‘Reclamations: Writing on the Lives of Shirley Hazzard and Hannah Lynch’

On the 27th of November, under the theme of “reclamations”, the Centre hosted Brigitta Olubas, Kathryn Laing and Faith Binckes, who talked about their experiences of working on life-writing projects of lesser known writers.

Brigitta Olubas started the evening presenting her biographical research on Shirley Hazzard. Hazzard is a highly recognized author in the US and in Australia, and Olubas acknowledged that in writing Hazzard’s life she was not “recovering” her work. Instead, she was reclaiming her “in reverse”, by taking her outside the boundaries of Australian culture and internationalizing her. This is an important project because Hazzard continuously crossed cultural and international borders during her life, living in Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the U.S and Italy.

Olubas set out to achieve this by writing Hazzard’s life alongside that of her husband Francis Steegmuller, a translator, biographer, writer of detective fiction and Flaubert scholar, who was a cosmopolitan individual in his own right. By paying close attention to the life of the couple, Olubas is attempting to reorientate our understanding of Hazzard towards a global context. Working on this cosmopolitan couple has helped Olubas unearth extensive networks of writers, reclaiming shadowy secondary figures that would otherwise probably remain unknown. It has also traced a shared history of self-didacticism, since Hazzard, who never finished secondary school, actively educated herself, and Steegmuller worked independent of the academy thanks to a financial legacy.

Born in Australia from migrant parents from the UK, Hazzard moved to Hong Kong in 1916, and from there to New Zealand. Early in the 1950s she moved again, this time to New York where she worked for the UN (the source of her essays criticising this institution). She started writing fiction for The New Yorker magazine, where her friend, Muriel Spark introduced her to her future husband (allegedly “her own best story ever”).

Olubas is currently working on an archive that contains the books Hazzard read, and it illustrates the importance of reading in her life. Olubas talked of heavily annotated copies of Byron’s Don Juan and Auden’s collected poems, full of political notes, such as “just like Nixon”. Olubas ended her talk by sharing an anecdote about an interview with Hazzard where, talking about Auden’s famous dictum — “poetry makes nothing happen”— Hazzard described how the literary life did make something happen for her; it rescued her from her past.

Kathryn Laing: ‘“I am an unexplained enigma.  I live alone.  I follow art”Textual Traces, Literary Recoveries and the Irish writer, Hannah Lynch (1859-1904)’.

Kathryn Laing and Faith Binckes gave very different talks on their joint project writing the life of Hannah Lynch. Laing’s paper discussed her work trying to unearth Lynch’s life story. Educated in a French convent and possibly working as a governess early on, Lynch was a traveller, a translator of Spanish and French, a novelist and a journalist who had a hybrid, cross cultural identity, and a strong sense of restlessness. She wrote new woman novels set in Iceland, Greece and Spain, and was a prolific contributor to newspapers and journals (a bibliography of her non-fiction work is a complicated work in progress because she published a great deal anonymously).

Laing discussed the experience of working on a writer for whom there is no known portrait, hopeful that they would someday solve this “unexplained enigma”.  Repeatedly returning to the term “glimpses”, Laing described the process of searching for a “buried artist”, of recovering a life. Her talk elucidated Lynch’s connection with well-known literary circles in Dublin, where she had a brief encounter with Yeats, describing him as a “poet of Titanic power”. Lynch has also been associated with the Ladies Land League, a feminist network, and with the London Literary Salon. Little of her life is known before the 1880s.

Laing evocatively described researching Lynch’s life as a process of “exposing sedimental layers”, sometimes surfacing other obscure lives in the process. Laing emphasised that Lynch’s life was still enigmatic, with little personal material as their disposal. Lynch wrote Through Troubled Waters, an attack on the institution of marriage, and Laing highlighted how combative she could be in her writing. Laing suggested that this tendency for ruffling feathers, when added to her use of satire, and her feminist self-assertion, may have limited her chances of advancing her writing career. Laing ended by suggesting that tracing Lynch’s writing offered a counter-narrative to established versions of the Irish literary revival.

Faith Binckes: ‘“What we no longer know we have forgotten”: Canonicity, Gender, and the Lives of the Obscure’.

Taking a step back from the details of Lynch’s life, Binckes’ talk addressed the issues and problems arising from doing work on such an unknown figure. Binckes began her talk questioning the ways in which a process of recovery fits into a wider academic discourse. In an exercise in self-reflection, Binckes asked what we mean by “recovery”. Given that historical completeness is unrecoverable, all we can do is think about the process. Alluding to Woolf’s “lives of the obscure”, Binckes questioned what could be done with the gaps in Lynch’s life. Quoting E. E. Cummings’ verse, “all ignorance toboggans into know/ and trudges up to ignorance again”, Binckes emphasised the central challenge biographers face of ever knowing their subject.

Binckes introduced the problem of “placing Lynch”. This process, never neutral, is complicated further in Lynch’s case because of her problematic national identity. This raised the difficulty of thinking of Lynch as an “Irish author” when she had long residences in both England and Paris, and her national identity was configured in opposition to dominant trends of the time: against nationalism and imperialism, against Anglo-American New Women, and against aestheticism. This “contestative” position made her a very successful critic, but this very success generated problems for her, because her satirical forceful writing often got her into trouble. Binckes suggested that while this aggressive tone may be the cause for her neglect, it could also merely be a case of her dying early.

Binckes reminded us that placing Lynch was also a problem of audience. English publishers would recover her into the British canon, Irish publishers into the Irish. Lynch was continuously thinking of ways to “pitch herself”, just as Binckes and Laing are trying to pitch her to publishers now. Lynch tried to find “a narrative to suit”, sometimes writing on certain topics because she was asked by her patron, so that an autobiographical reading of her non-fiction is far from straightforward.

After vividly discussing the perils of engaging in the life-writing of an obscure writer, Binckes ended her talk by questioning the benefits of writing about a minor author. In citing examples of successful “recoveries”, such as the re-canonisation of native-American authors by Leif Sorensen, and Alice Walker’s recovery of Zora Neale Hurston’s work, Binckes seemed to encourage the importance of such reclamations.   

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