Reviews Books Published 6 September 2012

Writing Britain

British Library ⋄ 11 May - 25 September

Literary landscapes.

Julia Rank

The ultimate sign that a work of literature has become ingrained in the public consciousness might be when it becomes synonymous with a part of the landscapes: parts of Yorkshire are dubbed ‘Brontë Country’ and Exmoor  ‘Lorna Doone Country’. A stroll around the Georgian centre of Bath might feel ‘very Jane Austen’ and an afternoon in a stifling corner of the Home Counties can give the impression that nothing has changed since Just William’s time. Wordsworth’s poetry and Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels were responsible for attracting crowds of tourists to  the Lake District and Scotland respectively, encouraging readers to venture forth into unknown parts. In this most patriotic year, in which Danny Boyle’s dazzling Opening Ceremony is still fresh in the mind, the idea of the British landscape being in a constant state of flux feels as pertinent ever.

 The British Library’s eclectic and meticulously organised exhibition Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands sees the thousand-year-old Exeter Book (one of the few surviving volumes of Old English verse) alongside Harry Potter’s journey from Little Whingeing to Platform 9 ¾, and Virginia Woolf adjacent to Enid Blyton.  The exhibition is divided into five sections (‘Rural Dreams’, ‘Dark Satanic Mills’, ‘Wild Places’ ‘Beyond the City’, ‘Cockney Visions’ and ‘Waterlands’), each dedicated to a certain aspect of the British landscape, with the viewers free to draw their own conclusions as to how these boundaries sprawl and overlap.

It soon becomes clear that literature is constantly cross-referential. Homages include the wave of fantasy authors in the 1970s who put their owns spins on the ancient legends (such as Alan Garner’s re-imagining of the old Welsh Mabinogion in The Owl Post) and the lampooning of Mary Webb’s amethyst-coloured prose in Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. Posy Simmonds’s Tamara Drewe is placed alongside its inspiration – Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd – as are Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s poetic responses to the disturbing powers of Wuthering Heights.

Small gems include Mary Collier’s The Woman’s Labour detailing the way in which a woman’s work is never done, which raised suspicions that such fine work couldn’t have been produced by a washerwoman. Particularly striking are Ted Hughes’s poems about his  native Yorkshire, accompanied by Fay Godwin’s haunting images of the  once “soot-vomiting mills” (as Charlotte Brontë put it in Shirley). These mills, the ultimate symbol of Victorian modernity, were practically ruins by the 1970s, creating an apocalyptic image of things burning themselves out.

The British seaside holiday perhaps most effectively shows how childhood memories can inspire later works: Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is placed beside the Stephen siblings’ humorous Hyde Park Gate News magazine detailing their visit to St Ives. I was particularly delighted to find my current read, The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff (of Journey’s End fame). A beautifully observed account of a lower-middle-class family’s holiday in Bognor in the 1920s, (before George V decreed the ‘Regis’) it details a twenty-year tradition that is always the same, yet somehow always different. A more fanciful watery scene can be seen in a selection of illustrations depicting Rat and Mole’s meeting with the pagan god Pan, an episode far removed from boating and picnics, and eliminated from many editions of The Wind in the Willows.

This is an exhibition to savour, taking time to mull over all the extracts displayed,  listening to writers reading and discussing work and marveling at an entire nation, through centuries of change, captured in paper and ink. Being in the presence of so many handwritten manuscripts, from reams of Victorian calligraphy to the scrawl of Daphne du Maurier’s first dream of Manderley, also raises the question of what the future landscape of the act of writing will look like. On word processors, changes can be made without a trace. A future British Library exhibition, perhaps?

The exhibition runs until September 25th. For more details visit the British Library’s website

Julia Rank

Julia is a Londoner who recently completed a MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College. Resolutely living in the past until further notice, Julia finds enjoyment in exploring art galleries and museums, dabbling in foreign languages, rummaging in second hand bookshops, and cats.

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