English and Drama blog

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


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19 August 2021

New Ted Hughes and Theatre display at the British Library

by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. The display of Ted Hughes' work for the theatre can be seen until October. A related virtual event celebrating Hughes and theatre chaired by Melvyn Bragg with contributions from Jonathan Kent, David Thacker and Tim Supple will be held on Wednesday 15th September and is sure to provide further fascinating insight into the subject. Please see the Library’s events page for more information and to book tickets.

Fans of the poet and writer, Ted Hughes (1930-1998) will be interested to know that the British Library Treasures gallery is currently home to a one case display on Ted Hughes and his work for the theatre.

Although best known as a poet Ted Hughes was also an acclaimed writer of prose, non-fiction and dramatic work. Hughes worked on a number of theatrical projects throughout his career including writing the libretto for The Story of Vasco, an English version of the play L'Histoire De Vasco by Georges Schehade for Gordon Crosse, and Seneca’s Oedipus in collaboration with the acclaimed director, Peter Brook and his company in the 1960s. However, it was the 1990s, which proved to be a particularly productive period for Hughes’ theatrical work as he worked closely with theatre directors including Jonathan Kent, Tim Supple and David Thacker to create his own versions of European and classical plays including Spring Awakening, Phèdre, Alcestis and The Oresteia.

Photograph of the Hughes in Theatre Display in the Library's Treasures Gallery

The Hughes in Theatre Display in the Library's Treasures Gallery

The display consists of five items illustrating different aspects of Hughes’ work for the theatre and the collaborative relationships he developed with various directors and companies. It includes an early draft of Hughes’ version of Jean Racine’s Phèdre along with a letter to Jonathan Kent illustrating how Hughes changed his text after attending rehearsals; and a letter from 1960 in which Hughes wrote to his sister, Olwyn, about seeing a French language production of the play that made his hair stand on end. Other items relate to Seneca’s Oedipus in which John Gielgud played the title role.

This display is really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to material on Hughes and theatre held by the Library, and I would definitely urge anyone who is interested to look at the catalogue of the Hughes archive for more information. The archive includes drafts of many of Hughes’ plays including notes and correspondence about The Epic of Gilgamesh on which Hughes was working not long before his death in 1998; and notes and papers relating to the stage version of Iron Man on which he collaborated with the director, David Thacker. See the Search Archives and Manuscripts catalogue (using Add MS 88918* as your search term) for further details.

06 August 2021

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08 July 2021

Birds, Bees and Waste in Christina Rossetti’s Nature Poetry

a guest-blog by Clara Dawson, Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Manchester. She is currently working on a project about birds and poetry from 1790 to the present. Twitter @DawsonClara. The blog is illustrated throughout by images taken from Rossetti's 'Sing Song': a volume of 121 nursery rhymes which she illustrated throughout with nature images, particularly of birds.

‘Honey of wild bees in their ordered cells
Stored, not for human mouths to taste: –
I said, smiling superior down: What waste
Of good, where no man dwells’

                                                Christina Rossetti, ‘To What Purpose is this Waste?’

Manuscript showing a short poem with pencil drawn image of a bird on top

The recent overturn of the ban on neo-nicotinoids, a bee-killing pesticide, brings a bitter resonance to the words of Christina Rossetti, written in 1853. Though she could hardly have anticipated the detail, her vision of an earth which stands ‘ashamed and dumb’ because it is ‘exposed and valued at [man’s] worth’ seems to predict human destruction of the natural world that followed in the wake of industrial development. In the last year, the value of the natural world has come to the fore, together with a clearer appreciation of how human activities continue to undermine it as a functioning home for ourselves and other species. Lockdown dismantled networks of anthropogenic noise to reveal the soundscapes of the natural world and the dawn chorus filled our streets and gardens once more.

Manuscript showing a short poem with pencil drawn image of a dead bird on top

Birds visiting our gardens do not serve an economic purpose, but bring pleasure, curiosity, respite, and beauty. How might we learn as a society to put these gifts before profit? In silencing human noise, the Covid-19 pandemic created an opportunity to rediscover the emotional and psychological benefits of seeing and hearing other creatures. But how might poetry written in the nineteenth century, under the same dominant system of industrial capitalism, help us with these ethical challenges? In ‘To What Purpose is This Waste’, Rossetti dramatizes the arrogance and folly of supposed human superiority to plants and animals. The honey produced by the bees for themselves can only be imagined as waste if we think that human consumption is the natural goal of all production. Rossetti outlines how we often look down on small and seemingly insignificant creatures, like birds and insects. But in a vision offered by religious experience, the poet learns to silence her ‘proud tongue’ and instead listen to the sounds and murmurs of hedges and rivers, which ‘swell’ to ‘one loud hymn’. In order to change, she moves deeper into the countryside and re-orients her senses to ‘behold/ All hidden things’ and to hear ‘all secret whisperings’. Perhaps for the first time in a long time, those ‘secret whisperings’ have been heard in towns and cities across the UK, when noises from transport and construction were reduced and birdsong filled the air. We were able to experience what had been drowned out by cars, planes, trains, our busy trafficking to and fro. Rossetti’s vision of the ‘utter Love’ found in a natural world without human interference is ultimately founded on Christianity, where God is both presence and cause. Though her firm Christian belief is less persuasive today, her poetry offers a response to the urgent challenges facing plants and animals – including ourselves – under threat from the climate crisis.

Manuscript showing a short poem with pencil drawn image of a bird singing from a tree branch on top

A key ethical problem for conservation scientists is to solidify the reasons that we defend and promote conservation. It is clear that in saving other species, we save ourselves, but there is also an ethical claim that requires us to recognise the rights of plants and animals to thrive. It is possible to find ways that humans and other species can flourish together but what might be necessary to persuade us to give up on putting ourselves first? Nature currently has to live with us, adapting to our needs and demands, but it will only thrive if we recognise and respect interconnection and integration rather than human dominance.

Christina Rossetti’s poem invites us to reflect on the utilitarian way in which we see nature, protesting against the belief that ‘as if a nightingale should cease to sing/ Lest we should hear.’ Poetry has a unique capacity to act on us emotionally through its sounds and images and Rossetti uses poetic language to heighten the beauty of the ordinary. Her poem opens with two compelling images:

    A windy shell singing upon the shore:
    A lily budding in a desert place;
    Blooming alone
    With no companion
    To praise its perfect perfume and its grace:

The alliteration of ‘s’ in the first line performs the singing sounds of the windy shell, the short second and third lines single out the lone beauty of the lily, and the rhyme of ‘place’ and ‘grace’ magnify the beauty that exists without human presence. She describes ‘Wondrous weeds and blossoms rare’ as ‘good and fair’: again the alliteration of ‘w’ and the rhyme of ‘rare’ and ‘fair’ create beautiful and appealing sounds, enabling Rossetti to draw our attention to the small and insignificant. ‘The tiniest living thing/ That soars on feathered wing’ has ‘just as good a right…as any King’, disrupting human hierarchies. The word ‘soars’ gives power and beauty to this tiny bird, and the rhyme of ‘thing’ and ‘wing’ creates a harmonious sound which solidifies its right to delight. Having invited us to appreciate the beauty on offer, the poem’s ethical questions land with greater force: ‘Why should we grudge a hidden water stream/ To birds and squirrels while we have enough?’

Manuscript showing a short poem with pencil drawn image of a bird on top with a snail underneath

30 June 2021

Stories and Pictures: Women in Victorian Society

by Greg Buzwell, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives, and a co-curator of Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights. Emily Mary Osborn’s painting Nameless and Friendless is on loan from the Tate to the British Library for the exhibition, which runs until Sunday 1st August 2021.

At first glance there appears to be only one woman in Emily Mary Osborn’s painting Nameless and Friendless, a young lady in mourning clothes right at the centre of the composition. Look more closely though and you can see that there are actually three women portrayed in the picture, and each one reveals something about the position and status, or the lack thereof, of women in Victorian Britain.


Emily Mary Osborn's Nameless and Friendless, showing a woman attempting to sell a painting to a gallery

Emily Mary Osborn. Nameless and Friendless. “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city, etc.” – Proverbs, X, 15. 1857. Photo © Tate. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

Emily Mary Osborn (1828 – 1925) was one of the most significant artists associated with the campaign for women’s rights in 19th-Century Britain. She was a member of the Society of Female Artists, an organisation founded in the mid-1850s with the aim of helping women artists to exhibit and sell their work. She was also a signatory to a petition presented to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1859 which argued for women to be allowed to attend the Royal Academy’s schools. Furthermore, she was a close associate of the feminist and artist Barbara Bodichon, a key campaigner behind the foundation in 1869 of Girton College, Cambridge - the first university college in England to educate women. Beyond her commitment towards the fight for women’s rights, however, Emily Mary Osborn was also highly successful in her chosen career. Her paintings sold, and they sold for good prices, which leads us back to Nameless and Friendless and its depiction of a less fortunate woman artist, placed centre-stage and literally surrounded by the male-dominated world of art and commerce.

Men, of whom there are many in the painting, hold all of the status and wield all of the power. The gallery owner’s gaze, for example, is condescending; the financial future of the woman before him is in his hands. If she fails to sell her paintings and sketches then prostitution could be her only realistic means of obtaining money for shelter and food. Meanwhile a young man on a ladder looks down at the picture with an air of barely concealed boredom. To the left of the composition two men in top hats eye up the young woman with lecherous glances and it is here that the second woman in the picture can be found. Prior to leering at the woman trying to sell her paintings they had been admiring a hand-coloured print of a scantily dressed female ballet dancer, their interest deriving more, one suspects, from her looks and bare legs than from any appreciation of the print’s artistic merit.

The third woman in the picture isappropriately given her legal status, or lack thereof — even less noticeable. She has her back to the viewer and she is leaving the shop with her son. A married woman, comfortably off one assumes, but with her legal identity entirely subsumed by that of her husband, hence perhaps her literal facelessness. Until the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870 a wife had no independent existence under English law, and therefore no right to own property. In addition she had no right to enter into contracts separate from her husband, or should her marriage prove to be unhappy to sue for divorce or to fight for control and custody of her children.

Taken together these three depictions represent the fates of many women in 19th-century Britain: the single woman trying against the odds to make a living by her own endeavours; the sexualised object of male desire and the near-invisible wife and mother who has no legal existence independent from that of her husband.

Given that Emily Mary Osborn was herself a rare example of a commercially successful female artist the inspiration for Nameless and Friendless would appear to have its genesis in something other than her own experience. Many Victorian paintings took inspiration from literature and Mary Brunton’s novel Self-Control, first published in 1811 has been suggested as one possible source (the central character of the novel, Laura Montreville, attempts to sell her sketches in order to support her ailing father) but in her book Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life the playwright and writer Samantha Ellis makes the case for Nameless and Friendless having been inspired by Anne Brontë’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). If correct, and the way the painting matches events from the novel is compelling, then the painting takes on an added dimension, and one highlighting further obstacles faced by women in Victorian Britain.

Photograph of Anne Bronte's headstone overlooking Scarborough

The final resting place of the feminist Brontë sister: Anne Brontë’s grave in St Mary’s Churchyard, overlooking the town of Scarborough.

If Nameless and Friendless is inspired by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall then the young woman at the centre is Helen Graham, the boy with her is her son Arthur and, tellingly, the mourning clothes she is wearing are not genuine. At the point in the novel in which this scene occurs Helen Graham’s husband, the debauched and dissolute Arthur Huntingdon, is still very much alive. By leaving her husband, fleeing with her son and attempting to start a new life Helen has broken not only the letter of the law, but also social convention. Putting on a widow’s garb lends her an air of respectability but her real circumstances, should they become known, would leave her ostracised from society. Leaving one’s husband, no matter how brutal he may be, was far beyond the realms of what was socially acceptable in Victorian society. Further, and of relevance to the scene in Nameless and Friendless, even Helen’s paintings, along with the paints, brushes, palette knives, canvases and easels she uses to create them are all the property of her still-living husband in the eyes of the law.

To 21st-century eyes Anne Brontë is arguably the true feminist amongst the Brontë sisters. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall argues that submissive wives encourage male oppression, and that dissolute fathers raise sons who, likewise, display a similar lack of respect for women. While Charlotte and Emily created brooding, flawed and charismatic Byronic heroes in the characters of Mr Rochester and Heathcliff similar characteristics in Helen’s husband, Arthur Huntingdon, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are warning signs, a point made beautifully by Kate Beaton’s cartoon ‘Get me off this freaking moor’.

Cartoon showing how contrast between the Bronte sisters' ideas about desirable men

‘Get me off this freaking moor’ © Kate Beaton. See more of Beaton's work on her website.

Whatever its inspiration Nameless and Friendless offers layer upon layer of insight into the status of women in Victorian Britain. Whether from the upper echelons of society, the newly emerging middle classes, or else from the traditional working classes, women were at the mercy, both literally and metaphorically, of men and the laws made by men.


Further Reading:

Samantha Ellis. Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life. Penguin Random House, London. 2017

The Tate Gallery page for Nameless and Friendless 

23 June 2021

Olive Schreiner: Feminism from the Cape Colony

By Jessica Gregory, Curatorial Support Officer for Modern Manuscripts, 1601 – 1950. 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.

Olive Schreiner first visited Britain from the Cape Colony in 1881 with a manuscript of her first novel, Story of an African Farm, tucked in her suitcase. Her novel would mark her out as one of the leading literary feminists of her time. Her tempestuous relationship with writing would mean that she would struggle to produce another finished novel, but she did manage to capture her passionate views on the rights of women in a non-fiction work called, Woman and Labour. The theories and thoughts laid out in both her fiction and non-fiction texts outline both a pioneering and contradictory vision of women’s place in the world.


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Portrait of Olive Schreiner Schreiner, Olive, The Story of an African Farm ... New edition, etc, ([London; Nimeguen [printed]: Hutchinson & Co, 1896), British Library: 012621.g.39.

Olive Schreiner had travelled to Edinburgh with the aim of training as a doctor, before then swapping to train as a nurse at the Royal Infirmary. The Royal Infirmary had been the site of a recent infamous battle for access to medical education by seven pioneering female reformists. Schreiner, at the age of twenty-six, had already abandoned an engagement and a job as a governess in search of greater independence. In seeking a medical career, Schreiner was already engaging with one of the prominent feminist battles of the time: the provision of higher education to women. However, her health would restrict her from her chosen career and instead she would chose writing as the means by which she would seek to critique the position of women in the world.

The Story of an African Farm was published in England in 1883 under her pseudonym, Ralph Irons. Through the publication, Schreiner became an instant literary success. She would come to be acquainted with many of England’s famous cultural figures including Oscar Wilde, Havelock Ellis, Eleanor Marx and Edward Carpenter. She would also join various groups such as the Progressive Organisation and the Men and Women’s Club where she engaged in debates on issues such as gender relations, free love, marriage and sexuality.


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Olive Schreiner’s entry in Constance Wilde’s Guestbook, Add MS 81755, f.17.

The Story of an African Farm was based on the lives of three children growing up on a farm in the Karoo desert of the Cape Colony. It explored themes of love, marriage, race, empire and the role of women. Schreiner’s character Lyndall, is commonly considered as a pre-emptive example of the archetypal ‘new woman’ – a free-thinking, independent woman who challenged the traditional role of women in relations and in society. In fact, Lyndall’s refusal to marry the father of her child was pointed out by her publisher, Chapman & Hall, as perhaps a step too far and they suggested that she edit the storyline out (which of course, she didn’t).

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Title Page of 1896 edition. Schreiner, Olive, The Story of an African Farm ... New edition, etc, ([London; Nimeguen [printed]: Hutchinson & Co, 1896), British Library: 012621.g.39.

African Farm, with its contrasting progressive and conservative protagonists, its multiple narrative modes, as well as its conflict between the local setting of the rural homestead against the globalist, imperialist empire that overhangs the narrative, mirrors the contradictions of the era - one in which the protagonists are only present because of the whims and desires of empire. The bubble-like remoteness of the farm cannot escape the encroachment of world politics. Here, the role of women is explored through the contrasting characters of Em and Lyndall; Em encapsulating the traditional Victorian ideal of womanhood, whilst Lyndall represents an alternative as a feminist heroine. he Karoo, seemingly quiet and static is actually a site of imperialist contention. There is passing reference to the Boer War, which rages beyond the Colony. The characters also farm ostriches reflecting their part in a growing colonial market. This is because the British had recently enshrined in law that the birds couldn’t be hunted, thereby denying the local people of their centuries long tradition of hunting ostrich for food (Ostrich feathers were one the colony’s biggest exports, providing British Victorian women with hat decoration and Victorian funerals with black feathered horses). As well as this, the book hints at those excluded entirely, those who were resident on the African long farm before the white setters took over: peoples denied voice and referenced only in the traces they left behind on the landscape. The apparent localised focus of the plot is actually the means by which Schreiner explores wider issues; here in the Karoo the personal is political.

Just what political outlook Schreiner was hoping to convey was lost on some of her Victorian readership. Lyndall’s fate was ultimately a tragic one, and her death outside of the farm and out of wedlock was easily confused with the popular moralistic tales that populated the Victorian literary scene at the time. In fact, Prime Minister, William Gladstone seems to have picked out some quotes he found favourable at the time, isolating stirring passages and not quite realising that Olive’s sympathies lay with the born-again atheist, Waldo, and the doomed, but free-thinking, feminist, Lyndall.

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Gladstone Papers, Add MS 44767, f.140.

Schreiner’s focus on her homeland drove most of her creative output. The South African colonies in the late 19th century were subject to on-going campaigns by the British, who sought to consolidate their control of territories to secure the local gold and diamond reserves. These efforts to expand the British territories were the background of Schreiner’s life in South Africa. Schreiner, who was born in the British Cape Colony to German and English parents would have been considered a British colonial subject, but her works explore the complications of identity in the Cape, among a population of disparate cultures, communities and ethnicities.

Schreiner had been hopeful that Cecil Rhodes would be a good Prime Minister to unite the people of the Cape. She wrote to Lady Emilia Dilke - a woman who shared her concern for women’s rights in the labour market – articulating her admiration.


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Letter from Olive Schreiner to Emilia Dilke, 1891. Dilke Papers, Add MS 43908, f.190.

However, it wasn’t long before she changed her mind on Rhodes and became horrified with his actions. She would satirise the actions and crimes of Rhodes and his British South African Company in her novella, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897). It was through a mutual objection to Rhodes that she met her future husband, Samuel Cronwright. He would take her surname in a gesture that reflected their shared feminist concerns.

During the 2nd Boer War, she befriended Emily Hobhouse, executive of the Women’s Industrial Council. Hobhouse had objected to the British actions in the war. Schreiner would correspond with Hobhouse and take part in humanitarian relief efforts. Schreiner would go on to explore the questions of South African identity through a non-fiction title called, Thoughts on South Africa. In this text, she examines the wide-ranging political conflicts present in the South African colonies. Schreiner sympathised with the Boer cause and deplored the behaviour of the British during the war. She had sympathy for the Afrikaans women who became refugees due to the British ‘slash and burn’ military tactics.

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The Karoo, the setting of Schreiner’s novel was a site of important imperial interest in the 1880s, the discovery of diamond fields drove colonial expansion and resulted in conflicts between the British and the Afrikaner and indigenous populations. Photo Jessica Gregory.

Though fervently anti-imperialistic, her opinions to the rights of black women were more contradictory. Schreiner’s writing often cited the unfair treatment of the black communities of the colonies in Southern Africa. She writes in Woman and Labour (1911) that no account of gender oppression could avoid being a critical account of race and racial oppression, whilst also recognising the pattern of white women silencing black women. Indeed, she was concerned enough about such inequalities that she resigned her presidency of the Cape Women’s Enfranchisement League on its racially exclusive focus. When the Union of South Africa was established in 1910, she recognised it has the total and long-term disenfranchisement of the black communities. However, as much as Schreiner sympathises with these communities, her black characters read very much as caricatures. In her vision of South African society she included the black communities as members of society who would have the right to citizenship and land, but this vision still supposed that society would be directed by the newly unified Boer and English South African peoples. Her thoughts on race and equality rarely espouse true autonomy and are not yet free from the enduring Social Darwinist ideas prevalent at the time. As conflicting as these thoughts may be, Schreiner stood out in her ability to recognise the limits of her own perception. In a letter to Edward Carpenter, she mentions reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Schreiner points out that she and others had projected their own thoughts and feelings onto black people in books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and her own, Trooper Peter Halket, but it was different to read the realities described by someone who lived day to day with persistent racial oppression and humiliation.

Schreiner’s wide-ranging concerns, from the fate of the Boer women refugees, the suffrage of black South Africans and the right of women’s autonomy in work and marriage, marked her out as a first wave feminist whose ideology reached beyond the boundaries of the feminist thought of her age. As a colonial subject who witnessed the struggles over the land, resources, culture and identity that raged in her birthplace, she recognised that self-realisation was inhibited by multiple forces. Her attempts to criticise the forces of imperialism, capitalism and racism are essential to her understanding of feminism and women’s rights. Schreiner’s work turns Victorian idealism back on itself; centering the Victorian novel on colonial subjects, the recently re-coloured parts of the world map and the sites of contention that were hidden from the everyday lives of women in the ‘motherland’. Olive Schreiner would expand the remit of first wave feminism by countering the quest for women’s inclusion into the system with a critique of the system itself. 


Further Reading:

Add MS 43908, Dilke Papers

Add MS 70571 - Add MS 70572, Havelock Ellis Papers

 Irons, Ralph (Schreiner, Olive). Story of an African Farm, (London: Chapman & Hall, 1883)

Schreiner, Olive. Woman and Labour, (London: Unwin, 1911)

Olive Schreiner Letters Online: https://www.oliveschreiner.org/

15 June 2021

Charlotte Brontë’s miniature books

By Catherine Angerson, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts. Manuscripts by Charlotte Brontë can be seen in two exhibitions at the British Library in London this summer: Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights (until 1 August) and Miniature Books in our Treasures exhibition (until 12 September).

In Spring 2020, during the first national lockdowns in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the British Library asked children across the UK to make miniature books, inspired by the Library’s tiny treasures. One of these items was an issue of Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, measuring only 5.2 by 3.7 centimetres, created by a young Charlotte Brontë and her brother Branwell in 1829. Like our young participants, the Brontë children made and bound their miniature books by hand. A small exhibition of Miniature Books celebrating this outreach project, is now open in our Treasures gallery in London.

Photograph of hand holding miniature book, Blackwood's Young Mens' Magazine

Charlotte and Branwell Brontë, Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, December 1829. British Library: Ashley MS 157 © Brontë Parsonage Museum


Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine and Charlotte Brontë’s handwritten tale, The Search After Happiness, are on display alongside other miniature books from the library’s historical collections and books created especially for the project by much-loved children’s authors and illustrators, including Axel Scheffler, Jacqueline Wilson and Joseph Coelho. In addition, the exhibition showcases some of the miniature books submitted by children in response to our lockdown callout, the first time contemporary works by children have been displayed in the Treasures gallery.

Charlotte and Branwell Brontë initially produced their own tiny magazines for the set of toy soldiers given to Branwell as a gift from their father Patrick for his ninth birthday in 1826. Branwell and his sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, assigned personalities to the soldiers and this became the foundation of an imaginary world which would provide the settings and characters for the Brontës’ earliest literary creations. The precursor of Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, which was largely written by Charlotte, was Branwell’s Blackwood’s Magazine, edited and written by Branwell from January to June 1829. The young editors added tables of contents and advertisements to each issue in imitation of contemporary magazines, such as Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine.


Scan of folio from Blackwood's Young Men's Magazine showing a hand-drawn flower.

Charlotte and Branwell Brontë, Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine, December 1829. British Library: Ashley MS 157, f. 10v © Brontë Parsonage Museum


The page on display in Miniature Books is the final page of the 6th issue of Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine for December 1829, seen in the image above. The initials 'UT' shown here in the index stand for ‘Us Two’. Only Charlotte wrote her name at the back of the magazine, however, showing that the 13-year-old was the editor and author of most of the poems and stories in this issue.

Scan of frontispiece from 'A Search for Hapiness' by Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Brontë, manuscript of ‘The Search After Hapiness’. 1829. Ashley MS 156, f. 2 © Brontë Parsonage Museum

Charlotte Brontë’s tale, The Search After Happiness (1829), written in the same year as Blackwood’s, is set in the imaginary world of Glass Town. It tells the story of a man called Henry O’Donell who leaves his city to seek happiness and contentment in unfamiliar lands. Here Brontë imitates the title page of a printed book and makes a few mistakes while working by hand, including adding the wrong date (‘Twenty-eight’ instead of ‘Twenty nine’) and spelling ‘Hapiness’ with one ‘p’.

The tale is ‘PRINTED BY HERSELF AND SOLD BY NOBODY’, showing that the 13-year-old did not know how successful she would become as the author of Jane Eyre (1847). The manuscript of Brontë’s famous novel, submitted to the publisher Smith, Elder and Co in August 1847 under her pen name ‘Currer Bell’, is also on display this summer in Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights.

You can view digital versions of Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine and The Search After Happiness on our Discovering Literature website and find many resources and activities relating to miniature books in Discovering Children’s Books.

22 April 2021

What makes a beautiful word?

by Elliot Sinclair, Web Editor in the Content and Community Team. 

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Music can give you goosebumps. Scenery can give you goosebumps. But can a word give you goosebumps?

It sure can. And in Georgian, they even have a word for it: ჟრუანტელი / zhruanteli, ‘a beautiful word that gives you goosebumps’.

So with English Language Day on Friday, we thought we’d carry out a mini census of the BL’s favourite words. Here are just a few, along with our reasons:

  • Caesura – [a rhythmical pause] ‘It would make a badass superhero’s name: the sibilance is her rasp, the ae her sensitive side’

  • Flibbertigibbet

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  • Lollipop – ‘It rolls around your mouth like a lollipop and the final 'p' has an almost silent, breathless syllable at the end of it’

  • Lullaby – ‘It sounds really calm and relaxing and, well, lulling. It mimics the act of swaying a baby and also makes me think of libellule in French (dragonfly), which might be my favourite French word.’

  • Meander – ‘the hard 'ee' meanders elegantly into the soft 'a' ’

  • Melancholy – ‘It sounds like a haunting beautiful sadness’

  • Metamorphosis – ‘I like the sound of the word and the idea of transformation, or reaching the final/ideal form’

  • Nibling:

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  • Onomatopoeia - ‘It's appropriately pleasingly musical, almost as though the concept of onomatopoeia itself has a sound’

  • Scandinavia – ‘A place-name that (to me at least) really conjures a sense of the place: mountains, water, snow, clear air’

  • Serendipity – [making a happy discovery by accident] ‘It starts slowly, serenely, before its quick rhythmic up and down of ‘di-pit’, which resolves in the comfort and joy of ‘y’. Its sound reminds me of an amusement arcade machine where you watch the mechanical hand hover over and dip into a pit of prizes.’

  • Sesquipedalian – ‘It's wonderfully autological (describes itself), as it's a word of many syllables’

  • Syzygy – [the alignment of three celestial bodies] ‘The meaning and lack of vowels in this word makes it interesting’

  • Taffeta

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  • Urbane – ‘I love how a single letter can change the word urban in my mind: from images of inner city grit to a suave gentleman holding a gin and tonic’

  • Will-o’-wisp:

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  • Zugzwang – [a Chess term where one player is at a disadvantage because of their obligation to make a move] ‘I love words that concisely express something much more complex’

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So what exactly makes a beautiful word? Here’s an entirely whimsical, and slightly psychedelic musing based on our word choices…


No, we’re not talking crash and bang. Too clichéd. It gets far more interesting when the onomatopoeia level gets cranked down a little with subtly – to the extent that perhaps only your subconscious can detect those real-life sounds hiding in the words. (And as an aside, does anyone else get a secret buzz out of spelling ‘onomatopoeia’ correctly?)

So here are a few examples, and see our reasons above for how each of them can be considered onomatopoeic:

Will-o’-wisp ; Meander ; Lollipop ; Lullaby ; Taffeta; Sesquipedalian ; Onomatopoeia
(Is onomatopoeia really an onomatopoeia? According to our staff, yes it is)

Just reading these gives off a sense of synaesthesia, where you can almost picture the very embodiment of the words: what they look like; their personalities; how they would sound if they spoke to you (or is it just us?) Taffeta would speak in a soft, seductive tone, whispering gently into your ear… before disappearing into thin air before you could make contact.


Symmetry is aesthetically pleasing – whether in art, music – or in words. The formation of syllables with consonant + vowel + consonant + vowel, etc phonemic combinations is particularly pleasant to the ear, and words with this composition tend to roll off the tongue with ease, without those pesky double consonant sounds getting in the way. So for example:  

Caesura – made up of: s-uh | z-oh | r-a      or    /sə | ˈzʊə | rə/ *  
Melancholy – made up of: m-e | l-a-n | k-o | l-i     or    /ˈme | lən | ˌkɒ | li: /
Metamorphasis – made up of: m-e  | t-a  | m-oh |  f-a |  s-i-s       or    /ˌme | t ə | ˈmɔː | fə | sɪs

* (there’s a sneaky double vowel sound (diphthong) in there too but we’ll ignore that)

In fact, when analysing Biblical Hebrew, Scottish linguist George Delgarno (c. 1616–1687) believed that this type of formation was a relic of what was considered a God-given language and was one of the qualities that made the very essence of words truly represent the meaning behind them, before language was ‘corrupted’ at the Tower of Babel.

Asymmetry and the unexpected

Having said that, words that break symmetry can also be satisfying. What is it about flibbertigibbet that makes it sound so inherently amusing? So many things. With its awkward double-consonant start (fl), one is perhaps reminded of a flick. And then you have the rhyme of flibbet and gibbet, with those powerful ‘b’ plosives in the middle to really give the word a kick (or a flick).

Meanwhile, in zugzwang the double consonants (zw) add a sharp touch to the word, on top of the repeated z sound to amplify its aggressive meaning. The zug and the zwang almost sound like a double slap in the face, in this case, the face of your opponent in Chess.

In Scandinavia, the harsh sound of the double-consonant beginning Sc (which sounds like ice) is juxtaposed with the fairly free-flowing consonant + vowel combination in the rest of its syllabic composition, to paint a picture of a region filled with landscapes frozen, dangerous and terrifying, but also beautiful, as emphasised by its soft vowel ending. It’s the lexical incarnation of ‘the sublime’, the point at which beauty and terror collide to create that awe-inspiring feeling you get when you’re standing on top of a mountain or watching the thrashing waves.

Turning to serendipity, although it follows that classic consonant + vowel formation, its rhythm is less symmetrical: the two syllables before the stress (se-ren), followed by the three after the stress (di-pi-ty – with its bouncy cadence) create a kind of oddly pleasing and unexpected disequilibrium and help to bring to life the meaning of unexpectedness in the very word.

Speaking of beauty in the unexpected, we also have syzygy, where its unique no-vowel composition gives it its mysterious allure.

What’s your favourite word?

19 March 2021

Contemporary Poetry at the Library: A Quick Start Guide

A collaborative blog from colleagues across Contemporary British Collections for World Poetry Day.

The British Library is privileged to hold and make available for study manuscripts, archives and publications relating to world-renowned poems and poetry, from Beowulf to Jalal al-Din Rumi, Chaucer, to John Donne, Rabindranath Tagore to T.S Eliot and from Una Marson to Ted Hughes. But for World Poetry Day this year we thought we’d do something a little bit different and shine a light on some of our efforts to collect and promote Britain’s vibrant, diverse and endlessly shifting contemporary poetry scene; bringing together colleagues working with Archives and Manuscripts, Contemporary Published Collections, Sound and Vision and the UK Web Archive.

By working together, and with practicing poets, independent publishers and others, we have been able to capture some of the most interesting work going on in Britain today – but there’s still much more to do. If you’re a poet or if you’ve used any of our poetry collections in your work – or even if you’ve just felt inspired -- please let us know on Twitter @BLEnglish_Drama, we’d love to hear more.

Contemporary British Publications

Debbie Cox, Lead Curator of Contemporary Publications

So, first of all, I’d like to highlight the latest Michael Marks Awards and all the submitted poetry pamphlets which are now part of our collections. You can read about the shortlisted pamphlets here. The winning pamphlet was Paul Muldoon’s Binge (Lifeboat Press) but all of the shortlisted poets read a poem aloud for the Award presentation, available to view in full here. 

Logo for Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets

Overall, it was an incredibly strong year for the prize, but my personal favourite poem at the event was Gail McConnell's reading from ‘Fothermather’, which comes in at 1 hour and 8 minutes. The winner of the Celtic Language pamphlet reading starts things off in the video around the 1 hour mark (with an English translation on-screen for all the non-Welsh speakers who might be interested).

Following on the topical theme of online events recorded to view at your pleasure, the Library also hosted the PEN Pinter Prize, which is available to watch in full here. Linton Kwesi Johnson was awarded the prize, which is awarded annually to a writer of outstanding literary merit resident in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland or the Commonwealth who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize in Literature speech, casts an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination... to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’. Kwesi Johnson read two poems at the event, ‘Sonny’s Letter’ in the video from 15:14 onwards and ‘New Cross Massacre’ from 20:38. (For more context around this, take a look at the blog I wrote over on Social Sciences about the Black People’s Day of Action that followed the New Cross fire, and some of the resources we pulled together to mark the anniversary of the Day of Action).

Another Library event featuring contemporary poets was a Diwan to celebrate the poetry of Scottish poet Edwin Morgan.  Poets Simon Barraclough, Dzifa Benson, Nancy Campbell, João Concha, Kirsten Irving, Ricardo Marques, Peter McCarey and Richard Price read Morgan's poems and each responded with a work of their own.    Building on our events programme in Yorkshire, another of the Library’s online events still available to watch is Spoken Word Showcase with Studio 12 and Sunday Practise. Sunday Practise is a leading grassroots poets, DJs, musicians and vibes night from Leeds that represents a wide cultural perspective of women poets in the UK.

The last – but by no means least – of the poetry events available to watch online this year was the Forward Prize, which the Library also hosted and which is now available to view in full.

Portrait of Linton Kwesi Johnson, seatedThis year at the PEN Pinter Prize, Linton Kwesi Johnson was awarded the prize, gave and address and read two poems.

If I had to highlight a single poetry collection to recommend for English and Drama Blog readers, though, it’d be Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s Postcolonial Banter (Verve Poetry Press, 2019). A recording of her poem ‘This is not a humanising poem’ from the collection is featured in the Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights. ‘Ranging from critiquing racism, systemic Islamophobia, the function of the nation-state and rejecting secularist visions of identity’, Verve Poetry Press writes "She interrogates narratives around race/ism, Islamophobia, gender, feminism, state violence and decoloniality in Britain."  Her words made a powerful contribution to Unfinished Business.

Book jacket for Postcolonial Banter by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan


Sound Archive

by Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Sound Recordings

The Library’s Sound Archive holds many hundreds of unique recordings of live poetry readings, which are (or soon will be again, rather) available to listen to in our Reading Rooms. The range is vast: from Sylvia Plath recorded live in London in 1961 – one of the earliest live recordings we made – to 10 years of Poetry Society events in the 1980s, which really are fascinating for anybody interested in contemporary poetry. We should also mention the Library’s live recording arrangement with Poet in the City, which is temporarily on hold – of course – because of the pandemic, but we will be excited to get it up and running again.

5- Poet in the City

For copyright reasons, most of our recordings may only be listened to on British Library premises, but we are working to increase online access, most notably through our Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. An enhanced ‘sounds’ web site will be unveiled later in the year.  For now, the following collections of contemporary poetry are available to listen to online: Between Two Worlds: Poetry and Translation and The Power of Caribbean Poetry: Word and Sound

  A woman controls the sound levels of a recording using an analogue mixing deskThe Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project – part of the Save our Sounds programme – aims to preserve and provide access to thousands of the UK's rare and unique sound recordings: not just those in our collections but also key items from partner collections across the UK.



UK Web Archive

Carlos Rarugal, Assistant Web Archivist at the UK Web Archive

At the UK Web Archive we collect millions of websites each year, preserving them for future generations. Literary work is of particular interest, especially since so many of these conversations move to be partly or even primarily online. We even produce curated collections of websites, organised by theme, for researchers. For those interested in contemporary poetry, the Poetry Zines and Journals Collection is invaluable.


6- Zines and JournalsThe Web Archive's collection of UK-based online poetry journals and magazines is concerned with contemporary responses to the increasing ubiquity of the internet and networked culture as Poetry communities are increasingly emerging out of and operating within digital spaces.

Some especially notable poetry websites which we actively archive, and which are available at home through Open Access, are:


Archives and Manuscripts

Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives

Collecting contemporary archival or manuscript material presents a number of challenges, the main one being that we usually acquire this material towards the end of a donor’s career – when it represents as much as possible a complete record of a life’s work. This means that our collections have a certain amount of ‘lag’ built in.

Nevertheless, these collections provide a crucial insight into the development of key trends in contemporary British poetry at the level of the poets themselves, their publishers and influential magazines.  As ever, Discovering Literature 20th Century remains an invaluable resource for contemporary literature across all genres, especially whilst our buildings are closed and especially for viewing digitised manuscript material. However, our buildings won’t be closed forever, so see below for what’s available when we’re up and running again.

Some interesting personal collections available in the Manuscripts Reading Room include papers relating to:

  • Al Alvarez, who – among other things -- edited the highly influential anthology The New Poetry: Beyond the Gentility Principle (1962) (Add MS 88482-88611)
  • James Berry, a Jamaican-British poet, childrens’ writer and teacher whose work explores the relationship between language, identity and empire. (Currently being catalogued but delayed due to the pandemic. Nevertheless, material is available to view on request by e-mail (mss@bl.uk) or take a look at an earlier English and Drama Blog for more details.
  • John Betjeman, Poet Laureate from 1972-1984 and writer of wry, humorous accessible verse well loved by poets and the public alike, unless you happen to be from Slough! (Add MS 71935-71937)
  • Bob Cobbing, legendary sound, visual, concrete and performance poet and publisher central to the British Poetry Revival (Add MS 88909
  • Wendy Cope, writer of poignant and comic collections of satirical verse such as the highly lauded Making Cocoa With Kingsley Amis (1986), Serious Concerns (1992) and Family Values (2011)
  • David Gascoyne, poet and translator associated with surrealism and involved in the Mass Observation movement. (Add MS 89011)
  • Lee Harwood, another poet associated with the British Poetry Revival who worked in experimental forms – referencing visual arts techniques such as collage (Add MS 88998)

And some key collections relating to publishers and magazines working within mainstream and independent poetry in the latter half of the twentieth century onwards are:

  • Peter Hodgkiss - Galloping Dog Press, Poetry Information and Not Poetry (Add MS 89404)
  • Macmillan & Co, 19th-20th century Poets and Dramatists (Add MS 54974-55014)
  • Poetry Book Society (Add MS 88984)
  • Wasafiri Magazine of International Contemporary Writing (uncatalogued but available to see on request mss@bl.uk)