Books are an important physical presence around anyone who feels reading is a major part of living. I can spend a lot of time just gazing at my shelves wondering what I should read or reread next or simply enjoying the company of my books. Of course, no book was created in isolation but produced by someone who was influenced by reading countless other books. The traditional hub for many great writers to discover books that inspire and inform them has been the library. This year The London Library which is the world's largest independent library with more than a million books and periodicals in its collection is turning 175 years old. “On Reading, Writing and Living with Books” is a compact collection of pieces by great writers such as Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, EM Foster and the poet Leigh Hunt – all of whom were active members of The London Library. They contemplate the experience of being committed writers and readers who share the same wonder, joy and excitement we all feel when staring at a shelf filled with books.  

It's surprising how relevant some of the arguments and questions raised in these pieces still feel today. I suppose this is because the experience of being an enthusiastic reader never changes. George Eliot muses upon the profession of writing in her essay 'Authorship' and how writing for a living can cause someone to compromise their vision and morals due to commercial pressure. She considers the cultural impact of great writing against the degree to which its valued by society. These feel like the same arguments that are made in current articles on how authors are woefully underpaid. Virginia Woolf addresses the issue of criticism and urges readers to come to books with no preconceived notions or expectations about the text: “Do not dictate to your author; try to become him.” In her typically ingenious way she meditates upon the interplay between the physical world around us, the imaginative world the author places us in and how these intermingle.

Charles Dickens' letter to George Eliot is filled with praise for her first publication “Scenes of Clerical Life” yet he shows himself to be incredibly astute guessing in a friendly manner that she is not male as her pen names suggests but female (something which was not publicly known at the time). Leigh Hunt contemplates his passion for the books around him, the manner in which books are consumed and how they are a touchstone to the past. He shows a certain snobbishness about different kinds of literature and how access to books is connected with privilege (this was certainly true when he was alive in the mid-1800s.) In a way all book lovers can relate to, he goes through some of his prize possessions on his bookshelves developing a fetishism for the beauty of certain books. He also covets the books other readers' possess remarking: “I cannot see a work that interests me on another person's shelf, without a wish to carry it off.”

EM Forster wrote his piece about The London Library itself at a time directly before WWII when he was aware of how precarious books and the inheritance of knowledge was in the face of rampant destruction. In this bleak time he ardently remarked about the library that “It is a symbol of civilization. It is a reminder of sanity and a promise of sanity to come.” It's comforting to know that The London Library is still thriving. This week from May 5th-8th to celebrate their 175 year a number of readings and events called Words in the Square are taking place.

This book is a fantastic touchstone for readers and lovers of literary culture exploring from different angles the way literature plays an active part of daily life. It makes a wonderful companion to Ali Smith's recent book of stories and collection of testaments about the importance of libraries Public Library. In the preface to each piece in “On Reading, Writing and Living with Books” there is a short fascinating paragraph about each author's relationship with The London Library – for instance, when Virginia Woolf joined she gave her occupation as “Spinster”. These pieces reinforce how important the library was for these writers and this anthology is a wonderful celebration of our literary culture.


Last night at the London Film Festival, I went to see The Invisible Woman, the film adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s novel about Charles Dickens’ affair with 18 year old actress Nelly Ternan. I haven’t read Tomalin’s book and I was slightly hesitant about this movie. Was it going to be a sensational costume drama along the lines of The Other Boleyn Girl? Or a vanity project for director and star Ralph Fiennes? All these fears I had were assuaged when the movie got underway and I discovered what a patient, sympathetic drama it was about a complicated love affair.

Dickens meets Nelly while in his prime as a writer. Heavily established with his wife (played by the incredibly sympathetic Joanna Scanlan) and several children he continues to produce praised serialized novels, gives popular lectures frequently and contributes to charitable events. Whenever he is recognized in public he’s treated as a celebrity surrounded by avid fans seeking to shake his hand. During a production of his friend Wilkie Collins’ play The Frozen Deep his eye is caught by actress Nelly. He increasingly seeks to spend time with Nelly alongside her two actress sisters and their mother played by the talented Kristin Scott Thomas. Thomas’ character understands that Dickens is interested in her daughter even though he makes no overt flirtation with her and takes a cautious approach to this potential affair. Nelly is a shy, intelligent girl who is a great fan of Dickens’ writing and is equally cautious towards Dickens’ evident affection for her. Felicity Jones does an amazing job playing Nelly in a way that is guarded, but full of passion. When Dickens finally decides to break from his wife Catherine the split acts like a seismic shift in the lives of Dickens, his wife and Nelly. He’s unable to marry Nelly and therefore she can’t be formally recognized as his partner. Even when the couple are travelling together on a train which crashes he can’t admit that he knows her and must treat Nelly like a stranger. Some years in the future when the two have separated, Nelly lives a beleaguered existence having remarried and given birth to a new family but she’s unable to escape the haunting memory of her affair with a powerful literary genius.

What’s most effective about this movie is the balanced and sympathetic attention it gives to all the characters involved. Charles and Catherine have grown apart and are shown to be somewhat trapped in their established lifestyle. Catherine seems to know she can’t hope to hold onto the affections of her incredibly active and busy husband. While Dickens could be condemned as despicable for turning his back on his longstanding wife (and the way he goes about breaking up with her and declaring his favour for Nelly is atrocious) it’s not understandable that his affections have transformed. Fiennes plays Dickens as someone who cares about people deeply, but someone who is also attached to his public persona. As Catherine remarks in an amazing scene between her and Nelly, Dickens affections will always be torn between the woman he loves and the public. Love is difficult. There is always a conflict between ego and giving yourself fully to the person you love. The true passion we feel for those we love is often sublimated and inexpressible. Through the subtle performances of Fiennes, Jones and Scanlan we see the quiet introspective moments of these three people’s lives and how their desire was largely swallowed due the circumstances they found themselves in. It’s a powerful, haunting film.