The British Library Puts Online 1,200 Literary Treasures From Great Romantic & Victorian Writers

Earliest known writings of Charlotte Brontë

We’ve long known the inter­net’s pow­er to facil­i­tate access to the great books (see, for instance, our col­lec­tion of 600 eBooks free online), but recent projects like the British Library’s Dis­cov­er­ing Lit­er­a­ture have shown us that it can also help us engage with those great books. The site, says a MetaFil­ter user who goes under Horace Rumpole, offers “a por­tal to dig­i­tized col­lec­tions and sup­port­ing mate­r­i­al. The first install­ment, Roman­tics and Vic­to­ri­ans, includes work from Austen, the Bron­tësDick­ens, and Blake, and forth­com­ing mod­ules will expand cov­er­age of the site to encom­pass every­thing from Beowulf to the present day.” For now, if you enjoy clas­sic Eng­lish Roman­tic and Vic­to­ri­an nov­els, pre­pare to take that enjoy­ment to a high­er lev­el by immers­ing your­self in all man­ner of ear­ly man­u­scripts, authors’ papers and per­son­al effects, and relat­ed pieces of con­tem­po­rary media.


If you count your­self a Jane Austen fan, for instance, you can now scroll down her Dis­cov­er­ing Lit­er­a­ture author page and find “a host of texts” to do with her life, her work, and the inter­sec­tion between them, “includ­ing the opin­ions — most­ly pos­i­tive — her friends and fam­i­ly had of her nov­els, copied out by the author (though ‘her imme­di­ate fam­i­ly is shown to have dis­agreed over which of her books was bet­ter’).” That comes from The Guardian’s Ali­son Flood, writ­ing up the site’s col­lec­tion of not just Austen accou­trements but items from writ­ers like William Wordsworth, Oscar Wilde, and Mary Shel­ley, “as well as diaries, let­ters, news­pa­per clip­pings from the time and pho­tographs, in an attempt to bring the peri­od to life.”


Flood cites “a sur­vey of more than 500 Eng­lish teach­ers, which found that 82% believe sec­ondary school stu­dents ‘find it hard to iden­ti­fy’ with clas­sic authors” on their class­es’ syl­labi. In response, Dis­cov­er­ing Lit­er­a­ture appears to have giv­en spe­cial atten­tion to oft-assigned writ­ers like Charles Dick­ens, whose col­lec­tion of mate­ri­als on the site includes a lit­er­ary sketch pub­lished at age 23, col­or illus­tra­tions for both an 1885 and 1911 edi­tion of Oliv­er Twist (as well as the 1848 review that destroyed his rela­tion­ship with the book’s pre­vi­ous illus­tra­tor), and “The Ital­ian Boy,” an ear­ly work of jour­nal­ism on “a bru­tal crime that occurred in Lon­don in 1831, a ‘copy-cat’ mur­der fol­low­ing upon those of the infa­mous Burke and Hare in Edin­burgh.” The site’s archives also con­tain ana­lyt­i­cal essays on each writer’s body of work, like “Oliv­er Twist and the Work­house” and “Sta­tus, Rank, and Class in Jane Austen’s Nov­els” — ide­al for when these re-enthused stu­dents, pre­vi­ous­ly unable to con­nect to the Roman­tic and Vic­to­ri­an eras’ most respect­ed authors, reach grad school.

The image at the very top shows the ear­li­est known writ­ings of Char­lotte Bron­të.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

15-Year-Old Jane Austen Writes a Satir­i­cal His­to­ry Of Eng­land: Read the Hand­writ­ten Man­u­script Online (1791)

Read Jane Austen’s Man­u­scripts Online

Charles Dick­ens’ Hand-Edit­ed Copy of His Clas­sic Hol­i­day Tale, A Christ­mas Car­ol

The British Library Puts 1,000,000 Images into the Pub­lic Domain, Mak­ing Them Free to Reuse & Remix

An Online Gallery of 30,000 Items from The British Library, Includ­ing Leonar­do da Vinci’s Note­books And Mozart’s Diary

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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