English and Drama blog

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

2 posts from September 2023

15 September 2023

For Their Eyes Only – the letters of Ian and Ann Fleming

We mark the exciting acquisition of a collection of letters between Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, and his wife Ann.

Unlike Ann Fleming, who has had a whole volume of her correspondence published, Ian Fleming was not a habitual letter writer. So the British Library was delighted to be able to acquire this collection of almost 100 letters from Ian to Ann (and over 50 in the opposite direction) in 2021. This major resource for Fleming scholars has now been catalogued (Add MS 89670) and, from today, is available to access in the Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room.

Letters between Ann and Ian Fleming, arranged in a fan shape on a wooden table. The letters are on mostly blue or white paper and are handwritten.
Correspondence of Ann and Ian Fleming. Reproduced with permission of The Ian Fleming Estate. © The Ian Fleming Estate 1946-1964

The letters, most of which are unpublished and previously largely unseen, give an intimate and detailed insight into the shifting sands of Ann and Ian's relationship, from the complexities of the 1940s when Ann was still married to Esmond Harmsworth (in one letter Ian begs Ann to keep his letters well-hidden instead of leaving them in her underwear drawer), through the heartbreak of the death of Ann and Ian's daughter, Mary, just eight hours old, in 1948, their married life (they married in March 1952), and into the 1960s. It was at times a turbulent relationship and both had numerous affairs. The tension and strain of these affairs, as well as that caused by their long separations (even after their marriage, Ian spent three months every year at the house, Goldeneye, in Jamaica, he had built in 1945), is apparent in many of the letters. On the other hand, many other letters are traditional love letters, passionate and romantic, showing the depth of their feelings for each other.

Apart from their relationship, the subject matter of the letters ranges far and wide taking in the flora and fauna of Jamaica; the development of, and domestic arrangements at, Goldeneye; gossip from the newspaper world (Ian Fleming was foreign manager of the Kemsley newspaper group, the then owner of the Sunday Times, from 1945 to 1959 and continued to contribute articles into the 1960s) and discussion of his 'Atticus' column; their respective health, both physical and mental; the health, development, well-being, and schooling of Caspar, their son born in August 1952; and their international travels (India, Tangiers, Chicago, Miami, New York, Paris, Italy, Hong Kong, Istanbul, and Switzerland). They certainly took advantage of the advent of the jet age, but they also enjoyed the more leisurely pace of luxury liners such as the ‘Queen Elizabeth’, writing vivid pen portraits of their fellow passengers as they sailed.

The Flemings were inveterate gossips and a major thread in the correspondence is discussion of the figures within their social circles or passing through their orbit. The cast list of names that crop up – friends, acquaintances, guests at Goldeneye, fellow guests at others’ dinners and social events – is remarkable: Leolia Ponsonby, Blanche Blackwell (with whom Ian had a long affair), Patrick Leigh Fermor, Lucian Freud (“seems to have become world famous at last”), Micky Renshaw, Noel Coward, Truman Capote (“Can you imagine a more incongruous playmate for me… a fascinating character and we really get on very well” – Capote persuaded Fleming to try “a sinister pill called Mill Town”), Brendan Bracken, Hugh Gaitskell (with whom Ann had a long affair), Erica Marx, Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Edith Sitwell, Rosamund Lehmann, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Rex Harrison, Solly Zuckerman, Gladwyn Jebb, Joyce Grenfell, Pamela Churchill, Paul Gallico, Oscar Hammerstein, Charles Boyer, and Sidney Bernstein.

A typed letter from Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, on white paper and laid flat on a wooden table
Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, August 1952. The Flemings clearly had not yet settled on the spelling of their son’s name. The standard sources refer to him as Caspar. Reproduced with permission of The Ian Fleming Estate. © The Ian Fleming Estate 1952
A typed letter from Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, on white paper and laid flat on a wooden table
Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, August 1952. The Flemings clearly had not yet settled on the spelling of their son’s name. The standard sources refer to him as Caspar. Reproduced with permission of The Ian Fleming Estate. © The Ian Fleming Estate 1952

As would be expected, the letters are also littered with references to Ian Fleming's most famous literary creation, James Bond. He offers regular progress reports and occasional plot details, of mostly unnamed books: at one stage From Russia With Love, for example, is described as “galloping along. I have written a third of it in one week, a chapter a day”; another book “is half done and buzzing along merrily in the rain”. Fleming also alludes to some of the inspiration and sources for the stories and titles. For example, he mentions Blanche Blackwell's gift of a coracle, which he named Octopussy. The short story of the same name, written in 1962, would be published posthumously in 1966. 'Blanche' was the name of the guano-collecting ship in 1958’s Dr. No and Blackwell was the model for Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, published in 1959. Truman Capote is described as “twittering with excitement” while reading a proof copy of Diamonds Are Forever. Fleming writes of correcting proofs of Live and Let Die on-board the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ sailing to New York. There is even a reference to the gold-plated typewriter he bought while writing Casino Royale. However, there are also occasional allusions to Fleming's dissatisfaction with Bond as a character (“I have got so desperately tired of that ass Bond”) and with some of the stories (“just finishing a Bond short story of no merit”). Even so, his later letters make reference to possible television and film adaptations of his books, and on a trip to Hollywood, the positive reaction to his books gives him particular hope (“People really seem to be after my books... it’s as usual a question of crossing fingers & waiting for someone to pry them apart & force some dollars between them”). The first Bond film, Dr. No, would be released in 1962.

This is a truly absorbing collection, and there is something of interest on every page. Even the stationery the Flemings used is worth noting. So desperate were they to keep in touch with each other that if actual writing paper was not to hand they simply repurposed the endpapers of books, the back of a gin rummy score card, and even a hospital temperature chart!

We are grateful to the British Library Collections Trust for their generous support for this acquisition.

With thanks to The Ian Fleming Estate for permission to quote from the letters of Ian Fleming.


Written by Michael St John-McAlister, Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager, who has recently completed cataloguing the Ian and Ann Fleming letters.


Further reading:

Add MS 89670.

Mark Amory (ed.), The Letters of Ann Fleming (London: Collins Harvill, 1985).

Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995).

Andrew Lycett, ‘Fleming, Ian Lancaster (1908-1964)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/33168.

Andrew Lycett, ‘Fleming [née Charteris], Ann Geraldine Mary (1913-1981)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/40227.

08 September 2023

Phantom of the Collection: Reaching Beyond the Material in the Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive

With cataloguing underway on the archive of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, manuscripts cataloguer, Cameron Randall, reflects on the process and the presence of its previous archivist Murray Melvin.

Working as a Manuscripts Cataloguer, I feel lucky that I can arrive at work each day with the possibility of being transported to past places, previous times, and perhaps most interestingly, entering the lives of those who rise from the collection. A photo, some exchange of correspondence, or an inanimate object can hold stories that have lain buried and dormant among the collection's contents. In some sense, every archive is intrinsically hauntological. Hauntology, as coined by Jacques Derrida, is a spin on the term ontology: a metaphysical inquiry into ideas around being. Where hauntology differs is that it refers to the return or persistence of elements from the social or cultural past, as in the manner of a ghost.

The collection that I am currently working on, the Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive, seems to capture this idea better than most. Running through the body of the collection is another presence that murmurs within the material. A spectre is haunting the archive: its previous custodian, the actor and director turned theatre archivist Murray Melvin.

A portrait of Murrary Melvin posing in front of a red wall with his arms cross and a small smile on his face, wearing his distinctive pale pink shirt and blue jumper.
Murrary Melvin at the Theatre Royal (c) The British Library Board

Murray enjoyed a distinguished theatre, television, and film career, working with directors including Joan Littlewood, Ken Russell, and Stanley Kubrick. He also appeared in 1966’s Alfie alongside Michael Caine, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and the 2004 version of The Phantom of the Opera, not to mention the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. Murray’s first leading role on stage was with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, where he took on the role of Geoffrey in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, in 1958, followed by the seminal role in Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, later the same year.  His star continued to rise, reprising his role as Geoffrey in the 1961 film adaptation of A Taste of Honey. This performance would lead Murray to win the BAFTA film award for Most Promising Newcomer and the Cannes Film Festival Best Actor.

Murray sadly passed away in April this year, but his spirit not only lives on through his hugely successful acting career but also in the diligent care and attention he provided to the Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive, which was acquired by the British Library in 2021.

A selection of programmes, notes and various archival material from the Theatre Royal archive, displayed in a fan flat on a table and all overlapping
A selection of notes, programmes and other papers relating to theatre unions work in the thirties (c) British Library Board

Murray's influence on the archive cannot be understated; his methodology and instructions are extensive, precise, and deeply detailed. Each box contains Murray's literal and metaphorical fingerprints, from the chronological ordering of the Theatre Royal's productions, which Murray's hands would have sorted, to the micro-precision of labelled photos, designating the date, place, and individuals that sit within them. There are even meta-notes that accompany much of the archive, some with extended pages of long insights, stories, and descriptions that unearth an extra layer of context that enriches the content. In these moments, Murray's presence feels at its most potent; his tone and style of writing have a conversational quality that is not only accurate but provokes curiosity, establishing his personal perspective as an invaluable component of the archive and a lens through which to fully understand it.

Given Murray's long-term personal involvement with Theatre Royal Stratford East and his much greater knowledge of its history, I must adhere to his decision-making, and constrain my natural tendencies in shaping the collection, or even abstain from them all together. In some ways, I have to think as Murray would and respect his arrangement, order, and sorting of the material. In this sense, I feel like I am acting as a vehicle or conduit for Murray's archival logic, trying to stay true to his reasoning and maintain how he intended the archive to be perceived. This is both a blessing and a curse, as on the one hand, Murray guides me box to box, and on the other, his methodology creates inflexibility and rigidity, which I have to contend with as I attempt to pull a thread between Murray and potential researchers in the future.

A fabric and silk doll which was originally white and black but now appears browned with age, it is in the style of pierrot productions, with a silk dress with black pom pom buttons and a pointed white hat with black pom pom on the top
Doll made by Una Collins and used by Fanny Carby in Oh! What a Lovely War (c) British Library Board

My involvement with The Theatre Royal Stratford East comes through the Hidden Collection initiative, which seeks to remove barriers to discoverability and access in the cataloguing backlog at the British Library. The initiative itself is one that recognises the hidden, invisible, and ghostly nature that collections like these possess. Through the cataloguing process, collections are seemingly revived, the hauntological becomes ontological, and the hidden is unlocked to take on a new lease of life, ultimately making archives available for research and opening up the library's collections. As a troubled Danish prince once put it, 'the time is out of joint', but with the work of individuals such as Murray Melvin, we see the possibility for time to fall back into joint, where the past is resurrected in the present to produce new ideas, other perspectives, and unknown possibilities, reaching beyond the material and into the future.

Further Reading

Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx (Routledge, 1994)

Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life (Zero Books, 2014)

Peter Rankin, Joan Littlewood: Dreams and Realities (Oberon Books, 2014)

Murray Melvin, The Art of Theatre Workshop (Oberon Books, 2006)

Murray Melvin, The Theatre Royal: A History of the Building (Stratford East Publications, 2009)