Getting ‘hands-on’ with Samuel Beckett

Dr Julie Bates, literary scholar, author, teacher.

Trinity is a target destination for Beckett scholars because of the size and variety of original Beckett manuscripts held here. However, because of the physical fragility of the manuscripts (Beckett always used the very worst quality paper), few people get to handle the originals. This creates an obvious problem when it is considered that there is an almost indefinable, special ‘something’ to be experienced from being in the presence of an original artefact – think of Jane Austen’s spectacles or the Ardagh Chalice. Are our students being denied an experience which could be of signal benefit to them? All special-collections repositories share this tension between access and preservation but the issue has been thrown into high relief in the context of Trinity’s development of the Trinity Education Project, which seeks to encourage more original research among undergraduates.

Interested in examining this problem more closely, in 2017 the Library agreed to a project proposed by Dr Julie Bates, Assistant Professor in Irish Writing in the English Department, which would permit Dr Bates’ students more liberal access to elements of the Beckett Collection. This was hoped to be a mutually beneficial agreement – the students would have a rare and (we hoped) useful exposure to world-heritage level original literary material; and their teacher and Library would ask the students for feedback on their experience.

In Dr Bates words’ ‘The ‘Beckett: Afterlives’ module ran over 12 weeks in MT 2017 for final year undergraduate sophister and visiting students in the School of English. I coordinated the module and delivered all the sessions. My monograph Beckett’s Art of Salvage was published by Cambridge University Press in April 2017. In my teaching, as in my research, I am keen to dismantle the forbidding reputation that often makes Beckett an inaccessible figure for students, especially undergraduates. The module focused on those aspects of literary form altered by Beckett’s writing, and explored a group of contemporary writers and artists who have inherited Beckett’s iconoclastic engagement with form.’

The project started with an agreement about which parts of the collection could be made available in this manner. Some things are simply too fragile to be issued with any regularity – the prompt copy of Godot being a case in point – and some things are just too spectacular not to be included in such a trial – the Imagination dead imagine notebook with its doodles and diagrams. A class was held in the Library with Dr Bates and her students, and a manuscripts curator, to explain the rationale behind the different access rules for unique materials, the handling protocols and the particular research insight that might be expected to arise out of the experience. The class was subsequently invited to select the items they would like to access; they were not given any preferential arrangements in regards to ordering the material because the experience of finding where the Manuscripts Reading Room is (the attic) and how to get here (complicated) was considered to a useful element of the experience.

In the aftermath of their visits the students were then invited to give feedback. This was a where things got really interesting. The reactions were so varied, and well-thought out, so personal and unexpected that it was agreed that they must be disseminated more widely.

First of all we are going to compose a impact case study to capture the full import of having completed this project, to communicate just what kind of resources are required, what the risks are and what the outcomes might be hoped to be. Julie has contributed text on her thought process in proposing and designing the project, the student’s texts will be included for impact analysis and the Library’s risks-and-resources input will round it off. It is hoped this can provide guidance on the provision of sufficient resources to permit this activity to be repeated. Furthermore, some of the students agreed to provide their feedback to the Library for posting in this blog and we are going to publish them now as a series.

With thanks to Julie Bates for suggesting this, and seeing it to fruition – it was quite a experience on its own to observe the care and concern for the students which informed her approach to this new departure. Thanks also to the students who attended the class and especially to those who have supplied blogs.

To give Dr Bates the final word: ‘Given Beckett’s canonical and intimidating status, and the impenetrability of much of the scholarship written about him, I was keen that students would have the opportunity to consult his papers in Trinity’s Manuscripts &Archives Research Library (M&ARL). I hoped that this experience would encourage students to see their investigations in M&ARL as original research, and as a result to feel more confident about developing their own interpretations and responses to Beckett’s writing – and this hope was amply rewarded’.

Dr Jane Maxwell
Assistant Librarian
Manuscripts & Archives Research Library