THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

Introduction

From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

09 November 2017

Workshops, Websites and Belly-worms: Work Experience at the British Library

As a sixth form student already practically fossilised under the pressure of A Levels, I remember my school’s decision to have a Year 12 work experience week (just after exams) was met with an overwhelming shout of fury throughout my year. A week on my grandad’s farm moving cattle through muddy fields‒ No Thank You! So, I took it upon myself to leave sleepy Dorset and find somewhere far, far away from any cows, where I would be genuinely fascinated with the work and the people (not that my grandad isn't interesting, you understand). Therefore, when I discovered that the British Library provided a work experience opportunity, I was utterly determined to surround myself with all things literature and history. Up at the crack of dawn (or what felt like the crack of dawn - 9.00 am feels unnaturally early for a teenager), I was ready for applications to open. By 9.30, my application had been sent ‒ the irrevocable action complete. All that was left to do was to wait as somebody decided my fate: cows or codices. I was pessimistic. It felt entirely impossible that I should be so lucky as to be accepted. So, naturally when I received an email from the British Library saying, ‘We are pleased to confirm that we will be able to offer you a placement’, I was overjoyed.

I was placed in the Learning team, with the people who make Discovering Literature, the Library’s excellent literature website. These were resources that I had used personally for school work, and in my extra-curricular reading. ‘What an amazing opportunity!’ I thought, ‘to be involved in the research behind one of my favourite websites for the subject I love most ‒ perfect!’

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Oliver and Andrea by the King’s Library

I entered the British Library like a puppy, excited to an almost embarrassing degree, gawking at the deep browns, reds and greens that seemed to radiate from the tower of King George III’s books. My line manager Andrea Varney made me feel welcome immediately, giving me an opportunity to discuss what I had been reading, and why I love literature.

My tasks throughout the placement included: helping with school workshops; providing feedback on the Discovering Literature website; creating a guide for the ongoing Russian Revolution exhibition. I decided that my guide would be targeted towards students who had just finished their GCSEs and were looking to begin A Level History next year. I used the sources in the exhibition to form the basis of A Level style questions that would challenge students, and encourage historical debate, with an emphasis on analysis and evaluation. To my giddy pleasure, my guide was quite a success, and I was fortunate enough to have it read by the exhibition curators themselves. In the school workshops I was given the opportunity to experience the way the Library inspires young people with its amazing collection. It was a particular pleasure to see the awestruck faces of students surrounding an original version of the Magna Carta from 1215. Providing my perspective on the Discovering Literature website was also very enjoyable, as I was able to witness first-hand the work that goes into producing these extensive resources.

There were many highlights during my work experience. One was a Library tour, where I learned all kinds of pithy statements which I would later reel off to impress relatives and my dad’s work colleagues in London, such as: ‘The Library boasts a collection of 150 million items’, and ‘Every year the shelf-space required for new publications increases by 12 kilometres’. Another was to peruse an early dictionary with edits by Dr Samuel Johnson himself ‒- being the child that I am, I was quick to note down the definition of ‘belch’ and ‘belly-worm’.

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Bellygods, Bellyrolls and Belly-worms in Samuel Johnson’s annotated Dictionary C_45_k_3_vol1_BEL_BEL

Also, leafing through the first illustrated edition of Paradise Lost from 1688 was particularly thrilling. However, perhaps what I enjoyed most was the opportunity to discuss literature and art with a group of people who were equally obsessed with books. Everybody was so welcoming and lovely, and certainly made me feel at home far away from the fields of Dorset.

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Satan in the first illustrated edition of Paradise Lost, 1688

My week at the British Library has to be one of the best weeks in my life so far (and I am making every effort not to exaggerate to a ridiculous extent). The opportunity to be independent in London, immerse myself in what I love, and surround myself with wonderful and interesting people, has given me a definite idea of what I want to do in the future. I can't wait to return for my own research.

Oliver Stockley

01 November 2017

Robert Aickman: Strange Stories in the Archive

On the 10th November the British Library will be hosting Even Stranger Things: A Night for Robert Aickman. It will be an uncanny evening of readings and discussion to mark the arrival of Robert Aickman’s archive at the British Library. The archive has now been catalogued and this blog explores some of the riches to be found in the collection.

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Many know Aickman the conservationist, who dedicated much of his life to saving the British canal system and co-founded the Inland Waterways Association in 1946. But many also know Aickman the writer, author of 54 short stories, 3 novels, 2 autobiographies, numerous articles, and other works that remain unpublished.

His archive reflects all stages of Aickman’s literary career, from the very early days to his death in 1981. For most of his literary output, it is possible to see the different stages of Aickman’s creation process: a holograph manuscript, a corrected typescript and/or a final clean typescript. This makes the collection an invaluable resource for those interested in his writing technique and style.

Examples of his early writing include essays, plays and poems composed during his time at Highgate School (early 1930s), and many articles from the 1940s, when Aickman started writing theatre and drama reviews for the periodical The Nineteenth Century and After (he became their dramatic critic in 1945) and film reviews for The Jewish Monthly.

Aickman’s most popular creation are his short stories, or ‘strange stories’ as he preferred to call them - the term ‘ghost stories’ he thought ‘unsatisfactory’. Fifty-three of them are included in the archive (the one missing is Ringing the Change), as well a few unpublished and unfinished stories.

In addition to his two published novels and autobiographies, the British Library holds manuscripts of Aickman’s only unpublished novel entitled ‘Go Back at Once’, written in 1975, and his philosophical work ‘Panacea’, which Aickman wrote in 1936 but never succeeded in getting published.

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Title page of We Are for the Dark, Aickman’s first collection of stories, with Elizabeth Jane Howard, 1951. The working title 'Ghost Stories for Women' and Aickman's pen name Robert Vigo are crossed out - Add MS 89209/1/70 Reproduced with the kind permission of the Estate of Robert Aickman

Aickman’s work as editor is also reflected in the archive: typescripts of his first collection of stories We are for The Dark, produced in collaboration with Elizabeth Jane Howard and published in 1951, and 8 more collections, some of which were never published. Most notably, Aickman edited The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories from 1964 to 1972.

 

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First page of holograph manuscript of Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal [1971] - Add MS 892092/1/37 Reproduced with the kind permission of the Estate of Robert Aickman

The collection also includes the author’s literary correspondence, which provides fascinating insights into his creative mind and his views on writing. Aickman kept carbon copies of most of the letters he wrote (on bright pink paper). Amongst others, he corresponded with many fellow authors from the U.K. and the U.S., including Lady Cynthia Asquith, L.P. Hartley, Ramsey Campbell, T.E.D. Klein, and Russel Kirk.

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Letter from RA to Lady Cynthia Asquith (at James Barrie Publishers) sending her some of his stories, 9 Feb 1955 - Add MS 892092/4/36 Reproduced with the kind permission of the Estate of Robert Aickman

Three letters are particularly revealing:

  • In December 1975, Aickman writes a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in which he compares ghost stories to poetry as ‘they enlarge not merely the imagination but also some other less definable aspect of the reader’s being’. ‘Nothing’ he adds ‘is more lethal to the effect that a ghost story should make than for the author to provide alternative materialist solution. This reduces a poem to a puzzle and confines the reader’s spirit instead of enlarging it’ (ref. no. Add MS 89209/4/55).
  • In a letter to literary agent Carol Smith, in August 1976, he distinguishes between ‘entertainers’ who ‘write for a specific market’ and ‘artists’ who ‘ write in response to a voice inside them which they cannot control beyond a certain point – which indeed, almost dictates to them, an experience that has several times came my way and which regularly produces one’s best work (such as Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal)’ - This was officially recognised as one of Aickman’s best stories and won the World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1975 (ref. no. Add MS 89209/4/57).
  • And finally, in a letter to Ramsey Campbell in June 1978 he writes: ‘I always read each story aloud to a selected person after it has been completed; and thereafter usually revise various things which came to light only by that process. After these revisions, I generally read the story aloud to some other selected person…There is nothing like reading aloud for the tidying up of stylistic shortcomings’ (ref. no. Add MS 89209/4/59).

Large part of Aickman’s correspondence is with his American literary agent, Kirby McCauley, who became his good friend and great admirer. McCauley successfully got some of his stories published in the United States, by Charles Scribner’s Son.

In the U.K., Aickman was initially represented by Herbert (Bertie) Van Thal who wrote to him in 1963 after reading his story Ringing the Changes. According to Felix Pearson, Aickman’s literary executor, this was the turning point in his writing career: Aickman sent his novel The Late Breakfaster, previously refused by many publishers, to Van Thal who managed to get it published in 1964.

Aickman’s personal correspondence includes letters from Lord Douglas, who he met in 1941, Peter Scott, who was involved with the Inland Waterways Association, and actress Margaret Rawlings.

A smaller portion of the archive contains papers relating to the literary agency which Aickman named Richard Marsh Ltd., in honour of his grandfather, author of the supernatural novel The Beetle (1897). Aickman set up the agency in 1944 with his wife, Edith Ray Gregorson, who left her job at the World Press Feature agency and took some of the clients with her, including the caricaturist and cartoonist Victor Weisz, known as Vicky. Partners in the agency were also photographer Howard Coaster and his wife.

There are also family papers in the collection, which include some correspondence of Richard Marsh, typescripts of some of his short stories, and part of the holograph manuscript of his novel The Beetle. The posthumous papers included in the collection are helpful in understanding how Aickman was viewed by his friends and colleagues.

If Aickman the writer was perhaps not sufficiently appreciated during his lifetime, his archive opens up many opportunities to bring back to life some of his best stories and the man who was behind them.

by Silvia Gallotti, Manuscripts Cataloguer 

12 October 2017

Discovering Literature: 20th century drama

‘I visited this play last night and endured two hours of angry boredom’; ‘A piece quite without drama and with very little meaning’. This was one audience member’s summary of the first London production of Waiting for Godot  â€“ now regarded as Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece of 20th century drama. This wasn’t, however, the opinion of just any regular audience member – but an examiner for the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which until 1968 examined and licensed all plays for public performance. Heriot was called on to review the play in production following a letter of complaint from Lady Howitt, who was appalled by the play’s ‘lavatory references’ (f. 8r) and wanted it banned. According to Heriot, audience members ‘fled, never to return’ – except for ‘a sprinkling of young persons in slacks and Marlon Brando pullovers with (according to sex) horsetails or fringes’.

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© Crown copyright

This is just one of the stories that you can find on the new 20th-century theatre phase of our free educational resource, Discovering Literature, which launched earlier this month. From production photographs of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey to manuscript drafts of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, the website draws on the British Library’s rich literary and theatrical archives to examine the work of 14 key dramatists. Aimed at A Level students, teachers and undergraduates, as well as the general public, this phase of Discovering Literature aims to show the developments and innovations on the British stage over the course of the century – which saw playwrights and practitioners breaking new ground with the subjects and characters they portrayed, and the forms and styles they experimented with.

We’ve digitised over 100 collection items, from manuscript drafts – offering fascinating glimpses into the creative processes behind the plays – to contemporary production photographs, reports from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, reviews, posters and programmes, which help to shed light on the plays’ cultural, historical and political contexts.

Highlights online for the first time include:

  • Manuscript of A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney, written when she was 19 and typed on her employer’s notepaper, on a borrowed typewriter. You can view the entire original manuscript of the play, and discover the notes and changes made by Delaney and Joan Littlewood, director of Theatre Workshop.

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Orphan work licence

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Orphan work licence

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© the Sir Terence Rattigan Charitable Trust

  • Script extracts from Oh What a Lovely War, with notes and rewrites by Joan Littlewood that reveal how the show evolved through a process of discussion, improvisation and experimentation by Littlewood, Gerry Raffles and members of the Theatre Workshop cast, in collaboration with Charles Chilton.

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© Joan Littlewood Estate

  • One of several unpublished draft typescripts of The Black Jacobins, C L R James’s 1967 play about the Haitian Revolution.

In addition, we have partnered with institutions including the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, the Beckett International Foundation at the University of Reading and the J B Priestley Archive at the University of Bradford, to showcase archive material from different collections held in the UK and US. Highlights include:

  • John Osborne’s notebook for Look Back in Anger (held by the Harry Ransom Center), featuring title ideas for the play including ‘My Blood is a Mile High’, ‘Farewell to Anger’, ‘Angry Man’ and ‘Man in a Rage’ before Osborne hit on the iconic ‘Look Back in Anger’.
  • Letter from a young J B Priestley, sent from the front line during World War One (held by the University of Bradford). Priestley’s wartime experiences shaped his awareness of class division and injustice, which would greatly influence his political life and his writing in later life.

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© The Estate of J.B. Priestley. © J.B. Priestley Archive, Special Collections, University of Bradford.

Alongside this digitised collection material, you’ll find 40 newly-commissioned articles by leading scholars, critics, directors and curators. Michael Billington explores Oh What a Lovely War and The Birthday Party, Yvonne Brewster reflects on forming Talawa Theatre Company and producing The Black Jacobins, Jeanette Winterson writes on the impact of Shelagh Delaney and A Taste of Honey, and Dan Rebellato considers Look Back in Anger. We’ve also covered influential theatre practitioners and genres, ranging from Brecht to, more recently, the work of Punchdrunk .

There are new interviews, too. We spoke with Max Stafford-Clark about directing Top Girls and Our Country’s Good at the Royal Court in the 1980s, and created film interviews with actor Murray Melvin, who reflects on his experiences starring in the original and ground-breaking Theatre Workshop productions of A Taste of Honey and Oh What a Lovely War.

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© Estate of J V Spinner (born in Walthamstow).

Lastly, teachers should also find our teaching resources area helpful. These downloadable resources offer a range of ideas for how to use the digitised collection items and articles in the classroom.

This new phase of material joins our existing site on 20th century poets and novelists, which went live in May 2016. Discovering Literature first launched in 2014, focussing on Romantic and Victorian literature, and the resource continues to grow, with the ultimate aim being to cover the backbone of English Literature from Beowulf to the present day – and to use our collection to enrich the study and enjoyment of literature.

Explore more: www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature

Katie Adams, Content Manager: Digital Learning