Biographical Borders

In his President’s Column in the most recent Modern Language Association Newsletter (Fall 2016), K. Anthony Appiah tells the story of how a few years ago he decided to organize his books. A daunting task. A philosopher, he tried first to sort his philosophy books into metaphysics and epistemology on the one hand and political and moral philosophy on the other. The result was a philosophical mish-mash. Then he began to wonder whether books about French cooking should go with books about France or books about cooking. Should accounts of African Americans visiting Africa belong with books about Africa or books about America? This is a familiar dilemma for all who buy books, teach them, write about them, and struggle fruitlessly to construct a beautifully coherent shelving system.

As I read Appiah’s provocative column, it occurred to me that those who read, write, and attempt to shelve something as deceptively manageable as biographies run into similar roadblocks. Should all biographies focusing upon a single subject and adopting the conventional cradle-to-grave narrative belong on the same shelf? Perhaps, but then where do you place such books as Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida? She writes about three couples involved in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s: photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn, and journalists Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar. Photography perhaps, given Capa’s fame: but then what about Hemingway? Surely the book belongs on the Hemingway shelf. Or perhaps not, since Vaill’s book is a group biography and one could dedicate many bookcases to that sub-genre. And then there are slice-of-life biographies, books that zero in on a particular moment and then fan out to explore the rest of the narrative territory. Prominent among books on the group biography shelf one would surely find Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923, the moving story of unknown ordinary people who took to the streets to fight for independence. But then Foster’s book is as much compelling social history as it is group biography. And Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe would surely confound Appiah’s shelving efforts in its deft study of figures such as Sartre, Beauvoir, Husserl, and Heidegger, and their intellectual and romantic relationships. Existentialism? WW2? Feminism?

Appiah, of course, is interrogating disciplinary boundaries, but as I read his column I realized more fully than I had before that the impetus for our Biography Beyond Borders day of roundtable discussions (to be presented by OCLW and BIO on November 5) was precisely an effort to leap the fences, to muck up all the neat shelving if you will.

Some twenty-eight biographers will gather at Wolfson, roughly two thirds of them American and one-third European, to discuss such questions as whether biography can be defined nationally; whether biographies of little-known figures (think of Foster’s Vivid Faces) garner more readers in Europe than in America; whether slice-of-life studies (think of Candice Millar’s recently published book about Churchill’s three-month long adventure of capture, imprisonment, and escape in the Boer War: Hero of the Empire) can safely be nestled next to a monumental study (998 pages) of Hitler’s first fifty years (Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939); and whether we can safely say there are any borderlines between history and biography; if so, how can we draw them?

In my recent reading, I found that Ruth Scurr’s innovative study of John Aubrey presented a provocative challenge since she contends that ‘Biography is an art form open to constant experiment’ and she constructs Aubrey’s diary based on his manuscripts, correspondence, and records of those who knew him. It’s an autobiography in the form of a diary written by a biographer. Where would we shelve it? But I’ve come to realize that answering this question is actually not that difficult: Scurr’s book belongs on that massive bookshelf called ‘Life-Writing.’ All of us who will meet on November 5 know that the generous fluidity of biography as a genre has long demolished the boundaries, broken down the walls, and generated multiple ways of writing a life.

Deirdre David is Professor Emerita of English at Temple University. Throughout her long career she has taught courses in Victorian literature, the history of the British novel, and women’s writing. She has published books dealing with social problems in the Victorian novel (Fictions of Resolution in Three Victorian Novels , 1981), the conflicted position of the woman intellectual in Victorian culture (Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy, 1987), and the importance of British women in imperialism (Rule Britannia: Women, Empire, and Victorian Writing, 1995). She also edited The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel (2001), and co-edited (with Eileen Gillooly) Contemporary Dickens (2009). She published her first biography in 2007 (Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life); her most recent work is Olivia Manning: A Woman at War (2013). She continues to teach as a member of the Society of Senior Scholars at Columbia University. 

Photo by Glen Noble (CC0 1.0)

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The Truth in Fiction ~ Notes on a Work in Progress

An extract from the talk scheduled for October 25th

In an earlier draft of the novel I’m working on, I wrote a scene in which the daughter in the novel is given a suitcase that contains her father’s papers. I edited this out because it seemed too contrived, only to receive a phone call from my stepmother a few weeks later saying that she had a suitcase which contained my father’s papers, and she thought I should have these.

I remembered then, belatedly, that yes, of course there was a real brown suitcase, one my father had kept in the storage nook above the linen press, and that the case had been kept locked at all times. If you want it, my stepmother said, it’s yours.

After he died there was some concern as to the whereabouts of this case. Those he’d been closely involved with wanted the contents that related to them, or rather, did not want these contents falling into the wrong hands. Everyone wanted to be there when the suitcase was finally found and opened, so that they might lay claim to what was inside. For a while there was much talk of this, until it was forgotten. At some point the suitcase ceased to be mentioned and I didn’t think of it, in any way, until it appeared anonymously in my novel, and then in real life, when I drove home with it in the back of the car.

The suitcase dates from the 1960’s: it is dark brown and made from a material that looks like pressed metal with lighter brown pin stripes carved into it. The clasps are rusted, and only one closes properly. There would have once been a leather handle, but this also broke long ago, replaced by a temporary wire handle now snapped at one end. It is a relatively small suitcase; it looks as though it ought to be light. But when I picked it up I was surprised by the weight; there were meant to be only papers in there. A wave of something like dread swept through me.

I work in a studio at the bottom of my garden, and in this hut is a large, green velveteen armchair. I carried the suitcase from the car and pushed it behind this chair. But even out of sight, its presence bothered me. I felt like I had my father in the room. I kept stopping what I was doing to get up and go and look at the suitcase. I would stand over it with my arms folded and watch it as if it were an animal about to leap at me. Only when I could be sure that it hadn’t moved, and was just as it was the day before would I go back to my work. It was summer, the garden was growing wild. A green tendril of vine pushed its way up between the wall and skirting board. One day, when I went to check on the case, I found the green vine had wrapped itself all around. Spiders had built cobwebs.

Perhaps another person’s instincts would have been to open this case immediately – to set out to make a discovery. And I did think, at first, when I went to collect it, that this was what I would do: that I would be such a brave and reckless person.

But I had never been allowed to open it, scarcely to touch it, in all my life. I did not know it as something openable. Before the suitcase came into my possession I could only remember it as a closed and hidden object. My father, in general, had never been one to open things: he did not open birthday gifts on his birthday, nor Christmas gifts at Christmas, nor his mouth to smile for a photograph. He had in fact been known to keep a Christmas gift for a whole year, until the following Christmas, before finally deciding to open it. The object hidden in the wrapping was beside the point. To open the gift was to destroy what he found most pleasure in; the secrecy, the muted curiosity about what was inside, the beauty of the wrapped object. Opening it would simply be a deflation of all this suspense, an end of desire, and there was the common risk, not unwarranted, that the gift would simply disappoint.

There was some pleasure to be found in thinking similarly, that I too was not obliged to open this suitcase, simply because it had been given to me. I could, if I so wished, leave it closed my whole life. Only, the novel I was and am working on – which centres around a fictionalized version of my father and my relationship with him – had, at the time when I inherited the suitcase, reached a hiatus.

I was stuck and looking for clues. The narrative had stalled. I did not know how to develop the “character”, as such, who was based on my father, I felt uneasy with this very term, I couldn’t decide on the balance between truth and fiction. I was unsure whether I needed to know the truth – as in the facts of my father’s life and family – in order to create a version that I would then call fictional, or whether I could go off the back of my own my memories, and let this material suffice.

If I opened the suitcase, I told myself, I might find the answer I needed. I might find a clue, a link, a secret, something to explain the life I was combing through by memory and anecdote. In the course of my deliberations, I convinced myself that when I opened the suitcase I would absolutely and without a doubt find an answer so incredibly brilliant, so unexpected, that it would simply knock me out.

So convinced, I pulled the suitcase from its hiding place, sat down before it and pressed the small button on the side of the rusted clasp. Papers spilled out. There were his school reports, poems he’d written at university, rejection letters from literary journals, love letters to my mother, letters from friends addressed to his dead brother, a set of appointment slips from Sydney University listing his brother’s appointment times with the counseling service, and so on. I rifled through these, looking for I don’t know what: a diary perhaps, a suicide note.

I was like a clichéd character in a novel, or had the hopes of one. I dug my hands deeper into the case, there were objects at the bottom, beneath the papers, a rustling of plastic. There, in the corner of the case lay a small pink velvet box, of the kind you might keep a ring in. I took this out, opened it, and being the clichéd character which, in that moment, I was, I expected jewels.

The box hinged open, and I let go of it as if it were a hot coal: inside lay a swatch of dark hair. Then, beneath this, was a plastic bread bag containing a stack of envelopes. I took this out, emptied it: on each envelope was a list of detailed descriptions of camera, lens type, aperture, and inside each envelope were a set of meticulously wrapped photographic negatives. They were wrapped in toilet paper, kitchen paper towels, tissues, old thin Christmas wrapping. I transferred these envelopes to a shoebox, and the next day delivered them to a camera shop for developing.

Stephanie Bishop‘s first novel was The Singing, for which she was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists. The Singing was also highly commended for the Kathleen Mitchell Award. Her second novel, The Other Side of the World is published by Hachette Australia and Tinder Press (Headline, UK) and will be released in the US in September 2016 by Atria (Simon & Schuster). It is the winner of The Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2015, and was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2016, The Indie Book Awards 2016 as well as being longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize. It is also on the shortlist of the 2016 Australian Book Industry Awards and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

Stephanie’s essays and reviews have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Australian, The Sydney Review Of Books, The Australian Book Review and the Sydney Morning Herald. She is a recipient of two Australia Council New Work Grants, an Asialink Fellowship, an Australian Society of Authors Mentorship, a Varuna Mentorship Fellowship and Varuna Residency Fellowship. She holds a PhD from Cambridge and is currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of New South Wales. In 2016 she will be a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for Life Writing at the University of Oxford. Stephanie lives in Sydney. She tweets at @slb_bishop 

Photo by Lizzie Guilbert (CC0 1.0)

Oxford’s Writing Life

As an undergraduate, I came to Oxford looking for a writing community. Oxford, I thought, was the land of literary Greats — Tolkein, Lewis, Eliot, Shelley, Johnson, Sontag. Almost 100 years ago, a young T.S. Eliot, who was studying at Merton College, wrote feverish letters to his friends, complaining about his experience at Oxford: ‘Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead… Oxford I do not enjoy … I suffer indigestion, constipation, and colds constantly.’ Percy Bysshe Shelley spent no fewer than two terms in Oxford. In 1811, Shelley and a friend were expelled for being atheists. After his death, University College commemorated his time in Oxford with a statue. Susan Sontag was miserable in Oxford. Samuel Johnson dropped out after just a year because he couldn’t afford it.

Living writers and writing communities were slightly more difficult to find in Oxford, five years ago. I organised a small circle of literary friends, and we met to exchange work. Over time, I learned that there are dozens of significant literary groups, societies, and programmes across the city, but they were cut off, as it were — fragmented and sometimes insular. I now am working with a group of over 15 volunteers and a world-renowned board and committee of literary leaders, many of whom have been spending their nights, weekends, and vacation hours on a unique arts project, supporting writers across Oxford. We have gathered together the most respected names in Oxford literature and academic writing, to create an inclusive, internationally-facing writing hub, called Oxford Writers’ House. As far as I know, the model is unique: we enable writers by giving them the creative and community support they need, help them find each other, converse, refine, and publish their work. For the time being, we’re a house without a single location — a floating city. Writers in Oxford often are ignorant as to the wealth of literary resources at their doorstep. We are trying to change this, by linking up the dozens of flourishing circles, programmes, and arts events, and making these communities open-access and interconnected.

Despite the profile and momentum behind the Oxford Writers’ House community, I am often asked why we think what we are doing is necessary. I tend to think this question is one of profit, rather than value. The real question, to my mind, is why doesn’t this exist already? Writers need support and community — they need accessible ways to meet, discuss, share, exchange, and refine their work. They need access to a community. This community should affirm that their work is valuable and necessary. I think we are too accustomed to considering our lives in strictly functionalist, individual terms. Many artists today think differently — they want to participate in global conversations and local collaborations. To meet our mandate (to inspire, connect, and give voice to Oxford writers), we’re partnering with journals and writing groups across Oxford, together with bookstores, colleges, the City and County Councils, and others, to host talks, workshops, meet-ups, and conversations. We are also putting this material online, so that our members and the broader world can stay up-to-date. Our house is your house. Welcome!

April Pierce, Founder

Community

Being a not-for-profit means being eternally asking: asking for donors, asking for volunteers, asking for teachers, asking for partners. I’m getting much better at asking. It’s a life skill – we all need help sometimes. The better you get at asking, the more you realise how much people are willing to give, and how many people were just waiting to be asked. It’s great to know your experience, knowledge and skills are valued by someone else — knowing that you can contribute to something outside yourself. I love being asked. Getting to talk about what I know well, getting to pass on what I’ve learnt to more people in an eternal and boundless game of tag.

The more we ask as Oxford Writers’ House, the more we’re able to pass what we’ve gained onto others. We can share contacts, share audiences, share ideas. Through collaboration we offer more events and more resources for writers. We become a community for more people and containing more people, working together, collaboratively. It’s only by asking each other what we need can we make it happen.

That was what was missing from Oxford’s writing scene. What brought us together and what drove our start-up this summer. We realised we needed more asking, more sharing. Cross platform, cross city, cross university, cross age, cross experience, cross genre. Cross anything. Across writing. Across Oxford. Crossing boundaries is a phrase so sound-bitten it’s lost any sense of urgency. But we’re not crossing boundaries in the sense of transgressing. We’re reaching. We’re sharing. We’re asking and being asked.

Oxford Writers’ House isn’t a physical house (though we hope it will be one day). Oxford Writers’ House is the knowledge that you’re not writing in a vacuum, and that you can be the reclusive writer with your laptop and coffee, alone in the wilderness. But any time you want, you can reach out and ask.

Asiyla Radwan, Creative Director

Publications

The Publications arm of the Oxford Writers’ House serves two purposes: to spotlight new, valuable work that is being created in the city (and across the wider Oxford-linked community), as well as to document the joys and frustrations of being a writer in Oxford. To these ends, we feature new creative work and special releases of forthcoming publications, and also publish interviews, essays, and news articles which provide some insight to Oxford’s writing community.

Our writers range from longtime residents of the city to travelers on whom the city has left a lasting impression – the very idea of the ‘Oxford writer’, we believe, is a wide-ranging and continually re-negotiated one. We open the doors of Oxford’s university and city writers to the world writ large. Having access to the unique network and publishing resources of the Oxford Writers’ House gives us the responsibility of being as fair, inclusive, and empathetic as we can. As such, we’re always looking out for new or unjustly marginalized voices who deserve to be heard alongside the city’s luminaries. Feel free to pitch us, and help us make writing in Oxford as rich and beautiful as our city.

Theophilus Kwek, Publications Director

Tutoring

Oxford Writers’ House tutoring services are dedicated to providing writing skills support and creative writing mentorship to students and local writers of all ages. We aim to inspire young people to write and to help amateur writers to hone their craft. Our tutoring services are therefore structured around enhancing levels of literacy in Oxford while also building and sustaining a proactive literary community in the city.

Our select team of tutors is made up of established educators, academics, and writers, all of whom offer unique writing specializations at discount rates. Members of the public can book appointments with tutors via the OWH website, and tutorials take place in and around the city. We do not adhere to any curriculum, rather we give established writers and academics a platform to offer writing tuition and mentorship for the benefit all demographics of the community in which they live. All paid tuition is therefore balanced with community outreach and OWH associated volunteer programs.

One of the goals of OWH’s tutoring services is to close the literacy gap in the city of Oxford and to enable Oxford’s literary community to give back to the city as a whole. A guiding principle of our work is inclusivity, by which we mean the incubation of marginalized voices, whether those of young people, the economically disadvantaged, or minority groups. Our tutorial model and our community-facing approach allows all our students (no matter what age) ownership over the writing process, strengthening their ability to express themselves clearly in an academic or artistic context. Moreover, the mentorship offered by established, local authors through our tutorials allows students and new writers to feel they can have a stake in a literary community where their voices will be valued.

David K. O’Hara, Director of Tutoring

Oxford Writers’ House was officially launched in the Spring of 2016 as a hub for the writers in the universities and city of Oxford. Besides offering resources for authors of all backgrounds, they provide Oxford-based academic and creative writing support, and curate their own discussion-oriented, interdisciplinary events. Their goal is to inspire, connect, and give voice to Oxford writers. @OxWritersHouse

Photo by Green Chameleon (CC0 1.0)

“Is This How it Really Was?”: Exploring Lives Through Private and Public Writing

Four years ago, quite against my better judgement, I began research on the life of American evangelical icon Elisabeth Elliot. I had a special needs son, a baby daughter, and a husband who was embarking on a rigorous professional program. I was two moves into a schedule of moving every six months to two years for the foreseeable future. But Elliot, whom I had briefly researched for another project, wouldn’t go away. I woke up at night thinking about her. I wanted to know more, and there was nowhere to go but source material.

When she died in June, 2015, Elliot left 25 published books, countless magazine articles and speeches, 20 years of bi-monthly newsletters, 13 years of radio programs, and a lifetime of journals and correspondence. Her body of work holds particular interest for life writing because of the tension it reveals between public and private writing. As a very private person who spent most of her life under the public gaze, Elliot inhabited this tension from childhood.

Perhaps in part because she was a “reticent” child with few friends, Elliot was a journal-keeper from an early age. She was also an early public writer: contributions to the family newspaper were not optional. When she went to boarding school at 14, a thousand miles from home, Elliot tried to write home twice a week—one letter to “the family”, and one post-card to her mother. The family letter was forwarded to other absent siblings so that everyone was kept informed. Despite what seems now like a virtual flood of communication, at one point her older brother gently scolded Elliot for not sharing enough with their mother. “I know that’s what she yearns for—that we children tell her everything. . . . this is one practical way in which you can show your love to her. So do tell her all.”[i]

Letter writing, with its blurring of public/private, was a constant throughout Elliot’s life. She continued writing her mother—sometimes marked PRIVATE for good measure—and “the family” as her siblings scattered across the globe. She sent expurgated versions of these letters to extended family, and public letters to financial supporters. As her audience grew, she received increasing quantities of fan mail, and spent a substantial portion of each workday writing back. Alongside it all, she wrote in her journal.

Reading the journals and correspondence reveals subtle differences in the way Elliot recorded events for personal use or public consumption. As the telling becomes more public, it becomes more controlled. It’s easy to think of apparent discrepancies between private and public tellings as “true” or “false,” but that understanding rests in part on a misconception of the act of writing. Writing assigns meaning and imposes narrative in order to exist. And there are conflicting goals on each side of the reader/writer exchange. The reader hopes for an authentic connection with the writer; the writer experiences the added necessity of maintaining a private self. For Elliot, the decision to filter what came to the public gaze, even when that public was her family, was quite conscious. “[T]he things that we feel most deeply,” she wrote, “we ought to learn to be silent about. . . .”[ii]

A biographer herself, Elliot wrote about the friction between what the public wanted and the private realities of the self from the other side of the exchange. She deplored the tendency to include only the facts which fit a preconception. When she wrote her late husband’s biography—drawing heavily on excerpts from his own letters and journals—she declined to leave out the “warts,” despite his public status as a modern-day martyr: “I have not ‘delicately censored’ anything at all which I felt would contribute to the faithful portrayal of the whole man as I knew him.”[iii] Since the journals included not only stirring spiritual meditations but fairly explicit accounts of struggle with sexual desire, this must have shocked the more traditionalist members of her audience. Of the research and writing process she wrote, “Again and again I found myself tempted to ask what my readers would want this man to be, or what I wanted him to be, or what he himself thought he was—and I had to ignore all such questions in favor of the one relevant consideration: Is this true? Is this how it really was? And of course this is the question that any writer, of any kind of literature, has to be asking all the time.”[iv]

During her lifetime, Elliot resisted attempts to biographize her—an understandable response to the tension between working in a medium which is largely (and increasingly) public, and the natural desire to control access to oneself as an act of sheer self-preservation. She pointed would-be biographers back to her heavily autobiographical work. It can be tempting, for writers and readers, to treat autobiographical writing as the most authentic way of accessing a life. Private writing in particular offers the promise of showing the subject unfiltered, “as s/he really is.” But as I sift through the material in Elliot’s own corpus and interviews with those who knew her, I am struck by how necessary it is to see her through others’ eyes as well as her own. In the end, even the authoritative myself of private writing is incomplete. I can never know myself as I am experienced by others—by my parents, who have known me longer than I have; my siblings, who know best what it was like growing up in our family; my husband, who has lived longest with adult me; my children, who see me when no one’s looking; my friends, who know me through their own lives. But each of those selves is true, just as my private self is true. I think that is why we read, and write, biography—holding up mirrors again and again from different angles, resisting preconceptions, hoping to see, finally, “how it really was.”

Lucy S. R. Austen is a writer, editor, and author from Washington State, USA. A graduate of the University of Washington, she has worked as editor of Spring Hill Review, a journal of Northwest culture. She is currently at work on a biography of Elisabeth Elliot. She tweets at @LucySRAusten.

Photo by Dương Trần Quốc (CC0 1.0)

[i] Phillip Gillingham Howard to Elisabeth Howard, Papers of Elisabeth Elliot, Collection 278, Box 3, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton University.

[ii] Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1984) page 60.

[iii] Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958) page 12.

[iv] Elisabeth Elliot, Who Shall Ascend (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958) page xii.

 

The Lille Diaries: A Writers’ Group Weekend

I slipped this slim, unassuming little volume into my bag, planning to have a look during my daughter’s swimming lesson. I pulled out the book – pleasantly solid and tactile, with crisp cream pages – while perched on the unyielding plastic of the pull-down seat in the stuffy, chlorine-scented spectator area. The cover is simple and monochrome, with an energetic line drawing of the three authors wrapped in some sort of wispy communal kaftan, or perhaps a sheet, knotted at the shoulder; a nod to the authors’ collaborative approach that conceals their differences just as much as it showcases them.

fullsizerender

As I began to read, the muffled hum of screeches and splashes faded away into the thick air, to be replaced in my mind with the sights and smells of the 17th century Couvent des Minimes in Lille. Sarah Le Fanu, Jenny Newman, and Michèle Roberts – between them novelists, poets, biographers, autobiographers, playwrights, editors and professors – have been in a writers’ group together for ten years. In September 2013, they went away for the weekend to Lille to plan their new book, The Cabinet of Possibilities, about being in a writing group, and about opening up one’s writing. Over the weekend, each kept a diary.

Roberts is all about the detail, and once she introduces the idea of The Cabinet of Possibilities as ‘…a magical, expanding Cabinet, able to hold whatever we want to put into it. Space drawers. Knicker drawers? Top drawers. Bottom drawers.’ I perceive this playful metaphor throughout the writing, in her descriptions of food, for example: ‘…tiny cubes of cakes like jewelled objets d’art varnished and enamelled in slick, bright colours…’ And in Le Fanu’s embarkation gifts, given in St Pancras: a postcard from the Saloua Raouda Choucair exhibition at the Tate of ‘four naked women lounging around on cushions on a red checkered rug, sipping tea and reading books … cotton hankie covered in plump colourful birds on leafy twigs … conjuring up the pleasures of reading and writing (naked or clothed), and flights of the imagination.’

Reading and writing, naked and clothed, imaginations flying forward and back in time. If one could melt, mix, and then distil these three accounts of one weekend, the essence would contain all this. While Roberts often looks to the past – her French grandfather’s love of a caramel choux pastry called religieuse (the nun), whom he’d say was burning in caramel flames; and the plain yoghurt in a glass jar reminding her of childhood breakfasts – the whole group is also focused on the future: on what writing they will do, how they will push boundaries – their readers’ and their own. All are experimenting with form, Roberts reveals; refreshingly honest about the reaction of her ‘inner monster-toddler’ to her two friends’ gentle critique.

It is fascinating to see the different perspectives on the same events. Dealt with swiftly by Roberts as ‘a stag party of chaps all in pink polo shirts,’ Newman seems quite reflective about the group of young men who share their Eurostar carriage, casting them as a brotherhood, travelling counterparts to the sisterhood of three writers. She notices their politeness, their neat centre partings, their shirts bearing the words Al’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and their cans of beer, which don’t quite match up to the champagne and small glass tumblers rolled in a linen napkin that Michèle Roberts has brought. Le Fanu wonders, ‘isn’t the League of Extraordinary Gentleman an alternate universe steampunk series by Alan Moore?’ (I checked, it is).

As well as food, sights, and other people, they write about writing. Roberts’s toddler-monster, the unwritten rules of the writing group (discuss writing not feelings, leave the phone off the hook), point of view, Jane Austin and Katherine Mansfield, and the joyful rediscovery of a rejected manuscript. The writing is beautifully evocative, equally descriptive of place and emotion, and funny, accompanied by line drawings full of spirit, energy and humour. A wonderful insight into friendship and writing, it will inspire you to create a circle of writers of your own.

The Lille Diaries: A Writers’ Group Weekend by Sarah Le Fanu, Jenny Newman and Michèle Roberts was published in 2016 by Hawkins & Quiggin, London.

Dr Katherine Collins is a Visiting Scholar at OCLW. Her current project is a work of creative non-fiction, family fables organised as a collection of short stories narrated from different points of view, fragments stitched together into a multi-layered autoethnogaphic family herstory spanning 100 years.

Photo by Linh Nguyen (CC0 1.0)