Alexandra Harris: Weatherland

In a very thoughtprovoking lecture, Alexandra Harris used the framework of her book Weatherland to reflect on the seasonal shape of lives.

She suggested that there are times in the most immersive biographies when the reader can feel the weather through the subject. We live in the weather and the seasons, we change in relation to them. But indexes never refers to seasons or weather. Coleridge, for example, lived a very weathered life, but there is nothing in the index of his biography which would indicate that. Harris suggested that it matters that the seasons are considered in passing rather than as an arc. Shelley, for example, had a relationship with the wind and Turner with the sun. Bacon and Burton had very different relationships to the air. Perhaps you may only be able to tell a little of a life story that way but it may colour the rest. Ruskin, for example, had a passion for the weather and was horrified by what he saw as a new and dreadful climate.

Today, the idea that life is like a progress through the seasons is a cliché and a dead metaphor. But for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, it was the central metaphor. It even resonated for Woolf, who had originally planned to structure The Waves around the seasons.

People used to draw relationships between the humours and the seasons. Spring was thought to encourage the blood; Summer, the red bile; Autumn, the black bile or melancholy and Winter, the phlegm. There was thought to be a relationship between the seasons, health and mood. The move away from this way of understanding the body also changed the relationship between people and the seasons. Temperaments could no longer be explained with reference to temperature.

Sometimes, though, it is clear when things are out of season: as in Hardy, or Eliot. Larkin shows what happens when we cannot meet the expectations of a seasons: he has a sense of falling short in Summer. For Keats, time is both still and leaping ahead, and a poem can encompass a whole year.

Milton did not write much in spring or summer. Johnson, though, needed to believe that the rational human mind can rise above these external influences. But he protested too much. He was always telling people seasons don’t matter: but also wanted to work at all times and to be superior to the weather.

Why is it that the seasons and biography don’t sit more comfortably together? In other genres, it is satisfactory: for example, Persuasion, or A Winter’s Tale. Writing about nature and the seasons has been the surprise hit genre of recent years. The writer Tim Dee is following the spring around the world so that he is in continual spring for a year. Perhaps we might reflect on the idea that our seasonal selves have lives of their own: and that our winter selves might be different to our summer selves.


Against Biography: Adam Phillips

In a fascinating contribution to the Weinrebe Lectures, Adam Phillips discussed the work of three thinkers who were suspicious of and hostile to biography.

In his 1836 work Nature, Emerson set out his case against biography. He liked originality, not to interpret through filters. Biography, history and criticism prevent us having an original relationship to the universe. Emerson wants us to be on the road, not too much in the library. He was preoccupied with biography and endlessly debated how the past was being used and how it should be used. History could be a source of freedom, and biography could be about our fundamental possibilities and potential. Emerson wanted to know what the best use we could make of other people’s lives in our own lives, but feared that they gave us tradition but not insight. Emerson was not sure if he wants end to biography or new biography.

For Proust, the tyrannies of past were bound up with biography. Proust biographies, of course, assume that books are fictionalised autobiography. His narrator has a lot to say about the uses and abuses of biographical truth. For example, he suggests than an interest in biography is a consequence of sexual jealousy. The biographical imperative is to find out about the life we hope to possess as though there is no other way to know people except biographically. Proust’s narrator hates his need for the subject of biography and wants to know her to create illusion he is in control. Proust suggests biographical research & writing may save us from entrapment/inertia/paranoia. But biography itself can be entrapment.

Freud believed that biography was the past and psychoanalysis was the future. He believed that there was danger in biography’s claims to truth and effectiveness. Freud was both threatened and obsessed by biography. Contemporaries were interested in ‘pathography’- the uses of illness to explain work. Freud was concerned that psychoanalysis was reductive when applied to great men and didn’t want it misused. Pathography makes individuals the same and reduces them to symptoms. But if pathographers make them worse, biographers idealise them. He saw biographers as fixated on their heroes and that people who read and write biography are people who’ve never grown up. They are addicted to their own pasts in the guise of giving us other people. Freud was threatened by the idea that he might be a subject. He thought that truth telling can only be done by the subject himself through free association.

All three, Emerson, Proust and Freud want us to be suspicious about biography, but ultimately this is very revealing of their own fears and wants.

The podcast will be available shortly.

Ian Bostridge: ‘Schubert’s winter journey: an illustrated talk’ – 21 January 2016

The podcast for this event is available here and his book is available here.

Ian Bostridge’s wonderful lecture and performance of extracts from Winterreise encompassed biography, autobiography and history. Ian began by reflecting on whether his book has influenced the way he sings the work and whether this is a valid or problematic pursuit: should the music speak for itself?

Though Ian’s own first interest was in science, he eventually became a historian, interested in the history of philosophy in science. This was a time in which the personal was not allowed into history: so one of the reasons he became a singer was the licence to talk about himself!

The question of the role of the singer in the performance is also a critical one. Some argue that the singer is there to transcend. The intrusion of the biographical into assessments of the composer are even more difficult: some suggest that biography cannot give deeper insights into the art. Yet as Ted Hughes said ‘as an imaginative writer, my only capital is my own life.’

Schubert formed part of a highly sociable group, who introduced his music to his friends on the guitar. The circle kept up to date with new developments – like the bicycle and the kaleidoscope – and a famous painting has been made idealising their friendship. One friend, Schober, however, has been viewed very critically. Schober took Schubert to the brother where he contracted syphilis: and when Schubert lay dying, he asked Schober to bring him a James Fenimore Cooper novel. He never came.

The Winterreise was originally performed for this group of friends and they disliked it! But it was unpromising material, perhaps: a man wanders off into the snow to pick over his feelings of disappointed love. There is a lack of narrative beyond the narrative of the music itself.

Schubert is the first canonical composer to have made a living without a patron. He lived a bohemian lifestyle and made money but was very insecure. Becoming a musician was still disreputable. His work was written with an awareness of his own prognosis. Schubert has been interpreted as a ‘simple’ composer, but in truth his work has a profound complexity, and a recording of Winterreise does not convey what the music is about: it needs to be embodied.






Lucasta Miller, ‘Letitia Landon: portraiture and the slippery subject in post-Byronic literary culture’

The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing started off this term with a fascinating talk by Lucasta Miller on the elusive life of Letitia Landon. More commonly known by her initials LEL, this ‘female Byron’ was a high-profile figure in the literary coteries of 1820s and 1830s London.  In spite of being one of the leading writers of her time, after her mysterious death in West Africa in 1838 she was largely forgotten. As Miller revived the shadowy life of this deeply self-aware poet, she also gave an account of the biographical challenges inherent in such a project.

Many marginal figures present a problem for the biographer who cannot find enough material to give a full account of a life. In Landon’s case, however, a plethora of source material could serve to overwhelm and misguide: there were numerous biographies written about Landon after her death, her poetry is full of the seemingly confessional first person pronoun, and the details of her life often appear consciously constructed to deceive. Miller was not in the least consoled by the fact that Landon’s first biographer had slit his throat. Faced with such sources, it did not take Miller long to realise that ‘nothing is what it seems in her world’. Landon’s sexual life was particularly mysterious. Miller described how a man claimed to be her direct descendent in spite of the fact that she was not known to have given birth to any children. This revelation led to the discovery that Landon had in fact had three clandestine children probably with William Jerdan, the editor of the Literary Gazette who mentored Landon and became her lover. Both editor and poet, Miller noted, were responsible for creating the mysterious LEL. They built Landon’s reputation based on both her innocence and experience. This campaign of mixed messages was designed to keep the reader ‘in a permanent state of frustrated arousal’. After two and a half years of publishing semi-anonymous verse in the Literary Gazette, Landon published her first volume of verse. This thrust her into London’s literary scene, where she walked a fine line between ‘celebrity and notoriety’.

Miller spent the second part of her talk going through several portraits of Landon, illustrating how this highly constructed self-image evolved. The first portrait showed a pretty youth with a ‘calculated ingénue air’. Miller described it as a feminine mascarade, consciously trying to portray a female Don Juan, with a smile open enough for the viewer to glimpse her teeth, a characteristic of portraits of actresses and fallen women. The second portrait was consciously designed to emphasise Landon’s innocence. It was painted when a Sunday Times exposé gave an account of a chairwoman who witnessed Landon and Jerdan together while his wife and children were away. Miller noted how the literary circle was invested in her innocence, since their respectability depended on the company that they kept. The third portrait was more mysterious, depicting Landon with a turban which both emphasised her association with Byron and connected her to a tradition of female intellectuals. Miller believed that this portrait was conceived together with one of her poems, but publication had to be delayed when she was pregnant with her first child. Miller also showed us some cartoons drawn by Daniel Maclise. These were published in a series of semi-satirical drawings of contemporary writers in Fraser’s Magazine that Miller felt summed up the slipperiness of literary culture in the 1830s. In one of them Landon is drawn with unfeasible girlishness (dove like eyes, small hands, tiny hips). Although Landon had lost her reputation by 1833, she continued to perform a mascarade of female vulnerability. Miller pointed out how Landon was losing control over her own image and feared another exposé would destroy her. A second cartoon depicted her as a sexy equestrian, with a groom – standing in for all men – ogling her from behind the horse’s peachy buttocks, which seem to connect Landon with the animal.

Landon’s life ended unhappily. Jerdan finally left his wife when Landon was in her 30s, only to marry a teenager instead. Although she had a reputation as a highly commercial writer, it is unclear that she made much money at all. Accounts from the Literary Gazette show she was not paid for her work, even though it was on the back of her fame that the magazine got established as the leading literary magazine of the period. As times changed, LEL found there was no room for her among Victorian sensibilities. She was therefore sent away to Africa and was soon found dead with a bottle of prussic acid in her hand. Miller ended with a final private picture by Maclise that showed a woman who was not an object of desire. There are shadows under her eyes, the result of a life-style that meant late nights, drinking and drug addiction. Miller concluded that the real and imagined selves destroyed Landon, and long after her death, they continue to tease us.


Create a website or blog at

Up ↑