I had good reason, for the purposes of research, to apply for access to the Berg Collection of English and American Literature at New York Public Library. I arrived on the designated morning with library card, passport, laptop, and a bundle of research notes in a plastic ‘research’ bag. Having set up at my desk, and plugged in the laptop (with the very kind assistance of the librarian on duty who lent me an extension lead), I settled in to what was going to be an extraordinary journey through all sorts of rare and special material. It is a fabulous and exceptional resource, which was put together by brothers, Dr Albert and Dr Henry Berg (donated in 1940). I felt truly honoured to be sitting in the room:
While I was waiting for my requested material, on George Russell (AE) as it happens, I had a few minutes to have a look around. Amazed at the wood-lined shelves and rare volumes, it took a few moments before I noticed the desk. Angled into a corner at the back of the room, with a wicker chair in front, and a glass-globed lamp on top which illuminated an old and well-used calendar, the desk seemed to command attention. A small label revealed an extraordinary provenance, and in doing so, unleashed a series of childhood memories that I had all but forgotten. The furniture had once belonged to Charles Dickens. I admit to performing a little bow in homage to an author who was so important to English literature, and, indeed, to my own times past. The librarian, well-versed in the prominence and significance of Dickens within the Berg Collection, readily agreed with my tribute.
The chair appeared to have been recently vacated, as if Dickens just popped out to get a book, or to find something in the Berg Collection. Much of the material in the collection pertains to him – perhaps he was looking for something? Or maybe, as I let my imagination run riot for a moment, it was 1858 in that corner of the Berg, and Dickens left his room in a hurry to take his trip to Ireland:
The possibilities were endless as I sat imagining a seated shape in the vacant seat where Dickens should have been. Was his spirit still attached to his well-worn work space, like the ghost of Archbishop Marsh, who is said to roam the aisles of Marsh’s Library in Dublin?
I began to wonder – if Dickens were alive today, what would he say to Seamus Heaney, Paula Meehan, President Michael D. Higgins or to Edna O’Brien? Would he approve of e-books? Might he visit the Listowel Writers’ Festival? Did he like the various film versions of Oliver Twist?
I was immediately transported back, via my imagined ghost of Dickens, to my own times past. We had a lovely old library in St Thomas’s building at Sion Hill Convent, Blackrock, County Dublin, where I spent my senior years at school. Lined floor to ceiling with solid wooden bookcases that sat on a Victorian tiled floor, the library was overseen by a charming and very aged Dominican nun, Sister John, whose face was as crinkled as ancient parchment. We loved her; she made us believe that contentment was to be found in a good book (if not in prayer!). She was aided and abetted in this task by Miss Corr, our English teacher, who was just as enthusiastic about literature and the importance of reading. Miss Corr had a favourite expression – “A bored person is very boring” – and of course, we never wanted to be bored or boring. So we spent a lot of time in that library, happily wondering through rare and highly prized volumes, many of them leather-bound with extravagantly decorative labels denoting a previous owner. We made up stories about previous owners becoming nuns, then running away from the convent to get married – the innocence of it all! Yet, we were building strong foundations to support our individual creativity, as we all set out on our journey through life.
I had forgotten, until that day in the Berg Collection, that our little library in Sion Hill had a very particular and familiar smell – ancient leather, ageing paper and wax floor polish. I had forgotten about Sister John and Miss Corr. Vivid images of books returned – gorgeous leather-bound and gold-leafed little art pieces that I was allowed to ‘sign out’ and read on a weekly basis: The Pickwick Papers was among my favourites. Meanwhile, along with books by Dickens and the Bronte sisters, the black and white adaptation of Oliver Twist, and the ever-present Christmas Carol, provided some solid ground in the maelstrom of childhood.
That morning, as I sat in the Berg Collection, researching for books that I never dreamed I’d write, and thinking about Charles Dickens and the old library at school, I was handed a beautiful blue leather-bound volume, with gold-leaf on the cover. The book was not written by Dickens, but by George Russell (AE). I looked over at the desk and chair in the corner, and I thought to myself that things do come full circle. Visit the Berg Collection if you ever have the opportunity. You’ll need an appointment, and a reason to be there. But you never know who you might meet!
Dedicated to the memory of Sister John O.P. and Miss Patricia Corr.