Goodbye to all these

Laurence Olivier's archive might yet be saved for the nation. But most literary treasures still end up in America. Matthew Sweet on a lucrative trade
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The Independent Culture
F ay Weldon can turn her shopping lists into cash. File under W for Weird. British scholars who want to consult the manuscript of Robert Browning's "Home-Thoughts from Abroad" have to schlep out to a bunker in Waco, Texas, to do so. File under F for Frustrating. In South Africa, respected authors are withdrawing their gifts to domestic libraries and selling them to American universities. Here, British universities are making clandestine sales of unique manuscripts. File under S for Scandal. Or possibly T for Tragedy.

The world of the scholarly archive is as much about hard-nosed brokering as academic endeavour. Just in the past fortnight, the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, revealed that the British Library had bought up his archive for a five-figure sum; the Gaskell Society won its battle to prevent six newly-discovered letters by the author of Mary Barton from being auctioned off over the Internet; and Laurence Olivier's widow, Joan Plowright, announced that she intends to sell her late husband's papers to the nation - at a price.

The Olivier papers are a particularly juicy historical source. The 250 boxes of material contain an unfilmed screenplay for Macbeth, the actor's private diaries, and his intimate correspondence with his second wife, Vivien Leigh. Plowright, keen that the archive should remain complete and in the UK, is giving the British Library as much time as it likes to raise her asking price of pounds 1.2m. Her agents, the Soho book dealers Bernard Quaritch, came up with this figure. According to Quaritch's Joan Winterkorn, it's a sum that doesn't reflect a prior offer from any US institution that might want to compete for ownership.

"We've not been tempting anyone with these papers," she maintains. "We're not trying to create an auction situation." Although no American buyers have been approached, it is well known that Dr Thomas Staley, director of the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas, would be keen to get his hands on them, and that pounds 1.2 million is an amount he could probably raise in an afternoon. And if Plowright changed her mind and decided to break up the collection and sell it piecemeal, she could probably double her money by flogging a few choice items to Planet Hollywood.

But the fate of the Olivier archive has only become an issue because Britain has inadequate apparatus for securing such collections for the nation. The Lottery Heritage Fund is now the obvious first port of call for any institution seeking to make such a purchase, but the debacle over the Churchill Papers - when pounds 12.5m went into the pockets of the politician's grandson, the widely disliked former Tory MP - means that a big acquisition is a potential PR disaster.

As for cash-strapped British universities, any decision to purchase a collection has to be examined at length in committee. Conversely, wealthier American institutions such as the University of Texas can just call up an oil-rich benefactor and ask him to put a cheque in the post. The university gets the papers, and the benefactor gets a hefty tax rebate and a warm sense of altruistic satisfaction.

This inequality means that the archival material of Britain's most prominent writers and artists is being evacuated into American university libraries. And they don't even have to be dead to qualify. Somewhere in a dark, subterranean corner of Bloomington, Indiana, are 20,000 pieces of Fay Weldon memorabilia, neatly stored in cardboard boxes.

And this is how it works: "I save my manuscripts, letters, postcards, and anything that looks interesting or scandalous - just to make life a bit more interesting for these people," Weldon explains. "You build them up in the basement and the attic, and every now and then someone comes and carries them all away." Bit by bit, year by year, she has been selling off the contents of her filing cabinets and foolscap wallets to the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana, through a pair of agents who specialise in such transactions.

"My agents are a couple of lovely men who spend their winters in Kerala growing peppercorns," she says. "You can only get to their farm by going through the jungle on an elephant, but there is a fax machine in the nearest village and you can communicate with them through that. Every now and then they swoop down on me and ask me what I've got."

Weldon is just one of several prominent British writers who have struck long-term deals with US libraries. Tom Stoppard and David Hare have a similar arrangement with the University of Texas. Malcolm Bradbury recently sold his papers to Indiana, with the understanding that, when a new trunkful became available, the university would be only too happy to take them off his hands.

But even the material already deposited in British university libraries is not necessarily safe. Try this on for scandal. In 1968, a large collection of rare mathematical books was given to Keele University by one Charles W Turner. It included an Isaac Newton manuscript and a cache of books from the physicist's own library, with reams of his margin notes. You might have thought that Keele would still be celebrating its acquisition of a national treasure. Instead, at the end of last year, it quietly sold the material to a private collector. And, as a recent edition of the Book Collector reported, obvious domestic buyers such as Trinity College, Cambridge - where Newton studied and where most of his books now reside - were not consulted about the sale. The cash has gone on upgrading Keele's IT facilities.

And what do US scholars think of this one-way traffic? Some bemoan the fact that they can no longer consult many British documents in their original contexts; others see it as a case of the boot finally being transferred to the other foot. "It sure is a sweet irony, after several centuries of the British looting antiquities from their colonies, that their `national heritage' is now being bought up by a former colony," reflects Adriana Craciun of the English department of Loyola University, Chicago. "Seems to me that the understandable anxiety [of British academics] is a painful realisation that the former British Empire is now, in one small way, in the vulnerable position in which it so often placed other cultures."

John P Farrell, a lecturer in the English department at the University of Texas, one of the world's most aggressively acquisitive institutions, is even more bullish. "It's the writer's choice to make the best financial deal he can," he says. "I would if the choice were mine." He also has a suggestion for alleviating the problem. "If there is a public interest in keeping national archives in the country of origin, then the public treasury should pay the artist, at some point during his lifetime, an ongoing fee in order to secure his willingness to accept the public interest. In other words, the artist should be able to sell to the public his willingness to forgo his private right to sell to the highest bidder."

Britain doesn't have a monopoly on this problem. Archivists in South Africa are trying to prevent their literary culture being hoovered up by foreign institutions. The playwright Athol Fugard "lodged" all his manuscripts and notes with the National English Literature Museum in Grahamstown, but recently recalled them in order to sell them on the US market. Last week Indiana University bought them for an undisclosed but no doubt hefty sum. The NELM was set up in the early 1980s precisely to discourage transactions such as this, after a representative of Texas University had come sniffing round the libraries of South Africa's literary worthies, chequebook in hand.

The museum's director, Malcolm Hacksley, is philosophical about the loss of the Fugard papers. "He let us keep photocopies, and for research purposes that's almost as good." But he's less diplomatic about another poet and playwright. "He donated a large quantity of material to us, and we've got that in his own handwriting. However, he has now withdrawn all of that without any graciousness at all. We've looked after it, archived it, stored it beautifully, classified it and computerised the whole jolly lot. However, after quite a lot of acrimonious correspondence, he took a quantity of it a couple of years ago and he's now demanded the rest."

Despite such scandals, American universities are not necessarily the villains of this story. They have simply been taking 20th-century literary and theatrical archives more seriously for longer than British institutions. That a collection of rare material remains intact and well preserved is clearly more important than whether it resides in Aberdeen or Albuquerque, and, since most US libraries have plans to put at least part of their manuscript collections on-line, some of this material will, in their hands, become more accessible than ever before. Indiana, for example, has digitised its enormous holdings of H G Wells's correspondence, and researchers worldwide can now download it from a website.

Developments like this, however, are a reminder that what constitutes a manuscript is a more complicated question than it was in the days of Gaskell and Newton - or, for that matter, Olivier. If she wished, Fay Weldon could sit at her PC and run off multiple copies of, say, The Cloning of Joanna May, spend an afternoon doodling over them, flog them to a dozen different American universities, and wait for the money to roll in. Has she ever been tempted? "Honestly!" she protests. "There isn't time to play games like that." Then she pauses. "However, now you've put the idea in my head..."