Plomer Collection

Scope and Content

Plomer's extensive correspondence with some 200 friends and acquaintances forms the largest component of the manuscript material in the collection. It includes letters (often numerous) from J.R. Ackerley, John Betjeman, Edmund Blunden, Elizabeth Bowen, E.M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Dame Edith and Sir Osbert Sitwell, John Sparrow, Stephen Spender, Laurens Van der Post, Leonard Woolf and many other prominent figures in the English literary world. The lasting effect of his South African experiences can be seen both in his own work and in material in the collection on other South African authors such as Roy Campbell, Nadine Gordimer, Ingrid Jonker and Olive Schreiner. His Japanese experience can also be traced directly in his own work and in letters from a number of Japanese friends. It greatly influenced his collaboration with Benjamin Britten on the church operas. The collection contains much material on this, including a lengthy series of letters from Britten and draft libretti annotated by him. The papers also include one of the three surviving volumes of the diary of Francis Kilvert (from which Plomer edited selections), drafts of his own literary works, reviews, cuttings, literary manuscripts of friends such as J.R. Ackerley and Lilian Bowes Lyon, and numerous photographs. Plomer's library principally contains 20th century English literature, chiefly his own works and those of friends and contemporaries, often in corrected or inscribed copies.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Charles Franklyn Plomer was born in South Africa, and won youthful renown (and provoked local outrage) with the publication, by Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press, of his first novel Turbott Wolfe (1926), which dealt with love and marriage between black and white. With Roy Campbell and Laurens van der Post he co-edited the controversial literary periodical Voorslag until Campbell quarrelled with its sponsors and resigned. Plomer, with Van der Post, then left South Africa for Japan, where he lived for over two years, teaching English and completing two collections of short stories, I speak of Africa and Paper houses, and two collections of poetry, Notes for poems and The family tree.

In 1929 he settled in England, where he was befriended by the Woolfs, who had continued to publish his work, and who brought out his next two novels, Sado (1931), set in Japan, and The case is altered (1932), and also a further volume of poems, The fivefold screen (1932). Through his contacts with the Woolfs and through his own gift for friendship, Plomer's literary acquaintance expanded rapidly, while he also maintained contact with South African writers and artists. For over forty years Plomer was at the centre of the English literary establishment. He was a prolific reviewer, and also became the influential chief reader for Jonathan Cape, who published his later work, including his selective edition (1938-1940) of the diaries of the Victorian clergyman Francis Kilvert, which established the hitherto unknown Kilvert as one of the greatest English diarists. After 1934, when Cape published his novel The Invaders, Plomer wrote relatively little fiction, although he continued to produce short stories and topical essays, sometimes during the war years under the pseudonym Robert Pagan. His poetic output, however, increased. His last novel, Museum pieces appeared in 1952, and his Collected poems in 1973. An important part of his post-war career was his collaboration with Benjamin Britten, as librettist for Gloriana (1953), and for the three church operas, Curlew river, The burning fiery furnace, and The prodigal son (1964-1968). From 1968 to 1972 he was president of the Poetry Society. Although not admitted in his published autobiographies, Double lives (1943) and At home (1958), Plomer's homosexuality was central to his life and work.


Arranged in 6 main divisions: letters to Plomer; letters from Plomer; other correspondence; literary drafts and other papers by Plomer; drafts and papers of other authors; photographs.

Access Information

Open for consultation.

Acquisition Information

The bulk of the collection, consisting of Plomer's literary papers together with his library, was presented by his literary executor, Sir Rupert Hart-Davis in 1974. Additions of related material continue to be made to it from various sources, by gift and purchase.

Other Finding Aids

Manuscripts: online catalogue available at online catalogue. The books from Plomer's library are in the Library' catalogue and can be located by a shelf mark search (incorporated into the following URL

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to make any published use of material from the collection must be sought in advance from the Sub-Librarian, Special Collections (e-mail and, where appropriate, from the copyright owner. The Library will assist where possible with identifying copyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.


Alexander, Peter F., William Plomer: a biography (Oxford, 1989)