LONDON (Reuters) - “When you are once out upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you, but, on the other hand, you are conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of the prehistoric people.”
Watson’s note to Sherlock Holmes describing the hauntingly barren Dartmoor in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1902) is included in a new British Library exhibition on how landscape permeates some of the best British writing, and how writers have responded to space and place.
The 150 works chosen to represent more than 1,000 years of British literature in “Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands” also throw up some unlikely comparisons.
Where else would you see the original manuscript for “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” together with the six-centuries-older “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, the earliest surviving manuscript of the medieval romance poem?
Curator Jamie Andrews, head of English and Drama at the British Library, selected thematic snapshots of different types of places for the exhibition, which he describes as “choose your own adventure” in style.
The hope is that visitors will navigate their own way through and find their own connections in sections which range from “wild places” and “rural dreams” to “dark satanic mills” via “Cockney visions”, “beyond the city” and “waterlands”.
Andrews told Reuters that one of his aims was to “compare similar spaces but through different periods and the way writers have seen them; it’s very clear that what writers bring to a description of space is their own background, memories and hopes for a space.”
“In one sense there is no such thing as a single space; it’s just an accumulation of writers’ creative responses. On the other hand, there are certain continuities.”
London, for example, has been well covered from Chaucer’s pilgrims to Dickens, William Blake and present-day writers like Will Self and Iain Sinclair. All of whom are documented here.
Biographic light is also shone on some of the country’s best-loved works. Daphne du Maurier, we discover, started her Cornish-coast novel “Rebecca” (1938) in North Africa. Virginia Woolf mined her own memories of childhood holiday in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland for “To the Lighthouse” (1927).
Exhibition visitors took obvious delight in poring over manuscripts new and old during a recent visit. Some early drafts criss-crossed with notes and annotations, giving a sense of the author’s mind patterns at work.
There are also lyrics (John Lennon’s original handwritten lyrics to “In My Life” describe the bus journey from his childhood home to Liverpool’s town centre), and drawings (original artwork for “The Hobbit”). Large videoscapes and screens featuring talking heads flank the gallery walls.
Despite opening at a conspicuous time for London, “Writing Britain” is not particularly jingoistic or earnest in tone.
Under a copy of Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel “Trainspotting”, a spokesperson for Edinburgh City Tourist Board is quoted in a caption, “The image of Edinburgh portrayed in Trainspotting is not one we could wish to focus on.”
Having the exhibition in the Olympic year was, Andrews argues, a sensible time to think about the British Isles, and how writers - and through them, readers - think about them.
“It’s that sense of the country taking stock of the way it’s been represented, both now and historically,” he said.
Such a show might not prove as easy to put on a thousand years from now, given that contemporary drafts are generally buried on hard drives rather than in physical archives.
According to Andrews, this has already become a problem. “People have been happy to lend their manuscripts, but a number of writers, Michael Frayn and Zadie Smith, for example, told us these things don’t exist physically, they are immaterial.”
“In the future, it will be the medium, the means of transmission than the material - people’s BlackBerrys, iPhones.”
"Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands" runs until September 25, 2012. Members of the public can nominate their own text for any space or place in the British Isles at writingbritain.bl.uk
Editing by Paul Casciato