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Literary letters bring the past to life

THE giant archive of the John Murray publishing family is stacked on storage shelves in the depths of the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. A security cage shelters letters by the likes of Lord Byron, valued at thousands of pounds a page.

But choice items of the Murrays' correspondence with the leading writers and adventurers of the 19th Century go on show today, with everything that 21st Century technology can do to bring the words alive.

The 1 million exhibition at the NLS has a green door like the John Murray house in London, and it leads to a shrunken reproduction of the drawing room where famous visitors gathered and talked.

Tall pods of glass, each devoted to a literary or scientific figure, are dimly illuminated with purple lighting, each displaying single sheets of original letters.

The National Library is doing everything in its power to bring alive the 150,000 documents and papers in the archive for which it paid 31 million 18 months ago.

Original letters from Charles Darwin, David Livingstone, Byron, and others are on show with sophisticated touch screens, interactive sound effects, and false windows made from flat-screen televisions.

The pod for James Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd, shows images of lambs and sound of the wind howling. Items relating to Sir Walter Scott and "domestic Goddess" Maria Rundell are also on show.

Martyn Wade, the library's chief executive, said: "This is to encourage people who would not normally go into the reading room, people that wonder what the archive's about. It's important that they can actually look at the originals."

Like other Scottish institutions the library is under pressure to prove the public can "access" its collections. Rules on readers' tickets have been eased, the imposing front desk has been removed and plans are in progress for a new caf.

But for most people, the exhibition is all they will, or probably want to see of the Murray Archive.

The exhibition was opened yesterday by writer, broadcaster and former Python Michael Palin. "For a traveller and a writer like myself the John Murray archive is a mouth-watering prospect," he said.

Charles Darwin

CHARLES Darwin's letter to John Murray proposing the Origin of Species is a milestone of science. "The book ought to be popular with a large body of scientific and non-scientific readers," he wrote. The exhibition also shows how he made his son play the bassoon to see if earthworms responded to the noise.

Benjamin Disraeli

PRIME minister Benjamin Disraeli, using secretive, coded correspondence, persuaded John Murray to help him set up a daily newspaper. The paper failed.

"I am quite delighted with Edinburgh," he wrote. "The view from the Calton Hill finds me a frequent votary."

Isabella Bird Bishop

LADY adventurer Isabella Bird Bishop was published by John Murray.

She wrote: "I rode the 300 miles from Teheran in 12 days, and though no European woman has made the journey alone before I met with no difficulties at all till I reached Ispahan where the fanatics infuriated by the Europeans of Julfa pursued me with howls and curses through the bazaars for two miles."

Austen Henry Layard's

THE archeologist Austen Henry Layard's discoveries in the Middle East were published by John Murray. From Baghdad, he wrote of "the effects of misgovernment - God's earth itself, as well as the population, is being systemically destroyed ... an annual miasma is gradually destroying the inhabitants of the city."

Sir Walter Scott

SIR Walter Scott, a noted critic as well as novelist, was closely involved in two literary titles, the Edinburgh Review and the setting up of the new Quarterly Review. He wrote: "The extensive reputation and circulation of the Edinburgh Review is chiefly owing to two circumstances. First that it is entirely uninfluenced by the booksellers, who have contrived to make most of the other reviews mere vehicles for advertising & puffing off their own publications or running down those of their rivals. Secondly the very handsome recompense [for contributors]." Scott recommended John Murray as "a young bookseller of capital and enterprise, with more sense and propriety of sentiment than fall to the share of most of the trade".

 
 
 

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