Alyson Hunt, The Great Academic Taboo

Alyson Hunt is a first year part-time PhD candidate in the English Department at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent.  Her current research explores the concept of Victorian crime short fiction as a vehicle for social anxieties and considers how dress and clothing illuminates and encrypts these anxieties. She also works as a Research Associate for the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers and is currently working on a series of enterprises as part of a project entitled: From Brontë to Bloomsbury: Realism, Sensation and the New in Women’s Writing from the 1840s to the 1920s.


Until very recently, I have been a Victorian scholar with a secret. Not a ‘pushed my first husband down a well to avoid bigamy revelations’ Lady Audley type secret, more of a ‘feel like a complete fraud’ Sarah Rachel Levison type secret.  Despite a lifelong love of books, wholehearted admiration of antiquities and reverence towards Great British cultural institutions, I had never been to the British Library. While you reach for the sal volatile, I’ll take this moment to confess my utter ignorance of the national library of the UK. For those of us existing on paltry student budgets and not living in the immediacy of the Capital, the time and cost to visit the BL can seem difficult to justify unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, particularly when so much material is now accessible online. There seems to be an air of historical significance about the BL which makes a whimsical visit seem somehow disrespectful, as if entering as a tourist would be committing an injustice against the literary wonders held within its walls.

I had imagined a building of vast proportions, Palladian columns, white marble, the obligatory carved lions, perhaps librarians in the livery of Victorian footmen, row upon row of demurely dressed scholars scribbling furiously in their notebooks with their HB pencils. Upon entering the concourse, I instead beheld a modern red brick building, designed in the style of a vast ocean liner marooned in an urban metropolis. The current BL has existed only since 1997, indeed the concept of the library as a distinct entity from the British Museum (which did indeed have an architecturally beautiful reading-room, which I probably had in mind) was not established until 1973, prior to which the collections were haphazardly scattered around various buildings in London. With the acquisition of eight miles of shelved material every year, the library receives a printed hard copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland and retains material dating back over 3000 years. All well and good, but what use is this to the lover of nineteenth-century culture given that the institution itself is not a Victorian symbol of growing Imperial and Industrial power, an architectural showpiece of magnificence, but merely a receptacle of goods?

Because the concept of the library as a reading-room is a gloriously Victorian ideal, a socially acceptable place of moral and educational amelioration thinly veiling the entertainment value of a place to dine, keep up to date with news and gossip, to see and be seen. As The Lady’s Newspaper declares in 1855:

We live in a reading age. Crowded are the Reading Rooms of our literary institutions; Penny Reading Rooms meet with supporters and go on thrivingly; [and] all the railway carriages on the iron roads of our land become so many locomotive Reading Rooms, supplied by Railway libraries.[1]

Libraries were not just the domain of the academics but socially inclusive, geographically unrestricted hubs of activity. No fashionable Victorian holiday-maker would have considered a seaside sojourn complete without a visit to the local reading-rooms and almost every town boasted a library or reading-room of sorts. An 1856 guide to the Kent coast mentions a reading room “most elegantly fitted up for the supply of sandwiches, biscuits, luncheons, breakfasts, pastry, &c”[2] without making a single reference to the books contained within!

The British Library of course contains some of the most historically important literary treasures in the world, many of which are on public display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery or feature in themed exhibitions. Over two hundred of these treasures are laid out in an enormous room to be freely enjoyed in a whistle-stop guide to British Literature which includes the manuscript to Beowulf, a letter from Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Cardinal Wolsey and Mozart’s musical notations. Look closely at Thomas Hardy’s manuscript of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and you may still be able to detect my nose-print in the glass. Better still, take a guided tour of the library and be led around some of the staff areas to find out exactly how the library was started and how it works, including storage (all books are stored in order of size rather than subject), document delivery, conservation and costs. But don’t be afraid to follow in the footsteps of our Victorian ancestors. Visit the gift shop, loiter in the foyer or just sit in the café, read a newspaper and watch the world go by; read people as much as you read books, we are all characters in the fiction of others.


Related posts:

Discovering the British Library’s Discovering Literature

Deep Reading the Victorians (part one)

Deep Reading the Victorians (part two)

Deep Reading the Victorians (part three)

[1] READING-ROOM AT THE CRYSTAL PALACE. The Lady’s Newspaper (London, England), Saturday, March 24, 1855; pg. 177; Issue 430. New Readerships.

[2] The Thames and Thanet Guide and Kentish Tourist, 3rd edn (Pigot & Co, 1856?). p51

One comment

  1. The Panizzi Reading Room at British Museum goes back to 1857. I was privileged enough to research there in the early 1980s. You really should see it for Victorian grandeur.

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