Yesterday I went to the British Library, which has a permanent exhibition of its treasures (and currently a very interesting Alice In Wonderland exhibition).
I saw the Magna Carta, and a Gutenberg bible and several letters written by historical characters, but the part I loved most were the manuscripts.
It has handwritten manuscripts by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Ian Fleming, and several others, and I spent ages just staring at these.
First of all, it felt like a direct connection between them as writers and me as a reader. They wrote these words directly, and now I read them. I found that quite moving.
These writers often have terrible handwriting – these copies were first drafts, mostly, not the fair copies that would have gone out to publishers. Ian Fleming, though, had very readable handwriting. Given my own handwriting is awful, that was quite reassuring.
It was fascinating to see the crossing out, the substitutions, the editing. Charlotte Bronte had excised a passage from Jane Eyre that though lovely, would have given away Rochester’s love for Jane too soon. It must have caused a pang to cut out Jane saying ‘I am nothing’ and Rochester saying ‘You’ll do for me’, it’s such a perfect illustration of them, and yet there are clear lines strongly marked across them. Ian Fleming’s copy is clear and quickly written, and yet you can see where he’s changed his mind as he went along, quickly decided to substitute one word for another, to extend one metaphor and cut short another. Charles Dickens’ manuscript for Nicholas Nickleby is full of crossing out, and scribbled over passages, and bits added, he obviously heavily edited himself.
And it’s wonderful because it’s what we, as writers do. These are writers I admire, even idolise, and yet they took struggled with scenes, they swapped words, and changed their minds, and added and took away. They worked just like we do. It makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing.
If you ever find yourself in St Pancras, I urge you to go and see these books (and St Pancras station too. It doesn’t make you a better writer, but it is glorious. And there is a statue of John Betjeman). You can see that writers, right back to the Elizabethans, all work in the same way.