Monday, 28 July 2008

TSE visits to the British Library

I had specific goals in mind for my visits to the British Library. I had chosen T. S. Eliot for my research subject, and I wanted to review the materials that they had about Mr. Eliot that were unique to that library, my reasoning being that any books that they might have would also be available in the states through my home university library. We had been cautioned early on to know what we were looking for or what we wanted to see before we came to the library—not after we got there, as it would be an inefficient use of their time and space. I took advantage of my reader’s card and ordered everything I could online before my visit so, hopefully, it would be there waiting on me when I arrived.

So, with the bibliography of a biography of Eliot in hand—the Peter Ackroyd bio, acknowledged to be the most complete volume, which is a difficult undertaking, as Eliot himself set forth guidelines in his will that have made it as hard as possible for anyone to write his biography—I set out for unique documents. These were to be found in the letters of the Schiffs, close personal friends of Eliot and his first wife, and in the papers of Harriet Shaw Weaver, publisher of the journal The Egoist, and also the first to publish the slim collection titled Prufrock and Other Observations, which brought Eliot onto the London literary scene with a bang. The British Library holds the account book for this first collection, along with another little black ledger with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man written across the front. There are volumes to be written about this pioneering female publisher, and it was a wonder to get to finger through her business correspondence. They also have, in their rare books collection, a copy of that first 1917 Prufrock, and I requested and was able to thumb through that little treasure as well.

Part of the Weaver collection included her proud publisher’s clippings of all of the reviews of Prufrock when it was first released, which would be nearly impossible to find now and made quite an interesting read, as did many of her other papers. In fact, a great deal of the research that I did felt a little like voyeurism and not much like research, since I was just grasping at straws to find the direction in which I wanted to venture for my project.

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