A Digital Woolfian ‘Ode’

24 July 2018

By Dr Bryony Randall, Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Glasgow

Just over a year ago, on 14 July 2017, an innovative new digital edition was launched of a short work by Virginia Woolf, rejoicing in the name Ode Written Partly in Prose on Seeing the Name of Cutbush Above a Butcher’s Shop in Pentonville (surely the longest name Woolf gave to any of her works). The six-page typescript of this work is one of the most fascinating items in the Monks House Papers, the archive of Virginia Woolf’s papers held by the University of Sussex Special Collections at The Keep, and was selected for republication by the New Modernist Editing Network, or NME.

Virginia Woolf, photographed c1912

Virginia Woolf, photographed c1912

The NME (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council) brought together people involved in or with an interest in the scholarly editing of modernist texts, including academics, publishers, editors and book artists, in the light of the many new editions of modernist writers currently underway. One of our aims was to produce an interactive digital edition of a modernist work, and to showcase some of the issues and challenges faced by the editor of a modernist text by handing over as much control as possible to the reader. The new edition, produced collaboratively between Network members, can be found here, and we would be delighted to get feedback from anyone who’d like to explore it!

This digital edition of the ‘Ode’ shares many features with existing digital editions of literary texts. For example, we were able to reproduce facsimile images of the original typescript, alongside a transcript. This was particularly important since, in common with the vast majority of the short fiction Woolf wrote, the ‘Ode’ remained unpublished during her lifetime. So we are not dealing with something that Woolf necessarily saw as a finished work, and we wanted to convey this to the reader. What’s more, Woolf’s typing was not particularly accurate, so her editors often choose to ‘correct’ the typescripts they have quite substantially in published versions. By presenting the facsimile and interactive edited version side by side, the reader can clearly see – and if they wish, disagree with! – the editorial ‘corrections’ made.

Another feature common to many digital editions is the presentation of explanatory notes as pop-up windows which appear when you click on an underlined word, rather than having to turn to the back of a book as one would with a printed edition. But we also used this feature to show a range of alternative possible readings of Woolf’s handwritten insertions, some of which are more or less illegible – even to experts with years of experience of reading Woolf’s handwriting! In addition, Woolf herself revised the typescript in both ink and pencil; the digital format means that readers are able to view a transcript showing the pencil revisions only, or ink revisions only.

Screenshot of the index page of the NME digital edition of Woolf's text

Screenshot of the index page of the NME digital edition of Woolf’s text

However, one important feature of this text makes it particularly intriguing and distinctive as the subject of a new digital edition. Although the use of the term ‘Ode’ in the title, to some extent the quality of the language, and the layout of the type on the page, may collectively indicate that this text was intended to be set out with line breaks like verse, there is also evidence to the contrary. For a start, the title indicates that the text is indeed ‘partly in prose’. In addition, a number of Woolf’s typescripts from around the period that ‘Ode’ was typed have a similar appearance to this one, with a very wide left hand margin taking up almost one third of the width of the page. For that reason, we felt that the question of whether to preserve the line endings of Woolf’s typescript remains moot, and invite the reader to experiment with the effect of each version – whether presented as verse, or as prose.

In the year since its launch, this edition has been used for teaching in a number of universities across the UK and beyond. We’re delighted that it’s proving useful in introducing students to some of the issues facing the scholarly editor, and hope it piques further interest within and beyond academia. The idea of ‘textual editing’ might evoke images of the solitary scholar buried in a dusty archive ploughing through arcane manuscripts; our hope is that this digital ‘Ode’ not only showcases Woolf’s own lively and dynamic writing, but does so in a way that brings out the lively and dynamic aspects of the work of the textual editor!

Meet the staff: Karen Watson, University of Sussex archivist

18 November 2017

University of Sussex Special Collections are pretty exciting, and I feel lucky to be their first archivist. They are a wonderful primary resource for anyone studying history, sociology, English or American studies and it’s part of my job to share their possibilities with tutors and their students. People have heard of the well-known collections, such as Mass Observation, which is so important it has its own team of archivists, and the Virginia and Leonard Woolf archives. But these high profile collections are only the tip of the iceberg. We also hold over 80 archival, manuscript and rare book collections, mainly focusing on 20th and 21st-century social, political and literary history.

‘The rare books are particularly beautiful; each of these collections is a history in itself, telling the story of the collector and what led him or her to the books they chose – perhaps the subject matter, author or their beautiful bindings. All these are unique primary sources a ten-minute walk away from the main university buildings!

‘I hold a degree in American Studies and qualified as an archivist in 2010 but I’ve only recently got a professional archivist job. It’s good to be using my qualification in this role as there are always cataloguing tasks. However, the majority of my time is spent teaching and talking; teaching undergraduate and MA students how to access and use the Special Collections, and talking to lecturers and researchers about the resource. It’s a drip, drip, drip approach…!

Karen at work with a group of students at The Keep

Karen at work with a group of students at The Keep

‘We’re trying to expand the knowledge and use of the Special Collections all the time as there are so many disciplines where they could be used. Recently, for example, I ran a photography seminar for art history students using Special Collections and the archives of the Brighton and Hove Camera Club, which is an East Sussex Record Office collection. This really shows the benefits of being at The Keep. At these introductory sessions, we show the short video we made recently about the store itself, and all the shelving and boxes behind the scenes. This helps to demystify the whole process of engaging with primary sources, as well as helping to familiarise people with The Keep building itself. I love showing people around and seeing their eyes widen when I open the door to the first storeroom.

‘Today, I’ve got a Library Assistant from the University of Malta shadowing me, joining me in a tutors’ meeting and then a staff meeting. She’s finding out how we run the Special Collections and also how our staffing structure fits into that of the University Library as a whole. As the Keep building isn’t on campus, it’s important for Special Collections staff to be represented at library events and in library groups. Today I’ve been in contact with with a former Vice-Chancellor who is going to contribute to one of our largest and most interesting collections, the institutional archive of the University of Sussex itself. Actually, former Sussex students regularly offer us their personal academic collections and we are very pleased to accept them if they complement the research needs of the University or its development as an institution.

‘I like people. That’s the attraction of the job – and sometimes one of its challenges! It’s so rewarding to be able to give visitors access to our collections and I sometimes forget just how unique our archives are. I’ve seen an individual become quite emotional on first reading the hand-written diaries and reports about life during the Second World War from the Mass Observation Archive, for example, or the original letters of Virginia Woolf. Researchers don’t usually engage on such an emotional level with their work, but one can’t fail to be moved by documents that are of such an immediate and personal nature.

‘But I also love reading about the University in the 1960s and 70s, and its development as a new institution. Perhaps not surprisingly, staff members were concerned by the issues which preoccupy them today, namely the provision and cost of food in the staff canteen. And I had to smile when I saw the 1971 invitation to the University’s Open Day. It stated that there would be a rail replacement bus service from Brighton to Falmer. That’s continuity!’

Interview by Lindsey Tydeman



Treasures at The Keep: the Doris Lessing Letters

4 March 2016

By Jo Baines

It’s an old stereotype, but one of the joys of working with archives is seeing researcher’s reactions when they discover items in collections for the first time – whether the material is relevant to their research, fascinating in itself or just beautiful to look at. Luckily, staff get that excitement too – when we catalogue new collections of material. When I started working on the Doris Lessing Letters last year, it was doubly thrilling: Special Collections had held the material for years, but Lessing did not wish the collection to be open for research during her lifetime.

Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013) is widely regarded as one of the most important writers of the 20th century. She was born in Persia (now Iran) and moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1925, where her family ran a large farm. Lessing left home at 15 and moved to Salisbury (now Harare), where she met her first husband Frank Wisdom. They divorced in 1943, a year before the letters begin.

Doris Lessing archive

The letters we hold are from Doris Lessing to Leonard Smith, who is referred to as ‘Smithie’ throughout the correspondence. The letters begin in 1944, when Lessing was 25 – shortly before she married her second husband Gottfried. The Lessings were at the centre of a political social group called the ‘Left Club’, and it is clear from that Lessing was romantically involved with Smithie and others. The correspondence spans nearly 50 years, but the majority of letters sent to Smithie by Lessing are from the first six years after they meet.

The letters are an absolute joy to read, regardless of how familiar you are with Lessing’s work: she puts her heart and soul into the correspondence and it’s really possible to sense how Lessing is feeling at any given time. Romantic relationships are alluded to often – Lessing discusses the struggles and eventual breakdown of her marriage, as well as detailing her own (and others’) affairs. Whilst reading, you’re left with a sense that Salisbury society was far more liberal than expected of the time.

Lessing archive

As the majority of letters were written before Lessing’s first novel ‘The Grass Is Singing’, it’s also possible to explore Lessing’s desire to become a writer – she constantly discusses her current projects, and they span from novels to plays, poetry and short stories. Some of the letters include drafts of poems, such as a December 1945 message to Smithie and his lover Graham (SxMs62/2/27). Lessing famously travelled to England with the manuscript of ‘The Grass Is Singing’ in order to embark on a writing career, and the latter half of the letters briefly explore her success. Throughout much of the correspondence, Lessing continually discusses writers (Virginia Woolf is mentioned frequently) and what she’s been reading – it’s possible to trace these influences on her work.

The Doris Lessing Letters shed invaluable light on Lessing’s early writing career, showing how both politics and personal life can influence creativity. They provide insights into colonial politics in Africa and the wider socialist movements of the 20th century, as well as shedding light onto the formational early years of a truly unique author. Do come and view them if you can!

Stories from the Collections: Quentin Bell and the Emery Collection

13th August 2015

By Jo Baines

The recent BBC drama Life in Squares has sought to reveal more about the lives of the Bloomsbury group to a new generation of viewers. The drama is filmed at a variety of beautiful locations, including several in East Sussex – notably Charleston and Monk’s House. Here at The Keep, the Bloomsbury group’s connections to the area are evident through our many archival collections: the University of Sussex holds Virginia Woolf’s manuscripts in the Monk’s House Papers, the papers of Virginia’s husband Leonard, and a large collection of correspondence belonging mainly to Vanessa and Clive Bell from their home in Charleston.

We also hold several smaller collections of material which tell us a great deal more about the Bloomsbury group, and indeed about some of the people who are not featured prominently in Life in Squares – notably Vanessa and Clive Bell’s youngest son, Quentin. Quentin Bell (1910 – 1996) was an artist and sculptor; as well as being the founding Professor of the History and Theory of Art at the University of Sussex, he played a pivotal role (alongside his half-sister Angelica Garnett) in establishing the legacy of the Bloomsbury group. The Emery Collection is a remarkable collection of letters from Quentin Bell to an American scholar, Dr Jane Emery (nee Novak). The correspondence begins in 1971 with Emery contacting Bell to gain permission to quote from the Virginia Woolf Papers held at the Berg Collection in New York; due to a delay in Bell being able to grant the request, a correspondence was struck up and continued for 26 years over 88 letters.

The letters within the Emery Collection are a fascinating insight into how Quentin Bell managed the legacies of his aunt Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group as a whole. Quentin was, at the start of the exchange, writing a two volume biography of Virginia Woolf – the first major profile of his aunt to be published. The biography won several literary prizes; Bell often fielded queries from scholars about Virginia and her work, and frequently laments the silliness of academic scholarship. Quentin’s wife, Anne Olivier Bell, edited the published volumes of Virginia’s diaries.

Quentin was also fundamental in establishing The Charleston Trust and led a campaign to purchase the house and preserve its decorations by his mother and Duncan Grant; today, Charleston thrives as both a visitor attraction and as a cultural centre, running literary festivals and promoting the legacy of the artists and writers who lived in the house for many years.

QBbooks (2)

The Emery Collection letters are a joy to read; Quentin’s style of writing is witty, generous and erudite with many beautiful comical sketches throughout. They reveal a great deal about a man instrumental in managing the legacy of his parents, aunt and the wider Bloomsbury group – but they also show that Quentin was an artist and historian in his own right, leaving a very notable legacy of his own and contributing enormously to East Sussex’s history.

The other half of the correspondence, from Jane Emery to Quentin Bell, can be found in the larger archive of Quentin Bell’s papers, which are also held here at The Keep. Do come and have a look; if you are intrigued by the Bloomsbury group, there are few better places to start discovering their history than here with us.



Stories from the Collections: the diaries of Leonard Woolf

10th April 2015

By Rose Lock

One of the many advantages of University of Sussex Special Collections’ move to The Keep is having access to an on-site conservator. Melissa Williams, Conservator for East Sussex Record Office, is currently working on our collection of Leonard Woolf’s appointment diaries. Ranging in date from 1898 when Leonard was just 18 to 1969, the year of his death, these pocket diaries map out a fascinating life. Perhaps most well known for being the husband of author Virginia Woolf, the archive of Leonard’s life draws researchers from across the world. The conservation of these diaries gives us a lovely excuse to take a brief look at Leonard Woolf, not primarily as ‘Mr Virginia’, but as an author, publisher and political theorist.

One of Leonard's diaries in its new enclosure

One of Leonard’s diaries in its new enclosure

Born in London in 1880, Leonard’s high level of education was a result of his mother’s determination, and culminated in his attending Trinity College Cambridge on scholarship. He was the first ever Jewish member of the famous Apostles, and it was here that he met many of those who would later be known as ‘The Bloomsbury Group’. In 1904 Leonard joined the colonial service in Ceylon, serving from 1908 as an assistant government agent in the District of Hambantotaan. He later stated that this was part of his anti-imperialist education and, striving to improve the lives of the villagers, he became increasingly ambivalent about his government’s mismanagement of jungle agriculture, the absurdity of one civilization imposing itself on another, and the hypocrisy of the British failure to prepare its colony for self-government. Returning on leave to England in 1911, Woolf began The Village in the Jungle (1913), the first in a series of novels that movingly reflected these concerns.

Leonard and his staff in Ceylon

Leonard and his staff in Ceylon

Woolf’s disillusionment with imperialism was one reason for his resignation from the civil service, but another motive was that he had fallen in love with his friend’s sister, Virginia Stephen, who he would eventually marry in 1912 after suffering a stinging rejection to his first proposal, in which she claimed ‘I feel nothing for you’. Despite his own depression, Leonard devoted much of his time to caring for Virginia in the periods she suffered from mental illness. They founded the Hogarth Press together in 1917 and in ten years this grew from the single printing press with which they created hand-printed and hand-bound pamphlets, to a full-scale publishing house that issued the first ever edition of T.S. Elliot’s The Waste Land amongst its many titles. Virginia’s suicide note in 1941 stated that if anyone could have saved her it would have been him, and many suppose that without his love, encouragement, and care she would not have written the books, stories and essays that are so treasured today.

For the rest of Leonard’s life his writing, in both fiction and non-fiction, reflected his desire to move the world towards a more peaceful and equal path. He was an editor of and contributor to many journals, including the New Statesman, International Review, Contemporary Review, The Nation, and Political Quarterly. His membership of the Labour Party and Fabian Society reflected this desire to improve the lot of all people, and his politics and writings were staunchly Socialist and Anti-Imperialist.

Thanks to the kindness of his great friend Trekkie Parsons, to whom Leonard left his papers, we have over seventy boxes containing the evidence of a remarkable life. From his day diaries, personal papers and notebooks to the reams of correspondence with many luminaries of the day, the Leonard Woolf Papers shine a light on this fascinating period of political, cultural and social upheaval, seen through the life of one man.

To view the Leonard Woolf Papers (SxMs-13), book and order online through The Keep’s online catalogues.