Literary Archives and Manuscripts

History and scope of the literary collections

Famously averse to books in the vernacular, Sir Thomas Bodley’s first catalogue of 1605 described 5,000 items, of which 170 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. From this time on, books in English became one of the Library’s strengths, although the uptake was always selective and 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 seventeenth century, when the Library started to develop its now internationally important collections relating to this period. Most lavish among its benefactors was Richard Rawlinson who, in 1755, bequeathed nearly 2,000 books and upwards of 4,800 manuscripts. Among the manuscripts were more than 250 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 was able to augment its holdings of Elizabethan drama and poetry by the 1821 gift of Edmund Malone’s extensively annotated early printed editions, including the famous Shakespeare Quartos and works by Beaumont and Fletcher, Chapman, Greene, Jonson and Massinger.

In the nineteenth century, another great Bodleian benefactor, Francis Douce, bequeathed his vast library. Among the 17,000 books and nearly 500 manuscripts and charters were curiosities of literature often overlooked by other collectors: 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: the first, in 1952, from P.J. Dobell, of four Thomas Traherne manuscripts, including ‘Centuries of Meditations’ as it is familiarly known and 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 eighteenth and nineteenth 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, comprising 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, while 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 wholly posthumous and derives from the corpus of manuscripts which he gave into the keeping of the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. The manuscripts and correspondence were purchased by the Bodleian Library 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 W.M. Rossetti).

The twentieth 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 T.E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’).

The extensive archive of the Benson Family, including the writer E.F. 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 J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. 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 living authors, most notably those of John Le Carré and Alan Bennett.

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; as well as poetry manuscripts of Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and W.B. Yeats, and manuscripts and papers of T.S. 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.

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