An IES conference on English literary heritage provided an excellent opportunity to make known some of Senate House Library’s literary manuscripts and artefacts. We chose a mixture of the bizarre and the worthy, taken from across several collections acquired at different times.
Representative of the bizarre is a piece of a mulberry tree branch gathered with curatorial permission by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence (later a prominent Baconian) in 1885 from the garden of Shakespeare’s house in New Place, Stratford-Upon-Avon, in the (erroneous) belief that it was part of the mulberry tree planted there by Shakespeare himself. We moved into the present with a jigsaw puzzle based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld character of the Librarian, one of numerous memorabilia from the Colin Smythe Terry Pratchett archive ranging from candles and badges to T-shirts, mugs, mouse mats and embroidery kits.
A Wordsworth sonnet based on a portrait by Benjamin Robert Haydon of the Duke of Wellington on the Field of Waterloo and composed while Wordsworth was ascending Helvellyn in the summer of 1840, for publication two years later, exemplifies the worthy element of the display. Senate House Library purchased the manuscript in 1950 in the belief that it was in Wordsworth’s hand. In fact, it turned out to be by his wife Mary, with the correction of single words by Wordsworth. As a reminder that literary manuscripts can include correspondence as well as works of imaginative literature, we selected a holograph letter from the poet Robert Southey to John May (1775-1856), a London merchant, financier and business agent whom Southey met in 1796 and with whom he remained friendly until he died: May was the godfather to two of Southey’s children and the dedicatee of Southey’s poem The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo (1816). May acted as a financial adviser and agent to Southey, lending him money, and in this letter of 1797 Southey writes at length about his straitened financial circumstances and his efforts to alleviate them by his writing. He also writes about his rift with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, stating: ‘My opinion of S.T. Coleridge was not what it had been, for by long living with him I knew much of his character now’, and: ‘he had been employing every possible calumny against me & representing me as a villain’. A published, abbreviated version of the letter in Life and Correspondence, edited by Southey’s son Charles Cuthbert (1849) omits all reference to Coleridge.
Shakespeare, Southey, Wordsworth and Pratchett cover the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. We brought in the twentieth with drafts of poems by the poet and critic Austin Dobson (1840-1921). Probably because Dobson is not well known, his work seldom features in displays – and the collection deserves to be exploited, consisting as it does both of multiple printed editions of works he wrote or to which he contributed and of manuscript material. A long letter-like inscription by Walter de la Mare to his eldest son, Richard, at the front of St Andrews: Two Poems, completed the display: a reminder of the intrusion of manuscript material into printed text.
Dr Karen Attar is Special Collections Librarian at Senate House Library, University of London.