English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

3 posts from March 2023

31 March 2023

Edgar Mittelholzer’s Life in Guyana

A collection of correspondence, poems and booklets from the writer, Edgar Mittelholzer, to his friend, Ruth Windebank, have recently been catalogued and made available to researchers in the British Library reading rooms.

Edgar Mittelholzer was one of the earliest professional English-language novelists from the Caribbean and is widely considered to be one of the most prominent, having been among the first to gain a significant European readership.

Born in New Amsterdam, British Guyana in 1909, Mittelholzer was prolific, writing more than twenty novels over the course of his life. His work ranges in setting from the earliest period of European settlement to the then-present day, and are known for dealing with complex matters of psychological and moral interest as well as the historical and political, such as relations between ethnic groups and social classes, reflecting his own experiences in a middle-class colonial environment.

The archive, now catalogued among our Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts collections, contains 31 letters, 12 poems and 2 pamphlets, mostly dated between 1941 and 1943, and offering insight into his personal life and consequently his writing. The majority of the letters are from Mittelholzer to his friend, Ruth Windebank (nee Wilkinson), whose daughter donated the archive to the Library.

Image shows letters spread in a fan shape on a wooden table
A selection of letters from the Edgar Mittelholzer Correspondence to Ruth Windebank, Add MS 89653. Credit: CC-BY Estate of Edgar Mittelholzer

Mittelholzer’s close relationship with Ruth - affectionately referred to in the letters as ‘Ruthie’- is such that his correspondence to her provides particularly candid accounts of his personal experiences, with honest descriptions of matters as everyday as his eating habits to his deeper thoughts and feelings, such as his outlook on love.

In reading these letters, usually signed off with his nickname ‘Barno’, you accompany Mittelholzer through the early 1940s. He discusses his life, work and relationships in Georgetown, Guyana after the self-publishing of his first novel Creole Chips in 1937 and awaiting the publishing of Corentyne Thunder. He writes about his decision to join the Trinidad Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve (TRVNR) and his service, with letters from his time aboard the ‘Hellene' and HMS Benbow; he continues to write as he settles in Trinidad, discussing his first marriage and the birth of his eldest daughter.

A typed letter on lined paper starting 'Hullo Ruthie!'
A letter written by Edgar Mittelholzer to Ruth Windebank, 27th April 1943, from Add MS 89653. Credit: CC-BY Estate of Edgar Mittelholzer

Poems accompany many of the letters, with 12 in total in this archive, most of which appear to be otherwise unpublished.  Some are written with Ruth or others in mind and certain lines are marked out for their intended recipients. Many have parallels with the letters, for example: conflict only briefly described during his time in the TRVNR is revisited in Mazaruni Rocks, Afternoon Reflections and Death in Prospect. Here, thoughts he alludes to in conversation are explored fully in his art.

‘Ruthie’ and ‘Barno’ had lost contact by the mid-1940s but in the last letter in the archive, dated 15th June 1962 the two have reconnected after 21 years. Mittelholzer writes from Farnham, in Surrey, where he would go on to spend the remainder of his life. The daughter he welcomed in his previous letters is now 19 and he also describes his other children and recent remarriage. Mittelholzer had just completed his novels The Aloneness of Mrs Chatham and The Wounded and The Worried and was awaiting the publishing of his autobiographical A Swarthy Boy.

This archive provides a small window into Mittelholzer’s inner world and into the difficulties that thematically underpin much of his published work. It also includes a selection of typescripts of poems including Afternoon reflections, Mazaruni Rocks, and Just Between Us, which has handwritten annotations.

Sadly, in May 1965, Mittelholzer took his own life by setting himself on fire, three years after the final letter in the archive. Mittelholzer’s end was foretold in his final posthumous novel, where the main character meets the same fate.

This quote from a letter Mittelholzer sent to Ruth on 15th May 1941 sums up his life reflected in the letters:

‘But life is so complicated that I just wonder where I’m going to end up. If you told me tomorrow that I’d be a millionaire in the evening I wouldn’t doubt you. Or if you told me that I’d be dining with the Governor or with an East Indian beggar in Albouystown this evening I wouldn’t doubt you, either.’

A typed letter from Edgar to Ruthie
A letter written by Edgar Mittelholzer to Ruth Windebank, 13th May 1941, from Add MS 89653. Credit: CC-BY Edgar Mittelholzer


By Megan Richardson, Library Information and Archive Service Apprentice (LIAS) and cataloguer of the Edgar Mittelholzer correspondence. 


Further reading

Edgar Mittelholzer Correspondence to Ruth Windebank – Add MS 89653

Louis James, ‘Mittelholzer, Edgar Austin’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online) Accessed 25 February 2023: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/69688

James Ferguson ‘Edgar Mittelholzer: the Dark One’, CarribeanBeat, (2009) Accessed 29 March 2023: Edgar Mittelholzer: the Dark One | Caribbean Beat Magazine (caribbean-beat.com)

17 March 2023

Fairy tales and creative campaigns

by Gwen Morris, Digital Learning Administrator, the British Library Learning team. 

In this post, Gwen reflects on her role and her work on our digital campaigns for primary schools. These creative campaigns aim to spark love of reading, writing and drawing, in response to the treasures on our Discovering Children’s Books website. Our current campaign (running until 28 March 2023) invites children to cook up their own fairy tales with tips from Michael Rosen, Sandra Agard and other brilliant storytellers. Schools from across the UK are making little books and filling them with their own stories, inspired by tales of the past.

What’s a typical day for you as the Digital Learning Administrator?

My role as Digital Learning Administrator is varied and fulfilling. I especially enjoy collaborating with my colleagues to provide teachers and students with exciting online learning resources.

My day often begins with a team meeting to discuss our digital campaigns. These range from making miniature books to ‘Step inside your story’, which puts young writers at the heart of their own tales and proves that everyone can be an author. Our meetings are a great opportunity for me to learn from my colleagues’ points of view as we share ideas for our campaigns.

CUYOFT image 22
Michael Rosen created a film revealing what makes fairy tales special, with brilliant animations by Allen Fatimaharan
CUYOFT-cinderella fairy-new
Cinderella’s fairy godmother turns lizards into footmen. Shelfmark: 12410.r.5. Title: Cinderella, retold by C S Evans and illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1919). Public Domain.

Once we’ve decided on a theme and an activity, our next step is to spread the word to schools across the UK. It’s my job to send out emails to our target schools and to keep track of which schools have signed up. Our Outreach campaigns are designed to support schools in low socio-economic areas, so I do a lot of research to make sure that we’re contacting those most in need of our support.

As a member of the Digital Learning Team, I also help with the process of building webpages so that our resources are accessible online to anyone who wants to use them. Although I had some experience in creating digital content before starting in this role, I’m glad I’ve been able to receive training in this area as it’s helped me grow in confidence whilst learning different strategies for improving SEO. Since completing the training, I’ve enjoyed putting these strategies into practice on our Learning website.

This Roma story by Richard O’Neill is one of the stories featured in our fairy tales project. It depicts the Parno Gry, a magical horse who takes children to wonderful faraway places. Shelfmark: LC.31.a.20058. Title: Yokki and the Parno Gry (2016). Reproduced by kind permission of Child's Play (International) Ltd. Text copyright © 2016 Richard O’Neill and Katharine Quarmby. Illustrations copyright © 2016 Child's Play (International) Ltd. First published 2016 by Child's Play. All rights reserved. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Do you have a favourite digitised collection item from Discovering Children’s Books?

I absolutely love looking through Quentin Blake’s rough sketches of Matilda. Matilda was my favourite book growing up and these sketches bring back lovely memories of laughing at Matilda’s antics with my family.

DCB interviews
Discovering Children’s Books features interviews with authors and illustrators including Quentin Blake, Jacqueline Wilson, Zanib Mian, Joseph Coelho and Julia Donaldson.

What’s your favourite part of your job?

One of the most wonderful things is seeing the fantastic stories we receive from schools and families across the UK. When a campaign is launched, we ask teachers, parents and guardians to send us photos of the children’s work and I’m always amazed by the quality of submissions. There’s nothing better than opening my inbox to find stories about time-travelling cats and magic shoes!

Overall, it’s been a joy to take on this role at the British Library.

Millbrook Park Primary  Mill Hill 1
Fairy tales © Millbrook Primary School, Mill Hill.
St George's C of E Primary  Barrow-in-Furness 1 (1)
Step inside your story entries © St George’s Church of England Primary School, Barrow-in-Furness.

To learn more about our online learning resources, visit Discovering Children's Books, Discovering Literature and Windrush Stories – or explore our full offer.

10 March 2023

Call for Papers for 'Ted Hughes’ Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity'

We are delighted to announce that the British Library will host a symposium on Ted Hughes and Expressionism in collaboration with Dr Steve Ely, Director of the Ted Hughes Network at the University of Huddersfield.

Black and white photograph of Ted Hughes, with a close up on his face. Taken by Fay Godwin
Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin © British Library Board

This symposium is designed to explore and investigate the claim that Hughes’s most characteristic, distinctive, and innovative work—wherein lies the weight of his claim to be regarded as a major poet and an internationally significant artist—is essentially Expressionist, characterised by a rejection of objectivity in representation in favour of a Visionary Subjectivity that draws on inner life and imagination to transform and distort content, deploying abstraction, typologies and symbols to shape presentations in an essentially didactic manner.

Hughes’s Expressionist mode manifests throughout his oeuvre and includes many of his most celebrated poems and books, including ‘Wind’, ‘Mayday on Holderness’, ‘Thrushes’, ‘Pike’, Wodwo, Crow, Cave Birds, Gaudete, Remains of Elmet and Capriccio.  Many of his plays and short stories—'Difficulties of a Bridegroom’, ‘The Wound’, ‘The Head’—are similarly Expressionist, having particular affinities with German Expressionism. Of course, not all Hughes’s work is Expressionist by any means, and across his career he produced celebrated poetry that seems to represent a more objective—Naturalist, Realist—response to experience, in works including Season Songs, Moortown Diaries, River and Birthday Letters, for example. 

Focusing on Hughes’s art, method and technique in this way invites approaches to his work that go beyond the Anglophone literary-historical tradition and discuss his work in the context of European and international artists and movements in the arts—visual, dramatic and musical as well as literary—looking at affinity, influence and collaboration: one thinks immediately of Hughes’s work with, and advocacy of, innovative, experimental and avant-garde artists in the Expressionist tradition, including the Eastern European poets Herbert, Holub, Pilinsky and Popa; the American artist Leonard Baskin; the dramatist, director and impresario Peter Brook and the photographer Fay Godwin.

The British Library is a major centre for Hughes study with substantial collections relating to the poet that include archival, printed and audio-visual material. Researchers can learn more about all aspects of Hughes’ work by exploring his large personal archive (Add MS 88918), which was acquired in 2008 and a number of smaller related collections including Hughes’ correspondence with Olwyn Hughes, Leonard Baskin and Keith Sagar. Please see the Library’s collection guide on Hughes for more information about its Hughes holdings.

A selection of notebooks, typed and handwritten pages of paper displayed in a fan shape on a black background. Items are from the Ted Hughes archive.
Material from the Ted Hughes Archive

Subjects for papers might include, but are by no means limited to, the following.  Proposals should make the link to the themes of the symposium clear.

  • Works by Hughes: specific poems, sequences or collections; radio plays; short stories; critical prose or pedagogical works
  • Hughes’s poetics: artifice, method, style, technique
  • Hughes and ‘visionary precursors’ (including, but not limited to, Christopher Smart, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, D.H. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats)
  • Hughes, T.S. Eliot and Modernism
  • Hughes, Dylan Thomas & the poets of the New Apocalypse
  • Hughes’s relationship with modern and contemporary experimental and avant-garde English language poetry
  • Hughes, European and International poetry & poets
  • Hughes and visual artists (including, but not limited to, relevant collaborations, for example, with Leonard Baskin and Fay Godwin)
  • Hughes and Drama
  • Hughes’s work with Peter Brook
  • Hughes and German Expressionism
  • Hughes and Music

Please send proposals of up to 250 words for 20-minute papers, plus a short biographical note, to Steve Ely at [email protected] by Friday, 12th May, 2023. There will be no charge for registration.

For more information about the Ted Hughes Network, see: https://research.hud.ac.uk/institutes-centres/tedhughes/.