English and Drama blog

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

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

17 February 2021

“Slow” Biography and the Ted Hughes Collection

a guest blog by Heather Clark, Professor of Contemporary Poetry at the University of Huddersfield, whose book, 'Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath' is available now from Penguin Books. If you have recently used the Library's literary collections in your published research, please get in touch at @BLEnglish_Drama on Twitter to be featured in another guest blog.

Plath Red Comet

When I set out to write a biography, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, nearly nine years ago, I knew I would need to devote a significant amount of time and space to another great twentieth century poet: Ted Hughes. Plath and Hughes were married for nearly seven years, during which time they produced some of the most important works of the postwar period, including The Hawk in the Rain, The Colossus, Lupercal, The Bell Jar, and Ariel. I have long been fascinated by the creative dynamics of this literary partnership, which I explored in my second book, The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Writing Red Comet gave me the chance to dig even deeper into the British Library’s Ted Hughes archive, which, along with Emory University in Atlanta, holds the world’s most important collection of Hughes’s papers.

The many unpublished sources in this archive enriched my biographical narrative of Plath. Hughes’s 1957-59 letters from America to his sister Olwyn, for example, reveal his disdain for American culture, and, paradoxically, its stimulations. He wrote in detail to Olwyn about his impressions of New York City, Cape Cod, Wellesley, Northampton, and Boston in letters full of cynicism and humor. He described the impact of philosophical and literary ideas by Lorca, Crowe Ransom, Baudelaire, Graves, and Lawrence on some of his most well-known poems, such as “View of a Pig,” “Hawk Roosting,” and “Pike,” as he wrote Lupercal. Hughes’s letters from this period also shed light on some legendary contemporaries. He writes of meeting Robert Lowell, with whom he felt an immediate kinship, and his first impressions of Lowell’s watershed collection Life Studies, which Hughes read before its publication in spring 1959. Hughes made rough journal entries, too, in Boston: I learned that he wept with relief when Plath told him he had won a Guggenheim fellowship. These were important years in Plath and Hughes’s literary lives, made more vivid by the materials in the British Library.

Hughes’s unpublished notebooks were another rich source of detail (that is, if one can decipher his notoriously difficult handwriting). Some of these notebooks contain unpublished poems by Hughes about Plath that are less well-known to the public than those of his bestselling, elegiac collection Birthday Letters. Perhaps the most interesting poems, from my biographical perspective, are in the “Trial” sequence that Hughes wrote in the 1980s when he was involved in a U.S. libel lawsuit over a film adaptation of The Bell Jar. In these poems, Hughes remembers visiting Plath at her new London flat to celebrate the publication of The Bell Jar; conversations about the novel’s heroine, Esther Greenwood; Plath’s anxiety surrounding the book’s reviews; his own decision not to read The Bell Jar until after Plath’s death; and his promise to Plath’s mother never to publish the novel in America. Hughes struggles to understand why Plath wrote The Bell Jar, and to what extent the act of writing and publishing it exacerbated her depression in 1963. The “Trial” sequence, scrawled with changes and excisions, offers a rare glimpse of Sylvia Plath as Ted Hughes remembered her in 1962 and early 1963. It confirmed, for me, the value of “slow” biography—of long weeks spent in the archive, sifting through layers of the writing left behind.

02 February 2021

The Library acquires Theatre Royal Stratford East and Theatre Workshop archive

by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. You can read more about the Library's existing collections of Joan Littlewood material online at Discovering Literature 20th Century, and more about the new acquisition in our latest press release.

I am delighted to announce that the Library has acquired the archive of Theatre Royal Stratford East and Theatre Workshop for the national collection. Comprising 140 boxes of scripts, correspondence, posters, flyers, audio visual material and props the archive provides a wonderful insight into the work of the award winning theatre and the highly innovative theatre company which was based there from 1953 until 1979.

 Watch this film made by Theatre Royal Stratford East about the archive with Murray Melvin, actor, Theatre Workshop alumnus who for nearly thirty years was the honorary archivist of this collection, and my former colleague, Zoë Wilcox, to find out more.

The archive is an exciting addition the Library’s rich theatrical collections and fits particularly well with Joan Littlewood’s archive which we acquired in 2015. Joan Littlewood (1914-2002) was an internationally-renowned theatre and film director who has been described as ‘the mother of modern theatre’ for her radical vision and her innovative working methods. The archive documents her work at the theatre including a number of significant productions such as A Taste of Honey, The Hostage and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be. It also includes some early material relating to the predecessor of Theatre Workshop, Theatre of Action (later known as Theatre Union) which was set up by Littlewood and her then husband, Ewan MacColl (1915-1989).

Theatre Royal Stratford East first opened its doors to the public in 1884 and the archive includes material from those early days, through Theatre Workshop to the tenures of the artistic directors, Ken Hill, Maxwell Shaw, Clare Venables, Philip Hedley and Kerry Michael, taking us right up to 2017. The depth and breadth of the archive mean that its contents will allow research on a wide range of subjects from agit prop theatre of the 1930s and the work of the dance artist and theorist, Rudolf Laban, through to Black and Asian theatre, and ideas of urban geography explored in Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palace project. With such a wide ranging archive it is not possible to describe everything here so I will just highlight some of the interesting items I’ve discovered so far.

Material from the earliest years of the theatre includes flyers for productions and a fragile pencil draft of a ballad entitled ‘Babes in the Wood’ which is believed to have been written by A.E. Abrahams in 1907. The archive also offers a fascinating insight into the workings of Theatre of Action/Theatre Union, the socialist theatre cooperative set up by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl in Manchester in 1934. The company followed the principles of agit prop theatre that were developed in Russia following the Revolution. Agitprop used popular media such as theatre, literature and film to disseminate an explicitly political message and was performed in the street to audiences who might not go to traditional theatres. The archive includes scripts for a ‘Living Newspaper’ production from 1939, a reading list for the company and costume sketches. The company were trailblazers of new techniques such as their use of back projection for

MacColl’s adaptation of Hašek’s Good Soldier Schweik, the first time the effect was used in Britain. Excitingly the archive includes the original gobos used to create the distinctive effect.

 

A selection of notes programmes and other papers relating to theatre unions work in the thirties

Theatre Union montage: selection of notes, programmes and other papers relating to Theatre Union’s work in the 1930s

Correspondence in the archive also points to the experimental nature of Theatre Workshop. Littlewood was very interested in the work of the dance and movement theorist, Rudolf Laban, and his first assistant in England, Jean Newlove, later become a member of the company and taught the them his methods. The archive contains a fascinating collection of letters from Laban to Newlove in which he outlines his theories that have since became an important foundation for dancers and actors alike. Letters also highlight how the socialist outlook of Theatre Workshop affected all aspects of its work as in this letter from Gerry Raffles to a prospective member of the company shows.

 

Letter sent by gerry raffles theatre workshops manager to a prospective member of the company

Gerry Raffles letter: Letter sent by Gerry Raffles, Theatre Workshop’s manager in 1948 to a prospective member of the company © Joan Littlewood Estate

Raffles explained that “all new members are expected to undergo a fairly rigorous training in the Company’s methods of work, and there is little point in applicants attending auditions unless they are prepared to accept the obvious hardships and financial disadvantages which work in a group such as ours involves.”

As you can see the archive is particularly strong for anyone interested in Theatre Workshop and Joan Littlewood. One final thing to flag is the material relating to Oh What a Lovely War! Littlewood and the company devised the groundbreaking musical which was a satire on WW1 and war in general in line with their usual working practice. The archive includes a wide range of material on the subject from annotated scripts, lighting plots and costume lists to recordings of music for the production and photographs. One of the most interesting parts is a series of the cast notes that Littlewood wrote after each performance. These handwritten notes were pinned up on the wall providing detailed feedback for individual cast members as well as the ensemble as a whole –

 

Joan littlewoods detailed notes on a performance of oh what a lovely war

Oh, What A Lovely War! cast notes: Joan Littlewood’s detailed notes on a performance © Joan Littlewood Estate

 

Theatrical innovation continued to be a cornerstone for the Theatre Royal Stratford East long after Littlewood’s departure in the 1970s. In particular the directorships of Philip Hedley and Kerry Michael saw the development of Black and Asian theatre with highly significant productions such as D’yer eat with your fingers (1998), a satirical state-of-the-nation production derived by a company that included Shobna Gulati, Syreti Kumar and Nina Wadia and directed by Indhu Rubasingham, and The Big Life (2005) the highly successful directorial debut of Clint Dyer, which became the first All Black British Musical in the West End. Other recent examples of innovation under Kerry Michael and documented in the archive include Home Theatre (2013 and 2015), which saw bespoke one person performances in the homes of members of the public and the musical, Tommy, which was performed by Deaf and Disabled artists from Ramps on the Moon in 2017.

I would like to use this blog to pay tribute to Murray Melvin, actor and Theatre Workshop alumnus who for nearly thirty years was the honorary archivist of this collection. Murray’s careful organisation, preservation and curation of the archive mean that it is in very good condition. He also played a key role in the development of the archive as a large number of items within it were donated by former members of the theatre company and their families. This means that the archive really is a collaborative record reflecting the myriad of different groups and individuals whose lives were interwoven with the theatre over the years. I think that the archive is a fitting tribute to all of them.

 

16 December 2020

What’s in a Name? The Archival Legacy of Emilia Francis Strong/Pattison/Dilke

By Jessica Gregory, Curatorial Support Officer for Modern Manuscripts, 1601 – 1950. The papers of Emilia Francis Dilke (Née Strong, formerly Pattison) can be found at Add MS 43903-43908. The correspondence of Emilia Francis Dilke and Gertrude Tuckwell are found at Add MS 49610-49612. The British Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, explores the history of women’s rights activism and is open now.

Portrait of Emilia Dilke

Emila Francis (Née Strong), Lady Dilke by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, 1887.
(NPG 5288, © National Portrait Gallery, London)

For too long, the achievements of women of the past have been lost; many who have made significant contributions to various fields find themselves remembered only in relation to the men in their lives. Tracing their own histories through archival collections can be a difficult task: within their husband’s papers, their legacies are already framed by the names they inherit and the proximity to power which was granted by them. Retelling the achievements of women from the past often requires us to reconstruct and draw together their lives through their disparate archival legacies, so often mapped according to their inherited names.

One such case is that of Emilia Francis Strong. She would become an essayist, author, art historian and women’s rights activist, but despite her varied intellectual output, there is a surprising lack of primary material preserved. The British Library holds some of her papers within her second husband’s archive: The Charles Dilke Papers. There are also a few items of correspondence within the collections of other powerful men too, but she has — to adapt Woolf’s famous phrase — no  Archive of her Own.
 
Strong’s marriage to Dilke and her social class ensured that her name was preserved in history, but her varied intellectual pursuits have been overshadowed by her husband’s sex-scandal, which even now would have tabloid editors licking their lips. (And which, regrettably, I have to go into in order to contextualise her life).  

Photographic portrait of Emilia Dilke and her second husband, Charles

Sir Charles Dilke and Emilia Dilke,1894, By W. & D. Downey, published by Cassel and Company, Ltd. (NPG x8701. © National Portrait Gallery, London)

 

Charles was a Liberal MP with a radical agenda, but the discovery of his extramarital relations with his brother’s mother-in-law, followed by his brother’s sister-in-law, Virginia Crawford, was just scratching the surface of his misdeeds. When Mr. Crawford’s divorce trial made the headlines, the judge found Virginia Crawford guilty of adultery, but — paradoxically — found Charles Dilke innocent of the same crime. On top of this, Dilke found himself pursued by an investigative journalist with a grudge, and was soon forced to enter a case in an effort to clear his name, which catastrophically backfired when his heavily mutilated liaison diaries were paraded in court. The torn and self-censored diaries seemed to prove Charles Dilke’s adultery and he became a figure of ridicule for his desperate attempts to cover up his indiscretions. Emilia had defended Charles at the trial, but the damage was done. His reputation crumbled and his love-life was the talk of the town for many years to come.

Dilke 3 fr

Engagement Book of Sir Charles Dilke, 1888,
Add MS 49402

Emilia’s legacy — like her life — is framed by this relationship.  The situation would not be much improved by remembering her as ‘Emilia Pattison, wife of Mark Pattison’, either; her first marriage was so famously unhappy that she and her husband are said to be the real-life inspiration for the unhappy couple of Mr. Casaubon and Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s, Middlemarch.

Dilke 4

A letter to Emilia Pattison from her friend, author George Eliot, 1870. Add MS 43907. British Library.

However, apart from her two marriages, Emilia sought to establish a name for herself through her own actions and writings. She studied at the South Kensington Art School in London. After her studies, she began contributing essays to the periodicals, such as The Saturday Review. She studied and wrote on Art and became arts editor of The Academy journal. Married to Mark Pattison at this point, she signed her articles E. F. S. Pattison, adding the ‘S’ to signify her maiden name: Strong — to reflect an element of her independence from her husband. Emilia published on the subject of French Art and gained a reputation as a respectable historian and critic in her own right.

She was also interested in social reform and particularly in improving working conditions for women. She was a prominent figure in the Women’s Trade Union League, founded in 1874 and became its president in 1886. She wrote on the subject of women’s rights at work. In the book Women’s Work, she explores the idea that women are a feature of the modern workplace and that their low wages are damaging not just to women, but to men — who were having their wages undercut — too. She outlines her argument for a raise of women’s wages to be in line with those of men as follows:

It is only too clear that economic independence of women is very, very far from being accomplished…Even though a woman’s work may be as good and as rapid as a man’s, we have seen that her scale of payment is frequently inferior to his…it would seem, therefore, clearly to be in the interest of workman to promote legislation and such methods of organisation as will afford to women the same vantageground [sic] as men

Emilia examined many aspects of women’s work in her essays and opinion pieces, outlining issues of inequality and advocating for health reforms in various sectors — even speaking at the Trade Unions’ Congress. She advocated for women’s trade unionism and would continue to publish on this subject — as well as Fine Art — for the rest of her life. Emilia was also friends with Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst and supported their campaigns for women’s suffrage.

Header for article titled 'Trades Union for Women'

Header for an Article published in the North American Review, 1891.

Even more than this, Emelia also wrote fiction, publishing two volumes of short stories, called, The Shrine of Death and Other Stories (1886) and The Shrine of Love and Other Stories (1891). The preface to The Shrine of Love seems to reaffirm the importance of working for reform through life:

Nothing has troubled me more than the weight of retribution which often falls on those who revolt against any point of prevailing order.

Image taken from short story collection showing graveyard.

Fly-page image from The Shrine of Death and Other Stories, 1886.

Hers are strange, allegorical tales, sometimes with a supernatural element, and a strong focus on morality and fate. They did not prove popular at the time, but these stories have recently been consolidated and republished for a new audience.

Considering this complex and varied legacy, it is a reductive to think of Emilia Dilke as simply the wife of MP Charles Dilke. Her many writing talents should have ensured her a more pronounced legacy than the one she currently holds. Compared to other women of the era, Emilia Dilke was privileged enough to be published and this has preserved many of her thoughts for the long-term. There is no doubt her work on women’s rights was an influence on other women, including her niece Gertrude Tuckwell, who advocated for women’s rights and women’s suffrage, becoming one of the first female magistrates in the UK. However, the lack of available archival material reflects a system of collecting that was very much centered on prominent men.

Photographic portrait of Gertrude Tuckwell

Gertrude Tuckwell, Emilia Dilke’s niece, women’s rights advocate and suffragist. Wikicommons.

The centuries of male dominance in society are reflected in the contents of historic archive collections. The exclusion of women from professional careers means that essential institutional records are primarily authored by men on the actions of men. Therefore, women of the past with intellectual careers and contributions to various fields, often find themselves excluded from many historical records. Without admittance into the professional sphere their work has often been side-lined as that of personal ‘interests’ or ‘hobbies’, and therefore, historically not deemed worthy of formal preservation. This may help explain the disparity between Charles Dilke’s archival collections and Emilia’s.

As well as this, the ability to trace individuals is also more complex for some than it is for others. Barring titles, ranks and self-administered change, the majority of male names will remain the same throughout life, whereas women’s names often change through marriage. Archivists make efforts to discover women’s maiden names so that they can link individuals’ relative outputs together and to help establish a full biography of a person, but sometimes these names are never found. Emilia went by many names during her life, she had her married names, but also preferred to call herself Francis over Emilia at times. As well as this, she would sometimes include her maiden name in signatures and sometimes prefer to author articles with differing initials. Given this abundance of known names, one might see how articles of her authorship may not be linked together.

A combination of structural bias and incidental loss has inhibited the collection of women’s archives for generations, but there is change in the air. Archival institutions now make efforts to correct imbalances in their archival collections. The efforts to brings the many untold lives of women back into history was a major feature of second-wave feminism. As well as this, the internet has provided a means of connecting and tying women’s narratives together, enabling the writing of fuller biographies and giving more credence to their achievements.

The legacy of Emilia Francis Dilke has certainly benefitted from these changes, and many of her works have even been digitised and so can be accessed by a wider range of scholars. Likewise, contemporary women have made efforts to recover Emilia Dilke’s legacy, with Professor Hilary Fraser writing her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, and Dr. Kali Israel writing a  contemporary feminist biography of Emilia Dilke that explores her accomplishments on her own terms. But such work has had to be accomplished without a comprehensive archival legacy for Emilia’s life and work. Given all this, one can see how easily other women have been lost to history, especially without the privilege of access to publishing that Emilia enjoyed. So many legacies have been reduced to a few scraps of paper and given our current advances in the field of archives, it is essential that we make an effort today to ensure that female archival legacies are fuller, broader, and most importantly, present in the future.

Further Reading

  • Women’s Work…With a Preface by Lady Dilke, by A. A. Brooke. (London: Methuen & Co, 1894)
  • The Shrine of Death, and other stories. L.P., By Emilia Francis Strong Dilke. (London: Routledge and sons, 1886)
  • The Shrine of Love, and other stories. L.P., By Emilia Francis Strong Dilke. (London: Routledge and sons, 1891)
  • Names and Stories: Emilia Dilke and Victorian Culture. By Kali Israel. (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1999).

09 December 2020

Celebrating New Poetry Pamphlets: The Michael Marks Awards 2020

by Ian Cooke, Head of Contemporary British Published Collections. The Michael Marks Awards were founded by the British Library and the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, and partners today include the Wordsworth Trust, the TLS, Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies, the National Library of Wales and the National Library of Scotland. Join us online to hear the winners announced on 14th December 2020.

Michael Marks 02

The shortlisted pamphlets for the Michael Marks Award for Poetry 2020

The Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets will be announced on Monday 14th December, at a free online event. Join us to hear from the publishers and shortlisted and winning poets.

The Awards are now in their 12th year and celebrate poetry pamphlets as a site for innovation, making new poetry accessible in a variety of inventive styles and formats.

Four Awards will be announced on the evening of 14th December: the Poetry Award, best Publisher, Illustrator and Poetry in a Celtic Language. The shortlists for the Poetry Award and best Publisher have been announced on the Michael Marks Awards website

At the start of 2020, we were uncertain about how the Awards would run this year. Over its history, the Awards has relied on people being able to travel and meet in person, whether for judging meetings or for the awards ceremony itself. The latter is a highlight, bringing together poets and publishers and hearing each other read and speak.

However, we quickly gathered very strong support for the Awards from the people that we spoke to, who emphasised the importance of celebrating new poetry and the role of independent publishers in this year particularly. The response to our call for entries was greater than ever before, with almost twice as many pamphlets submitted, and many new publishers. Although we wouldn’t be able to hold our celebration at the British Library as usual, we were excited that holding an event online would allow us to include far more people than we would usually be able to accommodate in our physical spaces. Poetry pamphlets are a fantastic way to bring exciting new poetry to a wide audience, and we wanted our online Awards to follow in that spirit.

Our shortlisted poetry pamphlets and publishers show that excitement, and demonstrate how poetry pamphlets reflect a very wide range of expression and experience. These include the first pamphlet from Sarah Wimbush, Bloodlines, and Alycia Pirmohamed’s second pamphlet, Hinge. But also pamphlets from poets with longer publishing histories, such as Jamie McKendrick’s The Years and Paul Muldoon’s Binge.

The poetry in the pamphlets reflect movement and changing perspectives, with Alycia Pirmohamed’s Hinge using themes of landscape, space and migration. Paul Muldoon’s Binge moves from detailed descriptions of place and experience in Northern Ireland to locations around the world and across history.

Fothermather, by Gail McConnell, describes change and formation in a different sense, from the development of a baby before birth, through to the change in identity of a new parent and — much more broadly — to the way that things are given form and names. Bloodlines incorporates a highly personal use of language and presentation of different characters, to explore and express Sarah Wimbush’s Gypsy/Traveller heritage. In Jamie McKendrick’s The Years, the relationship between the poems and pictures throughout the pamphlet allow a conversation between text and image, allowing one to influence how the other is read or viewed.   

Mm-publishers-2020

The shortlisted publishers for the Michael Marks Awards 2020

As with the poetry pamphlets, the shortlist for publishers show a commitment to representing a range of voices, coupled with a very careful attention to the form in which each poet and pamphlet is presented.

Guillemot Press, a former winner, gave each pamphlet its own clear identity, through choice of format, sustainable paper stock, and type face.

Face Press similarly use materials that reflect the character of each pamphlet, with the judges noting that ‘every pamphlet submitted by Face Press was an individual event’.

Broken Sleep Books show a strong commitment to inclusivity and community engagement in their publishing, with several initiatives designed especially for writers on low incomes.

Another former winner, the Emma Press, equally take an active interest in representing poets from different backgrounds and experiences, and in cultivating a love for poetry amongst new audiences. 

At our Awards event on 14th December, all our shortlisted publishers and poets will speak and read. We will also hear from our winners for the Illustration and Poetry in a Celtic Language awards, as well as from our judges and partners. We are very excited that this year’s awards ceremony can be opened up to a wider audience online, and hope you can join us to hear the winners announced

07 December 2020

New Acquisition: John Donne and the Melford Hall Manuscript

by Dr. Alexander Lock, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts. The Melford Hall Manuscript is now available to view online, in full, on our website.

The British Library has recently announced its acquisition of the Melford Hall manuscript: a rare seventeenth-century volume containing the poetry of John Donne (1572–1631), one of the most popular poets of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Dating from the 1620s or early 1630s, the Melford Hall manuscript comprises over 130 poems by Donne and is one of the largest near contemporary scribal collections of his work. The manuscript has never been properly studied and was unknown to scholarship until it was discovered in 2018 in the library at Melford Hall, Suffolk. As one of the largest extant manuscript collections of Donne’s poetry, it covers the entire range of his poetical output, and – until its sale – was probably the most significant manuscript collection of Donne’s poetry to remain in private hands. 

 

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‘Elegy XIX: To his Mistress Going to Bed’ by John Donne from the Melford Hall Manuscript (Egerton MS 3884) © British Library Board.

The discovery of this manuscript is particularly exciting as it provides new evidence for the study of Donne’s work and the literary culture in which it was created. John Donne should be understood as a ‘coterie’ poet in the sense that his poetry was almost entirely distributed (or ‘published’) in manuscript copy amongst a select circle (or coterie) of privileged friends, acquaintances and potential patrons. These readers would, in turn, copy Donne’s lines to keep in their own private collections or to share with close friends. Only one English poem written in Donne’s own hand has survived and so much of what we know about his poetical output comes from these manuscript copies made for, and by, his ‘coterie’ of readers. The Melford Hall manuscript, therefore, is of outstanding literary significance because it provides new evidence as to how Donne’s poetry was written, copied, circulated, and received in the early seventeenth century. It also offers scholars important new evidence for the study of the manuscript transmission of poetry in the early modern period.

 

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Detail of ‘Fall of a Wall’ by John Donne from the Melford Hall Manuscript (Egerton MS 3884) © British Library Board.

Following its discovery in Melford Hall the manuscript was subsequently sold at auction where it was purchased by an overseas bidder. Following independent assessment of the importance of the manuscript the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced a temporary export bar on the work in a bid to save the manuscript for the nation. The British Library was ultimately able to raise the money to secure the acquisition of this manuscript and is delighted to announce that it can now be freely examined by readers online and will be available in the Library’s reading rooms from early 2021.

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The Melford Hall Manuscript (Egerton MS 3884) with seventeenth-century binding © British Library Board.

The manuscript retains its seventeenth-century binding and contains some of Donne’s most popular works including his songs and sonnets, elegies, epigrams, erotic verse, satires, epithalamia, verse epistles, obsequies, and divine poems. Alongside the poetry of Donne, the volume also features verse by other contemporary writers such as Francis Beaumont (1584–1616), Thomas Carew (1595–1640) and Sir Thomas Overbury (1581–1613). It also intriguingly contains a series of six currently unknown and unattributed seventeenth-century poems. Towards the back of the volume, and added in a later seventeenth century hand, are notes made on the sermons of Robert Meldrum (c.1653–1699) and a number of popular songs that were copied out in the mid-eighteenth century.

The manuscript has now been fully digitised and is freely available online on Digitised Manuscripts. The acquisition and digitisation of this manuscript was made possible with a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and with funding from the Friends of the National Libraries, the British Library Collections Trust, the T.S. Blakeney Fund, the Bridgewater Fund, and the American Trust for the British Library with thanks to Paul Chrzanowski and Patrick Donovan.

18 November 2020

What Have We Been Reading?

This week marks the second in our blog series What Have We Been Reading? where the English & Drama Blog canvasses a broad range of British Library departments and curators to pick their brains about what they've been reading in their spare time. Views -- as always in this series -- are their own.

Christian Algar, Curator of Printed Heritage Collections

There must have been a good few people separated from cherished books left on their office desks during lockdown. My Desert Island, or my “Stuck-on-the-Top-of-a-Tor” book, was amongst these: Charles Causley’s Collected Poems, 1951-2000.

Photograph of front jacket for Collected Poems by Charles Causley next to a British Library envelope

Charles Causley (1917-2003) was a Cornish poet and writer. Causley - who apart from the time he spent in the Navy during World War Two, lived all his life in the ancient Cornish capital, Launceston - captures the distinctive mind-set of the Devon & Cornwall borderland. There is an irresistible magnetism to and a connection with the Sea and with the meditations that its presence brings. Causley makes me think of my own Grandad, his brothers, sisters and friends of their generation. He keeps me in touch with my roots, he feeds and sustains my sentimentality for the otherness of the other side of Dartmoor.

Folklore, legend, traditions, close attention to characters and places, all feature in Causley’s poems. He took especial care to speak about the vulnerable, the damaged, the needy and the outcast. He admired the strengths of “the good” in people. He liked ballads and is well-known for his children’s poems. I read his poems to my young daughter; ‘Diggory Prance’; ‘Mrs Malarkey’, ‘Three Green Sailors’ are amongst our favourites. She laughs because my Westcountry accent is at its most sing-song and piratey when I read to her.

My personal favourite is perhaps ‘Dan Dory’:

    ‘Still spins the water and the land,
    I said, ‘as yesterday’ –
    And leaned to take his hand. But he
    Had vanished away.’

It makes me shudder every time I read it. I’m uncomfortable with showy and staged acts of Remembrance, but I always think about how those who survived remember their young comrades who died. How profoundly difficult to just carry on getting older when they did not, could not. My Pop (Grandad) was in the Navy for 36 years and I wonder how many a Dan Dory he saw every time he looked out over Plymouth Sound.

I read fewer and fewer books from cover to cover “these days”, books of poetry are perfect repose from reading heavy history that comes with the job. So I was very grateful when a kind co-worker, among the first back to the office, carefully packaged my book and sent it on to my home.

Eleanor Dickens, Curator of Contemporary Politics and Public Life

For work I have been reading my way through the works of Beryl Gilroy, which actually doesn’t feel like work at all. Sometimes the subjects of her books are difficult but at the same time she has a beautiful, frank way of writing that I really enjoy. At the moment I am on Gather the Faces. I was looking forward to visiting the London Metropolitan Archives before the end of the year to read a manuscript of Black Teacher which is out of print and hard to read elsewhere. Sadly, lockdown two has paused that for now. I have also just finished Richard Ryder’s Victims of Science. It is a tough read but a thought provoking one. Ryder is a psychologist and animal rights campaigner. Written in 1975, this is his first full length book exploring the ethical issues in contemporary animal rights debate. Our department holds a growing collection of archives on animal rights including the archives of Richard Ryder and Kim Stallwood.

Photograph of front jacket for Gather the Faces by Beryl Gilroy

Photograph of front jacket for Victims of Science by Richard Ryder

Outside of work, I tend to read Wuxia and Xianxia novels or Fantasy YA and during lockdown I’ve mostly read on online platforms like Wuxiaworld and Wattpad. I think there can be a bit of snobbery about this kind of writing but for me I love the vibrant community that comes with reading in this way, particularly in a time of isolation across the world. Often, the writers on these platforms are just big nerds for their subjects rather than writing to sell books and I find that a really joyful and unpretentious thing to be part of. In a year like 2020 sometimes you just need to be transported to a mad fantasy world or enjoy a bit of teen escapism. Or I do anyway!

Artwork for I Shall Seal the Heavens a Xianxia fantasy novel

Zoe Louca-Richards, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts

I believe there are two types of person in this world, those who intently focus on one book at a time, and those who flit between many … currently I’ve four on the go. I recently added to the pile the incredibly fun, and monumentally pertinent, Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen by Horrible Histories historian Greg Jenner – and no, this one isn’t for kids! With an eclectic cast of 125 (according to Jenner) intriguing characters - from Pliny the Elder to David Attenborough – it teases out the definition of ‘celebrity’, what one is, and why they exist. I particularly enjoyed reading about the 18th century sensation Clara, who toured Europe for 18 years – SPOILER ALERT: She was a Rhinoceros. In today’s world, where celebrity is commodified, and often fleeting, and its influence so frequently affects activism and politics, it’s important we understand the social constructs and media channels that facilitate and create them. It’s also a pertinent discussion for the Library’s Modern Archives and Manuscripts collection too, which is filled with records of the illustrious and the lionized – for good and for bad.

Front jacket for Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

Cristian Necsulescu, Library Assistant, Manuscripts Reading Room

For me, Adam Kucharsky is our man in these strange times. A Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, he works as a leading epidemiologist and analyst on infectious disease outbreaks. In his most recent book, he tries to understand how a virus transmits into the mass population and how we can get better at predicting what happens next. For this he looks for 'the hidden connections' between apparently unrelated phenomena such as epidemics, mob violence, financial crises and viral tweets. Plus, he focuses on the meme process of how the false media and false information spread online as much as a virus. A contagious book.

Front jacket for The Rules of Contagion by Adam Kucharski

One of the great novels of the post-war years, The Plague, written in 1947 by the Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus, is a timeless modern classic masterpiece. Suddenly decimated by a plague announced by rats, the coastal city of Oran has to confront the looming danger in apprehension and quarantine. The stoic doctor Bernard Rieux and his friends decide to stay in the city in order to help the people and alleviate their suffering. But their way will not be an easy one and everyone in the city will have to confront their fears and interrogate the human condition. The Plague is a compelling book about human beings and their endurance, their solidarity and their sense of responsibility. A timeless book for today and tomorrow.

Front jacket for The Plague by Albert Camus

Ralf Dobelli is a Swiss author and entrepreneur best known for his bestselling non-fiction book The Art of Thinking Clearly, where he describes 99 of thinking most common psychological errors – from cognitive biases to envy and social distortions. In his most recent book, Stop Reading the News, he analyses the decision-making mechanism and comes up with examples on how to filter the important and the relevant news around us and why it is important to have a good grasp in understanding the form and content of information. His astute conclusion, though, could be read as a warning: 'News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.'

Photograph of Stop Reading the News by Ralf Dobelli

02 November 2020

Carmen Callil, Cats and Feminist Generations

by D-M Withers, Research Fellow at the University of Sussex and collaborator on the Business of Women's Words Project, which explores the dramatic story of the feminist publishing revolution that unfolded during the UK Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s and 80s. The exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights -- which includes material from the Callil Archive and elsewhere, is now open at the British Library.

"I remember, when I was still writing the PhD, going to Carmen’s home in Chelsea, the little jewel of a flat with these two magnificent white cats kind of, stalking around, you know, scrutinising us. I remember it being painted deep lime green […] like a jewel, but that could be a misremembering." [1]

Virago author Barbara Taylor’s memory of visiting Carmen Callil’s flat in the late 70s is one of many references to Callil’s cats that litter the feminist publisher’s history. In her recently published memoir A Bite of the Apple, Lennie Goodings – clearly not a cat person – offers another account of visiting Callil’s home for a Virago meeting. Upon entering the ‘jewel’ like flat, John or William – one of two grey half Siameses given to Carmen as kittens by Germaine Greer and named after two ‘lovely men’ she had worked with in her early publishing career – boldly jumped on Goodings’s shoulder, and proceeded to curl around her neck. ‘I protested weakly’, writes Goodings, ‘until it was removed by Carmen, who declared that not liking cats “showed a defect in your personality.” [2]

Many photographic portraits of Callil and her feline companion exist from the 70s and 80s, and were often used as illustration for newspaper and magazine features. I encountered these sources while working on the Leverhulme Trust-funded project The Business of Women’s Words: Purpose and Profit in Feminist Publishing, a partnership between the British Library, the University of Sussex and the University of Cambridge. Callil was profiled alongside several other ‘go it alone’ entrepreneurs, including a freelance management consultant, wine exporters and a restauranteur, in a feature for one of the final issues of glossy lifestyle magazine Nova that ran between 1965-75. Callil explained that the entrepreneurial route was attractive because she ‘had the wrong temperament to work for an employer, I think […] I just cannot tread the daily tightrope of compromise and gritting your teeth.’ [3] In a full-page portrait of Callil and her fabulous white Persian Mary – named after Mary Wollstonecraft (who else?) – taken by John Ferrara, both figures pose seductively, shooting forth an arresting look that doubles up the feminine gaze for the viewer, a celebration of fur, feminism and self-possession.

Joan Bakewell’s 1980 article ‘The feminist publisher’, published in Illustrated London News, offers a different configuration [4]. Here Callil is sat at home, crossed legged, adorned with knee-length boots that show she means business. Behind her is a desk strewn with books. In her arms is one of her grey half Siamese cats that, as soon as the shutter clicks, will likely struggle from her loving grasp, avoiding the burn of a cigarette held imperiously in the publisher’s right hand. The restless energy captured in the image seems appropriate for a domestic portrait in which the feminine interior, the private home, has been faced out, now transformed into a public space of work.

An article for the Telegraph Weekend Magazine from 1989 is more playful. We are introduced to two new additions to Callil’s household, sourced from a Sussex farm, the six-month old Augusta or ‘Gus’, named after friend Gus Skidelsky who bequeathed the kittens to Carmen, and Jessica or ‘Jess’, named after Carmen’s godchild, the daughter of the influential literary agent, Deborah Rogers. The article describes how the cats conquer ‘the 15-foot-high fence, entangled with greenery’ that frames Callil’s London garden ‘with ease. “I wish I could,” she smiles. “I locked myself out last week. I tried to scale the fence from a neighbour’s garden but fell off and bruised myself.”’ [5] The accompanying photograph is warm, with a comedic touch: Callil, wearing a dashing multi-coloured, pin-striped blouse, holds a tortoiseshell with white paws barely outstripping its kittenhood in her palms; her face reveals an irrepressible smile, the cat looks askance from the camera, stuck out tongue, insubordinate, naughty. 

These photographs evoke the fascination with feline imagery in the work of twentieth century female surrealists Maya Deren, Leonor Fini and Leonora Carrington (Carrington’s Seventh Horse & Other Tales and The Hearing Trumpet were of course recovered by Virago as Modern Classics, in 1989 and 1991 respectively). In the portraits, cats become Callil’s familiars, their co-presence conducting the power of feminine independence, metamorphic mischief, sensuality and self-sufficiency. The surrealist imagery, in Callil’s case, is not of the subversive artist, but the businesswoman: the self-styled entrepreneur who chose comradeship with a host of feline friends, and to do business with other women.       

In the Virago papers held by the British Library, we sometimes catch glimpses of Callil’s cats in her correspondence with publishing colleagues. Cat-lover Paul Berry, the literary executor of Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain, wrote to Callil to express his delight upon reading about her cats in an article published in the Sunday Telegraph. Callil responded, with exuberance: ‘I can’t believe I never told you I had three cats: my best friends for the last twelve years; you must meet them one day, each a remarkable personality.’ [6] Cats were also important to an author who kickstarted the Virago Modern Classics (VMC), Antonia White. White wrote two children’s books about her cats, Minka and Curdy (republished by Virago in 1992) and Living with Minka and Curdy. White was one of a number of living authors Virago published in the VMC that Callil befriended. Given their common interest in feline companionship, it seems likely that cats – and Catholicism – animated their conversations.

If, like me, you have a strange fascination with the who, what, where and why of other people’s grocery shopping, you’ll love the extensive collection of receipts and invoices held in Carmen Callil’s archives at the British Library. Among a host of other things (including the companies Virago used to print their books, where they sourced images for the VMC, membership receipts for the London Library, the Chinese restaurants they regularly frequented, the calculators they used in the office, among others) you’ll learn that in the late 70s, Callil bulk-bought her groceries from the wholesaler, Makro [7]. Alongside food and various items for the Virago office – circled or marked with an asterix to ensure specific items were included in the company’s accounts – are entries for tins of cat food and litter! A busy woman, such as she was, very wisely did not get bogged down by the regular need to shop for life’s essentials. Bulk-buying was a far more efficient choice.

Photograph of Receipt from Callil Archive Showing Entires for Cat LitterReceipt taken from the Archive of Carmen Callil showing entries for cat supplies

To close this feline circuit, I want to share one, further, Virago-themed cat story. As an undergraduate at the end of the twentieth century, I studied English Literature at Swansea University, where I had the good fortune to be taught by Professor Ann Heilmann. I was captivated by Ann’s teaching and the source material she presented to us, especially for her course on Victorian Women Writers, which included books by many authors she had first encountered – Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the ‘New Women’ Olive Schreiner, George Egerton, Sarah Grand – through Virago’s Modern Classics. Ann is also a cat lover (when I was studying at Swansea, she had a cat called Sweetie, named after the Jane Campion film). Fast forward twenty or so years: Ann now has two cats. Their names are Angelica and Diavolo – inspired by the gender bending ‘Heavenly Twins’ in Sarah Grand’s 1893 novel (incidentally, Sarah Grand – whose The Beth Book was a VMC, and the biography Darling Madame: Sarah Grand and Devoted Friend by Gillian Kersley was published by Virago in 1983 – also chose to be photographed with her cats).

Photograph of two cats on cushions

Photograph of two cats standing at doorway window

Angelica and Diavolo at work and play

If it wasn’t for Virago, Ann’s cats would not be named after characters in The Heavenly Twins because her contact with Grand came through Virago’s reprint publishing. Without Ann’s academic study of niche Victorian women writers, in turn, I never would have studied them as an undergraduate, an experience which indelibly shaped my relationship to feminism. Ultimately, this is a story about how feminist knowledge is transmitted across generations, visible in the delicate details, of who we can name our favourite companions after. Callil after Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann the fictional characters popularised by a writer Virago plucked from obscurity and republished. Cats, as home-working companions, intrude upon Virago’s history in many different ways; their feline influence extends in a web of associations and references that give meaning to feminist life. 

DSC00367My own cat, Sanjay, looking over collection of Virago Modern Classics.

In recent years, Callil’s public companions are more likely be dogs rather than cats (proof, if ever it was needed, that one needn’t be forced to choose in life between such things). Indeed, you can hear current companion Effie barking enthusiastically in this episode of Backlisted, where Callil discusses The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor, one of her favourite novels. Discernible, too, is Callil barking back with fervour: ‘Shut. Up. Effie!’ Given my own penchant for cats, though, I will close this short article with Callil’s thoughts on these remarkable creatures. ‘I like them simply because they are not human. And I really love the shapes they make. My old cat was like a walking painting.’ [8]

Thank you to Ann Heilmann for feedback on this article and for the photograph of Angelica and Diavolo. Thanks also to Eleanor Dickens of the British Library for supporting my research into the Callil archives during this project. Finally, my thanks to Carmen Callil for article feedback and permission to quote from her letter to Paul Berry.

[1] Barbara Taylor interview by Margaretta Jolly (2011) Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project, British Library Sound & Moving Image Catalogue reference, C1420/38/05, p. 141 © The British Library the University of Sussex.

[2] Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple: A Life With Books, Writers and Virago, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 42.

[3] ‘Fresh start: make the break and go it alone, Carol Dix talks to four people who did’, Nova, August 1975, 57-59, 59. Add MS 89178/1/166.

[4] ‘The feminist publisher,’ by Joan Bakewell, Illustrated London News May 1980, 67-69. Add MS 89178/1/166.

[5] Sally Richardson, ‘Animal Passions’, Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 1 October 1989. Add MS 89178/1/166.

[6] Carmen Callil to Paul Berry, 28 Oct 1981, Add MS 88904/1-194

[7] Add MS 89178/1/124-165, Virago receipts, 1974-81

[8] Richardson, ‘Animal Passions’.

12 October 2020

Harold Pinter’s Drafts of The Proust Screenplay

a guest blog by Patrick Armstrong, PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge.  Read more about the Library's collections relating to Harold Pinter on Discovering Literature.

‘In order that the film artist may create a work of art’, Rudolf Arnheim argued in his 1933 book, Film as Art, ‘it is important that he consciously stress the peculiarities of the medium’. When, in the early 1970s, Harold Pinter collaborated with Joseph Losey and Barbara Bray to write a screenplay of Marcel Proust’s novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (1913-1927), they were keen to find a means of foregrounding the peculiarities of the film medium while in some way maintaining a fidelity to the original text. How could they condense and distil Proust’s great novel into a (commercially viable) feature-length film? One answer is, simply, that they could not: to this day, the film has never been made (although there has been a sound broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1995, adapted by Michael Bakewell, and a modified National Theatre production in 2000, directed by Di Trevis). To quote the resigned Pinter, who would remain in search of lost funding: ‘The money to make the film was never found’. With Pinter's what would have been Pinter's 90th birthday passing last weekend, however, Lady Antonia Fraser has recently spoken of her desire for his screenplays and films to be more widely known and appreciated. The prospect of producing the Proust film remains a tantalising one. Still, any attempt to bring the screenplay to filmic fruition would be a true labour of love. To give my two cents’ worth, I would welcome the unlikely extension of Luca Guadagnino’s beautiful ‘Desire Trilogy’ (into a ‘Desire Quadrilogy’) to incorporate a long-awaited cinematic realisation of Pinter’s Proust Screenplay (with, if you’re asking, Timothée Chalamet as the young and fragile Marcel, Ralph Fiennes as Charles Swann, Mia Goth as Albertine, and, à la Suspiria (2018), multiple roles for Tilda Swinton).

It would be misleading to call this work ‘Harold Pinter’s Proust Screenplay’ because it was, from the outset, a thoroughly collaborative project. In his 2015 article on The Proust Screenplay, Matt Harle explains how the first draft - now housed in the Harold Pinter Archive at the British Library - began to take shape:

    Working as a trio, they [Pinter, Losey and Bray] spent time in France visiting significant Proustian sites [Illiers, Cabourg and Paris] and planning the film before Pinter sat down to     write a draft of the script. The script was completed in just three months in November 1972, Pinter having adapted the entirety of Proust’s novel into a single four-hour script. This     was notably against the advice of Samuel Beckett, who suggested that the team start with Le temps retrouvé.

Both Losey and Bray made extensive comments on Pinter’s first draft in 1972. Losey, for instance, expressed his concerns about the practicalities of using a pure white screen (later replaced by the Vermeerian ‘yellow screen’), because of the likelihood of it becoming scratched and dirty. The archive shows that Bray, who was close friends with Beckett, and the project’s main authority on Proust, made a number of helpful suggestions relating to the structure of the film. The adaption also bears the imprint of Beckett’s own work, including his early essay on Proust, simply entitled Proust (1931). Pinter was surely under the spell of Beckett’s forays into film and television in the 1960s. The latter had made his own short film, entitled Film, in New York in the summer of 1964, while, with Eh Joe, a piece for television that was also completed in 1965, Beckett made use of filmic techniques by incorporating close-ups of the protagonist’s face (a device Pinter frequently uses in The Proust Screenplay). The ‘fresh and shrill’ garden gate bell that sounds at the beginning and end of Pinter’s screenplay, moreover, is reminiscent of the piercing bell in Beckett’s Happy Days (1961).

Photograph of file containing Pinter’s drafts towards his Proust screenplay

Pinter’s drafts and notes towards the screenplay are available to view in our Reading Rooms at Add MS 88880/2/82.

The drafts of the adaptation show how Pinter gradually selected the more distinctly filmic aspects of Proust’s novel and made them central to his screenplay: the patch of yellow wall in Jan Vermeer’s View of Delft (c.1559-1660), the romanticised visions of gondolas and palazzos in Venice, the dining room and sea at Balbec, and so on. For three months of 1972, Pinter read A la Recherche du temps perdu every day, taking ‘hundreds of notes’ along the way. When reading through these many notes and drafts, Pinter’s keen eye for detail becomes apparent: he draws attention to Albertine’s many rings, to the simple aigrette in the Duchesse de Guermantes hair, and, more broadly, displays a Proustian attentiveness to jewellery and clothing. ‘Clothes’, as Diana Festa-McCormick argues in her 1984 book Proustian Optics of Clothes, ‘act as the revealing factor for often unavowed psychological responses on the part of the narrator and as indications of the wearer’s social roles’. After all, Proust’s narrator ultimately resolves to construct his book, ‘not say ambitiously like a cathedral, but quite simply like a dress’. Comparably, Pinter tries to find the structural elements that are essential to the whole, the seams that join the carefully made garment together.

Proust’s own suspicion of the relation between the novel and the cinema is made clear in a parenthetical remark from the final volume, Time Regained:

    (Some critics now liked to regard the novel as a sort of procession of things upon the screen of a cinematograph. This comparison was absurd. Nothing is further from what we have     really perceived than the vision that the cinematograph presents.)

Correspondingly, Pinter writes about the difficulties of adapting Proust’s great novel, concluding that a fidelity to the text must be retained through the distillation of its essence. This is an understandable position given that the word count of Proust’s novel is somewhere in the region of 1,267,069 words. Despite the daunting challenges of radically condensing the original, Pinter found working on the adaptation ‘the best working year’ of his life, as he wrote in the introduction to the 1978 Metheun edition of the screenplay. Reading through Pinter’s reams of notes allows us to perceive the slow process of distillation. As one reviewer for the New Statesman put it, the finished screenplay is ‘a beautiful working model in which Proust’s million and a half words have been brought lucidly down to 455 shots’.

At the early stage of the screenplay composition, the notes offer an accumulation of images and snatches of dialogue, as if Pinter were peering in through one of the windows of the Parisian drawing-rooms frequented by the narrator, half-hearing conversations and half-seeing figures from the world of fashion. Proust’s novel demands that the reader imagines themselves seeing, leaving space for the individual’s imagination to give the scenes and characters shape. We are invited to read the novel through the lens of our own experiences, comparing them with those recounted by the narrator. Yet, the difficulty for Pinter is representing through film the workings of the narrator’s mind. As Walter Benjamin suggested in his 1929 essay, ‘The Image of Proust’, ‘the important thing for the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection’. For Michael Billington, Pinter’s official biographer, the ‘screenplay was based on a chain of visual and aural motifs, and interlocking images’. In this sense, the adaptation is true to the original in its attempt to foreground the workings of involuntary memory. As you read through Pinter’s many notes, the same images and impressions (the napkin, the sea, the steeples, etc.), familiar to any reader of Proust’s novel, appear and reappear throughout the drafts. These become the central images of the finished screenplay, the luminous fragments that disrupt the paralysing effects of habitual perception.  

The early notes show Pinter carefully working out the chronology and order of the book, including the ages of the characters at various stages in the narrative. Though onerous, plotting the ages of the characters at different stages of the narrative is an important task because, as Benjamin writes, ‘to observe the interaction of aging and remembering means to penetrate to the heart of Proust’s world, to the universe of convolution’. Pinter’s many lists of the narrative’s key events and images can be compared with Beckett’s incomplete cataloguing of the crucial, epiphanic moments of involuntary memory in his essay Proust:

  • 1. The Madeleine steeped in an infusion of tea.
  • 2. The steeples of Martinville, seen from Dr. Percepied’s trap.
  • 3. A musty smell in a public lavatory in the Champs-Elysees.
  • 4. The three trees, seen near Balbec from the carriage of Mme. de Villeparisis.
  • 5. The hedge of hawthorn near Balbec.
  • 6. He stoops to unbutton his boots on the occasion of his second visit to the Grand Hotel at Balbec.
  • 7. Uneven cobbles in the courtyard of the Guermantes Hotel.
  • 8. The noise of a spoon against a plate.
  • 9. He wipes his mouth with a napkin.
  • 10. The noise of water in the pipes.
  • 11. George Sand’s François le Champi.

Many of these ‘fetishes’, as Beckett calls them, are central to Pinter’s adaptation, which foregrounds the narrator’s revelatory impressions and memories. Undoubtedly, Pinter would have been familiar with Beckett’s dazzling early reading of Proust’s epic, in which he points out that the narrator’s ‘eye functions with the cruel precision of a camera’ – an idea that seems to lurk behind the numerous close-ups of faces and the shots from Marcel’s point of view.

Pinter’s screenplay is an attempt to dislocate and reorder time, true to Proust’s project of immobilising and recovering fragments of lost time in their pure state. Pinter dislocates narrative time in order to focus on the connections between images and sounds. In so doing, Pinter is able to stress the peculiarities of the film medium while remaining true to the original text. Aware of the opportunities as well as the restrictions of adaptation, Pinter realises that film offers the possibility of cutting swiftly between, or even overlaying, some of the key motifs and artistic figures of Proust’s novel: namely music, as represented by the composer, Vinteuil, and literature, as represented by the writer, Bergotte. Shot 31, for instance, succinctly blends visual art, literature, and music (which Beckett called the ‘catalytic element’ in Proust): ‘Flash of yellow screen. Music of Vinteuil’. The opening montage provides an opportunity to cross-cut between the vital moments of involuntary memory in the novel: the Proustian epiphanies, though there are no famous madeleines or teacups in sight. It is a non-verbal sequence of thirty-four shots (some would argue thirty-five or more), resembling the symphonies of visual movement created by the montagist Slavko Vorkapich. Yet, as the many drafts indicate, a considerable number of words – read, written, rewritten, erased – were considered to create this iconic, though as yet unseen, wordless opening.