THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

44 posts categorized "Literature"

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

 

29 September 2017

Banned Books Week in prison

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A guest post by Susan Selby, Library Manager at HMP Garth

Banned Books Week at HMP Garth

Preparing the Banned Books Week display at HMP Garth. Photograph © Susan Selby.

We are now putting the finishing touches to our displays and activities for Banned Books week. Our reading group will be holding a discussion around censorship and our poetry group will be delving into Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes.

We have hidden books under cover and studded our shelves with 'banned' books in wrappers. This is our normal stock but people who have asked why we are wrapping them have been surprised when told the books have been banned - no one believes that Harry Potter could be banned but it has happened in some US states!

Word searches to find the titles of banned books will be available, together with bookmarks. Borrowers are going to be asked for comments with the intention of making a display as a follow up to the event.

We have also made links with our Safer Custody and Equalities team as many of the reasons that books are banned i.e. homophobia and racism, are issues that are being dealt with within the prison system.

As well as encouraging reading, it is hoped that discussing the censorship of books will open a dialogue about why people see banning as an option, about the the reasons why books have been banned and whether they are still relevant today. Challenges are faced by institutions like prisons; mental health, violence, gender identity issues and religious intolerance. By highlighting how these issues are used as excuses for challenging books we can hopefully break down some of the prejudices that are held.

This blog is published as part of Banned Books Week 2017 (24-30 September).

Banned Books Week was first 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. The 2017 UK contribution to Banned Books Week features events staged by a variety of cultural organisations including the British Library, Free Word, Royal Society of Literature and Islington Library and Heritage Services. British Library events can be found here.

  Banned Books Week logo

14 September 2017

No Longer in the Garage: The Archive of Galloping Dog Press, Poetry Information and Not Poetry

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Chris Beckett writes:

The small press publisher Peter Hodgkiss begins his memoir essay ‘It’s All in the Garage’ contemplating ‘a tatty cardboard box’ with ‘GDP’ written in fading red felt-tip pen on the side: ‘It has moved from landing to attic to garage 1 to garage 2 in two houses in Newcastle to its present residence in Whitley Bay’ (Cusp: Recollections of Poetry in Transition, ed. Geraldine Monk, 2012). That tatty box of Galloping Dog Press books (1974-91), plus the original author manuscripts and associated correspondence, now has a new and settled home, as do comprehensive sets of files relating to the two magazines Hodgkiss edited, typed and printed concurrently: Poetry Information (1970-80) and Not Poetry (1980-85). Peter Hodgkiss has generously donated his publishing archive to the British Library.

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Galloping Dog Press logo (from Gustave Doré, Don Quixote)

Hodgkiss recalls that the origin of the name of his press was serendipitous: reading Ulysses at the time, and living not far from Swansea beach, he drew the name from Joyce’s description of the dog on Sandymount Strand in Episode 3 (‘Proteus’). But serendipity aside, it is entirely fitting that Galloping Dog Press should owe its name to one of the great ur-texts of modernism: the writers and poets Hodgkiss published – and documented in Poetry Information – set their compasses by modernism’s experimental star. They learned their ‘ABC’s and ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ of best imagist practice from Ezra Pound, took their metrical lead from the ‘variable foot’ of William Carlos Williams, and avidly read contemporary American poetry (the biggest influence of all) from the Beats to the post-war schools of Black Mountain, New York and San Francisco. Closer to home, they cherished the Northumbrian modernist Basil Bunting. Bunting had appeared in Pound’s combative Active Anthology (Faber, 1933), although years of obscurity followed. In 1966, however, prompted by the curiosity and enthusiasm of a young Newcastle poet called Tom Pickard, Bunting published to great acclaim the long poem Briggflatts (significantly, with non-mainstream Fulcrum Press). Poetry Information 19 (1978) was a ‘Basil Bunting Special Issue’. Bob Cobbing’s (75th birthday) ‘poem for two voices for basil bunting’ was reprinted on the back cover:

  2 Hodgkiss blog PI front cover  3 Hodgkiss blog PI back cover


Geraldine Monk’s introduction to Cusp highlights the regional origins of a ‘seemingly spontaneous outbreak of poetries and poetry communities’ in the 1960s. As one thread, however, within a larger pattern of creative renewal across all the arts during a dynamic period of great social and technological change, the case of poetry was not unique. The contribution of Butler’s far-reaching Education Act (1944) to this renewal, which bore a strongly working-class stamp, from poetry to music to film, cannot be over-estimated. Regional origins are reflected in the two publishing locations of GDP – first Swansea, then Newcastle – and in the geographical spread of the authors Hodgkiss published in the 1970s and 1980s, which included for good international measure two Americans and a Canadian: Gilbert Adair, Guy Birchard, Paul Brown, Bill Butler, Richard Caddel, David Chaloner, Bob Cobbing, Kelvin Corcoran, Owen Davis, Ken Edwards, Clayton Eshelman, Peter Finch, John Freeman, Alan Halsey, Lee Harwood, Ralph Hawkins, Jeremy Hilton, Tony Jackson, Nigel Jenkins, Peter Larkin, Tom Leonard, Phil Maillard, Eric Mottram, John Muckle, Maggie O’Sullivan, Maurice Scully, Gavin Selerie, Colin Simms, and Chris Torrance.

  4 Hodgkiss blog Ghostie Men  5 Hodgkiss blog Wine Tales

Tom Leonard, Ghostie Men (1980). Richard Caddel and Lee Harwood, Wine Tales (1984).

But London cannot, of course, be left out of the picture. The extensive small press network within which Hodgkiss operated formed part of what is usually referred to today as the ‘British Poetry Revival’. Coined by Eric Mottram – editor of the Poetry Society’s Poetry Review throughout the journal’s most radical period (1971-77) – the name he attached to the diverse movement was deliberately polemical. Just as the title of Pound’s Active Anthology had implied the relative inactivity of other poets, so the notion of a revival in poetry’s fortunes implied a base condition of moribund decline. The tussle for the centre ground of contemporary poetry settled upon the premises – and print room – of the Poetry Society, then located in Earls Court. The history of the years in which a more radical and modernist vision held sway at the Society (in 1972, Bunting was elected the Society’s President) has been told by Peter Barry in the aptly-named history Poetry Wars (2006).

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 Bob Cobbing, Vowels & Consequences (1985). John Muckle, The Cresta Run (1987).

Hodgkiss served as a Member of the General Council of the Poetry Society in the final Mottram years (1975-77). Although he moved away from the capital, the drive to publish was nurtured in London. It was in London that Hodgkiss first got his hands dirty. In its final years, Galloping Dog Press ventured into publishing typeset books, but Hodgkiss recalls that his ‘heart was really in the muck and sweat of the clunky and irritating business of feeding that bloody duplicator & swirling that bloody guillotine handle and gluing those bloody pages together….’

Hodgkiss’s archive complements the archives at the British Library of two contemporaneous poets, both of whom he published, and both of whom were also General Council Members of the Poetry Society: Bob Cobbing (1920-2002) and Lee Harwood (1939-2015). The range of their work is a good indication of the richness of influence that permeated the British Poetry Revival. Sound and visual poet Bob Cobbing, who ran the longstanding small press Writers Forum – and got his hands muckier than anyone – drew inspiration from the international concrete poetry movement and from the sound poetry of Kurt Schwitters and Henri Chopin. Lee Harwood edited several short-run magazines in the 1960s. His poetry was greatly influenced by the New York school’s arch blend of French literature and pop art, and he also translated the poetry of the Dadaist Tristan Tzara.

Literary magazines and small press publications have always been associated with experiment and innovation. Peter Hodgkiss’s endeavours over a twenty-year-period – and especially during the 1980s when poetry’s public pendulum, if not its less visible course, swung in the direction of literary conservatism – were a vital contribution to this vanguard mission. Today, the internet and the rise of print-on-demand publishing have brought back into circulation the work of many poets who were active in the 1960s and 1970s but whose work had all but disappeared from view. Paradoxically, the burgeoning digital environment has led to increasing scholarly interest in the evidential value of paper records. The publishing archive of Peter Hodgkiss is a fascinating set of primary documents from a distant recent past.

 

13 July 2017

Gay UK: Love, Law, Liberty and Literature?

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The tag line for the British Library’s Gay UK exhibition is ‘Love, Law and Liberty’. One could add another ‘L’ to the alliterative list and make the tag ‘Love, Law, Liberty and Literature’. Literature, and the way it has been used for and against the gay community is a revealing thread running throughout the show. The very first display case in the exhibition examines the downfall of Oscar Wilde and the way his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray – fit for ‘none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys’ in the words of one reviewer – was used against him during his trial for gross indecency. Wilde himself realised he had gone too far in the original version of the story, published in Lippincott’s Magazine in the summer of 1890, and for the first novel publication in 1891 he rewrote the book. In the new version the passionate expressions of Dorian, Basil Hallwood and Sir Henry Wotton are recast in aesthetic terms, removing the original’s emphasis on male relationships. The damage was done though and in the eyes of the prosecution lawyers the Lippincott’s version revealed Wilde’s true, criminal, nature. He was, in their eyes, condemned by his own work.

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(Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, July 1890. The first appearance of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray in print)

This need to either rewrite a novel, or to modify it in order to avoid moral outrage (or indeed to not publish it at all, as E. M Forster did with Maurice) is a common theme. Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) was prosecuted for obscenity, and banned, almost as soon as it appeared. By today’s standards the novel is tame but the line ‘and that night, they were not divided’, which referred to two women, was enough to have James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, raging with disgust. He wrote: ‘I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel’. Further comments by Douglas made a direct link back to Oscar Wilde and the decadence that was a key part of the Victorian fin de siècle – ‘It is a seductive and insidious piece of special pleading designed to display perverted decadence as a martyrdom inflicted upon these outcasts by a cruel society. It flings a veil of sentiment over their depravity.’ The trial caused a sensation, with both sides being easy prey for satirists.

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(An illustration by Beresford Egan for The Sink of Solitude (1928), a satire on Radclyffe Hall, her novel and the case brought against her book. Hall is being martyred on the cross; the Home Secretary Joynson-Hicks looks on; Cupid makes an insulting gesture and Sappho leaps joyously across the centre).

Perhaps Radclyffe Hall’s real offence was to root lesbianism in the English countryside, as much a fixture as the fox hunt and the Saturday-to-Monday house party. She drew attention to it and she defended it. Just as she pointed out and defended the fact that many women ambulance drivers on the Western Front during WWI had been lesbians. This was something a large part of the establishment did not wish to hear; it didn’t tie in with their old-style vision of muscular Christianity and their sense of order.

This open hostility towards literature that addressed gay life lasted well into the 20th century. Terence Rattigan conceived his play The Deep Blue Sea (1952) as a one-act piece revolving around a love affair between two men. Knowing this would never get past the censors however he had little option but to place a heterosexual relationship at the play’s heart if it was to be performed. A few years later however things were beginning to change. Following the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957, which recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality, and the subsequent rise in campaign movements and pressure groups such as the Homosexual Law Reform Society, attitudes were finally starting to relax. On 31st October 1958 the Lord Chamberlain issued a memorandum to his staff stating that plays about homosexuality, or including homosexual characters would no longer be subject to an automatic ban. The language of the document is grudging and of its time (“We will not allow embraces between males or practical demonstrations of love”) but all the same it was progress and plays like Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) soon brought sympathetic portrayals of gay men and women to the London stage.

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(Lord Chamberlain's memorandum from 31st October 1958 outlining what can, and what cannot, be permitted on the stage with regard to the portrayal of homosexuality)

Although the pace of change has been gradual the positive advance in attitudes over the twentieth century is encouraging. Seventy years after the banning of The Well of Loneliness Sarah Waters’ novel Tipping the Velvet (1998) achieved impressive sales and critical acclaim. A racy television adaptation was broadcast four years later. Waters’ novel is immeasurably more daring in its depiction of lesbianism than The Well of Loneliness. It is graphic, sexy, bold, joyous and brilliant. The fact it was also available to buy in high-street bookshops and to borrow from libraries up and down the country is indicative of how far attitudes towards same-sex relationships have progressed since the dark days of Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall.

Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty runs until 19th September 2017. The events programme to accompany the exhibition can be seen here.

 

 

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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Add MS 88938/3/8/1.

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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Add MS 88938/3/8/1.

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?

Blog image 3 Crash spine

 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).

Blog image 4 Crash contents

 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:

Blog image 5 JGB filmscript for Cokeliss p6

Add MS 89171/1.

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

11 May 2017

Collecting Kenilworth: leaves of a Romance reunited

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Oh, what a tangled web we weave When first we practise to deceive!

These famous lines from Walter Scott’s poem Marmion (1808) might perfectly describe the plot of Kenilworth (1821), the Scottish author’s historical novel of intrigue and deception set in Elizabethan England. Piecing together Scott’s original manuscript for Kenilworth is also a tangled task. The British Library has recently acquired two leaves of the manuscript, numbered 14 and 15 in Scott’s hand (now Add MS 89229). The larger part of the manuscript (Egerton MS 1661) has been in the British Library’s collections since 1855.

A mounted note bound within the newly acquired volume states: 'Part of the original ms. of Kenilworth given to me Edmond Logan by John Ballantine'. John Ballantyne, Scott’s editor and printer, must have given the leaves to the Scottish-Canadian geologist soon after the novel was printed because he died six months later on 16 June 1821. The volume has been in private collections since then and was purchased by the British Library with a generous grant from the Friends of the British Library at an auction in New York in March.

Add MS 89229 Scott portrait

Engraving of a portrait of Scott, by A. Wivel, after C. Picart, 1824. The portrait faces the title page in the volume of two manuscript leaves of Kenilworth, Add MS 89229, f. 2v.

Kenilworth opens in a drinking establishment, namely Giles Gosling’s Bonny Black Bear. Michael Lambourne has just returned from his travels and is unable to shake off a bad reputation for the misdemeanours and drunkenness that characterised his youth. He wagers with the other guests that he can gain entry to Cumnor Place, a nearby manor, where it is rumoured that a beautiful young woman is being kept captive. Edmund Tressilian accompanies Lambourne to Cumnor Place. The two leaves of the manuscript describe Lambourne’s encounter with the steward of Cumnor Place, Anthony Foster, at the end of chapter three and beginning of chapter four.

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The first of the two leaves, numbered 14 by Scott, British Library shelfmark: Add MS 89229, f. 5.

On the second leaf (numbered 15), Lambourne reminds Foster of the convenience of the ‘old religion’ (Catholicism) for villains:

Do I not remember how you were wont to carry your confessio conscience to confession as duly as the [night] ^month^ came round & when thou hadst had it scoured and burnished and white washed by the priest thou wert every ready for the worst villainy which could be devised (page 15, lines 7-10)

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The second of the two leaves, numbered 15 by Scott, British Library shelfmark: Add MS 89229, f. 6.

The leaves fill the gap in the manuscript between pages 3 to 13 held by Edinburgh University Library and the larger part of the manuscript, which begins at page 16.

The editors of the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels returned to Scott’s manuscript as well as the first edition when creating a critical edition (Edinburgh University Press, 1993). Many changes were made between the manuscript and the first edition. Some of the changes were intentional and authorised by Scott, such as the introduction of punctuation and the correction of grammatical errors. Mistakes were introduced, however, in the interpretation of Scott’s densely packed handwriting as the publishers and compositors (typesetters) rushed to get Scott’s novel to the press as quickly as possible.

Kenilworth was published in Edinburgh on 15 January 1821 and in London on 18 January, only four months after Scott started writing it. Thirteen of the numbered leaves remain unaccounted for. It is probable that the leaves have never been together as a whole manuscript, as Scott sent completed parts of the manuscript to Ballantyne as he was writing the novel.

By Catherine Angerson, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:

‘Essay on the Text’, in Walter Scott, Kenilworth: A Romance, ed. by J. H. Alexander (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993), pp. 395–432

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’. 

Crop of 'The Flea'

‘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.

27 April 2017

John Milton's publishing contract for Paradise Lost

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John Milton’s publishing contract for Paradise Lost goes on display

350 years ago today, the poet John Milton entered into an agreement with the printer Samuel Simmons to publish his epic poem Paradise Lost. Through this publishing contract, one of the greatest works of English literature came into print. The original contract for Paradise Lost is held by the British Library, and has just been placed on display in our Treasures Gallery.

Milton publishing contract

John Milton’s contract for the publication of Paradise Lost, 27 April 1667. British Library shelfmark: Add MS 18861.

The contract between John Milton and Samuel Simmons reveals that Milton was to receive £5 from Simmons immediately for Paradise Lost, and a further £5 once 1,300 copies of the poem had been sold. There was potential for Milton to earn an additional £10 if two further editions, also of 1,300 copies each, were sold. Unfortunately Milton died shortly after the second edition was produced in 1674, and so received only £10 for his masterpiece.

On display alongside Milton's contract is the first edition of Paradise Lost, which Simmons duly printed in 1667. It is in ten ‘books’ or sections, and contains over ten thousand lines of verse. Simmons did not include his own name on the title page, but listed the three London booksellers who acted as wholesale distributors of the book.

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The first edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (London, 1667). British Library shelfmark: C.14.a.9.

Milton’s poem, on the subject of the temptation of Adam and Eve and their banishment from the Garden of Eden, had occupied him for many years before it was finally published. Having lost the sight in both eyes by his early forties, he had to dictate the work laboriously, line-by-line, to an assistant.

The publishing contract is believed to have been signed on Milton’s behalf by an amanuensis. Milton then affixed his seal to it. This is the earliest known example of a contract between an English author and their publisher.

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