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Writing Britain. An Alternative Viewing.

June 30, 2012
The British Library external shot across plaza

The British Library

Writing Britain. Wastelands to Wonderlands is on at the British Library until the 25th of September. As the website states, ‘Writing Britain examines how the landscapes of Britain permeate great literary works.’

The exhibition is certainly extensive and, if one luxuriates in the material there, takes more than the hour they recommend.

However the theme of the exhibition will soon become irrelevant if you, like me, find author’s handwritten manuscripts fascinating. I previously mentioned the sensation of seeing my great-uncle’s signature on his attestation documents. Looking at the handwriting of authors whose work is a part of the British psyche, certainly sets off a shiver of excitement.

We’ve lost something with progress. A word document may be easy to read on a backlight computer screen. The modern printer may produce perfect manuscripts. All these qualities are certainly a boon to the busy writer and editor. However, nothing compares to the dimension that handwriting brings to the page. A hand written manuscript with its crossings out, messy annotations, ink splatters and stains from errant splashes of tea or wine, and absent minded doodles are all part of literary archaeology just waiting to uncovered. Personalities leap off the page in a way homogenised print never can. The considerable size of the ‘Writing Britain’ exhibition gives plenty of scope for these thrilling discoveries. Timelines of examples of handwriting range from John Clare’s pastoral poems to the exploits of J K Rowling’s boy wizard.

 J K Rowling 'The Journey for Platform Nine and Three Quarters'

J K Rowling ‘The Journey for Platform Nine and Three Quarters’

If you can’t get up to the Elephant House in Edinburgh, then soak up its atmosphere by looking at a slice of handwritten Harry Potter, complete with heart-shaped doodles. I was aware that J K Rowling probably couldn’t afford even a typewriter while she was writing the Harry Potter cannon. However, I was surprised to see Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Remains of the Day’ (presented as ‘A Butler in England’ Draft 4 and for some reason ‘Draft 5’ is crossed out), on the same type of lined paper with punched holes I had used at school. The date given for this is the late eighties, so personal computers (PCs) were still not common place. A typewriter was probably used to produce the final manuscript. Even so several modern authors work in pen and paper, probably because of its immediacy. Opening a book and popping off the lid of your pen is a great deal faster than firing up the PC or portable computer. Tablets are now becoming more common, but there is always the issue of courting RSI, and navigating the on screen keyboard can test the most coordinated touch typist.

Having said this, it is difficult to glean quite so much about the writer’s inner landscape in the periods before and just after the First World War, when beautiful script was de rigueur and a measure of your intellect. William Wordsworth, Charlotte Bronte, George Elliot and Arnold Bennett all vie for first place in the smallest and most legible writing contest. In the case of Arnold Bennett, I would happily read his handwritten manuscript in place of the printed version. William Blake, as you would expect, litters his writing with sketches, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a great drawer of maps (as was Ted Hughes).

Samuel Taylor Coleridge notebook, with map.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge notebook, with map.

Charlotte Bronte Manuscript of 'Jane Eyre'

Charlotte Bronte Manuscript of ‘Jane Eyre’

Moving on up to the mid to late Twentieth Century, restraint and delicacy get left behind in favour of just getting it down on the page. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes would probably tie in a contest for overt expression of passion for their craft (or probably just passion). The bold, untidy writing of both gives the impression of a loose watercolour dashed off by an artist gifted in the skill of spontaneous representation of any subject matter. By this point it seems few writers use the exquisitely bound notebooks of the earlier age. Instead something similar to the rough notebook I used at school seems to be favoured.

It’s not just the sense of voyeurism into authors’ lives that’s so interesting. It’s clear that the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth (she was not as neat as her brother) and A E Houseman were an integral part of crafting a poem. Houseman was a dedicated chronicler of seasonal botany and weather, including daily temperature readings.

Daphne DuMaurier 'Rebecca' notebook

Daphne DuMaurier ‘Rebecca’ notebook

Notebooks also give insights into the thought processes of novel construction. As a closet romantic, I was thrilled to see Daphne DuMaurier’s plotting out Rebecca, even if it was in something that looks suspiciously like a cashbook. Yet these are the sorts of treasures that get thrown out when the author dies because they don’t look very interesting from the outside. Although a great example of recycling was William Blake who wrote in the spaces of his late brother’s notebook, because he wanted to maintain the sense of closeness they had always enjoyed.

Original manuscripts do give budding writers insights into the editorial processes of household names and reassurance that even great writers need help. Although not part of the exhibition,  Gordon Lish’s editing of Raymond Carver’s ‘Beginners’ is a useful example (albeit the typed version is available for viewing on the internet, it nevertheless reveals the deletions and insertions), and shows just what canny editing can do for a piece of writing. I have a facsimile and transcript of the original draft of T S Elliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, published by Faber and Faber, which I frequently pour over. This shows both handwritten and typed manuscript, with handwritten editing by Elliot and Ezra Pound. The advantage of view the work in ‘the raw’ is being able to see a written discussion through the crossings out and comments that could now only be examined in the sterile environment of word processed mark ups. Again it is the spontaneity of the quick slash or hastily scribbled thought that is so educational.

I was in the exhibition for a couple of hours and would have happily gone round again, if I had not been there so late in the day. The British Library has assembled a stunning collection of works in their themed exhibition and there are opportunities to listen to writers reading or discussing their work, courtesy of various headphones. The exhibition hall has a very high ceiling and because the material on display has to be in a climate controlled environment the air-conditioning means your time there is pleasant.

The King's Library. An extensive glass room containing the library of King George III. Inside the main concourse of the British Library.

The King’s Library. An extensive glass room containing the library of King George III. Inside the main concourse of the British Library.

The British Library has a web page dedicated to the exhibition. However, the British Library website is a great resource and well worth taking some time to explore.

Other manuscript delights.

Lewis Carroll ’Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’

Lewis Carroll ’Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’

J.G. Ballard 'Kingdom Come'.

J.G. Ballard ‘Kingdom Come’.

Angela Carter 'Wise Children'

Angela Carter ‘Wise Children’

The images of handwriting are copyright-cleared. Many thanks to @BL_BenS for making me aware of them. Other images from the exhibition are also available on the British Library website.


From → Event

  1. Thank you for bringing my attention to this exhibition – I’ll be there within the week 🙂

    • I only commented on the notebooks, and only some of the authors but there’s plenty to keep any lover of literature there for some time.

  2. Rebecca Bradley permalink

    What a brilliantly interesting post. It’s true of printed out manuscripts, that you get no real feel for the person. It is so much easier for the writer though – or so I find.

    If you were to ever look at my work, you would find a mixture of both, printed work and notebooks filled with ideas and random scribblings. Even if a writer does use a computer, I don’t think they can get away from the need to make scribbled notes. Or maybe that’s just my untidy head?

    • It is not a case of being untidy but having a series of thought processes that may or may not need bringing together. This is as fascinating for me as finished perfection.
      It is the sense of having the privilege, of looking over somone’s shoulder while they are in the act of creating.
      Maybe I should ask writers I interview to send a photo of a sample of their handwritten notes.

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