From the earliest known writing of Charlotte Brontë, a charmingly illustrated short story the Villette author penned for her little sister Anne, to Jane Austen’s wry recording of an acquaintance’s dismissal of Pride and Prejudice as “downright nonsense”, the British Library has put 1,200 of its “greatest literary treasures” online in what is expected to become the biggest digital English literature resource.
Highlighting a survey of more than 500 English teachers, which found that 82% believe secondary school students “find it hard to identify” with classic authors, the British Library launched the Victorian and Romantic section of its new Discovering Literature website on Thursday. With material from organisations such as the Brontë Parsonage Museum and Keats House, the site features manuscripts from authors including Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Austen, Dickens and Wilde, as well as diaries, letters, newspaper clippings from the time and photographs, in an attempt to bring the period to life.
There’s a lock of Shelley’s hair, as well as his poem Ozymandias, and an early draft of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as newspaper coverage of his 1895 trial. One press piece from the time reveals an illustration of the trial’s closing moments, as well as two vignettes contrasting the author’s former fame with his new convict status. The website also features an 1809 dictionary of criminal slang, including words found in the works of Charles Dickens, and the largest collection of Brontë childhood writings, such as their miniature notebooks detailing their fantasy worlds of Gondol and Angria. It also include Charlotte Brontë’s little book made for her sister Anne, which is illustrated with tiny watercolour drawings and features its original covers made from a piece of flowered wallpaper.
A host of texts from Austen have been digitised for the new site, meanwhile, including the opinions – mostly positive – her friends and family had of her novels, copied out by the author. Her immediate family is shown to have disagreed over which of her books was better; her sister Cassandra liked Emma “better than P&P – but not so well as MP” while her mother found the same novel “more entertaining than MP – but not so interesting as P&P”. A Mr Cockerelle, however, “liked [Emma] so little, that Fanny would not send me his opinion”, while a Mrs Augusta Bramstone “owned that she thought S&S – and P&P downright nonsense”, and “having finished the 1st vol. [of Mansfield Park] flattered herself she had got through the worst”.
The British Library said that Mrs Bramstone sounded “so much like something Austen’s comic characters might say that one suspects a degree of mockery in her portrayal of them”.
The library will add material to the website until it covers literature from Beowulf until the present day, as it aims to “help teachers to engage young people with the classics of English literature”. The institution pointed to the fact that the ComRes survey of teachers it commissioned found that 76% of teachers feel their students find it hard to perceive the classic authors as “real people”, and 82% of English teachers say it is inspiring for students to experience original manuscripts and drafts.
The British Library’s head of public engagement and learning Roger Walshe said that contact with original materials “can bring to life a novel or poem written centuries ago”. “The students of today make the readers of tomorrow and we want to inspire the next generation of readers with this fantastic digital offering,” he said.