We Love Gladstone’s Library (Part Three)

I’m here again.  In fact I’m soon going home, having been here all week.  Since I was last here, a few weeks ago, several things have happened.  The first is the installation in the chapel of textile artist Wendy Rudd’s Windsails.  These are very lovely and totally transform the space.  I think they will be there until sometime in October.

The second, slightly more traumatic happening, is the loss of Sweet Memories of Hawarden from the High Street.  Over the summer I’ve been getting by on weekly fixes of spearmint pips, blackcurrant bonbons and chewing nuts from this wonderfully old-fashioned little sweetshop, which is a veritable treasure trove of tempting things that are bad for your teeth and waistline.  But I ventured out this week in search of 100g of something to rustle in a small white paper bag, and it had gone.  Not far, it must be admitted (to an outlet in the local Garden Centre complex), but lost to the High Street.Sweet Memories of Hawarden  I had to make do with a bag of toffees from the Post Office, but it wasn’t the same.

Thirdly, the Scrabble Cushions (distinct objects of desire) that make up the name of the ‘Food for Thought’ daytime café are starting to be interfered with.  Earlier this week they turned into ‘Doff Rough Tooth’.  I spent an hour when I should have been giving yet more attention to Elizabeth Barrett Browning working out quite a few more anagrams.  Currently displayed is ‘God Of Hoof Truth’.

Last time I was here I actually ordered and had delivered a new digital camera (not having one of my own) precisely because I wanted to be able to take some photos both of Gladstone’s Library, and of the stunning Edward Burne-Jones stained glass in St. Deiniol’s Church next door.  The Nativity window, apparently EBJ’s last work before he died, is wonderful.  The church needs to have some good-quality photos taken of the windows, I think, as they would make terrific cards that visitors would want to buy.  I’m rather pleased with my photos here:

Detail of EBJ Nativity WindowEBJ Nativity WindowThree Kings EBJ Nativity Window


We Love Gladstone’s Library (Part Two)

I have been back at St. Deiniol’s all week.  I’ve been tired.  On Sunday morning a very nice woman I was sitting with at breakfast suggested I perhaps needed “some nourishment” and as Sunday was gorgeous weather I thus headed off further into Wales to find a point on my road atlas where the A road intersected with Offa’s Dyke Path.  I first got waylaid by Ruthin Craft Centre (lovely shop full of beautifully crafted things) and eventually found the path onto the Clwydian Hills.  It was just what I needed and the views were stunning.

Back in the Library, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and I have been making slow progress.  Today I ditched my Netbook completely and took to writing longhand.  I haven’t done that for years … and I actually wrote lots.  There’s some kind of moral/lesson in there to someone who is writing a blog on e-learning.  I do frequently find myself knowing that just because the technology exists, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the job is going to get done any more effectively/quicker.  Having said that, I’ve also bought myself a nifty digital camera and this evening I’ve been trying out a few photos.

Sophia and slate benches

Sophia and slate benches

To the right is a modern statue of Sophia (wisdom) set amidst four beautiful slate stone benches.  This is the view out the back of Gladstone’s Library complex.  For my tastes the statue is too representational in a way that doesn’t quite work in the twenty-first century and the benches, with their rough hewn edges and carved words in English and Welsh at either end – Love, Truth, Justice and Peace - somehow work much better.  Having said that I’m quite glad Sophia is there, emerging from the Tree of Knowledge as she is and looking towards the Library, although why she needs to be semi naked to do this is a little bit beyond me…

At any given time there will be an interesting range of people here at the Library.  Due to its history as a theological training college it is a popular stopping/resting point for clergy, and people seem to travel from far afield to be here. Every week I’ve been staying there has been at least one person from the USA.  I’ve met a few academics, various retired people looking for a bit of space to work on writing projects, and generally a pleasant and interesting variety of folk.

It’s the kind of place that is just somehow … conducive.  Conducive to what depends on why you are here.  Watching over it all is a statue of William Gladstone himself (apparently intended for Dublin, but by the time the statue was finished the political situation meant it was no longer welcome).  Probably the largest collection in the world of Gladstone-related images and memorabilia adorn the public ground floor corridors, and of course Gladstone’s own collection of books is dispersed amongst twentieth- and twenty-first-century additions, sometimes containing his annotations.

We love Gladstone’s Library (Part One)

I have been spending a fair amount of the past few weeks at Gladstone’s Library (formerly known as St. Deiniol’s), Hawarden, Flintshire, just across the north Wales border.  It’s a real discovery.  I think I first heard of it several years ago via the British Association of Victorian Studies, but it is only now I’ve actually got here. 

Gladstone's Library, Hawarden.

Four-times Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone was an avid collector of books.  His country residence was the splendid (new) Hawarden Castle, which still has grounds partially open to the public today, five minutes away from the Library’s site.  Gladstone wished to make his books available to others and had established a ‘Tin Tabernacle’ edifice to house some of his books late in his life.  After his death in 1898 he left a legacy specifically to establish a more permanent residential library.  This opened in 1902.

As Gladstone’s Library says on its website homepage, it is “a residential library and meeting place dedicated to dialogue, debate and learning for open-minded individuals and groups who are looking to explore pressing questions and to pursue study and research in an age of distraction and easy solutions”. 

The library itself is small (in one sense) but perfectly formed, and specialises in theology and Victorian studies.  It is actually the most important research library in Wales outside of the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, with over 250,000 volumes.  As well as books the library involves a lot of wood (see photo), and narrow circling staircases that creak as you walk up them.  

Inside Gladstone's Library

In many ways part of the Library’s charm is that it still manages to be relatively free of the increasingly technology-rich paraphernalia that pervades modern libraries.  There is of course a computerised catalogue of the stock (with Gladstone’s own personal library mixed in on the shelves) but books are ‘taken out’ by filling in a slip with the book’s details on and inserting one copy into the space on the shelf where your book was.  Nice.   If you are resident at the Library you can colonise an upstairs gallery desk of your own.  Whilst this is obviously not the British Library the holdings in its specialist areas strike me as pretty good — the Victorian literature sections are serving me quite well, and one of the attractions for Victorian Studies scholars is that there are actually nineteenth-century books in the mix as well.  I stumbled across a first edition of Augusta Webster’s volume of poems Portraits (1870) which I had never seen before, and I’ve also been able to browse Alfred Miles’s multi-volume The Poets and Poetry of the Century (1891-97), which I am forever reading about in articles on Victorian poetry but had also never actually seen.   In short, if you have a writing project to progress or finish, or want some quiet space for reflection, then St. Deiniol’s is a great place to come.  Part Two of my reflections on being here to follow…

Keeping it très réel en Paris…

Ms E-Mentor is currently not being very virtual, or particularly online. I’ve been doing a few of my VLE ‘demo’ visits to UK English departments, and most recently enjoyed meeting colleagues at the University of Chester. Professor Deborah Wynne, who invited me, told me she was once an undergraduate at Wolverhampton, which was nice to discover.

But Ms E-Mentor has undoubtedly been busy. Very busy. Last Friday I was part of le jury des thèses à la Sorbonne, en Paris, for a PhD candidate who had written on William Morris and the book arts and his influence into the early twentieth century on presses such as the Eragny Press of Lucien Pissarro and the Cranach Press in Germany. This involved my having to resussitate my very rusty A-Level French and I had a fortnight of quite intensive French revision.

The bonus, of course, was that I had 48 hrs à Paris. I was staying in the cinquième arrondissement, près de la Rue Mouffetard, which is fabulous: it’s a long, narrow, medieval street full of wonderful shops. I had simply forgotten how well les français ‘do food’.

Fromagerie, Rue Mouffetard

Les poissons, charcuterie, fromagerie, les légumes et les fruits — tous sont merveilleux! As I wandered along this street, several times during my stay as it took me from my hotel to the Sorbonne, I thought that some things will never ever be replaceable by the virtual.

I was so trigger happy after the viva that I decided to be a complete tourist and go all the way up La Tour Eiffel.  Par nuit. Me and a few hundred loved-up teengaers.  There’s no doubting that La Tour Eiffel is a nineteenth-century wonder of engineering and ingenuity, and as I stood underneath it I figured that it was going to have to make an entry into my introductory lecture on the Victorians to the First Years this week.

La Tour Eiffel


On the Saturday morning I also made a bit of a pilgrimage to La Tombe d’Oscar Wilde, crée par Jacob Epstein in 1912.  La Cimetière Père-Lachaise is well worth a visit.  It’s the Highgate Cemetery of Paris, where the great and the good wish to be buried, although — having never visited Highgate — I imagine it’s a bit less gloomy.  Really, it’s a kind of nineteenth and twentieth century sculptural feast of ways of remembering the dead.

I had seen a photo of Wilde’s tomb, and partly because I am just such a big fan of Wilde, and have been teaching him for several years, I knew that one day I wanted to visit.  And it’s still quite a tourist attraction.  There’s an official sign that says “Please respect the tomb of Oscar Wilde” … and then there’s the graffitti!  It’s quite simply fabulous, and it’s hard not to think that Oscar would have loved the fact that people write quotes by him on the tomb (“either this wallpaper goes or I do”) AND that it is covered in lipstick kisses.  His name had been outlined all the way round in bright red lipstick.  My French PhD student told me that one of the kisses was hers.

To my shame I did not bring green carnations, or even lilies.  I was slightly put off by the extortionate price of flowers in the flower shops en les environs de la cimetière.  But the excessive, wasteful gesture of buying expensive, over-priced flowers and leaving them to die in a day or two at Wilde’s tomb is surely what I should have done.  I’ll have to go back.

A few ‘blocks’ further on I found Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s grave.  No one else  interested in that at all except me on a Saturday morning, and it’s not a sculpturally showy grave, but I was quietly pleased they were buried together.

And now, back home, I’ve spent yesterday and this morning working up my ‘Introduction to the Victorian Period’ lecture.  Paris is going to get a mention…


Somewhere near you a library is closing…

Philip Pullman, recently speaking to a packed audience in Oxford Town Hall, on the county council’s proposals to cut 20 out of 43 public libraries in the region.  He makes the very vaild point that it is somewhat insulting to librarians for there to be the ‘Big Society’ idea that volunteers can just take their places.