When I first discovered that we were going to London in May of 2009, I knew the place I wanted to visit. Everyone has that, right? When you realize a lifelong dream of travelling to a certain place, you instantly know the place you want to visit most, the place that is closest to your heart. For me that place was Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury.
Ethel Wilson, Canadian writer and one of my heroes, wrote a short story called “To keep the memory of so worthy a friend.” It made a deep impression on me when I first discovered it 17 years before. In it she talks about her pilgrimage to this church to pay homage to Henry Condell and John Heminge:
…I often think and think about the two actors Henry Condell and John Heminge, and I can never get to the end of the wonder of what they did and what they do in the world today, even though not even their dust remains – unless it was wiped off a London window sill this morning. Scholars know about them, of course, even amateur scholars like myself; but one is inclined to take them for granted, like the unicorn, and that is not fair to such great and humble men.
Heminge and Condell put together Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623. Shakespeare is one of the great loves of my life so you see I had to visit the church too. It was one of many stops on our trip to London, my first ever. I put the notebook together in a state of high excitement, as I tried to imagine what it would be like to finally get there. I printed out Ethel’s short story and re-read it a dozen times as I worked on the journal. I intended to take Ethel to the church a second time, and together we would read her words and think of Heminge and Condell.
Every day in London was better than the one before. I thought my head would explode as I desperately tried to record my thoughts and impressions as we walked around London. Finally the day arrived when we would visit the little churchyard. My sister and I walked to Love Lane and Aldermanbury, where the ruins of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin are located. There is a small park beside the ruins, with a plaque showing how the church used to look. The church was in the parish where Heminge and Condell lived. It was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, and then re-built by the illustrious Sir Christopher Wren. It was destroyed a second time during the Blitz of London in 1940, in WW2. Heminge and Condell, along with their families, are buried beneath the ruins.
The great bard himself sits on a concrete plinth, with stone books on all four sides, reproductions of what appears in the First Folio. One lists the twenty-six actors that made up Richard Burbage’s company of players, including Heminge and Condell of course. Then a list of the plays, as selected by the two actors. There is a tribute to the actors’ families, and then this:
The fame of Shakespeare rests on his incomparable Dramas. There is no evidence that he ever intended to publish them and his premature death in 1616 made this the interest of no one else. Heminge and Condell had been co-partners with him in the Globe Theatre Southwark and from the accumulated Plays there of thirty-five years with Great Labour selected them. No men then living were so competent having acted with him in them for many years and well knowing his manuscripts. They were published in 1623 in Folio thus giving away their Private Rights therein. What they did was priceless, for the whole of his manuscripts with almost all those of the Dramas of the Period have perished.
We spent probably an hour at most there, as it was starting to rain and we had little time to spare. But I sat in the churchyard and thought about Ethel and wondered if she might have sat where I was sitting, reading her words. I took a small card out of my notebook, which I had selected months ago for this day. It said Cherish on it, and that’s what I do with Ethel; I cherish her and her point of view. She inspires the writer in me. I wrote my message to Ethel and tucked it in the rocks, leaving it for whoever to find.
…It is not our province, who only gather his works, and give them you, to praise him. It is yours that reade him. And there we hope, to your divers capacities, you will find enough, both to draw, and hold you: for his wit can no more lie hid, than it could be lost. Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe: And if you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him.
– Heminge and Condell, from the Introduction to the First Folio