BLOGGING BRADDON: 2 Just when you think you know stuff, life is still full of surprises …

I have to admit – guiltily – that there were times when I could get slightly blasé about working on the Mary Braddon archive, now housed with the Augustine Library, at Canterbury Christ Church University. It constituted an embarrassment of riches. So much was revealed to me in just the first few days of researching it that after years I could feel almost nonchalant about uncovering yet more amazing finds.

I promised you a glimpse or two and I wouldn’t want to disappoint. Plus, it gives me the chance to send an appeal – to any Rhoda Broughton scholars out there. Take a look at the signature, here: ….

Does it belong to her? There are two complete letters that could be from her – but the hand-writing is especially indecipherable, so that I will have to consult a document expert over the course of the project to work on them. In the meantime it would be useful to know if this is even her writing – to Braddon.

So, yes, with a somewhat workaday attitude I went back to the library recently and spent several hours photographing and assessing the condition of a large quantity of the papers. These are kept in the trunk belonging to Braddon, which was cleared out of her study around the time of her death in 1915. I feel very familiar with the majority of this material; however, as I dug deeper amongst the papers I found some new surprises. I am ashamed of myself. I should never underestimate this collection. This attitude came about as a result of years of describing it to interested (and not so interested) parties (and – literally – sometimes I was doing it AT parties) – and fellow academics who would nod and smile. Genuine excitement at one end of the spectrum has to be contrasted with a ho-hum attitude at the other end – once the listener realised that the work was closed to general access. Oh, the rivalries and competition in our business!

But I wasn’t being deliberately unhelpful – it’s just that the papers were in no real condition or situation for large numbers of people to start scrutinising them. A small portion of material was sent out to the Richmond Museum and Library for their exhibit on Braddon a few years ago, reflecting her years of residence in the town. Those are amongst the more worn and rapidly deteriorating manuscripts now. Not, I hasten to add, anything to do with the museum’s handling of them! No, it was just the mere fact that they have been out in the world and not kept safe, dry, and mildly warm in their metal case. As simple as it was, the system of storage that the family had inherited was amongst the best that could be managed outside of special collection conditions.

However, that will all change soon – and in the meantime the surprises keep on coming. For example, I had never allowed this small scroll to be unwrapped. I took the risk of doing it myself at the library – and it was some butterfly that emerged from the cocoon!









More information soon – on the Waterstone’s Book of the Month series set for the Canterbury branch and the forthcoming exhibition in July at the Augustine Library, Christ Church University. And let me take this chance to welcome Alyson Hunt onto the team as Research Assistant – a Wilkie Collins specialist who will no doubt enjoy some of the finds in the collection! Such as this one:

Posted in Mary Braddon, Nineteenth Century Culture, Popular Culture, Theatre, Vicorian/Edwardian Literature | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blogging Braddon: 1 The transfer of the Braddon archive to Canterbury Christ Church University


A small ink sketch by Mary Braddon (Mary Braddon Archive)

It is a good feeling when something is finally achieved and the metaphorical boil is lanced, so to speak! For many years a huge and weighty cultural responsibility has been bourn by me and my good friend Susanna Avery and the members of her family. Relief has come at last in the form of the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers (ICVWW), based at Canterbury Christ Church University.

I must admit I had some sleepless, fretful nights over this. I knew, and Susanna knew, and a handful of like-minded academics and scholars knew of the significance of the archive of Mary Braddon’s unpublished material. But it has been a long and difficult process to have it universally acknowledged as an important find, partly because Braddon’s reputation is still being steadily revived but mostly because academia moves at the speed of glacial time – inching along at an agonising and frustrating pace.

The day that Susanna told me about her great-great-grandmother who was a ‘Victorian novelist, but no one has ever heard of her’ is now ingrained in my memory. It was a turning point for both of us for many reasons. I discovered the work of Braddon off the back of that comment. I determined that I would investigate her, initially as a rarity in order to create an original slant for my MA dissertation, and afterwards because of the pure enjoyment her novels offer. Into this equation came the added curiosity of the small cache of original Braddon papers that Susanna’s father kept in his desk.

These were handed on to me for my MA research in the mid-1990s, rapidly followed by the substantial legacy Susanna received which has sat in her attic and spare room for the past decade and a half. This archive was the foundation of my PhD research with the University of Kent, under the supervision of Professor Louis James. The finished result is a monograph about and transcripts of a large portion of the papers, focussed on Braddon herself, entitled ‘Papers Found in a Trunk: A Critical Assessment of the Mary Braddon Archive’, completed in 2005.

At this point I must give thanks to the many friends and well-wishers who, on hearing the topic of my thesis and the circumstances of the find, gave me a copy of A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession. It is undoubtedly a great book – but I didn’t read all SEVEN copies! (I know, I know – it was exactly like my situation, sort of…)

So finally, after much preparation and negotiation the archive has been transferred. Life has imitated art, and so on, but at long last the colleagues and the facilities are in place in Susanna’s favoured location in order for the full scale of research to be uncovered. The archive extends to the papers and publications of W.B. Maxwell (Braddon’s son) and Barbara Maxwell. The work of both these family members is a total mystery to me and additional to the main body of papers that belonged to Braddon in her lifetime.

At this point in time, I won’t yet go into a huge amount of detail about the content of Braddon’s papers in the archive. My thesis has a detailed bibliography pertaining to a large proportion of this; items that might figure as landmark finds relating to the broad context of her career. I have discussed some of them in published papers and at different conferences over the years; but now a short moratorium will follow in reference to the public access to the material and further publications.

The principal members of the research team have been gathered and these are: myself as Visiting Research Fellow to the university; Professor Adrienne Gavin and Dr Carolyn Oulton (members of the Christ Church faculty and founders of the ICVWW); and Dr Kate Mattacks of UWE. Between us we will look at the different means by which the archive can be fully investigated. There will be displays and an exhibition, readings at the Canterbury branch of Waterstone’s, a conference, publications and special journal editions, with opportunities for post-graduates in different fields to gain research posts to be involved in the work.

Radio silence will be intermittently broken with regular blog postings here, which will keep the information and progression of research in the public domain. But in the meantime watch the short film for a tantalising glimpse of the treasures waiting to be uncovered.

Posted in Mary Braddon, Nineteenth Century Culture, Popular Culture, Vicorian/Edwardian Literature | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-first Century: a call for chapters

I am very pleased to announce that Dr Kelli R Marshall and I are collaborating on a Shakespeare publication together. This arises from our joint paper for the PCA National conference this year on the NT Lear Live event. The following is the outline of what we are looking for and can be passed on to colleagues and anyone interested.

Call for Papers

Locating Shakespeare in the Twenty-First Century (working title)

Editors: Gabrielle Malcolm and Kelli Marshall / Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

William Shakespeare has long been a global cultural commodity, but in the twenty-first century “Shakespeare” is oft positioned as a social concept with the man almost forgotten amidst the terminology that surrounds the criticism, tourism, adaptation, and utilization of the plays. For instance, the plays themselves are as often re-worked and adapted as performed wholly in their own right on stage. Moreover, there are currently well-established alternative strands, identities, and locations of “Shakespeare” (e.g., metanarratives, gender-reworking, inter-cultural adapting, online streaming), and the growth is as widespread and fast as technology, performance, social networking, and cinema will allow. It is this new and exciting approach to “Shakespeare,” which clearly suits both the adaptation process and the technology and mindset of the twenty-first century, that our volume will consider.

Potential topics for the anthology include the following:

  • Shakespeare depicted on film and TV “outside” the mainstream: reality TV documentary from prison, schools, etc.
  • Adaptation online: podcasts, webcasts, webisodes (e.g., Second City’s Sassy Gay Friend series), YouTube Shakespeare, Shakespeare on Twitter (e.g., Such Tweet Sorrow)
  • Streaming live theatre: the National Theatre Live and not-so-live Hamlet and Lear experiments
  • Meta-narratives of Shakespeare, positioning the works through embedded and presumed knowledge in adaptations
  • Global Shakespeares located within and for national identities
  • Shakespeare as illustrated text: graphic novels, animation, special effects
  • And of course, any other ways of “locating Shakespeare in the twenty-first century”

Please send a 500-word abstract/synopsis of the project to Kelli Marshall  by June 30, 2011. Complete essays of approximately 6,000 words would be expected around September 1, 2011.

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NT Live: King Lear from The Donmar Warehouse, London

Draft paper for PCA conference, San Antonio, Texas, 2011 – in collaboration with Dr Kelli Marshall, University of Toledo, Ohio, USA.

See her updates :

‘Live Theatre as Cinema’

The anticipation was palpable and akin to that felt in a theatre auditorium as people took their seats in the comfortable surroundings of the Little Cinema, Bath. The average age of the audience was post-retirement and seniors. The certification appeared on screen, allocating a 12A rating ‘as live’; which contradicted the information on the ticket that had stated ‘no certificate’. When the live feed began on screen we were drawn in with shots of the audience at the Donmar, an altogether younger crowd. But there were also embellishments for the cinema audience which began very early. It was as if there had to be something extra to mark the event, trailers and features for the remote audience and so we were entertained to a documentary about recent Donmar Warehouse productions, including comments from Jude Law and Gillian Anderson. As interesting as this was, the disadvantage was that we missed the actual first entrance of the actors. The feature abruptly cut to show actors already on stage engaged in the dialogue for the first scene.

So there is no denying that compromises were made. However, the perspective offered to the cinema audience was privileged. The camera position gave front row views from the stalls, and also the feeling of being front row of the upper circle, as well having an almost ‘on-stage’ point of view at times. Proximity to the actors then was everything. There was an extreme, intimate focus in some scenes that offered an intrusive nearness to the live experience. The actors’ every breath was discernible and the physical exertion of the performance was clear. Despite having missed the first entrance of Kent and Gloucester all in all the flow of the performance was unimpeded. They were already into their first exchange when we joined them and this abrupt beginning also signalled some issues with the acoustics. They were slightly harsh and strident in places; and it soon became clear that all of the principals at least wore radio mics. There was some crackling and problems with pitch when some of the actors increased their projection. The ones who came off best were Jacobi, Michael Hadley as Kent and Paul Jesson as Gloucester. Each of these performers, older male actors, with voices in the lower register demonstrated the most suitable tone and adaptation to this cross-over format of live theatre into cinema. It seemed that the problems with the sound levels had been sorted by Edmund’s first soliloquy. At this point the question of the responses in the cinema audience; their participation in the live event, was raised. The Donmar audience laughed at certain points of the speech. The cinema audience chuckled, nervously it seemed, and this was to be the overall tone of the responses throughout. There was a certain deference in the mood of their responses when it came to laughter and later on applause. To clap or not to clap was an issue. The compromise that was reached was a sort of half-hearted ripple amongst some of the audience members that soon dissipated.

The sound was, it turned out, the least of the technical difficulties encountered. The live feed failed after the first scene with Edgar and Gloucester in the second half and just as Jacobi entered for his first ‘mad’ scene. This fifteen/twenty minute interruption was met with a more uninhibited groan from the cinema audience, in an ‘I told you so’ manner (more used as we are to complaining than offering accolades!). Thus far they felt it had been almost too good to be true and the inevitable technical hitch had to happen. However, the actors recommenced with ease. This highlighted the fact that theatre is about ‘liveness’ and tension, with a detectable sense of risk-taking but also the reassurance of the control that the actors have over the material. Commanding performance takes on a new meaning in this context. In terms of framing and the aspect of the camera angles there were times when they seemed quite cautious and other times when they gave an emphasis and a quality to the scene that was unique to this experience. For example, Lear’s confrontation with Goneril after he insults her servant and then curses her was one scene that came across superbly well. The framing when he bore down on her, although keeping his distance, showed the tension in Jacobi’s body. Gina McKee as Goneril was not fully in view, but when she turned after his tirade had finished, she had tears down her cheeks. This was electrifying and an element of a cinematically streamed live performance that I think could not have been repeated in any other context. The ‘Blow winds’ speech began in a stage whisper, which was – I think – a concession on the part of such a skilled, experienced actor as Jacobi, to the sound quality of the acoustic feed. It built to a brilliant crescendo and the ‘unaccommodated man’ speech following was set within an excellent tableau. Also, Kent (who had a great Midlands twang to his accent that suited his language extremely well) when he is placed in the stocks, was filmed using a panning shot that then came in for a close-up as his speech intensified.

One of the things that I was concerned about was how the action towards the play’s climax would be handled. The series of rapid, physical scenes as the warfare escalates, contrast with the quieter, tragic scenes between Lear and Cordelia. The latter scenes need to offer a calm centre to the action wherein the philosophical meaning of the tragedy is concluded, whilst the madness increases and builds around them. The configuration of the shots and framing did not cause this element to slide, fortunately, and there were genuine tears shed around me at Lear’s recognition of Cordelia and at his entrance with her lifeless body. Although, the camera is still ruthless and unforgiving, and in Pippa Bennet-Warner’s case, as Cordelia, and Jacobi as the dead Lear slumped next to her – we could still detect (very laboured) breathing! It brought home just what an exertion such performance is and the stamina and vigour needed to carry it out, let alone to have to repeat scenes due to a failed satellite link.

Posted in film and television adaptation, Popular Culture, Shakespeare Studies, Theatre | 1 Comment

Today’s the day: Peter Brook’s theatrical economy, ‘A Magic Flute’

Most people can have hardly failed to notice the news today about Arts Council England’s (ACE) announcement of their new portfolio of projects and support for organisations and individuals. From 849 regularly funded organisations there are now 695. This article in the Guardian summarises today’s outcomes:


Of course, none of this comes as any surprise to most; especially those of us that remember the 1980s and the now legendary (but sadly still real) cuts under Margaret Thatcher. As a student in the late 1980s I went to see the heart-rending and life-changing RSC production of Othello, starring Ian McKellern as Iago, Willard White as Othello, Imogen Stubbs as Desdemona and Zoe Wannamaker as Emilia. I had never realised that theatre performance could bring tears to the eyes (I was about 18 years old, mind). The cathartic effect had never had its full impact on me until then. It was at the Young Vic theatre. The RSC performed a series of benefit (for want of a better word) performances in order to help boost the funds of the theatre. It was and is such an exciting intimate space that has made its reputation and based its establishment on supporting up-and-coming writers, actors and directors. After the performance, as we made our way out of the theatre, stage crew were in place rattling collecting buckets, appealing for our loose change. The memory of it still breaks my heart. How could an artistic establishment (of British theatre at large) that had supported and enabled directors, actors, singers, crew, designers, etc. to make such an powerful and important work come to life once more on stage be reduced to begging in the street? And we are back to that now. Today must be a day of reflection as to what the arts mean to our society. But that reflection must rapidly give way to determination and – not to put too fine a point on it defiance.


In the face of such disparaging treatment of the arts in the UK we can look to the continent and to well-established names for inspiration. I am not saying that home-grown ability does not suffice, by no means! But inspiration and innovation comes in many forms and from many sources. None better, perhaps, than Peter Brook and his recent production with Theatre des Bouffes du Nord from Paris of ‘A Magic Flute’ at the Barbican. This production audaciously pre-empted the decisions of the current coalition government, that in reality is dominated by and positively stinks of old-school Toryism, and presented a defiant and rebellious re-imagining of Mozart’s great comic opera, with all the respect for the original but with an eye to sparseness and economy that laughs in the face of cuts. It is almost as if the director were saying, ‘Do your worst! I shall still produce a sublime piece of art that can fit, cast included, into the back of a transit van!’ This is the old master; paring down the work, reinterpreting it as an original piece of theatre – instead of trying to compete with grand scale, high budget productions. An economical piece of theatre for our time.

He has had his detractors during this run.


But there has been almost universal admiration from most of the prominent arts’ desks and blogs of the national newspapers.


However, it is not so much what he has accomplished on stage that now has significance after today – it is what it represents culturally for the nation in the aftermath of the last twenty-four hours. Brook has shown that a work of art can be accomplished not just in spite of low production budgets but using them as a stimulus for creativity. He makes full use of the simple staging, so that his free adaptation of ‘A Magic Flute’ as he uniquely terms it, could be performed on the stage of an opera house, a major theatre similar to the Barbican, or in a school gymnasium or a community hall. And as reviewer Michael Church states:

‘Apart from the piano, this entire show – performers and props – would fit into a people-carrier, and could be staged anywhere. This lovely ensemble production should be brought back to tour Britain’s provinces in the culture-starved months ahead.’

We will undoubtedly have to reassess how we present performance and make budgets go further in the coming lean years for the arts. This production of ‘A Magic Flute’ (emphasis on the A as a suggestion) is a possible solution. I think, at the risk of falling for the intentional fallacy, that is what Brook had in mind. Here is an example of how you defy the punishing cuts. Mozart, stripped-down, but still respecting the source, performed by young actors and singers with a solo piano accompanist, flexible staging, symbolism, lyricism intact and all in ninety minutes. I think that Brook is offering us a solution; after having lived through it all and been there and done that! As the marvellously elegant retired Australian actress who was seated next to me in the stalls; a Brook veteran and a mine of information, said to me as we applauded until out hands hurt: ‘Now that’s what it’s all about!’

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KING LEAR LIVE An outline of the presentation and performance

NT Live: Donmar Warehouse, Convent Garden, London &

Bath Little Cinema, Bath, UK

3rd February 2011


  • Audience anticipating a 19.00 start but the time dragged on
  • Curtains opened and onscreen were scrolling images of the sponsor Aviva Insurance and some production/rehearsal stills
  • Certification notice finally appeared, telling us that the film was a 12A ‘As Live’ (which did contradict the information on the ticket which stated ‘no certificate’)
  • The live feed began around 19.15 with shots of the audience at the Donmar. This gave the cinema audience a perspective from within the auditorium, to enable us to feel part of things
  • The impatience built, however, as we had no indication of when the performance would start and there were none of the usual distractions of sitting in the cinema, such as trailers, etc.
  • Then a short film about the sponsor’s work with Indian street children appeared
  • After which Emma Freud (TV/Radio Arts presenter) introduced us to the live feed from onstage, informing that we are in for ‘a massive treat’ (!)
  • She conducted a very short interview with the director, Michael Grandage, who commented on the fact that the play would be performed for the audience in the theatre, that ‘people in cinemas will know that’ (he expects us to be a literate and patient group)
  • A short film about the Donmar followed, with interviews from actors (Jude Law, Gillian Anderson, Alfred Molina) who had experience of the space, commenting on the proximity with the audience, the intimate scale etc.
  • We were given a perspective on the theatre which allowed the cinema audience to set things in context
  • The set for the production consisted of weathered white painted boards, which clad the whole interior of the theatre, and suggested a ‘pagan’ ‘purity’ (Grandage) and the white cliffs of Dover
  • Once the feed went live the play had already started and we had missed the actual entrance of Gloucester and Kent!
  • Entrances/exits: single USR, and then through auditorium DSR & DSL. The cinema audience therefore lost out slightly on the promenade aspect of the action with proximity to actors for those moments
  • Cameras seem to be set-up SL and SR, with some hand-held mobile units for tracking and also a bird’s eye shot from the upper circle (will have to defer to Kelli on this and her more expert eye!). The bird’s eye shot gave the cinema audience an enhanced perspective on the floor work in the blocking – best vantage point to us there!
  • Best vocal performances for modulation and projection that did not hurt the sound (!): Jacobi, Michael Hadley as Kent and Paul Jesson as Gloucester (tones of the older, trained male voice seem to work best). Plus Jacobi performed the ‘Blow winds’ speech in a stage whisper, contrasted with loud sound effects, which worked excellently.
  • Memorable scenes for framing and tableau: Lear’s curse to Goneril (the tension visible in Jacobi clearly evident in a full-length shot and when McKee as Goneril turned – to reveal tears down her cheeks); Gloucester and Edgar (as Tom) at the ‘cliff-top’ (when Gloucester speaks of his son and we see Edgar framed in shot just beyond). These scenes spoke of both the force and intimacy possible in such a presentation of the play
  • Unfortunate loss of satellite feed during Lear’s first mad scene in the second half. 15 minutes or so to re-connect. Groans from the cinema audience as if to say ‘I told you so’ (it all felt too good to last!)
  • Actors re-played the Gloucester/Edgar cliff-top scene and the play continued without anymore interruptions.
  • Sensitive radio mics picked up rustling and breathing and the unforgiving aspect of the close-up showed the dead Cordelia and Lear clearly breathing (heavily) after the exertion of the performance – a reminder of how much it takes out of the actor!
  • Unexpected issues over the etiquette of performance for the cinemagoer included: to laugh or not to laugh, and when to clap and for how long if the performers cannot hear you!

Posted in film and television adaptation, Popular Culture, Shakespeare Studies | 6 Comments

KING LEAR LIVE! (unless you are watching the recorded version)

The joint submission from myself and Dr Kelli Marshall for the PCA/ACA Shakespeare on Film and TV panel 2011. Please follow the link for the full proposal and original call for papers. Watch this space for updates, notes and commentary prior to the final paper.

Find me on Twitter @gabymalcolm.

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