The book that made me cry in the library
I’m I’m in Birmingham again at the wonderful Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. It’s the time of year that makes me think of new terms and new beginnings and I remembered arriving in Birmingham as a postgrad all those years ago. I had a couple of hours to spare so this afternoon I decided to hop on a bus and visit the Barber Institute where I had worked on my MA.
It was a beautiful autumn day, the campus is attractively leafy (pictured above) and as I walked along I heard a piano and a fine male voice singing what might have been a song by Schubert through an open window. I found the building that had been the Shakespeare Institute, where I had been based. It’s a nineteenth century redbrick villa in its own grounds and is empty now (the Institute moved to Stratford long ago). I peered through the window at dusty floorboards and remembered gruelling tutorials and parties on the lawn. Looking at the garden with its weed-covered pond and statue, I felt like someone in a poem by Hardy, musing on the vagaries of life.
The Barber Institute cheered me up. It truly is a hidden gem. It has a small but breath-taking collection of paintings, prints and bronzes: Degas, Monet, Rubens, Van Dyck, Poussin, Gainsborough, Reynolds and many more. For most of the time I was the only person there. I guess there are more people around in term-term.
But what about the book that had me crying in the library? On the ground floor is the Art Library where I spent many a day doing research for both my MA and later my Ph.d and where I worked my way through two long volumes of Georgiana Burne-Jones’s Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones. It is the only book she wrote and it’s a masterpiece. I was so deeply immersed in their lives and so deeply moved when I reached her account of her husband’s death that tears began to plop on to the polished mahogany table. The librarian – a friend, luckily – came in and wanted to know what on earth was the matter. ‘It’s so sad,’ I managed to tell him. He couldn’t help but be amused. It was the first – and very likely the last – time that he’d found someone sobbing over a book.