“Mr. Godfrey Nickleby purchased a small farm near Dawlish, in Devonshire, whither he retired with his wife and two children, to live upon the best interest he could get for the rest of his money, and the little produce he could raise from his land. The two prospered so well together that, when he died, some fifteen years after this period, and some five after his wife, he was enabled to leave to his eldest son, Ralph, three thousand pounds in cash, and to his youngest son, Nicholas, one thousand and the farm; if indeed that can be called a farm, which, exclusive of house and paddock, is about the size of Russell Square, measuring from the street-doors of the houses.”
-Charles Dickens, Chapter 1, Nicholas Nickleby
I can’t tell you how cool it is to sit down on a bench in Russell Square, a small park in London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood, open up the Dickens book you have to read for class, and then see Russell Square mentioned on the second page! Dickens lived in Bloomsbury, so I’m sure that he walked through Russell Square a few times in his day, but I was still amazed at the coincidence of reading that while I was sitting in the actual location. London is incredibly vast and boasts a million different parks and squares—if I had been in Boston Common or Central Park and saw one of those mentioned in my book, it wouldn’t have felt so much like a big deal, since they’re really the only parks from those cities that come immediately to mind. (And on another note, Charles Dickens, can we cool it with these long-ass sentences? It’s neat that you mentioned Russell Square and all, but come on. I’ve got a life to live.)
One of my favorite things about London is the rich literary tradition and history that feels so alive here. American literature, like its country’s geography, is so spread out. London feels packed to the gills with famous authors’ houses, museums, and places described in books. Bestselling novels are advertised on the Underground along with all of the posters for new movies, concerts, and plays. There just seems to be a palpable appreciation and respect for literature here that I haven’t really seen before. And like I mentioned earlier, I love being able to read a book and pinpoint the London locations described. When I got a Nook for my birthday, it came with Bram Stoker’s Dracula already loaded onto it. I started it over the summer, and finished it recently, and was excited to see that one of the places Dracula plans to infiltrate is Mile End, a seedy area on the Eastern outskirts of the city. I live in Mile End! That’s where my school is located, and that’s the name of the local Tube stop.
Last Wednesday, since I didn’t have class, I took a break from homework and ventured over to the British Library, a place that I’ve been dying to go to for a while now. It’s London’s biggest library, and researchers can apply to use their Reading Rooms. They also have an incredible collection of old books in a free exhibit called “Treasures of the British Library,” which is what I went to see. Walking inside the huge modern building, I felt like a little kid going to Disney World. The exhibit is home to a lot of ancient books and manuscripts. They have an original copy of the Magna Carta on display, which is probably their biggest claim to fame. So I got to see that—for those of you who don’t remember high school history, it was written in 1215 and signed by King John of England. Its importance lies in its establishment that even kings were subject to the law, so it was a pretty big deal for the future of Western government.
There was also a literature section of the exhibit, which was probably my favorite part. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but I snapped a few before I got yelled at!
This is one of the original copies of The Canterbury Tales! Check out that awesome medieval illustration!
Jane Austen’s teenage diary! She kept this from ages 13 to 17. Her original writing desk is right next to the book.
Virginia Woolf’s first draft of Mrs. Dalloway.
There was also a music section that had the original composition of Handel’s Messiah (Haaaaah-leh-lujah!) and a few Mozart and Beethoven original pieces. That was pretty incredible, to see the notes written in pencil that would later become so famous and recognizable over the centuries. And next to all of the classical music was an entire section devoted to the Beatles, which had a lot of original lyrics in Paul and John’s handwriting. John Lennon scribbled the lyrics to “Help!” on what looks like a crumpled napkin, and “Ticket to Ride” on the back of a birthday card that was meant to go to his nephew! You could also see Paul McCartney’s handwritten lyrics to “Yesterday.” Good stuff.
After checking out the entire exhibit, I left the British Library in a pretty great mood. I’ll definitely be back for some of the free talks and events that they put on.
This past Saturday, I took the Tube to Bloomsbury, to check out some of the events going on at the Bloomsbury Festival. Russell Square was the center of it all (and where I read that Dickens quote) and had a ton of tents set up. After a very stressful ten minutes of walking around the food area, trying to decide what kind of ethnic food I wanted to eat, I settled for some delicious chicken curry and rice from the Indian booth. I hit up the book tent, and ended up buying two brand new books for half price—White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Okay, I know, I have a problem. A book-buying problem. I have way too much reading to do for my classes already, plus a limited budget for my European adventures, but come on, they were half price! They’ve also been on my To-Read list for a while. And the covers were both really pretty.
Anyway. Cradling my new books, I headed over to a really cool public poetry installation that was part of the festival.
The idea of the installation was to create your own poem by choosing individual words from three famous poems, stringing them together, and hanging them up in the “Poet’s Walk.” Kind of like those magnetic poetry kits on many a college student’s refrigerator.
Here are the three poems that supplied the words:
And one of my old favorites, Keats’ famous To Autumn.
I contributed with my own word-collage poem, but I’m not telling you what it said. :)
This was another crowd-sourced art installation—you could paint your own picture or message on a piece of cloth and add it to the tapestry.
After seeing everything Russell Square had to offer, I ventured over to a local bookstore in Bloomsbury that was holding a festival-related event. The event was “Cream Tea and Conversation” and was at Persephone Books, a very unique independent bookstore that I had already heard about from a Google search for “best bookstores in London.” (I know, I know, I have a problem! The first step is admitting it. Bear with me here.)
Did you know that it is possible to fall madly, deeply in love with a bookstore? Because that is what happened to me upon stepping into Persephone Books.
This is not your average bookstore. To start with, Persephone only carries 96 specific books, all published by the bookstore itself. They are all what Persephone views as “neglected classics” by women writers from the early 20th century. Many of the books were bestsellers in their day, but remained largely forgotten and out-of-print until Persephone reprinted them. (This is all the brainchild of Nicola Beauman, an English scholar who started the bookstore/publishing imprint in 1998. She’s the one who picked which titles to publish, and she was leading the conversation at the event.) One of the main ideas behind Persephone is that if you absolutely love one of their books, then you will absolutely love ALL of their books—they were lovingly handpicked just for you! I tend to gravitate towards literature written by women and featuring lively female heroines, and I also love so-called “period pieces”—basically any book, film or show that takes place in a past where social norms were different and fashion was way better. So I was pretty excited about finding this really unique place.
The store itself a bit of a crowded jumble, in the loveliest possible way. The front half of the building had all 96 books displayed on its shelves, and the back half was full of desks and boxes—the publishing office. The books themselves are absolutely gorgeous—they feature minimalist light gray covers, with beautifully patterned endpapers inside. Nicola picks the patterns for each book based on the tone of the novel and the year it was written—she chooses from dress patterns that came out in that same year. Under each book on the shelf is a typed-up description of the story, which is awesome, since I hadn’t heard of most of the titles before. There was a table in the middle, on which were mugs of tea and delicious homemade scones with jam and clotted cream. The event was a little crowded, but it was very interesting and I felt like there was a real sense of community inside the store. I ended up drinking two “cuppas” of tea, eating way too many mini scones, and making conversation with other people at the event. And, since I fell in love with the bookstore, obviously I had to buy a Persephone book. I would go into more detail about which one I picked, but if it’s good, I might be giving it to one of the strong, inspring women in my family for Christmas. So I’ll keep quiet for now. You can also check out Persephone’s website, if you’ve read my embarassingly long endorsement and are still interested.
Also, if lately you’ve been thinking to yourself, “I know that Christmas is a few months away, but I really want to get a thoughtful present for Jessi that she will absolutely love!” then I would like to let you know that you can order books from Persephone online, and they ship to the US. Just some harmless information. You know. In case you were thinking that.
At Persephone, I ended up meeting a girl my age from Australia who was studying abroad in London as well. After the cream tea, I went with her to a local trendy bar holding another Bloomsbury Festival event. This was a theatrical reading, and we stood and watched some very talented drama students act out a Shakespeare-inspired piece that gave imagined backstory to Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship. It was really cool, and I got to drink a glass of red wine and feel very cultured and pleased with myself.
So that was my Saturday. I really love London.