Wilfred Owen Archive: New catalogue

The Wilfred Owen archive has just been fully rehoused and catalogued, with a detailed list of items available online. The collection has had a lively existence thus far, with the bulk of it donated by Harold Owen in 1975 to the English Faculty Library. Wilfred’s cousin Leslie Gunston donated the Gunston collection in 1978. Small additions have been made since then, and the collection now includes the working papers and correspondence of two prominent Owen scholars, Dominic Hibberd and Jon Stallworthy. The entire collection was transferred to the Weston Library on 13 January 2016.

Following a month of work, the collection has been reordered and renumbered, although the former, widely-cited OEF (Oxford English Faculty) references are included in the catalogue, as are references to Jon Stallworthy’s transcripts in Wilfred Owen: The Complete Poems and Fragments (CPF).

Wilfred Owen’s literary papers make up the first six boxes (MSS. 12282/1-6) and include Wilfred’s original manuscripts (digital versions of which are available on the Word War I Poetry Digital Archive), allowing the reader to see the maturation of Owen’s poetry from the early ‘To Poesy’ to his masterpieces ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘Mental Cases’ and ‘Anthem for Dead Youth’. Drafts of poems that Wilfred sent to his cousin, Leslie Gunston, are also found in this part of the collection.

The archive also contains other primary source material relating to Wilfred. At MSS. 12282/34-5 there are original editions of The Hydra, a magazine published by the patients at Craiglockhart Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers where Wilfred was a patient in 1917. He edited several issues of the magazine and some of the copies have annotations by him, such as ‘With the Editor’s Compliments!’ School exercise books and correspondence are similarly preserved, and there is an extensive collection of objects and family possessions relating to Wilfred and his family. Many of the objects are extremely fragile and kept in a Reserved part of the collection, but they provide a tangible closeness to Wilfred. Found here are some of Tom Owen’s souvenirs from India, Susan Owen’s jewellery box, with locks of Wilfred’s baby hair, an old family clock, a boat handmade by Tom for Wilfred, and some binoculars belonging to Wilfred himself.

The photographs in the archive span from the late 19th century to the late 20th century, and include many generations of Wilfred’s mother’s family. The photos are arranged by size and subject and include photographs of Wilfred.

The remainder of the archive mostly consists of Harold Owen’s correspondence, press cuttings and working papers. These offer a fascinating insight into the life of Wilfred’s brother, Harold and highlight the way in which he controlled Wilfred’s reputation and that of the Owen family. His correspondence with admirers, scholars, publishers, libraries and museums uncovers the human face of archival acquisitions and posthumous literary fame. Harold’s biography, Journey from Obscurity, is found in this part of the collection, with a first draft of almost 1000 pages written by hand in Harold’s characteristic small capitals.

There are three later additions to the archive. The 1978 Gunston donation includes manuscripts dating back to the 19th century, letters, photographs and cartoons. Particularly charming are Leslie’s letters to his wife Norah, and the sketches contained in them.

The Owen scholar Dominic Hibberd gave his working files, which contain correspondence, press cuttings, photocopies and photographs, generated in the course of his research. Some of these items are dated as recently as 2002, and include new resources, such as photocopies of the birth, death and marriage certificates of Wilfred’s extended family.

Also present are Jon Stallworthy’s working files, which are comprised mostly of photocopies of the Owen manuscripts which he used to create his Complete Poems and Fragments.

Several items in particular caught my attention throughout the archiving process:

Items 83 and 102 in MS. 12282/7, folder 2 are two letters from Annie G Phillips to Harold Owen, dated November 1969. Annie is studying for her A levels, and writes to Harold of her admiration for Journey from Obscurity, his memoirs. She says that learning about the family life of the Owens has helped her understand Wilfred’s poetry on a deeper level, but she also makes some very personal connections. Like Wilfred, she cannot afford to go to university. Harold’s reply must have been kind because her follow-up letter is even more brimming with excitement. These exchanges really posit Harold as a living connection to Wilfred, a way for readers to access the poet, a way of keeping Wilfred alive. But this is of course exactly what Harold’s archival work did and does. His own papers are testimony to that process of preservation, and exist as items worthy of study in their own right. But these letters also left me wondering what happened to Annie Phillips, who must now be nearing 80. Did she ever go to university? Is she still reading Wilfred Owen?

Item 151 in MS. 12282 photogr. 3 is a postcard of Scarborough during the war, collected as part of a group of postcards of places connected to Wilfred Owen. It follows postcards of Bordeaux, Ripon, Ors, and many other places. The photographed place is the focus of these postcards, and very few have any writing on them. But item 151 dates from the First World War and has a message written to a ‘Miss Lucy Sunderland’ from ‘Daddy’. Archival work is never neutral, and the decision made to use this postcard in the collection represents a value judgement: the photographic record of a place is of greater importance than the message contained on the verso of the card. In the catalogue, I decided to include the information about the scribbled message in an attempt to balance out the conflicting demands placed upon this item. We’ll never know if Lucy’s Daddy made it back home again.

Item 16 in MS. 12282 objects 2 is a tiny cardboard box inside Susan Owen’s jewellery box. This tiny box contains two envelopes with the hair of Wilfred Owen inside. One of the locks of hair even had the shedded skin of a carpet beetle lodged within it! The hair itself was one of the most moving discoveries within the collection, with a tangibility that is both enticing and repulsive. But the manner of preservation was fascinating, too. The hair had originally been labelled in the envelopes and box by someone with a cursive hand, most likely Susan Owen herself, who would have been the one to cut Wilfred’s hair. The pencil marks had somewhat faded away, but one of the envelopes read ‘The hair of Sir Wilfred Edward Salter-Owen at the age of 11 ½ months in the year 1894’ For Susan, then, this was the act of a proud mother, keeping a memory of her son’s early years, to look back upon when he was older. But the cursive pencil writing is overshadowed by the characteristic small capitals in ink of Harold Owen. Harold labels the box as ‘The poet Wilfred Owen’s hair’. He displays an entirely different motive – to preserve the remains of a well-known literary figure. The object’s purpose and identity has been altered by the motives of its various owners. How the Bodleian labels this item will necessarily be another act of alteration. A strand of hair is never just a strand of hair!

Laura Hackett

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