Literature: all in the family

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An upcoming exhibition of books at the University of Otago will show familial connections among well-known British literary figures of the past.  ‘‘Keeping it in the Family: British and Irish Literary Generations, 1770-1930’’ will open at the University of Otago’s main library special collections on December 9 and run until March 16 next year. Co-curator Dr Thomas McLean said the exhibition would draw on books and other documents such as personal letters by authors from those times held at the university’s special collections as well as from the Hocken Library and the Dunedin Public Library. ‘‘We’re kind of showcasing the riches of Dunedin collections.’’ Dr McLean said part of the purpose in the exhibition was to demonstrate to people the collaboration within families for writers to produce their work.
He notes that a book by Virginia Woolf which comes from the Charles Brasch collection was interesting because Virginia’s sister Vanessa drew the cover art for it. The exhibit contained more such stories which Dr McLean hoped would challenge the view of a typical writer sitting alone in her study coming up with brilliant ideas all by herself. There were also interesting familial connections to Dunedin explored in the exhibition, he said. A travel book by Thomas Arnold, brother of 19th century English poet Matthew Arnold, featuring a visit to Dunedin, was an example. Co-curator Dr Ruth Knezevich said, in preparing the exhibition, discovering new connections between British writers and Dunedin had been a surprise.
‘‘The Dunedin connections that we ended up discovering in some of our materials of writers that we have always associated with Great Britain, finding them on Dunedin soil was certainly something that was a pleasant surprise.’’ Literary talent ran through the Shelley family whose works would be highlighted in the exhibition, Dr McLean said. Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft was an early feminist writer, and Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin was a well-known philosopher of the time. Mary Shelley also married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Dr McLean said, however, that something was missing from this part of the exhibition. ‘‘We have great stuff from Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Percy Shelley but we don’t have anything [from Mary Shelley].’’ If a Dunedin collector had an early edition of Frankenstein and wished to give it to the collection, it would be gratefully received, he said.