Andrea Levy’s notes on Mary Seacole brought to light by IT experts | Andrea Levy

Had it been made, the television drama would have begun with a middle-aged Mary Seacole, the British-Jamaican woman who nurses hundreds of British soldiers during the Crimean war, introducing herself to staff at the British military hospital at Scutari, near Istanbul, in 1855. Among them is Florence Nightingale, who briskly asks Seacole what she wants. This, at least, is the way the late author Andrea Levy planned to start to tell the extraordinary life story of Seacole in a series that never happened.

Digital forensics work at the British Library now shows just how Levy, best known for her prizewinning book Small Island, wanted to turn the 1857 memoir of the famous wartime nurse into a compelling TV drama. Her revisions and edits of this 2012 screenplay, alongside other unpublished projects, have been recovered by archivists from defunct computer files.

New research into the personal archive given to the British Library by Levy is being revealed this weekend to mark the 50th birthday of the national institution and to highlight the cutting-edge digital archaeology going on inside its back rooms.

Fresh insights into Levy’s creative process – and evidence of her annoyance at the racism she detected inside the BBC – are now coming to light as the library’s contemporary archives and manuscripts team deploys electronic tricks, many of them shared with law enforcement agencies, to access outdated computer files and floppy discs and then archive material alongside printed manuscripts and written notebooks.

Dog-eared piles of typewritten foolscap are not yet a thing of the past, according to Callum McKean, a curator of contemporary literary and creative archives, but nowadays a dusty stack of floppy discs is also often part of an author’s bequest.

“When we go to a writer’s home to talk about their archive, we find paperwork but also obsolete computers and zip drives,” he said. Levy’s last laptop, with tape still over the camera lens, was the least of his challenges. A digital forensics machine was used to copy all the data found on old hard drives without interacting with it and so altering it. And a KryoFlux, a clever gadget developed by hobbyists, proved crucial to reading corrupted files on the floppy discs.

Mary Seacole was to be the subject of Levy’s television drama.
Mary Seacole the British-Jamaican woman who nursed hundreds of British soldiers during the Crimean war. Photograph: IanDagnall Computing/Alamy

“We have to think of ways of future-proofing writers’ data. We don’t know what researchers will want to do in 500 years’ time and we don’t want to foreclose any possibilities,” said McKean.

The personal computer files belonging to Levy, who died of cancer in 2019 aged 62, are among the first to receive this treatment. Already a very early draft of her hit book, Small Island, a story which was successfully adapted into a BBC television drama, has also been unearthed. The key themes of the 2004 novel are there as far back as 11 August 1999, although some of the character names are different.

Whether or not Levy’s later screenplay about Seacole might still go on to be broadcast posthumously, the library’s “hybrid” resources, combining paper documents with digital data, are opening up a world of study for researchers. A writer’s process can now be chronologically preserved at each stage. It is even possible to see at which times of day a writer is most productive, and during which years they wrote the most. For Levy, intense computer activity preceded the publication of Small Island and can then be seen six years later around the broadcast of the television adaptation. It is also possible to read her raw typed notes for a possible short story, inspired by an odd dream and made at 1.36am one morning. Personal admin documents, such as a holiday itinerary, have been recovered, along with photos of her mother, her iTunes library and her notes for some teaching sessions inside a prison. She also kept a file of encouraging correspondence from fans and friends, titled “nice emails”.

“Of course, we talk to the writer or their family about all the data to allay any fears,” said McKean. “And anything we find has to comply with data protection legislation before it is used. We also use machine learning tools to process some of the files, as we might have tens of thousands from one author, although it doesn’t work well with all creative content because it looks for patterns.”

Manual cross-checking can also solve some literary mysteries if a pen entry in a diary confirms the date of a visit, or a computer file offers a precisely logged creative chronology for a printed document.

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Levy had also developed another major television project at the time she was given the news she did not have long to live. For several years she worked on a factual series for the BBC that was to have told the detailed history of the Caribbean. This also never came to fruition.

“She couldn’t get it made for the BBC in the end, and this fed into her view that it was an institution that had racism running through it,” said McKean.

A pertinent note made by the author ahead of a broadcast interview points out things she will say she does not want to discuss. Among them are stereotypical “straight racism” questions “like, ‘has anything horrible ever happened to you?’ Arghhh”.

Together Levy’s abortive manuscripts explain the anger she expressed at the reluctance of broadcasters to back these stories. Making an audio recording for the British Library during her illness, she once described Britain as “a country which I feel absolutely part of, but not everybody feels that I am part of”.

However, had Levy lived a little longer, she would have seen her other two major artistic objectives, a stage play of Small Island and a television series based on her novel The Long Song, finally achieved.


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