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The Secret Life of Books (Series 1)

Programme Run: 6 x 30 minutes
Production: BBC
PFirst Transmitted: 2014

Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Mrs Dalloway, Frankenstein…just some of the classic works of fiction that we all know and love. But how well do we really know them? We might remember Rochester and Jane’s sparky dialogue in Jane Eyre or the Frankenstein monster jerking to life in the classic black and white movies… But these rich and vibrant works have much more to offer us, and in this series our presenters will revisit original texts, manuscripts, diaries and correspondence to reveal new insights into some of the greatest works of literature.

Our preview videos are intended for broadcasters looking to licence content from the Open University. 

Dr Alice Roberts discovers why Mary Shelley might not have been the only person to have had a hand in ‘creating the monster’.

great passion is The Mabinogion…folk tales with the wildest plotlines and most incredible characters, including the first known mention of King Arthur. But where does this intriguing work of fiction come from, and who might be responsible for creating it?

 Is it possible to reveal more about what was going on in Shakespeare’s mind when his First Folio manuscript isn’t definitive or even in his hand? Actor Simon Russell Beale searches for the essence of Shakespeare in the surviving texts. 

Under different circumstances the ending of Great Expectations might have been very different…Tony Jordan, chief screenwriter with Eastenders for 15 years, knows serialised drama inside out and uncovers why Charles Dickens gave Pip a happy ending.

Bidisha was fascinated by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as a teenager, but re-reading the story as an adult left her feeling distinctly uncomfortable about what it has to say about sex and race. Is it a far darker and more disturbing text than we first thought?

Virginia Woolf’s journey towards creating the great modernist novel Mrs Dalloway is well documented through her letters and diaries. Alexandra Harris retraces Woolf’s footsteps through the Edwardian social concerns and psychological ideas that shaped this novel.  



Presented by Cerys Matthews 

The Mabinogion has long been recognised as Wales' most important contribution to European literature. This collection of 11 ancient folk tales has its roots in the strong oral storytelling tradition of the pre-Christian era. 

Dating from sometime between 500-1000AD, the tales explore Celtic mythology and the Arthurian romantic legend, and are a fine example of epic narrative storytelling. 

They can be seen to have influenced later fantasy writing like JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. First written down in Welsh during the late 14th century, the tales then became virtually forgotten, hidden away in two privately owned manuscripts. 

It wasn’t until the Romantic Movement swept across Europe in the 19th century that the stories were resurrected and translated into English for the first time by the amateur linguist, Lady Charlotte Guest. Her 1849 publication of the collected Mabinogion tales finally brought them to a wider audience and the book has never been out of print since. 

Here, Cerys Matthews explores the fascinating history of this influential collection of tales. She visits the Bodleian Library, Oxford to look at one of the ancient texts where these oral stories were first written down in Welsh, and sifts through the private correspondence of the remarkable Lady Charlotte Guest at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth

As she delves deeper into these strange tales and visits some of the locations which influenced them over a thousand years ago, their power becomes ever more apparent.

- interviews: Prof Sioned Davies Position, Chair of Welsh and Head of Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, University of Wales, and translator of Mabinogion; Prof Charles-Edwards, Professor of Celtic, Jesus College, Oxford University; Dr Mary-Ann Constantine, Senior Fellow, Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, University of Wales  



Presented by Simon Russell Beale 

To be or not to be … a man more sinned against than sinning … I have loved not wisely but too well … the fault is in our stars. Dear Brutus … 

All words written by a man to whom Simon Russell Beale has devoted much of his life as an actor; the author of some of the most famous lines in British literature … William Shakespeare. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see those lines in their original written form, fresh from his pen? 

Yes it would. But we can’t - because in Shakespeare’s day, original manuscripts weren’t considered worth keeping. They were quite simply thrown away. Indeed, it is only thanks to a book that was published in 1623, the so-called First Folio, that we have many of his plays in any form at all. 

What can we learn from it? Actually – we can learn a great deal. We can learn that Shakespeare frequently collaborated with other writers – that some of those famous words weren’t always his.

 We can learn how plays were made as much as they were written – and in fact, Simon Russell Beale thinks we can read between the lines and between the plays – and find a shadow of the man himself … 

Without the First Folio – if for some reason it had never been printed – Shakespeare would be half the playwright that he is; we would have lost those 18 plays entirely, and amongst them are some of his very greatest ... The Tempest, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Comedy of Errors, Measure For Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, All’s Well that Ends Well, The Winter’s Tale, Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, ... Macbeth

Lost for words? Without this wonderful book, at certain moments in Beale’s life he definitely would have been ...

 - Interviews: Sonia Massai, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, King's College London; Sam Mendes, Oscar winning Director; Nicholas Hytner, National Theatre.  


Presented by Professor Alice Roberts

Nearly 200 years since it was first published Frankenstein has established itself in popular culture as shorthand for the dangers of science run amok. The name Frankenstein conjures images the world over of a square headed Boris Karloff figure with bolts in his neck.

In this film, anatomist and author Professor Alice Roberts returns to the original 1818 book to explore the myths and facts about the way it was written and what its author, 18-year-old Mary Shelley, intended it to be about.

Alice retraces the steps of Mary Shelley from the graveyard at St Pancras where her mother was buried, and where she is said to have consummated her affair with the poet Percy Bysshe, to the Villa Diodati in Geneva where - according to Mary's 1831 preface - Byron first challenged them each to write a ghost story "to awaken thrilling horror... to make the reader dread to look around".

Alice questions how much of this is myth and how much we can really believe. When Alice meets Professor Nora Crook they discuss the contradictory themes and voices in the book and reveal it to be, above all, a novel of ideas. 

Alice returns to the earliest surviving manuscript, the hand written draft notebooks from 1816 and 1817 and discovers evidence that there are two different hands at work in the novel. We can see the handwriting of Mary Shelley herself and also that of her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. 

Dr Michael Rossington explains that the process of writing the novel matches its main themes, it can be seen a critique of the solo visionary artist or creator.

- Interviews: Dr Michael Rossington, Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Romantic Literature, Newcastle University; Prof Nora Crook, Emerita Professor of English Literature, Anglia Ruskin University.  


Presented by Tony Jordan 

Great Expectations is one of Charles Dickens' most autobiographical novels, and one of his greatest works. 

But the book has often been criticised, not least because the author hurriedly re-wrote a second, happier ending after his first was deemed too miserable. Was he simply “selling out” in revising the ending to make it more audience-friendly? 

Tony Jordan was chief screenwriter on EastEnders for 15 years, and was often reminded that if Dickens were alive today he would be doing the very same job. Using clues hidden in the manuscript, he wants to explore the novel from the perspective of a populist writer, and to understand what it tells us about Dickens as a writer and as a man. 

Critics of Dickens have often suggested that he changed the ending simply to please his audience. There is some truth in this, and Dickens always made it clear that he cared much more about the views of his readership than the literary establishment. Exploring his periodicals, Tony uncovers Dickens' formidable skill as a serialised writer, and his deeply held relationship with his audience.   But looking into Dickens' past, Tony realises that Dickens' innate populism is only half the story. The novelist always invested a huge amount into his characters - he hated letting them go - but he invested more of himself in Pip that in any other of his protagonists. 

Dickens could never keep his own personal problems out of his novels, and his ongoing childhood issues, a recently failed marriage, and an ongoing unconsummated affair with a young actress are all reflected and explored in the text itself. So in giving his hero a happy - or happier - ending, was he in some way giving one to himself?

 - Interviews: Dr Holly Furneaux, University of Leicester; Dr Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, University of Oxford; Prof Juliet John, Royal Holloway University of London. 


Presented by Alexandra Harris

 Alexandra Harris argues that in her 1925 novel, Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf developed a new, free-from way of writing that responded to the climate of uncertainty that followed the trauma of the First World War.

The secure, certain world described by novelists of the previous generation no longer existed. Similarly, the traditional Victorian novel had died with thousands of innocent young men in the trenches. Literature needed to be completely re-thought, shaken-up and ‘made new’.

Woolf wanted to write for the modern world, with all its confusion and uncertainty. She believed this required a completely different approach: one that did not involve such staid literary devices as ‘plot’, character development, and a happy ending.

Mrs Dalloway spans a single day in London in June 1923 – seen through the eyes of two central characters who, very radically, never meet. Clarissa Dalloway is a renowned socialite and the wife of an MP, while Septimus Smith is a shell-shocked survivor of WW1.

The book’s free-flowing ‘stream-of-consciousness’ structure allows Woolf to show their very different versions of the world – the sane and the insane - and critiques a social system that seeks to exclude those who do not fit the established view.

Alexandra shows that insanity was a subject very close to Woolf’s heart; throughout her life, she suffered from bouts of debilitating mental illness.

Reading Woolf’s diaries alongside the original manuscript for the work, Alexandra discovers just how much of Woolf’s own experience found its way into the ‘mad-scenes’ she ascribes to Septimus.

As her friend, D.H. Lawrence, said when the book was published: ‘this is a novel written from personal experience’. But fascinatingly, during the three years that Woolf worked on Mrs Dalloway she enjoyed a rare period of good-health.

Alexandra Harris believes Mrs Dalloway is a book about madness that Woolf wrote so that she could remain sane. Reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries alongside the original manuscript, Alexandra reveals the genesis of the work.

It’s a poignant story of how the woman who would become one of the greatest writers of the 20th century battled to transform her private demons into one of the most daring novels of the inter-war years, and the book that would make her name.

- Interviews: Prof John Mullan, Head of English Literature, UCL; Lyndall Gordon, author: ‘Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life’.          


Presented by Bidisha Mamata

Novelist Bidisha first read Jane Eyre as a teenager and was immediately captivated by the iconic orphaned heroine. She immersed herself in Jane’s world of loss and love, of rebellion, and redemption.

For Bidisha, Eyre’s perilous, but ultimately liberating, passage into adulthood showed that a young woman could find happiness without compromising her essential self. Jane got to have it all.  

On her own terms. Or did she? Revisiting this classic Victorian novel seventeen years on, Bidisha sees her erstwhile role model, and the society which spawned her, through very different eyes. Is Jane really such a proto-feminist?

Is the supposedly dashing Mr Rochester little more than a bully and an abuser? And what of his – and Bronte’s – treatment of the Creole wife in the attic?

Bidisha now considers the nexus of sex and race and the inherent cruelty in the novel to be much darker and more disturbing than her teenage self ever imagined. In revisiting the book, Bidisha questions the idea of Jane Eyre as a heroine but also celebrates Charlotte Bronte’s radicalism, both in the book’s innovative first person narrative form as well as its bold and liberated portrait of female desire.

 - Interviews: Prof Terry Eagleton, University of Lancaster; Ann Dinsdale, Bronte Parsonage Museum; Helen Melody, Curator, Modern Literary Manuscripts, British Museum.


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