A while back I blogged about how painful research is for me. But recently I stumbled onto a few novels (and an autobiography in diary form) based in Oxford and the Bodleian, and scouring them for relevant details will be far from painful. At first, after finding Hazel Holt's The Cruellest Month, I hesitated reading it, not wanting to be influenced by a previously published work. But knowing I would be learning much about the library and the time period in which the novel takes place, I dove in.
As it turns out, a character in Hazel Holt's novel dies in the Bodleian in a very similar way that one of my characters does. (After all, how many ways can a person die in the midst of stuffed bookstacks?) But it wasn't the method of death I gleaned from the book, it was the details of the underground passages, lifts, stairwells and rooms as the characters maneuvered through the library.
Another book I picked up this week is A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, by Barbara Pym (edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym). The first part of the book takes place during Ms. Pym's time in Oxford (1932-1939). There are many scenes of her reading in the Bodleian and eyeing her longtime crush, Henry Harvey. I'm learning about the clothing they wore, punting on the Cherwell and sherry parties. There is even a quote which echoes a scene in my novel: "Wouldn't it be marvellous if you could give all your love letters to the Bodleian and then go and read them 30 years later!" Serendipity!
Reading through the diary over the weekend, my heart raced as I stumbled onto this entry, (which most fantasy writers--heck, most writers--will get a kick out of):
"10 October, 1933. An amusing lecture in the morning - Professor Tolkien on Beowulf." When I stayed at Exeter College, I was thrilled to learn that Tolkien's rooms were in the building next to mine. But reading Ms. Pym's words brought him back to life.
She also refers to the Bodleian as The Bodleiana. I've not heard this reference, but this might be the title I've been looking for.
I am anxiously waiting for the UPS truck to deliver the other Oxford-based novels I've ordered from Barnes & Noble:
Operation Pax, Michael Innes--The end scene takes place in the Bodleian stacks.
Jill, Philip Larkin
Death at the President's Lodging, J.I.M. Stewart
Lucky me! Pain has never been more fun.
Note to the editors: I've left the double "l" in Cruellest and marvellous to accurately depict the correct title of the book and the English spelling.