~ Posted by Emma Hogan, May 11th 2012
“Writing Britain”, which opens today at the British Library, traces how writers from Chaucer to Zadie Smith have used the British landscape—from its rolling dales and hills to its inner-city tower blocks—in their work. With over 100 items from the library itself, and others on loan from America or other parts of Britain, it is not lacking in jewels. There is a delicately-wrought manuscript of "The Canterbury Tales", an original illustration from Tolkein's "The Hobbit", a psychedelic cartoon of "Alice in Wonderland" by Ralph Steadman and the wonderfully pulp-like cover of Alan Sillitoe's "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning".
But the real gems are the manuscripts. Looking at these exhibits—from Laurie Lee's draft of "Cider with Rosie" written on the back of a BBC script to a list by W.H. Auden of his favourite names of lead mines in Derbyshire—another theme emerges, which brings these authors even closer: their handwriting. The only manuscripts on display by Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot show them writing in clear, straight, evenly spaced copperplate, Eliot's few markings and changes as coolly confident as the progress of "Middlemarch". Looking at the handwriting of these two women, they suddenly seem unshakable, and you can understand how they took on the whole host of male Victorian writers.
In contrast, Coleridge's notebook from his 1802 tour of the Lake District is as ragged as the mountains he writes about—his swerving D's and P's slipping and sliding off the page. So too with William Blake: his tiny, spidery handwriting fills the notebook he carried with him, "London" and "Tyger, Tyger" crammed on two opposite pages in a pencil so delicate it seems as if one smudge would obliterate it.
Some of these writers wrote in a hand that seems startling. Katherine Mansfield, whose spiky short stories made the equally edgy Virginia Woolf declare that her work "was the only writing I have ever been jealous of", writes in a soft, flowery script, with florid G's and L's. Stella Gibbons, whose "Cold Comfort Farm" parodies doom-laden Edwardian country novels writes in a well-spaced child-like way—the irony and mischief which made her famous seemingly absent from her handwriting. Similarly, Daphne du Maurier's early pencil notes for her windswept "Rebecca"—used as evidence when du Maurier was unsuccessfully sued for plagiarism—has the rigid neatness of the schoolroom.
And yet often it is what they didn't end up saying which is just as illuminating. J.G. Ballard's manuscript for the opening page of "Kingdom Come" shows his black biro script covered in red and blue revisions and indecisions—crossing out most of the text apart from the one, inspired, first sentence: "The suburbs dream of violence." With the advent of typewriters and computers, these criss-crossing changes can be seen even more clearly. Seamus Heaney crosses through his typed lines of poetry making subtle changes with a red pen: "glen" becomes "arbour", and "haven" becomes "harbour". What's deleted takes us as close to the workings of their minds as what remains.