English and Drama blog

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

129 posts categorized "Literature"

27 April 2023

Jane Austen and the Georgian Social Whirl of Bath

Running now for its second year, the British Library and National Trust have collaboratively designed a doctoral fellowship programme which aims to examine the connections between each organisation’s collections. Starting in January 2023, I have had the pleasure of taking the role of Doctoral Fellow on a project which examines the importance of public entertainment spaces, such as Bath’s Assembly Rooms, within Georgian society. The project’s primary aim has been to analyse literature and other paper-based ephemera, found in the British Library and National Trust’s extensive catalogues, in order to gain insight into Austen’s society and, more widely, social life in Bath.

During the eighteenth century, Bath was a place for both the fashionable and the infirm, a city which enticed people for both their healing waters and lavish entertainments. Bath became synonymous with entertainment. Whilst there was an abundance of scheduled entertainments such as plays, balls and musical concerts, the biggest entertainment of all was that of the spa town’s social theatre.

Whether you believe that Austen liked or loathed Bath, the city most certainly had an impact on her life and writings. In fact, there isn’t a single one of Austen’s six major novels which does not mention Bath in some capacity, whether by using the city as the main theatrical stage for Northanger Abbey (1817), or a brief mention of Mr Wickham ‘enjoy[ing] himself in London or Bath’ in Pride and Prejudice (1813). The city features most prominently in Austen’s posthumously published novels, Persuasion (1817) and Northanger Abbey. The treatment of Bath within these texts receives two opposing perspectives: one of wonder and excitement of a small-town girl going to the “Big City” in Northanger Abbey, contrasted with the view of Bath as a faded metropolis, a place in which Anne Elliot rather reluctantly goes to join her family in Persuasion.

Whilst the city attracted fashionable society, this very social class became a prime target for criticism and ridicule, as seen in satirical prints of the period. Found within the British Library collection is an 1858 bound book which includes a series of satirical prints by Thomas Rowlandson titled, The Comforts of Bath, first published in 1798. The twelve-plate series depicts different entertainments within the city, including both a concert and dancing, waters being drunk at the Pump Room, and public gaming.

Nineteenth-century black and white print depicting a large ball room with high ceilings and chandeliers. Figures are seen both dancing and in seated positions. Accompanying text is visible at the bottom of the page.
Christopher Anstey, plate ten from The Comforts of Bath. Designed and etched by Rowlandson, with versification by Christopher Anstey, Esq, 1858. British Library, shelfmark 1267.f.21.

Accompanying each print is an extract from Christopher Anstey’s New Bath Guide, first published in 1766. The title of Anstey’s work is fairly misleading. Instead of an instructional piece recommending the latest and most fashionable of Bath’s hotspots, the publication is written in a series of satirical, anapaestic poems, following the lives of the fictional Blunderhead family. In fact, it’s not really a guidebook at all. Here, the combining of both text and print merges the visual and textual, presenting two very similar satiric critiques of Georgian Bath society.

The title page of Christopher Anstey's The New Bath Guide, depicting full title and publisher details.
Christopher Anstey, The new Bath guide: or Memoirs of the B-r--d family. In a series of poetical epistles.1766. British Library, shelfmark 11633.c.5.

Looking closely at plate ten of Rowlandson’s The Comforts of Bath, we can see a multitude of activity happening in this concert setting. Whilst there are audience members intently watching the performance, many can be seen having conversations between themselves, staring off into the distance, fidgeting, and even having a light snooze. The role of the audience in Georgian entertainment spaces was vastly different to what we experience today. Whilst we are instructed to turn off the distractions that are mobile phones, and talking through movies is often met with a passive aggressive “shush”, eighteenth-century entertainment etiquette was a little different. Speaking of the experience of the theatregoer, Jim Davis states, ‘[r]efreshments, discussion of the performance in progress, casual conversation, a little ogling and flirting, were all part of the experience’ (Davis, p.520).

Nineteenth-century black and white print depicting a concert in an ornate, Georgian style hall. Orchestra and singer are visible, performing to a tightly packed audience. Accompanying text is visible at the bottom of the page.
Christopher Anstey, plate two from The Comforts of Bath. 1858. British Library, shelfmark 1267.f.21.

The role of the audience member, or spectator, was a topic which many artists like Rowlandson adopted in their work. Found within the British Library collection, George Cruikshank’s Pit, Boxes & Gallery, published in 1834, illustrates a lively theatre audience split across three levels. Like Rowlandson’s The Concert, the print shows a variety of comic characters, all engaged in an array of activities, from conversing and drinking to fighting for space in the upper gallery.

Colourful print of a tightly packed entertainment space, split into the pit, boxes and gallery space.
George Cruikshank, Pit boxes & Gallery, from My Sketch Book, 1834, British Library, shelfmark C.59.d.5.

This visualisation of spectatorship, created by artists such as Cruikshank and Rowlandson, often portrays an audience whose full attention is rarely directed at the entertainment in question (Davis, p.520). Consequently, the audience are presented as active spectators as opposed to passive ones, playing a vital role within the experience of Georgian entertainments. This active participation of the audience is therefore instrumental to what we consider Georgian entertainment. It is not just the physical activity of dancing, acting or singing which creates entertainment, but the individuals who both watch and participate in not just the concert halls but also the social theatre of Bath. For is the spa town itself not simply a dramatic stage for the wealthy and fashionable to “perform” their celebrity? Bath therefore acted as a stage which facilitated the gossipy tête-à-têtes of the fashionable elite.

The theatre and concert halls were not the only spaces which society performed spectatorship; the Pump Rooms were a place which people frequented in order to see and be seen. In chapter three of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the narrator describes the daily rituals of Bath life:

"Every morning now brought its regular duties – shops were to be visited; some new part of the town to be looked at; and the pump-room to be attended, where they paraded up and down for an hour, looking at everybody and speaking to no one." (Northanger Abbey, p.25).

Austen paints a picture of a society which, as Kathryn Sutherland states, is ‘continually watching’.  The Pump Room was not only a place for healing, where curative waters would be taken for those in ill-health, but also a space to be seen performing your correct, societal role. The presentation of oneself within society was also visible through newspaper announcements, evident in Austen’s Persuasion where the arrival of the Elliot’s wealthy cousins, the Dalrymples, are announced in the paper:

"The Bath paper one morning announced the arrival of the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and her daughter, […] for the Dalrymples (in Anne’s opinion, most unfortunately) were cousins of the Elliots; and the agony was how to introduce themselves properly." (Persuasion, p.139).

Seen in both extracts, Austen not only exposes this societal “peacocking”, but also subtly hints at the absurdity of social formalities, for if agony is caused in trying to talk to one’s own relations, it must be near impossible to socialise with anyone else.  

Taking part in the social display of oneself within these public environments, both created and fed into a culture of gossip. To be spoken about, to be known, to have a respected reputation, were all a means to tap into the benefits of the celebrity culture of the time. For in Georgian Bath, gossip was the ultimate form of entertainment. Similar to the role of audiences, gossip was about active and passive spectatorship. Whilst the trading of gossip provided plenty of entertainment for consumption, members of these social classes also stared as the entertainers themselves, both being the subjects of such gossip and through their social appearance on this “stage”. This gossip culture is also an intrinsic feature of Austen’s writings. Catherine Morland’s naivety in Northanger Abbey is apparent when she struggles to know whose gossip to listen to, or in the case of John Thorpe, his lies and trickery. In a bid to thwart Catherine’s plans with the well-mannered Henry and Eleanor Tilney, John spreads misinformation of the Tilney’s whereabouts in order to secure Catherine’s time for himself.

Thus, Bath was a town of both active and passive entertainment. Bath’s amusements existed on the stage and in the audiences of plays and concerts, but also in equal measure in social spaces such as the Pump Room and tea rooms. People delighted in the scripted entertainments of the stage and ballroom, as well as taking part in the unscripted social theatre. Thus, public entertainment spaces in Bath were vital for the facilitation of not only scheduled entertainment but also the social displays of wealth and importance. It would therefore be remiss to define Bath’s public entertainment spaces as simply the sites of formal activities. The popular resort town functioned as a theatrical backdrop for the social circus that was the Georgian elite, ultimately providing a fashionable space to see and be seen.

By Joanne Edwards, Doctoral Fellow with the British Library and National Trust.



Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey, 1817, (London: Penguin Classics edition, 2011)

Austen, Jane, Persuasion, 1817, (London: Penguin Classics edition, 2011)

Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey, 1817, (London: Penguin Classics edition, 2011)

Austen, Jane, Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. by Deirdre Le Faye (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)

Davis, Jim, ‘Looking and Being Looked At’, Theatre Journal, 2017, 69. 4, pp. 515-53

Sutherland, Kathryn, ‘Jane Austen and social judgement’, Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians, <www.bl.uk>

17 January 2023

Digitisation of manuscripts from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library

By Catherine Angerson, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts.

The Blavatnik Honresfield Library is a collection of books and manuscripts of exceptional historical and literary importance formed by the Lancashire mill owner William Law (1836–1901) in the late 19th century and cared for by subsequent generations of the family until the sale of the collection in 2022. The collection includes manuscripts and rare editions of the work of Jane Austen, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, the Brontë siblings, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Honresfield House, just outside Littleborough near Rochdale, was where William Law lived with his brother Alfred, who inherited the collection after William’s death in 1901. It then passed to a nephew, the Conservative MP Sir Alfred Law (1860–1939). Selected scholars were granted access during the 1930s and transcriptions of several of the manuscripts were made, but the collection then largely disappeared from public view after the death of Alfred Law in 1939.

The Blavatnik Honresfield Library was purchased for the nation in 2022 by the Friends of the National Libraries with the support of the Blavatnik Family Foundation, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and many other generous supporters. The collection has been shared between cultural heritage institutions in the UK who are all committed to making the items in their care publically accessible.

The British Library was one of the beneficiaries, receiving 102 printed books, four manuscript items, and the William Maskell chapbook collection. The manuscript items have now been digitised and you can access the images by following the links below.

Image 1 add_ms_89488_book2
Emily Brontë’s notebook of poems, 1844–46, Add MS 89488, ff. 5v-6r.

One of the highlights of the Blavatnik Honresfield Library is the notebook of Emily Brontë’s poems (Add MS 89488) which she kept between 1844 and 1846. Few of Emily Brontë’s literary manuscripts survive and the notebook is a fascinating record of her creative process. Brontë transcribed neat copies of 31 of her own poems into this notebook, recording the date of original composition next to each.

The first poem, ‘Loud without the wind was roaring’, is dated 11 November 1838 when Emily was 20. She composed the final poem, ‘No Coward Soul is Mine’, on 2 January 1846 at the age of 27. Some of the poems include further revisions in the hand of her sister Charlotte. Beneath the poem ‘How beautiful the earth is still’ of 2 June 1845, pictured below, Charlotte has written, ‘Never was better stuff penned’, in the miniature script shared by both sisters.

Image 2 add_ms_89488_f017v
Emily Brontë’s poem ‘How beautiful the earth is still’, composed 2 June 1845, Add MS 89488, f. 17v.

The notebook is the source for 15 of the 21 of Emily Brontë’s poems selected for Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846). The other six poems came from Emily’s ‘Gondal Poems’ notebook which she kept at the same time. Emily Brontë’s own signed copy of Poems (1846) is also among the treasures of the Blavatnik Honresfield Library.

Another treasure allocated to the British Library is a miniature book by Charlotte Brontë titled, 'Characters of the Celebrated Men of the Present Time by Captain Tree' (Add MS 89486). The tiny book, created by Charlotte when she was just 13 years old, is one of seven early Brontë manuscripts now jointly owned by the British Library, the Brontë Parsonage Museum and the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds. The book is narrated by Captain Tree, one of Charlotte’s childhood pen names. It consists of ten chapters that feature ‘Celebrated Men’ such as the Duke of Wellington, Lord Charles Wellesley, Captain Bud and Young Man Naughty. These figures were drawn from real life as well as from the fictional world of Glass Town. The Glass Town Federation was a complex fantasy land created by Charlotte and her siblings Branwell, Emily and Anne.

Image 3 add_ms_89486_book6
Charlotte Brontë, ‘Characters of the Celebrated Men of the Present Time by Captain Tree’, 12–17 December 1829, Add MS 89486.

The book measures a tiny 5 x 3.7 cm, the size of a small matchbox. The digital images allow us to zoom in on Brontë’s tiny script and to examine the pages of the manuscript in detail. The pages are slightly uneven in size. This is because Charlotte cut the paper by hand and sewed the pages together using a needle and thread, and the book is still bound in its original yellow sugar paper cover.

The manuscript items allocated to the British Library also include a letter dated 10 November 1847 from Charlotte Brontë to William Smith Williams of Smith, Elder & Co., the publisher of Jane Eyre (1847) (Add MS 89487). In this letter, Brontë (using her pen name ‘C. Bell’) complains about the ‘exhausting delay and procrastination’ that her sisters Emily (‘Ellis’) and Anne (‘Acton’) have had to endure in the publication of their novels by Thomas Newby. Emily Brontë’s only novel Wuthering Heights and Anne Brontë’s first novel Agnes Grey were both published by Newby in December 1847 shortly after Charlotte wrote this letter.

In addition to the Brontë manuscripts described above, the British Library also received two leaves from the manuscript of Walter Scott’s Kenilworth (Add MS 89485), a novel of intrigue and deception set in Elizabethan England. These handwritten pages were part of the manuscript which Scott sent to the printer John Ballantyne for the publication of the novel in January 1821. The Library also holds the larger part of the manuscript of Kenilworth and two further leaves acquired in 2017.

The manuscripts have been digitised in full and images can be accessed via the archives and manuscripts catalogue and through the links in this blogpost. The printed items are described in the main catalogue and can be identified by the shelfmark prefix ‘Hon’. See our new collection guide for further details.

A small selection of books and manuscripts from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library is currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library in London (until 19 February 2023). The display includes a leaf from Walter Scott’s Kenilworth manuscript, the letter from Charlotte Brontë to WS Williams, Emily Brontë’s poetry notebook together with her own copy of Poems (1846), and two of the chapbooks from the Maskell collection.

We are delighted to be working with the Brontë Parsonage Museum and the Brotherton Library to make the Brontë material available to new audiences (online and in an exhibition) over the coming months and years.    




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30 September 2022

The Beatles and Hunter Davies

By Greg Buzwell, Curator, Contemporary Literary Archives.

‘Does anyone seriously believe that Beatles music will be an unthinkingly accepted part of daily life all over the world in the 2000s?’ wrote the philosopher and politician Bryan Magee in the February 1967 issue of The Listener. The passage of time has subsequently given a resounding answer to Magee’s question, and it turned out not to be the one he was obviously expecting. His comment highlights the now almost eye-wateringly unbelievable notion that, even after Beatlemania, several albums including A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul and Revolver - and on the verge of the Summer of Love and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band - the Beatles’ lasting contribution to popular culture was still being questioned in certain quarters.

Image shows a selection of Hunter Davie's notebook, arranged in a fan shape, showing the different covers which are red and blue covered and annotated with the subject
A small selection of the notebooks kept by Hunter Davies in 1967 as he carried out interviews and research for his book The Beatles: The Authorised Biography’. © Hunter Davies

Someone else also pondering the Beatles and their legacy in 1967 was the journalist Hunter Davies. The British Library has recently acquired Davies’s archive of Beatles-related material consisting of photographs, press cuttings, concert programmes and ephemera together with the notebooks he kept when carrying out his research for his 1968 biography of the band – The Beatles: The Authorised Biography. Hunter interviewed dozens of people prior to writing his book, including of course John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, but also wives and girlfriends including Cynthia Lennon and Jane Asher, along with other key contributors to the band’s success such as their manager Brian Epstein; their producer George Martin; Astrid Kirchherr whose early photographs of the group were instrumental in defining their look, and their road manager Mal Evans along with many, many others. Among the collection there is also a draft of Hunter’s original letter to Brian Epstein suggesting the idea that he write an authorised biography of the Beatles and asking for Brian’s approval.

Image shows Hunter's letter to Brian Epstein, black typed ink on white paper
A draft of Hunter’s letter to Brian Epstein outlining his proposal to write an authorised biography of the Beatles. 31st December 1966. © Hunter Davies

One of the points Hunter makes in the letter is that the book would provide a record of the Beatles phenomenon and allow everyone involved with the band to have their say while events were still relatively fresh in their memories. In essence the book would be, in Hunter’s words, ‘not a fan book, but a full study of what happened and why during the last five years’. Perhaps, even in 1967, this was ambitious. In particular the band’s recollection of their early days in Hamburg was already a little hazy. Unsurprising given the relentless nature of the gigs they had to play and the outrageous nightlife offered to those on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn where the clubs the Beatles played were situated. When talking to the Beatles about their Hamburg days Hunter’s notebooks contain details of John Lennon sleeping behind the stage and of Pete Best, the band’s drummer before Ringo Starr joined in 1962, being so exhausted he once collapsed over his drum kit mid-performance. Then again, all the more reason to have those recollections and thoughts put down on paper before they became even more lost in the haze between actuality and memory.

The highlight of the collection is undoubtedly to be found in one of the notebooks in which Hunter recorded his interviews with Paul McCartney. At one point Hunter asked Paul to describe how John Lennon and George Harrison looked back in their late-1950s pre-Beatles days with the band The Quarrymen. Paul duly obliged, but he also borrowed Hunter’s notebook and quickly sketched George and John: the former all boyishly innocent with upswept hair and bushy eyebrows and the latter with sideburns, glasses and a stare firmly focused on the future. There’s something touching about the sketches – an authenticity and affection that comes from Paul reflecting on two friends and the impression they made on him in the very first days of their friendship.

Image shows Paul McCartney's sketches of John Lennon and George Harrison, the sketches are on the left page of an open notebook, in blue pen on white paper, with notes on the right hand page. The sketches are caricature style showing head and shoulders
Paul McCartney’s sketches of George Harrison and John Lennon back in their Quarrymen days. © MPL Communications Inc

Also among the archive is the transcript of a television interview, the recording of which is now thought to be lost, between Hunter Davies and Ringo Starr dated December 15th 1970. A date by which point the band had effectively split. In the interview Ringo talks about how one of his childhood ambitions, at least according to his mother, was to be a tramp and to wander the world. There’s also a list of the questions Hunter is hoping to have answered in the interview, such as whether Ringo worries that film companies only want him in their movies so they can put his name on the poster; whether he still goes back to Liverpool to revisit his roots and whether his fame prevents him from ordinary pleasures such as evenings out in a pub with friends. Much of the interview comes across as a touching attempt to discover Ringo the private individual, husband and father beneath the surface glamour of Ringo the rock-star drummer.

Image shows Hunter's notes for his interview with Ringo, written on paper with the BBC letterhead
Hunter’s outline for the questions he’d like to ask Ringo Starr prior to a television interview. December 1970. © Hunter Davies

At its heart though the archive is really about Hunter’s authorised biography of the Beatles. First published in 1968 and the only book about the group ever written with the backing of the whole band and those within their inner circle. As such it offers an invaluable insight into what made the Beatles tick, and how they managed to achieve so much in such a relatively short space of time. There have been, quite literally, thousands of books written about the Beatles and while they all offer something perhaps only a dozen or so are absolutely essential to anyone who loves the music and wishes to know more about how it all came about. Hunter’s book is definitely towards the top of that select list and his archive reveals a great deal about how he put it together.

To learn more about The Beatles: The Authorised Biography, along with the archive behind its creation and Hunter Davies’s long association with the Beatles, please follow the link below for details of an event on November 11th 2022 featuring Hunter in conversation: Hunter Davies: Writing The Beatles.

23 September 2022

East and West with D. M. Thomas

by Dominic Newman, Manuscripts Cataloguer. 

Donald Michael Thomas (b. 1935) made his name as a writer when, in the early 1980s, his novel ‘The White Hotel’ scored a sudden success in the United States. With its psychedelic expedition into the subconscious, Freud and the Holocaust, and the vertiginous buckling and melting away of trust in its fickle narrator, the sensation it caused then spread back across the Atlantic to Britain.

Yet Thomas had been writing steadily and copiously for many years beforehand, as his archive, now fully catalogued and available in the Reading Rooms, records.  In his early career he considered himself mainly a poet: between the 1960s and the 1980s he filled thirty-five notebooks (preserved in photocopied form) with sketches and drafts of verse.  A home-made chart (Add MS 89363/9/6) chronicles appearances of his early poems in magazines and journals.

Image is of a chart showing publications of Thomas’s early poems in red and black ink, from around 1960
A chart showing publications of Thomas’s early poems, c. 1960 (Add MS 89363/9/6).  ‘Weirdly child-like!’ is his subsequent annotation.

It was only at the end of the 1970s that Thomas turned to writing novels.  His first, ‘Birthstone’, set in his native Cornwall and already exploring his interest in the ideas of Sigmund Freud, is preserved in a first-edition copy (Add MS 89363/1/4) with annotations and amendments by the author.  Draft material and annotated typescripts and proofs record work on the other titles that then followed in quick succession, including ‘Russian Nights’, a sequence of novels which, though originally planned as a trilogy, expanded first into a quartet, then a quintet.

Image is an extract from 'Lying Together' and is typed on white paper
In ‘Lying Together’ (1990), Thomas appears as one of his own characters, helping three other writers to improvise a novel-within-a-novel (Add MS 89363/1/23)

Russia is a recurring theme in Thomas’s work.  He has translated the poetry of Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova, and made radio adaptations of Russian literature.  In the late 1990s he embarked on a substantial biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ‘A Century in his Life’, which won the Orwell Book Prize in 1999.  The archive contains a great deal of draft and research material for this book, as well as photographs and interview transcripts.

A more unusual series of papers (Add MS 89363/8) records one of the great frustrations of Thomas’s career: the seeming impossibility of making a film adaptation of ‘The White Hotel’, in spite of at least three separate attempts by different producers over the years.  The idea of a film first surfaced almost immediately after the novel’s overnight success, and at various junctures it seemed almost certain to be made.  But each time the project ran into difficulties, including of the legal variety (Thomas even found himself being dragged unwittingly into an American court case).  He relates the whole saga in his memoir ‘Bleak Hotel’ (2008), a typescript of which is also present in the archive (Add MS 89363/3/4-5).

Image shows a typed commentary by D M Thomas on Dennis Potter's screenplay for the film adaption of 'The White Hotel'
Thomas’s commentary on Dennis Potter’s screenplay for a proposed film adaptation of ‘The White Hotel’ (Add MS 89363/8/19)

Thomas has retained much of his correspondence with publishers and well-known writers (Charles Causley, Stevie Smith, Peter Redgrove, and others), along with hundreds of messages from his sister Lois (Add MS 89363/9/18-24).  There are also dozens of family photographs (Add MS 89363/9/8-11), starting at the time of his parents’ courtship in Cornwall in the 1920s and continuing through his childhood and adult life.  Lively scenes at home in Truro, where he returned to live in the late 1980s, are preserved for posterity. Most of the snaps are captioned by Thomas himself: ‘Rugby with Dad’ – ‘I was always distant at visits to beach / sea’ – ‘Singing my face off’. Family and friends too are fondly epitheted. There is even a calendar entitled ‘Singing Thomas’s’, each month with a different picture of the family singing, drinking and generally making merry.  Thomas has still found time to write, however: the latest drafts and sketches in the archive (Add MS 89363/2/9-23) date from as recently as 2017.

Image is a black and white photograph of D M Thomas playing rugby with his dad in an open field with hills behind. Thomas is holding the ball and is a young child.
‘Rugby with Dad’ in the field behind Thomas’s childhood home at Carnkie, near Redruth in Cornwall (Add Ms 89363/9/8)

The D. M. Thomas archive is available under shelf-mark Add MS 89363.

23 August 2022

A new prize for Environmental Poetry - Michael Marks Awards

Logo for the Michael Marks Awards which is purple on a white background and reads Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets and shows an image of an open book between the two overlapping letter Ms

The 14th annual Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets is open for entries for best pamphlet, publisher and illustrator. The Awards are often marked by innovation and this year is no different, introducing the Award’s first prize for Environmental Poet of the Year.

The call for Environmental Poet of the Year closes on 1st September, and focuses on the theme of the environment and the place of the human within it. Poets are encouraged to think about the theme in a broad way, and submissions might describe the impact of humans on the environment, or on the impact that climate change is having on people’s lives. Entry is by submission of a portfolio of poetry and full details and entry rules are available at https://michaelmarksawards.org/epoty/

The winning portfolio will be published as a pamphlet, and the winning poet will invited to read at a special ‘Environmental Poet of the Year’ event at Wordsworth Grasmere, as well as at the Michael Marks Awards in December. The poet will also receive a prize of £1,000.

The judges for the new Award are poet Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, Dr Mark Avery (formerly Director of Conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and Jane Caven, a member of the Poetry Readers group at Wordsworth Grasmere.

The call for the prizes for Poet, Publish and Illustrator are also open, and close 23rd September. Full details for entry can be found on the Michael Marks Awards website at: https://michaelmarksawards.org/awards-2022/

Previous years have seen special prizes in different categories. The 2021 Awards were accompanied by an International Greek Bi-centennial Poetry Prize for both poet and illustrator, to mark the 200 year anniversary of the creation of the modern Greek state. The winning entries were published in the pamphlet, Ariadne, with poetry by Fiona Benson, illustrations by Judith Eyal and translations to Greek by Haris Psarras. The pamphlet can be bought from Broken Sleep Books.

In 2019 and 2020 the Awards included a prize for poetry in a Celtic language. The winning entries were (for 2019) moroedd/dŵr by Morgan Owen, and (for 2020) Carthen Denau by Rhys Iorwerth.

The Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets are a partnership of the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, with the British Library, Wordsworth Gasmere, Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies and Times Literary Supplement.     

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.


A zoomed in image of handwritten reflective writing by Dr Beryl Gilroy in different colour pens
BL Ref Deposit 11286/1/10 – extracts from Beryl Gilroy’s reflective writing.


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.


A close up shot of Khadeeja in Amber Akaunu's film the blueprint, Khadeeja is looking directly at the camera in front of a blue background
A screenshot from Amber Akaunu's 'The Blueprint' showing Khadeeja.


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.


Image shows the front cover of The Blueprint, which includes a photo of Dr Beryl Gilroy and a crowd of school children
The Blueprint, a zine by Amber Akaunu


Further reading:

Beryl Gilroy | The British Library (bl.uk)

For enquiries regarding the Beryl Gilroy archive, please contact Eleanor Dickens [email protected]

15 July 2022

A researcher's story: using the Robert Aickman Archive at the British Library

by R.B. Russell, researcher, publisher and writer, who consulted the Robert Aickman Archive at the British Library and writes here of his experiences. 

Black and white photograph of Robert Aickman posing in front of bookshelves at Gledhow Gardens in 1980
BL Add. MS 89209/3/5. Robert Aickman at Gledhow Gardens, London. 1980

I first came across Robert Aickman (1914-1981) as the author of ‘strange stories’ (his own term), psychological tales that updated the traditional ghost story to the requirements of a more ‘knowing’ late twentieth century. I soon discovered that Aickman’s literary activities (he was also an editor of ghost story anthologies and wrote two volumes of autobiography) were just one part of his life. Another was his campaigning, largely successful, for the restoration of the inland waterways of Britain.

I was lucky enough to first see Aickman’s literary archive in 2014 when I visited his literary executor in Guiseley, West Yorkshire. At that time, Aickman’s manuscripts and typescripts were being stored in a spare bedroom. With my partner, Rosalie Parker, we produced an inventory of what was in the archive and we borrowed material to publish The Strangers and Other Writings (Tartarus Press, 2015) collecting together previously unpublished fiction and non-fiction. The Guiseley archive was ultimately acquired by the British Library in 2017. There are also collections of Aickman’s waterways papers at the National Archive in Kew and at the National Waterways Museum Ellesmere Port in Cheshire.

The more I found out about Aickman, the more interested I became in the man, and in 2020 I decided to write his biography. I realised there were several obstacles, however, and that any one of them might cause there to be a major shortcoming in the finished book. Until I started my research, though, I couldn’t be certain whether they were surmountable.

Typescript of We Are For The Dark: Six Ghost Stories with annotations
BL Add. MS 89209/1/70. Revised typescript for We Are For The Dark: Six Ghost Stories. The book, published in 1951, contained three stories by Elizabeth Jane Howard and three by Robert Aickman. Note Aickman’s amendment discarding the pseudonym ‘Robert Vigo’ in favour of his real name. The short-lived pseudonym was taken from the lead character in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1932 film The Blue Light. Reproduced by the kind permission of the Estate of Robert Aickman.

The first problem was one shared by all researchers—the pandemic. I couldn’t consult any of the archives I wished to visit, meet up with anyone who knew Aickman, or visit any of the sites associated with him. However, since the 1990s I had amassed more research material than I realised, and now I had the opportunity to read it! If anything, being confined to home was a blessing in disguise. As for interviewing Aickman’s old friends, they were very helpful and they now had the time to share information with me. Those who might otherwise have been wary of using modern technology were happy to make Zoom and Skype calls.

I had to wait for the archives to re-open here in the UK, but there was another small collection of important material at Bowling Green University in America. Even if I could travel there at some unspecified time in the future, I wasn’t certain I could justify the expense. When I contacted them, I discovered the librarians were able to make pdf copies (for a modest fee) of all that I needed to see.

After a year of intensive and productive research from home, I was confident that many gaps in my knowledge would be filled when the British Library re-opened. There were only two major lacunae that concerned me.

The first was my inability to read Aickman’s letters to his American agent, Kirby McCauley. This mine of useful information was in the hands of a rare book dealer in the US.

The second was any concrete information relating to Aickman’s claim that he had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War, exempted from any kind of war work. This seemed out of character, and his old friends suggested several alternative theories, none of which could be verified. It seemed unlikely I would ever clear this up because the majority of official records relating to conscientious objection have been destroyed.

Black and white photograph of Robert Aickman reading in 1960
Robert Aickman 1960

In June 2021 Covid restrictions were lifted somewhat and Rosalie and I were finally able to travel from North Yorkshire to visit the British Library on the Euston Road in London. After our informal experience in Guiseley, I must admit that it seemed like an imposition to have to join the British Library in advance (in Wakefield), then to book tables in the reading room, and to have to book the material we wanted to see from the online catalogue. Pandemic restrictions meant that the number of items we could consult at any one visit was limited.

Photograph of R. B. Russell and Rosalie Parker smiling at the camera
R.B. Russell and Rosalie Parker

However, over three days Rosalie and I looked through everything we asked for, and because of the friendly efficiency of the staff, we were able to see a little more besides. Despite the restrictions, the atmosphere in the reading room was relaxed and comfortable, and it was brought home to me how important it is to have this vital material publicly accessible (not kept in bedrooms, or overseas, owned by rare book dealers). So much was still uncertain in the world at that time, but there was something reassuring about being inside the British Library with the background sounds of murmuring voices, pages turning, and pencilled notes being made. I filled in all the gaps in my knowledge that I had been aware of, and discovered additional important material, besides.

My preparation for the visit to the British Library (which felt very long-delayed) meant that I extracted the most out of the three days. And I also discovered in the various files of Aickman’s correspondence carbon copies of all his letters to his agent. They were as important as I had expected.

This left just that one unanswered question—Robert Aickman’s apparent conscientious objection. I felt I knew Robert Aickman’s beliefs and motivations well by this time, and it didn’t ‘fit’ with his personality. It was out of character in the same way that one item in the British Library catalogue seemed out of place. Tucked away in a folder, according to the catalogue, was an application by Aickman to work for the Civil Service. I called up this folder to discover that the item had been mis-described (it has since been corrected). Rather than an unlikely application to work for the Civil Service, it was Aickman’s application to be considered a conscientious objector, and the decision that had been made.

Image of Robert Aickman's completed conscientious objection application
BL Add. MS 89209/3/3. Robert Aickman’s conscientious objection application decision

The biography came together at that point, although I still do not know what to make of the statement Robert Aickman submitted in support of his application for conscientious objection. He claims religious beliefs he does not profess anywhere else, and appears to contradict other statements he made. Whatever I may think of his justifications, he did receive the very rare judgement that he was exempt from any kind of war work.

My biography of Aickman was published in early 2022, as Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by Tartarus Press It contains extensive acknowledgements in alphabetical order, but if I had listed them in order of importance, along with Rosalie Parker, the British Library would have been towards the top.

6. RA Biog
Robert Aickman, An Attempted Biography by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press 2022

08 July 2022

Marking the bicentenary of the death of Percy Shelley

By Alexander Lock, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts. 

Today, 8 July 2022, marks the bicentenary of the death of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). One of the most politically radical of the Romantic poets, Shelley’s best known works include ‘Ozymandias’ (1818), ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ (1819), and ‘To the Skylark’ (1820). 

Shelley died at sea, aged just 29, on 8 July 1822. Earlier that month Shelley had sailed in his boat, the Don Juan, from his home in San Terenzo to Livorno. On that voyage he was accompanied by a young boat hand, Charles Vivian, and two close friends Edward Williams and naval officer Daniel Roberts. Shelley sailed to Livorno to meet Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron in order to develop their plans for the publication of a new anti-establishment journal The Liberal. Having accompanied Hunt to his accommodation in Pisa, on 8 July Shelley, Williams and Vivian set sail for home. Within a few hours the Don Juan was caught in a severe storm and all three men were lost at sea.

Shelley's body washed ashore near Viareggio on 18 July 1822 and William’s body was found on the same day three miles further along the shore. The remains of Vivian were discovered some weeks later. According to the friend who found them, Edward John Trelawny, Shelley was identified by the ‘volume of Sophocles’ he had ‘in one pocket, and Keats’s poems in the other’. Initially buried in quicklime, Shelley and Williams were exhumed and cremated on 16 August 1822 on the beach near Viareggio where they were found. It had been decided that Shelley’s remains should be interred near John Keats’ in the Protestant cemetery at Rome, whilst the remains of Williams were to be returned to England. In order to facilitate the movement of their bodies and overcome the Italian quarantine laws governing the burial of bodies washed from the sea, it was decided that the men be cremated.

Oil painting of Shelley's funeral showing mourners around the funeral pyre on a beach
An idealised representation of Shelley’s funeral in Louis Édouard Fournier, ‘The Funeral of Shelley’, 1889. Oil on canvas, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Public Domain

Following the funeral the ashes were collected for burial by Edward Trelawney who had also taken some of Shelley’s hair as a memento. He gave the hair and some of the ashes as a keepsake to Claire Clairmont – Mary Shelley’s stepsister and Lord Byron’s lover who was staying with the Shelleys in San Terenzo. These items would eventually pass to the British Library.

Fragment of Shelley's ashes in a framed golden mount
A lock of Shelley's hair and fragments of his ashes that once belonged to Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Shelley’s wife Mary Shelley
A lock of Shelley's hair in a framed golden mount
A lock of Shelley's hair and fragments of his ashes that once belonged to Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Shelley’s wife Mary Shelley

In the weeks leading up to his death, Shelley suffered from visions of drowning and death. In a letter written just after Shelley died – now in the British Library as Ashley MS 5022 – his wife Mary Shelley recounted how he dreamt that ‘the sea was rushing in’ and that he was strangling her whilst Edward Williams and his wife Jane looked on as corpses. After her husband's drowning, Mary began to consider how his visions might have foretold the future.

To mark the bicentenary of the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley, curators at the British Library worked with the poet Benjamin Zephaniah on a new Radio 4 programme ‘Percy Shelley, Reformer and Radical’. Presented by Zephaniah, the 2 part series brings a very personal take on Shelley’s work and how it influenced his own work and that of other poets. As part of this recording we showed Zephaniah the original draft of the ‘Mask of Anarchy’, Shelley’s annotated copy of ‘Queen Mab’, as well as the hair and ashes of the poet taken from his funeral pyre.

Curator Alexander Lock with Benjamin Zephaniah and the ashes of Percy Bysshe Shelley in front of them on a table
Curator Alexander Lock with Benjamin Zephaniah and the ashes of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Episode 1 was broadcast on Sunday 3 July and episode 2 will be aired on Sunday 10 July, at 4.30pm on BBC Radio 4. The episodes will be available online after broadcast. 

Advert for the Radio 4 programme Percy Shelley Reformer and Radical



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