THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

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

Introduction

From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

11 May 2017

Collecting Kenilworth: leaves of a Romance reunited

Oh, what a tangled web we weave When first we practise to deceive!

These famous lines from Walter Scott’s poem Marmion (1808) might perfectly describe the plot of Kenilworth (1821), the Scottish author’s historical novel of intrigue and deception set in Elizabethan England. Piecing together Scott’s original manuscript for Kenilworth is also a tangled task. The British Library has recently acquired two leaves of the manuscript, numbered 14 and 15 in Scott’s hand (now Add MS 89229). The larger part of the manuscript (Egerton MS 1661) has been in the British Library’s collections since 1855.

A mounted note bound within the newly acquired volume states: 'Part of the original ms. of Kenilworth given to me Edmond Logan by John Ballantine'. John Ballantyne, Scott’s editor and printer, must have given the leaves to the Scottish-Canadian geologist soon after the novel was printed because he died six months later on 16 June 1821. The volume has been in private collections since then and was purchased by the British Library with a generous grant from the Friends of the British Library at an auction in New York in March.

Add MS 89229 Scott portrait

Engraving of a portrait of Scott, by A. Wivel, after C. Picart, 1824. The portrait faces the title page in the volume of two manuscript leaves of Kenilworth, Add MS 89229, f. 2v.

Kenilworth opens in a drinking establishment, namely Giles Gosling’s Bonny Black Bear. Michael Lambourne has just returned from his travels and is unable to shake off a bad reputation for the misdemeanours and drunkenness that characterised his youth. He wagers with the other guests that he can gain entry to Cumnor Place, a nearby manor, where it is rumoured that a beautiful young woman is being kept captive. Edmund Tressilian accompanies Lambourne to Cumnor Place. The two leaves of the manuscript describe Lambourne’s encounter with the steward of Cumnor Place, Anthony Foster, at the end of chapter three and beginning of chapter four.

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The first of the two leaves, numbered 14 by Scott, British Library shelfmark: Add MS 89229, f. 5.

On the second leaf (numbered 15), Lambourne reminds Foster of the convenience of the ‘old religion’ (Catholicism) for villains:

Do I not remember how you were wont to carry your confessio conscience to confession as duly as the [night] ^month^ came round & when thou hadst had it scoured and burnished and white washed by the priest thou wert every ready for the worst villainy which could be devised (page 15, lines 7-10)

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The second of the two leaves, numbered 15 by Scott, British Library shelfmark: Add MS 89229, f. 6.

The leaves fill the gap in the manuscript between pages 3 to 13 held by Edinburgh University Library and the larger part of the manuscript, which begins at page 16.

The editors of the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels returned to Scott’s manuscript as well as the first edition when creating a critical edition (Edinburgh University Press, 1993). Many changes were made between the manuscript and the first edition. Some of the changes were intentional and authorised by Scott, such as the introduction of punctuation and the correction of grammatical errors. Mistakes were introduced, however, in the interpretation of Scott’s densely packed handwriting as the publishers and compositors (typesetters) rushed to get Scott’s novel to the press as quickly as possible.

Kenilworth was published in Edinburgh on 15 January 1821 and in London on 18 January, only four months after Scott started writing it. Thirteen of the numbered leaves remain unaccounted for. It is probable that the leaves have never been together as a whole manuscript, as Scott sent completed parts of the manuscript to Ballantyne as he was writing the novel.

By Catherine Angerson, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:

‘Essay on the Text’, in Walter Scott, Kenilworth: A Romance, ed. by J. H. Alexander (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993), pp. 395–432

05 May 2017

Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance Writers

by Tamara Tubb, Research Curator, and Andrea Varney, Researcher and Writer.

Our website, Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance Writers brings together a selection of British Library treasures and newly commissioned articles that shed light on the social, spiritual and supernatural settings of some the Renaissance period’s most engaging works. The site, which initially focussed on Shakespeare’s plays, first launched in 2016 and has now been expanded  with a wealth of new content on a wider range of writers and works, including Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Edward II, Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poetry of John Donne, and Ben Jonson’s Volpone and The Alchemist.

On the site, key literary works of the English Renaissance are explored through their cultural contexts: you can read about the real women who inspired John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1623) and learn more about ground-breaking texts such as Emilia Lanier’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), the first feminist publication in English.

One of the central figures of the English Renaissance, Christopher Marlowe is often seen as the wild-boy of Elizabethan literature. His turbulent life and violent death have prompted many comparisons with the radical hero-villains of his plays, from the blasphemous Doctor Faustus who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for magical powers, to the love-struck King Edward II, undone by passion for his male favourites. For the first time, we’ve put online an infamous note from the spy Richard Baines, making damning accusations that Marlowe was an ‘Atheist’ with too much love ‘for Tobacco & Boies’. We’ll probably never know if these claims are true, but we’ve digitised many other items to capture the spiritual, sexual and political worlds that shaped Marlowe’s drama.

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Richard Baines seems to take pleasure in characterising Marlowe as the most outrageous of atheists, Harley MS 6848, f. 85v.

Our section on Doctor Faustus shows the tension, in Marlowe’s day, between thrilling belief in magic and faith that God would punish anyone who claimed supernatural powers. An article by Eric Rasmussen and Ian DeJong asks whether the play condemns Faustus’s sin or relishes his superhuman ambition. There’s also a treasure trove of items relating to John Dee, the real Elizabethan magician who insisted that he had holy aims but was accused of sorcery. Dee’s handwritten guide to magic, De Heptarchia Mystica (1582) records his attempts to summon angels through his medium Edward Kelley. But there’s also a petition to James I (1604), in which Dee is forced to deny that he’s an ‘Invocator of Divels’.

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John Dee claims that Prince Hagonel appeared to him with 42 ministers, represented in the manuscript by seven rows of six dots, Sloane MS 3191, f. 40v.

The section on Edward II reveals the king as a focus for centuries of heated debate about same-sex love, homophobia, duty and self-fulfilment.  An illuminated manuscript, Jean de Wavrin’s Recueil des Croniques d’Engleterre (1471–1483), has a beautiful miniature painting of Edward’s marriage to Isabella of France in 1308, but the French text beneath it betrays the king’s love of his favourite, Piers Gaveston. Over five centuries later, Derek Jarman made his wonderfully eclectic sketchbooks for a 1991 film inspired by Marlowe’s Edward II. They show Jarman making connections between the tragic medieval king and his own experiences as a gay man in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.

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The marriage of Edward II and Isabella of France, Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 295v.

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Derek Jarman’s ‘Queer’ Sketchbook for his film of Edward II (1991), f. 2a.

Like Marlowe, Ben Jonson didn’t play by the rules. Known to his contemporaries as a braggart, a drunk and a hothead, he had multiple run-ins with the law and served several stints in prison – once even escaping execution for murder because of a legal loophole. Jonson’s lived experiences, and his interest in the criminal underworld, are apparent in the shady characters that populate his city comedies Volpone and The Alchemist. The seamy underbelly of Jonson’s London is explored on the website through rogue pamphlets (the Renaissance equivalent to modern tabloid newspapers and gossip columns), which expose the various scams and deceptions of contemporary criminals and confidence tricksters. A Caveat for Common Cursetors (1567) is especially interesting because it includes a dictionary of criminal cant, or slang.

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Dictionary of ‘pelting speche’, A Caveat for Common Cursetors (1567), Sig. G3v

The confidence tricksters in The Alchemist dupe their (comically irksome and chronically unlikable) victims into ‘investing’ their money in an alchemy scam. In order to dig deeper into the scam, and understand alchemy as a serious scientific subject, we’ve published online for the first time images from a beautifully illustrated medieval manuscript, The Ordinal of Alchemy (1477).

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Alchemists at work in a laboratory, The Ordinall of Alchymy (1477), f. 37v

Also explored on the site are the ways in which Jonson, and other Renaissance poets such as Donne and Shakespeare, adapted literary conventions in order to create their own distinct styles. Volpone is a fusion of classical mythology, medieval morality and original Jonsonian comedic flair, which, when combined, created an innovative new theatrical form. Volpone borrows from works such as Aesop’s Fables, of which Caxton’s first English edition (1484) is digitised on site, as well as medieval plays rooted in religious beliefs, such as Everyman, in which vice and virtue go head to head for the audience’s moral benefit.

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The fable of ‘the raven and the fox’, in Aesop’s Fables printed by William Caxton (1484), f. xxxviii

The rich collection of sources relating to John Donne reveals how his poems were changed by the different forms in which they were first read. His racy ‘Elegy: To his Mistress Going to Bed’ becomes all the more enticing when we know that it was banned from the first print edition of 1633, but included in private anthologies like the Newcastle Manuscript. At the same time, print seems to open up new playful possibilities for one of Donne’s most famous poems. In her analysis of ‘The Flea’, Aviva Dautch suggests how the third line, ‘Me it suck'd first’, is altered when the printed long ‘s’ looks exactly like an ‘f’. 

Crop of 'The Flea'

‘The Flea’ as it was first printed in 1633, with the long ‘s’ looking like an ‘f’, G.11415, p. 230.

The section surrounding John Webster’s blood-soaked tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, invites you to examine the role of women in Renaissance culture. Dympna Callaghan’s article ‘The Duchess of Malfi and Renaissance women’ places Webster's character in the context of contemporary drama, politics, and discourses about widows and female sexuality. Items connected to Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I and their close relation Lady Arbella Stuart present context, and contemporaneous inspiration, for the character of the Duchess - a powerful woman in her own right who nevertheless struggled to have it all: love, family and a career.

The Duchess of Malfi section also includes original early modern texts on werewolves, shape shifting and the supernatural.

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Werewolf pamphlet: The Damnable Life and Death of Stubbe Peeter, (1590).

The Renaissance Writers phase is the latest to be added to the broader Discovering Literature website, which will continue to expand in the near future to include literature from Beowulf to the present day.

27 April 2017

John Milton's publishing contract for Paradise Lost

John Milton’s publishing contract for Paradise Lost goes on display

350 years ago today, the poet John Milton entered into an agreement with the printer Samuel Simmons to publish his epic poem Paradise Lost. Through this publishing contract, one of the greatest works of English literature came into print. The original contract for Paradise Lost is held by the British Library, and has just been placed on display in our Treasures Gallery.

Milton publishing contract

John Milton’s contract for the publication of Paradise Lost, 27 April 1667. British Library shelfmark: Add MS 18861.

The contract between John Milton and Samuel Simmons reveals that Milton was to receive £5 from Simmons immediately for Paradise Lost, and a further £5 once 1,300 copies of the poem had been sold. There was potential for Milton to earn an additional £10 if two further editions, also of 1,300 copies each, were sold. Unfortunately Milton died shortly after the second edition was produced in 1674, and so received only £10 for his masterpiece.

On display alongside Milton's contract is the first edition of Paradise Lost, which Simmons duly printed in 1667. It is in ten ‘books’ or sections, and contains over ten thousand lines of verse. Simmons did not include his own name on the title page, but listed the three London booksellers who acted as wholesale distributors of the book.

Paradise lost first edition

The first edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (London, 1667). British Library shelfmark: C.14.a.9.

Milton’s poem, on the subject of the temptation of Adam and Eve and their banishment from the Garden of Eden, had occupied him for many years before it was finally published. Having lost the sight in both eyes by his early forties, he had to dictate the work laboriously, line-by-line, to an assistant.

The publishing contract is believed to have been signed on Milton’s behalf by an amanuensis. Milton then affixed his seal to it. This is the earliest known example of a contract between an English author and their publisher.

by Sandra Tuppen, Lead Curator, Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1601-1850