English and Drama blog

15 posts categorized "Letters"

10 February 2017

Jane Austen Among Family and Friends

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curated by Sandra Tuppen, Lead Curator Modern Archives & MSS 1601-1850

This year marks the bicentenary of the death of one of our most-loved writers, Jane Austen. To mark this anniversary, we have brought together writings from Austen’s formative teenage years for the first time in 40 years, from the British Library and Bodleian Library collections, plus family letters and memorabilia as part of a temporary display in our free Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. Austen’s treasured notebooks contain stories and poems she wrote to entertain her family and close friends and are accompanied by other items showing her strong family and social networks. Together these items illuminate the personal family life of this towering literary figure.

Austen, Jane

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810 © National Portrait Gallery, London

This display also includes one of the Library’s finest treasures – Austen’s writing desk. The desk was given to Austen by her father and might have been the very surface at which she produced first drafts of novels such as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. While travelling through Dartford in 1798 she almost lost it when it was accidentally placed in a horse-drawn chaise heading for Dover.

Austen desk

Portable writing desk, late 18th century, Add MS 86841

We have united the three notebooks that Austen kept of her teenage writings, which include “The Beautiful Cassandra”, a story dedicated to Austen’s sister, and a spoof history of England featuring illustrations of the Kings and Queens by Cassandra Austen. They are vivid sketches which illustrate the monarchs of England looking rather more like common men and women than they may have liked.

Austen jane history Queens 014601

An image from 'History of England' from Volume the Second by Jane Austen and illustrated by Cassandra Austen (Add MS 59874)

The social world which Austen lived in deeply influenced her books. Her family and friends provided inspiration for some of her novels’ characters. Their opinions mattered to her and she wrote down what each person thought of her later novels. In the exhibition you can see Austen's careful notation of opinions of Mansfield Park (1814), capturing some of the negative comments with a certain irony. The following image shows a page of these comments relating to Emma (1815).

Austen-jane-opinions Emma-c07437-08

Opinions by various people of Jane Austen's work, 1814?, Add 41253 B

Among the letters on display one tells of Austen’s sorrow on the death of her beloved father, while a poem expresses the joy Austen felt on the birth of her nephew. The letters and manuscripts exhibited give an insight to Austen’s close friendships, explore her romances and reveal the family joys and sorrows which shaped the writer.

The exhibition is free to visit in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery until 19th February.

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.


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.

04 April 2016

Investigating the Price of Kindness

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Laura Farnworth on the creation and development of ‘Calculating Kindness’

Laura is a director and theatre maker, Artistic Director of Undercurrent, and Associate Director of Shared Experience. This is an edited transcript of a talk from the North American Panel session as part of History Day at Senate House Library, 27 November 2015


For Undercurrent I am currently developing our new show, Calculating Kindness, which is based on the life of American evolutionary geneticist George Price, 1922 - 1975.

Price is hardly known outside of evolutionary biology and yet his story illuminates important ideas and questions about how we behave and understand ourselves.

The development of this show brought me to the British Library, where his collection of manuscripts is kept, and also that of his collaborators, William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith.

First let me tell you a little about George Price.


George Price, courtesy of Wiki Commons

Price was an eccentric American who arrived in London in 1968 hungry to make his name.

He spent weeks visiting thirteen different libraries - until he stumbled across a paper by William Hamilton, nicknamed “second Darwin”, that discussed several aspects of social behaviour, one of which was that we are genetically predisposed to be kindest to our kin.

If this were true, Price found the idea bleak. Did real selfless kindness exist?

An outsider to evolutionary theory he taught himself the basics of evolutionary genetics, and ended up formulating an equation widely acknowledged as the mathematical explanation for the evolution of altruism - something science had been trying to do since Darwin. His equation proved Hamilton right.

The Price Equation was so extraordinary that University College London gave Price an honorary position within ninety minutes of him walking in off the street.

Up until then, Price had been a militant atheist. But writing the equation had a strange affect on him. He started to look at all the coincidences that had happened in his life. Incidental things, like he’d had several girlfriends called Anne, phone numbers, calendar dates. He worked out the probability of each coincidence. He finally worked out the probability of him being the man to write the equation. The outcome was so remote, that he concluded it could only be a gift from God and he converted to Christianity overnight.

From then on he started to apply mathematics to the Bible - aiming to decode the true meaning of the Bible.

He then underwent what he referred to in his letters as a ‘real conversion’. Jesus appeared to him. He understood it as a message that decoding the Bible was not important, what really mattered was helping people.

Price then embarked on a radical quest towards altruism - helping complete strangers. He would go to extraordinary lengths, giving away everything he had, including his flat, which he opened up to homeless people, until he became homeless himself.

The show weighs up the question: was Price mentally ill, or consumed by a spiritual desire to disprove his own theory: that man is only kind to his own kin?

Three years after writing the equation, Price was discovered in a squat having had slit his throat. Seven men attended his funeral - five homeless and two of Britain’s greatest evolutionary biologists, William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith.

Research begins to inform the show…

Calculating Kindness is a completely new show, developed from scratch and so the process began with research.


Scene from 'Calculating Kindness' © Photographer Richard Davenport.

To begin with I mainly focused on The George Price Collection. What I found were personal letters, grant applications, manuscripts and pieces of work.

Having been slightly obsessed with Price for so long, to now hold his letters in my hand I must admit gave me goose bumps. Often it was the very ‘normal’ letters that evoked the most for me. Such as letters to his daughters ‘Dear Babies’ from when he first arrived in London, stories about favourite Indian Restaurants and freezing cold libraries.

What started to happen was that Price began to come to life for me - with each letter I got to know him a little more. His scientific writings and grant applications I understood less but with each reading I would pick up the odd gem, even if it might be a pencil annotation that gave me a clue to what he might be thinking. I started to understand better what preoccupied Price, how he thought about things, and what was important to him. This research was invaluable and has become the bedrock of all the development work we have done over the last few years. It is material I keep coming back to, and I find that as my understanding of Price’s science improves, so I see new things in his writings, which then help me make the work stronger.


Scene from 'Calculating Kindness' © Photographer Richard Davenport.

To be scientifically accurate and sensitive to Price has always been paramount to the development of this show. Price wrote a long letter to Hamilton describing an equation he had developed to address the issues of life on earth, versus the afterlife, from both the perspective of an atheist and a Christian. He then gave extensive, very complex, reasons to justify his belief about life on earth being equivalent to an examination. This became one of the main access points into George’s state of mind. My conversations with Dr Isabel Valli, from the Institute of Psychiatry, based on this research, finally helped me begin to connect seemingly contradictory aspects of Price’s character together.

More recently, I have been lucky enough to receive the help of Rachel Foss, Jonathan Pledge and Cara Rodway from the British Library. They granted me access to Hamilton’s collection that is otherwise not open to the public. Here I found some real gems, several letters between Hamilton, and Price’s brother, and daughters, following George’s suicide. Suddenly, here was new information about conversations I did not know had happened, and fond reflections of what they thought of Price. I almost missed it, but on a torn scrap of paper, with faint pencil markings, I realised I was looking at Hamilton’s annotations about Price’s inquest, where he considered Price’s very brief suicide notes. These moments help me feel closer to Price and all the more compelled to tell his story.


Scene from 'Calculating Kindness' © Photographer Richard Davenport.

When Price died, Hamilton was called to his squat to tidy up his papers. Hamilton sent some of his manuscripts to the British Library; and the rest back to Price’s daughters in America. I’d like to finish with a quote from one of Hamilton’s letters, that he wrote after clearing Price’s squat, that for me sums up rather well my own experience of researching Price.

‘I regard his ideas as of such originality and of such significance for evolutionary theory that I believe that some time some one may think it worthwhile to find out something more about him and wish to go through his letters and papers with some care - - and of course the strange life he has led for the past few years makes it quite a story.’

'Calculating Kindness' is on at the Camden People's Theatre until 16th April 2016.

See the 'Calculating Kindness' website for details of post-discussion talks, including one featuring British Library curators.


Price rehearsal

Read more about the development of this production here: Science and Art in the Rehearsal Room

All images used with kind permission of Undercurrent UK.

14 December 2015

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


05 August 2015

Lee Harwood: Sailing Westward

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                                                                         Lee small 2010   Lee Harwood (1939-2015)

Chris Beckett writes:

        There is a haunting valedictory quality to Lee Harwood’s recent collection, The Orchid Boat (Enitharmon Press, 2014). And yet the poems, many of which recapitulate with a light (and last) touch themes and motifs familiar from Harwood’s considerable body of work, are far from sombre:

I don’t intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,
gathering dust until the final slammer,
adjusting my tiara.

I’ll stamp my foot
and, checking the rear-view mirror,
head for the frontier.

Sadly, the sense of journey’s end – or journey’s beginning – that characterises The Orchid Boat is now made all the more poignant by the news that Lee Harwood passed away last month, on Sunday 26 July.

So where’s the boat?
A sampan or a lugger?
or an elegant steam launch?
Is there room for me and that crew of sages? 

‘Sailing Westwards’, the poem that concludes The Orchid Boat, moves seamlessly in typical Harwood manner between landscapes imagined and landscapes remembered, from the mountains of China to the hills and mountains of Snowdonia that Harwood climbed with untiring enthusiasm and a perpetual sense of wonder. We have seen the ‘elegant steam launch’ in Harwood’s poems before; and the lifelong delight that he took in the orchids of the Sussex Downs finds new resonance in ‘Departures’, the poem that opens The Orchid Boat: ‘Without thinking / I step aboard the orchid boat, / the feel of silk / carrying me beyond all mirrors’.

       Lee Harwood established his reputation as a distinctive new voice in English poetry with The White Room, published by Fulcrum Press in 1968. Landscapes (1969) and The Sinking Colony (1970) quickly followed, and in 1971 his work appeared in Penguin Modern Poets 19, along with selections from Tom Raworth and the American poet John Ashbery. In 1975, Trigram Press published Harwood’s translations of the poems of Tristan Tzara, a seminal influence whose work Harwood discovered in the early 1960s. Thereafter, Harwood was published exclusively by the small presses, a state of affairs that reflected the divided and divisive territory of English poetry during the 1980s. In 2004, Shearsman Books published Harwood’s Collected Poems to considerable acclaim, prompting an upsurge of retrospective interest in his work. The Salt Companion to Lee Harwood, a collection of essays on his work, was published in 2007, and this was quickly followed by a series of illuminating interviews conducted by Kelvin Corcoran, Not the Full Story (2008). Recently, Harwood’s poems found an appreciative home in the London Review of Books, and his work was championed in sensitive reviews by August Kleinzahler and Mark Ford.

       It is a great pleasure to report that the extensive papers of Lee Harwood, which were acquired from the poet by the British Library in 2012, will be made available later this year. The preparation of the catalogue, which has benefited from the poet’s close involvement, is now in its final stages. It is a matter of great regret that Harwood did not live to see the release of his papers, although he took great satisfaction in seeing his papers join the national collection. The archive is a rich record of the life of a singular poet who belonged to no particular school, finding sympathetic friends across poetry’s territorial divisions, both at home and in America. Journals, diaries, notebooks, and much poetry in draft, are supplemented by a considerable number of letters received: there are 77 files of letters and 146 correspondents, from Ashbery (John) to Wylie (Andrew). A sense of the variety of Harwood’s correspondents, and the number of letters in the collection, can be quickly given by some examples: Paul Evans (122 letters), Harry Guest (354), August Kleinzahler (48), Douglas Oliver (48), F. T. Prince (22), Tom Raworth (58), and Anne Stevenson (in excess of 400). Harwood greatly valued the close reading of his work by other poets, and one of the instructive rewards of the letters is to read their detailed responses to his work.

24 April 2015

Rupert Brooke and Phyllis Gardner

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As international commemorations in Turkey mark the centenary of the battle of Gallipoli we remember the thousands of people on both sides of the conflict who lost their lives. The poet, Rupert Brooke, died after contracting septicaemia from a mosquito bite a hundred years ago yesterday (23rd April 1915) on a ship going to Gallipoli.


After his death accounts of Brooke’s life were written by Edward Marsh and others, depicting Brooke as a tragic figure cut down in his prime. Brooke’s poems such as ‘The Soldier’ and ‘The Dead’ meanwhile were used to stoke patriotism at the early years of the war. Yet it was felt by many, including Virginia Woolf, that this view of Brooke was not a rounded picture of the man or his work.

In 2000 the British Library de-reserved a collection of letters and a memoir documenting the previously unknown relationship of Brooke and the artist, Phyllis Gardner. The collection was donated to the British Museum Library in 1948 by Phyllis’s sister, Delphis, on the understanding that it would remain closed for 50 years. A note included with the collection stated that Delphis Gardner gave permission for the collection to be reserved for a further period or even destroyed if it was felt that it should not be opened after the initial period of reservation had elapsed.

Colleagues who de-reserved the collection 15 years ago found a wonderful treasure trove of letters from Brooke along with Phyllis Gardner’s memoir of the couple’s love affair which began after Gardner first saw Brooke on a train to Cambridge on 11th November 1911. Brooke’s letters to Gardner illustrate different aspects of Brooke’s character than those presented by Marsh and others. Although some have chosen to highlight what they see as Brooke’s cruel behaviour, and I offer no excuse for his treatment of Gardner, I think that it presents us with a greater insight into all aspects of his character, both good and bad.

This week Brooke and Gardner’s story has been brought to a wider audience though the publication of The Second I Saw You: The True Story of Rupert Brooke and Phyllis Gardner by Lorna C. Beckett. As well as the first publication of Gardner’s memoir the book also includes a wealth of information about their relationship pieced together from correspondence between the couple, their friends and families, and other sources. In addition to providing a revealing insight into the life and personality of Brooke, the book uncovers the neglected life story of Phyllis Gardner, which has been almost lost from history.

The acquisition of two further collections at the British Library (both sources for Lorna Beckett's book) have provided further knowledge about Phyllis Gardner, her family and social circle. In 2009 the Library acquired the Radford Family Papers which include letters from Gardner to Maitland Radford, with one written after Brooke’s death. The letter about Brooke was digitised as part of the Europeana digitisation project and can be found on the Library’s website. In 2013 the Gardner Family papers, including a long series of illustrated letters from Phyllis to Delphis, were donated to the Library. The collections are both catalogued and available to researchers under the references Add MS 89029 and Add MS 89076 respectively.  

Please see the British Library website for more information about the new publication.

19 June 2014

Discover more about Jane Austen at the British Library

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Jane Austen’s novels about life in Georgian England are now some of the most famous in the English language. The British Library holds two volumes of juvenilia created by Austen, a partial draft of Persuasion and a number of letters sent by the writer to her siblings. All of this material has been digitised as part of Discovering Literature along with contextual material such as published reviews of her work and a number of objects held at the Jane Austen House Museum.

The range of material on the website provides a real insight into both Austen’s life and her work. Austen was the seventh of eight children of Reverend George Austen and his wife, Cassandra Leigh. From an early age Austen wrote stories to amuse her family and friends. One example of this is her parody ‘The History of England’, a comic account of England from Henry IV to Charles I as told by ‘a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant historian’. Written when she was only 16 and including illustrations by her sister, Cassandra, it was a parody of published histories and in particular of the four volume The History of England from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II (1771) by Oliver Goldsmith. Cassandra’s sketches show the monarchs of England looking rather more like the common men and women than they would have wished with Henry VII looking particularly haggard!

  Add MS 59874

It is in the juvenilia that we first find the energetic, spirited heroines who can be seen as precursors for later characters created by Austen such as Emma Woodhouse, Elizabeth Bennett and Marianne Dashwood.

The letters shed light on Austen’s life and her relationships with her numerous siblings including Cassandra and her beloved brother, Frank, who she described as ‘considerate & kind’. In addition to family news Austen often wrote about her work including Sense and Sensibility of which she said that ‘I am never too busy to think of S[ense]&S[ensibility]. I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child; & I am much obliged to you for your enquiries’. Interestingly Austen also made a note of other people’s comments on her work including her mother and sister. Cassandra liked Emma ‘better than P[ride]&P[rejudice] – but not so well as M[ansfield].P[ark]'.

Such comments and contextual information about Austen provides an insight into contemporary views of her work and is particularly striking as the original manuscripts for many of her most famous novels do not survive. Happily the Library does have a draft of chapters 10 and 11 of Persuasion. The closely written, heavily annotated manuscript illustrates Austen’s creative process and hopefully its inclusion on Discovering Literature will enable more people to see Austen’s writing for themselves.

Egerton MS 3038

In addition to Jane Austen related content on Discovering Literature anyone with a particular interest in Austen should also look at the website, Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts, created by Professor Kathryn Sutherland, which includes digitised copies of all surviving Austen manuscripts and interesting articles for researchers. 

05 June 2014

Reading Shelley’s Ashes and Byron’s Hair

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By guest blogger Julian Walker

The ashes of Percy Bysshe Shelley, contained within a British Library manuscript (Ashley MS 5022)

Ten years of being a reader have not blunted my delight in handling important editions of major literary works; the delight is even more noticeable when handling manuscripts. It is widely recognised that there is a particular kind of excitement when handling manuscripts by the major figures of the past - a letter written by Shelley to Byron, a notebook kept by Jane Austen, a draft made by H G Wells. But what exactly is the nature of that physical contact, and how does it affect our reading of the words? What happens when the ink and paper as ‘thing’ meets the words as ‘literature’?

As part of the research for the Discovering Literature website published by the British Library I recently examined a letter written by Byron to his publisher, John Murray, (Ashley 4753) from February 1824, two months before Byron’s death. The letter shows the signs of having been baked in transit for the purposes of disinfection; on the outside of the letter are the words, ‘Zante 25 February 1824 Received from our quarantine officer, resealed and forwarded by your very obedient servant, Samuel Carff.’ The object that proposes the desirable thrill of touching what Byron touched simultaneously presents the concept of contagion by disease, which both counters and mirrors that thrill. 

DL Ash 4753

Byron's letter to John Murray showing the signs of having been baked in transit for the purposes of disinfection (Ashley MS 4753).

Two other volumes take this idea forward, Ashley Ms 4752 and Ashley Ms 5022. The first contains letters to Murray from Byron, to Byron from Claire Clairmont (his onetime lover, and step-sister of Mary Shelley), to Claire Clairmont from Edward Trelawny, witness to Shelley’s cremation and perennial supporter to the Byron/Shelley circle, and from Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half-sister, to the Countess of Blessington. It also contains a lock of the hair of Byron, a lock of Claire Clairmont’s hair, and a lock of hair from their daughter, Allegra.

Byrons hair
A lock of Byron's hair (Ashley MS 4752)

C clairmont and allegras hair
Locks of hair from Byron's daughter Allegra, and Allegra's mother Claire (Clara Mary Jane) Clairmont (Ashley MS 4752)

The second volume contains letters from Mary Shelley to her friend Maria Gisborne, from Trelawny to Claire Clairmont, and a deed of conveyance, together with various certifying documents. What the documents certify is that the enclosures in Ashley 5022 contain a lock of the hair and some of the ashes of Percy Shelley, and a lock of the hair of Mary Shelley.

Hair of PB Shelley

A lock of P B Shelley's hair, enclosed in a British Library manuscript (Ashley MS 5022)


Shelley hair cartouche
Mary Shelley's hair is contained in the same manuscript as that of her husband. Her lock of hair appears beneath that of P B Shelley (Ashley MS 5022).

How are we to read these items, in the context of the elaborately finished volumes in which they lie together with handwritten documents?

After their deaths parts of the bodies of Byron and Shelley were separated, used as symbols, even sold. The lock of Byron’s hair was given by Augusta Leigh as a gift in recognition of help, while Claire Clairmont’s niece Paola sold Shelley’s hair in 1879. Byron’s larynx and lungs were removed from his corpse for interment in Greece, with the claim that these signified how the poet had ‘used his breath and voice for Greece’, according to Pietro Capsali, one of his comrades-in-arms in the Greek War of Independence. Byron feared this happening, asking, ‘Let not my body be hacked …’

Despite Fournier’s celebrated painting of the funeral of Shelley, his face and hands were unidentifiable after ten days in the water, a circumstance that perhaps intensified the value of his heart and skull. According to one of Trelawny’s accounts (there were several, with contradictions) Byron, present at Shelley’s cremation, had wanted to keep Shelley’s skull. Byron’s corpse, minus the lungs and larynx, was transported to Britain for burial, while the separated ashes and other remains of Shelley’s corpse lie in a number of sites; Mary was presented by Trelawny with Shelley’s heart, or its ashes, which she kept for the rest of her life preserved in a copy of Shelley’s Adonais, itself now in the Bodleian Library. Are these keepsakes, mementoes, attempts to preserve the physical in order to retain the past, objects to concentrate mourning, ways of acknowledging or of cheating death?

The hair, instantly recognisable as such, allows the projection of some kind of animation onto the personas of the people. These are things which ‘have been alive’, and therefore serve as proof of the people’s ‘aliveness’ - they make the person real rather than just a name in a book. The ashes of Shelley animate the myth of Shelley, so strongly energised by his mysterious death and the myths that sprang from it. Locks of Byron’s hair became as desirable as the single lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair evidently was to him (he stole it from a reliquary in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in 1816). But if the hair animates Byron the person, is this anything to do with the poetry – can it in fact divert our attention from Byron the body of work towards Byron the person? Does the myth of Shelley, so real on seeing the ashes, detract from the Shelley corpus. Even the available English words show how difficult it is to avoid mixing the two aspects.

We may not now touch the living people, but we can touch the things they touched with so great an effect – the manuscripts of The Masque of Anarchy or Don Juan. We cannot touch the hair or ashes, but we can touch the volumes in which they lie, and we can touch the glass bubbles holding the hair and ashes. Within the context of relics the number of links in the chain of contact between saint and supplicant, reader and genius, is largely irrelevant, provided the individual links can be known. Medieval relics were ‘created’ by laying cloths on the bones of saints – the cloths would have the same power as the bones. Pilgrims kiss reliquaries, with the same effect as would be gained from kissing the relics themselves. Bede, writing in the eighth century, tells the story of the death in battle of the Christian king Oswald, whose body was mutilated and set on a stake; people took soil from the place, put it in water, and used this to relieve the sick. Maybe it cured people, maybe it made them very much worse, but in providing an exact mirror to germ theory (the concept of infection by germs rather than poisoned air), it proposes that contagion and healing walk side by side.



The first page of Shelley's draft of 'The Masque of Anarchy' (Ashley MS 4086)

Just as healing and contagion cancel each other, and merge in the process of inoculation, Byron’s and Shelley’s bodies – their lives – merge into their work. Byron is the superlative Byronic hero, acknowledging in the preface to Childe Harold Canto 4 the minimal difference between himself and his hero – ‘slightly, if at all, separated from the author speaking in his own person’; Trelawny’s retelling of the cremation of Shelley’s body, 36 years after the event, has the drowned body as ‘entire’, tying in with Matthew Arnold’s assessment of Shelley the poet as ‘beautiful and ineffectual angel’. Our physical contact, at one remove, with their bodies simultaneously obstructs, mirrors and merges with our engagement with their work.

Byron Childe Harold
Byron's manuscript for Childe Harold, (Egerton MS 2027)

One last thought - a meeting in 1816 between four of the people whose body parts are mentioned above – Byron, Claire Clairmont, Mary and Percy Shelley (and Claire Clairmont was pregnant with the fifth, Allegra) - produced a famous story in which a whole extraordinary being is made up of disparate body parts: Frankenstein.

Ashley MS 5022 and Ashley MS 4752 can both be seen on the Discovering Literature website, alongwith other important literary manuscripts, including a letter from Shelley to Byron, praising his Don Juan, Leigh Hunt’s account of the death and cremation of Shelley, and parts of the manuscript of Byron’s Childe Harold.


This is the third in our Discovering Literature blog series, introducing the British Library's new website for Romantic and Victorian literature. Read our previous blogs here.