Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands
11 May – 25 September 2012
The British Library explores literature inspired by spaces and places around the British Isles, from Penny Lane to Platform 9 ¾
Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands explores treasures from the last 1000 years of English literature that have been shaped by the country’s unique spaces and places. From idyllic rural landscapes to gritty cities, the exhibition will showcase a literary map of the British Isles and highlight how writers, from William Shakespeare and Walter Scott to John Lennon and J K Rowling, have recorded the changing spaces of the British Isles in some of their greatest literary works, and in turn inspired their readers to explore the country in new ways.
Curated by the British Library’s English and Drama team, the exhibition will feature over 150 literary works, including first-time loans from overseas and personal loans from modern authors, such as Posy Simmonds, Jonathan Coe, Hanif Kureishi, and J K Rowling.
Sound recordings, letters, photographs, maps, song lyrics and drawings as well as manuscripts and printed editions will feature alongside newly commissioned video interviews on location with literary figures including Simon Armitage, Andrea Levy and Ian McEwan.
Highlights of the exhibition include:
JK Rowling, Chapter six, ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ © J K Rowling. Kindly lent by the author.
• J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – the original manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, lent by the author, describes Harry Potter’s first encounter with platform 9 ¾ in London’s King’s Cross station.
• John Lennon’s original draft for ‘In My Life’ – John Lennon’s original handwritten lyrics to ‘In My Life’ describe the bus journey from Lennon’s childhood home to Liverpool’s town centre, recording many landmarks passed en route. The final version of the song, which appeared on The Beatles album Rubber Soul (1965), became a general meditation on the past.
• Virginia Woolf, first edition of To the Lighthouse (1927) and childhood newspaper, ‘Hyde Park Gate News’ – Woolf’s modernist novel tells the story of the Ramsay family and their visits to a remote island in the Hebrides. While the novel describes a visit to the Hebrides, an edition of ‘Hyde Park Gate News’, the childhood newspaper produced by Woolf and her siblings, shows the inspiration was in fact a family trip to the Godrevy lighthouse of St Ives.
• Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 14th century – the earliest surviving manuscript of the medieval romance poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
• G K Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, 1904 – the author’s sketchbook shows drawings of characters in the novel, which is set in a remarkably un-futuristic 1984. GK Chesterton re-imagines the ordinary as magical, placing fields of lavender at Lavender Hill, and lemon groves in Southfields.
• Emily Brontë’s ‘Gondal Poems’ notebook – Emily Brontë composed the poems in this notebook a decade before her more famous Wuthering Heights. Known as the Gondal Poems, they are based around the imaginary kingdoms she created with her siblings.
The exhibition is divided into six different themes relating to various British landscapes and environments which have lent themselves as inspiration to writers, poets and visual artists.
Rural DreamsFrom the pastoral idyll as a sentimental vision of a pre-industrial past to nature as a representation of death and chaos, writers have explored the vanishing world of rural Britain.
Also on display in the exhibition’s Rural Dreams section is:
• J R R Tolkien’s original artwork for The Hobbit – the watercolour of ‘The Hill at Hobbiton’ is one of the most unusual representations of rural England, on loan from the Bodleian Library.
• Thomas Hardy’s prepublication proof copy of Far From the Madding Crowd, corrected in the author’s own handwriting. This is shown alongside Posy Simmonds’s watercolour proofs for Tamara Drewe, the satirical reworking of the novel, kindly lent by the artist
• Kazuo Ishiguro’s manuscript for The Remains of the Day, kindly lent by the author, deals with the end of the great period of the country house and estate by following the butler Stevens as he travels around a quiet England.
Dark Satanic MillsFrom the early 19th century onwards writers began to describe the effects of industrialisation, initially celebrating the changes. By the mid-19th century authors began to reveal the appalling conditions created in industrial centres such as Manchester and Birmingham. Later authors highlighted the effect of the economic depression of the 1920s-30s and the post-war desolation felt by many ahead of the rebirth of the provincial city in the 1950s and 1960s.
On show in this section is:
• George Orwell’s manuscript map, diary page and letter illustrating his experiences in the north of England, later published in the form of The Road to Wigan Pier, on loan from University College London.
• George Eliot’s manuscript for Middlemarch (1871-72) addressing the implications of political, social and technological change upon a provincial town, such as the proposed building of a railway line
• William Wordsworth’s letter to Prime Minister WE Gladstone objecting to the proposed Kendal and Windermere Railway, in which he enclosed a sonnet: ‘Is no nook of English ground secure / From rash assault?’
Wild PlacesExplore wild and dramatic landscapes in literature and what they reveal about the author. Writers have charted memorably terrifying encounters of man with the wild, and at the same time written about spaces of regeneration and enlightenment, powerfully redefining how we view much of Britain’s landscape today.
Highlights in this section include:
• Charlotte Bronte’s manuscript for Jane Eyre (1847), in which a terrifying apparition of a ‘gytrash’ (a beast of folklore most associated with Yorkshire and Lancashire) anticipated by Jane solidifies into an encounter with Mr Rochester’s horse, Mesrour, and dog, Pilot.
• Sylvia Plath’s draft of ‘Hardcastle Crags’ and Ted Hughes’s draft of ‘Wuthering Heights’, both based on the couple’s trip to Top Withins in Yorkshire.
Cockney visionsHow writers have represented London over the past 600 years, and how these visions continue to define how observers see the city. Beginning with Chaucer’s pilgrims, then progressing to depictions of the underbelly of London, as explored by writers like Dickens, and continuing to the present day with contemporary psychogeographers and how they have been influenced by earlier London wanderers including William Blake.
The ‘Cockney visions’ section will include:
• William Blake’s plates from Jerusalem describing ‘The fields from Islington to Marylebone, To Primrose Hill and Saint Johns Wood’ as ‘builded over with pillars of gold, And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood’.
• Harold Pinter’s early draft of his poem ‘Joseph Brearley’, describing childhood walks‘ from Clapton Pond to Stamford Hill, And on, Through Manor House to Finsbury Park…’,
• Robert Louis Stevenson’s manuscript for Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, showing how he toned down some of the language compared with the first draft, which was burnt, and describing Soho as ‘a dismal quarter…like a district of some city in a nightmare’.
Manuscript for Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde © The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. MA 1202. Photography, Graham S. Haber, 2012.
Beyond the cityTaking the edges of the city as its focus, this section will look at how the fantastic and forgotten have been uncovered and reclaimed by writers. From the literary reconstruction of suburbia from a place of security and uneventfulness to a place where the fearful or fantastic might lurk, this theme will also explore how the division between centre and periphery shifts as writers open up the overlooked. Both idyll and threat, these under-examined edge-lands are, in the words of JG Ballard, ‘more interesting than people will let on’.
Highlights in this section will be:
• Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, Beyond the City, set in the ‘tree-lined peaceful avenues’ of suburban Norwood. The novel is displayed along with an ‘at home’ piece for The Strand Magazine, showing the author proudly posing in front of his house in the suburbs, and letters to his mother with plans for a new house in Hindhead, Surrey: ‘I was very interested to hear your view about the stables’.
• Hanif Kureishi’s diary and manuscript for The Buddha of Suburbia, kindly lent by the author, set in suburban Bromley. When Buddha was adapted for the BBC, the soundtrack was composed by David Bowie, who himself grew up in Bromley. Kureishi’s diary describes his meeting with Bowie in Switzerland.
• J G Ballard’s manuscripts for Crash and Kingdom Come use anonymous peripheral landscapes – gated communities, shopping malls, clinical airport terminals. Ballard’s suburbia is a breeding ground for violence and the mood is even reflected in the author’s handwriting and edits on the page, brutally scrawled in different coloured inks.
WaterlandsThe ways in which writers are inspired by the rivers, seashores and other waterscapes of the country. From nostalgic evocations of childhood bucket and spade holidays to powerful themes of death, rebirth and the eternity of nature, water plays a key part in our literary heritage.
The ‘Waterlands’ section includes:
• ‘The Seafarer’ from the 10th century Exeter Book. On loan from Exeter Cathedral Library, the Exeter Book is one of four surviving collections of Old English poetry. It features ‘The Seafarer’, a religious poem written from the point of view of an old sailor.
• James Joyce’s original notesheets for the chapter of Ulysses which provoked scandal in the US, due to its subject matter of voyeuristic masturbation, and led to Joyce’s prosecution and banning of the novel.
• Daphne Du Maurier’s early plan for Rebecca, on loan from Exeter University Library, which was used as evidence when the author was unsuccessfully sued for plagiarism.
‘The Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne Du Maurier © Chichester Partnership
In a series of videos filmed specifically for the exhibition, eleven contemporary writers will explain what place means to them, in their writing and in the writing of others. These video interviews, featuring British authors including Simon Armitage, Graham Swift, Ian McEwan and Andrea Levy, explore a sense of place in Britain today and how their work reflects Britain’s unique landscapes.
Visitors to the exhibition will also be invited to explore an online interactive map revealing the literary highlights of the British Isles. Submitted by the public through the British Library website the website project Pin a Tale asks people to describe their favourite pieces of writing, in any form, that represents a place they know and to explain why they have chosen the item and how the author has captured the spirit of the place.
An exciting programme of talks, discussions, film and performances will accompany the exhibition throughout the summer – taking a deeper and sometimes surprising look at the themes of place and space. Speakers will include Iain Sinclair, Alan Yentob, Stuart Maconie, Lauren Laverne, Hanif Kureshi, Michael Rosen and many others.
The British Library will be offering a range of learning activities to accompany Writing Britain, including workshops for Secondary and Further Education students, lectures aimed at GCSE and A Level students, Continuing Professional Development conferences for teachers and two filmmaking projects with local Secondary students.
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