It’s November, 2004. I’m sitting in one of the elegant reading rooms of the British Library, gazing at rows of readers bent to their books at long wooden tables, their hair illuminated by the glow of desk lamps. The ceilings are high above my head, the woodwork panelling of the walls rich and dark. I am tired, my head groggy. I moved to London two months before with a suitcase and a scholarship to study expatriate Australian writers, but I sometimes feel like I can’t wake from a bad dream.
I stare blearily at the book before me, With Fond Regards: Private Lives Through Letters (1995), an edited selection of letters sourced from collections in the National Library of Australia by Elizabeth Riddell, a poet and journalist. It includes missives by Joseph Banks, a botanist on board James Cook’s voyage to Australia; convict woman Margaret Catchpole; Jewish internees detained in Hay internment camp during the second world war; and literary figures such as Vance and Nettie Palmer, Patrick White — and Rosa Praed.