‘Three Quiet Days at Gladstone’s Library: Reconnecting with Silence through Research’
Lin Young, Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada
In February of 2019, I boarded a plane in Toronto, Canada to get to Manchester, after which I hopped a few trains to Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Wales. It wasn’t something I’d ever imagined I’d do when I first applied for my PhD in English literature, but it was an adventure I was happy to stumble into when the opportunity came across my desk in the form of the Victorian Popular Fiction Association’s Mary Eliza Root Prize.
A bit about me first, and how I ended up going from a university in Southern Ontario to the only live-in library in the UK with the kind assistance of the VPFA and the Mary Eliza Root Prize. I’m a doctoral candidate at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When I applied for the VPFA’s Mary Eliza Root Prize—and then was fortunate enough to win—I had ghosts on the brain. I was hoping to mine Gladstone’s Library for dozens of primary writings on Victorian-era psychic research. Among these sources were books by Hudson Tuttle, E. W. Allen, William H. Harrison, and other reports of spirit ‘experiments.’ Specifically, Allen’s ‘Life beyond the grave, described by a spirit, through a writing medium’ and Tuttle’s ‘Scenes in the spirit world, or, life in the spheres’ were on my list. My main goal was to use these sources to complete my dissertation, which concerns the relationship between ghosts and objecthood in Victorian fiction.
Specifically, I’m really interested in how spiritualist experimentation into the ‘biology’ of the soul allowed Victorians to imagine themselves more readily as creatures of transmutable matter. My dissertation explores how the imagined transfer of ‘soul matter’ between the bodies of mediums, ghosts, and the objects assisting their communications allowed all three—the living, the dead, and the object—to be characterized as part of a process of biological assembly and disassembly. What does it do to your sense of self and humanity if you start thinking about your soul and your body as equally capable of compartmentalization? The project thus examines experiences of objecthood in supernatural fiction. So that’s what I was looking for when I arrived at Gladstone’s Library, fresh off an 8-hour overnight flight and several long, pleasantly rambling train rides.
In retrospect, reading about ghosts and spectral phenomena at the library couldn’t have been more thematically appropriate. I was camped out in what one tour guide called the ‘magic section’ to a few visitors, which seemed to be a popular spot. I joked with my friends back home that I was somewhere between Hogwarts and Belle’s library from Beauty and the Beast. The library itself is the stuff of every bookish kid’s dream (and every romantic academic, for that matter), with rolling ladders, overhanging balconies, and multiple levels of towering bookshelves in its brilliantly-lit library wing. If you glance through the windows, you’ll see the rolling Welsh countryside, the town of Hawarden and its surrounding streets. It’s easy to feel like you’re tucked away in a wisp of fog, with only the library stacks to keep you company. Definitely the sort of study-space you’d hardly be surprised to learn hosts a spectre or two.
Part of this atmosphere is due to the library’s emphasis on creating and curating silence. The library is designed as a kind of shrine to quiet, diligent study, and as a result, the library itself is probably one of the most silent—not quiet, silent—places I’ve ever been. I could have heard a pin drop. When I combed through a book, I was conscious of the sound of every flipped page. It was sort of studying I’d forgotten could exist in busy shared grad-student offices, with the clamour of student meetings and weekend plan-making tends to leech through the walls even if you aren’t directly in the thick of it. Academia is, by its very nature, a busy world, and often quite a social one (though we don’t always characterize it as such). To live, read and research at Gladstone’s Library is almost like researching in a sensory deprivation tank. It feels like a tribute to silence.
Holed up in the magic section with a pile of ghost books at my elbow, I made the conscious decision not to listen to music or listen to any background videos on YouTube. I ended up thinking a lot about how disconnected we are from silence, as though silence is merely the absence of something and not a mental and emotional state in and of itself. To consciously curate silence was strangely freeing, both productive and pleasant. I think I learned a lot about what it means to sit with an idea, or a thought, or a phrase, or a word, with nothing distracting me or calling my thoughts away. I ignored e-mails, projects, and deadlines. I just sat in silence for a while, and enjoyed the singular focus that the library’s silence allowed me to access.
Silence is, for many people, a luxury. We’re lucky if we’re able to achieve as perfect a silence as exists in Gladstone’s Library. Sometimes we actively avoid it by sticking our headphones in or chatting with office-mates and neighbours. But I think there’s something to be said for curating small pockets of silence in which to focus intensely on a single project, as opposed to the incessant multi-tasking that the academic world so often demands of us. To create our own temporary sensory deprivation tank of learning. Alongside all my newfound research on psychic spheres and ghost experimentation, I’m eager to take this more abstract lesson back to work and see if I can maintain it in the ‘real’ world. But in the meantime, I’m deeply appreciative for the three days of silence that I enjoyed at Gladstone’s Library.