A Tale of Two Libraries

Purnell & Hagberg Wright

Christopher Purnell and Charles Hagberg Wright at The London Library – part of a transatlantic conversation lasting over 30 years

A few years ago John Spurdle, Chairman of the International Friends of The London Library, and Mark Storey, then the Treasurer of the Library visited the Boston Athenaeum.  Founded in 1807 to be the leading library and cultural organisation in Boston, the Athenaeum is one of the closest organisations in the world to The London Library in terms of purpose, function and facilities.  After a very useful conversation on Library matters, the Athenaeum’s conservator, Carolle Morini, invited Mark and John to look at something from their archives.  Laid out was a correspondence between The London Library and the Boston Athenaeum spanning over 30 years from 1913 to 1945.

The letters mapped a fascinating relationship that began when the Athenaeum wrote to the Library to ask if it would send regular packages containing all the latest books being read in London.  With many of the packages from London either Charles Hagberg Wright or C.J. Purnell would include a hand written note.  The Boston Athenaeum has kept all these letters, along with carbon copies of all their replies.  No one at The London Library had any idea that this correspondence existed.

The letters are fascinating.  Many of them letters talk about the most popular books in London (giving a fascinating insight into books that were once considered great (such as Trent’s Last Case, V.V’s Eyes and Twinkletoes –  all still available on the Library’s shelves!).  However, as the relationship developed, many of the letters began to cover other, more personal matters.  As both World Wars raged, the letters give a vivid account of the challenges of running a library during conflict and the debates as to whether American would take up arms.  In short, the letters quickly move on from transactional matters to become a sort of 84 Charing Cross Road about libraries.

With a feeling that these letters merited a wide audience, the Library commissioned Jesse Marquese, a New York director who had staged a wonderful celebration of T.S. Eliot for the Library, to turn the letters into a staged reading.  Jesse then assembled a cast comprising of Simon Jones (Bridie in the original televised Brideshead Revisited, Arthur Dent in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and past Library member), alongside Julian Elfer, Michael Frederic and Peggy J Scott and performances were given at the Boston Athenaeum on the 19th September 2017 and in New York two days later.

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