Literary Pursuits – Sunday Feature Series, BBC Radio 3

Photo Credit: PicNik Studios, Cambridge

Photo Credit: PicNik Studios, Cambridge

What would a literary radio programme sound like if it engaged a text using some, if not all, of the approaches commonly found in academic literary criticism? How might that even be possible, whilst still meeting the main requirement of radio – to tell a good story?

The answer is turn it into a detective story – which, essentially, all good research is.  In each episode of my new documentary series for BBC Radio 3: Literary Pursuits,  I start with a textual mystery that I want to solve. Each of these mysteries sets me off on a quest to find out the story behind the story, to follow the clues to discover how great works of literature were written. And of course, those clues are thematic, stylistic, biographical, historical, material, and more – all of the diverse literary critical methodologies found in academic scholarship become my investigative tools, and all are needed to solve the mystery.

Episode 5, 9 July 2017: E. M. Forster, Maurice

Description from the BBC Website: Forster’s gay love story was a forbidden book. Written in 1913, inspired by a touch on the buttocks, ‘Maurice’ was only published in 1971 after Forster died. Nevertheless, for almost sixty years, it was a secret manuscript, clandestinely circulating among those Forster trusted. They included Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Siegfried Sassoon and Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood’s comments especially prompted Forster to re-write, adding a sex scene and altering the ending. But for years he refused Isherwood’s pressure to publish, until finally acquiescing to a posthumous publication, and sending the typescript by trusted couriers from Cambridge to America. Biographer Wendy Moffat talks about how she pieced together the details of this journey, scholar Philip Gardner looks at the manuscript changes and writer Peter Parker discusses Isherwood’s influence on the finished novel.

Producer: Sara Conkey

Episode 4, 5 June 2016: James Joyce, Dubliners

The title page of the first edition of Dubliners from 1914.

The title page of the first edition of Dubliners from 1914.

Description from the BBC website: James Joyce went to extraordinary lengths to publish his first book, Dubliners. He personally rescued the manuscript from fire, lost a major standoff with his publishers over revisions, orchestrated a press campaign, wrote a despairing letter to the king of England and left Ireland for good. Sarah Dillon recounts the story, investigates the manuscripts and sees how Joyce’s astonishing literary career nearly fell at the first hurdle.

Producer: James Cook

Episode 3, 29 May 2016: Jane Austen, Persuasion


Selected for ‘Pick of the Day’s Radio’, The Daily Mail, 29th May 2016 – four star review.

Selected for ‘Today’s Picks’, The Times, 29th May 2016.

Description from the BBC Website: Sarah Dillon discovers how Jane Austen’s last completed novel, ‘Persuasion’ was written. The novel has sometimes been viewed as Austen’s valedictory novel – written while she was suffering with her final illness. But Sarah Dillon uncovers a more complex story: dates of revisions on the manuscripts in the British Library confirm her sister’s story that Persuasion was completed almost a year before Austen’s death, but it was only published posthumously. By talking to Dr Kathryn Sutherland from St Anne’s College, Oxford, Paula Byrne, author of ‘The Real Jane Austen, A Life In Small Things’ and writer Margaret Drabble, we go behind the scant details of Austen’s life and uncover reasons for the delay: her last illness; the possibly personal inspirations for the plot of the novel; the state of her finances; her fascinating creative process; and the radical reaches and determination of her literary ambitions.

Producer: Sara Conkey

Episode 2, 17 January 2016: Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea


Description from the BBC Website:  In a new series, Sarah Dillon is a literary detective, hunting down the story behind the story of the writing of great works. Jean Rhys was the author of four novels in the late 20s and 30s when she disappeared off the literary map and was presumed dead. She spectacularly re-appeared with the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, telling the back story of the first Mrs Rochester from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Published in 1966 when the author was in her 70s, the novel became an instant classic. Sarah Dillon goes on a journey to find out why there was a 27 year gap between novels: she travels to the British Library to look at Rhy’s original notebooks; talks to Carole Angier, Jean’s biographer; and goes to meet Jean’s publisher Diana Athill. The struggle to bring the book to completion touches on poverty, death and a passionate desire for perfection.

Producer: Sara Conkey

Episode 1, 10 January 2016: Charles Dickens, Great Expectations


Selected as ‘Today’s Choice’, The Radio Times, 10 January 2016.

Selected as ‘Radio Choice’, The Times, 10 January 2016.

Selected as ‘Pick of the Day’s Radio’, The Daily Mail, 10th January 2016 – four star review.

Selected for The Week’s Best New Radio, The Guardian, 9 January 2016.

Description from the BBC Website: In a new series, Sarah Dillon is a literary detective on the hunt for the story behind the story of how great works were written. She begins with Dickens’s masterpiece, Great Expectations.  Begun in 1860, Sarah asks why Dickens was writing it so fast – he finished it in nine and a half months – and why he famously changed the ending. The answers take her on a journey to Dickens’s home in Gads Hill in Kent, the office of his magazine All The Year Round in Covent Garden and on a night-walk around the streets of London, where Dickens drew on the energy of the city as inspiration.  Talking to Dickens biographer Michael Slater and scholars Juliet John from Royal Holloway and John Drew from the University of Buckingham, Sarah pieces together how Dickens’s most private life is played out in the novel.  And she uncovers the fascinating events behind the writing of it – including an urgent necessity for money, an overwhelming passion, and a relationship that goes to the heart of the deepest psychological needs that Dickens had.

Producer: Sara Conkey