March 18, 2013

The changing of the pens


In England, where they like to do things ceremonially, one pen has been retired and another is about to be inaugurated. These are, mind you, no ordinary Pilot Precise V5 Rolling Ball Micro Points, but Charles Dickens’ quill and T.S. Eliot’s fountain pen.

The former has long been used by new fellows signing the register of the Royal Society of Literature, but, as Maev Kennedy reports in the Guardian, it’s “beginning to show signs of wear and tear after a century and a half of use” and the Society has decided to replace it with Eliot’s pen, which was left to the organization by his widow, Valerie Eliot, after her death in November.

The pen will be formally presented to the Society tonight, as part of an evening dedicated to Eliot’s poetry, with readings to be given by poets Robin Robertson and Alice Oswald. It will also be immediately put into use on the very same occasion, as James WoodNew Yorker reviewer, explainer of fiction, man of curiously vertical hair—signs the RSL roll book as a new fellow.

In the past, new fellows were in the past given the choice to sign the book with either Dicken’s quill or Byron’s pen, though since Byron’s pen, Kennedy writes, “is still in excellent condition,” it seems the choice has often gone to the writing implement whose owner’s hands might not have been in places you don’t want to think about.

Which to choose is a dilemma novelist Hisham Matar is also contemplating these days:

After gathering a couple of suggestions, Matar mused:


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.