After an hour’s wait outside the British Library due to a problem with their fire alarm system, I hoped that their Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands exhibition was going to be worth the wait. After entering the cool building after the unexpectedly sunny Thursday morning, I arrived at the exhibition room, home to the Library’s exploration of how British landscapes inspire literature and how, in turn, literature transforms place.
Divided into six distinct sections, the exhibition is categorised through place and not chronology which makes for a varied and innovative exhibition. These distinctions result in being made aware of surprising similarities and continuities throughout British literature and its relationship to place. The exhibition begins with Rural Dreams which concentrates on the portrayal of rural life, the restorative properties of the countryside and the subsequent loss of these traditions and ways of life. Highlights in this section include the earliest surviving copy of Chaucer’s Sir Gawain and Green Knight, the handwritten manuscript of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day and a proof copy of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd complete with Hardy’s handwritten amendments.
Seen here are some of Wordsworth’s work including an unpublished…
Next is “Dark Satanic Mills”, distinctly different from the previous section, showcasing changes that the Industrial Revolution wrought on Britain and writers’ responses to this. In this section of the exhibit, a letter from Charlotte Brontë expresses her views with descriptions of “soot-vomiting mills” and George Orwell’s notebooks documenting his time spent working in the mines as research for The Road to Wigan Pier, complete with hand-drawn diagrams, are displayed. As you look at the exhibits, the sounds of engines and steam surround you, evoking the time period.
The section “Wild Places” exhibits portrayals of wild landscapes, which can often be seen as ‘overpowering and unknowable’. Seen here are some of Wordsworth’s work including an unpublished, crossed out poem in which he negatively describes tourists in the Lake District. Keats’s letters from his visit to Scotland which inspired so many of his poems also feature alongside Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
…Ian McEwan’s proof copy of On Chesil Beach are just some of the many exhibits in this section.
Moving away from the wilderness, we are taken into ‘Beyond the City’ exploring the ‘idyll and threat’ of the suburbs in literature including works from Katherine Mansfield, Arthur Conan Doyle and Evelyn Waugh. This section leads on to ‘Cockney Visions’ showcasing those works centred around London. Highlights include handwritten pages of J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The final section is titled ”Waterlands” and the sounds of trickling water are played as you walk around the exhibits. A handwritten copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with illustrations, the Wind in the Willows and Ian McEwan’s proof copy of On Chesil Beach are just some of the many exhibits in this section.
The British Library has endeavoured to make this exhibition interesting…
It is exciting and interesting to see novels and poems in their raw, handwritten form complete with mistakes and crossings out. It adds another dimension to the works displayed, particularly to books which you know and love. It’s also fascinating to see the personality of the author coming through their manuscripts in their handwriting. However, it isn’t just manuscripts and novels on display. The British Library has endeavoured to make this exhibition interesting for everyone by including videos, song lyrics and sound recordings throughout. Whilst these aspects add another element, the exhibition is replete with novels and poetry, and so remain the primary focus.
Overall, the British Library’s Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands is an informative, extensive and innovative exhibition guiding the visitor across the UK through the breadth and depth of over 1,000 years and over 150 examples of British literature. It was definitely worth the wait.