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.