Unlocking the Cage: Women Writers in the Exeter Library Special Collection - Kim Sherwood

Thu 04 Jun 2020

Unlocking the Cage: Women Writers in the Exeter Library Special Collection - Kim Sherwood

Award-winning novelist Kim Sherwood is shining a light on the women writers of Exeter Library.

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I have been entranced by libraries since childhood: the communion of closely packed books, the murmur of pages, the soft words exchanged between students and those here for a warm chair and a good book. The first place I went to alone on a bus was my local library (after getting lost two or three times).

So when Exeter Library opened its Special Collection to me, I really did feel like all my Christmases had come at once, and every stocking was just a book disguised as a stocking.

Here’s something you might not know: beneath the floor of Exeter Library is a room known as the Cage. You need special permission and a library escort to enter. Inside this room are over eight hundred books, some of them from the very first days of printing. Local book lovers donated these books – many after the Blitz, when the library was destroyed and Exeter collectors helped rebuild it from the basement up. Of these eight hundred books, women wrote just eight. My mission in the Cage is to tell you the story of those women. I have been working on this project for the past year, and am excited to soon unveil it.

How we remember history determines history. Women did not play a marginal role in our national story; it is the marginal remembrance of women that marginalises us. Among those eight women writers in the Cage are some of the most important writers – and women – to have put pen to paper since the eighteenth century. Let me name some of them: Elizabeth Montagu, critic and host to literary salons; Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, travel writer; Elizabeth Carter, poet and translator; Lady Anne Miller, another travel writer. These writers changed the cultural landscape of Britain and transformed the space of public intellectual into one which welcomed, and centred on, women.

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In the eighteenth century, wit and conversation in pubs and coffee houses made a writer – places that were reserved for men. So Elizabeth Montagu set up tea parties in her home and invited everybody from “Dictionary Sam” Johnson to the actor David Garrick and the novelist Fanny Burney. Soon, her Bluestocking salons were the place to be seen and heard. Montagu wrote the first close reading study of William Shakespeare, an immediate bestseller.

She was also patron to other women writers, supporting, for example, her friend Elizabeth Carter, whose translation of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus sold out across Europe, and remained the standard translation well into the days of air travel.

These women should be known alongside their male contemporaries, and it’s been a joy for me to hold their books, and put their voice on the page.

Alongside the women writers of the Cage, it’s also been my mission to celebrate the women who collected its books. Let me tell you about just two of them. Lady Rosalind Northcote was a nature and place writer, whose book on Devon is well worth reading (and can be borrowed from Exeter Library). Lady Northcote volunteered for the Red Cross during World War One, serving just behind the front lines. She spent her life campaigning for the vote, the rights of working women, and animal welfare. Lady Northcote collected books on herbs, plants and medicines, and gave her collection to Exeter Library after World War Two.

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Ethel Lega-Weekes was a local historian, who collected Italian histories and plays. I was excited to find her name taped to two shelves of gilt and leather books that seemed to smell of adventure.

I followed Ethel Lega-Weekes to the small village of South Zeal on Dartmoor, where her research papers are kept safe in the local archive/nursery.

There I discovered accounts of medieval churchwardens copied onto scrap paper sewn from telegrams and war office letters, and illustrations so beautiful they made me want to run into the street and show them to anyone who might pass (very much frowned upon in an archive).

I am delighted to have teamed up with sound artists John Matthias and Jay Auborn, illustrator Sarita McNeil, and the Augmented Reality developer Zubr, to bring these women writers and collectors to life in a special installation that will allow library-goers to step into the magic world of the Cage.

At the moment, we are putting last touches on an augmented reality experience, and I am being dazzled all over again, this time by hearing such beautiful music, and seeing such beautiful drawings, born from my words. Watch this space.


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