Monday, September 21, 2009
Sara Sheridan on Why I Love Old Letters
Today we would like to welcome Sara Sheridan to Historical Tapestry, for another post in our Why I Love series. Please see below for details of Sara's recently released novel The Secret Mandarin, and leave a comment for your chance to win a special prize pack. The winner will be announced on September 26. Welcome Sara!
I must be the biggest swot ever! My idea of a dream day is to spend as much time as I like in the library – not my local lending library (probably my second choice) but the National Library of Scotland (NLS), which has one of the world’s most exciting archives. You can’t take any books out of the building at the NLS, but you can order anything in the collection to be brought up from the vaults (set in Edinburgh’s Old Town, the library is over nine storeys high and also comprises off-site storage). Like the Bodlian in Oxford and the British Library in London, it contains a copy of every book published and a huge collection of newspapers on microfiche. But there’s more! The archive material in storage includes papers of all kinds – letters, diaries and notebooks donated and bought over hundreds of years. If you want to see Byron’s correspondence with his publisher, John Murray, or the private diary of Sir Charles Malcolm (who ran the Indian Navy in the early 1800s) or the early photograph albums of the Edinburgh Calotype Club (the first photographic club ever), then the NLS is the place to go. It’s free and provides open access (though you do need to register for a reader’s card).
There is something unbelievably exciting about that kind of material. There is a common perception that every document available has been trawled by historians and academics and that all the details are already known. The sheer volume of what is on offer belies that possibility – there are millions and millions of items and often when I am browsing items from the catalogue, I realise that the letters I am holding in my hands haven’t been read by anyone for a hundred years or more. It makes the history very real – the thick, faded paper, the franked stamps, the browning ink and the crazy handwriting. Tiny details bring the people to life – a concern over what to order for dinner or whether to travel in one coach or another give a real feel for what was on someone’s mind (sometimes in the face of large scale historical events.) To me, it feels like diving for treasure.
Recently I found a letter from Haines, the Captain of a ship that the subject of my next book (James Raymond Wellsted) was commissioned to. He mentions Wellsted – ‘I was so hurt by Wellsted,’ the sentence starts, and here I can scarcely breath for excitement. I have been trawling the archives (not only in Edinburgh but in London) for weeks and weeks. That’s the thing about treasure – it’s rare. I’ve read diaries and letters for days without seeing a mention of my man. Just as important, the Georgians are dreadful at expressing their feelings – so this sentence really stops me in my tracks. I read it again, ‘I was so hurt by Wellsted…when he…’ It’s agonising but I can’t make it out. Captain Haines’s writing is appalling. I rush over to the nearest archivist. ‘Can you help me,’ I babble, ‘I just can’t quite read what this says….’ We puzzle for a good half hour but it’s no use – Haines’ is so moved by what he’s writing that the script has degenerated into an illegible scribble.
In the end I photocopy the letter and I have been carrying it around for almost two months now, showing it to any librarian I come across. Someone, I am convinced, will be able to read it!
Other times the treasure is easy pickings. Much of the day to day London life of Mary Penney, the main character in The Secret Mandarin, came from the diaries of actresses, like herself. They are frank about their expectations, their admirers and their interests and so I made Mary likewise. Robert Fortune, the botanist on whose journeys the book is based, published several memoirs of his travels in China and these contributed tremendously to my story. But, like much in life, the prizes hard won are the most exciting – seeing the herbarium specimens Fortune brought home from the east, with notes about them in his own handwriting, was genuinely moving. For me, there’s nothing like that feeling of getting close to someone who really made history – and that’s why I love old letters. They are as close as any of us is likely to get.
Sara Sheridan’s book The Secret Mandarin is published by HarperCollins on 17th September 2009. She is currently working on a follow up, this time set in the Arabian Peninsula, scheduled for publication in autumn 2010.
Sara’s website www.sarasheridan.co.uk contains a variety of resources for readers interested in historical fiction including a research page, a recommendations page, biographical information, interviews, reviews and topics for discussion for readers’ groups.
You can check out the National Library of Scotland’s resources on www.nls.uk
Win a copy of The Secret Mandarin and some promotional freebies (cards of the cover, badge and a sample of a specially blended tea that is being made for the launch...) by leaving a comment about either the favourite letter you ever received, or a letter you would like to find in the archives. The prize is available worldwide.