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02 September 2020

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Lifelong Refugee (1927-2013)

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By Pauline McGonagle, Collaborative PhD candidate with the British Library and University of Exeter working on the Ruth Prawer Jhabvala archive. Pauline's work on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala has recently appeared in Wasifiri and formed part of a case-study on collaborative PhDs at the Library.

A Jewish refugee child of Polish origin, who escaped to England in 1939 from Cologne under Nazism, without any spoken English, left a remarkable legacy to international literary and cinematic culture.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s contribution is celebrated along with many prominent Jews in the biographical dictionary of the Jewish Lives Project within the Jewish Museum in London. Her literary archive, thanks to her bequest, is housed at the British Library. Within this collection are hand-written notebooks, scrapbooks, printed typed drafts, digital material and letters. These relate to her 13 published novels, over 100 short stories (some unpublished), several plays and nonfiction articles. Her scripts and screen play archives (21 in total) are housed in the USA.

History Remembered

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala recounted her Cologne childhood memories of being called a “dirty Jew” and chased by other German children in 1983 profiles and interviews. She remembered the notices on the city’s cinemas which stated, “Jews are not desired”. In 1934, the year after she started school, she witnessed the Nazis parade past their apartment before Nazi troops came to arrest her parents who were taken into protective police custody. She spoke of walking to her segregated Jewish school in 1938 past gangs smashing windows, and how once friendly shopkeepers “grew very cold and turned away from you”. She told Harriet Shapiro in 1987: “Other children would scream after us and throw stones”.

Ruth Prawer fled with her father Marcus, mother Eleanora and brother Siegbert, by the “smallest fluke” in April 1939, when US visas were declined, and they found Polish-born sponsors in Coventry. They later discovered, that at least forty of their relatives had perished. When Ruth Prawer was twenty-one and a student at Queen Mary College, London (1948), her father committed suicide. She later emigrated to Delhi, after she married the Parsi architect Cyrus Jhabvala in 1951, where she spent the next 25 years before moving to New York in 1976.

Destined to Write

Jhabvala told Dorothy D. Horowitz in an interview for Oral History how she constantly wrote stories as a child, in German, about Jewish life and with settings based on an imaginary Palestine; but “I can’t recall a single one”. Her mother was accused by her school of writing the stories and these were read out loud in the house of her grandfather, Elias Cohn, a bass Ober-Kantor at the conservative synagogue in Cologne. But, she recounted, someone threw these stories away and no-one thought to keep them.

The British Library has the photocopies of her first two published stories in her English school magazine Microcosm, ‘Der Fuchs un der rabe’ (1939) and ‘The Wonder Pot’ (1940). The copies were posted to Jhabvala in 1987 by the friend who had shared a childhood bedroom with this refugee stranger in Coventry in 1939. The letter attached to them said: “Herewith proof of your early promise–so elegantly fulfilled”. 

Photocopy of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's first publication in German, 'Der Fuchs Und Der Rabe'

Front cover of Summer 1939 edition of Jhabvala's school magazine, Microcosm
Ruth Prawer’s first publication in German and the cover of the School Magazine Microcosm, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Add MS 89348 © British Library Board

In 2005 Maya Jaggi explained how other writers described Jhabvala’s skill and ability in terms of her unique outsider perspective. Caryl Phillips identified her postcolonial positioning: “She understood loss of language, land and history in a brutal and visceral way, and reinvented herself…”

Jhabvala told a Canadian radio interviewer in 2012 when asked about the link between her refugee background and her ability to detach herself from the subjects of her work:

    I’m not interested in who am I, … I’m interested in what’s gone, the disinheritance, what I’ve     been able to become or learn or fuse with or not fuse with. A certain freedom comes… I like it     that way.

The lecture which she gave on receipt of the Neil Gunn Fellowship awarded by the Scottish Arts Council in 1979 tackled this topic and was published in Blackwood’s Magazine under the title ‘Disinheritance’.  In it, she distinguishes the loss of “ancestral memories” from what she sees as inherited craftsman’s tools, which “were given, gifted to me, happened to me”. The drafted plans for the lecture clearly delineate her life into distinct phases.

photograph of a notebook containing plan outline of a lecture for receipt of Neil Gunn Fellowship in Edinburgh 1979 given by Ruth PrawerJhabvala

From Notebook containing plan outline of lecture for receipt of Neil Gunn Fellowship in Edinburgh 1979, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Add MS 89348 © British Library Board

Try and try and try again

Jhabvala worked at her craft with a daily routine of morning writing and was driven by inner confidence and resilience. An annotated typed piece entitled ‘Why I Write’ (undated) from the archive, reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1946 essay, illustrates this. It may have been written after 1976, as the final page addresses her last writing phase. She describes “the double spur” of inner and outward ambition and the increasing thrill that writing brings. Yet the assuredness and self-reflection on how Jhabvala the writer was formed is balanced by a self-critical voice, one which speaks after completing every story or book : “I didn’t get it right…” and then a persistent: “let me try again, and again, and again”.

Photograph of undated annotated typed essay Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Undated annotated typed essay Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Add MS 89348© British Library Board

Jhabvala never mentions screen writing here. If ‘Why I Write’ is dated close to the papers with which it was packed (1980-1983) she had already written five screenplays by then, all set in India, and had adapted both Henry James’ The Europeans (1979) and Jean Rhys’ Quartet (1981). Her inspiration for screen writing was always literary and she admired those artists who shared this influence in their work, most of whom had a deep rootedness in their own soil, something which, for her, was absent.

When discussing her favourite Satyajit Ray film, Charulata, based on the Rabindranath Tagore novel, this ambition features:

    All great works stimulate a hopeful emulation that ends occasionally, as in the films of Satyajit Ray, in radiant success —     ensuring the business of influence and inspiration that makes us all try and try and try again.

Ray supervised the music production of Jhabvala’s first Merchant Ivory adaptation of her novel The Householder (1963), he re-cut the film, and his cameraman directed the photography. James Ivory also recalls her saying “Let’s climb a big mountain” when she wanted them to make EM Forster’s Howards End (the adaptation which won her one of two Oscars in 1993).

Jhabvala, who died in 2013 in New York, had no ambition or desire to return to Cologne. In the ‘Disinheritance’ essay she speaks about her feelings after twenty-four years in India: “a terrible hunger of homesickness that I cannot describe it was so terrible, so consuming”. She articulates it as a desire for no specific ‘home’ but for a generic Europe, where people spoke, thought, and looked like she did. New York provided this homecoming for her in 1976, because it seemed like a bucolic Europe, reaching backward and “untouched by the events of the 1930s and 40s”. When Bernard Weinraub interviewed her in 1983 for The New York Times Magazine she explained: “To anyone of my generation… Europe now does smell of blood”.

Once a Refugee, Always a Refugee

“A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten” (the Talmud). This quote is cited by Gunter Demnig, the Cologne artist, as the inspiration for his work. He remembers those who fled, were deported or murdered as victims of Nationalist Socialism, by installing commemorative brass plaques in the pavement in front of their last address of choice. These stolpersteine (‘stumbling stones’) now exist in 2,000 locations, and the 75,000th was placed in Frankfurt in December 2019. The stones give individual names to those considered “subhuman” by an ideology which promoted Aryan racial purity, one that propagated Fascist movements right across Europe.

In September 2019, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s daughter Ava Wood and I went to Cologne where four stones were being laid in memory of the Prawer family, commissioned by the generosity of a local art gallery owner, Norbert Arns and his book group. This group, formed in 2013, were reading Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day in May 2019, when a member, Thomas Schuld, Director of the Edith Stein Archive, realised that Prawer Jhabvala who adapted the novel for the screen was a former resident. They researched the family and discovered the great achievements of both Ruth and her brother Siegbert, a scholar and Professor of German and Comparative Literature; located their last known address from the City council’s registers, and traced family members.

Our very brief visit was to a city which none of the Prawers would have recognised. The book group’s hospitality included; visits to the Jewish Cemetery gravestones of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s grandparents, to the original site of the orthodox synagogue on Glockengasse, which was razed in 1938 during Kristallnacht, where now sits the opera house, and a personal tour of the Roonstrasse synagogue with Boris Rothe.

On the morning of 26th September 2019 four granite setts with brass plates fixed on top, hand-engraved by the craftsman Michael Friedrichs-Friedländer, were silently and swiftly laid by Gunther Demnig outside a five-storey 1950s building on 35 Hochstadenstrasse. We witnessed a moving but simple tribute with some residents, the book group members and passers-by, in the drizzling rain. These stones were the first four of 50 that were laid later that day in Cologne. Among other groups considered ‘a-social’, whose names will not be forgotten, are Roma and Sinti gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and disabled people.

The stolpersteine are not always welcome and some Jewish leaders and groups consider them disrespectful, while a few residents find it distasteful to have such painful reminders outside their front doors. Munich has only permitted wall panel memorials as alternatives. It seems to me, that the humility of bowing down to honour the victims of persecution as we stumble upon them has its own dignity; a dignity not offered to other victims of perpetrators of injustice, the offenders honoured with statues, and to whom we look upwards as we walk under their shadows.

Ruth Prawer, who was almost twelve when she left Cologne, could only dream of being the writer she would become, but Cologne now remembers her and her family as survivors who fled from what was their home. These memorials, created and placed with respect by human hands, and stumbled on by human feet, carry the name she was born with next to those of her dearest, thanks to the generosity and humanity of strangers.

Photograph of commemorative stones placed in memory of the Prawer family

Photograph by Ava Wood stolpersteine laid on Sept 26, 2019 outside 35 Hochstadenstrasse, Cologne. © Ava Jhabvala Wood

 

References

Apperly, Eliza. “‘Stumbling stones’: a different vision of Holocaust remembrance” The Guardian February 18, 2019.

Etzioni, Amitai “‘Kristallnacht’ Remembered: History & Communal Responsibility” Commonweal June 15, 2014.

Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer. 1979. ‘Disinheritance’. Blackwood’s Magazine

Horowitz, Dorothy.1983. ‘Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Oral History Memoir’ (November 16) from William E. Wiener Oral History Library of the American Jewish Committee at New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Shapiro, Helen. ‘The Teeming Imagination of Novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is Her Window on a World She Avoids’.  People, September 28, 1987, 48–53.

Weinraub, Bernard.  ‘The Artistry of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’. The New York Times Magazine Sept.11, 1983.

Woo, Elaine. ‘Jhabvala saw herself as a “lifelong refugee”’ Los Angeles Times April 05, 2013.

24 August 2020

The Manuscripts of Thomas Chatterton

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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.

 

Painting: 'The Death of Chatterton' by Henry Wallis (Tate Britain, London) dated The Death of Chatterton, 1856, by Henry Wallis 1856

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.

Manuscript draft of 'A Discorse on Brystowe” – one of Chatterton’s forged Rowley documents, chronicling the history of Bristol

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.

Manuscript draft of 'A Discorse on Brystowe” – one of Chatterton’s forged Rowley documents, chronicling the history of Bristol, including architectural scketches.

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

William Wordsworth: From This Green Earth

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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.

'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.

'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.

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.

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

 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.

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.

 

Contributor Bios:

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.

17 August 2020

Ted Hughes: A 90th Birthday Celebration

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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.

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.

Photograph of river showing where author spotted a 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!

Photograph of roach in river

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!

05 August 2020

Imagining Aliens and Looking for the Invisible: Imperialist Legacies in Science Fiction

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by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. 

Science Fiction can’t help but look backwards. Whether flying starships across the galaxy or warring with exotic extra-terrestrials, it struggles to escape the gravitational pull of the nineteenth century and the imperialist, expansionist logic from which it emerged. This shouldn’t surprise us. How could a genre which deals in technologically driven exploration, reportage of distant cultures, and ideas of the ‘alien’ escape such a pull? In many ways, nineteenth century exploration narratives which trade on their own realism actually pre-empt the bombast of modern and contemporary sci-fi: “In the same way one of you might believe there are inhabitants in the planet Mars”, wrote Conrad in Heart of Darkness — himself drawing upon the Dark Africa trope established by writers like Henry Morton Stanley in Through the Dark Continent (1878) —“We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet". Where does such a comparison lead? In the science fiction anthology Future Earths: Under African Skies (1993), editor Mike Resnick asserts that “while Africa has lost some of the mystery and romance […] it now provides thoroughly documented examples of some of the most fascinating people and societies any writer, searching for the new and the different and alien, could hope to find”. Resnick asks us at last, “is there anyone out there who still thinks Africa isn’t alien enough?” We might answer either way, depending on our personal background, but to imagine that Africa is fundamentally and not merely contingently 'alien' is surely a retrograde move for anthology purporting to show us 'Future Earths'.

Illustration titled 'Stanley safe out of the dark continent' commemorating Henry Morton Stanley's safe return from Africa, the 'Dark Continent' Shelfmark: PENP.NT152

Illustration titled 'Stanley safe out of the dark continent' commemorating Henry Morton Stanley's safe return from Africa, the 'Dark Continent' Shelfmark: PENP.NT152

It might seem obvious, but the ‘exotic’ is a feeling, not a quality inherent to any place, object or people. Everything is local and quotidian to some people and exotic to others. This is why there are two rivers in Heart of Darkness: the Thames, which is explicitly named and known, and the Congo, which is not and so remains radically unknowable. Through use of a frame-narrative, Conrad takes his readers on a journey through ‘Darkest Africa’ whilst bobbing quietly on a boat anchored securely to a London dock. This is the promise of all travel narratives, and possibly the promise of most science-fiction too; travel from the comfort of your own chair, or culture. “Nothing is easier for a man”, Conrad's narrator tells us, “than to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames. The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea”. London’s great river is readable — dense with nouns, famous names and recorded battles. The unnamed Congo is its shadow, “like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest”. 

Pages from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad as it first appeared in Blackwoods Magazine 1899 Shelfmark: P.P.6202.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad as it first appeared in Blackwoods Magazine 1899
Shelfmark: P.P.6202.

 

But despite Conrad's imagination, the Congo is not a deeper past, it is not "the earliest beginnings of the world", but rather a coexisting — yet different— present. This idea of relativity is one that Chinua Achebe brings to the fore in his highly influential essay on Conrad's novella where, re-calling a discussion with a young American student about Africa, Achebe wonders why this young man “is obviously unaware that the life of his own tribesmen in Yonkers, New York, is full of odd customs and superstitions and, like everybody else in his culture, imagines that he needs a trip to Africa to encounter those things”. The Thames is a strange river too. Reading Achebe, I was struck by memories of my time spent working on the Library’s exhibition, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land (2018), where I was tasked with selecting oral history recordings of Caribbean migrants newly arrived in Britain (I wrote a blog about it). Among other things, speakers described their disappointment at Buckingham Palace’s drab grey exterior, how they thought houses with chimneys were factories, how they were disgusted by the truly alien practice of eating fish and chips from newspaper.

Watch the Windrush Community Project, a partnership project between the British Library, Caribbean Social Forum and Chocolate Films. Inspired by the British Library exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, members of the Caribbean Social Forum share their stories of journeying from the Caribbean to the UK.

Science fiction offers opportunities to explore these ideas of cultural relativity. Ursula K. Le Guin, for example, was keenly aware of the arbitrary relationship between the exotic and the everyday. She writes about her parents’ (both anthropologists) relationship with Ishi, the last known member of the Native American Yahi people from present-day California. Like Conrad’s Congo, Ishi has no true name, owing to a deeply held belief among his people that names were sacred and could only be shared by a third-party. As the last of his tribe, he took on the default name of the Yahi word for ‘man’ — Ishi. Le Guin describes learning about how her native California was made and unmade, named and unnamed by its successive inhabitants:

    What the Whites perceived as a wilderness to be ‘tamed’ was in fact better known to human beings than it has ever been     since: known and named. Every hill, every valley, creek, canyon, gulch, gully, draw, point, cliff, bluff, beach, bend, good     sized boulder, and tree of any character had its name, its place in the order of things. An order was perceived, of which the     invaders were entirely ignorant. Each of those names named, not a goal, not a place to get to, but a place where one is: a     center of the world. There were centres of the world all over California.

Questions about relative ‘centres’ have proved difficult but crucial for understanding science-fiction writing across time. Early on, as with the first chapter of H.G Wells’s seminal novel The War of the Worlds (1898), readers were called upon to engage in a kind of sympathetic de-centring, to ‘remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought […] upon its own inferior races’, and question whether we are, ‘such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?’ These kinds of rhetorical questions have not proved particularly useful in hindsight. In some ways they demand too little of us — they keep the strict hierarchies intact and merely add one extra rung on the ladder above us, without ever questioning the logic of inferiority and superiority itself, or ever forcing us to engage with the intricacies and complexities of any particular cultural difference. Even if we assume that Wells’s reference to ‘inferior races’ is loaded with enough irony that we can look past it (and I’m not saying we should), what we’re left with is a call to engage with injustice as solely motivated by fear: it could be us in the inferior position next, so our responsibility as a benevolent caretaker is to be kind-hearted, just incase.

Illustration: La guerre des mondes. Traduit de l'anglais par Henry-D. Davray. édition illustreé par Alvim-Corrêa   Shelfmark: L.45/3317

La guerre des mondes. Traduit de l'anglais par Henry-D. Davray. édition illustreé par Alvim-Corrêa  
Shelfmark: L.45/3317

 

Something else is at work in War of the Worlds too. There’s a strange kind of pleasure that that comes from witnessing the purely aesthetic obliteration of civilisation in fiction. Contemporary disaster movies — of which the modern re-imagining of War of the Worlds (2005) starring Tom Cruise is one —demonstrate this more clearly than any other medium. But even when skyscrapers are toppled, nuclear bombs are set off, and martians attack, not everything is destroyed. What’s left over is often more revealing than what’s lost. In J.G Ballard’s novel The Drowned World (1962), for instance, it is with the crew’s encounter with the submerged Leicester Square in the final chapters — exclaiming “But it’s all so hideous. I can’t believe that anyone ever lived here. It’s like some imaginary city of Hell” — that the decentring takes place. What survives beyond this drowned world are racial hierarchies and animalistic descriptions that call back to science fiction's origins. Big Caesar, a pilot for the protagonist Strangman, is variously described as a “huge humpbacked negro” a “grotesque parody of a human being”, and a “giant hunch-backed mulatto”. Should we believe that these descriptors, hierarchies and stereotypes are so fundamental that they can survive the end of the world as we know it?

Typescript draft of The Drowned World, by J. G Ballard

Typescript draft of The Drowned World, by J. G. Ballard © J. G. Ballard. Reproduced by permission of the J. G. Ballard Estate. All rights reserved. You may not use this work for commercial purposes and the copyright holder must be credited. Shelfmark: Add MS 88938/3/4

For black science fiction writers there is often frustration at this lack of imagination; exasperation that, as Charles R. Saunders writes “A literature that offered mainstream readers an escape route into the imagination and, at its best, a window to the future could not bestow a similar experience for black and other minority readers”. Recent efforts to collect and anthologise black science fiction have gone some way into helping us to interrogate these failures further — and to gesture towards ways in which they might be addressed. Unlike the aforementioned anthology, Future Earths: Under African Skies (1993) which took the idea of Africa as its exotic object, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000) is an example of a contemporary anthology which attempts to amplify the voices of the African diaspora themselves, as subjects.

Front cover for Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From the African Diaspora (Grand Central Press, 2000)
Front cover for Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From the African Diaspora (Grand Central Press, 2000)

Other stories take on more personal concerns, especially in regards to the body as a highly politicised site of resistance and compliance. In Nalo Hopkinson’s ‘Ganger (Ball Lightning)’ (2000), for instance, the two main characters experiment with the use of a new kind of sex-toy wet-suit which is sold as ‘consensual aid to full body aura alignment’ but is dismissed as ‘Psychbabble’ and produces only a ‘dampened sense of touch […] like being trapped inside your own skin, able to sense your response to stimuli but not to feel when you had connected with the outside world.” After a terrifying ordeal where the suits become autonomous, it is only after they’re destroyed — building to a the moment of tenderness and clarity which concludes the story — that the characters can finally stop ‘talking around stuff rather than about it" and that ‘blackness’ is finally acknowledged, only to be embraced, ending in a moment of real, suit-less ‘touch’. Octavia E. Butler’s contribution, ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’ (1987) is a strange kind of love story too, where a genetic ‘abnormality’ consigns its sufferers to a life of institutionalisation and self-destruction and the two protagonists — both of whom suffer from the condition — find their place among the sick, administering care.

Butler’s fascination with fatalism and genetics is, as she explains in the epigraph, no accident. The attention, complexity and tenderness with which she treats such questions, though, emerges from an awareness of the pernicious ways in which these concepts can be used and a determination to illustrate ways out of their seemingly incontrovertible bind. In this way Butler’s story is typical of Dark Matter as an anthology that revels in its own unwillingness to offer conclusions; that seeks to forego thematic and stylistic consistency in favour of variety, imagination and possibility. If the travel narratives of the nineteenth century endeavoured to chart, describe and report back on the exotic — to make it known to us in our own terms — Dark Matter, as the title suggests, is about gaps and invisible forces; about the strangeness that’s everywhere and that holds everything together. It's not a contradiction to say that science fiction can do that too.

28 July 2020

Two Inches of Ivory: A New(ish) Jane Austen Acquisition

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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.

 

Photograph of Loan MS 19 showing a letter from Jane Austen to her nephew, James Edward Austen

“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.

Pencil drawn portrait of James Edward Austen Leigh

Portrait of Jane Austen produced for the Memoir by James Edward Austen Leigh

 

  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’. 

Photograph of excerpted quote from Add MS 89437.

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. 

 

Photograph of excerpted quote from Add MS 89437.

“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:

 

Further Reading:

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.

15 July 2020

Mervyn Peake’s scariest drawings saved for the nation

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By Zoë Wilcox, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts

Drawing of Steerpike from the Gormenghast books. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Drawing of Steerpike from the Gormenghast books. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

Today we are announcing the acquisition of over 300 drawings from the pen of one of the 20th century’s greatest illustrators, Mervyn Peake. The archive includes fearsome and funny illustrations for classics such as Treasure Island, The Hunting of the Snark and Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm, as well as illustrations for his own books including Gormenghast, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor and Letters From a Lost Uncle. This newly-acquired archive – also containing juvenilia and unpublished work - joins his literary manuscripts already held here at the British Library, together forming the largest public Mervyn Peake collection anywhere in the world. From completion of cataloguing in 2022 you will be able to research the Mervyn Peake Visual Archive for yourself and there will be opportunities to see the illustrations in upcoming British Library exhibitions, but for now here are a few highlights to whet your appetite and stimulate those research ideas.

Treasured islands

One of the undoubted gems of this new collection is Peake’s series of illustrations for Treasure Island, which were published in 1949 and are regarded as some of the finest examples of his illustrative work. It probably helped that Treasure Island was his favourite book from childhood and that he had been poring over the drawings of others, including the anonymous original illustrator, and drafting his own versions since he was a schoolboy (as evidenced by the fact that two watercolour illustrations survive in the archive executed when Peake was only 15). But Peake’s familiarity with the illustrators who went before him was not purely down to childhood fandom. On receiving one of his earliest commissions to illustrate Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark in 1941 he set out to learn everything he could from the artists he most admired – from Hogarth and Blake to Cruikshank and Bewick. As a writer himself, he maintained a healthy respect for the authors whose work he was reinterpreting, ‘sliding into another man’s soul’ as he put it and subordinating himself to the story, which perhaps explains why he often chose to show us characters divorced from their setting, leaving it to our imaginations to conjure the action of the story. The results have been highly praised and Peake is credited with reimagining the story and showing us the true evil potential of the pirates (see John Lewis’ The 20th Century Book: Its Illustration and Design).

The pirate crew

The pirate crew from Treasure Island, 1949. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

These Treasure Island illustrations are also a particularly fine example of Peake’s mastery of the technique of cross-hatching, as you can see from the above drawing of the Hispaniola’s shipmates as they approach Skeleton Island. Elsewhere, his innovative use of closely-drawn broken lines results in the incredible image of Israel Hands falling from the mast with a swirling sea behind him. Part of the rich research potential in this new archive lies in the many preliminary drawings and annotated proofs for Treasure Island which Peake retained, allowing us to trace his creative process in detail as he carefully honed each picture.

Israel Hands falling from the mast. Treasure Island  1949. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Israel Hands falling from the mast, Treasure Island, 1949. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

Too scary for bedtime?

Once dubbed by critics ‘eerie’, ‘sinister’ and ‘quite unsuitable for sensitive children’, it is Peake’s children’s book illustrations that are at the heart of this archive. Peake’s work has thrilled and unsettled children since he started publishing in the later 1930s, sometimes with an outcry from adults who have worried about nightmares and the ‘indelible mark’ left on their offspring. Here is an example from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm (1946), which again uses cross-hatching to evoke the dark, foreboding atmosphere.

Illustration for ‘Our Lady’s Child’ from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm  1946. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

Illustration for 'Our Lady's Child' from Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

For older readers, Peake will be best-known as the author of the Gormenghast books which earned him the status as one of the best fantasy writers of the 20th century. Fans of the series will find ten illustrations of Gormenghast characters in the Visual Archive, including depictions of its hollow-eyed anti-hero Steerpike, the grotesque chef Arabiatha Swelter and the delightfully-named doctor’s sister, Irma Prunesquallor.

Early Peake

The earliest item from the Visual Archive is a drawing by seven-year-old Mervyn, sketched on a Sunday afternoon in China, where he spent his childhood as the son of a missionary doctor. The Peake family returned to England for good when Mervyn was 11 years old but the sights and sounds of his early years were never forgotten. The sense of being an outsider came from living in a walled missionary compound looking like a miniature version of Croydon set down in a distinctly different culture, and it continued on his return to England where there seemed to be no thread linking his two very different lives. Peake’s perspective on Chinese culture and this sense of isolation have both been consistent influences on Peake’s later work, from the ritualised world of Gormenghast to the stylised brushwork of some of his drawings. In the Visual Archive, the Chinese influence can be seen in his juvenilia and also in his exquisite illustrations for an early unpublished book of nonsense, ‘The Moccus Book’, which he produced in the late 1920s from an idea developed with his best friend, Gordon Smith.

A Sunday evening walk in China. Earliest surviving drawing by Mervyn Peake  aged 7  circa 1918. © Estate of Mervyn Peake.

A Sunday evening walk in China. Earliest surviving drawing by Mervyn Peake, aged 7, around 1918. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

The pirate who never grew up

The thread running through the entire archive is Peake’s piratical spirit. He was obsessed with pirate stories from childhood, cultivated a piratical appearance and was very fond of jokes and pranks. It is not surprising therefore that Peake went on to write his own pirate tale in the form of his 1939 children’s book Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor. Although Peake’s early literary influences reflect the colonial society in which he grew up, it is notable how he could turn these tropes upside down. The bloodthirsty Captain Slaughterboard, for instance, gives up his piratical ways and sets up a cosy, domesticated life on a foreign island with an ambiguously-gendered ‘Yellow Creature’ in what appears to be a very happy queer relationship – marking the picture book out as ‘way ahead of its time’ in the opinion of former Cambridge Professor of Children’s Literature, Morag Styles. The Visual Archive holds the complete set of all 45 final illustrations for this book and you can see a glimpse of an early version of the Slaughterboard story in this beautifully illustrated manuscript from the collection which is available in full on our Discovering Children’s Books site.

The pirate Charlie Choke sporting a tattoo of Mervyn Peake’s wife Maeve on his arm. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor  1939. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

The pirate Charlie Choke sporting a tattoo of Mervyn Peake's wife Maeve on his arm. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, 1939. © Estate of Mervyn Peake

Words and pictures

Utlimately, in the fashion of other great writer-artists from Blake to Wyndham Lewis, it is impossible to separate Peake’s art from his writing. To understand his imagination and his synaesthetic creative process as a whole, we need to consider his writing and drawing side by side, and this acquisition will enable researchers to do just that. You can read more about the Mervyn Peake Visual Archive in our press release.

Funders

The Mervyn Peake Visual Archive was acquired by the British Library with the generous support of the Art Fund with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation and a contribution in memory of Miranda Stonor, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the British Library Collections Trust and the Friends of the National Libraries.

Further reading

  • G. Peter Winngton, ed., Mervyn Peake The Man and his Art (London: Peter Owen, 2006)
  • G. Peter Winnington, Mervyn Peake’s Vast Alchemies: The Illustrated Biography (London: Peter Owen, 2009)
  • Maeve Gilmore, A World Away (London: Gollancz, 1

13 July 2020

Blazing a trail for Black British writing: Jacaranda's Twenty in 2020

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It seems fitting to open our series on small publishers who make the work of Black writers central to their mission by featuring the first publishing house to commit to publishing 20 titles by 20 Black British writers in one year.  This initiative aims to amplify the voice of Black Britons as valued members of British culture and society and to increase the range and presence of work by diverse writers. The books include adult fiction, nonfiction and poetry.  The publisher is London-based Jacaranda Books, who have just picked up the British Bookseller Award for Best Small Publisher 2020.

Leopard's Gaza

Through the Leopard's Gaze, by Njambi McGrath.

Jacaranda Books is an independent publishing house that aims to create a platform for under-represented voices from a wide cultural heritage, but with a particular focus on works related to Africa, the Caribbean and the Diaspora. It was founded in January 2012 by Valerie Brandes. In an interview with literature website Afrikult, Brandes spoke of her desire “to revive and add to the rich tradition of black female publishing in the UK [and] to honour and continue the tradition of black publishers who came before us, figures such as Margaret Busby and Verna Wilkins.”   Valerie Brandes placed her publishing work in the same context when she spoke to 5 News recently about why diverse literature is important to tackle racism.

Referring to two inspirational figures in black British publishing, Valerie Brandes is signalling Jacaranda’s aim to make change through publishing and to continue a tradition of collective activism.

As the founding editor of Allison & Busby in 1967, Ghana-born Margaret Busby has long been a pioneer of Black British publishing. Last year she edited 'New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent', as a follow up to the original anthology she compiled in 1992. Born in Grenada and living in London, Verna Wilkins is the author of a wide range of picture books and biographies for young people, including ‘The Life of Stephen Lawrence’. Verna Wilkins and Margaret Busby worked together to establish Independent Black Publishers, a trade association aiming to increase the impact of progressive Black publishers within UK publishing.

Jacaranda’s all-women staff includes Jazzmine Breary as sales, publicity and marketing manager. Jazzmine has been part of Jacaranda’s story since it began, and she was among those who spoke at the Library’s Bringing Voices Together networking event in 2017.  She has been named as one of The Bookseller’s ‘Rising Stars of 2020’.  The Bookseller notes Breary’s involvement in all aspects of developing and defining Jacaranda’s list, ethos and brand identity.  At the British Library, Jazzmine Breary spoke about the way black writers are often pigeon-holed by mainstream publishers. She has noted too that although Jacaranda may be driven by positive aims and passion, that’s not enough to sell books.  The quality of the writing is the key to Jacaranda’s success, and has never been compromised by its commitment to inclusivity.

Butterfly Fish

The Butterfly Fish, by Irenosen Okojie

If one thing stands out about Jacaranda, it is the wide range of books on offer.  That range stretches from award-winning novels of writers like Irenosen Okojie to the contemporary honest and emotional love stories of Maame Blue and Frances Mensah Williams.

Jacaranda has also published translated fiction such as 'Seven Stones' by Venus Khoury-Ghata, the Man Booker International Prize-listed 'Tram 83' by Fiston Mwanza Mujilaand, and 'A Girl Called Eel' by Ali Zamir, which was gained the English Pen Translates Award.  Books such as 'The Marrow Thieves' by Cherie Dimaline are aimed at young adult readers.

Tram 83

Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Beyond fiction, Jacaranda’s list includes history and biography, from Stephen Bourne’s fascinating study of the life of jazz and caberet singer and actress Evelyn Dove, to the memoir of feminist and activist Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith, ‘The Space between Black and White’.

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The Space between Black and White, by Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith

Jacaranda also published Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin narrated alternately by Trayvon’s parents Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin.  Paramount’s award-winning documentary television series was based largely on this book.

Where mainstream publishers tend to avoid risks by sticking to what they know, smaller publishers such as Jacaranda play a vital role in showing that there is a market for diverse fiction.  Offering a range of books of different styles allows Jacaranda to cater for readers with very different interests and tastes. Readers may find recognition in these stories or they may be challenged by encountering the individual dimension of shared and troubled histories connecting Britain and Africa. Either way, these are books that entertain, forge understanding, and make a difference. 

The books featured here are available in bookshops or direct from Jacaranda.

In the coming weeks we will continue to cast a spotlight on small and independent publishers with a focus on black writers and other writers of colour in order to aid wider awareness of the quality and quantity of this work.