English and Drama blog

4 posts from October 2014

24 October 2014

George Orwell’s Burmese Days

October 2014 marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s first novel Burmese Days. The novel draws heavily on his experiences while serving in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma from 1922 to 1927, an important period in his formative political development. As with many first novels, publication was far from straightforward. Although Burmese Days was his first novel, it was not his first book. In 1933, Gollancz had published Down and out in Paris and London, Owell’s account of living in poverty which was notable, for among other things, as the first publication to appear under his pseudonym, George Orwell. He had previously published articles and reviews under his real name of Eric Blair. Orwell’s life-long literary agent Leonard Moore had placed Down and out in Paris and London with Victor Gollancz knowing the publisher would be sympathetic to the tenor of the book. It followed then, that Gollancz would be the obvious choice to publish Orwell’s first novel. However, Victor Gollancz was reluctant to publish Burmese Days because he feared publication would provoke legal actions of libel and deformation from colonial administrators. Victor Gollancz’s publishing concern was a relatively recent venture and he was naturally cautious knowing that an ill-advised publication resulting in legal proceedings could easily ruin his company. Reluctantly, he turned down the book as did the publishers Heinemann, and Jonathan Cape for the same reasons.

George Orwell. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Orwell then had a stroke of luck. Eugene Saxton, the chief editor at American publishers Harper & Brothers, was visiting London and Moore managed to arrange for him to meet Orwell. Fortunately for Orwell, Saxton agreed to publish the novel after requesting a few minor changes. So, somewhat unusually for an English author, Orwell’s first novel was first published in American rather than Britain on the 25 October 1934 in an edition of 2,000 copies. This was followed two months later by a second printing in December. Being an American publication, the novel was not liable for legal deposit therefore the British Museum Library (as the British Library was then known) did not receive a copy. Perhaps we can assume that Orwell was aware of this because on the 11 December 1934 he presented an inscribed copy of the second printing to the Museum.

From Burmese Days. British Library shelfmark Cup.403.s.21

In the meantime Victor Gollancz had been following the reception of the book with interest and when a rush of libel suits didn’t materialise reconsidered publishing the novel in Britain. However, cautious as ever, he insisted on a number of changes. He asked Orwell to check official directories to ensure that the names he’d used in the novel were not those of serving colonial officials. He also asked for references to Upper Burma to be changed to the less specific province of Burma. Orwell reluctantly agreed to the changes. Among the names he changed were; Dr Veraswami to Dr Murkaswami, the Lakersteens became the Latimers, and the Sub-divisional Magistrate, U Po Kyin became U Po Sing. The British edition also contained an author’s note stressing that all the characters in the book were entirely fictitious. The first British edition was published on 24 June 1935 in an edition of 2,500. The Library’s copy of the first British edition is held at shelfmark NN.24091. Later Orwell was to refer to the first British edition of Burmese Days as “garbled”. When the first Penguin edition was being prepared in the mid-1940s, Orwell insisted that the American edition should be followed which reverted back to the original names and this has now become the standard English text.

The British Library is home to the George Orwell pamphlet collection http://www.bl.uk/pdf/orwell-pamphlets-inventory-final.pdf for more information about this please see http://www.bl.uk/pdf/george-orwells-loft.pdf

14 October 2014

Carry on Screaming

Autumn ushers in chill winds, falling leaves and lengthening shadows. Mornings and evenings are darker, mists become heavier, spiders scuttle from dark corners and carved pumpkins appear in windows as Halloween looms. All of which makes it the perfect time of year to talk about ghosts and vampires and things that go ARRRRRGH in the night.

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(Above: The entrance to Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. Photo by Tony Antoniou)

Where better to start when it comes to discussing autumnal shivers than the British Library's major new exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. The exhibition explores two hundred and fifty years of Gothic literature, beginning with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and running through to the present day. The show provides plenty of insight into novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, Frankenstein, Northanger Abbey, Dracula and Rebecca but it also explores, among many other themes, the use of Gothic imagery by authors such as Charles Dickens and the Brontës; our fascination with hauntings; the rise of Gothic literature for children and the macabre appeal of the zombie as the monster of choice in the late 20th century. The exhibition also examines the influence of Gothic literature in other fields including fashion, music, art, architecture and, crucially, film.

Gothic literature and film owe a great deal to one another. The second most frequently portrayed fictional character in film and on television is Count Dracula (the most frequently portrayed is Sherlock Holmes - and given the nature of stories such as The Hound of the Baskervilles and 'The Speckled Band' there is also a considerable amount of Gothic associated with Baker Street's finest). Max Schreck's shadow gliding up the stairs in Nosferatu (1922) provides one of cinema's defining moments; just as Christopher Lee's first appearance as Count Dracula in 1958 altered our mental image of Bram Stoker's creation for ever, changing him from the decayed aristocrat of the novel into a suave and imposing individual possessed of considerable charm. Subsequent adaptations of Dracula have continued the trend for reinventing the Count, portraying him as something akin to a romantic hero, as in Frank Langella's performance from 1979, or as a conflicted but noble figure effectively contracting a deal with the devil in order to save his people as in Dracula Untold, released in 2014.

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(Above: Another iconic portrayal of the Count, this time by Bela Lugosi, seen here with a vampire slaying kit from the Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition. Photo byTony Antoniou)

Indeed Count Dracula provides a particularly striking example of how cinema adapts characters from Gothic fiction and reflects them back in new forms to highlight changing tastes and attitudes. One film company, Hammer Films, made several movies featuring Bram Stoker's immortal creation and each portrayed the Count in a different fashion. Hammer's first adaptation, Dracula (1958), played fairly freely with the source material, placing the action entirely in a somewhat vaguely defined mittel-Europe of forests, huts and taverns where the locals all go very quiet as soon as the newly-arrived stranger asks for directions to the castle. Certain characters, such as the fly-eating lunatic Renfield were removed altogether while the Count, played by Christopher Lee, is a model of charm, elegance and icy menace. He is also a curiously shadowy figure - dominating the film and yet only speaking thirteen lines of dialogue throughout. The critics were sniffy - with the reviewer in the Daily Worker claiming 'I came away revolted and outraged' - which highlights another common theme: Gothic has never been entirely respectable. It has always been too dark, too transgressive and too challenging to ever find a comfortable home within the realm of the drearily acceptable.

Dracula 1958

Subsequent Hammer films moved the Count away from his East European roots. Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) placed the Count in fin-de-siècle England, and set him against three debauched and hypocritical members of 'respectable' society. In this scenario the Count actually becomes something of a sympathetic character for a younger generation reacting against the staid traditions and restraints imposed upon them by their parents. In Dracula A.D. 1972 the Count prowled through contemporary London, turning the thrill-seeking hippies who haunted its more colourful locations to the dark side. The Count and decadence do seem to go together - somehow he is at home amongst the dandies and the aesthetes and those on the margins of society whether they date from the 1890s or the 1970s.

Like all of the best villains you can't keep the Count down. Dracula continues to stalk our television shows and cinema screens, not to mention our imaginations. He really is a monster for all times and seasons. A nightmare for all ages and places. Happy screaming.

Learn more about Gothic literature on our Discovering Literature website while the Events programme for Terror and Wonder can be found here. Enjoy, and please don't have nightmares.




06 October 2014

'Think only this': war poets witnessing a century of war at the British Library

It has become a truism to say that the First World War was ‘a poet’s war’.

If this easy declaration risks covering up the work of poets from later wars (yes: there were poets in the Second World War!), it remains very much the case that we continue to try to understand the experiences and consequences of the First World War through its poets. Indeed, it’s interesting that the concept of a ‘war poet’ appears to be a particularly British phenomenon, and one that dates from Owen, Sassoon, and other combatants of the 14-18 conflict. Of course other belligerent countries during the First World War had poets who wrote for or against the hostilities…but the collective term ‘war poet’ (as opposed to individual poets who write about the war) is not so easily translated into other languages or literary cultures.

Our new First World War One learning site features an excellent essay by Dr Santanu Das, who reminds us that First World War poetry is more than the trench poets that we perhaps first think of when we hear the word ‘war poet’, and stretched beyond traditional poetry collections to bleed (literally, it feels) into all walks of life: posters, post-cards, speeches…to  novels, films, and (of course) Blackadder

It seems to me that haunting all consideration of war poetry is Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’. As Das writes, when on Easter Sunday 1915, Dean Inge read out ‘The Soldier’ from the pulpit at St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘he was at once creating and anointing a secular saint: the ‘poet soldier’’.

‘If I should die, think only this…’:

The opening salvo of the poem reminds us of the inevitable awareness of death that accompanies the desire of all war poets to both witness--and to frame--later understanding of what they have observed; Owen later developed the idea: ‘All a poet can do today is warn’.


This handwritten copy of the poem (see here for associated rights) was written by Brooke for Edward Marsh, who was an early critic of Brooke’s poetry and the editor of the anthology, Georgian Poetry, published in 1912. Marsh donated it to the Library at the British Museum in 1915. He explains in a letter accompanying his donation that the poems were written when Brooke was staying with him in January 1915 three months before his death of septicemia at Skyros in Greece. Marsh writes that the poems are ‘one of my most precious possessions’ which he can hardly bear to part with but for the fact that he thinks that they should become part of the Library’s collections.

This Friday 10 October, poet and writer Owen Sheers—whose own recent verse drama, Pink Mist, was  about soldiers serving in Afghanistan and the families who are left behind—will introduce an evening of a hundred years of war poetry with two guests: former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion, and poet and writer Sabrina Mahfouz. From Owen and Sassoon to today’s conflicts, they will consider how the poetry of conflict has influenced their own work, and read from poets both known and forgotten of conflicts from across the world that have scarred our past century since the War to end all Wars ended in 1918. For more information about the event, see the British Library’s event pages; and to see Sir Andrew Motion read from the work of Wilfred Owen see here.

02 October 2014

London - A Literary Anthology. A new publication from the British Library.


Literary walks round London have been popular since at least the 19th century. A personal favourite of mine - I offer it to most of my guests from overseas - is a walk round the homes of writers and artists who lived in Chelsea. Starting with Agatha Christie and ending with Oscar Wilde, the itinerary takes in, among others, Edith Sitwell, Thomas Carlyle (a National Trust house), Henry James, T S Eliot, Ian Fleming and Somerset Maugham (all four residents in the same block of flats, though not at the same time), Christina Rossetti and George Eliot. On a fine day, and with little traffic on the route, it is the perfect introduction to literary London. 

And when it rains? I recommend an indoor tour of a different kind, a promenade through books in which great literary figures give us their own introductions to London. Each of the writers named above left us pictures of the London they knew, and some of them are exhaustive on the subject. Henry James, for one, could keep the reader occupied for days. This is not just his non-fiction, like English Hours. The novella, A London Life, has a marvellous passage in which Laura Wing takes her American visitor to see the sights, starting with the Temple and St Paul's ("a disappointment") and finally making a "long, rummaging visit" to the Soane Museum, one of the least known of the city's attractions.

The sense of exploration - are they exploring the city or starting to explore each other? - is one captured by many writers. We can share the excitement as Benjamin Disraeli's Ferdinand arrives in London (in Henrietta Temple) or the ever more suffocating air as Oliver Twist is led down the dark and dangerous backwater that is Saffron Hill. Another of the writers on the Chelsea walk, George Eliot, left a heartrending passage in Daniel Deronda, which sees the desperate Mirah Lapidoth trailing the streets and contemplating suicide. Other newcomers - Christine, a French prostitute in Arnold Bennett's The Pretty Lady, or the post-war arrivals from the West Indies in Samuel Selvon's The Lonely Londoners - are lone figures trying to find their place among the multitude.

General view of London, drawn and engraved by T Bowles, 1794. Shelfmark Maps.3518.(14).

What makes every one of these books worth reading is that they are not merely a list of sights, or buildings, or an objective picture of the city. Each is a personal account, seen through the eyes of its characters and emotion is drawn from interacting with the city. In some of the best, observer and city seem to fuse into a shared spirit - try almost any passage in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (I suggest Elizabeth's bus journey up the Strand, which memorably captures Woolf's identification with London).  

Mrs Dalloway walked the streets of London in the 1920s, and the great advantage of literature is that we can be not just tourists, but also time-travellers. Writers and poets allow us to drop in on London past, present and future. If I had to pick one piece of writing that I feel transports me to another London that I can see, and hear, and smell, it would be the celebrated passage from Book 7 of Wordsworth's The Prelude, in which he explores the city wide-eyed, pleased to note "all specimens of man...Malays, Lascars, the Tartar, the Chinese/ and Negro Ladies in white muslin gowns". Reading that, you might reasonably ask, "Has London really changed?". "Yes," answers Tobias Smollett, whose Humphry Clinker is open-mouthed at the rate of expansion and predicts that Pimlico and Knightsbridge could soon be joined to Chelsea and Kensington (horror!). Or Dickens, who witnessed the furious growth of the railways (Dombey and Son is vivid on this). Or Angela Carter, who observes in Wise Children that there is "a time that comes in every century when they reach out for all that they can grab of dear old London, and pull it down. Then they build it up again..."

Sunday Morning in the New City, Lambeth, from The Illustrated London News, March 1872. Shelfmark PP.7611.

There is so much great writing about London that it could take a lifetime to absorb it all. That is certainly how it felt to me when the British Library asked me to compile an anthology of the best poetry and fiction that might encapsulate everything London stands for in about 120 pages. Who should be in? Wordsworth, yes definitely. Dickens, of course (at times it felt as if the entire anthology could come from Dickens). And there have to be those who have shone a light on London that brings a particular time to life like no other, from William Blake to Peter Ackroyd, Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith. 

What I did not know at the time was the marvellous range of illustrations that would come out of the British Library's collections, though in retrospect, that should have gone without saying. The wealth of material about London in the basements at St Pancras must go down to floors that even the staff hardly know are there. If London - a literary anthology is able to encapsulate a fraction of that literary inheritance, it will have done well. No amount of walking the city's streets, however enjoyable, can equal it. 

Richard Fairman 

London: A Literary Anthology is published by the British Library (hardback £20, ISBN 978 0 7123 5740 1) and is available from bookshops now, including shop.bl.uk/