Living Knowledge blog

21 March 2018

Jane Eyre in Shanghai – part one


Dickens is big in China. So is DH Lawrence. As for Charlotte Brontë, having spent the past week in Shanghai I became increasingly convinced that Jane Eyre (Jian Ai) is even more popular among Chinese readers than she is in her native land.

The handwritten fair copy of Jane Eyre, along with other manuscript treasures from five of the greatest writers in the English language, have just gone on display in a major exhibition at Shanghai Library – Where Great Writers Gather: Treasures of the British Library.

DSC_5053Top and above: journalists at the press preview for Where Great Writers Gather: Treasures of the British Library, at Shanghai Library until 15 April 2018.  

The original manuscripts from the British Library were chosen by curators at both institutions working in collaboration, and reveal many different aspects of their creation and role in the process of publication. The Jane Eyre manuscript bears both the inky fingerprints and name of one of the typesetters who prepared the blocks of type for printing.

Letters from TS Eliot to his friend Alison Tandy and her daughter Polly include drafts of poems for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and show a playful intellect thinking through his creative ideas to sympathetic readers. The messy draft of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers are testimony to the fact that he was writing at great speed for serial publication and so hadn’t the time to produce a fair copy – much to the chagrin of a succession of long-suffering typesetters who struggled to read his heavily-worked scrawl.

Shanghai-exhibition-ts-eliot-letter-tandy-smallerOne of the British Library's star items: a letter from T.S. Eliot to Polly Tandy, dated 13 February 1940, British Library Add MS 71003, f 45r. © Faber & Faber Ltd. and the Estate of T.S. Eliot.

Shanghai-exhibition-dickens-cropDickens working at speed: the manuscript for part of chapter 19 of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, 1836-7, British Library Add MS 39182, f 2r. © Mark Charles Dickens, Head of the Dickens Family. Some rights reserved.

A 1915 letter from DH Lawrence to his agent James Brand Pinker discusses the possibility of privately printing his novel The Rainbow, after it was banned for obscenity. The manuscript of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet to Lord Byron shows how personal relationships between poets could be a wellspring of creativity.

These manuscripts are displayed alongside translations, adaptations and early editions from Shanghai Library’s collections. The work of more than 50 translators is featured – demonstrating the sheer scale of the Chinese market for English literature in translation from the late nineteenth century onwards.

DSC_4235One of Shanghai Library's printed treasures: Gulliver's Travels - published in 1872 and the earliest example of a novel translated from English into Chinese. The work of more than 50 translators features in the exhibition.

The earliest Chinese translation of an English or Irish novel was – appropriately enough – Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, published as ‘Tan Ying Xiao Lu’ in 1872. Multiple translations of the five featured writers testify to the longevity and scale of the Chinese public’s appetite for English literature, as well as Shanghai’s historic role as a gateway through which English works first arrived in China, subsequently finding an audience through the city’s strong traditions of translation and publishing.

Lead British Library curator Alexandra Ault worked with the team of Director Xiangong Huang, Shanghai Library’s head of historical archives, to pull together not just an absorbing and illuminating exhibition but also a handsome bilingual catalogue. QR codes embedded in the exhibition design lead visitors to additional materials on the featured authors at the British Library’s Chinese website:

The exhibition is the latest milestone in an ambitious three-year programme: The British Library in China: connecting through culture and learning which has already seen exhibitions at the National Library of China in Beijing and Mu Xin Art Museum in Wuzhen. Supported by funding from the UK Government, the programme has also enabled the creation of the Library’s first website for Chinese readers – featuring more than 200 digitised literary highlights, as well as articles, video clips and other contextual material.

Just as important as staging exhibitions and sharing resources with audiences in China is the process of working with our Chinese colleagues to share knowledge and expertise, which I will write about in the second part of this blog.

DSC_4504Xiangong Huang, Shanghai Library’s head of historical archives, and Alexandra Ault, lead curator of Western Manuscripts 1601-1850 at the British Library, who collaborated closely on the content of Where Great Writers Gather: Treasures of the British Library.

The first visitors and journalists to see the exhibition have responded with delight and surprise. Nothing matches the thrill of seeing original literary masterpieces first hand, but it’s also a genuine revelation to see the Chinese passion for English literature in translation captured in this way.

My own favourite items were the translation of Gulliver’s Travels, and the first Chinese translation of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, which was published in 1934. That one of the most (self-consciously) avant garde and difficult poems ever written in English should be shared so swiftly with the Chinese reading public highlights the depth and richness of the cultural relationship between the two peoples.

Lovers of literature in Shanghai and beyond have until 15 April to experience it for themselves.

Ben Sanderson

Head of Press and Communications