30 September 2022
By Greg Buzwell, Curator, Contemporary Literary Archives.
‘Does anyone seriously believe that Beatles music will be an unthinkingly accepted part of daily life all over the world in the 2000s?’ wrote the philosopher and politician Bryan Magee in the February 1967 issue of The Listener. The passage of time has subsequently given a resounding answer to Magee’s question, and it turned out not to be the one he was obviously expecting. His comment highlights the now almost eye-wateringly unbelievable notion that, even after Beatlemania, several albums including A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul and Revolver - and on the verge of the Summer of Love and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band - the Beatles’ lasting contribution to popular culture was still being questioned in certain quarters.
Someone else also pondering the Beatles and their legacy in 1967 was the journalist Hunter Davies. The British Library has recently acquired Davies’s archive of Beatles-related material consisting of photographs, press cuttings, concert programmes and ephemera together with the notebooks he kept when carrying out his research for his 1968 biography of the band – The Beatles: The Authorised Biography. Hunter interviewed dozens of people prior to writing his book, including of course John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, but also wives and girlfriends including Cynthia Lennon and Jane Asher, along with other key contributors to the band’s success such as their manager Brian Epstein; their producer George Martin; Astrid Kirchherr whose early photographs of the group were instrumental in defining their look, and their road manager Mal Evans along with many, many others. Among the collection there is also a draft of Hunter’s original letter to Brian Epstein suggesting the idea that he write an authorised biography of the Beatles and asking for Brian’s approval.
One of the points Hunter makes in the letter is that the book would provide a record of the Beatles phenomenon and allow everyone involved with the band to have their say while events were still relatively fresh in their memories. In essence the book would be, in Hunter’s words, ‘not a fan book, but a full study of what happened and why during the last five years’. Perhaps, even in 1967, this was ambitious. In particular the band’s recollection of their early days in Hamburg was already a little hazy. Unsurprising given the relentless nature of the gigs they had to play and the outrageous nightlife offered to those on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn where the clubs the Beatles played were situated. When talking to the Beatles about their Hamburg days Hunter’s notebooks contain details of John Lennon sleeping behind the stage and of Pete Best, the band’s drummer before Ringo Starr joined in 1962, being so exhausted he once collapsed over his drum kit mid-performance. Then again, all the more reason to have those recollections and thoughts put down on paper before they became even more lost in the haze between actuality and memory.
The highlight of the collection is undoubtedly to be found in one of the notebooks in which Hunter recorded his interviews with Paul McCartney. At one point Hunter asked Paul to describe how John Lennon and George Harrison looked back in their late-1950s pre-Beatles days with the band The Quarrymen. Paul duly obliged, but he also borrowed Hunter’s notebook and quickly sketched George and John: the former all boyishly innocent with upswept hair and bushy eyebrows and the latter with sideburns, glasses and a stare firmly focused on the future. There’s something touching about the sketches – an authenticity and affection that comes from Paul reflecting on two friends and the impression they made on him in the very first days of their friendship.
Also among the archive is the transcript of a television interview, the recording of which is now thought to be lost, between Hunter Davies and Ringo Starr dated December 15th 1970. A date by which point the band had effectively split. In the interview Ringo talks about how one of his childhood ambitions, at least according to his mother, was to be a tramp and to wander the world. There’s also a list of the questions Hunter is hoping to have answered in the interview, such as whether Ringo worries that film companies only want him in their movies so they can put his name on the poster; whether he still goes back to Liverpool to revisit his roots and whether his fame prevents him from ordinary pleasures such as evenings out in a pub with friends. Much of the interview comes across as a touching attempt to discover Ringo the private individual, husband and father beneath the surface glamour of Ringo the rock-star drummer.
At its heart though the archive is really about Hunter’s authorised biography of the Beatles. First published in 1968 and the only book about the group ever written with the backing of the whole band and those within their inner circle. As such it offers an invaluable insight into what made the Beatles tick, and how they managed to achieve so much in such a relatively short space of time. There have been, quite literally, thousands of books written about the Beatles and while they all offer something perhaps only a dozen or so are absolutely essential to anyone who loves the music and wishes to know more about how it all came about. Hunter’s book is definitely towards the top of that select list and his archive reveals a great deal about how he put it together.
To learn more about The Beatles: The Authorised Biography, along with the archive behind its creation and Hunter Davies’s long association with the Beatles, please follow the link below for details of an event on November 11th 2022 featuring Hunter in conversation: Hunter Davies: Writing The Beatles.
29 July 2022
By Amber Akaunu, filmmaker and artist, who was commissioned by the British Library to engage creatively with the Beryl Gilroy archive.
Reflecting on past projects and experiences is something that I admittedly had never even considered doing before spending time with Dr Beryl Gilroy’s archive. I didn’t see it as an essential aspect of my work as an artist and filmmaker until now.
The highlight of Gilroy’s archive for me were the reflective pieces of writings she wrote on her own work. They were detailed and read more like an essay, in comparison to her creative writings we see in books such as ‘In Praise of Love and Children’ (1996). I loved reading them and realised how important it is to not only reflect on our practice in order to identify areas that deserve celebration as well as areas that can use some development, however it is also important in defining our narrative and legacy; and Gilroy has done exactly that.
So, I want to follow Dr Gilroy’s footsteps and go on a journey of deep reflection on my experience working with the British Library:
I received an invitation to pitch an idea to make a body of work that responds to the archive of Dr Beryl Gilroy. This invite came only a week after I had moved to London and so it was an affirming and grounding first creative project to take on amidst a time of transition for me. On reflection, I think the consistency of coming to the British Library and viewing Gilroy’s archive was exactly what I needed at the time.
We often idolise Black women for all the incredible things we achieve in such harsh circumstances. We’re often thought of as the rose that grew from concrete, and although that tends to be an accurate representation, I really wanted my response to Dr Gilroy’s archive to look deeper into who she was. I decided to explore her roles as a mother, educator, psychologist and founding member of Camden Black Sisters. I also used these categories to highlight Black women in my life including; my mother (Jessica); my therapist (Amanda); my primary school head teacher (Mrs Wrigley); and Liverpool’s Black Sisters, who held summer schemes that I attended as a child. Through this process I got to realise how lucky I have been to be able to have incredible Black women in my life.
I enjoyed exploring Dr Gilroy’s role as a mother in particular, especially after meeting with Dr Gilroy’s daughter, Darla, an academic. It was inspiring to see the work she does to help keep her mother’s legacy alive and to hear the way she talks about her mother. It made me think about the close bond my mother and I have, and so it was fulfilling to be able to include my mother’s impact on me and link this with Gilroy’s impact on her own children, and of course the many other children through her role as an educator and one of London’s first Black head teachers.
I had begun writing a poem in my iPhone notes app a while ago about how Black women are the blueprint, and this project felt like the perfect reason to finish that poem and develop that idea further. I also wanted to extend this notion to include the fact the archive of Black women is also the blueprint to which we build from. I felt like the underlying message I took away from my time with Dr Gilroy’s archive showed the importance of archiving. Gilroy’s archive was a special first-hand look into her life and I am thankful that it exists.
I worked with my good friend Khadeeja to make a short film that brought to life the poem I had written. I sent Khadeeja a WhatsApp message asking her if she’d like to be in the film along with a screenshot of the poem. She then sent me a voice note response of her performing the poem perfectly. This is one of the reasons I love to collaborate with other creatives. Khadeeja brought the poem to life in a way I couldn’t have imagined. I loved that voice note recording so much that I used it in the film.
Alongside the film, I also created a zine that is titled The Blueprint, which is the same title as the film. The zine was designed by Lana Mauge-Tharpe, who was perfect for the project as not only is she incredibly talented, she also is a former student at Dr Gilroy’s school in North London.
Through colour, composition and typography, Lana was able to present my words in a fresh way. The zine also featured a QR code that allowed readers to access a blue inspired playlist I had made while working on the project.
In conclusion, I have learned a lot about Dr Gilroy, myself and my practice through this project and process and hope that visitors of the exhibition also felt like they got to know more about Dr Beryl Gilroy, her impact and the significance of her archive to the Black women that she has directly, and indirectly, impacted.
For enquiries regarding the Beryl Gilroy archive, please contact Eleanor Dickens [email protected]
08 July 2022
By Alexander Lock, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts.
Today, 8 July 2022, marks the bicentenary of the death of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). One of the most politically radical of the Romantic poets, Shelley’s best known works include ‘Ozymandias’ (1818), ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ (1819), and ‘To the Skylark’ (1820).
Shelley died at sea, aged just 29, on 8 July 1822. Earlier that month Shelley had sailed in his boat, the Don Juan, from his home in San Terenzo to Livorno. On that voyage he was accompanied by a young boat hand, Charles Vivian, and two close friends Edward Williams and naval officer Daniel Roberts. Shelley sailed to Livorno to meet Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron in order to develop their plans for the publication of a new anti-establishment journal The Liberal. Having accompanied Hunt to his accommodation in Pisa, on 8 July Shelley, Williams and Vivian set sail for home. Within a few hours the Don Juan was caught in a severe storm and all three men were lost at sea.
Shelley's body washed ashore near Viareggio on 18 July 1822 and William’s body was found on the same day three miles further along the shore. The remains of Vivian were discovered some weeks later. According to the friend who found them, Edward John Trelawny, Shelley was identified by the ‘volume of Sophocles’ he had ‘in one pocket, and Keats’s poems in the other’. Initially buried in quicklime, Shelley and Williams were exhumed and cremated on 16 August 1822 on the beach near Viareggio where they were found. It had been decided that Shelley’s remains should be interred near John Keats’ in the Protestant cemetery at Rome, whilst the remains of Williams were to be returned to England. In order to facilitate the movement of their bodies and overcome the Italian quarantine laws governing the burial of bodies washed from the sea, it was decided that the men be cremated.
Following the funeral the ashes were collected for burial by Edward Trelawney who had also taken some of Shelley’s hair as a memento. He gave the hair and some of the ashes as a keepsake to Claire Clairmont – Mary Shelley’s stepsister and Lord Byron’s lover who was staying with the Shelleys in San Terenzo. These items would eventually pass to the British Library.
In the weeks leading up to his death, Shelley suffered from visions of drowning and death. In a letter written just after Shelley died – now in the British Library as Ashley MS 5022 – his wife Mary Shelley recounted how he dreamt that ‘the sea was rushing in’ and that he was strangling her whilst Edward Williams and his wife Jane looked on as corpses. After her husband's drowning, Mary began to consider how his visions might have foretold the future.
To mark the bicentenary of the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley, curators at the British Library worked with the poet Benjamin Zephaniah on a new Radio 4 programme ‘Percy Shelley, Reformer and Radical’. Presented by Zephaniah, the 2 part series brings a very personal take on Shelley’s work and how it influenced his own work and that of other poets. As part of this recording we showed Zephaniah the original draft of the ‘Mask of Anarchy’, Shelley’s annotated copy of ‘Queen Mab’, as well as the hair and ashes of the poet taken from his funeral pyre.
Episode 1 was broadcast on Sunday 3 July and episode 2 will be aired on Sunday 10 July, at 4.30pm on BBC Radio 4. The episodes will be available online after broadcast.
21 June 2022
By Catherine Angerson, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts. A small display to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) can be seen in the Treasures Gallery until 25 September 2022.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner recounts the experiences of a mariner whose ship becomes trapped in ice during a long voyage. The mariner brings great misfortune on the ship and its crew by killing the albatross which helped to bring them to safety. Coleridge’s depression and own experiences of travel led to his increasing identification with the Mariner and he continued to revise the poem, first published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, at different episodes during his life.
A new temporary display in the Treasures Gallery brings together three of Coleridge’s manuscripts (a poem and two notebooks) and two 20th-century illustrated editions of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of the poet.
The first item on display is a handwritten poem titled 'Dura Navis' which Coleridge said he composed at the age of 15 while he was a pupil at Christ’s Hospital in Sussex. The poem shows the poet’s early preoccupation with the isolation of the traveller and the dangers of travelling by sea. The manuscript is an autograph fair copy written down by Coleridge many years after he first composed the poem. A 51-year-old Coleridge added a comment at the bottom of the first page saying that the poem ‘does not contain a line that any clever school boy might not have written’ (Add MS 34225, f.1r).
At the centre of the small display are two of the 55 of Coleridge’s notebooks purchased by the British Museum from the descendants of Coleridge’s brother James in 1951. Coleridge used pocket-sized notebooks to record thoughts, feelings, quotations, travel accounts, language learning (especially German), philosophical musings, poems and more. Notebook No. 9 (Add MS 47506) contains Coleridge’s impressions of a voyage to Malta in April 1804. In a brief moment of calm in the Bay of Biscay, the poet observes ‘the beautiful Surface of the Sea in this gentle Breeze’ (f. 33v). A reference to his friend William Wordsworth’s poem The Female Vagrant can be seen near the bottom of the page: ‘And on the gliding Vessel Heaven & Ocean smil’d!’ (f. 34r)
In October 1806, Coleridge drafted a new version of a short section of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in his Notebook No. 11 (Add MS 47508). While the opening lines, ‘With never a whisper in the main / Off shot the spectre ship’, are close to lines 198–199 of the poem published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, the following two lines do not appear in the first or the amended version published in 1817:
And stifled words & groans of pain
Mix’d on each trembling ^ murmering lip
Other images are altered but recognisable from part III of the poem published in Sibylline Leaves (1817). ‘The Sky was dull & dark the Night’ in the 1806 notebook becomes ‘The stars were dim, and thick the night’ in 1817.
Many artists have been drawn to the creative force and supernatural imagery of The Ancient Mariner. The first illustrated edition on display was designed, decorated and illustrated by Hungarian artist Willy Pogány (born Vilmos András Pogány, 1882–1955) and published in 1910. The illustration of the ship struck by a ‘storm-blast’ is reproduced from Pogány’s watercolour and corresponds to Coleridge’s words on the opposite page. In the poem, the ship is driven by a storm, ‘tyrannous and strong’, towards the South Pole. Pogány’s storm has a suggestion of wings like the winged storm which chases the ship in the poem.
The display concludes with Mervyn Peake’s stark image of a suffering and repentant Mariner in an edition published by Chatto & Windus in 1943. In contrast to Pogány’s deluxe edition printed on vellum, this edition with seven black-and-white illustrations reproduced from Peake’s drawings was designed to be affordable. In Coleridge’s poem, the crew hangs the albatross around the Mariner’s neck to mark his guilt for killing the bird of good omen. Peake’s image hints at the possibility of redemption for the Mariner.
The Coleridge display at the British Library (until 25 September) overlaps by a few weeks with the loan of the manuscript of Coleridge’s other famous poem, Kubla Kahn, and a 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads to the Museum of Somerset for the exhibition In Xanadu: Coleridge and the West Country (until 25 June). The anniversary is also being marked at the British Library on 20 October with the Wordsworth Trust annual lecture by renowned Coleridge biographer Richard Holmes. Tickets will be available from mid-August.
Kathleen Coburn, Merton Christensen and Anthony John Harding, eds, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 5 vols (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957–2002)
Seamus Perry, ed., Coleridge's Notebooks: A Selection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)
21 March 2022
By Eleanor Dickens, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts.
The British Library has recently announced the acquisition of the Beryl Gilroy Archive, which was donated to the library in 2020.
Beryl Agatha Gilroy (1924–2001), was an acclaimed writer, teacher and ethno-psychotherapist.
Her archive includes drafts of published and unpublished manuscripts, notebooks, research and reflective essays on her own writing. As well as correspondence, material from her counselling practice and born-digital material.
Highlights of the archive include two drafts of In Praise of Love and Children, a rare fictional account of a woman’s experience of migration from the Caribbean. These two drafts, one typed and annotated and the other hand-written, show successive versions of Gilroy’s first novel, which was written in 1959 but not published until 1996.
Another highlight, and quite unique, aspect of Gilroy’s archive are the series of essays she wrote analysing and reflecting on her own fiction. Her archive contains such writing for all of her published novels and they are a fantastic additional insight into her work.
The archive also contains unpublished manuscripts of Gilroy’s work, both fiction, for example, a historical novel set during the 1780 Gordon Riots based on the life of a woman known as ‘Black Harriot’ who is thought to be depicted in William Hogarth’s painting The Rake’s Progress. As well as non-fiction, including a non-fiction draft about teaching, which works as a sequel to her memoir Black Teacher, and explores the ways that racist attitudes pervaded her experience of education.
Gilroy said herself that she ‘[…] belonged any place where there were children.’ And her passion, care and dedication for children’s well-being and education shines throughout her archive. Not least in the manuscripts of her contributions to the Nippers series, published by Macmillan, and her own notebooks and research into teaching and inspiring creativity in children.
One of our favourite items in the archive is a copy of a zine Gilroy made with students at Beckford Infants School (now West Hampstead Primary School), where she was head teacher between 1969-1982.
The zine is called ‘BIM’, which probably stands for ‘Beckford Infants Magazine’, and contains poetry, drawings and creative writing by the students at the school. The zine is a wonderful example of Gilroy combining her beliefs in child-centred learning, creative expression and positive self-image.
As part of celebrating Beryl Gilroy and her exceptional archive, there will be a free display in the Treasures Gallery, Celebrating Beryl Gilroy, running from 17 March until 26 June. The display includes highlights from the archive.
As part of this display, the British Library also commissioned the Liverpool-born Nigerian-German artist and filmmaker Amber Akaunu to respond creatively to the archive. Amber has created a zine, The Blueprint and a short film celebrating black women who help educate, nurture and develop children, which will also be on display.
Amber worked on the zine with Lana Maugé, a former student of Gilroy’s, and their contribution in the form of the zine feels like an excellent way of connecting with the zine Gilroy created with her students.
Amber Akaunu, said: ‘Spending time with Gilroy's archive was a luxury that visitors of the British Library will now also get to experience. The contents of the archive are honest, deeply reflective, and unique to the experiences of Dr. Beryl Gilroy. I created my film and zine response with these same attributes in mind, and centred around the idea that Black women, and their archive, are the blueprint to which we build from.’
The acquisition of the Beryl Gilroy archive expands the Library’s existing collections of Caribbean and Black British literary archives, including those of Andrew Salkey, Andrea Levy, James Berry and Wasafiri magazine. It will be available for research on completion of cataloguing in autumn 2022.
For further information or enquiries please contact: [email protected]
24 August 2020
A guest-blog by Daniel Brass, Kings College, London. The British Library houses many items of significance with regard to Chatterton’s life and works. These include autograph manuscripts of his poetry, written correspondence between Chatterton and Walpole, and letters and articles from the 1770s documenting the Rowley manuscripts controversy, all of which are available to view, for free, in our Reading Rooms.
Thomas Chatterton was just seventeen years old when he took his own life on 24 August 1770. This year, 2020, marks the 250th anniversary of his death. Whilst some of his poetry was published during his lifetime, Chatterton received little remuneration for his efforts and he was impoverished at the time of his suicide. His writing gained a newfound recognition in the years directly following his death, however, and exerted a considerable influence upon the Romantic Movement as well as sparking academic controversy.
The Death of Chatterton, 1856,
by Henry Wallis (Tate Britain, London)
Born on 20 November 1752, Chatterton was an incredibly well-read child who began composing original works at the age of ten. Inspired by his reading, Chatterton soon invented the persona of Thomas Rowley – a fictional 15th-century monk. Chatterton claimed that his poetry, which adhered to a faux-medieval style, was actually the work of his imagined Rowley. So convincing was Chatterton’s deceit that, following his death, his poetry was included in an anthology of medieval writings, with Thomas Rowley’s name gracing the work’s title. An academic debate regarding the origin and authenticity of these poems raged throughout the 1770s, with the deceit eventually being discovered and Chatterton’s ‘Rowley’ works eventually seeing publication under Chatterton’s own name.
Add MS 24891 “A Discorse on Brystowe” – one of Chatterton’s forged Rowley documents, chronicling the history of Bristol
Chatterton also supplied the antiquarian William Barrett with forged documents. Barrett, believing the manuscripts to be genuine, relied heavily upon them when compiling his work The History and Antiquities of Bristol. Published in 1789, long after Chatterton’s death, Barrett’s work was poorly received due to the embarrassing inclusion of the poet’s fabrications.
During his lifetime Chatterton sought patronage on several occasions and used his literary fabrications to gain access. Horace Walpole expressed an interest in Chatterton’s writings, which the poet stated were transcriptions of Rowley’s work. Walpole was not convinced and ultimately rejected the young poet as he suspected that the manuscripts were of a more modern origin than Chatterton claimed.
Add MS 24891 “A Discorse on Brystowe” – one of Chatterton’s forged Rowley documents. Chatterton’s fictional account of Bristol’s history includes several architectural sketches.
At the age of seventeen, Chatterton moved from Bristol to London with the aim of supporting himself financially through his writing. His time in London was short – he lived there for just four months prior to his death – but he wrote voraciously during that period. He composed journalistic pieces, political satires and poetry. Writing under his own name and a series of pseudonyms, Chatterton successfully achieved publication for many of his works in literary journals and magazines. Yet, despite his increasing success as a writer he continued to struggle financially. Chatterton died from an overdose of arsenic and opium on 24 August 1770. It is generally accepted that suicide was Chatterton’s intent though some have argued that the overdose which resulted in his death may have been accidental.
Although branded a literary fraud, appreciation for Chatterton’s works grew significantly in the years following his death. The talent he showed in the composition of the Rowley manuscripts was later properly appraised and appreciated and he began to be taken seriously as a gifted artist in his own right. In particular the Romantic poets venerated him as a misunderstood, tragic genius. He was praised by the likes of Coleridge, Shelley, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, and Scott who all cited him as a poet of exceptional talent.
Sources and Further Reading:
The British Library holds a number of manuscripts created by Thomas Chatterton, some of them he passed off as by the fictitious Thomas Rowley. These include:
Add MS 12050, The Revenge, 6 Jul. 1770
Add MS 24890, Eclogues and other poems, eighteenth century
Add MS 5766 A, B and C, Poems drawings and papers including Rowley originals, c. 1762-1770
Add MS 24891 A Discourse on Brystowe, by Thomas Rowleie, eighteenth century
Add MS 39168 A-V, ff. 79-84, contains the letters of George Catcott in defence of the Rowley poems, 1774-1776
17 August 2020
by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives who catalogued the Hughes Archive (held at Add MS 88198) For more information about the Library's holdings of material relating to the life and work of Ted Hughes, see our collection guide and the relevant pages on Discovering Literature.
Photograph of Ted Hughes © Copyright Caroline Forbes.
Today would have been the poet and writer, Ted Hughes’ 90th birthday. Born in Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire in 1930 Ted Hughes created a hugely diverse body of work from poetry and prose to theatre adaptations and non-fiction. The natural world and our relationship with it is one of the most abiding themes in his work from early poems such as ‘The Thought Fox’ and ‘The Hawk in the Rain’ through to his children’s story, The Iron Man. Hughes was also lauded for one of his last poetry collections, Birthday Letters, a series of 88 poems about his relationship with his first wife, the poet, Sylvia Plath.
We had hoped to mark 2020 with a small display of items from the Library’s rich collections on Ted Hughes in our Treasures Gallery, and an evening event. Sadly the Coronavirus pandemic meant that these plans have had to be put on hold at present although we hope to be able to celebrate Hughes’ life and work in a similar way in 2021 instead. In the meantime I would like to use this post to highlight the richness of the Library’s collections relating to Hughes and point to some of the online resources relating to him which can be accessed at the moment while the Library continues to reopen after the recent restrictions.
My own work at the Library began when I started cataloguing the Hughes archive which was acquired from the Hughes Estate in 2008. The archive contains literary drafts, diaries and notebooks, correspondence, professional papers and project files dating from throughout Hughes’ life and career from early notes made in the 1940s through to 1990s drafts of Birthday Letters and Howls and Whispers. The depth and breadth of the archive provide a rich insight into Hughes including both his creative process and the subjects that interested him which were as varied as astrology, fishing and poetry in translation. As my first proper job after becoming an archivist the archive was both a challenge and a joy as I looked through the boxes and marvelled at their contents. I think that all too often curators at the Library can forget how privileged we are to have access to such treasures. Having worked at home since March I have obviously missed meeting up with colleagues in person but I have also missed the collections. Being able to touch the paper on which an iconic work is written remains a privilege and a thrill which I am looking forward to getting back at some point in the hopefully not too distant future.
In addition to the archive which I catalogued we hold a number of smaller collections relating to Hughes often based around a series of correspondence between him and his friends, family and collaborators, including his sister, Olwyn, the artist, Leonard Baskin and the academic, Keith Sagar. Comments made in correspondence can often provide important context to works as well as useful information about an individual’s life.
Anyone looking for a Hughes fix would do well to look at Discovering Literature: 20th century which includes digitised highlights from across our Hughes collections including early astrological charts, notes on river pollution, drafts of Birthday Letters poems and sketches by Hughes. These can be found alongside articles on him by academics and others aiming to provide an introduction to his work.
I thought of Ted recently when out on my daily walk I saw a small pike in a river near my house. Getting out for walks has been important to me since I’ve been working from home and a good way of tiring out my small sons. You can’t spend as much time as I did reading about fishing when cataloguing the Hughes archive and not be enthusiastic about seeing one of Ted’s most iconic fish! Here is a photograph of the spot where we saw the pike.
Needless to say I didn’t have a chance to photograph the pike when we saw it and we probably won’t see it again though we have seen chub and roach in the river too. Here are some roach in the same spot which seems to be a popular haunt for them!
Meanwhile you can listen to Hughes reading ‘Pike’ on the Poetry Archive and describing his pike which sound rather larger and more impressive than mine. Happy Birthday Ted!
28 July 2020
by Zoe Louca-Richards, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts. Please note that due to work-flow restrictions resulting from Covid-19 action this material may not be accessible via the reading rooms until later in the year.
“What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of variety and Glow? – How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much Labour?” Jane Austen
After being on long loan to the British Library for over 80 years, the letter in which Jane Austen made the above famous remark has been acquired for permanent addition to the nation’s literary collection. The letter to Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh, was originally placed on loan to the British Library in 1936 by Austen’s descendants as part of Loan MS 19, and has now been purchased through a generous grant from The Collections Trust. It is one of approximately 160 surviving letters by Austen, of which only a small portion are addressed to those other than her sister Cassandra. The remainder of Austen’s life correspondence is thought to have been destroyed by Cassandra shortly after Austen’s death. The surviving few are a meagre remnant of this literary great: they offer only the faintest glimpse into the life that produced so many of our best known classics. Each of her extant letters has been repeatedly scrutinised and discussed. However, this letter in particular, previously published as Letter 146 in Deirdre Le Faye’s Jane Austen's letters (1995), is perhaps one of the most widely referenced of them, on account of the above quote, making it a valuable addition to the British Library’s literary collection.
Above: James Edward Austen Leigh. Below: Portrait of Jane Austen produced for the Memoir by James Edward Austen Leigh.
James Edward Austen Leigh, known by family and friends as Edward, and addressed here by Austen as ‘E’, was the son of Jane Austen’s eldest brother, also James. James (Jr.) had recently turned 18 when he received this letter from his aunt, and her opening line, ‘One reason for my writing to you now, is that I may have the pleasure of directing to you Esqre’, offers a playful quip on his recent transition into manhood. James was an aspiring novelist himself, and at the time of the letter had just left Winchester College to begin as an undergraduate at Oxford. James would later publish A Memoir of Jane Austen (1869) the earliest biographical account of his aunt, and the only one to be written by someone who knew her. It wasn’t published until 50 years after Austen’s death, and James himself had concerns as to his ability to do justice to such a task. You can learn more about James’ memoirs of his aunt through the British Library’s Online Exhibition Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians.
James is often referenced as Austen’s ‘favourite’ nephew. Letters to her sister Cassandra, indicate her active support and encouragement for his writing ability from a young age. James too spoke fondly of Austen. In his memoir of her he notes that she ‘was the delight of all her nephews and nieces’ and ‘that there was scarcely a charm in her most delightful characters that was not a true reflection of her own sweet temper and loving heart’.
Austen's quote comparing her work to the art of miniature painting. Add MS 89437
Early in the 4 page letter Austen notes that she is dismayed to learn that two and a half chapters of James’ own work have gone missing; extending a witty relief that her recent prolonged absence from Steventon cannot render her under suspicion of theft. Her famous remark comparing her work to the delicate and intricate art of miniature painting follows. This introspective comment from Austen regarding her craft has been the subject of much speculation and interpretation by scholars and Austen fans alike. In bashfully attesting to what little value such a theft would have, the fruits of which baring no possible benefit to her own works, Austen seems simultaneously to rib and praise both James’ work, and her own. The quote’s jocular undertone is often read as a subtle reminder to James that compared to her he was but a novice of the pen. Furthermore, ’so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much Labour’ has been suggested to indicate Austen’s own anxieties about the laborious nature of her art. The quote is frequently highlighted as a rare use of metaphor by Austen, a literary device often seen lacking in her published works.
The remainder of the letter goes on to discuss family concerns, particularly those of ‘Uncle Henry’, Henry Thomas Austen (1771-1859), and ‘Uncle Charles’, Charles John Austen (1779 – 1852), two of Austen’s six brothers.
“But I was forced to decline it, the walk is beyond my strength (though I am otherwise very well)". Add MS 89437
Austen wrote the letter on her 41st birthday, which would sadly be her last. Whilst she does make a brief comment on her poor health, noting the decline of an invitation as ‘the walk is beyond my strength’, the cheerful, light-hearted tone of the letter gives little impression that Austen had been battling with illness throughout the year, or indeed of an awareness that she would not last her 42nd birthday. A later letter written in January 1817 to her sister Cassandra notes that she had gained strength throughout the winter of 1816. Never the less, Austen died the following July. The exact cause of her death is still a matter of contention; Austen’s biographies alternate most frequently between a posthumous diagnosis of Addison’s disease and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – neither of which were recognised during Jane Austen’s lifetime – both also unfortunately untreatable, and both ultimately fatal.
This letter (Add MS 89437) joins another, also formerly from Loan MS 19, to her sister Cassandra (Add MS 70625) - accessible online on Discovering Literature - which was purchased by the British Library in in 1990. Five of the original seven letters loaned to the Library have now been sold (including the two purchased by the Library), and the remaining 2 letters are still on loan as Loan MS 19.
In addition to the aforementioned letters, the British library also holds Austen’s writing desk and a number of other fascinating Austen manuscripts, including:
- Add MS 59874 and Add MS 65381 - Two volumes of Austen’s Juvenilia.
- Add MS 65381 “Volume the Third” containing Part of Jane Austen's 'Catherine’.
- Add MS 41253 A-B - Letters and Paper of, and relating to, Jane Austen. Consisting partly of further correspondence to her sister and others.
- Egerton MS 3038 Manuscript of chapters 10 and 11 from Persuasion. The only surviving manuscript pages of a novel Jane Austen planned and completed for publication.
Jane Austen's letters / collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 3rd ed., Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1995.
James Edward Austen Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/a-memoir-of-jane-austen
Joan Austen Leigh ‘Jane Austen's Favourite Nephew’, Journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Persuasions #18, 1996.
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