Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands at the British Library displays books, manuscripts, and visual material that explore the relationship between place and British literature. While the breadth of items on display can be overwhelming, it covers a huge amount of ground with some well-chosen examples.

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Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands displays books, manuscripts, and visual material that explore the relationship between place and British literature. There is a wealth of information here - over 150 items - including some wonderful treasures, and any person fond of literature will joyfully spend hours poring over them. While such a broad theme could easily have descended into a pompous fanfare at a time when nearly every exhibition in London is striving to be Olympics-relevant, Writing Britain covers a huge amount of ground with some well-chosen examples.

The chief idea of Writing Britain is that place is a constant theme in British literature (“All stories need to be set somewhere,” the introductory video tells us) and, crucially, that this relationship works two ways. In a sort of feedback loop, the narratives we read and absorb influence our perceptions of the land - I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying,” an essay in which he argues that art defines the aesthetic ways in which we perceive the natural world.

From Chaucer to Gautam Malkani, the British Library sets out to show how different authors have responded to their changing world, inspired by and influencing their readers’ perceptions of it. The exhibition is organised not chronologically, nor quite geographically, but by themes. Rather than using a linear progression, this curatorial choice makes for some interesting juxtapositions. In the “Dark Satanic Mills” section, the inclusion of modern texts set in industrial cities, such as Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole and Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, alongside William Blake’s “Jerusalem” and Emily Bronte’s Shirley shows how authors’ concern with the vanishing countryside and increasing urbanisation is not limited to the mid-19th century, but has its roots in much earlier texts. Rural writing such as Oliver Goldsmith’s 1770 poem “The Deserted Village” laid the foundations for a long-standing tradition of writing about landscape with a predominating sense of nostalgia and loss.

“Wild Places” moves away from the idea of landscape writing as nostalgic, and looks at the supernatural and spiritual relationship between writing and place. While Conan-Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and Brontë's Wuthering Heights portray the country as a refuge from civilization or as a treacherous, amoral terrain, Coleridge and Wordsworth’s ramblings in the Lake District call into question the thousands of tourist hikers on literary pilgrimages who retrace their steps.

“Beyond the City” and “Cockney Visions” were also fascinating sections, which examine urban life and the threat of suburbia. Publicity material and literary responses to Metroland, a suburban zone invented by the Metropolitan Railway company, ranged from a song, “My Little Metroland Home,” to Julian Barnes’ novel, Metroland. On the London side of the display, the growing diversity of the city gets a nod: and there is an interesting pairing of Pygmalion and Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners - a text that treats the topic of West Indian immigrants - to show how class concerns are a longstanding issue in literature.

The final section of this exhibition was “Waterlands” - which, while fascinating, seemed rather strangely placed at the end of the journey. In fact, it was the strongest section, as it illustrates Britain as a nation of rivers, lakes, and oceans. As an island, the sea and the seaside plays an enormous role in British literature, from Stoker’s Dracula (set in Whitby, where an annual gathering of Goths now pay their respects) to Joyce’s Ulysses, the manuscript showing a section about those “lovely seaside girls”. The Thames, of course, plays a central part here, and it is one of transition, renewal, and journey. Joseph Conrad wrote that “a great spirit of the past” can be found in this river, and this is the idea that guides “Waterlands”. Finally, Liz Mathews’ “Thames to Dunkirk” was an eye-catching piece - one of the few visuals that break up this never-ending array of texts. In this work, Mathews uses text from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves in her 17-metre concertina book, fancifully illustrated using a piece of Thames driftwood as a paintbrush.

My only concern about the exhibition is that there is so much of it. I hardly have room in this review to mention half of the original manuscripts that caught my eye: Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent; J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone complete with her heart-shaped doodles in the margins; Angela Carter’s Wise Children; Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend; Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and Coleridge’s original Lakes notebook. I can’t speak for other visitors, but I found that after reading the explanatory notes and examining countless manuscripts in this inevitably text-heavy exhibition, nearly two hours had passed and I was still only on the fifth of six sections. Still, it is extraordinarily informative, thoughtfully laid-out, and full of historical gems: not to be missed.

Explore some of the outstanding treasures of the British Library’s English literature collection. Featuring a range of stunning items, some of which have never been seen before, Writing Britain will draw on the breadth of the Library’s collections to explore how writers from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf and Hanif Kureishi have been inspired by, and helped to shape, the nation’s understanding of landscape and place.

From William Blake to the 21st-century suburban hinterlands of J G Ballard, Writing Britain will examine how the landscapes of Britain permeate great literary works. Taking location as its starting point, the exhibition will allow visitors to read between the lines of great works of English literature, discovering the secrets and stories surrounding the works’ creation and critical reception over the years, shedding new light on how they speak to the country today.

The exhibition will feature over 150 literary works, including many first-time loans from overseas and directly from authors, spanning the past 1000 years to the present day. Sound recordings, letters, photographs, maps, song lyrics and drawing as well as manuscripts and printed editions will feature alongside newly commissioned video interviews with British authors, exploring a sense of place in Britain today and how their work reflects our unique landscapes. 

Exhibits include

  • Laurie Lee
    Cider with Rosie, 1959 – the manuscript of one of the great nostalgic paeans to rural living. Cider with Rosie is an autobiographical account of Laurie Lee’s childhood in Slad, Gloucestershire, an idyllic village community, at the very point at which modern technology such as motor cars began to sweep away the traditional ways

  • Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin
    Remains of Elmet, 1979 – Ted Hughes spent his earliest years in the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire (the ancient Celtic kingdom of Elmet), and celebrated the area in a poetical/photographic collaboration with the photographer Fay Godwin. Hughes wrote to Godwin: ‘Without your pictures there would have been no poems at all.’

  • William Wordsworth
    ‘On Seeing some Tourists of the Lakes pass by reading’, 1806, and Guide through the District of the Lakes, 1810 – The Guide was written to train the minds of his readers to the same loving response to the landscape of the Lakes that Wordsworth knew after many years of devoted observation. The draft of ‘On Seeing some Tourists of the Lakes pass by reading’ is heavily scored through, indicating Wordsworth’s rejection of it and obscuring the text almost completely

  • Liz Mathews/Virginia Woolf
    Thames to Dunkirk, London, 2009 – This 1 metre high by 17 metres long concertina book is a watercolour map of the length of the Thames, with text from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and lettered by the artist using a piece of Thames driftwood as a pen

  • Geoffrey Chaucer
    The Canterbury Tales, early 15th century – This early manuscript copy ofThe Canterbury Tales describes the pilgrims who assembled in Southwark, and references to the capital abound, including the Prioress’s suspect French, learnt not in ‘Parys’ but the more humble ‘scole of Stratford atte Bowe’

  • J G Ballard
    Kingdom Come and Crash – J G Ballard defined the hidden violence of anonymous peripheral landscapes: gated communities, hyper-real shopping malls, clinical airport terminals. The violence of the novel’s suburban portraits is reflected in the force of the hand on paper on the manuscripts in the exhibition

  • Angela Carter
    Wise Children,1991 – After time in Japan, Carter settled in South London, and Wise Children is a mourning for a lost London of Lyons tea shops, and also a celebration of the dizzying linguistic richness of its inhabitants. It reflects on a century of London life, and on divisions within the capital

  • William Blake
    London, 1792 – William Blake was a staunch Londoner, who lived, and is buried, in the capital. Like the narrator of his 1792 poem, London, Blake would walk the streets of his neighbourhood

Also two specially commissioned environmental soundscapes, recorded and composed by UK artist Mark Peter Wright.

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