When visiting other people’s houses, I always enjoy looking at their bookshelves to see what they like to read, and to keep. All my Shakespeare books are in the room where I work, while books on other favourite subjects are elsewhere in the house. Here are shelves of novels, mostly Victorian, books on gardening, art, walking guides, photography, history and the natural world. And there are two shelves of maps, mostly covering scenic areas of the UK. So it’s not surprising that I loved the British Library’s current exhibition Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands.
The exhibition’s divided into six sections: Rural Dreams, Dark Satanic Mills, Wild Places, Beyond the City, Cockney Visions and Waterlands. Within each section is a fantastic range of items from author’s first drafts, fair copies, printed books, dustjackets, and illustrated editions. Apart from giving a sense of the importance of Britainas a concept, it showcases the sheer range of the Library’s holdings combined with glorious items loaned from other collections and from living authors. It’s a tribute to the work of those organisations that collect and preserve these items. For a full review of the exhibition click here, and for a podcast, click here.
Books and manuscripts may not appear to be exciting exhibition objects, but here we have a celebration of the power of the imagination and of words, that conjure up a time, a place, or an emotion, or sometimes as with Matthew Arnold’s poem On Dover Beach, all three. Here, in pencil, biro, or the felt-tipped pen that John Lennon used for the draft of In My Life, are magical words written in notebooks or on sheets of bog-standard A4 notepaper. If only someone had collected up the contents of Shakespeare’s litter bin.
The ancient illuminated manuscripts would always have been of value. The glorious version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales has been treasured since the day it was created. But what about one of my favourite objects in the exhibition, the little notebook that originally belonged to William Blake’s brother? After his brother’s death, Blake kept the book and wrote in it for two decades, including the text of his poem The Tyger.
I was excited to see pages of manuscripts from some of my favourite novelists: Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, and of children’s books like The Wind in the Willows and Alice’s Adventures Underground. The most extraordinary ones are the first drafts of poems and novels where you see the author’s mind in action, like Stella Gibbons’ book Cold Comfort Farm, written in an unsophisticated hand, and the manuscript of Edward Thomas’s Adlestrop, voted the nation’s favourite poem. But there are surprises too: who has ever heard of Mary Collier, the eighteenth-century “washerwoman poetess”, and who would have guessed that Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of Sherlock Holmes, himself lived in the suburbs?
Shakespeare takes a bit of a back seat in the exhibition, though several contemporaries (Michael Drayton, Edmund Spenser, John Taylor) are represented. Although some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines conjure up feelings of nostalgia for the loss of a rural past he rarely describes actual places. The film of Richard II screened only on Sunday treated us to sumptuous locations including St David’s Cathedral, a beach in Pembrokeshire, the garden of Packwood House in Warwickshire and several castles. Standing in for Coventry (which has changed rather a lot) was a lush green field backed by a richly wooded hillside.
The Rural Dreams section covers the rustic vision of England, already mythologised by the legends of King Arthur and represented by a manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, right up to a twentieth-century recruitment poster reminding men what they were fighting for: a landscape of green valleys and thatched cottages. Shakespeare’s Arden is represented by a single volume of the 1709 edition of his plays showing the illustration for As You Like It.
He’s there too in the Wild Places section along with those depicters of wild scenes, Thomas Hardy and the Brontes, a modern edition of King Lear illustrating the storm-beaten heath, where the savagery of the landscape mirrors the King’s mental torment.
More surprising are early reminders that industrialisation was not always seen as an evil. The mock-heroic poem The Fleece was published in 1757 by John Dyer. It celebrates the early mechanisation of rural industry, tracking the progress of wool from the farming of sheep to exporting of the cloth. Within a few decades industry had turned Britain’s landscapes into the nightmare world made notorious by writers like Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, though George Eliot in Middlemarch optimistically welcomed the coming of the railways to rural areas.
I was fortunate to be part of a curator’s tour led by Jamie Andrews. A podcast is available from his appearance on Radio 4’s Open Book on 24 June, just follow this link.
As well as pointing out some of the gems of the exhibition he mentioned that changes in working methods means that materials like those on display are now rarely created. Instead of scratching with a pen or pencil on a piece of paper, or correct typescripts by hand, most do all the work on computers. So the exhibition also commemorates a way of working that is in decline.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the wonderful exhibits, but I should mention the exhibition is a multi-media display containing film clips and sound recordings of readings of some items.
Entry to the exhibition is normally £9, and runs to 25 September. The British Library have offered a reader of this blog the chance to win a pair of free tickets. All you have to do is write a comment at the end of this post (subscribers should follow the link at the end of the email to The Shakespeare blog itself), about a place which you associate with a scene from one of Shakespeare’s plays. It could be a place Shakespeare mentions, or somewhere that makes you think of one of his speeches. You’ve got until Sunday 15 July, and I’m really looking forward to hearing from you!