by Colin Waters

Known Knowns, Known Unknowns

October 29, 2009 | by Colin Waters

IN 1960, PHILIP LARKIN wrote to twenty British writers (including Graham Greene, TS Eliot, and EM Forster), asking what were their experiences of selling their manuscripts. One author responded with an answer that was not only typical but has rung down the years: “The whole point is that England is not really interested in the manuscripts of anyone not securely dead.” Larkin’s letter writing was prompted by advances made towards him by an American purchaser of literary archives. As the bard of Hull discovered, American libraries and universities backed by impressive financial clout were buying up and shipping out the country’s literary treasures with barely a squeak of protest. So, in 1963, Larkin set up a committee, the National Manuscript Collection Of Contemporary Manuscripts, to stem the flow of writers’ raw materials. Something of the committee’s mixed success can be judged by the title he chose for a paper he wrote on manuscript acquisition in 1979: ‘A Neglected Honour’.

Undoubtedly Larkin would have been pleased to see in 2005 the National Library of Scotland secure the John Murray Archive, “a mini-British Library” as one put it and certainly the largest and most prestigious acquisition of its sort made in Scotland. No major library in Scotland today is without its own archive, with more attention than ever given to the subject, not only by librarians but also by writers themselves, their agents, various funding bodies, and even occasionally journalists. You wouldn’t have thought that the field could be dubbed “a neglected honour” anymore. And yet in an article published only last October, Andrew Motion, poet laureate and Larkin’s biographer, wrote that re-reading the poet’s article left him melancholy. Why? “Because so much has changed so little.”

Manuscripts are still slipping out of the country to America. In the last few years, American libraries have acquired the papers of Ted Hughes, Malcolm Bradbury, Julian Barnes, Tom Stoppard, David Hare, and John Osborne. Although this is less of an issue for Scotland – as Robin Smith, the NLS Curator of Modern Manuscripts told me, the Ameri-cans aren’t as interested in our writers as they are the English, something I’m not sure we should be glad or embarrassed about – one might still mention that Yale University has the manuscript of Boswell’s Life Of Johnson as well as most of the extant manuscripts and letters by Robert Louis Stevenson

It takes money to hold onto the good stuff, and it hardly needs saying that when it comes to the arts, not to mention society at large, there are more begging bowls than hands to hold them out. Given the extraordinary sums involved – the John Murray Archive was bought for £31.2 million, with the Scottish Executive providing £8.3 million – the public are entitled to ask: what do we get out of it? The answer on first look is not obvious. Unlike a painting or sculpture bought for the nation with their money – think The Three Graces – you cannot put an entire archive collection on view for all to appreciate. In an era where ‘accessibility’ has been raised to the level of fetish, this has on occasion stymied funding. One might also recall the stushie that followed the sale of the

Churchill papers in 1995. Although the argument wasn’t over the merit of the papers, which was evident, many felt as the state papers of a British PM, they should have been donated. Obviously this doesn’t apply to literary archives but there is a suspicion that a nasty niff of this particular imbroglio lingers in the nostrils of panjandrums fearful of loosening the purse strings for mere papers.

These objections rather tumble though once in the presence of the archives themselves. A book lover approaching the John Murray Archive or the Muriel Spark archive, both housed in the NLS, feels nothing less than awe tinged perhaps with voyeurism. Andrew Motion calls it “a primitive fascination”. Manuscripts “allow us to sit beside the author in the moment of creation”.

Larkin, again, with typical sagacity, divides types of manuscripts into two overlapping camps. The ‘magical’ archive references the almost childish excitement one feels on touching paper actually written on by one of the greats. The ‘meaningful’ archive meanwhile enlarges our understanding of an author. Spidery writing, dire first drafts – they matter not; knowing our heroes were human too, that their best works were not born complete from their head like Aphrodite, only excites our interest more. An example that broaches both the ‘magical’ and ‘meaningful’ is found in William Boyd’s essay on Oxford and the thesis he wrote there on Shelley. Here he remembers a moment in the Bodleian: “Sandwiched between some speculations on Democritus’ age and a rough draft of ‘The Coliseum’ in an uncatalogued folder of loose holograph sheets I came across a curious sketch, the significance of which was not immediately apparent. I turned the folder upside down and there it was: a page-sized phallus drawn with the all the attention to detail of a bog-door graffitist.”

Be that as it may, money to buy manuscripts is available in the UK; the Heritage Lottery Fund makes grants as does the Friends of the National Libraries who through its Philip Larkin Memorial Fund has spent £200,000 on buying modern literary materials. In Scotland, the Scottish Executive has helped out, chiefly that £8.3 million for the John Murray Archive. But the likes of Andrew Motion believe curators are still being hampered by regulations the Ameri-cans don’t face. While UK libraries debate whether they can or should acquire a collection, an American institution like the University of Texas can contact a benefactor. One cheque later the University has its papers and the benefactor gets a tax rebate, so the theory goes. One can quickly list the Americans’ other advantages: they realised swiftly the advantage of building and maintaining relationships with living authors; they tend to buy whole collections of papers rather than cherrypick them, which authors prefer; and bluntly, they just have more cash available, not only for acquisitions but for their rapid cataloguing post-sale.

Until recently, the Heritage Lottery Fund wouldn’t give grants for the purchase of papers less than two decades old. The rule has been relaxed to ten years. Amongst others, Motion (himself the beneficiary of a five figure sum from the British Library for his papers) argues this is still too long a period that gives the Americans a head start. I wonder though. Considering the no-marks and flash-in-the-pans that have excited attention only to demonstrate a lack of stamina, the ten year ruling sounds sensible – although Robin Smith insists “the number of dead-ends [she has bought]…has been small”. In his essay, Philip Larkin recommends a blanket approach, arguing it’s worth pursuing 99 duds if it means we capture the papers of one great new writer. That policy however is designed for an Eden of unlimited funds. Surely it’s more sensible to let time sift the great from the not-so-great. Their papers will cost obviously more by that time, but from not having wasted one’s cash on the proposed 99 clodhoppers, there should be cash available. And besides, there is no lack of older archives deserving of money first.

The Macclesfield Library provides a salutary lesson on what happens when money isn’t there to save a great collection. The first Earl of Macclesfield (1663-1749) built up an archive at Shirburn Castle of both medieval manuscripts and of then cutting edge scientific books, including Isaac Newton’s papers. Due to an unfortunate law suit, the estate had to be sold despite being, as Nicolas Barker described them, “the working tools of all the major figures in British science [of the period], many with their notes”. With no government money forthcoming the collection was broken up; the Macclesfield Psalter was refused HLF cash because it was “too small to be seen by a large public and made no appeal to Britain’s modern multi-ethnic society”. (The Macclesfield Psalter was secured eventually by the Fitzwilliam Museum with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.)

A happier fate awaited the John Murray Archive. Established by Edinburgh-born John Murray in 1768 and maintained by seven generations of the Murray family, the Archive contains manuscripts by authors published by John Murray as well as journals and over 150,000 letters. For bibliophiles, the list of authors whose names pepper the collection is eye-popping: Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, Herman Melville, Benjamin Dis-raeli, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, JM Barrie, Anthony Trollope, and Arthur Conan Doyle to name a few. There is also correspondence by scientists such as Charles Darwin, Charles Babbage, and Michael Faraday, and explorers like David Livingstone. Most famously the John Murray Archive incorporates the largest deposit of Byron material. The maintenance of the Archive over so many generations resembles a family penance for John Murray’s burning of Byron’s Memoirs after the mad, bad and dangerous Lord’s death.

Joan Winterkorn, an evaluator with Quar-itch the antiquarian booksellers, was hired by the NLS to evaluate the Murray Archive. “I give huge credit to the NLS because it would have been very easy to pull out once they realised the kind of money that would be involved, and I don’t think they had the slightest idea when they hired me that the final figure would be eight figures and that the first one wouldn’t be a 1,” she says. “But when I presented a report to the NLS on my findings and what sums they were looking at, they looked at each other and said let’s do this. It took courage knowing it would not be easy to find the funding that would be involved, but they recognised the impact this collection would have for the NLS would be huge.” Indeed. If Edinburgh was at all serious about being a World City of Literature, it needed this archive. The NLS’ possession of the John Murray Archive promoted it instantly to the research super-league.

Not that there wasn’t some carping. The charge that too much money was spent on the Archive wasn’t surprising; the person making the accusation, however, was: Professor John Sutherland. Writing in the TLS, he described the Archive, which he had never seen, as “a plumless pudding” and the Scottish connection as tenuous. “Chauvinism is essential to the forthcoming subscription campaign” he wrote, the irony being one suspects Sutherland’s pique rises from the Archive going to Edinburgh, not London. He stated also that the sum of money might force upwards the general price of papers to which one might reply – well, that’s capitalism for you. As a large part of the Archive covers material related to the running of the company and to its profitable travel books, which rivalled Baedeker, Sutherland declared it was of dubious literary or historical value, missing the point that business records bear the stamp of the country’s economic history while the travel books contain evidence of attitudes to the British Empire during the period. I mention this because it takes a sensitivity Sutherland lacks to fully appreciate what an archive contains, beyond the obvious boon of letters, journals and so on.

An example. One of the treasures of the NLS archive is its collection of Muriel Spark’s papers. As Robin Smith showed me the collection, she mentioned that at one point there was debate over whether to dispose of some of the less obviously literary items such as gas bills. However the fact that Dame Muriel had kept hold of and neatly organised ancient bills says something, I think, about her personality. There’s an obvious parallel between the scrupulous care she took over her own records and the manner in which she composed her novels. Compare her archive with, say, Gael Turnbull’s higgledypiggledy mash of papers (also at the NLS), and the point grows clearer.

The Murray papers are stored within the NLS archives which cover two floors of sunless corridors within the Library building itself. A steel fence separates the Murray Archive off, just in case you hadn’t got the point how important it was. Entering the NLS archives, the first image that comes to mind is the regrettably low culture one of the cavernous warehouse where alien artefacts were stored in The X-Files. And yet it is not an entirely vacuous image as here too is a true sense of mystery and possibility. Not least because the John Murray Archive, in common with many other acquisitions, isn’t fully catalogued yet. “This is why it is so exciting,” Win-terkorn comments. “There are around 450 boxes each containing something like 300 letters apiece. Mrs Murray always kept a record of researchers who had come to see the papers, noting what they had looked at. What was astonishing was to discover box after box of correspondence with no notes, and to realise that no scholar has seen this material before.” To echo Donald Rumsfeld, within the archive, there are known knowns, known unknowns and most excitingly, unknown unknowns just waiting to make some future biography glow. Recently, three unpublished novels were found in the late Robin Jenkin’s archive and these are now being looked at by Birlinn for possible publication.

Although the NLS archive contains all sorts of documents – photos, film scripts, sheets of music – unsurprisingly the largest intake is of literary papers. Fifty percent of Smith’s department’s budget goes on acquisitions; the other half on preservation and cataloguing. Although many manuscripts are donated (Iain Crichton Smith, for example, handed over Consider The Lilies gratis), Smith’s is the only department at the NLS regularly spending six figure sums. Given the money that can be made by selling manuscripts, it is unsurprising then that fewer and fewer authors are waiting until death before parting with their archives. Once viewed as a pension fund, it can now be seen as an alimony settlement or the kids’ education fund. “Selling their papers to us has sometimes been as important a source of funding for writers as the grants they were given by the Scottish Arts Council to enable them to do the writing in the first place,” Smith says. Smith tells me that agents are getting ever more involved in this process; indeed, flogging your manuscript is becoming as much a part of the modern writer’s tasks as going on a book tour. It’s not unusual now for a library to take possession of a manuscript before the book is published.

Another reason writers are attracted to selling their papers is that libraries are “a safe long-term option which will ensure free access to their papers” as Smith points out. Once papers are bought, some writers have acted as their own curators. At the NLS, Alas-dair Gray supervised his own collection, staying so long during the process that some staff members feared they might have ended up characters in his next book. There is also the ego boost of knowing your papers are considered important enough that the NLS wants to save them. Writers’ growing awareness of the importance of their files should be welcomed at least insofar that it wasn’t unusual for relatives of dead writers to bin their records, unaware of the gold mine they were disposing off. Maintaining a relationship with living authors then is becoming an ever more important skill for curators. Philip Larkin advocated taking extreme measures to hold secure papers; he recommended university libraries push for honorary degrees for writers if it helped close the deal.

Geography is a strong factor in where writers’ records land, with a local link of some sort favoured; Alasdair Gray, for example, donated the manuscript of Lanark to Glasgow University’s library. Authors often send in boxes of documents on spec, which a curator will evaluate on the basis of its future use to researchers and what prices the market has yielded for similar lots. The NLS’ criteria is based on the quality of archive and whether it has in some way a Scottish connection, which Smith admits can be defined in a very elastic manner. Finally, she asks, can we afford it? If the answer is yes, there then ensues a haggling process; if the price is too high for an outright purchase of a collection, the NLS has paid writers in instalments if they’re amenable. Very rarely does the NLS turn a writer down flat; often they’ll buy the bits that interest them. To turn away a complete archive, she says, it must be very boring. Judgement calls are made by Smith with her fellow curator Sally Harrower. The budget is open to public scrutiny though you have to make a Freedom Of Information request to see it.

What about accessibility? I ask. The public can of course go along to the NLS and request access to the various archives. Even so, there are areas off-limits. Robin Spark’s letters to his mother are off-limits until his death, and even then the permission of Dame Muriel’s literary executors is required. One might very well question what exactly the point is of using tax payers’ money to purchase documents that can’t even be looked at for up to two decades or so. Other legal pressures come into play. Where you have an author still alive or only recently dead, it is perfectly conceivable their records will contain references to living people. The Data Protection Act protects such people though at the same time, the Freedom Of Information Act grants other interested parties the right to look at sensitive documents. These conflicting laws have also scuppered moves to put onto the Internet in any serious way modern writers’ documents -though one also suspects that it’s hardly a priority, not when so much of the NLS archives remain uncatalogued to begin with.

The number of people involved in the trade tells a story in itself. Smith reckons there are no more than a dozen archive evaluators in the country and a similar number of full-time curators. There are no departments of publishing history, nor is there anywhere you can train to evaluate the value of manuscripts. Winterkorn, who comes from a library background, insists it’s a profession you can only learn by doing, while Smith says it’s not a job anyone imagines growing up to do.

Matters as they stand are moving forward though. Manuscripts are still slipping over the Atlantic but the latest generation of curators no longer, in the words of Larkin, “look like a convention of stable door-shutters”. A new group founded in 2005, the Group for Literary Archive and Manuscripts (or the unlikely acronym, GLAM) is compiling a database of who has what, one of the areas Larkin identified back in 1979 as holding back British libraries in their acquisitions. There’s also talk of ‘virtual reunification’; here, scanning and the Internet are brought into play to ‘re-unite’ the archives of writers split over different locations. Ironically, technology is coming to curators’ aid just at the moment it becomes apparent it could also damage the field. For writers are increasingly composing novels on computers. Where in the past writers went through numerous drafts, they can now constantly write and rewrite without any trace of the evolution their novel goes through. One can think it as a sort of ongoing cyber-bonfire.

Perhaps the threat is overstated. Or put it another way – computers are only making something explicit that has been taking place over a long time. The increased interest shown in writerly apparatus by scholars that began last century introduced a new note of self-consciousness in authors. Who knows what goodies were bucketed by authors only too aware an army of scholars was just waiting to tear into their effects and tell the world what they had found. One such writer was – irony of ironies – Philip Larkin. Not only did he censor his notebooks, famously he burnt his diaries before his death. Which, if you think about it, was Larkin’s greatest declaration of his faith in the power of literary archives.

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