THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

Introduction

From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

17 February 2017

Ken Campbell: 4 poems

Earlier this year, the British Library completed its collection of the published works of the British artist Ken Campbell, with his most recent work You All Know The Words (2016). The British Library is the only Library in UK to hold all the works. At the end of October, the Library held a celebration of the work of Ken Campbell. The texts of presentations from Cathy Courtney and Richard Price can be found on this blog. Reprinted here, with kind permission, are four poems by Ken Campbell.  

 

He is now so close Death

that is, to speak of him is crude,

as remarking on another in the room.

Blackness around the vision

marks the card; prelude

to black ink of songs flow

through windows and door fattening

cushions of dark fill the room

leaving only the space of the client.

 

Terror, Terror 1977

 

KC A Knife Romance

A Knife Romance (1988). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Widow’s Song

Is that you; chance being,

a fine thing; is that you.

The stair creaks, money kept

under carpet, particular tread

now not long dead; is that you.

 

Hovers in the glass of door

your needle, my thread; dog stares,

our garden’s grown too big

with pints of sweetened tea gone cold;

time to leave: is that you.

 

A Knife Romance, 1988

 

KC Fathers Romance

Father’s Garden (1989). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Father’s garden ran his ship:

no waves outraged his wailing walls:

no pitching keel beneath his feet

– nor claycrumb shift in his cold helm.

 

One vision, his, stood stack stock still:

his cargoes all the displaced knew,

& how they all could kill; thus twine

& baling; thus stolen, lying sleepers

 

stacked-in-law, & ordered buckets of fill

made fit. Garden ship shape never could

set sail: I so felt myself & missing went

overboard, awol. Breadcast. Fatherwater.

 

Round the chairdecks made windbreak

his hull horizon sat down stare for me:

a row of planted beanstakes breaking leaf

– our father’s juice flows everywhere.

 

Time water drowns all our fetch,

in reach of unsung dunes: - unless,

land-locked, life-tides work and move: so

ere it remembers you, remember home.

 

KC fathers Garden2

Father’s Garden (1989). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

 

Unlaced in springtime

stepping beneath a golden monastery

a buck in a bush

leapt to his morning furrow.

 

Such a day brought such a boy

from golden morning hoof

to the hammered dead of the afternoon:

history rang on the boiler of his engine.

 

Father’s Garden, 1989

10 February 2017

Jane Austen Among Family and Friends

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.

03 February 2017

Busting the Myths of Music Hall

by guest blogger Fern Riddell, cultural historian and consultant for the BAFTA award-winning BBC and Amazon drama, Ripper Street

Teaching a British Library Adult Learning course is an absolute joy. This new range of courses brings together Library experts and guest specialists to offer unique learning experiences, using the Library’s rare collections for inspiration. I was invited to design a six-week course to support Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun, a free exhibition showcasing the Library’s Evanion Collection – a unique archive of the ephemera of Music Hall magician Henry Evans, acquired by the Library and rarely seen by the public.

 

  M. Evanion

Programme of M. Evanion's entertainment, January 13, 1893, Copyright © The British Library Board

I started my academic life as a Music Hall Historian. It’s a well-known part of our cultural history, a genre of entertainment we instantly recognise but actually know very little about. For many people, music hall is a sterotype, infantile, full of mother-in-law jokes and something that should never be considered ‘art’. And this misconception is why I chose to focus on the reality of Music Hall, and not out cultural memory of it, with my course Behind The Myth Of Music Hall. Each week we took a Music Hall myth – from the working class identity, to the role of women – and blew it apart. Did you know that Dickens loved the Music Hall? That women owned and ran music halls across the country; that Kitty Marion, one of our most dangerous suffragettes, was committing arson attacks on MP’s houses in-between on-stage appearances? And that the language of the songs, far from being ‘Knee’s Up Mother Brown’ was witty, clever, and occasionally stolen from the poetry of the greats like Byron or Keats. And above all, Music halls educated their audience about personal rights and situation through topical songs. Music halls kept their audience informed of parliamentary bills, changes in the geographical landscape of London, political intrigues, as well as domestic relationships and trials.

By the latter half of the 19th century, there were over 300 music halls licensed in London alone. Syndicated groups began to appear, opening music halls in towns and resorts across the country, and later the world. The Evanion Collection reflects the huge breadth and depth of acts, performers, and locations across the country as well as Music Hall’s influence over the tastes and ideas of their audience. National stars were created, Marie Lloyd, Leona Dare and Dan Leno packed houses to the roof night after night, and all caught Henry Evans’s eye.

 

  Leona dare

 Poster with an illustration of Leona Dare's balloon ascent, Copyright © The British Library Board

From 1852 Music Hall gained a reputation for showcasing something different, something special, and something new. It was a marvel to behold: opulent ceilings, chandeliers, expensive carpets. The middle classes were shocked: why were music hall impresarios going to such expense just to provide entertainment to the masses? Elegant designs and exteriors belonged to those who could afford to have them at home, not just to be visited for pleasure. But this is where the very core of the entire music hall industry ideal exists. It was a world of fantasy; it attempted to create perfection and sold it to the people who would never have enough money to obtain it. It was the modern day celebrity gossip magazine and reality TV star world rolled into one, and appearing twice nightly just down your road.

The Canterbury Music Hall was the first of these, opening in 1852, and then again in 1856, after a significant rebuild to increase seating capacity. Morton built this hall at 143 Westminster Bridge Road, and it signalled the new style of entertainment, specifically for the working classes, in the heart of the city of London. When the cost of Charles Morton's carpet in the Canterbury was revealed to be over a thousand pounds, he was met with derision and disbelief that he would waste such expense on those who were unable to appreciate it. Morton met his detractors with defiance, his manager, William Holland invited them ‘to come and spit on it’ [Busby, Roy, British music hall: An illustrated who's who from 1850 to the present day (Michigan, 1976), 12.].

 

  Canterbury theatre prog

Canterbury Theatre of Varieties, theatre programme, 1888, © The British Library Board

Historians have argued that the music halls were the first commercial mass entertainment to appear in Britain, they appealed to everyone. In a world that we see as often only operating along strict class and gender divides, the music halls were a place that drew in men and women, old and young, from all walks of life. In the last week of my course, Helen Peden, the British Library’s Curator of Printed Heritage Collections 1601-1900, joined us and brought with her a mesmerizing selection of posters, playbills and other ephemera from the Evanion Collection, which we displayed on tables across two rooms. The joy of seeing students connect to original source material is unparalleled, and by the end of six weeks, my passionate group of historical myth busters set off to explore the rest of the Library’s collections. I can’t wait to see what they find.

 

  George Pike and seals

George Pike's wonderful performing seals, © The British Library Board

For more information on adult courses at the Library, visit www.bl.uk/courses. The exhibition There Will Be Fun is open until 12th March 2017.

31 January 2017

A few ways through the window: welcoming Ken Campbell’s work to the British Library

Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections, reflects on the Library’s recent acquisition of Ken Campbell’s artist’s books.

KenCampbell1

Pantheon (2000). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

I was first in touch with Ken Campbell at the end of the millennium. I can’t now remember the circumstances of our introduction but it was probably through the art librarian Stephen Bury when he was a colleague here, or via the artist Ronald King, who I had been recently working with in my semi-secret life as a poet.

I don’t think we’d actually met until 2004, when I went over to the east end to see Ken at his home, just beyond Brick Lane. We then visited a separate studio space, a short walk away.

Looking back, that morning seems altogether a perfect window into Ken Campbell’s artistry, its darknesses and its considerable areas of light. Impressions include the metallic traffic of Bethnal Green, particulates in the air – Ken’s books don’t dodge politics at the level of the industrialisation of the individual – the rich, argued-over layers of Brick Lane’s history. And then that crossing from the main road near Ken’s home into a vital backstreet. You stepped past pools of blood from halal meat, witnessing scuffed grey-silver shutters half-closed, half-open, all-hours business of some kind or another, openings and closings. Finally, as you walked, Ken was himself telling the stories of the poems and ideas and the making of his books.

That thick blood on the ground, moving at the speed of deliberation, and the strong working frames for those shutters– for a door, for a window the length of a building – these contrasting images, these sensations, rise to the surface of my mind when I think about Ken Campbell’s books.

Ken Campbell Firedogs

Firedogs (1991). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

Kinds of argument and kinds of agreement - collision, scrap, conversation, conference, colloquium, tango – all kinds of interlocution are central to Ken Campbell’s books. He forces the hard components of printing to meet the soft ones, ink layered to a viscosity. Ken Campbell’s books are forensics in reverse, a crime scene de-enactment, with elegy and so love at their heart.

Another part of this is Campbell’s probing of limits. Erasure, superimposition, borders, a window / a black mirror / a printer’s forme / an enclosed garden; fire grate; the aperture of a camera, aperture of the eye; the case-hardened skull; the simple Pantheon, the complicated window frame. His work is always a tribute to, because a transgression of, defining restraints.

Ken Campbell Execution

EXECUTION (1990). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

And these are very visceral books. At first they can seem austere, ‘pure’, but it soon dawns on the reader how hybrid and fluid – technically and thematically – they are, and of course how the books flow into each other.

For researchers and other pleasure-seekers at the British Library they will be the focus of hours and hours of immersion, of discussion, of I hope a kind of readerly joy.

They are perfect for us in so many ways. One is to do with their embodiment of an intensely self-reflexive book art – these are books which press a range of traditional printing methods up against modern ones, sometimes to destruction (warped zinc plates), but always physically, a material sub-text in each. Here are printerly zones where the physicality of letter press meets the surface sophistication of contemporary laser printing -- layering and replying to each other. In a way, centuries of book history are made metaphorical in Ken’s work.

Ken Campbell Dominion

Dominion (2002). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

The voice of the prophet, of a driven messenger, a voice which I believe is strong in Ken’s poetry, is in one of the earliest traditions of the artist’s book – The Lindisfarne Gospels, Blake’s poems, are testament – and I stress testament – to an urgency of creativity within the English artist’s book tradition.

Ken’s big, sculptural books and their compelling texts are the sort of events in space that this muscular part of the tradition recognises, delicate though they also are, and of course the British Library is a very good place to ground yourself in the tap-root tradition of artist’s books in these islands.

Even so, I don’t want to limit Ken’s work to the artist’s book tradition, or even to book history. Artist’s books are seldom ‘just’ about art or books and that’s the same for Ken Campbell’s work. Look here for the resonances of an old old Sanskrit song of the horse, of a fire god, of Halley’s comet from tapestry to our contemporary times; of Rodchenko as creator and, under extreme duress, censor; of Gaelic psalms of exile; British military history, British shipping history, Judaica, black flag anarchy, Shiva, show trials and trick photography, native American narrative and moving personal testimony. Ken Campbell’s books brim with the riches and questions of culture, of civilisation. In so being they are a perfect addition to a Library whose mission is to be a question-mark resonator, to safeguard information and text-based creativity in the cause of thought-provocation and particular kinds of book-related pleasure, particular kinds of reflection and even joy.

by Richard Price, Head of Contemporary British Collections.

13 January 2017

A New Acquisition: Celebrating 50 years of the Graphic Studio Dublin

Jerry Jenkins, Curator of Emerging Media, Contemporary British Published Collections writes:

In November 2016 I had the pleasure to attend “From Yeats to Heaney: Discovering 140 Years of Literature at the National Library of Ireland” hosted by Embassy of Ireland. After the introduction from the Cultural Attaché and opening remarks from Dr Sandra Collins, Director of the National Library of Ireland, the assembled guests were treated to insightful, often humorous talks on both William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney given by Katherine McSharry, NLI Head of Outreach and Professor Geraldine Higgins, NLI Heaney Exhibition Curator respectively. The lectures illustrated the measurable contribution to, and healthy involvement both men had with the National Library of Ireland.  It is worth noting that the archives of both Heaney and Yeats rest within its walls. 

The British Library has also been fishing in those culturally rich waters which are Dublin. Earlier this year the Library acquired a set of six Sponsors’ Portfolios from the Graphic Studio Dublin.

Between 1962-1979 Graphic Studio Dublin produced a collection of work entitled Sponsors' Portfolios, containing art and literature by writers and artists from Ireland and internationally. In conjunction with their 50th anniversary in 2010 the Graphics Studio re-launched the Sponsors’ Portfolios in 2010.

Each portfolio contains a work commissioned by an acclaimed contemporary Irish writer, and four visual artists. A list of contributors can be found on the  Graphic Studio Dublin's website.  These showcase the printmaker’s art and the skills which are employed in producing fine press items. Each year a limited edition of 75 imprints are produced.  The project will continue to produce folios until 2019 thereby capturing a snap shot of some of the finest work of contemporary Irish writers and artists over the decade. The formula of inviting artists and a writer to work together presents a fresh and vibrant perspective to the interception where visual arts and the written word meet.

GSDHeaney

Seamus Heaney, 'The Owl'. Translated from the Italian of Giovanni Pascoli. Letterpress. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

Poignantly Seamus Heaney contributed to the Sponsors’ Portfolio in 2013, in what turned out to be the year of his death. Entitled Translation, his subject was a translation from the Italian of Giovanni Pascoli poem “The Owl” or “L’assiolo” in the original. The acquisition of this late and rare Heaney work to the British Library is an important addition to the rich collection of Heaney’s writing the Library’s has garnered over the last forty years.  My colleague, Dr Richard Price has highlighted some of these in a previous post.

“The Owl” is accompanied by four prints: Pamela Leonard’s “For Sheer Joy ... Took Flight”, Liam Ó Broin’s “Death of Orpheus”, with Jane O’Malley’s “Still Life” and finally Robert Russell’s “Lost in Translation”. These works are beautifully illustrative of how the printmaker’s art can transfer the depth of emotion conveyed in the written word to colour and form of the artist’s reimagining.

GSDPLeonard

Pamela Leonard, 'For sheer joy... took flight'. Etching. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

 

GSDLOBroin

Liam Ó Broin, 'Death of Orpheus'. Lithograph. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

If there was any doubt about the truly individual nature these works, when measuring the individual portfolios for their protective phase boxing it was noted  that the was a slight  discrepancy  of millimetres between the size of each of the portfolios. A sure sign of a distinctive and hand crafted nature of these artist’s books.      

  GSDGOMalley

Jane O'Malley, 'Still Life, La Geria'. Carborundum. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin

 

GSDRRussell

Robert Russell, 'Lost in Translation'. Etching. Used with the kind permission of the Graphic Studio Dublin.

To return to where I started, a thought-provoking question was raised at the “From Yeats to Heaney” event at the Embassy: who will inherit the mantle which seemed so mysteriously to pass from Yeats to Heaney in 1939, (the year of Yeats’s death and of Heaney’s birth)? Within the folios of the Sponsors’ Portfolio might be a good place to start looking for the answer to that question.  

In closing, I would urge readers to explore the rest of the series the British Library’s copies of the Sponsors’ Portfolio. 1/10-7/10 are orderable at pressmarks:

 

Ultramarine, Jean Bardon, Carmel Benson, Roddy Doyle, Kelvin Mann and Donald Teskey RHA., 2010, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2280;

Journey, Caroline Donohue, Theo Dorgan, Martin Gale, Stephen Lawlor and Louise Leonard, 2011, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2281;

Thoughts, Jennifer Lane, Seán McSweeney, Niall Naessens, Marta Wakula-Mac & Thomas Kinsella, 2012, British Library Shelfmark: HS.75/2282;

Translation, Pamela Leonard, Liam Ó Broin, Jane O'Malley, Robert Russell & Seamus Heaney, 2013, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2283;

Thief’s Journal, Yoko Akino, Diana Copperwhite, Ruth O'Donnell, Michael Timmins & John Banville, 2014, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2284;

Naming the stars, Colin Davidson, Niamh Flanagan, David Lunney, James McCreary and Jennifer Johnston, 2015, British Library Shelfmark: HS.74/2285;

Pax, Mary Lohan, Tom Phelan, Grainne Cuffe, Sharon Lee and Paula Meehan, 2016, British Library Shelfmark HS.74/2286.

Furthermore, The National Library of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin and Queens University Belfast have also acquired sets of the Sponsors’ Portfolio series.     

05 January 2017

Lessons in Vampires and the Gothic

by guest blogger Emma McEvoy Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Westminster

Last year, the British Library launched a new adult learning programme, providing short courses that bring together guest specialists, Library curators and its unique collections.

I was invited by the Library to develop a pilot course exploring Gothic literature in context, which ran in April and May. For five evenings we explored and debated a range of texts from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and considered the development of Gothic through a variety of media and over a couple of centuries. We also encountered a wonderful array of collection items with curator Greg Buzwell, from Walpole’s own copy of Otranto to Bram Stoker’s cut-and-pasted and handwritten playscript for Dracula.

Following the success of Gothic the Library commissioned a second course to start at Halloween, and I decided that Vampires would make a suitable follow-up. Vampires are undoubtedly glamorous (despite their inauspicious beginnings as something more closely related to what we’d consider a zombie), and they have a sturdy literary history to their name (though sometimes – as is arguably the case in Coleridge’s Christabel – the name isn’t one that is mentioned). 

Gothic course

On Gothic I had been the sole academic lead but for Vampires, I decided to invite three other academics with expertise in the field to share the teaching. Professor Alexandra Warwick talked on ‘Vampires, Victorians and Women’, Dr Stacey Abbott introduced us to ‘The Cinematic Spectacle of Vampirism’, and Dr Catherine Spooner discussed ‘Contemporary Vampires: Comedy and Romance’. In our final session we were joined again by curator Greg Buzwell, who talked us through some other exciting items from the Library’s collections.

So on 27 October, I was back in the Library’s Learning Centre to start a five-week exploration of vampires. As with the Gothic course we had a nice mix of participants, with a variety of working backgrounds and interests (postcolonialism, folk horror and the Double, for example) to bring to the discussion.

I led the first session, in which we looked at vampire texts from the Romantic period. We started by examining early 18th-century newspaper reports on the vampire panic, before turning to the often-quoted passage from Dom Augustin Calmet’s treatise (on angels, demons, spirits etc).

Dom Augustin Calmet

Dom Augustin Calmet (engraved 1750)

(To my mind, Calmet – Catholic writer on vampire lore – is an early prototype of Stoker’s Van Helsing.) After this, we sprinted through some vampire texts from German literature – marvelling at how early some of the enduring motifs are established. Already in 1748, for instance, Ossenfelder’s short poem “The Vampire” associates erotic love with vampirism and pits the power of a mother against the vampire lover. Needless to say, in these cases, mothers seldom win. Fathers do occasionally, but – as in the case of Carmilla – it’s rather a pyrrhic victory. 

Carmilla

Carmilla image by D M Friston from The Dark Blue (1872)

It was interesting to see the strands that were to recur throughout the course. Christabel, unsurprisingly, refused to be quietened.  The cross-fertilization with the German tradition was apparent, not just in the first seminar but in the third, when Stacey showed us extracts from Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and pointed out that some of those working on early Hollywood vampire films were German emigrés with roots in Expressionist cinema.  Both Alex and Catherine talked about the anxieties provoked by the figure of the female reader/viewer – in relation to Victorian novels and Twilight, respectively.  It’s interesting that the figure of the female fan can be encountered in one of the first British mentions of the vampire phenomenon – in a report in The Craftsman in May, 1732. What struck me as another prominent vein (apologies) in vampire representation is the melding of literary tradition with the idea of celebrity and biography. Polidori’s literary success (though he was repeatedly not credited for it, see the image below) was achieved by drawing not only on literary tradition (including Byron’s own myth-making) but also on celebrity gossip.  (He also, of course, drew on Byron’s ghost-story idea).  Clement and Waititi’s vampire house-share mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which we looked at in Catherine’s session, is one of the latest examples.

  The Vampyre

1884 edition of Polidori’s (not Byron’s) “The Vampyre”

One of the best aspects of an evening short course is that everyone has chosen to take it out of interest and for enjoyment – no one is having to worry about formal assessment. I was struck by how much productive conversation takes place at the tea break. People not only start swapping text recommendations, and drawing in references to things they’ve recently seen or heard, but will also try out ideas that might feel too ‘large’ to raise in the slightly more formal seminar setting. Wandering towards a tea-table liberates a lot of thought. There were lots of high points.  I particularly enjoyed the ire that the revelation scene from Twilight provoked.  Everyone seemed to love hating it. Dreyer’s Vampyr, on the other hand, went down very well.

Our final session was the one I was looking forward to most. Having experienced Greg Buzwell’s sessions for the Gothic course (and having visited the Library’s Terror and Wonder exhibition that he’d curated), I knew that some really fascinating works would be brought out and that Greg would instigate some lively discussion. I was not to be disappointed.  Amongst many other items, there was a map of Transylvania used by Stoker for plotting the action in Dracula, the volume containing the celebrated wood-cut of Vlad the Impaler, and some wonderfully lurid (and censored) artwork in Kine Weekly (January 1970) [LOU.1575 1970] for The Vampire Lovers (1970).

For me – and for many of the students – the highlight was Byron’s letter referring to the Diodati happenings, with its vigorous underlining of all the allegations Bryon is supposed to be refuting – “incest” and “promiscuous intercourse”.

Byron-lord_george_gordon-letter-B20131-45

 Letter from Lord Byron to John Murray  15 May 1819 © GG Byron. Ashley MS 4740

by Emma McEvoy Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Westminster

For more information on adult courses, visit www.bl.uk/events/adult-learning-courses

21 December 2016

Will Self’s archive acquired by the British Library

Rachel Foss, Head of Contemporary Archives, writes:

      The British Library has today announced its acquisition of the archive of Will Self. Probably Britain’s leading satirical writer, Self’s dystopian visions and outrageous scenarios hold up a distorting mirror to contemporary British society. Prolific as a writer of fiction and as a journalist, he is also prominent as a public intellectual, broadcasting at times controversial views in the mainstream media. The publication of his short story collection, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, brought him to public acclaim in 1991. Since then, he has written ten novels – among them Cock and Bull (1992), Dorian (2002), a re-telling of Oscar Wilde’s classic story set in late 20th century Britain, The Book of Dave (2006) and Umbrella (2012) which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize – as well as novellas and collections of shorter fiction, and five collections of non-fiction including Perfidious Man (2000), an exploration of modern masculinity. After graduating from Oxford, Self initially worked as a cartoonist for the New Statesman and as a stand -up comedian. He currently holds the position of Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University.

Will typing

Will Self typing on his favourite typewriter

     Self’s work is predominantly set within London and the city’s location, colloquialisms and sub-cultures appear throughout his books. Drugs, addiction, aberrant psychology, dystopia, psychogeography and the politics of urbanism are also recurrent subjects in his writing. Along with William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson, Self cites J.G.Ballard as a mentor (the two men were good friends, particularly towards the end of Ballard’s life). Like Ballard, Self writes to shock and de-familiarize, deliberately to provoke and unsettle the reader. He has said: “I don’t write fiction for people to identify with and I don’t write a picture of the world they can recognize. What excites me is to disturb the reader’s fundamental assumptions. I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving are unstable.”

     The archive that has recently arrived in the Manuscripts Store at the British Library consists of 24 large boxes of papers along with artwork, audio-visual material and the author’s computer hard drive. There are extensive successive literary drafts relating to all of Self’s major works as well as to his collaborations with Ralph Steadman and his journalism. The collection includes approximately 100 diaries and working notebooks: many of them used as commonplace books, which contain diary entries, research notes, literary drafts and sketches. Self’s correspondence is also included in the archive: highlights here include a series of letters from J.G. Ballard, in which Ballard discusses - among other subjects - the David Cronenberg adaptation of his novel, Crash, and his reading of Self’s re-working of the ‘modernist idea’. Other notable series of letters include those from John Banville, Iain Sinclair, Martin Amis and Oliver Sacks, revealing Self’s associations and networks and the ways in which his ideas and works have resonated outwards into the cultural landscape.

    Self’s archive joins the British Library’s extensive collections of the archives of contemporary writers, taking his place alongside the archives of his friends and contemporaries including J.G. Ballard, Hanif Kureishi, Graham Swift, Angela Carter, Beryl Bainbridge, B.S. Johnson and John Berger. It will offer a rich resource for future researchers, students and everyone with an interest in contemporary writing and culture. Work to catalogue the archive has already begun and we plan to make the collection available towards the end of 2017.

     Will Self said: ‘As a London writer I’m both honoured and pleased that my literary archive will be held at the British Library as a resource for scholars. Whether or not the jottings of a late twentieth/early twenty-first century novelist will be of much significance as the digital whirlwind continues to radically alter our culture and society, I don’t know – but there it is, and there it will remain, long after I myself have been pulped.’

Self notebooks

A box of notebooks from the Will Self Archive at the British Library

     Self’s archive, like most of the contemporary archives we acquire, is a hybrid archive containing both paper and born digital material. The collection includes his computer hard drive which holds a wealth of electronic manuscript drafts and approximately 100,000 emails along with a huge number of other files yet to be mined and identified (including downloads of his i-Tunes, which offer an intriguing line of investigation for future users of the archive).

     When Self came into the British Library recently to talk about his archive, he brought with him his favourite typewriter. His recent blogs and talks (which the Library has also preserved as part of the UK Web Archive) have frequently addressed the impact of digital culture on the future of writing. Self is a particularly interesting writer from the point of view of his working processes: earlier in his career, he wrote directly onto the computer; later on, he switched to writing long had and uses a vintage typewriter for earlier drafts. His shift to the typewriter is a creative strategy to address anxieties about the digital and its effect on the human mind and creative consciousness:  a deeply set need to feel the physical engendering of language and the weight of words upon the page. The opportunity for examination and analysis that Self’s born-digital traces offer are particularly interesting in the context of the cultural debate about the digital of which Self is at the forefront. The hard drive gives curators at the British Library an exciting opportunity to emulate the working environment of the writer as we continue to confront the challenges presented by these kinds of contemporary collections and work to make these valuable resources available for the future.

On Being Archived: Will Self, Hanif Kureishi and Guests, will take place at the British Library on 24th March 2017 at 7pm. Please see the Library’s Events pages for more details.

16 December 2016

P.G. Wodehouse Archive at the British Library

Recently, as part of our cultural preview for 2017, we announced that the personal archive of P.G. Wodehouse has come to the British Library on loan and is to be made publicly available for the first time.

P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) was a prolific writer and is one of the most widely read humourists of the twentieth century. Publishing over ninety books in his lifetime, he is best known as the author of the well-loved series of novels featuring Jeeves and Wooster. He also forged a successful career as an acclaimed lyricist, satirist and social commentator.

Sir Edward Cazalet, who has made the archive available to the Library, said:

“I am so delighted that the British Library is to provide a home for my P.G. Wodehouse archive. Given that Wodehouse is now ranked as one of the leading, if not the leading, humourist authors of the 20th century writing in the English language, I believe that this broad-based collection will not only bring much pleasure and laughter to its readers but will also prove to be critical to any serious study of 20th century humour and literature.  

PGW would have been so proud to know that he is now counted amongst his great literary heroes, headed by Shakespeare, Tennyson and so many others. This archive I have built up over a period of more than 40 years since Plum’s [Wodehouse] death in 1975. It contains many of his drafts and manuscripts, and has copious quantities of correspondence with composers, authors, relations and close friends, as well as a wide range of other interesting documents.”

The archive spans material dating from 1900-2005 and includes manuscript drafts and notebooks relating to Wodehouse’s fiction and essays, among them Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, the last novel in the Jeeves and Wooster books, and his final published novel, Sunset at Blandings.

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“Keeping it from Harold”, story by PGW in the December 1913 issue of The Strand Magazine. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of the P.G. Wodehouse Estate. 

The archive also contains material relating to his writing for theatre, film and cinema. While in America Wodehouse wrote the lyrics for a number of American musicals in collaboration with composer Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton, playwright and librettist. The collaborators were very successful and at one point had five shows running simultaneously on Broadway. Wodehouse also worked in Hollywood where he was one of the script writers of Those Three French Girls. The screenplay for this is also part of the archive.

Wodehouse’s correspondence reveals his conversations with family, friends, authors and fellow artists. These include letters from Evelyn Waugh - who described Wodehouse as his ‘revered master’ - and from the American lyricist Ira Gershwin. One of his letters to his wife, written while he was under arrest in France, has a rather interesting story.  The letter did not reach Mrs Wodehouse until it was rediscovered in a house in Frimley in the summer of 1977, and sent to her by Peter May, whose neighbour had discovered the letter when sorting through her late husband’s effects. 

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Letter from PGW to his wife Ethel, 25 November 1944. Images reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of the P.G. Wodehouse Estate. 

The archive also includes the handwritten manuscript of Wodehouse’s ‘Camp Diary’. Having been interned by the German Army in various temporary prison camps Wodehouse eventually arrived in a converted asylum at Tost, in Upper Silesia. During this time he kept a diary, which he turned into a series of talks with which he entertained his fellow detainees. With typical dry humour, these talks reflected the traditional code of honour of the detainees, their practice of making light of their discomforts and remaining stoic, and showed how they did their best to lift their spirits when faced with challenging and dangerous circumstances.