This exhibition showcases a range of classics of English literature from the treasures of the British Library for the first time in China, including Charles Dickens’s manuscript for Nicholas Nickleby and Charlotte Brontë’s ‘fair copy’ manuscript of Jane Eyre.
Treasures of the British Library
The British Library holds manuscripts and first editions of some of the greatest literary works in the English language, spanning over 1000 years. Of the 150 million items in the collection, here are ten of the finest: from the epic poem Beowulf, one of the earliest surviving literary texts from the English-speaking world, to the precocious wit of the teenage Jane Austen and the pathos of Wilfred Owen’s Great War poetry.
At 3,000 lines, Beowulf is the longest epic poem in Old English. It tells the breathtaking story of a struggle between the hero, Beowulf, and a bloodthirsty monster called Grendel. This unique manuscript is the earliest surviving copy of the poem, and is one of the oldest literary texts from the English-speaking world. It narrowly avoided being destroyed by fire in the 18th century, and is one of the British Library’s most treasured items.Read more
Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' (1476)
The first person to print a book in English was William Caxton. He realised the commercial potential of the new technology while working as a merchant in the Low Countries and Germany, birthplace of printing in Europe. Late in 1475 or early in 1476 Caxton set up his own printing press in London. Among his earliest books are two magnificent editions of the 14th-century classic, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: the first published in 1476 and the second, illustrated with woodblock prints, in 1483.Read more
Shakespeare's First Folio
This is a surviving copy of the first collected edition of William Shakespeare’s plays. In this First Folio, Shakespeare’s plays were divided into comedies, tragedies and histories for the first time, a decision that has come to shape the world’s conception of the Shakespearean canon. Without this folio we might never have known half of Shakespeare’s plays: of the 36 plays in the First Folio, 18 had never before been printed, including Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest.Read more
William Blake's Notebook
William Blake is famous today as an imaginative and original poet, painter, engraver, mystic and radical thinker. Blake worked in this notebook, writing and sketching, for over 30 years. The closely filled pages give a fascinating insight into how he composed some of his best-known poems, including ‘London’, ‘The Tyger’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’.Read more
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
This ground-breaking work of literature by one of the first great feminist writers, argued for the first time that women were rational beings who deserved a public education, in order that they might earn their own living and contribute to society.Read more
Jane Austen's juvenilia
In the same period that Wollstonecraft was speaking out about women’s education, a young Jane Austen (1775–1817) was growing up and beginning to write. Her childhood writings – so-called juvenilia – show her early talent, and contain traces of the witty, forthright characters that populate the six novels for which she is now world-famous. The British Library is guardian to two of the three notebooks of Austen’s juvenilia.Read more
Don Juan: Autograph draft, signed, of Cantos VI and VII
This is the manuscript of part of Lord Byron’s most famous and successful work, the mock-epic Don Juan. The work proved highly controversial, ruffling the feathers of many of Byron’s contemporaries, but his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley declared it to be ‘surpassingly beautiful’.Read more
Brontë juvenilia: 'Blackwood's Young Men's Magazine'
Written in minute characters in imitation of print, this tiny book is the December 1829 issue of Blackwood’s Young Men’s Magazine which Charlotte Brontë and her brother Branwell produced when they were teenagers. The initials ‘U T’ found in the index signify Us Two, i.e. Charlotte and Bramwell. The four Brontë children were inspired to create the fictional kingdoms and characters after Branwell was given a box of 12 toy soldiers by his father shortly before his ninth birthday.Read more
Fair copy manuscript of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre
In her world-famous novel, Charlotte Brontë challenges 19th-century conceptions of appropriate female behaviour and attitudes towards children. Combining realism, fairy tale and Gothic motifs, the novel was the first of the Brontë sisters’ works to be accepted for publication. This fair copy manuscript reveals the small but significant changes made, most of which serve to emphasise Jane’s strength of will.Read more
'Alice's Adventures Under Ground', the original manuscript version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
The tale that would later become one of the most popular children’s books of all time, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was first told by Lewis Carroll to Alice Liddell and her sisters on a river boat trip, on 4 July 1862. This story is neatly written and meticulously illustrated in this original manuscript, given to Alice as an early Christmas present in November 1864.Read more
Poetry manuscripts of Wilfred Owen: 'Dulce et Decorum Est'
This heavily annotated manuscript provides an extraordinary insight into the crafting of one of Wilfred Owen’s most poignant poems, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. Drafted during the First World War at Craiglockhart War Hospital, where Owen was being treated for shell shock, the poem is one of the most visceral and arresting depictions of trench warfare in English literature. Acquired by the British Museum Library in 1934, the manuscript also contains the suggestions and additions of Owen’s friend and fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon.Read more
Notebook drafts of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway
Contained within three notebooks, this is the working draft for one of Virginia Woolf’s most famous novels, Mrs Dalloway. Woolf is acclaimed as an innovator of the English language. Here, in her own handwriting, we see her explore a new style of writing called ‘stream of consciousness’, in which the imprint of experience and emotion on the inner lives of characters is as important as the stories they act out.Read more