Call for Papers: Silence in the Archives

This conference is taking place on 7th November 2015 at Wolfson College, funded by the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing and The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities.

Scholars increasingly look to women’s own life writing in the nineteenth century as a way of reconstructing both their lived experiences and their inner lives. While diaries, journals, letters, and memoirs offer a window into the past, paradoxically it is often the absences in the archives, which provide the most insight into women’s lives in the period. Torn out pages and scratched out sentences are simultaneously frustrating and intriguing for scholars, offering hints and clues to the unspeakable and the unacceptable.

Women’s life writing from the nineteenth century is thus intrinsically tied up with censorship: both by the self and others. Some beliefs, thoughts and ideas may have been too inflammatory to commit to paper in the first place – representative of inadmissible ambitions or transgressive desires. Some women later destroyed their papers, belatedly conforming to constraints of gender, class and propriety. Others were edited by family members, erasing evidence contrary to a public persona or prevalent norms.

This conference will bring together researchers from across a range of disciplines in the humanities to explore the extent and the significance of omissions in women’s life writing and question what silences in the archives can tell us about what it meant to be a woman in the nineteenth century.

The conveners welcome 20-minute papers on topics including, but not limited to:

  • Motives, practices and implications of censored life writing
  • Self-censorship or destruction by women of their own papers
  • Gender and sexuality encoded in private writing
  • Adaptations of private correspondence, collaborative documents, and political writing
  • Acts of posthumous suppression or revision by families or literary executors
  • Resurfacing or rediscovery of previously lost or unknown life writing
  • Interpretation of archival silence in the age of the digital archive
  • Research strategies for approaching, reading and interpreting gaps in life writing

300-word proposals, along with a short biography, should be sent to Lyndsey Jenkins and Alexis Wolf at by 5th June 2015.


Events Programme: Trinity Term 2015

We have a busy and exciting programme of events coming up this term and very much hope you’ll be able to join us!

Unless otherwise stated, all events are open to all, free of charge, with no reservation required.

Thursday 7 May (Week 2), 5.30-7pm, Florey Room, Wolfson College:

Seminar: ‘Life-Writing Operations’. The speakers (OCLW visiting scholars) will present their current life-writing projects, and discuss the use of archives and memoirs in life-writing, and alternative methods of writing biographies.

John Bak: ‘Editing Tennessee Williams’ Ur-Memoirs’

Lorraine Paterson, ‘Global Exile: Tracing a Life of Deportation from French Indochina.’

Jennifer Cooke, ‘The New Audacity: Contemporary Women’s Life Writing and the Politics of Intimacy’

Thursday 14 May (Week 3), 5.30-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Reading & Seminar: Siddhartha Bose, ‘Memory as Imagination in a Globalised World’. Siddhartha will be reading from his books of poetry, Kalagora and Digital Monsoon, showing clips from his theatre work and film, as a way into exploring the relationship between memory, imagination and globalised environments. He will reflect on how the very idea of writing lives in the 21st century, of creatively using memory and imagination, are being renegotiated in radical ways in contemporary thought and aesthetic practice.

Saturday 16 May (Week 3), 10am-4.30pm (tbc), Haldane Room/PRD, Wolfson College:

Workshop: ‘Disputed Lives’. Led by Hermione Lee, Elleke Boehmer, Rebecca Abrams, Kate McLoughlin and Jacob Dahl, this full-day workshop will focus on the challenges contradictory accounts about their subjects’ lives pose to life-writers. £70 (£55 unwaged). For more details & to register please visit select ‘Oxford Centre for Life-Writing’ under Product Catalogue, & ‘Workshops’.

Friday 29 May 2015 (Week 5), 5.30-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Lecture: President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, renowned politician, diplomat, and former President of Latvia (1999-2007), will talk autobiographically about her life and career.

Tuesday 2 June (Week 6), 5.30-7pm, Buttery, Wolfson College:

Seminar & Reception: Lyndsey Jenkins, ‘The Hunger Games: Constance Lytton, Jane Warton and the Suffragettes’. OCLW DPhil scholar Lyndsey Jenkins will speak about her new book, Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette and Martyr, which tells the story of Constance Lytton, an unexpected but important militant suffragette in the Women’s Social and Political Union.  The talk will be followed by a drinks reception, to which all are welcome.

Tuesday 9 June 2015 (Week 7), 5.30-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:

Reading & Seminar: ‘Re-reading with Anne Sexton’. Victoria van Hyning will introduce, play, and lead a discussion on poet Anne Sexton’s last public reading, delivered at Goucher Colleger just four days before her death in 1974. Participants in the seminar discussion: Jo Gill, Erica McAlpine, Leo Mercer.

Monday 15 June 2015 (Week 8), Haldane Room, Wolfson College:

Seminar: ‘The Author in the Medical Imagination’. The third of a series of seminars organised by Joanna Neilly (Wadham, Oxford) under the general theme of ‘The Author in the Popular Imagination’, features Ann Jefferson (New College, Oxford) with Geoffrey Wall (York) as Respondent. The seminar series is supported by OCLW and TORCH.

Tuesday 16 June 2015 (Week 8), 1-2pm, Haldane Room, Wolfson College:

Life-Writing Lunch Seminar: prize-winning British novelist and travel-writer Joanna Kavenna, author of The Ice Museum (2006), Inglorious (2007) and The Birth of Love (2010). Kavenna will talk about time, memory and the self.   She’ll discuss individual experience and how we pass through different stages of life – the child, the teenager, the adult, perhaps the parent, later the elderly person – changing all the time.  Yet, there is something continuous within this process of individual metamorphosis, otherwise we would cease to recognise ourselves; we would lapse into incoherence.  How do we fashion our life stories?  How do we fathom and describe the changing self? Free of charge. Please book online at (go to Product Catalogue, select Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, and this event is listed under seminars). A sandwich lunch will be provided.

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