How Romance Blossomed among the Silent Readers

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Byline: SEBASTIAN SHAKESPEARE

LADY Antonia Fraser complains that the British Library Reading Room hasbecome overrun by undergraduates who are hogging all the desks. Her fellowhistorian Tristram Hunt bemoans the fact it is now a "groovy place" to meet fora frappuccino. Many feared that when the old Reading Room closed, the BritishLibrary would lose its charm. Far from it. It has become more fashionable thanever as a social venue.

In Charles Dickens's day you had to take a vow of silence to get a ticket tothe Reading Room. It was a haven for intellectual endeavourKarl Marx pondered the tenets of world revolution here and Lenin used thepseudonym Jacob Richter LL D to gain entrance.

It's hard to believe Marx would ever get round to finishing Das Kapital if hewere alive today, given the dearth of desks. That may be no bad thing; butthink of all the other potentially great works of literature we might bedepriving ourselves of.

Yet the British Library has long been a venue for covert liaisonsand silence was very much part of its romantic appeal. Michael Holroyd, thebiographer of George Bernard Shaw, says the playwright was always falling inlove there: "He wrote countless love letters and poems to women he fancied butnever had the courage to approach in the library." Malcolm Bradbury also fellin love here as a postgraduate at London University. …