In hot weather like this what is the best thing to do? Go swimming, lie in a cold bath? No, go to a lovely, cool, old library building. Okay, I know you think this sounds mad but truly, it was the coolest place to be on Thursday.
I rose early, caught the train to Oxford. It's a lovely journey from Malvern and the hedges were full of dog rose and the railway banks white with ox-eye daisies. Once in Oxford I went to the Bodleian and wrestled with admission procedures. Somehow I managed to get my admission form all wrong (who would have thought I was once a civil servant?) but the lady at the desk was very helpful and understanding. Maybe she realised I would have burst into tears if she hadn’t let me go through on a mere technicality as I had ordered lots of marvellous papers in advance which I was longing to look at.
I wasn’t disappointed either. After depositing my bags, I took myself off to the Modern Papers Reading room (pencils only) and was received by a lovely young man called Paul who was on duty that day. He was so helpful and I needed help as I have never been a graduate or student at Oxford and they do have some rather strange ways of cataloguing their stuff. The collections of letters were well wrapped in large grey boxes and I very tenderly and carefully removed them and laid them out. Then I sat in the lovely cool room at my desk and was lost in a world of Victorian painters till lunchtime.
Reading the letters of people like Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Ned Burne Jones is a marvellous experience. Simply to read them in a book (though easier to understand as most of the writing is diabolical, often criss-crossing and weaving all over the pages) is not the same as actually seeing their script, getting a feel of their character from the way they write, the way they space out their letters and how they express themselves. The real letters are filled with the mana of the writer and it made me feel so strange to hold in my hand these epistles from Dante Gabriel himself and see his dark, expressive face in my mind’s eye, feel the movement of the pen as he wrote in large, rapid, bold hand, stretching now and them to the inkpot to replenish the ink.
I look forward to my next visit and to losing myself yet again in this world long gone and yet still so haunting and atmospheric.