Saved from the bin: the secrets of Austen, Beckett and Larkin’s scribbled first drafts

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane (2007), and the manuscript for her unfinished novel The Watsons
Kill your darlings: Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane (2007), and the manuscript for her unfinished novel The Watsons - Alamy; Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

One of Europe’s oldest libraries, the Bodleian in Oxford is famous for its manuscripts. While some are beautifully illuminated medieval treasures, others are the barely legible scribblings of more recent authors – a blizzard of deletions, additions and notes. Studying this discarded, unpublished material has sometimes been regarded as akin to rummaging in a writer’s waste-paper basket. Yet it is precisely because the writers chose not to throw away these fragments that they ended up in the library.

Write Cut Rewrite, a new exhibition at the Bodleian, emphasises the role of “killing your darlings” in creative writing. It unearths the kind of rough drafts that seldom see the light of day. Would T S Eliot’s The Waste Land have had the same impact if Ezra Pound had not pruned it to half its original length? If Edgar Allan Poe had not rejected his initial idea for the bird that keeps saying “Nevermore” would his famous poem “The Raven” instead be known as “The Parrot”?

Written on postcards, torn-up pages or even litter, these drafts by great writers – from Jane Austen to Samuel Beckett – give a glimpse of literary history’s “what ifs”.

Jane Austen’s awkward fig leaf

Jane Austen's pinned-on page from the manuscript of The Watsons
'There are some circumstances which even Women cannot controul': Jane Austen's pinned-on page from the manuscript of The Watsons - Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

It is thought that Austen abandoned her novel The Watsons shortly after her father’s death in January 1805. The heroine of the story, Emma Watson, is the youngest daughter of a widowed clergyman with six children. At a ball she meets the young Lord Osborne, who – “after hard labour of mind” – starts an awkward conversation about the weather. When Emma replies that she missed her morning walk that day because of the foul weather, he replies that she should wear half-boots or, better yet, ride on horseback. The conversation runs as follows:

“Ladies should ride in dirty weather. – Do you ride?” 
“No my lord.” 
“I wonder [why] every Lady does not. Ride. – A woman never looks better than on horseback. –” 
“But every woman may not have the inclination, or the means.” 
“If they knew how much it became them, they would all have the inclination – & I fancy Miss Watson – when once they had the inclination, the means would soon follow.”

On the back of the page, Austen wrote the continuation of this conversation but appears to have had trouble developing it. She crossed out almost all the text on the top half of the page, which reads as follows: Emma replies that she is probably to suppose that Lord Osborne means a compliment, but she does “not exactly understand it”. The author gently pushes the embarrassment further:

Lord Osborne laughed rather awkwardly – & then said “Upon my Soul, I am a bad one for Compliments. Nobody can be a worse hand at it than myself.”

Then Austen inserts an uneasy silence of “some minutes” and keeps building up the embarrassment by letting him add insult to injury:

“Cannot you give me a lesson Miss Watson on the art of paying Compliments. – I should be very glad to learn. I want very much to know how to please the Ladies. – one Lady at least.”

Between the lines, the author then intervenes again:

A cold monosyllable & grave look from Emma repressed the growing freedom of his manner.

Austen crossed out this entire passage and pinned a patch of paper over it, replacing the fragment with an alternative version in which, instead of letting the multiple embarrassment escalate, Austen gives Emma the floor and has her speak her mind:

“Your Lordship thinks we always have our own way. – That is a point on which Ladies & Gentlemen have long disagreed – But without pretending to decide it, I may say that there are some circumstances which even Women cannot controul. – Female Economy may will do a great deal my Lord, but it cannot turn a small income into a large one.”

The pinned patch physically covers the embarrassing scene, like a fig leaf. The archive keeps both the fig leaf and the naked awkwardness underneath. It also keeps the rest of the manuscript. Whatever reason Austen had to abandon the novel, she did not throw it away.

As slippery as a Raymond Chandler simile

Raymond Chandler’s lists of similes and titles
‘As rare as a fat mailman... as clean as an angel’s neck’: Raymond Chandler’s lists of similes and titles - Estate of Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler (1888–1959) kept a ring binder filled with typed notes that served as a repository of ideas for his detective fiction, such as lists of potential titles for novels:

Twenty Minutes Sleep
The Quiet Ivories 
Costume Piece 
The Bearded Lady 

He marked the titles he had used, such as Goldfish or Jade by typing “used” next to them. That does not mean the others are irrelevant. It is interesting to see the alternatives from which he made his selection, and how he explains what he means by some of them, such as “The Quiet Ivories”, referring to a “(Piano used for hiding body a la Stevenson)”.

Chandler is famous not only for his hard-boiled style, but also for his original similes. Again, he made lists of them, often crossing them out with a pencil and indicating whether he had deployed them in his novels – probably to avoid using the same one twice.

For instance, “As empty as a scarecrow’s pockets (Used) The Big Sleep” or “As cold as Finnegan’s feet (Used) Farewell [My Lovely]”. The unused or “vestigial” similes may not have made it into any novel, but they did have a function in the creative process. Some of them contain racial stereotypes, but others – among them: “As shallow as a cafeteria tray” and “As slippery as a watermelon seed” – are as evocative as a haiku, so to speak.

Samuel Beckett hits the bottle

Scraps: the front and back of a whisky label on which Beckett drafted his poem
Scraps: the front and back of a whisky label on which Beckett drafted his poem - The Beckett International Foundation, The University of Reading/Estate of Samuel Beckett

Beckett’s work constantly draws attention – both on a textual and on an existential level – to all the things we cancel, annul, revoke, set aside, throw away. Most of the short poems he called “mirlitonnades” are written on scraps of paper or throwaway objects, such as a cigarette packet or an old envelope.

On a piece torn from the packaging for a Johnnie Walker whisky bottle, he wrote a poem in French, starting with the words “finie / ou peu s’en faut / la vie” (life finished, nearly), a variation on the opening line of his 1950s play Endgame.

Beckett kept undoing his words and wrote half a dozen versions of this poem on this one scrap of cardboard. In version six, the opening words have changed to “mots mourant” (words dying). At that moment, July 27 1977,  the author seemed to have been satisfied enough to copy it into the notebook in which he wrote the fair copies of his “mirlitonnades”. But as soon as he had copied it, he changed his mind again, crossed it out, and wrote version eight, opening with the words “surviving words”:

mots survivants
de la vie
encore un moment
tenez-nous compagnie

(surviving words / of life / one more moment / keep us company / Tangier).  What is most remarkable, however, is that Beckett then copied this version one last time (minus the final word, “Tanger”), back onto the Black Label scrap, and drew a frame around it. He thus insisted on presenting the final fair copy among the flotsam and jetsam of the creative process, and he did so on a scrap of paper saved from the waste-paper basket.

Philip Larkin’s lion

'Long lion days': the front and back of a postcard on which Larkin wrote a poem for Monica Jones
'Long lion days': the front and back of a postcard on which Larkin wrote a poem for Monica Jones - The Society of Authors/Estate of Philip Larkin

In the Bodleian’s Special Collections is a medieval book of hours. Dating from mid-15th-century France, it is written in French and Latin. For every month of the year, it shows an illustration of a human activity typically performed during that month, next to an image relating to a sign of the zodiac. In the 1980s, the Bodleian cropped these images, reproduced them as postcards and sold them in the library’s bookshop.

Philip Larkin bought a full set of postcards and, every month, would write a poem on one, inspired by the image on the front, which he would send to his partner, Monica Jones. The poems can therefore be read as a form of ekphrasis – descriptions of a work of art. In July 1982, he sent her an untitled poem under the sign of Leo:

Long lion days 
Start with white haze. 
By midday you meet 
A hammer of heat – 
Whatever was sown 
Now fully grown; 
Whatever conceived 
Now fully leaved, 
Abounding, ablaze – 
O long lion days!

When this poem is separated from the card on which it is written, it lends itself to various interpretations and associations. In his 1992 book Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State, Tom Paulin – after mentioning icons of patriotic devotion in English culture, such as bows and arrows, cricket bats and oak trees – reads the midday “hammer of heat” in Larkin’s poem as “a martial memory of imperial high noon”.

But that association with the British Empire is less self-evident when the poem is read in its original context – on the back of a postcard, showing a colourful fragment from a medieval book made in France. The postcard is postmarked July 22 1982. Moreover, Larkin signed the poem “Ted”, which turns it into a parody of Ted Hughes’s elemental nature poetry.

Edited extract from Write Cut Rewrite (Bodleian, £40) by Dirk Van Hulle and Mark Nixon. The show is at the Bodleian, Oxford ( from Thurs-Jan 5