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135 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

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)

17 June 2020

‘For it was the middle of June’: Dalloway Day

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By Laura Walker, Lead Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts. Discover more about the British Library’s Virginia Woolf collections on Discovering Literature and find the three manuscript notebooks containing drafts of Mrs Dalloway on Digitised Manuscripts. See the Royal Society of Literature’s website for more information on their Dalloway Day events.

Virginia Woolf is perhaps best known for her ground breaking novel, Mrs Dalloway, which follows the events of a single Wednesday in June. The novel uses a stream of consciousness to follow individual characters inner thoughts and feelings. The two main characters, the socialite Clarissa Dalloway and the shell shocked First Wold War veteran Septimus Smith often provide mirrors of one another, reflecting concepts of sanity and insanity and life and death.

Photograh showing manuscript draft of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, here titled The Hours
Photograph of front cover of Virginia Woolf's notebook in which she wrote the first draft of Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51044 front cover and f.5

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

Unsurprisingly it took longer than a day for Woolf to write the novel. She wrote at least two drafts of Mrs Dalloway, originally called The Hours, in seven cloth bound notebooks. Three of these notebooks are now held at the British Library. Woolf kept a record of the dates on which she wrote particular sections of the drafts. The date on the first page of the first British Library notebook (Add MS 51044) is Wednesday 27 June 1923, and follows on from the draft in another notebook at the Berg collection at the New York Public Library.

Photograph showing manuscript draft of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, here titled The Hours

Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51045 f.113

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

The first notebook at the British Library begins with Peter Walsh, an old friend and flame of Clarissa’s walking in Westminster, which appears midway through the novel. This draft was completed over a year later on Thursday 9 October 1924 at 11.45 and runs into the second notebook (Add MS 51045) held at the British Library. Folio 113 is full of crossings out and changes to the text. It appears as though Woolf couldn’t get the ending quite right and, in this draft, it differs from the published version apart from the final line, ‘For there she was’.

Photograph showing manuscript draft of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, here titled The Hours

Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51045 f.114

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

Woolf begins the novel again on the next page, folio 114, 11 days later on 20 October. It opens with the socialite Clarissa Dalloway who is leaving her house to buy flowers in advance of a party she is hosting later in the day. She is in a buoyant mood and takes delight in the city of London and its occupants.

In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

Woolf herself loved London, it was her ‘beloved city’ and she enjoyed visiting the landmarks, parks and gardens. In a diary entry from 29 March 1940 she describes ‘walking along the Strand and letting each face give me a buffet’.

The Royal Society of Literature are using London as the theme for a couple of their Dalloway events. From 10am on 17 June they will launch ‘“There We Stop; There We Stand” with S. I. Martin – author, artist and founder of 500 Years of Black London walks – on an aural tour of London, from the National Portrait Gallery to Tottenham Court Road, exploring the black cultural heritage of Clarissa Dalloway’s footsteps, and touching on the lives of those whose portraits hang in the National Portrait Gallery.’

10am There We Stop; There We Stand: Exploring the black cultural history of London with S. I. Martin – an aural walking tour

‘”I love walking in London”, said Mrs Dalloway. “Really, it’s better than walking in the country."

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London under lockdown — or gradually easing lockdown — is very different to the bustling metropolis that Woolf described in the early 1920s. However, she would have known too well the experience of living through a pandemic; the Spanish Flu of 1918 was not a distant memory. In an article in The New YorkerMrs Dalloway is seen as ‘at least in part, a novel devoted to influenza’ and although not connected directly to the pandemic Clarissa is described to have fallen prey to the virus. The literary scholar Elizabeth Outka believes that any mention of influenza in the early 1920s must have been a reference to the pandemic of the Spanish Flu.

‘Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza)’

The situation today ‘puts Clarissa’s pleasure in traversing the city in a new light. So does reading it in the midst of our own pandemic, which has temporarily dissolved the busy urban scenes Woolf describes so lovingly throughout her book.’ In the next event at 2pm the Royal Society of Literature have joined with the Literary Hub, whose managing editor Emily Temple will host a Zoom based book-group to explore how Mrs Dalloway affects readers lives during this pandemic. It will explore themes of ‘solitude, PTSD, societal progress, and autonomy and freedom, Mrs Dalloway reflects much of many readers’ lives, and offers a lot for other readers to consider.’

2pm Literary Hub and RSL book club discussing Mrs Dalloway

Hosted by Literary Hub’s Emily Temple

‘Moments like this are buds on the tree of life.’ —Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

Most of the characters in Mrs Dalloway share their experiences of walking through the city. For Clarissa London is a playground and she has the wealth and the position to make the most of what the city can offer. However, Woolf uses the city to reflect Clarissa’s fading worth as an older woman, her loss of identity and the ‘gilded confinement’ of being ‘Mrs Richard Dalloway’.

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‘She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.’

Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth also explores London including a wander down the Strand, which she sees as an adventure. ‘For no Dalloways came down the Strand daily; she was a pioneer, a stray, venturing, trusting.’ The Dalloways wealth and privilege and the opportunities it brought was something many aspired to and could never achieve. ‘To many of her contemporaries, this ordinary day buying flowers and organising a party represented a freedom they could only hope for due to inequalities of class, gender and race.’

8pm The Pleasure of the Everyday – presented with Literary Hub, with authors Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and Kate Young, chaired by Literary Hub’s Emily Temple

‘Everything had come to a standstill’ —Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

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These themes will be considered in a Royal Society of Literature event at 8pm, which will chaired by the Literary Hub’s managing editor Emily Temple, with authors Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and Kate Young. They will also ‘explore the quotidian pleasures we’ve developed appreciation for since lockdown, how literature can support us in these confusing times, and how this experience compares to Clarissa Dalloway’s own cerebral journey’.

Photograph showing manuscript draft of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, here titled The Hours

Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51046 f.177v

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

Contained within the cloth bound notebooks are other works and articles by Woolf that sit at the end of the notebooks and between sections of Mrs Dalloway. The second notebook, (Add MS 51045) contains a short story for children called Nurse Langton's Golden Thimble. The other two notebooks contain passages from essays published in the Common Reader including 'The Pastons and Chaucer' and 'On not knowing Greek' as well as other articles and reviews.

First page of printed version of Street Haunting by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting (1930, San Francisco) Cup.510.pb.30

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Woolf believed that a ‘good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out’. ‘Perhaps as loved as her fiction and letters, Woolf’s essays guide their reader through considerations of equality, the importance of literature, health, and pleasure. Many readers have discovered or re-discovered Woolf’s essays during lockdown, finding in them inspiration and solace in uncertain times. In her essay “Street Haunting” Virginia Woolf noted, “we are no longer quite ourselves”, which takes on new meaning almost a century later, when essays still help us make sense of the world around us. Join writers Mona Eltahawy and Sinéad Gleeson in conversation with Charleston’s Susannah Stevenson at 6.30pm as they discuss the power of modern essay writing, the potential of the form to progress feminism, and the legacy of Virginia Woolf’s work.’

6.30pm The Common Reader in Uncommon Times with authors Sinéad Gleeson and Mona Eltahawy, chaired by Charleston’s Susannah Stevenson

‘A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out’—Virginia Woolf, ‘The Common Reader’

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Perhaps Woolf’s most famous essay is ‘A Room of One’s Own’, a key text in feminist literary criticism where she examines the educational, social and financial disadvantages women have faced throughout history. It contains Woolf’s famous argument that, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ – although Woolf describes this as ‘an opinion upon one minor point’, and the essay explores the ‘unsolved problems’ of women and fiction ‘to show you how I arrived at this opinion about the room and the money’. 

 

Photograph showing title page for first edition of A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (Hogarth Press 1929), Cup.410.f.577
© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

 

In the essay Woolf remarks upon the nature of female relationships, ‘Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen.  Sometimes women do like women.’ ‘Almost the entire body of Virginia Woolf’s writing – her novels, essays and letters –have been interpreted from a variety of queer perspectives, and her work has inspired many modern interpretations across film, dance and theatre.’ At 10pm BBC Radio 3 will air Free Thinking: ‘Queer Bloomsbury’, in which ‘presenter Shahidha Bari, authors Paul Mendez and Francesca Wade will discuss and debate Woolf’s legacy for modern queer writing, as well as lesser-known queer histories of Bloomsbury.’

10pm BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking: ‘Queer Bloomsbury’with authors Paul Mendez and Francesca Wade , chaired by Shahidha Bari

‘Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen.  Sometimes women do like women.”—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

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The full programme for the events on Dalloway as well as details on how to join in can be found on the Royal Society of Literature’s website.

 

 

29 May 2020

The Gersum Project: A New Resource to Dig Up Viking Treasure amongst English Words

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a guest blog by the Gersum Project Team. Read more about the Gersum Project and the Library's work with contemporary accents and dialects.

When we think about Viking treasure in Britain, images of swords, coins and jewellery often spring to mind. However, scholars from the Universities of Cambridge and Cardiff have been working on the study of a different type of Viking artefact associated with Anglo-Scandinavian contacts during the early Middle Ages: words from Old Norse (the language spoken by the Scandinavians during the Viking Age) that made their way into medieval English. This would have happened, to a large extent, as a result of English speakers incorporating (often technical) words into their language or following the language shift of the Scandinavian settlers from Old Norse to Old English as part of their cultural integration. There are around 2,000 words in medieval English for which Norse origin has been suggested. They include technical and non-technical vocabulary; here are some examples:

  • Legal matters: e.g. Old English (OE) lagu / Middle English (ME) laue ‘law’, cp. Old Icelandic (OIcel.) lög
  • Social hierarchy: e.g. OE þræl /ME thrall ‘thrall, slave’, cp. OIcel. þræll
  • Navigation: OE scegð ‘warship’, cp. OIcel. skeiþ
  • Warfare (e.g. OE brynige / ME brinie ‘coat of mail’, cp. OIcel. brynja

Non-technical terms:

  • Environment and habitation: e.g. ME skie ‘sky, heavens’, cp. OIcel. ský; ME fel ‘fell, precipitous rock’, cp. OIcel. fjall / fell; ME windoue ‘window’, cp. OIcel. vindauga
  • The body: e.g. ME leg ‘leg’, cp. OIcel. leggr; OE scinn / ME skin ‘skin’, cp. OIcel. skinn
  • Emotions: e.g. ME angr ‘distress; anger’, cp. OIcel. angr; ME aue ‘awe, fear’, cp. OIcel. agi
  • Mental capacity: e.g. ME skil ‘reason, intellectual faculty’, cp. OIcel. skil; ME sleigh ‘sly, wise, prudent’, cp. OIcel. slœgr
  • Morality: e.g. ME ille ‘wicked, sinful, immoral’ and ille ‘evil, wrongdoing’, cp. OIcel. illr
  • Many different kinds of activities and states: e.g. ME casten ‘to throw, cast’, cp. OIcel. kasta; OE ceallian / ME callen ‘to call’, cp. OIcel. kalla; ME þriven ‘to thrive’, cp. OIcel. þrífask

Old English and Old Norse were fairly close to each other (they were both Germanic languages) and it is very likely that their speakers were able to understand each other to some extent. This most probably facilitated the transfer of words across the two languages, but it also makes the identification of Norse loans in English very difficult.      

The Gersum Project: The Scandinavian Influence on English Vocabulary, which has been funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council and takes its name from the Norse term represented by OIcel. görsemi ‘costly thing, jewel, treasure’, has put forward a new way to classify the Norse-derived terms in English which brings to the forefront the different types of evidence that we can rely on: the form of the terms in terms of their sounds (phonology) and/or their structural components (morphology), the date and location of their attestations in English texts, their presence in other Germanic languages, etc.

The systematic nature of this approach will enable researchers to make consistent and explicit etymological decisions and thus advance our knowledge of the significant role that Old Norse had in the development of the medieval English lexicon, particularly in the areas where the Scandinavians settled down, i.e. the so-called ‘Danelaw’ (the areas to the north and east of an imaginary line joining London and Chester). The careful consideration of the dialectal distribution of the terms in the etymological discussion and the links to the English Dialect Dictionary also make this project fully relevant for the study of modern English dialectology, and, hence, the British Library’s own archival work on accents and dialects.

Screenshot showing the British Library's Accent and Dialect Hub

Screenshot showing the British Library's Accent and Dialect Hub

Screenshots showing the interactive interface of the Gersum Project

 

 Screenshots showing the interactive interface of the Gersum Project
Screenshots showing the interactive interface of the Gersum Project

Two of the manuscripts held at the British Library are at the core of the project’s corpus, which comprises six texts from the North and Northwest Midlands associated with the Alliterative Revival in Middle English poetry. Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, often attributed to the same author, are only recorded in London, British Library, Cotton Nero A.X, while St Erkenwald has only survived in London, British Library, Harley 2250.

These texts give us an insight into the lexical wealth of late-fourteenth-century Cheshire/Staffordshire. The author of The Wars of Alexander, which can be found in two manuscripts (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole 44; and Dublin, Trinity College 213), probably originated from further north than the two other authors although, as it is often the case, it is difficult to know where exactly he came from. In these texts, native, Romance and Norse terms work together to meet the lexical diversity needed for the sake of alliteration (and rhyme), as well as the authors’ taste for detailed and technically intricate descriptions.

Photograph of manuscript containing the first lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Image for Nero A.X: beginning of text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Photograph of manuscript containing the first lines of Sir Erkenwald

Harley 2250 showing the beginning of St Erkenwald 

 

 

22 May 2020

“Without being a burden to anybody”: A letter from Ann Radcliffe to her Mother-in-Law from afar.

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by Zoe Louca-Richards, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts. For an introduction to Anne Radcliffe, visit Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. For a digitised edition of Radcliffe's letter to her mother-in-law (part of Add MS 78689), click here. For a contemporary biography of Ann Radcliffe see Rictor Norton's The Mistress of Udolpho: The Life of Ann Radcliffe (BL Shelfmark: YC.2000.a.3820).

With the restriction on travel and strict social distancing regulations of the past few months, many of us have had to adapt to caring for our parents (or older relatives) from afar. This challenge is certainly not one unique to the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. We often take for granted the remarkable ease of movement we are afforded today. For people in the past without the fast and convenient luxury of modern transport, navigating this familial duty remotely was a necessity — and with no Face-time or WhatsApp for easy and efficient contact, communications were dependent on pen and paper alone. A unique letter held in the archive at the British Library, penned by 18th century gothic romancer and poet Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823), offers us an intriguing insight into the testing situation of distanced parental care in the late 1700s, as well as a rare glimpse of her personal affairs. A digitised copy of the letter can be found here.

The letter (Add MS 78689) was written from Ann Radcliffe to her mother-in-law, Deborah Radcliffe, and although undated is believed to have been written in the 1790s, during the height of Radcliffe’s success.  Unfortunately it is incomplete, with the middle (bottom half of the page) of the letter missing. Never the less, we can piece together a narrative from what remains. It begins “Dear Madam” - a somewhat impersonal greeting for a relative by today’s standards, but not uncommon in the 18th century – and continues to discuss her Mother-in-law’s financial and living situation.

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Add MS 78689 - Letter from Ann Radcliffe to her mother-in-law, from the EVELYN PAPERS Vol. DXXII .  British Library - Creative Commons with attribution.

 

The overall tone of the letter is frosty and seems more that of a chastising parent than of a concerned child-in-law. In the first part of the letter, Ann draws into question her mother-in-law’s continued complaints of financial hardship, noting that “The reasonableness of things in Yorkshire is well known”. Nonetheless, whether through duty or care, Ann assures her that she and William (her husband) will continue to support her. She adds that if she cannot be provided the necessities of life with their current level of financial assistance, without becoming a “burden to anybody”, she should move in with her and William, where she “shall always find plenty”.

The second part of the letter discusses some funds that Ann and William had sent to Deborah, which appear to have gone astray in transit. The situation seems a matter of contention, with Ann remarking “You will recollect the unwillingness which William formerly expressed to send money to you at Broughton […] I assured you we did not for a moment suppose you had received a two pound note when you assured us to the contrary, and it was therefore unnecessary for you to vindicate yourself again”. One can only assume that Deborah must have made her feelings of accusation very clear in the preceding letter to Ann. Tensions are clearly high, and without wanting to fall into any tired mother-in-law tropes, the letter gives the impression that Deborah and Ann’s relationship may have been strained. Ensuring the care of her mother-in-law from afar appears to be a frustrating charge for Ann. Nevertheless, she signs the letter off with her love and good wishes.

Ann_Radcliffe

Ann Radcliffe (Public Domain)

 

Unfortunately, this may be the only evidence of Ann’s relationship with William’s mother that we are ever afforded. The authoress appears to have been a very private individual - she made very few public appearances during her lifetime, and left behind few manuscript items. This letter is one of only a handful of known surviving autograph documents. Whilst scholarship on her published works is extensive, the lack of primary material has resulted in few biographical accounts. The Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti is alleged to have started a biography of Radcliffe in the 1880s as part of the Roberts Brothers’ ‘Eminent Women’ series (AKA. the ‘Famous Women’ series in the US), but abandoned the endeavour due to the lack of information. What we know of Anne comes from only a handful of primary sources. Her first biography, Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd’s Memoir of the Life and Writings of Mrs. Radcliffe (1826), was penned 3 years after her death, and was based on information provided by William. It has been speculated that William's careful posthumous management of his wife's reputation may have extended to the destruction of her papers, but there is no evidence to prove this.

The_Italian_1st_ed

First edition title page for Anne Radcliffe's novel, “The Italian” (public domain)

 

The bristly nature of the communications between Ann and her mother-in-law, draws to mind the relationship of Ellena and Marchesa di Vivaldi in The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797). It was Ann’s final novel (to be published in her lifetime), and its dark tale of love and persecution sees the Marchesa -- in the role of evil mother-in-law -- conspiring against her prospective daughter-in-law, Ellena. Could Ann have used her own experiences with her mother-in-law as inspiration? Many scholars have sought to draw parallels between Radcliffe and her heroines in an attempt to better understand the authoress. (The most frequent comparison being between Radcliffe and Emily from The Mysteries of Udolpho [1794]). Nevertheless, the relative lack of primary source material relating to Radcliffe means that any attempt to identify where -- or indeed if -- this relationship exists can only ever be speculative.

Without more sources we cannot make a concrete judgement about the relationship of these two women, and the letter leaves us wondering more about the Radcliffe family dynamics than it tells us. Never the less, this fragmented letter is a precious and rare remnant of Ann’s life, and many of us can undoubtedly sympathise with Ann’s exasperation, and the frazzled relationships that can coincide with caring for each other from a distance.