English and Drama blog

3 posts from February 2016

29 February 2016

Bringing a Liverpool Heart to Moliére

by Deborah Dawkin, currently working on a collaborative AHRC PHD project with UCL and the British Library focussing on the archive of Ibsen translator Michael Meyer.

Last week the British Library had the pleasure of hosting the 2016 Sebald Lecture, given this year by Roger McGough. His subject was the translating and adaptation of Molière’s plays, including Tartuffe (2008), The Hypochondriac (2009) and The Misathrope (2013) for the English Touring Theatre. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given McGough’s renowned skills in performance and public speaking this was anything but a dry lecture: we were treated to a vibrant and entertaining as well as thought provoking insight into the process of translating seventeenth century French comedy for the contemporary British theatre – one which highlighted the difference between the requirements of theatre translation and literary translation – the difference of creating a text which “preserves history” and one that breathes new life into a play while at the same time respecting the original writer’s message and intentions.


Roger McGough (right) who gave this year's Sebald Lecture together with Duncan Large, Academic Director of the BCLT who chaired the event.

The Sebald lecture is an important date on the British Library calendar for all those interested in international literature and translation. Sponsored by the British Centre for Literary Translation. The Sebald Lecture is given annually on an aspect of literature in translation. The event is named after the acclaimed German writer WG Sebald (1944-2001), whose novels and essays include The Emigrants, The Rings of SaturnAusterlitz and On the Natural History of Destruction. Despite writing almost exclusively in German he lived in the UK, lecturing in German at University of East Anglia where he founded the British Centre for Literary Translation in 1989.

In true story teller’s style McGough began at the beginning, and took us back in time to his first lessons in French at the Irish Catholic Brothers school for boys in Liverpool, where the tyrannical Brother O'Shea used the fear of the strap (specially sewn and crafted by the local nuns) to get his students to learn their verbs and vocabulary. Despite this unpromising start McGough went on to study French as well as Geography at the University of Hull. If the audience were expecting then to hear how McGough had developed an undying passion for French literature and language, they were disappointed. Instead we were regaled with a story in which McGough’s accent was so bad (having missed the French Exchange programme due to a family bereavement) that he was discretely removed from the aural exam. Slightly disingenuously - as he worked as a French teacher in the sixties - McGough left us with the impression that his French language skills were sketchy at best. But perhaps McGough wanted emphasise the point that these are not literal or academic translations, but adaptations designed to bring the spirit of Moliére to a contemporary audience: Molière with a "Liverpool heartbeat".

McGough was first approached in 2008 by Gemma Bodinetz to create a translation/adaptation of Tartuffe for her production with the English Touring Theatre. He was initially uncertain about undertaking the task, but promised to give it some thought. Taking several translations of Tartuffe with him on a Saga cruise (as an entertainer he hastened to tell us, not a guest) he read them on the journey to the Bay of Biscay. This allowed McGough to enter the play without the struggle of reading complex 17th century French verse, and to allow the characters and plot to inhabit him; to set his imagination free. By the time he had returned to the shores of the UK, McGough had started to write his version. Now McGough, concerned that he should be true to Molière’s intentions, turned to Molière’s original text, to check his own version against it, thus taking the script to a new level.

Anyone who has read McGough’s translations of Moliere, or had the pleasure of attending a performance, will be struck by their dexterity and their sharp, playful wit, and their cleverness in offering us a contemporary text, with contemporary references, yet never quite losing the link back to 17th century France.

This event was supported by Arts Council England and Writers’ Centre Norwich.

Past Sebald Lectures can be heard in full on the British Centre for Literary Translation website.

22 February 2016

The fairy tale queen: Angela Carter

Last week marked the date in 1992 when Angela Carter passed away. Her legacy of genre defying and boundry pushing written work survives her and continues to inspire writers, feminists and thinkers to this day. Here at the British Library we preserve her archival papers, including drafts relating to her fiction and non-fiction writing, and make them available to researchers.

Up until a few weeks before her death she was working on the second volume of The Virago Book of Fairy Tales. The anthology contains fairy tales and folk tales from a widely diverse range of cultures and countries. Some are versions of stories we know well, some are more obscure, some are simply bizarre. It is a collection in which you truly never know what will happen next and that makes you wonder if there really is a fairy tale ‘formula’. Certainly Carter herself seems to have taken the view that the fairy tale genre is designed to defy and stretch the imagination and the human experience, rather than contain it.

None of her works demonstrate this as well as her collection The Bloody Chamber and other short stories which included re-imaginings of traditional fairy tales. I took a closer look at the manuscript drafts for The Bloody Chamber (1975-1979), to see what the creation process of these tales could tell us about the inspiring quality of these stories.

In January Neil Gaiman referred to his experience of reading The Bloody Chamber, describing how Carter seemed to be saying to him “You see these fairy stories, these things that are sitting at the back of the nursery shelves? Actually, each one of them is loaded gun. Each of them is a bomb. Watch: if you turn it right it will blow up”.  It was an interview about his own latest fairy tale re-telling The Sleep and the Spindle. When asked about his favourite fairy tale character, he mentions that reading Carter drew him to Little Red Riding Hood.

Carter’s The Company of Wolves is a drastic re-telling of the story, her Little Red Hiding Hood is a brave, confident, sexually awakened girl. Looking at the annotated drafts in the Angela Carter Archive, we can see how she refined and sharpened some of these striking themes and images which captured Gaiman’s imagination. From the first pages the description of the wolf’s all important eyes is edited from “those twin chill fragments of green moonlight fixed upon the black thickets” to “those green, luminous terrible sequins sewn upon the black thickets”. The second version strengthens and clarifies the imagery. The edits in The Company of Wolves draft often heighten the tension, for example with the simple word edit where ’risk’ becomes ‘danger’ or  ‘vast’ becomes ‘infinite’. In the final draft Carter is clear what her themes are and her edits draw them out more explicitly, for example the addition of the line: “perhaps she was a little disappointed to see only her grandmother sitting beside the fire. But then he flung off the blanket”, inserted between the girl’s entry and the wolf blocking the door. Similarly “he obtained the kiss she owed him” becomes “she freely gave”, giving Carter’s main character the active role and free will along with it.

Image taken from page 185 of 'The Child World. [In verse.], illustrated by C. Robinson, by SETOUN, Gabriel - pseud. [i.e. Thomas Nicoll Hepburn.] from BL Flickr, showing a werewolf transforming.

Carter was adept at combining the influences of several tales and creating a new ground-breaking story. She explores the themes and ideas that fascinated her in different stories. The wolf turns up again in ‘Wolf-Alice’ which contains themes from ‘Red Riding Hood’, Beauty and the Beast, and Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. The main character in this story is not named as ‘Wolf- Alice’ until she is looking in mirror “Moonlit and white, wolf-Alice looked at herself in the mirror and wondered whether there she saw the beast who came to bite her in the night”. Her animalistic nature is well described early in the story, once again the edits made in the draft show the sharpening of imagery. For example her physical description here: “the calloused pads of horn on her hands, knees and elbows are caused by her four footed habits” is amended to: “Her elbows, hands and knees are thickly calloused because she always runs on all fours”. The mirror and a white dress, which she stands on two feet to wear, are the means by which Wolf-Alice becomes aware of herself and realises the reflected image is her shadow. 


Wolf child1

Image taken from page 93 of 'A history of the United States and its people, for the use of Schools by EGGLESTON, Edward. From BL Flickr, showing a child playing at being a wolf.

Fairy tales and their power to enchant us, are enduring and timeless, as Angela Carter was herself fully aware. In a letter to her publisher Virago (from the Virago Press Archive), regarding her first book of collected fairy tales, she writes: “HOW A HUSBAND WEANED HIS WIFE FROM FAIRY  TALES is the VERY LAST STORY IN THE BOOK, because it is an AWFUL WARNING.” 

Later this year the next stage of Discovering Literature will launch, covering the 20th century and including writers such as Angela Carter, more details to follow.




09 February 2016

Seven things that you might not know about Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

With the Library’s Alice in Wonderland exhibition now almost half way through its run I have been thinking about some of the surprising things that I have learnt about Carroll's famous story whilst working on the exhibition. I shared seven facts about Alice as part of one of the breakout sessions at the Alice themed Festival of the Spoken Nerd event that was held at the Library on 1st February and I thought that I would share them here too.

1. It took Lewis Carroll over two years to create the manuscript, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, after he first told the story to Alice Liddell and her sisters on the 4th July 1862. Carroll recorded in his diary that he had finished the text of the manuscript (which is written in a very neat hand in sepia ink) by February 1863. However Carroll was not a professional artist and it took him more than a year to finish the illustrations.

Carroll lewis alices 060811

2. Carroll added two new chapters, ‘Pig and Pepper’ and ‘A Mad Tea-Party’ when he reworked the story for publication. These chapters include some of the most famous characters – the Duchess, the Cheshire Cat, the Hatter and the March Hare. It is hard to imagine Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland without some of its most famous and eccentric characters!

3. The model for publication was rather different in the Victorian period. Although Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published by Macmillan Lewis Carroll bore most of the financial liability for the publication of the book himself. This meant that decisions about all aspects of publication from selecting the illustrator and engraver to the size and colour of the volume were made by Carroll. This may help explain part of why Carroll was so determined that the book should be a success.

4. John Tenniel who illustrated both of the Alice books was blinded in the right eye in a fencing accident aged only 20. Tenniel sustained the injury in a fencing match against his father though he managed to conceal his disability from his father for the rest of his life in order to spare him any guilt. This isn't strictly a fact about the book but I found it so incredible that Tenniel was able to become such a successful artist with such a disability.

5. The first colour illustrations of Alice which are featured in The Nursery Alice (1890) show Alice wearing a yellow dress rather than the blue and white outfit which we often tend to associate with her.

6. The success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be seen in the range of 19th century merchandise and Alice themed music and theatre which were created. This included Charles Marriott’s Wonderland Quadrilles and the Wonderland Postage Stamp Case which Carroll personally helped to create.



7. Copyright for Carroll and Tenniel’s edition of the book expired in 1907. This meant that any artist who wished to publish their own version of the story could do so. The market was flooded with new editions with twenty being produced between 1907 and 1920 alone. 

If you haven’t already seen the exhibition please do visit before it closes on the 17th April. In addition to the free exhibition the Library is also running an interesting series of events based around the exhibition. These include two Ekphrasis poetry evenings inspired by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland on the 4th and 5th March and an Alice in Wonderland Discovery day for all the family on Saturday 20th February.

Finally the Library is running two adult learning courses with Alice themes, Illustrating Alice and Alice and the World of Children's literature which will begin in February and March. Please see the Library’s website for more details.