The reader will not understand this allusion (Foreword, p. ix.) without some connaissance de cause. I would apologise for deforming the beautiful serenity and restfulness of The Nights by personal matter of a tone so jarring and so discordant a sound, the chatter and squabble of European correspondence and contention; but the only course assigned to me perforce is that of perfect publicity. The first part of the following papers appeared by the editor's kindness in "The Academy" of November 13, 1886. How strange the contrast of "doings" with "sayings," if we compare the speech reported to have been delivered by Mr. Librarian Nicholson at the opening of the Birmingham Free Public Central Lending and Reference Libraries, on June 1, 1882:--
"As for the Bodleian, I claim your sympathies, not merely because we are trying to do as much for our readers as you are for yours, but because, if the building which you have opened to-day is the newest free public library in the world, the building which I left earlier in the morning is the oldest free public library in the world. (No!) I call it a free public library because any Birmingham artizan who came to us with a trustworthy recommendation might ask to have the rarest gem in our collection placed before him, and need have no fear of asking in vain; and because, if a trusty Birmingham worker wanted the loan of a MS. for three months, it would be lent to the Central Free Library for his use." See Twentieth and Twenty-first Annual Reports of the Free Libraries Committee (Borough of Birmingham), 1883.
And now to my story. The play opens with the following letter:--
23, DORSET STREET, PORTMAN SQUARE,
Sept. 13, 1886.
"I have the honour to solicit your assistance in the following matter:--
"Our friend Dr. Steingass has kindly consented to collaborate with me in re-translating from the Wortley Montague MS. of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the tales originally translated in vol. vi. of Dr. Jonathan Scott's 'Arabian Nights.' Dr. Steingass cannot leave town, and I should find it very inconvenient to live at Oxford during the work, both of us having engagements in London. It would be a boon to us if the Curators of the Bodleian would allow the MS. to be transferred, volume by volume, to the India Office, and remain under the custody of the Chief Librarian--yourself. The whole consists of seven volumes, as we would begin with vols. iii. and iv. I may note that the translated tales (as may be seen by Scott's version) contain nothing indelicate or immoral; in fact the whole MS. is exceptionally pure. Moreover, the MS., as far as I can learn, is never used at Oxford. I am the more anxious about this matter as the November fogs will presently drive me from England, and I want to end the extracts ere winter sets in, which can be done only by the co-operation of Dr. Steingass.
I have the honour to be, sir,
(Signed) RICHARD F. BURTON."
"DR. R. ROST,
Chief Librarian, India Office."
As nearly a month had elapsed without my receiving any reply, I directed the following to the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Rev. Dr. Bellamy:--
ATHENAEUM CLUB, PALL MALL,
Oct. 13, 1886.
"I have the honour to submit to you the following details:--
"On September 13, 1886, I wrote to Dr. Rost, Chief Librarian, India Office, an official letter requesting him to apply to the Curators of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, for the temporary transfer of an Arabic Manuscript, No. 522 (the Wortley Montague text of the Arabian Nights) to the library of the India Office, there to be kept under special charge of the Chief Librarian. There being seven volumes, I wanted only one or two at a time. I undertook not to keep them long, and, further, I pledged myself not to translate tales that might be deemed offensive to propriety.
"Thus, I did not apply for a personal loan of the MS. which, indeed, I should refuse on account of the responsibility which it would involve. I applied for the safe and temporary transfer of a work, volume by volume, from one public library to another.
"My official letter was forwarded at once by Dr. Rost, but this was the only expeditious step. On Saturday, September 25, the Curators could form no quorum; the same thing took place on Saturday, October 9; and there is a prospect that the same will take place on Saturday, October 23.
"I am acquainted with many of the public libraries of Europe, but I know of none that would throw such obstacles in the way of students.
"The best authorities inform me that until June, 1886, the signatures of two Curators enabled a student to borrow a book or a manuscript; but that since June a meeting of three Curators has been required; and that a lesser number does not form a quorum.
"May I be permitted to suggest that the statute upon the subject of borrowing books and manuscripts urgently calls for revision?
I have the honour to be, sir,
(Signed) RICHARD F. BURTON.
"THE VICE-CHANCELLOR, OXFORD."
The Curators presently met and the following was the highly unsatisfactory result which speaks little for "Bodleian" kindness or courtesy:--
Monday, Nov. 1, 1886.
"DEAR SIR RICHARD BURTON,
"The Curators considered your application on Saturday, Oct. 30, afternoon, and the majority of them were unwilling to lend the MS [FN#420]
Yours very truly,
(Signed) EDWARD B. NICHOLSON."
Learning through a private source that my case had been made an unpleasant exception to a long-standing rule of precedent, and furthermore that it had been rendered peculiarly invidious by an act of special favour, [FN#421] I again addressed the Vice-Chancellor, as follows:--
23, DORSET STREET, PORTMAN SQUARE,
November 3rd, 1886.
"I have the honour to remind you that, on October 13, I communicated with you officially requesting a temporary transfer of the Wortley Montague manuscript (Arabian Nights) from the Bodleian Library to the personal care of the Librarian, India Office.
"To this letter I received no reply. But on November 1, I was informed by Mr. Librarian Nicholson that the Curators had considered my application on Saturday, October 30, and that the majority of them were unwilling to lend the manuscript.
"The same Curators at the same meeting allowed sundry manuscripts for the use of an Indian subject to be sent to the India Office.
"I cannot but protest against this invidious proceeding, and I would willingly learn what cause underlies it.
"1. It cannot be the importance of the manuscript, which is one of the meanest known to me--written in a schoolmaster character, a most erroneous, uncorrected text, and valuable only for a few new tales.
"2. It cannot be any consideration of public morals, for I undertook (if the loan were granted) not to translate tales which might be considered offensive to strict propriety.
"3. It cannot be its requirement for local use. The manuscript stands on an upper shelf in the manuscript room, and not one man in the whole so-called 'University' can read it.
I have the honour to be, sir,
RICHARD F. BURTON."
"THE VlCE-CHANCELLOR, OXFORD."
In due time came the reply:--
ST. JOHN'S COLLEGE, OXFORD,
November 6th, 1886.
"I will remove from your mind the belief that I treated your former letter with discourtesy.
"I may say, that it did not appear to me to contain any question or request which I could answer. You informed me that you had made formal application in September for a loan of MSS., and your letter was to complain of the delay in considering this request. You told me that you had learned from the Librarian the cause of the delay (the want of a quorum), and that he had intimated that there would probably be no meeting formed before October 30th.
"You complained of this, and suggested that the statute regulating the lending of the Bodleian books should be speedily revised.
"As I had no power to make a quorum, nor to engage that your suggestion should be adopted; and as your letter made no demand for any further information, I thought it best to reserve it for the meeting of the 30th, when I communicated it to the Curators.
"I will lay the letter (dated November 3rd), with which you have favoured me, before the next meeting of the Curators.
I beg to remain,
(Signed) J. BELLAMY."
"SIR R. F. BURTON."
To resume this part of the subject.
The following dates show that I was kept waiting six weeks before being finally favoured with the curtest of refusals:
Application made on September 13th, and sent on.
On Saturday, September 25th, Curators could not form quorum, and deferred next meeting till Saturday, October 9th.
Saturday, October 9th. Again no quorum; and yet it might easily have been formed, as three Curators were on or close to the spot.
Saturday, October 23rd. Six Curators met and did nothing.
Saturday, October 30th. Curators met and refused me the loan of MS.
My letter addressed to the Vice-Chancellor was read, and notice was given for Saturday (December 3rd, 1886) of a motion, "That the MS. required by Sir R. F. Burton be lent to him"--and I was not to be informed of the matter unless the move were successful. Of course it failed. One of the Curators (who are the delegates and servants of Convocation) was mortally offended by my letter to "The Academy," and showed the normal smallness of the official mind by opposing me simply because I told the truth concerning the laches of his "learned body."
Meanwhile I had addressed the following note to the Most Honourable the Chancellor of the University. [FN#422]
23, DORSET STREET, PORTMAN SQUARE,
November 30th, 1886.
"I deeply regret that the peculiar proceedings of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, necessitate a reference to a higher authority with the view of eliciting some explanation.
"The correspondence which has passed between the Curators of the Bodleian Library and myself will be found in the accompanying printed paper.
"Here it may be noticed that the Committee of the Orientalist Congress, Vienna, is preparing to memorialise H.M.'s Secretary of State, praying that Parliament will empower the British Museum to lend out Oriental MSS. under proper guarantees. The same measure had been proposed at the Leyden Congress of 1883; and thus an extension, rather than a contraction of the loan-system has found favour with European savants. [FN#423]
"I believe, my Lord, that a new statute upon the subject of the Bodleian loans of books and MSS. is confessedly required, and that it awaits only the initiative of the Chancellor of the University, without whose approval it cannot be passed.
I have, &c.,
(Signed) RICHARD F. BURTON."
"THE RIGHT HONOURABLE THE CHANCELLOR."
My object being only publicity I was not disappointed by the following reply:--
HATFIELD HOUSE, HATFIELD, HERTS,
December 1st, 1886.
"DEAR SIR RICHARD,
"I beg to acknowledge your letter of the 30th of November with enclosure.
"I have, however, no power over the Bodleian Library, and, therefore, I am unable to assist you.
Yours, very truly,
"SIR RICHARD F. BURTON, K.C.M.G."
On January 29, 1887, there was another "Bodleian Meeting," all the Curators save one being present and showing evident symptoms of business. The last application on the list of loans entered on the Agenda paper ran thus:--
V MS. Bodl. Vols. 550-556 to the British Museum (the 7 vols. successively) for the use of Mr. F. F. Arbuthnot's Agent.
[The MS. lately refused to Sir R. Burton. Mr. Arbuthnot wishes to have it copied.]
It was at once removed by the Regius Professor of Divinity (Dr. Ince) and carried nem. con. that, until the whole question of lending Bodleian books and MSS. then before Council, be definitely settled, no applications be entertained; and thus Professor Van Helton, Bernard Kolbach and Mr. Arbuthnot were doomed, like myself, to be disappointed.
On January 31, 1887, a hebdomadal Council was called to deliberate about a new lending statute for submission to Convocation; and an amendment was printed in the "Oxford University Gazette." It proposed that the Curators by a vote of two-thirds of their body, and at least six forming a quorum, might lend books or MSS. to students, whether graduates or not; subject, when the loans were of special value, to the consent of Convocation. Presently the matter was discussed in "The Times" (January 25th; April 28th; and May 31st), which simply re-echoed the contention of Mr. Chandler's vigorous pamphlets. [FN#424] Despite the letters of its correspondent "F. M. M." (May 6th, 1887), a "host in himself," who ought to have added the authority of his name to the sensible measures which he propounded, the leading journal took a sentimental view of "Bodley's incomparable library" and strongly advocated its being relegated to comparative inutility.
On May 31, 1887, an amendment practically forbidding all loans came before the House. In vain Professor Freeman declared that a book is not an idol but a tool which must wear out sooner or later. To no purpose Bodley's Librarian proved that of 460,000 printed volumes in the collection only 460 had been lent out, and of these only one had been lost. THE AMENDMENT FORBIDDING THE PRACTICE OF LENDING WAS CARRIED BY 106 VOTES TO 60.
Personally I am not dissatisfied with this proceeding. It is retrograde legislation befitting the days when books were chained to the desks. It suffers from a fatal symptom--the weakness of extreme measures. And the inevitable result in the near future will be a strong reaction: Convocation will presently be compelled to adopt some palliation for the evil created by its own folly.
The next move added meanness to inertness. I do not blame Mr. E. B. Nicholson, Bodley's Librarian, because he probably had orders to write the following choice specimen:
"DEAR SIR RICHARD BURTON,
"I have received two vols. of four (read six) 'Supplemental Nights' with a subscription form. If a Bodleian MS. is to be copied for any volume, I must stipulate that that volume be supplied to us gratis. Either my leave or that of the Curators is required for the purpose of copying for publication, and I have no doubt that they would make the same stipulation. I feel sure you would in any case not propose to charge us for such a volume, but until I hear from you I am in a difficulty as to how to reply to the subscription form I have received.
(Signed) E. B. NICHOLSON,
The able and energetic papers, two printed and one published by Mr. H. W. Chandler, of Pembroke College, Oxford, clearly prove the following facts:--
1. That on June 20, 1610, a Bodleian Statute peremptorily forbade any books or manuscripts being taken out of the Library.
2. That, despite the peremptory and categorical forbiddance by Bodley, Selden, and others, of lending Bodleian books and MSS., loans of both have for upwards of two centuries formed a precedent.
3. That Bodley's Statute (June 20th, An. 1610) was formally and officially abrogated by Convocation on May 22nd, 1856; Convocation retaining the right to lend.
4. That a "privileged list" of (113) borrowers presently arose and is spoken of as a normal practice:--sicut mos fuit, says the Statute (Tit. xx. iii. § 11) of 1873; and, lastly,
5. That loans of MSS. and printed books have for years been authorised to approved public libraries.
After these premises I proceed to notice other points bearing upon the subject which, curious to say, are utterly neglected or rather ignored by Mr. Chandler and "The Times." Sir Thomas Bodley never would have condemned students to study in the Bodleian had he known the peines fortes et dures to which in these days they are thereby doomed. "So picturesque and so peculiar is its construction," says a writer, "that it ensures the maximum of inefficiency and discomfort." The whole building is a model of what a library ought not to be. It is at once over solid and ricketty: room for the storage of books is wanted, and its wooden staircases, like touchwood or tinder, give one the shudders to think of fire. True, matches and naked lights are forbidden in the building; but all know how these prohibitions are regarded by the public, and it is dreadful to think of what might result from a lucifer dropped at dark upon the time-rotten planks. The reading public in the XIXth century must content itself with boxes or stalls, like those of an old-fashioned tavern or coffee-house of the humbler sort wherein two readers can hardly find room for sitting back to back. The atmosphere is unpleasant and these mean little cribs, often unduly crowded, are so dark that after the 1st October the reading-room must be closed at 3 p.m. What a contrast are the treasures in the Bodleian with their mean and miserable surroundings and the way in which the public is allowed to enjoy them. The whole establishment calls urgently for reform. Accommodation for the books is wanted; floor and walls will hardly bear the weight which grows every year at an alarming ratio--witness the Novel-room. The model Bodleian would be a building detached and isolated, the better to guard its priceless contents, and containing at least double the area of the present old and obsolete Bibliotheca. An establishment of the kind was proposed in 1857; but unfortunately, the united wisdom of the University preferred new "Examination Schools" for which the old half-ruinous pile would have been sufficiently well fitted. The "Schools," however, were for the benefit of the examiners; ergo the scandalous sum of £100,000 (some double the amount) was wasted upon the well-nigh useless Gothic humbug in High Street, and thus no money was left for the prime want of the city. After some experience of public libraries and reading-rooms on the Continent of Europe I feel justified in asserting that the Bodleian in its present condition is a disgrace to Oxford; indeed a dishonour to letters in England.
The Bodleian has a succursale, the Radcliffe, which represents simply a step from bad to worse. The building was intended for an especial purpose, the storage of books, not for a salle de lecture. Hence the so-called "Camera" is a most odious institution, a Purgatory to readers. It is damp in the wet season from October to May; stuffy during the summer heats and a cave of Eolus in windy weather: few students except the youngest and strongest, can support its changeable and nerve-depressing atmosphere. Consequently the Camera is frequented mainly by the townsfolk, a motley crew who there study their novels and almanacs and shamefully misuse the books. [FN#425] In this building lights, forbidden by the Bodleian, are allowed; it opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m.. and the sooner it reverts to its original office of a book-depôt the better.
But the Bodleian-Radcliffe concern is typical of the town and, if that call for reform, so emphatically does
"Oxford, that scarce deserves the name of land."
From my childhood I had heard endless tirades and much of what is now called "blowing" about this ancient city, and my youth (1840-42) suffered not a little disappointment. The old place, still mostly resembling an overgrown monastery-village, lies in the valley of the Upper Thames, a meadowland drained by two ditches; the bigger or Ise, classically called the Isis, and the lesser the Charwell. This bottom is surrounded by high and healthy uplands, not as the guide-books say "low scarce-swelling hills that softly gird the old town;" and these keep off the winds and make the riverine valley, with its swamped meads and water-meadows, more fenny and feverish even than Cambridge. The heights and woods bring on a mild deluge between October 1st and May 1st; the climate is rainy as that of Shap in Westmoreland (our old home) and, as at Fernando Po and Singapore, the rain it raineth more or less every day during one half of the year. The place was chosen by the ancient Britons for facility of water transport, but men no longer travel by the Thames and they have naturally neglected the older road. Throughout England, indeed a great national work remains to be done. Not a river, not a rivulet, but what requires cleaning out and systematic excavation by élevateurs and other appliances of the Suez Canal. The channels filled up by alluvium and choked by the American weed, are now raised so high that the beds can no longer act as drains: at Oxford for instance the beautiful meadows of Christ Church are little better than swamps and marshes, the fittest homes for Tergiana, Ouartana and all the fell sisterhood: a blue fog broods over the pleasant site almost every evening, and a thrust with the umbrella opens up water. This is the more inexcusable as the remedy would be easy and by no means costly: the river-mud, if the ignorant peasants only knew the fact, forms the best of manures; and this, instead of being deposited in spoil-heaps on the banks for the rain to wash back at the first opportunity, should be carried by tram-rails temporarily laid down and be spread over the distant fields, thus almost paying for the dredge works. Of course difficulties will arise: the management of the Thames is under various local "Boards," and each wooden head is able and aye ready to show its independence and ill temper at the sacrifice of public interests to private fads.
Hence the climate of Oxford is detestable. Strong undergraduates cannot withstand its nervous depression and the sleeplessness arising from damp air charged with marsh gases and bacteria. All students take time to become acclimatized here, and some are never acclimatized at all. And no wonder, when the place is drained by a fetid sewer of greenish yellow hue containing per 10,000, 245 parts of sewage. The only tolerable portion of the year is the Long Vacation, when the youths in mortar-boards all vanish from the view, while many of the oldsters congregate in the reformed convents called Colleges.
Climate and the resolute neglect of sanitation are probably the chief causes why Oxford never yet produced a world-famous and epoch-making man, while Cambridge can boast of Newton and Darwin. The harlequin city of domes and spires, cribs and slums shows that curious concurrence of opposites so common in England. The boasted High Street is emblematical of the place, where moral as well as material extremes meet and are fain to dwell side by side. It is a fine thoroughfare branching off into mere lanes, neither these nor that apparently ever cleaned. The huge buildings of scaling, mouldering stone are venerable-looking piles which contrast sadly with the gabled cottages of crepi, hurlin, or wattle and dab; and the brand-new store with its plate-glass windows hustles the old-fashioned lollipop-shop. As regards minor matters there are new market passages but no Public Baths; and on Sundays, the stands are destitute of cabs, although with that queer concession to democracy which essentially belongs to the meaner spirited sort of Conservatism, "'busses" are allowed to ply after 2 p.m., when the thunder of bells somewhat abates.
Old "Alma Mater," who to me has ever been a "durissima noverca," dubs herself "University;" and not a few of her hopefuls entre faiblesse et folie, still entitle themselves "University men." The title once belonged to Oxford but now appertains to it no more. Compare with it the model universities of Berlin, Paris and Vienna, where the lists of lecturers bear the weightiest names in the land. Oxford is but a congeries of twenty-one colleges and five halls or hostels, each educating its pupils (more or less) with an especial eye to tutors' fees and other benefices, the vested rights of the "Dons." Thus all do their best to prevent the scholars availing themselves of University, as opposed to Collegiate, lectures; and thus they can stultify a list of some sixty-six professors. This boarding-school system is simply a dishonest obstacle to students learning anything which may be of use to them in after-life, such as modern and Oriental languages, chemistry, anthropology and the other -ologies. Here in fact men rarely progress beyond the Trivium and the Quadrivium of the Dark Ages, and tuition is a fine study of the Res scibilis as understood by the Admirable Crichton and other worthies, circa A.D. 1500. The students of Queen Elizabeth's day would here--and here only--find themselves in congenial company. Worse still, Oxford is no longer a "Seat of learning" or a "House of the Muses," nor can learned men be produced under the present system. The place has become a collection of finishing schools, in fact little better than a huge board for the examination of big boys and girls.
Oxford and her education are thoroughly disappointing; but the sorest point therein is that this sham University satisfies the hapless Public, which knows nothing about its fainéance. It is a mere stumbling-block in the way of Progress especially barring the road to one of the main wants of English Education, a great London University which should not be ashamed to stand by Berlin, Paris and Vienna.
Had the good knight and "Pious Founder," Sir Thomas Bodley, who established his library upon the ruins of the University Bibliotheca wrecked by the "Reformation," been able to foresee the condition of Oxford and her libraries--Bodleian and Radcliffean--in this latter section of the XIXth century, he would hardly, I should hope, have condemned English students and Continental scholars to compulsory residence and labour in places so akin to the purgatorial.