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Exhibition Review by Jack Farmer, July 2012
An attempt to convey the essence, as the author perceives it, of a particular time and location is often central to literature. This has arguably become more important in the last 200 hundred years, as writers have attempted to memorialise places that are being rapidly transformed by industrialisation.
So Wordsworth's beloved Lake District is punctured by Blake's dark satanic mills; for George Eliot's provincial characters the railways are a thrilling but threatening herald of progress; from a train carriage in Edward Thomas's well-known poem "Adlestrop", the serenity of an English village seems complete - but the horror of an industrial world war is just round the corner.
The British Library has brought together an impressive collection of books and original manuscripts in an exhibition which charts the way the evolving landscape of Britain has shaped literature. Although the exhibition covers a thousand years of literature, unsurprisingly most of the content is drawn from the last 200 years. In particular the exhibition does a good job of showing the effects of industrialisation and urbanisation on literature.
It shows how writers started to investigate the new world being created in the cities. Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas de Quincey came to epitomise the literary figure of the "flâneur" - a middle class man who walked around the city observing urban life. Later it took novels like Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole to establish that modern working class life was a legitimate subject for literature. The changing urban landscape was depicted by JG Ballard, who opens his novel Kingdom Come with the ominous line, "The suburbs dream of violence."
Much of the content of this exhibition boils down to old editions of classic books with a short accompanying blurb - although there are also some interesting original manuscripts. Still, you'll leave with a strong sense of the way British literature has evolved as the landscape has been transformed - and you'll inevitably be reminded of all the great novels you haven't got around to reading yet, which is no bad thing.
Writing Britain is at the British Library until 25 September
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