In the third year of studying English Literature at the University of Reading you are offered a multitude of interesting and unique modules, spanning the diverse depths of literature from across the globe and across the centuries. When you get to this stage, you will probably have built up quite a clear idea of what you love to read, analyse and study. However, if like myself you are extremely indecisive, the module decision may be a bit tougher: I wanted to take every module, so narrowing it down to a few was a hard task! In the end I finally made my choices, one of which was ‘Samuel Beckett’. I had studied one of Beckett’s plays, Endgame, in my first year of study and it had been my first interaction with the playwright. In the way that many literature students do with certain texts or authors, I instantly fell in love with the play. It opened my mind to an entirely new way of thinking about drama, and ideas about life itself. Moreover, I knew that the University of Reading has an important connection to Beckett, for it owns The Beckett Collection, the largest collection of resources pertaining to Beckett in the world. So I took a chance with the module, eager to learn more about this fascinating character and his prolific career, and hoping to discover more by making use of such a remarkable resource right at my doorstep.
The University’s Special Collections share a home with the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), next to the London Road campus of the University. They house archives for a number of topics as well as The Beckett Collection, including: Ladybird books, The Great Exhibition, Children’s Collection, Aubrey Beardsley and many more. Contained there are a number of resources, such as original manuscripts, correspondences (original letters), stage files, journals, artworks, photographs, recordings etc. pertaining to each topic. Studying at the University of Reading gives you access to these pieces of history, bringing your study to life and stimulating your academic research in a unique and rewarding way.
My experience with The Beckett Collection was better than I ever imagined it to be, and is one of the defining moments in my academic study that I will always recall when I think of my time as a student. In the first few weeks we visited the collection as a seminar group, with our tutor, and were introduced to the material available for the study of Beckett. At the time we were studying Beckett’s first novel, Murphy, and so the collection granted us access to view copies of the original notebooks that Beckett wrote Murphy in. To my amazement his notes spanned five full notebooks (much longer than the finished product) and the very first notebook contained only the first paragraph of the finished novel, revised and revised across each page. It was truly incredible to be witnessing Beckett’s own personal notes and drawings, and to be privy to something as personal as his thought process when writing. This interaction with the collection made such an impression on me that I decided immediately that I would return and use the material for my assessed essay. I wrote my essay on presence and absence within Not I and Footfalls, two of Beckett’s later short plays, and used the collection to aid my argument. The following is a small example of how I used the research in my essay:
‘The importance of ‘birth’ to Mouth’s narrative is suggested in an earlier draft of the play (Samuel Beckett, Not I, Manuscript, Reading University Library, MS 1227/7/12/5, p. 1.) in which Mouth’s first words are: ‘..birth…into this world…this world.’ Beckett’s decision to make the alteration of ‘birth’ to ‘out’ in the final text, though perhaps less explicit in resolute meaning, seems to paradoxically fortify the idea that birth is Mouth’s main presence. Instead of Mouth saying ‘birth’, it experiences birth, bringing words into being.’
I found the process of studying the original manuscripts, and seeing how Beckett constructed his works, to be not only helpful in assembling my own argument about the text, but also in gaining a wider understanding of Beckett’s works in relation to each other. I feel incredibly lucky and fortunate to have been able to experience The Beckett Collection; it augmented my passion for Beckett, for academic study, and it reminded me of the reason why I chose to study literature in the first place.
Chloe Rendall, BA Art and English Literature
For more information, see http://www.reading.ac.uk/special-collections/collections/sc-beckett.aspx
Or to see the full list of special collections: http://www.reading.ac.uk/special-collections/