Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Gladstone's Library -- A Magical Place

One of the greatest joys of being a writer is the access it gives you to magical places. Places like Gladstone’s Library, which I was fortunate enough to visit last weekend for the first, but hopefully not the last time.

The entrance to Gladstone's Library

Like many writers I spend idle moments Googling things like ‘retreats’ and ‘writer opportunities’, and that’s how I found out about Gladstone’s Library. It is such a ‘me’ place that I can’t believe I haven’t known about it all my life.

Gladstone’s Library describes itself as a ‘residential library and meeting place …dedicated to dialogue, debate and learning for open-minded individuals and groups, who are looking to explore pressing questions and to pursue study and research in an age of distraction and easy solutions.’

As the name suggests, it was founded by the statesman William Gladstone himself, and part of his own extensive library forms the core of its magnificent collection. It’s the most wonderful memorial to his life, work and liberal values.  Gladstone wanted to ensure that anyone who needed to use the library should be able to do so, so access to the library itself is free, and there are many bursaries and scholarships to help those who need to stay. 

And there is the most fantastic Writer in Residence scheme. https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/events/writers-in-residence

This year, feeling that my recent publications Name Upon Name and Star By Star qualified as ‘engaging with liberal values’, I decided to apply. I was thrilled to be shortlisted, and the disappointment of not making the final four was greatly assuaged by the invitation to read and talk at Hearth, their winter ‘micro-festival’, held in November and February. 

This was one of the best events I have ever attended. It’s deliberately small – four writers and about thirty participants, many of whom choose to make a weekend of it in the comfortable accommodation. Each writer gave a talk, and there was a panel event on the Saturday evening. I’d never met my fellow writers – Annabel Abbs, Jenny Lewis and Dipika Mukherjee – but we had a great panel event, thanks not only to our own brilliance but to the expert chairing by Peter Francis, Gladstone's Library's Warden and Louisa Yates, Director of Collections and Research,  and to the intelligent questions of a hugely engaged audience.

I was slightly nervous about turnout for my Sunday morning talk, Soldiers, Solidarity and Suffrage. Though the blurb made it clear that my novels, though marketed for teens, are enjoyed by adults, I was worried that the snobbery which sometimes dogs the children’s writer might prevail. I knew that it was the first time the Library had invited a children’s author, and I didn't want to let them down! I should not have worried. The room was full and Star By Star sold out in the festival bookshop. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a long signing queue or responded to such in-depth questions.

This is where the festival takes place -- yes, literally round the hearth!

As well as attending my fellow writers’ talks, and much chatting, eating, drinking and walking, I was also able to use the library itself to work in. It’s the most wonderful space – silent and spacious and yet with such a full, rich atmosphere. In my little nook, surrounded by nineteenth century books on theology and art, I felt hugely grateful to be part, for one weekend, of this benevolent and civilised place. I managed to do a week’s worth of editing in under three days, and I’m already planning my return.

a wonderful place to work
On my last morning, though I'm not really a religious person, I decided to start the day by attending the short Eucharist with which every weekday morning at the library starts. My fellow writers had had the same idea. It felt like a fitting end to a wonderful experience. 

I’ve taken  away with me some new friends, some wonderful books by my fellow Hearth writers, and a special new place on my mental map of wonderful places to write. I’ve also taken the confidence to keep on applying for new opportunities. I think Gladstone would have approved. 


Penny Dolan said...

Gladstone's Library looks a most magical and inspiring place, Sheena.

Sheena Wilkinson said...

It really is! I have just booked my return!

Dipika Mukherjee said...

Glad to have met you Sheena...all the best with your work!