Conrad's Application to the British Museum: An Unpublished Letter
Baxter, Katherine Isobel, The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)
IN A RECENT issue of Conradiana, Marion C. Michael and Stephen J. Danieli discuss Joseph Conrad's reading matter on his visit to the British Museum in the late spring of 1920 to research material for Suspense. Their discussion is based on the request slips filled out by Jean-Aubry on Conrad's behalf and now preserved in The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University and on Jean-Aubry's account of the assistance he gave Conrad on the matter in his introduction to his translation of Suspense.
In their article, Michael and Daniell call into question whether Conrad ever in fact read anything at the British Museum, despite the Reader's Admission Ticket bearing his signature and the request slips held at the Beinecke Library. Research in the Archives of the British Museum confirms the Conrad did indeed visit the Reading Room on 7 June 1920, as his letters mention, although what precisely he may have read there is unclear. Certainly his programme of reading was an ambitious one, as a perusal of the request slips establishes.
However this may be, Conrad clearly planned his visit in advance, with Jean-Aubry obviously visiting the Reading Room prior to Conrad's own visit and with Conrad himself planning to make maximum use of his time with a reading ticket arranged in advance. A couple of weeks before his intended visit Conrad wrote to Robert F. Sharp to apply for a reader's pass:
17th. May 1920.
I suppose that on the strength of my membership of the Athenaeum Club my application for admission to the Reading Room will be successful without further formalities.
If you happen not to be the proper authority to which I ought to have addressed myself I throw myself on your sentiment of humanity which will, I am sure, prompt you to take compassion on my ignorance and tell me what steps I am to take.
very faithfully yours
Robert F. Sharp, Lsqr
The letter, written on Oswalds stationery is date-stamped by the British Museum 18 May 1920 below the address. Conrad's letter is dated again at the top left in the hand of the principal librarian, George Frederick Kenyon, who also annotated this corner to indicate that the request was handled by the Reading Room administration ("Rradmin") and that a six months' pass had been issued ("6ms").
The unsigned standard letter of response sent out to Conrad on 18 May is also extant in the British Museum Archives since presentation of this letter was required for the issuance of a ticket. The letter to Conrad reads:
The Director of the British Museum begs to inform Mr: Joseph Conrad that a Reading Ticket will be delivered to him on presenting this Note to the Clerk in the Reading-room, between the hours of nine and four, within Six Months from the above date. N.B. - Persons under twenty-one years of age are not admissible.1
This letter is also marked in a separate hand with the date and the number of the reader's pass issued to Conrad.
When Conrad arrived at the British Museum on 7 June, he was apparendy the third of eight new readers that day. The other readers were predominandy based in South Kensington; however, they also included a Küche Matsumoto of Kodera Co., Giovacchino Forano, staying at the Savoy Hotel, and Blanche Winder, who hailed from Gars tang, in Lancashire.
Conrad had probably addressed his letter to Robert F. Sharp because until the previous year Sharp had been Superintendent of the Reading Room. It is most likely that Conrad got Sharp's name from Jean-Aubry since he seems to have been instrumental in arranging Conrad's visit. However, Sharp may also have been known to Edward Garnett since he had worked as an Assistant in Printed Books when Richard Garnett, Edward's father, was head of that department. Applications for Reader's Tickets were, however, dealt with by the Director's Office, and in any case when Conrad arrived the superintendent would have been F. …