English and Drama blog

6 posts from March 2014

25 March 2014

Friends of Genius in Distress?

By Dr Matthew Sangster, cataloguer of the Royal Literary Fund Archive

RLF Ferstandig Poster Hi-Res
Bill Poster, ‘The Literary Fund’, by Matthew Ferstandig; Loan 96 RLF 1/508/37

In March 1840, Matthew Ferstandig, the self-styled ‘head of Oriental and Classical Languages in the Kingdom’, flypostered the headquarters of the Literary Fund with a bill proclaiming that the Fund’s Committee had ‘perverted and violated’ their charter ‘by introducing the worthless scribblings of women as a fair specimen of literary science’ and ‘withhold[ing] from public view every brilliant and valuable work that tended to enlighten the mind.’  He went on to accuse the Committee of keeping up ‘a seraglio of 82 women’ and voting ‘1,275l out of the Literary Fund for their support’.

Sadly for the interest of this blog post, Ferstandig’s accusations were largely baseless.  His animus against the Literary Fund was principally due to his having applied on sixteen occasions without receiving a grant; he was not eligible because he had not produced the book-length publication required by the charter he accused the Committee of violating.

The Literary Fund (or Royal Literary Fund from 1842) was not a den of sin and vice, then, but rather a benevolent organisation established in 1790.  It was designed, in the words of an early newspaper advertisement, to ‘withdraw those apprehensions of extreme poverty, and those desponding views of futurity, which lead Genius and Talent from the path of Virtue’.  In practice, this meant providing applicants with confidential financial assistance if the Committee judged that their published works possessed ‘literary merit’.

David Williams
Founder of the Literary Fund, David Williams (1738-1816) by John Francis Rigaud

Thanks to a succession of punctilious secretaries, particularly the fabulously-named Octavian Blewitt and his immediate successor Arthur Llewelyn Roberts, the Fund’s archive is remarkably complete and comprehensive.  The most extensive parts are the case files, which detail the applications of over 3,600 authors who sought the Fund’s aid.  These include famous names like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, James Hogg, John Clare, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Bram Stoker, Edith Nesbit and D.H. Lawrence.  However, the Fund also received applications from hundreds of more obscure authors.  Letters from these figures often comprise unique sources of biographical information which provide valuable insights into the difficulties authors faced in making livings from their works.

An early example is Eliza Parsons (Loan 96 RLF 1/21), who wrote gothic novels for William Lane’s Minerva Press.  In 1792, she was struggling to provide for her family after seriously injuring herself.  ‘Still confined to my Room,’ she wrote, ‘my leg on a pillow, splinters of Bones continually working thro’ which keeps me in extreme tortures, I have been nevertheless obliged to struggle with pain and try to write.’   In 1797, she had to flee her residence to avoid her creditors and in 1802 she was imprisoned for debt.   As Parsons herself put it when expressing her gratitude for the Fund’s assistance, ‘the Illiberality of the world ridicules and contemns an Unfortunate poor Author.’

The Fund’s records also bear witness to the struggles faced by now-canonical authors.  James Joyce applied when he was required to leave Trieste for Zurich after the outbreak of the First World War (Loan 96 RLF 1/2990).  His application was supported by heavyweights including W.B. Yeats, Edmund Gosse and Ezra Pound.  Pound’s bullish letter to the Fund describes Joyce as ‘without exception the best of the younger prose writers’.  He details Joyce’s difficulties in getting published, writing that he had ‘lived for ten years in obscurity and poverty, that he might perfect his writing and be uninfluenced by commercial demands and standards.’  While Joyce may have lacked commercial recognition, then, he did not lack recognition from supportive peers or from the Fund, which made him a substantial grant.

The Royal Literary Fund continues to operate today.  Its records can be searched on the British Library’s Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue; results can be limited to the RLF papers by adding ‘RLF’ as a search term.  The Library is hosting two events which draw on the Fund’s history and archive on Friday May 9th: a day-long symposium, The Royal Literary Fund and the Perils of Authorship, and an evening event, The Royal Literary Fund and the Struggling Author.


20 March 2014

Happy Birthday Ibsen!

By Deborah Dawkin

Henrik Ibsen by Gustav Borgen

Today is Henrik Ibsen's birthday. Born in a little town in Norway in 1828, he was to become one of the most influential playwrights of modern European theatre. Ibsen lived to see his works translated into many European languages for performance, but he could surely have never conceived that by the 21st century he would have been translated into 78 languages, and that his works would be played as far afield as in India, Korea and China. But all great authors need great translators if they are to pass into the canon of other cultures.

At the beginning of last year the British Library acquired the archive of one of the most important translators of Ibsen into the English language: Michael Meyer, who is credited with establishing Ibsen as a playwright for a 20th century British audience. When Meyer started his work in the late 1950s Ibsen had largely become ‘worthy’ literature to be studied by academics. The only reliable translations available were those of William Archer, whose language was archaic and largely unperformable. A playwright and author himself, Meyer’s translations of Ibsen became, as George Steiner said, ‘a major factor in our sense of post-war drama’, and offered a freshness that Kenneth Tynan described as ‘crisp and cobweb-free, purged of verbal Victoriana.’

  Michael Meyer archive in the stacks

Part of the Michael Meyer Archive in the form in which it arrived at the British Library

For audiences and readers a translator is often invisible; indeed Meyer himself felt that a translator had to ‘resist leaving his thumbprint’ and that his work should, as Gogol once said, be like a new windowpane. What this archive reveals to us is the craftsman who created this windowpane. Here we see, through successive drafts, how Meyer created the dynamic play-scripts which gave Ibsen a new relevance. We see how he moves from a rough translation that conveys literal meaning, to a theatrically charged text in which each character has its own voice, and in which the subtext surfaces with a clarity not found in academic translations.

Ultimately Meyer’s involvement with and influence on the British theatre went far beyond the translation of Ibsen’s plays. Braham Murray goes as far as to call him ‘one of the leading lights’ at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. He was also a much-loved teacher at the Central School of Speech and Drama, inspiring a love and understanding of Ibsen in the next generation of actors.

The Meyer Archive does more than just shed light on his processes and concerns as a translator of Ibsen, since it holds correspondence and notes that go back as far as his student days in Oxford before the war. Meyer was a man of letters: an editor, author, journalist and lecturer in his own right before Ibsen and the theatre finally won him. Correspondence includes letters from important poets and authors of the day including Graham Greene and George Orwell, and the list of theatrical correspondents reads like a role call of directors and actors of the second half of the 20th century. Finally the archives also contain the drafts of Meyer’s translations of Strindberg’s plays, and his research notes and drafts for his impressive biographies of both Ibsen and Strindberg.

It may seem that I have forgotten the main subject of today’s blog: Ibsen’s birthday. But what greater homage can be offered to an author than to keep his work alive, and to make it accessible to a wider audience by translating it well. It is because of the work of translators like Meyer, who persist in breathing fresh life into Ibsen’s work, that so many people across the world will be remembering that on 20 March 1828 a theatrical phenomenon was born. Happy birthday Ibsen!

Deborah Dawkin is presently working on a collaborative PhD project about Michael Meyer at the British Library. She is herself a translator.

19 March 2014

Two more Crime Classics found in the Library

 By guest blogger and award-winning crime writer Martin Edwards

John Bude

Forgotten first editions of John Bude's The Lake District Murder (1935) and The Cornish Coast Murder (1935) from the British Library collections.

I’m thrilled that the British Library is playing a notable part in the rapidly developing revival of interest in the 'Golden Age' of detective fiction. Following the recent reissue of Mavis Doriel Hay’s long-forgotten The Santa Klaus Murder, the first two books by John Bude have now been published in new editions, giving crime fans a chance to discover novels that have for many years only been available to collectors with deep pockets.

Bude, like Mavis Doriel Hay, turned to detective fiction in the Thirties, when the colossal success of authors like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley led to an explosion of interest in whodunits. The 'Golden Age' of the genre between the wars saw readers turning to novels rather than the short stories in which Sherlock Holmes and G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown had made their name, and the demand for entertaining puzzles was supplied by hundreds of writers. Some, like Mavis Doriel Hay, enjoyed only brief careers. But Bude developed a considerable following, and built a long-term career as a crime writer.

Bude’s real name was Ernest Carpenter Elmore. Probably thinking that this was a bit of a mouthful, and perhaps also to differentiate his detective fiction from his other writing (mostly novels of the fantastic, with titles like The Steel Grubs (1929), which you can also find in the British Library), he opted for a snappy pseudonym when publishing The Cornish Coast Mystery. He was ahead of his time in realising that detective fans would enjoy mysteries with attractive real-life settings other than London. Pleasingly, the fact that the crime scene is on the coast proves central to the puzzle. The detective interest is split between a likeable pair of amateurs, a vicar and a doctor, and the professionals, although in later books, his main focus was on diligent police work.

Cornish Coast paperbackThe Lake District Murder opens one March evening, with a farmer finding a man’s body in a car outside the Derwent garage on an isolated road in the Northern Lakes. The macabre discovery is reported to Inspector Meredith, and at first glance, the evidence at the crime scene suggests that Jack Clayton has committed suicide. The seasoned crime fan does not, of course, need to rely on the giveaway clue in the book’s title to realise that all is not as it seems. Meredith does not rely on Holmesian flashes of brilliance, but rather on patience and persistence. Yet Bude’s light, accessible style, ensures that interest never flags.

Lake District paperbackAlthough he is now best known for his crime fiction, Bude worked in the theatre as a producer and director. In 1953, he became one of the founding members of the Crime Writers’ Association. However, he died a few years later, and his books soon vanished from the shelves. But he was a skilled craftsman who does not deserve to be forgotten. The attractively produced British Library editions of his first two novels combine period charm with unpretentious entertainment. I’m confident that readers who like to relax with a soundly written mystery will find much in John Bude’s work to enjoy.


Both books are available now – in paperback for £8.99 – from all good bookshops, including the British Library shop.

British Library readers can find the first editions in the General Reference Collection:  The Lake District Murder (NN.23692.) and The Cornish Coast Murder (NN.24554.).


18 March 2014

Wilfred Owen: 'The Poetry is in the pity'

  By Jamie Andrews, Head of English and Drama


On 18 March 1893—121 years ago today—Wilfred Owen was born at Plas Wilmot, near Oswestry in Shropshire. He died, of course, on 4 November 1918, just one week before the Armistice; his mother apparently receiving news of her son’s death as the bells were tolling to announce the end of four years of world war.

For all that Owen became the voice of that War, his work was little known during the conflict. He had just four complete poems published in his lifetime, but left behind a substantial collection of manuscript notes and drafts. Many of these draft poems (certainly the ones for which he is remembered) were written  in a short period between August 1917—when Owen was being treated for shell-shock in Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh— and his return to the front line in France in early summer 1918.

Many of these drafts are now in the British Library, each bearing the marks of its original composition: lines written on the back of advertisements for Edinburgh shows, or poems with deletions in the hand of Owen’s mentor at Craiglockhart, the (at that time) far more famous poet Siegfried Sassoon. All of the Library’s Owen manuscripts have been digitised as part of the major cross-European ‘Europeana 1914-1918’ project, and highlights feature on the British Library’s curated site; some of the manuscripts bearing both Owen and Sassoon’s hand will also be on display as part of the British Library’s World War One exhibition in the summer.

Owen, W, Anthem for doomed youth

Owen's sonnet 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', with pencil alterations by Siegfried Sassoon made at Craiglockhart Hospital in September 1917. Add MS 43720 f.17.

In the preface to the collection that Owen was sketching out before his death, he wrote the following words:

    This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

    Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or     power, except War.

    Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

    My subject is War, and the pity of War.

    The Poetry is in the pity.

The words echo down the century; and continue to inspire contemporary writers today. It was appropriate at the launch of our ‘Europeana 1914-1918’ major World War One digital project, poet Andrew Motion read two poems by Wilfred Owen, alongside his own collection, The Customs House, his most recent collection that opens with a sequence of war poems drawing on soldiers' testimonies from the past 100 years. Andrew found a softness alongside ‘the monstrous anger’ of Owen’s work, as can be seen from the video below.

Andrew Motion at the British Library for Europeana Collections 1914-1918 from Europeana Collections on Vimeo 


10 March 2014

English literary treasures back on display - for free

On Saturday the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, Treasures of the British Library reopened, a lot smarter, a bit brighter, and with some previously undisplayed items in addition to gallery favourites.


Going on display for the first time is a copy of Oscar Wilde's A House of Pomegranates which contains a hand-drawn caricature of Wilde by the artist Max Beerbohm. 

Beerbohm - Wilde

 It's also an opportunity to see Lewis Carroll's handwritten first version of the book that would become Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - this version of the story was called Alice's Adventures Under Ground and was presented by Carroll to Alice Liddell. Here you can see it in its new exhibition case. Either side are the manuscripts of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.


The display starts with the earliest surviving manuscript of Beowulf, and ends with one of our newest acquisitions, a diary written in 1992, from the archive of Hanif Kureishi.

The literature cases have slightly changed location (we swapped with Music) but they are still on the left as you enter the gallery, and now have a snazzy green backdrop.


It's completely free to look round the Sir John Ritblat Gallery and you can find opening times here.

05 March 2014

8-9 March, A Date with The Folio Fiction Prize Literary Festival

This coming weekend 8-9 March the British Library is holding the inaugural Folio Fiction Prize Literary Festival. The weekend is packed with six ticketed events of literary discussions, and the revelation of the first prize winner from an international selection of short-listed finalists.

Contributors to the talks include: A S Byatt, Sebastian Faulks, Mark Haddon, Ali Smith and many more, and they will be discussing voice, place, genre, structure and context.

Events will take place in the Library’s Conference Centre auditorium and also – for the first time - in the novel scenario of the Library's Manuscripts Reading Room.

Further details 

Please join us.