The British Library travels from Wastelands to Wonderlands in impressive haul of British literary manuscripts

By Ruth Hazard | 11 May 2012
Daphne Du Maurier's early plan for Rebecca which was used as evidence when the author was unsuccessfully sued for plagiarism
© The British Library
Exhibition: Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, The British library, London, until 25 September 2012

Writing Britain is a literary geek’s dream. The hand scrawled manuscripts of Ted Hughes and J.K Rowling; William Blake’s inspirations jotted in his observation diaries; characters brought to life in inked out illustrations by Ralph Steadman; early edition prints of the penny papers containing the first appearance of Sweeney Todd... This is a library collection like no other.

Rather than display the work chronologically, the British Library have arranged the space into a series of mini-exhibitions, each exploring a particular dimension of the British landscape - from rural countryside idylls to industiralised urban cities.

J.R.R Tolkien’s text is accompanied by his paintings of the Shire, while AA Milne’s tales of Pooh Bear sit next to an illustrated map of the 100 Akre (sic) Wood, both are landscapes the authors based on their childhood homes and are places imbued with a sense of happy nostalgia.

In contrast the effects of the British industrial revolution are explored through the eyes of Charlotte Bronte, whose letter to Dickens sees her express concern over ‘vomiting mills’ and similarly, William Wordsworth, who wrote a sonnet to Prime Minister Gladstone objecting to the proposed Windermere railway.

Exploring Britain's wilder landscapes is the gothic Bronte tale, Wuthering Heights, which is displayed among other works that used the novel as a source of inspiration.

In 1961 Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath each wrote a poem in homage to the famous book based on their own experiences of the Yorkshire moors and visits to the Hughes' family home.

Two very different poems are highlighted by two very different manuscripts. Hughes swirled ink letters sit in a hardback notebook while Plath’s typewriter font seems staid in contrast.

The display also draws attention to the differing portrayals of the city of London as a setting for literary narratives.

While Sweeney Todd and The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Hyde portray a menacing view of a dark, horror filled capital, J.K Rowling’s first drafts of the scene at Platform 9 ¾ at London’s Kings Cross show it as a gateway into another magical world.

But this is not a lifeless collection of books. What makes the display so compelling is the insight it offers into the people who wrote them and the story behind the stories.

There’s a childhood newspaper Virginia Woolf created with her siblings, Wordsworth’s anonymous contributions to travel guides imploring people to visit his much loved Lake District and Daphne Du Maurier’s original idea journal for Rebecca.

The latter was used as evidence when she was unsuccessfully sued for plagiarism by a South American author who had written a novel with a similar plot line.

Whether it's finding out that William Blake was never without his treasured notebook as it had belonged to his deceased brother, or that Ian McEwan kept pebbles from Chesil beach on his desk as inspiration, or that Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife burned the first copy of the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or that JK Rowling draws heart shaped doodles in her margins, this is like a backstage pass to the making of some of Britain’s greatest literature.

Jamie Andrews, the lead curator of Writing Britain, says that the great literature of the UK cannot be summed up in one exhibition — this is only really a snapshot.

As visitors will agree, this is quite some snapshot.

  • Open 9.30am-6pm (8pm Tuesday, 5pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday and Bank Holidays). Tickets £5-£9 (free for under-18s). Book online.

More pictures:

a painitng in blue on white resembling a map of a river with words intertwined
Liz Mathews/Virginia Woolf, Thames to Dunkirk, London (2009)© Liz Mathews

a manuscript from Lewis Carroll's The Queen of Hearts with an ilustration by the author of the Queen talking to Alice.
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures Under Ground (1865)© British Library Board

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