Biographical Borders

In his President’s Column in the most recent Modern Language Association Newsletter (Fall 2016), K. Anthony Appiah tells the story of how a few years ago he decided to organize his books. A daunting task. A philosopher, he tried first to sort his philosophy books into metaphysics and epistemology on the one hand and political and moral philosophy on the other. The result was a philosophical mish-mash. Then he began to wonder whether books about French cooking should go with books about France or books about cooking. Should accounts of African Americans visiting Africa belong with books about Africa or books about America? This is a familiar dilemma for all who buy books, teach them, write about them, and struggle fruitlessly to construct a beautifully coherent shelving system.

As I read Appiah’s provocative column, it occurred to me that those who read, write, and attempt to shelve something as deceptively manageable as biographies run into similar roadblocks. Should all biographies focusing upon a single subject and adopting the conventional cradle-to-grave narrative belong on the same shelf? Perhaps, but then where do you place such books as Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida? She writes about three couples involved in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s: photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn, and journalists Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar. Photography perhaps, given Capa’s fame: but then what about Hemingway? Surely the book belongs on the Hemingway shelf. Or perhaps not, since Vaill’s book is a group biography and one could dedicate many bookcases to that sub-genre. And then there are slice-of-life biographies, books that zero in on a particular moment and then fan out to explore the rest of the narrative territory. Prominent among books on the group biography shelf one would surely find Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923, the moving story of unknown ordinary people who took to the streets to fight for independence. But then Foster’s book is as much compelling social history as it is group biography. And Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe would surely confound Appiah’s shelving efforts in its deft study of figures such as Sartre, Beauvoir, Husserl, and Heidegger, and their intellectual and romantic relationships. Existentialism? WW2? Feminism?

Appiah, of course, is interrogating disciplinary boundaries, but as I read his column I realized more fully than I had before that the impetus for our Biography Beyond Borders day of roundtable discussions (to be presented by OCLW and BIO on November 5) was precisely an effort to leap the fences, to muck up all the neat shelving if you will.

Some twenty-eight biographers will gather at Wolfson, roughly two thirds of them American and one-third European, to discuss such questions as whether biography can be defined nationally; whether biographies of little-known figures (think of Foster’s Vivid Faces) garner more readers in Europe than in America; whether slice-of-life studies (think of Candice Millar’s recently published book about Churchill’s three-month long adventure of capture, imprisonment, and escape in the Boer War: Hero of the Empire) can safely be nestled next to a monumental study (998 pages) of Hitler’s first fifty years (Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939); and whether we can safely say there are any borderlines between history and biography; if so, how can we draw them?

In my recent reading, I found that Ruth Scurr’s innovative study of John Aubrey presented a provocative challenge since she contends that ‘Biography is an art form open to constant experiment’ and she constructs Aubrey’s diary based on his manuscripts, correspondence, and records of those who knew him. It’s an autobiography in the form of a diary written by a biographer. Where would we shelve it? But I’ve come to realize that answering this question is actually not that difficult: Scurr’s book belongs on that massive bookshelf called ‘Life-Writing.’ All of us who will meet on November 5 know that the generous fluidity of biography as a genre has long demolished the boundaries, broken down the walls, and generated multiple ways of writing a life.

Deirdre David is Professor Emerita of English at Temple University. Throughout her long career she has taught courses in Victorian literature, the history of the British novel, and women’s writing. She has published books dealing with social problems in the Victorian novel (Fictions of Resolution in Three Victorian Novels , 1981), the conflicted position of the woman intellectual in Victorian culture (Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy, 1987), and the importance of British women in imperialism (Rule Britannia: Women, Empire, and Victorian Writing, 1995). She also edited The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel (2001), and co-edited (with Eileen Gillooly) Contemporary Dickens (2009). She published her first biography in 2007 (Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life); her most recent work is Olivia Manning: A Woman at War (2013). She continues to teach as a member of the Society of Senior Scholars at Columbia University. 

Photo by Glen Noble (CC0 1.0)

The Truth in Fiction ~ Notes on a Work in Progress

An extract from the talk scheduled for October 25th

In an earlier draft of the novel I’m working on, I wrote a scene in which the daughter in the novel is given a suitcase that contains her father’s papers. I edited this out because it seemed too contrived, only to receive a phone call from my stepmother a few weeks later saying that she had a suitcase which contained my father’s papers, and she thought I should have these.

I remembered then, belatedly, that yes, of course there was a real brown suitcase, one my father had kept in the storage nook above the linen press, and that the case had been kept locked at all times. If you want it, my stepmother said, it’s yours.

After he died there was some concern as to the whereabouts of this case. Those he’d been closely involved with wanted the contents that related to them, or rather, did not want these contents falling into the wrong hands. Everyone wanted to be there when the suitcase was finally found and opened, so that they might lay claim to what was inside. For a while there was much talk of this, until it was forgotten. At some point the suitcase ceased to be mentioned and I didn’t think of it, in any way, until it appeared anonymously in my novel, and then in real life, when I drove home with it in the back of the car.

The suitcase dates from the 1960’s: it is dark brown and made from a material that looks like pressed metal with lighter brown pin stripes carved into it. The clasps are rusted, and only one closes properly. There would have once been a leather handle, but this also broke long ago, replaced by a temporary wire handle now snapped at one end. It is a relatively small suitcase; it looks as though it ought to be light. But when I picked it up I was surprised by the weight; there were meant to be only papers in there. A wave of something like dread swept through me.

I work in a studio at the bottom of my garden, and in this hut is a large, green velveteen armchair. I carried the suitcase from the car and pushed it behind this chair. But even out of sight, its presence bothered me. I felt like I had my father in the room. I kept stopping what I was doing to get up and go and look at the suitcase. I would stand over it with my arms folded and watch it as if it were an animal about to leap at me. Only when I could be sure that it hadn’t moved, and was just as it was the day before would I go back to my work. It was summer, the garden was growing wild. A green tendril of vine pushed its way up between the wall and skirting board. One day, when I went to check on the case, I found the green vine had wrapped itself all around. Spiders had built cobwebs.

Perhaps another person’s instincts would have been to open this case immediately – to set out to make a discovery. And I did think, at first, when I went to collect it, that this was what I would do: that I would be such a brave and reckless person.

But I had never been allowed to open it, scarcely to touch it, in all my life. I did not know it as something openable. Before the suitcase came into my possession I could only remember it as a closed and hidden object. My father, in general, had never been one to open things: he did not open birthday gifts on his birthday, nor Christmas gifts at Christmas, nor his mouth to smile for a photograph. He had in fact been known to keep a Christmas gift for a whole year, until the following Christmas, before finally deciding to open it. The object hidden in the wrapping was beside the point. To open the gift was to destroy what he found most pleasure in; the secrecy, the muted curiosity about what was inside, the beauty of the wrapped object. Opening it would simply be a deflation of all this suspense, an end of desire, and there was the common risk, not unwarranted, that the gift would simply disappoint.

There was some pleasure to be found in thinking similarly, that I too was not obliged to open this suitcase, simply because it had been given to me. I could, if I so wished, leave it closed my whole life. Only, the novel I was and am working on – which centres around a fictionalized version of my father and my relationship with him – had, at the time when I inherited the suitcase, reached a hiatus.

I was stuck and looking for clues. The narrative had stalled. I did not know how to develop the “character”, as such, who was based on my father, I felt uneasy with this very term, I couldn’t decide on the balance between truth and fiction. I was unsure whether I needed to know the truth – as in the facts of my father’s life and family – in order to create a version that I would then call fictional, or whether I could go off the back of my own my memories, and let this material suffice.

If I opened the suitcase, I told myself, I might find the answer I needed. I might find a clue, a link, a secret, something to explain the life I was combing through by memory and anecdote. In the course of my deliberations, I convinced myself that when I opened the suitcase I would absolutely and without a doubt find an answer so incredibly brilliant, so unexpected, that it would simply knock me out.

So convinced, I pulled the suitcase from its hiding place, sat down before it and pressed the small button on the side of the rusted clasp. Papers spilled out. There were his school reports, poems he’d written at university, rejection letters from literary journals, love letters to my mother, letters from friends addressed to his dead brother, a set of appointment slips from Sydney University listing his brother’s appointment times with the counseling service, and so on. I rifled through these, looking for I don’t know what: a diary perhaps, a suicide note.

I was like a clichéd character in a novel, or had the hopes of one. I dug my hands deeper into the case, there were objects at the bottom, beneath the papers, a rustling of plastic. There, in the corner of the case lay a small pink velvet box, of the kind you might keep a ring in. I took this out, opened it, and being the clichéd character which, in that moment, I was, I expected jewels.

The box hinged open, and I let go of it as if it were a hot coal: inside lay a swatch of dark hair. Then, beneath this, was a plastic bread bag containing a stack of envelopes. I took this out, emptied it: on each envelope was a list of detailed descriptions of camera, lens type, aperture, and inside each envelope were a set of meticulously wrapped photographic negatives. They were wrapped in toilet paper, kitchen paper towels, tissues, old thin Christmas wrapping. I transferred these envelopes to a shoebox, and the next day delivered them to a camera shop for developing.

Stephanie Bishop‘s first novel was The Singing, for which she was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists. The Singing was also highly commended for the Kathleen Mitchell Award. Her second novel, The Other Side of the World is published by Hachette Australia and Tinder Press (Headline, UK) and will be released in the US in September 2016 by Atria (Simon & Schuster). It is the winner of The Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2015, and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2016, The Indie Book Awards 2016 as well as being longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize. It is also on the shortlist of the 2016 Australian Book Industry Awards and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Stephanie’s essays and reviews have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Australian, The Sydney Review Of Books, The Australian Book Review and the Sydney Morning Herald. She is a recipient of two Australia Council New Work Grants, an Asialink Fellowship, an Australian Society of Authors Mentorship, a Varuna Mentorship Fellowship and Varuna Residency Fellowship. She holds a PhD from Cambridge and is currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. In 2016 she will be a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Life Writing at the University of Oxford. Stephanie lives in Sydney. She tweets at @slb_bishop 

Photo by Lizzie Guilbert (CC0 1.0)

Oxford’s Writing Life

As an undergraduate, I came to Oxford looking for a writing community. Oxford, I thought, was the land of literary Greats — Tolkein, Lewis, Eliot, Shelley, Johnson, Sontag. Almost 100 years ago, a young T.S. Eliot, who was studying at Merton College, wrote feverish letters to his friends, complaining about his experience at Oxford: ‘Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead… Oxford I do not enjoy … I suffer indigestion, constipation, and colds constantly.’ Percy Bysshe Shelley spent no fewer than two terms in Oxford. In 1811, Shelley and a friend were expelled for being atheists. After his death, University College commemorated his time in Oxford with a statue. Susan Sontag was miserable in Oxford. Samuel Johnson dropped out after just a year because he couldn’t afford it.

Living writers and writing communities were slightly more difficult to find in Oxford, five years ago. I organised a small circle of literary friends, and we met to exchange work. Over time, I learned that there are dozens of significant literary groups, societies, and programmes across the city, but they were cut off, as it were — fragmented and sometimes insular. I now am working with a group of over 15 volunteers and a world-renowned board and committee of literary leaders, many of whom have been spending their nights, weekends, and vacation hours on a unique arts project, supporting writers across Oxford. We have gathered together the most respected names in Oxford literature and academic writing, to create an inclusive, internationally-facing writing hub, called Oxford Writers’ House. As far as I know, the model is unique: we enable writers by giving them the creative and community support they need, help them find each other, converse, refine, and publish their work. For the time being, we’re a house without a single location — a floating city. Writers in Oxford often are ignorant as to the wealth of literary resources at their doorstep. We are trying to change this, by linking up the dozens of flourishing circles, programmes, and arts events, and making these communities open-access and interconnected.

Despite the profile and momentum behind the Oxford Writers’ House community, I am often asked why we think what we are doing is necessary. I tend to think this question is one of profit, rather than value. The real question, to my mind, is why doesn’t this exist already? Writers need support and community — they need accessible ways to meet, discuss, share, exchange, and refine their work. They need access to a community. This community should affirm that their work is valuable and necessary. I think we are too accustomed to considering our lives in strictly functionalist, individual terms. Many artists today think differently — they want to participate in global conversations and local collaborations. To meet our mandate (to inspire, connect, and give voice to Oxford writers), we’re partnering with journals and writing groups across Oxford, together with bookstores, colleges, the City and County Councils, and others, to host talks, workshops, meet-ups, and conversations. We are also putting this material online, so that our members and the broader world can stay up-to-date. Our house is your house. Welcome!

April Pierce, Founder


Being a not-for-profit means being eternally asking: asking for donors, asking for volunteers, asking for teachers, asking for partners. I’m getting much better at asking. It’s a life skill – we all need help sometimes. The better you get at asking, the more you realise how much people are willing to give, and how many people were just waiting to be asked. It’s great to know your experience, knowledge and skills are valued by someone else — knowing that you can contribute to something outside yourself. I love being asked. Getting to talk about what I know well, getting to pass on what I’ve learnt to more people in an eternal and boundless game of tag.

The more we ask as Oxford Writers’ House, the more we’re able to pass what we’ve gained onto others. We can share contacts, share audiences, share ideas. Through collaboration we offer more events and more resources for writers. We become a community for more people and containing more people, working together, collaboratively. It’s only by asking each other what we need can we make it happen.

That was what was missing from Oxford’s writing scene. What brought us together and what drove our start-up this summer. We realised we needed more asking, more sharing. Cross platform, cross city, cross university, cross age, cross experience, cross genre. Cross anything. Across writing. Across Oxford. Crossing boundaries is a phrase so sound-bitten it’s lost any sense of urgency. But we’re not crossing boundaries in the sense of transgressing. We’re reaching. We’re sharing. We’re asking and being asked.

Oxford Writers’ House isn’t a physical house (though we hope it will be one day). Oxford Writers’ House is the knowledge that you’re not writing in a vacuum, and that you can be the reclusive writer with your laptop and coffee, alone in the wilderness. But any time you want, you can reach out and ask.

Asiyla Radwan, Creative Director


The Publications arm of the Oxford Writers’ House serves two purposes: to spotlight new, valuable work that is being created in the city (and across the wider Oxford-linked community), as well as to document the joys and frustrations of being a writer in Oxford. To these ends, we feature new creative work and special releases of forthcoming publications, and also publish interviews, essays, and news articles which provide some insight to Oxford’s writing community.

Our writers range from longtime residents of the city to travelers on whom the city has left a lasting impression – the very idea of the ‘Oxford writer’, we believe, is a wide-ranging and continually re-negotiated one. We open the doors of Oxford’s university and city writers to the world writ large. Having access to the unique network and publishing resources of the Oxford Writers’ House gives us the responsibility of being as fair, inclusive, and empathetic as we can. As such, we’re always looking out for new or unjustly marginalized voices who deserve to be heard alongside the city’s luminaries. Feel free to pitch us, and help us make writing in Oxford as rich and beautiful as our city.

Theophilus Kwek, Publications Director


Oxford Writers’ House tutoring services are dedicated to providing writing skills support and creative writing mentorship to students and local writers of all ages. We aim to inspire young people to write and to help amateur writers to hone their craft. Our tutoring services are therefore structured around enhancing levels of literacy in Oxford while also building and sustaining a proactive literary community in the city.

Our select team of tutors is made up of established educators, academics, and writers, all of whom offer unique writing specializations at discount rates. Members of the public can book appointments with tutors via the OWH website, and tutorials take place in and around the city. We do not adhere to any curriculum, rather we give established writers and academics a platform to offer writing tuition and mentorship for the benefit all demographics of the community in which they live. All paid tuition is therefore balanced with community outreach and OWH associated volunteer programs.

One of the goals of OWH’s tutoring services is to close the literacy gap in the city of Oxford and to enable Oxford’s literary community to give back to the city as a whole. A guiding principle of our work is inclusivity, by which we mean the incubation of marginalized voices, whether those of young people, the economically disadvantaged, or minority groups. Our tutorial model and our community-facing approach allows all our students (no matter what age) ownership over the writing process, strengthening their ability to express themselves clearly in an academic or artistic context. Moreover, the mentorship offered by established, local authors through our tutorials allows students and new writers to feel they can have a stake in a literary community where their voices will be valued.

David K. O’Hara, Director of Tutoring

Oxford Writers’ House was officially launched in the Spring of 2016 as a hub for the writers in the universities and city of Oxford. Besides offering resources for authors of all backgrounds, they provide Oxford-based academic and creative writing support, and curate their own discussion-oriented, interdisciplinary events. Their goal is to inspire, connect, and give voice to Oxford writers. @OxWritersHouse

Photo by Green Chameleon (CC0 1.0)

“Is This How it Really Was?”: Exploring Lives Through Private and Public Writing

Four years ago, quite against my better judgement, I began research on the life of American evangelical icon Elisabeth Elliot. I had a special needs son, a baby daughter, and a husband who was embarking on a rigorous professional program. I was two moves into a schedule of moving every six months to two years for the foreseeable future. But Elliot, whom I had briefly researched for another project, wouldn’t go away. I woke up at night thinking about her. I wanted to know more, and there was nowhere to go but source material.

When she died in June, 2015, Elliot left 25 published books, countless magazine articles and speeches, 20 years of bi-monthly newsletters, 13 years of radio programs, and a lifetime of journals and correspondence. Her body of work holds particular interest for life writing because of the tension it reveals between public and private writing. As a very private person who spent most of her life under the public gaze, Elliot inhabited this tension from childhood.

Perhaps in part because she was a “reticent” child with few friends, Elliot was a journal-keeper from an early age. She was also an early public writer: contributions to the family newspaper were not optional. When she went to boarding school at 14, a thousand miles from home, Elliot tried to write home twice a week—one letter to “the family”, and one post-card to her mother. The family letter was forwarded to other absent siblings so that everyone was kept informed. Despite what seems now like a virtual flood of communication, at one point her older brother gently scolded Elliot for not sharing enough with their mother. “I know that’s what she yearns for—that we children tell her everything. . . . this is one practical way in which you can show your love to her. So do tell her all.”[i]

Letter writing, with its blurring of public/private, was a constant throughout Elliot’s life. She continued writing her mother—sometimes marked PRIVATE for good measure—and “the family” as her siblings scattered across the globe. She sent expurgated versions of these letters to extended family, and public letters to financial supporters. As her audience grew, she received increasing quantities of fan mail, and spent a substantial portion of each workday writing back. Alongside it all, she wrote in her journal.

Reading the journals and correspondence reveals subtle differences in the way Elliot recorded events for personal use or public consumption. As the telling becomes more public, it becomes more controlled. It’s easy to think of apparent discrepancies between private and public tellings as “true” or “false,” but that understanding rests in part on a misconception of the act of writing. Writing assigns meaning and imposes narrative in order to exist. And there are conflicting goals on each side of the reader/writer exchange. The reader hopes for an authentic connection with the writer; the writer experiences the added necessity of maintaining a private self. For Elliot, the decision to filter what came to the public gaze, even when that public was her family, was quite conscious. “[T]he things that we feel most deeply,” she wrote, “we ought to learn to be silent about. . . .”[ii]

A biographer herself, Elliot wrote about the friction between what the public wanted and the private realities of the self from the other side of the exchange. She deplored the tendency to include only the facts which fit a preconception. When she wrote her late husband’s biography—drawing heavily on excerpts from his own letters and journals—she declined to leave out the “warts,” despite his public status as a modern-day martyr: “I have not ‘delicately censored’ anything at all which I felt would contribute to the faithful portrayal of the whole man as I knew him.”[iii] Since the journals included not only stirring spiritual meditations but fairly explicit accounts of struggle with sexual desire, this must have shocked the more traditionalist members of her audience. Of the research and writing process she wrote, “Again and again I found myself tempted to ask what my readers would want this man to be, or what I wanted him to be, or what he himself thought he was—and I had to ignore all such questions in favor of the one relevant consideration: Is this true? Is this how it really was? And of course this is the question that any writer, of any kind of literature, has to be asking all the time.”[iv]

During her lifetime, Elliot resisted attempts to biographize her—an understandable response to the tension between working in a medium which is largely (and increasingly) public, and the natural desire to control access to oneself as an act of sheer self-preservation. She pointed would-be biographers back to her heavily autobiographical work. It can be tempting, for writers and readers, to treat autobiographical writing as the most authentic way of accessing a life. Private writing in particular offers the promise of showing the subject unfiltered, “as s/he really is.” But as I sift through the material in Elliot’s own corpus and interviews with those who knew her, I am struck by how necessary it is to see her through others’ eyes as well as her own. In the end, even the authoritative myself of private writing is incomplete. I can never know myself as I am experienced by others—by my parents, who have known me longer than I have; my siblings, who know best what it was like growing up in our family; my husband, who has lived longest with adult me; my children, who see me when no one’s looking; my friends, who know me through their own lives. But each of those selves is true, just as my private self is true. I think that is why we read, and write, biography—holding up mirrors again and again from different angles, resisting preconceptions, hoping to see, finally, “how it really was.”

Lucy S. R. Austen is a writer, editor, and author from Washington State, USA. A graduate of the University of Washington, she has worked as editor of Spring Hill Review, a journal of Northwest culture. She is currently at work on a biography of Elisabeth Elliot. She tweets at @LucySRAusten.

Photo by Dương Trần Quốc (CC0 1.0)

[i] Phillip Gillingham Howard to Elisabeth Howard, Papers of Elisabeth Elliot, Collection 278, Box 3, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton University.

[ii] Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1984) page 60.

[iii] Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958) page 12.

[iv] Elisabeth Elliot, Who Shall Ascend (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958) page xii.


The Lille Diaries: A Writers’ Group Weekend

I slipped this slim, unassuming little volume into my bag, planning to have a look during my daughter’s swimming lesson. I pulled out the book – pleasantly solid and tactile, with crisp cream pages – while perched on the unyielding plastic of the pull-down seat in the stuffy, chlorine-scented spectator area. The cover is simple and monochrome, with an energetic line drawing of the three authors wrapped in some sort of wispy communal kaftan, or perhaps a sheet, knotted at the shoulder; a nod to the authors’ collaborative approach that conceals their differences just as much as it showcases them.


As I began to read, the muffled hum of screeches and splashes faded away into the thick air, to be replaced in my mind with the sights and smells of the 17th century Couvent des Minimes in Lille. Sarah Le Fanu, Jenny Newman, and Michèle Roberts – between them novelists, poets, biographers, autobiographers, playwrights, editors and professors – have been in a writers’ group together for ten years. In September 2013, they went away for the weekend to Lille to plan their new book, The Cabinet of Possibilities, about being in a writing group, and about opening up one’s writing. Over the weekend, each kept a diary.

Roberts is all about the detail, and once she introduces the idea of The Cabinet of Possibilities as ‘…a magical, expanding Cabinet, able to hold whatever we want to put into it. Space drawers. Knicker drawers? Top drawers. Bottom drawers.’ I perceive this playful metaphor throughout the writing, in her descriptions of food, for example: ‘…tiny cubes of cakes like jewelled objets d’art varnished and enamelled in slick, bright colours…’ And in Le Fanu’s embarkation gifts, given in St Pancras: a postcard from the Saloua Raouda Choucair exhibition at the Tate of ‘four naked women lounging around on cushions on a red checkered rug, sipping tea and reading books … cotton hankie covered in plump colourful birds on leafy twigs … conjuring up the pleasures of reading and writing (naked or clothed), and flights of the imagination.’

Reading and writing, naked and clothed, imaginations flying forward and back in time. If one could melt, mix, and then distil these three accounts of one weekend, the essence would contain all this. While Roberts often looks to the past – her French grandfather’s love of a caramel choux pastry called religieuse (the nun), whom he’d say was burning in caramel flames; and the plain yoghurt in a glass jar reminding her of childhood breakfasts – the whole group is also focused on the future: on what writing they will do, how they will push boundaries – their readers’ and their own. All are experimenting with form, Roberts reveals; refreshingly honest about the reaction of her ‘inner monster-toddler’ to her two friends’ gentle critique.

It is fascinating to see the different perspectives on the same events. Dealt with swiftly by Roberts as ‘a stag party of chaps all in pink polo shirts,’ Newman seems quite reflective about the group of young men who share their Eurostar carriage, casting them as a brotherhood, travelling counterparts to the sisterhood of three writers. She notices their politeness, their neat centre partings, their shirts bearing the words Al’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and their cans of beer, which don’t quite match up to the champagne and small glass tumblers rolled in a linen napkin that Michèle Roberts has brought. Le Fanu wonders, ‘isn’t the League of Extraordinary Gentleman an alternate universe steampunk series by Alan Moore?’ (I checked, it is).

As well as food, sights, and other people, they write about writing. Roberts’s toddler-monster, the unwritten rules of the writing group (discuss writing not feelings, leave the phone off the hook), point of view, Jane Austin and Katherine Mansfield, and the joyful rediscovery of a rejected manuscript. The writing is beautifully evocative, equally descriptive of place and emotion, and funny, accompanied by line drawings full of spirit, energy and humour. A wonderful insight into friendship and writing, it will inspire you to create a circle of writers of your own.

The Lille Diaries: A Writers’ Group Weekend by Sarah Le Fanu, Jenny Newman and Michèle Roberts was published in 2016 by Hawkins & Quiggin, London.

Dr Katherine Collins is a Visiting Scholar at OCLW. Her current project is a work of creative non-fiction, family fables organised as a collection of short stories narrated from different points of view, fragments stitched together into a multi-layered autoethnogaphic family herstory spanning 100 years.

Photo by Linh Nguyen (CC0 1.0)

The Private Life of the Diary

My First Diary

When I was seven years old my mother sent me abroad, alone. I carried one small canvas bag with a camera and a diary-notebook. My instructions were very clear:

‘Take as many pictures as you can and write down everything you see. Switzerland is a very beautiful country and you’ll see lots of important things. Don’t waste it on rubbish. If you run out of pages, buy another notebook. Don’t skimp and keep your handwriting nice. We want to be able to read it!’

From the first, my diary was never private: it belonged to my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my brothers and cousins.

It was never my friend. I could tell it nothing awkward, embarrassing, shameful or pathetic. I could not be homesick or lonely or afraid or bored. My diary forced me to be brave and heroic, to muster up a grown up self. Above all, my diary wanted me to be extraordinary.      

As the aeroplane lurched out of Gatwick, I pulled the new diary from my bag. Its purple satin cover was intimidating, I decided: too special and occasional. What could I possibly experience that would deserve such a special thing? How could I begin to write anything in it?

I would have to edit out anything that would ‘let me down’ as my mother would say.

‘Don’t let yourself down, Sally. Make an effort, for goodness sake!’

But surely a real diary doesn’t ask you, to make an effort? Surely a real diarist can let go of the picture-postcard version of things? My seven-year-old self wanted to scribble in my diary, to draw pictures of the funny looking people on the plane; to cry over it when I felt homesick and lonely, as I often did in the weeks ahead, to paste in all the chocolate wrappers from all the chocolate bars I was given by kind Swiss aunts and uncles; to draw rude pictures of people sounding too French for me to understand.

But, instead, over the course of the four weeks I spent in Switzerland, I tried to impress my diary. My diary was a boyfriend, my first boyfriend. I saved up lots of big words and big sights and I wrote them down. I wanted everything to sound like an Asterix adventure. Every day was filled with difficult and unfamiliar things, but I managed all of them: the Gauls, the Britons, the Romans and the Swiss. I took them all on.

I ate rabbit and duck and lots of smelly cheese. I spoke my rehearsed French phrases and wrote down new ones. I shook everyone’s hand. I made friends with a boy called Michel in the village fromagerie. I kissed him. I watched his parents chop cheese and sausages. I watched my hosts make raclettes and fondue and homemade pasta. I even tried reading Daisy Miller in French and I wrote that down (which was a lie because I read it in English).

When I went to the city of Berne I took lots of photographs of the bears but most of them were smudgy and misty. So I tried to draw the bears and then describe them but I couldn’t draw and my Berol pen kept running out. But I’d promised my mother I would write up every day and this day of all days had been A Very Important Day. I mustn’t let it slip away. Today had been Berne, the Swiss capital. Today had been The Berne Bears.

But what happened in between all this edifying experience? Where did the real experience go, the off-the-record moments when I was just a small, lost child in a Swiss village staying with a family I barely knew? Where was the lonely and scared seven-year-old girl? The girl who knew how to ask for the loo and for directions to the bus station but could never say that she was too tired to stay up another hour and listen to boring adults talk about ‘Madame Peterman’ and her house at the top of the hill.

The diary I brought home from Switzerland held none of the things I remember now: stuffing myself on chocolate under the bedcovers at night; the terrible anxiety that I might die from eating a shot rabbit; the shame of being sick over a croissant after a long car journey up mountains. And the crushing loneliness of being alone all the time with adults speaking French. There was nowhere to be myself, not even in my diary. Where was the diary I dreamed of, my best friend and confidante; the soft beautiful thing I slipped under my pillow at night?


My attempts at keeping a diary were inauthentic: a bad performance in being adult. I had missed the point: personal diaries don’t ask us to be good grown-ups. Our diary is the ideal boyfriend, girlfriend or best friend, someone who won’t abandon us, however bad our tantrums and misbehaviour. Even Greg Heffley, the touchy teenager of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, reluctantly admits to dumping his real feelings in his diary or ‘journal’ as he insists on calling it.

True diaries contain overspill; they batten down thoughts and feelings for which, in the everyday world, there is little time and space. Diaries can bare souls and anchor lives. Emotionally speaking, they pick up the straying and splintering pieces of ourselves, those moods, atmospheres and secrets that might otherwise ruin situations and relationships. We can say to a diary what we wouldn’t dare say to anyone else. Diarising is free therapy, a place where we can project all the mess and maelstrom of our unresolved, teenage identities.

Spending Your Personal Time

Diaries are supposed to help you consider how you spend your time. In Switzerland, I was spending all my time being afraid of my diary. My diary was always calling me into account. There was no real point to it.

 Historically speaking, diaries emerge from a system of account-keeping: the public world of work and production. The father of the diary, Samuel Pepys, was a good diarist because his professional life asked him to be a good accountant. As the navy’s leading administrator and keeper of its books, diary writing was but a step away from totting up the naval accounts.

We will never know exactly why Pepys began to keep a diary, but there must have been some sense of wanting to say something about current affairs, which during Pepys’s lifetime were tumultuous: the dramatic restoration of Charles II to start with, which is where Pepys begins his diary. But there must also have been an urge to reflect upon his own, often messy, personal life – those extra-marital affairs and rows in bed with his wife.

Whatever the case, on January 1st 1660 Samuel Pepys began writing in a brown calf-bound notebook. He framed the pages with red ink, ruling margins along the edges of the pages: seven inches down, five inches across.

As Pepys demonstrates so well, the modern diary emerges from a mind set of expenditure: a system of daily account-keeping in which time and the unit of the day are the main resource. By 1660, a day had became a unit of time worth noting but also worth spending well. What would I do in my day; what did I do in my day, was now the question.

Putting Yourself Out There (Facebooking, Blogging, Tweeting)

In the 21st century, the traditional diary or journal has an online version, the blog. Facebook, Twitter and the culture of blogging emerge from a celebrity culture whose central premise is that we are all terribly interesting. Certainly worth following. Twitter gets you followers, Facebook finds you friends. In the world of social networking we are all celebrities, although only some of us really are. Stephen Fry was one of the first British celebrities to draw attention to the Twitter phenomenon, with his now notorious Twitter or ‘tweet’ update while stuck in a lift: ‘Ok. This is now mad. I am stuck in a lift on the 26th floor of Centre Point. Hell’s teeth. We could be here for hours. Arse, poo, and widdle.’

Footloose and fancy-free, twittering is for those on the move, and as Stephen Fry demonstrates, it is a good way of coping with that most frustrating of contemporary experiences: not being able to move.

Tweeting is quick, airy movement. An instant reflex, a flick-of-the-wrist approach to communication, tweeting is a sort of premature mental ejaculation.

But I might be wrong about this. I’m new to tweeting. Perhaps a tweet is a more reflective form of thinking. A friend of mine tells me that people can spend hours creating a tweet. A tweet, then, is a form of haiku in which every syllable, every one of your 140 characters counts. A tweet is not just another bit of noise floating through the cyber-universe. It is a brief meditation on the universe. On Twitter you can say something philosophical about Jeremy Corbyn finding himself without a seat on Virgin Trains; the return of socialism, or the latest terror attack. You can comment on the state of the nation and the globe. What is more, people will listen. Their attention spans won’t run out. They might even recycle what you say.

Still, I find it hard not to think of Twitter as just another form of social gossip, a quick blurt. One moment you tweet about a celebrity break-up and the next you tweet about your own. Certainly, Twitter marks the end of bounded public and private worlds. The traditionally private world, the sphere of the household, the home – Samuel Pepys in a filthy mood, in bed with his wife Elizabeth (also, no doubt in a filthy mood, her husband having given her a black eye) – has no separate form of life from the Pepys strutting about around Whitehall eager to be spotted by the King. Private forms of communication have not only engulfed our public world, they produce it.

Diaries Today

Some of us still keep pocket diaries as a means of keeping ourselves tidily within time. But since the late nineties pocket diaries have gradually turned digital, to the now almost socially ubiquitous Smartphone. These days, from my iPhone or iPad, I can keep track of my future movements and obligations through slick digitalised calendar and diary functions. In 2016 the intimate world of paper has all but disappeared. Only a few of us cling to the old-fashioned notebook or journal in which to write down our thoughts. I do so mainly as a form of indulgent nostalgia for the child I once was, flitting about the world with a pretty notebook and Berol pen, a butterfly with paper. But why do I write on paper still? Perhaps to feel something more visceral, more real.

At the university where I teach, I see my students reverting, during exam time, to the comfort of coloured pens, ornate journals and notebooks. Paper is human, and something like skin; it is reminiscent of schooldays and childhood and earlier forms of learning. Writing inside their attractive A4-sized notepads my students take comfort from close contact with paper and pen, the structure of carefully ruled lines. They carry notebooks around like close companions and friends; theirs is a private world of words carefully placed in the right place at the right time. There is something magical in their thinking.

Dr Sally Bayley is a Teaching and Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Insititute, University of Oxford and a Lecturer in English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She has written widely on visual responses to literature, including a jointly-authored study of Sylvia Plath’s relationship to the visual arts:  Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual (OUP, 2007) and a study of Plath as a cultural icon, Representing Sylvia Plath (CUP, 2011).

Sally’s recent book, The Private Life of the Diary: from Pepys to Tweets, tells the story of the diary as a coming of age story. Beginning with teenage diarists, Sally moves through significant moments of lived experience, from the teenage years when diary writing often begins, to the years of family, professional life, old age and death. The book takes the diaries of Virginia Woolf, Samuel Pepys, Sylvia Plath and others as her starting point for a discussion of the importance of private forms of writing and self-reflection as a means of securing a personal and public identity. From Pepys to Tweets assess the loss of such an acutely private form of life-writing in an age of facebooking, blogging and tweeting. She tweets @SallyBayley1

Photo by Ben White (CC0 1.0)

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Through An Artist’s Eye: Felicia Browne and the Spanish Civil War

An exhibition of paintings and poetry responding to the life and work of British artist Felicia Browne.

Through An Artist’s Eye is my most recent project in a growing body of work relating to the Spanish Civil War. It is a creative collaboration paying tribute to British artist Felicia Browne, who died in action in the early moments of the War in August 1936. Her letters and sketches – on which we draw – are held in an archive at Tate Britain, and in the private collections of the Sproule family.

Felicia is a unique figure in this conflict, being the only British female volunteer in Spain to take a combatant role. An eyewitness report by German volunteer, George Brinkmann, tells us that she was killed while on a mission to derail a fascist munitions train near Tardienta in Aragon. Her group was ambushed and outnumbered by fascists, and Felicia came under fire as she selflessly came to the aid of a wounded comrade.

My first encounter with Felicia was through an arresting self-portrait on display at Pallant House Gallery as part of the Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War exhibition in December 2014. I was also struck by her exceptionally accomplished drawings capturing street scenes and Spanish militias in the early days of the Civil War. I was intrigued but occupied with work for my EXILIO collaboration with Jonathan Moss, exhibited at Wolfson College in January 2015. In September and October 2016, my response to this extraordinary life story finds full flower with an exciting programme of events, the catalyst being the 80th anniversary of her death in Spain.

Here is the backstory:

Earlier this year, I invited Jenny Rivarola (a poet who, like me, is also the daughter of a Spanish Republican exile) to join me in developing a project dedicated to Felicia’s memory. Subsequently, I secured Arts Council funding for us to work in partnership with Tom Buchanan, Professor of Modern British and European History; Director of Studies in Modern History and Politics, OUDCE. We have also been fortunate to develop a partnership with the Instituto Cervantes, who in supporting us signal a growing shift in some quarters towards dismantling decades of suppression relating to the history of the Civil War in Spain. In contributing to the recovery of historic memory, our project gains a wider cultural significance, and we hope to reach audiences in Spain as well as the UK.

Professor Buchanan rediscovered Felicia’s drawings and letters in the early 1990s, examples of which are now held at Tate Britain. Felicia’s archive has recently been digitalised – and a short film made as part of Tate Britain’s Animating the Archives series, featuring Professor Buchanan and myself, and is entitled Felicia Browne: Unofficial War Artist.

The true inspiration for the project came to me while filming with the Tate Britain team in my Oxford studio, during an intense conversation with Rebecca Sinker (Curator of Digital Learning at Tate Britain). You can see the moment the idea seeds itself (at 4.35 mins) as I look away from the camera at the pile of vintage suitcases in my studio. At once I became acutely aware of the intersecting geographies of Felicia’s journey to Spain with that of my father to England, and I was visited by the image of my father’s footsteps across the Pyrenees at the end of the war in 1939, mirroring, or indeed overlapping with the tyre tracks of Felicia’s car journey at the very onset of the war in 1936. They had crossed in opposite directions to vastly differing destinies – one to her untimely death aged 32, and the other to his eventual safety in England aged 18.

I have cause to think of the Civil War as my cradle (a notion articulated through my 2014 film Without You I Would Not Exist), and filming with Tate Britain in my studio made me viscerally conscious that this same bloody conflict had been Felicia’s grave – rendering her life story ever more proximate to my own. So much so that they came to feel entwined (as though – however improbable – she had given her life for the eventual freedom and safety of my father and my grandparents). Astonishment at Felicia’s actions, gratitude and curiosity intermingled, and I wrestled with the challenge her short life implied. As an artist engaged in a form of war commentary myself – albeit historical – I questioned the boundaries of my engagement. Felicia made me ask myself, am I doing enough? I don’t yet have an answer. All I really know is that Jenny and I – as daughters of Republican exiles – have felt compelled to honour this remarkable British volunteer. Further, that in the case of Felicia Browne (as evinced through her letters), we find a witty, erudite and engaging personality, and that (with regard to her drawings) there is an exciting body of work to bring to public attention. She is without doubt a compelling character on so many levels.

We have a free booklet for audiences and will also be screening our project film at all our events. With talks by Professor Buchanan and poetry readings by Jenny Rivarola.

We will be seeking new venues to exhibit our work in 2017, and are available for talks, film screenings and conferences.


Sonia Boué is a visual artist whose painting practice encompasses, assemblage, video and performance. Her work is research based and deals with themes of exile and displacement, with particular reference to family history and the Spanish Civil War. A background in Art History and Art Therapy informs her practice. Her Msc Applied Social Studies Oxon, continues to provide a useful framework for Sonia’s practice, which is concerned with the artist’s role as a catalyst for social justice. She is a Member of Common Room. She tweets at @SoniaBoue.



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The Secret Staircase: private view and talk by Michèle Roberts and Caroline Isgar

The Wolfson Arts Society & the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing invite you to a private view and talk by Michèle Roberts and Caroline Isgar, on Friday 14 October 2016 at 5.30 pm.

The Secret Staircase is an exhibition/installation comprising etchings, a woodcut block, a woodcut print, a printed text, an artist’s book, and some associated artefacts. It was originally commissioned by the Foundling Museum in London.

It is a joint project created by artist Caroline Isgar and writer Michèle Roberts, who had the original inspiration together and collaborated all the way through, discussing ideas and methods at every stage, naming and solving problems together.

The Secret Staircase explores mother-child separation, the loss and grief felt by an adult daughter as her mother goes through the process of dying, how she collects her memories of her mother and attaches them to various significant objects. The Secret Staircase performs, therefore, a kind of Life-Writing.

We took as our initial inspiration the tokens (dating back to the late eighteenth-century) at the Foundling Museum. These tokens (identifying tags, rings, plaques, coins, etc) were left with the foundlings by their mothers, who may have hoped to come and reclaim their children some day.

The Secret Staircase etchings represent experimental ideas around children’s doodles, children’s early attempts to write, children’s carvings on tables and desks. These images subsequently informed the images in the book.

The book/text takes the form of an inventory of items connected with the lost mother, such as a hairbrush or a button box, which provoke childhood memories plus reflections on the present. Underneath the daughter’s direct speech runs a series of rewritten nursery rhymes, which express all that the daughter does not dare openly say.

The book/images suggest folklore, legends and myths, with particular reference to animals, domestic artefacts, and children’s writing exercises.

Associated artefacts comprise materials relating to our work process, ranging from sketches to commemorative items to found objects.

The book/images have been printed as an unusually large-scale woodcut (1 x 3 ) metres. The form of the woodcut block itself is a table, inspired by the elm refectory table at the Foundling Museum. The foundlings sat around this table for their meals.

The book/text has been printed on a single sheet of paper of corresponding size. The narrative sequence of the text begins at the lower left-hand corner and continues in an anti-clockwise direction.

The Secret Staircase print and text can both be wall-hung for display. They can simultaneously be displayed folded into a free-standing double zigzag, on a table. They have both been folded into a limited edition artist’s book, bound in a white tablecloth formerly belonging to Monique Roberts, Michèle Roberts’s mother. Her monogram M.C. is visible. As a young woman she hemmed the cloth and embroidered it with the initials of her maiden name Monique Caulle. Before she died in December 2007 she gave the cloth to her daughter.

Paperback versions of The Secret Staircase have also been printed and are available.

Caroline Isgar & Michèle Roberts

The Exhibition runs from Sunday 2 October to Friday 21 October 2016. Open daily from 10 am to 7 pm subject to College commitments. Visitors are advised to ring the Lodge on 01865 274100 beforehand.

Speaking in Absence: Letters in the Digital Age Conference Report


It was John Donne (1572-1631) who wrote ‘More than kisses, letters mingle souls; for thus, friends absent speak.’ In an age dominated by ‘social media’, written correspondence networks are a formidable challenge for scholars. The increasing proliferation of digital formats has seen a transformation in the way we conceptualise ‘texts’ and ‘editions’ but also a remarkable resurgence in interest in printed books. Correspondence is a particularly fascinating vehicle for examining these phenomena. Digital tools can illuminate connections and patterns difficult to see through analogue handling, while drawing attention to aspects of the original material that might be lost when reading a conventional print edition. This material experience, in the case of a personal source, is something magical and ephemeral that warrants preservation as much as the source content. The Speaking in Absence: Letters in the Digital Age Conference (21 June 2016), then, was dedicated to exploring how new technology can help critics and historians understand, interpret and engage with the letters of historical men and women (both famous and non-famous); trace networks and connections among the almost limitless texts that can be preserved and searched in archives; and what roles there are for editors and publishers of letters in a world of ‘digital correspondence’.

Held at the Weston Library and Wolfson College the conference consisted of a keynote address, panel discussions, a practical demonstration, a visual tour, research poster presentations, and a conference dinner. Generously sponsored by The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH), Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Bodleian Libraries and Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute, and further involved the participation of Oxford University Press and Blackwell’s, the conference aimed to facilitate communication between the diverse entities involved in the digitization of correspondence. Professor Christopher Ricks opened the day with his keynote address The errors of our ways when editing letters, which drew upon material from several literary biographies and poetical works. Through careful and astonishingly good analysis, Ricks provided many elucidations and inspired emendations of the correspondences under examination.

The first panel focused on projects that bring letters into a digital forum through cataloguing and editing, or the digitisation of existing editions of letters. Panelists included representatives of Electronic Enlightenment,  Darwin Correspondence Project and Cultures of Knowledge who cast an interesting light on the potential for interconnection between both the projects they themselves are involved in, and the correspondence sources they host. In addition, they explored the infrastructure surrounding these resources, and the potential they hold for further collaborative development. Next Miranda Lewis (Digital Editor, Early Modern Letters Online) discussed how bringing manuscript, print, and electronic resources together in one space not only increases access to and awareness of them, but allows disparate and connected correspondences to be cross-searched, combined, analysed and visualized. Moreover, that the collection of unprecedented quantities of metadata, and the standardization of the means of describing and processing them, is the precondition for efficient collaborative work on the development of new digital tools, new scholarly methods, and new historiographical insights in this large and central field.

The morning portion had been a success; testament was the hum of conversations between academics from a multitude of disciplines, professionals, institutional representatives and the public that filled Blackwell Hall over lunch. Afterwards the audience reconvened for a visual tour of correspondence collections in the Bodleian Libraries with Bodleian curators and a lively discussion surrounding the publishing of letters. Professor Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin offered compelling Russian historical and literary case studies, while Jacqueline Norton of OUP Academic; Rupert Mann of Oxford University Press; and Kieron Smith of Blackwell’s revealed the relationships between the ‘editor’ as a critical textual scholar and the ‘editor’ who commissions or prepares an edited text for publication.


The day’s final panel was held at Wolfson College in the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium. It boasted multiple award winning film editor Sabine Krayenbühl and photographer Zeva Oelbaum who presented their documentary film Letters from Baghdadbased on the letters of Gertrude Bell, a pioneering adventurer, diplomat, archeologist and spy; Georgina Ferry, author, dramatizations of the letters of Ada Lovelace and Dorothy Hodgkin; and Neale Rooney of Letters 1916 (Ireland’s first crowdsourcing project). Each of the projects being showcased explored letters through such varied media as radio, film, and the internet, as a means of communicating this personal material to a wider audience. Although nearing the end of the day Dr. Kathryn Eccles expertly chaired a lively and scintillating discussion about the place of letters in the digital age.

Winding down with a drinks reception postgraduates had the opportunity to display research posters covering topics as diverse as: the language of autobiographical letters sent by women in the Russian language to Soviet newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s; letter-writing in fifteenth century princely education; the use of fictional letters as a literary genre in early modern England; detecting patterns of interaction in ancient papyrus letters; and letters as a resource for biographical research. Finally, it was time for dinner and after a full program it seemed clear to all those who took part in the day that “letters have a bright future”.

This guest post was written by Michaela Crawley, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. For more information about the conference program and guest speakers, please visit The Digital Epistolary Network

Woven into the Fabric of the Text: Subversive Material Metaphors in Academic Writing

This piece originally appeared on LSE Review of Books.

Fabric Image 2

It’s rather like a ball of yarn when it gets tangled up. We hold it this way, and carefully wind out the strands on our spindles, now this way, now that way. That’s how we’ll wind up this war, if we’re allowed: unsnarling it by sending embassies, now this way, now that way (Lysistrata).

Often there is no space in my favourite café with its walls of textured teal, thronged with faces that may have meant something once to people who’ve long since donated the quirky paintings and photos to a charity shop. Anyone can find their place among them, bending or stretching to frame a new face in one of the pitted art deco mirrors. Even the rickety tables in the middle, little inhospitable islands buffeted by passing elbows and rucksacks, are full. Academic disciplines are like this: bustling, tightly knit communities, space at a premium. Customs and practices woven into a rich tapestry of enquiry and knowledge; questions and answers interlaced; threads taken up from the writings of the serious, scholarly faces peering down from their frames. But different as each discipline might be from the others – the colours of the walls, the style of the frames and how they are arranged – there’s a common strand that runs through: we write.

Weeks later, I sit at my temporary desk – a borrowed kitchen table with one leaf folded down – in my new study that used to be a kitchen. I can see the eighty-year-old seams of the house: two doorways once led to a scullery and a coal store, bricked up now but not yet smoothed out of sight by plaster. Copper pipes, dully glowing, cut off partway down the wall. Compared to what would have been the parlour and dining room, this kitchen was tiny, more reflective of the lowly status of the person who cooked and cleaned than how much space they might need. The women of this house would toil here and now so do I, writing to reinvent, to cobble together fragments in the pauses between other things. Stitching rejected remnants, making a form of frameless art, like a patchwork quilt.

The previous two paragraphs are stuffed with material metaphors: knitting, weaving, tapestry, embroidery and quilting variously represent kinship, identity, complexity, time, structure and style. In the social sciences, though, often we write about our research as if theories and arguments are buildings. Theories have frameworks and foundations and they need support. Arguments can be constructedshored up by facts and buttressed with a solid line of reasoning. Sometimes they can be shaky and even fall down. But as well as communicating what we mean, metaphors structure our thinking. Or, at least, the metaphors we choose when we write can reveal a great deal about underlying assumptions. The theories-as-buildings metaphor always makes me imagine an enormous wall made of rectangular bricks, orderly and straight, progressing upwards and onwards. The researcher’s job is to climb the scaffolding, find a gap near the top and make a brick to fill it, or to knock a few crumbling bricks out and replace them with others, strong and freshly fired. Or rarely, to grab a spade and start digging a new foundation, because this metaphor doesn’t work like Minecraft: bricks can’t float, unsupported.

Why does this way of thinking about knowledge hold such sway over us? For one thing, it offers a comforting sense of progress and control. Buildings have blueprints; their construction appears to proceed in a predictable fashion; engineers can calculate precisely where the load bearing walls and lintels need to be; construction workers know how to mix the mortar so it won’t crumble. Making buildings is also something that happens in the public sphere; even with houses, the insides only become private when the work is finished and people move in. And though we all know full well that knowledge creation doesn’t actually happen in the controlled and predictable way the metaphor implies, this is the structure that it imposes on our writing: an activity that is orderly, involves rationality over emotion and inhabits the public sphere not the private. Notice that these are a set of characteristics that fit nicely with conventional notions of masculinity.

Needlecraft metaphors offer another way of thinking about the creative and generative practice of writing – and about how we write in relation to particular knowledge claims and communities – that is more about piecing together fragments…

…patchwork from best gowns,
winter woollens, linens, blankets, worked jigsaw
of the memories of braided lives, precious
scraps…(Marge Piercy, ‘Looking at Quilts’, 21)

…of things of varying source and quality (at least, in conventional terms) that wouldn’t necessarily fit together seamlessly in the more structured metaphorical tradition of theories-as-buildings. This essay, for example, was stitched together ‘by squares, by inches’ (Joyce Carol Oates, Celestial Timepiece, 22) from fragments of life writing, books, articles and blogs written by feminist art historians and quilt makers, poetry, references to Aristophanes and Thomas Pynchon, books about linguistics and philosophy, personal experience and belief. And now it forms a single piece.

But why do I regard switching from a metaphor of building to one of stitching as a subversive act? For several reasons. Throughout history, needlework has been a marker of femininity in its various iterations, a means to inculcate it, and something to sneer at as a way of shoring up women’s supposed inferiority. Theodore Roethke described women’s poetry as ‘the embroidering of trivial themes […] running between the boudoir and the alter, stamping a tiny foot against God…’ (165), for example. Women’s naturally nimble fingers were to be occupied; we were to be kept out of the way and out of trouble, shut in the top room of a circular tower and thus prevented from engaging in the masculine pursuits of politics, thinking, reading and writing and making Art (for a fascinating discussion on women, folk art and cultural femicide, I recommend this post by Dr Lucy Allen). The frills and fripperies our needles produced were ample evidence, should anyone require it, that we were frivolous creatures entirely unsuited to public life. Or so the story was. So using needlework metaphors in my academic writing blows a resonant raspberry to that notion, for one thing. But the subversion here is not as straightforward as reclamation, of presenting something usually disparaged as having value after all. Femininity and its inculcation is a displeasingly twisted yarn of benevolence and belittlement. The trick is to unpick the knots without snapping the thread and unravelling the beautiful work, to value that which has been constructed as feminine while at the same time escaping its constricting net.

Imagining academic writing as piecing fragments is one way of recognising that it can integrate all sorts of sources but, more significantly, piecing is also a decentred activity. When quilting, one can plan, cut and stitch many individual squares whenever there is a moment spare, before bringing them together to form the overall pattern, which is flat and in aesthetic terms may have no centre or many centres, and no predetermined start or end. This holds true both for the practice of quilting and how we might think differently about academic writing, with each contribution not a brick in a structured wall but a square ready to stitch onto other squares to make something expected or unexpected, the goal depth and intensity rather than progress (see Mara Witzling). There is sedition here in several senses. This way of imagining how writing works is not individualistic or competitive. Each voice is a thread, and only when they are woven together do they form a whole, as Ann Hamilton’s tapestries represent social collaboration and interconnectedness; many voices not one, cut from the same cloth or different.

But acknowledging that one might have to fit the work of writing around other things, a problem that has occupied me from the moment I became a mother, is a particularly rebellious act, I think. As Adrienne Rich expresses in the poem ‘Transcendental Etude’:

Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away 
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells
sent in cotton-wool from somewhere far away,
and skeins of milkweed from the nearest meadow –
original domestic silk, the finest findings

This way of imagining academic writing as something that is part of life, rather than something apart, challenges the view of the scholar as the extraordinary, solitary genius who sits alone in his study day after day while the minutiae of clothing and food is organised for him, around him, despite him. But with metaphors that emphasise the piecing of fragments, both everyday and exceptional, we recognise a way of working in which every fragment that can be pieced together into a square is ‘the preservation of a woman’s voice’.

Dr Katherine Collins is a Visiting Scholar at OCLW. Her current project is a work of creative non-fiction, family fables organised as a collection of short stories narrated from different points of view, fragments stitched together into a multi-layered autoethnogaphic family herstory spanning 100 years.