The British Library's Online Treasures

The British Library's Online Treasures

The British Library has posted over 1,000 of its greatest literary treasures online in a new website, Discovering Literature – including the manuscripts of Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Austen, Dickens and Wilde, the largest collection of childhood writings of the Brontë sisters, and other unique artefacts which shed new light on their life and works.

Generations of readers first discovered their appetite for the classics of English literature when studying them at school. As the British Library posts some of its greatest literary treasures online, new research reveals that 82% of English teachers believe that today’s secondary school students find it ‘hard to identify’ with classic authors.

Beginning with the Romantic and Victorian periods, the British Library has posted handwritten manuscripts, diaries, letters and other materials belonging to iconic authors including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Oscar Wilde, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth alongside original documents from the time they lived in, such as newspaper clippings, advertisements and photographs, intended to bring their world – and their literary works – to life in a new way. The research suggests that this is a resource English teachers will find useful; 92% of English teachers say that students would benefit from being taught using material that brings to life the historical, social and political contexts in which classic literary texts were written.

The new website, Discovering Literature, has been supported from its inception by Dr Naim Dangoor CBE and includes newly digitised collections from partner organisations across the UK as well as the British Library. This launch, focusing on Romantic and Victorian authors, marks just the start of the project – the British Library will continue to add to the resource until it covers English literature from Beowulf up to the present day.

Key highlights on the Discovering Literature website include:

•    Manuscripts of Jane Eyre, the preface to Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, an early draft of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and the poetry of Shelley, Wordsworth and Keats

•    Papers of Jane Austen, including her notes detailing other people’s opinions of her work, including one peer describing Pride and Prejudice as ‘downright nonsense‘

•    William Blake’s notebook, including drafts of his iconic poems ‘London’, ‘The Tyger’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and many of his drawings

•    The largest collection of Brontë childhood writings, including miniature notebooks detailing their fantasy worlds of Gondol and Angria, diary entries and letters describing their family life

•    Over 150 newly commissioned articles and twenty short documentary films from novelists, teachers, academics, historians and performers including Iain Sinclair, Simon Callow, Kathryn Sutherland and Michael Slater filmed in literary locations such as the Jane Austen’s House Museum, the Brontë Parsonage Museum and the Charles Dickens Museum

A core aim of Discovering Literature is to get young people inspired by the UK’s literary heritage, at home and at school, and many of its selected texts support the UK curricula for GCSE, A Level and undergraduate teaching of English Literature.

Roger Walshe, Head of Public Engagement and Learning at the British Library, said: “The launch of Discovering Literature enables lovers of literature to come face-to-face with some of our most treasured collections online anywhere in the world. From a handwritten manuscript by Charles Dickens or Emily Brontë, to a lock of Shelley’s hair or a newspaper clipping from Dickensian London, at the British Library we know from our daily work with young people how 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”.