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129 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

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 These relate to her 13 published novels, over 100 short stories (some unpublished), several plays and nonfiction articles.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

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.

30 July 2020

Andrew Salkey and the first Publishing Houses for Black Writing in Britain

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By Eleanor Casson, Archivist and cataloguer of the Andrew Salkey Archive (Deposit 10310), working in collaboration with the Eccles Centre for American Studies and the British Library. This blog is part of a series looking at Salkey’s literary works and involvement with publishing houses for black writing in Britain. 

Andrew Salkey was a man of many hats; a novelist, poet, editor, broadcaster, academic, cultural promoter and activist but, his main passion in his life was writing. Salkey’s love for writing began as a young boy in Jamaica writing short stories in school exercise books and he continued to write almost daily until his death in 1995. His back-catalogue of literary work boasts a range of adult and children’s novels, short story collections, poetry collections and long poems. His archive reflects the sheer variety of his literary works and the characteristic political undertones of all of his writing.  Salkey is often remembered for his role as a presenter of the BBC’s seminal programme ‘Caribbean Voices’ and as a leading figure in the diasporic consciousness of Caribbean artists and intellectuals in the UK through his role as co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM). However, he also had a significant influence on the development of Caribbean literary activism in London during the 1960s and 1970s through his unwavering support of two of the first black publishing houses in London New Beacon Books and Bogle L’Ouverture (BLP).

Salkey became involved with New Beacon books through his friendship with the founders, John La Rose and Sarah White. Salkey, La Rose and Kamau Brathwaite were the co-founders of CAM; a movement set up for Caribbean artists to get to know each other, and their work, as well as get to know their readers in the Caribbean diaspora. The CAM meetings were the first place La Rose and White sold their own publications. New Beacon Books was founded in 1966 as the UK’s first black publisher, specialist bookshop and international book distributor. The company was named after a journal, The Beacon, which ran from 1931-1932 in La Rose’s native Trinidad. New Beacon’s publishing and distribution was originally ran from La Rose and White’s flat until they were able to take over premises in Finsbury Park and begin functioning as a book store. The shop became the epicentre of many campaigns, movements and organisations Salkey was involved with including: CAM (1966-1972), and the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books- organised jointly with BLP and Race Today Publications (1982-1995).

Two of Salkey’s works were published by New Beacon Books: Georgetown Journal: a Caribbean writer’s journey from London to Port of Spain to Georgetown, Guyana 1970 (1972) and the second edition of Salkey’s critically acclaimed first novel, A Quality of Violence (1978). Georgetown Journal is an account of Salkey’s 1970 trip, with La Rose and Samuel Selvon, to Georgetown. They were guests at events organised by President Forbes Burnham marking the founding of the Co-Operative Republic of Guyana and the Caribbean Writers and Artists Conference. Salkey’s archive includes a letter from Trevor McDonald relating to the trip offering Salkey advice on who to target for interviews. McDonald was a producer on the Caribbean Service, he suggested President Forbes Burnham, Willy Demas and Clyde Walcott as interesting interviews but signed off his letter to Salkey with ‘I am leaving the rest to your impeccable judgement’.

In 1974 Salkey was given a directorship in New Beacon Books with ten shares. Salkey gave New Beacon Books all of the rights and proceeds from Georgetown Journal in a personal effort to ‘strengthen and consolidate’ the company. Despite this, Salkey was very aware of how financially draining the publishing endeavour was for La Rose. He laments in his diary about how much debt La Rose incurred printing Georgetown Journal, he goes on to say that apart from free manuscripts ‘I must also find a way to keep them with money or its hard-edged equivalent, in some way’.

Bogle L’Ouverture (BLP) was founded in London in 1968 by Guyanese couple Eric and Jessica Huntley. They were friends of La Rose and met Salkey through him. Although the Huntleys were never official members of CAM they were friends with many of its members. BLP was named after the Jamaican hero of the Morant Bay uprising, Paul Bogle, and Haitian revolutionary, Toussaint L’Ouverture. When the Huntleys opened their bookshop in Ealing, they did so with the help and backing of La Rose. Salkey supported their endeavour in the same way he had with New Beacon Books. He was a Director and shareholder in the company and supported the organisation through the rights and proceeds of his manuscripts. He sent them other Caribbean writers’ works, and he offered them business and literary advice. In his diaries Salkey refers to BLP as ‘our publishing firm’, he was determined to be an active supporter of Caribbean writing and ‘keep the faith as a writer with my two Caribbean publishers in Britain’.

Salkey’s first novel published by BLP was the children’s story Joey Tyson. This was the third publication in BLP’s children’s series (which also included the writings of Bernard Coard), which was aimed at educating children in Britain about African and Caribbean history, politics and culture. Salkey’s ability to convey adult issues and themes to children in a way they can understand, and feel an affinity with, made him the perfect author for BLP’s literary activism. Joey Tyson depicts the exile of a fictional character, Dr Paul Bogle Buxton, from the perspective of a young boy. Dr Buxton, described as ‘the radical lecturer in African history at the university’, was a fictional imagining of Walter Rodney and his expulsion from Jamaica in 1968. One review of the novel retained in Salkey’s archive states: ‘Teachers looking for something new or something more and who appreciate that literature cannot be divorced from life will recognise the merits of Joey Tyson’. This work embodies the Huntleys’ and Salkey’s endeavour to create children’s literature that educated and rallied the new generation, encouraging grassroots activism and highlighted the counter-hegemony in Britain and the Caribbean. The launch for the novel was held at the Keskidee Centre in Islington, once used regularly for CAM functions, by Jessica Huntley on Salkey’s 47th birthday, 30 January 1975. In his diary he wrote that this day ‘symbolised an acceptance of my small contribution to our community, which I never thought I’d receive’.

Sources and Further Reading

David Austin Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal, Between the Lines, (Toronto: Canada, 2013)

Edited by Verner D. Mitchell, Cynthia Davis, The Black Arts Movement, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019),

The George Padmore Institute: Why Publish Independently (online) Accessed: 29/03/2020: https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/the-pioneering-years/new-beacon-books-early-history/why-publish-independently

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.

08 July 2020

New Blog Season: Anti-Racism and Excellence in Our Collections and Beyond, editor's comments

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by Callum Bartolomeu McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives and editor of the English & Drama Blog.

Our new season, Anti-Racism and Excellence in Our Collections and Beyond runs from July-September 2020. If you'd like to get in touch with comments or suggestions, please do so using Twitter with the handle @BLEnglish_Drama.

Owing to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, some blog posts may be delayed. We hope to stick to a Monday, Wednesday and Friday schedule as outlined below as far as possible, but please bear with us if we're a little bit late.

In response to the murder of George Floyd and recent worldwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice, the Library issued a statement yesterday committing itself to becoming an anti-racist organisation, urging colleagues to push beyond what Chief Librarian Liz Jolly described as a passive ‘non-belief’ in racism towards an active struggle against it in our corporate structure, our collecting policies or our own interpersonal relationships. This is, and must be, a long-term commitment. From the perspective of a blog-editor — attempting to plan out a season of content which reflects on, sustains and even pushes beyond this statement — its commitment to change is encouraging.

The Library has vast collections and deep expertise, but I’d be lying if I said that the task of writing and programming content around these issues wasn’t intimidating. The pressure to get it right is huge — not only, as you might suspect, because of highly-charged social media discourse — but more-so because there is a genuine desire amongst colleagues to do good work. The trepidation around mis-stepping stems mostly from a fear of letting our audiences down. But we can’t be silent either. In the current climate especially, discussions about the value of cultural heritage run a real risk of being hijacked by politically motivated sophistry and bad faith arguments in favour of ‘preservation’. Cultural Heritage professionals, as experts in this area, have a role to play. As statues around the country fall, questions about what constitutes real history — about which monuments and narratives are worthy of prominence, promotion and preservation in our culture —  become more urgent. We should be wary of those who would use calls to ‘preserve our history’ in order to smooth over their own conscience or ignorance; of arguments in which the definitions of ‘our’ and ‘history’ are made narrow enough that nothing except the status-quo might pass through them into posterity. 

As custodians of a national collection it is our job to go beyond these calls to preserve totems to existing power structures. We need to engage with our own institutional and national histories in ways that deepen, enrich and complicate our understanding of history. The British Library, like many cultural heritage institutions in the UK and abroad, suffers from a kind of institutional double-sidedness: we are both fundamentally open yet perceived as elitist; progressive yet founded on complex histories of exploitation and exclusion; a nominally gentrifying force in our traditionally working-class district of London yet still one of the few places in the city where you’re permitted to sit without purchasing something. We must face these contradictions head-on and resist the urge to smooth them over.

So what about this blog? It is my conviction as its editor that an anti-racist appraisal of the Library’s literary collections would consider not only the representations within them — how, for instance, people of colour are used as literary devices and symbols across time — but also the material histories of these collections and their standard interpretation: how they were built, by whom, through what means, and to what end. In academic and activist circles this process has been referred to as ‘de-colonising’ the archive, and although much work remains to be done, colleagues are already making these links more visible to our users through clear signposting on the home-pages of some of our most prominent foundational collections. Yet more than this, anti-racism, despite its name, requires positive intervention. We should work to highlight excellence; to emphasise that history is not something that is ‘done to’ people of colour — or to any marginalised group for that matter — but is rather made manifest by their struggles, rebellion, and creativity, which are very often reflected in and enacted through literary and other artistic works.   

Photograph of typescript draft of The Black Jacobins by CLR James

MS 10310: Typescript of CLR James's play 'The Black Jacobins' in which he re-tells the history of the Haitian Revolution in order to foreground the role played by enslaved people, popular alternative leaders and lower-ranking soldiers.

Copyright © Estate of CLR James, reproduced courtesy of the Curtis Brown Group. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

This emphasis is brought to the fore by the celebrated novelist Andrea Levy, whose brilliant essay on Discovering Literature, ‘Back to My Own Country’, reminds us, speaking of Caribbean immigrant communities (and immigrant communities in general) that, ‘their ideas, their creativity and their ways of life have helped turn this country into a sophisticated multi-culture. This windfall of talent and variety is one of the great unforeseen benefits to Britain’. Levy's final call in the piece, that ‘my heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history’ should remind us that, far from being an effort to erase history, contemporary anti-racist struggle emerges from a long and proud tradition of protest and agitation by communities of colour working to broaden history against efforts by the powerful to control the ‘main narrative’. It’s vital that we call upon our collections to draw out these and other continuities, as a recent post from the Library’s America’s Blog has illustrated. I hope we can continue this crucial work over the next few months on this blog with a new long-form post each Wednesday.

Photograph of manuscript draft of Andrea Leavy's nove, Small Island

Manuscript draft of Andrea Leavy's Small Island (2004), a novel which interweaves the stories of Jamaican migrants Gilbert and Hortense, their white English landlady, Queenie, and her husband Bernard. The book was partly inspired by Levy’s parents: her father Winston who came to Britain from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush and his wife Amy who followed in November 1948. 

Copyright:© Small Island 2004 by Andrea Levy. Usage terms: You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

As a curator and archivist it was interesting to see how the reaction to the extreme violence of George Floyd’s murder was initially one of reflection and and self-education, through the black-square social media campaign (we will have to forego criticism of its disingenuous co-option by corporate interests for lack of space, though). The Library, as a repository for ‘The World’s Knowledge’ has a responsibility to contribute to these discussions, through the sharing of its vast resources for wider community interpretation, inspiration and enjoyment. Each Friday, this blog will share resources, links and digitised materials with its readers so that we all might better understand the work that each of us needs to do.

But more than this, as a national Library operating under the legal deposit act, we are a repository for the UK’s small-presses, independent publishers and other community groups. Now more than ever, it is important that we act as an amplifier for these voices. Each Monday we hope to highlight a small publisher whose imprint focuses on black writers and other writers of colour in order to aid wider awareness of the quality and quantity of this work.

Photograph of assorted printed material from the Library's collections

A selection of some of the Library's collection of printed material.

There’s much more to do so if you have suggestions or comments, please get in touch either through the blog or on Twitter. If you have a small-publisher you’d like to nominate for a highlight, please get in touch, or if there’s a particular British Library collection item which you’ve found useful, inspiring or interesting, let us know.

19 June 2020

“To Mr Pope att Button’s Coffee House”: translating Homer on scraps

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by Tabitha Driver, Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts. Find out more about the Library's collections of material relating to Alexander Pope on Discovering Literature.

Though we have been unable to explore physical collections directly during the last few months, their materiality exercises a continuing fascination. Printing, handwriting, paper, and writing tools all provide evidence of the processes of creation and transmission that’s sometimes not at all easy to reproduce in digital form. A writer’s own manuscripts can reveal much, from the quality of paper to revisions, insertions and rewritings. Not all writers start work with a fresh sheet of paper, either. Used scraps, old envelopes or discarded documents can all serve just as well, whether snatched up as a matter of urgency or simply for economy’s sake.

One such case is the 18th century poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Early in his career Pope produced translations of Homer’s two great epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Pope’s Iliad took him over six years to complete – at times he despaired of ever finishing – but when it was finally published, by subscription and issued in parts from 1715 to 1720, it paid off handsomely. Thanks to his earnings from both Homeric epics, Pope acquired invaluable financial independence; as he strikingly declared in a poem from 1737: “But (thanks to Homer) since I live and thrive,/Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive” (Epistle 2, ii.68–9, Poems, 4.169). 

Pope drafted his Homeric translations on the backs of old letters sent to him by friends, family, writers, and other public figures, and on other written fragments. Some years after his death, the drafts were presented to the British Museum in three volumes (Add MS 4807-4809): volumes one and two are the draft translations of The Iliad and the third is The Odyssey. They were early on a source of interest. Samuel Johnson, who described Pope’s Iliad as “the noblest version of poetry which the world has ever seen” examined the manuscripts at the Museum closely for his life of Pope (Johnson, Lives of the poets, ed. G H Norman (1905) vol. 3, p. 119), and printed comparisons between selected verses from the draft and published versions of The Iliad. He put down Pope’s use of old letters for writing paper to “petty artifices of parsimony”, a sign of the poet’s tendency to excessive frugality. You can find out more about the manuscripts, and read a selection of folios from Add MS 4807, on the British Library’s Discovering Literature website, along with Pope’s sketch of Achilles’ shield from Add MS 4808.

Photograph of manuscript by Alexander Pope (Add MS 4807) containing the opening verses of his translation of Homer's Iliad

Opening verses of Homer’s Iliad, translated by Alexander Pope. Manuscript draft (Add MS 4807, f. 17)

 

Besides what we can see of Pope’s translating and writing process from the manuscripts themselves – the crossings out and insertions, and the variances from the published text that Johnson observed – the mixed bag of unrelated letters and notes on which they were written confer a rich additional layer of significance. They provide a fascinating insight into the development of Alexander Pope as a young writer in literary London of the early 18th century, and the coffee house milieu in which he moved, with its literary and political alliances, rivalries, business and friendship.

Photograph of manuscript by Alexander Pope (Add MS 4807) containing his translation of Book 6 of Homer's Iliad

End of book 6 of The Iliad, translated by Alexander Pope. Manuscript draft written on a letter addressed to Mr Pope, Button’s Coffee-house (Add MS 4807, f. 87v)

 

The writers of the letters and notes include Pope’s friends John Caryll, the Jacobite Baron Caryll of Durford, Edward Bedingfield of Grays Inn, Barnaby Bernard Lintot, Pope’s publisher, Charles Jervas, portrait artist and painting instructor of Pope, and Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, poet, among others.

 

Photograph of manuscript letter from Bernard Lintot to Alexander Pope

Letter from Bernard Lintot about reception of “Mr Tickles book” at Buttons Coffee House, 10 June 1715 (Add MS 4807, f. 96v)

Topics touched on in the letters are miscellaneous too. They range from literary matters, such as publication of The Rape of the Lock (Pope’s mock-epic poem about the theft of a lock of hair) in 1712, instructions for the printer Jacob Tonson regarding Pope’s translation of the Sarpedon episode in Poetical miscellanies (1709), and the critical reception of a rival translation of the first book of The Iliad by Thomas Tickle, published in the same month as Pope’s (June 1715), to family affairs, such as medical advice and investments in the South Sea Bubble.

Thanks to the poet’s economical habit of re-using old paper for his writing, the manuscripts of “Pope’s Homer” have acquired a double significance. On the one hand they are important as the original drafts of his hugely successful translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. On the other, they offer us a vivid record of Pope’s life and times during all the years he worked on them.

Photograph of a notebook containing a sketch of Achilles Shields by Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope’s sketch of the shield of Achilles (Add MS 4808)