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Face to face with Jane Eyre

Beowulf. BEOWULF! at the British Library

Had a lovely day – I had decided yesterday to pitch up at the Folio Prize Festival at the British Library.

I was late and missed most of the first panel, so I lunched vaguely and turned up for the first of the afternoon talks, On Conflict. The speakers were Neel Mukherjee, Ali Smith, Erica Wagner and Charles Fiennes, and it was quite cool. There was an interesting observation in that conflict is not just good versus evil but also can be between contrasting versions of good.

Treasures of the British Library

Then we broke, and a tour proposed of the Treasure of the British Library, and oh my God, what Treasures they were! I gasped aloud in places. Anyway, they had the following awesome stuff on display – the original copy of Beowulf. BEOWULF, with burnt corners.

They also had a fragment of Persuasion, my favourite Jane Austen novel, and most wonderfully, a handwritten copy of Jane Eyre.

Manuscript - Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte

A woman and a pen

And I had a kind of epiphany. See, I love Jane Eyre. It was one of the staples of my reading education. And to gaze at it where the hand had written “Mr Rochester” gave me this funny feeling. Because, before there was Jane Eyre, 19th century cultural phenomenon that endures until the present; with its endless film and television adaptations and hordes of suspiciously good looking Janes, there was a woman alone in a room with a pen. And out of her was born this thing that millions know and love, this thing that shaped minds and hearts and ambitions.

So it seemed to me that seen in that light, what happened in that room during the 1840s was nothing short of miraculous, an abiding mystery of hope, creation, and inspiration that is on a par with the mystery of giving birth.

Anyway, there are so many other wonderful delights in there too. There were cute letters from Anne Boleyn that had been finished by Henry VIII, there was Shakespeare’s First Folio, there were letters and wills and sheet music by Bach and The Owl and the Nightingale, and well, it was just all kinds of fabulous. You should totally go. I gasped aloud, so many times.


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