Miranda Seymour: ‘Noble Endeavors: The Life of Two Countries, England and Germany in Many Stories’ 4 November 2014

On 4 November OCLW welcomed Miranda Seymour, to discuss her latest book Noble Endeavours: The Life of Two Countries, England and Germany, in Many Stories as well as her award winning biography of her father, In My Father’s House.

Noble Endeavors takes a longer view of the relationship between England and Germany, focusing on the theme of reconciliation rather than conflict.  Seymour explained that the idea for the book started with Herman Sulzbach, a German Jew whose spirit runs through the book.  During the First World War he fought for his beloved Germany; in 1933 he was forced out of the country and came to Britain.  When the Second World War came he was interned as an enemy alien and, on his release he began the rest of his life’s work: first the de-nazification of captured German soldiers and SS Officers and later Anglo-German reconciliation.

Seymour described some of the stories and characters that illustrate the long and harmonious relationship between England and Germany.  It begins before Germany became a unified state in 1613 with the marriage of James I’s daughter to Prince Frederik the Elector Palatinate.  This was the foundation of the Hanoverian presence in England.  All the way through the book switches countries, looking at individuals ranging from royalty, to British Prisoners of War performing The Merchant of Venice to a very warm reception.  Writers such as Coleridge and Eliot spent time in Germany in order to better understand the philosophies of Kant and Goethe and bring them back to England.

Cordial relations remained up until the days before the First World War.  Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm were an interesting pairing.  The Kaiser spoke immaculate English thanks to his mother Princess Victoria and he was even able to speak in local dialects.  By contrast Edward VII spoke English with a heavy German accent, as Queen Victoria made sure all her children spoke immaculate German, oftentimes better than their English.  At the outbreak of hostilities the German ambassador left London with a guard of honour, while the British ambassador had to flee for his life due to bitter feelings in Berlin.

In order to transition between the two parts of her talk Seymour told the story of her uncle learning to drive in Munich with his Nazi sympathising hosts.  He knocked down a man in the road with his car, this man was Adolf Hitler.  Her uncle remained in Germany, which was her family’s link to the country.  Her father had in fact never been to Germany and had no involvement in the war, but here Seymour’s talk moved into the complicated world of writing the biography of a Father who had been such an unorthodox character, while still living in the house he was so obsessed with.

Seymour described how when she was growing she had to wear a wig, to fit with her father’s idea of how they should look in the house.  In 1950 his life changed direction drastically as he came out as gay or bi-sexual.  Her mother accepted this and so they all lived together in the house until her father’s lover killed himself and her father died of a broken heart.  Seymour’s mother added an extra complication to writing the book as she too still lives in the house, aged 92.  She became the counter voice to Miranda in the story, providing the positive to her negative views.

This fascinating talk ended with the most relatable and vivid story in which Seymour described the moment when she showed her mother the book for the first time on Christmas Eve.  Her mother did not come downstairs for the whole of Christmas Day.  When she eventually emerged she asked for a glass of whiskey, something Seymour stated was not unusual.  She then, however, asked for a top up and proceeded to knock it back.  Her mother then said ‘The book’s all lies and all wrong.’  Miranda asked what particularly the problem was.  Her Mother replied ‘My nail varnish wasn’t always chipped and I never had freckles.’ ‘Is that it?’ Seymour questioned. ‘Isn’t it enough?’ answered her Mother.

In the discussion Seymour explained that it was her mission in writing Noble Endeavors that people would take away a more generous image of England and Germany, moving away from an attraction to just the Nazis.  Britain’s close ties with Germany pre-date the Third Reich by 200 years.  Thirteen years of Nazi power can never be forgotten but should thirteen years blot out four centuries of friendship?

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The Quest for Materials: OCLW conference write-up

The Centre recently hosted a conference of thirty life-writers, all at various stages of their project and all keen to get to get to grips with some of the practical and ethical questions involved in writing a life.

Lyndall Gordon, Elleke Boehmer and Clare Morgan facilitated a series of engaging and thoughtful workshops which encouraged people to share their challenges, work through their difficulties, and gain fresh inspiration from the insights of other participants.  Some were working on family histories, others approaching well-known figures and still others uncovering untold stories.

The first session I attended, run by Lyndall Gordon, worked through some of the challenges involved in archival research.  Everyone faces the same problems: either too much material or too little!  But the important thing is to go in with ‘all your feelers waving’ as Lyndall put it, alert for whatever detail might enrich your narrative or change your perspective.
Don’t necessarily trust the archives.  Be prepared to be critical and wary of the agendas of those writing the sources or putting together the archive.  Always allow enough room for another agenda to evolve, and remember that people want to make themselves the heroes of their own stories.  The problem of ‘archive time’ came up – where the hours fly past at a speed unknown elsewhere!
The second session, led by Elleke Boehmer, addressed the technical challenges of archives: where material might be unavailable, have disappeared, be inaccessible, obscure or contradictory.  Participants spoke of letters whisked away by executors, of materials in unknown languages and of the future challenges posed by digital correspondence.  It was suggested that gaps and silences could be part of the story: life-writers can explore the meanings of omissions without necessarily jumping to conclusions.  But some issues will always be unresolved and there is no need to try and fill in all the gaps.
Beginning to write up research early is a good general solution: it forces the writer to think through the implications and makes the connections for you.  Timelines and spider diagrams are also useful tools to map connections visually.
The final session, overseen by Clare Morgan, considered some of the ethical questions which come up in writing a life.  There is no such thing as a neutral narrator, and so the writer needs to position themselves in relation to the reader: setting out their stall.  The boundaries between fact and fiction and the nature of truth and authenticity were discussed: and it was agreed that while there is room for supposition, readers don’t like to be ‘tricked,’ and biographers should have regard to established historical facts.
We reflected on how to deal with sensitive private issues, especially where there are living relatives, and particularly how to ask the right questions of interview subjects.  The biographer must decide whether to tackle these head on – though sensitively – or to come at them in a roundabout way.
Though the conference was focused on ‘the quest for materials’ the discussion was very broad and wide-ranging.  Biography is appealing because it illuminates what it means to be human: and the individual biographer must decide what that means in this particular story.  No single trajectory can do justice to a life; many interpretations are valid and there are many ways through a life.  Perhaps most importantly, have a passionate commitment to the subject.
Our facilitators summarised the day with some final pieces of advice:
Lyndall Gordon: decide early on what story you want to tell and don’t lose track of that story
Clare Morgan: consider how to structure and present the story
Elleke Boehmer: think and research laterally, but within clear boundaries, and have a strong voice
Hermoine Lee: never say ‘yes, I know,’ to an interview subject, or they will stop talking!

Post-Graduate Conference Grant: Life-Writing and the Humanities

The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW) and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) are offering TWO grants of £1000 each, available to post-graduate students in the Humanities Division at the University of Oxford, to organise conferences on any aspect of life-writing.

 The grant is available to students on taught-course and research-based masters courses and DPhils, in any of the following Faculties: Classics; English Language & Literature; History; Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, or Phonetics Laboratory; Medieval and Modern Languages; Music; Oriental Studies; Philosophy; Rothermere American Institute; Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art; Theology and Religion; and the Voltaire Foundation. Re-applications from students who have applied in the past (on the same or different topics) are welcome.

Life-Writing’ may be interpreted in the broadest terms. Conferences may be proposed on related themes including (but not limited to) biography and autobiography, memoir, interviews, journals, letters and correspondence, auto/biographical form, methodology, criticism and history, and on thematic relationships between life-writing and the humanities, such as ‘life-writing and war’. For more information about life-writing, and about the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, please see OCLW’s website: www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing. For more information about The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, please see TORCH’s website: http://www.torch.ox.ac.uk.

Applicants should propose a one-day conference, to be held at TORCH’s premises in the Radcliffe Humanities Building, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, with some aspect of the conference (eg. keynote lecture, workshop, drinks reception, film showing, dinner) to take place at OCLW in Wolfson College. (The conference could take place entirely at Wolfson College, but this will likely incur greater costs, which should be researched prior to submission of the application with Wolfson’s Events Office, events@wolfson.ox.ac.uk). The conference should take place on Saturdays during full term, or any day outside full term (except Sundays), between the start of Trinity Term 2015 and the end of Michaelmas Term 2015. Applicants will be responsible for all administrative aspects of the conference, including formulating the theme and intellectual rationale, devising the format (invited speakers or open call for papers), inviting speakers and/or issuing a Call for Papers, organising the schedule, and managing the budget, promotion and advertising. OCLW will provide limited support, such as setting up a webpage, online registration and payment, and some assistance with publicity. Please note that all applicants must be formally registered as postgraduate students on the proposed date of the conference itself.

Applications should be submitted by 5pm on Monday 5th January 2015.  Applicants should email a completed application form, together with the specified supporting materials and a covering letter, to Dr Christos Hadjiyiannis (Maternity Leave Cover Administrator at OCLW: oclw@wolfson.ox.ac.uk). Applicants will be notified of the outcome by Tuesday 20 January 2015. Any queries should be directed to Dr Hadjiyiannis.

Click here to open the application form  OCLW and TORCH application