An Altered Book of Amelia Opie's Poems
Norwich has long been known as a city of dissenters and of having a forward thinking and progressive attitude. This was reflected in the nineteenth century by its willingness to be the first city to establish a public library. Books are powerful - the control of knowledge and its dissemination through the printed page has facilitated enlightened thinking, contributing to individuals who challenge prevailing establishments.
One such resident was Amelia Opie (1769 -1834) - novelist, poet, radical and philanthropist. Opie’s philanthropic work included visiting workhouses, hospitals, prisons, and the poor. She promoted a refuge for reformed prostitutes and supported the Norwich branches of the Anti-Slavery Society. A successful writer, who published 13 works of prose and five books of verse, whose work was extremely popular in the early 1800’s and, at the time, considered as “moving and truthful”
Her book of poems may now seem out dated by todays standards but, seen in the context of her time, it took courage to speak about these subjects. Her work is now largely overlooked but this work seeks to bring her back into the spotlight.
I have deconstructed her book of poems. Some words have been erased by fire allowing different thoughts to surface. I have tried to stay open to what presents itself relying largely on intuition with regard to what stays and what is discarded. Stories travelling over time as new text emerges; a selection of words that resonate in the here and now.
The initial idea came after talking to Bridewell curator, Bethan Holdridge, who explained she had recently discovered a box of partially-burnt documents while sorting through the museums cupboards. In an interview with the BBC about the finds she stated “The harsh realities of loss sit side by side with chance discoveries” which I felt aptly describes the process of making this work. During this process of redaction, I was made aware how attitudes and perspectives shift and slide through time. The pages become a visual poem as new sentences emerge formed from Opie's words, thus creating a conversation in the here and now.
While working on these pages I found myself wondering: Who is now the author? Whose voice is now speaking? Is it Amelia? Is it mine? I wonder is history not a continual process of redaction? Of loss and gain, of recording and rewriting experiences?
I was also aware of a dilemma regarding the use of original pages printed in 1811. It provoked an uncomfortable reaction in altering a book which was published during Amelia Opie’s lifetime. The book arrived with its spine broken, but otherwise in reasonable condition given its age. However because the pages contain such history, - worn by travelling through two hundred years, there is an authenticity and life which you would not have if I used a modern printed copy. Each page contains its own history - in the yellowing and stains on the page, and the imprint left by the letterpress type. Even the paper has a different quality having a higher rag content than modern paper.
In Areopagitica (1644) the poet John Milton declared that
“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them as to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are”.
Milton believed books are more than just inert containers for the words that they contain. He drew attention to the life (and potential death) embodied in the physical document that is a book. It is a reminder of how things are constantly repurposed, written over - a palimpsest of fragmented lives. I found my connection to Amelia Opie by editing her words, paring back sentences that resonate within me, and, through the process, discovered the beauty of her poetry. I hope others will be curious to rediscover this remarkable woman. I like to think of this work as a visual conversation between two women living two hundred years apart. I have brought a selection of her words back into focus allowing their presence to shine loud and clear.
"We are surrounded by voices, by remembering"
Edmund De Vaal.
Threads will be woven These redacted pages are to be displayed across a medieval wall, which survived a fire which destroyed the rest of the building, suspended on nails leftover from the remains of a Victorian shoe makers workshop. Threads will be woven from nail to nail, fine lines recalling a mind map connecting 'voices"
Another piece of work, presently in progress and inspired by my research into libraries and fire, is an installation of blackened books. I have purposefully selected a series of Observer Books. Beside the titles offering a symbolic element, I have a personal connection; these books were a feature of my childhood. Pocket sized and covering a huge range of topics, they encouraged readers to explore and identify objects in the world around them.
Blackened, they represent loss. As libraries fight to keep funding and as access to information via computers becomes increasing easy, I reflect on the struggles that people in the not so distant past have faced in pursuing access to education. It is easy for us these days to take the familiar for granted. Our towns would be a poorer place without libraries and archives.
“Books are the carriers of civilisation. Without books history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilisation would have been impossible”
Barbara Tuchman, author, from her 1980 address at the Library of Congress.
Fragments saved from the ravages of fire often become treasured symbols of hope. They form the basis around which new collections are built and restored. Like a phoenix they rise from the ashes once more.
"Every burned book or house enlightens the world: every suppressed expunged word reverberates through the earth”
Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Libraries and fire have a long and complex relationship. Exploring the history of libraries in Norwich in preparation for a show at the Bridewell Museum, I was shocked to find that most of the major libraries have ended in flames. Beginning with Norwich Cathedral Library which was unfortunately destroyed twice: first by citizens in the Tombland Riot 1272 then again during Henry VIII"s Dissolution of the Monasteries 1538.
During the 17th century Norwich city had been granted an extraordinary degree of self government which fostered a sense of independence and increasing radicalism. Sir John Pettus (1550-1614), Mayor of Norwich, set up a city library in 1608 six years after the foundation of the Bodlian Library, Oxford. This was probably the first provincial library to be established outside of London, and the first to be owned by a corporation rather than church or school. As a result The Old City Library, (refounded in 1657), was set up with an unusually broad range of books including topics as philosophy, law, mathematics, and as well as maps. This was a marked departure from the usual predominantly religious texts.
This enlightened spirit continued on into the eighteenth century when Philip Martineau established a subscription library in 1784. This saw a further departure from tradition as only five clergymen were included on a the committee of 24. Furthermore women were to represent 26% of the original 140 subscribers. It was one of the oldest subscription libraries in the country and continued in operation until it was destroyed by fire in 1898. It was re built opening its doors again in 1914, and continued in operation for a further 62 years until finally closing in 1976.
The nineteenth century saw the Norfolk and Norwich Literary Institution open in 1822, and a free Council run library in 1857. The 1850 Libraries Act had allowed larger boroughs to add half a penny in the pound to the rates to pay for the costs of running library facilities. Norwich Council was among the first to adopt the Act and were subsequently able to create a truly public, non-subscription library. This library survived for 96 years before being demolished to give way to the New Central Library in 1963.
However as was the fate of previous libraries, this too succumbed to a devastating fire in 1994 when over 150,000 books burned along with irreplaceable historical documents from the Record Office. The central library had held more than two million documents including the 800 year old Norwich City Charter, along with manuscripts dating back as far as 1090.
Once more, undeterred Norwich set about rebuilding and establishing a city library. Project Phoenix saw the completion of Millennium Library at the Forum in 2001. This glorious new building sits in the centre of the city and is considered to be one of the most visited libraries in the country. It continues to be home to a magnificent collection of surviving Renaissance books.
"In the library the first time
I stood in a pool of awe.
Wonder for the taking, acres of promises".
In the Library, William McIlvanney
My own love of libraries and books began in childhood. I spent many hours in our local municipal library. I was amazed by the vast choice of books that lined the shelves, and loved the quiet, peaceful atmosphere. It is sad to think about the challenges now facing many libraries today which have seen funding cuts and/or been threatened with closure. We should never underestimate their value and the part they have played in transforming society from the 18th & 19th centuries through to the present. Access to books and education has been hard won achievement and a privilege.
Researching the history of libraries in Norwich has revealed so much information, I have chosen to focus on this cycle of destruction, loss, and the determination to salvage and rebuild.
As Richard Ovenden points out in his book Burning the Books, Knowledge Under Attack "libraries and archives take the long view of civilisation in a world that currently tales a short view. We ignore their importance at our peril"
I began these pages after reading an article in which James Anthony described the Norwich Central library fire in 1994. He says
"Make no mistake - this was a tragedy...my parents, living in Norwich at the time, still recall the smell of burning books and papers in the city, feeling a great sense of loss as hot ash fell on the surrounding area"
I chose a Double Gate Fold book structure as it disrupts the usual linear narrative and allows a more interactive circular reading experience. Pages open to create numerous combinations. Building on an approach which began while working with calligrapher and artist Monica Dengo in her 'A Bridge Between Writing and Drawing' course, it allows the reader to decide the order of how they view the pages. Traditional rules of writing are abandoned as letterforms become abstract marks creating sentences that are no longer legible.
Dissolving stories, disrupted and scattered float across the page. They hint at loss, fragments waiting for order to descend once more. A fleeting moment suspended on the page, remnants of what once was and what could now be.
"Poetry is an echo asking a shadow to dance"
I am also part of Bookscapes Collective.
Bookscapes is a group of six artists that have developed a group practice specialising in site specific interventions and exhibitions.