British Library puts literary treasures from 20th century writers including Virginia Woolf, Ted Hughes, Angela Carter and Hanif Kureishi online for free

Journal of Lady Ottoline Morrell with photos of Virginia Woolf. Estate of Lady Ottoline Morrell under a Creative Commons non-commercial licence

The British Library has made over 300 literary treasures relating to 20th century writers available online for the first time, including literary drafts, rare first editions, notebooks, letters, diaries, newspapers and photographs from Virginia Woolf, Ted Hughes, Angela Carter and Hanif Kureishi among others. The items relate to some of the 20th century’s greatest writers and can be viewed for free on the Discovering Literature website.

Highlights include:

•           Virginia Woolf’s manuscript draft of Mrs Dalloway and an early travel notebook in which she begins to explore her ‘stream of consciousness’ technique

•           George Orwell’s notebook in which he lists ideas for what would become Nineteen Eighty-Four, including ‘newspeak’, ‘doublethink’ and ‘two minutes of hate’

•           Ted Hughes’s manuscript drafts of Birthday Letters

•           Sylvia Plath’s draft manuscripts of The Bell Jar and extracts from her diary

•           Angela Carter’s manuscript drafts of Wise Children and The Bloody Chamber

•           J G Ballard’s manuscript drafts of High-Rise, Crash and Empire of the Sun

•           Hanif Kureishi’s manuscript drafts of My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha of Suburbia


The site also includes a number of items revealing the interplay between the writers, including:


•           A letter from Virginia Woolf to James Joyce’s patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver, declining to print Ulysses

•           A letter from TS Eliot declining to publish George Orwell’s Animal Farm

•           A poem in which James Joyce attacks contemporary Irish writers

•           A letter from Bernard Shaw to Sylvia Beach in which he gives his opinion of Joyce’s Ulysses: ‘It is a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but it is a truthful one’

•           A review by Angela Carter of J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun


Discovering Literature: 20th Century (www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature) aims to bring the work of some of the period’s most famous writers to life. It features over 300 digitised collection items from the Library collections and over 90 essays written by writers and academics such as Elaine Showalter, Simon Armitage, Bidisha, Kate Flint, Hanif Kureishi, Caryl Phillips, Laura Marcus and Mark Ford placing the works of the 20th century writers in context.

The materials on Discovering Literature: 20th Century reveal the ways in which key writers of the 20th century rejected inherited traditions and experimented with new forms and themes. Through their notebooks and first drafts, we see their creative processes, innovation, self-doubt, rejection, rebellion and the risks they took on their journey to becoming the literary greats we know today.

Anna Lobbenberg, Digital Programmes Manager at the British Library, said:

“Until now these treasures could only be viewed in the British Library Reading Rooms or on display in exhibitions – now Discovering Literature: 20th Century will bring these items to anyone in the world with an internet connection.

“With these stunning documents we hope to shine a light on the extraordinary innovation demonstrated by key writers of the 20th century. From James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and T S Eliot to Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, J G Ballard, Angela Carter and Hanif Kureishi, these rebels and risk-takers were determined to find new forms to reflect the fast changing world around them. They explored everything from warfare to urban life, from recorded sound to cinema, from consciousness to time, from ethnic identity to gender politics and from fairy tales and mythology to dystopian visions of the future. Discovering Literature: 20th Century will bring the worlds of these authors to life for students, teachers and lovers of literature everywhere.”

In 2014 the British Library launched the first phase of its Discovering Literature website with collections related to Romantic and Victorian authors, followed by Shakespeare in March 2016 to coincide with the opening the British Library’s major exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts. The site has now received more than 4 million hits worldwide, and the British Library will continue to add to the site until it covers the entire range of English literature, from Beowulf until the present day.

The project has been generously supported by Dr Naim Dangoor CBE The Exilarch’s Foundation, along with the British Library Trust and the British Library Patrons. Further development of the project is being supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation, Mark Pigott KBE OBE, Evalyn Lee, Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin, The American Trust for the British Library, The John S Cohen Foundation, The Andor Trust, and Allan and Nesta Ferguson Charitable Trust.

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For more information:

Elsie King
The British Library
t: +44 (0)20 7412 7105
e: elsie.king@bl.uk

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The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.