THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

81 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

27 June 2017

Undercurrent: British Library Associate Theatre Company

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UNDERCURRENT THEATRE ANNOUNCED AS BRITISH LIBRARY’S FIRST ASSOCIATE THEATRE COMPANY

Undercurrent Theatre are an innovative and research based London theatre company, who have today been announced as the British Library’s first Associate Theatre Company. In a year-long residency, the Associateship will open up the British Library’s unparalleled collections to a diverse range of users, through innovative engagement with the Library’s public, cultural and creative audiences. Working closely with Library curators, Undercurrent Theatre plan to facilitate and generate new cross-cultural opportunities.

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Laura Farnworth, photographed by Sophie Cornell

Undercurrent will research eight topics whilst in residence and host opportunities for artists to delve into this research, opening up the possibility of future partnerships. It is our aim that this research will not only lead to new productions for Undercurrent, but will also be a source of inspiration for many other artists in developing creative projects. The residency will culminate in mid 2018 with two public performance events at the British Library.

The partnership began in 2016 with the critically acclaimed production ‘Calculating Kindness’. This production was researched over three years using the personal archives of evolutionary biologists George Price and W.D. Hamilton archives which are held at the Library. The play brought to the public the little known true story of George Price, and inspired Price’s own daughters to donate further papers of their father to the British Library and travel to the UK to lay a headstone at his previously unmarked grave. The play ran at the Camden People’s Theatre in London to excellent reviews and plans for a wider tour are currently in progress.

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Calculating Kindness, photographed by Richard Davenport

Roly Keating, the British Library’s Chief Executive, said: “We are thrilled to welcome Undercurrent Theatre as our first Associate Theatre Company, following our previous successful collaboration on Calculating Kindness last year. We are committed to exploring the rich potential of the Library’s collections as sites of creative inspiration and are hugely looking forward to working with Undercurrent, through this Associateship, to continue opening up the Library and its collections to new audiences and communities.”

Undercurrent Theatre Artistic Director Laura Farnworth said: “We are delighted to be starting this residency at the British Library. As a company our mission is to uncover and explore extraordinary stories. We see the British Library as the home of all stories, and can’t imagine a better place to reside and be inspired to create future work for new audiences.”

Undercurrent Theatre Executive Producer Sophie Cornell said: “This Associateship and support from Arts Council England allows us precious artistic research time, which is so often over-looked and under-funded. This will ensure we can reach out into the artistic community and test a research-residency model.”

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Undercurrent is a London-based theatre company who unearth extraordinary real life stories with fearless imagination. They gather oceans of material which are interrogated, filtered and moulded into exhilarating and aesthetically bold experiences for audiences across the U.K. Specialising in research-based performance, Undercurrent’s artistic process centres around a piece of rigorous research and includes weeks of development time which brings the design team into the heart of the collaborative process. 

Follow the residency @uk_undercurrent, or by signing up to Undercurrent’s mailing list www.undercurrent-uk.com/mailing-list

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?

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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

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.

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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

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

24 March 2017

‘Post-it’ notes in the Will Self archive

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Chris Beckett writes:

‘My books begin life in notebooks, then they move on to Post-it notes, the Post-its go up on the walls of the room […] short story ideas, tropes, metaphors, gags, characters, etc. When I'm working on a book, the Post-its come down off the wall and go into scrapbooks.’ (‘Writers' Rooms: Will Self’, The Guardian, 6 April 2007.)

Here’s Self’s writing room in 71 photographs: http://www.will-self.com/writing-room/index.php

The photographs capture the scale of the author’s devotion to the little yellow pad. The scrapbooks into which Self has gathered the ‘post-it’ notes now form part of his archive at the British Library. Grid-like on the wall, and grid-like in the scrapbooks, the notes intrigue and fascinate. They are little doorways into the text, little honeycomb cells of access.

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Having recently read How the Dead Live (2000), a group of ‘post-it’ notes in the novel’s scrapbook caught my eye. 

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I smiled at the note about the minicab driver who crosses London by an internal map of Lagos (second row, third from left – see p. 310 of the novel). I remembered Lily Bloom’s heavy-smoking fantasy of an elaborate contraption to feed her a continuous supply of ready-lit cigarettes – think cogs, wheels and pulleys, think Heath Robinson – drawn by the American cartoonist Rube Goldberg (first row, novel p. 300). I noted Lily’s anxious ‘dieting lists’, and I caught her familiar combative tone in ‘very few people are fond of me’ (second row) although I can’t find the words in the book. I then wondered about the striking phrase ‘ginny mist’ (second row, second from the left). When I found ‘ginny mist’ in the published text (p. 101), I saw that the image had been deftly extended and deepened: ‘I remember this lack of sensation; it’s happened enough times to me in this bedroom, usually in a ginny mist, a forest of juniper’.  

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Looking through the scrapbook for Walking to Hollywood (my current reading), I discovered a group of ‘post-it’ notes on Scientology. The unreliable narrator of the novel, a writer called Will Self who has lost his capacity to suspend disbelief, goes on a walking odyssey to Hollywood to discover who killed the movies, and has CGI firmly in his sights. In this novel of seems and simulacra, everyone looks like a familiar actor, even Self, who is ‘played’ by Pete Postlethwaite and/or David Thewlis. ‘Actors feel like Thetans’ says one post-it note (see below, second row, second note from the left). L. Ron Hubbard’s cult is described in the novel as a mash-up of ‘Astounding Stories, the Bhagavad Gita and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life’ (p. 141).

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In the late 1980s, the narrator once ‘inveigled’ himself on to an introductory Scientology weekend course at the Saint Hill Manor headquarters, near East Grinstead, but was firmly rejected when they discovered his ‘homosexual inclinations’. Thereafter, he was repeatedly rebuffed: ‘over the coming years I went on pitching up at Tottenham Court Road, in disguises and under assumed names, armed with strategies for “fooling” the Capacity Analysis. It was all to no avail: the smiling Scientologists would let me take the test again, then send me on my way, with the advice that I see a doctor, a therapist, a priest – do anything, in short, but submit myself to their own mind control’ (p. 141). Among the background notes for Walking to Hollywood are the results of a Scientology personality test displayed as a graph (Hubbard’s OCA, the so-called ‘Oxford Capacity Analysis’). The test was undertaken by one (thinly disguised) Wihh [sic] Orr at the Scientology Life Improvement Center, Sunset Boulevard, 14 June 2008.

Returning home from Los Angeles, Self finds that the (cartoon) ‘superpowers’ he possessed in LA have vanished, only to be replaced by a growing sense that his ‘mental faculties’ are deteriorating. He walks the crumbling coastline of East Yorkshire and meditates morbidly on ‘the fuzziness and forgetfulness’ (p. 329) that has descended on him. Like the cliffs he walks along, his foot-weary narrative is eroded and ‘breaks off’, along with a sense of purpose and identity: ‘This would be a unique walk of erasure – a forty-mile extended metaphor for my own embattled persona, as its foundations were washed away’ (p. 345). 

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‘The fictional account breaks off short: it is eroded’.

Before starting out on his littoral tramp of East Yorkshire – an ambulatory coda to the morphing masks of LA – Self muses: ‘It was true that in the decade since I had stopped drinking and taking drugs my short-term memory seemed to have improved; at any rate, I no longer needed the elaborate system of Post-it notes stuck to the walls of my writing room that had for years served me as a kind of random access. If I maintained this, it was more as an art installation, or magic ritual […] (p. 330).

And so perhaps we have then, in a sense, in the Walking to Hollywood scrapbook, Self’s final scrapbook post-it note: not the very last physically – the pages of notes continue beyond it – but the note that points, with the satisfying force of circularity, not only to ‘post-it’ notes as a subject within the text but also to the end of the writer’s practical need for them. The art installation has had its final show. RAM is no longer required on the walls.

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‘Amnesia / Post-its’ (third row, first left). And: ‘My family. Who are they? Why haven’t they forgotten me?' (far right).

However, Self quickly decides that his reasoning for the end of the writing room installation is delusional. It is not that his short-term memory has greatly improved, it is just that he now works differently, is better at his trade: ‘I now wrote books with the workmanlike despatch of a carpenter turning out tables, this busy practice obscuring the loss of much I had once known’ (p. 331). 

Next week, I start to catalogue the two novels that followed the ‘wayward and melancholic’ (Self’s description) Walking to Hollywood: they are Umbrella (2012) and Shark (2014). A cursory glance at what the boxes contain suggests that the narrator is indeed an unreliable fellow. Not only are there yellow notes hiding in the drafts of Umbrella, but there is also a scrapbook for Shark. Perhaps we really shouldn’t believe a word he says.

 

Chris Beckett’s blog on the family papers in the Self archive is here:  http://blogs.bl.uk/english-and-drama/2017/02/first-report-from-the-will-self-archive-family-matters.html

Images of material from the Will Self archive are used with kind permission of the author.

27 February 2017

First report from the Will Self archive: family matters

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Chris Beckett writes:

Will Self’s review (for the New Statesman) of Peter Ackroyd’s Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (2002) begins with the suggestion that his grandfather would have enjoyed the book. Before telling us why (Cockney visionaries both, with a tendency to compendiousness), we are treated to a pen-portrait of grandfather Sir Henry:

‘Albert Henry Self was the son of the conductor on the Number 11 tram. A Fulham boy, he was waiting table in a cafe when a patron spotted his ability to add the bill up with a single saccade of his bulbous blue eyes. The cafe's patron became my grandfather's, putting him through school and sponsoring him while he took the civil service examinations. Henry Self ended up as a heavyweight mandarin, Beaverbrook's permanent undersecretary during the war and, latterly, chairman of the Electricity Board. A Knight of the Garter, and one time President of the Laity of the Church of England, in his old age, my grandfather's cockney origins only emerged when he'd had an extra Guinness or three over lunch. On these occasions, he'd beat time with his knife on the table and give us a rousing chorus of "Don't Have Any More, Mrs Moore", much to the consternation of my authentically genteel grandmother, who'd bleat: "Really Henry!"’

As an unexpected bonus, the archive of Will Self at the British Library includes a fascinating documentary foreground: an assortment of family papers – photographs, letters, diaries – that have passed into the author’s possession. Cataloguing of the substantial archive is currently well-advanced: the family papers have been addressed, and work has now commenced on the core of the collection, the multiple drafts of Self’s fiction. Among the family papers is Sir Henry’s compendious ‘The Divine Indwelling’, a grand philosophical summa in five volumes that attempts a ‘reconciliation of science, religion and philosophy’.

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Sir Henry Self, ‘The Divine Indwelling’. Annotations in blue ink are in the hand of his son, Peter Self.

It was this unpublished work (not unpublished for want of trying, however, as Sir Henry’s correspondence in the archive records) that prompted Self to compare his grandfather’s synthesising habit of thought to that of Peter Ackroyd. But Self quickly makes brutally plain the all-important difference between them – the pre-loaded punchline of his comparison – that ‘Ackroyd can write’.

‘Before he too expired from a surfeit of prolixity,’ Self’s review continues, ‘my father repeatedly enjoined me to "do something" about The Divine Indwelling’. In Walking to Hollywood (2010, p. 253), we glimpse ‘the yellowing typescript’ resting – waiting wordily for attention – on the top shelf in Self’s study. Perhaps the patrilineal burden of what to do about Sir Henry’s magnum opus – his laboursome philosophical folly – has now been resolved, custody secured, by its incorporation in the archive of his grandson.

The earliest item in the archive is a Victorian family photograph album, from Lady Rosalind Self, Will Self’s grandmother. The gallery of stiff portraits that fill most of the album give way in the later pages to less formal ‘snaps’ of her two sons, Peter and Hugh Michael. Rosalind Self was the daughter of Sir John Otter. As Mayor of Brighton (1913-15), Sir John initiated the building of The Chattri war memorial, a monument to the Sikh and Hindu soldiers who died in the military hospitals of Brighton. Sir John had served in the Indian Medical Service. The Chattri, a Grade-II listed structure, sits on the South Downs in a remote spot above Patcham, overlooking Brighton. It was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1921, as photographs in the album record. The archive includes photographs of some of the original architectural designs (which show that initially a somewhat larger monument had been envisaged).

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Lady Self was the granddaughter of the Anglican educationalist the Rev. Nathaniel Woodard, who founded eleven schools for the rising and increasingly affluent Victorian middle class. The first school was Lancing College, near Lewes, founded in 1848. In 1843, Woodard had published A Plea for the Middle Classes. He summarised his purpose as the provision of ‘a good and complete education for the middle classes, at such a charge as will make it available to most of them’. In 1925, Sir John Otter published a memoir of Woodard.

Henry and Rosalind Self lived in Brighton, not far from Lancing, in a house in Vernon Terrace that Rosalind had inherited. Peter, Will Self’s father (who held chairs in Public Administration at the London School of Economics, and subsequently at The Australian National University at Canberra) and his brother Hugh Michael (Queen’s Counsel) were both boarders at Lancing College. It had been their mother’s wish that her sons should board there (Henry had been in favour of Brighton Grammar School). From time to time, the brothers must have passed the impressive tomb of their great-grandfather, Nathaniel Woodard, in the grand Gothic setting of Lancing College Chapel, a stolid reminder of the weight of ancestry, and of scholarly expectation.

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The archive includes Peter Self’s unfinished draft memoir ‘Through a Glass Brightly’ in which he recounts his childhood and his memories of Lancing: ‘my life at Lancing, which seemed at the time interminable, sucked me into a complete, insulated world of intense experience, which made the “real” world outside, for which we were supposedly being prepared, seem remote and unreal’ (f. 45).

Will Self’s American Jewish mother, Elaine (née Rosenbloom) first enters Self’s fictional world in the early story ‘The North London Book of the Dead’, written following her death in 1988. Elaine later takes centre-stage as the (Joycean) Lily Bloom, the sharp voice and the lively dead consciousness of How the Dead Live (2000). The archive includes her diaries and journals (most as copies), which register something of her misanthropic tone and take on life, echoed in the acerbic voicing of How the Dead Live: ‘So many people left to disparage – so little time’ (p. 55). The archive includes the letters she received throughout her life from American and English family and friends, and from her husband Peter.

The Self family letters in the archive span three generations and the three continents of Europe, America, and Australia. After Peter Self emigrated to Australia in 1980, to teach at Canberra, he usually wrote an airletter to his mother on a Monday; they form the sort of tidy pile an archivist loves to find. Will Self’s letters to his father are of particular interest: they make frequent and illuminating reference to his writing. Some were sent from the remote island of Rousay in the Orkneys, a quiet location where many of Self’s novels from the 1990s received their final drafts.

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In a recent interview published in the Paris Review (2012), Self described his first book, The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991) – a collection of short stories, most of which satirise the world of academic research in the social and psychiatric medical sciences – as an act of parricide: ‘It takes the piss out of my father and his friends and their irrelevance as I saw it and the perniciousness of their discourse and the way in which people believed it.’ The symbolic murder of the father, as Self recalls, was not an entirely conscious action but was ‘done with a sleight of mind’. In ‘My Old Man’ (The Guardian, 15 June 2008), he acknowledges a shift in his appreciation of his father: ‘Ours was an ambulatory, ludic and pedagogic relationship [….] As we come to resemble our fathers, so we re-encounter the individual who reared us’. Certainly, the physical resemblance of Henry, Peter, and Will, all standing at some six and a half feet tall, is striking. Temperamentally, they all enjoyed and enjoy, in Self’s felicitous phrase, the pleasures of ‘happy disputation’. In the light of family history, it is perhaps not surprising that Will Woodard Self has recently turned to teaching. In March 2012, Self was appointed Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University.

Sir Henry Self, a working-class son, was, by all accounts, a man of extraordinary talents, not least in respect of his exceptional capacity for memory. He used his time commuting from Brighton to London to gain eleven degrees. Sir Henry’s prodigious memory is alluded to in My Idea of Fun (1993), in the eidetic – or photographic – memory of young Ian Wharton; his ‘eidetiking’ facilitates the ominous entry of The Fat Controller into his life. In the same novel (partly set on the Brighton coast familiar from Self’s childhood), the shadowy absence of Ian’s father – ‘little more than a ghost in the domestic machine’ – seems to reflect the absence of Peter Self from the family home (from the age of nine). Lily Bloom reflects that she married into a family of ‘true shabby gentility’, a family of ‘nursery names’. In the letters in the archive, we discover that Lady Self is always addressed as ‘Mumbles’ and always signs her letters by the same name, to everyone in the family. Sir Henry’s ‘nursery name’ was ‘Dids’.

Much of Self’s fiction is framed by an exploration of masculine identity, from Cock and Bull (1992) to Dorian (2002), and The Book of Dave (2006). Self’s memoir of his father in the introduction to Perfidious Man (2000), at once a warmly humorous and distancing account, is also enlightening on the subject. Drafts of the novel Umbrella (2012) have been filed by the author along with Sir Henry’s passport and several genealogical research papers. As the author commented when Umbrella was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize: ‘Having reached my 40s, like many another slightly nerdy man (and I think it is a mostly male preoccupation), I started looking into my immediate ancestry.’ The family papers included in Will Self’s archive at the British Library suggest that however extreme the alternative reality his fiction portrays, however skewed and re-scaled the world it depicts, its well-spring is quite likely to be, bubbling beneath, a family matter.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

14 November 2016

Treasures of the British Library: Zephaniah meets Shelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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