Smiley returns to Oxford

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


85 boxes of books, manuscripts, papers and digital material arrived at the Bodleian last summer and a selection will be on display on 3rd March as part of the World Book Day celebrations.

The collection includes very early manuscripts of his famous novela in which the lead character, Smiley, like le Carré himself, is an old Oxonian who goes on to work for MI6.

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.’  

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.