Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The British Library Volume II

As I related in an earlier volume, being a great bibliophile I was in the fortunate position of being able to work for the British Library, when it was still housed within the magnificent setting of the British Museum. Now it has been relocated to a purpose built complex at St Pancras. However it still retains sites at Boston Spa and at Colindale in North London. The latter is officially known as The British Library Newspapers. I only ever went there once at the behest of an elderly neighbour, (EN) who wanted to uncover more about a family scandal.

The EN was the epitome of conventional English respectability. As I unravelled more about her personal history, I realised why she clung so tenaciously to the belief that image and social standing were of the utmost importance. She had been born into the cadet branch of an aristocratic family, who had played a prominent role in the English Civil War. Consequently, she could never forgive Oliver Cromwell for ousting Charles I and establishing a republic, and would not brook any argument in support of the Parliamentarian cause. Like Henry VIII, Charles I had not been expected to inherit the throne until the sudden death of an elder brother. In Charles’s case the unfortunate sibling was Prince Henry. It was commonly assumed that a room in a 17th century house on Fleet Street once acted as Prince Henry’s Council Chamber. The belief arose in part from the Prince of Wales insignia decorating the façade and the ceiling. Sadly for romantics of Stuart history, the current building served as a tavern well before Henry’s birth. Consequently it must have been named after an earlier Prince of Wales. Owing to its proximity to the Olde Cheshire Cheese and Doctor Johnson’s house, I took the opportunity to take the Partridge to Prince Henry's Room when we were last in the vicinity.(Rules of fine dining) It is well worth a detour if you happen to be in the locality, being a rare example of a timber building which survived the conflagration of the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Although I had a schoolgirl crush on his son, the Merry Monarch, Charles II and hence an unfortunate attraction to philanderers ever since, I disliked Charles I after I discovered he had insisted that a young woman be burnt alive for murdering her husband, even though many people begged him to grant her a more merciful execution, including his own wife, Henrietta Maria. Little mercy was shown to Charles in 1649 when he found himself standing on the scaffold outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall, awaiting his own execution. I had visited the Banqueting House as a schoolgirl and seated myself upon the throne when the hall chanced to be empty and entertained suitable delusions of grandeur. Not an act to be emulated with the advent of CCTV. Visitors today can still admire the Rubens’ ceiling, which rather over-eggs the achievements of the ruling family of the time.

The fortunes of the EN’s own family had been as turbulent as those of her ancestors. The EN had been raised in a household full of servants until the Great Depression when her father lost all his money. Yet greater disaster was to follow. Her sister accused her father of molesting her. The case went to court. The EN wanted to know the outcome. All she knew was that her father had left home and she never saw him again.

She gave me an approximate date and I trawled through the newspapers. It was quite a fascinating exercise in its own right. At one time, attempting to commit suicide was a capital offence. In the 1930s the penalty was a lengthy prison sentence and I read many accounts of troubled souls, jailed after they had failed to bring to a close their unwanted existence. I also, for some reason, found myself looking through newspapers from the 1960s and was amused to see suggestions for weight loss. included eating a huge steak with a salad, washed down with a pint of full fat milk.  

Eventually I came across the relevant article. Her father had been found not guilty. I arranged for a copy of the item to be sent to the EN. That was by no means the end of her father’s strange story. The EN married during the Second World War and went on to raise a family of her own. Out of the blue in the 1950s, her father contacted her from America and they ended up corresponding for a number of years though they never met up in person. When he died in his late 70s, having suffered an accident on a construction site, the EN discovered that her father’s eye colour was described as being brown on the coroner’s report, whereas she remembered them as being as piercingly blue as her own. Later, as a silver surfer, she began to research her family tree on-line and made the astonishing discovery that her father had raised a second family in America and that she had half siblings. Sadly, the siblings had already died but their children remained alive. Through them, she learned that her father had married a second time before divorcing this other wife and severing all ties with her and the children they had had together.  Only then did he renew contact with his first family. Whilst he was alive, neither family knew of the other’s existence. I always wondered whether the second family was bigamous, but never voiced my opinions to the EN. That part of her parental history remained a closed book for the rest of her life.