Tour of the Literary Modern Archive and Manuscript Digital Collections
by Laura Walker, Lead Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts. Follow the activities of the Modern Archives and Manuscripts department on Twitter @BL_ModernMSS .
Just because the Library has closed its doors doesn’t mean that our manuscript collections are out of reach. The push towards digitisation for these unique and often fragile collection items is guided by a need to preserve them for posterity, but now more than ever, in these unprecedented times, it’s great to be able to share them with our users, near and far.
The Library’s Digitised Manuscripts portal is one of the best places to find high-resolution digital images of our manuscript collections, hosting an incredibly diverse selection of material ranging from botany in British India to the Zweig collection of Music manuscripts. Literary manuscripts represent a small but important collection within Digitised Manuscripts, but they can be difficult to locate. Of course, if you are searching directly on the Digitised Manuscripts portal and you already know the manuscript’s reference number, the most efficient way of locating any manuscript is by using ‘Advanced Options’ and entering your search into the ‘Manuscript Number’ field.
Manuscript numbers and digitised manuscripts can also be found using our catalogue, Explore Archives and Manuscripts. If a manuscript has been digitised a digital version link will appear in the catalogue entry under the ‘I Want This’ tab. Unlike Discovering Literature, which interprets collection material and builds out context (and is a fantastic resource which will feature in an upcoming English & Drama Blog) Digitised Manuscripts is more like a digital Reading Room experience, reproducing the (often large) collection items in full, for your own discovery, interpretation and research. Both sites work in tandem, and if there’s material you’re interested in it’s always worth looking in both places.
In this blog I’ve included a guide to most of the literary manuscripts that can be found on Digitised Manuscripts, divided chronologically and in some cases by area or author. But first, I want to pick two of my personal highlights.
The Library holds the only surviving letters of Ignatius Sancho (Add MS 89077), one of the most famous Anglo-Africans in 18th-century Britain. According to Joseph Jekyll’s 1782 biography, Sancho was born on a transatlantic slave ship and brought to England as a child. Through a long and complex relationship with the noble Montagu family, Sancho was able to assert a level of intellectual and financial independence which made him into an icon for abolitionists in Britain. Sancho was a man of many talents: a shopkeeper, a composer and an accomplished writer. His Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, edited and published two years after his death, is one of the earliest accounts of African slavery written in English by a former slave.
Stevenson Papers: The letters of Ignatius Sancho (Add MS 51044). A summary of each letter is given in the British Library catalogue. Nine of the letters were published posthumously in Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African (1782) with some variations. In places, the manuscript has been marked up with sections to be cut before publication. All 15 of the letters written by Ignatius Sancho (but not those by his children) are published in Vincent Carretta's 2015 edition.
In 1758 Sancho married Anne Osborne, a West Indian woman with whom he had seven children. Apart from the letters by Ignatius Sancho, the collection contains letters from his son William Leach Osborne Sancho (or Billy, 1775‒1810) and his daughter Elizabeth Sancho (1766‒1837). The letters are written to Ignatius Sancho’s friend William Stevenson (1750‒1821), a publisher and painter who trained under Sir Joshua Reynolds and to William’s father, the Reverend Seth Ellis Stevenson (d. 1796). The letters have all been digitised and are available to view on Digitised Manuscripts. More information on Sancho and the contents of the letters can be found on Discovering Literature.
Another personal favourite are three notebooks by Virginia Woolf, containing the working draft for one of her most famous novels, Mrs Dalloway, under the working-title The Hours, dated from 27th June 1923. This handwritten draft was chosen by Vita Sackville West as the manuscript that she would like to keep as a lasting memory of Woolf. It was presented to the Library by a member of her family. When the notebooks were bound by the British Museum, the original cloth and paper covers were kept and can be seen in these images.
Notebooks of Virginia Woolf for her novel Mrs Dalloway, 1925 (Add MS 51044) and for essays published in The Common Reader, 1925. © The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.
Restoration and 18th century
The British Library holds a wealth of original manuscripts from the Restoration and 18th century period. Unfortunately, very few manuscripts currently appear on Digitised Manuscripts. A greater selection can be found on the Library’s Discovering Literature site.
- Agreement between John Milton and Samuel Symmons (Add MS 18861)
- Ignatius Sancho
- Letters to William Stevenson (Add MS 89077)
- Thomas Hobbes
- A minute or first Draught of the Optiques (Harley MS 3360)
- The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (Harley MS 4235-4236)
- The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic (imperfect) (Harley MS 6858)
Romantics and Victorians
The majority of our literary treasures have been digitised for their long-term preservation and for use as surrogates. For restricted manuscripts, including the ones below by William Blake, Charlotte Bronte and Lewis Carroll that have been digitised, all readers will be asked to initially consult these images before accessing the original manuscript(s). We are looking to upload images of further literary manuscripts in the near future.
- William Blake
- Four Zoas (Add MS 39764)
- The Notebook (Add MS 49460)
- Charlotte Bronte
- Jane Eyre, (Add MS 43474-43476)
- Shirley (Add MS 43477-43479)
- Villette (Add MS 43480-43482)
- Lewis Carroll
- Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, (Add MS 46700)
- Diaries 4 and 5 (Add MS 54343-54344)
- Thomas Hardy
- Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Add MS 38182)
- John Keats
- Poems (Egerton MS 2780)
- Edward Lear
- 'History of the Seven Families of the Lake Pipplepopple' (Add MS 47462)
- William Wordsworth
- Poems (Add MS 47864)
- Charnwood Autographs (Add MS 70949)
The Romantics and Victorians pages of the Discovering Literature site can be found here.
As part of a cultural exchange project working with Chinese institutions the British Library created a number of exhibitions, online learning resources, knowledge exchanges and events based on the Library’s literary treasures. This included the digitisation of a number of Oscar Wilde manuscripts that are now available on Digitised Manuscripts. The Library holds two main collections of Wilde material, the first Add MS 37942-37948 was presented by Robert Ross in 1909 and the second Add MS 81619-81884, the collection of Mary, Viscountess Eccles presented in 2004.
- Autograph draft of Lady Windermere’s Fan (Add MS 37943)
- Autograph draft of Mrs Arbuthnot (Add MS 37944)
- Typescript draft of Mrs Arbuthnot Add MS 37945
- Autograph draft of An Ideal Husband (Add MS 37946)
- Typescript draft of An Ideal Husband (Add MS 37947)
- Lady Lancing, early autograph draft of The Importance of Being Ernest (Add MS 37948)
- Typescript draft of Lady Windermere’s Fan (Add MS 81621)
- Autograph draft of A Woman of No Importance (Add MS 81622)
- Typescript draft of The Importance of Being Ernest (Add MS 81624)
- Photographs of early productions of The Importance of Being Ernest (Add MS 81626)
- Autograph draft of ‘A Note on Shakespeare’ (Add MS 81643)
A Chinese language version of Discovering Literature was created as part of the project.
First World War
In commemoration of the centenary of the First World War, the British Library partnered with Europeana to digitise and provide free access to as many collection items as possible created during the time of the war or relating to it. This included a wealth of literary material such as Wilfred Owen’s handwritten haunting poems often annotated by Siegfried Sassoon.
- Laurence Binyon
- ‘For the Fallen’ (Add MS 45160)
- Rupert Brooke
- ‘The Dead’ and ‘The Soldier’ (Add MS 39255 M)
- Letter from Rupert Brooke to Harriet Monroe (Add MS 42181 B)
- Exercise-book, containing eleven poems (Add MS 42509)
- Scribbling pad, with notes in pencil, containing: (a) notes of military lectures and personal memoranda made whilst in the Royal Naval Division training at Blandford and (b) drafts of war poems, some cancelled, consisting of lines of War Sonnets and unpublished fragments (Add MS 42510)
- Arthur Conan Doyle
- Casement Petition Papers (Add MS 63596)
- Thomas Hardy letter to Edmund Gosse (Ashley MS B3341)
- Samuel Koteliansky
- Papers and correspondence (Add MS 48969-48975)
- Wilfred Owen
- Poems (Add MS 43720- Add MS 43721)
- Dollie, Ernest, Maitland and Muriel Radford
- Correspondence (Add MS 89029/1/9, 16, 17, 18, 21, 22, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 48, 49, 50, 52, 53, 59)
- Isaac Rosenberg
- Poems, prose and letters (Add MS 58852)
- Letters, poems and books (Loan MS 103/77/1-3)
- Siegfried Sassoon
- Letters to his uncle, Sir William Hamo Thornycroft (Add MS 56099)
- Philip Edward Thomas
- Poems (Add MS 44990)
- Royal Literary Fund Annual Reports (Loan 96 RLF 3/19-20)
Interpretation of some of the above collection items and articles based on key themes relating to the War can be found on the British Library’s World War One website. The Europeana 1914-1918 website hosts content from a variety of European institutions and private collections.
Parts of the Library’s literary collections have also been digitised by external companies. These are mostly subscription services and access is usually provided via the computers in the Reading Rooms. However, whilst the Library is closed it may be worth checking whether your local or University Library may provide remote access.
One key resource is Gale’s Nineteenth Century Collections Online, which includes images of the Lord Chamberlains Plays dating from 1824 until 1899, (Add MS 42865-43038, Add MS 53092-53701 and 53702-53708) as well as copies of manuscripts relating to George Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton and the Coleridge family.
Other products containing British Library or other related literary collections include:
- Eighteenth Century Collections Online
- Early English Books Online
- British Literary Manuscripts Online