The allure of research – and a plagiarist uncovered

Nicola Bennetts

‘What beats me is how a domestic dinosaur has become a chic badge of prosperity.’

Nicola’s recent article in the FT questioned the benefits of cooking on an Aga. For her biography she has left the present day and is delving back into the eighteenth century. Here are some of her recent experiences of research.

Until I began writing a biography I had no idea how many libraries I needed to join.  I now have a collection of plastic cards all, save one, with deeply unflattering photographs.  The lady at the National Archives in Kew told me I was allowed to laugh and snapped me at the right moment so that one’s OK.

Not that the photograph is the important bit.  Oh the libraries!  The Wellcome Library in the Euston Road must be the most silent place in London; you cannot help but concentrate in such a studious atmosphere.  And the Rare Books Room at the British Library is pretty good for head-down serious reading because that’s what everyone else is doing.  The National Archives, as well as taking the best plastic card photographs, must have the cleanest lavatories and washrooms in the whole of the U.K. (with warnings about not using hand cream).  That’s because of the documents you’re going to handle – ancient manuscripts whose pages you may be the first to turn for a hundred years or more.

Research, I was warned, can become obsessive – an end in itself.   Yep, every day I discover fascinating bits of information not strictly relevant to my subject but which, surely, I can weave into the narrative.   I wonder, for example, how many people are aware that Alfred Lord Tennyson, our Poet Laureate for nearly fifty years, was not the first choice for the post in 1850.  When Wordsworth died the Laureateship was offered to Samuel Rogers – he declined. 

Samuel Rogers
Samuel Rogers

Poor Samuel Rogers, he would love to have accepted the honour but felt that, at eighty-seven, he was too old and frail.   Not many people read his poetry these days though there’s one much-quoted line (well, half-line) for which he never gets the credit. 

Do you recognise: ‘A rose-red city – half as old as time’?  It describes Petra and was written by one, John William Burgon, in 1845.  But he filched it;  it’s blatant plagiarism.  Seven years earlier Samuel Rogers had used ‘half as old as time’ to describe Italian temples. 

He deserves more than a salute in a blog post but I just can’t find a way to give him more than a walk-on part in my current biography.  Perhaps the next one . . .

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  1. Hi Nicola. I do love research but occasionally feel overwhelmed by the sheer weight of scholarly atmosphere in some of the more ancient and august places. Love it, but have to allow time to settle in and acclimatise before I can get down to any work! Ali B

  2. Just thinking about yur comment on the good loos, my vote for best library cafe goes to National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge Edinburgh. Great coffee and scrummy sandwiches – and you don’t need to be a member to go in there! Ali B

  3. Hi Nicola, I was fascinated to read about Samuel Rogers (never heard of him!)and the filching of his lovely line “half as old as time”. Plagiarism is a red-hot topic in poetry at the moment with several prize-winners being outed for pinching line after line of some lesser poet’s work and passing it off as their own. When does borrowing and honouring cross the line into downright stealing? I think it was T S Eliot said something like “amateurs borrow, real poets steal” and he certainly “used” a lot of stuff from a lot of other writers. Perhaps it’s a question of amount (2 word OK, 50 words bad). But aren’t there supposed to be only seven different basic stories in the whole world? Which makes us all plagiarists in a way.

    1. Hi Shirley – and when is it respectful allusion – ? Presumably only allusion if you are a lesser mortal than the original writer? Remember this crossing my mind in my student days – those Romans did a lot of alluding. I think TS Eliot may have caught it from them. A.

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