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28 posts categorized "Printed books"

05 August 2020

Imagining Aliens and Looking for the Invisible: Imperialist Legacies in Science Fiction

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by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. 

Science Fiction can’t help but look backwards. Whether flying starships across the galaxy or warring with exotic extra-terrestrials, it struggles to escape the gravitational pull of the nineteenth century and the imperialist, expansionist logic from which it emerged. This shouldn’t surprise us. How could a genre which deals in technologically driven exploration, reportage of distant cultures, and ideas of the ‘alien’ escape such a pull? In many ways, nineteenth century exploration narratives which trade on their own realism actually pre-empt the bombast of modern and contemporary sci-fi: “In the same way one of you might believe there are inhabitants in the planet Mars”, wrote Conrad in Heart of Darkness — himself drawing upon the Dark Africa trope established by writers like Henry Morton Stanley in Through the Dark Continent (1878) —“We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet". Where does such a comparison lead? In the science fiction anthology Future Earths: Under African Skies (1993), editor Mike Resnick asserts that “while Africa has lost some of the mystery and romance […] it now provides thoroughly documented examples of some of the most fascinating people and societies any writer, searching for the new and the different and alien, could hope to find”. Resnick asks us at last, “is there anyone out there who still thinks Africa isn’t alien enough?” We might answer either way, depending on our personal background, but to imagine that Africa is fundamentally and not merely contingently 'alien' is surely a retrograde move for anthology purporting to show us 'Future Earths'.

Illustration titled 'Stanley safe out of the dark continent' commemorating Henry Morton Stanley's safe return from Africa, the 'Dark Continent' Shelfmark: PENP.NT152

Illustration titled 'Stanley safe out of the dark continent' commemorating Henry Morton Stanley's safe return from Africa, the 'Dark Continent' Shelfmark: PENP.NT152

It might seem obvious, but the ‘exotic’ is a feeling, not a quality inherent to any place, object or people. Everything is local and quotidian to some people and exotic to others. This is why there are two rivers in Heart of Darkness: the Thames, which is explicitly named and known, and the Congo, which is not and so remains radically unknowable. Through use of a frame-narrative, Conrad takes his readers on a journey through ‘Darkest Africa’ whilst bobbing quietly on a boat anchored securely to a London dock. This is the promise of all travel narratives, and possibly the promise of most science-fiction too; travel from the comfort of your own chair, or culture. “Nothing is easier for a man”, Conrad's narrator tells us, “than to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames. The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea”. London’s great river is readable — dense with nouns, famous names and recorded battles. The unnamed Congo is its shadow, “like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest”. 

Pages from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad as it first appeared in Blackwoods Magazine 1899 Shelfmark: P.P.6202.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad as it first appeared in Blackwoods Magazine 1899
Shelfmark: P.P.6202.

 

But despite Conrad's imagination, the Congo is not a deeper past, it is not "the earliest beginnings of the world", but rather a coexisting — yet different— present. This idea of relativity is one that Chinua Achebe brings to the fore in his highly influential essay on Conrad's novella where, re-calling a discussion with a young American student about Africa, Achebe wonders why this young man “is obviously unaware that the life of his own tribesmen in Yonkers, New York, is full of odd customs and superstitions and, like everybody else in his culture, imagines that he needs a trip to Africa to encounter those things”. The Thames is a strange river too. Reading Achebe, I was struck by memories of my time spent working on the Library’s exhibition, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land (2018), where I was tasked with selecting oral history recordings of Caribbean migrants newly arrived in Britain (I wrote a blog about it). Among other things, speakers described their disappointment at Buckingham Palace’s drab grey exterior, how they thought houses with chimneys were factories, how they were disgusted by the truly alien practice of eating fish and chips from newspaper.

Watch the Windrush Community Project, a partnership project between the British Library, Caribbean Social Forum and Chocolate Films. Inspired by the British Library exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, members of the Caribbean Social Forum share their stories of journeying from the Caribbean to the UK.

Science fiction offers opportunities to explore these ideas of cultural relativity. Ursula K. Le Guin, for example, was keenly aware of the arbitrary relationship between the exotic and the everyday. She writes about her parents’ (both anthropologists) relationship with Ishi, the last known member of the Native American Yahi people from present-day California. Like Conrad’s Congo, Ishi has no true name, owing to a deeply held belief among his people that names were sacred and could only be shared by a third-party. As the last of his tribe, he took on the default name of the Yahi word for ‘man’ — Ishi. Le Guin describes learning about how her native California was made and unmade, named and unnamed by its successive inhabitants:

    What the Whites perceived as a wilderness to be ‘tamed’ was in fact better known to human beings than it has ever been     since: known and named. Every hill, every valley, creek, canyon, gulch, gully, draw, point, cliff, bluff, beach, bend, good     sized boulder, and tree of any character had its name, its place in the order of things. An order was perceived, of which the     invaders were entirely ignorant. Each of those names named, not a goal, not a place to get to, but a place where one is: a     center of the world. There were centres of the world all over California.

Questions about relative ‘centres’ have proved difficult but crucial for understanding science-fiction writing across time. Early on, as with the first chapter of H.G Wells’s seminal novel The War of the Worlds (1898), readers were called upon to engage in a kind of sympathetic de-centring, to ‘remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought […] upon its own inferior races’, and question whether we are, ‘such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?’ These kinds of rhetorical questions have not proved particularly useful in hindsight. In some ways they demand too little of us — they keep the strict hierarchies intact and merely add one extra rung on the ladder above us, without ever questioning the logic of inferiority and superiority itself, or ever forcing us to engage with the intricacies and complexities of any particular cultural difference. Even if we assume that Wells’s reference to ‘inferior races’ is loaded with enough irony that we can look past it (and I’m not saying we should), what we’re left with is a call to engage with injustice as solely motivated by fear: it could be us in the inferior position next, so our responsibility as a benevolent caretaker is to be kind-hearted, just incase.

Illustration: La guerre des mondes. Traduit de l'anglais par Henry-D. Davray. édition illustreé par Alvim-Corrêa   Shelfmark: L.45/3317

La guerre des mondes. Traduit de l'anglais par Henry-D. Davray. édition illustreé par Alvim-Corrêa  
Shelfmark: L.45/3317

 

Something else is at work in War of the Worlds too. There’s a strange kind of pleasure that that comes from witnessing the purely aesthetic obliteration of civilisation in fiction. Contemporary disaster movies — of which the modern re-imagining of War of the Worlds (2005) starring Tom Cruise is one —demonstrate this more clearly than any other medium. But even when skyscrapers are toppled, nuclear bombs are set off, and martians attack, not everything is destroyed. What’s left over is often more revealing than what’s lost. In J.G Ballard’s novel The Drowned World (1962), for instance, it is with the crew’s encounter with the submerged Leicester Square in the final chapters — exclaiming “But it’s all so hideous. I can’t believe that anyone ever lived here. It’s like some imaginary city of Hell” — that the decentring takes place. What survives beyond this drowned world are racial hierarchies and animalistic descriptions that call back to science fiction's origins. Big Caesar, a pilot for the protagonist Strangman, is variously described as a “huge humpbacked negro” a “grotesque parody of a human being”, and a “giant hunch-backed mulatto”. Should we believe that these descriptors, hierarchies and stereotypes are so fundamental that they can survive the end of the world as we know it?

Typescript draft of The Drowned World, by J. G Ballard

Typescript draft of The Drowned World, by J. G. Ballard © J. G. Ballard. Reproduced by permission of the J. G. Ballard Estate. All rights reserved. You may not use this work for commercial purposes and the copyright holder must be credited. Shelfmark: Add MS 88938/3/4

For black science fiction writers there is often frustration at this lack of imagination; exasperation that, as Charles R. Saunders writes “A literature that offered mainstream readers an escape route into the imagination and, at its best, a window to the future could not bestow a similar experience for black and other minority readers”. Recent efforts to collect and anthologise black science fiction have gone some way into helping us to interrogate these failures further — and to gesture towards ways in which they might be addressed. Unlike the aforementioned anthology, Future Earths: Under African Skies (1993) which took the idea of Africa as its exotic object, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000) is an example of a contemporary anthology which attempts to amplify the voices of the African diaspora themselves, as subjects.

Front cover for Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From the African Diaspora (Grand Central Press, 2000)
Front cover for Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From the African Diaspora (Grand Central Press, 2000)

Other stories take on more personal concerns, especially in regards to the body as a highly politicised site of resistance and compliance. In Nalo Hopkinson’s ‘Ganger (Ball Lightning)’ (2000), for instance, the two main characters experiment with the use of a new kind of sex-toy wet-suit which is sold as ‘consensual aid to full body aura alignment’ but is dismissed as ‘Psychbabble’ and produces only a ‘dampened sense of touch […] like being trapped inside your own skin, able to sense your response to stimuli but not to feel when you had connected with the outside world.” After a terrifying ordeal where the suits become autonomous, it is only after they’re destroyed — building to a the moment of tenderness and clarity which concludes the story — that the characters can finally stop ‘talking around stuff rather than about it" and that ‘blackness’ is finally acknowledged, only to be embraced, ending in a moment of real, suit-less ‘touch’. Octavia E. Butler’s contribution, ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’ (1987) is a strange kind of love story too, where a genetic ‘abnormality’ consigns its sufferers to a life of institutionalisation and self-destruction and the two protagonists — both of whom suffer from the condition — find their place among the sick, administering care.

Butler’s fascination with fatalism and genetics is, as she explains in the epigraph, no accident. The attention, complexity and tenderness with which she treats such questions, though, emerges from an awareness of the pernicious ways in which these concepts can be used and a determination to illustrate ways out of their seemingly incontrovertible bind. In this way Butler’s story is typical of Dark Matter as an anthology that revels in its own unwillingness to offer conclusions; that seeks to forego thematic and stylistic consistency in favour of variety, imagination and possibility. If the travel narratives of the nineteenth century endeavoured to chart, describe and report back on the exotic — to make it known to us in our own terms — Dark Matter, as the title suggests, is about gaps and invisible forces; about the strangeness that’s everywhere and that holds everything together. It's not a contradiction to say that science fiction can do that too.

13 July 2020

Blazing a trail for Black British writing: Jacaranda's Twenty in 2020

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It seems fitting to open our series on small publishers who make the work of Black writers central to their mission by featuring the first publishing house to commit to publishing 20 titles by 20 Black British writers in one year.  This initiative aims to amplify the voice of Black Britons as valued members of British culture and society and to increase the range and presence of work by diverse writers. The books include adult fiction, nonfiction and poetry.  The publisher is London-based Jacaranda Books, who have just picked up the British Bookseller Award for Best Small Publisher 2020.

Leopard's Gaza

Through the Leopard's Gaze, by Njambi McGrath.

Jacaranda Books is an independent publishing house that aims to create a platform for under-represented voices from a wide cultural heritage, but with a particular focus on works related to Africa, the Caribbean and the Diaspora. It was founded in January 2012 by Valerie Brandes. In an interview with literature website Afrikult, Brandes spoke of her desire “to revive and add to the rich tradition of black female publishing in the UK [and] to honour and continue the tradition of black publishers who came before us, figures such as Margaret Busby and Verna Wilkins.”   Valerie Brandes placed her publishing work in the same context when she spoke to 5 News recently about why diverse literature is important to tackle racism.

Referring to two inspirational figures in black British publishing, Valerie Brandes is signalling Jacaranda’s aim to make change through publishing and to continue a tradition of collective activism.

As the founding editor of Allison & Busby in 1967, Ghana-born Margaret Busby has long been a pioneer of Black British publishing. Last year she edited 'New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent', as a follow up to the original anthology she compiled in 1992. Born in Grenada and living in London, Verna Wilkins is the author of a wide range of picture books and biographies for young people, including ‘The Life of Stephen Lawrence’. Verna Wilkins and Margaret Busby worked together to establish Independent Black Publishers, a trade association aiming to increase the impact of progressive Black publishers within UK publishing.

Jacaranda’s all-women staff includes Jazzmine Breary as sales, publicity and marketing manager. Jazzmine has been part of Jacaranda’s story since it began, and she was among those who spoke at the Library’s Bringing Voices Together networking event in 2017.  She has been named as one of The Bookseller’s ‘Rising Stars of 2020’.  The Bookseller notes Breary’s involvement in all aspects of developing and defining Jacaranda’s list, ethos and brand identity.  At the British Library, Jazzmine Breary spoke about the way black writers are often pigeon-holed by mainstream publishers. She has noted too that although Jacaranda may be driven by positive aims and passion, that’s not enough to sell books.  The quality of the writing is the key to Jacaranda’s success, and has never been compromised by its commitment to inclusivity.

Butterfly Fish

The Butterfly Fish, by Irenosen Okojie

If one thing stands out about Jacaranda, it is the wide range of books on offer.  That range stretches from award-winning novels of writers like Irenosen Okojie to the contemporary honest and emotional love stories of Maame Blue and Frances Mensah Williams.

Jacaranda has also published translated fiction such as 'Seven Stones' by Venus Khoury-Ghata, the Man Booker International Prize-listed 'Tram 83' by Fiston Mwanza Mujilaand, and 'A Girl Called Eel' by Ali Zamir, which was gained the English Pen Translates Award.  Books such as 'The Marrow Thieves' by Cherie Dimaline are aimed at young adult readers.

Tram 83

Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Beyond fiction, Jacaranda’s list includes history and biography, from Stephen Bourne’s fascinating study of the life of jazz and caberet singer and actress Evelyn Dove, to the memoir of feminist and activist Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith, ‘The Space between Black and White’.

Screen Shot 2020-07-13 at 15.33.57

The Space between Black and White, by Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith

Jacaranda also published Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin narrated alternately by Trayvon’s parents Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin.  Paramount’s award-winning documentary television series was based largely on this book.

Where mainstream publishers tend to avoid risks by sticking to what they know, smaller publishers such as Jacaranda play a vital role in showing that there is a market for diverse fiction.  Offering a range of books of different styles allows Jacaranda to cater for readers with very different interests and tastes. Readers may find recognition in these stories or they may be challenged by encountering the individual dimension of shared and troubled histories connecting Britain and Africa. Either way, these are books that entertain, forge understanding, and make a difference. 

The books featured here are available in bookshops or direct from Jacaranda.

In the coming weeks we will continue to cast a spotlight on small and independent publishers with a focus on black writers and other writers of colour in order to aid wider awareness of the quality and quantity of this work.

 

17 June 2020

‘For it was the middle of June’: Dalloway Day

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By Laura Walker, Lead Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts. Discover more about the British Library’s Virginia Woolf collections on Discovering Literature and find the three manuscript notebooks containing drafts of Mrs Dalloway on Digitised Manuscripts. See the Royal Society of Literature’s website for more information on their Dalloway Day events.

Virginia Woolf is perhaps best known for her ground breaking novel, Mrs Dalloway, which follows the events of a single Wednesday in June. The novel uses a stream of consciousness to follow individual characters inner thoughts and feelings. The two main characters, the socialite Clarissa Dalloway and the shell shocked First Wold War veteran Septimus Smith often provide mirrors of one another, reflecting concepts of sanity and insanity and life and death.

Photograh showing manuscript draft of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, here titled The Hours
Photograph of front cover of Virginia Woolf's notebook in which she wrote the first draft of Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51044 front cover and f.5

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

Unsurprisingly it took longer than a day for Woolf to write the novel. She wrote at least two drafts of Mrs Dalloway, originally called The Hours, in seven cloth bound notebooks. Three of these notebooks are now held at the British Library. Woolf kept a record of the dates on which she wrote particular sections of the drafts. The date on the first page of the first British Library notebook (Add MS 51044) is Wednesday 27 June 1923, and follows on from the draft in another notebook at the Berg collection at the New York Public Library.

Photograph showing manuscript draft of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, here titled The Hours

Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51045 f.113

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

The first notebook at the British Library begins with Peter Walsh, an old friend and flame of Clarissa’s walking in Westminster, which appears midway through the novel. This draft was completed over a year later on Thursday 9 October 1924 at 11.45 and runs into the second notebook (Add MS 51045) held at the British Library. Folio 113 is full of crossings out and changes to the text. It appears as though Woolf couldn’t get the ending quite right and, in this draft, it differs from the published version apart from the final line, ‘For there she was’.

Photograph showing manuscript draft of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, here titled The Hours

Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51045 f.114

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

Woolf begins the novel again on the next page, folio 114, 11 days later on 20 October. It opens with the socialite Clarissa Dalloway who is leaving her house to buy flowers in advance of a party she is hosting later in the day. She is in a buoyant mood and takes delight in the city of London and its occupants.

In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

Woolf herself loved London, it was her ‘beloved city’ and she enjoyed visiting the landmarks, parks and gardens. In a diary entry from 29 March 1940 she describes ‘walking along the Strand and letting each face give me a buffet’.

The Royal Society of Literature are using London as the theme for a couple of their Dalloway events. From 10am on 17 June they will launch ‘“There We Stop; There We Stand” with S. I. Martin – author, artist and founder of 500 Years of Black London walks – on an aural tour of London, from the National Portrait Gallery to Tottenham Court Road, exploring the black cultural heritage of Clarissa Dalloway’s footsteps, and touching on the lives of those whose portraits hang in the National Portrait Gallery.’

10am There We Stop; There We Stand: Exploring the black cultural history of London with S. I. Martin – an aural walking tour

‘”I love walking in London”, said Mrs Dalloway. “Really, it’s better than walking in the country."

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London under lockdown — or gradually easing lockdown — is very different to the bustling metropolis that Woolf described in the early 1920s. However, she would have known too well the experience of living through a pandemic; the Spanish Flu of 1918 was not a distant memory. In an article in The New YorkerMrs Dalloway is seen as ‘at least in part, a novel devoted to influenza’ and although not connected directly to the pandemic Clarissa is described to have fallen prey to the virus. The literary scholar Elizabeth Outka believes that any mention of influenza in the early 1920s must have been a reference to the pandemic of the Spanish Flu.

‘Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza)’

The situation today ‘puts Clarissa’s pleasure in traversing the city in a new light. So does reading it in the midst of our own pandemic, which has temporarily dissolved the busy urban scenes Woolf describes so lovingly throughout her book.’ In the next event at 2pm the Royal Society of Literature have joined with the Literary Hub, whose managing editor Emily Temple will host a Zoom based book-group to explore how Mrs Dalloway affects readers lives during this pandemic. It will explore themes of ‘solitude, PTSD, societal progress, and autonomy and freedom, Mrs Dalloway reflects much of many readers’ lives, and offers a lot for other readers to consider.’

2pm Literary Hub and RSL book club discussing Mrs Dalloway

Hosted by Literary Hub’s Emily Temple

‘Moments like this are buds on the tree of life.’ —Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

Most of the characters in Mrs Dalloway share their experiences of walking through the city. For Clarissa London is a playground and she has the wealth and the position to make the most of what the city can offer. However, Woolf uses the city to reflect Clarissa’s fading worth as an older woman, her loss of identity and the ‘gilded confinement’ of being ‘Mrs Richard Dalloway’.

Logo for LitHub

‘She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.’

Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth also explores London including a wander down the Strand, which she sees as an adventure. ‘For no Dalloways came down the Strand daily; she was a pioneer, a stray, venturing, trusting.’ The Dalloways wealth and privilege and the opportunities it brought was something many aspired to and could never achieve. ‘To many of her contemporaries, this ordinary day buying flowers and organising a party represented a freedom they could only hope for due to inequalities of class, gender and race.’

8pm The Pleasure of the Everyday – presented with Literary Hub, with authors Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and Kate Young, chaired by Literary Hub’s Emily Temple

‘Everything had come to a standstill’ —Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

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These themes will be considered in a Royal Society of Literature event at 8pm, which will chaired by the Literary Hub’s managing editor Emily Temple, with authors Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and Kate Young. They will also ‘explore the quotidian pleasures we’ve developed appreciation for since lockdown, how literature can support us in these confusing times, and how this experience compares to Clarissa Dalloway’s own cerebral journey’.

Photograph showing manuscript draft of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, here titled The Hours

Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51046 f.177v

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

Contained within the cloth bound notebooks are other works and articles by Woolf that sit at the end of the notebooks and between sections of Mrs Dalloway. The second notebook, (Add MS 51045) contains a short story for children called Nurse Langton's Golden Thimble. The other two notebooks contain passages from essays published in the Common Reader including 'The Pastons and Chaucer' and 'On not knowing Greek' as well as other articles and reviews.

First page of printed version of Street Haunting by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting (1930, San Francisco) Cup.510.pb.30

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Woolf believed that a ‘good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out’. ‘Perhaps as loved as her fiction and letters, Woolf’s essays guide their reader through considerations of equality, the importance of literature, health, and pleasure. Many readers have discovered or re-discovered Woolf’s essays during lockdown, finding in them inspiration and solace in uncertain times. In her essay “Street Haunting” Virginia Woolf noted, “we are no longer quite ourselves”, which takes on new meaning almost a century later, when essays still help us make sense of the world around us. Join writers Mona Eltahawy and Sinéad Gleeson in conversation with Charleston’s Susannah Stevenson at 6.30pm as they discuss the power of modern essay writing, the potential of the form to progress feminism, and the legacy of Virginia Woolf’s work.’

6.30pm The Common Reader in Uncommon Times with authors Sinéad Gleeson and Mona Eltahawy, chaired by Charleston’s Susannah Stevenson

‘A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out’—Virginia Woolf, ‘The Common Reader’

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Perhaps Woolf’s most famous essay is ‘A Room of One’s Own’, a key text in feminist literary criticism where she examines the educational, social and financial disadvantages women have faced throughout history. It contains Woolf’s famous argument that, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ – although Woolf describes this as ‘an opinion upon one minor point’, and the essay explores the ‘unsolved problems’ of women and fiction ‘to show you how I arrived at this opinion about the room and the money’. 

 

Photograph showing title page for first edition of A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (Hogarth Press 1929), Cup.410.f.577
© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

 

In the essay Woolf remarks upon the nature of female relationships, ‘Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen.  Sometimes women do like women.’ ‘Almost the entire body of Virginia Woolf’s writing – her novels, essays and letters –have been interpreted from a variety of queer perspectives, and her work has inspired many modern interpretations across film, dance and theatre.’ At 10pm BBC Radio 3 will air Free Thinking: ‘Queer Bloomsbury’, in which ‘presenter Shahidha Bari, authors Paul Mendez and Francesca Wade will discuss and debate Woolf’s legacy for modern queer writing, as well as lesser-known queer histories of Bloomsbury.’

10pm BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking: ‘Queer Bloomsbury’with authors Paul Mendez and Francesca Wade , chaired by Shahidha Bari

‘Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen.  Sometimes women do like women.”—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

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The full programme for the events on Dalloway as well as details on how to join in can be found on the Royal Society of Literature’s website.

 

 

14 February 2020

The Launderers

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a guest blog by Timothy Hawley, Ph.D, a retired psychologist who, for forty years, was the proprietor of the Contre Coup Press, an avocational private press located in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.A.

In today’s social network-obsessed world, the idea that a fascinating group of novelists, poets, dramatists, artists, actors and others could fly underneath the radar seems inconceivable. But in 1920s London, the situation was very different; public opinion and attention were directed and shaped by journalists and other powerful interests. Thus, the Bright Young People (aka Bright Young Things) — a group of well-connected, affluent young people whose exploits were breathlessly reported in the press and by one writer in particular, Evelyn Waugh — were, despite the attention they garnered, far from being the only game in town. Another group – less well-connected, less affluent, a bit older and a bit less flamboyant – were living parallel lives. This group called itself The Launderers, supposedly because they were committed to washing each other’s clean laundry in public, an apparent reference to their desire to promote, rather than denigrate, each other.

The group’s activities were recorded by Joanna Elder Giles, a young Australian woman and a member of a wealthy and influential family in her native country (the library at the University of Adelaide, for instance, is named after her grandfather). As a budding writer, Elder Giles wrote two books of poetry before coming to London in the early 1920s. She became acquainted with The Launderers through a friend, and quickly met one of the group’s members; her soon-to-be writing partner, Brian Hill, with whom she wrote mystery novels under the pseudonym of Marcus Magill. Joanna, who was known as “Jay,” began writing what she called The Laundry Book at the very beginning of her involvement with the Launderers, in the late fall of 1924, and continued writing this journal of the group’s activities until October 1, 1930, at which point the journal abruptly ends mid-sentence.  The group was centered around the theatre district in London’s West End, and they wrote and performed plays in small theatres and other private venues, most commonly in a restaurant called The Cutty Sark, which was a favored hangout of the Launderers. They wrote and produced a play at Elsa Lanchester’s famous The Cave of Harmony club, known for its bohemian and avant-garde entertainments, which almost proved to be disastrous, despite the fact that The Cave of Harmony was ostensibly a “private club” which generally made it immune from morals prosecutions (more about this incident later).

But they also partied – oh, how they partied. And their parties pulled in many others who might have been considered to be special guests of the Launderers, but who were not in attendance often enough to be considered to be in the inner circle. When only the “members” (notwithstanding the fact that there was no formal membership) were in attendance at a get-together, they called it a “Laundry.” They often held these “Laundries” at the home of Gilbert Beith, known as Hollywood, in Gomshall. The people who would have considered themselves to be “members” would include (in alphabetical order):

Gilbert Beith, an amateur actor, scoutmaster and writer, brother of Ian Hay.

Buena Bent, an actress who appeared on stage and in film during the 20s and 30s.

Antonia Earnshaw-Smith, advertising copywriter for Crawford’s, later to gain renown as the novelist Antonia White.

Joan Garstin, actress.

Joanna Giles.

Mary Grigs, journalist and writer.

George Harvey, solicitor.

Brian Hill, accountant and writer.

Naomi Jacob, actress.

Gladys Morris, actress.

Ben Pendred, son of Laura Pendred.

Laura Pendred, author and dramatist, writing under the pseudonym of Laura Wildig.

Loughnan Pendred, son of Laura Pendred.

Gwen “David” Powell, restauranteur.

Kathleen Stenning, artist.

Marjorie Young, actress.

Many, many others flit through the pages of The Laundry Book, some famous, some infamous, some little known. These include Meum Stewart, an actress who nearly caused catastrophe for Brian Hill (more on that later); Alick Schepeler, artists’ model and mistress of Augustus Johns; Joe Carstairs, at the time running an all-female taxicab company, and many others.

But perhaps the most remarkable person in the book is Antonia Earnshaw-Smith. Several of the Launderers first met her and her husband, Eric, while taking a holiday at Cassis sur Mer. She was brilliant, witty, bawdy and very flirtatious – a perfect fit for the Launderers. Upon returning to London, she became a regular with the group, and bailed out Brian Hill when he was about to be investigated for homosexual writings for a play at The Cave of Harmony (co-written by her).

Meum Stewart, who was to appear in the play, inadvertently left a copy of the script in a taxicab. The cab-driver read the script, finding it highly offensive, and turned it over to Scotland Yard, where it was assigned for investigation to Detective Inspector Jesse W. Keech, one of the top detectives in the organization. But Tony (as Antonia Earnshaw-Smith was called) went and met with Keech and somehow persuaded him to drop the investigation, much to the relief of the Launderers, who feted her with poems implying that she must have done something naughty with the famous detective to get him to call off the dogs.

Later, Jay became jealous of Tony’s relationship with Brian Hill, and Jay and Brian played a practical joke on Tony that backfired. Years later, Tony wrote out a list of men that she had had affairs with, and Brian’s name was on the list. However, it is highly unlikely that this “affair” was sexual. Tony’s first two husbands were gay, and she joked that she was the only woman who had been married twice and was still a virgin. Tony – and Jay as well – was a woman who was very attracted to gay men (Brian was gay, his partner being George Harvey), but only in an intense intellectual way. She was drawn to Brian’s wit, his intelligence, his interests and talents. Jay was also attracted to gay men, and may herself have been a lesbian, although that is purely conjecture.

But being a gay man in 1920s London was a very dangerous situation. Being “outed” in those days was likely to destroy a person’s life. Oddly enough, lesbians were in no danger from the law, supposedly due to Queen Victoria’s naïveté about the mechanics of sexual congress between women. So while many of the people in the Laundry book are gay or lesbian, this fact is only alluded to in regard to the women, since Jay was far too loyal and discreet to write anything down that might endanger her gay friends.

Many other events, large and small, are recounted in The Laundry Book, but the writing came to an end in 1930. It may be that the members were slowly drifting apart. Another possibility is that Jay’s interest in aviation drew her away from the group. She was issued a Pilot’s Certificate in July, 1930, and was one of only 40 women in England who owned their own planes.

The original manuscript of The Laundry Book is in the possession of The Ekstrom Library at the University of Louisville in the U.S.A. It is a remarkable object, made up of large typed sheets folded and sewn into signatures with yarn or string. It includes a large number of tipped-in items, including photographs, poems, clippings and much miscellaneous material, and is enclosed in a cloth clamshell box.

The copy now in the possession of The British Library reprints the entirety of the approximately 80,000 word manuscript and includes over 200 tipped-in items. However, it is not a type-facsimile. Rather, it a typographic interpretation, based on the printer’s whim (or whimsy). The book was printed in a limited edition of only 29 copies, with a 96-page companion volume providing context, explanation and additional information. It was entirely hand-set in metal type and printed on a hand-operated cylinder proof press.

Photographs of the Laundry Book and its Companion, now in the Library's possession.

Photographs of the Laundry Book and its Companion, now in the Library's possession. IMG 3
Photographs of the Laundry Book and its Companion, now in the Library's possession.
Photographs of the Laundry Book and its Companion, now in the Library's possession.

08 February 2019

P.G. Wodehouse in Translation

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by Rahul Bery, Translator in Residence at the British Library for 2018-19. The British Library’s Translator in Residence scheme, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), offers a translator the opportunity to become part of the British Library’s multilingual community of staff, readers and visitors for one year. The exhibition, P.G. Wodehouse: The Man and His Work, runs until February 24th. 

One thing I feel not sufficiently covered by the BL’s otherwise wonderful mini-exhibition on the life and works of P.G. Wodehouse, currently running in the treasures gallery, is his appeal beyond the Anglo-American world, both in English and in translation. Wodehouse’s popularity in India is well-known: a childhood friend of my father’s – and an avowed superfan of Jeeves and Wooster, Blandings & co – once recalled the sage advice given them by the English teacher at their Himalayan boarding school: “Want to write good English? Read P.G. Wodehouse!” But far less has been written about his appeal beyond the Anglosphere.

Initial research on Google revealed, among other things, a thesis by one Petronella Stille which was quite rightly concerned with the question of how Wodehouse’s Japanese translator, Morimura Tamaki, had  “adapted such…expressions such as Right ho’, ‘By Jove’, ‘Tinkerty Tonk’, ‘Dash it’ or ‘What ho’?”  Well, in case you are curious, the answer for the first example is ‘Yoshikita’. She also handily highlights some of the unique features of Wodehousian prose that make it so enchanting and absurd, and also difficult to translate, including my personal favourite, the ‘transferred epithet’, that is, the ‘strained forkful of salmon’, the ‘astonished cigarette’ falling from Bertie Wooster’s lips. Overall, she acknowledges both the heroic attempts of the translator whilst exploring in depth just what it is about this brand of humour that is so hard to recreate.

Inspired by this, I moved on to the BL catalogue to find out what translations there were in the collections, if any. Starting with a pre-1973 physical catalogue, I found a smattering of translations into Esperanto (La Princo kaj Betty), Italian (Jim di Piccadilly) Polish (Wielce zobowia̢zany Jeeves), and –in keeping with the Indian theme- Marathi, before finally finding some in a language I could understand, Portuguese.

Front cover of The front cover of Edmundo Paula Rosa's Portuguese translation of Leave it to Me (1938)

The front cover of Edmundo Paula Rosa's Portuguese translation of Leave it to Psmith (1938)

Isso é comigo! is the title of Edmundo Paula Rosa’s 1938 translation of Leave it to Psmith, originally published in 1923. From what I could tell, Rosa’s translation is fluid, and he seems to have had the skills to match not only the liveliness of the dialogue, but also the convoluted wit of Wodehouse’s descriptive prose. When translating Portuguese writing myself I often find myself marvelling at how the sentences can just go on and on, before then cursing the writer as I find myself torturously unpicking and reconstructing the sentences back into equally convoluted English. Perhaps, then, Portuguese is an equal match for Wodehouse’s opening, single-sentence paragraph:

“At the open window of the great library of Blandings castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.”

Rosa tackles this sentence admirably, adapting the wet sock simile, but preserving the structure of the sentence. But he leaves out ‘boneheaded’ entirely! And the quintessentially Wodehousian ‘Right ho!’ is paraphrased out of existence, leaving us with ‘Nesse caso, esta bem’ (“In that case, fine” or less literally, something like ‘As you see fit’). The meaning of ‘Right ho!’ in this context is more or less captured, but precious little else is. Rather interestingly, ‘your lordship’ is translated not into a Portuguese equivalent but into another English word, ‘milord’. One can only assume that for whatever the latter would have been more recognisable than the former to the Portuguese reader of 80 years ago.

There is, I’m sure, far more work to be done on this. But don’t believe people when they claim that Finnegans wake  or a similar tome is ‘untranslatable’. I suspect that even Joyce himself would have been flummoxed by ‘tinkerty tonk’!

01 February 2019

Creating Havana

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A guest blog by artist and designer Leslie Gerry. To coincide with the forthcoming evening Artists’ Books Now: América Latina, Gerry talks about his fascination with architecture, urban spaces and street life. He charts these interests into his artist book Havana, which was made by a process of painting and printing digitally. Read more about Leslie Gerry's work hereA copy of Havana is held at pressmark HS.74/2301 and can be consulted in the British Library Reading Rooms.

Illustration from title page of Havana

Arriving at Havana in the dark, we made our way from the airport through dimly lit streets to a hotel overlooking Central Park. The following morning, I emerged, with cameras, sketchbook and map in hand, into a bright sunlit chaotic street full of vintage American cars spewing out clouds of fumes and bicycle taxis shouting out for business.

 

Illustration from Havana showing man riding a motorcyle with Che Guevara graphic on wall

The first hurdle was coming to terms with the city, the topography, getting my bearings. It was daunting. I just started walking, trying to take it all in, gradually absorbing the atmosphere. The narrow streets of La Habana Vieja, the Old Town, colourful, vivacious, with crumbling tenements, colonial edifices and faded grandeur. A city with an earthy authenticity, full of contradictions. Cuban music would spill out onto the pavements from the many bars and cafes.

Illustration from Havana showing two men playing chess in street

I generally limit my trips to a new city from 2-3 weeks, as that first exposure to a place is so intense; with fresh eyes and heightened senses, you see things locals are often unaware of and that you will not notice on subsequent visits. I try to capture this intensity in my paintings. Walking an average of 14 miles a day, I use my camera to “take notes”, recording the colours, light, shadows and patterns of Havana for future reference, often revisiting many of the streets or buildings several times in a day to view the changing light and shade.

Gradually a narrative of the city develops; subjects and compositions begin to form in my mind: a book starts to take shape. At this point I can relax a little and even start sketching in the open, although I find this increasingly difficult with the attention it invites.

At the end of my stay I felt totally exhausted, having absorbed as much as possible, and could only look forward to returning home with memories in tow.

Back in my studio, a long process of going through my photographic notes and sketches, then a year of painting begins. With a stylus and Wacom tablet, I paint on the computer in Illustrator.  Working only with flat areas of colour and no tone, I “cut out” the shapes with the stylus, arranging them on different layers, creating a collage. In fact, I first began working this way years ago by cutting out sheets of coloured paper with scissors, similar to the way Matisse created his paper collages. Starting by sketching a composition in blocks of colour as I would have done painting in oils and using photos as reference only, I gradually build up the painting with darker areas first and then lighter shades. The paintings end up as digital files; vector images which can be reduced or enlarged to any size and are then printed with a flat bed UV ink jet printer on a hand or mould-made paper.

 

All three images reproduced with the kind permission of Leslie Gerry

15 December 2018

Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets Announce 2018 Winners

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By Imogen Durant, PhD Placement Student working on the library’s contemporary British poetry pamphlets and artists’ books.

On Tuesday 11th December the British Library hosted the 10th Awards Ceremony of the Michael Marks Awards.


Luke Thompson of Guillemot Press won the Michael Marks Publishers Award. Andrew Forster, who introduced the award, highlighted the meticulous craftsmanship and innovate design of Guillemot’s publications, which particularly impressed the judges.

 

MM1 resized
Luke Thompson giving his acceptance speech for the Publisher’s Award


Thompson highlighted the multisensory nature of the pamphlets that he produces when he explained that in addition to the unique look and rich texture, several of his pamphlets also have a distinctive smell, as their covers are made from the spent grain from a brewery.

Of And small  O at the Edge small
Of And, by Keith Waldrop, and O. At the Edge of the Gorge, by Martyn Crucefix, both published by Luke Thompson at Guillemot Press

PR won the illustration award for her artwork in Zi-Zi Taah Taah Taah: The Song of the Willow Tit, published by Wild West Press, with poems by Steve Ely. The illustration award was introduced and presented by Sir Nicholas Penny, who gave a convincing imitation of a willow tit when announcing the pamphlet’s title.

Carol Rumens won the Poetry Award for her pamphlet Bezdelki, published by The Emma Press. The poetry award was introduced by Sasha Dugdale, one of this year’s judges.
 

MM2 resized

Carol Rumens giving her acceptance speech for the Poetry Award

Bezdelki contains a series of elegies for Rumens’ late partner, Yuri Drobyshev. Rumens said that the pamphlet provided her with means of remembering Yuri, and allowed her to explore her own identity after his death.


In a poem entitled ‘Vidua’ (on p. 19), she says:

I wasn’t a bride
I wasn’t a wife.
I’m not a widow.

Rumens explained that the size of the pamphlet form provided a vehicle for her to capture the ‘Bezdelki’, or ‘small things’, such as a hat and an overcoat, which appear in these poems. Dugdale highlighted the strength of Rumens’ imagination and the breadth of the allusions in her poems, which Rumens demonstrates in this pamphlet by including poems inspired by Osip Mandelstam and one which is narrated in the voice of the Nubian Pharaoh Taharqa.
 

Bezdelki small

Bezdelki by Carol Rumens

The awards were presented by Lady Marks, who gave a warm personal introduction to the evening. She outlined the Michael Marks Charitable Trust’s aims of preserving art and the environment in the UK, and emphasized her belief in the poetry pamphlet as being vital form in the creative force of the country. Lady Marks also began the evening’s readings with some sonnets by her late husband, Lord Marks of Broughton, the founder of the Michael Marks Charitable Trust. 
Congratulations to Luke Thompson, Carol Rumens and PR, and to all of those shortlisted for the 10th Michael Marks Awards.

30 November 2018

Judges Announce Shortlist for 10th Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets: Library Celebrates Awards’ Anniversary

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by Imogen Durant, PhD Placement Student working on the Library’s Contemporary British collections of poetry pamphlets and artists’ books. The Library will be holding a poetry reading on the 10th December in celebration of the 10 year anniversary of the awards.  Poets include Christine de Luca, Omikemi Natacha Bryan, Charlotte Gann, Richard Scott and Phoebe Stuckes. You can read more about the event here.

The judging panel for the 2018 Michael Marks Awards have shortlisted five pamphlets and four publishers for the 10th anniversary of the awards. The judges were:

  • Sasha Dugdale, poet, translator and editor
  • Rachel Foss, head of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library
  • Declan Ryan, poet and critic
  • Sir Nicholas Penny, art historian

Photograph of collected pamphlets shortlisted for the Michael Marks poetry prize

Pamphlets shortlisted for the 2018 Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets

The judges commented on the diversity of the submissions they received, and shortlisted the following pamphlets:

  • Gina Wilson, It Was and It Wasn’t (Mariscat Press)
  • Rakhshan Rizwan, Paisley (The Emma Press)
  • Ian Parks, If Possible (Cavafy Poems) (Calder Valley Poetry)
  • Liz Berry, The Republic of Motherhood (Chatto & Windus)
  • Carol Rumens, Bezdelki (The Emma Press)

The judges highlighted the calibre of this year’s shortlist, praising Wilson’s “dry wit”, Rizwan’s “tonal sharpness” and Parks’ “musicality”. They felt that Berry’s poems had an “electric charge”, and commended Rumens’ “savage and wild but beautifully cadenced” work.

 Four publishers were also shortlisted for this year’s publishing award:

  • Bad Betty Press – Amy Acre
  • The Emma Press – Emma Wright
  • Guillemot Press – Luke Thompson
  • Tapsalteerie – Duncan Lockerbie

This shortlist includes both new publishers, such as Bad Betty Press, which was founded last year, and more established publishers, such as The Emma Press, which won the award in 2016.

Luke Thompson’s Guillemot Press is an example of a publisher which plays with the possibilities of the pamphlet form, while Duncan Lockerbie’s Tapsalteerie Press shows a commitment to eclecticism, highlighting the crucial space the pamphlet offers to new and emerging writers.

The winners of the poetry, publisher and illustration prizes will be announced at the awards ceremony at the British Library on 11th December. The winning poet and publisher will each receive £5000, and the winning illustrator will receive £1000.

The winning poet will also be invited on a residency at the Harvard Centre for Hellenic Studies in Greece in the spring of 2019.

The Contemporary British Publications team at the British Library have created a new pamphlet to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Michael Marks Awards.This pamphlet features poems from each of the previous winners of the award, many of which were written during the poet’s residency in Greece. The winners of the illustration award have produced artwork in response to three of the poems in this pamphlet.The Michael Marks Charitable Trust and The Eccles Centre for American Studies have generously supported the production of this pamphlet.

Please join us in what promises to be an exciting evening of poetry and reflections on the success of the first 10 years of the Michael Marks Awards.