English and Drama blog

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


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 April 2014

‘Don’t rip up old stories’: repeating oneself in Beckett’s Echo’s Bones

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By Matthew Riddell

Samuel Beckett in 1977, by Roger Pic

Visitors to the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room can consult the first edition of Samuel Beckett's More Pricks Than Kicks, an unprepossessing dun-covered hardback stamped by the British Museum soon after publication in May 1934. (Check out the Beckett Collection at Reading for the richest hoard of Beckettiana). But this first and all subsequent editions of MPTK were a story short.

Eighty years since Chatto & Windus published MPTK, Beckett’s first collection of fiction, Faber & Faber have published Echo's Bones (the title comes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis), a final 'recessional' to the Dublin vagaries of its protagonist, Belacqua, whose name alludes to the lazy Florentine lute-maker appearing in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

In 1931, Chatto had printed Beckett’s monograph Proust, an astonishing hybrid of art and criticism dismissed as ‘cheap flashy philosophical jargon’ by its own author who, in a copy that surfaced in a second-hand bookshop in Dublin, appears to have annotated it thus in a curious caveat emptor to his reading public. But the publisher rejected in 1932 the highly experimental novel A Dream of Fair To Middling Women (posthumously published in 1992).

Comparison of correspondence between Beckett and Chatto’s editor Charles Prentice, with that to friend Thomas MacGreevy reporting the latest reply from ‘Shatton & Windup’, testifies to Beckett’s frustrations in publishing his early work. So when Prentice proposed an additional story to extend MPTK, Beckett was quick to oblige; presumably with misgivings, for Belacqua had died under a Royal Surgeon’s scalpel in the story 'Yellow' and had now to be resurrected. A reply from Prentice is dated three days after receiving Beckett's manuscript:

It is a nightmare. Just too horribly persuasive. It gives me the jim-jams … People will shudder and be puzzled and confused… I am certain that Echo's Bones would depress the sales very considerably ... the only plea for mercy I can make is that the icy touch of those revenant fingers was too much for me ... Please write kindly.

‘Profoundly discouraged’, the 26 year-old Beckett lamented the rejection of a story 'into which I put all I knew.' Snippets were rapidly salvaged for use elsewhere in MPTK and he later bestowed the title on a collection of poems, Echo’s Bones: And other precipitates (1935).

But here it is at last in all its strangeness, brilliance, difficulty. A queasy précis: Belacqua finds himself smoking a cheroot in a fairy-tale Purgatory and sitting (significantly) on a fence penning Galloway cattle. He who spent his earthly existence ‘between a bottle and a mirror’ no longer casts a shadow or appears in a glass. A prostitute offers him compassion and Cuban rum with fried garlic. The male-heirless, aspermatic giant Lord Gall begs Belacqua to save his estate by assisting in Lady Gall’s conception which, notwithstanding her syphilis, Belacqua does. But it’s a girl. There is also debate about how much God there is in an elephant vis-a-vis an oyster, a rogue ostrich named Strauss, and asphodels. The story closes rompingly in a seaside cemetery, the groundsman and Belacqua exhuming his own grave with a wager on its contents.

Note nerds and puzzled readers (fair cop, Prentice) are helped along the way by editor Mark Nixon’s caravan of annotations, which, hitched to the well-travelled bathchair of John Pilling (do Beckett scholars ever retire?), exceeds the text itself in length, allowing us to trail Beckett camouflaging the foraged chestnuts of his favourite authors in Belacqua’s jungle. This is the prevailing intertextual method to Beckett’s pre-war fiction culminating in the tighter, high-wire act of Murphy (1938)

Particularly fascinating for the fanatics will be the autoplagiaristic patterns disclosed fore and aft in the oeuvre by Echo’s Bones. A few: the mandrake believed to sprout from the emissions of the hanged in Waiting for Godot (1953), the dog of Proverbs chained to its vomit symbolising Habit in Proust, and the mysterious Mr Quin of Mercier and Camier (1946), Malone Dies (1951) and Watt (1953)… a nod, perhaps, to the man in the mackintosh in Joyce’s Ulysses.


(Detail) A mandrake chained to a dog which pulls it from the ground. Originally published/produced in S. Netherlands (Liège); circa 1175. © The British Library Board



Samuel Beckett, Echo’s Bones (London, Faber & Faber, 2014)

The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940: v.1 (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Deidre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London, Jonathan Cape, 1978), 109.


For Beckettiana in the BL collections see:

  • More Pricks Than Kicks (Cup.410.f.549)
  • Playscripts in directors/actors archives, such as the script of 'Catastrophe' in the Gielgud archive (Add MS 81371) and scripts in the Peter Gill papers.
  • Correspondence with Harold Pinter (Add MS 88880/7/2)
  • Correspondence with B S Johnson (Add MS 89001/5/1/4)
  • Copies of letters: ‘Letter Signed from Samuel Beckett to Harry Sinclair, written shortly after having been stabbed in Paris, 2 February 1938’ (RP 7757/2), and further letters and postcards to Sinclair at  RP 4309/1 and RP 7938/2, and an early draft of 'Words and Music', dated 15.2.61 (RP 9947)



09 April 2014

Looking for Solace in a Busy World: The Best Gardens in Literature

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By guest blogger Christina Hardyment, author of Pleasures of the Garden: A Literary Anthology

My pleasure in gardens has for much of my life been wistful admiration of those of other people. Four children and a dog, lots of writing and a fondness for literary geography and messing about in boats didn’t leave much time for fine horticulture when I was younger. But in 2005 I moved to a rambling peaceful house with two-thirds of an acre of neglected garden, and found myself enjoying the challenge of removing giant leylandii and battling brambles, creating raised beds and rows of beans and sweet peas in its bee-loud glades.

  PoG p153
Frontispiece from Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim, illustrated by S H Vedder, 1906 ( © The British Library

Eight years later, I eased off. Like Elizabeth in Elizabeth and Her German Garden, I decided that contemplation is a vital garden recreation. I acquired a playhouse on stilts with a slide to keep the grandchildren occupied, a few hens to scratch for slugs’ eggs, and a summerhouse for me: open at the front and trellised at the sides, with an Albertine rose ramping over the roof and lilies flanking the entrance. In it, I began to browse through the books about gardens that I had enthusiastically acquired but been too busy weeding to read. It was there that the idea blossomed of making what Montaigne famously called ‘a posy of other men’s flowers: a literary anthology of legendary, historical, practical and humourous garden writings.

Initially, I thought the best medium would be audio, so that gluttons for punishment could garden as they listened to the pleasure that other people took in gardens. Then came the British Library’s idea of accompanying my delights for the ear with delights for the eye, and thanks to the enthusiasm of the Publishing team my anthology is now appearing in print – embellished by the fabulous illustrations taken from across the British Library’s collections of books and manuscripts.

PoG p62
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, from Wonders of the Past edited by J A Hammerton, 1923-1924 (7700.f.32). © The British Library

The collection is intended primarily to entertain, but also to inform. So you can find out just how Nebuchadnezz’s hanging gardens of Babylon were constructed, as well as smiling at Charles Warren’s rueful observation that what a gardener really needs is ‘a cast-iron back with a hinge in it’. I remembered Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and Kipling’s poem 'The Glory of The Garden', and the many romances that have their most significant encounters in gardens: the spice-scented garden in The Romance of The Rose and the Eden-like nook in which Rochester takes Jane Eyre into his arms.

  PoG p18
The Garden of Pleasure, from Le Roman de la Rose, late 15th century (Harley MS 4425, f.12v). © The British Library

PoG p51
Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester from A Day With Charlotte Brontë by May Byron, 1911 ( © The British Library

I show that gardening is a global passion, beloved as much in the ancient civilizations of China, Japan and Persia as it is by moderns who tune in religiously to Gardener’s World. The important thing is not to let it become drudgery. Forget the weeding. Throw a garden party. Or sit back and browse in the shade, taking pleasure in your chrysanthemums with a glass of wine in your hand like the fourth century Chinese sage Tao Yuan Ming.

PoG p15
Chrysanthemum from Canton Album (NHD 43, f.104). © The British Library


Pleasures of the Garden: A Literary Anthology is available now from the British Library Shop.




02 April 2014

Happy International Children's Book day!

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As today is International Children's Book day I thought that it would be a good time to highlight examples of children's literature in the English and Drama collections at the British Library.

The Library holds copies of printed children's books which have been received under Legal Deposit. In addition we also have a number of archive and manuscript items relating to children's literature. Perhaps the most famous is the original manuscript, Alice's Adventures Under Ground, which would later be published as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Charles Dodgson (under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll) in 1865. The manuscript, which took Dodgson two years to painstakingly write and illustrate, has been digitised and can be found on the Library website. In addition to the manuscript the Library also has nine of Dodgson's diaries which include references to the creation and publication of the famous tale from the July day in 1862 when Dodgson first told the story to Alice Liddell and her sisters.

Aside from Alice we also have drafts of The Jungle Book and the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling and a nonsense story by the Victorian writer, Edward Lear among our collections.

Interestingly the Library has also recently acquired the manuscript of a 19th century morality tale for children entitled 'Poor Cecile and her Little Chicken' -


  Poor Cecile over image

The fair copy manuscript tells the tragic story of Cecile who suffers the ruin of her family, the deaths of her employers and later her husband and children. In old age she faces destitution when her brother squanders all the family's savings. Redemption comes in the form of the little chicken which Cecile cares for and money given to her by a relation of one of her long dead employers. The message of the story that God provides for everyone and that just reward will be provided in Heaven is rather different from messages which we find in children's literature today. The manuscript is an interesting example of its type particularly as its author, Mrs William Johnson, was better known as a writer of songs and ballads.

One final item relating to children's literature that I would like to highlight is a personal favourite of mine which is included in the Ted Hughes archive. The archive includes letters and photographs sent to Hughes by children who had read his books. This material includes a wonderful photograph taken in the 1970s of a group of school children dancing around their very own Iron Man -

Iron man image

Unfortunately the name of the school was not included so I am not sure where the photograph came from but it is a great illustration of just how inspiring children's literature can be. I would love to hear from anyone who recognises the photograph!  

As an add-on to my original post I should also mention that there are lots of images from children's literature on the Library's flickr site. Many thanks to a colleague for pointing these out to me.