English and Drama blog

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

Introduction

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24 June 2020

Tales of Terror and Wonder – A Gothic Legacy

by Greg Buzwell, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. In this final blog highlighting our digital collections, Greg reflects on curating the popular exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, and its online legacy.

You can’t keep a good exhibition down. Even when the doors close to the public for the final time the exhibition catalogue, the online content, the learning resources and the inspiration it inspired in visitors all live on. With so many art galleries, libraries and museums currently unable to receive visitors in person now seems an ideal time to look back at a favourite exhibition from the past, and to explore some of the online content that helps keep its legacy alive. At the time of writing the sun is shining and the skies are blue but the show I want to look at is, perversely, the one synonymous with fading light, chills and shadows. A little bit of seasonal good weather isn’t going to keep any Gothic horror worthy of the name in hiding and so let’s step into the shade for a moment and take a look at the (undead) life and legacy of Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination.

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Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination – gone but not forgotten. A photograph of the section of the exhibition dealing with William Beckford, his novel Vathek and his impossibly Gothic house Fonthill Abbey. Photo by kind permission of Tony Antoniou.

 

In many ways Terror and Wonder, which ran from early October 2014 to late January 2015, was 250 years in the making. Like virtually all exhibitions at the British Library, and elsewhere come to that, it was run to coincide with an anniversary. Christmas 1764 witnessed the publication of Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto. The first edition of Otranto, in the best traditions of Gothic literature, arrived masquerading under false colours. The book, published without Walpole’s name on the title page, claimed to be a modern translation of a much earlier work recently discovered in an old family library in the North of England, a book which itself was based on an even older narrative. You can always rely on Gothic literature, which is never averse to a compelling shaggy dog story, to pile successive layers of strangeness upon a foundation built of smoke and mirrors. When the book proved to be a huge success Walpole came clean, added his name to the second edition and gave it the subtitle ‘A Gothic Story’. Gothic literature, which would go on to include the romances of Ann Radcliffe, the visceral horror of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the beguiling short stories in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber had been born.

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The second edition of The Castle of Otranto published in 1765, complete with the subtitle ‘A Gothic Story’. This is Walpole’s own copy, together with a watercolour of the real castle given to him by an admirer of the book. At the time of writing the novel Walpole was unaware that Otranto actually had a castle – he had simply chosen the name at random from a map of Italy. C.40.c.24

Early in the planning of every exhibition a choice has to be made regarding how the subject will be explored. For example, is it best to take a chronological or a thematic approach? Terror and Wonder took a chronological line, exploring how Gothic developed from The Castle of Otranto onwards. The alternative would have been to look at, say, vampire fiction or mad scientists all in one go. We didn’t want to put all of our vampires in one casket, however, so Lord Ruthven, Varney the Vampire, Carmilla and Count Dracula all took their own turn as they appeared in the chronology rather than being grouped together. Even so the proliferation of Gothic literature in the 20th century necessitated some collective gathering together of particular themes; as a result, folk horror and body horror, to take just two examples, had their own self-contained sections. In retrospect, and looking at it from a distance of over five years, by combining chronology with a bit of a thematic approach we did manage that rare and mystical feat of having our cake and eating it.

Concluding an exhibition is also a challenging moment. Do you offer a summary of everything that has gone before or do you try to look ahead at what may be the next developments in the subject? With Terror and Wonder we brought matters up to the present day, using specially commissioned photographs taken by Martin Parr of the 2014 Whitby Goth Festival. This allowed us to touch upon Gothic fashion and lifestyle, together with Goth music and steampunk - all of which, to some degree, owe a debt to Gothic literature. From Horace Walpole to Siouxie Sioux in a few beautifully dark moves.

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Just about everyone’s favourite exhibit – a model of the Were-Rabbit, kindly loaned for the exhibition by Ardman Animations. It isn’t always possible to do but where it can be included humour tends to work well in exhibitions. People remember the comic, the strange and the wonderful. Just look at those gorgeous fluffy feet …

An exhibition takes years in the planning but is usually only open for a matter of three or so months. Their ephemeral nature makes legacy all the more important. There is always a catalogue or an accompanying book, written by curators and academics, and these days there is always a considerable amount of online content. Many of the links in this piece will take you to pages on our Discovering Literature websites. From articles exploring  Gothic Motifs and The Victorian Supernatural through to in-depth looks at individual novels and poems Discovering Literature allowed us to look beyond the narratives we could explore in the display. An exhibition label only allows for 80 or so words – barely enough for an excitable and verbose curator wishing to outline a pet theory to get warmed up. Discovering literature allows for a much more detailed, imaginative and measured analysis to be put forward. It also allows for items which didn’t make it into the exhibition to have their moment in the spotlight, thus making the collections even more widely available.

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The Outcast and Other Dark Tales, by E.F. Benson. Edited by Mike Ashley. One of the ongoing series of books which first appeared in the wake of the Terror and Wonder exhibition.

Other legacies of Terror and Wonder include an adult learning course in Gothic literature; a series of books exploring the work of various Gothic authors such as Vernon Lee and E.F. Benson, together with anthologies collecting together uncanny tales with a particular theme such as Mad Scientists  or Botanical Gothic. Also, it has become something of a tradition to hold a Gothic-themed event around the time of Halloween. Many British Library exhibitions now go on tour once their initial run at the Library has finished and it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that a revived and reanimated version of Terror and Wonder could appear at a new venue in the future. We were also able to add to our collections following the exhibition, not least with the acquisition of the Papers of Robert Aickman. At the time Terror and Wonder was being put together the curatorial team were keen to include examples of Aickman’s work but we simply didn’t have the material to do him justice. Although too late for the show subsequently acquiring his archive means his papers can be included in any future displays of Gothic literature. Exhibitions provide excellent ways of forging new contacts and building new partnerships. As a result, via those contacts and the publicity surrounding an exhibition, new collections frequently arrive in the wake of any display.

These days virtually every British Library exhibition will have its own digital legacy. Terror and Wonder provides just one example, and there is plenty more to explore. Happy hunting.

 

19 June 2020

“To Mr Pope att Button’s Coffee House”: translating Homer on scraps

by Tabitha Driver, Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts. Find out more about the Library's collections of material relating to Alexander Pope on Discovering Literature.

Though we have been unable to explore physical collections directly during the last few months, their materiality exercises a continuing fascination. Printing, handwriting, paper, and writing tools all provide evidence of the processes of creation and transmission that’s sometimes not at all easy to reproduce in digital form. A writer’s own manuscripts can reveal much, from the quality of paper to revisions, insertions and rewritings. Not all writers start work with a fresh sheet of paper, either. Used scraps, old envelopes or discarded documents can all serve just as well, whether snatched up as a matter of urgency or simply for economy’s sake.

One such case is the 18th century poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Early in his career Pope produced translations of Homer’s two great epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Pope’s Iliad took him over six years to complete – at times he despaired of ever finishing – but when it was finally published, by subscription and issued in parts from 1715 to 1720, it paid off handsomely. Thanks to his earnings from both Homeric epics, Pope acquired invaluable financial independence; as he strikingly declared in a poem from 1737: “But (thanks to Homer) since I live and thrive,/Indebted to no Prince or Peer alive” (Epistle 2, ii.68–9, Poems, 4.169). 

Pope drafted his Homeric translations on the backs of old letters sent to him by friends, family, writers, and other public figures, and on other written fragments. Some years after his death, the drafts were presented to the British Museum in three volumes (Add MS 4807-4809): volumes one and two are the draft translations of The Iliad and the third is The Odyssey. They were early on a source of interest. Samuel Johnson, who described Pope’s Iliad as “the noblest version of poetry which the world has ever seen” examined the manuscripts at the Museum closely for his life of Pope (Johnson, Lives of the poets, ed. G H Norman (1905) vol. 3, p. 119), and printed comparisons between selected verses from the draft and published versions of The Iliad. He put down Pope’s use of old letters for writing paper to “petty artifices of parsimony”, a sign of the poet’s tendency to excessive frugality. You can find out more about the manuscripts, and read a selection of folios from Add MS 4807, on the British Library’s Discovering Literature website, along with Pope’s sketch of Achilles’ shield from Add MS 4808.

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Opening verses of Homer’s Iliad, translated by Alexander Pope. Manuscript draft (Add MS 4807, f. 17)

 

Besides what we can see of Pope’s translating and writing process from the manuscripts themselves – the crossings out and insertions, and the variances from the published text that Johnson observed – the mixed bag of unrelated letters and notes on which they were written confer a rich additional layer of significance. They provide a fascinating insight into the development of Alexander Pope as a young writer in literary London of the early 18th century, and the coffee house milieu in which he moved, with its literary and political alliances, rivalries, business and friendship.

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End of book 6 of The Iliad, translated by Alexander Pope. Manuscript draft written on a letter addressed to Mr Pope, Button’s Coffee-house (Add MS 4807, f. 87v)

 

The writers of the letters and notes include Pope’s friends John Caryll, the Jacobite Baron Caryll of Durford, Edward Bedingfield of Grays Inn, Barnaby Bernard Lintot, Pope’s publisher, Charles Jervas, portrait artist and painting instructor of Pope, and Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, poet, among others.

 

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Letter from Bernard Lintot about reception of “Mr Tickles book” at Buttons Coffee House, 10 June 1715 (Add MS 4807, f. 96v)

Topics touched on in the letters are miscellaneous too. They range from literary matters, such as publication of The Rape of the Lock (Pope’s mock-epic poem about the theft of a lock of hair) in 1712, instructions for the printer Jacob Tonson regarding Pope’s translation of the Sarpedon episode in Poetical miscellanies (1709), and the critical reception of a rival translation of the first book of The Iliad by Thomas Tickle, published in the same month as Pope’s (June 1715), to family affairs, such as medical advice and investments in the South Sea Bubble.

Thanks to the poet’s economical habit of re-using old paper for his writing, the manuscripts of “Pope’s Homer” have acquired a double significance. On the one hand they are important as the original drafts of his hugely successful translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. On the other, they offer us a vivid record of Pope’s life and times during all the years he worked on them.

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Alexander Pope’s sketch of the shield of Achilles (Add MS 4808)

17 June 2020

‘For it was the middle of June’: Dalloway Day

By Laura Walker, Lead Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts. Discover more about the British Library’s Virginia Woolf collections on Discovering Literature and find the three manuscript notebooks containing drafts of Mrs Dalloway on Digitised Manuscripts. See the Royal Society of Literature’s website for more information on their Dalloway Day events.

Virginia Woolf is perhaps best known for her ground breaking novel, Mrs Dalloway, which follows the events of a single Wednesday in June. The novel uses a stream of consciousness to follow individual characters inner thoughts and feelings. The two main characters, the socialite Clarissa Dalloway and the shell shocked First Wold War veteran Septimus Smith often provide mirrors of one another, reflecting concepts of sanity and insanity and life and death.

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Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51044 front cover and f.5

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

Unsurprisingly it took longer than a day for Woolf to write the novel. She wrote at least two drafts of Mrs Dalloway, originally called The Hours, in seven cloth bound notebooks. Three of these notebooks are now held at the British Library. Woolf kept a record of the dates on which she wrote particular sections of the drafts. The date on the first page of the first British Library notebook (Add MS 51044) is Wednesday 27 June 1923, and follows on from the draft in another notebook at the Berg collection at the New York Public Library.

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Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51045 f.113

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

The first notebook at the British Library begins with Peter Walsh, an old friend and flame of Clarissa’s walking in Westminster, which appears midway through the novel. This draft was completed over a year later on Thursday 9 October 1924 at 11.45 and runs into the second notebook (Add MS 51045) held at the British Library. Folio 113 is full of crossings out and changes to the text. It appears as though Woolf couldn’t get the ending quite right and, in this draft, it differs from the published version apart from the final line, ‘For there she was’.

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Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51045 f.114

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

Woolf begins the novel again on the next page, folio 114, 11 days later on 20 October. It opens with the socialite Clarissa Dalloway who is leaving her house to buy flowers in advance of a party she is hosting later in the day. She is in a buoyant mood and takes delight in the city of London and its occupants.

In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

Woolf herself loved London, it was her ‘beloved city’ and she enjoyed visiting the landmarks, parks and gardens. In a diary entry from 29 March 1940 she describes ‘walking along the Strand and letting each face give me a buffet’.

The Royal Society of Literature are using London as the theme for a couple of their Dalloway events. From 10am on 17 June they will launch ‘“There We Stop; There We Stand” with S. I. Martin – author, artist and founder of 500 Years of Black London walks – on an aural tour of London, from the National Portrait Gallery to Tottenham Court Road, exploring the black cultural heritage of Clarissa Dalloway’s footsteps, and touching on the lives of those whose portraits hang in the National Portrait Gallery.’

10am There We Stop; There We Stand: Exploring the black cultural history of London with S. I. Martin – an aural walking tour

‘”I love walking in London”, said Mrs Dalloway. “Really, it’s better than walking in the country."

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London under lockdown — or gradually easing lockdown — is very different to the bustling metropolis that Woolf described in the early 1920s. However, she would have known too well the experience of living through a pandemic; the Spanish Flu of 1918 was not a distant memory. In an article in The New YorkerMrs Dalloway is seen as ‘at least in part, a novel devoted to influenza’ and although not connected directly to the pandemic Clarissa is described to have fallen prey to the virus. The literary scholar Elizabeth Outka believes that any mention of influenza in the early 1920s must have been a reference to the pandemic of the Spanish Flu.

‘Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza)’

The situation today ‘puts Clarissa’s pleasure in traversing the city in a new light. So does reading it in the midst of our own pandemic, which has temporarily dissolved the busy urban scenes Woolf describes so lovingly throughout her book.’ In the next event at 2pm the Royal Society of Literature have joined with the Literary Hub, whose managing editor Emily Temple will host a Zoom based book-group to explore how Mrs Dalloway affects readers lives during this pandemic. It will explore themes of ‘solitude, PTSD, societal progress, and autonomy and freedom, Mrs Dalloway reflects much of many readers’ lives, and offers a lot for other readers to consider.’

2pm Literary Hub and RSL book club discussing Mrs Dalloway

Hosted by Literary Hub’s Emily Temple

‘Moments like this are buds on the tree of life.’ —Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

Most of the characters in Mrs Dalloway share their experiences of walking through the city. For Clarissa London is a playground and she has the wealth and the position to make the most of what the city can offer. However, Woolf uses the city to reflect Clarissa’s fading worth as an older woman, her loss of identity and the ‘gilded confinement’ of being ‘Mrs Richard Dalloway’.

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‘She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.’

Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth also explores London including a wander down the Strand, which she sees as an adventure. ‘For no Dalloways came down the Strand daily; she was a pioneer, a stray, venturing, trusting.’ The Dalloways wealth and privilege and the opportunities it brought was something many aspired to and could never achieve. ‘To many of her contemporaries, this ordinary day buying flowers and organising a party represented a freedom they could only hope for due to inequalities of class, gender and race.’

8pm The Pleasure of the Everyday – presented with Literary Hub, with authors Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and Kate Young, chaired by Literary Hub’s Emily Temple

‘Everything had come to a standstill’ —Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

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These themes will be considered in a Royal Society of Literature event at 8pm, which will chaired by the Literary Hub’s managing editor Emily Temple, with authors Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and Kate Young. They will also ‘explore the quotidian pleasures we’ve developed appreciation for since lockdown, how literature can support us in these confusing times, and how this experience compares to Clarissa Dalloway’s own cerebral journey’.

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Virginia Woolf, The Hours or Mrs Dalloway, Add MS 51046 f.177v

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

Contained within the cloth bound notebooks are other works and articles by Woolf that sit at the end of the notebooks and between sections of Mrs Dalloway. The second notebook, (Add MS 51045) contains a short story for children called Nurse Langton's Golden Thimble. The other two notebooks contain passages from essays published in the Common Reader including 'The Pastons and Chaucer' and 'On not knowing Greek' as well as other articles and reviews.

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Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting (1930, San Francisco) Cup.510.pb.30

© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Woolf believed that a ‘good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out’. ‘Perhaps as loved as her fiction and letters, Woolf’s essays guide their reader through considerations of equality, the importance of literature, health, and pleasure. Many readers have discovered or re-discovered Woolf’s essays during lockdown, finding in them inspiration and solace in uncertain times. In her essay “Street Haunting” Virginia Woolf noted, “we are no longer quite ourselves”, which takes on new meaning almost a century later, when essays still help us make sense of the world around us. Join writers Mona Eltahawy and Sinéad Gleeson in conversation with Charleston’s Susannah Stevenson at 6.30pm as they discuss the power of modern essay writing, the potential of the form to progress feminism, and the legacy of Virginia Woolf’s work.’

6.30pm The Common Reader in Uncommon Times with authors Sinéad Gleeson and Mona Eltahawy, chaired by Charleston’s Susannah Stevenson

‘A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out’—Virginia Woolf, ‘The Common Reader’

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Perhaps Woolf’s most famous essay is ‘A Room of One’s Own’, a key text in feminist literary criticism where she examines the educational, social and financial disadvantages women have faced throughout history. It contains Woolf’s famous argument that, ‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ – although Woolf describes this as ‘an opinion upon one minor point’, and the essay explores the ‘unsolved problems’ of women and fiction ‘to show you how I arrived at this opinion about the room and the money’. 

 

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Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (Hogarth Press 1929), Cup.410.f.577
© The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. 

 

In the essay Woolf remarks upon the nature of female relationships, ‘Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen.  Sometimes women do like women.’ ‘Almost the entire body of Virginia Woolf’s writing – her novels, essays and letters –have been interpreted from a variety of queer perspectives, and her work has inspired many modern interpretations across film, dance and theatre.’ At 10pm BBC Radio 3 will air Free Thinking: ‘Queer Bloomsbury’, in which ‘presenter Shahidha Bari, authors Paul Mendez and Francesca Wade will discuss and debate Woolf’s legacy for modern queer writing, as well as lesser-known queer histories of Bloomsbury.’

10pm BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking: ‘Queer Bloomsbury’with authors Paul Mendez and Francesca Wade , chaired by Shahidha Bari

‘Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen.  Sometimes women do like women.”—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

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The full programme for the events on Dalloway as well as details on how to join in can be found on the Royal Society of Literature’s website.