Objects in the Lives of Writers: 19 September 2013

A one-day display in the Proscholium, Bodleian Library to coincide with the conference, The Lives of Objects, at the Oxford Centre for Life Writing, Wolfson College

Objects in Bodleian collections carry the memories of the lives and works of writers. Locks of hair, a traditional means of preserving the memory of the beloved, are shown in an ornate case that is part of the ‘Shelley Relics’, from the great Abinger Collection of manuscripts of Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and their family. The supposed death mask of Dante (a severe visage that contrasts with contemporary descriptions of the living man) inspired later generations to believe they were in closer contact with the great author, at only one remove from viewing the face of genius.

At the outset, the writer confronts a blank page; in library collections, the inscribed pages of manuscripts are the destination of scholars who come to study every aspect – including the shape and quality of the paper – with meticulous care. A blank notebook of the type filled by Jane Austen with her juvenile writings is presented in this display. The pen is a tangible connection with the physical activity of writing. A pen from the Shelley collection, and one used more recently by Alan Bennett, will be on display.

A china figurine of a traveller, owned by Bruce Chatwin, is one of those privately treasured items that provided the material anchor to a story which took flight with the writer’s imagination. The bill estimating (at £38.19.6) the cost of repairs to T.E. Lawrence’s prized Brough Superior motorcycle, after the fatal accident in 1935, is a reminder of the power of objects, not only in the imagination.

The Bodleian Library Proscholium is open on weekdays at 9 am. The display can be seen in the Proscholium on Thursday, 19 September, until 5:30 pm.

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