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

05 July 2019

Penelope Fitzgerald’s Archive: A Human Connection

by Sarah Ellis, Archivist and Cataloguer of the Penelope Fitzgerald Archive (Add MS 89289). The archive is now available to consult, for free, in our Reading Rooms.

In 2017, the British Library acquired the archive of Penelope Fitzgerald (née Knox), English novelist, biographer and essayist (1916-2000). Her 1979 novel, Offshore, won the Booker Prize and the work acclaimed as her masterpiece, The Blue Flower, secured a National Book Critics Circle Award in the USA in 1997.

Penelope Fitzgerald by Jane Bown

Penelope Fitzgerald, by Jane Bown: copyright of Jane Bown Estate

Audiences loved Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels for the worlds they conjured into being; drawn – at least at first – from her own life experiences. Her biographical writing is similarly grounded. In one revealing note in her papers she outlines the necessary preconditions for beginning a work of biography: "if it's not possible to have had personal contact with the subject”, she writes, “then at least I need contact with someone who once knew him or her, however long ago." [1] Such an emphasis on personal connection was no doubt informed by the varied social contexts which make up Fitzgerald’s own biography. (A houseboat community at Chelsea Reach; the BBC during the Second World War; and a Southwold bookshop, to name but a few.) The archive reveals an artistry fuelled by human connection but informed and supported by wider documentary evidence gathered during intensive periods of research. As the two approaches collide, we can see how the rich worlds of her fiction and the sensitive portraits in her biographical writing become possible.

Behind the Silence
One of the qualities most frequently ascribed to Fitzgerald is that of 'reticence'. Terence Dooley, in his introduction to Fitzgerald’s posthumously published letters, tells how she could convey what she wanted in letters in a way she didn’t feel able to in person [2]. If the written word was where Fitzgerald’s communicative gifts lay, then her archive represents a relative wellspring of expressive power. Far from displaying reticence, Fitzgerald’s personal writings – from her earliest letters written to her parents from Wycombe Abbey School, to diary entries in her later years – reveal a voice free from constraint. Hers was a growing, industrious and expansive mind, constantly observing, recording and expressing itself through the written word, rather than through speech.

Add MS 89289-2-17_My China Diary & Small Memo Book

Add MS 89289/2/17 ‘My China Diary’ and ‘Small Memo Book’
© With kind permission of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Literary Estate

However expansive the archive might seem, though, Fitzgerald’s papers are fragmentary: the largest part is at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas and the British Library holds a smaller but significant portion (170 files). Tragically, some material was lost when her houseboat sank in the 1960s. The extant parts being dispersed in this way has resulted not only in a physical but also an intellectual disunity – but what we have here in London is both delightful and revealing. As with any archive, partial or not, Fitzgerald’s papers are mere glimpses of the author and her work – never a complete picture but perhaps as close as it’s possible for us to get.

Add MS 89289-6-2&1-11_Typewriter

Add MS 89289/6/2 Fitzgerald’s Silver Reed typewriter operating instructions &
Add MS 89289/1/11 Review of A N Wilson’s biography of C S Lewis (verso)
© With kind permission of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Literary Estate.

So, What's in This Archive?
The archive covers the period of 1965-2012, extending beyond Fitzgerald’s lifetime and including materials captured posthumously by her children and Literary Estate. The contents of the archive include research, draft and proof materials for a number of her works, 26 of her notebooks, correspondence (business and personal), her annotated library and collected writings about her life and literary endeavours.

In addition to illustrating aspects of her professional life and working practices as an author, the archive provides insights into her personal life, relationships, interests and other involvements outside, or predating, her writing career. For instance, Fitzgerald involved herself with literary societies and campaigned to support the local library in the face of funding cuts, channelling energy not just into her creative output but also into her local community.  

Further to the many facets of Fitzgerald’s personal and professional life, her papers reflect a selective cross-section of Knox family history in various documentary forms. Knox family members whose stories feature prominently are the subjects of the group biography which she composed about her father, ‘Evoe’, and his three brothers, published in 1977. Remarkable in their own rights, papers once belonging to those individuals now sit integrated with Fitzgerald’s papers, much gathered in research for The Knox Brothers. Another notable component of the archive is the material relating to Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child (1977), in her original notebooks. Initially called ‘The Golden Opinion’, the work was extensively cut by Duckworth Publishers.

Add MS 89289-2-1_Knox Book 1

Add MS 89289/2/1, Knox Book 1, from Fitzgerald’s notebooks.
© With kind permission of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Literary Estate

So much in the archive holds the potential for researchers to garner rich insights about the working practices, creative processes and day-to-day engagements of Penelope Fitzgerald during the period when she was a published author. These are complemented by items pre-dating that period which show the vital preparation building up to it, such as her committed studies of literature and art or copious notes relating to her teaching work.

An Invitation
“How does she do it?” asked Julian Barnes over a decade ago [3], about Fitzgerald’s ability to paint the vivid and entirely believable worlds of her novels, so succinctly. Come and see for yourself – the archive is now available for consultation in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

[1] Penelope Fitzgerald, Writing about Human Beings (London, British Library, Add MS 89289/1/15, undated; 1993?).

[2] Terence Dooley (ed.), So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), p. xiv.

[3] Julian Barnes, 'How did she do it?', Guardian, 26 July 2008, Culture - Books Section <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/jul/26/fiction> [accessed 5 July 2019].

 

27 June 2019

Shame Deferred and Shame Transcended: Literary Reflections at the End of Pride Month

by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts. To learn more about LGBT works and issues in the Library's collections, take a look at our web space, LBTQ Histories. To learn more about E.M Forster's gay fiction, click here. All British Library items are available to view, for free, in our Reading Rooms. 

After the success A Passage to India (1924), it appeared to almost everyone that E.M Forster had stopped writing. In fact, he had merely stopped publishing. From 1913 onwards Forster had been working on a manuscript about same-sex love – sparked by a titillating encounter with the poet Edward Carpenter, who secretly touched Forster on the backside at a party. Forster showed typescripts of his novel, Maurice, to close friends, including Christopher Isherwood, who implored him to find a publisher. But Forster – convinced that attitudes towards homosexuality had shifted only from ‘ignorance and terror to familiarity and contempt’ – was reluctant to publish: on the cover of a typescript draft found in a drawer after his death, Forster famously scrawled in pen, writing to himself or to the world, ‘Publishable – but is it worth it?’

This tension between the public and private realms – between what belongs to the world at large and what belongs to a small, highly controlled audience – runs throughout Maurice. Images of darkness abound: Maurice’s desire for his classmate Clive Durham leads him to grope his way down unlit college corridors to find his room; his first night alone with the under-gamekeeper Alec Scudder takes place at night, secretly, away from the main house, with the two lovers fumbling their way across a dark field. Similarly, the tight societal gaze which Maurice feels all around him is punctuated by fantasies of a life outside it – France, Italy, where the rules persecuting same-sex relationships are more lax – or self-exile to some imagined place outside of society, outside of a world which Forster increasingly felt, as he wrote in a post-script to the same draft, offered ‘no forest or fell to escape to […], no cave in which to curl up’.

Maurice

Typescript of the 1932 version of Maurice by E M Forster, with autograph manuscript alterations and additions made c. 1959 © The Provost and Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge and The Society of Authors as the E.M. Forster Estate. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Shelfmark: vol. 4/1

But fiction, unlike life, can offer respite, and it is precisely to this kind of impossible place of escape that Forster sends his two lovers; to live out a rural secluded existence as woodcutters. ‘A happy ending was imperative’, Forster writes, ‘I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood’. Sarah Ahmed, in Shame and Its Sisters (1995) describes the peculiar allure of this turning away from society into seclusion as a reaction to traumatic shame: ‘The individuation of shame — the way it turns the self against and towards the self’, Ahmed writes, ‘can be linked precisely to the inter-corporeality and sociality of shame experiences. The “apartness” of the subject is intensified in the return of the gaze; apartness is felt in the moment of exposure to others, an exposure that is wounding’. But Forster’s ‘greenwood’ –  like all utopias – exists in the shadow of its own limits. Forster’s original ending sees Maurice and Alec pursued by Kitty, Maurice’s hateful sister. In its final scene they discuss moving on from the home they have built in order to avoid being seen and discovered by her, echoing Ahmed’s formulation. Suddenly this world outside of 'the world' is revealed to be something else entirely: a marginal fantasy teetering on the edge of catastrophic collapse at the hands of a hostile host culture. That such a fantasy could approach the upper limit of what Forster could imagine as a ‘happy ending’ is unsurprising given the violent homophobia of the time and place that he lived, but nevertheless this apartness – at least now, for us – becomes untenable; it is a shame deferred, rather than transcended.

And it has a long history.  Early modern manuscript culture also sought refuge against the vulgarity of the printing press and the public view by valourising certain kinds of apartness, by distributing sensitive manuscripts amongst their enlightened peers. The poetry of John Donne, perhaps the most famous example of a writer in this mould, returns again and again to images of clandestine mixing in the interstices of his host culture: the body of his famous Flea ("It sucked me first, and now sucks thee/And in this flea our two bloods mingled be") is precisely this kind of space – a parasitic, almost invisible chamber where the vital fluids of ambiguously gendered speaker and addressee can mix in undisturbed, fluid freedom, even whilst the the human beings themselves remain at an ‘appropriate’  distance from one another.  

FleaA folio volume of works in verse and prose by John Donne, Ben Jonson, Dr Richard Andrews and others, showing 'The Flea' by John Donne. Compiled for Sir William Cavendish. Public Domain in most countries other than the UK. Harley MS 4955

Shakespeare’s ‘Fair Youth’ sonnets were similarly addressed directly to the object of the speaker’s desire, a handsome young man, and although they were written in the 1590s they weren’t published until 1609 (perhaps, it has been argued, without the author’s permission). Oscar Wilde’s employment of these Sonnets at his public trial – as an example of a kind of same-sex love which was permissible and even instructive – failed to persuade the public, though, and this most famous of literary figures was himself forced into a brutal and violent exile in Reading Gaol, as Forster – then just sixteen years old – watched on in horror. Wilde’s letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, which would become De Profundis (1897), was a literary work composed under enforced isolation. Wilde's guard offered him three sheets of paper at a time to write a letter which he was not allowed to send, as a kind of therapeutic exercise which could contribute to his ‘rehabilitation’. Our image of Wilde – one of the most public of public figures – consigned to Reading Gaol, writing a letter to himself ‘from the depths’ about a ‘love which dare not speak its name’ provides a shadowy counterpoint to the ‘apartness’ of Forster’s idyllic ‘greenwood’, where Maurice and Alec live out their isolated lives. For both the gaol and the idyll, it is the logic of shame, secrecy and a life apart from the world that are the driving force.

Wilde-oscar-deprofundis-B20146-19

'De Profundis', the letter addressed by Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas from Reading Gaol Add MS 50141 A

Contemporary popular culture and literature has worked to transcend this logic in its representations of same-sex love. Pride as a proper noun, beginning in the mid-twentieth century and gaining momentum ever since, has become a worldwide phenomenon. If E.M Forster’s adolescence was marked by Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment, today’s adolescents – in some of the world at least – watch thousands of brightly dressed and exuberant people march in their name; delighting at being seen. This is not to say that work is done, far from it, only that the move from ‘Shame’ to ‘Pride’ – however partial -- has been hard won and should be celebrated. In researching this blog, I became curious about the kinds of narratives which LGBT adolescents are exposed to today, and so stumbled across a Young Adult anthology – out this year from Stripes Publishing and compiled by Juno Dawson – which was recently taken into the Library through Legal Deposit, titled Proud (2019).

Proud

Cover image for Proud, from Stripes Publishing compiled by Juno Dawson. 

The anthology is peppered with 'coming out' stories which detail the turmoil and anxiety which can arise, even in relatively ‘progressive’ households for children of mostly well-meaning parents. One such story is ‘Penguins’ by Simon James Green, in which the protagonist, Cameron, has his attempts to come out overshadowed by a public furore around a pair of gay penguins at the local zoo. Cameron reluctantly visits the penguins’ enclosure with his friends and winces at the spectacle which surrounds them, regretting that something like this still represents an ‘event’ at all. A parallel plot follows his budding crush on a schoolmate as they approach their end of year prom, and both plot lines converge in a secret kiss inside the now-private penguin enclosure (with the gay penguins having been placed out of the way to avoid adding to their stress as they attempt to raise an abandoned egg together). At this moment some readers may expect a quick closure, with both same-sex loves safely contained within their enclosure, hidden from the world. But it is Green’s willingness to push beyond this moment of apartness, perhaps more than anything else, which marks the story as of our particular historical moment. After the revelation that Cameron’s feelings are shared by his crush, and their first kiss, the couple emerge from the sealed enclosure and return – holding hands – into the most public of teenage arenas, the prom. The prevalence and importance of these motifs are clearly related to our networked, public lives, where privacy is increasingly eroded in favour of display, revelation and performance. But technological contingencies aside, it is difficult -- especially in this context -- not to feel this story as heartening; to feel the relief and release of shame transcended and not deferred; and to feel that to have stories like these in the hands and minds of young people is a step in the right direction.

 

 

22 May 2019

Artists’ Books Now: Writing evening 13 May 2019

Gill Partington, host of last week’s sell out Artists’ Books Now: Writing evening, shares some of her thoughts on the event the works and the artist in this guest blog

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Artist Sam Winston describing an example of asemic writing from his recent work Reading Closed Books.

Making Your Mark, the British Library’s current exhibition, is all about writing, its long history and the many varied techniques, systems and conventions that have evolved around it.  The latest event in the ‘Artists Book Now’ series on the 13th May approached writing from a different angle, however. It was all about forms of work that stretch these systems and conventions in unusual ways, pushing writing to its limits and beyond. The four artists presenting their work showed us some varieties of writing that sometimes looked very unfamiliar indeed.

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Dia Batal uses a range of media to create Sculptures based on Arabic script.

Dia Batal’s work is as much sculpture as writing, rendering Arabic script physical and three dimensional in metalwork and other media. The letters may be ornate but the materials have a strength and presence, perhaps because the force and impact of writing are her primary concern, dealing in text that details harrowing stories of conflict and displacement. Sam Winston creates work that hovers on the boundaries of drawing and writing, in durational performances that often take place in the dark, gradually covering the page surface in an intricate, unreadable filigree of pencil lines. Stevie Ronnie turned writing into a series of incongruous, witty objects: an ‘audiobook’, for instance, comprising a rope woven from strips of text.  Wound around a metal winch, it unravels, translating text into metallic clinks. Joumana Medlej created delicate folded paper forms adorned with the Kufic script, an Arabic calligraphy not meant to be read, but which instead has a symbolic potency, an aura rather than a literal meaning. These were diagrams and cosmological charts as much as texts.

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Stevie Ronnie’s infectious enthusiasm as he describes how employs a range of objects in the creation of an artists’ book.

In their various ways, these were all forms of ‘asemic’ writing:  that which can’t be read. The work seemed to ask the question of how writing communicates in other ways, and whether it needs to communicate at all. Does writing need a reader? The other major theme that emerged from the evening was that of discipline, and where exactly writing belongs. Maria Fusco, Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University talked about what happens when writing becomes an art practice rather than a literary one. She read from her new book, Nine QWERTY Bells: Fiction for Live Voice in which she puts art objects in strange kinds of dialogue with one another.

 

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Book artist and calligrapher Joumana Medlej opens her Book of Love.

The particular piece she chose focused on Ignacio Uriarte’s
The History of the Typewriter Recited by Michael Winslow a video artwork in which the sounds of vintage typewriters are recreated orally, with uncanny accuracy. Maria’s reading was all about tracing this complicated network of crossed wires between voice, writing and object. Her aim is not to write about art, but rather to write through it, she explained. She described writing moving backwards through the gallery space and ‘bumping into things’. This collision between writing and objects - and the conjunctions that result from it - seemed to be what the evening was all about. Writing, we learned, can be stranger than you think.

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Gill Partington in conversation Maria Fusco.