English and Drama blog

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

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16 March 2022

Celebrating John Berger and the 50th anniversary of Ways of Seeing

by Helen Melody, Lead Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. 

John Berger was an art critic, writer, painter and poet. January 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of his seminal television series, Ways of Seeing, which he made for the BBC with TV producer Mike Dibb. The BBC recently marked the anniversary with a series of programmes on Radio 4 entitled ‘Viewfinders: Ways of Seeing at 50’ in which writers Geoff Dyer, Olivia Laing, Tom Overton, Sinéad Gleeson and Melissa Chemam celebrated the original series and talk about looking at pictures.  

I was interested to hear about the Radio 4 series, as the Library is the home to John Berger’s archive, which was donated by Berger and his wife, Beverley, in 2009. The archive is one of the collections, which I look after as a member of the Contemporary Literary and Creative archives team and I have worked with it quite a bit over the years answering enquiries and selecting items for exhibition.

Image shows John and Beverley Berger with British Library curator, Jamie Andrews, at their home in France, when he collected the archive in 2009
With kind permission of the John Berger Estate.

The archive is large and consists of 379 files, boxes and books containing literary manuscripts, drafts, research notes and unpublished material, correspondence, press cuttings and professional papers. Although the archive contains some early examples of Berger’s graphic work, the majority of the archive is literary. The archive provides a fascinating insight into Berger’s life and work and particularly the collaborative way in which he worked and the international interest there was in what he created.

Unfortunately there is not a huge amount of material in the archive relating to Ways of Seeing aside from a file containing reviews of the series (and accompanying book) and a file relating to artwork used for different editions of the book that Berger created in collaboration with the graphic designer, Richard Hollis. Nevertheless I thought that the anniversary would be a wonderful opportunity to highlight the fact that the Library holds Berger’s archive. Anyone who is interested can find out more by searching the Library’s Archives and Manuscripts catalogue either by reference number (the reference for the Berger archive as a whole is Add MS 88964) or by keyword. This photograph is of one of several notebooks in the archive that contain research notes and drafts of A Painter of Our Time. I particularly like this one as it shows how Berger reworked his draft with blue annotations and corrections.

Image shows handwritten notebook of Painter of Our Time, written by John Berger and showing his detailed annotations
BL Add. MS 88964/1/6 Reproduced with kind permission of the John Berger Estate.

Everyone wishing to find out a bit more about the archive could also listen to Tom Overton’s programme as part of the Radio 4 series, which provides some lovely insights into his work cataloguing the Berger archive. The warmth of Berger’s personality is clear from Tom’s comments and although I never met Berger in person I also have fond memories of an encounter that I had with him.

One day in around 2012 I had a phone call from someone who introduced themselves as a friend of Tom’s who was trying to track him down. I explained that as a collaborative PhD student working at the Library Tom did not have a phone extension and that unfortunately he was not in on that day. We chatted pleasantly for a few minutes and then I said that I would be happy to pass on a message to Tom and ask him to return his friend’s call. When I asked the person’s name I was surprised to find that I was actually talking to John Berger himself. I have been lucky enough to meet and speak to many interesting people through my work but I have to say that I have not met that many celebrated writers who would introduce themselves as being a friend of the person cataloguing their archive! It has stuck with me ever since and reminded me that you never really know who you are speaking to on the phone until they introduce themselves.

See the Search Archives and Manuscripts catalogue (using Add MS 88964* as your search term) for further details.

25 November 2021

Book Now For Online Event 'Keep On Keeping On: Celebrating Andrew Salkey'

By Eleanor Casson, Manuscripts Cataloguer for Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. 'Keep On Keeping On: Celebrating Andrew Salkey' is a British Library online event hosted on the British Library Platform marking the life and legacy of Jamaican writer and poet Andrew Salkey. When booked a viewing link will be sent shortly before the event and will be available to watch at any time for 48 hours after the start time.

Black and white photograph of Andrew Salkey in profile

Following on from the two-day conference ‘Artist, Mentor, Friend, Activist: Andrew Salkey a Man of Many Hats I am delighted to welcome you to an evening of readings, stories and conversation celebrating the life and work of the Jamaican poet, writer, broadcaster and activist, Andrew Salkey (1928–1995). Andrew Salkey was a co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement, a writer, a poet, and a teacher. He embodied the Black Radical Tradition in his writing, his politics, and in his support for other creative individuals.

This event reflects on the depth and breadth of Salkey’s work and his myriad of interests with contributions and reflections from his son Jason Salkey, the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and the writer, Gwen Strauss, who both regarded Salkey as a friend and mentor. The poet, Raymond Antrobus, talks about Salkey’s poetry and how it influenced his own work and Eric Huntley, an early publisher of Salkey’s works, looks back at their friendship. 

Details

When:

Wed 8 Dec 2021, 19:30 - 20:45

Price:

Online Full Price: £5.00
Online Member: £5.00

Enquiries:

+44 (0)1937 546546
boxoffice@bl.uk

Book Now

 

For more of a sense of the archive you can look at our previous English and Drama blogs such as:

Andrew Salkey: “Too Polemic. Too Political” by Eleanor Casson, Cataloguer of the Collection

Andrew Salkey: A Man of Many Hats by Eleanor Casson, Cataloguer of the Collection

Andrew Salkey and the first Publishing Houses for Black Writing in Britain by Eleanor Casson, Cataloguer of the Collection

02 November 2021

Andrew Salkey: “Too Polemic. Too Political”

By Eleanor Casson, Archivist and cataloguer of the Andrew Salkey Archive (Deposit 10310). Last few days to get tickets to Artist, Mentor, Friend, Activist: Andrew Salkey a Man of Many Hats a British Library conference held in collaboration with Goldsmiths Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies, MA Black British Writing (Goldsmiths) and The Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

The Conference is free to book and everyone is welcome. Book your place now.

Black and white photograph of Andrew Salkey in profile

Andrew Salkey, a Jamaican writer, emigrated to the UK in the early 1950s to study at London University. Salkey was one of a few Caribbean writers swept up in the boom of interest in Britain for the ‘exoticism’ of colonial countries, particularly after the migration of Caribbean workers to Britain.[1] His successful, critically acclaimed debut novel A Quality of Violence was published in 1959. In 1960, he followed this with a significantly more controversial novel Escape to an Autumn Pavement, which has, over time, become an influential piece exploring the Caribbean diasporas portrayal of heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

This early success as a Caribbean writer in Britain led Salkey to become an instrumental figure in developing a diasporic consciousness among Caribbean artists and intellectuals at home and abroad. Salkey experienced the majority of his literary success in the 1960s-1970s with the steady publishing of his children’s novels alongside his adult fiction and poetry. This early success reflects the appetites of British and American publishers during this period. Salkey’s literary works are often underpinned by a political message or influenced by Salkey’s experience of ‘exile’ from his home, Jamaica. By the 1980s the popularity of this type of writing had waned and Caribbean writers often found it more difficult to be published in the UK and also in the US. Salkey continued to write prolifically regardless of his works being published less often. His archive, held at the British Library, includes unpublished manuscripts and typescripts of work he attempted to publish without success. All of the unpublished novels in the archive are children’s novels: The Multi-Coloured Bear of Moscow Road, Luisito, and Norman Kelly. This blog will focus on his unpublished children’s novel Luisito and his unpublished long poem In America.

Luisito is a children’s novel based on the true story of the assassination of a ten-year-old boy, Luis Alfonso Velasquez Flores (Luisito), by the Somoza Regime in Nicaragua during the Nicaraguan Revolution. Luisito was a child revolutionary fighting against the oppressive Somoza Regime in the late 1970s. Salkey wrote in his notes that he first read about the assassination of Luisito in Gramma the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party on 2 September 1979. He began his research notebook on the events surrounding the event and Luisito’s life on 12 October 1980.  He lists the ‘characters’, ‘events’ and ‘places’ in the story based on his research of the events in much the same way he did for all of his novels. To ensure he had the correct information Salkey contacted the Office of the National Network in Solidarity with the Nicaraguan People in Washington DC, and the Nicaraguan Mission at the United Nations in New York. He also wrote to the Nicaraguan government twice, in October 1980 and September 1981, but did not receive a reply. Salkey’s friend, the American writer and activist Margaret Randall, was living and working in Nicaragua at the time. She had interviewed Luisito’s mother for her own work about Nicaraguan women. She sent Salkey copies of photographs of his mother and his passport. It is clear from the level of detail how invested Salkey became not only in Luisito’s death, but the cause he was fighting for against the Somoza Regime. Salkey wrote in his diary ‘I haven’t experienced this before, this extraordinary personal identification with the life and death of someone I’m trying to write about. A very odd feeling and equally odd behaviour on my part’.

There are similarities between this children’s novel and his earlier children’s book Joey Tyson. Both look at a ‘real life’ event from the perspective of a child and attempt to engage the reader in adult issues in a way they can understand. There is a clear educational undertone to the work that can be found in most of Salkey’s children’s story writing. The story was sent to publishers in the UK and the US, but was ultimately rejected by them all. Salkey was told by one US publisher that it was ‘too polemical. Too political’.

Salkey began the long poem In America in July 1976, just before his permanent move from the UK to the US, and completed it in August 1981. He had originally allocated four years to write the four ‘books’ (chapters) that make up the poem. In the notebook he kept for this work he wrote a set of notes for this period and a further “late extra notes” for the additional work he did on the poem. This literary project was a deeply personal one for Salkey. He writes in his diary ‘it’s a kind of diarist’s long poem, a record of the poet’s slow acquaintance of his new situation in America, and of America as an experience capable of being written about in poetry’. Alongside this exploration of America, the long poem also delves in to Salkey’s feelings of self-imposed exile from Jamaica and the mixed feelings of living closer to the Caribbean than before. Salkey wrote his novel Luisito within the same time period, which influenced his writing of In America:

In the same breath, the very same poet reminds us:

    Somewhere, right now, someone, or system clever as

    mustard, is busy building a Somoza castle of sand on an

    unsuspecting shoreline. Stop it, if you can!

This verse also encapsulates Salkey’s call to arms style of literary activism. Ultimately the polemic tone of some of the poetry in the long poem contributed to publishers rejecting the manuscript. US publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux Inc. were interested in the long poem but ultimately turned it down to focus on younger poets. William Morrow also turned it down. Salkey writes in his diary in November 1981 that he was not surprised that US publishers rejected the work; ‘I don’t think most of them are ready for the quirky experience the manuscript tends to deliver. In a sense, they never will’. Unfortunately, Salkey was equally as unsuccessful in the UK. He sent the manuscript to Hutchinson Publishing Group, Allison & Busby, and Faber and Faber; they all turned the manuscript down. The UK publishers saw merit in the work as an ambitious, interesting and diverse long poem. However, the did not think that there would be a viable audience for this type of work in the UK.

Source

[1] The George Padmore Institute: Why Publish Independently (online) Accessed 2nd April 2020 https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/the-pioneering-years/new-beacon-books-early-history/why-publish-independently

22 October 2021

The British Library is at the 2021 Thought Bubble Comics Festival

by Ian Cooke, Head of Contemporary British Publications, Stella Wisdom, Digital Curator and Kenn Taylor, Lead Cultural Producer (North).

Thought Bubble is the Yorkshire comic art festival, with events in the week starting 8th November, and ending in a two day convention in Harrogate on 13- 14th November. The British Library will be participating in events and the convention itself, to talk about our comics collections, and comics in the 21st century.

Our events at Thought Bubble are part of the Library’s growing cultural programme in Leeds and West Yorkshire, reflecting that the Library has had one of its two sites at Boston Spa in West Yorkshire since the 1960s, which is home to around 70% of our collection.

 

Extracted image from The Legal Deposit and You Comic showing a crowded conference hall with stands showing comics from independent creators.

The Legal Deposit and You, written and drawn by Olivia Hicks

 

We’ll be taking part in the convention with our own British Library stall, and encouraging comics creators to deposit copies of their comics with the Library, so that they can be preserved and accessed as part of our legal deposit collection of UK publishing. Thought Bubble is a great opportunity for us to talk to independent comics creators from across the UK, and find out more about new comics. It is very important to us that these comics are included in our collections, as they reflect a diversity in experience and expression that we might not find out about otherwise.

If you are coming to Thought Bubble, you’ll be able to find us in the Bubbleboy Hall, tables 5-6. Our curators from Digital Scholarship, Contemporary British Publications (including our Web Comic Archive) and Arabic collections will be there, and you will also be able to find out more about the British Library in Yorkshire.

We are leading a panel discussion on contemporary UK comics, digital disruption and library collections of comics, which will be at 12.30 on Saturday 13th November, in Panel Room B. We are really pleased to have a great line up of speakers, including Comics Laureate Hannah Berry, Clockwork Watch creator  Yomi Ayeni, Sara Kenney (Creative Director at Wowbagger Productions), and Comichaus founder Pete Genepool, join us to talk about how new practices and new technologies can influence library collecting and ensuring inclusivity in our collections.   

Our Thought Bubble activities start on the afternoon of Thursday 11th November, at Leeds Central Library when digital curator Stella Wisdom and our Wikimedian in Residence Lucy Hinnie will lead a Comics Wikithon, where participants will learn how to create, update and improve Wikipedia articles and Wikidata items about UK comics and their creators. This is a free event, but please book in advance here and check out this post on our Digital Scholarship blog for more details.

We’re pleased and enthusiastic to take part in Thought Bubble because comics collections, and independent and self-publishing matter to the British Library. We can only build these collections with the support of creators and publishers. Festivals such as Thought Bubble are an important way of finding out about the incredible breadth of contemporary comics, and for talking to creators.

If you are coming to the convention please stop by our stand and listen to our panel, we’d love to see you there.           

13 October 2021

A Bear called Paddington: published 13 October 1958

by Alison Bailey, Lead Curator Printed Heritage Collections 1901-2000 and Curator of Paddington: The Story of a Bear.

A woman in a face-mask stands in front of a cut-out of Paddington bear in the British Library exhibition, Paddington: The Story of a Bear
View of Paddington: the story of a bear – exhibition at the British Library

The first stories about Paddington – the bear famous for his kindness, politeness and love of marmalade – were published by Collins (now HarperCollins Publishers) on 13 October 1958.

Perhaps you already know the background to Paddington’s creation? On Christmas Eve 1956 Michael Bond saw a toy bear sitting all alone on the shelf in Selfridges department store in London. He bought the bear as an extra Christmas present for his wife and they called him Paddington – after the station. Several months later, when Michael was looking for inspiration for some children’s stories, he saw the bear and wrote 8 chapters in 10 days.

Here at the British Library in London we are celebrating Paddington and Michael Bond in our Paccar 2 exhibition Paddington: The Story of a Bear, which runs until 31 October 2021. To illustrate Bond’s creative process we are lucky enough to have Michael’s ‘Notebook’ from 1957 (loaned by the Estate of Michael Bond) in which he wrote notes and ideas for his early Paddington stories.

Michael’s agent, Harvey Unna, who had encouraged him to write children’s stories, sent the manuscript to several publishers. It was followed up by Barbara Ker Wilson - then children’s books editor at Collins and herself a writer. In her report (lent to the exhibition by HarperCollins Publishers) she suggests Collins accept the stories for publication and notes her appreciation of both the character of Paddington and the overall style of the writing. The publisher’s reader she sent the manuscript to was equally enthusiastic – and we display the response (again lent by HarperCollins Publishers) next to Wilson’s report.

So, on 13 October 1958, A Bear called Paddington, was published. In the exhibition we are showing two copies of the first edition – one loaned by Michael’s daughter, Karen Jankel, which is signed by Michael and was given to his parents. This is in the first section of the exhibition – Beginnings – and is shown closed, so you can see Peggy Fortnum’s distinctive pen and ink drawing of Paddington on the dust jacket.

The book 'A Bear Called Paddington' is open at the first page in an exhibition case showing a pen and ink drawing of Paddington Bear

Opening showing first page of text from Michael Bond, A Bear called Paddington. With drawings by Peggy Fortnum. London: Collins, 1958.

The other copy is the legal deposit copy from our own collections in the Home section of the exhibition. This is open at the very first page of the very first story “Please look after this bear” and shows Paddington, again illustrated by Peggy Fortnum, with his hat, label and suitcase, as he appeared when the Browns first met him.

After those early stories about Paddington there were many more – including the final picture book story Michael wrote, Paddington at St Paul’s, illustrated by R.W. Alley and published in 2018 – 60 years after A Bear called Paddington. We display a copy in the exhibition, together with a selection of about 20 illustrated books from the many titles in our own collections, including pop-ups and translations. They sit among examples of original artwork by Peggy Fortnum, R.W. Alley and David McKee, as well as memorabilia on loan from Michael Bond’s family, plush toys, sound and film clips and material created by two local schools. All in all, 11 illustrators are represented.

This has been a cheering project to have worked on with the Exhibitions and Learning Teams over the last 18 months – a bright spot amid the gloom – and I hope you too will enjoy reading or re-reading Paddington to celebrate this anniversary.

Works cited:

  • Michael Bond, A Bear called Paddington. With drawings by Peggy Fortnum. London: Collins, 1958. (British Library shelfmark: 12840.l.4.)
  • Michael Bond, Paddington at St. Paul’s. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. London: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2018.

Further reading:

  • Michael Bond, Bears & forebears: a life so far. London: HarperCollins, 1996. (B.L. shelfmarks: YC.1996.b.5818. and 96/28405)

 

With thanks to our travel partner Great Western Railway.

GWR logo

21 September 2021

Registration opens for Artist, Mentor, Friend, Activist: Andrew Salkey a Man of Many Hats

by Helen Melody, Lead Curator for Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. Mentor, Friend, Activist: Andrew Salkey a Man of Many Hats is a British Library conference held in collaboration with Goldsmiths Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies, MA Black British Literature (Goldsmiths) and The Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

The conference is free to book and everyone is welcome. Book your place now.

I am delighted to announce that registration has opened for a virtual conference on the Jamaican writer and broadcaster, Andrew Salkey (1928-1995). The conference will be held on the afternoons of Friday 5th (13.30-17.00) and Saturday 6th November (13.30-16.40).

The conference will celebrate the legacy of Andrew Salkey (1928-1995) by exploring his various writing projects and his contributions to the Caribbean literary community through his involvement with the Caribbean Artists Movement, and black publishing in Britain. Andrew Salkey was a co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement and lynchpin of the BBC’s Caribbean Service. He embodied the Black Radical Tradition in his writing, his politics, and in his support for other creative individuals. Twenty-six years after his death, this conference seeks to reclaim his legacy and amplify his voice.

 

Black and white photograph of Andrew Salkey

The programme will include a keynote by Professor Robert A. Hill, a leading scholar on Marcus Garvey and Research Professor at the Department of History at the University of California, Los Angeles who was a friend of and collaborator with Salkey. There will also be ‘in conversation’ and panel sessions, guided readings of Salkey’s work, and a chance to see items from the Salkey archive, which is held at the British Library.

For a taste of sense of the archive, you can read previous English and Drama Blogs such as:

Andrew Salkey: A Man of Many Hats by Eleanor Casson, Cataloguer of the Collection

Andrew Salkey: I into History Now by Eleanor Casson, Cataloguer of the Collection

13 September 2021

Two new Daphne Du Maurier acquisitions at the British Library

by Zoe Louca-Richards, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscrips (1600-1950). For more on Daphne Du Maurier’s work and life, see our article Daphne du Maurier - The British Library (bl.uk). For more on Rebecca see our article Nightmares, mirrors and possession in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. For more about our WW2 collections see Second World War - Modern Archives - The British Library (bl.uk). Both of these letters are now available to view in the Manuscripts Reading Room. For any enquiries, please contact MSS@bl.uk.

Two recent acquisitions made by the British Library shed further light on the life and work of English author Daphne Du Maurier. As well as commenting on her literary works, the letters discuss her views on filmic adaptations of her novels, and remark on her family and home life.

Black and white profile photograph of Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier © The Chichester Partnership.

 

Prisoner of War Letter (Add MS 89461)

The first of the two acquisitions (Add MS 89461), is a letter written in 1942 to “Sargent Arnold”, a Prisoner of War being detained in Stalag Luft III, the German camp perhaps best known as the scene of the 1945 Great Escape.

 

Photograph of manuscript letter sent from Daphne du Maurier to 'Sargent Arnold'

Add MS 89461: Du Maurier letter to a Prisoner of War, 1942 (f.1r &5r). Used with permission of the Du Maurier estate.

 

The five-page letter, reads as a light-hearted discussion between two acquaintances, perhaps offering Sgt. Arnold a welcome escape from his unfortunate situation. Du Maurier touches on matters including her home life, reading practices, and her most recent literary work, Hungry Hill (1943). She notes:

    ‘My husband is in the army, and I am living with my three small children (9-5-2) in a small     house in the West Country […] I have a hut where I keep picnic things, in a most     glorious position, you have to wade through bracken to get to it, and then the only things you see     are birds and butterflies […] I wish I could describe the country to you, but I     don’t know how much I am allowed to put in a letter’.

She continues to discuss books, noting that like Arnold she does not ‘want to read about the time in which we are living, but prefer to go back to the past’, explaining her recent return to Dickens and Shakespeare.  The letter also touches upon the Hollywood adaptations of both Rebecca and Frenchman’s Creek. Du Maurier was one of the first generations of authors to witness their novels adapted for screen. She clearly has a positive attitude towards the process in general, but less so of Hollywood itself, remarking of Frenchman’s Creek ‘it will be done in Hollywood I suppose, so I shall have no say in the matter. I’ve never been out there, and haven’t the slightest desire to go! The sort of life I should loathe.’

Black and white photograph of British Prisoners of War gardening at Stalag Luft

British prisoners of war tend their garden at Stalag Luft III. © IWM HU 20930 (https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196602)

According to Adrian Gilbert’s POW: Allied Prisoners in Europe, 1939-1945 [1], life in Stalag Luft III, and German prisoner of war camps in general, was relatively “good”: good in comparison to other prisoner of war camps throughout history that is. Overcrowding, hunger, and depression were still key issues in Stalag Luft III. The bleak and unattractive landscape in which the camp was situated likely only exacerbating its oppressiveness. Many inmates took some solace and pleasure in gardening, as can be seen in the image above, which undoubtedly also helped alleviate some of the hunger. Prisoners also fashioned makeshift golf courses, and as evidenced by our letter, were able to access at least some books. 

Du Maurier shows clear interest in the welfare and daily life of Sgt. Arnold throughout the letter. She closes her letter with interest and warmth:

    ‘If you should get this letter, will you let me know, and then I can send you things from     time to time. Books, if you are allowed them. Tell me what part of this country you come     from, and if you have any family […] I hope you are reasonably comfortable and get plenty     of exercise. It must make such a difference if you can be out in the air; things can’t seem     quite so bad under the sky’.

Photograph of an envelope showing passage through censors

Add MS 89461. Envelope showing British and German Check marks.

 

The Rebecca Letter (Add MS 89460)

The second recent Du Maurier acquisition for the British Library is particularly interesting for its contribution towards the discussion of her remarkable 1938 novel Rebecca. Written in 1977 it addresses one of the most pervasive points of discussion regarding Du Maurier’s popular gothic thriller: why does the second Mrs de Winter not have a first name?

 

Photograph of typescript letter from Daphne du Maurier to a fan explaining the lack of name attribution for a character in her novel, Rebecca.

Add Ms 89460, Letter from Daphne Du Maurier to “Jocelyn”. Used with kind permission from the Du Maurier estate.

Many theories have arisen over the years as to why the protagonist of Rebecca remains nameless, whilst the eponymous Rebecca’s name echoes throughout the narrative. In this letter, addressed to “Jocelyn”, likely another fan of her work, Du Maurier notes clearly that the reason for the lack of name was that she simply wished to see if she could write a novel without naming its protagonist – a self-imposed literary challenge. In the process, Du Maurier notes ‘It can’t be done unless written in the 1st person Singular, at least I don’t think it can!’

Photograph of cover for first edition of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

First time readers of Rebecca can be forgiven for not spotting that we never learn the narrators maiden name. Such is the subtlety and skill of Du Maurier’s handling of this interesting literary technique; a testament to her incredible aptitude for character development.

It took less than a year for Du Maurier to write Rebecca. Starting in mid-1937, the novel was conceived of and sketched out during Du Maurier’s time in Alexandria Egypt as an army wife, and completed in 1938 at Greyfriars in Fleet, Hampshire, after her husband was posted back to the barracks in Aldershot. Like many of her novels, Cornwall served as inspiration for the setting of Rebecca, in particular Menabilly, the Cornish house which Du Maurier fell in love with as a young adult, and would eventually come to live in.

Some of the key themes of Rebecca - belonging, jealousy, love, marriage, death, justice - have been linked to Du Maurier’s choice not to name the novels protagonist. Scholars and fans alike have also long speculated as to how much the second Mrs de Winter was a reflection of the author. In fact, Du Maurier’s son has noted that during the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of the book, whilst remaining true to the narrative the second Mrs de Winter remains anonymous in the script, she was nicknamed ‘Daphne’ on set. Du Maurier herself has too admitted that many elements of the narrative are based on facts.

Perhaps the most compelling, and arguable exciting, comparisons drawn between Du Maurier and the second Mrs de Winter, relates to Du Maurier’s jealousy towards her husband’s ex-lover Jan Ricardo. Du Maurier wasn’t directly acquainted with Ricardo, but knew of her through comments of others, and letters from Ricardo that her husband had kept. The letters were signed, with the ‘R’ of Ricardo being particularly distinctive. Jan, who moved among the glamorous elite, was described as popular, dark-haired, and attractive. The unfortunate similarities between Ricardo and Rebecca didn’t stop at the publication of Rebecca. In 1944, 6 years following, Jan Ricardo committed suicide.

As Lucie Armitt aptly puts it 'Rebecca is a story of ‘the woman with no name and the woman who has nothing and is nothing but her name.’[2] Regardless of Du Maurier’s intentions or the parallels one might draw with the authors own life, forfeiting a name for the second Mrs De Winter has several effects that cleverly enhance the reader experience. Perhaps most poignantly, its coupling with the first person tense enables the reader to substitute herself with the narrator, the second Mrs de Winter, more seamlessly.  The technique also textually mimics the overwhelming, oppressive, posthumous presence that Rebecca has over the narrative, and over the second Mrs de Winter. Despite being our main character, for the majority of the novel, the narrator’s entire existence, and certainly the only name we come to know her by, is anchored to her new husband, and his deceased first wife. Du Maurier is not the only writer to execute this technique to illustrate the subsidiary nature of a woman’s existence, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is another example.

The explanation given by Du Maurier in our letter is perhaps not as scandalous or personal as some scholars might hope for, but it in no way lessens the resulting effect of the second Mrs. de Winter’s anonymity.

 

[1] Gilbert, A. POW: Allied Prisoners in Europe, 1939-1945. Glasgow: Thistle Publishing (2014).

[2] Armitt, L. Contemporary Women’s Fiction and the Fantastic. London: Palgrave, (2000). p104.

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.