Gender and sexuality

Discover how literature explored, questioned and exploded traditional ideas of gender roles and sexuality.

E M Forster’s gay fiction

E M Forster’s gay fiction

Article by:
Kate Symondson

A year after E M Forster's death, his novel about a relationship between two men, Maurice, was published. Kate Symondson explores how Forster's sexuality shaped his writing and the long period during which he didn't publish anything at all.

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An introduction to A Room of One's Own

An introduction to A Room of One's Own

Article by:
Rachel Bowlby

Professor Rachel Bowlby examines A Room of One’s Own as a key work of feminist criticism, revealing how Virginia Woolf ranges beyond the essay’s official topic of women and fiction to question issues around education, sexuality, and gendered values.

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Too much suicide?

Too much suicide?

Article by:
Lyndall Gordon

Narratives of Virginia Woolf’s life often place great emphasis on her depression and suicide. Lyndall Gordon considers the way this has overshadowed Woolf’s legacy, and clouded her reputation as a seminal novelist, feminist, and politicized intellectual.

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An introduction to The Deep Blue Sea: A Slow Evolution

Article by:
Dan Rebellato

Dan Rebellato recounts the inspiration for and early reception of The Deep Blue Sea, and compares successive drafts of the script to see how Terence Rattigan created a play at once restrained and emotionally intense.

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Banner image for article: 'An introduction to Moon on a Rainbow Shawl'. Crop of the front cover of the Lord Chamberlains Office script

Migration stories in Errol John’s Moon on a Rainbow Shawl

Article by:
Lynette Goddard

Set in Trinidad, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl centres on a group of characters contemplating migration or other ways of leaving their shared tenement yard. Lynette Goddard examines the play’s setting, offstage spaces and the contrasting ambitions and perspectives of men and women.

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An introduction to A Taste of Honey

Article by:
Selina Todd

Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey when she was only 19. Selina Todd explains how it came to be performed by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, and what was so original about its portrayal of a working-class mother and daughter.

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Shelagh Delaney: The Start of the Possible

Article by:
Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson describes how Shelagh Delaney's imagination, humour and self-belief helped her to make a place for herself in the male-dominated world of 1950s and 1960s British theatre and become the country's first working-class female playwright.

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Breaking Barriers: Murray Melvin on A Taste of Honey

Breaking Barriers: Murray Melvin on A Taste of Honey

Actor Murray Melvin talks about how he went from being the tea boy at Theatre Royal Stratford East to playing the role of Geof in the original production of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey in 1958, and later in the film directed by Tony Richardson. He sheds light on the challenges of playing a gay character at a time when homosexuality was illegal, and the collaborative process of bringing the play to the stage under the directorship of Joan Littlewood. Interview with Murray Melvin is courtesy of The Criterion Collection. Available on DVD https://www.criterion.com

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Banner for Beryl Gilroy 'In Praise of Love and Children' article, showing manuscript drafts of the novel.

In Praise of Love and Children: Beryl Gilroy’s arrival story

Article by:
Sandra Courtman

Written in 1959 but not published until 1996, In Praise of Love and Children is a rare account of a woman’s experience of migration from the Caribbean. Sandra Courtman examines the challenges that Gilroy faced as a writer, before focussing on how her novel engages with memory, family and the traumatic legacies of slavery as its heroine establishes a new life in London.

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Woman version: Beryl Gilroy's Black Teacher

Article by:
Sandra Courtman

Beryl Gilroy was a pioneering teacher and writer. Tracing the critical reception of Gilroy's unconventional autobiography, Sandra Courtman argues for Black Teacher to be read as literature that is part of a tradition of black women's writing as a survival strategy.

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An introduction to Top Girls

An introduction to Top Girls

Article by:
Bidisha

Bidisha explores gender, class and inequality in Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls.

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Directing Top Girls: An interview with Max Stafford-Clark

Since its premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in 1982, Max Stafford-Clark has directed numerous productions of Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s ground-breaking feminist play. The British Library talks with Stafford-Clark about the play’s political context and why he called it the ‘Best play I’ve ever directed’.

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Ariel

Foreword to Ariel: The Restored Edition

Article by:
Frieda Hughes

Frieda Hughes explores Ariel, the poetry collection by her mother, Sylvia Plath, and explains the differences between the original 1965 edition and the Restored Edition.

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An introduction to The Bell Jar

An introduction to The Bell Jar

Article by:
Sarah Churchwell

Sarah Churchwell examines how The Bell Jar critiques the expectations and limitations placed on young women in the 1950s – and how these expectations and limitations have shaped the novel’s reception.

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Reviving the Journals of Sylvia Plath

Reviving the Journals of Sylvia Plath

Article by:
Karen Kukil

The unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath span the entirety of the poet's adult life. Karen Kukil, who edited the journals, reflects on what we can learn from them about Plath's life and work.

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A close reading of 'Daddy'

A close reading of 'Daddy'

Article by:
Elaine Feinstein

Elaine Feinstein discusses the possibilities and limits of reading Sylvia Plath’s 'Daddy' biographically.

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Ariel

A close reading of 'Ariel'

Article by:
Mark Ford

Mark Ford describes how physical and emotional experience interact in Sylvia Plath’s 'Ariel'.

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A close reading of Lady Lazarus

‘Lady Lazarus’ by Sylvia Plath: a close reading

Article by:
Mark Ford

Mark Ford explores the themes and allusions in Sylvia Plath’s 'Lady Lazarus'.

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A close reading of Loot

Article by:
Emma Parker

Joe Orton was a working-class, gay playwright whose outrageous black comedies scandalised theatre audiences in the 1960s. Emma Parker examines Orton’s satire on social and sexual convention by showing how the opening of Loot establishes the play’s central themes and dramatic techniques.

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Edited extracts from Leonie Orton’s memoir, I Had It In Me

In these edited extracts from her memoir, Leonie Orton, sister of playwright Joe Orton, provides a vivid account of growing up in the Orton household in Leicester and her relationship with Joe.

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lullaby

An introduction to W H Auden's 'Lullaby'

Article by:
Roz Kaveney

W H Auden’s 'Lullaby' is an unconventional love poem, celebrating the impermanence and physicality of erotic – and implicitly homosexual – love. Roz Kaveney places the poem in the context of Auden’s life and times.

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An introduction to The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

An introduction to The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

Article by:
Chris Power

Chris Power examines how Angela Carter’s collection of reworked fairy tales is a unique, disruptive work that places gender politics centre-stage and refuses to be easily categorised.

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Shakespeare and Carnival in Angela Carters Wise Children

Shakespeare and carnival in Angela Carter’s Wise Children

Article by:
Kate Webb

Kate Webb introduces Angela Carter's Wise Children, which uses Shakespeare, carnival and Hollywood to challenge distinctions between high and low culture and explore the relationship between energy and disorder.

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Wolf stories

Angela Carter’s wolf tales (‘The Werewolf’, ‘The Company of Wolves’ and ‘Wolf-Alice’)

Article by:
Bidisha

The last three stories in Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber all feature wolves. Bidisha considers how these tales use wolves to explore sexual and gender politics, social violence and the possibility of liberation.

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An introduction to Pygmalion, a Romance in Five Acts

Article by:
Greg Buzwell

Greg Buzwell explores the inspirations for George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and assesses the play's reception from its first English performance in 1914 to its adaptation for screen fifty years later.

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Feminist literature

Feminist literature: puncturing the spectacle

Article by:
Margaretta Jolly

The women’s movements of the 1960s and 70s gave rise to a new era for women’s writing. Women also took over the means of production by setting up feminist printing houses such as Virago Press. Margaretta Jolly takes a tour of women’s writing, publishing and literary criticism of this period and explores the work of some of its key players.

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David Bowie

David Bowie

Article by:
Gavin Martin

Drawing on science fiction, Japanese drama and Hollywood culture, among other influences, David Bowie performed a series of identities that challenged sexual and social conventions. Gavin Martin explores how Bowie's style has inspired musicians from the 1970s to the present day.

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An introduction to Look Back in Anger

Article by:
Dan Rebellato

Dan Rebellato explains how John Osborne's Look Back in Anger changed the course of British theatre.

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An introduction to The Homecoming

Article by:
Michael Billington

Michael Billington considers The Homecoming in the context of Harold Pinter's life and work, and explores how attitudes towards the play's portrayal of gender relations have changed.

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An introduction to Betrayal

Article by:
William McEvoy

In Harold Pinter's Betrayal, an affair and its revelation are portrayed in reverse chronological order. William McEvoy explores how this reversal focuses our attention on the ways in which meaning and knowledge are constructed, and on the ability of language to hide as much as it reveals.

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Further themes

20th-century theatre

Find close readings, critical interpretations and personal responses to the works of key 20th-century playwrights and practitioners, including Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Shelagh Delaney and Timberlake Wertenbaker.

Art, music and popular culture

From riots at the ballet to punk rock fanzines, discover the music, art and popular culture that shook the world in the 20th century.

Capturing and creating the modern

Modernist writers broke new ground by experimenting with new forms and themes. From everyday life, perception and time to the kaleidoscopic and fractured nature of modern life, discover the ways in which these writers created and captured the modern.

European influence

From Paris to Moscow and from Berlin to Dublin, discover how European cities were crucibles for modernist experimentation.

Exploring identity

Examine how writers have explored identity – through the prisms of ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality – in the modern world.

Fantasy and fairy tale

From subversive fairy tales to gothic nightmares, explore how 20th-century writers used fantasy to analyse and question the real world around them.

Gender and sexuality

From Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, E M Forster’s Maurice and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey to Sylvia Plath’s journals and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, discover how literature explored, questioned and exploded traditional ideas of gender roles and sexuality.

Literature 1900–1950

From The Waste Land to Ulysses and from Mrs Dalloway to Nineteen Eighty-Four, discover the seminal literary works of the early 20th century.

Literature 1950–2000

From The Bell Jar and The Lonely Londoners to Birthday Letters and The Buddha of Suburbia, explore key literary works of the late 20th century.

Power and conflict

From First World War poetry to works inspired by the Blitz and from futuristic dystopias to depictions of religious radicalism, see how war and conflict shaped 20th-century literature.

Theatre practitioners and genres

From Stanislavski to Brecht and from Theatre of the Absurd to Theatre Workshop, explore some of the key influences and developments within 20th century theatre practice.

Visions of the future

From Orwell’s Ministry of Truth to Ballard’s crashed cars, see how 20th-century writers imagined the future, investigated the present and prepared for the unknown.