Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.
You have to love the Bodleian, because if you didn’t, you’d want to torch it (which, incidentally, would be v much against the Bodleian Declaration with its strict injunctions against those who ‘kindle therein any fire or flame’). The Bodleian holds more books and MSS than ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD* and occasionally they like to throw open (one of) their archives and show a couple of their treasures to the public. The only this is, they like to do this in secret. So, stumbling in a few weeks ago (mostly to make ostentatious of my new Bod card, the one that stopped me feeling like some sort of Oxonian refugee), I discovered that, oh look, the manuscript for the original 1818 text of Frankenstein, the one that Percy Shelley fans prefer to ignore (they believe that Shelley wrote the novel; in fact, he heavily corrected his wife’s drafts. The problem is that these drafts are actually better and more exciting than what we read today), is out on display
in big glass cases. See the lovely C19 handwriting. See the corrections. See Mary Shelley’s handwritten version of the chapter wherein the Creature is brought to life. See it for one day only, and without any advertising save a sandwich board in the Bodleian quadrangle.
On that note. This afternoon, being quite revoltingly (and undeservedly) lucky, I got to go to a class where we saw Jane Austen’s Volume the First, a notebook of juvenilia which she composed (mimicking the style of a printed book – she even drew her own printer’s rules, page numbers and contents page) between 1787 and 1793, between the ages of 12 and 18. It’s an ordinary commercial notebook, written throughout with iron gall ink and a quill pen, and the Bod bought it in 1933 for £75. Obviously, we weren’t allowed to hold it (despite me asking all sorts of hopeful but essentially quite thick questions, like, ‘Is it heavy?’); Jane Austen MSS are even more prized than for another author of her status, because, for the six main novels (Northanger Abbey, P&P, S&S, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion), not one extant MS survives. All we have are two handwritten ‘cancelled chapters’ from Persuasion (we do, however, have MSS for the abandoned The Watsons and Sanditon, the latter left unfinished at the time of her death). Since starting my Masters, I’m finding how common this is for C19 (women) authors; for example, there’s no man
uscript for Wuthering Heights.
Incidentally, the fact that we DO have Austen MSS proved especially problematic for her early, famous editor, Robert Chapman. The MSS of her juvenilia are – as anyone who has read them in print would expect – zany, quirky, quick-witted affairs, with significant emendation often designed to enhance the biting humour. The MSS of her later works – Sanditon in particular – are full of thick crossings out and what Chapman uneasily called ‘these coarse strokes’ of composition-in-progress. Austen (and not ‘Jane’ as so many critics patronisingly call her – we don’t call Dickens or Darwin ‘Charles’, after all) has a reputation – like Shakespeare – for never having blotted a line; her perfect, ladylike novels are meant to have flowed with perfect, ladylike speed from her perfect, ladylike pen. Henry Austen himself began this myth, claiming that ‘everything came finished from her pen’; the 1886 Domest
ic Women’s Magazine praised her for the ‘perfection’ of her ready-made works, calling her an ‘angel’ who wrote ‘with a quill plucked from one of her own wings’. Even Miller, as late as 2003 – according to Professor Sutherland – ignores the MSS evidence of revision & development to describe Austen as having ‘absolute style’. She didn’t, of course; yet nobody goes quite as far as Chapman, the unhappy editor who – publishing Volume the First in 1933 disputed whether or not ‘such effusions ought to be published’ and regretted that the only sure means of prevention was ‘destruction’, a decision ‘which noone dared take’. Anyway, I digress (but seriously – if you ever get to hear Kathryn Sutherland talk on Austen, go. She’s amazing).
After the class, I headed over to the Bod. I have written elsewhere on this blog about Alan Bennett’s donation of his archives to the Bodleian, and it turns out that the official handing-over of the resources was or is today. Bennett fans, get to Oxford NOW. Without any advertising or supplementary information (because this is Oxford), the Bodleian has set up a free display of a handful of highlights of Bennett’s work, alongside relevant items from the pre-existing archives. I saw –
– a draft of Bennett’s 1990 adaptation of Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows, alongside Grahame’s original MS.
– a piece of the script from Bennett’s The Madness of King George, alongside (at this point my friend and I got slightly hysterical, such was the Bodleian’s showing-off) a 1788 letter regarding the real king’s real illness, and
– MOST EXCITINGLY OF ALL (if you’re me, or, y’know, a History Boys fan), a handwritten (very beautifully-written, I must say) page of Bennett’s notes on the scene between Posner and Hector, in which Posner recites Hardy’s ‘Drummer Hodge’. Opposite, you’ve guessed it, a page from the original poem.
– Completing the collection is a sheet from a more recent publication, Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, indicating that Bennett was still working on a typewriter as late as last year, and a really crappy typewriter to boot.
I loved it. If you like Bennett, come to Oxford – the full collection won’t be available to researchers until well after 2010, but these highlights are definitely worth seeing. I asked one of the security guards if Bennett had been seen today. ‘I don’t know,’ she sighed, ‘they never tell us anything. Because of security. Of course, we are security. But they never tell us. They say, ‘oh, someone’s coming, something’s on display next week, but we don’t know when’ and then you get to work and find the Magna Carta‘s on display, thank you very much.’
*almost certainly not true, but they do have more than 9 million items, as well as huge college archives, and in any case I have disgusting Oxonian pride.