THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

23 posts categorized "Discovering Literature"

11 December 2017

Holy Days and Holidays: Angela Carter’s Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story

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by Callum McKean, Curator, Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. The British Library holds the Angela Carter Archive and you can explore some digitised manuscripts on our Discovering Literature website.

For Angela Carter, many of our apparently banal daily practices orbit around ancient and largely invisible centres of gravity; they are the result of rituals repeated and folk narratives re-told across generations, often unconsciously. Her work looks askance at these invisible – or naturalised – narrative and behavioural forces, and then proceeds to take them apart to see how they work. In her hands, myths and fairy-tales are re-told in such a way as to drag them from the dark, invisible world of the habitual into the lighter realm of the thinkable.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Carter is interested in the idea of the Festival as a rupture in the procession of the Everyday; a moment when social norms are stretched and even overturned, at least temporarily. In her posthumously published ‘Ghost Ships: a Christmas Story’, this conflict takes place in a burgeoning 17th century New England colony which finds itself under silent attack from a larger-than-life pagan armada, where the titular ships re-call a contemporaneous Christmas carol of unknown origin. 

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This reproduction of a 19th Century wood-engraving illustrating the famous Christmas carol, ‘I Saw Three Ships’, shows three intensely colourful and oversized figures aboard ships, bringing music and festivity to the shore in a way comparable to the oversized figures aboard the ships in Carter’s story. (Walter Crane’s Painting Book [1889] YK.2000.b.3201)

 This re-imagination of the folk-song as an attack on puritan sensibilities, where the anticipatory joy of the original song becomes a kind of subliminal violence, is symptomatic of what Carter sees as the paranoid world-view of the New England settlers. The function of music in puritan societies was to help the congregation attain a higher religious ideal. Purely sensual enjoyment was discouraged and severely punished. Songs without basis in scripture, such as carols, came under immediate suspicion; the settlers preferred instead to chant psalms in unison, without instrumentation. ‘The greatest genius of the puritans lay in their ability to sniff out a pagan survival’, Carter writes, ‘they were the stuff of which social anthropologists would be made’.

The irony here, of course, is that peculiarly sensitive noses are at increased risk of ‘sniffing out’ more alluring scents too. Protection from the dangers of the purely sensual came, more often than not in the early colonies, through top-down legislation. ‘Ghost Ships’ begins with such a piece of legislation, an excerpt from a Statute Enacted by the General Court of Massachusetts in May 1659. The Statute itself is real, and still viewable in the Massachussets State Archives. 

Such top-down attempts to purge the so-called New World of its Old World traditions are particularly feeble for Carter. No penalty, however large or strictly enforced, can pry a culture from its origins. The Boston Bay which her pilgrims inhabit – described as being ‘as calm as milk, as black as ink, smooth as silk’ – is a paradoxically fantastical space; an imaginary clean slate constructed as a bulwark against the infinite reproducibility of a folk-culture which some of the more elite or pious settlers had hoped to leave behind, but which could not be forgotten by force. When reading Carter’s annotated typescripts for ‘Ghost Ships’, one is struck by how forcefully this conflict is encoded into the physicality of the text. Her typescript is draped in richly descriptive pen annotations which indulge sensual, onomatopoetic ruminations and asides – one reads simply, ‘slurp, slurp, slurp’:

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 This typescript page from a draft of ‘Ghost Ships’ shows heavy annotations which never made it into the published version of the story, but which throw light on Carter’s sense of the titular ships as overflowing with rich and sensuous imagery. (Add MS 88899/1/39).

However, to focus too strongly on the emancipatory potential of Festival in this story is to forget its ending, where the Lord of Misrule (a precursor to modern Father Christmas whose body is a catalogue of obscene comedy) is thrown back into the sea in defeat. Carter read the work of Mikhail Bakhtin -- a Russian cultural theorist and literary critic whose sense of the Carnivalesque as possessing the potential to liberate us from oppressive structures -- with more than a pinch of salt. In ‘Pantoland’, another story from the same collection, she writes that, ‘the essence of the carnival, the festival, the Feast of Fools, is transience. It is here today and gone tomorrow, a release of tension not a reconstitution of order, refreshment… after which everything can go on again exactly as if nothing had happened’. Rather than overthrowing the puritans of Boston Bay, Carter’s Lord of Misrule leaves only a parting gift, a ‘juicy resistance’ which turns out to be, ‘to their amazed and secret glee, […] a raisin the size of your thumb, wrinkled with its own sweetness, plump as if it had been soaked in brandy, that came from who knows where but might have easily dropped out of the sky during the flight overhead of a disintegrating Christmas pudding’. Rather than a full-scale overthrow of the status-quo, then, Carter leaves us with only an exceedingly ripe kernel, a single transitional object which can move, inexplicably, from the world of magic to the world of the everyday. This saturated raisin, soaked in brandy, is all that remains of the night’s assault, but it is all that is needed to permit the imagination– in the smallest way – to re-think the world.

09 November 2017

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

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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

12 October 2017

Discovering Literature: 20th century drama

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‘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  – 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

 

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).

Dom Augustin Calmet

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.

Shelley to Mary Godwin
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.    

BZephaniah
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.

Angela Carter

(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.

  Carter - Nights 01 (3)

(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.