THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

20 posts categorized "Discovering Literature"

05 May 2017

Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance Writers

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by Tamara Tubb, Research Curator, and Andrea Varney, Researcher and Writer.

Our website, Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance Writers brings together a selection of British Library treasures and newly commissioned articles that shed light on the social, spiritual and supernatural settings of some the Renaissance period’s most engaging works. The site, which initially focussed on Shakespeare’s plays, first launched in 2016 and has now been expanded  with a wealth of new content on a wider range of writers and works, including Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Edward II, Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poetry of John Donne, and Ben Jonson’s Volpone and The Alchemist.

On the site, key literary works of the English Renaissance are explored through their cultural contexts: you can read about the real women who inspired John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1623) and learn more about ground-breaking texts such as Emilia Lanier’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), the first feminist publication in English.

One of the central figures of the English Renaissance, Christopher Marlowe is often seen as the wild-boy of Elizabethan literature. His turbulent life and violent death have prompted many comparisons with the radical hero-villains of his plays, from the blasphemous Doctor Faustus who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for magical powers, to the love-struck King Edward II, undone by passion for his male favourites. For the first time, we’ve put online an infamous note from the spy Richard Baines, making damning accusations that Marlowe was an ‘Atheist’ with too much love ‘for Tobacco & Boies’. We’ll probably never know if these claims are true, but we’ve digitised many other items to capture the spiritual, sexual and political worlds that shaped Marlowe’s drama.

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Richard Baines seems to take pleasure in characterising Marlowe as the most outrageous of atheists, Harley MS 6848, f. 85v.

Our section on Doctor Faustus shows the tension, in Marlowe’s day, between thrilling belief in magic and faith that God would punish anyone who claimed supernatural powers. An article by Eric Rasmussen and Ian DeJong asks whether the play condemns Faustus’s sin or relishes his superhuman ambition. There’s also a treasure trove of items relating to John Dee, the real Elizabethan magician who insisted that he had holy aims but was accused of sorcery. Dee’s handwritten guide to magic, De Heptarchia Mystica (1582) records his attempts to summon angels through his medium Edward Kelley. But there’s also a petition to James I (1604), in which Dee is forced to deny that he’s an ‘Invocator of Divels’.

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John Dee claims that Prince Hagonel appeared to him with 42 ministers, represented in the manuscript by seven rows of six dots, Sloane MS 3191, f. 40v.

The section on Edward II reveals the king as a focus for centuries of heated debate about same-sex love, homophobia, duty and self-fulfilment.  An illuminated manuscript, Jean de Wavrin’s Recueil des Croniques d’Engleterre (1471–1483), has a beautiful miniature painting of Edward’s marriage to Isabella of France in 1308, but the French text beneath it betrays the king’s love of his favourite, Piers Gaveston. Over five centuries later, Derek Jarman made his wonderfully eclectic sketchbooks for a 1991 film inspired by Marlowe’s Edward II. They show Jarman making connections between the tragic medieval king and his own experiences as a gay man in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.

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The marriage of Edward II and Isabella of France, Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 295v.

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Derek Jarman’s ‘Queer’ Sketchbook for his film of Edward II (1991), f. 2a.

Like Marlowe, Ben Jonson didn’t play by the rules. Known to his contemporaries as a braggart, a drunk and a hothead, he had multiple run-ins with the law and served several stints in prison – once even escaping execution for murder because of a legal loophole. Jonson’s lived experiences, and his interest in the criminal underworld, are apparent in the shady characters that populate his city comedies Volpone and The Alchemist. The seamy underbelly of Jonson’s London is explored on the website through rogue pamphlets (the Renaissance equivalent to modern tabloid newspapers and gossip columns), which expose the various scams and deceptions of contemporary criminals and confidence tricksters. A Caveat for Common Cursetors (1567) is especially interesting because it includes a dictionary of criminal cant, or slang.

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Dictionary of ‘pelting speche’, A Caveat for Common Cursetors (1567), Sig. G3v

The confidence tricksters in The Alchemist dupe their (comically irksome and chronically unlikable) victims into ‘investing’ their money in an alchemy scam. In order to dig deeper into the scam, and understand alchemy as a serious scientific subject, we’ve published online for the first time images from a beautifully illustrated medieval manuscript, The Ordinal of Alchemy (1477).

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Alchemists at work in a laboratory, The Ordinall of Alchymy (1477), f. 37v

Also explored on the site are the ways in which Jonson, and other Renaissance poets such as Donne and Shakespeare, adapted literary conventions in order to create their own distinct styles. Volpone is a fusion of classical mythology, medieval morality and original Jonsonian comedic flair, which, when combined, created an innovative new theatrical form. Volpone borrows from works such as Aesop’s Fables, of which Caxton’s first English edition (1484) is digitised on site, as well as medieval plays rooted in religious beliefs, such as Everyman, in which vice and virtue go head to head for the audience’s moral benefit.

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The fable of ‘the raven and the fox’, in Aesop’s Fables printed by William Caxton (1484), f. xxxviii

The rich collection of sources relating to John Donne reveals how his poems were changed by the different forms in which they were first read. His racy ‘Elegy: To his Mistress Going to Bed’ becomes all the more enticing when we know that it was banned from the first print edition of 1633, but included in private anthologies like the Newcastle Manuscript. At the same time, print seems to open up new playful possibilities for one of Donne’s most famous poems. In her analysis of ‘The Flea’, Aviva Dautch suggests how the third line, ‘Me it suck'd first’, is altered when the printed long ‘s’ looks exactly like an ‘f’. 

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‘The Flea’ as it was first printed in 1633, with the long ‘s’ looking like an ‘f’, G.11415, p. 230.

The section surrounding John Webster’s blood-soaked tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, invites you to examine the role of women in Renaissance culture. Dympna Callaghan’s article ‘The Duchess of Malfi and Renaissance women’ places Webster's character in the context of contemporary drama, politics, and discourses about widows and female sexuality. Items connected to Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I and their close relation Lady Arbella Stuart present context, and contemporaneous inspiration, for the character of the Duchess - a powerful woman in her own right who nevertheless struggled to have it all: love, family and a career.

The Duchess of Malfi section also includes original early modern texts on werewolves, shape shifting and the supernatural.

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Werewolf pamphlet: The Damnable Life and Death of Stubbe Peeter, (1590).

The Renaissance Writers phase is the latest to be added to the broader Discovering Literature website, which will continue to expand in the near future to include literature from Beowulf to the present day.

05 January 2017

Lessons in Vampires and the Gothic

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by guest blogger Emma McEvoy Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Westminster

Last year, the British Library launched a new adult learning programme, providing short courses that bring together guest specialists, Library curators and its unique collections.

I was invited by the Library to develop a pilot course exploring Gothic literature in context, which ran in April and May. For five evenings we explored and debated a range of texts from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and considered the development of Gothic through a variety of media and over a couple of centuries. We also encountered a wonderful array of collection items with curator Greg Buzwell, from Walpole’s own copy of Otranto to Bram Stoker’s cut-and-pasted and handwritten playscript for Dracula.

Following the success of Gothic the Library commissioned a second course to start at Halloween, and I decided that Vampires would make a suitable follow-up. Vampires are undoubtedly glamorous (despite their inauspicious beginnings as something more closely related to what we’d consider a zombie), and they have a sturdy literary history to their name (though sometimes – as is arguably the case in Coleridge’s Christabel – the name isn’t one that is mentioned). 

Gothic course

On Gothic I had been the sole academic lead but for Vampires, I decided to invite three other academics with expertise in the field to share the teaching. Professor Alexandra Warwick talked on ‘Vampires, Victorians and Women’, Dr Stacey Abbott introduced us to ‘The Cinematic Spectacle of Vampirism’, and Dr Catherine Spooner discussed ‘Contemporary Vampires: Comedy and Romance’. In our final session we were joined again by curator Greg Buzwell, who talked us through some other exciting items from the Library’s collections.

So on 27 October, I was back in the Library’s Learning Centre to start a five-week exploration of vampires. As with the Gothic course we had a nice mix of participants, with a variety of working backgrounds and interests (postcolonialism, folk horror and the Double, for example) to bring to the discussion.

I led the first session, in which we looked at vampire texts from the Romantic period. We started by examining early 18th-century newspaper reports on the vampire panic, before turning to the often-quoted passage from Dom Augustin Calmet’s treatise (on angels, demons, spirits etc).

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Dom Augustin Calmet (engraved 1750)

(To my mind, Calmet – Catholic writer on vampire lore – is an early prototype of Stoker’s Van Helsing.) After this, we sprinted through some vampire texts from German literature – marvelling at how early some of the enduring motifs are established. Already in 1748, for instance, Ossenfelder’s short poem “The Vampire” associates erotic love with vampirism and pits the power of a mother against the vampire lover. Needless to say, in these cases, mothers seldom win. Fathers do occasionally, but – as in the case of Carmilla – it’s rather a pyrrhic victory. 

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Carmilla image by D M Friston from The Dark Blue (1872)

It was interesting to see the strands that were to recur throughout the course. Christabel, unsurprisingly, refused to be quietened.  The cross-fertilization with the German tradition was apparent, not just in the first seminar but in the third, when Stacey showed us extracts from Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and pointed out that some of those working on early Hollywood vampire films were German emigrés with roots in Expressionist cinema.  Both Alex and Catherine talked about the anxieties provoked by the figure of the female reader/viewer – in relation to Victorian novels and Twilight, respectively.  It’s interesting that the figure of the female fan can be encountered in one of the first British mentions of the vampire phenomenon – in a report in The Craftsman in May, 1732. What struck me as another prominent vein (apologies) in vampire representation is the melding of literary tradition with the idea of celebrity and biography. Polidori’s literary success (though he was repeatedly not credited for it, see the image below) was achieved by drawing not only on literary tradition (including Byron’s own myth-making) but also on celebrity gossip.  (He also, of course, drew on Byron’s ghost-story idea).  Clement and Waititi’s vampire house-share mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which we looked at in Catherine’s session, is one of the latest examples.

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1884 edition of Polidori’s (not Byron’s) “The Vampyre”

One of the best aspects of an evening short course is that everyone has chosen to take it out of interest and for enjoyment – no one is having to worry about formal assessment. I was struck by how much productive conversation takes place at the tea break. People not only start swapping text recommendations, and drawing in references to things they’ve recently seen or heard, but will also try out ideas that might feel too ‘large’ to raise in the slightly more formal seminar setting. Wandering towards a tea-table liberates a lot of thought. There were lots of high points.  I particularly enjoyed the ire that the revelation scene from Twilight provoked.  Everyone seemed to love hating it. Dreyer’s Vampyr, on the other hand, went down very well.

Our final session was the one I was looking forward to most. Having experienced Greg Buzwell’s sessions for the Gothic course (and having visited the Library’s Terror and Wonder exhibition that he’d curated), I knew that some really fascinating works would be brought out and that Greg would instigate some lively discussion. I was not to be disappointed.  Amongst many other items, there was a map of Transylvania used by Stoker for plotting the action in Dracula, the volume containing the celebrated wood-cut of Vlad the Impaler, and some wonderfully lurid (and censored) artwork in Kine Weekly (January 1970) [LOU.1575 1970] for The Vampire Lovers (1970).

For me – and for many of the students – the highlight was Byron’s letter referring to the Diodati happenings, with its vigorous underlining of all the allegations Bryon is supposed to be refuting – “incest” and “promiscuous intercourse”.

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 Letter from Lord Byron to John Murray  15 May 1819 © GG Byron. Ashley MS 4740

by Emma McEvoy Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Westminster

For more information on adult courses, visit www.bl.uk/events/adult-learning-courses

14 November 2016

Treasures of the British Library: Zephaniah meets Shelley

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By Alexander Lock, Curator Modern Archives & MSS 1851-1950

The British Library has recently teamed up with Nutshell TV and Sky Arts to produce an entertaining television series in which six famous faces (Lord Robert Winston, Julia Donaldson, Meera Syal, Jamie Cullum and Benjamin Zephaniah) take a personal tour of the British Library’s fascinating collections, identifying the treasures that most interest them and speak to their work. Each episode of Treasures of the British Library follows one celebrity and it was my pleasure to show the poet, author and musician Benjamin Zephaniah some of our collections that told a very personal story about his hero, the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).

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Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, oil on canvas, 1819, NPG 1234. © National Portrait Gallery, London

A gifted poet, political radical, outcast, and early advocate of vegetarianism, Percy Bysshe Shelley had long been admired by Zephaniah as a man with whom he shared certain affinities; in particular it was Shelley’s revolutionary attitudes and his passionate opposition to injustice that inspired Zephaniah and his approach to writing. For Zephaniah:

“Shelley’s my man. If he were alive now he wouldn’t be sitting in an ivory tower only leaving to attend the odd literature festival, he would be demonstrating against the exploitation of the third world and performing at the Glastonbury festival…I used to think of Shelley as just another one of those dead white poets who wrote difficult poetry for difficult people, but then I learnt how dedicated he was to justice and the liberation of the poor. He probably saw very few black people but he was passionately against the slave trade. It was this that turned me on to Shelley, his humanity, passion, and his rock and roll attitude. His ability to connect poetry to the concerns of everyday people was central to his poetic purpose, and those everyday people overstood that he did not simply do arts for art’s sake, this was arts that was uncompromisingly revolutionary, he wrote for the masses. No TV, no radio, no Internet, but his poetry was being quoted on the streets and chanted at demonstration, not only did Shelley know the power of poetry, more importantly he knew the power of the people.”

Given the range of unique and fascinating manuscript material The British Library holds relating to the life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley it was difficult for us to decide what would be best to show Benjamin. For instance, we could have shown him the original autograph draft of ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, a radical political poem Shelley wrote in response to the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819, or his notebook containing his famous poems ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ and ‘Mont Blanc’. Though these would have been fascinating items to show Zephaniah, particularly given their literary and political content, in the end it was decided to show Benjamin something much more provocative.

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 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, autograph draft, 1819, The British Library, Ashley MS 4086.

Instead, Benjamin Zephaniah was shown a letter Shelley had written 6 days after his first wife, Harriet Westbrook (1795-1816), was ‘found drowned’ after committing suicide in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park. The letter was addressed to his mistress Mary Godwin (1797-1851), whom he would marry just 3 weeks later. The letter shows a very different Shelley from the Romantic rebel he is usually represented as. Shelley had left a heartbroken Harriet (who was pregnant with their second child) for Mary Godwin two years earlier in July 1814. Mary was the gifted daughter of the radical political philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) and early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). In the intervening years, Shelley’s relationship with Harriet soured and he became increasingly cruel towards her.

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Percy Bysshe Shelley to Mary Godwin, 15 December 1816, The British Library, Ashley MS 5021. © Estate of Percy Bysshe Shelley & Harriet Shelley.

On 9 November 1816 Harriet departed her lodgings, leaving behind her a farewell letter for Shelley. She was not seen again until her body was pulled from the Serpentine on 10 December. As the letter shows, Shelley’s initial reaction to Harriet’s suicide was to deny any blame. He wrote to Mary:

Everything tends to prove, however, that beyond the mere shock of so hideous a catastrophe having fallen on a human being once so nearly connected with me, there would, in any case have been little to regret. Hookham, Longdill ― everyone does me full justice; ― bears testimony to the uprightness & liberality of my conduct to her...

Shelley’s letter also revealed that he believed Harriet had ‘descended the steps of prostitution until she lived with a groom of the name of Smith’ who deserted her, although there was no evidence which corroborated this assertion.

Benjamin Zephaniah was initially shocked by this letter and the apparent disregard Shelley showed towards his first wife. It raised questions about the relationship between the artist and their art and whether audiences should judge a work on its own merits or in relation to the lived experiences of its creator. Though Zephaniah was unsettled by the revelations in the letter he still considered Shelley to be a literary hero for the works he produced and causes he supported. The letter is a difficult read but helped demonstrate that no one is perfect in their private lives (even great writers) and gave Benjamin Zephaniah a more rounded understanding of Shelley’s complex character.    

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Benjamin Zephaniah with Alexander Lock, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts, during filming at The British Library

Treasures of the British Library will be broadcast on Sky Arts at 21.00 on Tuesdays until 22 November 2016.

14 October 2016

Angela Carter and the Visual Imagination

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I was too young to see The Company of Wolves when it first came out in 1984. Consequently, until the film appeared on video, I had to make do with reading the reviews in newspapers and admiring the stills reproduced in film magazines. The stills were remarkable, full of fairy-tale imagery run riot. One shot showed a banqueting scene in which ornately dressed guests had developed lupine faces; another showed a cluster of eggs lying in a nest, one of which had cracked from top to bottom to reveal a baby. Perhaps most memorably of all one still depicted a wolf’s snout, all sleek and furred, emerging from a man’s mouth - the beast within made manifest. Inspired by the lush Gothic imagery of the film (I’ve always believed that if Gothic is worth doing it’s worth over doing, it’s a genre that thrives on excess – I’m all for velvet drapes, icy-mists and all round spectacular flamboyance when it comes to Gothic) I sought out The Bloody Chamber, the volume containing the short story that provided the inspiration for the film. And so I discovered the world of Angela Carter – 'Feminist', 'Magic Realist', 'Gothic author', 're-worker of fairy tales' and generally someone to whom a seemingly endless stream of labels have been applied over the years, all of which tell part of the story but none of which do the breadth of her work and her imagination justice.

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(Angela Carter by Fay Godwin © British Library Board)

Perhaps as a result of this early exposure to Neil Jordan’s film adaptation Angela Carter’s work has always, to my mind, possessed something of a cinematic quality. Jean Luc Goddard and Frederico Felline were clearly influences but I often like to imagine that there is possibly a dash of Hammer Horror lurking in the shadows behind some of her stories. In her final novel, Wise Children, Carter had explored the way in which high art and low, Shakespeare and music hall for example, often become entwined. Given such an outlook surely it’s possible to speculate that films like The Curse of the Werewolf, The Brides of Dracula and The Kiss of the Vampire might have played a part in the genesis of stories such as ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and ‘The Lady of the House of Love’. I like to think so, no matter how fanciful such a notion may be on my part. Still, true or not, I’ve always been pleased that I came to Carter’s work via film.

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(Poster for The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan and with a screenplay by Neil Jordan and Angela Carter)

‘Dying’, as Gore Vidal once gloomily remarked, is often ‘a good career move’ and in the year following Carter's death in 1992 the British Academy received over forty proposals for doctoral research into her work. Sadly, in art as in life a person’s influence and worth often only really become apparent once they have gone. Angela Carter’s tragically early death propelled her work into the limelight. Almost twenty five years later, and with Edmund Gordon’s eagerly awaited The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography now in the bookshops, the fascination and admiration surrounding her work continues to grow from strength to strength. In a sense Carter’s work achieves that rare but perfect balance – simultaneously adored by academia for its insight, depth and invention but maintaining popular appeal due to its fabulous characters, storylines and sheer exuberance.

The British Library holds Angela Carter’s archive, a resource that consists of a wealth of manuscript material including diaries, notebooks, letters, drafts of novels, outlines for short stories and research notes. Each part of the archive offers a fascinating glimpse into Carter’s life and work but, for those with a love of her fiction, perhaps the most revealing items are the notebooks in which she recorded her research and worked on ideas that later became fully developed episodes in her books.

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(Above Add. MS 88899/1/11, a page of Angela Carter’s notes for Nights at the Circus. © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter).

Shown above, by way of example, is a page from one of her notebooks in which she outlines her initial thoughts about the character of Sophie Fevvers from the novel Nights at the Circus (1984). It is fascinating to see the character in embryo, and to be able to explore how layer upon layer of idea, imagination and imagery is built up until Fevvers, a six-foot-two trapeze artist with wings, emerges complete in the published book. The genesis from notebook to novel took many drafts and, as can be seen below in this page of an early draft of the opening chapter the re-workings of the text continually grow and evolve rather than emerge fully formed.

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(Add. MS 88899/1/12. Early draft of the opening scenes from Nights at the Circus. © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter).

Carter’s notebooks are a continual delight, and looking through their pages offers a unique insight into the creative process. In a way it is the literary equivalent of siting in a studio with an artist as they work on a painting, seeing the successive sketches and layers of paint as they are applied until the finished portrait appears. You don’t often get the chance in life to see creative genius in action, but Carter’s archive does give us one such opportunity to see exactly that.

Much more about Angela Carter’s archive and work can be found on the Discovering Literature: 20th Century website, with examples from her notebooks relating to Nights at the Circus being available, together with examples of the early drafts of the novel . The British Library, in partnership with the Royal Society of Literature, will also be hosting an event - Angela Carter: A Celebration - on November 24th 2016. Nearly 25 years after her death Angela Carter is more relevant than ever.

25 May 2016

Discovering Literature: 20th Century is launched!

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We are delighted to announce that the 20th century phase of the Library’s free educational resource has been launched today! The website which is aimed at A-level, undergraduate students and the general public, uses archival and printed sources to shed lights on the historical, political and cultural contexts in which key literary works were created. The launch of the 20th century phase follows on from the very successful 19th century module, ‘Romantics and Victorians’ that was launched in 2014 and the Shakespeare module which came out in March of this year.

The 20th century phase sees over 300 literary treasures being made available online for the first time. High resolution images of literary drafts, first editions, letters, notebooks, diaries, newspapers and photographs from Virginia Woolf, Ted Hughes, Angela Carter, J.G. Ballard and others provide a wonderful insight into the creative process of some of the most influential and innovative writers and poets of the 20th century. The site focuses predominately on 15 key literary figures of the 20th century - Wilfred Owen, E.M. Forster, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Daphne du Maurier, George Orwell, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Angela Carter, J.G. Ballard, E.R. Braithwaite and Hanif Kureishi.

I am sure that people will be excited to see the original handwritten literary drafts many of which differ from later published editions. These include drafts of Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf under its original title ‘The Hours’ and George Orwell’s literary notebook in which he recorded his ideas for what would later become Nineteen Eighty-Four . An earlier title for Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters ‘The Sorrows of the Deer’ can also be found in successive drafts of the poet’s work on one of his most famous poetry collections.

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Draft of 'St Botolph's' from Add MS 88918/1/6 © Ted Hughes Estate and reproduced with their kind permission. For further use of this material please seek formal permission from the copyright holder.

Alongside these original drafts you will be able to read letters and diaries of the period, and look at old photographs and newspaper cuttings that provide a real context for the literary creations broadening our understanding of the world in which the writers were living and working. The innovative ways in which the works were created often challenged contemporary audiences whether those audiences were made up of other authors or the general public. A good example of this is George Bernard Shaw’s letter to Sylvia Beach in which he gives his not altogether flattering opinion of James Joyce’s Ulysses. As well as commenting on the work of others letters and diaries also illustrate the hopes, doubts and aspirations of writers, particularly early in their career. In his letter to Sydney Schiff whilst he was working on ‘The Waste Land’ T.S. Eliot writes to thank Schiff for his comments saying -

‘You could not have used words which would have given more pleasure or have so persuaded me that the poem may possibly communicate something of which it intends’.

Similarly in a diary entry from 1959 Ted Hughes writes of waiting nervously to find out if he has received the Guggenheim prize for this first poetry collection, Hawk in the Rain. Whilst we can look back with hindsight on such events it is a real privilege to be able to read of the poet’s own feelings so early in his writing career.

This blog can only go some way to whet your appetite about the website but please don’t take my word for it do have a look for yourself! In addition to having everything from Wilfred Owen’s poetry drafts and Woolf’s travel writings to J.G. Ballard’s evocative Crash! manuscript and Hanif Kureishi’s drafts of My Beautiful Launderette the site also has a series of articles on the writers, their work and wider 20th century literature, short documentary films and teachers notes all free and available for everyone.

22 February 2016

The fairy tale queen: Angela Carter

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Last week marked the date in 1992 when Angela Carter passed away. Her legacy of genre defying and boundry pushing written work survives her and continues to inspire writers, feminists and thinkers to this day. Here at the British Library we preserve her archival papers, including drafts relating to her fiction and non-fiction writing, and make them available to researchers.

Up until a few weeks before her death she was working on the second volume of The Virago Book of Fairy Tales. The anthology contains fairy tales and folk tales from a widely diverse range of cultures and countries. Some are versions of stories we know well, some are more obscure, some are simply bizarre. It is a collection in which you truly never know what will happen next and that makes you wonder if there really is a fairy tale ‘formula’. Certainly Carter herself seems to have taken the view that the fairy tale genre is designed to defy and stretch the imagination and the human experience, rather than contain it.

None of her works demonstrate this as well as her collection The Bloody Chamber and other short stories which included re-imaginings of traditional fairy tales. I took a closer look at the manuscript drafts for The Bloody Chamber (1975-1979), to see what the creation process of these tales could tell us about the inspiring quality of these stories.

In January Neil Gaiman referred to his experience of reading The Bloody Chamber, describing how Carter seemed to be saying to him “You see these fairy stories, these things that are sitting at the back of the nursery shelves? Actually, each one of them is loaded gun. Each of them is a bomb. Watch: if you turn it right it will blow up”.  It was an interview about his own latest fairy tale re-telling The Sleep and the Spindle. When asked about his favourite fairy tale character, he mentions that reading Carter drew him to Little Red Riding Hood.

Carter’s The Company of Wolves is a drastic re-telling of the story, her Little Red Hiding Hood is a brave, confident, sexually awakened girl. Looking at the annotated drafts in the Angela Carter Archive, we can see how she refined and sharpened some of these striking themes and images which captured Gaiman’s imagination. From the first pages the description of the wolf’s all important eyes is edited from “those twin chill fragments of green moonlight fixed upon the black thickets” to “those green, luminous terrible sequins sewn upon the black thickets”. The second version strengthens and clarifies the imagery. The edits in The Company of Wolves draft often heighten the tension, for example with the simple word edit where ’risk’ becomes ‘danger’ or  ‘vast’ becomes ‘infinite’. In the final draft Carter is clear what her themes are and her edits draw them out more explicitly, for example the addition of the line: “perhaps she was a little disappointed to see only her grandmother sitting beside the fire. But then he flung off the blanket”, inserted between the girl’s entry and the wolf blocking the door. Similarly “he obtained the kiss she owed him” becomes “she freely gave”, giving Carter’s main character the active role and free will along with it.

  Werewolf1
Image taken from page 185 of 'The Child World. [In verse.], illustrated by C. Robinson, by SETOUN, Gabriel - pseud. [i.e. Thomas Nicoll Hepburn.] from BL Flickr, showing a werewolf transforming.

Carter was adept at combining the influences of several tales and creating a new ground-breaking story. She explores the themes and ideas that fascinated her in different stories. The wolf turns up again in ‘Wolf-Alice’ which contains themes from ‘Red Riding Hood’, Beauty and the Beast, and Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. The main character in this story is not named as ‘Wolf- Alice’ until she is looking in mirror “Moonlit and white, wolf-Alice looked at herself in the mirror and wondered whether there she saw the beast who came to bite her in the night”. Her animalistic nature is well described early in the story, once again the edits made in the draft show the sharpening of imagery. For example her physical description here: “the calloused pads of horn on her hands, knees and elbows are caused by her four footed habits” is amended to: “Her elbows, hands and knees are thickly calloused because she always runs on all fours”. The mirror and a white dress, which she stands on two feet to wear, are the means by which Wolf-Alice becomes aware of herself and realises the reflected image is her shadow. 

 

Wolf child1

Image taken from page 93 of 'A history of the United States and its people, for the use of Schools by EGGLESTON, Edward. From BL Flickr, showing a child playing at being a wolf.

Fairy tales and their power to enchant us, are enduring and timeless, as Angela Carter was herself fully aware. In a letter to her publisher Virago (from the Virago Press Archive), regarding her first book of collected fairy tales, she writes: “HOW A HUSBAND WEANED HIS WIFE FROM FAIRY  TALES is the VERY LAST STORY IN THE BOOK, because it is an AWFUL WARNING.” 

Later this year the next stage of Discovering Literature will launch, covering the 20th century and including writers such as Angela Carter, more details to follow.

 

 

 

14 December 2015

An Unrequited Love? Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Constantin Heger

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by Claire Harman, author of the biography Charlotte Brontë: A Life, 2015, written to celebrate the forthcoming 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë's birth. Harman researched Charlotte's life using manuscripts at the British Library.

Of all the hundreds of letters by Charlotte Brontë which have survived, the four to Constantin Heger, her former teacher in Brussels, are the most disturbing to read, as she clearly wrote them in desperation and intended them for his eyes alone. Heger was the first person outside her family to take Brontë seriously as an intellectual, and she had returned from Brussels to Haworth in 1844, convinced that the strong bond she had formed with him would be continued in correspondence. However, the more needy and ardent her letters became, the more Heger drew back into long silences, provoking a sort of panic in the 27-year old writer. In January 1845, she made her feelings explicit:

all I know – is that I cannot – that I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship – I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains that have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets. If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely I shall be absolutely without hope – if he gives me a little friendship – a very little – I shall be content – happy, I would have a motive for living – for working.       Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on – they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich men’s table – but if they are refused these crumbs - they die of hunger -  No more do I need a great deal of affection from those I love – I would not know what to do with a whole and complete friendship – I am not accustomed to it – but you showed a little interest in me in days gone by when I was your pupil in Brussels – and I cling to the preservation of this little interest – I cling to it as I would cling on to life.

Mw00798

Portrait of Charlotte Brontë, by George Richmond, chalk, 1850, NPG 1452 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Perhaps not surprisingly, this made Heger withdraw even further and by the end of the year he had ceased to reply to Charlotte’s letters at all. Her last surviving message, written on 18 November 1845, shows the depths of suffering this caused her:

Your last letter has sustained me – has nourished me for six months – now I need another and you will give it me – not because you have any friendship for me – you cannot have much – but because you have a compassionate soul and because you would not condemn anyone to undergo long suffering in order to spare yourself a few moments of tedium.  […] [S]o long as I think you are fairly pleased with me, so long as I still have the hope of hearing from you, I can be tranquil and not too sad, but when a dreary and prolonged silence seems to warn me that my master is becoming estranged from me – when day after day I await a letter and day after day disappointment flings me down again into overwhelming misery, when the sweet delight of seeing your writing and reading your counsel flees from me like an empty vision – then I am in a fever – I lose my appetite and my sleep – I pine away.  

         When Heger’s family donated these letters to the British Library in 1913, they caused a sensation with the revelation of Brontë’s passionate feelings for her married mentor, but without the other side of the correspondence – Heger’s – it is easy to judge Brontë’s feelings as largely irrational and unprovoked. Heger’s wife Zoe told her daughter Louise that her husband had thrown Miss Brontë’s letters away, but that she had rescued them from the wastebasket and mended the ones that had been torn up with glued paper strips and thread, then carefully preserved them in her jewel box. Her reason for doing this was to have some evidence to prove the strong feeling was all on one side (fearing the damage to her school’s reputation), and the implication was that the tearing and mending was all done soon after Heger received the letters in 1844 and 1845.  Looking at the manuscripts carefully, though, there is plenty of evidence that they were re-folded and retained long enough to acquire staining and dirt marks, so perhaps Heger kept them to himself for quite a long time, even though he never answered them.   

        Meanwhile, Charlotte became a published writer, under her pseudonym ‘Currer Bell’, with Poems (1846), a joint collection with her sisters Emily and Anne (writing as ‘Ellis Bell’ and ‘Acton Bell’) and the following year took the reading world by storm with Jane Eyre, followed by Shirley in 1849 and Villette in 1853 (a novel explicitly modelled on Charlotte’s experiences in Brussels with the Hegers).  When, in 1856, a year after Charlotte’s death, Elizabeth Gaskell went to interview him for her biography, Constantin Heger read her extracts from the letters and copied out some passages for her to use, and in 1869 a friend of the family attested that Heger had shown the letters to his wife’s cousin and ‘told the whole story’.  As Charlotte Brontë became more and more famous in the last decades of the century, perhaps Monsieur reconsidered his association with her and secretly took pride in it.  Clearly, there was a time before she was famous when she seemed nothing but a nuisance or liability. Her last letter to him – unanswered – had contained a humiliating confession by Charlotte of how she had become ‘the slave of a regret, a memory, the slave of a dominant and fixed idea which has become a tyrant over one’s mind’. It must have been left open on Heger’s desk at some time, for along the side of the last page, in pencil, are some local tradesmen’s addresses – one a cobbler. Heger had used Charlotte Brontë’s heartrending cri de coeur as a piece of scrap paper.

You can see digitised images of the four surviving letters from Charlotte to Constantin Heger on the British Library's Discovering Literature website. Charlotte Brontë's bicentenary is in 2016, celebrating her birthday 21st April 1816. You can also view digitised images of the fair copy manuscript of Jane Eyre.

 

03 July 2015

Remembering the 4th of July...

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Carroll lewis alices c03312 08 Additional MS 46700

 

       Tomorrow sees the anniversary of the now world famous boat trip on the River Thames in Oxford, when the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematics don at Oxford University, rowed up the river with the three young daughters of the University’s Vice-Chancellor. The middle child was Alice Liddell, then aged ten.

       Dodgson recorded the trip in his diary for 1862, one of nine volumes of his diaries that are held at the British Library. The details of the rowing trip itself are recorded on folio 15 of his diary:

Dodgson charles vol add ms 54343 f015rAdditional MS 54343

but the page opposite records why the trip turned out to be so important in the history of English literature. As he rowed up the river Dodgson began to tell the girls a story about a bored child called Alice who follows a white rabbit and ends up having a series of surreal adventures. The story, as recorded in Dodgson’s diary, was initially called ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’. One year later, under his pen name of Lewis Carroll, the story was published in an expanded form with the new title Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Dodgson charles vol add ms 54343 f014v  Additional MS 54343

         After the trip, Dodgson had written up the story, painstakingly added his own illustrations, and presented the manuscript to Alice Liddell as a gift, with the dedication: ‘A Christmas Gift to a Dear Child in Memory of a Summer’s Day’. This manuscript is now one of the British Library’s treasures; however, its journey from its original creation to its home in the Library is quite a marvellous tale in itself. Alice Liddell kept the manuscript until 1928 when she was forced to sell it to pay death duties after the death of her husband. The manuscript was sold at auction at Sotheby’s for £15,000 to an American dealer, Dr Rosenbach, who in turn sold it to Eldridge Johnson upon returning to America. Following Johnson’s death in 1946 the manuscript was again sold at auction. This time, however, it was purchased by a wealthy group of benefactors who donated the volume to the British people (and the British Museum) in 1948 in gratitude for their gallantry against Hitler during World War Two.

        This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland and gives us a chance to celebrate and to reflect upon the continuing influence of this much-loved story. The Alice manuscript has just taken a trip back across the Atlantic to be the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Later in the year it will have a short sojourn at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia before returning to us and going on display as part of our Front Hall exhibition which will explore the many ways that the story has been adapted, appropriated, reimaged and re-illustrated since its conception. The exhibition curators will be blogging later in the year as we work towards the launch on 20th November.

       Though if you can’t wait until then to find out more, you can explore this manuscript and much more besides on the British Library’s Discovering Literature website, which you can find at http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/alices-adventures-under-ground-the-original-manuscript-version-of-alices-adventures-in-wonderland