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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.

06 August 2021

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08 July 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 June 2021

Stories and Pictures: Women in Victorian Society

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph of Anne Bronte's headstone overlooking Scarborough

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further Reading:

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

The Tate Gallery page for Nameless and Friendless 

23 June 2021

Olive Schreiner: Feminism from the Cape Colony

By Jessica Gregory, Curatorial Support Officer for Modern Manuscripts, 1601 – 1950. The British Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, explores the history of women’s rights activism and is open now.

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


Olive 1

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

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

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


New_olive 2

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

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

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

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

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

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Gladstone Papers, Add MS 44767, f.140.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Further Reading:

Add MS 43908, Dilke Papers

Add MS 70571 - Add MS 70572, Havelock Ellis Papers

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

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

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