News | February 24, 2011

Le Carre Archives to Bodleian Libraries

John le Carré, one of the world’s most celebrated authors, has offered his literary archive to Oxford’s Bodleian Library with the intention that it should become its permanent home.

Le Carré said, ‘I am delighted to be able to do this. Oxford was Smiley’s spiritual home, as it is mine. And while I have the greatest respect for American universities, the Bodleian is where I shall most happily rest.’

Richard Ovenden, Keeper of Special Collections and Associate Director of the Bodleian Libraries said ‘We are enormously grateful that John le Carré has made his archive available to the Bodleian. It is compelling primary evidence of a major cultural contribution to a literary genre and will offer scholars important insights into his work. We hope the collection will also be appreciated more widely, through exhibitions, seminars and conferences as well as through digitization initiatives.’

'John le Carré’s writing is not just a key to understanding the history of the Cold War; it is itself a vital and influential part of that history. To have this archive in the Bodleian is a major enrichment of Oxford’s unique collection of primary sources for the study of contemporary history,' said Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies, University of Oxford.

To mark the arrival of the archive, the Bodleian is displaying a small selection of le Carré’s working papers for members of the public to see on World Book Day, Thursday 3 March. This will include sections from the various handwritten and typed drafts of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which show how the novel evolved in the process of composition from its early working title, ‘The Reluctant Autumn of George Smiley’, to the final published text. The display will also include private photographs of le Carré with Alec Guinness, who memorably starred in the 1979 BBC series, as well as manuscripts of two of le Carré’s own favourite novels, The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardener.

John le Carré is the nom de plume of David John Moore Cornwell. His writing career spans 50 years and 22 novels which have been translated into 36 languages and adapted for film, TV and radio. He is renowned for his intricate espionage and political fiction, and for the creation of one of modern literature’s most subtle and carefully crafted protagonists, George Smiley. Le Carré’s evocative accounts of the cold war era in novels such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) were drawn in part from his own experiences working for MI5 and MI6. He has also pointed to the enduring influence upon him of his time as an undergraduate at Oxford. The complex and brilliantly drawn character of Smiley owes something to the Rev. Vivian Green who was Rector of Lincoln College, where le Carré read Modern Languages and graduated with a First Class Honours degree. Previously, Green had been Chaplain at Sherborne School while le Carré was a pupil. More recent novels such as The Constant Gardener and The Mission Song have left behind the complexities of the cold war in favour of more pressing global issues of our times. In le Carré’s words, “The almost unimaginable poverty of Nairobi’s slums, depicted in The Constant Gardener, provoked the formation of a registered British charity by the producers and crew working on the film adaptation. The Constant Gardener Trust continues to provide precious educational resources in the remote Turkana area of northern Kenya, where parts of the novel were set.” Le Carré’s most recent novel, Our Kind of Traitor, published in September 2010, features a young Oxford academic who becomes embroiled in a murky Establishment intelligence plot.

Le Carré’s archive, which fills a space the size of a Cornish barn, comprises multiple versions of his works, showing the evolution of his thought, his handling of plot and development of character, and his intensive editorial approach. Approximately 85 archive boxes were delivered to the Bodleian in late summer 2010 with additional materials still to be received, including a wealth of correspondence relating to his literary career. It is expected that other personal and family papers, photographs, correspondence and documents of great importance to future literary historians and biographers will be made available to researchers in the fullness of time. The Bodleian has the facilities to preserve and ultimately make available any of the more recent ‘born digital’ material in the archive, an area of increasing importance to scholars and librarians.

The World Book Day Display, Tinker Tailor Writer Spy, will include:

1. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy manuscript section
Le Carré’s seventh novel published in 1974. Manuscript draft on pink paper. The draft is undated and untitled but is an early version of the beginning of Chapter 2 in which Smiley is introduced to the reader as ‘small, podgy …one of those gentle, reluctant worker-bees who throng London’s suburban railway system’. The bee metaphor was eventually excised from the published text, but in this draft many of Smiley’s familiar characteristics are already present and more are added as le Carré amends and elaborates his first thoughts so that a fuller picture of the spymaster begins to emerge: [left margin] ‘His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress sober’. Two slightly later drafts (with the bee comparison retained) are titled ‘The Reluctant Autumn of George Smiley’, the second version with the subtitle ‘being the first story of THE QUEST FOR KARLA’. Only the latest drafts are titled ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ and begin with a description of Thursgood School, and not Smiley.

2. The Russia House manuscript section
Le Carré’s twelfth novel, published in 1989. This manuscript section of the novel, dated 2 July 1987, is written with le Carré’s favourite rollerball pen. Dated four days later, a much altered typescript demonstrates le Carré’s typical working method of drafting and redrafting his text, then stapling manuscript amendments to a main typewritten sheet or (as in the Tinker Tailor manuscripts) stapling several pages together.

For more information, see