Writing Writer’s Lives: Video

OCLW’s director, Hermione Lee, spoke at the 5th Annual Leon Levy Biography Conference on ‘Writing Writers’ Lives’ (March 18, 2013. Elebash Recital Hall, The Graduate Center, CUNY).

Videos are now available on the Leon Levy Centre’s YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLRZyktsPhrez1r4lWzOQYkuNNGawWuxBM

You can watch Hermione in Conversation with Gary Giddins (Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams) here.  



Greece and Britain in Women’s Literary Imagination, 1913-2013

Greece and Britain in Women’s Literary Imagination, 1913-2013

April 12th 2013

Selwyn College, Cambridge


The Modern Greek Section of the University of Cambridge and the Society for Modern Greek Studies are very happy to announce that this conference will take place at Selwyn College on Friday April 12th 2013. It will examine the work of British women novelists who have found their inspiration and subject matter in Greece, as well as novels by Greek women writers who have engaged with British settings and subjects. The authors to be discussed range from Rose Macaulay and Virginia Woolf to Victoria Hislop and Sofka Zinovieff on the British side; on the Greek side we shall engage with the work of Angela Dimitrakaki, Soti Triantafyllou and a number of other contemporary authors. We believe there is a rich vein of cultural interactions which have not been specifically examined and this conference will therefore be breaking new ground.

The keynote speaker is:

Vassiliki Kolocotroni (University of Glasgow)

Other speakers include:

Rowena Fowler (Oxford)
Deirdre David (Temple University)
Sofka Zinovieff (Athens/London)
Kelli Daskala (University of Crete)
Laura Vivanco (Edinburgh)
Thodoris Chiotis (University of Oxford)
Soti Triantafyllou (Athens/New York)


Registration is open now. The full fee is £35, and we are happy to offer a reduced rate for students of £20. For members of the Society for Modern Greek Studies the fee is £30. There will be a conference dinner at Selwyn College in the evening, and some accommodation is also available in College for the nights of April 11th and 12th. Please use the link to register online as well as to book for the dinner and to reserve accommodation if you require it: Conference Registration. The closing date for registration for the conference is April 5th, but for the dinner and accommodation the closing date is March 28th.

For more information, please visit the Conference website.

Report – Symposium at OCLW on Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle

A Report from Dominic Davies

This Day Symposium, hosted by the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College, Oxford, marked and celebrated the centenary of the publication of Leonard Woolf’s path-breaking first novel, set in then Ceylon, The Village in the Jungle (1913). It explored the novel from a number of different critical and informed angles, all of which addressed and emphasized its richness, complexity and importance as a piece of literature. The Symposium was well attended, with over 60 delegates engaging with the various presentations, lectures and papers in the rich discussions that followed them.

After a short introduction from Professor Hermione Lee, the President of Wolfson College and Director of Oxford Centre for Life Writing, and Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literatures in English at the University of Oxford and the Symposium Convenor, the opening keynote was given by Chandani Lokuge. An Associate Professor at Monash University in Australia, Chandani’s lecture gave a comprehensive introduction to, and analysis of, the novel. The new perspectives that she offered stimulated some productive discussion in the questions that followed.

This was followed by a roundtable discussion that drew on a varied selection of writings by and related to Leonard Woolf, including excerpts from Woolf’s short stories, his later political writings and extracts from Virginia Woolf’s work, as well as from The Village in the Jungle. These passages were selected by a range of academics from universities across the UK, each of whom introduced their choices and drew out some interesting points from them. The discussion that followed emphasized the complexity and breadth of Leonard Woolf’s literary output, as well as exploring several of the novel’s thematic concerns. The Symposium was further enriched by the presence of a fascinating display table, kindly put together by Nathan Sivasambu, that included a number of articles, etchings and books related to Leonard Woolf.

After lunch, four papers were given as part of a panel discussion entitled ‘Perceptions of the Jungle’. These papers expanded on various aspects of Woolf’s novel on both a textual and historical level, and traced some of the various critical receptions that it has received. The panel was followed by another engaging question and answer session, before prize-winning biographer and novelist, Victoria Glendinning, gave the closing plenary. Victoria gave a rich account of the biographical period during which Woolf produced The Village in the Jungle. In the conversation with Hermione Lee, biographer of Virginia Woolf, that followed her lecture and that was also opened up to contributions from the floor, this biographical context was explored further to bring the life of Leonard Woolf to the fore.

The Symposium concluded with a series of readings from three contemporary writers: Roshi Fernando, Roma Tearne and Romesh Gunesekera. The writers offered some thoughtful responses to Woolf as well as reading some superb extracts from their own work, and the return to literature provided a productive and enjoyable conclusion to the day. 

How do emotions drive projects; and how do they end them?

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about how far it’s possible to construct an emotional biography of a writer, by examining the texts they choose to write at different times in their life. This is really a question about the emotional driving forces behind the projects in which we choose to engage; and is perhaps particularly interesting when applied to non-fiction writers (in which the personal motivation is potentially more opaque, the writer more obscured, than in fiction and autobiography). Why, for example, does someone like Simon Winchester write biographies of a collector of skulls; the Atlantic ocean; the Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham; the volcano Krakatoa; the geologist William Smith; and two men behind the Oxford English Dictionary?  I’m not inviting psychoanalyses of Simon here, nor trying to find a unifying factor among all these disparate projects. (Indeed, perhaps their disunity is more revealing.) I’m really just wondering why it is that writers become interested in different subjects at different points in their lives: how do certain subjects speak to us, engage our interest, offer a vessel into which to put our hearts? It’s not always enough to just say, ‘well, I simply find that topic interesting’. Interest is usually a matter of emotional engagement; and the extent to which our attention can be held by a matter, our spirits roused,  can be to do with how that subject speaks to our personal concerns at meaningful points in our own lives.

Of course, this isn’t always the case – far from it. In a psychoanalytic tradition, thinking can be an evasion of feeling; not an engagement with it. I think perhaps this was the case for my first book, Map of a Nation (a biography of the Ordnance Survey).

As a corollary to this, I’m also interested in why certain projects (not necessarily literary ones) fail: why are they abandoned? Are there cases in which this is to do with the writer’s heart being no longer in it; a mismatch between the type of emotional investment required to do justice to the subject matter and the writer’s personal drives and interests at that time?

I’d love to hear input on this: why do you pick the subjects that you do to write about? How do they speak to you personally? What sort of emotional investment is required to do them justice? Or do you have examples of projects that have failed because of a lack of investment? a case of the heart no longer being in it?



Yours Sincerely: The Rise and Fall of the Letter

Yours Sincerely: The Rise and Fall of the Letter

28-29 June 2013

Manchester, United Kingdom

The tradition of communication through correspondence can be traced far back in the annals of ancient history, but the rise of technology is daily changing the face and format of the letter. This conference will explore forms of correspondence as they have evolved from simple letters between friends and literary personalities and their shared experiences to revelations, through correspondence, of scientists, statesmen and celebrities. It will also look at the language used in the traditional letter, the email, the text message and the tweet as well as the constant change and development in this form of dialogue from the past and into the future, examining related fields and the letter in its historical and literary contexts.

Papers are sought from all disciplines, including but not limited to literature, history, anthropology, psychology, philosophy and other social sciences and arts.
Proposals are sought for 20 minute papers.
Possible themes may include (but are not limited to):

The changing language of digital correspondence

Victorian women writers

Challenges of editing letters

Evidential value for biographers, historians

19th century letter writers

20th century letter writers

21st century letter writers

Use of letters as a device in fiction

The epistolary novel

The lasting value of digital correspondence as an archival or primary source

The future of letter writing

Abstracts of 250-300 words (for a 20 min paper) should be sent via email to librarian@theportico.org.uk or assistant.librarian@theportico.org.uk by 1st April 2013.

Selected papers may be invited for inclusion in an academic collection of essays following the conference.

An exhibition surrounding the theme of the conference will run from 11th June to the 26th of July at The Portico Library and will tie in with Quarry Bank Mill’s ‘Best Wishes’ exhibition which begins in April and extends to the rest of 2013.

Telling Lives: James Boswell and the Art of Life Writing

‘Boswell’s introduction to Johnson’ 1864 (British Museum
‘Boswell’s introduction to Johnson’ 1864 (British Museum

Thursday May 16th 2013

A one day symposium on Boswell’s Life of Johnson, on the 250th anniversary of their first meeting

Organised by Centre for Life Writing Research, King’s College London, King’s English Department and Dr Johnson’s House

Plenary Speaker:       Gordon Turnbull (General Editor of the Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell)

Speakers:                   To include Freya Johnston, Claire Lamont and Adam Rounce

Panel discussion:       ‘Biographers on Boswell’  Chaired by John Mullan (participants to be announced)

10.00-5.30, Symposium, Maugham Library, King’s College London, Chancery Lane

6.00-8.00, Reception and Life of Johnson book display, Dr Johnson’s House, Gough Square

To be added to the mailing list for further details please contact curator@drjohnsonshouse.org

Our New Blog

Welcome to the new blog of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing! OCLW  is a research centre based at Wolfson College at the University of Oxford, designed to support those who write auto/biography and those who undertake research on different forms of life narratives. The centre is directed by acclaimed biographer Hermione Lee (Virginia Woolf; Edith Wharton; Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing), associate-directed by academic and writer Elleke Boehmer (Nelson Mandela; J.M. Coetzee in Context and Theory; Bloodlines); and administered by me, its research fellow, writer Rachel Hewitt (Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey), who will edit this blog.

OCLW was formally established in October 2010, with funding from the Dorset Foundation. Since its foundation, we’ve got off to a really exciting start, building up a busy schedule of events (including talks and lectures, ‘in conversations’, seminars, workshops, conferences and symposia, and concerts; most of which take place at Wolfson College, Oxford) and turning our thoughts to long-term research initiatives. We’ve been delighted at the enthusiastic attendance of these activities, and profoundly struck by the appetite that exists for serious discussion of issues concerning life-writing.

OCLW’s website provides a full, formal description of our activities, advisory committee, and membership; as well as details about study opportunities with OCLW. (Please email me if you’d like to be added to our e-mailing list). This blog hopes to offer a more informal forum through which many of the conversations that are begun at our events can continue; and which will enable interested parties who are unable to participate directly in our activities to take part in a different form, at a distance. We hope that articles and resources posted on this blog will extend the community of life-writers and life-writing researchers that OCLW has begun to build around us in Oxford, into the virtual landscape. I have also set up a Yahoo Groups page for OCLW, for those who prefer to converse online in a less public format (the group is restricted to members only).

As this blog is very much in its infancy, I’d be very grateful indeed if you could post any thoughts you might have about what you’d like to see on our blog. I’d also love to hear from any life-writing practitioners or researchers who would like to write for the blog! Please consider contributing the following:

  • Reviews of books, events, or film, TV or radio programmes relating to life-writing
  • Reviews and feedback on OCLW’s events
  • Short pieces (up to 1000 words) about any issues (theoretical, historical, political, current) pertaining to life-writing
  • News about current life-writing trends and experiments, in digital media or otherwise
  • Information about forthcoming events anywhere in the world relating to life-writing
  • Short reflections (up to 1000 words) on life-writing methodology; advice for other life-writers; queries about practical aspects of life-writing
  • Short anecdotes (up to 300 words) about your life-writing experiences
  • Short (200 words) descriptions of your own research interests, to be  added to our Researchers/Writers List
  • Information about upcoming funding opportunities for life-writers

Please email any such material for the blog to me, Rachel Hewitt.

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