THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

4 posts from December 2015

28 December 2015

English and Drama End of Year Round-Up 2015

 2015 has been a fantastic year for the literary collections at the British Library. Now that the end of the year is fast approaching it seems to be the perfect moment to reflect and look back at some of our favourite English and Drama highlights in the very busy past year at the library.

Amazing Acquisitions from Acclaimed Artistes

This year we have made several exciting major acquisitions including the archives of playwright and screenwriter Julian Mitchell, the D’Oyly Carte Company and actor Kenneth Williams.

The addition of Julian Mitchell’s archive adds another chapter to British drama and screen history. Mitchell began his career adapting novels for performance, starting with several novels by Ivy Compton-Burnett, then moving on to Jane Austen’s 'Persuasion' (1971) and Ford Madox Ford’s 'The Good Soldier' (1981) for television.

He is best known for his original play, 'Another Country'. The play won the Olivier Award for best play in 1981 and Julian later wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation in 1984. He also won the SWET Award in 1985 for 'After Aida' his play about the composer, Giuseppe Verdi, and wrote the screenplay for the film 'Wilde' (1997).  His archive, rich with correspondence and working papers is a welcome addition to our collections.

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Boxes containing Julian Mitchell's Archive

The arrival of the D’Oyly Carte Theatre Company Archive comprises a complete record of the activities of one of the most famous, distinctive and longstanding theatrical companies in the UK. Providing an unparalleled insight into an opera company which was unusual in its repertoire, international reach, the archive reflects its focused social identity and ownership over more than a century by a single family. This company is the effective birthplace of one of the UK’s most commercially successful creative endeavours – the musical. We were thrilled to acquire this exciting and vast collection.

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One of the earliest surviving Audition Books, for the years 1905 – 1910, containing the slips completed for each artiste who auditioned for the D’Oyly Carte Company. D'Oyly Carte Archive.

The most recent new collection is Kenneth Williams’s personal archive, including 42 personal diaries and approximately 2,000 letters spanning his entire life and career from the age of 18 until his death in 1988. It is an exciting and entertaining collection to end the year with, from literary stage adaptation to the musical and finally to raw British comic talent, these new collections help build our world class research resources here at the library.

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Page from Kenneth Williams' diary from 4 May 1966, courtesy of the Kenneth Williams estate

Enthralling Exhibitions from the Eminent to the Essential

Literary collections have played a large part in our exhibitions programme this year as well. The year began with the closure of the ‘Terror and Wonder the Gothic Imagination' exhibition, featuring a range of gothic literary classics. Anthony Trollope’s autobiography and ‘rules for writing novels’ featured in a display in the Treasures Gallery. Animal Tales traced the history of animals in stories. Alice in Wonderland opened in November to celebrate the 150 year anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s book.

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Alice in Wonderland exhibition at the British Library (c) Tony Antoniou

One of a kind, Outstanding Occasions

In addition to the Alice in Wonderland anniversary, this year has seen the centenary of the publication of Virginia Woolf’s first novel The Voyage Out . Over the year we have also hosted exciting events such as the International Translation Day, an in Conversation with screenwriter Sir Ronald Harwood, the Michael Marks Awards for poetry pamphlets and the book launch of John Berger’s Portraits.

2016 is already promising to be just as action packed, from our Shakespeare In Ten Acts exhibition, to the 200th anniversary of  Charlotte Bronte’s birth and the launch of Discovering Literature 20th century.

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William Shakespeare associated with John Taylor, circa 1600-1610 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Merry Christmas and see you in the New Year! 

21 December 2015

How we created Alice in Wonderland

The Library’s Alice in Wonderland exhibition has now been open for a month. I have been pleased by how busy the gallery has been and hope that the visitors have enjoyed the exhibition. When I give tours of the exhibition I try to include some information about how it was created as I know that people like to hear a bit about what goes on behind the scenes. I thought that it might also be an interesting subject for my second blog about the exhibition.

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Graphic design by Fiona Barlow of Anonymous and 3D design by LYN Atelier

When my colleague, Andie and I were first asked to create an exhibition to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland we knew that we would need to have quite a specific narrative focus as the Library has lots of material relating to the book which could be displayed! We chose to focus on the enduring popularity of Carroll’s story and the way in which it has remained true to his original story despite over a century of re-illustrations, adaptations and parodies. With this narrative in place we started to think about the collection items that we would like to display and began to look at lots of different items from Carroll’s handwritten diaries and letters to printed books and sound recordings. We had to be selective and concentrate on those items that would help to tell the story as well as thinking about how visual they would be to display and how easy they would be to read! We were lucky enough to be able to get lots of useful advice from colleagues across the Library about items in their collections that we could show.

At the same time we started to speak to graphic and 3D designers about how we would like the exhibition to look. I am really pleased with the exhibition design which uses a simple colour palette of black, red, white and dark grey and takes inspiration from the playing cards in Carroll’s story. The colours also allow the collection items, many of which are include beautiful illustrations, to really shine. Fiona, the graphic designer, suggested that we incorporate quotes from the book into the exhibition design and they have been printed on the fabric which is wrapped around the frame that runs throughout the gallery. The quotations look great and it is a lovely way to include text from the book in the very fabric (no pun intended) of the exhibition.

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Graphic design by Fiona Barlow of Anonymous

The design also includes instructions on how to navigate around the gallery that are very much in the spirit of Alice. Finally the large tag hanging above the gallery takes inspiration from the ‘drink me’ tag on the bottle which Alice finds down the rabbit hole.

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Graphic design by Fiona Barlow of Anonymous

Once the exhibition design and item list had been finalised we had to choose the page openings to be displayed carefully so that we didn’t want to end up with 25 pictures of the Cheshire Cat! We then began writing the exhibition text. This included seven panel texts, 12 chapter summaries and 55 labels so it took some time. It was time well spent though as I have been able to share some of the knowledge I gained when giving exhibition tours.

The exhibition (and the Alice pop up shop) are open over Christmas so please do visit if you are in London during the festive period.

 

14 December 2015

An Unrequited Love? Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Constantin Heger

by Claire Harman, author of the biography Charlotte Brontë: A Life, 2015, written to celebrate the forthcoming 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë's birth. Harman researched Charlotte's life using manuscripts at the British Library.

Of all the hundreds of letters by Charlotte Brontë which have survived, the four to Constantin Heger, her former teacher in Brussels, are the most disturbing to read, as she clearly wrote them in desperation and intended them for his eyes alone. Heger was the first person outside her family to take Brontë seriously as an intellectual, and she had returned from Brussels to Haworth in 1844, convinced that the strong bond she had formed with him would be continued in correspondence. However, the more needy and ardent her letters became, the more Heger drew back into long silences, provoking a sort of panic in the 27-year old writer. In January 1845, she made her feelings explicit:

all I know – is that I cannot – that I will not resign myself to the total loss of my master’s friendship – I would rather undergo the greatest bodily pains that have my heart constantly lacerated by searing regrets. If my master withdraws his friendship from me entirely I shall be absolutely without hope – if he gives me a little friendship – a very little – I shall be content – happy, I would have a motive for living – for working.       Monsieur, the poor do not need a great deal to live on – they ask only the crumbs of bread which fall from the rich men’s table – but if they are refused these crumbs - they die of hunger -  No more do I need a great deal of affection from those I love – I would not know what to do with a whole and complete friendship – I am not accustomed to it – but you showed a little interest in me in days gone by when I was your pupil in Brussels – and I cling to the preservation of this little interest – I cling to it as I would cling on to life.

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Portrait of Charlotte Brontë, by George Richmond, chalk, 1850, NPG 1452 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Perhaps not surprisingly, this made Heger withdraw even further and by the end of the year he had ceased to reply to Charlotte’s letters at all. Her last surviving message, written on 18 November 1845, shows the depths of suffering this caused her:

Your last letter has sustained me – has nourished me for six months – now I need another and you will give it me – not because you have any friendship for me – you cannot have much – but because you have a compassionate soul and because you would not condemn anyone to undergo long suffering in order to spare yourself a few moments of tedium.  […] [S]o long as I think you are fairly pleased with me, so long as I still have the hope of hearing from you, I can be tranquil and not too sad, but when a dreary and prolonged silence seems to warn me that my master is becoming estranged from me – when day after day I await a letter and day after day disappointment flings me down again into overwhelming misery, when the sweet delight of seeing your writing and reading your counsel flees from me like an empty vision – then I am in a fever – I lose my appetite and my sleep – I pine away.  

         When Heger’s family donated these letters to the British Library in 1913, they caused a sensation with the revelation of Brontë’s passionate feelings for her married mentor, but without the other side of the correspondence – Heger’s – it is easy to judge Brontë’s feelings as largely irrational and unprovoked. Heger’s wife Zoe told her daughter Louise that her husband had thrown Miss Brontë’s letters away, but that she had rescued them from the wastebasket and mended the ones that had been torn up with glued paper strips and thread, then carefully preserved them in her jewel box. Her reason for doing this was to have some evidence to prove the strong feeling was all on one side (fearing the damage to her school’s reputation), and the implication was that the tearing and mending was all done soon after Heger received the letters in 1844 and 1845.  Looking at the manuscripts carefully, though, there is plenty of evidence that they were re-folded and retained long enough to acquire staining and dirt marks, so perhaps Heger kept them to himself for quite a long time, even though he never answered them.   

        Meanwhile, Charlotte became a published writer, under her pseudonym ‘Currer Bell’, with Poems (1846), a joint collection with her sisters Emily and Anne (writing as ‘Ellis Bell’ and ‘Acton Bell’) and the following year took the reading world by storm with Jane Eyre, followed by Shirley in 1849 and Villette in 1853 (a novel explicitly modelled on Charlotte’s experiences in Brussels with the Hegers).  When, in 1856, a year after Charlotte’s death, Elizabeth Gaskell went to interview him for her biography, Constantin Heger read her extracts from the letters and copied out some passages for her to use, and in 1869 a friend of the family attested that Heger had shown the letters to his wife’s cousin and ‘told the whole story’.  As Charlotte Brontë became more and more famous in the last decades of the century, perhaps Monsieur reconsidered his association with her and secretly took pride in it.  Clearly, there was a time before she was famous when she seemed nothing but a nuisance or liability. Her last letter to him – unanswered – had contained a humiliating confession by Charlotte of how she had become ‘the slave of a regret, a memory, the slave of a dominant and fixed idea which has become a tyrant over one’s mind’. It must have been left open on Heger’s desk at some time, for along the side of the last page, in pencil, are some local tradesmen’s addresses – one a cobbler. Heger had used Charlotte Brontë’s heartrending cri de coeur as a piece of scrap paper.

You can see digitised images of the four surviving letters from Charlotte to Constantin Heger on the British Library's Discovering Literature website. Charlotte Brontë's bicentenary is in 2016, celebrating her birthday 21st April 1816. You can also view digitised images of the fair copy manuscript of Jane Eyre.

 

04 December 2015

The British Library acquires Kenneth Williams’s personal papers

The British Library is delighted to announce the acquisition of the personal archive of Kenneth Williams, including 42 personal diaries and approximately 2,000 letters spanning his entire life and career from the age of 18 until his death in 1988. The archive has been acquired by the British Library from Paul Richardson, Kenneth’s friend and neighbour, to whom he left his entire estate.

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The Kenneth Williams archive at the British Library (Photo by Elizabeth Hunter)

Kenneth Williams (1926-1988) was best-known as the star of the Carry On films, but he was also a raconteur of verve and charm, and appeared to substantial acclaim in a number of stage roles, from frothy revue to the black comedy of Joe Orton. He used the diaries he kept for more than 40 years as a half-serious threat to his friends (“You’ll be in my diary!” was a favourite saying whenever someone annoyed him), but kept the contents almost completely to himself. Despite a selection from the diaries published in the early 1990s, the vast majority of the diary entries remain unpublished and unseen.

The diaries span the period 1942 – 1988, with only one gap of four years at the beginning of the sequence. The run makes up approximately 4 million words altogether, and is unusual in its degree of comprehensiveness and regularity.  Williams wrote a page a day as a nearly unbroken ritual. In the pages of the diaries Williams is both instantly recognisable as the acerbic and maddeningly fastidious character well known to everyone, and, more surprisingly, as reflective and poignant, the private persona and increasingly skilled observer, revealed only in the confessional of the diary.

The diaries regularly refer to news and current affairs – below he records new about the famous trial of Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal MP who, along with several co-defendants, was accused of the murder of Norman Scott, a would be male model who was allegedly blackmailing Thorpe on account of his homosexuality. The British Library also holds the political archive of Jeremy Thorpe.

June 22 1979: “On the news they announced that JEREMY THORPE had been acquitted!! So that lying crook Scott has not succeeded in his vindictive quest!! They were cheering Jeremy outside the Old Bailey, and he rather spoiled it by making a sanctimonious speech about JUSTICE etc. Whereas he should have just expressed satisfaction and breezed away!”

The archive also contains 3 boxes of personal correspondence, equating to approximately 2,000 letters as well as photographs, scripts, programmes and documents relating to Williams’ wartime service.  Correspondents include Peter Nichols, Joe Orton and Richard Burton. It is estimated that 85% of the newly-acquired archive is unpublished material never before seen by researchers.

The archive will be of huge interest to social historians of post war Britain, detailing the experience of a gay man both before and after the Wolfenden Report and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1968, alongside the mundane details of everyday life in London. The diaries and letters also record the actor’s experience of the dying days of the repertory theatre system and the growth of modern celebrity culture, something he seemed both to love and loathe. In the entry pictured below Williams was understudying Richard Burton as Trigorin in The Seagull. Despite the doubts William’s expresses in this extract, the run of The Seagull turned out to be a huge success, thanks to the performance of Burton. Williams contributed by fetching Burton drinks between acts.

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Page from Kenneth Williams's diary from 21 August 1950, courtesy of the Kenneth Williams estate

Material will be available to researchers in the Library’s Reading Rooms from March 2016. The 1950 edition of the diary, as well as a letter from the archive will be on display in the Library’s permanent exhibition space, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, from next week onwards.

Kathryn Johnson, Curator of Theatrical Archives and Manuscripts and Joanna Norledge, Curator of Performance and Creative Archives