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Chapter 1 - Introduction: adventures in the archives

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2016

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Summary

THE ALBUM IS HUGE. Depending on which librarian brings it to the circulation desk, you might be offered a cart to carry it to your seat in the British Library Reading Room or you might have to tote it yourself. Its vertical length is at least two feet; its width nearly as great. The covers are a dusty red-brown, faded and scratched, and the binding is broken so that the album must be tied with a flat cord to keep it from falling open when lifted. Inside, musty pages of heavy paper require you to stretch out your whole arm to turn them. Neatly affixed to the pages in rough chronological order are a variety of items in card stock: calling cards with the names of English dukes and duchesses in elaborate scripted fonts; handwritten menus for French meals served in grand country houses; seating charts for dinners large and small; printed bills of fare for restaurant banquets. The pages, despite their slight yellowing and a faint but perceptible yellowish smell, have an aura of faded opulence. Some of the menus are charmingly illustrated: in the four corners of one are the heads of three dogs and one fox, adorably drawn in the style of particularly cunning children's illustrations; another is bordered by gambolling cherubs eating, drinking from pitchers, ringing a dinner bell and having a smoke; many feature floral borders. Some, recurring every few pages, are three-dimensional. Flattened into crosses, if you fold them– as we did many times– they become tiny blue and white boxes with the name ‘Knole’ in gold letters on what becomes the top of the box. Fifteen years ago, the first time we saw the album, the cards and sheets of stationery were pristine, the pages of the album properly bound. Today many of the pages have come loose, and someone (surely not us?) appears to have turned them carelessly, so as to bend and crease some of the cards (Fig. 1.1).

When we first ordered the albumhaving found an intriguing entry in the British Library's newly available online catalogue of Special Collections, ‘A Collection of Invitation Cards, Menus, etc. from 1869 to 1876’our interest was in Victorian food. As we turned the pages of the album, we became fascinated by the paper objects that recorded and memorialised the transitory act of eating.

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Love Among the Archives
Writing the Lives of Sir George Scharf, Victorian Bachelor
, pp. 1 - 61
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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