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Palimpsesting: Reading and Writing Lives in H. D.'s 'Murex: War and Postwar London (circa A. D. 1916-1926)'

Sarah Dillon


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.

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