The British Library knows how to do its exhibitions. It does them big. The latest, “Writing Britain: Wastelands to wonderlands” (Friday 11 May– Tuesday 25 Sep 2012) explores the literary history of Britain.
The first section “Rural dreams” immerses you in pastoral idealism from pre-Christian times to modern day. There are early symbols and stories from John Barleycorn to Robin hood, poetry inspired by myths, the Mabinoginon, and its progeny The Owl Service. Further on: “earthly paradise” fiction, (Winnie the Pooh) country house literature and protests against urbanization. look out for Tolkien, especially his lovely painting The hill: Hobbiton-across-the-water.
“Dark satanic mills” is a startling contrast after the first sections mix of pastoral idealism and charm. With an soundscape by Mark Peter Wright, you are immersed, not just with accounts of infernos-with the noise too. The literature is reactions to mines, mills and factories. The décor is impressive: black and white prints of industrial life, and mills that would look at home in Dante. Among Trollope and Elliot are surreal surprises; John Dyers The Fleece poeticises the wool industry. Wordsworth’s letter to P.M Gladstone objecting to Windermere Railway-angry sonnet included. Look out for Ernest-Jones’s amazing depiction of an English town-the striking style resembles the set-pieces in Metropolis. Elsewhere there’s George Orwell’s sketch map of his route in The Road to Wigan Pier. The poetry includes Ted Hughes and W.H. Auden (with haunting illustrations by Henry Moore.)
The countryside in “Wild places” is a world away from “Rural dreams”. The best and worst of emotional extremis is showcased, with Wordsworth’s intensely spiritual poetry alongside Gothic romances. Bronte’s Wuthering Heights features. So do the works of Daphne Du Maurier, and generally any great writer who wrote about passion and peril in countryside. King Lear (look out for the striking illustration) and Dickens’s Magwich are cited as humanity overcome by wildness. Sole blemish on the section: post-apocalyptic novels by Richard Jeffries and J.G. Ballard.
“Beyond the city” explores ideas of the suburbs. Among printed images of the suburbs hung tapestry-style, are surreal, magical, and menacing discoveries. A suspension of disbelief predominates. In a Kafkaesque story The beetle (1897) by Richard Marsh, a shape shifting beetle represents foreign intrusion. Ralph Steadman’s gleeful illustration to Alice in Wonderland depicts the Rabbit as a bowler-hatted commuter. In pride of place was G.K. Chesterton, with The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who was Thursday. The crowning piece of the section is the striking publicity poster for Notting Hill. There is slight stress on his negative-the notes for The man who was Thursday, describe the surveillance and paranoia in his books. True, but his books are also wild and funny. J.G. Ballard’s Kingdome Come and Crash are much darker. One unexpected inclusion was Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes is more associated with London, surely? He does go to the suburbs, but even so…Is he taking a holiday? If so he chose a nice location.
“Cockney visions” is one of the biggest, best decorated sections; The floor is covered with prints of Victorian and pre-Victorian maps. Others hang from the ceiling. Showcased work stretches from Chaucer to the handwritten manuscript for Harry Potter. “In different voices” concerns different accents and dialects in London. Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Angela Carter’s Wise Children rub shoulders with West Indian and Jamaican writers. In “City of Dreadful night” things get interesting. The dark side of London is explored, with Dore’s haunting engravings for London: a pilgrimage and Thompson and Blake’s poems to the city. The great villains of 19th century literature are displayed: Sweeny Todd, Conrad’s terrorists in The Secret Agent, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are there, plus a graphic novel based on the Ripper murders. Odd, among all these villains, is the absence of Conan Doyle; Surely Moriarty can stalk with the worst?
“Street haunting” is intriguing, because of the central idea: The wanderer who really experiences the city. This is certainly a diverse section, mixing sightseeing manuals with De Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Among this collection is a character who would be at home in “City of dreadful night”. Poe’s The Man of The Crowd is presented as a “city wanderer” story. In the beautifully illustrated copy on display, the narrators pursuit of an old man takes him through London’s underbelly. It is eventually revealed that the old man is so evil he cannot be alone with himself: he is “the man of the crowd”. Largely “Cockney visions” resembles this story: Interesting, intelligent, dark-and very colourful.
“Waterlands” is the exhibitions crown. Video installations dominate, with a soundscape by Mark peter Wright and archive footage of the Thames and the seaside. Below in the display cases are the writers you might expect (Austin, Larkin, Greene, Dickens, Kingsley) and the writers you don’t (Stoker: The original illustration of Dracula biting a white-clad maiden certainly catches the eye.) Highlights include “Sweet Thames” poems: John Leland’s Swan Song, where the poet in no way sucks up to Henry the Eighth; Self dubbed “Water poet” and publicity stuntman extraordinaire John Taylor. Best are Edmund Spenser’s 1596 Prothalamaion and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Both poems are gorgeous, and it is interesting to see them together.
There are darker interpretations; In Du Maurer’s Rebecca the sea holds dark secrets. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the Thames is a link British imperialism. However there are far lighter examples here than elsewhere: the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland. The notes tell of the boat trip that inspired the book;
Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, a masterpiece of idyllic Englishness; Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows plus some rather unexpected illustrations for a scene in which Pan appears; different takes on the scene are compared, With Arthur Rackham winning out from sheer peculiar genius. To finish off the section is an artwork by Liz Mathews.
This is not an exhibition about Britain. This is an exhibition about writers, and their relationship with Britain. Perhaps there is a little emphasis on the negative, but “Waterlands” makes up for that. Overall, lovely.