Chapter and Verse

24th March 2000 at 00:00
CHAPTER AND VERSE: a thousand years of English literature. The British Library

The past is an open book at this show. Heather Neill leafs through a millennium's worth of written words at the British Library

An early suggested title for this exhibition was that old chestnut "From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf". Luckily that was dropped, but "Beowulf to Beowulf" (Seamus Heaney's version, that is) would have been quite appropriate, as Brian Lang, director of the British Library, said at the exhibition's launch. Chapter and Verse focuses on specific examples from the literature of the last millennium and, of course, the title signals both poetry and prose, but the most obviously fascinating aspect of this exhibition - its celebration of the age of handwriting and print - is still summed up in the second rejected title.

"From the Oral Tradition to the Word-processor" would have been a bit of a mouthful, but ink on paper - illuminated, scrawling, neatly italic, unevenly typed and passionately crossed out - provides a movingly tangible link with the author. Before that, literature did not exist (the word means that which is written). Stories were filtered and changed through the generations, or lost in the air. The rude and scurrilous would have been unlikely to survive for long until well into the Middle Ages, as the medieval Harley Song Lyrics displayed here prove; those who could write were clerics and most of what has come down to us from before the age of Caxton is related to worship. And from now on, technology will rob us of more and more of a writer's second and third thoughts as they disappear for good, deleted as thoroughly as the words in the wind 1,000 years ago.

Faced with an impossible task - the fashioning of a kind of ambitious anthology of artefacts, personalities, social change and literary styles across a hundred decades - the curators have plumped for just 10 themes in an attempt to control the material. Love, Loss, Time, Place, Humour, Imagination, Identity, Belonging, Conflict and Faith are presented in curving aisles of cases, encompassing a remarkable selection of examples from the Venerable Bede to Lord Byron and Dean Swift, Ian Fleming to Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage, Chaucer to Beryl Bainbridge, P D James and the War Poets. Chronology is respected less than the unexpected insight or revealing juxtaposition. The exhibition is not, of course, comprehensive - how could it be? - and you are probably not best advised to play the usual anthology reviewer's game: why has that second-rate or over-popular person been accorded a whole case or even two appearances (Harry Potter, for instance, occurs in the token children's section and under Imagination) when my favourite author has been marginalised or left out altogether?

For the most part, this is a brave attempt handsomely executed, and you are usually too busy enjoying delicious discoveries to carp. Among these is Daniel Defoe's vigorously handwritten Robinson Crusoe, Sylvia Plath's clear, almost child-like fair copy of the poem "Insomniac" neatly finished with a small red flower, and Wordsworth's draft of "Daffodils", which once began "I wandered like a lonely...". A map of the lands Christian trudged through in The Pilgrim's Progress is presented here as a jigsaw. Lennn and McCartney's "Yesterday" finds its place next to a 15th-century love lyric "Westron Wynde", and Keats' "Hyperion", written and corrected with a flourish, comes under Conflict, near the 1,000-year-old Beowulf.

Some of the writers' possessions on show are especially touching: the Love section offers the Bront s' writing table, ink-stained and polished by the papers and cuffs of the industrious siblings, together with manuscripts of their best known work, including Jane Eyre, open at Mr Rochester's proposal. Not far away is Robert Browning's card case with a fan of calling cards, testimony to the formality of his wooing of Elizabeth Barrett. Filed under Loss is a sprinkling of Shelley's ashes in a tiny see-through urn next to Queen Victoria's condolence book, where the great and good recorded commiserations after Albert's death. Best of all is Jane Austen's writing slope, a portable desk on which she rested small pages so that they could be whisked out of sight in seconds. Her dainty spectacles seem to have been set aside moments ago.

There are inevitable disappointments; for one thing, pigeon-holing an author under a particular heading seems to put awkward limits on his or her oeuvre. Hardy, for instance, appears under Loss, an excuse to devote a whole case to Tess rather than deal with (in this context) the more obvious poetry. And wouldn't Hardy be an ideal candidate for Place? And wouldn't you expect to find Lawrence there too, or under Belonging? Dickens, who could be under Belonging or even Humour, appears only in Loss - because he died three months after giving a public reading which included the death of Nancy. From Shakespeare we have just one sonnet, under Love, but then he could be everywhere.

The children's section is merely a taste of a few favourites, with the opportunity to compose a story which might make it on to the Internet. The Essex Year 3s I meet seem happy enough finding the answers to complete their discovery sheets, but I get the impression that they enjoyed the permanent exhibition Treasures of the British Library, where you can "turn" rare pages by computer, at least as much.

Older visitors who are not literature buffs may need a bit of guidance (perhaps with the book which accompanies the exhibition) although it's fair to mention that there are paperback editions of many exhibits available so examples can be followed up in depth. But what you come back to is the sense of excitement and privilege in observing masterpieces in the making (something which could have been better developed in the children's section, perhaps using contemporary children's writers' works in progress): whole pages of Joyce's Ulysses with red and blue lines neatly drawn through the words; Blake's flowing script in The Four Zoas; the clear upward slope of Virginia Woolf's hand in Mrs Dalloway and J K Rowling's ruthless cutting of the first version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, probably written in an Edinburgh cafe.

Collections of pristine print-outs just would not offer the same romance.

Chapter and Verse is free for school children and their teachers. Tickets: pound;3 (concs pound;2). A series of events includes Julian Glover's performance of Beowulf on April 2. Information: 020 7412 7332. Website:

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