First lines of Caxton's c.1476 edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

English Literature Collections

The Library’s printed, manuscript and archival holdings constitute an outstanding resource for studies of literatures in English from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Black and white photograph of woman in Victorian clothing
Photograph of Elizabeth Gaskell by Alexander McGlashon, c.1864, English MS 343/1a.

The collections support learning and research across a broad spectrum of subject areas and from a variety of theoretical perspectives including: the history of the book and materiality of the text; the transmission of texts, publishing, editing and criticism; life writing in all its forms; gender and sexuality; colonialism and post-colonialism; and literature in translation.

There are important printed collections of works by, and relating to, all major authors in English, from the introduction of printing to England by William Caxton through to contemporary literatures, with rare first editions and important ancillary material. Collections of English literary papers date especially from the 18th century to the present and overlap with material relating to the world of art and to other aspects of culture and society, particularly in the Victorian era.

Particular strengths include:

  • Middle English literature, in both manuscript and printed form.
  • Renaissance and Early Modern writing, and the print culture of the 17th century.
  • 18th-century literature and letters, in both printed and archival collections.
  • The 19th-century novel, poetry, criticism and letters.
  • A substantial body of modern literary archives providing an outstanding representation of 20th- and 21st-century poetries in English from Britain, the Americas and elsewhere.

Middle English and early modern literature

The Library has significant medieval holdings, including many literary texts that are preserved in illuminated manuscripts and early printed editions. There are 41 Middle English manuscripts, dating from the mid-14th century to the early 16th. These include important manuscripts of John Lydgate’s Troy Book and the Falle of Pryncys and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

There are over 60 books in English printed by Caxton, the second largest such collection in the world. These include his first two editions of the Canterbury Tales; the first book ever printed in English, The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye, printed in Bruges or Ghent, c.1473; and one of only two surviving copies of Caxton’s 1485 edition of Malory’s Morte Darthur. The Library also holds a unique copy of Wynkyn de Worde’s 1498 edition of Morte Darthur.

The Edmund Spenser Collection contains a first edition of the Faerie Queene (1590-96), and first or early editions of numerous other poetical works. The Shakespeare Collection embraces all four Folios, the first (1609) edition of the Sonnets, and a full range of later editions. The Library’s grangerized copy of The Plays of William Shakspeare, 4th edition (1793), edited by Samuel Johnson and George Steevens, was Steevens’s own copy enriched by the insertion of several thousand engravings of great rarity.

The John Milton Collection includes six variant issues of the first edition of Paradise Lost (1667-69), while the John Bunyan Collection contains the rare first issue of the first edition of part one of Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Many other landmarks of 17th-century literature are to be found in the dispersed Seventeenth-Century Literary Publications Collection, comprising over 15,000 items including first and significant editions of Jonson, Donne, Herbert, Browne, Hobbes, Walton, Butler and Dryden.

Finally, the Bellot Papers contain a small quantity of material relating to the 17th-century poet Samuel Butler.

18th-century literature

The dispersed 18th Century Literary Publications Collection contains over 25,000 titles in 60,000 volumes, including many of the polemical writings of Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe. Also included is the outstanding Samuel Johnson Collection, which features a copy of the fourth edition of his Dictionary, which contains over 250 corrections in Johnson’s own hand. Another notable item is A Johnsonian Proposal for printing a translation of Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent (1738), which is considered to be unique.

The Library holds copies of both the first and second editions of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726 and 1727). Among the works of other novelists, attention should be drawn to a presentation copy of the first edition of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1751) and to a first-edition set of Laurence Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1760–67), with the author’s signature present in two of the nine volumes.

Also in our holdings is an invaluable collection of Restoration plays, many of which are in early 18th-century illustrated editions. Authors such as William Congreve, George Farquhar, Sir George Etherege and William Wycherley figure prominently.

The Library holds an outstanding manuscript collection relating to Hester Lynch Thrale-Piozzi (1741–1821), Samuel Johnson and other figures prominent in 18th-century literary, social and cultural life. The collection contains over 150 letters from Thrale-Piozzi to Johnson. The Thrale-Piozzi papers live alongside the papers of the diarist and courtier Mary Hamilton (1756–1816), who stood at the nexus of several interlocking royal, aristocratic, literary and artistic circles in late 18th-century London; papers of the antiquarian traveller Dorothy Richardson (b. 1748); and the travel journals of artist William Artaud (1763–1823). Archive holdings also include the Bagshawe Muniments, containing correspondence between Sir James Caldwell and many leading figures of his day, including Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Samuel Johnson.

These collections contain thousands of original letters as well as literary manuscripts, drafts, diaries and albums of early newspaper cuttings.

19th-century literature

All major 19th Century authors are represented in our printed collections, together with most of the minor and more obscure figures. There are particularly significant collections for certain literary figures, and special emphasis can be placed on the poets William Blake, Lord Byron, Arthur Hugh Clough, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edward Fitzgerald, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Francis Thompson and William Wordsworth; and the novelists Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Gissing, Sir Walter Scott and William Makepeace Thackeray.

The dispersed Nineteenth-Century Fiction Collection contains copies of Dickens’s serialized novels in their original part wrappers, as well as numerous three-decker editions in attractive publishers’ bindings. The Library also has its share of the bibliographical curiosities produced by the forger Thomas J. Wise.

Three 19th-century writers with Manchester connections who are well represented in the Library are the novelists Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865), George Gissing (1857-1903) and Isabella Banks (1821-1897).

  • Our Gaskell collections are the most important accumulation of Gaskelliana in the world, while containing significant material relating to other writers including Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and various Lancastrian luminaries. Highlights include autograph manuscripts of the Life of Charlotte Brontë, the novel Wives and Daughters, and the short stories ‘The Crooked Branch’ and ‘The Grey Woman’; 29 letters from Charles Dickens to Gaskell; and 22 autograph letters from Charlotte Brontë.
  • Our Gissing holdings include extensive correspondence, autograph manuscripts and family photographs. The Coustillas Gissing collection contains a near-complete set of editions of Gissing in English and in translation, from original publication to the 21st century.
  • The Wadsworth Manuscripts include 37 letters from Isabella (Mrs Linnaeus) Banks, author of The Manchester Man.

We also hold the manuscripts of some of Thomas Hardy’s short stories, Charles Dickens manuscripts and correspondence, and a collection of the correspondence of Walter Savage Landor.

We have extensive and outstanding Pre-Raphaelite collections including the largest collection of John Ruskin’s letters in the world, and significant collections containing the letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and Ford Maddox Brown. Additional Madox Brown material can be found in the papers of his son Oliver Madox Brown.

Popular, working-class literature is represented by the Street Literature Collections which contain early 19th-century Chapbooks offering a wealth of research opportunities in a variety of subject areas including social and political history, and religious, cultural and theatre studies. The collection is also an important source for the study of the provincial book trade, since a high proportion of imprints are outside the traditional centres of printing – London, Oxford and Cambridge. The E. L. Burney Collection contains items of general and popular fiction and juvenilia.

Poetry holdings include a number of collections relating to Walt Whitman (1819-1892), journalist, essayist and poet, and his links to Bolton, Lancashire, held alongside the correspondence of Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), socialist, poet and early gay rights activist. The Walt Whitman Book Collection includes nearly sixty separate editions and issues of Leaves of Grass and some seventy editions of other works by Whitman. The Sixsmith Collection comprises papers of Charles F. Sixsmith of Anderton, Lancashire, respecting his Whitman interest. It includes 39 letters to Whitman from various correspondents, and correspondence of Horace L. Traubel, the intimate friend of Whitman, mostly addressed to J. W. Wallace, Dr John Johnston and Sixsmith. Sixsmith’s papers also reflect other interests and activities, including his friendship with Carpenter; the cotton trade; industrial relations; and the English countryside.

Additionally, the Tabley Muniments contain papers of the poet John Byrne Leicester Warren, 3rd Baron de Tabley. The Rawson/Wilson papers contain the original manuscripts and correspondence for the anti-slavery anthology, The Bow in the Cloud.

20th- and 21st-century poetry

A significant development of recent years has been the acquisition of numerous modern literary archives, which collectively constitute an excellent representation of modern, recent and contemporary literatures in English. There is a particular emphasis on significant 20th and 21st Century poetry; writing which acknowledges ethnicity, gender and sexuality; and translations into English of the works of significant 20th and 21st Century writers from across the world.

Preeminent is the vast and continually growing archive of Manchester-based Carcanet Press. Scores of prominent poets and authors feature in the correspondence files and editorial papers, such as John Ashbery, Eavan Boland, Christine Brooke-Rose, Donald Davie, Lorna Goodison, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Jennings, Philip Larkin, Edwin Morgan, Les Murray, Laura Riding, Vikram Seth and R. S. Thomas. The Library also holds the personal papers of Carcanet’s founder and managing editor, Michael Schmidt; and an archive of Carcanet book jacket designs by the graphic artist Stephen Raw. In addition, the Library holds a collection of over fifteen hundred books printed by Carcanet.

The Carcanet Press Archive has functioned as a nucleus around which an entire constellation of literary archives has formed. Carcanet poets whose archives have found a home at the Rylands include David Arkell, Elaine Feinstein, Dawson Jackson, Adam Johnson, Grevel Lindop and Chris McCully. Elaine Feinstein (1930-2019) was a prolific poet, novelist, short-story writer, playwright, biographer and translator. Her archive is of major significance across a wide range of disciplines including English, American and Russian literatures, translation studies, drama, biography, film and television studies, art history, gender studies, Jewish history and social history. The archive of the gay poet Adam Johnson (1965-1993) contains letters, diaries, manuscripts and the prehistory of his published poems, as well as artefacts owned by the poet such as his typewriter and baby shoes.

The archive of Critical Quarterly, the influential literary journal launched in 1958 by C. B. (Brian) Cox (1928-2008) and A. E. (Tony) Dyson (1928-2002), contains numerous manuscripts and corrected proofs of contributions, and nearly 4,000 letters exchanged with contributors and prospective contributors from around the world. The archive is complemented by the personal papers of both editors. Cox’s archive reveals his deep interest in education, including files relating to the Black Papers, while Dyson’s papers illuminate his work as a pioneer post-war gay rights campaigner; they include rare pamphlets and printed ephemera from the 1970s.

The extensive papers of Cumbria-based poet Norman Nicholson (1914-1987) reflect every aspect of his work as well as containing important biographical information. In addition, the Library holds Nicholson’s extensive book collection, in which almost all 20th-century poetry of note is represented. The papers of Jeff Nuttall (1933–2004) include a very significant sequence of in-letters from over one hundred poets, writers, artists and activists who contributed to his various iconoclastic projects, such as William Burroughs, Carl Weissner, Alexander Trocchi, Bob Cobbing, and the Benedictine monk and leading exponent of concrete poetry, dom sylvester houédard (dsh). dsh's own extensive archive and book collection have wide significance for students of literature, particularly concrete poetry and the private presses, theology and biblical studies, philosophy, art history and cultural studies.

20th-century prose writing

Prose writing of the 20th century is well represented in all its genres. The voluminous archive of L. P. Hartley (1895–1972), novelist and short-story writer, contains extensive literary correspondence (including letters from Lady Cynthia Asquith, Daphne Du Maurier, Aldous Huxley, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Harold Pinter, Anthony Powell, J. B. Priestley, Siegfried Sassoon, the Sitwells and Stevie Smith); manuscripts of thirteen novels and 44 short stories; and scripts, screenplays and photographs from Joseph Losey’s 1971 film adaptation of Hartley’s most famous work, The Go-Between.

Howard Spring (1889-1965) was a Manchester novelist (and journalist on the Manchester Guardian) who achieved critical acclaim as well as popular success. The Library holds holograph manuscripts of some twenty works by Spring – chiefly novels such as Shabby Tiger (1934), My Son, My Son! (1938) and Fame Is The Spur (1940) – as well as his book collection. Popular crime fiction is represented by the archive and book collection of Harold Blundell (1902-1982), a Manchester banker who wrote over fifty detective stories under the pseudonym of George Bellairs.

The papers of Katharine Tynan (1859-1931), Irish novelist and poet, and her daughter Pamela Hinkson (1900-1982), contain a large volume of correspondence with family and friends in both British and Irish literary and political circles, as well as Tynan’s two-volume diary for the period July 1914 to September 1915.

American fiction is represented by Edward Allatt’s collection of works by and relating to Upton Sinclair (1878-1968). It encompasses first editions of virtually all of his major novels; numerous translations of works such as Oil!The Jungle and Mental Radio into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Hebrew, Serbo-Croat, Norwegian, Dutch and Danish; and a wide range of critical literature, as well as correspondence, papers, and rare ephemera.

The library also holds complete collections of literary journals, including the poetry publications P N Review and Critical Quarterly (see 20th- and 21st-Century Poetry above). There are also small collections relating to the English Society and various Byron societies.

Children's literature

The Children’s Printed Collection contain more than 2,100 items from 1760 to the present day. The majority of the collection dates from the 19th century onwards and includes the work of such artists as Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886), Walter Crane (1845-1915) and Kate Greenaway (1846-1901). Children’s literature of this period is also covered by the Bellot Printed Collection and the Satterthwaite Collection, the former emphasizing boys’ adventure stories, while the latter is biased towards girls’ literature and includes some notable illustrated works. The Jack Cox Collection contains a virtually complete run of the Boy’s Own Paper. Within the Methodist printed collections and Christian Brethren Archive are numerous religious tracts and publications aimed at children.

There is a long run of the periodical Little Folks, printed in London by Cassell in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a good collection of books by Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), rich in inscriptions and including variant bindings. Items donated in 2015 by David Blamires, former Professor of German at The University of Manchester, include numerous editions, translations and imitations of the German children’s picture book Der Struwwelpeter (Shockheaded Peter), written by Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-1894). The collection also contains a wide range of material relating to the legend of Robin Hood.

The Library holds the archive and book collection of Alison Uttley (1884-1976), the well-known children’s writer. The books largely consist of 20th-century volumes collected by Uttley, many bearing inscriptions in her own hand. The Library also houses the papers of Elfrida Vipont (1902-1992), writer of Quaker and children’s literature, most notably The Elephant and the Bad Baby (1969). Also relevant are the papers of Jack Cox, editor of the Boy’s Own Paper, the Boy’s Own Annual and several other annuals and magazines for children. These archives contain manuscripts, typescripts, correspondence, diaries, ephemera, fan mail, photographs, reviews and press cuttings.

List of digital collections

Digital collections