7. A Problematic Collection

Administrative History

In the earlier sections of this website, we characterised archival collections as the papers created or collected by one individual or institution. We also noted the importance of provenance. If you take a close look at the catalogue of the papers of Rupert Chawner Brooke at King’s College, Cambridge, you will see that it is not consistent with these principles.

Sometimes archivists have to bend the rules when cataloguing a collection like this but not without good reason and they try to do so in a transparent way.

The papers of Rupert Brooke are slightly unusual. His collection at King’s College includes deposits and donations from various people. Correspondence can be found in various parts of the collection. The collection includes items created after Rupert Brooke’s death so he couldn’t possibly have created or collected those. Despite all of these things, we consider it to be an archival collection.

Why is the Brooke collection so problematic?

Look at the ‘Context and Content’ section of the fonds level description of the papers of Rupert Chawner Brooke on our online catalogue, on the ArchiveSearch website (see link below). This describes the complicated administrative history of the collection, which we received in several accessions.

Literary Executors, Donors and Biographers

When somebody dies, his/her copyright passes to their next of kin or another designated person. In the case of writers, the person who administers this is called their literary executor. This is the person to ask in such cases as wishing to publish a poem by the writer in a new book. The literary executor has to grant permission for this and may charge a copyright fee.

In the case of Rupert Brooke, his mother, Edward Marsh and his subsequent literary executors all had legitimate interests in his literary legacy, as well as the way he was perceived by the public. This is where provenance of unpublished papers becomes particularly relevant.

Edward Marsh started writing his Memoir of Rupert Brooke prior to consulting Mrs. Brooke. To do so he received a relatively small number of letters from certain friends of Rupert Brooke. Initially, he did not ask Geoffrey Keynes whether he could see the letters Rupert had sent him.

Mrs. Brooke felt that Marsh was not the right person to write a biographical account of her son. She and Brooke’s friend Frances Cornford wrote to Marsh persuading him to delay the publication until the end of the War. Mrs. Brooke also tried to persuade Geoffrey Keynes to write something, although at that point he was reluctant.

Marsh’s Memoir was published in 1918, as a preface to The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke. It received mixed reviews and immediately people showed concern at the emergence of a ‘myth’ surrounding Rupert Brooke. In due course, Keynes decided to publish a volume of selected letters. Later, Christopher Hassall wrote a full biography, which was much more detailed than Marsh’s Memoir.

Subsequent biographers felt that Rupert Brooke had been portrayed in an almost god-like way so they set about trying to show some of the more human aspects of his life. In particular, they have focused on his complicated personal life.

Keith Hale published a volume of Brooke’s correspondence with James Strachey, called ‘Friends and Apostles’, in which he explored their friendship. Strachey had feelings for Brooke. Although Brooke only saw Strachey as a friend, their correspondence does show that Brooke’s earliest affections were for men. Hale felt that Keynes and Hassall had suppressed Brooke’s sexuality in their accounts of him. Now it is widely accepted that Brooke was bisexual.

Paul Delany wrote a further book on Brooke and the ‘Neo-Pagans’, in which he described Brooke’s troubled relationships with members of both sexes, the possible miscarriage of Brooke’s girlfriend Ka Cox and the possibility that Brooke may have fathered a child while travelling in Tahiti. He even suggested that during Rupert Brooke’s supposed breakdown, his correspondence seemed anti-semitic.

For the later biographers to dispel the ‘myth’ surrounding Brooke and bring to light the sides of him they felt had been suppressed, they needed to know that their sources were reliable. As many of the letters Brooke wrote were given to biographers before they reached an archive and research is often subjective, researchers need to study the provenance of the archives and in some cases even study the biographers’ archives. This enables them to refute previous interpretations of Brooke’s archives and to justify their own perspective.

There are additional papers relating to Rupert Brooke held in other repositories. These include the British Library and even some repositories in the United States of America. Mrs. Brooke gave certain items to the British Library, while other items held there are copies of documents which were sold at auction.

When records of a certain cultural significance are intended to be exported, there is a legal right for an appropriate British repository to produce copies first. This means that the location of the originals is not necessarily known but one might consider these copies reliable. Archives in this country do not tend to purchase many items or collections but many of Rupert Brooke’s papers have been bought at auction by repositories or private collectors.

Mrs. Brooke and the biographers have also created transcripts of many documents. This means that certain information may be found in more than one place; however researchers have to assess how reliable the transcripts are.

It is also worth noting that some information about Rupert Brooke was not available to the earliest biographers. For example, when Miss Delphis Gardner deposited some items in the British Library she asked for a fifty year closure period to be placed on the papers. These comprised letters and a memoir relating to Rupert Brooke’s relationship with her sister Phyllis Gardner.

The closure period was quite normal for such personal items; however, this shows that even when there are several biographies and you think everything is known about a particular person or subject, there may still be research potential in newly accessible archives or ones which have not been fully exploited by researchers.

Did You Know?
On 17 April 2015, King’s College Archive Centre received the Schroder Collection of personal papers of Rupert Brooke. These were gathered by a private collector called John Schroder and include correspondence between Brooke and Edward Marsh. This was the largest collection of Brooke papers outside of King’s College and is now available to the public for the first time.




Take a look at the catalogue for the papers of Rupert Chawner Brooke on ArchiveSearch, starting with the fonds level description­, then browsing the hierarchy.

  • Is there anything you find surprising?

  • If so, does this relate to principles such as provenance or original order?

  • What influence, if any, has the administrative history (the story of the various donations of papers to King’s College, Cambridge, etc.) had on the hierarchy of the catalogue?

  • Is it important for researchers to know where the documents they use came from?

  • If you were an archivist, would you have catalogued the papers differently?

Don’t worry if you can’t answer these questions just yet. You could always return to these questions after trying the rest of the sections in the Rupert Brooke Case Study.