29 July 2022
Amber Akaunu reflects on her work with the Beryl Gilroy archive
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.
Beryl Gilroy | The British Library (bl.uk)
For enquiries regarding the Beryl Gilroy archive, please contact Eleanor Dickens [email protected]
21 June 2022
Coleridge and The Ancient Mariner
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
Celebrating Beryl Gilroy
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]
13 October 2021
A Bear called Paddington: published 13 October 1958
by Alison Bailey, Lead Curator Printed Heritage Collections 1901-2000 and Curator of Paddington: The Story of a Bear.
View of Paddington: the story of a bear – exhibition at the British Library
The first stories about Paddington – the bear famous for his kindness, politeness and love of marmalade – were published by Collins (now HarperCollins Publishers) on 13 October 1958.
Perhaps you already know the background to Paddington’s creation? On Christmas Eve 1956 Michael Bond saw a toy bear sitting all alone on the shelf in Selfridges department store in London. He bought the bear as an extra Christmas present for his wife and they called him Paddington – after the station. Several months later, when Michael was looking for inspiration for some children’s stories, he saw the bear and wrote 8 chapters in 10 days.
Here at the British Library in London we are celebrating Paddington and Michael Bond in our Paccar 2 exhibition Paddington: The Story of a Bear, which runs until 31 October 2021. To illustrate Bond’s creative process we are lucky enough to have Michael’s ‘Notebook’ from 1957 (loaned by the Estate of Michael Bond) in which he wrote notes and ideas for his early Paddington stories.
Michael’s agent, Harvey Unna, who had encouraged him to write children’s stories, sent the manuscript to several publishers. It was followed up by Barbara Ker Wilson - then children’s books editor at Collins and herself a writer. In her report (lent to the exhibition by HarperCollins Publishers) she suggests Collins accept the stories for publication and notes her appreciation of both the character of Paddington and the overall style of the writing. The publisher’s reader she sent the manuscript to was equally enthusiastic – and we display the response (again lent by HarperCollins Publishers) next to Wilson’s report.
So, on 13 October 1958, A Bear called Paddington, was published. In the exhibition we are showing two copies of the first edition – one loaned by Michael’s daughter, Karen Jankel, which is signed by Michael and was given to his parents. This is in the first section of the exhibition – Beginnings – and is shown closed, so you can see Peggy Fortnum’s distinctive pen and ink drawing of Paddington on the dust jacket.
Opening showing first page of text from Michael Bond, A Bear called Paddington. With drawings by Peggy Fortnum. London: Collins, 1958.
The other copy is the legal deposit copy from our own collections in the Home section of the exhibition. This is open at the very first page of the very first story “Please look after this bear” and shows Paddington, again illustrated by Peggy Fortnum, with his hat, label and suitcase, as he appeared when the Browns first met him.
After those early stories about Paddington there were many more – including the final picture book story Michael wrote, Paddington at St Paul’s, illustrated by R.W. Alley and published in 2018 – 60 years after A Bear called Paddington. We display a copy in the exhibition, together with a selection of about 20 illustrated books from the many titles in our own collections, including pop-ups and translations. They sit among examples of original artwork by Peggy Fortnum, R.W. Alley and David McKee, as well as memorabilia on loan from Michael Bond’s family, plush toys, sound and film clips and material created by two local schools. All in all, 11 illustrators are represented.
This has been a cheering project to have worked on with the Exhibitions and Learning Teams over the last 18 months – a bright spot amid the gloom – and I hope you too will enjoy reading or re-reading Paddington to celebrate this anniversary.
- Michael Bond, A Bear called Paddington. With drawings by Peggy Fortnum. London: Collins, 1958. (British Library shelfmark: 12840.l.4.)
- Michael Bond, Paddington at St. Paul’s. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. London: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2018.
- Michael Bond, Bears & forebears: a life so far. London: HarperCollins, 1996. (B.L. shelfmarks: YC.1996.b.5818. and 96/28405)
With thanks to our travel partner Great Western Railway.
16 December 2020
What’s in a Name? The Archival Legacy of Emilia Francis Strong/Pattison/Dilke
By Jessica Gregory, Curatorial Support Officer for Modern Manuscripts, 1601 – 1950. The papers of Emilia Francis Dilke (Née Strong, formerly Pattison) can be found at Add MS 43903-43908. The correspondence of Emilia Francis Dilke and Gertrude Tuckwell are found at Add MS 49610-49612. The British Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, explores the history of women’s rights activism and is open now.
Emila Francis (Née Strong), Lady Dilke by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, 1887.
(NPG 5288, © National Portrait Gallery, London)
For too long, the achievements of women of the past have been lost; many who have made significant contributions to various fields find themselves remembered only in relation to the men in their lives. Tracing their own histories through archival collections can be a difficult task: within their husband’s papers, their legacies are already framed by the names they inherit and the proximity to power which was granted by them. Retelling the achievements of women from the past often requires us to reconstruct and draw together their lives through their disparate archival legacies, so often mapped according to their inherited names.
One such case is that of Emilia Francis Strong. She would become an essayist, author, art historian and women’s rights activist, but despite her varied intellectual output, there is a surprising lack of primary material preserved. The British Library holds some of her papers within her second husband’s archive: The Charles Dilke Papers. There are also a few items of correspondence within the collections of other powerful men too, but she has — to adapt Woolf’s famous phrase — no Archive of her Own.
Strong’s marriage to Dilke and her social class ensured that her name was preserved in history, but her varied intellectual pursuits have been overshadowed by her husband’s sex-scandal, which even now would have tabloid editors licking their lips. (And which, regrettably, I have to go into in order to contextualise her life).
Sir Charles Dilke and Emilia Dilke,1894, By W. & D. Downey, published by Cassel and Company, Ltd. (NPG x8701. © National Portrait Gallery, London)
Charles was a Liberal MP with a radical agenda, but the discovery of his extramarital relations with his brother’s mother-in-law, followed by his brother’s sister-in-law, Virginia Crawford, was just scratching the surface of his misdeeds. When Mr. Crawford’s divorce trial made the headlines, the judge found Virginia Crawford guilty of adultery, but — paradoxically — found Charles Dilke innocent of the same crime. On top of this, Dilke found himself pursued by an investigative journalist with a grudge, and was soon forced to enter a case in an effort to clear his name, which catastrophically backfired when his heavily mutilated liaison diaries were paraded in court. The torn and self-censored diaries seemed to prove Charles Dilke’s adultery and he became a figure of ridicule for his desperate attempts to cover up his indiscretions. Emilia had defended Charles at the trial, but the damage was done. His reputation crumbled and his love-life was the talk of the town for many years to come.
Engagement Book of Sir Charles Dilke, 1888,
Add MS 49402
Emilia’s legacy — like her life — is framed by this relationship. The situation would not be much improved by remembering her as ‘Emilia Pattison, wife of Mark Pattison’, either; her first marriage was so famously unhappy that she and her husband are said to be the real-life inspiration for the unhappy couple of Mr. Casaubon and Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s, Middlemarch.
A letter to Emilia Pattison from her friend, author George Eliot, 1870. Add MS 43907. British Library.
However, apart from her two marriages, Emilia sought to establish a name for herself through her own actions and writings. She studied at the South Kensington Art School in London. After her studies, she began contributing essays to the periodicals, such as The Saturday Review. She studied and wrote on Art and became arts editor of The Academy journal. Married to Mark Pattison at this point, she signed her articles E. F. S. Pattison, adding the ‘S’ to signify her maiden name: Strong — to reflect an element of her independence from her husband. Emilia published on the subject of French Art and gained a reputation as a respectable historian and critic in her own right.
She was also interested in social reform and particularly in improving working conditions for women. She was a prominent figure in the Women’s Trade Union League, founded in 1874 and became its president in 1886. She wrote on the subject of women’s rights at work. In the book Women’s Work, she explores the idea that women are a feature of the modern workplace and that their low wages are damaging not just to women, but to men — who were having their wages undercut — too. She outlines her argument for a raise of women’s wages to be in line with those of men as follows:
It is only too clear that economic independence of women is very, very far from being accomplished…Even though a woman’s work may be as good and as rapid as a man’s, we have seen that her scale of payment is frequently inferior to his…it would seem, therefore, clearly to be in the interest of workman to promote legislation and such methods of organisation as will afford to women the same vantageground [sic] as men
Emilia examined many aspects of women’s work in her essays and opinion pieces, outlining issues of inequality and advocating for health reforms in various sectors — even speaking at the Trade Unions’ Congress. She advocated for women’s trade unionism and would continue to publish on this subject — as well as Fine Art — for the rest of her life. Emilia was also friends with Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst and supported their campaigns for women’s suffrage.
Header for an Article published in the North American Review, 1891.
Even more than this, Emelia also wrote fiction, publishing two volumes of short stories, called, The Shrine of Death and Other Stories (1886) and The Shrine of Love and Other Stories (1891). The preface to The Shrine of Love seems to reaffirm the importance of working for reform through life:
Nothing has troubled me more than the weight of retribution which often falls on those who revolt against any point of prevailing order.
Fly-page image from The Shrine of Death and Other Stories, 1886.
Hers are strange, allegorical tales, sometimes with a supernatural element, and a strong focus on morality and fate. They did not prove popular at the time, but these stories have recently been consolidated and republished for a new audience.
Considering this complex and varied legacy, it is a reductive to think of Emilia Dilke as simply the wife of MP Charles Dilke. Her many writing talents should have ensured her a more pronounced legacy than the one she currently holds. Compared to other women of the era, Emilia Dilke was privileged enough to be published and this has preserved many of her thoughts for the long-term. There is no doubt her work on women’s rights was an influence on other women, including her niece Gertrude Tuckwell, who advocated for women’s rights and women’s suffrage, becoming one of the first female magistrates in the UK. However, the lack of available archival material reflects a system of collecting that was very much centered on prominent men.
Gertrude Tuckwell, Emilia Dilke’s niece, women’s rights advocate and suffragist. Wikicommons.
The centuries of male dominance in society are reflected in the contents of historic archive collections. The exclusion of women from professional careers means that essential institutional records are primarily authored by men on the actions of men. Therefore, women of the past with intellectual careers and contributions to various fields, often find themselves excluded from many historical records. Without admittance into the professional sphere their work has often been side-lined as that of personal ‘interests’ or ‘hobbies’, and therefore, historically not deemed worthy of formal preservation. This may help explain the disparity between Charles Dilke’s archival collections and Emilia’s.
As well as this, the ability to trace individuals is also more complex for some than it is for others. Barring titles, ranks and self-administered change, the majority of male names will remain the same throughout life, whereas women’s names often change through marriage. Archivists make efforts to discover women’s maiden names so that they can link individuals’ relative outputs together and to help establish a full biography of a person, but sometimes these names are never found. Emilia went by many names during her life, she had her married names, but also preferred to call herself Francis over Emilia at times. As well as this, she would sometimes include her maiden name in signatures and sometimes prefer to author articles with differing initials. Given this abundance of known names, one might see how articles of her authorship may not be linked together.
A combination of structural bias and incidental loss has inhibited the collection of women’s archives for generations, but there is change in the air. Archival institutions now make efforts to correct imbalances in their archival collections. The efforts to brings the many untold lives of women back into history was a major feature of second-wave feminism. As well as this, the internet has provided a means of connecting and tying women’s narratives together, enabling the writing of fuller biographies and giving more credence to their achievements.
The legacy of Emilia Francis Dilke has certainly benefitted from these changes, and many of her works have even been digitised and so can be accessed by a wider range of scholars. Likewise, contemporary women have made efforts to recover Emilia Dilke’s legacy, with Professor Hilary Fraser writing her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, and Dr. Kali Israel writing a contemporary feminist biography of Emilia Dilke that explores her accomplishments on her own terms. But such work has had to be accomplished without a comprehensive archival legacy for Emilia’s life and work. Given all this, one can see how easily other women have been lost to history, especially without the privilege of access to publishing that Emilia enjoyed. So many legacies have been reduced to a few scraps of paper and given our current advances in the field of archives, it is essential that we make an effort today to ensure that female archival legacies are fuller, broader, and most importantly, present in the future.
- Women’s Work…With a Preface by Lady Dilke, by A. A. Brooke. (London: Methuen & Co, 1894)
- The Shrine of Death, and other stories. L.P., By Emilia Francis Strong Dilke. (London: Routledge and sons, 1886)
- The Shrine of Love, and other stories. L.P., By Emilia Francis Strong Dilke. (London: Routledge and sons, 1891)
- Names and Stories: Emilia Dilke and Victorian Culture. By Kali Israel. (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1999).
02 November 2020
Carmen Callil, Cats and Feminist Generations
by D-M Withers, Research Fellow at the University of Sussex and collaborator on the Business of Women's Words Project, which explores the dramatic story of the feminist publishing revolution that unfolded during the UK Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 80s. The exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights -- which includes material from the Callil Archive and elsewhere, is now open at the British Library.
"I remember, when I was still writing the PhD, going to Carmen’s home in Chelsea, the little jewel of a flat with these two magnificent white cats kind of, stalking around, you know, scrutinising us. I remember it being painted deep lime green […] like a jewel, but that could be a misremembering." 
Virago author Barbara Taylor’s memory of visiting Carmen Callil’s flat in the late 70s is one of many references to Callil’s cats that litter the feminist publisher’s history. In her recently published memoir A Bite of the Apple, Lennie Goodings – clearly not a cat person – offers another account of visiting Callil’s home for a Virago meeting. Upon entering the ‘jewel’ like flat, John or William – one of two grey half Siameses given to Carmen as kittens by Germaine Greer and named after two ‘lovely men’ she had worked with in her early publishing career – boldly jumped on Goodings’s shoulder, and proceeded to curl around her neck. ‘I protested weakly’, writes Goodings, ‘until it was removed by Carmen, who declared that not liking cats “showed a defect in your personality.” 
Many photographic portraits of Callil and her feline companion exist from the 70s and 80s, and were often used as illustration for newspaper and magazine features. I encountered these sources while working on the Leverhulme Trust-funded project The Business of Women’s Words: Purpose and Profit in Feminist Publishing, a partnership between the British Library, the University of Sussex and the University of Cambridge. Callil was profiled alongside several other ‘go it alone’ entrepreneurs, including a freelance management consultant, wine exporters and a restauranteur, in a feature for one of the final issues of glossy lifestyle magazine Nova that ran between 1965-75. Callil explained that the entrepreneurial route was attractive because she ‘had the wrong temperament to work for an employer, I think […] I just cannot tread the daily tightrope of compromise and gritting your teeth.’  In a full-page portrait of Callil and her fabulous white Persian Mary – named after Mary Wollstonecraft (who else?) – taken by John Ferrara, both figures pose seductively, shooting forth an arresting look that doubles up the feminine gaze for the viewer, a celebration of fur, feminism and self-possession.
Joan Bakewell’s 1980 article ‘The feminist publisher’, published in Illustrated London News, offers a different configuration . Here Callil is sat at home, crossed legged, adorned with knee-length boots that show she means business. Behind her is a desk strewn with books. In her arms is one of her grey half Siamese cats that, as soon as the shutter clicks, will likely struggle from her loving grasp, avoiding the burn of a cigarette held imperiously in the publisher’s right hand. The restless energy captured in the image seems appropriate for a domestic portrait in which the feminine interior, the private home, has been faced out, now transformed into a public space of work.
An article for the Telegraph Weekend Magazine from 1989 is more playful. We are introduced to two new additions to Callil’s household, sourced from a Sussex farm, the six-month old Augusta or ‘Gus’, named after friend Gus Skidelsky who bequeathed the kittens to Carmen, and Jessica or ‘Jess’, named after Carmen’s godchild, the daughter of the influential literary agent, Deborah Rogers. The article describes how the cats conquer ‘the 15-foot-high fence, entangled with greenery’ that frames Callil’s London garden ‘with ease. “I wish I could,” she smiles. “I locked myself out last week. I tried to scale the fence from a neighbour’s garden but fell off and bruised myself.”’  The accompanying photograph is warm, with a comedic touch: Callil, wearing a dashing multi-coloured, pin-striped blouse, holds a tortoiseshell with white paws barely outstripping its kittenhood in her palms; her face reveals an irrepressible smile, the cat looks askance from the camera, stuck out tongue, insubordinate, naughty.
These photographs evoke the fascination with feline imagery in the work of twentieth century female surrealists Maya Deren, Leonor Fini and Leonora Carrington (Carrington’s Seventh Horse & Other Tales and The Hearing Trumpet were of course recovered by Virago as Modern Classics, in 1989 and 1991 respectively). In the portraits, cats become Callil’s familiars, their co-presence conducting the power of feminine independence, metamorphic mischief, sensuality and self-sufficiency. The surrealist imagery, in Callil’s case, is not of the subversive artist, but the businesswoman: the self-styled entrepreneur who chose comradeship with a host of feline friends, and to do business with other women.
In the Virago papers held by the British Library, we sometimes catch glimpses of Callil’s cats in her correspondence with publishing colleagues. Cat-lover Paul Berry, the literary executor of Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain, wrote to Callil to express his delight upon reading about her cats in an article published in the Sunday Telegraph. Callil responded, with exuberance: ‘I can’t believe I never told you I had three cats: my best friends for the last twelve years; you must meet them one day, each a remarkable personality.’  Cats were also important to an author who kickstarted the Virago Modern Classics (VMC), Antonia White. White wrote two children’s books about her cats, Minka and Curdy (republished by Virago in 1992) and Living with Minka and Curdy. White was one of a number of living authors Virago published in the VMC that Callil befriended. Given their common interest in feline companionship, it seems likely that cats – and Catholicism – animated their conversations.
If, like me, you have a strange fascination with the who, what, where and why of other people’s grocery shopping, you’ll love the extensive collection of receipts and invoices held in Carmen Callil’s archives at the British Library. Among a host of other things (including the companies Virago used to print their books, where they sourced images for the VMC, membership receipts for the London Library, the Chinese restaurants they regularly frequented, the calculators they used in the office, among others) you’ll learn that in the late 70s, Callil bulk-bought her groceries from the wholesaler, Makro . Alongside food and various items for the Virago office – circled or marked with an asterix to ensure specific items were included in the company’s accounts – are entries for tins of cat food and litter! A busy woman, such as she was, very wisely did not get bogged down by the regular need to shop for life’s essentials. Bulk-buying was a far more efficient choice.
Receipt taken from the Archive of Carmen Callil showing entries for cat supplies
To close this feline circuit, I want to share one, further, Virago-themed cat story. As an undergraduate at the end of the twentieth century, I studied English Literature at Swansea University, where I had the good fortune to be taught by Professor Ann Heilmann. I was captivated by Ann’s teaching and the source material she presented to us, especially for her course on Victorian Women Writers, which included books by many authors she had first encountered – Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the ‘New Women’ Olive Schreiner, George Egerton, Sarah Grand – through Virago’s Modern Classics. Ann is also a cat lover (when I was studying at Swansea, she had a cat called Sweetie, named after the Jane Campion film). Fast forward twenty or so years: Ann now has two cats. Their names are Angelica and Diavolo – inspired by the gender bending ‘Heavenly Twins’ in Sarah Grand’s 1893 novel (incidentally, Sarah Grand – whose The Beth Book was a VMC, and the biography Darling Madame: Sarah Grand and Devoted Friend by Gillian Kersley was published by Virago in 1983 – also chose to be photographed with her cats).
Angelica and Diavolo at work and play
If it wasn’t for Virago, Ann’s cats would not be named after characters in The Heavenly Twins because her contact with Grand came through Virago’s reprint publishing. Without Ann’s academic study of niche Victorian women writers, in turn, I never would have studied them as an undergraduate, an experience which indelibly shaped my relationship to feminism. Ultimately, this is a story about how feminist knowledge is transmitted across generations, visible in the delicate details, of who we can name our favourite companions after. Callil after Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann the fictional characters popularised by a writer Virago plucked from obscurity and republished. Cats, as home-working companions, intrude upon Virago’s history in many different ways; their feline influence extends in a web of associations and references that give meaning to feminist life.
My own cat, Sanjay, looking over collection of Virago Modern Classics.
In recent years, Callil’s public companions are more likely be dogs rather than cats (proof, if ever it was needed, that one needn’t be forced to choose in life between such things). Indeed, you can hear current companion Effie barking enthusiastically in this episode of Backlisted, where Callil discusses The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor, one of her favourite novels. Discernible, too, is Callil barking back with fervour: ‘Shut. Up. Effie!’ Given my own penchant for cats, though, I will close this short article with Callil’s thoughts on these remarkable creatures. ‘I like them simply because they are not human. And I really love the shapes they make. My old cat was like a walking painting.’ 
Thank you to Ann Heilmann for feedback on this article and for the photograph of Angelica and Diavolo. Thanks also to Eleanor Dickens of the British Library for supporting my research into the Callil archives during this project. Finally, my thanks to Carmen Callil for article feedback and permission to quote from her letter to Paul Berry.
 Barbara Taylor interview by Margaretta Jolly (2011) Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project, British Library Sound & Moving Image Catalogue reference, C1420/38/05, p. 141 © The British Library the University of Sussex.
 Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple: A Life With Books, Writers and Virago, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 42.
 ‘Fresh start: make the break and go it alone, Carol Dix talks to four people who did’, Nova, August 1975, 57-59, 59. Add MS 89178/1/166.
 ‘The feminist publisher,’ by Joan Bakewell, Illustrated London News May 1980, 67-69. Add MS 89178/1/166.
 Sally Richardson, ‘Animal Passions’, Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 1 October 1989. Add MS 89178/1/166.
 Carmen Callil to Paul Berry, 28 Oct 1981, Add MS 88904/1-194
 Add MS 89178/1/124-165, Virago receipts, 1974-81
 Richardson, ‘Animal Passions’.
24 August 2020
William Wordsworth: From This Green Earth
The year 2020 saw the 250th anniversary of the birth of the poet William Wordsworth who was born in Cockermouth, on the edge of the Lake District, on 7 April 1770. To mark this anniversary the British Library hosted a small exhibition on the poet and the role that the natural landscape and concept of ‘place’ played in his poetry. On display were Wordsworth’s original manuscript drafts, books connected with the poet and related artworks of places he visited. I wrote a blog to complement the opening on Untold Lives, which you can read here.
Sadly, due to the COVID-19 pandemic the British Library was forced to close the display and cancel the anniversary celebrations. Yet, as the exhibition closed, and the pandemic spread, the themes explored were gaining a renewed importance. Throughout his life Wordsworth found comfort and inspiration in the natural world. The grandeur and beauty of nature – especially the landscape of his native Lake District – exerted a strong influence on his writing, which he imbued with a powerful sense of place. As the world slowed into lockdown and households began to self isolate many began to rediscover that same solace offered by the countryside and the peace of the wilder spaces near their homes.
Inspired by this, we have developed six podcasts that explore the importance of the natural world using the Wordsworth exhibition as a point of departure. The series takes us on a journey across continents, along rivers, through forests, and into the heart of London to explore what nature meant to William Wordsworth and what it means to us now. On this audio voyage into all things Wordsworth, we’ll explore the role that family, friendship and collaboration played in the poet’s life and how they led to some of the most enduring lines in English poetry. We’ll delve into the power and potency that the simple act of walking had for the Lake poet, as well as considering the idea of childhood and imagination that Wordsworth and other Romantics held in such high esteem. In the final two episodes we’ll look at the legacy of Wordsworth, starting with a personal exploration of his native Cumbria and moving outwards, to consider international and post-colonial legacies of his poetry and personal myth.
This page contains the six-part podcast series and pairs each episode with related items from our archives, which we hope you’ll explore as you listen. For an alphabetical list of all the speakers involved in the series, please see the bottom of the blog.
Episode 1 - Nature
This episode explores the revolution Wordsworth prompted in social attitudes to nature and the appreciation of the natural world. We’ll look at how this shifted in the poet’s lifetime with the growing popularity and industrialisation of his native Lake District and then consider how this shift in attitude still feeds our relationship with wilderness and the local park. We hear from environmental journalist and broadcaster Lucy Seigle who invites us along to her local green space by way of the River Thames, where she finds a strong affinity with Wordsworth’s wife Mary. Alongside Lucy is a report from naturalist and writer Pradip Krishen who speaks to us from the Central Ridge nature reserve in New Delhi, India. We also hear music from poet and plant whisperer Jade Cuttle.
Lucy Seigle’s new podcast series ‘So Hot Right Now’ is about trying to change conversations around climate change.
Pradip Krishen’s best-selling book on the trees of Delhi is available to purchase online.
Jade Cuttle’s new album ‘Algal Bloom’ is available online and can be purchased from her website.
'Kendal and Windermere Railway: Sonnet' by William Wordsworth from the Carlisle Journal, 26 Oct. 1844. © Sourced from the British Newspaper Archive. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.
Episode 2 - Family
This episode focuses on the close family bonds in the Wordsworth household and shines a light on the vital literary and practical contributions of Wordsworth’s wife Mary and his sister Dorothy. It features artist and researcher Louise Ann Wilson who created an installation and series of walking performances inspired by Dorothy Wordsworth’s Rydale Journals and we hear from poet Hannah Hodgson who reads from a new collection that addresses the strains lockdown has placed on family life. Also featured is acclaimed poet and writer Ruth Padel, who untangles the web of relationships that fed into Wordsworth’s life and lyrics, drawing from her award-winning poetry on science, nature and music.
Louise Ann Wilson’s installation at Dove Cottage can be viewed on her website.
You can find Hannah Hodgson’s poetry on Twitter and Instagram @HodgsonWrites and her website.
Ruth Padel’s new collection of poems, an elegy to a lost mother, is entitled Emerald.
'I wandered lonely as a cloud' the original manuscript sent by Wordsworth to the printer for his Poems, in Two Volumes, 1807. The British Library, Add MS 47864. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.
Episode 3 - Walking
This episode looks at an activity that humans have engaged with for millennia – walking. As in Wordsworth’s day this simple act still prompts creative thought and can often provide tranquillity in times of stress. Explaining the science behind the creative power of walking is neuroscientist and psychologist Shane O’Mara. The episode also features the poet and musician Jade Cuttle and award-winning author Guy Stagg, whose first book The Crossway traces his hike from Canterbury to Jerusalem along the old pilgrim paths of Europe.
Shane O’Mara’s book In Praise of Walking is available to order online.
Copies of Guy Stagg’s book The Crossway can be ordered from his website.
Tintern Abbey from Frederick Calbert, Four Views of Tintern Abbey, 1815. British Library, Maps.K.top.31.16.k.2. © Public Domain. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.
Episode 4 - Childhood
In this episode we are looking at the Romantic notion of childhood, a loose philosophy of youth that stirred a revolution in the history of ideas and is still being felt in our attitudes today. Tracing this revolution back to the texts and thinkers that initiated it, Jonathan Bate explores the ideas of William Blake, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Wordsworth. The episode also features emerging poets who have been directly influenced by Wordsworth’s thinking on youth and innocence as members of the Young Poets Network. Reflecting on their own relationships with Wordsworth through poetry will be Matt Sowerby and Hannah Hodgson, who are both embarking on their literary careers.
Jonathan Bate’s new biography Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World is available to order now.
You can read poems by Matt Sowerby at the Poetry Society’s website and watch Matt perform his poem ‘Breadlines’.
You can find Hannah Hodgson’s poetry on Twitter and Instagram @HodgsonWrites and her website.
Autograph fair copy, with one correction, of 'A Poem of Childhood,' by William Wordsworth, 1842. British Library, Ashley MS 2264. © Public Domain.
Episode 5 - Local Legacy
This episode includes a conversation with Melvyn Bragg about his life-long connection with the poetry of Wordsworth and the landscape that inspired them both. We also have the reflections of the writer Helen Mort, who spent a year as Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust, Cumbria. Both contributors explore the legacy of the famous Lake poet and what his influence means for the landscape of the Lake District and countryside more broadly.
A list of Melvyn Bragg’s books can be found online.
Books and poetry by Helen Mort are available on her website.
Manuscript of The Prelude, by William Wordsworth. Dove Cottage. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust
Episode 6 - International Legacy
This episode tries to get a sense of the influence of Wordsworth outside of the Lake District and beyond the shores of Britain. An academic and a poet are invited to contribute their thoughts and research on the reception of Wordsworth outside of the Anglosphere. Featuring Ankhi Mukerjee, Professor of English and World Literatures at Oxford, who takes us back to hear how Wordsworth’s contemporaries in Bengal reacted to his revolutionary work. Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison explains her long and shifting relationship with Wordsworth and reads a number of specially selected poems. Also featured is music by award-winning poet and singer Jade Cuttle.
Ankhi Mukerjee’s book What Is a Classic is available to order online.
Lorna Goodison’s collected poems are available on the publisher’s website, her collection entitled Redemption Ground Essays and adventures includes her essay on Wordsworth called ‘Daffodil Bashing.’
Autograph copy of 'The Solitary Reaper,' by William Wordsworth. British Library, Add MS 60580. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.
Alexander Lock is Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library. He curated the Library's display 'William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place' and worked on the major British Library exhibitions 'Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy' and 'Harry Potter: A History of Magic'. His most recent book Catholicism, Identity and Politics in the Age of Enlightenment was published by Boydell and Brewer in 2016.
Ankhi Mukherjee is Professor of English and World Literatures at the University of Oxford. She is a Fellow of Wadham College. Her research and teaching specialises in Victorian literature and culture, postcolonial studies, and intellectual history. Mukherjee is the author of What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon (2014), which won the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize in English Literature in 2015.
Brett Walsh coordinates the cultural events programme at the British Library. He is a writer and artist who previously studied at the Royal College of Art, London. His writing was published in an anthology of essays on collective action, entitled Meet Me In The Present: Documents and their Afterlives.  He also edits the literature and arts magazine Ossian, which publishes essays, fiction and journalism.
Guy Stagg grew up in Paris, Heidelberg, Yorkshire and London. In 2013 he walked from Canterbury to Jerusalem. The Crossway, an account of this journey, was published by Picador in 2018. The book won an Edward Stanford Travel Award and was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, the RSL Ondaatje Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Deborah Rogers Foundation Award.
Hannah Hodgson is a 22 year old poet living with life limiting illness. She writes about her hospice use, disability and family life, amongst other things. Hannah is a recipient of the 2020 Northern Writers Award for Poetry. She has had work published widely, in outlets such as Acumen, Poetry Salzburg, The Poetry Society and Teen Vogue. She is soon to begin a Masters in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in Creative Writing. Her debut pamphlet ‘Dear Body’ was published by Wayleave Press in 2018. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @HodgsonWrites and her website is www.hannahhodgson.com
Helen Mort is a poet and novelist. She is five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets Award, received an Eric Gregory Award from The Society of Authors in 2007, and won the Manchester Poetry Young Writer Prize in 2008. Her collection Division Street is published by Chatto & Windus and was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Helen’s first novel Black Car Burning was published by Random House in April 2019. She lectures in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Jade Cuttle is a Commissioning Editor (Arts) at The Times, a BBC Music Introducing singer-songwriter and award-winning poet. Jade released her debut album ‘Algal Bloom’ with funding and support from the PRS foundation and Make Noise in January 2020. Jade has been an editor at Ambit and was a judge for the Costa Book Awards in 2019. She has previously worked at The Poetry Society and tutored at The Poetry School.
Jonathan Bate is a biographer, critic, broadcaster and scholar. He is Foundation Professor of Environmental Humanities in Global Futures, the School of Sustainability and the College of Liberal Arts at Arizona State University. Jonathan’s latest book Radical Wordsworth: The Poet who changed the World, was published in 2020 to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth.
Lorna Goodison is the poet laureate of Jamaica and winner of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. Her collected works were published by Carcanet Press in 2017.
Louise Ann Wilson is an artist, scenographer and researcher who creates site-specific walking-performances in rural landscapes. Louise has made a number of works informed by Dorothy Wordsworth, including: Dorothy’s Room (2018) inspired by her Rydal Journals, and Warnscale: A Land Mark Walk Reflecting on in/Fertility and Childlessness (2015 and publication), a self-guided walking performance in the Warnscale Fells near Buttermere, inspired by Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals.
Lucy Siegle is a climate and environmental journalist and broadcaster. For many years she wrote the only sustainability column in a national newspaper (The Observer) but also contributes to The Times, Vanity Fair, Grazia and many other publications. She is also known as the ‘green’ reporter for ‘The One Show’ on BBC 1 and for ‘The True Cost’ on Netflix.
Matt Sowerby is a 19-year-old spoken word poet and activist. In 2018 he was named a National Youth Slam Champion and performed at the Poetry Society and the Houses of Parliament. In his role as a climate activist, Matt co-founded KASTLE (Kendal Activists Saving The Little Earth). He has led protests and has attended the EU Parliament in Brussels. Beyond this he runs poetry workshops and is a member of Dove Cottage Young Poets, a youth poetry training project managed by the Wordsworth Trust. He is studying at the University of Birmingham.
Melvyn Bragg is a broadcaster, writer and novelist. He is well known for his work on ‘The South Bank Show’ for London Weekend Television (LWT) since 1978, and has been Controller of Arts at LWT since 1990 (Head of Arts 1982-90). He presented BBC Radio 4's ‘Start the Week’ for ten years until he was made a Life Peer (Lord Bragg of Wigton) in 1998. He has presented ‘In Our Time’ on BBC Radio 4 since 1998 and was the president of the charity Mind from 1996-2011. He has been a lifelong fan of the poetry of William Wordsworth, sharing his Cumbrian heritage and often visiting the places mentioned in Wordsworth’s poetry. Melvyn’s discovery, at age 12, of ‘The Maid of Buttermere’ from The Prelude, was a great comfort to him while suffering from depression.
Pradip Krishen is an Indian film-maker and environmentalist. He writes about trees and plants and works as an ecological gardener (mostly) in Western Indian and the desert where he has re-wilded spoiled landscapes with native vegetation. He is the author of Trees of Delhi (2006) and Jungle Trees of Central India (2015).
Ruth Padel is an award-winning British poet whose work is inspired by her close links to Greece and interests in science, classical music and wildlife conservation. She has published eleven collections of poetry that have been shortlisted for all major UK prizes. She has published a novel featuring wildlife conservation and eight books of non-fiction. Her latest poetry collection is entitled Emerald.
Shane O’Mara is Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College Dublin and a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator. His work explores brain systems affected by stress and depression. Shane’s latest book In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How we Walk and Why it’s Good for Us takes a ‘brain’s eye’ view of this amazing human activity – walking.
28 July 2020
Two Inches of Ivory: A New(ish) Jane Austen Acquisition
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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