"WHY IS IT THAT you type to the bottom of the page?" a voice attached to someone who had not been there a moment ago whispered in my ear. The faintestodor of -- was it herring, or something with onions -- was apparent as I half turned to see a gray suit leaning close over me. In it was a man with a foreign accent and thick square eyeglasses, gray-haired and mildly wrinkled. He rocked back on his feet, evidently satisfied that he had found yet another writer whose error of way could be pointed out. He never typed to the bottom of the page; he never put more than one paragraph on every page. Further elaboration of this literary method disclosed that he had been working on a master's thesis for the last 15 years, faithfully holding to a single-paragraph quota. Every year he turned in 96 pages of paragraphs arranged in a different order. Every year rejected. I fled the typing room.
It was my first day in the British Museum. Summer, 1976: the year of the drought. I was 24, and had just arrived in London armed with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, fierce enthusiasm, and the firm intention of making myself a writer. Here, in the Reading Room, I meant to produce my first book, a biography of 17th-century Aphra Behn. For striking out on my own, nowhere else would have done. The documents and manuscripts I needed for my research were here, but there was something more I was looking for: I wanted its history.
The British Museum had been a room of one's own to generations of literary workers. Here, Karl Marx studied from 9 in the morning until 7 o'clock at night for years, amassing evidence and spinning theories. Here too, eminent Victorians read: Carlyle, Ruskin, Thackeray, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Lord Macaulay, Sir Leslie Stephen. At this seat or that, sat George Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Pankhurst, Olive Schreiner, or perhaps even Madame Blavatsky, who said she read in the British Museum in her astral body while its earthly counterpart was in America. Under this enormous blue dome on a July afternoon the poet Swindurne collapsed, unconscious, after a spell of great mental excitement. Through this door Virginia Woolf came looking for the truth about women: for "if truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum," she wrote, "where is truth?"
The reassurance of ghosts was important to my sense of possibility, but more than that, they tempted my sense of isolation. One of the greatest difficulties in learning a writer's discipline is the terrible apprenticeship of voluntary exile. To muster concentration, I needed to cut myself off. To keep my sanity I needed the relief of company. The British Museum gave me both: there I could choose to be separate but not alone. For nearly three years I sat next to the same man without ever addressing a word to him, nor he to me. Yet I knew every detail of his habit and gestures: indifferently dressed, sandy hair ruffled, glasses askance, he would stride into the Reading Room each morning carrying his dog-eared briefcase under one arm, and The Guardian under the other. The latter he read with almost ferocious energy for an hour or so, until suddenly he would send the newspaper whacking into the bookcase adjacent to his desk, seize a pen, and write as fast as I have ever seen anyone write. His intensity inspired me; if he was absent for a day, or displaced by another reader who had arrived earlier, I missed him inordinately. One evening after the final bell had rung and we had stood to leave, a friend happened by. She introduced us. My neighbor, it turned out, was an eminent playwright whose work I admired, but I was disappointed. Having passed into speaking, I knew we would never again sit next to each other working.
There were other inarticulate meetings. If Lady Fanshawe's Memoirs began to pall, or what to do about a last paragraph that for an entire morning and half the afternoon would not give way to the next began to send me into a panic, there was an endlessly mutable gallery of people and particulars to observe. One lady who had worked in the North Isibrary for more than 30 years carried an invisible dog and solicitously snatched footstools from other readers' feet for him to sit on while she studied. Another never ordered books of her own, but furtively read those at other readers' desks when the occupant was temporarily absent. A respectable professor from Texas secreted milk bottles in his briefcase to throw at cars that failed to stop at pedestrian crossings. The young man from the University of Cairo who came to the Reading Room every day to finish his thesis on Gilbert and Sullivan was also, I discovered one Sunday when walking through Hyde Park Corner, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization. Flanked by a guard of 15 other PLO members handing out official literature, he delivered a fiery speech. A chauffeur and a limousine with embassy flags waited for him.
The elderly lady in a black silk riding habit was one of my favorite readers, though she came infrequently. Fragile but erect, she made her way through the concentric circles of catalogues without condescending a glance either to the right or to the left. On her head sat a tall round purple hat. Sequined halfway to the top, its lower edge sported a enormous purple veil that tied in a bow with two long sashes at the back. Someone told me that she had been coming to the British Museum dressed in that costume for as long as anyone could remember. I would have given anything to see Montague Summers, the editor of Behn's Collected Works that were my constant reference. In 1905, he came here dressed for the court of Louis XIV, carrying two huge folders. One was marked "Werewolves," the other "Vampires." Restoration drama was his subject; demonology his passion.
My protagonist kept me company too. Aphra Behn was the perfect heroine. Though she was the first Englishwoman to make a living by writing, she had languished in obscurity for nearly 200 years after her death, unread because immodest. It was my mission to unearth her, make sense of her, and restore her to her rightful place in history. The only trouble was that she didn't always cooperate. She said contradictory things: "I see no reason why women cannot write as well as men," she wrote in one manifesto and then in another pleaded "only for the privilege of the masculine part, the poet in me." Trying to understand, I began to dig into the lives of other women of her time. First, letters, diaries, poems by women, then sermons, etiquette manuals, legal records, wage assessments...
I meant to finish in a year: for nearly four years the British Museum held me in its spell. It became my world. On a brief return to visit New York, when asked where I was living now, I replied without thinking: "the British Museum." After all, I spent most of my waking hours there. At 8 o'clock in the morning most mornings I filled out my book request slips for the day sitting in the front seat on the second story of a London bus, looking up from time to time to see St. James's Park, Piccadilly, Charing Cross and finlly Tottenham Court Road. I waited for the gates to open at 9 with the keenest sense of anticipation and almost never left before the closing bell. If I was late one morning, or stayed out too long at lunch, the guards would tease me about slouching on the job. If I missed a day, other readers -- sometimes readers I had never even spoken to -- would ask them where I was.
Leaving was like ending a love-affair. Memory calls up involuntary details: summer afternoon light through the blue dome, the expanse of space above me, the touch of worn blue leather underneath my writing blotter, the antique metal arm that folded out to hold my book, the intoxication of discovery, passion of observation, force of habit. I will probably go back to consult documents for another book, but it will never be the same. I another few years, even the ghosts will be gone, unless the Members of Parliament who want to keep old round Reading Room the way it is finally overrule the British Library Board. After years of debate, that seems unlikely now. The next generation of writers and researchers will make their discoveries in a new building by the railway terminal on Euston Road.