Recently, I worked on the process of revising a book based on Beauty and the Beast (the second book in a fairytale retelling series), and I ran across an article on historical libraries. It sounded like a topic worth exploring. After all, my work-in-progress includes a library scene, and whenever I write Austen inspired fiction, I often mention either a bookstore or a private library.
In one of my books, Darcy preferred to keep the drapes closed in the library at Pemberley because he feared sunlight could damage his collection. But what other measures have people employed to protect their books? The practice I found most surprising is one still in use at two 18th century Portuguese libraries. At the Library of the National Palace of Mafra and the Joanina Library, bat colonies live within the stacks of books. Obviously, bats being nocturnal, they aren’t terribly visible to day time visitors, but their presence doesn’t go unnoticed. It is easier for tourists to see these residents of the Joanina Library. Every evening the librarians cover up the tables with leather, and every morning before opening their doors, these coverings are removed and scat is cleaned off the floors. On rainy days, the bats can be heard singing in the late afternoon. And in the evenings, people can stand on the steps and watch as the bats fly out the windows. You may be wondering why no one has made any effort to eradicate these rodents. The bats do a wonderful job of keeping the libraries free of bugs and mice, both of which could harm the rare and expensive books and manuscripts kept at these locations.
Marsh’s Library in Ireland also went the extra mile to protect their valuable collection. If you wanted to peruse one of their rare books back in the 1800s, you had to do so within a locked cage.
While these libraries go to extraordinary measures to protect their books, other libraries focus on serving their customers. There are so many unique services offered at various libraries I can’t possibly cover them all. They range from a technology petting zoo (where people get to try out new gadgets) to checking out a plot of land to grow vegetables, to borrowing fishing gear and musical instruments. If you are lonely, the Lillian Goldman Law Library at Yale University allows patrons to check out a service dog for thirty minutes. Need to dress up for a job interview? Try visiting the New York Public Library which lends accessories to patrons. (Although, once you learn all of the icky things that have been discovered on library books, I won’t blame you if you pass on checking out a necktie.) If you happen to be in Finland, you must sing karaoke at the Tikkurila Library in Vantaa.
I’m afraid in my books, Darcy’s library will probably never be quite that hopping, but it might be worth your while to see what the library in your neighborhood offers. One near me happens to have a little class for writers once a week.
Below is an excerpt from Betrothals & Betrayals, where Darcy discovers his library in disarray.
As is often the case, a hot bath, fresh clothes, and a full belly restored Darcy’s spirits, and the comfort and serenity he drew from Pemberley enabled his mind to clear. For once, I will allow myself to indulge. I will not address any matters beyond the enjoyment of a book, he thought as he walked into his library. He closed his eyes and breathed in the faint scent of old books. The smell was like a mixture of grass and vanilla that—judging by the expressions he had seen on the faces of guests upon first entering this room in the past—many found offensive. But for him, it was able to stir a deep and satisfying sense of nostalgia.
He opened his eyes and walked to the windows covered by long, heavy drapes. He had instructed his staff to keep the room dark when it was not in use, for he had observed that allowing a written page to remain exposed to sunlight for an extended period had resulted in fading. He had no direct evidence that this same light might hurt a closed book. But he reasoned that it was possible and saw no need to take unnecessary chances. He drew the curtains back, and the light crashed through the window casting its rays onto the thousands of small particles of dust, making them shimmer as they danced in the air. This is home.
Darcy walked to the shelf that held his favorite novel. So often he had taken this path, he was surprised the carpet had not worn through. He bent down and put his finger on the spine of the tome he sought, but something was not right. Puzzlement was replaced with fear when he removed the book and confirmed that an interloper had just been occupying the space reserved exclusively for an entirely different book. He brought his eyes level with the gaping hole among the tower of books and stared at the shelf. Every book was wrong. His heart raced. Why was this happening? Who could have done this?
“Oh—good morning, Mr. Darcy.”
Mr. Darcy looked up from the shelf to find Miss Bennet entering the room. He hastily bowed, then turned his attentions back to the troubling problem before him.
“It is nice to see you using the library, Mr. Darcy.” Her voice had a song like quality to it. It was very distracting, which he found annoying. “Had it not been for the occasional dusting and closing of curtains, I would have suspected I was the only person able to locate this room,” Miss Bennet said as she walked to a shelf near the fireplace.
Mr. Darcy needed to think. Something was amiss, and this was no time for idle chitchat. He quickly replayed the abridged version of her statement in his head to see if he was obliged to respond. He froze. She had said something at the end that grabbed his attention. “Pardon me?” he asked. “What was it you said there?”
Spinning around to face Mr. Darcy, Miss Bennet replied, “I said I was beginning to suspect no one, other than me, knew of your amazing library. It has proven to be a wonderful sanctuary.” The light danced off her white muslin. Again – distracting. “I visit here when Miss Darcy is studying music with her teacher.”
Slowly, Mr. Darcy straightened himself. He turned and scowled at the young lady standing on the other side of the room. “As you have spent time here,” he said slowly, in a rather chilling voice, “in this library, do you happen to know why all the books are out of order?”
“On the contrary,” Miss Bennet said brightly. “With the exception of that wall there,” she pointed to a small group of bookshelves along the back wall, “all of the books are at last in order. When I arrived, it appeared this room was simply a display case for books—impressive, but rarely used—now, it is a functional library.”
Warmth suffused Darcy’s cheeks, and his nostrils flared. His eyes swept around this room. His room. In his house.
“They have been ordered by topic,” Elizabeth continued. A big smile graced her face, she spoke quickly, and her voice was higher than normal. “Science and Philosophy are along that wall,” she said while pointing to the shelves to the left of the door. “And those on the other side address History,” she continued. “Over here…”
Before she could say anything further, the booming voice of Mr. Darcy interrupted, “What, precisely, made you think you could come into my home and rearrange my things?”
“I… I thought the room would be used more often if the books were sorted by subject,” she stammered. The color drained from her face. She swallowed hard and wrung her hands. “I thought that if you were interested in a specific topic, it would be nice to be able to see all of the books on that subject matter before selecting one. I thought…”
“No!” Darcy snapped. “That is the problem, Miss Bennet. You did not think. You came into a home that has been in my family for generations, and in a matter of a few months, have nearly ruined the one place in the world that I love the most. Without any thought of others, and without considering that the possessions in this room – my possessions – might be placed exactly where I wanted them, you took it upon yourself to decide what was best!” His chest heaved; sweat had formed on his brow.
Elizabeth turned and ran from the room. Darcy could not be sure, but he thought he might have seen tears pooling in her eyes before she turned. I do not feel guilty. It is no more than she deserves. He turned back to the shelf. It had held his copy of Oberon for as long as he could remember. He shook his head and snorted. This shelf now held children’s stories.
“What a disaster,” he muttered, bending down to examine the damage. He would need to begin sorting out this mess. But as his eyes scanned the shelf, his expression softened. He hadn’t seen some of these books in decades. A small volume standing mid-shelf caught his attention, and he pulled it out. His mother had read this book to him when he was sick. Holding it to his nose, he sniffed. He could not know if it was imagined or real, but he thought he could smell a hint of the fragrance she used to wear. Gently, he placed the book back in place.
Next, he pulled out a blue book. It was one he had received at Christmas when he could not have been more than eight years old. He opened the cover and looked lovingly at his father’s beautiful penmanship. The inscription read:
To my dearest son, Fitzwilliam,
I found this book in a small shop when I was last in London. I had gone into the store because I needed distraction. I was longing to bring you riding, or watch as you flew your kite, but because you had stayed at Pemberley, I thought I might console myself in the pages of a book. By chance, I stumbled upon this novel. I read a few pages and discovered the story centers around a young man who is clever, kind, noble, and just. The boy so reminded me of you, I could not set it down. While you have given me immeasurable joy from the moment you entered my life, and nothing could fulfill the void I was feeling being so far away, this story was able to bring me a small amount of comfort that day. I hope you enjoy it as much as I.
Darcy flipped through the book and remembered how every evening his father had lain next to him in his bed, reading a chapter from this book until the tale had concluded. The book was returned to the shelf, and he remembered a childhood filled with laughter and snuggles. His nose was running, which must have been because of all the dust, so he pulled out a handkerchief and blew it.
He had not come here to reminisce, he reminded himself. He needed to find the shelf with the novels. Or perhaps she had grouped his book with the poems.
He scanned the remaining shelves on this bookcase. Each shelf showed an obvious theme, but none were novels. He stepped to the next bookcase, and there it was. Only it was sitting next to a book he’d thought he had lost while at college. He took out the book that had been missing for so many years. It too had great sentimental value. I would never have located it if Miss Bennet had not sorted the books.
But how had she sorted the books? Surely, she could not have read all these in the time he was gone. How could she know the subject matter of each and every volume? He walked from shelf to shelf, examining each carefully. He could find no book out of place—at least according to Miss Bennet’s system. It was a rather extraordinary idea, and as he scanned the rows of books, he could see its merits. He must have spent forty minutes walking the walls of the room. Thoughts of reading were suddenly replaced by thoughts of reviewing his collection.
Darcy turned to find Georgiana standing in the door-way. Her hands were on her hips. She was upset.
“What did you do to Miss Bennet?” she asked, narrowing her eyes. “She was in complete distress when I found her after my music lesson.”
“She moved my books,” Darcy answered. Her actions did not sound as offensive when he described them out loud as they had in his mind. He frowned and dropped his head.
“I’m sure she was only trying to help.” Georgiana crossed the room until she stood near her brother. She took his hand, and he lifted his eyes to meet hers. “I know your books are precious to you. I did not know this was where she was spending her free time, or I would have said something to her earlier.” Georgiana’s tone had softened. She sounded like a woman speaking to a child who had broken his favorite toy. “But we can put these back as they were if you would like. You may need to provide the staff with more guidance, or perhaps together you and I can tackle the task, but we can do it.”
Darcy withdrew his hand from hers and put it in his pocket. He averted his gaze.
“What is it?” Georgiana asked with some firmness.
Her eyes stared so intently it was as if she was beckoning him to look at her, and he could not resist her siren call. “I am not sure I want to put them back,” he mumbled.
Georgiana was silent. The two stood in this room as a hush settled over every nook and cranny. At last, Georgiana spoke, her tone no longer light and comforting. “You complain that she moved your books, and yet you are pleased with the results?”
“Well, just because her changes might make it easier to find some of the more obscure texts does not mean she should have moved my things without my permission,” Darcy said stubbornly. He set his jaw. He was right, and he had no reason to feel bad. The image of her turning away and fleeing the library came to the forefront of his mind. The way her face had been lively and full of life and then suddenly drained of all color. Those eyes, with the large un-shed tears. His heart became a little heavy.
Georgiana clucked her tongue. “I love you, but you can sometimes lack insight.” She folded her arms and turned to leave. As she approached the threshold, she spun back around. “By the way, tea will be served in the rose garden in fifteen minutes.” A step carried her closer to the door.
Darcy’s mind suddenly recalled the request Cass had made. “Wait,” he said to Georgiana’s back. When she swung around to face him, her eyes were narrowed, and her mouth pinched. He considered refraining from asking the question on his lips.
A moment of silence passed while Georgiana glared at her brother, and he blinked at her. “Yes?” she finally asked.
“I was hoping you would make sure Miss Bennet joins us for tea,” he finally uttered.
Georgiana let out an insincere laugh and left the room, leaving behind a dazed Darcy. Who exactly was that lady who had just departed, and what had she done with his quiet, demure sister?