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English Literature

English guide

Our English Literature collections are of national and international importance. We have first and early editions of plays, novels, poetry, literary magazines, and correspondence that can provide primary source material or simply inspiration for your next research project.

We continue to collect literary material, supported by the Brotherton endowment and a range of other generous donations, including those of Fay and Geoffrey Elliott.

This subject guide outlines our most significant English Literature collections. Choose from the links below if you have a specific interest:

17th and 18th century literature

Special Collections have substantial groups of printed poetry and drama from 1600–1750.

Elizabethan and 17th century drama

We have a number of original Renaissance and 17th century plays in Special Collections, some of which have fascinating manuscript additions.

Many of these volumes are distinctive and have unique features. Where possible we have tried to assemble runs of the successive early editions of plays. These texts support the study of print evolution in ways that electronic or other copies never could.

A particular highlight are our First, Second, Third and Fourth Folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays.

Special Collections also has contemporary plays originally attributed to Shakespeare A Yorkshire Tragedie and Sir John Oldcastle, which were published in individual quarto editions by Thomas Pavier in 1619.

Many of our plays have manuscript additions, which offer rare insights into how the texts were used. These include corrections to printer errors, long new sections of dialogue, cast lists, and notes of gift.

We also hold one Elizabethan dramatic quarto: Henry Porter's The Two Angry Women of Abington, from 1599, which has a title page variant that may be unique.

You can find first or early editions of plays by:

We also have first and early editions of virtually all the plays of Behn, Crowne, Etherege, Farquhar, Lee, Otway, Ravenscroft, Settle, Shadwell, Southerne, Tate, and Vanbrugh, authors who vary greatly in their modern reputations. Several of these dramatists wrote well into the 18th century. Others prominent in the 18th century collection are Mrs Centlivre, Fielding, Charles Johnson, Rowe, Theobald, and Gay.

Brotherton Collection of Manuscript Verse

The Brotherton Collection of Manuscript Verse contains over 160 poetry manuscripts from the 17th and 18th Century, which we have catalogued in detail.

Some manuscripts contain only a single poem, while others are single-author collections, like Cary's Ballades. The majority are manuscripts are miscellanies or commonplace books (essentially early scrapbooks).

Some are professional productions, but many were compiled by amateurs for their own interest. Many of the poems are autograph (written out by their authors). A few of these are in the hand of well-known writers, for example James Thomson, but far more of them represent the autograph of unknown, provincial writers composing their own poetry and also transcribing poems by others.

19th century literature

We have correspondence, manuscripts and early editions that document the lives and work of many major literary figures of the 19th century.

Elizabeth Gaskell

The Elizabeth Gaskell Collection includes the original manuscript of her novel ‘Sylvia's Lovers’, her only surviving autograph diary, and possibly the largest single collection anywhere of her autograph letters. The letters are fascinating, and include several vivid accounts of her meetings with Charlotte Brontë, whose biography she would later write.

Brontë family

We hold a significant collection of letters and manuscripts written by members of the Brontë family, many of which have been digitised. The collection contains a number of manuscripts and letters by Branwell Brontë, exercise books and letters by Charlotte Brontë, an unpublished manuscript by Anne Brontë, and items by their parents. There are substantial collections of letters from some of those closest to the family, including Charlotte’s widower, A B Nicholls, and her friend, Ellen Nussey. Special Collections also holds the archive of Clement Shorter who first ‘discovered’ the Bronte family manuscripts, and was involved in their sale.

Alongside the manuscripts and letters, Special Collections holds an extensive collection of “Brontëana”: early and rare editions of works, and a range of items relating to the Brontës, and interest in them over time.

Charles Dickens

We hold over 170 letters written by Charles Dickens across several collections.These include a wonderful letter of 19 September 1848, signed by Dickens as a character he had played in his amateur theatrical productions, addressed to the sisters Emma Novello and Mary Cowden Clarke. The first book editions of Dickens's novels include presentation copies to the latter.

Edmund Gosse

The Edmund Gosse archive holds many manuscripts, photographs, drawings, personalia and books from his library. It is also notable for the extensive correspondence with a range of literary figures including Henry James and Thomas Hardy. James regarded Gosse as a mainstay during the humiliating failure of his play Guy Domville. Letters record Hardy's friendship with Gosse, growing deeper with time as fewer of the novelist's contemporaries lived on.

Leeds has a single manuscript page from the Hardy novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles. When the novel was first published in 1890, Hardy was obliged to omit various passages considered too immoral for a general audience; however, he succeeded in placing an excluded passage about Tess's seduction in an avant-garde magazine and our manuscript is a fragment from this.

Algernon Charles Swinburne

The archive of Algernon Charles Swinburne, which includes manuscripts of his poetry, plays, novels, and essays is held in Special Collections. We also hold extensive correspondence to and from Swinburne, his family and his associates, notably Theodore Watts-Dunton.

Rossetti family

We hold a large collection of letters written by members of the Rossetti family. These include substantial series of letters from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Theodore Watts-Dunton, John Lucas Tupper and to William Michael Rossetti. The collection includes several letters written by Christina Rossetti

Bram Stoker

Special Collections holds three manuscripts for short stories written by Bram Stoker, alongside a much larger collection of correspondence addressed to him as business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London.

20th century literature

The largest area of our literary holdings comes from the 20th century. Literary archives include the papers of people and organisations, across a range of writing and genre, with a particular focus on individuals from Yorkshire and Leeds, or with strong associations with the University.

Poetry from the University

Poetry at the University of Leeds has been a key collecting influence. Several of the poets represented in our collections held the Gregory Fellowship in Poetry in the University's School of English between 1950 and 1980, including John Heath-Stubbs, Jon Silkin, Peter Redgrove, and Kevin Crossley-Holland. Geoffrey Hill was on the staff of the School of English, and Simon Armitage was recently appointed Professor of Poetry. Tony Harrison was a student at the University.

These poetry collections comprise an extensive wealth of manuscripts, working notebooks, correspondence and audio recordings, many of which bear witness to the institution's vibrant literary culture.

Contextual information on many of these poets and poetry at the University is available in our Leeds Poetry research spotlight.

Literary magazines

Archives of literary publications, often connected with the University are also represented, including those of Jon Silkin's long-running small magazine Stand. We also hold the extensive archive, along with substantial correspondence of the 20th century incarnation of The London Magazine, a literary periodical edited, at the time, by Alan Ross.

Special Collections also holds papers relating to several literary presses, of which Northern House is most closely associated with the University. We also hold the archive of Enitharmon Press, amongst others.

Archives such as these often comprise a range of manuscripts and correspondence from a wide range of poets and writers, alongside documents charting the work of the organisation.

Novelists and dramatists

Our major collections of novelists archives include a wide range of writers in several genres, and Arthur Ransome, Angela Thirkell, Stan BarstowJohn Braine, Melvyn Bragg, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Julia Blackburn, Sophie Hannah and Peter Robinson. 

The Fay and Geoffrey Elliott Collection includes a range of individual autograph manuscripts, such as for Oscar Wilde's second play The Duchess of Padua and Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies. Other authors in the collection include Aubrey Beardsley, Graham Greene and Kim Philby. There are individual works by dramatists such as Alan Ayckbourn and Alan Bennett.


Papers of 20th century critics include those of George Wilson-Knight, critic and Professor of English Literature at the University of Leeds, which cover many aspects of his career.

The papers of another literary critic, and former Professor of English Literature at Leeds, Bonamy Dobrée, include correspondence, notebooks, lectures, research notes and papers, other collected papers, and press cuttings on drama.