A new exhibition at the British Library charts English literature’s relationship with landscape through history

Lyrics by John Lennon for Penny Lane. Image courtesy of the British Library
Lyrics by John Lennon for Penny Lane. Image courtesy of the British Library

From Geoffrey Chaucer to Thomas Hardy and J.K. Rowling to Hanif Kureishi, writers have always been influenced, guided and shaped by the environments in which their tales are told. But has a landscape ever been depicted accurately in a literary work?

Factors such as fashion, class, war, politics and the mood of the nation appear to have all had a bearing on the sceneries and settings conjured by writers. “All landscapes in literature, however well known to or diligently researched by the author, are invented landscapes,” argued Blake Morrison in his recent article ‘Dream Country’ (Guardian, 5 May 2012). “Their hills and valleys may have a basis in fact, but the novelist adds his own gradients.”

At a recent Folio Society event, author Will Self spoke about his struggle to truly represent the London landscape. “London is a very strange city in all kinds of ways,” he said. “I’ve lived here all my life and it has a kind of hallucinogenic feel. I want to write about the London we live in and the experience of the city, but I find it impossible to reach the essential characteristics of London by in some senses describing the common place London. For me, the city just isn’t like that. Urban life is such a mingling of dreams.”

Much of Self’s work is based in London and he constantly draws inspiration from the landscape of his home city. “Every time the new tallest building goes up, you start looking at the city slightly differently and that’s intriguing,” he said. “I’m not opposed to high buildings, but as for the architecture of the Shard, it’s nothing, frankly. It’s a desktop ornament!”

British landscape in literature
Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands
, an exciting new exhibition at the British Library, explores the impact of urban, suburban and rural landscapes on literature throughout history. Curated by the Library’s Head of English & Drama, Jamie Andrews, the exhibition highlights how writers have documented the changing spaces of the British Isles in some of their greatest literary works, and in turn inspired their readers to observe and explore the country with fresh insight.

“We are very excited to share the wealth of the country’s literature in the summer of 2012 and to explore how writers from William Blake to Angela Carter have helped shaped the nation’s understanding of our landscape and surroundings,” said Andrews. “Writing Britain celebrates the incredible collection of great literary works held at the British Library, spanning more than 1000 years to the present day. These rare and unique collections will help give a fascinating and new insight into the creative thinking behind iconic British novels, poems, illustrations and more.”

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands 11 May – 25 September 2012



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