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.

‘We All Have These Thoughts Sometimes’: A conference on the work of Stevie Smith (1902-1971)

‘We All Have These Thoughts Sometimes’: A conference on the work of Stevie Smith (1902-1971)

For this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to point the moral, to adorn the tale.

The people who ‘come and go’ in Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper (1936) are versions of her own friends and family, fictionalised with almost ostentatious thinness. The manuscript of the novel, typed on yellow office paper and held in the Hull History Centre, shows that she originally used her acquaintances’ real names and altered them afterwards in pen. Novel on Yellow Paper is so autobiographical that it poses real analytic and generic dilemmas for readers. Here, as in many of her poems, Smith’s boundary between life-writing and “imaginative” or “fictitious” work is strikingly porous.


The organisers of the first one-day conference on the work of Stevie Smith, held at Jesus College on 11 March 2016, were therefore very grateful for the support of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, recognising the value of considering Smith’s work as ‘life-writing’ as much as ‘fiction’ or ‘poetry’. Over 70 delegates gathered to explore and discuss this well-loved but critically understudied author from a variety of perspectives.

Noreen Masud welcoming delegates to the Stevie Smith conference

Welcoming delegates to the Stevie Smith conference

Many speakers took the opportunity to explore life-writing as a helpful critical lens. Hermione Lee, director of OCLW and editor of Stevie Smith: A Selection, and eminent biographer Frances Spalding, author of Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography, opened the conference with a panel on Smith and life-writing. Lee and Spalding discussed Smith’s short piece ‘The Story of a Story’, a lightly-fictionalised account of Smith’s conflict with friends who were offended by her literary renditions of their lives. The story, itself a piece of life-writing, traces the perils of life-writing as well as its irresistible lure for Smith.

‘Do you think it is immoral to write about people?’
‘No no, it is very difficult.’ (Stevie Smith, ‘The Story of a Story’)

Frances Spalding and Hermione Lee, taking an audience question

Frances Spalding and Hermione Lee, taking an audience question

Throughout the conference, life-writing continued to represent a significant part of the conversation. Often it was practised extempore: several delegates had known Smith in person and were eager to recount and re-interpret their memories of her life. Judith Woolf of the University of York gave a well-received account of interactions she had had with Stevie Smith, during an early panel on Stevie Smith’s ‘voices’. In another paper, Rachel Cooke, award-winning journalist and writer, discussed how Stevie Smith explored ideas about female independence by fictionalising aspects of her life as a spinster.

In an afternoon panel, Rachel Darling of the University of Goldsmiths delivered a paper called ‘Working it Out For Herself: The Writing Subject in Novel on Yellow Paper’.

Rachel Darling delivering her paper

Rachel Darling delivering her paper

Darling noted how Smith positions her protagonist Pompey in Novel on Yellow Paper as a writer, and has her imitate her own writing-process: Pompey remarks in passing, ‘I am typing this book on yellow paper’. Both Pompey and Smith type novels on yellow copy-paper, then, ‘copying’, as Darling suggested, from life. Early criticism of Smith’s work over-simplified the relationship between Smith and Pompey, however, and Darling ultimately concluded that the novel Pompey writes is not itself Novel on Yellow Paper.

In the final academic event of the day, Will May gave the keynote speech on Smith’s ‘untimeliness’. His paper moved between Smith’s offbeat or ‘untimely’ metrical rhythms, her marginal or ‘out-of-time’ position among her contemporaries, and moments in her poetry where events happen at wrong or inopportune times.

Will May delivering the conference keynote

Will May delivering the conference keynote

The conference closed with a performance of ‘River Gods’ in Jesus College Chapel. This piece is a setting of seven of Smith’s poems for viola and spoken voice, composed by Simon Rowland-Jones. Rowland-Jones provided the viola accompaniment as Hermione Lee read some of Smith’s most haunting poems, including ‘The Frog Prince’ and ‘The River God’. Listen to a 2011 recording of ‘River Gods’ here.

Stevie Smith has experienced something of a revival in the last two years. ‘We All Have These Thoughts Sometimes’ followed Virago’s reissue of Smith’s novels in 2014, and Will May’s new edition of Smith’s Collected Poems and Drawings in 2015. We hope that this conference will play a part in extending Smith’s own literary afterlife.

This guest post was written by Noreen Masud, DPhil student at the University of Oxford and co-organiser of the Stevie Smith conference. She blogs at Parrots Ate Them All. With thanks to OCLW, Virago, Faber, S H Jones, Manchester University Press, Oxford University Press, Edinburgh University Press, Oxford English Faculty, Oxfordshire History Centre and Blackwells. Photography courtesy of Mr Josey Photography. Poster drawing taken from Not Waving But Drowning © Estate of Stevie Smith and reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.

Art and Action: The Intersections of Literary Celebrity and Politics – Symposium Report

Art and Action: The Intersections of Literary Celebrity and Politics – Symposium Report
For a selection of podcasts from the symposium, please visit


David Hare’s Richard Hillary Memorial Lecture at the Blavatnik School of Government on 3 March, offering a “playwright’s view of dismal conservatism” that turned into a scathing invective against the (Oxford-educated) key players in the current Tory government, was yet another poignant reminder of the distinctly political edge that has always marked performances of the authorial self. It certainly underscored the relevance and timeliness of a one-day symposium dedicated to exploring the complex and multi-layered intersections of literary celebrity and politics, which took place two days later at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. Generously supported by the TORCH Celebrity Research Network and the Austrian Science Fund, “Art and Action” joined the debate about writers’ migrations between literature and politics – a phenomenon that is closely tied to the idea of the artist as “hero-explorer”, as the eponymous character in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello puts it. In this present ‘Age of the Celebvocate’, such writerly cross-field migrations have become familiar multi-media events that highlight the possible tensions between authorial self-fashioning and media and industry appropriation. They come not without their risks of compromising artistic integrity and sometimes lead to a rather uncomfortable entanglement of the author’s public and private selves caught up between ideals of moral responsibility and marketplace considerations.
These wider debates were addressed by eight thought-provoking papers and a lively roundtable discussion that cast an intriguing spotlight on the interactions of authorship, politics, and celebrity culture in the Anglophone world across historical periods and media. Case studies ranged from the early modern period to the present and covered a broad spectrum of themes, including performances of authorial self-fashioning, the gender, body, and fashion politics of literary celebrity, and the convertibility of ‘celebrity capital’.
Michelle Kelly and Sandra Mayer opened the symposium with a panel that focussed on the celebrity writer’s often uneasy trajectory between aesthetic and political performance. Both papers laid bare the theatricality of such ‘double acts’ in writers’ interventions as public personae and in the fictional worlds they create. Drawing on material from the Coetzee Archive, Michelle Kelly in her talk explored the ways in which J.M. Coetzee’s celebrity status and dedication to animal activism inform his novel Elizabeth Costello and its preoccupation with the body, performance, and theatricality. Frequently interpreted as Coetzee’s fictional avatar, Elizabeth Costello, whose concern with animal death and suffering is a recurring theme in her public lectures, becomes a performing animal in a literary marketplace that expects her to live up to the roles of celebrity novelist and public intellectual. While 21st-century audiences seem to take Coetzee’s conflation of the author’s public and private selves for granted, their Victorian counterparts were puzzled and intrigued by the dual commitment to art and action of author-cum-politicians like Benjamin Disraeli. Looking at ‘fan letters’ among Disraeli’s personal papers in the Bodleian Library, Sandra Mayer demonstrated that his position in the popular imagination was shaped and sustained by a highly ambivalent performance of the self that reconciled political action and creative achievement.

The gendering of authorial fame and its media representations was the theme uniting the second pair of papers by Kate McLoughlin and Matthew Lecznar. The story of Ernest Hemingway’s and Martha Gellhorn’s D-Day dispatches for Collier’s Magazine, presented by Kate McLoughlin, offered captivating insights into the personal and textual rivalry of two high-profile writers for whom the right to write about war was earned through first-hand experience. The magazine’s editorial interventions were aimed at presenting Hemingway as a war hero and provide an illuminating case study of the privileging of an eye-witness account by a male ‘national treasure’ over the report by a female war correspondent. The unsettling (non)visibility of the female body was also a central concern of Matthew Lecznar’s paper on the fashion and body politics of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her dynamic and self-reflexive use of fashion and femininity is played out in a transmedia space of fiction, fashion blogs and TED talks that enables her to engage with a broad range of political issues and disseminate her message across diverse cultural and socio-economic contexts.
Over lunch, the third-floor corridor of the Radcliffe Humanities Building was abuzz with lively conversations before speakers and audience reconvened for the afternoon’s first panel on the “Artist as Propagandist”. Kate De Rycker and Simon Morgan offered compelling historical case studies of how writers in the 16th and 19th centuries respectively made use of their celebrity capital to engage in political activism and persuade the public. Kate De Rycker’s talk on the “Rhetoric of Fame” employed in the ‘paper war’ between the fictional persona of “Martin Marprelate” and the established Church revealed that the social role of English writers in the late 16th century was increasingly affected by the commodification of the writer’s reputation. By availing themselves of strategies that still inform the production and consumption of celebrity today, such as the creation of recognisable public personae, Marprelate and his detractors fashioned a template for new forms of engaging in political debate and mobilising the reading public. The convertibility of celebrity capital was subsequently highlighted by Simon Morgan, whose paper explored the tensions within the transatlantic anti-slavery movement “Between Morality and the Marketplace.” Looking at popular responses to Frederick Douglass’s and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s visits to Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, it pointed towards the close entanglement of celebrity activism, self-promotion, and commercialisation.
The day’s final pair of papers cast a spotlight on the often symbiotic conflation of literary celebrity and the politics of self-fashioning. Michèle Mendelssohn made a case for reconceptualising Oscar Wilde – often hailed as an exclusively queer icon – as a media professional who, on his 1882 American lecture tour, skilfully harnessed his gender fluidity in order to enhance his celebrity appeal. Authorial self-fashioning as a more overtly political act was addressed by Adam Perchard in his exploration of Salman Rushdie’s self-fashioning as the ‘new Voltaire’. Perchard argued that by placing himself within an invented tradition of eighteenth-century thinkers, Rushdie invokes simplistic East/West binaries in which Western Enlightenment tradition is threatened by Islamic fundamentalism.

At the end of a long day of discussing art and action, the recurring themes of the symposium were revisited in a roundtable featuring Peter McDonald, Caroline Davis, and Olivier Driessens, and chaired by Elleke Boehmer. Reviewing the intersections of authorship, politics, and celebrity from a broad range of theoretical and methodological perspectives, the expert panel launched a general plea for institutional readings of literary production that abstain from fetishising the author as a lone genius and acknowledge his/her embeddedness within a network of agents. Peter McDonald opened the conversation by posing the key question of the day: “Why are we having this discussion and what does it tell us about our culture?” The answer, according to McDonald, lies in the ambivalent status of literature as a form of public discourse uneasily positioned between the histories of thought, entertainment, and taste. Caroline Davis then offered poignant insights into the gatekeeping position of publishers in the process of enabling or inhibiting cross-field migrations between literature and politics. Looking at the ‘repackaging’ of African authors for the UK and US markets, she drew attention to the fine and arbitrary line between literary celebrity status and being completely silenced. Finally, Olivier Driessens reiterated the importance of collaborative efforts for the creation of literary reputations and encouraged scholars to pay attention to institutions of cultural diplomacy, promotional logics, ideologies, and genre, all of which shape the author’s position within the ‘Art Worlds’.

The roundtable statements gave rise to a stimulating discussion that raised some crucial questions about writing and reading as social practices that can never be isolated from their political dimension and impact. Literature, it emerged, must be regarded as a mode of public intervention in its own right, strikingly exemplified by what Peter McDonald referred to as J.M. Coetzee’s “Celebrity of Refusal” – his unwillingness to step out of his medium and play up to the demands of literary celebrity culture. Most importantly, the symposium flagged the interdependence of authorial agency and processes of industry, media, and audience appropriation, pointing towards ways of how we might keep a healthy distance from the seductive pull of the celebrity author.
Sandra Mayer is an Erwin Schrödinger Research Fellow (Austrian Science Fund) at the University of Vienna’s English Department and Wolfson College, University of Oxford. She is currently working on a monograph that focuses on the intersections of authorship, literary celebrity, and politics in nineteenth-century Britain.
Conference Website:

‘Writing War, Writing Lives’ – Chair: Lara Feigel, panellists: Santanu Das, Hope Wolf, Kate McLoughlin, Sue Vice

For the last event of Hilary term OCLW hosted a panel on ‘Writing War, Writing Lives’ to launch a special issue of Textual Practice with that same title. Lara Feigel, who chaired the event, introduced the panellists and asked them each to speak for five minutes on the notion of authenticity in war writing.

Kate McLoughlin started, focusing on the relationship between authenticity and intangibility. Her article centres on a collection of letters at the National Army Museum in London written by Lieutenant Edward Teasdale, who sailed to the West Indies in 1806. Teasdale wrote four letters to his mother, but she did not respond until sixteen months after his first letter. McLoughlin is intrigued by the concept of a letter that is desired and anticipated. In Teasdale’s case, the desire and desperation is ‘palpable’, constituting a counter-narrative that, McLoughlin argued, has no textual trace except for the absence itself. In the letters that fail to materialise, McLoughlin found productive readings of phantom narratives that are often neglected. While recognising that authenticating these narratives is difficult, McLoughlin felt they were nevertheless important, and suggested the issue for open discussion.

Hope Wolf considered the connection between authenticity and digital life-writing. Wolf’s article looks at Farah Baker’s tweets about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Baker’s digital contributions have acquired a significant following, and she has been described controversially as the ‘Anne Frank of Palestine’. Wolf discussed the nature of Twitter, asking how trust may be ascertained in such a medium. Wolf argued that the ‘real-time quality’ of the tweets makes swift and scantily edited comments come across as more authentic. There is a prescribed fragmentation, imposed by Twitter itself, which does not lend itself to sustained reflective work. The ‘ordinary voice’ (by implication non-literary) takes precedence. Wolf noted how Baker’s age (she is often referred to as a ‘girl) and her gender both suggest that the value of rhetorical skills and the construction of arguments are discouraged. Since patience is not associated with digital technology, Wolf questioned the implication this medium could have for the authenticity of life-writing more generally.

Sue Vice talked to the audience about (in) authenticity, the question of whom we decide to trust.  Vice described the case of two American creative writing authors who both claimed to be witnesses of war when they were, in fact, writing fictive accounts. Vice is interested in the boundaries of authenticity – does it define reality or the appearance of reality? How can one trace the appearance of authenticity? Lynda La Plante’s Entwined tells the story of twins in a concentration camp. It was discovered that the author had copied part of this account from the archive of Olga Lengyel, which aroused a great deal of suspicion and judgement directed toward La Plante. Vice gave us another example to consider the problems of defining what is ‘authentic’. Judith Kelly wrote a memoir of suffering in a convent in East Sussex during the 1950s called Rock Me Gently. It turned out that some of the descriptions were copied from Hilary Mantel’s novel Fludd. Vice questioned if this revelation compromised the authenticity of what Kelly wrote. If everybody does it, Vice asked the audience, does it matter?

The final panellist was Santanu Das, who spoke about the problem of recounting the South Asian experience of World War I when the life-narratives are scarce, and the problem becomes one of amnesia and absentia. Lacking literary material, Das worked with sound recordings of prisoners of war. These, he argued, raise fundamental impulses in life writing: the sense of being in the presence of ‘the authentic’, the allure of the archival, the need to establish a narrative to document it, and the tendency to image home in terms of food. Das noted that this material made for complex research, for there is a lot to work with, yet none of it has a narrative. He gave us the example of a postcard from a young girl who learned to write in order to be in touch with her father who was at the front. What happens to the authentic, Das asked, if you don’t have a narrative?

The panellists raised diverse and stimulating questions surrounding the concept of authenticity, which encouraged lively discussions among the panel and with the audience. At the end of the event, several issues stood out: a general suspicion of the notion of authenticity; the value of authenticating intangibles (such as feelings, longings, or touch); the problem of narrating/documenting absences; the difference between experience and representation; the dangers inherent in the seductiveness of the archives; and finally, the political problems surrounding authenticity.

Marcus du Sautoy: ‘The life of primes: the biography of a mathematical idea’

OCLW is generally engaged in conversations on literature, history, and art, but for the second Weinrebe lecture the centre welcomed a voice ‘from the other side of the divide’. Marcus du Sautoy’s lecture on the life of prime numbers opened up an entirely different way of thinking about biography. Delivered in a manner that was as enlightening as it was entertaining, du Sautoy breathed life into mathematics in a way that surely left many in his audience wanting to learn more.

Challenging the traditional understanding of mathematics as an impersonal science, du Sautoy explained that his relationship to numbers was, in fact, a personal affair. Consequently, when he decided to write a book about prime numbers, du Sautoy chose to include the men behind the numbers, showing how theories and equations are linked to the people who created them and to the period in history in which these individuals lived. Biography was the means through which du Sautoy brought life into the narrative, re-inserting mathematics into history.

Du Sautoy wanted to tell his audience about the important characters in his life: prime numbers. These form the ‘atoms of his subject’ in his book The Music of the Primes: Why an Unsolved Problem in Mathematics Matters. Like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which travels through many generations, primes have a very long life and have thus interacted with many different lives in different epochs. The people connected to these numbers are as important as the numbers themselves. Du Sautoy told us a story that stretched back from the Ancient Greeks to the present day, of men across the ages trying to understand primes. Each grappled with them in different angles, adding new ways of seeing to a process that still absorbs many today.

This delightfully illustrative lecture gave details of many biographical experiences that informed the history of primes. These included the productive intellectual relationship between G. H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan, the 17th century monk Marin Mersenne who believed he had found the formula to solve the problem of primes, Carl Friedrich Gauss who, in the 19th century, tried to the find overarching patterns to calculate primes, and Bernhard Riemann who transformed prime theory by developing the musical zeta function. The story changed again in the 20th century, when Hugh Montgomery and Freeman Dyson used ideas from quantum physics as models to study primes, starting yet another journey for the life of primes. It is a life that remains very important today, since prime numbers are integral to our contemporary existence, forming the foundations of our banking and internet security. Primes are the keys which protect our electronic secrets.

Du Sautoy concluded by reminding us that math is much more of a creative subject than most people realise, a point his lecture beautifully illustrated. With his vivid examples – like the curious prime-centred life-cycle of the North American cicada that happens to hide underground for 17 years – and his engaging narrative, du Sautoy made the biography of primes come alive for a palpably engaged audience at OCLW.

Julian Barnes: ‘Some of my best friends are biographers’

Author Julian Barnes boasts an impressive resume, and Hermione Lee’s introduction gave what she called a sampling of Barnes’ ‘biographical ingredients’: the author of 22 novels, Booker Prize winner, Francophile, Flaubertophile, and — not least — Leicester City supporter. Barnes began his talk by asking the audience a hypothetical: think about the room you’re to sleep in tonight. How many windows does it have?

He let this question linger in our imaginations as he delved into the broader topic of his talk: the biographizing instinct in all of us, and his own deep ambivalence and suspicion of it. Biography, he said, comes at him from many directions. While he takes pleasure in reading biography, he is also suspicious of that pleasure—as he reads, the thought pops into his head, ‘Are you sure you should be reading this? Shouldn’t you be reading the author’s work instead?’ Barnes pointed to the fact that we are often suspicious after reading a biography as well, in a way that we are not after reading a novel. The novel after reading is still true in what presents, but is the biography? The reader is wracked by doubt: what’s this biography’s angle? What is it leaving out?

Barnes of course has used biography in his own work, including Flaubert’s Parrot (1984). Barnes said that as a child he used to think that a biography could give you all the facts, much like a dictionary could give you all the facts about language. Growing older, however, and having become a lexicographer, he began to see that the things were not so straightforward, and in Flaubert’s Parrot he took a different approach. A simply chronology of Flaubert’s life would not do, for this kind of biography neglected the counterlives Flaubert might have lived. These counterlives—or what might have happened—say more about the hopes, dreams, successes, and fears Flaubert had than anything else; for instance, his wish that he could have burned every copy of Madame Bovary. Yet for Barnes, even these counterlives were unsatisfying, because of their strict binary between what had happened and what had not. He tried again: what about writing Flaubert’s life in metaphors and similes? Barnes offered up a string of delightful phrases: ‘me and my book in my apartment, like a gherkin in its vinegar’; ‘life: like a soup with lots of hairs floating on the surface’.

Flaubert, Barnes told us, had three great favourites: the sea, Shakespeare, and Don Giovanni. Flaubert loved the fact that so little is known about Shakespeare, and Barnes shifted to a discussion of letter-burning: is it justified, and how does it shape how we think about authors? He pointed to the burning of Byron’s memoirs in 1824. Pushkin wrote that the burning was just as well, and why bemoan it? For Pushkin, we know everything we need to know about Byron in his verse, and the desire for his biography is nothing more than a desire to ‘see him on his chamber pot’, to relish the insalubrious details of his life. John Updike has similar thoughts in this vein: there is a strand of biography that ‘reduces celebrities to a set of ailments and antics to which we can feel superior’. Barnes himself leans more towards the side of letter-burning. As he said, ‘the dead have rights too, and those rights are more important than the curiosity of the living’.

Barnes then launched into a list of what he termed ‘Nefarious Biographical Tendencies’, or for short, ‘NBT’. To illustrate his first NBT, he pointed to Radio 3, and what he described as their tendency make music a dramatic episode in a composer’s life. To ascribe such biographical qualities to music diminishes its artistry. Secondly, Barnes impugned the skewing of subordinate lives, what he also described as the ‘two-adjective dismissal’—i.e. in biography, a tangential character being described as ‘witty and compassionate’ and then never mentioned again. He then pointed to the sin of using the past conditional, the ‘Surely they must’ve felt’, rather than ‘we cannot know’, in doing so unfairly projecting onto the mind of the biographical subject. He also spoke of the tendency to locate artistic talent in a single place. For instance, El Greco’s elongated figures have been ascribed to an astigmatism—a point that Barnes showed was not only factually incorrect, but also entirely beside the point. Finally he spoke of the biographer’s tendency to locate creativity in madness, as if the artist takes on the scapegoat of madness so that we don’t have to. Barnes says rather that it is in spite of madness that people can make art, not because of it, citing the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.

To avoid these Nefarious Biographical Tendencies, Barnes offered advice for biographers. Most notable of this was the way photographs can stand in for written biography. He talked of his penchant for collecting photographs of famous artists, and among these was Clara Schumann. In the photograph her hands are swollen, evidencing the arthritis that ravaged her hands and her ability to play the piano. Johannes Brahms wrote music that would accommodate her arthritic hands, and this photo of her hands told the story of their love far better than any biography could.

And with this story Barnes returned to the question with which he began his talk. How many windows are in the room where you sleep? Barnes took a poll of the audience. One or two said four, almost none three, and the majority two or one. And this brought Barnes to a story about Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005). Walking around McEwan’s house, he realized that many of the personal details from McEwan’s life coincided with the novel’s main character, a neurosurgeon—right down to the peculiar three windowed bedroom. Barnes realized that McEwan had set the novel in his own house.

All of this is not to say that Saturday is autobiographical—rather, Barnes asserts that McEwan uses bits of his life in an objective manner, as fodder for his fiction. And yet, this is the issue for Barnes: now that he knew all of these biographical details that had been mined for McEwan’s fiction, he was distracted in his reading of it, looking for continuities between life and art instead of appreciating the novel in itself. This led Barnes onto describing his fears about his own possible biography. He worries that his life will be reduced to a list of ailments and antics; that the privacy of his close friends will be invaded, and the story of their lives made contingent upon his own. He worries that his biographer will write about him as if the biography is all there is to know. He ended his talk with a final wish for his future biographer: that she or he include in small type, ‘This is not how I was—this is how I look when being biographized.’