The British Library - English Lit

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on February 28, 2009

I’m actually a little bit ashamed that, nerd as I am, I had never before visited the British Library. Hived off from the collections of the British Museum, a new building on Euston Road between the major rail termini of Euston, Kings Cross & St Pancras stations it must be the easiest attraction in London for anyone from outside London to see. It is predominantly an academic institute, busy with students and researchers checking in bags and picking up reading cards to consult the 19 million volumes in the stacks. However there are several display spaces to exhibit some of the Library’s more precious and historic artefacts. For instance, there was a small exhibit celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Having attended the same college at university as Darwin, and having just read a very interesting book about him (‘This Thing Of Darkness’ by Harry Thompson) I found this pretty interesting. I didn’t get a chance to browse ‘The Sound And The Fury’, an exhibition on public speaking featuring some of the Library’s collection of audio recordings. Just this week it has been in the news that they are to start a new major exhibition on Henry VIII, having secured the loan of a love letter from the king to Anne Boleyn from – of all places – the Vatican archives.

The main treasures of the collection are on display in the darkened Sir John Ritblat Gallery. In the literature section you start off with an early manuscript copy of Beowulf before pressing on to 16th century Shakespeare folios, Jane Austen’s diary, handwritten notes by Joseph Conrad (one of my favourite authors), and a scrawled poem by Sylvia Plath among other important documents. Adjoining it the Music section contains exhibits from Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, . Mozart’s wedding certificate, Beethoven’s tuning fork, and handwritten lyrics for several Beatles tracks such as Lennon’s ‘Help!’ and Mccartney’s ‘Yesterday’. There are aged maps of the world and pages from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, written back-to-front by the great man himself between his sketches. Other historical documents include the log book of HMS Victory from the Battle of Trafalgar noting the death of Admiral Nelson at the moment of victory, and the last page of Captain Scott’s diary. General Haig’s April 1918 Order Of The Day ("With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end") is also exhibited.From their own archives they have a reference letter asking for a library card. Despite the false name used, this was actually from a certain Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin.

There is a printed Gutenberg Bible, but it is not as outstanding as the Library’s collection of illuminated and sacred texts. These range throughout all of the world’s major religions. Certainly works that caught my eye include an exquisite Qur’an made for Sultan Baybars of Cairo, and Jewish texts in Provencal dialect hailing from the Comtat Venaissin in southern France, where they were more-or-less protected by the Papal authorities. However, obviously it is Christian works that take centre stage. Chief amongst these must be the exquisite Lindisfarne Gospel. It boggles the mind to think just how long it must have taken Eadfrith to illustrate and colour this massive book. Still, I suppose there wasn’t a great deal else to do in 7th-8th century monasteries stuck out on islands off the bleak coast of Northumbria!

Less visually impressive, but almost definitely more important historically would be the Codex Sinaiticus, carted off from the Monastery of St Catherine at the foot of Mt Sinai. This is a 4th century copy of the Greek Bible and the British Museum now holds 347 pages after it paid £100,000 raised by public subscription in 1933 to acquire them from the Soviet government. The question of how these pages ended up in Russia at all is much more dubious – see for details. Regardless, as I myself saw on a visit to the monastery in November 2007, the monks really want the Codex back!

Even more precious though – to a Brit at any rate – is Magna Carta. Kept in a separate side-room this document dates from 1215 and is the basis of English law. Magna Carta (never the Magna Carta unless you want to be laughed at by constitutional historians) was consented to by King John under duress to halt a baronial rebellion. To be honest, it is less a sweeping political tract then a shopping list of individual grievances – the placement of fishing traps on the rivers Thames and Medway for instance. Out of its 60-odd clauses only three remain legally valid today – the freedom of the Church, the rights and liberties of the City of London, and the right to due process in law. Reading between the lines, it set down in writing the notions of habeas corpus, and that the monarch, whatever their royal status, was subject to the rule of law in the same as any other individual. Essentially Magna Carta set a precedent for limiting the divine right of kings almost six centuries before the French had to break out the guillotine. Of course, after attaching his seal to the document John immediately was on the hotline to the Pope to get it annulled, but that is neither here nor there.

Only four copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta survive – one at Salisbury Cathedral, one at Lincoln Cathedral, and two on display in the British Library. In display here on my visit was a fire-damaged copy originating from Dover Castle. A better preserved original was downstairs in a major exhibition on the evolution of Britain’s freedoms and rights entitled ‘Taking Liberties’. There are warnings on the posters: ‘In some countries you would not have the right to visit this exhibition…’ This was a very interesting, interactive gallery. It traced the journey through the UK’s political evolution by looking at various themes such as the rule of law, the primacy of parliament, the right to vote, the union of the disparate countries that form the UK, human rights and freedom of speech and belief. There are recorded vox pops from politicians, lawyers, philosophers, activists and members of the public alongside historical artifacts. These artifacts include the aforementioned magna Carta, Charles I’s death warrant, the Bill of Rights and Act of Toleration from 1689, 1706’s Articles of Union, the 1832 Great Reform Act, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which celebrated its 50th birthday last year, and all the way up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. But as I say, it is interactive. On entrance you are given a barcoded wristband. As you progress through you can scan this to ‘log in’ at terminals and give your thoughts on political issues such as thr role of the monarchy, whether it is ever right to break a law to change a law, DNA databases, the right to die, and censorship. You can then compare your responses to those of other visitors. Rather to my shock, I found that I was the not the pinko Guevara I had always seen myself as being, but rather centrist. I am not as far over on the Freedom versus Control axis than I expected myself to be. In fact, checking my results revealed that out of the 21 questions I voted with the majority (or at least a plurality) of voters on 13 occassions (and opted for the least popular of the four options only three times). But then, you would assume that people coming to a research institution and paying attention to an exhibition on the evolution of political rights would probably be students and / or have a more libertarian bent, thereby skewing the data somewhat.
Check out their rather snazzy website - warning, depending on where you are in the world access may be blocked!

The British Library has something for everyone. For the scholars among you there are great documents and works of historical importance. For the activists there is the opportunity to explore your rights and liberties. How fortunate London is to have a place like this.

Entry is free, as are the cloak rooms. It is open daily from 9.30 until 18.00 (until 20.00 on Tuesdays, but only 11.00-17.00 on Sundays). Nearest tube stations are Euston (Northern and Victoria lines) and Kings Cross-St Pancras (Northeern, Victoria, Piccadilly, Circle, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City lines). Images of many of their rare and precious (and, let’s not forget, beautiful) books and documents can be seen on their website –
British Library
96 Euston Road
London, England, NW1 2DB
+44 20 7412 7000

© LP 2000-2009