English and Drama blog

5 posts from May 2014

29 May 2014

'That is an amazing horrid book, is it not?'

With its sex-crazed monks, dissolute noblemen, mad scientists, shambling monsters and blood-sucking vampires - not to mention its apparently endless fascination with innocent young ladies in diaphanous gowns being pursued around crumbling castles - it is easy to see why Gothic literature has often been regarded as somewhat disreputable. Gothic fiction lurks in the shadows. It may be devilishly handsome and charismatic but it is not the sort of literary genre you would wish to bring home to meet your mother. On the other hand, and for the very same reasons, it is easy to understand why it has always been extremely popular. Morally-improving literature certainly has its place but, let's be honest, mad scientists and shape-changing vampires are considerably more interesting. Even better, in the hands of a genuinely great author such as Ann Radcliffe or Robert Louis Stevenson, you get the best of both worlds. You get the rattling good yarn and you get a fascinating insight into contemporary fears as well.

On the British Library's new Discovering Literature website there is a whole swathe of Gothic to enjoy, not only in terms of the novels themselves but also in terms of the inspirations and ideas lying behind them. Beginning with Horace walpole's deliciously strange The Castle of Otranto (1764) Gothic set out to put imagination and emotion at the forefront of literature. Authors such as Ann Radcliffe added a fascination with landscape: the sublime wonders of mountains and lakes, ruins and abbeys. Matthew Lewis wrote his brilliantly lurid (and yes, admittedly rather disreputable) novel The Monk (1796) in response to the horrors of the French Revolution while Mary Shelley was partly inspired to write Frankenstein (1818) as a result of discussions into the power of galvanism to cause corpses to twitch with a ghastly semblance of life.


(Above: an early 19th-century edition of The Monk, complete with a full plot outline - ending in 'Most Ignominious Death' - on the right-hand page)

Gothic fiction has always possessed the ability to adapt itself in order to reflect the latest ideas and concerns of society. Early Gothic novels were set in exotic European Catholic landscapes and in distant, seemingly unenlightened times. Later the Victorians brought Gothic imagery into the urban landscapes of the present day - Oliver Twist, for example is, on one level, a Gothic tale of an innocent pursued by menacing figures through a terrifying urban landscape of slums and criminal enclaves. Sensation fiction meanwhile, which reached its peak in the 1860s, used Gothic plot elements such as mistaken identities, secret wills, doubles and locked rooms and wove them into labyrinthine plots set in the drawing-rooms and parlours of apparently respectable society.

With the Victorian fin de siècle Gothic mutated again. This time it was the human mind and body which provided the landscape for horror. Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) played upon the nightmarish implications of evolutionary theory while Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) used vampirism as a parallel for syphilis and moral degeneracy.

Dracula 03

(Above: The cover to a 1919 edition of Dracula)

Gothic fiction, for all its seeming playfulness, provides brilliant and imaginitive insights into the fears of the times in which it was produced. By its very nature Gothic literature makes imaginative leaps denied to its more sober counterparts. And yes, as a bonus, it also frequently features sex-crazed monks, mad scientists, vampires and Pre-Raphaelite beauties with an eye on the main chance. I mean, seriously, what's not to like?

22 May 2014

Something to smile about: Charles Dickens on Discovering Literature

Photographs of Charles Dickens

Portrait photographs of Charles Dickens, 1861

You may already know that the majority of the British Library’s most treasured holdings are stored below ground in our deep basements, only to be looked at when they are beckoned above by curious readers. The Library’s new online learning resource Discovering Literature liberates some of our most precious holdings from the depths; allowing them to be seen in high definition, at anytime, anywhere, [and most importantly] whilst drinking a cup of tea!

Discovering Literature and Charles Dickens were made for each other. Dickens was a huge character and a prolific writer. It can be a dizzying experience to try and wade through all that has been written by or about him. Discovering Literature allows us to learn more about Dickens the individual while at the same time intricately weaving him into the 19th century world he inhabited.

The site features the manuscripts of some of his works, articles about him by leading Dickens scholars and also topical pieces about some of the issues that interested him, such as crime, poverty and the supernatural. All these scholarly additions are supported by high quality images of collection items, allowing access to primary source materials that bring Dickens to life. The site also features plenty of ephemeral items that help to contextualise and make real the issues that permeated his works, such as the newspaper advertisements for Warren’s Blacking Factory. 

Warren's Blacking advertisement

Advertisement for Warren's Blacking Warehouse

They are interesting to look at of themselves, but once you realise that they are advertising the boot polish manufacturers where Dickens worked as a 12 year old boy they become so much more pertinent – you begin to realise where the author’s concern for child labour and the plight of the poor comes from.  The same goes for the Diet Table from a workhouse report, laying out the daily rations to be administered to the inmates:

Workhouse report

Reports of the Sub-Committee appointed by the Committee of Management, of the Parish of St. Paul, Covent Garden, for the revision of their workhouse, etc. (1831)

Closer inspection reveals that the daily diet consisted of meagre rations with gruel for breakfast and very little in the way of nutrition. This report, and others like it from the time, emphasise that there were to be no second helpings in any circumstances.  The punishing regime of the workhouse in Oliver Twist is revealed as the norm and not a literary exaggeration. 

The beauty of being able to view these otherwise rather plain and innocuous seeming objects alongside literary works, manuscripts and personal correspondence enables us to unlock the secrets they contain and reveals them to be so much more than they first appear.

Manuscript preface to cheap edition of Oliver Twist


Preface to the Present Edition of Oliver Twist (1850)

As the preface to the cheap edition of Oliver Twist exposes it is so easy to make the mistake that the places and issues that Dickens writes about are largely made-up (Dickens is responding to a magistrate who has claimed that Jacobs Island is a fictional location – they were real slums in Rotherhithe). Items such as these are a stark reminder that these kind of things really happened to people.

These documents serve to show just how much Dickens was influenced by the world around him. They also confirm that many of our perceptions of 19th century Britain have been greatly influenced by what he wrote, making it even more important to separate truth from fiction.

Finally, I wanted to highlight the photographs taken of Dickens in 1861 [shown above]. A couple of them show the author with a slight smirk on his face (a rare thing for a Victorian photograph in general). They remind us that Dickens was a real person too, and not just some mythical author from the 19th century…



15 May 2014

Discovering Literature - British Library literary treasures go digital

Today is the launch of our amazing new resource, Discovering Literature!

Discovering Literature

Discovering Literature features some of our greatest literary treasures through original manuscripts, first editions, and letters and other documents like newspaper cuttings that help to place the work in an historical context. Our aim was to bring the literature to life and to give people an insight into how some of these incredibly iconic works were created.

Blake Tyger ms

William Blake - draft of 'The Tyger' in his notebook

Library staff have been working with teachers, university professors and other experts for months to develop the resource, and it features detailed explanations and essays about the various authors, works and themes. There are also some documentary films, made on location at places like the Bronte Parsonage, Haworth, and the Dickens Museum.

The website currently covers the Romantic and Victorian era but we'll be expanding it in the future to cover the whole of English literature from Beowulf to the present day. One of our aims is to get young people inspired by the UK’s literary heritage, at home and at school, and many of its selected texts support the UK curricula for GCSE, A Level and undergraduate teaching of English Literature. But we're also hoping that there'll be something for everyone to be interested in on the site.

 Here are some of the highlights:

  • Manuscripts of Jane Eyre, the preface to Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, an early draft of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and the poetry of Shelley, Wordsworth and Keats
  • An 1809 dictionary of criminal slang including words found in the works of Charles Dickens, for example ‘twist’ - meaning ‘hanged’ – from  Oliver Twist
  • Papers of Jane Austen, including her notes detailing other people’s opinions of her work, including one peer describing Pride and Prejudice as ‘downright nonsense‘
  • William Blake’s notebook, including drafts of his iconic poems ‘London’, ‘The Tyger’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and many of his drawings
  • The largest collection of Brontë childhood writings, including miniature notebooks detailing their fantasy worlds of Gondol and Angria, diary entries and letters describing their family life
  • A lock of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s hair

Over the next few weeks we'll be featuring some of the amazing items you can find on Discovering Literature, and telling you about them in a bit more detail.


07 May 2014

Laurie Lee's lost diary on display

IMG_8740 - Copy
Photograph: Janet Benoy

Laurie Lee's recently discovered Spanish Civil War diary is the highlight of our Treasures exhibition, Laurie Lee: Memories of War, on display until 20 July. You can read more about the discovery and the exhibition in my previous blog.

If that whets your appetite for Laurie Lee's work, we'll be celebrating his centenary on Friday 6 June with guests Louis de Bernières, Tim Dee, Adam Horovitz, P J Kavanagh and Brian Patten. See What's On for more details if you'd like to join us.


01 May 2014

The Spirit Voice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Drama and Literature Recordings section of the British Library aims to collect recordings of literary and other interesting spoken word material as extensively as possible.

However, as Toby Oakes, a previous British Library curator of spoken word recordings, once put it in his article 'Recording the Paranormal' (Playback, Winter 2002): '(Although) we deal with the voices of the dead every day ... our subjects tend to have been alive at the time of recording.'

This was the opening sentence of a report on the Library's then recent acquisition of a batch of 60 tapes made by Dr Konstantin Raudive, who believed that the dead could communicate with the living through the medium of radio waves.

The tapes are available for listening but are not easy to navigate. Newcomers wishing to explore the world of EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon), as it is known, are instead referred to the commercial CD 'The Ghost Orchid: An Introduction to EVP' (PARC CD1, 1991), which collects many examples of the genre, including the recordings first issued on vinyl by Raudive in 1971 on the EP 'Breakthrough' (subtitled 'An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead'), which accompanied his book of the same title.

The recorded evidence is not especially convincing, being short comments or fragments that without the accompanying spoken 'translation' would probably not strike the listener as having any meaningful content.

A recent book on the subject, Rorschach Audio by Joe Banks (Disinformation, 2012), is also recommended. Banks seeks to understand why it is that someone might be psychologically disposed to find the recorded evidence for EVP to be credible, and comes up with some interesting conclusions.

The Library holds copies of all the above items, and much more in a similar vein: including the 3-CD set issued by Berlin label supposé 'Okkulte Stimmen - Mediale Musik: Recordings of Unseen Intelligences 1905-2007', and the 'Art After Death' series of CDs, for which Californian artists Chris Kubick and Anne Walsh recorded mediums channelling the voices of, among others, the artist Yves Klein.  

We also hold a video recording of the talk Joe Banks gave at the Library on 28 June 2013. 

Would Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have believed in EVP? Quite probably. He certainly believed - in his own words, 'beyond all doubt' - that the dead could communicate with the living. On his only commercially issued spoken word disc he devoted more of his recorded talk to his belief in spiritualism than he did to his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes.

Conan Doyle Speaking

Listen to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on spiritualism

Conan Doyle recorded the above on 14 May 1930, just two months before his death.

In July 1930, one week after Conan Doyle's death, thousands of people attended a séance at the Royal Albert Hall at which a medium claimed to have communicated with him (an event featured in Julian Barnes's 2005 novel  Arthur & George).

Four years later, on 28 April 1934, a séance held by Noah Zerdin at the Aeolian Hall, New Bond Street, attracted a capacity audience of 560 people, with many turned away. It was  the first large gathering of its kind to be recorded, and Conan Doyle was one of 44 people heard speaking from the 'other side'.    

Listen to the spirit voice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Noah Zerdin (1888-1972) was, coincidentally, like Raudive, a Latvian. In 1906 he fled the Tsarist regime in Russia for London and established a successful business in Oxford Street as a furrier. It was only after a devastating fire, in which his wife Bertha died and his business was destroyed, that he began holding séances, apparently believing that he had successfully made contact with his late wife. This seeming link between an individual's experience of profound trauma and their willingness to believe in the supernatural is one of the themes explored by Joe Banks in Rorschach Audio.

The Aeolian Hall proceedings were professionally recorded on 26 acetate discs. These were to lay undisturbed in a trunk for 67 years before being discovered in 2001 by Dan Zerdin (Noah's son). The discovery led to a fascinating BBC Radio 4 documentary What Grandad Did in the Dark, first broadcast 4 January 2002, and the discs were subsequently donated by Dan to the British Library.

Both the radio documentary and the original discs are available to listen to at the British Library, but you may need to make an appointment.

With thanks to Dan Zerdin