English and Drama blog

5 posts from September 2012

28 September 2012

Written Britain

Writing Britain closed on Tuesday evening. It's been an incredible year working on the exhibition (very weird to think that a year ago we only had a vague outline of what it would be about) and it's been a great opportunity for us to show some of our greatest literary treasures.


I think one of the most satisfying things about working on this exhibition is that it's made people want to read. We had so many enquiries about the exhibit list in general and titles of specific books in particular, because visitors were inspired to read books they hadn't heard of, or ones they had read as a child and forgotten about. So although the physical presence of Writing Britain is being dismantled to make room for Mughal India, I hope it will be a literary inspiration for people for a while yet.

So the exhibition's over but English and Drama will still be blogging. From next week we'll be using the blog to update you on other happenings in the department, including events, interviews, new acquisitions and hidden gems from the British Library's literary collections.

17 September 2012

A country life - a poem, the pastoral and the pretender

As Writing Britain enters its last couple of weeks, I wanted to tell you about one of the more surprising exhibits in the exhibition. In the Rural Dreams section is a pocket book containing a reworking of a poem by a woman called Katherine Philips.

Katherine Philips

Philips was born in London in 1632 but on her marriage at the age of 16 she moved to Wales and lived in Cardigan until her death in 1664. First appearing in print in 1651, she developed a renown for writing poems about friendship and for having a group of close associates all of whom used assumed names drawn from a classical tradition (Philips was known as Orinda). Her husband James Philips was a supporter of parliament and held a prominent role in Welsh politics, but Katherine is believed to have harboured royalist sympathies.

Picture 004

© British Library Board. Shelfmark C.79.a.30

You may well be wondering what all this has to do with the British landscape.

In fact, one of Katherine’s most famous poems was called ‘A Country Life’:
Picture 007

© British Library Board. Shelfmark C.79.a.30

It begins:

How sacred and how innocent
A country life appears,
How free from tumult, discontent,
From flattery and fears.
This couplet sums up an idyllic pastoral retreat from the evils of town, which perhaps was written from Katherine’s own experience of leaving London for the Welsh countryside.

I’m particularly fond of the poem because it includes the lines

Happy in friendship and in health,
On roots, not beasts, they fed.

A seventeenth century rallying call for vegetarians! Or so I like to think.

Picture 008

© British Library Board. Shelfmark C.79.a.30

Generally the poem speaks of the virtues of the simple life and of the British countryside as a retreat. It’s displayed in Writing Britain as an early example of the use of the pastoral tradition in English literature – a genre that came from classical literature and promoted the countryside as an often unrealistically perfect place. Although some later writers embraced this tradition – in the same section of the exhibition you can see a first edition of AA Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh – others questioned it, which is why we’re also displaying Thomas Hardy’s proof copy of Far from the Madding Crowd, in which the countryside is anything from ‘free from tumult [and] discontent’.

Back to Katherine Philips and that pocket book I mentioned.

Katherine Philips

© British Library Board. Shelfmark: Egerton MS 1527

The significance of this object is extremely compelling once you know the back story. It belonged to James Scott, who was the 1st Duke of Monmouth and illegitimate son of Charles II – and the pretender to the throne during the Monmouth Rebellion of June-July 1685.

There is a note in the front of the pocket book written by James II to say that the book was found on the Duke’s person when he was captured after the Battle of Sedgemoor. According to our catalogue entry it contains:

medical and general recipes; charms; prayers; events in English history; English and French songs, with music; routes in Holland; addresses of various persons; values of Dutch and English coins, etc.

Among all these things is a reworked (or possibly written from memory) version of Katherine Philips’ ‘A Country Life’, evidently written out because it was meaningful for him and worthy of rereading in quiet moments.

The final couplet of the original poem reads:

In this retired integrity,
Free from both war and noise,
I live not by necessity,
But wholly by my choice.

I can’t help but find irony in the significance this poem obviously held for Scott, given that his attempt to seize power was far removed from the simple life Katherine Philips described. Sometimes retreating to a country idyll far from the perils of court really was a safer bet.

09 September 2012

Islington: "remote and faintly suspect"?

With the grace and strength of Mo Farah kicking for home, Writing Britain is lengthening its stride and entering the final bend (i.e. it’s closing soon on 25 September). We’re continuing to get some nice reviews- including an exciting two pager in Newsweek- but we’ve also been involved opening a new exhibition at King’s College London’s Inigo Rooms dedicated to the writer, critic, storyteller, and artist John Berger.

This week we’ve been installing some of the John Berger archive in the exhibition space at KCL, and have been carefully monitoring light, humidity, and temperature levels in the gallery. The necessary attention to environmental conditions is a far cry from the last time I saw the Berger archive: at Berger’s home (carefully laid out in the stables) in the French Alps, where I had gone to arrange his papers.

John had generously agreed to donate his archive, consisting of nearly 400 files of drafts, notes, correspondence and cuttings collected over 60 years of work as a storyteller, artist, poet, critic, screenwriter and farmer. I collected it from his home in 2009, recording my progress on a series of audioboos.


Having brought the archive back to the Library- and got rid of any insects who might have come along for the ride- the papers were catalogued by Tom Overton as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council-Funded Collaborative Doctoral Award between the Library and King’s College London, and Tom has also curated the current exhibition, Art and Property Now.

As a huge fan of Berger’s work- and the spirit that informs it- I was keen to include some of the Berger archive in Writing Britain as well. Although now based in France, he is a Londoner born and bred, and returned to London in his 2005 stories Here is Where we Meet.

One of the stories, ‘Islington’, looks at the idea of the suburbs as a state of mind, reminding us that the London borough of Islington was once ‘remote and faintly suspect’. Berger followed in a tradition originating with the poet Edward Thomas in 1906, who wrote that the suburbs were not a matter of geography, but rather a ‘problem of the mind’.


Berger notes how ‘poor and therefore uneasy districts … are pushed, in the imagination of those who are prospering, further away than they really are’ and thinks ‘today Islington is far closer than it used to be’. The manuscript of this text is in the introduction to the suburbs section, alongside manuscripts of Conan Doyle and JG Ballard, all examining under-examined edge-lands that are, in the words of JG Ballard, ‘more interesting than people will let on’.

Having emphasised Berger’s engagement with the idea of suburbs, I was pleased to discover a companion piece in Tom’s exhibition- a drawing called ‘London Suburb’. The drawing dates from the 1940s, when Berger’s studio was in a maid’s room on the top floor of a house on Pilgrims Lane, Hampstead, and the drawing was made looking out of the window in the room next to it, towards Downshire Hill.

Hampstead, like Islington, no longer so suburban, but a nice link across two exhibitions- and more than sixty years of acute observation and compassionate writing/drawing.

05 September 2012

Who Does He Think He Was?

British Library Leverhulme Artist in Residence Christopher GreenOn Tuesday 11th September at 1pm our Artist in Residence Christopher Green will be sharing work-in-progress for his forthcoming show The Singing Hypnotist . Over the course of the summer he has been doing some weird and wonderful things in the name of research, not least undergoing past-life regression, which he will be talking more about on Tuesday (6 past lives apparently - and a tragic death in 1953). He’s also been delving into the patent collection in the Business and IP Centre (see the residency blog if you want to be diverted by a diagram of the ‘kick-your-own-arse machine') and traced the life of the self-proclaimed greatest lady mesmerist, Annie de Montford. Besides talking about his research into hypnotism, Chris will be performing some of the new songs he has written for the final event of his residency.

This event is FREE. Click here to book a place.

03 September 2012

Coleridge, Wordsworth and digital mapping

I have just come back from this year’s conference of the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS), hosted by the University of Sheffield. This year’s conference theme was ‘Victorian value’ and speakers presented papers on a wide range of topics which explored the idea of value and the valuable within the social, political, ethical, spiritual and aesthetic discourses of the nineteenth century.

One of the most interesting sessions I attended was the Digital Humanities panel, which included a talk by Ian Gregory on the value of using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in studying literary and historical texts of the Lake District. ‘Mapping the Lakes’ is a British Academy funded project by Lancaster University to undertake a literary mapping of the Lake District. The pilot project focusses specifically on two canonical tours of the region: Thomas Gray’s tour in the autumn of 1769 and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1802 tour, recorded in his ‘Lakes’ Notebook.

Using a variety of techniques – including digitisation and tagging of the texts, ‘density smoothing’ to highlight the amount of time spent in/relative altitude of the areas visited, and exploratory maps which similarly use a system of shading to delineate imaginative and emotional responses to landscape and environment - the project has created a number of visualization tools offering different cartographical versions of Gray’s and Coleridge’s tours.

The value for readers and researchers of using such tools is clear: even for the reader who is well acquainted with the region, attempting to visualize the network of relationships between the myriad places mentioned by the poets presents a considerable challenge. The site – beyond its pilot stage – will also allow the integration of a vast amount of disparate data sources, such as images, topographical drawings and census information – which will enable the reader to assess the texts within their wider cultural and historical context. Avoiding the pitfalls of some digital humanities projects, whose sophisticated visualization tools can run the risk of rendering the literary text obsolete and divorcing the reader from a response to the text, the project seeks to enable both an abstract mapping and a geographically enhanced reading: to encourage a return to the text with an increased understanding and enlarged perspective. Offering the chance to overlay and compare the maps generated, the project - taking its cue from the work of the twentieth century poet Norman Nicholson - presents a visualization of the Cumbrian topography as a palimpsest: a landscape whose every detail and feature is documented and can be excavated in multiple literary texts.

Thomas Gray and Samuel Taylor Coleridge both figure prominently in the British Library’s Writing Britain exhibition. One of the sections of the exhibition explores the idea of literary tourism and the Lake District, along with other areas of the country such as the Wye Valley and the Scottish highlands, became one of the centres of tourism when that industry began to develop in the mid to late eighteenth century. Guidebooks for the burgeoning tourist market proliferated (Thomas West’s 1778 Guide to the Lakes was one of the earliest and most influential), informing travellers which places they should see, the correct vantage points from which to view them, and even advice on the correct equipment (eg a Claude glass and sometimes camera obscura) that they should take to facilitate their viewing experience.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Lakes’ Notebook
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Lakes’ Notebook, 1802. © British Library Board

Within this section of the Writing Britain exhibition, visitors can see on display a volume of maps owned and annotated by Thomas Gray and the manuscript of Coleridge’s ‘Lakes’ Notebook, in which he records the nine day tour (or ‘circumcursion’, as he called it) which he made round the Lake District in August 1802. The British Library holds over fifty Notebooks of Coleridge, and this one, which contains his sketches as well as his reflections on the majesty and sublimity of the landscape, is one of the most compelling and moving of the series. Also displayed is one of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals (generously loaned by the Wordsworth Trust), in which she records her walks around the area, often with her brother, William. Alongside this are shown a manuscript of William’s poem (entitled ‘On Seeing Some Tourists of the Lakes pass by reading; a practice very common’) and the 1835 edition of his Guide to the Lakes. Written in 1805, although not published until fifty years after his death, Wordsworth’s poem chastises the tourists who, overly influenced by the popular guidebooks, flock to the Lake District and are content with an inadequate and vicarious experience, mediated through what they have read, of the glorious and awe-inspiring landscape which surrounds them. Wordsworth’s own Guide was written as a corrective to the numerous existing guides to the Lakes and advocates the need for a wholeness of perception (an encounter beyond the merely visual), seeking to communicate to visitors his own love and reverence for his native region.

William Wordsworth, ‘On seeing some Tourists of the Lakes pass by reading’
William Wordsworth, ‘On seeing some Tourists of the Lakes pass by reading’, 1806. © British Library Board

Aligning and juxtaposing these various voices, the exhibition similarly suggests a textual palimpsest, layered over time, created for this area of the country. The spiritual resonances within all of these representations of landscape are key, and these writers’ responses to landscape are situated within a wider nineteenth century dialogue between the value of solitary, individual encounter and the ideal of shared, communal experience. Both the British Library’s exhibition and Lancaster’s ‘Mapping the Lakes’ site offer a chance to reflect on the theoretical and philosophical implications of this debate in our contemporary response to landscape, literature, and the relationship between them, as well as the opportunity for direct engagement with some of the most famous literature of the Lake District.

Rachel Foss, Lead Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts

Writing Britain: From Wastelands to Wonderlands runs at the British Library until 25th September