English and Drama blog

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

6 posts categorized "Romantics"

24 August 2020

William Wordsworth: From This Green Earth

The year 2020 saw the 250th anniversary of the birth of the poet William Wordsworth who was born in Cockermouth, on the edge of the Lake District, on 7 April 1770. To mark this anniversary the British Library hosted a small exhibition on the poet and the role that the natural landscape and concept of ‘place’ played in his poetry. On display were Wordsworth’s original manuscript drafts, books connected with the poet and related artworks of places he visited. I wrote a blog to complement the opening on Untold Lives, which you can read here.

Sadly, due to the COVID-19 pandemic the British Library was forced to close the display and cancel the anniversary celebrations. Yet, as the exhibition closed, and the pandemic spread, the themes explored were gaining a renewed importance. Throughout his life Wordsworth found comfort and inspiration in the natural world. The grandeur and beauty of nature – especially the landscape of his native Lake District – exerted a strong influence on his writing, which he imbued with a powerful sense of place. As the world slowed into lockdown and households began to self isolate many began to rediscover that same solace offered by the countryside and the peace of the wilder spaces near their homes.     

Inspired by this, we have developed six podcasts that explore the importance of the natural world using the Wordsworth exhibition as a point of departure. The series takes us on a journey across continents, along rivers, through forests, and into the heart of London to explore what nature meant to William Wordsworth and what it means to us now. On this audio voyage into all things Wordsworth, we’ll explore the role that family, friendship and collaboration played in the poet’s life and how they led to some of the most enduring lines in English poetry. We’ll delve into the power and potency that the simple act of walking had for the Lake poet, as well as considering the idea of childhood and imagination that Wordsworth and other Romantics held in such high esteem. In the final two episodes we’ll look at the legacy of Wordsworth, starting with a personal exploration of his native Cumbria and moving outwards, to consider international and post-colonial legacies of his poetry and personal myth.   

This page contains the six-part podcast series and pairs each episode with related items from our archives, which we hope you’ll explore as you listen. For an alphabetical list of all the speakers involved in the series, please see the bottom of the blog.

Episode 1 - Nature

This episode explores the revolution Wordsworth prompted in social attitudes to nature and the appreciation of the natural world. We’ll look at how this shifted in the poet’s lifetime with the growing popularity and industrialisation of his native Lake District and then consider how this shift in attitude still feeds our relationship with wilderness and the local park. We hear from environmental journalist and broadcaster Lucy Seigle who invites us along to her local green space by way of the River Thames, where she finds a strong affinity with Wordsworth’s wife Mary. Alongside Lucy is a report from naturalist and writer Pradip Krishen who speaks to us from the Central Ridge nature reserve in New Delhi, India. We also hear music from poet and plant whisperer Jade Cuttle.

Lucy Seigle’s new podcast series ‘So Hot Right Now’ is about trying to change conversations around climate change.

Pradip Krishen’s best-selling book on the trees of Delhi is available to purchase online.

Jade Cuttle’s new album ‘Algal Bloom’ is available online and can be purchased from her website.

'Kendal and Windermere Railway: Sonnet' by William Wordsworth from the Carlisle Journal, 26 Oct. 1844. © Sourced from the British Newspaper Archive. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.

'Kendal and Windermere Railway: Sonnet' by William Wordsworth from the Carlisle Journal, 26 Oct. 1844. © Sourced from the British Newspaper Archive. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.

Episode 2 - Family

This episode focuses on the close family bonds in the Wordsworth household and shines a light on the vital literary and practical contributions of Wordsworth’s wife Mary and his sister Dorothy. It features artist and researcher Louise Ann Wilson who created an installation and series of walking performances inspired by Dorothy Wordsworth’s Rydale Journals and we hear from poet Hannah Hodgson who reads from a new collection that addresses the strains lockdown has placed on family life. Also featured is acclaimed poet and writer Ruth Padel, who untangles the web of relationships that fed into Wordsworth’s life and lyrics, drawing from her award-winning poetry on science, nature and music. 

Louise Ann Wilson’s installation at Dove Cottage can be viewed on her website. 

You can find Hannah Hodgson’s poetry on Twitter and Instagram @HodgsonWrites and her website.

Ruth Padel’s new collection of poems, an elegy to a lost mother, is entitled Emerald


'I wandered lonely as a cloud' the original manuscript sent by Wordsworth to the printer for his Poems, in Two Volumes, 1807. The British Library, Add MS 47864. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.

'I wandered lonely as a cloud' the original manuscript sent by Wordsworth to the printer for his Poems, in Two Volumes, 1807. The British Library, Add MS 47864. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.


Episode 3 - Walking

This episode looks at an activity that humans have engaged with for millennia – walking. As in Wordsworth’s day this simple act still prompts creative thought and can often provide tranquillity in times of stress. Explaining the science behind the creative power of walking is neuroscientist and psychologist Shane O’Mara. The episode also features the poet and musician Jade Cuttle and award-winning author Guy Stagg, whose first book The Crossway traces his hike from Canterbury to Jerusalem along the old pilgrim paths of Europe.

Shane O’Mara’s book In Praise of Walking is available to order online.  

Copies of Guy Stagg’s book The Crossway can be ordered from his website.

Tintern Abbey from Frederick Calbert, Four Views of Tintern Abbey, 1815. British Library, Maps.K.top.31.16.k.2. © Public Domain. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.

Tintern Abbey from Frederick Calbert, Four Views of Tintern Abbey, 1815. British Library, Maps.K.top.31.16.k.2. © Public Domain. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.

Episode 4 - Childhood

In this episode we are looking at the Romantic notion of childhood, a loose philosophy of youth that stirred a revolution in the history of ideas and is still being felt in our attitudes today. Tracing this revolution back to the texts and thinkers that initiated it, Jonathan Bate explores the ideas of William Blake, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Wordsworth. The episode also features emerging poets who have been directly influenced by Wordsworth’s thinking on youth and innocence as members of the Young Poets Network. Reflecting on their own relationships with Wordsworth through poetry will be Matt Sowerby and Hannah Hodgson, who are both embarking on their literary careers.

Jonathan Bate’s new biography Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World is available to order now.

You can read poems by Matt Sowerby at the Poetry Society’s website  and watch Matt perform his poem ‘Breadlines’.

You can find Hannah Hodgson’s poetry on Twitter and Instagram @HodgsonWrites and her website.

Autograph fair copy, with one correction, of 'A Poem of Childhood,' by William Wordsworth, 1842. British Library, Ashley MS 2264. © Public Domain.

Autograph fair copy, with one correction, of 'A Poem of Childhood,' by William Wordsworth, 1842. British Library, Ashley MS 2264. © Public Domain.

Episode 5 - Local Legacy


This episode includes a conversation with Melvyn Bragg about his life-long connection with the poetry of Wordsworth and the landscape that inspired them both. We also have the reflections of the writer Helen Mort, who spent a year as Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust, Cumbria. Both contributors explore the legacy of the famous Lake poet and what his influence means for the landscape of the Lake District and countryside more broadly.

A list of Melvyn Bragg’s books can be found online. 

Books and poetry by Helen Mort are available on her website.

 Manuscript of The Prelude, by William Wordsworth. Dove Cottage. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust

 Manuscript of The Prelude, by William Wordsworth. Dove Cottage. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust

Episode 6 - International Legacy

This episode tries to get a sense of the influence of Wordsworth outside of the Lake District and beyond the shores of Britain. An academic and a poet are invited to contribute their thoughts and research on the reception of Wordsworth outside of the Anglosphere. Featuring Ankhi Mukerjee, Professor of English and World Literatures at Oxford, who takes us back to hear how Wordsworth’s contemporaries in Bengal reacted to his revolutionary work. Jamaica’s Poet Laureate Lorna Goodison explains her long and shifting relationship with Wordsworth and reads a number of specially selected poems. Also featured is music by award-winning poet and singer Jade Cuttle.   

Ankhi Mukerjee’s book What Is a Classic is available to order online.

Lorna Goodison’s collected poems are available on the publisher’s website, her collection entitled Redemption Ground Essays and adventures includes her essay on Wordsworth called ‘Daffodil Bashing.’


Autograph copy of 'The Solitary Reaper,' by William Wordsworth. British Library, Add MS 60580. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.

Autograph copy of 'The Solitary Reaper,' by William Wordsworth. British Library, Add MS 60580. © Dove Cottage - Wordsworth Trust. Open in new tab to continue listening whilst browsing.


Contributor Bios:

Alexander Lock is Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library. He curated the Library's display 'William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Place' and worked on the major British Library exhibitions 'Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy' and 'Harry Potter: A History of Magic'. His most recent book Catholicism, Identity and Politics in the Age of Enlightenment was published by Boydell and Brewer in 2016.

Ankhi Mukherjee is Professor of English and World Literatures at the University of Oxford. She is a Fellow of Wadham College. Her research and teaching specialises in Victorian literature and culture, postcolonial studies, and intellectual history. Mukherjee is the author of What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon (2014), which won the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize in English Literature in 2015.

Brett Walsh coordinates the cultural events programme at the British Library. He is a writer and artist who previously studied at the Royal College of Art, London. His writing was published in an anthology of essays on collective action, entitled Meet Me In The Present: Documents and their Afterlives. [] He also edits the literature and arts magazine Ossian, which publishes essays, fiction and journalism.   

Guy Stagg grew up in Paris, Heidelberg, Yorkshire and London. In 2013 he walked from Canterbury to Jerusalem. The Crossway, an account of this journey, was published by Picador in 2018. The book won an Edward Stanford Travel Award and was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize, the RSL Ondaatje Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, and the Deborah Rogers Foundation Award.   

Hannah Hodgson is a 22 year old poet living with life limiting illness. She writes about her hospice use, disability and family life, amongst other things. Hannah is a recipient of the 2020 Northern Writers Award for Poetry. She has had work published widely, in outlets such as Acumen, Poetry Salzburg, The Poetry Society and Teen Vogue. She is soon to begin a Masters in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in Creative Writing. Her debut pamphlet ‘Dear Body’ was published by Wayleave Press in 2018. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @HodgsonWrites and her website is www.hannahhodgson.com

Helen Mort is a poet and novelist. She is five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets Award, received an Eric Gregory Award from The Society of Authors in 2007, and won the Manchester Poetry Young Writer Prize in 2008. Her collection Division Street is published by Chatto & Windus and was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Helen’s first novel Black Car Burning was published by Random House in April 2019. She lectures in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Jade Cuttle is a Commissioning Editor (Arts) at The Times, a BBC Music Introducing singer-songwriter and award-winning poet. Jade released her debut album ‘Algal Bloom’ with funding and support from the PRS foundation and Make Noise in January 2020. Jade has been an editor at Ambit and was a judge for the Costa Book Awards in 2019. She has previously worked at The Poetry Society and tutored at The Poetry School.

Jonathan Bate is a biographer, critic, broadcaster and scholar. He is Foundation Professor of Environmental Humanities in Global Futures, the School of Sustainability and the College of Liberal Arts at Arizona State University. Jonathan’s latest book Radical Wordsworth: The Poet who changed the World, was published in 2020 to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth.

Lorna Goodison is the poet laureate of Jamaica and winner of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. Her collected works were published by Carcanet Press in 2017.

Louise Ann Wilson is an artist, scenographer and researcher who creates site-specific walking-performances in rural landscapes. Louise has made a number of works informed by Dorothy Wordsworth, including: Dorothy’s Room (2018) inspired by her Rydal Journals, and Warnscale: A Land Mark Walk Reflecting on in/Fertility and Childlessness (2015 and publication), a self-guided walking performance in the Warnscale Fells near Buttermere, inspired by Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals.

Lucy Siegle is a climate and environmental journalist and broadcaster. For many years she wrote the only sustainability column in a national newspaper (The Observer) but also contributes to The Times, Vanity Fair, Grazia and many other publications. She is also known as the ‘green’ reporter for ‘The One Show’ on BBC 1 and for ‘The True Cost’ on Netflix.

Matt Sowerby is a 19-year-old spoken word poet and activist. In 2018 he was named a National Youth Slam Champion and performed at the Poetry Society and the Houses of Parliament. In his role as a climate activist, Matt co-founded KASTLE (Kendal Activists Saving The Little Earth). He has led protests and has attended the EU Parliament in Brussels. Beyond this he runs poetry workshops and is a member of Dove Cottage Young Poets, a youth poetry training project managed by the Wordsworth Trust. He is studying at the University of Birmingham.

Melvyn Bragg is a broadcaster, writer and novelist. He is well known for his work on ‘The South Bank Show’ for London Weekend Television (LWT) since 1978, and has been Controller of Arts at LWT since 1990 (Head of Arts 1982-90). He presented BBC Radio 4's ‘Start the Week’ for ten years until he was made a Life Peer (Lord Bragg of Wigton) in 1998. He has presented ‘In Our Time’ on BBC Radio 4 since 1998 and was the president of the charity Mind from 1996-2011. He has been a lifelong fan of the poetry of William Wordsworth, sharing his Cumbrian heritage and often visiting the places mentioned in Wordsworth’s poetry. Melvyn’s discovery, at age 12, of ‘The Maid of Buttermere’ from The Prelude, was a great comfort to him while suffering from depression.

Pradip Krishen is an Indian film-maker and environmentalist. He writes about trees and plants and works as an ecological gardener (mostly) in Western Indian and the desert where he has re-wilded spoiled landscapes with native vegetation. He is the author of Trees of Delhi (2006) and Jungle Trees of Central India (2015).

Ruth Padel is an award-winning British poet whose work is inspired by her close links to Greece and interests in science, classical music and wildlife conservation. She has published eleven collections of poetry that have been shortlisted for all major UK prizes. She has published a novel featuring wildlife conservation and eight books of non-fiction. Her latest poetry collection is entitled Emerald.

Shane O’Mara is Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College Dublin and a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator. His work explores brain systems affected by stress and depression. Shane’s latest book In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How we Walk and Why it’s Good for Us takes a ‘brain’s eye’ view of this amazing human activity – walking.

30 August 2018

Mary Shelley in Italy: ‘…tragedy with a scene both affecting and sublime’

By Stephen Noble, Modern Archives and Manuscripts. You can read more about Mary Shelley on our Discovering Literature website. Material relating to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is now on display in our Treasures Gallery.

In 1818 Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley travelled to Italy on the advice of Percy’s doctors, but also to avoid their creditors. Over the next few years they travelled all over the country and it was a time of great creative output for them both. Mary completed the novels Matilda and Valperga, as well as the plays Proserpine and Midas, while Percy wrote his lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound.

These years were also marred by tragedy. In September 1818 their daughter Clara contracted dysentery and died in Venice, where they had gone to find medical attention. Nine months later whilst staying in Rome, their son William died after catching malaria.


Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Richard Rothwell, oil on canvas, NPG 1235 ©
Reproduced with the kind permission of National Portrait Gallery, London


Despite the traumas the couple endured, they continued to travel and were able to enjoy their experiences in Italy. In January 1821 Mary Shelley wrote to her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Ashley MS 4020), giving her ‘some account of my adventures’. She had been to Lucca to see a performance of Tommaso Sgricci, a famous improvisational poet. She wrote ‘Sgricci acquitted himself to admiration in the conduct and passion & poetry of his piece. As he went on he altered the argument as it had been delivered to him and wound up the tragedy with a scene both affecting and sublime’.


Mary Shelley, letter to Claire Clairmont, [14] January 1821 (Ashley MS 4020, f2v)

Mary was moved by the performance, and by how ‘truly and passionately did his words depict the scene’. Others in the party were not so impressed, describing it as ‘una cosa mediocra’, a mediocre thing, but to Mary ‘it appeared a miracle’.

In July 1822 tragedy struck again. When returning from a trip to Livorno, where he had visited their friends Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned when his boat sank during a heavy storm in the Gulf of La Spezia. A few weeks later Mary Shelley wrote to her friend Maria Gisborne describing the last months she and Percy had spent together, the events of his death and her immense grief (Ashley MS 5022). ‘I said in a letter to Peacock, my dear Mrs. Gisborne, that I would send you some account of the last miserable months of my disastrous life’…‘The scene of my existence is closed’.


Mary Shelley, letter to Maria Gisborne, 15 August 1822 (Ashley MS 5022, f1)

On Monday 8 July, ‘it was stormy all day, and we did not at all suppose that they could put to sea’. By Wednesday the weather had improved enough for boats to arrive, which ‘brought word that they sailed on Monday, but we did not believe them’. On Friday 12 July, a letter arrived for Percy from Leigh Hunt in which Hunt wrote ‘Pray write to tell us how you got home, for they say that you had bad weather after you sailed Monday, and we are anxious’.

Now she knew something had gone wrong, ‘The paper fell from my hands. I trembled all over’, but she still had hope that the worst had not happened. In Lerici, the nearest town, she was told there had been no reports of any accidents. In Livorno she learned that Percy had been warned about the storm, but set sail anyway.

It was while returning home on Saturday 13 July that Mary learned that part of his boat had been found, washed ashore a few miles away from Lerici. It was not until 19 July, almost two weeks after his death, that Percy Bysshe Shelley’s body was recovered.


Mary Shelley, letter to Maria Gisborne, 15 August 1822 (Ashley MS 5022, f5)

Mary closes the letter: ‘Well, here is my story – the last story I shall have to tell. All that might have been bright in my life is now despoiled’.

Mary Shelley did go on to tell other stories, writing and publishing many novels, short stories, travel books, biographies, articles, and poems. Published in 1930 with the title Absence, Mary Shelley wrote of her grief for her husband (Ashley MS A4023):

‘Ah! he is gone — and I alone;

How dark and dreary seems the time!

‘Tis Thus, when the glad sun is flown,

Night rushes o’er the Indian clime’.


Autograph, fair copy of a poem ‘Ah! he is gone — and I alone’ by Mary Shelley, undated (Ashley MS A4023)


05 January 2017

Lessons in Vampires and the Gothic

by guest blogger Emma McEvoy Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Westminster

Last year, the British Library launched a new adult learning programme, providing short courses that bring together guest specialists, Library curators and its unique collections.

I was invited by the Library to develop a pilot course exploring Gothic literature in context, which ran in April and May. For five evenings we explored and debated a range of texts from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and considered the development of Gothic through a variety of media and over a couple of centuries. We also encountered a wonderful array of collection items with curator Greg Buzwell, from Walpole’s own copy of Otranto to Bram Stoker’s cut-and-pasted and handwritten playscript for Dracula.

Following the success of Gothic the Library commissioned a second course to start at Halloween, and I decided that Vampires would make a suitable follow-up. Vampires are undoubtedly glamorous (despite their inauspicious beginnings as something more closely related to what we’d consider a zombie), and they have a sturdy literary history to their name (though sometimes – as is arguably the case in Coleridge’s Christabel – the name isn’t one that is mentioned). 

Gothic course

On Gothic I had been the sole academic lead but for Vampires, I decided to invite three other academics with expertise in the field to share the teaching. Professor Alexandra Warwick talked on ‘Vampires, Victorians and Women’, Dr Stacey Abbott introduced us to ‘The Cinematic Spectacle of Vampirism’, and Dr Catherine Spooner discussed ‘Contemporary Vampires: Comedy and Romance’. In our final session we were joined again by curator Greg Buzwell, who talked us through some other exciting items from the Library’s collections.

So on 27 October, I was back in the Library’s Learning Centre to start a five-week exploration of vampires. As with the Gothic course we had a nice mix of participants, with a variety of working backgrounds and interests (postcolonialism, folk horror and the Double, for example) to bring to the discussion.

I led the first session, in which we looked at vampire texts from the Romantic period. We started by examining early 18th-century newspaper reports on the vampire panic, before turning to the often-quoted passage from Dom Augustin Calmet’s treatise (on angels, demons, spirits etc).

Dom Augustin Calmet

Dom Augustin Calmet (engraved 1750)

(To my mind, Calmet – Catholic writer on vampire lore – is an early prototype of Stoker’s Van Helsing.) After this, we sprinted through some vampire texts from German literature – marvelling at how early some of the enduring motifs are established. Already in 1748, for instance, Ossenfelder’s short poem “The Vampire” associates erotic love with vampirism and pits the power of a mother against the vampire lover. Needless to say, in these cases, mothers seldom win. Fathers do occasionally, but – as in the case of Carmilla – it’s rather a pyrrhic victory. 


Carmilla image by D M Friston from The Dark Blue (1872)

It was interesting to see the strands that were to recur throughout the course. Christabel, unsurprisingly, refused to be quietened.  The cross-fertilization with the German tradition was apparent, not just in the first seminar but in the third, when Stacey showed us extracts from Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and pointed out that some of those working on early Hollywood vampire films were German emigrés with roots in Expressionist cinema.  Both Alex and Catherine talked about the anxieties provoked by the figure of the female reader/viewer – in relation to Victorian novels and Twilight, respectively.  It’s interesting that the figure of the female fan can be encountered in one of the first British mentions of the vampire phenomenon – in a report in The Craftsman in May, 1732. What struck me as another prominent vein (apologies) in vampire representation is the melding of literary tradition with the idea of celebrity and biography. Polidori’s literary success (though he was repeatedly not credited for it, see the image below) was achieved by drawing not only on literary tradition (including Byron’s own myth-making) but also on celebrity gossip.  (He also, of course, drew on Byron’s ghost-story idea).  Clement and Waititi’s vampire house-share mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which we looked at in Catherine’s session, is one of the latest examples.

  The Vampyre

1884 edition of Polidori’s (not Byron’s) “The Vampyre”

One of the best aspects of an evening short course is that everyone has chosen to take it out of interest and for enjoyment – no one is having to worry about formal assessment. I was struck by how much productive conversation takes place at the tea break. People not only start swapping text recommendations, and drawing in references to things they’ve recently seen or heard, but will also try out ideas that might feel too ‘large’ to raise in the slightly more formal seminar setting. Wandering towards a tea-table liberates a lot of thought. There were lots of high points.  I particularly enjoyed the ire that the revelation scene from Twilight provoked.  Everyone seemed to love hating it. Dreyer’s Vampyr, on the other hand, went down very well.

Our final session was the one I was looking forward to most. Having experienced Greg Buzwell’s sessions for the Gothic course (and having visited the Library’s Terror and Wonder exhibition that he’d curated), I knew that some really fascinating works would be brought out and that Greg would instigate some lively discussion. I was not to be disappointed.  Amongst many other items, there was a map of Transylvania used by Stoker for plotting the action in Dracula, the volume containing the celebrated wood-cut of Vlad the Impaler, and some wonderfully lurid (and censored) artwork in Kine Weekly (January 1970) [LOU.1575 1970] for The Vampire Lovers (1970).

For me – and for many of the students – the highlight was Byron’s letter referring to the Diodati happenings, with its vigorous underlining of all the allegations Bryon is supposed to be refuting – “incest” and “promiscuous intercourse”.


 Letter from Lord Byron to John Murray  15 May 1819 © GG Byron. Ashley MS 4740

by Emma McEvoy Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Westminster

For more information on adult courses, visit www.bl.uk/events/adult-learning-courses

05 June 2014

Reading Shelley’s Ashes and Byron’s Hair

By guest blogger Julian Walker

The ashes of Percy Bysshe Shelley, contained within a British Library manuscript (Ashley MS 5022)

Ten years of being a reader have not blunted my delight in handling important editions of major literary works; the delight is even more noticeable when handling manuscripts. It is widely recognised that there is a particular kind of excitement when handling manuscripts by the major figures of the past - a letter written by Shelley to Byron, a notebook kept by Jane Austen, a draft made by H G Wells. But what exactly is the nature of that physical contact, and how does it affect our reading of the words? What happens when the ink and paper as ‘thing’ meets the words as ‘literature’?

As part of the research for the Discovering Literature website published by the British Library I recently examined a letter written by Byron to his publisher, John Murray, (Ashley 4753) from February 1824, two months before Byron’s death. The letter shows the signs of having been baked in transit for the purposes of disinfection; on the outside of the letter are the words, ‘Zante 25 February 1824 Received from our quarantine officer, resealed and forwarded by your very obedient servant, Samuel Carff.’ The object that proposes the desirable thrill of touching what Byron touched simultaneously presents the concept of contagion by disease, which both counters and mirrors that thrill. 

DL Ash 4753

Byron's letter to John Murray showing the signs of having been baked in transit for the purposes of disinfection (Ashley MS 4753).

Two other volumes take this idea forward, Ashley Ms 4752 and Ashley Ms 5022. The first contains letters to Murray from Byron, to Byron from Claire Clairmont (his onetime lover, and step-sister of Mary Shelley), to Claire Clairmont from Edward Trelawny, witness to Shelley’s cremation and perennial supporter to the Byron/Shelley circle, and from Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half-sister, to the Countess of Blessington. It also contains a lock of the hair of Byron, a lock of Claire Clairmont’s hair, and a lock of hair from their daughter, Allegra.

Byrons hair
A lock of Byron's hair (Ashley MS 4752)

C clairmont and allegras hair
Locks of hair from Byron's daughter Allegra, and Allegra's mother Claire (Clara Mary Jane) Clairmont (Ashley MS 4752)

The second volume contains letters from Mary Shelley to her friend Maria Gisborne, from Trelawny to Claire Clairmont, and a deed of conveyance, together with various certifying documents. What the documents certify is that the enclosures in Ashley 5022 contain a lock of the hair and some of the ashes of Percy Shelley, and a lock of the hair of Mary Shelley.

Hair of PB Shelley

A lock of P B Shelley's hair, enclosed in a British Library manuscript (Ashley MS 5022)


Shelley hair cartouche
Mary Shelley's hair is contained in the same manuscript as that of her husband. Her lock of hair appears beneath that of P B Shelley (Ashley MS 5022).

How are we to read these items, in the context of the elaborately finished volumes in which they lie together with handwritten documents?

After their deaths parts of the bodies of Byron and Shelley were separated, used as symbols, even sold. The lock of Byron’s hair was given by Augusta Leigh as a gift in recognition of help, while Claire Clairmont’s niece Paola sold Shelley’s hair in 1879. Byron’s larynx and lungs were removed from his corpse for interment in Greece, with the claim that these signified how the poet had ‘used his breath and voice for Greece’, according to Pietro Capsali, one of his comrades-in-arms in the Greek War of Independence. Byron feared this happening, asking, ‘Let not my body be hacked …’

Despite Fournier’s celebrated painting of the funeral of Shelley, his face and hands were unidentifiable after ten days in the water, a circumstance that perhaps intensified the value of his heart and skull. According to one of Trelawny’s accounts (there were several, with contradictions) Byron, present at Shelley’s cremation, had wanted to keep Shelley’s skull. Byron’s corpse, minus the lungs and larynx, was transported to Britain for burial, while the separated ashes and other remains of Shelley’s corpse lie in a number of sites; Mary was presented by Trelawny with Shelley’s heart, or its ashes, which she kept for the rest of her life preserved in a copy of Shelley’s Adonais, itself now in the Bodleian Library. Are these keepsakes, mementoes, attempts to preserve the physical in order to retain the past, objects to concentrate mourning, ways of acknowledging or of cheating death?

The hair, instantly recognisable as such, allows the projection of some kind of animation onto the personas of the people. These are things which ‘have been alive’, and therefore serve as proof of the people’s ‘aliveness’ - they make the person real rather than just a name in a book. The ashes of Shelley animate the myth of Shelley, so strongly energised by his mysterious death and the myths that sprang from it. Locks of Byron’s hair became as desirable as the single lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair evidently was to him (he stole it from a reliquary in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in 1816). But if the hair animates Byron the person, is this anything to do with the poetry – can it in fact divert our attention from Byron the body of work towards Byron the person? Does the myth of Shelley, so real on seeing the ashes, detract from the Shelley corpus. Even the available English words show how difficult it is to avoid mixing the two aspects.

We may not now touch the living people, but we can touch the things they touched with so great an effect – the manuscripts of The Masque of Anarchy or Don Juan. We cannot touch the hair or ashes, but we can touch the volumes in which they lie, and we can touch the glass bubbles holding the hair and ashes. Within the context of relics the number of links in the chain of contact between saint and supplicant, reader and genius, is largely irrelevant, provided the individual links can be known. Medieval relics were ‘created’ by laying cloths on the bones of saints – the cloths would have the same power as the bones. Pilgrims kiss reliquaries, with the same effect as would be gained from kissing the relics themselves. Bede, writing in the eighth century, tells the story of the death in battle of the Christian king Oswald, whose body was mutilated and set on a stake; people took soil from the place, put it in water, and used this to relieve the sick. Maybe it cured people, maybe it made them very much worse, but in providing an exact mirror to germ theory (the concept of infection by germs rather than poisoned air), it proposes that contagion and healing walk side by side.



The first page of Shelley's draft of 'The Masque of Anarchy' (Ashley MS 4086)

Just as healing and contagion cancel each other, and merge in the process of inoculation, Byron’s and Shelley’s bodies – their lives – merge into their work. Byron is the superlative Byronic hero, acknowledging in the preface to Childe Harold Canto 4 the minimal difference between himself and his hero – ‘slightly, if at all, separated from the author speaking in his own person’; Trelawny’s retelling of the cremation of Shelley’s body, 36 years after the event, has the drowned body as ‘entire’, tying in with Matthew Arnold’s assessment of Shelley the poet as ‘beautiful and ineffectual angel’. Our physical contact, at one remove, with their bodies simultaneously obstructs, mirrors and merges with our engagement with their work.

Byron Childe Harold
Byron's manuscript for Childe Harold, (Egerton MS 2027)

One last thought - a meeting in 1816 between four of the people whose body parts are mentioned above – Byron, Claire Clairmont, Mary and Percy Shelley (and Claire Clairmont was pregnant with the fifth, Allegra) - produced a famous story in which a whole extraordinary being is made up of disparate body parts: Frankenstein.

Ashley MS 5022 and Ashley MS 4752 can both be seen on the Discovering Literature website, alongwith other important literary manuscripts, including a letter from Shelley to Byron, praising his Don Juan, Leigh Hunt’s account of the death and cremation of Shelley, and parts of the manuscript of Byron’s Childe Harold.


This is the third in our Discovering Literature blog series, introducing the British Library's new website for Romantic and Victorian literature. Read our previous blogs here.

29 May 2014

'That is an amazing horrid book, is it not?'

With its sex-crazed monks, dissolute noblemen, mad scientists, shambling monsters and blood-sucking vampires - not to mention its apparently endless fascination with innocent young ladies in diaphanous gowns being pursued around crumbling castles - it is easy to see why Gothic literature has often been regarded as somewhat disreputable. Gothic fiction lurks in the shadows. It may be devilishly handsome and charismatic but it is not the sort of literary genre you would wish to bring home to meet your mother. On the other hand, and for the very same reasons, it is easy to understand why it has always been extremely popular. Morally-improving literature certainly has its place but, let's be honest, mad scientists and shape-changing vampires are considerably more interesting. Even better, in the hands of a genuinely great author such as Ann Radcliffe or Robert Louis Stevenson, you get the best of both worlds. You get the rattling good yarn and you get a fascinating insight into contemporary fears as well.

On the British Library's new Discovering Literature website there is a whole swathe of Gothic to enjoy, not only in terms of the novels themselves but also in terms of the inspirations and ideas lying behind them. Beginning with Horace walpole's deliciously strange The Castle of Otranto (1764) Gothic set out to put imagination and emotion at the forefront of literature. Authors such as Ann Radcliffe added a fascination with landscape: the sublime wonders of mountains and lakes, ruins and abbeys. Matthew Lewis wrote his brilliantly lurid (and yes, admittedly rather disreputable) novel The Monk (1796) in response to the horrors of the French Revolution while Mary Shelley was partly inspired to write Frankenstein (1818) as a result of discussions into the power of galvanism to cause corpses to twitch with a ghastly semblance of life.


(Above: an early 19th-century edition of The Monk, complete with a full plot outline - ending in 'Most Ignominious Death' - on the right-hand page)

Gothic fiction has always possessed the ability to adapt itself in order to reflect the latest ideas and concerns of society. Early Gothic novels were set in exotic European Catholic landscapes and in distant, seemingly unenlightened times. Later the Victorians brought Gothic imagery into the urban landscapes of the present day - Oliver Twist, for example is, on one level, a Gothic tale of an innocent pursued by menacing figures through a terrifying urban landscape of slums and criminal enclaves. Sensation fiction meanwhile, which reached its peak in the 1860s, used Gothic plot elements such as mistaken identities, secret wills, doubles and locked rooms and wove them into labyrinthine plots set in the drawing-rooms and parlours of apparently respectable society.

With the Victorian fin de siècle Gothic mutated again. This time it was the human mind and body which provided the landscape for horror. Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) played upon the nightmarish implications of evolutionary theory while Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) used vampirism as a parallel for syphilis and moral degeneracy.

Dracula 03

(Above: The cover to a 1919 edition of Dracula)

Gothic fiction, for all its seeming playfulness, provides brilliant and imaginitive insights into the fears of the times in which it was produced. By its very nature Gothic literature makes imaginative leaps denied to its more sober counterparts. And yes, as a bonus, it also frequently features sex-crazed monks, mad scientists, vampires and Pre-Raphaelite beauties with an eye on the main chance. I mean, seriously, what's not to like?

15 May 2014

Discovering Literature - British Library literary treasures go digital

Today is the launch of our amazing new resource, Discovering Literature!

Discovering Literature

Discovering Literature features some of our greatest literary treasures through original manuscripts, first editions, and letters and other documents like newspaper cuttings that help to place the work in an historical context. Our aim was to bring the literature to life and to give people an insight into how some of these incredibly iconic works were created.

Blake Tyger ms

William Blake - draft of 'The Tyger' in his notebook

Library staff have been working with teachers, university professors and other experts for months to develop the resource, and it features detailed explanations and essays about the various authors, works and themes. There are also some documentary films, made on location at places like the Bronte Parsonage, Haworth, and the Dickens Museum.

The website currently covers the Romantic and Victorian era but we'll be expanding it in the future to cover the whole of English literature from Beowulf to the present day. One of our aims is to get young people inspired by the UK’s literary heritage, at home and at school, and many of its selected texts support the UK curricula for GCSE, A Level and undergraduate teaching of English Literature. But we're also hoping that there'll be something for everyone to be interested in on the site.

 Here are some of the highlights:

  • Manuscripts of Jane Eyre, the preface to Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, an early draft of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and the poetry of Shelley, Wordsworth and Keats
  • An 1809 dictionary of criminal slang including words found in the works of Charles Dickens, for example ‘twist’ - meaning ‘hanged’ – from  Oliver Twist
  • Papers of Jane Austen, including her notes detailing other people’s opinions of her work, including one peer describing Pride and Prejudice as ‘downright nonsense‘
  • William Blake’s notebook, including drafts of his iconic poems ‘London’, ‘The Tyger’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and many of his drawings
  • The largest collection of Brontë childhood writings, including miniature notebooks detailing their fantasy worlds of Gondol and Angria, diary entries and letters describing their family life
  • A lock of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s hair

Over the next few weeks we'll be featuring some of the amazing items you can find on Discovering Literature, and telling you about them in a bit more detail.


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