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The UK in literature - From Wastelands to Wonderlands

Posted on 18 May 2012

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A fascinating new exhibition at the British Library until 25 September, Writing Britain "draws 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."


Curated by the British Library’s English and Drama team, the exhibition features 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 drawings as well as manuscripts and printed editions feature alongside newly commissioned films and interviews with contemporary British authors.

Highlights include:

Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows, 1907/8 – the little known chapter The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, featuring the god Pan, dropped from many editions, in its early handwritten version.
Lewis Carroll, ’Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’, 1865, and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s diary, 1862 – The Thames was an inspiration for one of the greatest children’s classics – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, here seen in its first handwritten version, and a diary entry recording the day the story was first told on the river.
James Rymer, The String of Pearls, 1846/47 – Sweeney Todd’s first appearance in an 1846 Penny Dreadful (a cheap and lurid serial) called The String of Pearls. In 1992, following research into the story in the British Library, Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli began an uncompleted version of Sweeney Todd in the form of a pastiche Penny Dreadful.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, Early 15th century – This early manuscript copy of The Canterbury Tales describes the pilgrims who assembled in Southwark, and references to the capital abound, including the Prioresses’ suspect French, learnt not in ‘Parys’ but the more humble ‘scole of Stratford atte Bowe’.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Lakes’ Notebook, 1802 – A map from one of Coleridge’s notebooks kept between July and September 1802, recording his solitary exploration of the mountainous landscape of the Lake District.
JK Rowling, chapter six, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, in handwritten first draft

The exhibition will focus on six themes designed to take the visitor on a journey across Britain:
Rural Dreams, looking at countryside literature from the pastoral idyll to nature as a representation of death and chaos.
The Industrial Muse, on the effects of industrialisation from the early 19th century onwards
Wild Places, exploring wild and dramatic landscapes and what they reveal about the author
Waterlands, looking at the ways in which writers are inspired by the rivers, seashores and other waterscapes of the country.
Cockney Visions, charting the changing face of London over the past 600 years, from Chaucher right through to modern psychogeographers
Beyond the City, considering how the fantastic and forgotten have been uncovered and reclaimed by writers.

The exhibition will feature a series of newly commissioned video interviews with British authors, exploring a sense of place in Britain today and how their work reflects Britain’s unique landscapes.

A new book, Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, accompanies the exhibition, written by author and journalist, Christina Hardyment.

Writing Britain is part of the London 2012 Festival, a spectacular 12-week nationwide celebration from 21 June and running until 9 September 2012 bringing together leading artists from across the world with the very best from the UK.

For more details, visit the website

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