Sod off, readers

John Sutherland

  • Rude Words: A Discursive History of the London Library by John Wells
    Macmillan, 240 pp, £17.50, September 1991, ISBN 0 333 47519 4
  • Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English by Geoffrey Hughes
    Blackwell, 283 pp, £16.95, August 1991, ISBN 0 631 16593 2

Founded by private subscription in 1841, the London Library was the brainchild of Thomas Carlyle, a serious man. For its 150th anniversary, the present guardians of the London Library have chosen an eminent comedian, John Wells, to write their celebratory history. The sage of Chelsea would not have been amused. But then, nothing did amuse him. He seems to have been immune to such essentially human feelings. Carlyle happened to be in the library in 1875 when Bryan Courthope Hunt – the child of a famously irregular marriage – chose to commit suicide there. Hunt had asked at the issue desk for the second volume of George Henry Lewes’s Problems of Life and Mind but discovered that it was out. Lewes’s wife had been his father’s mistress, which may have had something to do with the tragedy that followed. The young man went to the Magazine Room, where he shot himself in the head with a Derringer pistol, then reloaded and did it again. This led to a quarter of an hour’s hiatus in library services while the dying member was discreetly removed to Charing Cross Hospital and the blood and brains mopped up. Carlyle, who witnessed the confusion and was told what had happened, showed no symptoms of emotion, and went up to the Reading Room, instructing the librarian to fetch the book he had ordered (the second volume of Motley’s The Rise of the Dutch Republic), adding as an afterthought: ‘Another of Thornton Hunt’s bastards gone.’ (In point of fact, Bryan was legitimate; it was his half-siblings by Lewes’s wife who were bastards.) According to another version of the same story, Carlyle burst into a rage, shouting: ‘Nice to think I can’t get my papers just because some confounded relative of Leigh Hunt has gone and shot himself.’ ‘Rage’ seems less likely than absolute indifference to human suffering where access to his books was involved.

Unimpeded access to books was Carlyle’s main motive in founding the London Library. The man with the bassoon nose (he is still there) made the British Museum intolerably distracting. Even when they were not noisily dealing with their mucus, the crowds in the Reading Room brought on what he called his ‘museum headache’. Reading, like nose-clearing and love-making (if he ever made love), was something a gentleman scholar like Carlyle did in private: ‘A Book is a kind of thing that requires a man to be self-collected. He must be alone with it ... no man can read a Book well with the bustle of three or four hundred people about him! Even forgetting the mere facts which a Book contains, a man can do more with it in his own apartment, in the solitude of one night, than in a week in such a place as the British Museum.’ It may also be that Carlyle was piqued that the underbred Italian, Anthony Panizzi, had declined to give him, as he had given Macaulay, a private room to work in at the BM. (Wells rather doubts this small-minded explanation of the origin of his beloved institution.)

The London Library is an apt subject for Wells’s affectionate brand of satire. He tells its story with much entertaining – and often pathetic – anecdote. (The suicide in 1978 of a former assistant librarian, Oliver Stallybrass, is, if anything, even more harrowing than that of Bryan Hunt.) Started as ‘a private subscription library to serve the needs of scholars by lending books for use at home’, the London Library opened in May 1841 in two rented rooms under the Travellers Club in Pall Mall. When it moved four years later to its present premises in St James’s Square, the Library took with it the ambience of a West End club – something it has never quite lost. It somehow feels wrong that one cannot smoke or drink whisky as one reads the Times in one of the Reading Room’s too comfortable armchairs. And like other clubs, the London Library has its secrets and skeletons. Wells tells for the first time in print the alarming skullduggeries over the appointment of successive librarians, the subterranean influence of the Cambridge Apostles over the years, the epic battle with Mudie in the Mid-Victorian period, the great expansions at the turn of the century under the visionary Hagberg Wright, the Library’s persecution as a symbol of upper-class privilege by socialist ministries of the Sixties, the everlasting financial crisis which seems finally to have been solved by Lewis Golden, the accountant on the white horse who Wells sees as a figure as heroic as Carlyle in the annals of the Library.

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