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REVIEW: Writing Britain, British Library, until September 25
THE British Library is already a must-visit destination for book lovers, but a little something extra has been added by this outstanding collection.
Its curators have gathered the great and the good from our literary history and displayed them as a celebration of our country through the written word.
Move from rural idylls through the industrial revolution, see London through writers’ eyes, and take a closer look at how these words - fact, fiction, maps, letters, poetry and songs - have emerged
from the moors, heaths, villages, towns, cities and waterways of the British Isles as it has evolved.
Sure to draw crowds are JK Rowling’s handwritten draft of the first Harry Potter novel (complete with heart doodles in the margin) and John Lennon’s block capitals scrawling of the lyrics to In My
Life and Penny Lane, complete with crossings out and alterations.
But, my goodness, a bibliophile won’t know where to look first, or what to get most excited by. Handwritten drafts of so many canon works and classic novels abound, including Dickens, Bronte,
Hardy, Eliot, Arnold, Orwell, Heaney, Wordsworth and Joyce.
You can read the corrections of Thomas Hardy on the preface of an 1874 proof of Far From the Madding Crowd, peer at Emily Bronte’s tiny writing in her personal notebook, or wonder at the immense
brick that is George Eliot’s Middlemarch manuscript, such a neat artefact with very few visible corrections or alterations.
The selection is first-rate, teasing out the threads which unite what are often such different texts, weaving a thoroughly engaging narrative. Where else will you ever find, in one room, a 1579
Shepheardes Calendar by Spenser, Mary Collier’s The Woman’s Labour, a Neil Gaiman retelling of the tale of Sweeney Todd and the notebook of the contemporary poet Wendy Cope? The latter, opened at
her development of the verses of At Steep, is a fascinating insight into the evolution of a poem.
A first-rate selection of audio excerpts support the texts themselves. Whilst wandering around, I listened to JG Ballard reading from Crash, Carol Ann Duffy reciting John Barleycorn – her poem
about the spirit of the British pub – Daphne Du Maurier reading from Jamaica Inn, and Laurie Lee reciting 1959’s Field of Autumn, which was just divine. I closed my eyes and was absolutely
transported as he spoke its lines, including the wonderful “slow drops the late wasp from the pear”, into my ear.
There’s also a huge Stephen Walter Liverpool map from 2008 which is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Its detail includes references to celebrities, chavs and really has to be seen to be
This is a fascinating glimpse at the origins of some of our favourite and most famous works, the natural and industrialised worlds which informed them, and will make for quite a day out for a book lover.
Further information is online at www.bl.uk/writingbritain .