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UEA launches the British Archive for Contemporary Writing

Previously unseen letters from Doris Lessing, revealing her frustrations as a novelist and references to her love affairs, underpin a new British Archive for Contemporary Writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The archive builds on UEA’s international reputation for creative writing and its strong links with acclaimed authors.

As well as Lessing’s personal papers, the archive holds literary material from prize-winning authors including Malcolm Bradbury, JD Salinger, Roger Deakin, Lorna Sage, Nadine Gordimer and WG Sebald.

Lessing’s love letters

The recent acquisition of Lessing’s material comprises 60 boxes of correspondence, notebooks and diaries. The Lessing Literary Estate has released initial glimpses into the new collection, as well as two love letters from an earlier deposit, available online for the first time.

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Her correspondence contains everything from mundane observations on domestic life (“I am cooking things wildly and opening tins…Oh dear something is burning”) to her marriage woes (“But then I never loved him wildly and romannically (sic), and neither did he [her second husband, Gottfried Lessing]”).

Many of the letters, often typed “on these most bloody letter cards…they are the most frustrating things I’ve ever met”, chart the writing of her Nobel Prize-winning The Grass is Singing.

The first reaction from a publisher, received in 1949, said: “Here is a good novel, mature in all respects, thoughtful, dramatic, and with a most unusual theme…the author writes really brilliantly.”  A literary agent advises the young Lessing, “Don’t be a prima donna till you are one.”

The storehouse

As part of the new archive, UEA is also establishing a storehouse initiative – which gives authors the opportunity to loan manuscripts and related literary material at an early stage in their careers. The aim is to raise author profiles while providing access to materials that would not otherwise be available until much later in an author’s career.

The storehouse will add value by organising and cataloging the collections and making them more accessible, even if authors need the flexibility to remove materials at a later stage.

Several writers, including Amit Chaudhuri, Naomi Alderman and Tash Aw, have already committed to depositing material under the storehouse model.

Amit Chaudhuri said: “It is a delight to see the British Archive for Contemporary Writing come into existence at UEA. It's a great honour for me to loan some of my working papers to this remarkable archive.”

Naomi Alderman said: “I am delighted that my archive will be stored at UEA. I have very happy memories of my year of MA study, which really changed my life, helping to form my writing and my working habits. Many of my papers relate to my time there - and it seems the natural home for them. I'm thrilled to be in such distinguished company.”

Tash Aw added: “My papers contain the imprint of who I am. From a practical and sentimental point of view, the UEA Archives are a natural home for my papers, which themselves link Asia to Britain.”

In conversation

The new archive also houses more than 300 interviews with prominent authors who have appeared at UEA’s literary festivals, including Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, Anne Enright, Seamus Heaney, Kazuo Ishiguro, PD James, Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, Iris Murdoch, Harold Pinter, Salman Rushdie and Ali Smith. These recordings are available for consultation.

Arts Council England director for literature Antonia Byatt said: “English Literature is read and celebrated around the world. It is one of our greatest exports and therefore it is wonderful to see that a new home for contemporary writers’ archives will be created in Norwich, a UNESCO City of Literature. Based at UEA, the new archive is ideally placed to share the work of contemporary writers’ with researchers, both here and around the world. Norwich is a city that brings literature to life and this new addition will only add to the rich cultural fabric of the city.”

Cortina Butler, director of literature at The British Council said: “UEA plays a distinguished role in encouraging and developing contemporary writers.  As a globally renowned centre, it is a fitting host for this new archive, providing the opportunity for researchers from the UK and abroad to learn more about the writers and writing that make the literature of the UK today so exciting and inspirational.”

Prof Yvonne Tasker, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at UEA, said: “Building on UEA’s longstanding commitment to literature and creative writing, the British Archive for Contemporary Writing will provide an outstanding research resource. 

“The availability of materials from writers, agents and publishers united in one archive allows a unique opportunity to explore the entire lifespan of a contemporary creative work. The archive will provide a focus for new research at UEA and we look forward to working with students and researchers in the future.”

Chris Gribble, chief executive of Writers’ Centre Norwich and UNESCO spokesman, added: “UEA is vital to Norwich’s status as England’s UNESCO City of Literature. A bold and visionary undertaking, the BACW will be the first archive of this kind in the UK and will drive research, exhibitions and engagement opportunities of a scale and quality that will only reinforce Norwich’s place on the global literary stage.”

For more information about the British Archive for Contemporary Writing, visit: http://www.uea.ac.uk/bacw

Images: Doris Lessing, courtesy of Garoa (Flickr), and letter, courtesy of the Doris Lessing Estate.