‘After-Image: Life-Writing and Celebrity’ 19 September 2015 Oxford Conference Summary

The fields of life-writing and celebrity studies have separately gained traction in academia in recent years, but have seldom been explored together. With help from the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, the Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities and King’s College London, we organized a one-day conference exploring the intersections between these two fields. The conference, entitled ‘After-Image: Life-writing & Celebrity’, was held in Oxford on 19 September 2015, and organized by Oline Eaton (PhD candidate, King’s College London) and Nanette O’Brien (DPhil candidate, Wolfson College, Oxford).

Russell Brand

As essential preparation for the conference, we spent a morning walking the hallowed halls of Madame Tussauds wax museum. We were initially disturbed by the uncanny representations of contemporary celebrities like Russell Brand and Kim Kardashian. We laughed in disbelief at how badly Emma Watson, Colin Firth, and George Clooney were captured. Among the bodies in the rooms of figures past and present, the evanescent and emotional quality of celebrity became a material reality for us.

We were also amazed by how hardy a material wax is and to see that Tussaud’s original 18th century figures of Voltaire and the French royal family survive today. Certain life stories endure like that, and life-writing plays a key role in their preservation. And yet, the connection between celebrity and life-writing has been under-explored. In celebrity studies, celebrities are more often considered as texts. And in life-writing the phenomenon of celebrity is often portrayed as an event rather than as an on-going part of an individual’s life-experience. Our aim in organizing ‘After-Image’ was to begin a dialogue exploring the deep connections between these two subjects, and stimulate discussion of them across a range of approaches, periods, and genres.

As Richard Dyer has suggested, celebrities become a part of ‘the coinage of everyday speech’. Historically, writing has been the primary means of this transfer, and it is through stories from the celebrity’s life that the celebrity becomes familiar to us. Below, we’ve loosely summarized and reflected on the papers from the conference. We hope this is just the beginning of the critical conversations about the intersection of life-writing and celebrity.

Celebrated and/or Reviled: Politics and Power

In his paper on Charles I, Benjamin Woolley suggested celebrity is a useful lens for thinking about biography, a genre that sits—sometimes quite uncomfortably— at the intersection of theory and life. Emily Bowles elaborated upon these tensions in her analysis of the changing rhetorical concept of ‘the Dickensian’, looking at how the name of Charles Dickens became a part of everyday speech and the various meanings his name has assumed in the 20th and 21st centuries. As both papers reveal, celebrities played an integral role in the everyday life of earlier centuries, exerting a power that inspired the way people thought and which moved them to act—whether by writing letters of admiration or founding a society in a celebrity’s name.

Woolley Bowles

Authorial Voice and Aesthetic Creation

In a panel that examined the surface aesthetics of intimacy, clothing, image and self-fashioning, the speakers explored the effects of 20th century technologies—including photography, blogging and social media forms—on celebrity image. Christine Fouirnaies examined the authenticity of Gertrude Stein’s self-presentation through photographs, sculpture and paintings, comparing the ‘weightiness’ of the modernist celebrity with the concept of Stein as ‘a consumable avant-gardist’. Rod Rosenquist also explored the relationship between images of modernist writers, asking whether we should interpret their self-presentation in various states of undress as an authorial posture of self-fashioning. These themes intersected in Nicola Sayers’ talk about the celebrity image of contemporary style blogger Tavi Gevinson. Across the panel, it became clear that intimacy, imagination, image and vulnerability are significant aspects of contemporary celebrity and our idea of the normal.

Rod Nicky Christine

Crafting the Narrative, Contesting the Narrative

Self-fashioning was a crucial theme for the Sitwells (Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell), explored by Deborah Longworth, as a literary family defined by fantasy, invention, decoration and a hatred of doctrine. This anti-doctrinal feeling resurfaced in Nanette O’Brien’s paper, which considered foreshadowed doom and neuroses in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. Following from this, focusing on ‘the Cult of Iris Murdoch’, Lucy Bolton explored the ways in which famous authors’ voices are appropriated in contemporary representations from biopics to Pinterest pages. The panel made a compelling case overall for the importance of self-fashioning to authors and how later generations appropriate these images and narratives.

 Longworth-Bolton-OBrien

National Paradox: Exceptionalism versus Decline

This panel explored the new heroic icons being projected in 20th century life and the role of the mass media in this projection. Tom Ellis’ paper considered Life magazine’s portrayals of Russian cosmonauts, Max Jones looked at accounts of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, and Oline Eaton contextualized Norman Mailer’s 1973 depiction of Marilyn Monroe. Despite what might appear to be a topical disconnect between the papers, all three were engaged in interrogations of the contemporary culture’s impact on the stories we tell and each examined how this shapes the telling. It’s a preoccupation that suggests the level of manufacture involved in celebrity stories but also the cultural usefulness of such tales, particularly in the 20th century and at the national level.

Jones-Ellis-Eaton

Roundtable: ‘Historical Re-evaluations of Celebrity in the 18th and 19th Centuries’

Sandra Mayer and Ruth Scobie chaired a lively roundtable on the historical origins of celebrity. The featured speakers were Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Jessica Goodman, Tom Mole, and Simon Morgan and they engaged in spirited debate about the definition of celebrity and its date of origin. Specifically, the roundtable considered what differentiates ‘fame’ from ‘celebrity’, and at what point did this differentiation begin. Ultimately, there wasn’t agreement on a specific starting date, but there was a consensus that the modern concept of ‘celebrity’ and a ‘culture of celebrity’ could not have existed prior to the rise of print media. Certain elements of celebrity were present in prior centuries, but they did not coalesce until the 18th century, as actresses and public figures increasingly became known for their personalities rather than the positions they held.

roundtable pic 1 from ruth

Andrew O’Hagan’s mid-day keynote, ‘Stealing Lives: Does Your Story Belong to You’, weighed some of the ethical questions surrounding writing the lives of famous people either as fiction or in profile. As O’Hagan noted, ‘life-writing starts from the assumption that lives are free to write about’. But a life being ‘free’ to write about is a difficult concept to quantify when it effects the living family and possibly also a living subject. Ultimately, however, O’Hagan emphasized that because the boundaries of life-writing and fiction are porous, the best life-writing depends on a kind of novelistic brio.

Rather than deferring to other people’s demands, O’Hagan argued, the writer must write the story that presents itself. As a coda, O’Hagan reflected that the writer pays a price for the lives he steals. Life-writers don’t just steal stories from other people; they steal time, energy and life from themselves by writing: the writing diminishes the writer over time.

In her evening keynote, entitled ‘Ghosting’, Sarah Churchwell suggested that the two fields are so connected that celebrity life-writing is a tautology. Because well-knownness is precondition of almost all biography, Churchwell persuasively argued, all life-writing is, by necessity, about celebrities. Churchwell sounded a call to arms for the restoration of pleasure to academic criticism, insisting on the necessity for creating different acts of homage and restoring the open relationship between biography and poetics as we think critically through pleasure.

Churchwell likened the biographer to a ghost-writer hunting for details in the archives. And in an example from her own research on F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Churchwell introduced us to the term pentimento: ‘a sign or trace of alteration in a literary or artistic work’. Churchwell walked us through a scenario in her own work in which a discovery of a ghostly trace in a notebook dramatically changed the story. The search for truth in the archives isn’t always going to pay off like this but, as Churchwell argued, biographical enterprise is about catching the ghosts of history.

Poster Draft 1

 

The ‘After-Image’ conference was a part of our on-going collaboration and seminar series, Life-Writers of London, held at KCL. The conversations begun at the conference, particularly regarding the lenses of image, story-telling, mythology and legend, have continued in our ‘Season of Celebrity’. This term has featured talks by Deborah Jermyn (Roehampton), Tom F. Wright (Sussex), and our final seminar is with Josh Cohen (Goldsmiths) on 7 December. For more information, please join the Life-Writers of London Facebook Group.

This blog post was written by Nanette O’Brien and Oline Eaton.

 

 

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OCLW Lunch Seminar: Joanna Kavenna on 16 June 2015

In a wide-ranging lunchtime talk, novelist and travel writer Joanna Kavenna discussed the concepts that preoccupy nearly every writer of biography, memoir and indeed fiction. Through her thinking around the philosophical precepts of time, memory and the self, she considered the questions of how the writer relays the self in time, how the self changes and what constitutes the self. And building on these, then, she asked, how does a writer convey time in writing?

Kavenna explored the range of individual experiences of time. First she reminded us that we have objective ‘clock time’ versus the subjective individual time. We are inducted into ‘clock time’ at birth – we do not start out this way, but we gradually come to accept the conventions that are imposed upon us.

The way we experience time as adults, Kavenna outlined, citing William James and Henri Bergson, is in an eternal present – a perpetual experiential now.

To illustrate the point more lyrically, Kavenna turned to Philip Larkin (who is quoted in all her talks). She read from his poem, ‘Days’:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
(Larkin, “Days” from Collected Poems (2001))

From Larkin Kavenna turned to the genre of the bildungsroman as the classic example of the novel of the formative self which impresses a formative self (i.e. is read by young readers). The self of childhood and youth is rapidly in flux, only later coming to form a more determined being. Kavenna identified types within this genre: where the self is defined in opposition to a force, defining what you don’t want to be, and reconciling many versions of the self. Looking even farther back to early childhood, Kavenna pointed to the mystery of ourselves and the times we cannot remember—the ‘embers of consciousness.’

But in all this strangeness, according to Kavenna, there is an incredible freedom for writers and individuals – each self is distinctive – there’s no such thing as the self. There are myriad selves with experiences resonating across time. Concluding with an apt quotation from Virginia Woolf on the elasticity of time, Kavenna reminded us again of the authorial control we have over the way we understand and represent time:

‘Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect on the mind of man. The mind of man moreover works with equal strangeness upon the body of time.’ (Virginia Woolf, Orlando)

OCLW event: Siddhartha Bose, ‘Memory as Imagination in a Globalised World’ on 14 May 2015

Poet and performer Siddhartha Bose delighted the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing on 14 May with readings and meditations on identity, collective memory, and space with readings from his books Kalgora and Digital Monsoon and video clips from his films and performance works.

In an introduction to his wide-ranging and captivating readings, Bose suggested that memory mutates constantly in relation to space, physical environment and the virtual world. Reading poems from Kalgora, he asked whether we live in a world where everyone, regardless of passport, is a foreigner. In a contemporary global environment, he suggested, you can’t write about just one city, but the reflection of cities upon each other and the multitude of things in cities.

Bose shared a range of media with the audience. In a journey for the audience, he began in India with clips from ‘Animal City’, his ethnographic film about Mumbai. A striking excerpt featured a voyeuristic scene: hundreds of people milling around an urban area while a camera hovers above them. The camera goes mostly unobserved: only a few look up at it, their eyes meeting the viewer’s.

Bose also showed a recording of his comic one-man play entitled ‘Thresholds’, depicting a border control gate at a New York airport. This was followed by a video called ‘The Shroud’ about trials of death and mourning, and a recording of live performance of poetry with musicians.

Transporting us back to England, Bose read from Digital Monsoon, a collection of dystopian poems about London. Describing the eerie urban atmosphere of ‘corporate rain,’ ‘paper-strewn streets’, and a ‘concrete island,’ the poetic speaker asks, ‘And who did we build this England for?’

Crossing thresholds of life and death, memory, alienation, distance, subject and other, Sid Bose tantalized his audience with poetic renderings of challenges to identity, subjectivity and genre.

You can read more about Sid Bose and watch clips and trailers for the works discussed here on Bose’ website: http://www.kalagora.com

Guest post: Exploring “The Many Lives of Benjamin Disraeli” Symposium Report

Below we have a summary of the Disraeli symposium at Oxford on 24 March 2015, organized by Sandra Mayer and Megan Kearney. The symposium was funded by TORCH Celebrity Research Network and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. We hope you enjoy their conference report.

Exploring “The Many Lives of Benjamin Disraeli”: Symposium Report

It was a crisp morning in early spring when a group of Disraeli enthusiasts gathered at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities to take a fresh look at the many parallel (after)lives and personae of one of the most intriguing Victorian public figures. A set of brightly coloured primulas had been duly arranged on the speakers’ table as a suitable (even if over-optimistically spring-like) floral tribute to the symposium’s subject, whose life Oscar Wilde once described as “the most brilliant of paradoxes.” What Wilde appears to have had in mind were the myriad contradictions, tensions, and ambiguities of Disraeli’s life and work, many of them arising from the ‘strange mingling’ of novelist and politician, Byronic socialite and Jewish-born prophet-hero, pragmatist and visionary. The vast and multifarious panorama of Disraelian identities highlights the need for cross-disciplinary scholarly dialogue – a desideratum that was fully met by this workshop, which had started out as a research ‘blind date’ between the conference organisers, Sandra Mayer and Megan Kearney, at the Bodleian Library’s Special Collections. The initial onset of paranoia, born of an irrational fear of accidentally trespassing on someone else’s ‘research territory,’ quickly dissolved and developed into a mutually enriching dialogue and friendship between a literary scholar and an ecclesiastical historian.

flowers

Kindly supported by the TORCH Celebrity Research Network and The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, the symposium boasted an exciting programme. The three panels featured an impressive line-up of eminent Disraeli scholars with diverse disciplinary backgrounds in English Literature, History, Theology, Politics, and Art History. Their innovative and thought-provoking papers – some of which will shortly be available as podcasts – outlined new approaches to Disraeli’s life and work, adding yet another set of facets to his mercurial reputation. In their reassessment of his reception, fame, and legacy from a broad range of disciplinary perspectives, they allowed for further illuminating glimpses into Disraeli’s many lives.

The first panel was dedicated to the theme of “(Self-)Representations & Reception.” The papers that followed reflected on nuanced religious and political themes in Disraeli’s fiction, as well as how those themes have been read in the thorny historiography of Disraeli. Michael Flavin opened with a discussion of one of Disraeli’s least-known novels, Venetia (1837), and considered the manner in which the novel illuminates Disraeli’s position on class when read in the context of urban working class political organisation in the 1830s. Flavin also suggested that in Venetia, for the first time in Disraeli’s novel writing career, the narrative sympathy is weighted toward the expedient at the expense of the visionary. Flavin interpreted this as an interesting mood change in Disraeli’s thought, which rather suitably coincided with his first election to Parliament in 1837. Overall, Flavin showed that Venetia can be understood as useful political fable in dissecting the formation of Disraeli’s political ideology.

Jonathan Parry then led his audience into the next decade of Disraeli’s career when he considered “Tancred in Context.” Parry complicated the existing interpretations of Tancred (1847) as either a chaotic and confused novel, as an imperial novel that comprised fantasies of Eastern conquest, or as a novel indicative of Disraeli’s Jewish identity. Instead, Parry suggested that when placed in the context of the British political and religious activity in the Middle East in the 1840s, Tancred reveals Disraeli’s nuanced perception of religious multiplicity and his critique of the hubris of British evangelicals whose efforts at conversion in the Holy Land disregarded Jewish antiquity. Rather than a novel that imagines the triumphant union of East and West, Parry showed that through Tancred, Disraeli actually points to the impossibility of such a fusion.

Megan Kearney finished the session by delving into the many interpretations of Disraeli’s Judaism throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She argued that whilst twentieth-century historians regarded Disraeli’s Jewish expression as merely an expedient manoeuvre of self-fashioning, or as simply the belief that the Jews had exceptional racial qualities, Disraeli’s earliest historians – who were complicated Victorian religious figures themselves – were aware of the salience of Judaism to Disraeli. Kearney claimed that twentieth-century historical priorities allowed for the disappearance of Disraeli’s Judaism, but that Victorian attitudes to his religious position are instructive to our own understanding of how Disraeli can be situated in the religious and intellectual landscape of his time. This led to a dynamic discussion about the intellectual or religious connections that might be drawn between Disraeli and Carlyle, especially considering Carlyle’s classification of Islam and Judaism in On Heroes.

Megan
Megan Kearney

Fortified by an early sandwich lunch, speakers and audience reconvened for the afternoon’s first panel, dealing with the theme of Disraeli’s “Fame and Reputation.” All of the three papers cast a spotlight on three different aspects that shaped and fuelled Disraeli’s celebrity status: his unconventional marriage, his dual public persona of statesman-cum-novelist, and the performance of sexual ambiguity that informed the long tradition of caricature representations of Disraeli. Daisy Hay opened the session with some reflections on the process of working on her double biography Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance, recently published to great critical acclaim. In her talk, she drew attention to the remarkable ‘hidden histories’ of silent and forgotten female lives yielded by Mary Anne Disraeli’s phenomenally rich personal papers. Hay’s references to the tragic fate of social disgrace and ostracism suffered by some of these women served to throw into sharp relief the successful self-fashioning undertaken by the Disraelis, two seemingly ill-matched social outsiders of questionable respectability who repeatedly found themselves on the brink of financial disaster.

Sandra Mayer then explored Disraeli’s pre-eminence in Victorian public life from the perspective of Celebrity Studies, arguing that his position crucially relied on his deft and life-long migration between the literary and the political field as equally significant and interconnected arenas of self-fashioning and self-projection. She demonstrated how to his contemporaries the alliance of ‘Pegasus’ and ‘Carthorse,’ creative artist and pragmatic politician, represented a puzzling blurring of boundaries that contributed to the mercurial quality of his public image and thus fed processes of myth-making and celebrification. Disraeli’s novel Lothair (1870) and the contexts of its production and reception were presented as a case study highlighting the convertibility of the author’s ‘celebrity capital’ and his shrewd reaction to the growing pervasiveness of celebrity culture.

Sandra Mayer
Sandra Mayer

Early-nineteenth-century celebrity culture, as Dominic Janes subsequently showed in his intriguing paper, both encouraged and was fed by the performance of effeminate Byronic dandyism. He stressed the need to re-examine Punch’s feminised cartoon representations of Disraeli, which reused earlier stereotypical images of him as effete dandy and literary lion and often established a direct connection between effeminacy, social climbing, and radical social and moral transgressions. The panel subsequently gave rise to a vivid discussion about the use of concepts and categories such as ‘queerness’ and ‘celebrity’ in a historical context; the striking parallels between Disraeli and Oscar Wilde; and about how to resolve the tension between emphasising the idiosyncrasies of Disraeli’s career and connecting him to the broader political and socio-cultural currents and conventions of his day.

The day’s third and final panel, “Afterlives and Legacy,” was dedicated to the ‘practitioners’ voices.’ It provided fascinating insights into the questions and challenges faced by editors, archivists, and museum curators in their work of mediating Disraeli’s life and work to the general public and assisting scholars in their research. Michel Pharand – who had travelled from Kingston, Ontario, to attend the symposium – in his paper reflected on the process of collecting and annotating the excellent volumes of the Benjamin Disraeli Letters, a long-standing project of which he is now General Editor. In addition to describing the laborious and adventurous procedure of discovering new correspondence and letters over the years, Pharand’s account provided fascinating insights into how information about each letter was gathered and the minutiae of Disraeli’s daily life could be pieced together through his letter writing. It was noted how Pharand’s perspective differs from that of most Disraeli scholars: while they construct large, sweeping narratives of Disraeli’s thought, Pharand’s task is to reconstruct and understand Disraeli’s minute-by-minute life.

Helen Langley, formerly Modern Political Manuscripts curator at the Bodleian Library and now a historical consultant, expanded on this theme as she outlined the processes, considerations, and challenges involved in creating a major exhibition on Disraeli’s life and work. The Bodleian Library’s “Scenes from an Extraordinary Life,” its accompanying book, and an expanded online exhibition marked the bicentenary of Disraeli’s birth in 2004. Langley spoke of the curatorial challenges posed by what turned out to be a ‘snapshot approach’ to presenting Disraeli’s multifaceted life, primarily dictated by the availability of objects and materials as well as spatial limitations.

Finally, Robert Bandy, National Trust heritage manager at Disraeli’s former country estate, Hughenden Manor, in Buckinghamshire spoke about the challenges and rewards of presenting Disraeli’s complex life and political work to an interested public. He was joined by Oliver Cox, Knowledge Exchange Fellow at TORCH and director of the Thames Valley Country House Partnership, who worked with Bandy and other Oxford researchers to refashion the ‘Congress of Berlin’ room at Hughenden in the summer of 2014. Bandy and Cox pointed out the vast potential of partnerships between historical sites like Hughenden, and academic researchers who can help bring spaces to life and invigorate them in the minds of the public. Theirs was an interesting new perspective on how Disraeli’s life remains relevant in the society and political imagination of today.

At the end of a long ‘Disraeli Day,’ speakers and audience had a chance to revisit some of the key themes and dominant questions that had emerged from the papers in a vivid closing discussion that might well have continued into the evening hours. One issue that kept haunting papers and conversations was the tension between principle and expediency, romance and realism, the spiritual and the secular in Disraeli’s life and career. The question was raised whether by constructing Disraeli as visionary, or, conversely, as arch-pragmatist, scholars are at risk of underrating the complexity not only of Disraeli’s own personality but also of the interplay between individual agency and structural framework. Other commentators noted that Disraeli’s parallel lives were shaped by his attempt to reach different audiences and that the phases of his celebrity are closely related to the momentous changes in the political system in the 1860s and 70s, brought about by the expansion of the electorate. Following on from this observation, it was also remarked that scholarship on Disraeli requires a greater sensitivity to the political, religious, intellectual, and socio-cultural contexts in which he moved and operated. As the conversation was eventually continued over a well-deserved conference dinner, it was agreed that the symposium had provided a crucial impetus to Disraeli scholarship across disciplines that will hopefully result in a large-scale follow-up event.

Sandra Mayer & Megan Kearney

Sandra Mayer is an Erwin Schrödinger Research Fellow (Austrian Science Fund) at the University of Oxford’s English Faculty and Wolfson College. She is currently working on a post-doc project that focuses on the intersections of literary and political fame in the career of Benjamin Disraeli. http://www.sandramayer.org/

Megan Kearney is a DPhil Candidate in Ecclesiastical History at Keble College. Her research interests lie in the changes in faith, liturgy, and literature in Victorian Britain. Her doctoral work is on Benjamin Disraeli’s religious thought.

Conference Website: http://oxfordcelebritynetwork.com/2015/01/26/the-many-lives-of-benjamin-disraeli/

Call For Papers: 15 May deadline for OCLW/ TORCH Conference, ‘After-Image: Life-Writing and Celebrity’

OCLW and TORCH are funding two conferences related to life-writing this year, please see below for details on the conference, ‘After-Image: Life-Writing and Celebrity’:

Call for Papers, 15 May abstract submission deadline

After-Image: Life-Writing and Celebrity
Saturday, 19 September 2015
The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW) at Wolfson College, Oxford

With funding from the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, and the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College London (CLWR)

 Confirmed Keynote Speakers:

Sarah Churchwell Andrew O’Hagan
Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities, University of East Anglia

2015 Writer in Residence, The Eccles Centre at the British Library

Novelist

Creative Writing Fellow,

King’s College London 

In the last decade, the fields of life-writing and celebrity studies have separately gained traction as areas for provocative critical analysis, but the significant connections between them have been overlooked. In celebrity studies, stories about individual people are examined through national, cultural, economic and political contexts. The function of the person’s image is considered rather than the life from which that image was/is derived. Conversely, life-writing does not always take into account the impact of celebrity on the life, and instead portrays it as an event rather than a condition with psychological impact which could be an integral part of the narrative.

 Through a one-day conference entitled ‘After-Image: Life-Writing and Celebrity,’ we want to consider the interplay between celebrity and life-writing. The conference will explore ideas of image, persona and self-fashioning in an historical as well as a contemporary context and the role these concepts play in the writing of lives. How does the story (telling) of a historical life—of Cleopatra or Abraham Lincoln, for instance— alter when we re-read it in terms of celebrity? What is the human impact of being a celebrity— in the words of Richard Dyer, ‘part of the coinage of every day speech’? And how does this factor in when we use archival materials related to celebrities, such as diaries, letters, memoirs, interviews, press accounts, oral histories, apocryphal tales, etc.? Furthermore, what are the ethical responsibilities of life-writers when approaching such famous stories?

Possible topics for papers include but are not limited to:

  • Celebrity in the fields of literature, politics, entertainment and public life
  • Historical reevaluations of celebrity from earlier periods
  • Royal lives
  • The politics of writing celebrity lives
  • The psychology of celebrity
  • Fame, famousness, fandom, stardom, myth and/or iconicity
  • The celebrity as life-writer (i.e. celebrity memoirs, etc.)
  • Using celebrity lives in historical fiction
  • The celebrity and identity
  • Showmanship, freak shows and the circus
  • Identity, power and violence in lives of the famous
  • Images and the press
  • Writing celebrity lives from below

We also welcome papers on any issues arising from these questions and disciplines.

The conference organizers invite abstracts for individual 20-minute presentations/papers or panel proposals. Presenters should submit abstracts of 300 words by 15 May 2015 to Nanette O’Brien (nanette.obrien@wolfson.ox.ac.uk) and Oline Eaton (faith.eaton@kcl.ac.uk). Please send your abstract as a separate attachment in a PDF or Word document, and include on it your name, affiliation, and a brief bio.

OCLW lunchtime seminar: Frances Larson on ‘The Things About Henry Wellcome’, 10 March 2015

Exploring the miniature, the gigantic and biographies of scale, anthropologist and writer Frances Larson shared her work on Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) from her 2009 book An Infinity of Things with the OCLW lunchtime seminar.

The talk explored Larson’s use of objects as biographical evidence for Wellcome’s life. Her approach was to view Wellcome’s life through these objects, investigating the form they take and how they cohere around a person in groups and sets.

Henry Wellcome was born in America, but came to the UK in his twenties, where he founded the successful pharmaceutical company Burroughs, Wellcome & Company, which later became Glaxo Smith Klein.  At the time, Burroughs, Wellcome & Company manufactured tablets, ointments, soap, tea, coffee and more.

Wellcome was a businessman, designer and inventor, but he was also a private collector of objects. His holdings were the equivalent of five times the size of the Louvre, or approximately one million objects (a lower estimate). The innumerable objects and relics he collected included, among others, surgical instruments, antiques, scraps, ethnographic objects, cases, masks and weaponry.

Wellcome’s whole work life was taken up with the physical design of objects and patterns of scale. Larson is particularly interested in patterns of scale and she divided her discussion of Wellcome’s life into ‘small things’ and ‘big things.’ Larson argued Wellcome’s life as a businessman fall into the category of ‘small things’. She explained that the anthropological associations with small things are control, transcendence, convenience, privacy and magic. One manifestation of this interest in the small is that Wellcome commissioned the world’s smallest medicine cabinet. It was the size of a penny and held twelve bottles of real medicine. Wellcome coined the term ‘tabloid,’ another term for ‘tablet’ or ‘pill’, and spent a lot of time working to make his products smaller. Larson considered whether Wellcome’s personality matched these objects. He was a fastidious person and a controlling and perfectionist employer. Larson proposed that the creation of small, very perfect things might require a fanatical perfectionist. The person and the objects create each other as time goes on.

The second half of the talk focused on Wellcome’s ‘big things’: his enormous collection. In anthropology, big things are associated with the impenetrable, disorientation, being out of control, the public and the frightening. The same characteristics underlie both sides of Wellcome’s life: perfectionism, discipline, control and secrecy.

Wellcome wanted the prestige of being a big collector. He thought there could be a coherent narrative or ‘final picture’ for an unveiling of his collection. But Larson noted that the collection was simply too overwhelming and complex. It was only possible to make the collection coherent after his death when it was broken up.

Wellcome delegated the acquisition of objects to collecting agents, but he didn’t allow them to interpret it. He was not a small-scale collector who simply could not stop. He wanted the collection to be meticulously big and he delighted in the detail. Wellcome thought that he alone could make his enormous collection small and interpret it.

Larson concluded with the question of whether his large collection made Wellcome feel big or small. She argued that he died amongst the chaos of his objects – without achieving his vision of a cohesive exhibition. And although he did open a museum in his lifetime, he never felt it lived up to his vision. Looking at Wellcome through the lens of his collection of objects undercuts the idea of him as a great man.

Claire Harman: ‘The Suspicions of Mrs Gaskell’, 24 February 2015

Claire Harman, renowned biographer of Jane Austen and Robert Louis Stevenson among others, has a forthcoming biography of Charlotte Brontë. In this talk, Harman instructed her audience in the making and legacy of Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Brontë. Published in 1857, it was the first, and remains a popular, biography of Charlotte Brontë.

Harman explored Gaskell’s efforts to provide an impression of Brontë’s character. In acquiring and describing this information, Gaskell relied partly on gossip, and partly on fact, constructing her approach through anecdotes and stories.

Brontë herself also had some agency in the creation of the ‘Brontë myth’.[1] Gaskell and Brontë were writing their novels at the same time and place in 1846 in Manchester. Gaskell had written to ‘Currer Bell’ (Brontë’s pen name) to compliment her on her novel Shirley and then the two were introduced by Lady Kay Shuttleworth over a three day visit in the Lake District. After this visit, Gaskell wrote to Catherine Winkworth describing Brontë’s appearance. She appears to Gaskell to be ‘a little lady in a black silk gown. She is, as she calls herself, underdeveloped.’ The letter also described what Haworth (Brontë’s hometown) looked like, and included stories about Patrick, Charlotte’s father, being half-mad. It also included Charlotte Brontë’s anecdotes about the starvation regime at her school and the poverty at home, anecdotes that seemed to be fully crafted, narrated and full of significance. Claire Harman sees these anecdotes from Brontë as something that Brontë gifted to Gaskell, a kind of special nod from one novelist to the other. Gaskell went on to re-use this material in The Life.

After her sisters Anne and Emily Brontë died, Charlotte wrote the preface to the second edition of Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights (1850). The preface included biographical information about her sisters, evoking their life in their Moorland home, and the edition was well received. This preface also helped initiate the Brontë myth. Charlotte Brontë was subsequently invited to many London parties, but, extremely reticent, was disgruntled by the attention stemming from her celebrity, and was a difficult dinner guest. Then Brontë met her husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, who was a curate to her father, Patrick Brontë. She was married to Nicholls and, Harman speculates, quickly became pregnant. Gaskell had been abroad, and said that she felt she would have been able to prevent Brontë’s death if only she had been in the country. Claire Harman suggested that Gaskell would have had access to abortion doctors for Brontë and that Gaskell’s confident statement leads us to infer this was a problematic pregnancy. From the symptoms, Harman believes Brontë contracted the severe morning sickness, hyperemesis gravidarum: the same illness the Duchess of Cambridge Katherine Middleton has suffered with in her pregnancies. Unfortunately the care Brontë received was inadequate and Harman assumes Brontë’s death was terribly painful.

After Brontë’s death, Gaskell received a letter from Patrick Brontë asking her to write the official and ‘truthful’ biography. This would turn out not to be a traditional ‘life and letters’ biography, a ‘portrait’ of an author, but a novelist’s view of a character. Gaskell did seek out letters and anecdotes for the biography, however, including the letters from Brontë to her married mentor in Brussels, Constantin Héger. Gaskell had not realized Héger was such a meaningful figure in Brontë’s life until Gaskell visited him in Belgium on a trip for research. Gaskell soon realized she could not use this story of unrequited love in the biography. It was too revealing and diverged from the character of Brontë she was trying to represent.

After the publication of the first edition (1857) of Gaskell’s biography of Brontë, there was what Claire Harman called a ‘shaking up of material, a loosening of anecdotes’. The second and third editions of the biography have ‘odd lacunae’ where Gaskell rescinded material that Patrick Brontë objected to about himself, mostly accounts that suggested he was controlling of his wife’s and his children’s behavior. Harman thinks that what has remained then in these subsequent editions must therefore have been reliable, like the report that Brontë’s mother Mariah wasn’t pretty.

The anecdotes that make up Gaskell’s biography helped form the idea that its subject is a character within a wider story. Claire Harman took her rapt audience through some of these anecdotes and the process that Gaskell underwent in constructing this lasting and popular biography of Charlotte Brontë.

[1] To see more on this term, see Lucasta Miller, The Brontë Myth (2001)

OCLW event reviews: Sue Thomas on 14 October and Lucy Hughes-Hallett on 21 October 2014

The opening weeks of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing’s 2014-15 lecture series were of great interest to those studying the modernist period. In the first week of term we heard from Sue Thomas about her biographical work on Jean Rhys’s Creole heritage. This week, Lucy Hughes-Hallett shared excerpts from her biography of the Italian poet-turned-dictator Gabriele D’Annunzio. Both events are summarized below.

Sue Thomas, ‘Ghostly Presences: James Potter Lockhart and Jane Maxwell Lockhart in Jean Rhys’s Writing’

Sue Thomas, Professor of English at La Trobe University, Australia, is a Visiting Scholar at OCLW in October 2014. In this informal seminar, she shared some of her biographical research on the novelist Jean Rhys, whose works include Good Morning, Midnight and Wide Sargasso Sea.

In particular, Thomas focused on the slave-holding history of Rhys’s family and attempted to trace the darker family secrets throughout Rhys’s fiction. Thomas related the story of Rhys’ great-grandfather, James Potter Lockhart, who was a Scottish slaveholder in Dominica on his sugar plantation in the first half of the 19th century. Lockhart defended the rights of slaveholders throughout the conflicts over whether slaveholders should be compensated after the emancipation of their slaves. Lockhart also had sexual relationships and illegitimate children with his slaves.

Thomas then sketched out references to the sexual profligacy of slaveholders in Rhys’ fiction, as in the character of Old Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea. Thomas read both The Black Exercise Book and Smile Please as portraits of Rhys’s great grandparents. About these works Thomas argued that ‘altered language refers to what is unspeakable through ellipsis and concealment’. Thomas showed how Rhys was subjecting her slaveholding family history to a critical lens in several novels where haunted language circles around ‘unspeakable traumas and family secrets’.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, ‘The Poet Who Doesn’t Know: Gabriele D’Annunzio’

British cultural historian and biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett shared excerpts and juicy details from her award-winning biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio, The Pike, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Costa Biography Award and the Duff Cooper Prize.

Hughes-Hallett introduced D’Annunzio (1863-1938) by relating his own description of himself as ‘the greatest Italian writer since Dante’. D’Annunzio was a writer but he was almost as famous as a seducer of women. Hughes-Hallet described his ‘astonishing’ success with women considering he was ‘an undistinguished little man’ with a receding hairline who wore excesses of perfume.

The political dimension of D’Annunzio’s life was equally astonishing. He was a fascist and proto-Futurist. He liked driving fast cars, flying in aeroplanes as soon as they were introduced and became prominent as a pilot and orator in the First World War. D’Annunzio described democracy as ‘a rising tide of gray sludge’ but nevertheless he won a seat in Parliament as an Independent, calling himself a ‘candidate for beauty’. Thereafter his writing became more nationalist and militarist and he called for a ‘baptism of blood’. The pinnacle of D’Annunzio’s political career came when he was asked to be the figurehead for protesting Italian soldiers over the annexation of Fiume in 1920, culminating in D’Annunzio’s naming himself dictator of the city rather than allowing it to go to the former Yugoslavia. The Italian government eventually intervened and D’Annunzio stepped down.

Hughes-Hallet called her biography The Pike after a nickname a friend had given D’Annunzio, but the name is apt considering the animal’s habit of lying low in shallow water, snapping at passing prey. Hughes-Hallet repeatedly drew attention to the difficulty of writing a biography about a subject who was not a good person, and to the attention she attracted for having done so. But she emphasized that there was no reason she needed to feel she had to like an individual in order to write an interesting biography about an interesting person whose life was never boring.

Please join us for our next two events, a workshop on Quest for Materials: Life-Writing Challenges’ on 1 November (Week 3) from 9am-4.15pm, Haldane/Florey Rooms, Wolfson College. To apply, please follow the link on https://www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/event/oclw-workshop-quest-materials-life-writing-challenges.

For our next lecture, Miranda Seymour will speak on the subject, ‘The Pity of War: The Longer View of England and Germany’ on 4 November (Week 4), 5.30-7pm, in the Haldane Room, Wolfson College. Please note the change of location to the Haldane Room.

New life-writing publication: Georgina Ferry, Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life 

We are happy to share this announcement from Georgina Ferry,  a member of the Advisory Board of OCLW:

2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry awarded to Dorothy Hodgkin, the Oxford X-ray crystallographer who was an honorary fellow of Wolfson College, in 1964. In time for the anniversary, Georgina Ferry’s biography Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life, first published by Granta in 1998, is being reissued by Bloomsbury Reader on 11 September in ebook and paperback formats.

Hodgkin (1910-1994) holds the distinction of being the only British woman scientist to receive a Nobel prize. From the 1930s she pioneered the use of a new technique, X-ray crystallography, to probe the three-dimensional structure of important biological molecules including proteins, antibiotics and vitamins. She was also a social activist and peace campaigner with strongly-held left wing views, who used her celebrity to fight for causes she believed in. As Margaret Thatcher’s former tutor at Somerville College, she personally lobbied her ex-student both on funding for higher education and on improved relations with the Soviet Union.

Ferry’s biography is based on an extensive archive of personal and professional papers held in the Bodleian Library, as well as interviews with many of Hodgkin’s contemporaries. Thanks to the support of the Hodgkin family – Hodgkin’s three children did not noticeably arrest her scientific career – she has been able to quote extensively from Hodgkin’s correspondence, bringing to light her private thinking on personal, political and scientific subjects.

———

Georgina Ferry is a science writer and author, and a member of the Advisory Board of OCLW

Guest post: Procrastination Conference at OCLW

For your those of you supposed to be working right now, but are reading this blog instead, conference organizers Liz Chatterjee and Danielle Yardy share their  illustrated and humorous summary of the ‘Procrastination: Cultural Explorations’ conference at OCLW in July. This conference was the winner of the OCLW-TORCH postgraduate conference award, and the competition will be repeated this year. Stay tuned for further details!

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Procrastination: Cultural Explorations
2 July 2014
Wolfson College, Oxford
http://procrastinationoxford.org

Frontispiece of Anthony Walker’s The Great Evil of Procrastination (1682)
Frontispiece of Anthony Walker’s The Great Evil of Procrastination (1682)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas de Quincey claimed it was worse than murder. Krishna declared it a sign of a degenerate soul. For Abraham Lincoln’s wife it was her ‘evil genius’. Estimates suggest that 80-95% of college students engage in it, and 20% of people are chronic sufferers. Even the Ancient Egyptians bitched about it in hieroglyphics.

Lollygagging, swithering, dithering, dillydallying, shillyshallying. Procrastination is ubiquitous—perhaps especially among academics and writers. Yet it remains curiously understudied. It is a dirty word.

One balmy July morning at the very unprocrastinatory hour of 8.30am, we set about rectifying the deficit. A host of bleary-eyed scholars, students, journalists and miscellaneous others straggled in with a variety of excuses. Our favourite: ‘Sorry, I accidentally came yesterday.’

A mere two months later, we’ve finally got around to summarizing the day.

 

The economic approach

Though the humanities haven’t got round to saying much about procrastination, other disciplines have. Economic historian Avner Offer opened by summarizing the state of the field. Rational choice theory can tell us how long we ought to delay. Behavioural economics can explain why we delay. But the humanities can tell us what procrastination feels like: ‘indecision is destiny’. As one participant later suggested, it is only through such cultural explorations—from Hamlet to Homer—that we can understand ‘the phenomenology of procrastination’ in all its richness.

Homer Simpson, icon of immediate gratification
Homer Simpson, icon of immediate gratification

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Avner concluded with some helpful advice about being more decisive. When to stop dating and put a ring on it? The optimal number of prospective mates to ‘sample’ is 37 (!!!)—or if you have lower standards, 12.

 

Procrastination, creativity, and form

Albert Einstein famously played the violin, while Keith Vaughan, mid-century British painter, prolific diarist and the subject of Alex Belsey’s presentation, was a prolific masturbator. The first panel tackled the fraught relationship between procrastination and creativity, the spectrum between Einstein’s creative ‘play’ and Vaughan’s self-loathing. Will May discussed poetry as product of and prompter toward procrastination, part of his broader project on the cultural history of poetry and whimsy. Rebecca Birrell later expanded this theme, with a sensitive exploration of contemporary poets Rachael Allen and Sam Riviere.

In his paper on The Tempest, Johannes Schlegel explored the possibility that procrastination describes the theatre, where the deceleration of real time to absorb theatrical time creates a meaningful stasis. Conversely, the modernist novel captures the flux of capital and commodity culture, argued Oliver Neto. Stephen Daedalus’s flânerie and the hybrid prose-poetry of Ulysses together evoke the widespread boredom of capitalist Dublin.

A flâneur, ‘botanising on the asphalt’ (Walter Benjamin)
A flâneur, ‘botanising on the asphalt’ (Walter Benjamin)

 

Resisting demonization

Ulysses thus offered an emancipatory opening in the face of colonialism and alienation. Later speakers took up this theme: the revalorization of procrastination as possibly positive.

Papers by Lilith Dornhuber de Bellesiles and Mrinalini Greedharry presented alternative subjectivities of procrastination. Lilith offered a theoretically robust ‘queering’ of mainstream conceptions of time, while Mrinalini considered procrastination as ‘an epistemological condition situated somewhere between awareness, habit, and unknowing’. Reading together postcolonial theory with Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling, she called for alternative—and more humble—forms of knowledge.

Two papers on francophone authors, by Anna Della Subin and Kamel Boudjemil, opened up more revolutionary alternatives. If procrastination depends on internalizing clock time, Anna Della argued, the debonair Egyptian novelist Albert Cossery lived and wrote a radical idleness entirely outside this model. The Marxist theorist Guy Debord chalked Ne travaillez jamais on a Parisian wall, Kamel noted; the booze-fuelled wanderings of his Situationist International attempted to subvert not only the notion of work but the bourgeois city itself.

 

Historically specific or human universal?

This raises the question of whether procrastination is a universal—all those hieroglyphic rebukes—or whether it is inextricably linked to a very specific ‘modernity’. Is procrastination a product of factory time and the Protestant work ethic, spread about the world via colonialism and the inexorable spread of capitalism?

Our speakers broadly agreed that perceptions and manifestations of procrastination are historically variable and culturally conditioned, from James Joyce’s Dublin to Cossery’s Egypt and the contested coffee houses of early-twentieth-century Baghdad (Pelle Valentin Olsen). Susanne Bayerlipp even uncovered procrastination in early modern letters. Young English travellers in Italy were chastised by their elders for sidelining their academic pursuits in favour of pleasure. The Erasmus program, she seemed to suggest, is named for the humanist scholar with good reason.

 

Samuel Smiles’ Victorian bestseller, Self-Help (1859)
Samuel Smiles’ Victorian bestseller, Self-Help (1859)

 

Self-Help

Nowhere is this cultural contingency more apparent than in the flowering of self-help literature, explored by our three final speakers. Susan Machum provided a devastating summary of the endless lists of advice in twenty contemporary self-help books, noting the message of individual responsibility they propagate. In contrast to the fluffiness of this literature, Barbara Leckie offered a witty reading of Middlemarch as an exploration of procrastination—with Casaubon as the everyman academic.

The closing keynote, by OCLW visiting scholar Tracey Potts, presented a genealogy of procrastination. The work forms part of Tracey’s Leverhulme-funded research project for her forthcoming book, Neither Use Nor Ornament: Friction and Flow in the Information Age.

Tracey argued that the demonization of procrastination is a form of biopower, achieved through the factory, the military, and the clinic. Attendees were alarmed to hear that ‘procrastination’ appeared (alongside ‘pouting’ and ‘stubbornness’) in the American Psychiatric Association’s 1952 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—as a direct import from the US military.

Swiftly procrastination became reconfigured not as a behaviour, but as a symptom of a pathological personality. This theme is continued in contemporary self-help books, more and more colonized by cod-neurobiology.

Tracey concluded the conference with a rousing call to resist moralization and medicalization. ‘The maths simply doesn’t stack up,’ she argued. Not all causes of delay are down to individuals ‘choosing’ failure. And, following Zygmunt Bauman, ‘indolent people are only a problem in a society of producers.’

 

Mañanarama

After a stimulating communal discussion—covering everything from zero-hours contracts to the masochistic writers’ aid ‘Write or Die?’ (link: http://writeordie.com/)—participants headed to the Mañanarama exhibition for some much-needed drinks.

The exhibition displayed a host of procrastinatory artefacts, including an Ostrich pillow (link: http://www.ostrichpillow.com/), a 91-year-old magazine advertising wacky invention ‘The Sleep Eliminator’, original documents from the Situationist International, and Tracey’s very own Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter—made, of course, while avoiding work.

Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter - Tracey Potts
Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter – Tracey Potts

 

The Cunctator Prize for the best graduate paper (sponsored by the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust) was awarded to Frank Hangler of the Oxford Internet Institute. His lively paper, ‘Cutting the Cord’, assessed technology as both the source of and solution to procrastination.

You can see the full paper, along with other exhibits, on our website (link: http://procrastinationoxford.org/2014/07/25/cutting-the-cord/).

‘The Hidden Cost of Gangnam Style’, The Economist, 3 June 2014
‘The Hidden Cost of Gangnam Style’, The Economist, 3 June 2014

 

 

Questions left to ponder

After the conference we were still left wondering: what exactly is procrastination? If we’re not happy with the economists’ model, how can we begin to define it? What is its relationship with cousin concepts, like idleness and boredom?

More terrifying was the realisation that maybe we academics are the peculiar ones. As Jane Shilling summarized for The Telegraph:

It was during a paper on Procrastinating Abroad that the God in the machine made an unexpected appearance. We were considering Hieronymus Turler’s 1585 warning to the concerned relations of 16th-century gap-year travellers: (‘Three things come out of Italy: a naughty conscience, an empty purse and a weak stomach’) when from somewhere in the roof came the clarion sound of a duo of distinctly unacademic voices engaged in an animated discussion of air vents. Above the sussuration of ruffled scholarly feathers, a quick-witted attendee remarked, ‘I hate to tell you, but they’re probably working!’

Interested? We’ll be debating all these questions and more next term at the Procrastination Seminar, on Wednesdays at 5.30pm at All Souls College.

Further details…are coming soon.

The Procrastination: Cultural Explorations conference was generously supported by OCLW, TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), and All Souls College.

 

 

Guest post: Geoffrey Wall’s ‘Sixteen Peremptory Injunctions to Myself as Biographer’

A summer treat for you: today’s guest post comes to you from biographer and Reader of Modern French at York, Geoffrey Wall, who shares his playful advice to himself on the art of biography.

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Sixteen Peremptory Injunctions to Myself as Biographer

Seize upon the detail, the flash of sense that evokes the person, the
place, the moment in history. No need to call it a biographeme.

 

Don’t spoil the shape of the story with cherished but inert
accumulations of fact. Don’t display your omniscience. It is of no
great interest.

 

Escape from the writing desk. Cultivate the sense of place. You will
never be your subject, but you can at least be there, in the same
place, though in another time.

 

Don’t wait until you know everything. Get writing: sketches, a time-
line, a speculation. Because you will never know everything.

 

Don’t conceal the gaps. Use them. The gaps are part of the story,
part of the effect. The gap is like the jump-cut in a film, a pleasant
little shock that will refocus the attention of the delighted reader.

 

Learn to inhabit the past, to walk up and down in it. Learn to read
old buildings, old maps, old newspapers, old drawings. What did
that room smell of? What were the sounds from the street?

 

Don’t moralise. You may disapprove of your subject’s sexual habits,
his political loyalties, his financial competence. Keep it to yourself.

 

Cultivate a generous intellectual amusement. You are allowed to be comic-satiric as well as sympathetic-evocative.

 

Learn to write the simple things, the things that don’t come easily,
description, dialogue and narrative. For this you must renounce
obstinate fantasies of intellectual omnipotence.

 

Don’t idealise your subject. Don’t be pious, benign and reverential.
Your subject would rather you were moderately demonic.

 

Attend to changes of tempo in the life of your subject. Some days
are gloriously picaresque, full of bold adventures, exotic landscapes
and strange encounters. Some days are havens of creative
stillness. Some days are boredom or misery. The larger truth lies in
the sequence, the progression, the transformation.

 

The inevitable dream-encounters with your cherished subject are an
excellent opportunity to speak your mind. Make the bugger listen,
for once.

 

Write a letter or two to your subject. Never post them.

 

You must be master of the archive, but also and equally master
of the subjunctive. Explore the might-have-been, the path not
taken, the life not lived. Where does your subject keep those buried
treasures?

 

Conjecture: originally, a throwing or casting together. Legitimate
conjecture flows from your sustained, playful, obsessive, inward,
conversation with the subject. Conjecture needs to come clean. Let
the reader to be your judge.

 

Without that lucidly affectionate union of the archival and
conjectural, how can you produce that compassionate effect of the
real, that sudden and delicately compelling enlargement of human
sympathy that constitutes the principle intellectual pleasure of the
genre?

 

Geoffrey Wall
2014

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Geoffrey Wall is the author of Flaubert: A Life (Faber, 2001).  More recently, he has published The Enlightened Physician (Peter Lang, 2013) which explores the medical-political world of Flaubert’s father.  Geoffrey Wall is currently working on a biography of George Sand for OUP. Alongside that project, he is also compiling a series of life-history interviews with twelve political activists: Quakers, anarchists, feminists and Trotskyists.

Guest post: Alexi Baker on science, sales and spectacles in 18th-century London

Today’s guest post brings together early modern object studies and life-writing: Dr. Alexi Baker (Cambridge) shares her research on the life and innovations of an 18th-century optician and instrument maker, George Willdey.

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Selling toys and tech in 18th-century London

I have now finished the best Burning Glass in the World, and plac’d it upon the Top of my House; it produces a Heat many Degrees exceeding that of the most Artificial and hottest Furnace, and in less than a Minute melts Iron, Gold, Silver, Copper, or Brass [… it will also] serve for a Hot Bath [… and] for a Sun Kitchen, where Meat may be Boil’d, Bak’d, Roasted, Stewed, or Broil’d; Coffee, Tea or Chocolate made […] It and its surprising Effects are shew’d Gratis to any of my Customers, that lay out Five Shillings, or more with me; provided the Sun shines, and the Air be Clear. N. B. This far exceeds that show’d in the Privy Garden in White Hall, though each Person paid Half a Crown for the Sight of that.

Post Man and the Historical Account, 22 October 1720.

George Willdey, who contributed this pseudo-scientific spectacle to the theatre of early eighteenth-century London, ran a popular optical and ‘toy’ shop near St Paul’s Churchyard. His copious advertisements painted it as a stylish and luxurious Aladdin’s cave – full of technologies and curiosities, jewellery and fabrics, paintings and maps, cutlery and china, toiletries and elixirs, and snuff and hot beverages. These toys were intended for adults rather than children.

To modern eyes, most of these goods, and the flamboyant rooftop spectacle, seem far removed from Willdey’s training in the ‘scientific’ instrument trade. However, before the advent of the unified Victorian field known as science, proto-scientists like the Fellows of the Royal Society pursued a great variety of interests and activities. Similarly, the objects that curators and scholars today call scientific instruments were actually more akin to modern technology, which is used for far more than just science.

Early modern instruments were called optical, mathematical, or philosophical. Most mathematical instruments had a graduated scale for performing calculations or for measuring angles or distance (e.g. drawing instruments, sextants, globes, etc.). Optical instruments involved glass or metal lenses and mirrors (e.g. microscopes, telescopes, vision aids, etc.). Philosophical instruments were for the demonstration or investigation of natural phenomena such as magnetism, electricity, and the attributes of air (e.g. air pumps, planetaria, electrical machines, etc.).

Most were produced in affordable as well as luxurious forms. They could be precision technologies, everyday tools, status symbols, or entertainments. Beyond science they were employed in activities including drawing, surveying, navigation, education, vision improvement, military and naval manoeuvres, and fashionable display. The London trade in these instruments was the most respected in the early modern world and also the most extensive, encompassing hundreds of shop-owners and thousands of supporting actors.

Understanding this wide-ranging trade, which I’ve been studying for a decade, requires piecing together many different types of evidence. This is true of early modern history at large, given the varying degrees of record-keeping and of rates of document survival. As I discussed at the OCLW’s inaugural Lives of Objects conference last year, it is sometimes specific biographies that lay bare the dynamics only hinted at in other sources.

George Willdey was a highly successful optician and toyman but was previously ignored by historians of science and technology. This was largely because he was a fashionable diversified shopkeeper – note the unscientific air of frivolity – and because it was commonly but wrongly assumed that he did not make his own instruments. However, his partial shop accounts, which I discovered during my doctorate, are the only ones known to have survived for an instrument maker before at least the late eighteenth century.

Advertisement for Willdey's shop
Advertisement for Willdey’s shop. Copyright National Maritime Museum.

Willdey moved to London from Staffordshire and served an apprenticeship with the Spectaclemakers’ Company beginning in 1695. He then opened a shop in Ludgate Street with a partner, selling spectacles and optical instruments in direct competition with his former master and employer. This led to a brief but vitriolic advertising war, with the older men labelling Willdey’s ‘foul Language no better than Billingsgate Railing’ – in other words, no better than the strident harangue of the fish hawkers at Billingsgate Market. In return, the tradesman and his partner accused the older men of ‘Envy and Malice’, and challenged them to public comparisons of their products.

In 1709, George married Judith Sene or De Senne, who was of French Huguenot descent. Within two years of marriage, the toyman separated from his partner and went on to run his own fashionable and increasingly diversified retail and wholesale shop at the corner of Ludgate and St Paul’s. His new French Huguenot connections, which were further strengthened when his daughter Jane married into a well-known goldsmith family, fostered this diversification. These ties would also provide loans, suppliers, customers, and apprentices including an unusually high proportion of women – one of whom would go on to manage the store for two generations.

Willdey constantly expanded his stock, but his optical instruments often took pride of place in his advertising and self-identity and remained a large proportion of the wares sold and especially bartered. Telescopes, spectacles and instrument tubes were the main currency with which the optician bartered with other luxury retailers and manufacturers in order to diversify but also to get raw materials. Here is one of the two surviving telescopes that I have so far been able to attribute to Willdey: http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/43734.html

This barrel of this non-achromatic telescope is covered in black rayskin, while the four draw tubes are made of green leather and decorated with gold tooling. The lens holders and other fittings are made of ivory, but all the lenses and eyepiece fitting are missing. Black rings around the draw tubes indicate the optimum length in use.  A handwritten inscription around the base of one of the draw tubes names 'George Willdey', an optical instrument maker working in London in the early 18th century. Copyright National Maritime Museum.
This telescope, one of only two surviving Willdey telescopes identified so far, is covered in black rayskin. It has four draw tubes in green leather and gold tooling – one of which was hand-signed by the toyman – and ivory lens holders and other fittings. Its lenses and eyepiece fitting are missing – although they survive in the other Willdey telescope in Germany, which has silver fittings engraved with a maker’s mark rather than ivory. Copyright National Maritime Museum.

Wholesale customers ran the gamut from makers of apparel and jewellery and cutlery and toys, to those of maps and books and maritime goods. They even included other members of the instrument trade in London. This shows that a wide range of tradesmen across Britain and Europe – including in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands – recognised that their customers desired instruments.

The optician sold and bartered thousands if not tens of thousands of instruments – mainly tubes, spectacles, telescopes, burning glasses, microscopes, and reading glasses. He offered a wide variety of fashionable styles and price levels of each item, at both the retail and wholesale levels, and was also an agent for tube makers.

There are many indications that Willdey achieved impressive financial success and socio-economic status during his career. He was the longest-serving Master of the Spectaclemakers’ Company for most of the long eighteenth century. He even counted members of the Royal Family amongst his customers, and one newspaper commemorated him as ‘the most noted Toyman in Europe’.

The optician died with two comfortable homes, fashionable trappings including a carriage, and an estate worth more than £9000 despite having been ill towards the end of his life. As late as 1750, the poet Mary Jones would still be writing wistfully of withstanding the ‘temptations thick and strong… [to] stop At Wildey’s toys’.

Willdey’s example indicates that the instrument trade of early modern London as well as its exporting and bartering were even more extensive than previously thought. It reinforces that women were deeply involved in facilitating the trade, a factor which was previously ignored. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it emphasises the extent and importance of those elements of the trade which served a fashionable clientele and intersected with other retail specialties.

A life once entirely ignored in the history of early modern technology, has now been revealed as one of its most illuminating!

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Alexi Baker completed a doctorate at the University of Oxford in 2010 on the trade in optical, mathematical, and philosophical instruments in eighteenth-century London. She was a post-doc on Simon Schaffer’s Board of Longitude project  at the University of Cambridge from 2010 to 2013. Dr Baker is currently a Mellon/Newton Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH).

Guest post: ‘Biography from below’ with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Today we are privileged to have Philip Carter of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography walk us through the process of constructing a new entry for the ODNB. In this case the details about the subject Henry Croft were crafted together from many sources in what might be called an obscure, yet regal, life.

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If not the broomstick, the sweeper. Biography from below.

In the mid-eighteenth century biographical writing took something of a democratic turn. In place of didactic characterizations of virtues and failings came an interest in the complexities of an individual life investigated and understood. Samuel Johnson is often held up as a proponent of this more personable form of biography—notably in his life of Richard Savage (1744) and essays in the Rambler and Idler—which is well captured in his gauntlet that there ‘rarely passes a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful’.

Johnson’s interest in biographical writing grounded in human estimation and intimate acquaintance dramatically broadened the scope for biographical subjects – animate or otherwise. Well ahead of the early 21st-century publishing trend for ‘biographies’ of cod, salt, Paris etc., Johnson famously claimed he ‘could write the life of a broomstick’. Johnson, moreover, was not a lone voice. Introducing his pictorial Biographical History of England (1769), James Granger set out a study based on twelve hierarchical classes, beginning with ‘monarchs’ and ending with ‘with ballad-singers, chimney-sweepers, and beggars’.

Granger’s interest may seem surprising to us, but this plurality of lives was a common feature in late seventeenth and eighteenth-century works of collective biography in which (beginning with Thomas Fuller’s Worthies of England, 1662) mechanics, pirates, and chancers rubbed along with their social superiors. Moreover, it’s a spirit that prevails in the eminent descendants of Fuller and Granger: the Dictionary of National Biography—which first appeared between 1885 and 1900 under the founding editorship of Sir Leslie Stephen—and its successor, the Oxford DNB, which was published in 2004.

It’s often presumed, mistakenly, that—as a late-Victorian work of national record—Stephen’s DNB must be a gathering of the ‘great and the good’. In fact, the first DNB took much from these earlier biographical collections and from compendia of what we’d now call ‘human interest stories’, such as the Gentleman’s Magazine. Today, Stephen’s Dictionary lives on as the much enlarged and re-written Oxford DNB, a research and publishing project of Oxford University and OUP. In 2004 when it first appeared, in print and online, the Dictionary included biographies of 54,922 individuals active between the Roman invasion and the late-twentieth century. The work of more than 10,000 specialist authors, the ODNB was (as it continues to be) the world’s largest collaborative research project in the humanities.

Since 2004 a small team of academic editors has continued to extend the ODNB’s coverage in regular online updates. Part of this work focuses on the ‘recently deceased’ (no living people are included), with a rolling project to add entries on noteworthy Britons who died in the opening decade of the twenty-first century. Here the need is to infuse contemporary assessments, carried in newspapers obituaries (invariably written while their subject was still alive), with a historical perspective that will stand the test of time.

In addition to these shapers of modern Britain, ODNB editors also look further back—adding new biographies of men and women active across all historical periods. Many of these recent additions are people remembered (and therefore worthy of inclusion) for a single act or event in a life that’s otherwise obscure. The task here is how best to reassemble a shadowy human story to create a full narrative, from birth to death.

This is a challenge but one greatly aided in the past 5-10 years by a boom in digitized records that make accessible, as never before, the nuts and bolts of life writing. In Britain, these include (to name just a few) the census returns from 1841 to 1911, registers of births, marriages, and deaths, parish registers, wills and probate statements on ‘wealth at death’, military service records, and national and provincial newspapers from the late-seventeenth century. With such resources we’re able to continue a longstanding British biographical tradition: recording lesser-known lives and creating collective biography ‘from the bottom up’.

Take, for example, Henry Croft (1861-1930), founder in the 1890s of the London tradition of Pearly kings and queens whose dynasties continue in boroughs across the capital. Online there is no shortage of references to Croft and his ‘pearlies’, but it soon becomes clear that much of this material is partial, anecdotal, and derivative.

Writing a first-time biography always requires a ‘way in’ to the life. For Henry Croft this came via another new online resource, the Pathé news archive, which revealed a one-minute silent clip of a funeral procession for ‘the King of the Pearly Kings’ broadcast in January 1930. This was our starting point. With an approximate death date it was possible to search the digitized indexes of the General Register Office with a degree of precision—imagine how many ‘Henry Crofts’ died in ‘London’ (or elsewhere) sometime in the early to mid-twentieth century. Having found Croft’s death certificate we now had his final residence (the St Pancras workhouse), his profession (a corporation road sweeper), and his age at death (68 years). With the latter we could search the registers for ‘Henry Crofts’ born in 1861 or 1862, his known birth date. This, in turn, revealed that our man had been born on 24 May 1861, remarkably in the same St Pancras workhouse.

With these few markers it was possible to trawl the census returns for 1861 onwards to fill out details of Henry’s wider family: his parents and siblings, and their moves between the tenements of inner city London. Luckily, we also had a reference to Henry’s wife, Lily, who witnessed his death certificate in 1930. Next came a search of marriage records for Henry Crofts marrying women named ‘Lily’, ‘Lillian’, etc. across London from 1880 onwards.

This led to Lily Newton (1874-1940), daughter of a Kentish Town house painter, whom Croft married in February 1892. From here it was possible to piece together their married life, using the censuses for 1901 and 1911. By this date Henry and Lily had eight children and were living at 15 Charles (now Phoenix) Street (close by the British Library), the same address given by Lily on her husband’s death certificate 19 years later. In both censuses Henry gave his occupation as ‘road sweeper’, employment he retained until his retirement in 1928.

The outline of Croft’s biography was now in place. But what of his life as the original Pearly King, the reason for his intended inclusion in the ODNB? It’s worth remembering who we’re dealing with. Though the Pearly tradition is now well-known, its founder lived on the lowest rungs of London’s social hierarchy. Henry was poor, and very poorly educated, and there would be no personal papers with which to flesh out the life.

At this point online newspapers came to the rescue, making it possible to search across national and London titles for occasional glimpses of Croft as a pearly king. Just a few years ago finding such references would have been pure chance. Now it was possible to trace Henry’s first known appearance as a public figure: a 1902 magazine article which introduced ‘Mr Croft’, the ‘Pearlie king of Somers Town’, replete with a handmade suit of 5000 buttons. Later newspaper references identified Croft in various ‘pearly’ roles: raising money for charity, taking part in annual horse and donkey shows, and even a meeting between Croft and Edward VII at Olympia in 1907. Searches of local London papers also brought to light several death notices which provided further details of Croft’s personal and public life.

Starting from a short, silent film clip we now had enough to write Croft’s story for the first time. So Henry Croft entered the Oxford DNB in a recent update. If not the broomstick, at least the sweeper; the man who began as a beggar and ended as a monarch. Hopefully Johnson and Granger would have been pleased.

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Philip Carter is Publication Editor at the Oxford DNB and a member of the History Faculty, University of Oxford.

Guest Post: Review of IABA 2014 Conference, Part III of III

Seraphima Kennedy reviews the third day of the IABA Conference in Banff in this final installment of her three part guest post series.

Crash! Fictional Transits, Neoliberal Stories and Indigenous Representations

The Banff Centre emerged as a sparkling venue for a conference of this size, not only because of the spectacular scenery and great food. As well as a fully stocked library open to text-hungry delegates, the centre’s programme of residencies for emerging artists meant a quiet drink in the bar could be spiced up by a percussion performance, jazz guitar or saxophone solo.

By the final day of IABA 2014, delegates had encountered tranquil species of deer in the surrounding grounds, and some had even seen bears in the national park. We watched an elk swim from one side of the river to another at the same time as new areas were opening up in the field of life writing and creative practice.

Elk crossing the river_post 3

bridge_post 3

 

Much new work was pulling auto/biography into uncharted territory. Delegates extended their analyses away from the academic ‘ivory tower’ to the real world implications of memoir’s life writing cousins: the fourth wave of human rights narratives (Margaretta Jolly), the unique human rights work accomplished by semi-autobiographical texts (Meg Jensen), zines about suicide (Anna Poletti), testimonies of child soldiers (Kate Douglas), and narratives written by legal representatives of Guantanamo inmates (Terri Tomsky).

An awareness of place returned on day three, as critics examined the relationship between mainstream Canadian culture and Indigenous Literature. Laurie McNeill presented a valuable critique of one university’s pedagogy of decolonization in relation to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission directives. How can instructors create an ethical awareness without allowing testimonies to be simply consumed? This was a practical, as well as an ethical concern.

For Caitlin Elm, the critical tools available for reading indigenous texts were insufficient. In the current framework, she argued, indigenous texts are inevitably colonized in their very production. There was a lively discussion from the floor about whether acts of resistance can avoid being forced into a canon. ‘The way to meet cultures,’ said Sharron Proulx-Turner, ‘is to witness the culture rather than manipulate for a western ‘I.’

Janice Hladki’s analysis of visual artist Kent Monkman’s practice raised important questions about memory and affect, with Monkman’s video character ‘Miss Chief Eagle Testickle’ interrogating the ways that countermemorial artworks can reclaim/recast dominant narratives. Using elements of Hollywood melodrama and the Bluebeard saga, Monkman satirically deconstructed nation-state celebrations of white settler histories through the paradigm of an S&M relationship.

In the final keynote address, Rocio Davis reversed the analysis, looking at the embedding of fictive autobiographical narratives within contemporary novels rather than sifting representation for fictive constructs. Using Michael Ondaatje, J.M. Coetzee, Dave Eggers and Ruth Ozeki, Davis examined the transits between fiction and nonfiction in twenty-first century novels.

Davis went on to question the difference between a ‘sense of truth’ and ‘faking it’. Is it ‘truthiness’ rather than truth that readers seek in memoir? As Ondaatje himself said in an appearance at Wolfson College, Oxford earlier this year, wanting a ‘feel of memoir’ about your book is very different from writing an autobiography. The fact that an author’s presence slips in and out of a text does not mean the book is autobiographical.

This sense of narratives being made somehow more ‘real’ by authorial interventions moved in interesting directions in Davis’ discussion of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. ‘I am writing this and wondering about you somewhere in my future,’ Ozeki’s story begins. Davis referenced a metatextual discourse in which cognitive pleasure arises from the reader’s understanding of narrative mechanics. Memoir and fiction are locked in productive tension, each providing a fundamental quality the other just can’t match.

This tension was foregrounded in John David Zuern’s dissection of US memoirs written after the economic crisis of 2008. Pinning down the idea of post-crash memoirs as transitory texts, Zuern highlighted the transits of the memoirist’s self into pre-written narrative modes, and argued that austerity had led to a ‘precarization of the self’ in which the centre does not hold.

Emily Hipchen gave a thrilling paper on the construction of Steve Jobs in Walter Isaacson’s memoir of the same name. Hipchen showed how Jobs’ life is narrated in orbit by his status as hyper-capable human, traumatised adoptee, and ‘supercrip.’ There was a lightbulb moment in the discussion between Hipchen and Craig Howes when the relevance to liberal ideology, the self-made man and the Superman story was noted. This was the kind of electricity of which the best intellectual discussions are made.

IABA 2014 showed that traditional genre boundaries can be inadequate when discussing life writing in the current moment. Beginning with Carolyn Miller’s discussion of genre as social action before moving through human rights, selfies and post-boom memoirs, delegates demonstrated the capacity of life writing in all its forms for ‘holding disparate moments in tension’ (Julia Watson). This was also the capacity to create and to consume, to allow unheard voices into the cultural archive, and to hold up the stories that are written down against those that are forgotten.

Literature is often placed in a different category from memoir on the one hand and autobiographical acts on the other. At IABA 2014, delegates asked how the three are interlinked. Do different ethical standards apply to a fictional rather than a life writing text? What are the transits between high literature and human rights testimony? How do we create new methodologies to respond to lives, narratives and other forms of self-representation that are constantly in motion?

Perhaps we can look to Ozeki’s text, in which the main character’s father finds an internet app that allows him to erase his daughter’s name from the internet. In light of the EU/Google ‘right to be forgotten’ case, this travelling concept illustrates the transits between fiction, life writing, and contemporary culture. As we interrogate life writing texts and practices, we can perhaps concur with Ozeki: ‘Life is full of stories – or maybe life is only stories.’

Guest Post: Review of the 2014 International Association for Biography and Autobiography Conference, Part II

In part two of a three-part series, Seraphima Kennedy reports back from ‘Autobiography in Transit,’ conference of the International Association for Biography and Autobiography in Banff, Canada.

Biotexts, Justice and the Metonymics of Pain 

By the second day of IABA 2014, standards were already high. The Banff Centre, tucked into one end of the Bow River Valley, delivered stunning views of ice-capped Rocky Mountains from each of its lecture rooms. A lunchtime walk meant bumping into dainty groups of white-tailed deer emerging from the forest to nibble roadside grass. The breakfast buffet was a destination in itself and, this being Canada, the swimming pool came with a hot tub.

Of course it wasn’t all about the buffet. Many of those assembled were international scholars at the top of their game, and new themes quickly emerged. The conference was marked by a focus on ethics, the interplay between verbal-visual matrices, comics, the internet, geography and new methodologies for reading and writing life narratives.

Leigh Gilmore’s paper, ‘Getting a Handle on Pain,’ took up Carolyn Miller’s challenge in the first keynote to extend life writing theory from the verbal to the visual. Examining the use of metonymy and synecdoche in memoir book jackets, Gilmore showed how stories of chronic pain often use images of body parts to stand in for a frailty that’s also a punishment. Following Susan Sontag, Gilmore argued that, as readers, we need to hold ourselves accountable for how we look and read, ending with a call to develop new critical tools.

Sidonie Smith raised similar concerns around ethics and methodology in her paper ‘Auto/biographical Transit on the United States – Mexico border.’ Smith used the skills associated with close reading to critique a form of visual practice by artists in the ‘State of Exception’ exhibit, noting how in this exhibit (and in real life), undocumented migrants pay the price of transit with loss and even death. This paper reflected the concern of many academics at IABA that the practice and critique of life writing should not just be theoretical.

What was at stake in life writing, for many of those present, were the real world implications of individual and collective transits. Dynamics of space and geography were also important for Alfred Hornung, who discussed the Chinese management of Tibetan autonomous prefectures. Hornung explored a coexistence of different forms of life writing on Tibetan land, ranging from Han Chinese attempts to impose bureaucratic processes through inscriptions on hillsides and stone markers relating to the Long March, to Tibetan prayer flags and evidence of sky burials.

For this writer, the panel on ‘Comics and Justice’ provided a high point: Candida Rifkind, Eleanor Ty and Julia Watson all gave insightful analyses of very different forms of life writing practice.

Julia Watson’s presentation on Iranian writer Parsua Bashi’s Nylon Road took up the challenge of life writing in the verbal/visual matrix. Watson looked at ‘the affordances of comics for holding disparate moments in productive tension,’ and argued that the graphic memoir can ‘help us sharpen our notion of what transnational memoirs can do.’ The inherent instability in comics, she argued, produces ‘both confusion and new possibilities for autobiographical subjects in transit.’ This was thrilling stuff.

The second keynote speaker of the conference was Fred Wah, Professor Emeritus in Poetry at the University of Calgary. Born in Saskatchewan in 1939 to Chinese- and Swedish-Canadian parents, Wah grew up in a succession of cafés and restaurants, the memory of which heavily influenced his most famous collections of poetry, Waiting for Saskatchewan (which won the Governor General’s award) and, more recently, the acclaimed Diamond Grill.

Wah slipped between the academic and poetic, weaving extracts from his ‘biotext,’ Diamond Grill, into notes on the history of the long form poem in Canada and the discourse of multiculturalism. Emphasising the use of the cadence in Diamond Grill, Wah said that he aimed to challenge the ‘tyranny of the sentence’ as a closed measure of thought. Like Michael Ondaatje, Wah’s writing embodies a formal hybridity and playfulness that seeks to transcend its immediate environment.

For Wah, the idea of ‘place’ becomes ‘a crucial and dynamic term for how we negotiate our literature.’ Yet ‘place’ is not static: there is a sense of movement between and across nations, and through fluid identities. Wah’s sense of place is defined by the swinging door in his parents’ Chinese café, an open metaphor operating throughout much of his work. This allows him to locate himself within the ‘swinging door’ of the hyphen, which is also the space between Chinese and Canadian.

This kind of formal innovation is the best kind of theory in practice, emphasizing the ways in which life writing can be used to broaden the stories in our cultural archive. ‘My foot registers more than its own imprint,’ Wah said, while through the big picture window in the lecture theatre two young deer hopped through the clearing between the mountains.

Next week: Crash! Fictional Transits, Neoliberal Stories and Indigenous Representations

 

Guest post: Review of the Conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography (IABA) 2014, Part I of III

Hello life-writers!

We are delighted to bring you another three-part guest post series this summer.  Seraphima Kennedy, a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, reviews aspects of the 2014 IABA conference in Banff.

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Conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography (IABA)

Auto/biography in Transit
May 29-June 1, 2014
Banff Centre, Alberta, Canada 

‘Autobiography in Transit’ and Theory on the Front Line: How IABA 2014 is Sounding out New Depths in Life Writing Scholarship

Canada! Migration! Being and illness! Ethics, artists, comics! The ninth international conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography took place from 29 May – 1st June at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada, its mission to investigate all things Life Writing-related. Seraphima Kennedy swapped Goldsmiths for the Canadian Rockies to report back. 

Ever seen a bear being paintballed out of a national park? An elk swimming across a river? Deer leaping across the path on your morning run? Delegates got more than they bargained for at the at the IABA 2014 conference at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, a multidisciplinary institution in a spectacular setting surrounded by ice-capped mountains, fast-flowing rivers and seemingly endless grasslands. The conference programme was packed with some of the biggest names in contemporary life writing scholarship and practice. In a series of three guest posts, I will outline some of the key developments in the field, while focusing on a couple of papers in detail which may be of interest to OCLW readers.

The topic of the conference, organized by Eva Karpinski, Laurie McNeill, Julie Rak and Linda Warley, was ‘Autobiography in Transit.’ Papers were invited on transit and transition as ways of interrogating how lives, narratives and other forms of self-representation are constantly in motion. Over three days delegates attended to a range of questions concerning the practice and critique of auto/biography, representation and transits of the self, and new methodologies of reading. Uniquely the conference also created a high-voltage opportunity for new scholars and graduate students to engage with expert mentors, through a dedicated workshop with contributions from Sidonie Smith, Alfred Hornung, Craig Howes, Rocio Davis, and many others who were on hand to offer advice to early career researchers in the field of life writing publishing.

The conference proper began with a blessing from Elder Tom Crane Bear, caretaker of the land and a member of the Siksika nation. ‘We came up through the southwest where the chockecherries grow,’ he said, speaking about the journey of his people, the Blackfoots. Ideas of lives in transit, of movement both between and within life stories, were central to the conversations scholars would go on to have over the next few days during panels on Theorizing Human Rights, Representing Islam, Digital Futures, Nineteenth-Century Women’s Narratives, Neoliberal Stories, and Comics and Justice, among many others.

In her keynote address ‘Memoir, Blog, and Selfie: Genre as Social Action in Autobiographical Representations,’ Carolyn Miller treated the audience to a history of the self-referential portrait, linking genre expectations, social structures and Lejeune’s ‘autobiographical pact’ with James Frey, Oprah, and the ‘fifteen types of selfie.’ Could selfies be seen as a form of life writing? A lively debate set the tone for a stimulating and at times controversial three days, while the Twitter-sphere saw the emergence of a new kind of selfie – the ‘IABA 2014 selfie.’ This proved a popular genre among assembled scholars, and provided much entertainment over the course of the conference (look for #iaba2014selfie on Twitter, or scroll through #iaba2014 to see some of the best of these).

Elder Tom’s novelistic turn of phrase also pointed to an awareness of the links between critical theory and creative practice. This was reflected in the foregrounding of creative writers in the Life Writers Reading Series: Patrick Lane, Sharon Proulx-Turner and Fred Wah all gave stellar readings and keynotes that called into question the links between political and personal, national and international, domestic and public.

Sharron Proulx-Turner was generously sponsored by the journal a/b: auto/biography studies and Patrick Lane appeared courtesy of the Writer’s Union, bringing two of the finest voices in Canadian literature into the conference fold. The first day of the conference ended with a drinks reception in the stunning Tom Crane Bear Hall of the Max Bell Building, with views of the sun setting over the glorious Rocky Mountains. Métis poet Sharron read from a series of poems including ‘A Houseful of Birds,’ before talking about sealed records and the legacy of Canada’s Residential School system. ‘There was another story there,’ she read, ‘where a girl opened her mouth and inside was the universe.’ Sharron was a compelling speaker about the impact of trauma on her own writing, her methods of using autobiographical material, and a compassionate and singular presence throughout the rest of the conference.

Patrick Lane was just as frank with his discussion of the uses of autobiography, the writing process, fear of failure and his decision to start writing. Hinting at a combination of memory, experience and sense, writing for Lane was bound up with affect: ‘I can still feel those dark mountains, they rose like morning clothes from Kootenay lake.’ Somehow the act of writing coexisted with the fear of erasure, an awareness of not being fully represented: ‘’Canada did not exist, and neither did I. I wanted to exist,’ he said. These were powerful, intimate readings, highlighting some of the faultlines inherent in the theorization of writing about the self that would be plotted over the next two days. And, as Lane acknowledged, this was why we were there. ‘You guys are the academics,’ he said. ‘I’m just a writer.’

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Next week: Leigh Gilmore on ‘Getting a handle on pain,’ Fred Wah on hyphens and the swinging door, Julia Watson on comics and justice.

Seraphima Kennedy is a writer and final year Ph.D candidate in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London where she is also a Visiting Tutor in Creative Writing. Her practice-based research focuses on contemporary memoir and autobiography, with a particular focus on adoption memoirs. Seraphima writes poetry, fiction and life writing, and is currently writing her first novel.

Email: s.kennedy@gold.ac.uk

Twitter: @seraphimak

 

OCLW event: “Coetzee’s Lives” Colloquium, 13th June 2014

Today we have an event summary of the recent “Coetzee’s Lives” Colloquium at OCLW. This summary was written by English DPhil students Eleni Philippou and Erica Lombard with Professor Elleke Boehmer.

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The airy and finely crafted Leonard Woolf Auditorium was the perfect setting for the OCLW colloquium, the last of the year, on that arch artist, J.M. Coetzee, the South African (and now Australian) novelist and 2003 Nobel Laureate for Literature. Following on from a reading that J.M. Coetzee himself gave at Wolfson the evening before, the 13 June 2014 colloquium, entitled “Coetzee’s Lives”, sought through a discussion of Coetzee’s often self-reflexive work, to highlight questions of how we represent a life: how life might be used as material for fiction, and how life-writing takes fictional forms.

Prof David Attwell
Professor David Attwell

Organised by OCLW’s Deputy Director Professor Elleke Boehmer, together with English DPhil students Eleni Philippou and Erica Lombard, the afternoon began with a keynote address delivered by Professor David Attwell of the University of York, entitled “The Life of Writing in J.M. Coetzee: Autobiography into Fiction”. One of the world’s leading Coetzee scholars, Attwell shared with the audience some central observations from his forthcoming book, Face to Face With Time: the Authorship of J.M. Coetzee (2014), concerning how Coetzee has consistently, across his oeuvre, transmuted personal dilemmas and concerns into fiction. Based on his research into Coetzee’s newly available archive at the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas in Austin, USA, itself a highly crafted artefact, Attwell gave the audience a fascinating glimpse into the author’s writing process, revealing how Coetzee’s detached prose belies the deeply autobiographical and existential roots of his novels. Leading us on a deftly curated journey through the successive drafts of the novel that became Life & Times of Michael K (1983), Attwell detailed how Coetzee’s sparse, impersonal style is the end result of a long, painstaking, and sometimes painful, process by which Coetzee writes himself out of his work. In manuscript after manuscript, his life can be seen to give way or give up to fiction.

Coetzee's Lives panelAttwell’s keynote address was followed by a panel discussion between Professor Elleke Boehmer, Professor Patrick Hayes, Dr Michelle Kelly, and Professor Peter D. McDonald, all members of the English Faculty here at Oxford who have worked on Coetzee. The panellists’ responses to the keynote centred, firstly, on the implications of Coetzee’s archive as a curated “life”, with Boehmer suggesting that we might consider the archive, the work, and the life as three mutually illuminating aspects of Coetzee’s literary life. Secondly, the discussion turned to what Attwell’s research suggests about the location of the writing self in Coetzee’s work, and the critic’s desire to uncover the traces that remain despite Coetzee’s self-effacing process of writing.

The final section of the colloquium comprised a series of short papers presented by six early career researchers, including four current Oxford DPhil students. Each paper interpreted the colloquium’s theme “Coetzee’s Lives” in rich and innovative ways, and, indeed, covered the gamut of human life from motherhood and childhood to death and decomposition. The first speaker, Eleni Philippou, presented a paper entitled “‘Sons and Lovers Mothers’: Coetzee on Motherhood”, which highlighted the surprising resonances between the complex mother-son relationships in Coetzee’s memoir Boyhood and D.H. Lawrence’s autobiographical Sons and Lovers. Alicia Broggi followed with “Demythologizing Discourse ‘to make writing possible’: Calvinism in Dusklands”, a fascinating exploration of the ways in which Coetzee contends with and works out Calvinism, one of the shaping forces of his own Afrikaner history, in his first novel, Dusklands.

“Coetzee on Criticism; Coetzee and Criticism”, Andrew Dean’s paper, investigated Coetzee’s deep investment in exploring the limits of critical discourse, and how this impacts the formal aspects of his texts. Dean’s paper fitted perfectly with “‘Not poetry, economy’: J.M. Coetzee and Authorship”, Charlotta Salmi’s eloquent piece that considered Coetzee as a skilled craftsman, carefully balancing the act of personal confession with the reserve involved in the calculated crafting of words in fiction.

Jarad Zimbler’s paper, “Death Writing: An Essay in Decomposition”, followed. Conceived of as a kind of farewell as Zimbler prepares to move beyond Coetzee in his own work, this poetic experimental paper was an emotionally and semantically rich exploration of remains in Coetzee’s oeuvre. The colloquium ended on a lighter note with Erica Lombard’s “Making Fun of Coetzee”, a tongue-in-cheek yet itself in part autobiographical exploration of how Coetzee’s very serious, even godlike, status in South African literature makes the very act of criticism fraught for those wishing to speak about him in less-than-reverential tones.

Its title part-riffing on one of Coetzee’s own titles, The Lives of Animals, the colloquium in several ways embodied new “lives” for Coetzee criticism, and articulated a new boldness in approaching the links between life and fiction in his work. Wolfson President Professor Dame Hermione Lee ended the afternoon’s events by asking the senior Coetzee scholars where they thought the future of Coetzee criticism was headed, and how this had changed from when they had first started writing about Coetzee. Not only were these critics clear that they felt the “Australian” Coetzee provided critics with worthwhile avenues of research, but they also asserted that their current encounter with the new cohort of aspirant literary critics at the colloquium boded well for future work. If the OCLW colloquium could be held to offer a taste of where future discussion of the multivalent “lives” of Coetzee is going, then it would seem that various fascinating critical and representational possibilities are to come.

 

 

Lyndall Gordon: Seminar on ‘Writing Family Memoir’, 19th May 2014

On a sunny afternoon last week Lyndall Gordon presented to OCLW the first ever reading for her forthcoming memoir, Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter (Virago hardback 2014; paperback: spring 2015).

Gordon’s talk dealt with the motivations for and creation of her latest memoir, which is primarily about the relationship between herself and her mother. Gordon grew up in South Africa, from a young age acting as a partial caretaker for her mother. Gordon’s mother suffered from a psychological illness which was not discussed in the family, but for which she eventually took medication. Her mother’s illness and reclusiveness was somewhat like Emily Dickinson’s in that it was bound up in the writing and reading of poems and greatly influenced Gordon’s love of literature.

Gordon summed up one of the major issues in family memoir: ‘To write about family is to take as subjects people who most intimately shape our lives’. Gordon opens the memoir with a passage about being four years old and feeling the privilege of being with her mother when she is ill. Illness and the ill mother is a powerful theme for a writer. Gordon quoted from Virginia Woolf’s essay, ‘On Being Ill’, in which Woolf exclaims, ‘what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness’. Katherine Mansfield said of her own illness that it opened her eyes to her writing. In Gordon’s memoir, illness transforms their relationship, for the mother and daughter are alike as dreamers: the mother is a visionary – the daughter is to go on to explore what it means to be a woman.

Gordon’s generation explored women’s lib which she explained was a divergent path from the one her mother wished her to follow: to live in Israel. Gordon remembers being at Columbia University for her PhD and hearing Lionel Trilling speak about literature as being about the “hum and buzz of implication” just under the platform of history. This leads Gordon to question whether family narratives are predetermined – are they chosen from an array of narratives, a generated story familiar to history? A memoirist must attempt to avoid predetermined stories and challenge these popular narratives by plunging the subjects into a testing moment.

However, in writing a family memoir, Gordon warned us, family secrets arise, and it is these hidden things that are at the core of creativity (of the memoir and of the life). Each written life has a unique form – dictated by the life or the art. With memoir, we ask the question, might there be an underlying pattern to each life? This may be more obvious in great lives, but the practice of biography compels biographers to consider their own lives. It is important for the memoirist to distinguish between what is lively detail and what is digression. But the record itself still matters; we do need to know who we are. One secret Gordon discovered was a passionate but unconsummated affair between her mother and a charismatic Zionist man who inspired her mother’s wish that her daughter would go to live in Israel. This also regenerated the story of Gordon’s ancestors who had been Eastern European Jews who migrated to South Africa. This kind of information needs to be remembered and documented, Gordon said. This is only possible with access to family records, papers and letters which are so crucial to the family memoirist.

Continuing along these lines, Gordon asked, how do we turn papers and letters into the coherent narrative of memoir? Gordon’s answer reiterated her earlier thoughts about diverging from predetermined narratives to figure out which story you want to tell. Gordon found that writing the story of the mother and daughter’s shared love of literature was a wonderful experience but writing about the divide was difficult. She had to manage balancing truth from her own point of view alongside empathy for her mother’s.

Gordon has found her life is bound up with her mother’s even as it is and was divided. In a sense, both women’s stories are about thinking about migration and feminism. In her mother’s dedication to the unseen life, to being a poet as well as a mother, she paved the way for Gordon’s love of stories. Both women shared a commitment to literature, which led Gordon to the path of writing lives.

 

Guest post: OCLW conference, ‘Genius for Sale! Artistic Production and Economic Context in the Long Nineteenth Century’ on 8th May 2014

Below is Diana Greenwald’s summary of “Genius for Sale!” an OCLW conference organized by Diana Greenwald and Jonathan Paine:

Most academic conferences are discipline-specific— historians meet with historians, economists with economists, etc. The goal of “Genius for Sale! Artistic Production and Economic Context in the Long Nineteenth Century” was to break this pattern. This conference aimed to bring together scholars from a wide-range of disciplines who share an interest in the intersection between economics and the arts. Making interdisciplinarity of this scope successful is difficult. Co-organizer (and Wolfson student) Jonathan Paine wrote in his instructions to participants, “The challenge will be to retain the interest of specialists within each discipline while making sure that papers are accessible to a broader audience of academics in other disciplines who will be looking for themes of more general relevance.” The excellent group of speakers and discussants who participated in the conference not only achieved this goal, but also surpassed the organizers’ highest expectations.

Throughout the conference—in the introductory remarks, in the presentation and during the panel discussions—several recurring themes emerged. The first was an emphasis on the necessity of understanding the economic context of artists’ lives. This was the argument made in the introductions by Prof. Dame Hermione Lee and Dr. Philip Ross Bullock’ and in Narve Fulsas’ presentation about Ibsen. They all demonstrated that money concerns were central to famous writers’ and composers’ lives. This financial reality challenges an entrenched image of the starving artist who exists beyond monetary distraction. Going beyond this romantic myth and into Tchaikovsky’s, Henry James’ and Ibsen’s account books, Dr Bullock, Dame Prof. Lee and Prof. Fulsas scrutinized the personas that famous figures publically cultivated or that have been retroactively imposed on them. Prof. Karol Borowiecki’s presentation on the letters of famous composers also sought to examine a common generalization made about creative geniuses—that they are emotionally volatile and sad, and that this sadness is crucial to their creative process. Using instrumental variable analysis and drawing on recent research in the economics of wellbeing, he confirmed the existence of a link between negative emotion and creative output.

Prof. Borowiecki’s project was also representative of another attribute common to many of the presentations: the application of quantitative methodologies to sources and research questions that are normally the domain of qualitative research. Prof. Borowiecki’s work, along with that of Prof. Kathryn Graddy and Oxford doctoral student Diana Greenwald quantified evidence that is traditionally qualitative—letters, art exhibition records and descriptions of the color, line and other qualities of certain artists’ work. Converting qualitative evidence to quantitative allowed not only for the use of statistical tests, but also for a “zoomed out” view of evidence that is often examined word-by-word or canvas-by-canvas. From this perspective, one can see general trends that would be invisible when looking at smaller samples of art, literature or music in meticulous detail.

Finally, a number of presenters demonstrated that economics not only provides empirical quantitative methods, but useful theoretical lenses for understanding the arts. Dr Richard Taws’ presentation was organized around an in depth visual analysis of a painting by the French genre painter Swebach-Desfontaines. He situated the painting in the context of reciprocal flows of money, information and resources throughout the modernizing 19th-century French economy. These economic flows were not only relevant historical context, but the concept of flow also became an organizing structure for understanding the numerous complex themes at play in a specific work of art. Jonathan Paine and Prof. William Todd used economic concepts to analyze Russian literature. Paine proposed a framework for understanding how narrative behaves as an economic commodity, while Prof. Todd explained the sometimes-inconsistent behaviors of Russian publishers, editors, authors and state censors by viewing their choices through the lens of moral hazard.

The most important conclusion of the conference came from attendees’ reactions to the research presented. Their questions and comments made it clear that there is not only space, but rather demand for collaboration between humanities scholars and social scientists. The nuanced knowledge of sources provided by art historians and literary scholars paired with the empirical approaches of economists and sociologists can create potent arguments poised to overturn decades of received knowledge in different fields. As historian and presenter Prof. Robert Gildea said in his response to the last question of the day: “Now, it’s all up for grabs.”

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For more information, please see the conference website: http://www.artsandecon.com/conference/

 

Guest post: An exploration of narratives from Gandhian women

Today we bring you a guest post from Dr. Supriya Kar, a writer and translator from Odisha, India. In this post, she explores several narratives from Indian women whose lives were impacted by the Indian independence movement.

Choosing Untrodden Paths: A Study of Personal Narratives by Gandhian Women from Odisha

Exposure to the education system introduced by the British rulers created conditions for women in India to liberate themselves partially from the traditional constraints which had confined them to the sphere of domesticity. However, the freedom movement, especially after its character was transformed by Gandhian techniques of non-cooperation, brought about far-reaching transformations in their lives. Women in Odisha, a backwater in British India, responded to these changes with great enthusiasm as elsewhere in India. It is, therefore, not surprising that some of these brave Odia women chronicled the story of their struggle against not only alien rule but also against the oppressive norms of a feudalistic, caste-ridden society.

The personal narratives by Gandhian women from Odisha tell the exciting story of women stepping into the public sphere which had remained out of bounds for them. Their narratives may be thought of as part of the revolution in self-awareness, ideas and aspirations, exemplified in Gandhi and the freedom movement. While reading them, one is struck by the liberating effect of his ideas upon them. Gandhi woke them out of the stupor of contented domesticity, revealed to them new horizons, and helped them towards the understanding of a nation.

Gandhi nowhere seemed so human as when Annapurna Maharana (1917-2003) remembered the moment she first set her eyes on the Mahatma in her autobiography, Amruta Anubhav (An Experience of Bliss). For those who concern themselves with the emotional impact of Gandhi upon a sensitive person, Annapurna moves to the centre of the scene. In her own words:

‘I was dashing out to control the crowd, when I heard an old man calling out affectionately from behind in Hindi—‘Hey girl! Where’re you running?’ I turned back and saw Gandhi resting under a tree. A lantern burnt feebly by his side. An English lady wearing khadi, and another person were busy doing something. I boastfully replied, ‘To control the crowd.’ He gave a toothless smile and said, ‘All right, go on.’ Isn’t there an expression in English—‘love at first sight’? This was precisely what happened to me at that instant. A few words and a smile—it seemed as though we had known each other for ages—Gandhi became my most intimate, special friend.'[1]

Women left their homes, went to jail, picketed in front of liquor shops, and engaged themselves in constructive programmes like abolition of untouchability, spinning, and revival of cottage industries. They also toured villages and towns mobilising support for the freedom movement. Sarala Devi (1904-1986) dwells on this aspect of the movement in her unpublished autobiographical fragment, ‘Mo Jeevanara Eka Smaraniya Ghatana,’ (A Memorable Incident in My Life):

‘When I led the Satyagraha movement in Ganjam, I often gave lectures in villages against the British rule. I had been working day and night for two years. I would collect donations from people for party work and prepare people for civil disobedience without being afraid of going to jail.I would travel from one village to another, and felt quite contented with life.'[2]

Women who hailed from upper-class educated families such as Sarala Devi and Ramadevi Choudhury (1889-1985) had the support of their families to join the freedom struggle. On the other hand, for Godavari Devi (1916-1993) who belonged to a poor family in a village, stepping outside of the home had been traumatic, as her narrative Punya Smrutiru Khiye (Sacred Memories) reveals:

‘I was dumb-struck and I kept myself to myself. However, I had not given up, though I had become an object of everyone’s contempt and ridicule. At the same time, I could not figure out how I would be able to go to Puri to attend the Congress camp. I found myself completely at a loss. But I had got to go. I was now pitted against my family and nearly the whole village.'[3]

In sharp contrast to what Godavari endured and resisted, Ramadevi’s account provides a unique record of the times, which is interesting in its own right. A housewife at a lawyer’s house, she was also a keen observer of the changing social and political scene of British India. She recalls in Jeevan Pathe (The Journey of Life):

‘I saw the dire poverty that prevailed in villages in that area…At mealtimes, children in large numbers, who were brought in by their parents, were made to sit in rows. The plantain and lotus leaves in the area, which were used as leaf plates, were exhausted long before the stock of rice ran out. People used all sorts of bamboo baskets covered with cloth to take food. They ate even from cement floors washed clean. None of us brought back the spare clothes that we had taken with us. This was the condition of people in villages in Odisha at the end of the First World War.'[4]

The autobiographies of Gandhian women such as Ramadevi Choudhury, Annapurna Maharana, and Sarala Devi display their awareness of the wider situation prevailing in India, and their actual observations of life and society in Odisha. In this context, a close analysis of Annapurna Das’ (1922-2005) memoir reminds us that her basic preoccupations always extended far beyond politics. Hers was a soul seeking harmony within itself as expressed in these lines:

‘When I was a child, I would become absentminded looking at the riot of colours at the sunset sky. I would experience a melancholy joy while gazing at the setting sun. No one had any share in the feelings that filled me in these moments. How would I get an opportunity to go through such experiences in Kuansa? We used to go to river Salandi to take bath. I saw the beds of kasatandi flowers stretching along the riverbank; a police station lay below the embankment…I would visit the riverbank every day, stand alone and watch the sunset. When darkness fell, I would come back home.’ [5]

For Annapurna Das, the Gandhian search for truth takes on a whole new dimension and transcends the political.

[1]Annapurna Maharana, Amruta Anubhav, Sikshasandhan, Bhubaneswar, 2003, p. 212.

[2] Selected from Sarala Devi’s unpublished autobiographical fragments.

[3]Godavari Devi, ‘Punya Smrutiru Khiye’, Punyabati Godavari, Biraj Mohan Das(ed.), Sudipta Prakashani, Bhubaneswar, 1997, p. 43.

[4]Ramadevi Choudhury, Jeevan Pathe, Grantha Mandir, Cuttack, 1984, p.40.

[5]Annapurna Das, ‘Mo Piladina Akhire Bhadrakh’, Sikha. June, 2004. p.61.

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Supriya Kar (Dr.) is a writer, editor and translator from Odisha, India. She has received the Charles Wallace Visiting Fellowship (2008); Junior fellowship (2008-2010) from Ministry of Culture, Government of India; SRTT Library fellowship (2009) from School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University; and Visiting Scholarship (2011) to Wolfson College, Cambridge University for her work on autobiography.

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The OCLW blog is accepting guest submissions! If you would like to submit a guest post, please click here for details.

Funded Life Writing PhD scholarships at King’s College London

The Centre for Life-Writing Research and the Department of English at King’s College London is advertising for up to four funded PhD scholarships as part of the European Research Council funded interdisciplinary project ‘Ego-Media: The impact of new media on forms and practices of self-presentation’.

Please follow this link for further details, and please circulate to students it may interest:

http://www.jobs.ac.uk/enhanced/job/ait479.phtml

Closing date: 09-June-2014

Guest post: Part III of life-writing and poetry – on love and letters

Hello readers! Today we post the final part of Esther Rutter’s three guest posts reviewing the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry in April. Here Esther reviews presentations on the letters exchanged between the women of the Wordsworth and Coleridge clans.

Part III – Letters and reputations

The Wordsworth Trust’s collection of letters written by the women of the Wordsworth household and their circle provides a fascinating insight into their lives, relationships, and changing roles in this intricately connected family group. The first event of the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry, Women’s Lives through Their Letters, examined some of that correspondence in detail, in particular those by Sarah Coleridge (wife of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), Sara Coleridge (her daughter), and Maria Jane Jewsbury (great friend of Wordsworth’s daughter Dora). The talks were given by current trainees of the Wordsworth Trust, recent graduates who are on a year-long traineeship at the Trust to gain experience of working in museums and with literary archives.

Letters are a curious sub-genre of autobiography and a vital tool and resource for the biographer. As well as being the only means of communicating with someone who lived too far away to speak to in person, they were also a way of maintaining friendships and providing companionship, and to the biographer they are a huge help in deciphering the particulars of events and characters. In a time before telephones and the internet, before newspapers were affordable and widely available, letters were often the only source of information about the world outside your own house, village or town. Although a modern audience may assume that a letter is only for its addressee, letters were often written for whole households, to be read aloud to those family members who might be too blind, illiterate or busy to sit and read them alone. In the words of Maria Jane Jewsbury, whose letters to her sister were published in 1828 as Letters to the Young, ‘letters are a great deal.’

Maria Jane Jewsbury was a gifted writer who befriended both Wordsworth and his daughter Dora, who was almost four years younger than Jewsbury. Dora herself has recently been the subject of a fascinating dual biography with Sara Coleridge, The Poets’ Daughters by Katie Waldegrave, but a solo Jewsbury biography remains unpublished. Trainee Jessie Petheram focused on the letters between Dora and Jewsbury, which show that the friendship has the intensity of a love affair, particularly for Jewsbury. Her handwriting changes as her words to Dora become more passionate, as she struggles to contain her feelings: Dora is ‘enshrined in my heart’ and Jewsbury writes the following when she announcesher engagement to the Reverend William Fletcher: ‘And now dear Dora, prepare for a surprise…I was called on to decide whether I would be married or not. I found it a harder matter than expected – because I was not in love’.

Some of the surviving fragments of their communication still bear the (fortunately unfollowed) legend to ‘burn after reading’, words that both thrill and guilt-trip the reader.

Trainee Adam Lines has been researching the letters of Sarah Fricker Coleridge, the long-suffering wife of the brilliant but opium-addicted Samuel Taylor, who has not been well represented in the surviving letters of those who wrote to and about her. Dorothy Wordsworth described her to Wordsworth’s soon-to-be wife Mary Hutchinson as ‘a sad fiddle-faddler’ and Mary added insult to injury by calling her ‘a stuffed turkey’. She therefore cuts a rather marginalised and unappealing figure, with none of the greatness gifted to her husband or his friends, none of the quickness of Dorothy or the supportive domesticity of Mary. Her biographer Molly Lefebure calls her ‘the most maligned of great men’s wives’, painted as an ‘ill-tempered, unloved ninny’ by biographers of Wordsworth and Coleridge (The Bondage of Love, 1986). As Lefebure notes, biographers have tended to use the published letters of William, Dorothy, Mary and Samuel Taylor when researching their relationships with Sarah Coleridge, as – rather obviously – those letters are published and therefore readily accessible. Sarah’s letters have had no chance to defend her. Those letters are far less easy to access (most of them remain unpublished) and far less numerous. This is not because she wrote any less than other people of her time, but because she enforced a type of self-censorship in an effort to protect her husband’s reputation, destroying many of the letters relating to the early years of their marriage. Of the 200 or so that survive, those that do are often heart-rending in their emotional honesty.

One particular period of Sarah and Samuel’s lives which was brought to light in this talk was the birth and death of their son Berkeley. Before he left for Germany, Sarah and her husband agreed that she would not ‘burden’ him by writing to him about matters which would distract him from the reason he went there – to improve his mind and develop his writing. With the support of their friend and neighbour Thomas Poole, Sarah struggled not to involve her husband in the increasingly serious domestic crisis that had developed – the illness of their second son Berkeley, who was not yet two years old. Following an as-yet imperfect smallpox inoculation, Berkeley became seriously ill and Sarah finally broke the censure of silence to write to her husband: in her own words ‘I am sorry I let my feelings escape me so’. But the mechanics of the 18th-century postal service worked against her (this was a time before the penny stamp and when postage was paid by the recipient of the letter, not the sender): the letter was sent back to Somerset from the port of Yarmouth as the correct fee for sending the letter abroad had not been paid. In the meantime her husband had written to Sarah asking why he had not heard from her. This letter is just one in a cycle of missed communications, and culminates in the sad fact that it was many months before Samuel Taylor Coleridge knew of the death of his son. Sarah Coleridge puts her finger on the problem: writing to her husband, a man whose vivid imagination had produced ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’, she says, “I pray to God that I may never live to behold the death of another child, for O my dear Samuel! it is a suffering beyond your conception!”

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Esther Rutter labours daily at the Wordsworth Trust in an effort to convince people of all ages that William Wordsworth is not only an interesting poet but also a relevant one. She has a soft spot for Coleridge, De Quincey and other literary ne’er-do-wells. When not in the company of dead poets she can be found fell walking, singing, and playing the violin. She also edits Discriminating Brevity, reviews events for Grasmere Poetry, and is a guest blogger for Oxford Dictionaries.

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The OCLW blog is accepting guest submissions! If you would like to submit a guest post, please click here for details.

Guest post: Part II of life-writing and poetry – on motherhood

Hello again, dear readers! Here we have Esther Rutter’s second of three guest posts for you reviewing events and musing on themes from the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry this April in Grasmere. As always, do feel free to join the discussion in the comments section below!

Part II: Writing Motherhood: poetry and autobiography

Autobiographies are almost never written in verse, even those penned by poets. Yet poetry is often hugely and unapologetically autobiographical. Few English-language poets have even attempted to render their whole life story in verse, the notable exceptions being William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850), Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1881, with that title), John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells (1960) and Ian McMillan’s recent Talking Myself Home (2008). Even Samuel Taylor Coleridge chose to write his Biographia Literaria (1817) as prose. The fragile boundaries between fiction and autobiography in poetry are frequently blurred: Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was received as autobiography, although it is told as a fictional narrative, and indeed helped to create the idea of the ‘Byronic hero’, forever confusing the author with his creations.

Of course, almost all modern poets have drawn heavily on their own personal experiences to shape their poetry, but they tend to be individual events rather than life narratives. Wordsworth called these highly memorable events ‘Spots of Time’ – defining moments which change a person’s character forever. The Prelude could be read as a linked series of ‘Spots of Time’: the death of his father, ice skating on frozen Esthwaite Water, travelling to France on the brink of the Revolution, and so on. In this way, Wordsworth’s influence on subsequent writers was huge: there is not a contemporary poet alive who does not draw directly from their own life stories when developing their poems. In this way the recounting of individual instances are quite common in poetry, though not the large narrative scope of The Prelude. And what event could be more life-changing that than of producing another life, the act of becoming a parent? (Which, tellingly, Wordsworth never mentions, despite fathering six children.)

None of the autobiographical poets mentioned above are women. The Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry gave an eager audience the chance to hear three women poets talk about the relationship between poetic form and autobiographical subject through the lens of motherhood. Sinéad MorrisseyRebecca Goss and Carolyn Jess-Cooke  all draw inspiration from their experiences as mothers, collaborating on an on-going poetry project called ‘Writing Motherhood. ’ Jess-Cooke began by quoting the novelist Candia McWilliam’s epithet ‘every baby costs four books’ (just to help you win that esoteric pub quiz, McWilliam has three children and five books to date). The influence of motherhood on writing is clearly a two-way experience: for all three women, it has proved inspirational for their own poetry but also prevents them from writing as much or as often as they might otherwise like to do. It is the nature of this juxtaposition which forms the crux of their project.

The sheer intensity of the motherhood experience is, without doubt, the driving force behind ‘Writing Motherhood’, which aims to put those shared experiences of motherhood into the public sphere using poetry as the medium. As I said, poetry is not the preferred medium for autobiography; the popularity of programmes and books like ‘One Born Every Minute’ and ‘Call the Midwife’ attest to the obvious suitability and popularity of prose and the televised docu-drama for this subject matter. Jess-Cooke felt that the public discussion of motherhood was often very political and derogatory towards mothers, and felt that it called out for a new type of literary representation:

‘It completely and utterly blew me away, how much I could love another human being. It far surpassed all the negativity I had felt swamping around me. I urgently needed to find an art to express all of this, a language, a literary form. I thought first about writing a non-fiction book about motherhood, then a novel. Neither of them felt right (although motherhood is a prominent theme in ALL my novels) so I started writing poetry.’ (http://www.carolynjesscooke.com/2013/11/21/writing-motherhood/)

The need to use poetry as the medium for this experience is fascinating, as though the sheer emotions wrought by birth are not best-suited to the strongly narrative nature of prose. Jess-Cooke’s poetry focuses on the process of birth (‘scurf and residue of me on her scalp’) and the first few hours of life (‘the deflating dune of your first home’), the fears and overwhelming love that accompany the birth of a new baby (‘certain I could hold the life into you’), and the joyful struggle of choosing a suitable name for the new baby (‘ancestral honouring’).

Rebecca Goss’ experience as a mother who then lost her baby was particularly poignant because it was as much the poetry of loss as of motherhood. Her Birth, published in 2013, is intensely autobiographical, telling the story of the pregnancy, birth and short life of her first daughter Ella, who was born with a serious heart condition, and tragically died when she was a little over a year old. Goss spoke of the difficulties she had in talking about Ella after she died; well-meaning friends would ask ‘Are you going to have another baby?’, and she found it impossibly hard to tell them that no, she did not want another baby, she wanted the daughter she had lost. Something which, she said, she found it difficult to articulate in the post office queue! So she turned to poetry instead as a way to give voice to both her experience and her emotions, and from this came another sort of birth, the inception of what became Her Birth. This metaphor was made physical by Goss’s husband, who moved her writing desk into the space which had previously held her infant daughter’s crib: a ‘wise reclamation of the site’.

The overlap between the language of birth and the language of poetry is powerful and potent, not least because the two are symbolically linked yet rarely brought together. Sinéad Morrissey explores that relationship between creativity in language and creativity in birth: she looks back to the theory of spontaneous generation, plays with the nature of the word ‘eve’ (to capitalise or not ‘the breaking of E/eve’?), and ghosts her writing with the voices of her children: ‘in other noises I hear my children crying’. In a genre historically dominated by men it was hugely refreshing and inspiring to hear three women discuss the interplay between form and subject, bringing together poetry, autobiography and motherhood unashamedly together.

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Esther Rutter labours daily at the Wordsworth Trust in an effort to convince people of all ages that William Wordsworth is not only an interesting poet but also a relevant one. She has a soft spot for Coleridge, De Quincey and other literary ne’er-do-wells. When not in the company of dead poets she can be found fell walking, singing, and playing the violin. She also edits Discriminating Brevity, reviews events for Grasmere Poetry, and is a guest blogger for Oxford Dictionaries.

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The OCLW blog is accepting guest submissions! If you would like to submit a guest post, please click here for details.

 

Guest Post: Part I of life-writing and poetry at the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry

Hello life-writers! Over the next three weeks we’ll have a series of three guest posts from Esther Rutter, who works for the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. In each of her posts Esther reviews an event from the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry and muses on the intersections between life-writing and poetry.

Part I: What to do about Dorothy’s Journal 

Incest. Plagiarism. Exploitation. Any biographer of William and/or Dorothy Wordsworth is immediately faced with the challenge of these three hugely controversial matters when talking about the nature of the relationship between these two remarkable siblings. At the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women’s Poetry two Wordsworthian heavyweights, Professor Lucy Newlyn and Dr Pamela Woof, both of whom have published biographies of Dorothy Wordsworth in the last year, tackled these fascinating and thorny issues.

First, what to make of the charges of plagiarism and exploitation? The title of the festival is a nod towards the influence of life-writing on poetry: Dorothy Wordsworth herself is best-known not for her poems (of which there are very few), but for that autobiographical Journal which documented the life of the Wordsworths during the early part of their time at Dove Cottage. This place became the crucible for experiments in life-writing by this unusual and inventive brother and sister: William wrote large parts of his major autobiographical poem the Prelude (‘a poem on the growth of a poet’s mind’) and Dorothy penned her now-famous Grasmere Journal.

However, this journal was never written for public consumption: Dorothy wrote that she kept it ‘so that I will not quarrel with myself’ and ‘to give Wm pleasure by it.’ Yet Dorothy was a skilled diarist: she had already kept an account of their life at Alfoxden and would go on to write Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland in 1803, which she hoped would be published. Her wish never came true within her own lifetime; the Wordsworth scholar Ernest De Selincourt remarked that she was ‘the most distinguished of English prose writers who never wrote a line for the general public.’

However the impact of her writing is undeniable, particularly the impact of her journals on her brother’s poetry. The nature of this creative relationship is a fraught topic of literary debate, as William’s poems seem to draw heavily on Dorothy’s diaries for not only descriptions of specific events (seeing daffodils on the shores of Ullswater, travelling through London at sunrise) but even in their use of metaphors, similes, and the emotional response felt by the viewer. But what was the true nature of that creative relationship – did William stifle Dorothy’s creativity? Worse, did he appropriate her words and ideas and publish them under his own name? Did Dorothy subvert her own creativity in order to support her brother?

Lucy and Pamela’s readings of the creative relationship between the siblings are similar, though not identical, but both believe that this relationship has been wilfully and anachronistically misunderstood by biographers. Lucy began by saying ‘history has made Dorothy William’s acolyte’. Not William, not Dorothy, but the critical reception to their writing has interpreted their relationship thus. Both Pamela and Lucy agree that Dorothy was not an ‘adjunct’ to William, that there was no exploitative element to their relationship. Dorothy, Mary and William all read – or at the very least, heard passages from – the journal, and Lucy paints a picture of the three sitting down together in 1804 reminiscing about the walk by Ullswater in 1802, the siblings’ memories aided by the journal in an (albeit imagined) conversation which drew Mary into their shared history. ‘William later attributed the lines ‘They flash upon the inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude’ to his wife, and said of Dorothy ‘she gave me eyes, she gave me ears’, so this collaborative creativity seems to have been genuine, and in part acknowledged.

Secondly – could their relationship be described as incestuous? The dialogue also focused on interpreting one key episode in the Wordsworths’ lives: what happened between Dorothy and William just before his marriage to Mary Hutchinson in 1802. Dorothy’s journal entry of 4 October of that year details her actions and emotions, but this poses an irresistible challenge to biographers, for several lines of the journal are crossed out and cannot easily be read. Theories abound as to who crossed these out, and why – do they, perhaps, contain the suggestion of an incestuous relationship between the siblings? Pamela Woof relates how, in 1958, an early editor of Dorothy’s Journal, Helen Darbishire, took the manuscript to be examined under infra-red light in an attempt to decipher the words hidden beneath the unknown censor’s scrawl. This confirmed that the ink itself dates from the same time as that which Dorothy used to write the original entry, dispelling theories that a later descendent of Wordsworth, the censorious Gordon Graham Wordsworth, excised passages from the Journals in this way. Pamela’s own reading of the lines is not ‘and blessed me fervently’, but the distinctly less passionate ‘as I blessed the ring gently’. Yet Pamela does not deny the strength of feeling between the siblings: ‘Dorothy certainly was in love with William’, but for her the incest ‘myth’ is just that, not a credible theory about the nature of their relationship.

For Lucy the exchange of the wedding ring by William and Dorothy of the morning of the wedding is without doubt ‘an important ritual at a threshold moment.’ She reminds us that sisters were, at that time when unmarried sisters were often supported by their married siblings, central to the wider family dynamic. But for her, too, the incest theory holds no water.

But Dorothy’s life and writing should not only been looked at in relation to her brother – what about the language of those autobiographical writings? Frances Wilson, author of The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (2008) described it thus: ‘Her prose is defined by modesty and reserve, by the fear of what might happen were she to let herself go.’ This is, however, only one possible interpretation. Pamela Woof, quoting Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’, says that one ‘might see, and notice not’ – but that in contrast, Dorothy always notices. What Wilson sees as ‘modesty and reserve’ Pamela sees as acutely reflective, referencing the image of ‘hawthorn on the mountain like orchards in blossom’ as indicative of Dorothy’s passion for nature and ability to respond sensually and creatively to the world around her. Pamela revels in the ‘less concrete images’ from the Journal, images elusive yet present: ‘a hidden bird, ‘a breath of fragrance independent of the wind’, perhaps allowing them to represent Dorothy herself – someone who is present in both the diaries and her brother’s poems, but only as a fleeting, though inspiring, presence.

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Esther Rutter labours daily at the Wordsworth Trust in an effort to convince people of all ages that William Wordsworth is not only an interesting poet but also a relevant one. She has a soft spot for Coleridge, De Quincey and other literary ne’er-do-wells. When not in the company of dead poets she can be found fell walking, singing, and playing the violin. She also edits Discriminating Brevity, reviews events for Grasmere Poetry, and is a guest blogger for Oxford Dictionaries.

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The OCLW blog is accepting guest submissions! If you would like to submit a guest post, please click here for details.

Guest post: Searching for the ‘real story’ behind 18th century autobiography and conversion narrative

We have an early Easter treat for you with another guest post! Here, Bristol-based writer Lucienne Boyce considers the autobiography/conversion narrative of the eighteenth century figure Silas Told. As always, we look forward to reading your thoughts and responses in the comment section below.

“Instantly I felt it in my soul”: some thoughts on interpreting the life of Silas Told

Silas Told (1711-1779), Bristol-born sailor, slave-trader, teacher and Methodist, published his autobiography in 1786. A second (or possibly third; sources differ) edition appeared in 1790 entitled The Life of Mr Silas Told: Written by Himself. It is a fascinating tale. That, however, is the problem. As I read it, I became more and more convinced that it was a tale and not a true story at all. This was in spite of the fact that the book contains a great deal of detail, much of which is capable of corroboration, such as the names of streets, institutions, and ships. Furthermore, John Wesley has provided a “note to the reader” in which he recalls Told’s work, and there are references to Told in Wesley’s Journals.

Why was it so hard for me to believe that Silas Told’s were real experiences? The reason is that his book is so formulaic. It is a conversion narrative which so rigidly adheres to the rules of the genre it is difficult not to suspect its veracity. It also put me in mind of Daniel Defoe’s fictional Robinson Crusoe, with which it has much in common (in particular, the theme of Providence), and which in its turn was influenced by the conversion narrative.

These narratives, popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, followed a set pattern: the subject has an innocent childhood, a sinful youth/adulthood, suffers, repents, has a religious conversation and is saved. Such are the experiences of Told. After a childhood spent in “the bliss of the ever-blessed…Jesus”, he is apprenticed on a slave ship where, thrown into bad company, he is soon participating in the slave trade, “one of the basest practices under the sun”, swearing, drinking, and “overcome with…lewdness”. This causes him agonies: “I never was without fear of death, hell and judgement”. He quits the sea, vowing to live a better life.

Sometimes the narratives contain more than one conversion: an earlier one which lacks conviction, followed by a genuine conversion. Accordingly, Told spends some time amongst orthodox churchmen – “dead Christians” – before becoming a Methodist. Even then he has to wait several years before he attains true belief in his redemption. He spends the rest of his life teaching in Wesley’s school and ministering to condemned criminals at Newgate. This leads him into another form of conversion narrative, the Newgate narrative, where the criminal is brought to a sense of his or her guilt, confesses the crime, and dies knowing their sins are forgiven. Indeed, the last three chapters of The Life of Mr Silas Told are mostly taken up with Newgate narratives.

One of the major influences in Told’s narrative was Wesley himself. Wesley commissioned and published numerous spiritual autobiographies, and his ideology shaped them. Wesley’s tale of being rescued from a fire as a child is mirrored by Told in several accounts of his own childhood brushes with death, and these continue throughout his adulthood. Told also shares Wesley’s belief in the supernatural. One of his stories features a mysterious dog which disappears after leading Told and his siblings out of Kingswood Forest. Many of Told’s religious experiences involve supernatural events – twice he is touched on the head by invisible hands.

The result is that though Wesley encouraged, even required, his followers to share their personal experiences, the narratives are so structured that the personal seems to be lost. Told’s life is written in the language of Methodism and his interpretation of his experience is Methodistical. When he undergoes his first conversion on hearing Wesley preach “a still, small voice entered my heart with these words, ‘This is the truth!’ and instantly I felt it in my soul”.

What did this mean to Told? What are we to make of his experience when it is articulated within such strict guidelines it appears as if Told is simply writing what he thinks he ought to write – and feeling what he thinks he ought to feel? Yet we know there was a real, human experience behind these formulaic words, there was a Silas Told. The issue, then, for the modern reader and biographer is how to find it. This is particularly problematic in an age that does not routinely discourse of the soul, and to which Told’s language is archaic and alien. Indeed, if belief in the soul has been rejected, can we accept that the sort of experience Told relates was even possible? We may dismiss it as delusion, or an undiagnosed medical condition, or the result of stress.

Perhaps the subject could be explored thematically, by studying the cultural and social background to Told’s life and trying to place him in it. This could consider areas such as education, charity, slavery, Methodism, the criminal justice system and so on. A major theme could be an exploration of the conversion narrative itself, looking at how and where it originated, what influenced it, how Methodist narratives fit into the genre, and how people responded to it. Since men and women wrote conversion narratives there are gender issues to consider too. It has, for example, been suggested that Wesley planned to publish Hester Rogers’s autobiography as a female counterpart to Silas Told’s.

Another possibility is to focus on the action. Told’s was an exciting life, full of adventure, with sex, danger, violence and death aplenty in his voyages and Newgate stories. On these lines, it would be possible to portray his religion as heroic, in terms not only of the struggle with his internal demons, but the battles with hostile jailers who tried to prevent his Newgate ministry.

Which of these approaches (which need not be mutually exclusive), if any, would tell the story of Silas Told? Of course, this question leads into wider issues of whether it is even possible to convey someone else’s experience, to “tell” a life. These are important matters that need to be addressed, but my focus here is on Silas Told and his life. I am still pondering how to interpret “instantly I felt it in my soul”.

Bibliography

Bristol MShed, Silas Told, Sailor, http://mshed.org/explore-contribute/themes/transatlantic-slave-trade/workers-in-enslavement/silas-told,-sailor/

Burton, Vicki Tolar, ‘John Wesley and the Liberty to Speak: The Rhetorical and Literacy Practices of Early Methodism’, College Composition and Communication, Vol 53, No 1 (Sep 2001), pp 65-91, National Council of Teachers of English, http://www.jstor.org/stable/359063

Collins, Vicki Tolar, ‘Walking in Light, Walking in Darkness: The Story of Women’s Changing Rhetorical Space in Early Methodism’, Rhetoric Review, Vol 14, No 2 (Spring, 1996), pp 336-354, http://www.jstor.org/stable/465860

Defoe, Daniel, Robinson Crusoe, (London: Penguin, 1994, first published 1719)

Hindmarsh, Bruce, D., ‘ “My Chains Fell off, My Heart Was Free”: Early Methodist Conversion Narrative in England’, Church History, Vol 68, No 4 (Dec 1999), pp 910-929, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3170209

Rack, Henry D., ‘Wesley , John (1703–1791)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2012 [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.londonlibrary.co.uk/view/article/29069, accessed 10 April 2014]

Told, Silas, The Life of Mr Silas Told: Written by Himself (London: the Epworth Press, 1954, first published 1786)

Vickers, John A., ‘Told, Silas (1711–1778)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com.ezproxy.londonlibrary.co.uk/view/article/40215, accessed 10 April 2014]

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Lucienne Boyce is a Bristol-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. In 2012 she published To The Fair Land, a historical novel set in the eighteenth century about a fictitious voyage of discovery to the South Seas. In 2013 she published The Bristol Suffragettes (non-fiction), a history of the Bristol militant suffragette movement. She was brought up a Methodist, but ceased to have any connection with the church many years ago. http://www.lucienneboyce.com/

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The OCLW blog is accepting guest submissions! If you would like to submit a guest post, please click here for details.

Weinrebe Lecture: Richard Holmes, ‘The Biographer’s Other I’ on 18 February 2014

Nanette here for you with a delayed summary from Richard Holmes’ lecture from Tuesday 18th February. Full disclosure: I was unable to attend this lecture and have written this summary by listening to the unedited podcast of the event which will soon be edited and available on our Wolfson College Podcasts page  with the other Weinrebe lectures. If you missed the event I hope this summary can tide you over until you can listen to the podcast (and you should, because Richard Holmes has a lovely voice!).

Hermione Lee introduced Richard Holmes as ‘at once one of the most influential and distinguished of our biographers and one of the most innovative and pioneering’. And what did one of the most eminent biographers in the world do to begin his lecture? In a simple and humble way, he put our interest in life-writing (and human lives) utterly in perspective. Commencing his lecture with what he called a ‘litany,’ titled ‘Some Average Lifespans,’ he asked us to think of how precious a single human life is and also at once how insignificant it is.  His ‘litany’ of lifespans began by listing the Coriscan pine tree with a lifespan of three hundred years, then cited the Galapagos tortoise at one hundred and ninety years, then European homo sapiens at 70 years (20 years asleep ‘in brackets’), and on down through various species to the mayfly whose lifespan consists of a single day.

With this opening reminder of our place among the many species on our planet, Holmes then took us back through his own past in the first section of his lecture, which he titled, ‘Time and Identity’. He recalled his travels as an aspiring young writer, joking that the occupation of ‘writer’ in his passport was often misread as ‘waiter’. Drawing on the misinterpretation as a metaphor for what the biographer does, Holmes said writing a biography is in a sense ‘always waiting at someone else’s table’.

Moving from this apt comparison to the subject of the title of the lecture, ‘The Biographer’s Other I’, Holmes read from the opening of his early narrative on biography and travel, Footsteps (1985). He noted that even in this early book he was employing two forms of narrative: an immersive past tense narrative that recounted events with a feeling of immediacy, alternated with a kind of reflective present tense that created a distance between the past and the current moment, illustrated in the sentence, ‘I was eighteen’. So, as Holmes explained, the biographer’s other ‘I’ is actually a means for observing one’s subject while immersing oneself in the subject’s life and times. These various viewpoints stress that the bridge to the past is broken, subjective, and that biography needs to cross the bridge by other methods.

Upon reflecting on the ways in which a biographer might access the past, through travelling the paths of his subject, taking photographs of these places and attempting to make these connections across time, Holmes asked himself why does one choose particular biographical subjects? He realised that all of his subjects represented to him the principle of hope. Stevenson, Shelley, Coleridge, and the Age of Wonder all presented moments of overcoming challenges. The individuals were driven to change their lives and the Age of Wonder represented the hope that science has brought to us.

The second part of Holmes talk addressed the ‘subjectivity’ that is present in every biography. Holmes argued subjectivity has always been a great strength in biography, taking Boswell’s Life of Johnson as an example where Boswell’s dialogue and subjectivity are the key devices to opening up Johnson’s biography. Holmes pointed out other instances in which the biographical ‘I’ was a subjective and often sympathetic one. Drawing on an example from Johnson’s own Life of Richard Savage (1744) Holmes argued Johnson uses the rhetorical figure ironic chiasmus, or a reversal of terms, to describe Savage, but in doing so gives himself away. Holmes also mentioned Lytton Strachey’s portrait of Florence Nightingale from Eminent Victorians (1918) in which Strachey’s biographical ‘I’ takes over Nightingale’s voice, putting himself in the room with her, but giving her his own vehement language to describe the horrors of the hospital conditions. I think there is also an argument to be made here about this kind of projection of the biographical ‘I’ into the narrative as part of the modernist project of life-writing that the Bloomsbury group were interested in. If you’d like to read more about that, Laura Marcus delves with insight into Strachey’s biographical style in Auto/biographical Discourses (1994). Holmes’ final example of the biographical ‘I’ working with successful subjectivity was Wolfson’s own Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf (1996). Holmes mentioned both the opening and closing passages of the work as emblematic of effective and moving autobiographical interjections. Holmes quoted from the opening of the biography which itself quotes Virginia Woolf, ‘My God, how does one write a biography’ and from the final scene in which Lee allows herself to connect across time with the view Woolf would also have had: ‘My view overlays with, just touches, hers. The view, in fact, seems to have been written by Virginia Woolf. The lighthouse beam strikes round; the waves break on the shore.’

Holmes closed with a final thought on his concept of the ‘vertical footnote’ as an ideal place to put the ‘I’. It provides a way of including personal detail and allows the biographer to reach backwards and forwards within a chronological narrative without interrupting the pace of the main narrative.

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