20/04/2011

'Some sort of record seemed vital.' British Library acquires the archive of Wendy Cope


Correspondence in the archive of Wendy Cope Copyright © Hughes Estate / British Library Board

The British Library has acquired the archive of the critically and popularly acclaimed poet, Wendy Cope. The hybrid archive, encompassing material in both paper and electronic form, comprises 15 large storage boxes as well as an extensive collection of email correspondence and Word files. These contain poetic and other literary drafts spanning Cope’s entire career (including those relating to Family Values, published this month), personal and professional correspondence, accounts books and material relating to her early life and career in teaching.

Since her debut collection, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, published in 1986, the emotional integrity of Cope’s writing and her unflinching eye for the absurdities and pretensions - as well as the depth and intensity - of everyday human experience, have allowed her to connect with an extremely wide and diverse readership, making her one of Britain’s best-loved and best-selling poets.

Particularly apparent in the well-known parodies of her earlier collections, much of her work represents a female creative response to the male poetic establishment, inscribing a significant counter-point to the post-war poetic canon. As well as being the editor of numerous anthologies, she is herself one of the most anthologised of contemporary poets. A staunch defender of authors’ rights, Cope’s influence extends beyond the world of poetry to the wider national literary stage. She was awarded an O.B.E. in 2010.

Retrieved from ‘the cloud’, the collection of approximately 40,000 emails dating from 2004 to the present, is the most substantial in a literary archive acquired by the British Library to date, affording among other things a fascinating and extensive insight into writerly networks.

Staff at the British Library have also created additional content around the acquisition itself as part of a wider programme of enhanced curatorial activities. A panoramic digital photograph of Cope’s study and an interview recorded on the day the material was collected, in which she reflects on her archive and the writing life it represents, will allow researchers to reconstruct a retrospective context for the physical and electronic records acquired, as well as recording for posterity the space which informed the creative process.

The total cost to purchase the archive was £32,000. The archive will be available to researchers at the British Library once necessary preservation, sorting and cataloguing work has been carried out.

At the core of the archive are 67 poetry notebooks dating from 1973 up to the present day. The notebooks include drafts of poems, jottings of ideas, notes on form and rhyme scheme juxtaposed with transitory glimpses of everyday life, for example in the meticulous ‘to do’ lists. Showing the meticulous progressive re-workings of poems, the notebooks give insight into the labour of the creative process (as be can be seen in a poetry notebook from 1985 containing successive drafts of the poem 'Loss' which was published in Serious Concerns in 1992). Many of the notebooks are prefaced by quotations from poets Cope admires, among them John Betjeman, George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, John Clare and A.E. Housman.

The archive holds a lot of unpublished material including many uncollected poems, for example 'Some Rules' which didn't make it into Family Values, Cope's most recent collection published with Faber this month. There are also three notebooks with handwritten drafts in pencil and a typescript of her unpublished autobiography, covering mostly her early life and school days, as well as an unpublished memoir of a period of time she spent in psychoanalysis.

Alongside the creative drafts is an extensive personal and professional correspondence spanning the length of Cope's career, including letters from Andrew Motion, Ted Hughes, A.N. Wilson, Anthony Thwaite, Blake Morrison, Carol Rumens, Craig Raine, Gavin Ewart, James Fenton and Kingsley Amis (who expresses his delight with the success of Cope's first published volume of poems, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis). A postcard from Ted Hughes congratulating Cope on the success of Serious Concerns reads: ‘I like your deadpan fearless sort of way of whacking the nail on the head - when everybody else is trying to hang pictures on it’.

Within the archive are a series of Cope’s school reports, including her first school report in 1949 (aged four) and a report dated 1962, when Cope was 16, in which her English teacher notes with some prescience: ‘Wendy's ability to penetrate to the heart of a question is of great value’. A 1957 school exercise book includes stories by the 12 year old Wendy Cope called 'The Adventures of a Lost Umbrella', 'How the Zebra got his stripes' and 'The Story of a Sixpence'.

After graduating from Oxford University, Cope worked as a primary school teacher in London for fifteen years, before deciding to become a full-time writer in 1986. The archive includes several teaching job references, noting her 'sympathetic approach' and 'keen sense of humour'. As well as attesting to her outstanding qualities as a teacher, these reports point towards Cope’s gift of connecting with others on a deep level through the use of humour, a distinguishing feature of her writing throughout her career. Professional correspondence with publishers, agents and media professionals, along with twenty-one accounts books in the archive meticulously detail outgoing and incoming expenses, give insight into the sometimes precarious business of making a living from writing.

Wendy Cope said: "I regard it as an honour to have my archive in the British Library and I am delighted to have found a good home for it in the UK."

Rachel Foss, Lead Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts at the British Library, said: "Wendy Cope is one of the most distinctive and influential figures in the literary landscape of the last four decades. I'm thrilled that this important collection will be preserved in perpetuity and be made available to readers now and in the future at the British Library. I am particularly excited by the opportunity that working with a contemporary writer gives us to create enhanced content, such as the workroom photography, around the acquisition. This has now become a key part of how we acquire archives in the 21st century.”

A poetry notebook containing drafts of one of Cope’s most famous poems, 'Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis', will be on display in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library from 21 April 2011.

Notes to Editors:

Wendy Cope was born in Erith, Kent, in 1945. After university she worked for fifteen years as a primary-school teacher in London. Her first collection of poems, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, was published in 1986. In 1987 she received a Cholmondeley Award for poetry and in 1995 the American Academy of Arts and Letters Michael Braude Award for light verse. Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006 was published in 2008. Wendy Cope's latest collection of poetry, Family Values, is out now in hardback. For more information, see: http://www.faber.co.uk/work/family-values/9780571274215/

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Wendy Cope talks about the unpublished material within the archive. From an interview recorded with Wendy Cope, 9 March 2011, at her home in Winchester.

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Wendy Cope talks about the drafting process. From an interview recorded with Wendy Cope, 9 March 2011, at her home in Winchester.

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Handwritten manuscript of unpublished autobiography The archive includes 3 notebooks with handwritten drafts in pencil and a typescript of Wendy Cope's unpublished autobiography. This is a page from chapter 4 in which she recalls her dislike of Sunday School as a child.

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First school report, 1949 Autumn term school report for West Lodge Preparatory School gives summaries of a four year-old Wendy Cope's progress in Scripture, Nature, Poetry, Singing and Eurythmics.  Copyright © British Library Board

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