Sunday, 10 June 2012

'Writing Britain': literary landscapes at The British Library

Whilst my weekends are now blissfully free of long days spent pouring over journal articles and tedious tomes in libraries, I do occasionally find myself wandering back to one of my old degree-day haunts; the British Library in Kings Cross.  Not so I can shut myself away to relive the miserable period spent writing my dissertation, but to lounge in its garden with a book or to potter round an exhibition or two.  And the latest exhibition could've been put on just for me.  For someone who loves to read about places, and writes almost entirely about them, 'Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands' was completely fascinating.  Exploring English literature that features places and spaces all over the British Isles, the exhibition contains manuscripts of writers such as Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Daphne du Maurier, William Wordsworth and even J.K.Rowling, with her description of Kings Cross station, the home of the fabled Platform 9 and 3/4.      
The exhibition is divided into thematic regions; from rural areas to the suburbs, and London to the waters that run through and around the UK.  Inside you can read handwritten novels and notes, view an enormous map of Liverpool made up entirely of words, and listen to recordings of poems and extracts, including the much loved 'Adelstrop' read by the widow of the poet Edward Thomas.  Whilst the descriptions and literary landscapes conjoured up on the pages were certainly interesting, I found myself learning more about how the writers thought and went about writing places.  One of my literary heroines, Stella Gibbons (author of the glorious 'Cold Comfort Farm'), had appalling hand-writing and made a complete mess of a clean page when she wrote.  Her manuscripts were a mass of scribblings out and appended notes.  Oscar Wilde too was a scrawler, peppering his manuscripts with speech bubbles filled with additions.  By contrast, Jane Austen's drafts were immaculately written, without a single amendment made; she clearly wrote with serious conviction.   

A large number of writers made themselves maps of the places of which they wrote, some simple, but others more elaborately detailed than their textual depictions.  A.A.Milne drew out 100 Aker Wood in which to plan the exploits of Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore et al.  Betjeman consulted railway line maps and even sketched stations in his notebook as he wrote 'The Metropolitan Railway'.  This suggested that to transform a place into words and phrases you need a clear visual image of where you are writing about, either for inspiration or reference.  (On an less geographical note, my inner cynic was delighted to discover the first appearance of the word 'sarcasm', in Spenser's The 'Shepheardes Calendar' published in 1579.  And the 'Stop HS2' effort could learn much from Wordsworth's 1844 letter to Gladstone, arguing against a proposed Kendal and Windermere railway which was planned to run through his beloved Lake District. )  

And after an hour or so wandering round 'Writing Britain', I began to wonder about writing about places today.  How do more modern writers dream up their literary geographies?  What would my London look like if I scribbled it down on a piece of paper?  Which places would constitute my landmarks?  If my writing about a place is all neatly typed and uniform (often remaining only in virtual rather than hard-copy form) what can people learn from the way I write?  Should I be handwriting more of my work?  (Even if my finished manuscripts would be more similar to those of Gibbons than Austen, in terms of their neatness!)  Or what will us bloggers leave behind for display in the British Library in fifty years time...?


  1. What a great post. I had no idea this exhibition was even on (goes to show how in touch I am with events around London), but am inspired by your summary and thoughts here to take time out and visit it as well.

    LCM x

  2. I hadn't heard of the exhibition. Where the hell have I been? It sounds really inspiring. I am not worried. In fifty years time, there will be a whole wing dedicated to the Accidental Londoner (don't forget to take me with you!).

  3. Definitely worth a visit, ladies. Go, go, go! Ha, I love your faith in me, Muriel...I have no doubt about it that if Accidental Londoner makes it so too will the French Yummy Mummy!

  4. I must go and visit this exhibition.

  5. In regards to your last paragraph, I had exactly the same thought! It definitely sparked a sense of excitement about my surroundings as I left the building. I suddenly began to view things in a slightly different manner.

    1. That's the sign of a good exhibition, isn't it, Andrejuno? Leaves you looking at things differently and somewhat inspired.

      Hope you get to see it, Mo!


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