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15 September 2023

For Their Eyes Only – the letters of Ian and Ann Fleming

We mark the exciting acquisition of a collection of letters between Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, and his wife Ann.

Unlike Ann Fleming, who has had a whole volume of her correspondence published, Ian Fleming was not a habitual letter writer. So the British Library was delighted to be able to acquire this collection of almost 100 letters from Ian to Ann (and over 50 in the opposite direction) in 2021. This major resource for Fleming scholars has now been catalogued (Add MS 89670) and, from today, is available to access in the Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room.

Letters between Ann and Ian Fleming, arranged in a fan shape on a wooden table. The letters are on mostly blue or white paper and are handwritten.
Correspondence of Ann and Ian Fleming. Reproduced with permission of The Ian Fleming Estate. © The Ian Fleming Estate 1946-1964

The letters, most of which are unpublished and previously largely unseen, give an intimate and detailed insight into the shifting sands of Ann and Ian's relationship, from the complexities of the 1940s when Ann was still married to Esmond Harmsworth (in one letter Ian begs Ann to keep his letters well-hidden instead of leaving them in her underwear drawer), through the heartbreak of the death of Ann and Ian's daughter, Mary, just eight hours old, in 1948, their married life (they married in March 1952), and into the 1960s. It was at times a turbulent relationship and both had numerous affairs. The tension and strain of these affairs, as well as that caused by their long separations (even after their marriage, Ian spent three months every year at the house, Goldeneye, in Jamaica, he had built in 1945), is apparent in many of the letters. On the other hand, many other letters are traditional love letters, passionate and romantic, showing the depth of their feelings for each other.

Apart from their relationship, the subject matter of the letters ranges far and wide taking in the flora and fauna of Jamaica; the development of, and domestic arrangements at, Goldeneye; gossip from the newspaper world (Ian Fleming was foreign manager of the Kemsley newspaper group, the then owner of the Sunday Times, from 1945 to 1959 and continued to contribute articles into the 1960s) and discussion of his 'Atticus' column; their respective health, both physical and mental; the health, development, well-being, and schooling of Caspar, their son born in August 1952; and their international travels (India, Tangiers, Chicago, Miami, New York, Paris, Italy, Hong Kong, Istanbul, and Switzerland). They certainly took advantage of the advent of the jet age, but they also enjoyed the more leisurely pace of luxury liners such as the ‘Queen Elizabeth’, writing vivid pen portraits of their fellow passengers as they sailed.

The Flemings were inveterate gossips and a major thread in the correspondence is discussion of the figures within their social circles or passing through their orbit. The cast list of names that crop up – friends, acquaintances, guests at Goldeneye, fellow guests at others’ dinners and social events – is remarkable: Leolia Ponsonby, Blanche Blackwell (with whom Ian had a long affair), Patrick Leigh Fermor, Lucian Freud (“seems to have become world famous at last”), Micky Renshaw, Noel Coward, Truman Capote (“Can you imagine a more incongruous playmate for me… a fascinating character and we really get on very well” – Capote persuaded Fleming to try “a sinister pill called Mill Town”), Brendan Bracken, Hugh Gaitskell (with whom Ann had a long affair), Erica Marx, Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Edith Sitwell, Rosamund Lehmann, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Rex Harrison, Solly Zuckerman, Gladwyn Jebb, Joyce Grenfell, Pamela Churchill, Paul Gallico, Oscar Hammerstein, Charles Boyer, and Sidney Bernstein.

A typed letter from Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, on white paper and laid flat on a wooden table
Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, August 1952. The Flemings clearly had not yet settled on the spelling of their son’s name. The standard sources refer to him as Caspar. Reproduced with permission of The Ian Fleming Estate. © The Ian Fleming Estate 1952
A typed letter from Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, on white paper and laid flat on a wooden table
Ian Fleming to Ann Fleming, August 1952. The Flemings clearly had not yet settled on the spelling of their son’s name. The standard sources refer to him as Caspar. Reproduced with permission of The Ian Fleming Estate. © The Ian Fleming Estate 1952

As would be expected, the letters are also littered with references to Ian Fleming's most famous literary creation, James Bond. He offers regular progress reports and occasional plot details, of mostly unnamed books: at one stage From Russia With Love, for example, is described as “galloping along. I have written a third of it in one week, a chapter a day”; another book “is half done and buzzing along merrily in the rain”. Fleming also alludes to some of the inspiration and sources for the stories and titles. For example, he mentions Blanche Blackwell's gift of a coracle, which he named Octopussy. The short story of the same name, written in 1962, would be published posthumously in 1966. 'Blanche' was the name of the guano-collecting ship in 1958’s Dr. No and Blackwell was the model for Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, published in 1959. Truman Capote is described as “twittering with excitement” while reading a proof copy of Diamonds Are Forever. Fleming writes of correcting proofs of Live and Let Die on-board the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ sailing to New York. There is even a reference to the gold-plated typewriter he bought while writing Casino Royale. However, there are also occasional allusions to Fleming's dissatisfaction with Bond as a character (“I have got so desperately tired of that ass Bond”) and with some of the stories (“just finishing a Bond short story of no merit”). Even so, his later letters make reference to possible television and film adaptations of his books, and on a trip to Hollywood, the positive reaction to his books gives him particular hope (“People really seem to be after my books... it’s as usual a question of crossing fingers & waiting for someone to pry them apart & force some dollars between them”). The first Bond film, Dr. No, would be released in 1962.

This is a truly absorbing collection, and there is something of interest on every page. Even the stationery the Flemings used is worth noting. So desperate were they to keep in touch with each other that if actual writing paper was not to hand they simply repurposed the endpapers of books, the back of a gin rummy score card, and even a hospital temperature chart!

We are grateful to the British Library Collections Trust for their generous support for this acquisition.

With thanks to The Ian Fleming Estate for permission to quote from the letters of Ian Fleming.


Written by Michael St John-McAlister, Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager, who has recently completed cataloguing the Ian and Ann Fleming letters.


Further reading:

Add MS 89670.

Mark Amory (ed.), The Letters of Ann Fleming (London: Collins Harvill, 1985).

Andrew Lycett, Ian Fleming (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995).

Andrew Lycett, ‘Fleming, Ian Lancaster (1908-1964)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/33168.

Andrew Lycett, ‘Fleming [née Charteris], Ann Geraldine Mary (1913-1981)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/40227.

08 September 2023

Phantom of the Collection: Reaching Beyond the Material in the Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive

With cataloguing underway on the archive of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, manuscripts cataloguer, Cameron Randall, reflects on the process and the presence of its previous archivist Murray Melvin.

Working as a Manuscripts Cataloguer, I feel lucky that I can arrive at work each day with the possibility of being transported to past places, previous times, and perhaps most interestingly, entering the lives of those who rise from the collection. A photo, some exchange of correspondence, or an inanimate object can hold stories that have lain buried and dormant among the collection's contents. In some sense, every archive is intrinsically hauntological. Hauntology, as coined by Jacques Derrida, is a spin on the term ontology: a metaphysical inquiry into ideas around being. Where hauntology differs is that it refers to the return or persistence of elements from the social or cultural past, as in the manner of a ghost.

The collection that I am currently working on, the Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive, seems to capture this idea better than most. Running through the body of the collection is another presence that murmurs within the material. A spectre is haunting the archive: its previous custodian, the actor and director turned theatre archivist Murray Melvin.

A portrait of Murrary Melvin posing in front of a red wall with his arms cross and a small smile on his face, wearing his distinctive pale pink shirt and blue jumper.
Murrary Melvin at the Theatre Royal (c) The British Library Board

Murray enjoyed a distinguished theatre, television, and film career, working with directors including Joan Littlewood, Ken Russell, and Stanley Kubrick. He also appeared in 1966’s Alfie alongside Michael Caine, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and the 2004 version of The Phantom of the Opera, not to mention the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. Murray’s first leading role on stage was with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, where he took on the role of Geoffrey in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, in 1958, followed by the seminal role in Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, later the same year.  His star continued to rise, reprising his role as Geoffrey in the 1961 film adaptation of A Taste of Honey. This performance would lead Murray to win the BAFTA film award for Most Promising Newcomer and the Cannes Film Festival Best Actor.

Murray sadly passed away in April this year, but his spirit not only lives on through his hugely successful acting career but also in the diligent care and attention he provided to the Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive, which was acquired by the British Library in 2021.

A selection of programmes, notes and various archival material from the Theatre Royal archive, displayed in a fan flat on a table and all overlapping
A selection of notes, programmes and other papers relating to theatre unions work in the thirties (c) British Library Board

Murray's influence on the archive cannot be understated; his methodology and instructions are extensive, precise, and deeply detailed. Each box contains Murray's literal and metaphorical fingerprints, from the chronological ordering of the Theatre Royal's productions, which Murray's hands would have sorted, to the micro-precision of labelled photos, designating the date, place, and individuals that sit within them. There are even meta-notes that accompany much of the archive, some with extended pages of long insights, stories, and descriptions that unearth an extra layer of context that enriches the content. In these moments, Murray's presence feels at its most potent; his tone and style of writing have a conversational quality that is not only accurate but provokes curiosity, establishing his personal perspective as an invaluable component of the archive and a lens through which to fully understand it.

Given Murray's long-term personal involvement with Theatre Royal Stratford East and his much greater knowledge of its history, I must adhere to his decision-making, and constrain my natural tendencies in shaping the collection, or even abstain from them all together. In some ways, I have to think as Murray would and respect his arrangement, order, and sorting of the material. In this sense, I feel like I am acting as a vehicle or conduit for Murray's archival logic, trying to stay true to his reasoning and maintain how he intended the archive to be perceived. This is both a blessing and a curse, as on the one hand, Murray guides me box to box, and on the other, his methodology creates inflexibility and rigidity, which I have to contend with as I attempt to pull a thread between Murray and potential researchers in the future.

A fabric and silk doll which was originally white and black but now appears browned with age, it is in the style of pierrot productions, with a silk dress with black pom pom buttons and a pointed white hat with black pom pom on the top
Doll made by Una Collins and used by Fanny Carby in Oh! What a Lovely War (c) British Library Board

My involvement with The Theatre Royal Stratford East comes through the Hidden Collection initiative, which seeks to remove barriers to discoverability and access in the cataloguing backlog at the British Library. The initiative itself is one that recognises the hidden, invisible, and ghostly nature that collections like these possess. Through the cataloguing process, collections are seemingly revived, the hauntological becomes ontological, and the hidden is unlocked to take on a new lease of life, ultimately making archives available for research and opening up the library's collections. As a troubled Danish prince once put it, 'the time is out of joint', but with the work of individuals such as Murray Melvin, we see the possibility for time to fall back into joint, where the past is resurrected in the present to produce new ideas, other perspectives, and unknown possibilities, reaching beyond the material and into the future.

Further Reading

Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx (Routledge, 1994)

Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life (Zero Books, 2014)

Peter Rankin, Joan Littlewood: Dreams and Realities (Oberon Books, 2014)

Murray Melvin, The Art of Theatre Workshop (Oberon Books, 2006)

Murray Melvin, The Theatre Royal: A History of the Building (Stratford East Publications, 2009)

25 August 2023

Ted Hughes’s Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity

Dr Steve Ely, senior lecturer in creative writing at The University of Huddersfield, discusses their research on the work of the poet Ted Hughes.

Black and white close up head shot of the poet Ted Hughes who is looking directly into the camera with a serious expression
Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin © British Library Board

In 2022 I was awarded an AHRC grant to complete a two-year programme of research entitled Ted Hughes’s Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity. The research is designed to explore and expound the view that Hughes’s most distinctive, original and best work—the work that made his name—is essentially Expressionist, characterised by a visionary subjectivity that transforms content in order to present his own unique view of the world. Although his work is almost always rooted in observation, most clearly so in poems that take animals and nature as their ostensible content, Hughes is rarely content with limiting himself to realist or naturalistic representations. Imagination, argument and didactic intent combine in his work to create symbols and metaphors that articulate his own apocalyptic truths. Beyond this, an important secondary aim of the research is to use Expressionism to understand Hughes in the context of twentieth century movements and tendencies in the arts in general, not simply in ‘English Literature’, thereby facilitating a broader and more nuanced understanding of the achievement and status of an artist still too often understood as a ‘maverick’.

Expressionism is an elusive and contested term, and not one typically applied in Hughes studies, or indeed, in English Literature, and part of my research—and the work of the symposium—will be to explore, expound and critique its meaning in this context. An exciting range of talks—Hughes and German Expressionist cinema, Hughes and Alchemy, Hughes and ‘absolute music’, a number of presentations on Hughes’s relationships and affinities with other artists and writers including Peter Brooke, Barrie Cooke, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc, Alan Moore, Janos Pilinsky, Sylvia Plath, William Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas, and several analyses of key works, including Seneca’s Oedipus, Crow, Gaudete, Capriccio and ‘Mayday on Holderness’, ‘The Howling of Wolves’ and ‘Anniversary’—will break new ground in doing so. Of course, many of the talks draw extensively on research conducted in the British Library’s rich and endlessly rewarding Ted Hughes archive.

I’m a poet with a dozen or so publications under my belt, including Englaland (2015), Lectio Violant (2021) and The European Eel (2021). However, a lifelong interest in Hughes led to a parallel career as an English literature academic, as Director of the Ted Hughes Network at Huddersfield University, where I also teach Creative Writing. These two strands came together to inform this research. Initially, an interest in developing a better understanding of my own processes and methods of artistic creation led me to explore and become more self-conscious about my own writing in a cross-disciplinary context. This led to the realisation that the application of a similar approach might provide a fruitful method of interrogating and understanding Hughes’s encyclopedic oeuvre, to gain a sense of where—in all that diversity and richness—his main achievement lies.

An important step on the journey to Ted Hughes’s Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity was the publication in 2020 of James Keery’s Apocalypse!, a revisionist anthology of the neglected and maligned poetry of the 1940s, its predecessors and antecedents, in doing so demonstrating the ‘visionary modernist’ context which provided the matrix for Hughes’s emergence—and to some extent ‘explains’ his singularity in the Movement-dominated English poetry scene of the mid/late Twentieth century. In 2022 Professor John Goodby and I organised dual symposia—Apocalypse I and Apocalypse II, at Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Huddersfield respectively—inspired by Keery’s work and insights. Apocalypse’ (book and symposia) helped catalyse my thinking and led to the AHRC application and my current research.

Indeed, as the research has developed, apocalypse is increasingly becoming an important concept in helping me to articulate my understanding of Ted Hughes’s Expressionism. There’s a two-fold sense to this. In the Greek, ‘apocalypse’ means a revealing, unveiling or vision—an inner experience triggering an urgent, highly subjective response. Of course, ‘vision’ is a key aspect of Expressionism. However, through the content and notoriety of the Apocalypse of S. John the Divine (the Book of Revelation in most Protestant Bibles), a second understanding of apocalypse—disaster, catastrophe, the end of the world—has become dominant. Much of Hughes’s poetry is concerned to address and articulate apocalypse in this sense, not only in his eco-poetry and his address to the atrocity and conflict that characterises the modern world, but also in his work addressed to ontology and being, his sense that humans are catastrophically cut-off from the spontaneity of their natural lives and are thus not only unable to live in harmony with themselves, their peers and the natural world, but are consequently locked into disastrous cycles of alienation, violence and self-harm. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to come up with a general definition of Expressionism to inform my research. However, I’m increasingly thinking that ‘apocalypse’ might be key: visionary work, rooted in a singular world view, articulated via imagination and addressed to urgent themes, as so much of Hughes’s work is, is almost certain to produce Expressionist work.

notebooks, letters and other material from the Ted Hughes archive arranged in a fan shape on a flat surface
Material from the Ted Hughes Archive

Ted Hughes Expressionism: Visionary Subjectivity will take place in the Pigott Theatre, Knowledge Centre, British Library on 15th September, 2023. Attendance is FREE to members of the public, but Eventbrite booking is required.  More details, the symposium programme and the booking link can be found here: https://research.hud.ac.uk/institutes-centres/tedhughes/expressionism/symposium/.

19 May 2023

Andrew Salkey Archive – Mapping the Caribbean Diaspora through Letters

Natalie Lucy talks about their project mapping the Caribbean Diaspora through the letters of Andrew Salkey. 

I am a PhD student at UCL. I started a part-time placement at the British Library in September which finished at the end of February. I was supervised by Eleanor Casson, who, until recently, was working on the Andrew Salkey archive and Stella Wisdom, Digital Curator. The aim of the project was to map the Caribbean diaspora through the correspondence of the writer, broadcaster and poet Andrew Salkey. Well-known both as a meticulous chronicler and a prolific correspondent, the many fascinating and frequently poignant, letters in Salkey’s extensive archive reflect a network of Caribbean writers and academics for whom Salkey served not only as something of a nexus but also as a facilitator in their careers. More importantly, though, the correspondence shows the movement of these writers within a wider context of the diaspora, a feature which we have visually presented through the digital applications, Gephi and Kepler.    

Why did I apply for this project?

My thesis explores the way that the trickster character, Anancy, has historically been reinvented, primarily at key political points, to say something about heritage and identity and how he emerges in the literature of British writers and artists, particularly those with Caribbean heritage. A significant part of my research concerns the ways that Anancy was appropriated in the writing of the Caribbean Arts Movement, a dynamic group of artists and writers formed in London in the mid-1960s. Andrew Salkey was one of the three founders of CAM, along with John La Rose and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. He had been in London since the early 1950s and had already demonstrated his potential influence as something of an ‘enabler’, both through his immense generosity towards his fellow writers and his connections both within the writing world and at the BBC. The project offered an exciting opportunity. Not only would I be able to access Andrew Salkey’s archive, which would undoubtedly enhance my research, but the project had the potential to explore the dynamics between the writers and to bring to life something of the networks, which were so key to the establishment of a literary and cultural foundation.

What are Gephi and Kepler?

Gephi is an open graph visualization platform. It has been used in a variety of projects, to illustrate both social networks, which are evidenced within correspondence, and historical patterns of movement.  In these projects, Gephi has been used as a way to make data more accessible and, by visually animating it, more engaging.

Salkey network
Static visualisation of the Caribbean Diasporic network found in Andrew Salkey’s correspondence files, using Gephi Visualisation Platform. Credit: CC-BY The British Library

Kepler is an open source geospatial analysis tool, which was originally created by Uber to map Uber drivers around the world. This offered a useful application through which to map the movement of the Caribbean writers in Salkey’s correspondence during key periods. 

Kepler visualisation
Static visualisation of the movement of the Caribbean Diasporic network found in Andrew Salkey’s correspondence files using Kepler. Credit: CC-BY The British Library

Gathering the Data

The first stage of the project was to acquire the data that would ultimately be used in the visual map of the diaspora. Salkey was a meticulous archivist, retaining a significant quantity of the letters he received; he was also a diligent and attentive correspondent. Salkey’s friends were prominent Caribbean writers and publishers and Salkey’s archive contains the letters of Samuel Selvon, his distinctive language reminiscent of his groundbreaking novel The Lonely Londoners, George Lamming and Jan Carew.

A selection of letters from Sam Selvon to Andrew Salkey, Add MS 89377/7/54. Credit: CC-BY Samuel Selvon Estate

The initial data was limited to the date and location of the correspondence, information that could suggest the patterns of movement within the diaspora. The idea was that it would provide a framework with which to start to explore the potential of the project. 

The letters were so rich in detail, however, that other information was also recorded. I was able to note when correspondents mentioned other countries that they were planning to visit or when they spoke about other writers within the network. This provided an additional layer of information, which helped to broaden the analysis of the Caribbean diasporic network, linking people with each other as well as with Salkey.

Static visualisation of the Caribbean Diasporic network found in Andrew Salkey’s correspondence files with biographical information. Credit: CC-BY The British Library

One of the recurring themes of the letters was the evident impact that these writers had on each other, not only as a network through which to promote their work, but also to seek some form of solidarity. In numerous letters, Andrew Salkey is asked for advice or practical assistance. Sometimes this is a request for a review of their work, or a recommendation for a lecturing post, or his opinion on a piece of writing. Further clues are revealed by the fact that some of the letters also contain Salkey’s additional notes, handwritten in the margin or a penned tick beside a request.

What did I Learn?

In addition to the fascinating insight into the important work that the British Library does, I have discovered something about Andrew Salkey himself.  What evolve within the letters are essentially a series of stories of friendships, between remarkable writers and artists. Sometimes, the extent of appreciation for Salkey’s generosity in helping so many other writers and friends can also be glimpsed within the, frequently poetical, words on the page. Samuel Selvon’s letters to Salkey are habitually humorous, but occasionally he steps outside his mocking, affectionate style, and says something that is profoundly moving. In one letter to Salkey on 15 March 1975,  he writes: ‘you have a great gift, Andrew, so great, that even with those few words, and my inability to express myself as you do, you will understand and appreciate what I am trying to say. That is the quintessence of your genius - that behind the ballad and the episode that other human beings will laugh kiff-kiff at and enjoy you can see with the inner eye and analyse with the unique power that God gave you.'

A letter written by Sam Selvon to Andrew Salkey 15th March 1975, from Add MS 89377/7/54. Credit: CC-BY Samuel Selvon Estate

Natalie Lucy was a PhD placement at the British Library from September 2022 until February 2023. In this blog, Natalie explains her interest in the project, development of the project through the content of the correspondence, as well as what she learned from the placement. This blog is linked with another post on the Digital Scholarship Blog, which gives more detail on the digital visualisation applications used for this project.

Linked Blog:

Mapping Caribbean Diasporic Networks through the Correspondence of Andrew Salkey

12 May 2023

The William Maskell Chapbook Collection

In 2022, the British Library received a selection of rare books and manuscripts from the Honresfield Library, originally collected by industrialist William Law (1836–1901). This collection was purchased by the Friends of the National Libraries and shared across a number of UK institutions. The Honresfield Library contains several items of significant historical and literary importance.

Title-page of The life and death of Jenny Wren, illustrated with a woodcut depicting a bird and young girl reading from a book to a woman. The image has been very crudely coloured in blue and there is a type error on the imprint.
The life and death of Jenny Wren, for the use of young ladies and gentlemen, Hon.129.(12) Many chapbooks were decorated with simple woodcuts, sometimes coloured, either by the seller or the owner.

Among the items that were allocated to the British Library are a collection of curiously small volumes in uniform brown watered silk bindings with green spine labels betraying their contents: “Chap Books”. This collection comprises of 764 individual pamphlets, bound together in seventy parts. The volumes are numbered on their spines, and suggest three distinct series: 1-48, 1-19, and four un-numbered. This division is reflected, and expounded, in the 1891 Sotheby sales catalogue listing them:

“48. Chap Books. A collection of numerous small popular work for children, with woodcuts arranged in 20 vol. uncut, v. y. – An extensive collection of chap-books, garlands, children’s books, &c. with woodcuts arranged in 49 vol. 12mo, uncut, v.y. – Manuscript catalogues of both series by W. Maskell. 70 vol.”[1]

Comparing the current British Library holdings with the 1891 catalogue entry reveals a few discrepancies. Notably, one volume is missing from each numbered series: neither no. 49 nor no. 20 feature in the present British Library holdings. Furthermore, the remaining four unnumbered volumes are not accounted for here. However, item 49 in the sales catalogue includes a further eight volumes of “Chap and Toy Books”, sold to Maggs, which may suggest the origin of these additional four volumes.

The Sotheby entry also mentions a manuscript catalogue, which is dated 1872 and survives in the present collection. It further introduces us to the original compiler of the collection, the Rev. William Maskell (1814?-1890). Maskell was a liturgical scholar and collector who was in the habit of building up collections of books and works of art and selling them to public institutions[2]. The British Museum Library acquired a large number of liturgical works from Maskell within his lifetime, with a major portion of his collection being sold to the Museum for £2,240 in 1847[3]. However, these chapbooks remained in Maskell’s private collection until his death in 1890 and were sold by Sotheby in the following year. Contemporary annotations in the sales catalogue suggest the volumes were purchased at auction by Bain (possibly the London booksellers James Bain) and were likely acquired by William Law not long after this.

A two-page spread opening of a hand-written catalogue containing entries of chapbooks, belonging to William Maskell.
Manuscript catalogue of chapbooks, children's books, garlands; &c. &c., Hon.112.(1) William Maskell kept a detailed manuscript catalogue of his chapbook collection. The catalogue is organised alphabetically, with entries relating to the numbers which can be found on the spines of the bound volumes. For each entry, Maskell provides the volume number, short title, format, place and year of publication (where available).

The sales catalogue also attests to the impressive scale of the collection: “so complete a collection of chap-books would occupy many years even if possible to procure them in the different towns of England and Scotland in which they were printed.” The collection represents examples of printing from 53 different towns and cities in England, Scotland and Ireland, spanning c.1770-1865. These imprints include the names of printers whose body of work is largely absent from research library catalogues.

Title-page of The misfortunes of a bad boy, with a decorated border, small woodcut illustration depicted the eponymous bad boy and an imprint of Alnick, W. Davison. Not dated.
The misfortunes of a bad boy, Hon.134.(5) Some chapmen, such as W. Davison of Alnwick, produced multiple series of popular tales to be collected. This printing of The misfortunes of a bad boy was no. 21 in a series of halfpenny chapbooks produced by Davison in the early 19th century.

The collection also varies enormously in the nature of its content. ‘Chapbook’ is an infamously slippery term used to describe abridgements, alphabets, ballads, cries, dreadfuls, fables, garlands, histories, rhymes, songsters and morals, among other things. Their physical appearance and cheap, sometimes crude, production are also defining marks. Chapbooks of this period were often illustrated with woodcut blocks, which were typically re-used across publications, sometimes even being shared by different printers[4]. The indeterminate status of the chapbook is well illustrated by the sheer variety of size, shape, theme, and tone of the pamphlets represented in Maskell’s collection. Most of the collection is in remarkably pristine condition, with only a small selection bearing markings of former owners[5]. Some volumes include pencil inscriptions, possibly by William Law, generally commenting on their contents. In addition, there is one chapbook titled, A pleasant and delightful dialogue between honest John and loving Kate. Part the first.” (1791) which has been loosely inserted alongside a copy of the second part of the same story[6]. This title does not appear in the 1872 manuscript catalogue.

Title-page of The wonderful advantages of drunkenness, with a small woodcut illustration and an imprint of Paisley, 1823.
The wonderful advantages of drunkenness; to which is added, Protest against whisky, Hon.163.(11) Chapbooks were produced on various subjects, from popular children’s tales, to more serious moral works. This early 19th century Scottish chapbook was a pamphlet decrying the dangers of excessive drinking.

The Maskell collection provides a useful resource for study into the production of British and Irish chapbooks in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is also an interesting example of chapbooks being collected, rather than used, and provides the opportunity for further study of Maskell and Law as collectors of cheap printed materials. This collection complements substantial holdings of chapbooks and cheap print already in the British Library collections. The Maskell collection has been fully catalogued online and can be found within shelfmark range Hon.112.(1) - Hon.183.(14).


[1] Sotheby’s, Sales Catalogue for the Late William Maskell, 26 February 1891.

[2] de Ricci, S.M.R.R., English Collectors of Books and Manuscripts 1530-1930 and Their Marks of Ownership, 1930, p.143.

[3] Harris, P. R. “The development of the collections of the Department of Printed Books, 1846-1875.” The British Library Journal 10, no. 2 (1984): 114–46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42554204.

[4] Dutta, A., Bergel, G., and Zisserman, A., ‘Visual Analysis of Chapbooks Printed in Scotland’. In The 6th International Workshop on Historical Document Imaging and Processing (HIP '21). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, (2021) 67–72.  https://doi.org/10.1145/3476887.3476893

[5] See Hon.119.(2), Hon.121.(8), Hon.124.(4), Hon.129.(5), Hon.129.(11), Hon.129.(12), Hon.138.(4), Hon.138.(5), Hon.140.(6) and Hon.169.(6).

[6] See Hon.156.(6).

05 May 2023

Randall Couch's 'Peal' and other literary bells

This weekend, bells in towers up and down the country will be ringing to mark the Coronation of King Charles III. Since the Coronation was announced there has been a concerted effort, ‘the ‘Ring for the King’ campaign, aimed at recruiting new ringers to learn the fascinating and absorbing hobby of change ringing and join the celebrations.

The art of change-ringing – the ringing of tower bells in mathematical patterns known as methods – originated in 17th-century England and, although practised in other countries today, remains a primarily English phenomenon. As such, it is perhaps strange that it is so little reflected in English literature. While poets such as Tennyson in ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’ or A.E. Housman in ‘On Bredon Hill’ no doubt had the sound of change-ringing in mind, their work does not evoke or describe its specific patterns, although George Butterworth’s musical setting of ‘On Bredon Hill’ does capture it to some extent. Bells are a regular theme in the poetry of John Betjeman, who comes closer to reflecting change-ringing specifically and in one poem, ‘Bristol’, even speaks of ‘the mathematic pattern of a plain course on the bells’. In his Collected Works the pattern is printed below the poem.

John Betjeman’s poem ‘Bristol’ with  the pattern of a bell ringing method printed at the end
Bells Betjeman X.989-6365. Caption: ‘Bristol’, from John Betjeman’s Collected Poems. 3rd ed. (London, 1970) X.989/6365.

The most famous literary bells in fiction are probably those in Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective novel, The Nine Tailors . Crime writers seem to have an affinity with ringing – it features in two of M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin books and an episode of the long running TV series Midsomer Murders – but Sayers’ novel captures it most (if not entirely) accurately, and ingeniously uses the pattern of a ringing method as the basis of a cipher that is a key to the mystery.

A recent British Library acquisition uses ringing methods in an equally ingenious and intriguing – though very different – way. The American author, poet and critic Randall Couch, like Sayers, was fascinated by this ‘tradition of algorithmic composition’ and the result was the unusual and beautiful book Peal (RF.2021.a.5), published in an edition of 300 copies by the Tipperary-based Coracle Press in 2017.

Couch uses the construction of various ringing methods to play with English syntax. The books starts with a ‘Cento’, a poem composed from other writers’ lines. The lines Couch uses, chosen from a wide range of literary, philosophical, musicological and scientific sources, almost all relate in some way to bells, numbers, pattern, syntax or melody. He then turns each line into a ringing method by moving the words as the bells move in the chosen method, creating juxtapositions that range from the poetical to the nonsensical. In keeping with the conventions of writing out ringing methods, the path of the last word in the original line, corresponding with the heaviest working bell in the method, is printed in blue, and the first word, corresponding to the lightest bell (the treble, which may follow a different pattern to the other bells) is printed in red.

Here’s a simple example, using the line ‘Every text is a cento’ from French linguist François Rastier’s Meaning and Textuality. The method is Plain Hunt on five bells, the same as the ‘plain course’ quoted in Betjeman’s ‘Bristol’, although Couch better follows convention by writing the rows out in horizontal rows rather than vertical columns.

Sentence ‘Every text is a cento’ written in the pattern of Plain Hunt on Five Bells
Plain Hunt on Five Bells from Randall Couch’s Peal, (RF.2021.a.5). Image from PEAL by Randall Couch, published by Coracle Press, Copyright 2017 Randall Couch

For a work that plays with ideas of syntax and meaning, an obvious line for Couch’s cento is Noam Chomsky’s famous example of a grammatically correct but semantically nonsensical sentence, ‘Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’. Couch turns this into a plain course of Grandsire Doubles ‘Grandsire’ is the name of the method, and ‘Doubles’ means it is being rung on five bells. (You can read more about how methods are named here.)

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously’ written in the pattern of Grandsire Doubles
Grandsire Doubles from Randall Couch’s Peal. Image from PEAL by Randall Couch, published by Coracle Press, Copyright 2017 Randall Couch

While Plain Hunt and Grandsire are among the easiest methods and the first that ringers tend to learn, Couch also uses more complex ones which he says were ‘chosen with an eye to the associations created by juxtaposing their names with the corresponding opening lines.’ Here is a line from a work by the earliest writers on change-ringing, John Duckworth and Fabian Stedman, set to a course of London Delight Bob Triples.

‘And every bell is a Wit’s Common-wealth’ written in the pattern of London Delight Bob Triples
London Delight from Randall Couch’s Peal. Image from PEAL by Randall Couch, published by Coracle Press, Copyright 2017 Randall Couch

Couch also includes the method that bears Stedman’s name with a quotation from Gertrude Stein, ‘Money is what words are.’ Among the less familiar methods he uses are Bobby Dazzler Little Alliance Major (to Alan Turing’s words ‘Machines take me by surprise with great frequency’), Titanic Triples (John Cage’s ‘Every something is an echo of nothing’) and some with deliberately amusing names such as Ursa Minor (poet John Cleveland’s ‘I like not tears in tune’).

Couch’s cento and its variations may not have the instantly catchy appeal of Tennyson’s, Housman’s or Betjeman’s poems, but they are a unique and fascinating reflection on the structures of both change-ringing methods and the English language itself, with a lasting appeal for anyone with an interest in either.

27 April 2023

Jane Austen and the Georgian Social Whirl of Bath

Running now for its second year, the British Library and National Trust have collaboratively designed a doctoral fellowship programme which aims to examine the connections between each organisation’s collections. Starting in January 2023, I have had the pleasure of taking the role of Doctoral Fellow on a project which examines the importance of public entertainment spaces, such as Bath’s Assembly Rooms, within Georgian society. The project’s primary aim has been to analyse literature and other paper-based ephemera, found in the British Library and National Trust’s extensive catalogues, in order to gain insight into Austen’s society and, more widely, social life in Bath.

During the eighteenth century, Bath was a place for both the fashionable and the infirm, a city which enticed people for both their healing waters and lavish entertainments. Bath became synonymous with entertainment. Whilst there was an abundance of scheduled entertainments such as plays, balls and musical concerts, the biggest entertainment of all was that of the spa town’s social theatre.

Whether you believe that Austen liked or loathed Bath, the city most certainly had an impact on her life and writings. In fact, there isn’t a single one of Austen’s six major novels which does not mention Bath in some capacity, whether by using the city as the main theatrical stage for Northanger Abbey (1817), or a brief mention of Mr Wickham ‘enjoy[ing] himself in London or Bath’ in Pride and Prejudice (1813). The city features most prominently in Austen’s posthumously published novels, Persuasion (1817) and Northanger Abbey. The treatment of Bath within these texts receives two opposing perspectives: one of wonder and excitement of a small-town girl going to the “Big City” in Northanger Abbey, contrasted with the view of Bath as a faded metropolis, a place in which Anne Elliot rather reluctantly goes to join her family in Persuasion.

Whilst the city attracted fashionable society, this very social class became a prime target for criticism and ridicule, as seen in satirical prints of the period. Found within the British Library collection is an 1858 bound book which includes a series of satirical prints by Thomas Rowlandson titled, The Comforts of Bath, first published in 1798. The twelve-plate series depicts different entertainments within the city, including both a concert and dancing, waters being drunk at the Pump Room, and public gaming.

Nineteenth-century black and white print depicting a large ball room with high ceilings and chandeliers. Figures are seen both dancing and in seated positions. Accompanying text is visible at the bottom of the page.
Christopher Anstey, plate ten from The Comforts of Bath. Designed and etched by Rowlandson, with versification by Christopher Anstey, Esq, 1858. British Library, shelfmark 1267.f.21.

Accompanying each print is an extract from Christopher Anstey’s New Bath Guide, first published in 1766. The title of Anstey’s work is fairly misleading. Instead of an instructional piece recommending the latest and most fashionable of Bath’s hotspots, the publication is written in a series of satirical, anapaestic poems, following the lives of the fictional Blunderhead family. In fact, it’s not really a guidebook at all. Here, the combining of both text and print merges the visual and textual, presenting two very similar satiric critiques of Georgian Bath society.

The title page of Christopher Anstey's The New Bath Guide, depicting full title and publisher details.
Christopher Anstey, The new Bath guide: or Memoirs of the B-r--d family. In a series of poetical epistles.1766. British Library, shelfmark 11633.c.5.

Looking closely at plate ten of Rowlandson’s The Comforts of Bath, we can see a multitude of activity happening in this concert setting. Whilst there are audience members intently watching the performance, many can be seen having conversations between themselves, staring off into the distance, fidgeting, and even having a light snooze. The role of the audience in Georgian entertainment spaces was vastly different to what we experience today. Whilst we are instructed to turn off the distractions that are mobile phones, and talking through movies is often met with a passive aggressive “shush”, eighteenth-century entertainment etiquette was a little different. Speaking of the experience of the theatregoer, Jim Davis states, ‘[r]efreshments, discussion of the performance in progress, casual conversation, a little ogling and flirting, were all part of the experience’ (Davis, p.520).

Nineteenth-century black and white print depicting a concert in an ornate, Georgian style hall. Orchestra and singer are visible, performing to a tightly packed audience. Accompanying text is visible at the bottom of the page.
Christopher Anstey, plate two from The Comforts of Bath. 1858. British Library, shelfmark 1267.f.21.

The role of the audience member, or spectator, was a topic which many artists like Rowlandson adopted in their work. Found within the British Library collection, George Cruikshank’s Pit, Boxes & Gallery, published in 1834, illustrates a lively theatre audience split across three levels. Like Rowlandson’s The Concert, the print shows a variety of comic characters, all engaged in an array of activities, from conversing and drinking to fighting for space in the upper gallery.

Colourful print of a tightly packed entertainment space, split into the pit, boxes and gallery space.
George Cruikshank, Pit boxes & Gallery, from My Sketch Book, 1834, British Library, shelfmark C.59.d.5.

This visualisation of spectatorship, created by artists such as Cruikshank and Rowlandson, often portrays an audience whose full attention is rarely directed at the entertainment in question (Davis, p.520). Consequently, the audience are presented as active spectators as opposed to passive ones, playing a vital role within the experience of Georgian entertainments. This active participation of the audience is therefore instrumental to what we consider Georgian entertainment. It is not just the physical activity of dancing, acting or singing which creates entertainment, but the individuals who both watch and participate in not just the concert halls but also the social theatre of Bath. For is the spa town itself not simply a dramatic stage for the wealthy and fashionable to “perform” their celebrity? Bath therefore acted as a stage which facilitated the gossipy tête-à-têtes of the fashionable elite.

The theatre and concert halls were not the only spaces which society performed spectatorship; the Pump Rooms were a place which people frequented in order to see and be seen. In chapter three of Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the narrator describes the daily rituals of Bath life:

"Every morning now brought its regular duties – shops were to be visited; some new part of the town to be looked at; and the pump-room to be attended, where they paraded up and down for an hour, looking at everybody and speaking to no one." (Northanger Abbey, p.25).

Austen paints a picture of a society which, as Kathryn Sutherland states, is ‘continually watching’.  The Pump Room was not only a place for healing, where curative waters would be taken for those in ill-health, but also a space to be seen performing your correct, societal role. The presentation of oneself within society was also visible through newspaper announcements, evident in Austen’s Persuasion where the arrival of the Elliot’s wealthy cousins, the Dalrymples, are announced in the paper:

"The Bath paper one morning announced the arrival of the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and her daughter, […] for the Dalrymples (in Anne’s opinion, most unfortunately) were cousins of the Elliots; and the agony was how to introduce themselves properly." (Persuasion, p.139).

Seen in both extracts, Austen not only exposes this societal “peacocking”, but also subtly hints at the absurdity of social formalities, for if agony is caused in trying to talk to one’s own relations, it must be near impossible to socialise with anyone else.  

Taking part in the social display of oneself within these public environments, both created and fed into a culture of gossip. To be spoken about, to be known, to have a respected reputation, were all a means to tap into the benefits of the celebrity culture of the time. For in Georgian Bath, gossip was the ultimate form of entertainment. Similar to the role of audiences, gossip was about active and passive spectatorship. Whilst the trading of gossip provided plenty of entertainment for consumption, members of these social classes also stared as the entertainers themselves, both being the subjects of such gossip and through their social appearance on this “stage”. This gossip culture is also an intrinsic feature of Austen’s writings. Catherine Morland’s naivety in Northanger Abbey is apparent when she struggles to know whose gossip to listen to, or in the case of John Thorpe, his lies and trickery. In a bid to thwart Catherine’s plans with the well-mannered Henry and Eleanor Tilney, John spreads misinformation of the Tilney’s whereabouts in order to secure Catherine’s time for himself.

Thus, Bath was a town of both active and passive entertainment. Bath’s amusements existed on the stage and in the audiences of plays and concerts, but also in equal measure in social spaces such as the Pump Room and tea rooms. People delighted in the scripted entertainments of the stage and ballroom, as well as taking part in the unscripted social theatre. Thus, public entertainment spaces in Bath were vital for the facilitation of not only scheduled entertainment but also the social displays of wealth and importance. It would therefore be remiss to define Bath’s public entertainment spaces as simply the sites of formal activities. The popular resort town functioned as a theatrical backdrop for the social circus that was the Georgian elite, ultimately providing a fashionable space to see and be seen.

By Joanne Edwards, Doctoral Fellow with the British Library and National Trust.



Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey, 1817, (London: Penguin Classics edition, 2011)

Austen, Jane, Persuasion, 1817, (London: Penguin Classics edition, 2011)

Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey, 1817, (London: Penguin Classics edition, 2011)

Austen, Jane, Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. by Deirdre Le Faye (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)

Davis, Jim, ‘Looking and Being Looked At’, Theatre Journal, 2017, 69. 4, pp. 515-53

Sutherland, Kathryn, ‘Jane Austen and social judgement’, Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians, <www.bl.uk>

26 April 2023

In Memory of Murray Melvin

We were very saddened last week to learn of the death of the actor, director and archivist, Murray Melvin (1932-2023) on the 14th April. Murray had a long association with the Library over a number of years and we were always grateful to him for sharing his knowledge and reminiscences with us, as well as being such good company. With that in mind we would like to celebrate Murray’s life and work today and in particular to highlight the way in which he worked to create and preserve the archive of the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

Murray had a long and distinguished career including time spent in the theatre company, Theatre Workshop, under the visionary director, Joan Littlewood. Murray joined the company in 1957, as a student and ASM (Assistant Stage Manager…or ‘dogsbody’ as Murray called himself). He went on to play Geoffrey in A Taste of Honey (both on stage and film), and acted in other significant Littlewood productions The Hostage, The Quare Fellow and Oh! What a Lovely War. His later career included films such as Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Alfie with Michael Caine, and appearances in television series including Torchwood and The Avengers.

Photo depicts Murray Melvin standing in front of a van. He is looking at the camera with a wry smile and his arms folded
Murray Melvin supervising the Theatre Workshop Archive being transported by van to the British Library in 2020. Photo with kind permission of Karen Fisher

Theatre Workshop remained important to Murray for the rest of his life and he was particularly concerned about the legacy of the company and its director, Joan Littlewood. Littlewood’s company had developed out of agit-prop theatre in the 1930s, formalised itself as Theatre Workshop in 1945 before settling permanently in Stratford in 1953. As well as preserving this history, Murray also cared a great deal about the history of the Theatre Royal building and of its location in Stratford, East London, and what the theatre symbolised and meant to the local community. 

Over the course of thirty years, Murray set about gathering archive material that was already held at Theatre Royal bringing it together in Littlewood’s own office and re-housing and listing it.

But he didn’t stop there. Melvin also used his extensive contacts, and an advert in the paper, to encourage others with relevant material to consider donating it to him at the theatre. It is a fitting tribute to the love and trust that people placed in Murray that so many were willing to do so.

The archive that Melvin created is remarkable—from the history of the building in the late 19th century, to a record of every production all the way to 2017.

Photo shows the Theatre Workshop Archive arranged on shelves onsite at the British Library, it is arranged neatly in flat blue boxes
The Theatre Workshop Archive in its new home at the British Library

In 2020, the Theatre Workshop Archive was donated to the Library with the support of Murray, the theatre and its trustees. It was a great source of pleasure and pride to Murray that the archive should come to the Library and it is a generous gift that the Library is incredibly grateful for.

The archive joins Joan Littlewood’s personal archive, which was acquired in 2015 from her estate. Together these archives contain over 1000 files and offer an unparalleled insight into Theatre Workshop and the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

Murray Melvin was one of those people that it was always a pleasure to work with. His dedication as the archivist of the Theatre Workshop Archive was tireless, but it was also joyful and captivating. He not only brought together the archive but it clearly gave him great pleasure to see others using it and he was always ready to tell a rich and colourful story on any aspect that caught interest, as well as assist curators and colleagues at the British Library in any query they might have. We will miss him greatly and always remember him fondly.

In 2022, Murray began recording a Life Story with the British Library. This complete oral history of his life began from his earliest years, through the course of his life and career, and, at the point of the last recording reached over eleven hours. It will no doubt be another great resource for researchers wishing to know more about Murray’s life and work and 20th century British theatre more widely.