Not long ago UK voters chose ‘serendipity’ to be their favourite word though it only entered the English language about 270 years ago. It was invented by Horace Walpole – son of the first British prime minister, Robert Walpole – in 1754 from the Persian story of The Three Princes of Serendip who, Walpole wrote to a friend, ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of’. While ‘chance’ and ‘luck ‘denote generally positive outcomes, ‘serendipity’ is felt to go even further. Does it play a key role, or at least a reassuring one, in everyone’s life?
Does serendipity influence our choice of friends and the person we choose to spend most of our lives with? My choice of partner was made in Venice. A similar activity and love of the city may have played a crucial part. I have been thinking about serendipity since attending the launch of a 1939 diary written by Iris Origo just before the outbreak of World War II while she was living in the Val d’Orcia in Tuscany. I never met Iris Origo and only saw her in the distance before she died. But I was struck then, and still am, by the way her life was changed through a chance encounter – her moment of serendipity. I was told it happened when she was in the National Library in Florence. A woman sitting beside her mentioned the chance discovery of letters from a merchant’s wife letters to her husband while he was at the papal court in Avignon. It had moved there from Rome, through political machinations, in the early 14th century. These letters had been walled up in a house in Prato, near Florence, in the fifteenth century and forgotten. Iris Origo subsequently edited and translated them to produce her book The Merchant of Prato. It is a unique inside story of how the wife and husband were managing their business links between Prato and Avignon and the Mediterranean Basin. These letters had been left in a walled-up spiral staircase and preserved, untouched, for over five centuries.
A few years later I arranged for a group of students to see them. The enthusiastic archivist brought out a pile of these letters and passed them round. Unexpectedly we were handling the paper that redoubtable merchant’s wife had used to write to her husband to discuss what merchandise and money to send, not just to Avignon, but on trade routes around the Mediterranean. She also included snippets of information about his household and even mentioned what was happening in his harem, slaves also being a dubious part of their trading interests.
It was chance that these two women happened to be sitting next to each other in the Florence National Library on the same day, but serendipity that one happened to tell the other about the letters between the merchant of Prato and his wife. Serendipity did not end there. Iris Origo was also allowed to edit the letters that passed between the poet Byron and his Venetian mistress, Teresa Guiccioli, which had remained in the family archives of Iris Origo’s new acquaintance from the Guiccioli family.
My moment of serendipity came at a miserable time in my life. My father was bankrupt and I had to leave school early to earn money by training to be a secretary at a local technical college. I also decided to fit a French course into my timetable. Thirty young women were packed into a college classroom. One day the teacher handed back the essays we had been asked to write in French saying, while scratching a bald patch on his head,’ Some of these are promising; one is brilliant.’ Faces swung from one side to another wondering who it could be. The class continued. As we were leaving the room I felt a tap on my shoulder. ‘Meet me in the corridor,’ the teacher said. I was both fearful and curious. What had I done? He handed back my essay and said, ‘You should go to university.’ I was so surprised that I did not know how to react. ‘Why not try Oxford and Cambridge?’ he continued. ‘Impossible!’ I replied. ‘Like to try? I’ll help you.’ Through serendipity, I ended up at Cambridge University.