The opening weeks of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing’s 2014-15 lecture series were of great interest to those studying the modernist period. In the first week of term we heard from Sue Thomas about her biographical work on Jean Rhys’s Creole heritage. This week, Lucy Hughes-Hallett shared excerpts from her biography of the Italian poet-turned-dictator Gabriele D’Annunzio. Both events are summarized below.
Sue Thomas, ‘Ghostly Presences: James Potter Lockhart and Jane Maxwell Lockhart in Jean Rhys’s Writing’
Sue Thomas, Professor of English at La Trobe University, Australia, is a Visiting Scholar at OCLW in October 2014. In this informal seminar, she shared some of her biographical research on the novelist Jean Rhys, whose works include Good Morning, Midnight and Wide Sargasso Sea.
In particular, Thomas focused on the slave-holding history of Rhys’s family and attempted to trace the darker family secrets throughout Rhys’s fiction. Thomas related the story of Rhys’ great-grandfather, James Potter Lockhart, who was a Scottish slaveholder in Dominica on his sugar plantation in the first half of the 19th century. Lockhart defended the rights of slaveholders throughout the conflicts over whether slaveholders should be compensated after the emancipation of their slaves. Lockhart also had sexual relationships and illegitimate children with his slaves.
Thomas then sketched out references to the sexual profligacy of slaveholders in Rhys’ fiction, as in the character of Old Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea. Thomas read both The Black Exercise Book and Smile Please as portraits of Rhys’s great grandparents. About these works Thomas argued that ‘altered language refers to what is unspeakable through ellipsis and concealment’. Thomas showed how Rhys was subjecting her slaveholding family history to a critical lens in several novels where haunted language circles around ‘unspeakable traumas and family secrets’.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, ‘The Poet Who Doesn’t Know: Gabriele D’Annunzio’
British cultural historian and biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett shared excerpts and juicy details from her award-winning biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio, The Pike, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Costa Biography Award and the Duff Cooper Prize.
Hughes-Hallett introduced D’Annunzio (1863-1938) by relating his own description of himself as ‘the greatest Italian writer since Dante’. D’Annunzio was a writer but he was almost as famous as a seducer of women. Hughes-Hallet described his ‘astonishing’ success with women considering he was ‘an undistinguished little man’ with a receding hairline who wore excesses of perfume.
The political dimension of D’Annunzio’s life was equally astonishing. He was a fascist and proto-Futurist. He liked driving fast cars, flying in aeroplanes as soon as they were introduced and became prominent as a pilot and orator in the First World War. D’Annunzio described democracy as ‘a rising tide of gray sludge’ but nevertheless he won a seat in Parliament as an Independent, calling himself a ‘candidate for beauty’. Thereafter his writing became more nationalist and militarist and he called for a ‘baptism of blood’. The pinnacle of D’Annunzio’s political career came when he was asked to be the figurehead for protesting Italian soldiers over the annexation of Fiume in 1920, culminating in D’Annunzio’s naming himself dictator of the city rather than allowing it to go to the former Yugoslavia. The Italian government eventually intervened and D’Annunzio stepped down.
Hughes-Hallet called her biography The Pike after a nickname a friend had given D’Annunzio, but the name is apt considering the animal’s habit of lying low in shallow water, snapping at passing prey. Hughes-Hallet repeatedly drew attention to the difficulty of writing a biography about a subject who was not a good person, and to the attention she attracted for having done so. But she emphasized that there was no reason she needed to feel she had to like an individual in order to write an interesting biography about an interesting person whose life was never boring.
Please join us for our next two events, a workshop on ‘Quest for Materials: Life-Writing Challenges’ on 1 November (Week 3) from 9am-4.15pm, Haldane/Florey Rooms, Wolfson College. To apply, please follow the link on https://www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/event/oclw-workshop-quest-materials-life-writing-challenges.
For our next lecture, Miranda Seymour will speak on the subject, ‘The Pity of War: The Longer View of England and Germany’ on 4 November (Week 4), 5.30-7pm, in the Haldane Room, Wolfson College. Please note the change of location to the Haldane Room.