Special collections: literary archives and manuscripts
History and scope
Famously averse to books in the vernacular, Sir Thomas Bodley’s first catalogue of 1605 described 5,000 items. 170 of these were written in English and only three were works of literature: a 1561 Chaucer, Lydgate’s Fall of Princes, and Puttenham’s The Art of English Poesie.
However, in 1610 Bodley entered into an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London to supply the Bodleian Library with copies of every new book published in England. After this, books in English became one of the library’s strengths, although the uptake was always selective. Plays, novels, and—to a lesser extent—poetry were not claimed as copyright well into the nineteenth century.
Holdings from the seventeenth century
The acquisition of English literary manuscripts began in earnest in the late 17th century, when the library began to develop its now internationally important collections relating to this period. Richard Rawlinson was the library's most lavish benefactor: in 1755 he bequeathed nearly 2,000 books and upwards of 4,800 manuscripts. Over 250 of the manuscripts are now assigned to Bodleian’s Rawlinson Poetry classification, consisting mostly of plays and poetical miscellanies, memorably the Shakespeare attribution ‘Shall I die, shall I fly’.
Seventy years later, the Bodleian increased its holdings of Elizabethan drama and poetry with the 1821 gift of Edmund Malone’s extensively annotated early printed editions. These included the famous Shakespeare Quartos and works by Beaumont and Fletcher, Chapman, Greene, Jonson and Massinger.
In the 19th century, another great Bodleian benefactor, Francis Douce, bequeathed his vast library of 17,000 books and nearly 500 manuscripts and charters. Among these were curiosities of literature other collectors often overlooked: chapbooks and children’s penny books, as well as poems, songs, ballads, and popular plays spanning the 17th and 18th centuries.
Later acquisitions have included two important purchases. In 1952, P.J. Dobell gave the library four Thomas Traherne manuscripts, including ‘Centuries of Meditations’ (as it is familiarly known). The library also gained two manuscripts of John Donne poems: the only surviving complete English autograph, ‘A Letter to the Lady Carey’; and Nathaniel Rich’s variant copy of 'Meditation upon a Good Friday'. These two purchases augment the 1960 gift of the 'Merton' and 'Dowden' manuscripts of Donne's sermons and poems.
Holdings from the 18th and 19th centuries
The Bodleian’s unrivalled holdings are centred on two poets: Percy Bysshe Shelley and his circle, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Shelley's manuscripts rank among the finest in the library’s collections (see also additional Shelley papers, deeds, and relics). As well as Shelley’s own papers, the library houses the Abinger Papers: the correspondence and papers of three generations of the Godwin and Shelley families, including manuscripts relating to Mary Shelley and her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.
Research into the second generation of Romantics was augmented by the long-term deposit of the Lovelace-Byron papers. The cultural precursors of Romanticism are represented in the Bodleian’s extensive collections of antiquaries’ papers (among them John Aubrey, Elias Ashmole, and William Stukeley), and the correspondence and literary papers of William Gilpin.
In contrast to Shelley’s well-publicized life and works, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s reputation is entirely posthumous. It derives from the corpus of manuscripts which he gave into the keeping of the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. The Bodleian Library bought the manuscripts and correspondence in 1953. Robert Bridges’ own papers – including the Hopkins ‘A’ manuscript – were allocated to the Bodleian in 2018 under the Acceptance in Lieu of Tax Scheme, having previously been held on long-term deposit.
Other holdings in this period range from single items – including Jane Austen’s Volume the First and The Watsons – to the extensive archive of Maria Edgeworth and the Edgeworth family; the poets Arthur Hugh Clough and James Thomson; and the aunt and niece authorial partnership ‘Michael Field’. The Bodleian Libraries also house material relating to William Morris (books, manuscripts and letters) and the Rossetti family (including verse by Christina Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as verse and autobiographical manuscripts of Gabriele and WM Rossetti).
20th century to the present
Manuscript holdings for the modern period reflect the Bodleian Libraries’ interest in acquiring papers of writers who have a connection with the University, the city of Oxford, and Oxfordshire more broadly.
Archives and manuscripts of writers include those of Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame; the Anglo-Irish novelist Joyce Cary; the artist, writer, and social reformer Winifred Gill; and the army officer, diplomat, and writer TE Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’).
The extensive archive of the Benson Family, including the writer EF Benson has been held by the Bodleian Libraries since 1949 and the related archive of the Tilling Society was given to the Bodleian Libraries in 2012–2014.
The Bodleian Libraries hold archives and manuscripts relating to JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams, and other members of the Oxford ‘Inklings’ circle.
Substantial archives are also held relating to: the novelist Barbara Pym; the detective novelist (under the pseudonym ‘Edmund Crispin’) and composer Bruce Montgomery; Jamaican-born poet, playwright and screenwriter Evan Jones; writer and editor Hilary Bailey; and writer Bruce Chatwin.
The Bodleian Libraries also hold material relating to the work of contemporary authors, most notably those of John Le Carré and Alan Bennett.
20th century poets
The Bodleian Libraries hold the archives of significant twentieth-century poets, including those of the Poet Laureate John Masefield and the war poets Wilfred Owen and Edmund Blunden.
Of the talented young poets of the 1930s, the Bodleian Libraries hold the archives of Louis MacNeice, Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender, alongside that of Spender’s wife, the pianist and author Natasha Spender née Litvin.
The Bodleian also holds the archives of the poet and bookseller Katherine Watson, and the poets Ruth Pitter and Jenny Joseph.
The poet Philip Larkin bequeathed significant collections of correspondence to the Bodleian Libraries, including letters to Monica Jones, from Kingsley Amis and Barbara Pym, as well as correspondence with Judy Egerton.
Manuscripts of the writer Franz Kafka, born in Prague in 1883, and the Spanish journalist, broadcaster and writer Arturo Barea and his wife Ilsa Barea (née Pollak), Austrian writer and translator are also held at the Bodleian Libraries.
The Bodleian Libraries hold many smaller gatherings of material and important single manuscripts, including material relating to the estate of Oscar Wilde and the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. It also holds poetry manuscripts of Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and W.B. Yeats, and manuscripts and papers of TS and Vivienne Eliot.
Literary papers are by no means confined to 'literary' collections in the Bodleian Libraries, as demonstrated by Isaiah Berlin’s archive with its enormous range of correspondents. The archive of the society hostess Sibyl, Lady Colefax is also a treasure trove of letters and autographs from the period’s glamorous literati and well-connected.
- These collections are read in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room at the Weston Library
- Search for literary archives and manuscripts (post-1500) on Bodleian Archives & Manuscripts
- Browse literary manuscripts on Digital Bodleian
- Visit our rare books research guide
- Find out more about special collections held at the English Faculty Library