Rosie Garland writes:
For Museums at Night 2019 at The John Rylands Library, I was invited to work with Jess Smith and Gemma Henderson to create a collection encounter with a difference.
In a special evening event, we had the chance to open the doors of the Library after hours and delve into some of the items in the library collections that have inspired – and continue to inspire – my fiction. As Writer in Residence, it was a great opportunity to talk about how the unique collections and hidden spaces of The John Rylands can act as muse.
We wanted to experiment with a more unusual format for the evening, in contrast to a formal collection encounter that stays in one room. We had the idea of going on walkabout around the Library and pausing at selected places for a reading and collection encounter. Most exciting of all – two of the three selected locations were behind the scenes and would let people visit areas normally closed to the public.
It’s probably no surprise to learn that, despite running the event twice in succession so as to offer more spaces, all tickets were snapped up in days.
We began the encounter in the Historic reading room with a first edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. An affectionate satire of the Gothic novel, it’s a favourite of mine.
The wonderful Donna Sherman of the map department let us borrow an 1890s map of Hulme. It’s a part of Manchester that has been demolished and rebuilt many times, and signs of its previous story show though. There were many exclamations of ‘look – there’s Brooks Bar,’ and ‘there’s Loreto College’. The audience we astonished to discover that the land to the north of Upper Chorlton Road (now dense housing) was once fields and farms. I read excerpts from my most recent novel The Night Brother (set in a 19th century Hulme beer house) and talked about how maps like this one helped me research a vanished landscape.
Second port of call was the gallery of the Spencer Room. The iron gate was unlocked and people negotiated the narrow spiral of the stone staircase to the mezzanine. So many people took photos of this fascinating, and usually hidden, part of the Library. Hard to drag people away.
Jess Smith spoke movingly about two women’s suffrage letters from the Manchester Guardian Archive. In particular, the letter from Emmeline Pankhurst to the editor of the Manchester Guardian. In it, Emmeline describes how her sister Mary Clark died only a few hours after being released from Holloway. The pen jerks across the page, teetering on the brink of disintegrating into a scrawl as the writer struggles to compose herself. It’s a chilling reminder that not all the women forcibly fed in jail survived.
I discussed how it would be impossible to set a novel in 1900s Manchester and ignore the Suffragette movement. I read a scene from The Night Brother; a (fictional) rally that takes place in Albert Square, and the brutal reaction of the police.
Finally, the audience was led down into the cellars, and guided through the long corridor to where I waited, surrounded by (battery-operated!) candles. I remember the first time I ventured there: the clanking echo as I stepped on a drain cover, the aisles of books crowding close, the hum of the generator, the numerous side rooms leading into darkness… it was marvellous to share that thrilling experience with others.
We shared an album of 19th century trick photography: the same woman plays four instruments in a string quartet, the same dapper chap beats himself at chess. I love the idea that the supposedly humourless Victorians were fascinated by the new invention of photography. I imagine them saying, ‘yes, Blenkinsop – it captures accurate representation. But what can it do that’s funny?’
We rounded off the evening with a final excerpt from The Night Brother, where Edie visits a library for the first time. My love of language was definitely nurtured by public libraries.
There was even a chance to give a sneak preview of the new novel I’m writing during my residency in the Library. Every story needs an inspiring setting. Where could be more inspiring than The John Rylands Library?