, his writing suggests space. Meanwhile, way up on the green plains of early 1960s Primrose Hill, Sylvia Plaths bizarre, harsh black felt tip writing suggests a blockage of some kind. Her handwriting is petulant and childlike. There is no room to breathe between the lines. It’s writing you don’t want to carry on reading; it is unforgiving both to reader and writer, and made me feel a trifle queasy.
The Bluebird’s most beautiful literature scrawl award goes to…..Lewis Carroll a.k.a. Rev Charles Dodgson, who used his standard copperplate in diaries, but whose handwritten and self-illustrated version of Alice’s Adventures Under-Ground was handprinted in the most gloriously simple typescript, designed to be attractive to any eight year old reader.
It’s all a little dangerous, of course, feeling like we need to treat Jane Austen’s glasses and Oscar Wilde’s ink as literature porn. They are, after all, only a pair of glasses and a bottle of ink. They may have been her Auntie’s glasses and she had borrowed them for bingo or something. The idea of anyone’s notes on a work in progress ending up on public display would most likely appal any writer, who had so diligently and so consistently redrafted and cultivated their own works (and themselves) only to have some Herbert from the BL rock up three hundred years later and put it on display.
It’s the reverence to the paraphenalia that surrounds great writers we have to be wary of; the writing desks, the paper, and the idea of alchemy that they may intrinsically hold. That sense of unnerving idol worship that kicks in after a good old literary suicide (Woolf, Plath) which people enjoy salivating over is not to be trusted, as, although topping yourself ensures kind of literary notoreity, it doesn’t change the intrinsic quality of any one written word you have produced. The London Bluebird is unsure how she feels about this kind of display, but, speaking as someone who works in chaos and whose writing space resembles a cross between a sixth former’s locker and the rubble left after a nuclear explosion, has only one thing to say : look at the writing, not the pen that writes it.