THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

8 posts from May 2020

29 May 2020

The Gersum Project: A New Resource to Dig Up Viking Treasure amongst English Words

a guest blog by the Gersum Project Team. Read more about the Gersum Project and the Library's work with contemporary accents and dialects.

When we think about Viking treasure in Britain, images of swords, coins and jewellery often spring to mind. However, scholars from the Universities of Cambridge and Cardiff have been working on the study of a different type of Viking artefact associated with Anglo-Scandinavian contacts during the early Middle Ages: words from Old Norse (the language spoken by the Scandinavians during the Viking Age) that made their way into medieval English. This would have happened, to a large extent, as a result of English speakers incorporating (often technical) words into their language or following the language shift of the Scandinavian settlers from Old Norse to Old English as part of their cultural integration. There are around 2,000 words in medieval English for which Norse origin has been suggested. They include technical and non-technical vocabulary; here are some examples:

  • Legal matters: e.g. Old English (OE) lagu / Middle English (ME) laue ‘law’, cp. Old Icelandic (OIcel.) lög
  • Social hierarchy: e.g. OE þræl /ME thrall ‘thrall, slave’, cp. OIcel. þræll
  • Navigation: OE scegð ‘warship’, cp. OIcel. skeiþ
  • Warfare (e.g. OE brynige / ME brinie ‘coat of mail’, cp. OIcel. brynja

Non-technical terms:

  • Environment and habitation: e.g. ME skie ‘sky, heavens’, cp. OIcel. ský; ME fel ‘fell, precipitous rock’, cp. OIcel. fjall / fell; ME windoue ‘window’, cp. OIcel. vindauga
  • The body: e.g. ME leg ‘leg’, cp. OIcel. leggr; OE scinn / ME skin ‘skin’, cp. OIcel. skinn
  • Emotions: e.g. ME angr ‘distress; anger’, cp. OIcel. angr; ME aue ‘awe, fear’, cp. OIcel. agi
  • Mental capacity: e.g. ME skil ‘reason, intellectual faculty’, cp. OIcel. skil; ME sleigh ‘sly, wise, prudent’, cp. OIcel. slœgr
  • Morality: e.g. ME ille ‘wicked, sinful, immoral’ and ille ‘evil, wrongdoing’, cp. OIcel. illr
  • Many different kinds of activities and states: e.g. ME casten ‘to throw, cast’, cp. OIcel. kasta; OE ceallian / ME callen ‘to call’, cp. OIcel. kalla; ME þriven ‘to thrive’, cp. OIcel. þrífask

Old English and Old Norse were fairly close to each other (they were both Germanic languages) and it is very likely that their speakers were able to understand each other to some extent. This most probably facilitated the transfer of words across the two languages, but it also makes the identification of Norse loans in English very difficult.      

The Gersum Project: The Scandinavian Influence on English Vocabulary, which has been funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council and takes its name from the Norse term represented by OIcel. görsemi ‘costly thing, jewel, treasure’, has put forward a new way to classify the Norse-derived terms in English which brings to the forefront the different types of evidence that we can rely on: the form of the terms in terms of their sounds (phonology) and/or their structural components (morphology), the date and location of their attestations in English texts, their presence in other Germanic languages, etc.

The systematic nature of this approach will enable researchers to make consistent and explicit etymological decisions and thus advance our knowledge of the significant role that Old Norse had in the development of the medieval English lexicon, particularly in the areas where the Scandinavians settled down, i.e. the so-called ‘Danelaw’ (the areas to the north and east of an imaginary line joining London and Chester). The careful consideration of the dialectal distribution of the terms in the etymological discussion and the links to the English Dialect Dictionary also make this project fully relevant for the study of modern English dialectology, and, hence, the British Library’s own archival work on accents and dialects.

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Screenshot showing the British Library's Accent and Dialect Hub

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Screenshots showing the interactive interface of the Gersum Project

Two of the manuscripts held at the British Library are at the core of the project’s corpus, which comprises six texts from the North and Northwest Midlands associated with the Alliterative Revival in Middle English poetry. Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, often attributed to the same author, are only recorded in London, British Library, Cotton Nero A.X, while St Erkenwald has only survived in London, British Library, Harley 2250.

These texts give us an insight into the lexical wealth of late-fourteenth-century Cheshire/Staffordshire. The author of The Wars of Alexander, which can be found in two manuscripts (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole 44; and Dublin, Trinity College 213), probably originated from further north than the two other authors although, as it is often the case, it is difficult to know where exactly he came from. In these texts, native, Romance and Norse terms work together to meet the lexical diversity needed for the sake of alliteration (and rhyme), as well as the authors’ taste for detailed and technically intricate descriptions.

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Image for Nero A.X: beginning of text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Harley 2250 showing the beginning of St Erkenwald 

 

 

25 May 2020

Invoking the Dunkirk Spirit: Thames to Dunkirk 1940 to 2020

In this guest post, we are very pleased to welcome the artist Liz Mathews. The Library holds several of Liz Mathews' works in our artists books collection, including Thames to Dunkirk. During the past weeks, we have been working with Liz to create a new short film that shows this work and reflects on the events of the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk in May and June 1940.   
 
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Thames to Dunkirk in the British Library Writing Exhibition, 2019

The eightieth anniversary of Dunkirk falls in May 2020 while here in Britain we are still living through the coronavirus pandemic. My artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk is the largest book in the British Library’s Contemporary British collection, and curators at the British Library had been planning some events with me to mark the moment, but since it became clear that no public events would be possible, I’ve been working with Jeremy Jenkins, Curator of Contemporary British Publications, to make an artists’ film of my artists' book Thames to Dunkirk (below). Under lockdown conditions we have assembled the elements of the soundtrack - on which the soldier-poet Basil Bonallack is voiced by his grandson Christopher Peters, and Virginia Woolf’s questioning lines from The Waves by me Liz Mathews - over my own photography of the book, and the film was edited by Jeremy Jenkins. 

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Front cover of Thames to Dunkirk

 

Thames to Dunkirk, an artists' book by Liz Mathews, on film. 

I made Thames to Dunkirk in 2009, and it’s been in the Library’s collection for a decade, a surreally large book to echo the extraordinary nature of an event shared by over 300,000 people, each with their own individual experience and their own story to tell. It’s made from twenty-four sheets of the largest handmade paper in the world, each 1 metre high and 1.4 metres wide - and it opens out to a free-standing paper sculpture 17 metres long and a metre high.

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Looking at Thames to Dunkirk again now, as its maker I’m both reminded of my original aim, and struck by the many parallels with our current situation. Hearing Dunkirk 1940 invoked so often during the lockdown - exemplifying British ingenuity, courage and adaptability in a desperate crisis - has brought that long ago time vividly to mind. So what is it about Dunkirk that speaks so urgently to our times? Who could read the following accounts in these days without recognising the ‘absolute mayhem’, the fear and anxiety, the ‘public catastrophe’, the ‘terrible suspense’?

‘The Dunkirk crisis was unbelievable. A lot of people coming back had jettisoned their guns and vehicles, they just got there as fast as they could. There were lots of refugees coming in - it was absolute mayhem. Dunkirk had been bombed. We knew that a lot of troops were sheltering along the shore. We had no idea they were going to be rescued - it seemed the whole army was going to be captured. I was extremely upset, because it never occurred to me that we would survive. I though we were defeated, that we would surrender and sue for peace.’ (Corporal Elizabeth Quale, WAAF liaison officer, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Second World War, Ebury Press / IWM 2004)

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Thames to Dunkirk, p.21.

On May 26th 1940 the rescue began, an event of such enormity that it has become one of our most potent national myths. The British army fighting in France and Belgium had been outflanked and surrounded by the invading army of Nazi Germany, and ‘there was nothing for it but to fall back, made almost impossible by the multitudes of refugees on the roads. Our men could only crawl back, while the enemy raced to cut them off from the sea.’ (John Masefield, The Nine Days Wonder Heinemann, 1940).

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By 26th May a solid mass of men had already gathered on the beaches and in the dunes near the town, and thousands more were still struggling to get there. Churchill’s government had a plan for the Royal Navy to rescue them, with the help of a makeshift armada of ‘little ships’, privately owned boats, yachts, lifeboats and small ships from England’s south coast and the Thames, to ferry the men out from the beaches to the waiting Naval ships.

 

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Thames to Dunkirk, p.10

But ‘when Operation Dynamo began it was thought that only a few thousand could be saved. The next day the situation was so much worse that we had to be prepared for a desperate scramble to pick up survivors from a great disaster.’ (JM, ibid)

Meanwhile at home, Leonard and Virginia Woolf were among the millions waiting for news: ‘In Rodmell Dunkirk was a harrowing business. There was not merely the public catastrophe, the terrible suspense with Britain on the razor’s edge of complete disaster; in the village we were domestically on the beaches. For Percy, and Jim and Dick and Chris, whom I had known as small boys in the village school and watched grow up onto farm workers and tractor drivers were now, one knew, retreating, driven back to the Dunkirk beaches. There they presumably were waiting, and we in Rodmell waited.’ (Leonard Woolf The Journey not the Arrival Matters The Hogarth Press, 1969)

And from Virginia Woolf’s diary: ‘Louie comes agog. [Her brother] Harry come back on Monday. It pours out - how he hadn’t boots off for 3 days; the beach at Dunkirk - the bombers as low as trees - the bullets like moth holes in his coat…  He looted a Belgian shop & stuffed his pockets with rings which fell out in the sea; but 2 watches pinned to his coat survived… He was talking to a chap, who showed him a silk handkerchief bought for his joy lady. That moment a bomb killed him. Harry took the handkerchief. He saw his cousin dead on the beach; & another man from the street. Harry swam off, a boat neared. Say chum can you row? Yes, he said, hauled in, rowed for 5 hours, saw England, landed - didn’t know if it were day or night or what town - didn’t ask - couldn’t write to his mother - was despatched to his regiment.’ (Virginia Woolf, Diary Volume Five, ed. Anne Olivier Bell The Hogarth Press, 1984) 

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Virginia Woolf’s story about Harry West set me on a path of discovering first-hand accounts of that time, and gave me the idea of making Thames to Dunkirk. Along both sides of the huge book’s length are juxtaposed four significant lines: first, soldier-poet BG Bonallack’s eye-witness account of Dunkirk 1940 from his poem The Retreat; second, Virginia Woolf’s introspective questioning lines from The Waves flowing beneath as an undercurrent; and then on one side a watercolour map of the Thames from source to sea, lettered with the names of most of the little ships that went to the rescue; and on the other a 17m long watercolour of the great stretch of Dunkirk beaches and dunes, with the names of many people who were there during those nine days in 1940.

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Thames to Dunkirk, p.18.

There’s Alexander Graham King, ‘the mad hatter’ who played his accordion to entertain the queues of waiting soldiers for seven days, and Captain NC Strother-Smith, who could spare a thought for the refugees on the roads ‘machine-gunned and attacked by Bombers and fighters’ in this impossible situation. There’s Philip Newman, the army surgeon who treated wounded men by the thousands in ‘the Chateau’, remained behind with men too badly wounded to be moved, was captured and spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp as a POW. And there’s Louie’s brother Harry - his name lettered in a queue out into the sea; I see him with the water up to his armpits, worrying about his looted watches getting wet.

Marking with wooden pegMarking Thames to Dunkirk book with a wooden clothes peg

Each person whose story I found is there in the crowd on the book; the letters of their names stand as individuals in the mass, marked with a wooden clothes peg, an incongruous domestic tool to reference a background of home for each person. The little ships’ names, too, are set along the watercolour map of the Thames in paint mixed with Thames water, the words lettered with a Thames driftwood stick, to draw the material presence of the river into the book, to bring in the stories not only of the gallant boats but of all those across Britain doing what they could to help, volunteering, nursing the wounded, waiting for news.

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Card for the Dunkirk Project

As for my aims: I wanted Thames to Dunkirk to represent all the voices of Dunkirk, not a simplified impersonal official version; to catch the event in all its diversity and complexity. Once it was made, it became the central thread of The Dunkirk Project, an online installation that collects and shared hidden or forgotten stories from Dunkirk. Presented in the form of daily news from 26th May to 4th June, this River of Stories made up of many voices, many different perspectives, shows how this multi-layered event defies simplistic reduction but still has important truths for today.

The voices of Thames to Dunkirk speak to our uncertain times at an apt moment. It’s more important than ever to acknowledge the European, multi-national nature of Britain’s wartime struggle against fascism, as exemplified at Dunkirk, and to recognise how we, the inheritors of the world that was made then, are still living with the consequences of our past. In June 1940 when the Dunkirk evacuation had brought most of the army home again, the threat of invasion was at its most acute - and Britain was still at war for a further four years. The parallels for our wounded world are all too clear: while we’ve been struggling with Brexit and the pandemic, the Climate Emergency has not gone away.

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Thames to Dunkirk, p.20-1

Now, coronavirus has forced us to re-examine our priorities. Another clear correspondence with Dunkirk 1940 is that amidst the devastation and the suffering there have been some positives: the many heroes we’ve met - Captain/Sir Tom Moore, every NHS doctor and nurse, three-quarters of a million volunteers, our bus drivers, our care workers and Andrea our local pharmacist, to name just a few - have outnumbered the villains, and we’ve found a renewed compassionate empathy and awareness of community.

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Captain Tom Moore post-mark

British engineers and fashion designers are falling over themselves to adapt factories to make essential personal protective equipment and ventilators; universities and research institutions are vying to produce tests, vaccine, antibodies; our theatres, online arts and the BBC are keeping us sane - in short, the real maverick Dunkirk spirit is alive and well in Britain today. Now is a good time to look again at this parallel crisis in our nation’s past, in order to understand the present better, and prepare for the future.

Ethel Maud

22 May 2020

“Without being a burden to anybody”: A letter from Ann Radcliffe to her Mother-in-Law from afar.

by Zoe Louca-Richards, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts. For an introduction to Anne Radcliffe, visit Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. For a digitised edition of Radcliffe's letter to her mother-in-law (part of Add MS 78689), click here. For a contemporary biography of Ann Radcliffe see Rictor Norton's The Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe (BL Shelfmark: YC.2000.a.3820).

With the restriction on travel and strict social distancing regulations of the past few months, many of us have had to adapt to caring for our parents (or older relatives) from afar. This challenge is certainly not one unique to the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. We often take for granted the remarkable ease of movement we are afforded today. For people in the past without the fast and convenient luxury of modern transport, navigating this familial duty remotely was a necessity — and with no Face-time or WhatsApp for easy and efficient contact, communications were dependent on pen and paper alone. A unique letter held in the archive at the British Library, penned by 18th century gothic romancer and poet Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823), offers us an intriguing insight into the testing situation of distanced parental care in the late 1700s, as well as a rare glimpse of her personal affairs. A digitised copy of the letter can be found here.

The letter (Add MS 78689) was written from Ann Radcliffe to her mother-in-law, Deborah Radcliffe, and although undated is believed to have been written in the 1790s, during the height of Radcliffe’s success.  Unfortunately it is incomplete, with the middle (bottom half of the page) of the letter missing. Never the less, we can piece together a narrative from what remains. It begins “Dear Madam” - a somewhat impersonal greeting for a relative by today’s standards, but not uncommon in the 18th century – and continues to discuss her Mother-in-law’s financial and living situation.

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Add MS 78689 - Letter from Ann Radcliffe to her mother-in-law, from the EVELYN PAPERS Vol. DXXII .  British Library - Creative Commons with attribution.

 

The overall tone of the letter is frosty and seems more that of a chastising parent than of a concerned child-in-law. In the first part of the letter, Ann draws into question her mother-in-law’s continued complaints of financial hardship, noting that “The reasonableness of things in Yorkshire is well known”. Nonetheless, whether through duty or care, Ann assures her that she and William (her husband) will continue to support her. She adds that if she cannot be provided the necessities of life with their current level of financial assistance, without becoming a “burden to anybody”, she should move in with her and William, where she “shall always find plenty”.

The second part of the letter discusses some funds that Ann and William had sent to Deborah, which appear to have gone astray in transit. The situation seems a matter of contention, with Ann remarking “You will recollect the unwillingness which William formerly expressed to send money to you at Broughton […] I assured you we did not for a moment suppose you had received a two pound note when you assured us to the contrary, and it was therefore unnecessary for you to vindicate yourself again”. One can only assume that Deborah must have made her feelings of accusation very clear in the preceding letter to Ann. Tensions are clearly high, and without wanting to fall into any tired mother-in-law tropes, the letter gives the impression that Deborah and Ann’s relationship may have been strained. Ensuring the care of her mother-in-law from afar appears to be a frustrating charge for Ann. Nevertheless, she signs the letter off with her love and good wishes.

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Ann Radcliffe (Public Domain)

 

Unfortunately, this may be the only evidence of Ann’s relationship with William’s mother that we are ever afforded. The authoress appears to have been a very private individual - she made very few public appearances during her lifetime, and left behind few manuscript items. This letter is one of only a handful of known surviving autograph documents. Whilst scholarship on her published works is extensive, the lack of primary material has resulted in few biographical accounts. The Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti is alleged to have started a biography of Radcliffe in the 1880s as part of the Roberts Brothers’ ‘Eminent Women’ series (AKA. the ‘Famous Women’ series in the US), but abandoned the endeavour due to the lack of information. What we know of Anne comes from only a handful of primary sources. Her first biography, Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd’s Memoir of the Life and Writings of Mrs. Radcliffe (1826), was penned 3 years after her death, and was based on information provided by William. It has been speculated that William's careful posthumous management of his wife's reputation may have extended to the destruction of her papers, but there is no evidence to prove this.

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First edition title page for Anne Radcliffe's novel, “The Italian” (public domain)

 

The bristly nature of the communications between Ann and her mother-in-law, draws to mind the relationship of Ellena and Marchesa di Vivaldi in The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797). It was Ann’s final novel (to be published in her lifetime), and its dark tale of love and persecution sees the Marchesa -- in the role of evil mother-in-law -- conspiring against her prospective daughter-in-law, Ellena. Could Ann have used her own experiences with her mother-in-law as inspiration? Many scholars have sought to draw parallels between Radcliffe and her heroines in an attempt to better understand the authoress. (The most frequent comparison being between Radcliffe and Emily from The Mysteries of Udolpho [1794]). Nevertheless, the relative lack of primary source material relating to Radcliffe means that any attempt to identify where -- or indeed if -- this relationship exists can only ever be speculative.

Without more sources we cannot make a concrete judgement about the relationship of these two women, and the letter leaves us wondering more about the Radcliffe family dynamics than it tells us. Never the less, this fragmented letter is a precious and rare remnant of Ann’s life, and many of us can undoubtedly sympathise with Ann’s exasperation, and the frazzled relationships that can coincide with caring for each other from a distance.

20 May 2020

What Have We Been Reading?

This week marks the first in our blog series What Have We Been Reading? where the English & Drama Blog canvasses a broad range of British Library departments and curators to pick their brains about what they've been reading in their spare time. Views -- as always in this series -- are their own.

Jessica Gregory, Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Manuscripts. 

The last book I bought before the lockdown was Bernadine Evaristo's, Girl, Woman, Other, which has a wonderful cast of characters that kept me entertained for the first few weeks. As well as this, I think its exploration of intersectional feminism makes for essential reading. I have been exploring women in the modern manuscript collections and British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820,  by Devoney Looser, has helped me to do this by introducing me to some important women writers. I have also started George Eliot's, Middlemarch, which has been on my to-read list for yonks, and rightly so, as department holds the original manuscript, so catching up with this classic was a priority. Aside from these, I am crawling through Elana Ferrante’s, My Brilliant Friend, in an effort to learn some Italian. I barely manage a page a night, so it’s slow progress. I’ll probably finish the book some point next year at this rate, and then of course, there is the rest of the series! 

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Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

Reading can be a great way to distract one’s self and get some much needed escapism from the real world, with all of its problems, especially in times of crisis. So would a book about that same crisis be a good choice for some relaxing reading? Maybe not, but Quarantine by Wim Daniels, seems to find an eager audience, in the Netherlands and Flanders, because it is written in Dutch. The publisher Thomas Rap claims it is the first ‘Corona-novel’. I am always a bit suspicious about these sort of claims, because how can we be sure someone else did not get there first, but without the publishing and marketing machine we in the West have at our disposal? It is in any case the first corona novel ‘in the world’ in the Netherlands. Let’s leave it at that. It’s not important. The main question is, is it a good read? I haven’t started it yet, and the blurb is not that informative.This is what it says:

'Quarantine’ tells the story of a Dutch man and woman, who independently travel to a holiday resort in the Dordogne for some important business. Then Corona arrives. Together they are looking for answers, but the problems only seem to accumulate. Yet, they recognise something in each other. Their conversations reveal surprising insights.’ 

Am I supposed to believe this is not a cheesy love-story? I better start eaves dropping in on their conversations, just to check. I’ll let you know what I think.

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Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives

I am currently reading Born Brilliant: The Life of Kenneth Williams by Christopher Stevens. I am really enjoying it partly as I love a good biography but especially because Kenneth Williams was such an interesting figure, whose life and career were more varied than I had first realised. Did you know for example that he trained as a draughtsman after leaving school or that he was the understudy for Richard Burton in a production of The Seagull at Swansea's Grand Theatre in 1950? The Library holds Williams' archive too so any insights that I can gain from the book will help deepen my understanding of his life and work. The archive isn't yet available to order in the Reading Room however if you're looking for more Kenneth at home, the Library has made the audio available from one of it's 2016 events, which looks at Williams as a prolific (and incisive) diarist.

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Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator of Central and East European Collections

In late March, I decided that staying at home was good for finally getting engaged with really thick books.  Nino Haratischvili’s novel The Eight Life is a sort of book, which one would struggle to handle on the go, especially on daily commutes. The story of the 20th century in the form of a family saga is unveiled over 935 pages. Written in 2014 in German and just recently translated into English by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (published by Scribe), the novel received the English Pen Translates award and is long-listed for the 2020 International Booker Prize.

If I were writing a critical review, I would have presented a list of slips and inaccuracies and argue that the novel and its translation could have benefited from better editing. However, not being a critic, shall I just say that I was incredibly moved by the story and found myself crying (more than once) not even bothering to brush away my tears? Maybe, because the story made me think about my own family and its untold accounts and hidden truths and lies, or maybe, because I have just recently discovered a wonderful country called Georgia and traced the characters’ movements on the map of Tbilisi, which I visited last summer? Well, I’m getting sentimental and can get away with it now, when I don’t have to conceal my feelings on the busy Tube. I wonder if this might change when we return to our hectic routine and social contacts. In any case, it is good to be reminded that there are some books out there which one might prefer to read unobserved.

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Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Performance and Creative Archives

I was reading D H Lawrence when lockdown occurred and having slogged my way through The Rainbow (rewarding but not easy) I decided to raid my music-geek husband’s bookshelves for some lighter fare. I settled on the 40th anniversary edition of Hunter Davies’ Beatles book which I had been meaning to read for ages given that we have the privilege of looking after about a dozen of The Beatles’ original lyrics, including the manuscripts of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘Yesterday’.

The majority of the Beatles lyrics in our collections come from Hunter Davies who started collecting them while hanging out with the band in 1967-68. As ‘The Only Ever Authorised Biography’ of The Beatles, Hunter’s book provides a snapshot of them at a particular moment in time. Most biographers have the benefit of hindsight and plenty of much-admired works on The Beatles have come out since 1968, but the beauty of this particular book is that it’s a hastily written first-hand account by an author whose attitude and sense of humour is not far off that of the The Beatles themselves. I particularly enjoyed the bits about the boys scandalising their parents with their long hair and ‘drainies’ and their refusal to conform, plus Hunter’s description of their song-writing methods, and the period details about the Liverpool teenage club scene where fans and musicians alike took their lunch along to gigs.  Hunter’s reflections on things he missed or couldn’t reveal at the time in his 1985 postscript and his 2009 introduction are in themselves interesting for what they show us about how we construct story over time. I think this may be the beginning of a project to read more Beatles books in chronological order, although strictly speaking I should go back to Michael Braun’s 1964 book Love Me Do before I start going forwards.

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15 May 2020

“List Ye Landsmen all to me” about Nautical Drama on Playbills

by Christian Algar, Curator of Printed Heritage Collections. Learn more and help us to bring more playbills to life through our crowd-sourcing project, Into the Spotlight and explore more digitised playbills here. Follow the activities of Printed Heritage Collections on Twitter @BLprintheritage.

The British Library have circa 100,000 playbills digitised in greyscale – a legacy of an attempt to use OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to capture the rich and dense details packed onto the playbills. Machines couldn’t succeed in translating the variations of text in font design, size and typographical layout – all characteristics of these eye-catching playbills. There are near a quarter of a million playbills in the Library’s collections but they are not catalogued: there has never been and never will be the resource to record their details.

It’s not always easy to find records and reports of these performances; There’s no newspaper report to be found for  ‘Gallant Tom …’ performed at the theatre in Deal in 1842 – but these playbills are crucial pieces of historical evidence and it is a vital undertaking to capture their details by marking and transcribing titles, genres and dates to make them more findable for future research. That is exactly what the Library’s crowdsourcing project, In the Spotlight strives to do; with your help we can bring these past entertainments to life. To help you navigate your way through the choppy waters of this collection, here’s an eyeglass to look at the nautical drama to be found all over these playbills.

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British Library, Playbills 264.


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British Library, Playbills 176.

 

‘The Sea! The Sea! The Open Sea!; ‘The Ocean of Life! Or, Every Inch a Sailor’; ‘Blue Anchor; or, a Tar for all Weather’; A Dream at Sea’; ‘Floating Beacon! Or, The Weird Woman of the Wreck'… Through the golden age of the playbill (the 1770s to the 1860s) we can see how theatre audiences across the country were thrilled by all kinds of genres of plays and general entertainments, but the popularity of nautical melodrama is especially apparent from any casual glance at surviving examples. Looking at the titles inspires further investigation and not just in the confines of the history of drama. Playbills contain valuable additional detail and paratext: cast listings, plots summaries, descriptions of sets and scenery, song titles and notices to the audience. These throw light on the nature and functioning of past entertainments – all of which can tell us about the wider social, economic and political history of the nation.

So why was there such an abundance of nautical themed plays during this period? For Britain and Ireland this was a period of almost constant war - the War of Austrian Succession (1739–48), the Seven Years War (1755–63) and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1789-1815). The Navy and the maritime industry were key to the nation’s aggressive expansion and domination. It had immediate relevance. Audiences were familiar with or personally connected with people in industries in ports and beyond the seas.

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British Library, Playbills 263.

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British Library, Playbills 263.

The image of sailors and seafarers had an almost national symbolism like nowhere else in the world. The characterisation of these rugged figures put wind in the sails of literary hacks and dramatists. A tide of plays with very similar plots, dialogue, dramatis personae, and songs repeated in common – often riffing off the earlier tradition of popular street ballads – flowed to audiences in London and across the country. The ‘character of a British Sailor’, even across different genres, from operettas, burlesques, national-historical dramas, to romances, comedies and farces, had consistent but complex and often contradictory features. Whether a play centred on sea battles, shipwrecks (‘The Tempest’ always a strong influence), pirates, lovers’ torments and quarrels, injustices, or just plain old jolly shindigs and knees-ups, the British sailor’s portrayal involved a distinctive and a grotesque idiom with exaggerated speech, sea-phrases, dress, physique and bearing. These were the nation’s Hearts of Oak, Tars for All Weathers. Their manliness was defined through a brave and virtuous demeanour. They were daring, ‘true’, honest, uncomplaining, faithful and loyal, cheerful, and scorned all dangers and discomforts. It was an idealised representation.

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British Library, Playbills 276.

Theatres were keen to deliver grand spectacles of nautical entertainment with songs, dancing, hornpipes, fight scenes, wrecks, “real fires”, and mechanics including realistic moving wooden ships (shipwrights from Woolwich helped build props at the Theatre Royal, Deptford). For what varieties there were in the plots, most plays shared moral, xenophobic and racial stereotypes prevalent in British culture and behaviour from the time. Foreigners were cowardly, ‘sissy’; black people were pathetic (to be saved or pitied) or were monstrous and barbaric – a threat to the nation and its women. The plays appealed to spurious sentiment and ‘national enthusiasm’. Two very idiomatic plays ‘Black-Eyed Susan; or All in the Downs’ and ‘Gallant Tom; Or, A Sailor’s Life Ashore & Afloat’ shared many of these ingredients. Douglas Jerrold’s play, Black-Eyed Susan, first performed in 1829 at the Royal Surrey Theatre, was itself based on older popular ballads as well as being almost identical to an older play ‘Thomas and Sally; or the Sailor's return’ (1760). Jerrold’s archetypal nautical melodrama played a record 300 consecutive nights – understandably other theatres were desperate to emulate its success. It is the single most common play from the period, certainly on evidence from the playbills in the collection at the British Library. In the play, William and Susan are married before he goes to sea on a man-of-war. When his ship returns to port, his captain, Crosstree, sees the reunited lovers kiss and is seized with jealousy. A drunk Crosstree later tries his luck with Susan and is struck with a sword by William. Condemned for striking a superior officer he is sentenced to death. In a sign of moral recompense, the Captain provides evidence that William was honourably discharged from the service the very morning of the incident and so is spared as a civilian.

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One of the more unusual playbills for ‘Black-Eyed Susan, or All in the … “Wrong”! from Kidderminster in 1829. British Library, Playbills 291.

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The illustrated frontispiece to the Lloyd’s Juvenile Drama edition (1829) of ‘Black-Eyed Susan’. British Library, T.1364.(5.)

Plays of the category of ‘Black-Eyed Susan’ were perpetually popular with the patrons of Britain’s theatres because they have a deal of human nature in them and just a sufficiency of breezy humour, observed a reporter for the Western Daily Press looking back on the period in 1898; “occasionally it lapses into the boisterous it is true, to put all parts of the house in a good temper, and as virtue ever triumphs in the end at the expense of vice there is really little to grumble at.”. 

Masculinity is prominent, but it must be understood that the maritime world was certainly not just a male sphere. Women’s contributions and participation in coastal communities is a vibrant area of current research into port towns and shipboard histories. Mister Jack Tar relied on many a Miss and Mrs: wives, mothers, lovers, service providers, traders; women filled the theatres invested with interest and belonging. Women were not just passive observers of all the tar and muscles on stage; there are instances where they played the very roles themselves. In 1836, the actress Mrs. Vining took up, ”by particular desire”, the role of William on stage at the Victoria Theatre.

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Mrs. Vining as William. British Library, Playbills 176.

Later, in 1864 in Melbourne, the Australasian reports that “traditional veneration cherished for the wooden walls of Old England and the honest manly character of the British Sailor” had a special feature in a performance of ‘Black-Eyed Susan’ when ‘Lady Don’ “portrayed the noble qualities and peculiarities of Jack Tar with surprising fidelity as natural as though she had been to the manner born or passed the greater portion of her life on board a man-of-war.”

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Illustrated cover of a Penny Dreadful edition of Black Eyed Susan, published in 52 parts in1868. British Library, C.140.a.19.

One of the reasons why the sailors of nautical melodrama proved so popular was the widespread fascination with their “otherness”, they seemed to be from a different world and provided perfect material for dramatic and theatrical depiction. But this is where there is an intriguing raft of contradictions, something that has been called the ‘Jack Tar Paradox’; these Sons of Neptune were so familiar, yet so strange. They walked funny and talked funny appearing like foreigners in their own country. Their reputation for vice, swearing, drunkenness, and libertinism ran parallel to their reverence as defenders of everything cherished as British. Sailors actually spent longer in port than at sea and the moral anxieties of society followed them very closely. Plenty of ballads and songs tell of sailors spending fast and free when on land. The British Museum insisted on ticketed entry in the early 19th century, one justification for this was to shield its dignified galleries from gallivanting sailors and lady-friends when on shore-leave.

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Playbill for ‘The Lost Ship’ performed in Birmingham in 1852. British Library, Playbills 199.

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Playbill for ‘Richard Parker; Or, the Mutiny at the Nore. British Library, Playbills 276.

But there are deeper tensions too. Developing class identity amongst Britain’s audiences from industrial communities created empathy, they could relate to the strong camaraderie of sailors and the conditions they endured. Whilst naval victories could be quickly translated into stage plays (several plays immediately followed the infamous British naval victory of the “Glorious first of June” in 1794), audiences also identified with calls for a fair deal and wages for Jack. Jerrold (who had served in the Navy himself), also wrote another popular play ‘Mutiny at the Nore’ which added to the legend and legacy of the 1797 sailors’ revolts popularised in ballads and especially about one of its leaders, Richard Parker. There is a stark class tension between William from the Lower Deck and his Captain. The wooden walls of the sailors were the factories of the Sea; these toilers of the sea safeguarded Britain’s pursuit of trade, influence and wealth. The fact that the nautical genre had by the 1880s descended almost entirely into parody and farce gives some legitimate cause for suspicion that the genre was ‘defused’ and made safe. The blockbusting success of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘H.M.S. Pinafore’ in 1878 seemed to prepare the decks for Morecambe and Wise (or maybe Eric and Ernie were more the ‘Tars at Torbay; or sailors on Saturday night’?!).

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page from the programme for H.M.S. Pinafore at the Olympic Theatre. British Library.

What did the sailors themselves think of all this? They seem to have revelled in it – all publicity is good publicity! They were keen, often over-keen members of the audience. The large water tank at London’s Saddlers Wells Theatre had to be kept guarded against sailors breaking from the stalls and diving in the tanks to swim about the model ships (the price of admission included a pint of port or punch!). The ‘Theatre Rural’, way out West in Devonport, had a notoriously rowdy audience where stage invasions and heckling was common. Playbills for the theatre began to make special notice that “Constables are in constant attendance to keep good order”. The famous sea songs of Dibdin (a landsmen), contrary to some beliefs, were actually well beloved of many sailors.

Further reading and sources:

Allardyce Nicoll, History of English Drama, 1660-1900, vols 3 and 4,  Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2009. Open Access  Humanities 1 Reading Room HLR 822.009

James Davey, Singing for the Nation: Balladry, naval recruitment and the language of patriotism in eighteenth-century Britain, The Mariner's Mirror, 2017, 103:1, 43-66.

Elizabeth Christine Spoden, Jack Tar Revealed: Sailors, Their Worldview, and Their World Unpublished PhD Thesis, Indiana University, 2010.

Charles Napier Robinson The British Tar in Fact and Fiction, London, Harper & Bros, 1909.

Oskar Cox Jensen, Napoleon and British song, 1797-1822, New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.340180

Harvey Crane, Playbill: a history of the theatre in the West Country / Harvey Crane. Plymouth : Macdonald and Evans, 1980. Shelfmark(s): General Reference Collection X.989/89005

Frederick Burwick, British drama of the Industrial Revolution / Frederick Burwick. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2015.  YC.2015.a.11557

Matthew Kaiser, The World in Play: Portraits of a Victorian Concept. [Part II: Portraits / Fair Play in an Ugly World: The Politics of Nautical Melodrama, pp51-84]

'The British Tar on Stage'. The Theatre : a monthly review of the drama, music and the fine arts, Jan. 1880-June 1894, Jan 1895, Vol.25, pp.24-28

British Bravery, or Tars Triumphant: Images of the British Navy in Nautical Melodrama. New Theatre Quarterly, 1988 May, Vol.4(14), pp.122-43 [Peer Reviewed Journal]

 

07 May 2020

Angela Carter: A Celebration

By Greg Buzwell, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. Read more about the Angela Carter Archive on Discovering Literature and see the entire catalogue entry on our catalogue, Explore Archives and Manuscripts at Add MS 88899. Listen back to our event, Angela Carter: a Celebration, presented in association with the Royal Society of Literature at the British Library on 24th November 2016.

To mark what would have been the year of Carter’s 80th birthday, we wanted to give everyone another chance to listen to Angela Carter: A Celebration, an event presented in association with the Royal Society of Literature at The British Library on 24 November 2016. Edmund Gordon, author of the multiple award-winning The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography talks to Lisa Appignanesi, Susannah Clapp and Pauline Melville, all friends of Carter. Something to enjoy, perhaps, while raising a drink (Carter enjoyed wine, I believe) of your choice in honour of Carter’s memory, and in celebration of her work.

 

Angela Carter, had she lived, would have celebrated her 80th birthday on May 7th this year. Sadly, we will never know what she would have made of the current world situation but, from her books, articles and interviews we can be certain that her opinions would have been perceptive, original and expressed with a refreshingly bracing honesty and vigour. There are many things to admire about Carter’s life and work, but perhaps none more so than the fact she wasn’t afraid of tackling the big subjects and addressing each one – sex, death, politics, class, feminism and parenthood to name but a few – with a devil-may-care directness. Even when people disagreed with her observations, as some did for example with The Sadeian Woman (1979) - her influential critique of pornography and the cultural determinism of gender and sexuality - it’s impossible not to admire the intelligence, wit and originality with which her ideas were expressed.

Angela Carter 02

Angela Carter, circa 1975. (c) Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter

During her career Carter wrote novels and short stories that changed the landscape of British fiction. In particular the books she published from the early 1970s onwards display a remarkable originality. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), for example, largely inspired by her experiences of Japan marries surrealism and philosophy to tell a tale that seems more relevant than ever in today’s world of computer games and virtual reality. The Passion of New Eve (1977) meanwhile, one of the key works of 1970s feminism, satirises simplistic notions of gender, sex and identity. Angela Carter was always well ahead of the curve. The stories in The Bloody Chamber combine feminism and fairy tales with sublime Gothic imagery to inspire emotions in the reader that are by turns shocking and uplifting. Her final two novels, Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991) took her work in new directions. Wise Children, with its highly theatrical – in every possible sense of the word – cast of characters is a stylish and original take on highbrow and lowbrow art and the claims both have for a place in the world, and in our affections.

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A page from Angela Carter’s manuscript draft of ‘The Bloody Chamber’. Add. MS 88899/1/13. © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter

With the support of the Estate of Angela Carter the British Library was able to feature highlights from her papers on its Discovering Literature: 20th Century website. From articles on themes such as fairy tales, cross-dressing and identity to explorations of individual collection items such as Carter’s manuscript drafts of Nights at the Circus or her notes about Tooting Granada Cinema the website allowed us to bring items from the archive to a worldwide audience. Indeed, we could add to the picture of Carter given by her archive by including other British Library collection items, such as her experimental poem 'Unicorn', first printed in 1963 in Vision, a magazine edited by Carter and Nick Curry when the pair were students at Bristol University. The poem, which takes the medieval myth of the unicorn and virgin and transposes it to a sleazy modern setting of pornography and strip clubs provides an early precursor to novels like The Passion of New Eve and the stories in The Bloody Chamber.

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A page from Carter’s experimental poem ‘Unicorn’, from an edition published by the Location Press in 1966. Cup.805.a.9. © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter

Curators always have favourites among the archives they look after, even if in many ways they’re not really supposed to ‘value’ one collection over another. Like passing the port to the right or snoozing through the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day curators having favourites is slightly frowned upon in some circles. All the same, given that an archive of a writer, politician, publisher, actor, etc., should provide as complete a picture as possible of their life and work the archive of Angela Carter is undeniably a fascinating source of wonders.

 

06 May 2020

Discovering Literature: a Q&A

A Q&A with Andrea Varney, National Outreach Manager in the Digital Learning Team, about the Library's Discovering Literature Web Resource. Discovering Literature brings to life the social, political and cultural context in which key works of literature were written. Enjoy digitised treasures from our collection, newly commissioned articles, short documentary films and teachers’ notes. For updates on Discovering Literature, and the other ways in which the Library engages with learners of all ages, follow @BL_Learning on Twitter.

Hi Andrea, thanks for speaking to us. I know you're really busy at the moment as the Library moves towards a greater emphasis on our digital content. The work that Discovering Literature is doing to help to bring learning materials to our audiences remotely is more important than ever.

We’ve featured some highlights from the Library’s digitised manuscripts portal in the past few weeks. How do you see Discovering Literature as different from these kinds of digitisation projects?

Hi Callum, it's been busy but I'm excited to let English and Drama Blog readers know about what Discovering Literature can do for them in these challenging times. Discovering Literature was created by the British Library’s Learning team, so it’s carefully shaped for teachers and secondary English and Drama students, as well as book-lovers across the world. We’ve put digitised treasures at the heart of our project, but we aim to bring them together in rich and surprising ways that resonate with young people.

01 May 2020

Andrew Salkey and The Multi-Coloured Bear of Moscow Road

By Eleanor Casson, Archivist and cataloguer of the Andrew Salkey Archive (Deposit 10310), working in collaboration with the Eccles Centre for American Studies and the British Library. This blog is the first in a series looking at Salkey’s literary works. The blog will be followed by more in-depth pieces on Salkey’s career in the Autumn, in the run up to the delayed launch of the Andrew Salkey Archive.   

What do you get if you cross Fidel Castro with Paddington Bear?

As more of us are stuck at home looking for ways to inspire and engage our children, I thought that I'd use the first blog in this series on Andrew Salkey as an opportunity to look at an unpublished children’s story from Salkey's archive, which he wrote with his two sons, Jason and Eliot Salkey. Written in the late 1960s, it’s a particularly impressive story as both of Salkey’s sons were under ten when they wrote it. It’s a fun children’s story about a larger than life bear and his adventures around London, influenced heavily by Salkey’s love of Cuba and Fidel Castro, and his own experiences as an immigrant in London.

The Multi-Coloured Bear of Moscow Road is about a large multi-coloured bear called Fidel or ‘McB’ to his friends. Salkey visited Cuba in 1968 for the Cultural Congress of Havana, which undoubtedly inspired his family with this story as the character of McB is, unsubtly, based on Fidel Castro. He lived on Moscow Road, the same road as the Salkey family home before they moved to the USA in 1976. The style of the story is similar to Paddington Bear and follows the exploits of McB as he visits London for a yearlong trip. McB is ’a warm weather bear’ born in Havana, Cuba ‘during the first week or so of 1959’. To differentiate him from any of the other bears found in children’s literature Salkey and his sons gave him a ‘unique’ style. He is described as having eyes that are ‘Caribbean blue’ and a brown fur coat ‘speckled all over with black, purple, green, yellow, Seville orange and red smudges’ and that he wore ‘a multi-coloured militia soft cap’ and chain-smoked cigars. I think it is fair to say he would not be the greatest role model for the children of today! Unfortunately, Salkey’s archive does not include any artist’s impressions or illustrations of McB, so I have put together my own interpretation of what he could have looked like on the jacket sleeve!

McB crop

The story follows McB as he explores London, stopping off at well-known landmarks such as Buckingham Palace, London Zoo and the Serpentine. Although the chapters do follow a conventional structure of a children’s story book Salkey is still able to inject his trademark satirical commentary into McB’s interactions, playing on his likeness to Fidel Castro. The bankers McB meets at the Royal Mint are wary and suspicious of him and he is not welcome, whilst the Dockers at the Pool of London wave and cheer when they see him.

Salkey and his sons are also able to create a subtle commentary on being an outsider in London. Written from the perspective of McB as someone who does not fit in anywhere in London, he stands out with an overly large body and vibrant fur. He is wary of the ‘red monster’, which turns out to be a red bus, he daydreams of ‘Spanish jars of logwood honey’, and he writes letters home to his brother. As he becomes more familiar with London, McB learns to love the ‘friendly red monsters’ and buys a fleet of buses to send home. He also builds friendships with his human neighbours, and throws a birthday party. McB finds a way to make London his temporary home as he buys a house and marries a lovely ‘lady bear’. Although only an assistant in the authorship of this story, Salkey’s experience of being an immigrant in London is clear to see.

Salkey did attempt to have the manuscript published; he sent it to the publishers of Paddington Bear, Collings Publishers, as well as Oxford University Press among others. Although some of the publishing houses were impressed that children so young had written the manuscript, the consensus was that the story was too much of an ‘in-family joke’ and that it did not fit with the rest of their book list. Salkey’s archive includes the correspondence from the publishers explaining their refusals, as well as a typescript and carbon copies of the story.