A beaten and well-thumbed copy of Jane Eyre caught my attention. The side view of the spine reveals how much the copy has been damaged by observing how the spine is coming apart from the pages. This copy has been taken out numerous times from the Birkbeck Library. I considered where it may have been read and by whom.
Looking carefully at its lending history: it goes back quite a long way. The telephone number on the library insert was printed before London telephone numbers adopted the 0171 prefix, in fact the pencil marked first entry suggests that someone didn’t have their handy stamp marker in their possession on the first day of its issue. 1992 saw three excursions —its most popular year—then the novel went through a bit of a lull of on-and-off expeditions of one or two per year. There are some ghost years —why did no one take the novel out in these six separate years? Encouragingly, the chart seems to improve once more in more recent years: with 2011 registering a successful year.
Since 2012, the advent of digital lending has meant that the data is stored separately from the text—so I don’t know who was reading the novel then. Sigh.
Some of the stamps are red and some are black. Those special red-stamps stand out from the others, resonating with the motif of red in the novel. Red for fire; red for anger; red for passion. Sometimes someone callously uses a biro or haphazardly stamps in a random fashion making that third underpopulated column look rather untidy—who was this aberrant library worker? I am left perplexed at why some more recent dates populate with older dates; the stamp marks jostle together showing their mutual dissociation and dislocation—they know they don’t belong together.
The cover that all these lenders were confronted with shows a detail from a chalk drawing by George Richmond. This drawing is owned by the National Portrait Gallery and was bequeathed by Brontë’s husband, Rev A.B. Nicholls, in 1906. Originally, Brontë’s publisher, George Smith, had commissioned this portrait of the novelist by Richmond as a gift for her father, who saw in it ‘strong indications of the genius of the author’. Elizabeth Gaskell recalled seeing the portrait hung in the parlour of the Haworth parsonage, and subsequently a copy of it appeared in her biography. The point made on a previous blog again resonates in how much this decision blurs the boundaries between author-narrator and fictional-narrator. The image shows Charlotte Brontë looking off to the side, enigmatically smiling. What precisely she was mildly smiling at: we’ll never know.