The scandal of Britain's lost literary archives

US universities are snapping up the papers, however trivial, of our leading living writers, reports Graham Ball
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When Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret sent out the invitations for their daughter Sarah's wedding to Daniel Chatto in 1994, they can hardly have thought that one would end up in a literary archive at the University of Texas.

There's not a lot that's literary about a stiffie - unless the recipient happens to be a world- famous playwright such as Tom Stoppard.

And so, in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre at the university in Austin, browsers may be surprised to find Mr Stoppard's invitation to the wedding of Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones, at St Stephen Walbrook in the City of London in 14 July 1994, waiting for scholars to pore over and discuss.

A bit premature? Well, there's a lot more like it. Although Mr Stoppard is very much alive, the archive already contains photocopies of the certificate of his divorce from his second wife Miriam in1991, and letters from her and his friend the actress Felicity Kendall. It even includes the music he selected for his appearance on Desert Island Discs.

Mr Stoppard's life in all its minutiae is not the only one to be found at Austin. Much of the life of his fellow playwright David Hare is already documented, by such items as Mr Hare's notes of a celebrated 1988 gathering in the West London home of Lady Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter, which was intended to revitalise Britain's intellectual left but came in for much mockery.

All this is part of a new phenomenon - call it the Great Transatlantic Manuscript Race - in which American universities are scooping up the papers of celebrated modern British authors. The secret of their success is simple: pay top prices, buy while they're still alive, and buy everything.

Mr Stoppard and Mr Hare are only two of the living authors benefiting from the new and lucrative tradein the complete contents of the working and private lives of literary figures. Malcolm Bradbury has also joined the transatlantic transfer market: his archive is in Indiana. Peter Ackroyd has sold his papers to Yale, and Texas has also recently acquired the John Fowles archive and Penelope Lively's papers.

These archives, which will become the tangible data for generations of future scholars and biographers, include just about everything about the writer's lives. Along with precious first drafts and annotated manuscripts, the American academics are scooping up private letters, restaurant bills, old passports, school reports, divorce and birth certificates, family photos - and even wedding invitations.

It might sound excessive but it means that, in a generation's time, British scholars wishing to research the lives of our leading contemporary writers will be forced to travel to Texas and other points west.

Sally Brown, who is in charge of the manuscripts section of the British Library, wants to lead a fightback against the cash-rich American acquisitors.

"I rather fear that we will have to change tactics in the near future and become slightly more agressive," said Ms Brown, who would have been happy to see both the Hare and Stoppard archives lodged at the British Library. "Part of the trouble is, I suspect, that not enough writers in Britain today are aware that we are interested in archives from living writers. We do have a purchasing budget, although bequests are welcome."

The problem confronting the British Library is that its purchasing budget has just been cut back and Lottery funding has been ruled out in principle by the trustees, who have decided that they will not fund the puchase of any work under 20 years old.

None the less, the Library recently found the funding to purchase the archive of A Alvarez, which includes important correspondence with fellow poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Other contemporary British writers who already have material in the collection include Tom Paulin, Wendy Cope and Peter Porter.

The high-flying academic who has set the pace in the manuscript race is Thomas F Staley, Director of the Humanities Research Centre at Austin. He says: "I do not see why people should resent the fact that archives are going to America. We take great care of them, and it helps to spread the influence of British culture after all."

There is an obvious reluctance on all sides to discuss the cash sums generated by this trade, but a leading agent who advises the principal buying institutions on the value of British writers' works said that a full archive, including all correspondence, from a leading writer today would fetch a six figure sum.