Complete archive of award-winning novelist Andrea Levy acquired for the nation

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Complete archive of award-winning novelist Andrea Levy acquired for the nation
A selection of Andrea Levy's archive. © Estate of Andrea Levy.

LONDON.- The British Library has announced that the archive of award-winning novelist Andrea Levy (1956 – 2019), has been acquired for the nation, spanning Levy’s literary career from the creative writing workshops she first attended in 1989 to her death in 2019.

Andrea Levy was an internationally bestselling author whose work explored the connected histories of Britain and Jamaica. After earning a degree in textile design and working in graphics, Levy began writing in her mid-thirties, examining the intimate history between Britain and the Caribbean and reflecting the experiences of her own family as the daughter of ‘Windrush generation’ migrants who came to Britain in the post-war period.

Central to the archive is a rich series of working drafts for her five published novels, including Small Island (2004), which won the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Novel Award, Whitbread Book of the Year, the Orange Best of the Best and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, as well as Levy’s 2010 follow-up The Long Song which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

The working notes held within the archive demonstrate not only her mastery of characterisation and plot, but also the grand ambition of her fictional project: she viewed her novels as fitting together into a single lineage and the archive contains a clue making an explicit connection between characters in The Long Song and Small Island that many readers may have missed.

Levy’s extensive research into the history of Jamaica and her own family background is integral to the archive, which includes audio recordings of interviews with her mother Amy Levy, used in the writing of Small Island.

There are also short stories, digital records and Levy’s email archive. Correspondence ranges from early rejection letters to letters of support and praise from writers such as Toni Morrison, Margaret Forster, Linda Grant and Joan Bakewell.

Significantly, the collection contains notes and drafts for unpublished and unrealised work. Included within this are ideas for future novels, such as her intended sixth novel planned to portray the story of a marriage between a black woman and a white man and an unproduced screenplay about the life of Mary Seacole demonstrating the Jamaican nurse’s compassion and determination. Notably, the archive also contains a darkly comic unpublished dialogue, written without expectation that others would see it, in which Levy faces up to her imminent death from cancer with her trademark unflinching honesty.

Other papers present in the archive document Levy’s commitment to issues of representation, diversity and inclusion, particularly as Executive Producer on the screen adaptation of The Long Song and in other collaborations with Lenny Henry, Gary Younge and Baroness Lola Young.

Andrea Levy’s archive joins the Library’s extensive collection of contemporary literary archives, with acquisitions in recent years including the papers of Hanif Kureishi, Shiva Naipaul, James Berry, Margaret Forster, Will Self and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

To celebrate the acquisition, items from the archive will be on display in the British Library's free, permanent Treasures Gallery from the end of February. The archive will be accessible to researchers on completion of cataloguing in late 2021.

The British Library’s oral history collections also contain Levy’s ‘Authors’ Lives’ interview for National Life Stories. The full recording comprising over 14 hours of material is available to listen to onsite at the British Library. There will also be a BBC Radio 4 programme titled ‘Andrea Levy: In her own words,’ drawing on this recording and featuring readings from the archive, which will be aired at 8pm on 8 February 2020.

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