Harold Acton in China, 1933-1939

 Marjorie G. Wynne Fellowship in British Literature (Autumn 2014), Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

This project will examine the influences of Chinese literature and culture on the British writer Sir Harold Acton during his seven-year period as a translator and teacher in China between 1933 and 1939. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library has recently acquired a significant body of Acton’s papers from this period (GEN MSS 663), which includes correspondence from Osbert Sitwell, John Betjeman, and Thomas Sturge Moore, drafts of Acton’s translation of Chinese literature, and annotated manuscripts of two major works written during this period, Modern Chinese Poetry (1936) and Peonies and Ponies (1941). Together, the Harold Acton Papers cover a dynamic period in Acton’s writing, and embody the profound, yet often forgotten, influence that China had on British literary culture during the first half of the twentieth century.

Although Acton continued to write until his death in 1994 and produced a large body of work including fiction, poetry, drama, history, biography, and autobiography, his conspicuous withdrawal from the London literary circuit in 1933 has caused him to be largely forgotten by scholars. However, even while abroad he maintained his friendships with Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, John Betjeman, and Osbert Sitwell, frequently commenting on and writing about their work, and remained an influential force in British literary culture. Until now, most of what has been known about Acton’s time in China comes from his autobiography  Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948). A reconsideration of Acton’s time in China can illuminate both the influence of Chinese literary culture on Acton’s work and the continuing influence that Acton had during his time abroad on the luminaries of interwar British letters. This project will thus seek to better understand a particularly unique moment of transnational literary exchange that contributed in several critical ways to modern British writing.


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