Tuesday 7 August 2012

Review: Writing Britain at the British Library

Throughout the Jubilee/ Olympic season, the British Library have been running an exhibition called ‘Writing Britain’, charting the relationship of British literature and its landscape. The other day I went to have a look.

On first impressions, it seemed a little flat. It is certainly a reading exhibit and showed little of the fun and visual flair of the free ‘Imaginary World’s’ exhibit a little while ago. However, when you start going around and reading and looking at the objects displayed that you really realise how many treasures are in one room. I was absorbed for nearly four hours.

The exhibition was arranged in five themed areas with cases of books and manuscripts in each one. The themes were, the countryside; industrial towns, moors and wastelands, suburbia, London and waterways. I most enjoyed the London section (which thrilled me with having John Stow’s survey of London and John Gay’s Trivia in the same case - books I have aways placed together on my shelves). 

To be honest, I found the the overall focus a little flimsy. There is little about London that is exemplified in descriptions worrying about the unnatural tastes of Hyde, but the description of London crime was used as an excuse to show a manuscript of that book. The description next to it included the very interesting snippet that it was the third manuscript of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ as Stevenson’s wife had thrown the others away, worried about what the story was doing to her husband.

Indeed, the most interesting part of the exhibit was comparing all the different manuscripts to each other. Whether Ishiguro writing ‘v good’ next to some of his own writing or Oscar Wilde scoring parts out and squeezing elements in to perfect a joke in ‘Importance of Being Earnest’, the manuscripts showed such interesting differences in writing process.

Fanny Burney and Anne Bronte shared a careful hand with no mistakes, whereas JG Ballard and Blake scrawled in big messy loops. There was De Maurier’s careful notes for Rebecca and Galsworthy's’s plans of Soame Forsyte's house in the Forsyte Saga. There were the several drafts for ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ and a number Greene's attempts at ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ chapter in ‘Wind in the Willows’. 

JK Rowling’s manuscript for ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ show her to be a product of a computer age, with a main draft with lots of crossings out and another page with paragraphs to be inserted. It also shows that she makes little heart shaped doodles as she writes, which I found to be very endearing. There were plenty more, including Dickens and lots of poets, especially romantic ones, as would be expected in an exhibition on place.

It made me think, as young writers will be more used to the computer then the pen, seeing these sorts of working drafts will be more of a rarity as the changes will be invisible or on computer files.
I for instance sometimes write ahead of myself, go back and catch up, using the momentum to get through the piece. It may be able to spot this in my writing, but each typescript looks clean, clear from the scratches it took to get there.

The exhibition also had other treasures, a 600 year old copy of the ‘Canterbury Tales’, an early chapbook about Robin Hood as well as early copies of Piers Ploughman, Gerald of Wales’ description of Ireland and Monmouth’s history of Kings. There were first edition copies of Goldsmith, Grey and Fanny Burney as well as John Lennon’s hand-scrawled lyrics for ‘in My life’. All of which had a sad git like me giddy with excitement.

As for the theme though, it seems obvious that a writer talks about place. The main theme of the novel I am working at now is how an author engages with their time and place, while the last one had strong links to parts of London (and a few scenes in Horsham, Sheffield and Coventry). The point of the exhibition either seems to be too subtle for me to have grasped or too simple to waste much though on. 

What I would really love the British Library to do is to create an exhibition about writing process, comparing manuscripts, pictures, draft notes and interviews to create a good hard look at how writers write. Maybe I should drop a line and ask them.

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