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

16 December 2014

Jane Austen and the ‘very horrid’ Northanger Abbey

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Jane Austen, whose 239th birthday is today, has another anniversary this month – at the very end of December 1817, after her death, her novel Northanger Abbey was published.

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Northanger Abbey is a joyously playful satire on the gothic novel of the 1790s, and was written in around 1798-9, when Austen was in her early 20s. It was the first of her novels to be submitted for publication, and was bought by a London publisher for the princely sum of £10 in 1803 – but for unknown reasons lay unpublished until 1816, when Austen’s brother bought it back for her. She made a few revisions, changing the heroine’s name from Susan to Catherine Morland, and also the title (which had been ‘Susan’) perhaps to tie it more firmly to the gothic tradition it pastiches.

In the first half of the book, set in fashionable Bath, Catherine meets with a new friend, Isabella Thorp, a flighty young woman. When Catherine opines that she wishes she could spend her whole life in reading Ann Radcliffe’s hugely popular and influential Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Isabella replies that she has “made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you…  Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries.”

For some time in the 19th century, it was generally believed that Austen may have made up these titles, so preposterous did they sound to later, non-Gothic readers. However, later scholarship revealed that the novels did all exist, and they are on display together for the first time in Terror and Wonder. You can read more about the seven horrid novels on the British Library European Studies blog here.

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The second half of Northanger Abbey features Catherine’s visit to the Abbey itself, the home of her friend Eleanor Tilney and her brother Henry. On the journey Henry teases Catherine about what she expects the house to be like (as it is called an Abbey, Catherine has of course imagined a full-on Radcliffian dark, brooding, mazelike building stuffed with secrets): "And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as 'what one reads about' may produce? Have you a stout heart? Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?" Henry then proceeds to distil various key plotlines from the complete work of Ann Radcliffe into a single, very entertaining narrative at what is to happen at the Abbey during Catherine’s visit. His intention is to entertain, but Catherine is both frightened and immediately expects the worst – or, the most exciting – to happen.

Austen draws the line between the gothic novels of the 1790s (usually set centuries in the past, in continental Europe) and England in the 1790s when Henry reminds Catherine that she should “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians…. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them?” By the end of the novel, Catherine has at last learned not to take novels (or herself) so seriously.

Another theme of the novel which, perhaps strangely, links to our exhibition Terror and Wonder, is that of consumerism. Isabella Thorp, when she recommends the seven horrid novels to Catherine, admits that she hasn’t read them herself but has in turn been given the list by Miss Andrews. Isabella’s interest seems to be more that she keeps up with the fashion and is able to make these recommendations than in her own enjoyment of novel-reading. Amongst many other references to the consumer culture of the 1790s (whose lace trimmings are nicer, whether a muslin will wash well) one stands out – the fact that Northanger Abbey itself has a Rumford fireplace. Designed by Count Rumford in the mid- 1790s, this new style of fireplace increased the heat to a room by narrowing the vent.  On display in Terror and Wonder is a parody of an advertisement for a Rumford, in which a young lady reading the scandalous gothic novel The Monk by Matthew Lewis, has a lovely time by her RumPford fire. Scandalous indeed.

Lady reading The Monk by Charles Williams.

Terror and Wonder is on till the 20th January, and you can buy tickets here

Read more about our Jane Austen collections here

Final image courtesy of British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings, 1935,0522.7.12

01 December 2014

‘The Story is the Thing’: Graham Swift on reading his stories out loud

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Graham Swift will be reading from his latest collection, England and Other Stories, on Monday 15 December at the British Library. For tickets, and further information, see What’s On at the British Library. Graham’s archive is held at the British Library (listen to Graham talking with the British Library’s Jamie Andrews about unpacking his archive on the Guardian’s podcast). 

Below, Graham has prepared an exclusive blog in which he talks about reading his stories out loud, and ‘the importance of narrative to our existence’.

At one of the first readings I gave from England and Other Stories I was asked by a member of the audience: ‘Was there anything you learnt about that story by reading it to us that you didn’t know before?’ A sharp question. I gave an obtuse, yes-and-no answer. I always write for an ‘inner ear’, for a silent solitary reader, so when I read aloud I invariably make small changes, I become aware of nuance. But that is minor, superficial stuff. The essence of the thing, the story itself, remains. So do I learn anything new?  

Graham Swift3 Klein - Copyright Janus van den Eijnden
Graham Swift; Copyright Janus van den Eijnden


I think what I learn, or rather have refreshingly confirmed, is itself something essential, and very big: the importance of narrative to our existence, that the story is indeed the thing. The curse of reading extracts from novels is that you get enmeshed in context-setting. With a short story you can immediately and simply deliver an entirety. What may have taken you months to write suddenly enters its ‘real time’ and, since it takes two, you and an audience, you become aware of being a component in something—your contact with the reader—at which you’re not normally physically present, of truly partaking in the act of sharing that I believe fiction fundamentally is.  

 Of course I’m describing an optimal experience, but at any public event the spirit of sharing is always there. Every story begins with the implicit words, ‘Here is something to be shared.’ We’re not all novelists, but we’re all short story tellers. Who hasn’t told a story to somebody else?  

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Graham Swift's manuscript of The Light of Day from the British Library archive



 

For my part, it’s been a great excitement after several novels to return, in this new book, to the writing of short stories—and to have the extra pleasure of reading some of them aloud. As for audiences, they may well want to listen, too, to what a writer has to say about writing, but I believe they take a principal pleasure—actually a primary human pleasure—in simply hearing a story told.

Text by Graham Swift 2014.

18 November 2014

The Face in the Glass: Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the Victorian Gothic Tale

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Imagine, if you will, an Italian villa, its walls baked by the sun and its gardens surrounded by orange groves. What could be more welcoming and delightful? There is, however, a room at the back of the villa; a room, lined with old leather-bound books, which catches little of the light and always seems dank and cold. Curiously it is with this stale and sunless room that the successive owners of the villa become fascinated. Fascinated indeed to the point of obsession. It is also within this room that an antique mirror made of a distinctive dark glass can be found, a glass that, perhaps, reflects something a little more mysterious than a bland representation of reality. Those who gaze into the mirror's depths become entranced, beguiled, morbidly enraptured, but they also lose vitality, finding themselves ageing prematurely and hurtling towards the grave. There is sunshine outside the villa, but a contrasting haunting darkness within.

Face in the Glass
(Above: The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales, a selection of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's finest tales of the macabre and the uncanny. Published by the British Library)

The above synopsis sounds like something by Edgar Allan Poe but it is actually the outline of an enigmatic and extremely unsettling short story called 'Herself' by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915), one of the many brilliant and enigmatic Gothic tales that she wrote throughout her life. The Victorians and the ghost story go hand in hand but, even in such a brilliant and crowded field including authors such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Oscar Wilde, Braddon stands out as a particularly fine writer of the beautifully crafted tale of terror. Her stories are always inventive, always challenging and they exhibit a terrific range and variety. Braddon had a gift for evoking atmosphere and an ability to induce that delicious, creepy sensation of something being 'not quite right'.

Today Braddon is best known for her brilliant sensation novel Lady Audley's Secret (1861), a book which turned conventional expectations on their head by having, at its heart, a beautiful, blue-eyed, seemingly 'butter-wouldn't melt' blonde woman as the villain and a man as the victim. At the time this was highly innovative and radical. In Gothic literature, of which sensation fiction is a quintessentially Victorian offshoot, the women were there to swoon and the men were there to be diabolical - not the other way around. Villany had never before been presented in such a subversive and beautifully beguiling fashion.

Although several of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novels are coming back into print her Gothic tales remain somewhat neglected, a situation which a new publication by the British Library - The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales - aims to redress. The volume gathers together a selection of Braddon's sinister tales, each of which highlights a particular facet of her brilliant imagination. Just as with her longer fiction her short stories endlessly turn conventional expectations upside down. For example, Braddon's female characters are spirited and independent,often railing against the restrictions imposed upon them by Victorian (and distinctly male) society. Similarly she had little time for the conventional happy ending. Many of her short stories have genuinely chilling conclusions while others are veiled in enigma and mystery.

The stories within The Face in the Glass feature visitations from beyond the grave; tales of haunted houses and mirrors that distort the truth. There is a tale of an island inhabited by the spirits of the departed and a story of an elderly woman, Good Lady Ducayne, with claw-like hands who cares little for the qualifications and experience of her attendants provided they have youthful blood flowing through their veins.

Good Lady Ducayne
(Above: Good Lady Ducayne, as depicted in the original publication of the story in The Strand Magazine. 1896)

There is plenty of darkness within the pages of The Face in the Glass, but there is also considerable humour, invention and imagination. The Victorians knew how to tell ghost stories, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon told some of the finest ghost stories of all. The best of her tales such as 'Eveline's Visitant', 'Her Last Appearance', 'The Ghost's Name', 'The Island of Old Faces', 'Herself' and 'Good Lady Ducayne' bear comparison with the acclaimed supernatural tales of Poe, Dickens and Wilde.

The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales is available from the British Library Shop, while sensation fiction, ghost stories and many more Gothic-tinged horrors are explored in detail in the Terror and Wonder exhibition and the assoctiated exhibition book.