Editors: Graham Holderness (University of Hertfordshire) and Bryan Loughrey
Volume 28 / 2016, 3 issues per volume (spring, summer, winter)
Subjects: English-language Literature
View a special virtual issue on the works of Shakespeare!
CALL FOR PAPERS: Narrating Football in Literary Texts & Films
Palimpsesting: Reading and Writing Lives in H. D.'s 'Murex: War and Postwar London (circa A. D. 1916-1926)'
On the title page of her first prose work, Palimpsest (1926), H. D.
defines a palimpsest as ‘a parchment from which one writing has been
erased to make room for another’.1 Palimpsests were created from the
seventh to fifteenth centuries primarily in the scriptoriums of the great
monastic institutions such as Bobbio, Luxeuil, Fleury, Corbie and St
Gall.2 Such recycling of vellum arose due to a combination of factors:
the scarcity and expense of writing material; the physical
deterioration of existing manuscripts from which reusable vellum was
then sourced; and the changing historical and cultural factors which
rendered some texts obsolete either because the language in which
they were written could no longer be read, or because their content
was no longer valued. Palimpsests were created by a process of
layering whereby the existing text was erased using various chemical
methods, and the new text was written over the old one. But the most
peculiar and interesting fact about palimpsests is omitted from H. D.’s
definition. Palimpsests are of such interest to subsequent generations
because although the first writing on the vellum seemed to have been
eradicated after treatment, it was often imperfectly erased. Its ghostly
trace then reappeared in the following centuries as the iron in the
remaining ink reacted with the oxygen in the air producing a reddish
brown oxide. This process has been encouraged by the use of
chemical reagents and ultraviolet light in the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, and by more advanced imaging technologies in
the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. A palimpsest is thus
a surface phenomenon where, in an illusion of layered depth,
otherwise unrelated texts are involved and entangled, intricately
interwoven, interrupting and inhabiting each other.