The Bodleian Library, being established in 1602, is one of the oldest in Europe — as well as one of the largest, containing over 12 million items. An integral part of the University of Oxford, over the course of centuries the Bod became not just a vehicle for daily studies, but also a collection of treasures. Some of them are currently on display at the Weston Library and — differently from the majority of volumes and manuscripts at the Bod — accessible for any visitor, whether affiliated with the University or not. (See here for opening times and other relevant information.)
This afternoon, in the company of one Miss Claire, I went to see the treasures for myself. Sam and I had visited the exhibition in its previous reincarnation (they had the original map of the Middle-earth, hand-drawn by J. R. R. Tolkien in black and red ink), and I was wondering what treats awaited now.
It is telling when you overhear the curator say that the Magna Carta (1217) and Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) might be amongst the least rare exhibits on display, given that there exist 16 copies of the former (including one at the British Library) and some 235 of the latter. The exhibition does include private letters and notes, unique drafts of iconic texts, and a tropical forest; the curator’s statement was not wrong.
Most of the treasures are displayed in linked pairs: a poem by T. E. Lawrence — ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ — next to a page from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré. This particular pair comes with a note titled ‘I spy’, telling about Lawrence’s collaboration with British Intelligence during the First World War and about David Cornwell’s (the real name of John Le Carré) employment with MI6. Another pair consists of the minutes from the first ever meeting of Oxfam in 1942 and Shelley’s pacifist Poetical Essay — these are coupled under ‘Responses to war’.
My favourite exhibits were the letter sent by Kenneth Grahame to his son (it opens, ‘My dearest Mouse…’) and the one written by Tolkien as Father Christmas (‘My dear boys, I am dreadfully busy this year…’). That said, I might have spent the longest before the less endearing but very exciting engraving of a map of Oxford from 1578. There are fewer Colleges, the city wall goes through Broad Street, and there is a ghost of Osney Abbey in the place of the house where I am typing these words.
Current album: Saint Etienne, Home Counties
Current book: Brian Lee O’Malley, Lost at Sea
Current TV series: Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Series 2 (1990)