Confessions of a Manuscripts Curator

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‘Of course, my family had the lake moved round from the other side of the house.’

My hostess pushed aside a magazine to allow the butler to put down the cafetière on a side table. It was a copy of Country Life, with a picture of this very mansion on the cover.

In my anxiety not to appear too eager to see her ancestor’s papers, I had made the mistake of admiring the view out of her windows. She now seemed likely to go off on a metaphorical stroll round her own grounds.

‘Well,’ I said, trying to recall her to the point, ‘the papers you sent up to the Library did turn out to include some Capability Brown drawings. Someone had written “stables” in red biro on the back of one of them.’

‘I was going to throw them away. I’d no idea they were valuable.’ She poured the coffee. ‘So tell me, what sort of manuscripts do you have in the national collection?’

‘Oh, everything. They cover two thousand years. From papyrus to pixel. National treasures, I suppose. The Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf, Magna Carta. We have two of those,’ I added brightly.

‘But you can’t find things like that these days, can you?’

‘Oh, you’d be surprised at what turns up in people’s lofts.’

And, I might have added, on a Lancashire rubbish tip (Thomas Traherne’s ‘Commentaries of Heaven’), in a cupboard during a search for ping-pong balls (‘The Book of Margery Kempe’, c. 1440), or being used by a parlourmaid to light the fire (antique ballads in the mid-seventeenth century ‘Percy Folio’). But lofts would do well enough. I recollected crunching glass underfoot in the darkness when retrieving the papers of a colonial governor from a house in Sussex. Then there was the archive of a Georgian Lord Chancellor that had come out of an attic in the West Country, a fortnight before the roof finally let in the rain. It was not only birds, mice or insects that had worked on those papers. A child of the family, while colle

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About the contributor

C. J. Wright was Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Library until his retirement in 2005.

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