THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

52 posts categorized "Fiction"

01 June 2017

The writing of J. G. Ballard’s Crash: a look under the bonnet

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 Chris Beckett writes:

Shock greeted the publication of J. G. Ballard’s Crash in 1973. Cult status quickly followed. Today, the novel is widely considered to be a modern classic, a novel that speaks both of its time – the darkening close of a decade of colourful liberation – and speaks dystopically to us today, connected yet disconnected as we are in a time of digital narcissism, detached 21st century voyeurs of pleasure and horror at the touch of a screen. Meanwhile, traffic increases – hurtling towards the limits of catastrophic systems failure – by road, and by what used to be called the information super highway. Is Ballard’s novel a Swiftian satire, a ‘cautionary tale’, as the author suggested, or is it, as he also characterised his novel – as if to evoke de Sade – a ‘psychopathic hymn’? Ballard maintained both positions at different times. The novel’s enduring qualities are connected to its moral ambivalence, an ambivalence that is deeply embedded in a richly layered text that resists closure.

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There are two drafts of the novel in Ballard’s papers at the British Library, both revised and annotated, intensively so in the case of the earlier draft. This is how the earlier draft begins:

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The first sentence of the typescript will remain unchanged (surely echoing the opening of Camus’s L’Etranger): ‘Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash’. Ballard’s novel is a dark conjugation of its opening sentence. The sentence ominously suggests a series of (deliberate) crashes where we expect to read of a single accidental event. But the top left corner of the page, the note in black ink struck-through in red, is where the page as manuscript page begins, with the sketching of a generic setting for Ballard’s writing of the period, the Road Research Laboratory where V[aughan] works: ‘At the RRL at night with girl – they make love as he talks about V., among the wrecks’.

But neither the drafts nor the final form of words – where the text comes to rest, held in creative tension – exist purely, however distinctive, however novel the novel seems. So where did Crash spring from? What is the history of the text?  How is the novel connected to what came before? What else was Ballard writing during the same period?

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 I have just edited a new edition of Crash that tries to address these text-led questions by supplementing the familiar published text of the novel with generous selections of unpublished archive material. Crash: The Collector’s Edition (4th Estate, 2017) places the novel in its writing context. Five chapters in draft are set within the novel. In addition, there are selected stories – the predecessor ‘condensed novels’ – from The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), and Ballard’s two ‘surgical fictions’ (a mammoplasty for Mae West and a face lift for Princess Margaret).

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 The new edition also publishes for the first time Ballard’s draft script for the BBC short film Crash! (broadcast BBC2, 12 February 1971), directed by Harley Cokeliss. Ballard appears in the film alongside a mysterious female figure (played by Gabrielle Drake) whose enigmatic presence punctuates the collagist visual essay. She appears and disappears, sometimes inside the car, sometimes in the middle distance. She gets out of a new car in a car showroom, then lingers among the car wrecks at the breaker’s yard. We see the contours of her body in the shower dissolving into the curved forms of a car body, and we see her slumped across a steering wheel, her face bloodied from a collision. The film was made (in the winter of 1970) between writing the first and second drafts of the novel. Its stylised visual language informs Ballard’s final text. The film is a bridgework that looks back to The Atrocity Exhibition (the following passage from the draft script is taken from ‘The Summer Cannibals’), and looks forward to the emerging novel:

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The earlier draft of Crash is a remarkable document that conveys something of the intensity and the spontaneity of composition. The manuscript is layered over time by the strata of three-coloured revision: annotation-deposits in black and blue and red ink in the margins and over on the backs of pages. The inks codify the rhythms of writing and revision, rhythms that oscillate within the Crash manuscripts, from the drafts to the final text, and oscillate as well, as Ballard pursues his traumatised subject, in the cross-currents of his contemporaneous writing.

For further reading about Crash in draft, see Chris Beckett, ‘The Opening of Crash in Slow Motion’ on the British Library Discovering Literature site: https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/the-opening-of-crash-in-slow-motion

10 October 2016

'Rhys-cycled’

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By Sophie Oliver, co-curator of the display ‘Wide Sargasso Sea: Jean Rhys, Jane Eyre and the Making of an Author’

Jean Rhys is amply represented in the British Library’s manuscript collection, including by several versions of her best-known (and widely loved) novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Fifty years after that book appeared, and 200 since the birth of Charlotte Brontë, whose Jane Eyre (1847) inspired it, 2016 seemed like a good moment to celebrate Rhys and the British Library’s archival holdings of her work.  

Wide Sargasso Sea

The display ‘Wide Sargasso Sea: Jean Rhys, Jane Eyre and the Making of an Author’, showing in the Treasures Gallery until 8 January, takes Brontë as a starting point. From her manuscript of Jane Eyre we’ve shown the part when Rochester takes Jane to see his ‘mad’ first wife, Bertha Mason, whom he rejects in the cruellest terms: ‘her nature wholly alien to mine […] her vices […] intemperate and unchaste’. Rhys referred to this nineteenth-century classic text as ‘frozen assets’, material to be reignited and given new life. She objected to what she felt was Brontë’s one-dimensional depiction of Bertha as a ‘poor Creole lunatic’, and resolved to write ‘her story’. Although Rhys’s letters show that she hugely admired Brontë, this oppositional stance was typical. For many literary critics, Rhys is above all a West Indian and a woman writer: her relationship to the Western canon is tangential and celebrated as such.

For her part, in work and life Rhys promoted an image of herself ‘outside the machine’, as one of her stories is titled. Yet she admitted that she longed for Wide Sargasso Sea ‘to be understood and read and so on’. The long process of drafting her final novel was spurred on by the attention that she gradually began to receive in the 1950s (having all but disappeared after Good Morning, Midnight was published in 1939) from critics, publishers and the BBC, which broadcast a radio dramatisation of Good Morning, Midnight in 1957.

The display was conceived to explore this aspect of Jean Rhys’s career – the public reception of her work and the making of her reputation in the years leading up to Wide Sargasso Sea and in the decade after, when she achieved international renown. The British Library’s Rhys archive is particularly strong on this period. For example, it holds Rhys’s corrected page proofs of the story ‘Till September Petronella’, published in London Magazine in 1960. This was Rhys’s first appearance in print since 1939, so in some ways represents the re-ignition of her literary career. She remembered it fondly for years, writing in one letter that ‘Petronella’ ‘just about saved my life’.

The Rhys archive also includes drafts of her earlier novels After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931) and Voyage in the Dark (1934) – pages of determined, fluent notes together with frenzied revisions and angry crossings-out. All of her earlier books were reissued in hardback and paperback in the late 1960s after the great success of Wide Sargasso Sea. The return of the 1930s fiction brought Rhys to a broad contemporary audience – not just through the books themselves, but in the form of profiles in the mainstream press and TV adaptations. The work that Rhys wrote in the interwar period seemed to fit in the 1960s, a decade of great social change. Thirty years previously she had written books and stories that listened to the marginal voices – those of women and racial minorities – that were being heard more in the 1960s. A profile in the fashion and lifestyle magazine Nova that is included in the display suggests that Rhys’s fictional obsession with flawed women spoke to that publication’s celebration of female identity in all its contradictory guises.

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Julie Kavanagh, ‘Rhys-cycled’, Women’s Wear Daily, 13 November 1974.
Photo by Willie Christie. Reproduced with kind permission of Julie Kavanagh
and Willie Christie

As well as manuscripts, then, the display draws on the full breadth of the British Library’s collections, including newspapers and magazines, formats that were central to the story of Rhys’s rise to fame. Her presence in the press on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1970s confirms that Rhys and her work had become fashionable. Two newspaper items that we weren’t able to include refer to a Rhys ‘cult’ in this period. Julie Kavanagh’s 1974 profile in Women’s Wear Daily, ‘Rhys-cycled’ (illustrated), connects the republication of Rhys’s earlier work with the fashion system’s continual updating of old trends. Originally a fashion trade journal, by this point WWD was a ‘fashion gossip’ magazine with a mass market, decreeing who and what were the latest social and cultural phenomena. In late 1974, it seems, Rhys was. The previous year, aged 82, she had even been given her own fashion shoot in The Sunday Times, styled by the notorious fashion editor Molly Parkin (illustrated). The photographs were taken by Norman Eales, whose images of Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy had appeared in Vogue, Queen and Cosmopolitan.

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Molly Parkin, ‘Look! Fashion’, The Sunday Times, 25 February 1973. Jean
Rhys photographed by Norman Eales. Reproduced with kind permission of the
estate of Norman Eales

The fashion press often picked up on Rhys’s own love of clothes and their importance in her fiction, where they feature as signs of hope and despair – the promise of fulfilment and individuality or a way to blend in, but also the threat of deadening sameness. In the Sunday Times piece, contemporary quotes from Rhys are interwoven with fashion-conscious citations from her writing. Some have a more abstract link to fashion, such as this from Voyage in the Dark: ‘It was one of those days when you can see the ghosts of all the other lovely days. You drink a bit and watch the ghosts of all the lovely days that have ever been from behind a glass.’ But in the context it seems clear: the way that the past haunts the present is like the return of an old style. Much like Rhys herself, then: a ghost who, last seen in the 1930s, returned with new relevance in the 1960s.

Sophie Oliver is finishing a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her article ‘Fashion in Jean Rhys/Jean Rhys in Fashion’ will be published in the journal Modernist Cultures in November 2016.

29 September 2016

Banned from the classroom: Censorship and The Catcher in the Rye

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by Mercedes Aguirre, Lead Curator American Collections

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is an American classic. It is also one of the most censored books in American literature. One of the earliest works of fiction exploring male teenage consciousness, The Catcher in the Rye is narrated in the first person by Holden Caulfield, who struggles with feelings of alienation and anxiety. The novel has been the subject of controversy almost since its publication by Little, Brown and Co in 1951, and the debate around the book is still very much alive today. Salinger’s novel was listed in the top ten most frequently banned books in schools and school libraries in 2001, 2005 and 2009, according to the yearly list provided by the American Library Association.

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The Catcher in the Rye cover from the 1985 Bantam edition

But what makes the The Catcher in Rye such an offensive book?

The use of Salinger’s novel as a set text in schools has been challenged by people who object to its use of swearwords and its sexual content. The work contains several disturbing scenes, including instances of abuse, and is written using 1950s teenage slang. The first curse word appears in the opening of the novel when Holden warns the reader not to expect an account of his unhappy childhood, or as he puts it, ‘that David Copperfield kind of crap’. But there are many more –according to associations who have protested against the novel the word ‘goddam’ appears more than 200 times. As these groups often point out, the novel was originally written with an adult audience in mind. The debate sparked by the novel, the question whether teenagers should be protected from ‘foul’ language and sexual content, curiously mirrors Holden’s own obsession with preserving childhood innocence, becoming the ‘catcher in the rye’, ‘catching’ children from falling off a cliff (and into the adult world).

While a number of American schools and parents’ associations may consider the language in the novel objectionable, many teachers see The Catcher in the Rye as a work which resonates with their students in a way that few classic novels can. The book is therefore in the unlikely position of being required reading in some schools, and a banned book in others.

Does the censoring of the novel contribute to its enduring allure for young readers? Most of us remember the first time we read a book meant for adults; the first time we saw forbidden words in print. Since The Catcher in the Rye remains a bestselling book in America 65 years after it was first published it is in any case unlikely that censors will get in the way of people’s enjoyment of the novel.

This blog is part of series for Banned Books Week 2016. See also Melvin Burgess’s blog on Censorship and the author, curator Christian Algar on the  ‘corrected’ Il Decamerone, curator Tanya Kirk on The Monk, the Bible and Obscenity and The Book Banner who inspired Banned Books by curator Alison Hudson.

Banned Books Week was initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults. For the first time in the UK we are holding events, activities and publishing a series of blogs, all on the topic of Censorship and Banned Books, made possible by the partnership between The British Library, Free Word and Islington Library and Heritage Services and in association with the ALA.

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21 September 2016

Melvin Burgess: Censorship and the Author

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by guest blogger, young adult and children's author Melvin Burgess, in anticipation of Banned Books Weeks (25th September-1st October 2016) which kicks off with Censorship and the author at the British Library on 22nd September, at which writers Melvin Burgess and Matt Carr will discuss censorship with Jo Glanville.

Melvin Burgess cred John Coombes

Melvin Burgess photographed by ©John Coombes

Censorship in books for teenagers takes a number of forms, but before looking at them, it's worth looking at the provision of fiction for teenagers in general, and the peculiar and privileged position books do hold among them.

Written matter is, in fact, the only media in which any serious issues can be seriously explored in a fictional way for people under the age of eighteen. Film, for instance, is strictly censored according to age – we're all familiar with the age rating for films in the cinema. At first sight, this might appear not to matter, since anyone can actually get to see anything via the internet; but if you look at provision rather than access, you get a very different picture. When my book Junk first came out, a number of production companies wanted to make a movie based on the book, but they very quickly realised they couldn't because “the audience for whom it's intended won't be allowed in the cinema.” Funding was impossible, and the project was dropped. Junk later appeared in a castrated version on BBC education.

That remains the case to this day. TV is the same. Access, although technically very limited, is in fact almost unlimited. Provision on the other hand is almost non-existent..

Censorship of provision is well and away the most successful way of going about the job of restricting what people get to see or hear but it does have some other unfortunate side effects. In the case of film anyone over the age of about twelve, can get to see things, many of them highly inappropriate, that they technically shouldn't. Meanwhile, the kinds of material they actually should be getting, but which some adults would still feel uncomfortable with, simply doesn't exist at all.

This isn't particular to the UK, either. It is in fact, global. In every continent in which visual material for film or TV is made, serious content for teenagers is effectively stifled at birth by the censorship of age. It appears at first glance to be a matter of simple negligence, censorship by accident, almost; but something that happens with such uniformity on such a global scale is obviously nothing of the kind. That doesn't mean it's done on purpose of course, but it does say a great deal about our attitudes to teenagers that the provision of visual imaginative material for them is restricted to the anodyne on such a universal level.

Books and other written material such as graphic novels and comics are uncensored for age. The importance of written fictional material for teenagers can be measured exactly by the degree of absence of fictions for them in other media. It is of the very first degree of importance.

Censorship of books does occur, however, at a much more local level. I remember very well the librarian who kept my books in a locked cupboard at the back of the library, so that no innocent youngster could inadvertently come across them, and suffer god only knows what forms of psychic shock or corruption. That's an extreme example, but that librarian was acting in the manner in which censorship against books does occur; by the system of gatekeepers. I'm referring to those people who are in a position to control or regulate books to young people; librarians, teachers, bookseller managers, parents – in other words, the very people whose job it is to encourage reading are the ones who also take it upon themselves to limit it.

It goes without saying, but even so I feel I have to say it, that this is not a role all of them relish.

A great deal of this actually happens in the school library, where the kind of material that older teenagers in particular like to read, is by no means always considered suitable for them. When I began writing, schools were still the main source of sales for children's books and to this day, publishers are concerned not to put anything out there that might fall foul of the kind of “standards” that schools require. All too often, such standards, purporting to be some kind of moral stewardship, actually revolve more around the the kind of stories the local press might summon up if they found people under the age of fourteen had access to books with such horrors as drugs, breasts or sexual activity of any kind.  There is in every class at least one unfortunate child with a mad parent, and if the school's senior management is more concerned with public image than developing young minds, that one person can completely define what kind of reading matter every child in the school has access to. In such schools, many readers will tend to ignore the library almost as much as non readers. It's a vicious circle.

Junk of course, and Doing It, were often kept by thoughtful librarians in brown paper wrappers under the desk, to be handed to chosen, suitably mature students, who weren't always he ones who would benefit from them the most. But I can also think of many examples not by any means connected with my more controversial books. One teacher told me how, when reading a passage from my very first book, The Cry of the Wolf, to a group of parents, one mother rose quaking with horror that something so violent (the wolves got shot in a suitably bloody fashion) was available in an institution of education. As a result, not just that one, but all my books were taken off the school shelves.

Violence, however, is one of the rarer targets for the banning of books. The usual one is sex – very handy when everyone over the age of thirteen is fascinated by it – and second is religion. I don't tend to write religious books, but back in the day I did write a book called Burning Issy, which showed witches persecuted by the Church in the 17th C. This book caused me to be dis-invited to a very posh school, on the grounds of “we do not feel the parents of our students would want them to be introduced to this sort of thing.” I was puzzled by what “this sort of thing” might be, but my enquiries yielded no further answers. My guess, though, is that someone somewhere out there, actually believed I was acting as a propagandist for Mr Satan.

Other gatekeepers can include book sellers. Those who remember the book shop Borders from a few years ago, may be surprised to hear that at least one store didn't stock my books, after receiving one solitary complaint.

Of course all this occurs alongside a great deal of support, and stems from an issue which begins life as something quite reasonable. Content, of course, is an issue that all parents will be concerned about.The real issue here isn't about whether we want to allow unrestricted access to children of any age whatsoever; we have allowed them that already (so long as we're not in the room at the time.) It's more about the disconnect between the kinds of material young people want to engage in, (and that we passively allow them to engage with), and the kind of material that we as adults want to present them with. It's a bit like teaching someone to swim in the bath, and then turning your back while they rush out and splash in around in a fast flowing river.

What are we scared of, I wonder? Finding out what they really think? It's all very hypocritical on the face of it, but presumably such a universal system serves some kind of purpose. Perhaps its something to do with permission. All over the world, adults passively encourage teenagers to breech the rules that we ourselves have put into place. I wonder if we rather like the idea that they transgress – that it is in fact a necessary right of passage. In that case, the  rules are more like the governor on a lorry, rather than the actual brakes. Even so, it's a pretty abyssal way of doing it, that leaves people at a time in their lives when they are changing so much, risk taking so actively, and trying to get to terms with an ever more complex and rapidly changing world, without the imaginative structures that might help them negotiate it.

The most moving and enthusiastic, as well as the most common emails and letters I've had from teenagers speak of the sheer relief and joy they've had at finding something that seems to actually reflect what's going on in their own heads in an honest and authentic fashion.

YA is barely twenty years old, and it remains the only form in which the contradictions I've spoken about are ever reconciled. Already it's become fashionable to knock it and to dismiss it's existence as a form, even among the people who actually write the stuff – driven, perhaps, by the urge to widen their readership among adults. Every publisher and every writer wants their work to be crossover, rather than pure YA as such. It would be a tragedy if it ever got genuinely taken over by middle aged wannabe youths, looking for nostalgia. At its best it is for teenagers, about being a teenager, and its disheartening to see grown ups trying to hi jack it for themselves.  If they succeed, we'd be talking about banned genres, rather than just books and that old biblical saying – To those that have not, even that which they have shall be taken from them – will yet again have proven its  worth.

Banned Books Week was initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults. For the first time in the UK we are holding events, activities and publishing a series of blogs, all on the topic of Censorship and Banned Books, made possible by the partnership between The British Library, Free Word and Islington Library and Heritage Services and in association with the ALA.

BannedBooksWeekLogos

        

01 June 2016

Touching History

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by Melissa Addey, 2016 Writer in Residence at the British Library, funded by the Leverhulme Trust

As a writer of historical fiction, my favourite item at the British Library so far has been a letter in the Treasures of the British Library permanent exhibition. It’s a dark and shadowy space, with delicate lighting placed here and there so that you can make out the precious items on display.

The letter is from both Anne Boleyn and Henry the 8th, to Cardinal Wolsey. On a single page, Anne begins the letter, asking about the progress of the desired annulment of Henry’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon. The second half of the page is from Henry. “The wrytter of thys letter wolde nott cease tyll she (had caused me likewise) to sett to my hand; desiring yow, thowght it be short, to (take it in good part)”. In other words, Anne has nagged him to complete the letter and add his own nudge to the Cardinal.

It’s special for a number of reasons. To actually see the item is to know that these two people, so famous in our history, both held this page in their hands. It has their handwriting on it, such an intimate thing about a person, so peculiarly theirs.

Handwriting is something we are losing: I used to know exactly what my friends’ and family members’ handwriting looked like. I now have friends whose handwriting I don’t believe I’ve ever seen. The letter has their tone of voice. Henry’s reference to Anne nagging is really quite funny. It tells you something about their relationship at the time and makes you wonder how many of these letters were sent, gradually increasing from jocular confidence to frustrated rage. The letter is dated August 1528, quite early on in Henry’s attempt to marry Anne, something that didn’t happen for another five years. Seeing something like this is to reach back and touch history, to see people as human rather than legend. 

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Detail from Henry VII’s Psalter, Royal MS 2 A XVI f3r, showing Henry VII.

When researching for a historical novel, it’s these items you’re desperately searching for. Not the big dates and official accounts, the official court robes and formal proclamations, although you have to have those as your backdrop. It’s the tone of voice and the scribbled asides, the letters and diaries, children’s toys and defamatory handbills, hearing the crack in someone’s voice. These are what let us touch history.  Because of my residency I’ve been spending a lot of time at the British Library and these up-close brushes with history are endlessly fascinating.

Currently the British Library’s Literary and Creative Archives and Manuscripts team are working on trying to acquire complete archives, such as diaries, manuscripts and collections of people like Alec Guinness (one of his letters to Evelyn Waugh includes the great line: “Graham’s last play seemed BONKERS to me…”), Hanif Kureishi (see some of the Kureishi Archive on our online learning resource Discovering Literature: 20th Century) and Kenneth Williams.

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A page from the diaries of Kenneth Williams

Seeing these items, reading through them, looking at the notations or signatures, the rants or the ponderings, is like sitting next to that person and watching them be themselves. Not a front put on for others but their own selves, the people they are underneath.               

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Laurence Olivier's shooting script for Henry V 1943 British Library Photo by Clare Kendall

In the current Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition at the British Library I stood with earphones on and quickly pushed buttons, hearing actors from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant say “To be or not to be’. I didn’t listen to the whole speech, just that one line and even in that line, with over ten actors, there was such a variety of choice and meaning to just six words. It made you think about the role and the person portraying Hamlet, the decisions they must have made in rehearsals, their own understanding of the text. It was a strange and intimate auditory experience and more personal than you would expect. As is a Christmas greeting message from the Beatles to their fan club: extraordinarily unpolished by today’s standards but unmistakably them.

Touching history should not be a smooth and polished affair. It should be rough and dirty. It should leave you with your fingers bleeding, your eyes open wide and a gasp or a giggle in your mouth. I’m off to trawl through the archives again.

17 March 2016

How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky?

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By Christina Hardyment, complier of 'Pleasures of Nature: A Literary Anthology' now available from British Library Publishing.

Having enjoyed compiling literary anthologies about gardens (Pleasures of the Garden) and food (Pleasures of the Table), I turned to a much more challenging subject: Pleasures of Nature. Where to start and where to stop? I decided that a challenging way of classifying literary mentions of natural things would be to consider them in the context of the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Earth’s ‘sweet interchange of hill and valley, rivers, woods and plains’ are mournfully recalled by the exiled Satan in Paradise Lost, a tranquil scene quite unlike the ‘mighty polypus mouth … chewing and digesting its food in its throat and belly’ of the earthquake described by Sabine Baring-Gould in his tempestuous romantic novel Winefred. Trees are firmly rooted in earth, particularly such ancient giants as the Borrowdale yews apostrophized by Wordsworth, and the hunched beech and juniper of the ancient combe found in the Marlborough Downs by Edward Thomas. And then there are particularly earthbound creatures: D H Lawrence’s ‘little Titan’ of a tortoise and Richard Braithwaite’s hedgehog, ‘a whole fort in himself’.

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‘View of the Source of the Arveyron, by Belanger and Vanlerberghe, engraved by Malgo’, 1829. British Library Maps K.Top.76.84.b.

Writers conjure air up in rainbows, winds and mists, the ‘tremendous voice’ of James Thomson’s thunder, and the ‘livid flame’ of his lightning. Leonardo da Vinci analysed the varying blues of atmosphere: smoky grey, azure, profoundly dark. Coleridge made startlingly vivid notes on sunsets and moonsets, observed while upturning his chamber pot out of the window of his Keswick residence, Greta Hall. It’s also the domain of Tennyson’s eagle, falling like a thunderbolt, Dorothy Wordsworth’s tremulously fluttering swallows, and Emerson’s ‘burly, dozing humble-bee.’

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Plate from The Beauty of the Heavens by Charles F. Blunt, 1840. British Library 717.g.4*

Fiery phenomena invade all the elements of course, be they volcanoes (observed at Pompeii by Pliny, and at Krakatoa by R M Ballantyne), ‘phosphorescent billows’ as whales’ tails lash the sea in Moby-Dick, or Robert Service’s ‘wild and weird and wan’ Northern Lights dancing in the polar sky. Thomas Hardy likened the great bonfire lit on the heath in The Return of the Native to ancient funeral pyres and Bartholomew Anglicus’s phoenix crawled into a nest ‘of right sweet-smelling sticks’, which is set on fire by the sun.

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Plate from Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies by William Hamilton, Ambassador to the Court of Naples, 1776. British Library TAB.435.a.15, volume 1.

Water includes the sound of rain and what Henry Beston called the ‘awesome, beautiful, and varied’ voice of the ocean; the ‘fleecy fall’ of Hardy’s snow, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘darksome burn, horseback brown’. It too has its creatures: Grey Owl’s beaver people, Henry Williamson’s otters and Graeme Stones’s  ‘storm-orphaned seal pup’.

But time and again I came across passages that escaped my quartet of categories. So I added two more. One was Surprise, in honour of Terry Pratchett, who once jokingly defined it as a fifth element, which I could fill with fun in the form of Lewis Carroll’s Bread-and-Butter-Fly, Jean Fabré’s macabre account of the courting habits of the grasshopper, and Aldous Huxley’s jokey skit on Darwinism, ‘Jonah and the Apes’. Finally, I found a home for the most arresting passages and poems under Deep Thinking. God recurs: as a ‘vast Chain of Being’ for Alexander Pope, in the changing seasons for Henry Vaughan, in the form of Space for Coleridge, jokingly in Rupert Brooke’s piscine ‘Heaven’. The Japanese poet Bashö reads Buddhist poems under the moon, Robert Louis Stevenson wanders the bird-enchanted highlands in ‘a trance of silence’. The pioneer environmentalist Aldo Leopold reminds us that ‘in wildness is the salvation of the world’, and the physicist Chet Raymo gazes at the stars from a dark hillside, listening and watching ‘for the tingle in the spine’.

I found much to comfort, but also much to dread during my reading. We are taming and tidying our world too thoroughly. In our gardens, birds, bees and hedgehogs disappear in the face of pesticides. The rockpools on our beaches are all but deserted. In South America, Africa and Asia, forests shrink unimaginably quickly, and round the globe the oceans are being ruthlessly harvested and polluted. As we reach greedily for the stars, let’s stop a while and remember Gilbert White’s tortoise, digging himself into the ground with a movement that ‘little exceeded the hour hand of a clock’, and the tall old shepherd in the Lakeland Hills who, Harriet Martineau tells us, ‘has trod upon rainbows’.

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.

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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. 

 

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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.

 

 

 

21 December 2015

How we created Alice in Wonderland

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The Library’s Alice in Wonderland exhibition has now been open for a month. I have been pleased by how busy the gallery has been and hope that the visitors have enjoyed the exhibition. When I give tours of the exhibition I try to include some information about how it was created as I know that people like to hear a bit about what goes on behind the scenes. I thought that it might also be an interesting subject for my second blog about the exhibition.

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Graphic design by Fiona Barlow of Anonymous and 3D design by LYN Atelier

When my colleague, Andie and I were first asked to create an exhibition to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland we knew that we would need to have quite a specific narrative focus as the Library has lots of material relating to the book which could be displayed! We chose to focus on the enduring popularity of Carroll’s story and the way in which it has remained true to his original story despite over a century of re-illustrations, adaptations and parodies. With this narrative in place we started to think about the collection items that we would like to display and began to look at lots of different items from Carroll’s handwritten diaries and letters to printed books and sound recordings. We had to be selective and concentrate on those items that would help to tell the story as well as thinking about how visual they would be to display and how easy they would be to read! We were lucky enough to be able to get lots of useful advice from colleagues across the Library about items in their collections that we could show.

At the same time we started to speak to graphic and 3D designers about how we would like the exhibition to look. I am really pleased with the exhibition design which uses a simple colour palette of black, red, white and dark grey and takes inspiration from the playing cards in Carroll’s story. The colours also allow the collection items, many of which are include beautiful illustrations, to really shine. Fiona, the graphic designer, suggested that we incorporate quotes from the book into the exhibition design and they have been printed on the fabric which is wrapped around the frame that runs throughout the gallery. The quotations look great and it is a lovely way to include text from the book in the very fabric (no pun intended) of the exhibition.

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Graphic design by Fiona Barlow of Anonymous

The design also includes instructions on how to navigate around the gallery that are very much in the spirit of Alice. Finally the large tag hanging above the gallery takes inspiration from the ‘drink me’ tag on the bottle which Alice finds down the rabbit hole.

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Graphic design by Fiona Barlow of Anonymous

Once the exhibition design and item list had been finalised we had to choose the page openings to be displayed carefully so that we didn’t want to end up with 25 pictures of the Cheshire Cat! We then began writing the exhibition text. This included seven panel texts, 12 chapter summaries and 55 labels so it took some time. It was time well spent though as I have been able to share some of the knowledge I gained when giving exhibition tours.

The exhibition (and the Alice pop up shop) are open over Christmas so please do visit if you are in London during the festive period.