When the British Museum Reading Room Was Bohemian London’s Most Happening Spot

Inside the British Museum. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

It’s counterintuitive to think of the British Museum as a happening spot, but for a long time its reading room served as a premier gathering place for London’s brainy bohemians. In the 1880s, these included radicals like George Bernard Shaw, Henry Havelock Ellis, and Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter. They worked there, and they talked during smoke breaks and visits to Bloomsbury tea shops. They moved fluidly between politics and the arts, deploring factory conditions as fervently as they dissected Ibsen’s plays. The reading room was a vital seedbed for such Victorian-era social-reform causes as women’s rights and trade-union organizing.

It was also a pickup scene. Edward Aveling, a science lecturer, playwright, and political activist—and a notorious flirt—described the reading room as “in equal degrees a menagerie and a lunatic asylum” and made a tongue-in-cheek proposal that it be segregated by sex so as to bring about “less talking and fewer marriages.”

Karen Olsson writing in Bookforum about a new biography of Eleanor Marx. Eleanor Marx’s relationship with her longtime partner Edward Aveling was among the liaisons fostered in the reading room. The reading room in question has since closed; according to Olsson, its library holdings were transferred elsewhere in 1997.

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