New Beginnings: Creative Women and the Curse of Silence

This post appeared originally on the Writers’ HQ blog

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 09.37.27

Recently, I’ve been waking up with this feeling in my gut. “I’m done,” I say to myself. “I’m done. I’m finished. I’m over it.”

I get up and write because it’s my job and I have to but it’s dry. It’s bloodless. It hurts, and it never quite says the things I mean.

I haven’t been able to articulate quite what the feeling is, but I’ve been seeing it everywhere. My friends message me and say ‘I’m exhausted. I’m done. Let’s go.”

We joke about living on a women-only commune in houses just far enough apart that we don’t actually have to see each other very often. The kids can do a whole Lord of the Flies thing in our lush green acres while we lounge around reading books and creating art and, you know, tidying up after ourselves and being considerate and stuff.

I see it in the news. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has had enough of your bullshit. Rose McGowan has had enough of your bullshit. Ursula Le Guin and Carrie Fisher hang over us, their ferocity burning through the tissue-thin membrane between life and death, and they too have had enough of your bullshit.

This year I turn 40. An obligation I find myself unable to cancel with a hastily written text. “Rly sorry but just too tired. Next wk?” It comes with equal parts trepidation and excitement. 50% of the way through life, but almost 100% of the way to not giving a single shit about what you think any more.

Predictably, and with regretful cliché, this grand old ageing has brought with it some intense introspection of the navel kind, and a little bit of therapy. “What am I even doing with my life, you know? I’m just not in the place I thought I’d be. And my writing is never quite good enough. I keep getting to the penultimate rung of the ladder and then falling flat on my face. But it’s not so much falling. It’s more like I fling myself off it. I just don’t get why. I know I’m like super privileged with my house and my whiteness and my tiny liberal bubble but somehow it’s just not enough.”

But also something else. Something I’d almost forgotten, just not forgotten enough. Hashtag me too. Brace for impact.

When I was sixteen, I found myself in a relationship with a Bad Man. He was older than me, and not very bright. He wasn’t so much intentionally malicious as he was a victim of his own circumstance. But still. We know how this story goes.

This was all the way back in the mid-nineties. Back then, there wasn’t the language we have now around coercive control and emotional abuse. Already an angry, confused, largely friendless and quite weird teenager, I didn’t have the vocabulary or the community to explain to anyone what was going on. And obviously you can’t tell your parents. Can you imagine their horror? So, it went on. And then, finally, it stopped.

I continued being an angry, confused and quite weird teenager and then morphed into the same but aged 20-and-a-bit. For a few years, I made increasingly erratic and unhealthy choices – some the standard fare of growing up, others the act of a person in desperate need of something. Until one day I woke up and realised if something didn’t change I would die. Literal, physical, actual real-life death. Or worse: a spiritual death. “I don’t have time to die right now,” I thought to myself. “There’s a whole lot of stuff that needs doing first.”

So I gathered up the scattered remains of myself and tucked them away in a little box, like a bunch of ugly jewellery and that no one wants to admit owning, and told it to sit still and don’t you dare move and just fucking well stay there for God’s sake stop messing everything up. I went and made a life for myself. A really great life, with wonderful friends and a great job and house (with a mortgage! No one can get a mortgage anymore! Look how well we’re doing!), a husband whose dysfunctions tessellate pretty well with my dysfunctions, a couple of bonkers kids hellbent on destroying us, and a whole bunch of laughter. But still. That box of ugly jewellery sits there.

Then all of a sudden, as if from nowhere, there’s nearly-40 and my navel and waking up thinking “I’m done. But what?”

I kept reading the #metoo stories and found I was getting increasingly uncomfortable. The stories were starting to hurt. Because I’m not a victim. I’m not scared. I have agency. I made conscious choices. And, also by the way, look at all this cool stuff I’ve done! I’m badass. You can’t touch me. Them too. Not me too.

By this point I had stopped writing entirely. I can handle rejections. That’s just part of what I signed up for. I can’t handle the realisation that suddenly there’s a huge space inside me that I can’t access. It’s shaped like a jewellery box full of awful tat and it’s impenetrable and it’s stopping me in my tracks and telling me: not you. Keep your head down.

Every day I teach my students that the most important thing is to be brave. To be vulnerable and find strength through resilience. To find their fundamental human truth, even if it hurts, even if it burns, and write about that. I tell them to do as I say, not as I do. I don’t tell them that I am a dreadful hypocrite.

My therapist is nearly 50. She’s been married three times. She’s insightful and uncompromising and she has had enough of your bullshit. She tells me my husband can do the fucking dishes or pack his bag and leave because who wants to be married to a twelve-year-old? I quietly love her, and I snigger into my tear-soaked tissue.

I don’t get it, I tell her. I can never quite get where I’m going. It’s like my sat nav doubles back five miles before the end. I tell her I’m only here to talk about right now and ugh she wouldn’t even want to hear the bad things I’ve done in the past. That’s why I can never be a politician, ha ha. Skeletons in the closet. Black jewellery boxes full of ugly paste.

Go on then, she challenges. How bad? Did you murder someone? “I had this relationship,” I say. “I stayed. I mean why did I do that? What an idiot. And afterwards, well, you know, I drank a lot. I did some really sketchy things with some pretty awful people.”

She looks at me in silence, her face full of confusion. “You do know you didn’t do anything bad, don’t you?”, she says. “But what if people found out?” I say. “What on Earth would they think?”

She raises her eyebrow and I realise: this is how the power structures assert themselves. This is how they persist. The true power of abuse lies not in the physical act itself – bruises fade, cuts mend – but in the silence we must endure in order to protect those wounds which don’t heal so easily.

Later I message a friend. “I’m trying to write a thing that I don’t quite have the words for yet.”

“Oh yes?” she replies.

“Yeah. Something about how the real consequence of patriarchy isn’t the physical submission of women but our silence. How we question our ability and our right to participate in society or to create art. How we sit down quietly because we don’t want to be the bad girl, we don’t want to upset anyone – imagine how horrified our parents would be if they knew? How disappointed in us. I couldn’t put them through that. How we don’t want a particular man or men to see us in public because if they did they might point their fingers and tell their friends what they did to us and, of course, it’s our fault. We’re the bad ones. We’re the dirty ones. We don’t want to have to explain why we didn’t speak up, why we didn’t leave. Why we weren’t better or stronger. Why we didn’t hold out our hand, a pulse of electricity firing from our palms, and cry STOP. And so we just sit back and say ‘one day, one day’. And it turns out I’ve spent twenty-five bastarding years of my life being scared of standing up in case someone did that to me and I. Am. Done.”

“This fills my heart with fire,” she says. “The world isn’t ready for the real feminine. We’ve forgotten the goddess of fire and rage and chaos.”

“Cool,” I say.

“Cool,” she says.

On Twitter the other day, I told a man I wasn’t all that interested in his opinion about the lived experiences of women. He accused me of attempting social domination through exclusion. I laughed. Men (not all) have this sussed. One act of physical aggression, one tiny sliver of one day, can silence a woman for life. And once you hide one thing so momentous, you might as well hide all the other, smaller things, because probably that’s for the best. You know how it is. If we don’t listen to the big things, why listen to the small? And if everything is hidden, well then, what’s the point of you again?

Once you remove a person’s story from society, you remove them from history. You remove them from ever existing at all. This is the real goal; the prize we are desperately fighting for. Not just the freedom from physical and emotional assault but the freedom to participate in the world without fear, the freedom to have a voice, to create art, to be heard. To be seen. To be valued. To exist.

And it’s not just that silence is compliance, as the old slogan tells us. It’s that it allows the contents of that ugly box to fester. With each passing year quietly eating into its host, telling her that she better not tell, she better keep it quiet, she better not put herself anywhere that she might be seen, just in case it is her fault after all, just in case those fingers point at her – bad girl, look what she did. Then, after a while, a few years maybe, what’s the point of speaking up at all? Why didn’t you say something at the time? Why didn’t you kick him in the bollocks? Stupid bitch. Better keep a lid on it. Just in case.

“Did you see the news story about the President’s Club?” the therapist says. “I was crying! Every man left early and saw nothing. The Bank of England all but denied Mark Carney exists.” We laugh. “I’ve loved every bloody minute of it,” I say, and all of a sudden it’s not so bad with the lid off, the box open. It’s not so scary. It’s just me. It’s still me, and I’m not that bad after all. The terrible jewellery scatters everywhere and then, like magic, it dissolves in the sunlight. A toothless vampire made terrifying by shadows, weakened into nothing by the dawn.

She looks at me gently and says, “They don’t get to point the fingers anymore. You’re free to rise to whatever rung you want.”

In hiding, we become our own jailers. We remain powerless by our own making and in doing so convince ourselves that our value must be so little that there’s no point telling our stories anyway, that we had better stop ourselves before we reach that final rung, and if we even get too close – well look what happened to Icarus, that little slut. He should have covered his feathers. He shouldn’t have flown home alone.

Out in the open, in the bright light and the noise, alongside each other, those shameful ugly boxes transform into something else: they become our power, our connection, our truth, and we can finally step into ourselves and everything that truly entails.

“It’s no surprise you’ve never really chased this career is it?” the therapist says. “I work my sodding arse off,” I say. ‘But not really,” she says. The eyebrow again.

I leave her place for the final time and check my phone for messages, check the latest news. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina has passed down her sentence and says to the victims: “Leave your pain here. Go out and do your magnificent things.”

The next morning I wake up and the feeling in my gut has changed. Chaos is brewing. “I’m done,” I think. “I’m done saying ‘one day, one day’.”

I write some stuff. It’s okay. It’s not magnificent. It’s not magnificent yet, and there are only a few more rungs of the ladder to go. This time I’m holding on tight.

Sarah Lewis is one half of Writing Supergroup Writers’ HQ and founder of the original Brighton Writers Retreat. Constantly trying to escape her family to write while simultaneously reaching new heights of procrastination. Sarah writes endlessly and is never satisfied. She graduated in the top 20% of her MA creative writing class at UEA, won the David Higham Award, won an Arts Council grant to complete her first novel under the mentorship of critically acclaimed author Peter Hobbs, was one of the NWS10 talented early career writers, and gained a rarely given special mention in the BBC Short Story Award.

Advertisements

Dirty Little Secrets Of The Caspian

A streak of black for depression, blue for nostalgic memories of home, red for love, I put above all else, yellow for the hatred of injustice, green for the life I chose to not end, white for the peace I desperately seek. Here is a portrait painted with words.

It was time. After much encouragement and practice with my beloved husband Payam, I finally picked up the phone. I drew a deep breath to steady myself and dialed the number to my girlhood best friend in Iran.

One beep, two beeps, three beeps, four beeps…

“Why is she not answering?!”

Both relieved and annoyed, I knew that calling anywhere in the Middle East usually took a few attempts before one finally got through.

I tried again.

After two beeps, she picked up. “Hello.”

I was speechless.

“Hello? Hello?” My friend Delara’s familiar cracked voice came from my iPhone speaker.

I sat on the cold floor of our studio flat in London, gazing out through the window onto the wooden fence.

Frozen, heart racing, unable to speak.

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

“Yes… Hi… It’s me… Raha.”

After twenty-three years, I was finally speaking to my childhood best friend, whom I had tried so hard to wipe from my memory.

After the initial shock and an avalanche of emotions, we were able to catch up.

She asked me how things were, and I told her that I was going to therapy, but I didn’t say what for. I told her that I was also taking a short biography writing course.

Payam helped me with the translation a few times; my Farsi had grown rusty without use. When I told her the name of the course in Farsi, she couldn’t believe it.

“Do you remember trying to convince me to write our life stories just before you left Iran? You even started yours in a notebook. I still have it.”

“What notebook?”

“The wounded birds…don’t you remember?”

I had no idea what she was referring to.

She continued, “You had written poems in the beginning of the notebook. ‘If you listen closely, you can hear the shrieks in the silence of the mountains’… Remember now?”

As soon as she said that, I remembered the notebook and the poems… and the consuming pain I was trying to exorcise out by writing.

“I don’t know why I haven’t called for twenty-three years.”

It was a lie. I knew exactly why I had not called her; I just couldn’t tell her the truth because I was afraid of the impact it would have on her.

After what felt like a long pause, she said, “I feel the same way. I think I just wanted to hold on to the good memories. For some reason that I haven’t worked out yet, I think I was afraid of what would happen if we spoke. It was just too difficult. Maybe, because when you left for Pakistan everything happened so quickly and we didn’t even say goodbye properly. I heard through the grapevine that after Pakistan you were in Australia, and now married that famous guy everyone is obsessed with and moved to London. Is that true? How did you even meet him?”

“Oh, it’s a long story.” I said.

“You know, I left our tiny old town too, left university, got married, had a baby and moved to North of Iran, near the Caspian Sea.” she said.

Every time I think about ‘The Caspian Sea,’ a breaking wave of anxiety sweeps me off my feet into panic. But this time, I gasped for air in an attempt to keep my anxiety in check.

I asked if she had moved north into her grandparents’ house, which also happened to be one of my father’s hideouts from the authorities, and where our families had spent one summer together just before I was smuggled out of Iran into Pakistan.

“Yes, for a while, but recently we moved a few houses down the road from them, not long after this beautiful boy was born,” she said in a peaceful voice, “I’m actually looking out onto our garden as I am speaking to you.”

“Wait… so does that mean you still see your grandparents and… umm… and your uncle?” I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t say his name.

“Yes, they are all here – at my grandparents’ same old house.” she said.

My heart stopped. That house was where her uncle sexually abused us both, when we were nine—twenty-three years ago.

“Can you tell from my voice that I am freezing here in London?” I asked, quickly changing the subject. I just couldn’t bring it up.

I promised to call her again. It has been one year, one month and a few days since that day.

To be continued…

By Tellurian Writes

www.tellurianwrites.com
@tellurianwrites

Photo by Rui Barros (CC0 1.0)

War Time: International Society for First World War Studies conference

 

The 9th conference of the International Society of First World War Studies took place at the University of Oxford between 9th-11th November. The conference welcomed more than 80 academics from 11 different countries, who met at the Maison Française d’Oxford. Held at the midpoint of the First World War formal centenary period, this year’s ‘War Time’ conference theme aimed to encourage scholars to re-consider and reflect upon the way time has impacted and shaped conflict itself and subsequent scholarship.

ISFWWS conferences are based on an unusual yet very productive format, which aims to inspire wide-ranging academic discussion and provide junior researchers with an opportunity to present their work in an encouraging and stimulating environment. All 18 conference papers, which had been authored by PhD students and early-career researchers, were circulated amongst the participants in advance of the event. A senior academic in the field was invited to provide a commentary for each individual paper. The papers, which covered a variety of topics, were then paired up to create the following nine panels:

  • Aerial Time
  • Endgame
  • Medical Time
  • Soundscapes of Time
  • Ideological Timelines
  • Personal Memories and Experiences
  • Materiality on the Home Front
  • Discursive Time
  • Anticipation

Following a commentary, the author of the paper had an opportunity to respond. Afterwards, the floor was opened to discussion.

The conference was framed by keynote lectures from prominent historians Professor Sir Hew Strachan (University of St Andrews), Professor John Horne (Trinity College Dublin / University of Oxford), and Professor Margaret MacMillan (University of Oxford), in which they discussed the topics of time and strategic planning, time-frames, and moving from war to peace respectively. The keynotes, which were recorded by the University of Oxford’s recording team, will be available online shortly.

The conference organisers had the privilege of welcoming a number of distinguished scholars. OCLW’s Weinrebe Research Fellow in Life-writing,  Dr. Kate Kennedy, was asked to serve as commentator for Ellen Davies’s paper, entitled “‘Mechanical Rhythms’: Music & Temporal Multiplicities in Pre-War Paris’”, on the Soundscapes of Time panel.

Furthermore, during the conference two separate prizes were announced and awarded. At the end of the first day the ‘WWI Research Competition’, open to all students and staff members of the University of Oxford who had original ideas for engaging and accessible research projects relating to the war, was awarded to Dr. Alice Kelly (Harmsworth Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute) for her podcast by The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH). The runner-up was JC Niala, an MSt Creative Writing student from Kellogg College for her podcast ‘African Soldiers in WWI: Forgotten in a global war’.

The Gail Braybon Prize for Best Postgraduate Paper, which the conference committee- with input from an ISFWWS representative- selected from amongst those conference papers whose authors do not already hold a doctorate, was announced during the concluding remarks. The winner was Assaf Mond of Tel Aviv University with his paper ‘‘‘It is at night-time that we notice most of the changes in our life caused by the war’: Zeppelins, Time and Space in Great War London”.

The conference proceedings were followed on 12th November by a public engagement day organised by Oxford’s Academic IT department, during which twenty conference delegates and organisers worked as part of the volunteer team helping to run a ‘Community Collection Day’ as part of the Europeana14-18 project.

Adam Luptak, Hanna Smyth, and Louis Halewood, War Time co-organisers, Globalising and Localising the Great War, University of Oxford.

Unsteady: reconstructing the life and work of Leila Ann Soltau

Memory, as they say, is a funny thing. The last time I saw Leila, I cannot remember in any detail what we talked about, or what we watched on television after she returned, exhausted, from the chemo. I do remember the day she enjoyed me showing off her wigs though, and then I made her a steak salad with strawberry coulis for lunch. What really sticks in my mind was the shape on the ATM keypad she drew out for me, so I wouldn’t forget her pin number when I went shopping (she had insisted on paying for dinner, but was too weak to make it to the shops). 1431 marks out a right-angled triangle that hugs the top left hand corner of the keypad and stretchers along the top edge. Like a cobweb, she said.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-15-08-45

As we gathered her poems and papers together to publish a collection, Joe, her boyfriend; Humphrey, a local poet; and I were faced with a series of uncomfortable choices: in the absence of the author, how were we to proceed? We could not suggest revisions to texts, or additional pieces that might develop successful themes; nor could we nail down meanings, dates, or place for every piece. It must be a basic polychotomy of life-writing between those with no chance of a personal connection to a subject lost in time; those writing about a living, talking and question-able person; and those who had known their subject, who had seen how they talked and moved, how they listened, how they pondered. Our project belonged to the latter category, complicated further by its reliance on an unorganised cache of Microsoft Word files and handwritten notebooks. In addition, it was horrifically painful.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-15-10-01

As such, we approached the work both with our memories of Leila as the person(s) we knew, and the truth of her absence. Our best and most respectful way in, we felt, was to be as professional and dispassionate as possible, a position we could only hope to aim for. We were alone amongst these tens of thousands of words and hundreds of images, but always accompanied by a loose phantasm of recalled moments. Whilst she had shared poems and prose with Humphrey and I for several years, immersing ourselves in the editing let us discover a private Leila: the artist at work. Leila was a drafter, we discovered, editing again and again, renaming, restructuring, returning to motifs, refining them down. She planned her work from the outset, the idea skeletally sketched out, then fleshed out with each subsequent draft. It was apparent how her artistic focus changed as she travelled, grew into full womanhood, and as she grew ill. It was also possible to see her reconsider and evolve in her conceptions as she returned again and again to the themes that so dominated her art. We were thus faced with an act of recreation, of resurrection, and bringing something entirely new, dynamic, and synthetic into being.

Her prose combined elements clearly biographical but distorted through a lens of folk stories and imagined futures, both declarative and reflective, with a keen eye for human foibles and facades:

I bought a pair of boys’ jeans which I rarely take off, and find myself craving a moustache

Rebecca opened the bedroom door with a slice of bright yellow and looked disapprovingly into the shadowed room before lighting her way through the corridor to the bathroom. Deftly flicking switches as she went

”Miss…” he uttered. He had meant the words to be strong and reassuring but they cracked and disappeared in the dark. He reached out his dry hand and took her right arm in his grip, she was as cold as the sea. Then her eyes opened in panic and she thrashed violently

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-15-09-03

The prose was light on dialogue; she used instead monologue and the inner voice. The characters are, in the main, observers, at one remove; placed there by either circumstance or their predilections. Leila writes them as an observer too, distancing them from herself and from the reader, as they are from their fictive habitats, yet still brings forth their essence. Her creations breathe and sweat, her allegories lust and fidget.

Her images repeat other, more self-referential themes, almost to the point of iconography. Ideas and pressures of womanhood, family, sex and sexuality, weakness, and the peace of the banal are all essentialised and distilled. Figures either emaciated to the width of a single pen line, or reduced to abstract shapes. These are, by design I believe, both open and closed to interpretation, a scaffold and a safe. An ongoing conflict (or synthesis?) exists in her visual art between simplicity and complexity, solidity and willowy sparseness, the plain and the mosaiced, the ephemera and the all too fleshy, untitled or adorned with cryptic notes.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-15-09-49

Using an array of voices, Leila used her poetry as a far more personal mode of expression. Form was an intrinsic part of function for her as she whizzed from one tradition to another:

The poppy set slumber
For Dorothy in her blunder.
Sleep in an apple core
And let me rise in spring
In that same young tree’s blossoming.

She is older.
I’d give her three or four years on me at most
But she is such an innocent.
The pain of living has not set in yet, But I’ll bet that it does
And that’s where we differ

Your silk and leather,
my pauper’s wool
wet with weather.
My poxed fingers
and yellow thumbs
will sleep with Him
when all is done
and I will miss
your hissing tongue.

 When I first was able to rouse myself to actually seriously read though the collection, rather than staring at words made meaningless by fresh grief and tears, I stumbled upon one piece of prose where Leila had quoted me. I do remember saying it and her nodding, more in conversational politeness than hearty agreement it seemed to me. The quote is unimportant, but the fact she had taken it up as a part of her art is not… The piece was saved under the name “Dialogue”. And imperfectly, made clumsy by our limited understanding and craft, this is what this book hopefully provides: continued dialogue with Leila, with her thoughts and her creative spirit, with how we remember her and how she remembered the world.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-15-09-17

Leila Ann Soltau died of cancer, just shy of 31, on 26th September 2012.

Unsteady, a collection of her art, prose, and poems is available.  All proceeds go to costs and two local Oxford charities; Helen and Douglas House where she spent her last days and the Young Women’s Music Project.

On the 6th November, from 7:00 at Fusion Arts (by the East Oxford Community centre on Cowley road) Unsteady will be launched. Books will be on sale, there will be readings from the collection and reminiscences of Leila’s life as well as examples of her work. Please join us. Stuart Bryant.

Biographical Borders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Glen Noble (CC0 1.0)

Oxford’s Writing Life

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

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

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

April Pierce, Founder

Community

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

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

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

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

Asiyla Radwan, Creative Director

Publications

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

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

Theophilus Kwek, Publications Director

Tutoring

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

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

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

David K. O’Hara, Director of Tutoring

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

Photo by Green Chameleon (CC0 1.0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Dương Trần Quốc (CC0 1.0)

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

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

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

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

 

The Private Life of the Diary

My First Diary

When I was seven years old my mother sent me abroad, alone. I carried one small canvas bag with a camera and a diary-notebook. My instructions were very clear:

‘Take as many pictures as you can and write down everything you see. Switzerland is a very beautiful country and you’ll see lots of important things. Don’t waste it on rubbish. If you run out of pages, buy another notebook. Don’t skimp and keep your handwriting nice. We want to be able to read it!’

From the first, my diary was never private: it belonged to my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my brothers and cousins.

It was never my friend. I could tell it nothing awkward, embarrassing, shameful or pathetic. I could not be homesick or lonely or afraid or bored. My diary forced me to be brave and heroic, to muster up a grown up self. Above all, my diary wanted me to be extraordinary.      

As the aeroplane lurched out of Gatwick, I pulled the new diary from my bag. Its purple satin cover was intimidating, I decided: too special and occasional. What could I possibly experience that would deserve such a special thing? How could I begin to write anything in it?

I would have to edit out anything that would ‘let me down’ as my mother would say.

‘Don’t let yourself down, Sally. Make an effort, for goodness sake!’

But surely a real diary doesn’t ask you, to make an effort? Surely a real diarist can let go of the picture-postcard version of things? My seven-year-old self wanted to scribble in my diary, to draw pictures of the funny looking people on the plane; to cry over it when I felt homesick and lonely, as I often did in the weeks ahead, to paste in all the chocolate wrappers from all the chocolate bars I was given by kind Swiss aunts and uncles; to draw rude pictures of people sounding too French for me to understand.

But, instead, over the course of the four weeks I spent in Switzerland, I tried to impress my diary. My diary was a boyfriend, my first boyfriend. I saved up lots of big words and big sights and I wrote them down. I wanted everything to sound like an Asterix adventure. Every day was filled with difficult and unfamiliar things, but I managed all of them: the Gauls, the Britons, the Romans and the Swiss. I took them all on.

I ate rabbit and duck and lots of smelly cheese. I spoke my rehearsed French phrases and wrote down new ones. I shook everyone’s hand. I made friends with a boy called Michel in the village fromagerie. I kissed him. I watched his parents chop cheese and sausages. I watched my hosts make raclettes and fondue and homemade pasta. I even tried reading Daisy Miller in French and I wrote that down (which was a lie because I read it in English).

When I went to the city of Berne I took lots of photographs of the bears but most of them were smudgy and misty. So I tried to draw the bears and then describe them but I couldn’t draw and my Berol pen kept running out. But I’d promised my mother I would write up every day and this day of all days had been A Very Important Day. I mustn’t let it slip away. Today had been Berne, the Swiss capital. Today had been The Berne Bears.

But what happened in between all this edifying experience? Where did the real experience go, the off-the-record moments when I was just a small, lost child in a Swiss village staying with a family I barely knew? Where was the lonely and scared seven-year-old girl? The girl who knew how to ask for the loo and for directions to the bus station but could never say that she was too tired to stay up another hour and listen to boring adults talk about ‘Madame Peterman’ and her house at the top of the hill.

The diary I brought home from Switzerland held none of the things I remember now: stuffing myself on chocolate under the bedcovers at night; the terrible anxiety that I might die from eating a shot rabbit; the shame of being sick over a croissant after a long car journey up mountains. And the crushing loneliness of being alone all the time with adults speaking French. There was nowhere to be myself, not even in my diary. Where was the diary I dreamed of, my best friend and confidante; the soft beautiful thing I slipped under my pillow at night?

*

My attempts at keeping a diary were inauthentic: a bad performance in being adult. I had missed the point: personal diaries don’t ask us to be good grown-ups. Our diary is the ideal boyfriend, girlfriend or best friend, someone who won’t abandon us, however bad our tantrums and misbehaviour. Even Greg Heffley, the touchy teenager of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, reluctantly admits to dumping his real feelings in his diary or ‘journal’ as he insists on calling it.

True diaries contain overspill; they batten down thoughts and feelings for which, in the everyday world, there is little time and space. Diaries can bare souls and anchor lives. Emotionally speaking, they pick up the straying and splintering pieces of ourselves, those moods, atmospheres and secrets that might otherwise ruin situations and relationships. We can say to a diary what we wouldn’t dare say to anyone else. Diarising is free therapy, a place where we can project all the mess and maelstrom of our unresolved, teenage identities.

Spending Your Personal Time

Diaries are supposed to help you consider how you spend your time. In Switzerland, I was spending all my time being afraid of my diary. My diary was always calling me into account. There was no real point to it.

 Historically speaking, diaries emerge from a system of account-keeping: the public world of work and production. The father of the diary, Samuel Pepys, was a good diarist because his professional life asked him to be a good accountant. As the navy’s leading administrator and keeper of its books, diary writing was but a step away from totting up the naval accounts.

We will never know exactly why Pepys began to keep a diary, but there must have been some sense of wanting to say something about current affairs, which during Pepys’s lifetime were tumultuous: the dramatic restoration of Charles II to start with, which is where Pepys begins his diary. But there must also have been an urge to reflect upon his own, often messy, personal life – those extra-marital affairs and rows in bed with his wife.

Whatever the case, on January 1st 1660 Samuel Pepys began writing in a brown calf-bound notebook. He framed the pages with red ink, ruling margins along the edges of the pages: seven inches down, five inches across.

As Pepys demonstrates so well, the modern diary emerges from a mind set of expenditure: a system of daily account-keeping in which time and the unit of the day are the main resource. By 1660, a day had became a unit of time worth noting but also worth spending well. What would I do in my day; what did I do in my day, was now the question.

Putting Yourself Out There (Facebooking, Blogging, Tweeting)

In the 21st century, the traditional diary or journal has an online version, the blog. Facebook, Twitter and the culture of blogging emerge from a celebrity culture whose central premise is that we are all terribly interesting. Certainly worth following. Twitter gets you followers, Facebook finds you friends. In the world of social networking we are all celebrities, although only some of us really are. Stephen Fry was one of the first British celebrities to draw attention to the Twitter phenomenon, with his now notorious Twitter or ‘tweet’ update while stuck in a lift: ‘Ok. This is now mad. I am stuck in a lift on the 26th floor of Centre Point. Hell’s teeth. We could be here for hours. Arse, poo, and widdle.’

Footloose and fancy-free, twittering is for those on the move, and as Stephen Fry demonstrates, it is a good way of coping with that most frustrating of contemporary experiences: not being able to move.

Tweeting is quick, airy movement. An instant reflex, a flick-of-the-wrist approach to communication, tweeting is a sort of premature mental ejaculation.

But I might be wrong about this. I’m new to tweeting. Perhaps a tweet is a more reflective form of thinking. A friend of mine tells me that people can spend hours creating a tweet. A tweet, then, is a form of haiku in which every syllable, every one of your 140 characters counts. A tweet is not just another bit of noise floating through the cyber-universe. It is a brief meditation on the universe. On Twitter you can say something philosophical about Jeremy Corbyn finding himself without a seat on Virgin Trains; the return of socialism, or the latest terror attack. You can comment on the state of the nation and the globe. What is more, people will listen. Their attention spans won’t run out. They might even recycle what you say.

Still, I find it hard not to think of Twitter as just another form of social gossip, a quick blurt. One moment you tweet about a celebrity break-up and the next you tweet about your own. Certainly, Twitter marks the end of bounded public and private worlds. The traditionally private world, the sphere of the household, the home – Samuel Pepys in a filthy mood, in bed with his wife Elizabeth (also, no doubt in a filthy mood, her husband having given her a black eye) – has no separate form of life from the Pepys strutting about around Whitehall eager to be spotted by the King. Private forms of communication have not only engulfed our public world, they produce it.

Diaries Today

Some of us still keep pocket diaries as a means of keeping ourselves tidily within time. But since the late nineties pocket diaries have gradually turned digital, to the now almost socially ubiquitous Smartphone. These days, from my iPhone or iPad, I can keep track of my future movements and obligations through slick digitalised calendar and diary functions. In 2016 the intimate world of paper has all but disappeared. Only a few of us cling to the old-fashioned notebook or journal in which to write down our thoughts. I do so mainly as a form of indulgent nostalgia for the child I once was, flitting about the world with a pretty notebook and Berol pen, a butterfly with paper. But why do I write on paper still? Perhaps to feel something more visceral, more real.

At the university where I teach, I see my students reverting, during exam time, to the comfort of coloured pens, ornate journals and notebooks. Paper is human, and something like skin; it is reminiscent of schooldays and childhood and earlier forms of learning. Writing inside their attractive A4-sized notepads my students take comfort from close contact with paper and pen, the structure of carefully ruled lines. They carry notebooks around like close companions and friends; theirs is a private world of words carefully placed in the right place at the right time. There is something magical in their thinking.

Dr Sally Bayley is a Teaching and Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Insititute, University of Oxford and a Lecturer in English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She has written widely on visual responses to literature, including a jointly-authored study of Sylvia Plath’s relationship to the visual arts:  Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual (OUP, 2007) and a study of Plath as a cultural icon, Representing Sylvia Plath (CUP, 2011).

Sally’s recent book, The Private Life of the Diary: from Pepys to Tweets, tells the story of the diary as a coming of age story. Beginning with teenage diarists, Sally moves through significant moments of lived experience, from the teenage years when diary writing often begins, to the years of family, professional life, old age and death. The book takes the diaries of Virginia Woolf, Samuel Pepys, Sylvia Plath and others as her starting point for a discussion of the importance of private forms of writing and self-reflection as a means of securing a personal and public identity. From Pepys to Tweets assess the loss of such an acutely private form of life-writing in an age of facebooking, blogging and tweeting. She tweets @SallyBayley1

Photo by Ben White (CC0 1.0)

If you would like to submit a guest post for our consideration, here are the submission guidelines.

 

Through An Artist’s Eye: Felicia Browne and the Spanish Civil War

An exhibition of paintings and poetry responding to the life and work of British artist Felicia Browne.

Through An Artist’s Eye is my most recent project in a growing body of work relating to the Spanish Civil War. It is a creative collaboration paying tribute to British artist Felicia Browne, who died in action in the early moments of the War in August 1936. Her letters and sketches – on which we draw – are held in an archive at Tate Britain, and in the private collections of the Sproule family.

Felicia is a unique figure in this conflict, being the only British female volunteer in Spain to take a combatant role. An eyewitness report by German volunteer, George Brinkmann, tells us that she was killed while on a mission to derail a fascist munitions train near Tardienta in Aragon. Her group was ambushed and outnumbered by fascists, and Felicia came under fire as she selflessly came to the aid of a wounded comrade.

My first encounter with Felicia was through an arresting self-portrait on display at Pallant House Gallery as part of the Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War exhibition in December 2014. I was also struck by her exceptionally accomplished drawings capturing street scenes and Spanish militias in the early days of the Civil War. I was intrigued but occupied with work for my EXILIO collaboration with Jonathan Moss, exhibited at Wolfson College in January 2015. In September and October 2016, my response to this extraordinary life story finds full flower with an exciting programme of events, the catalyst being the 80th anniversary of her death in Spain.

Here is the backstory:

Earlier this year, I invited Jenny Rivarola (a poet who, like me, is also the daughter of a Spanish Republican exile) to join me in developing a project dedicated to Felicia’s memory. Subsequently, I secured Arts Council funding for us to work in partnership with Tom Buchanan, Professor of Modern British and European History; Director of Studies in Modern History and Politics, OUDCE. We have also been fortunate to develop a partnership with the Instituto Cervantes, who in supporting us signal a growing shift in some quarters towards dismantling decades of suppression relating to the history of the Civil War in Spain. In contributing to the recovery of historic memory, our project gains a wider cultural significance, and we hope to reach audiences in Spain as well as the UK.

Professor Buchanan rediscovered Felicia’s drawings and letters in the early 1990s, examples of which are now held at Tate Britain. Felicia’s archive has recently been digitalised – and a short film made as part of Tate Britain’s Animating the Archives series, featuring Professor Buchanan and myself, and is entitled Felicia Browne: Unofficial War Artist.

The true inspiration for the project came to me while filming with the Tate Britain team in my Oxford studio, during an intense conversation with Rebecca Sinker (Curator of Digital Learning at Tate Britain). You can see the moment the idea seeds itself (at 4.35 mins) as I look away from the camera at the pile of vintage suitcases in my studio. At once I became acutely aware of the intersecting geographies of Felicia’s journey to Spain with that of my father to England, and I was visited by the image of my father’s footsteps across the Pyrenees at the end of the war in 1939, mirroring, or indeed overlapping with the tyre tracks of Felicia’s car journey at the very onset of the war in 1936. They had crossed in opposite directions to vastly differing destinies – one to her untimely death aged 32, and the other to his eventual safety in England aged 18.

I have cause to think of the Civil War as my cradle (a notion articulated through my 2014 film Without You I Would Not Exist), and filming with Tate Britain in my studio made me viscerally conscious that this same bloody conflict had been Felicia’s grave – rendering her life story ever more proximate to my own. So much so that they came to feel entwined (as though – however improbable – she had given her life for the eventual freedom and safety of my father and my grandparents). Astonishment at Felicia’s actions, gratitude and curiosity intermingled, and I wrestled with the challenge her short life implied. As an artist engaged in a form of war commentary myself – albeit historical – I questioned the boundaries of my engagement. Felicia made me ask myself, am I doing enough? I don’t yet have an answer. All I really know is that Jenny and I – as daughters of Republican exiles – have felt compelled to honour this remarkable British volunteer. Further, that in the case of Felicia Browne (as evinced through her letters), we find a witty, erudite and engaging personality, and that (with regard to her drawings) there is an exciting body of work to bring to public attention. She is without doubt a compelling character on so many levels.

We have a free booklet for audiences and will also be screening our project film at all our events. With talks by Professor Buchanan and poetry readings by Jenny Rivarola.

We will be seeking new venues to exhibit our work in 2017, and are available for talks, film screenings and conferences.

artistseye_e-flyerexhibition

Sonia Boué is a visual artist whose painting practice encompasses, assemblage, video and performance. Her work is research based and deals with themes of exile and displacement, with particular reference to family history and the Spanish Civil War. A background in Art History and Art Therapy informs her practice. Her Msc Applied Social Studies Oxon, continues to provide a useful framework for Sonia’s practice, which is concerned with the artist’s role as a catalyst for social justice. She is a Member of Common Room. She tweets at @SoniaBoue.

Printunknown

 

If you would like to submit a guest post for our consideration, here are the submission guidelines.

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/

Albert James at the Animal Fair

Please find below a post by Rosie and Ellie Lavan about their play Wild Laughter, which was performed as an OCLW event on the 11th of November.

Albert James at the Animal Fair

We think of Wild Laughter very much as a Christmas story. Our great grandfather Albert James was, after all, the clown who died on Christmas Eve. For us, it’s that fact more than any other that touches his biography with a kind of magic.

Albert is a relatively recent discovery. Our father left in 1993, when we were nine and five. We knew that there was something unusual and exciting about the life of his grandfather, and we knew this from things that our mother had held back, carefully preserved in the attic of our childhood home in Devon: from the trunk in which he had shipped his possessions around the world while touring as a principal actor and stage manager of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company; from the clasp of an opera cloak he once sported; from a black leather Aspreys wallet stamped in gold with the initials A.J.

Later, we found that Albert had another guardian, Mr Melvyn Tarran. An avid collector of Gilbert and Sullivan memorabilia, Mr Tarran made our great grandfather’s world even more real for us in the things he owns: in articles which claim Albert was better than George Grossmith in the role of Koko; in 10-foot high publicity posters displaying Albert in pastel as the star of the show; in letters dated December 1911 to our infant grandfather Noel Albert Charles James days before his third birthday on Christmas Eve – letters whose affections on reflection are so poignant, since we read them in the knowledge that Noel and his mother Annie would lose Albert two years later on that very same day.

We continue to recover Albert’s extraordinary biography in public records and published reviews. We now know that he is buried with Annie somewhere in Streatham Cemetery; that he lived diagonally across Clapham Common from where our mother was born half a century later; and only this week, after mounting the exhibition ‘A Clown of Real Life: the Performance Worlds of Albert James’ at the English Faculty Library in Cambridge, we were contacted by a visitor who had discovered from reviews that Albert had played before US President Benjamin Harrison in 1892. We treasure these odd fragments of an exceptional life as they are gifted to us, reassembling them in Wild Laughter.

We’ve now performed Wild Laughter at four locations across Oxford and Cambridge. It’s a work that responds to the conditions of performance; it’s very much a living thing. We’ve coloured black box studios and adapted blank board rooms with Albert’s animations, but the Haldane Room setting will always be set apart from those other places. We felt that those beautiful, lofty winged animals and their companion angel carried the piece to a rather strange and ethereal place. Something of our wonder in their magic is clear from the alert and acute photographs taken that evening by Santhy Balachandran. In Albert’s company, we met those creatures on Remembrance Day, and we shall certainly remember them along with him.

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!

———

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.

———

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

———

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.

———

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!

———

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.

———

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.

———

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.

———
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.’

———

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

 

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.”

__

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

 

Guest Post: Oxford Dance Symposium, 15 and 16 April 2014

Jennifer Thorp, an organizer of the 16th Annual Oxford Dance Symposium, summarizes the very successful event below.

 ‘The dancer in celebrity culture in the long-eighteenth century:  reputations, images, portraits’

The 16th Annual Oxford Dance Symposium, held in association with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College on 15 & 16 April 2014, took as its subject dancer celebrity in all its forms: portraits, patronage, the nature of fame, and the practice and philosophy of dancing during the long-eighteenth century.

This well-attended and very successful two-day symposium attracted speakers and delegates from the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, the United States, and Australia. We were privileged to welcome as our keynote speaker Dr Shearer West, of the Humanities Division of the University of Oxford, who gave a superb introduction to the programme by her paper on Portraiture and the birth of celebrity on the eighteenth-century stage. A wide range of papers from subsequent speakers included such topics as the role of the spectator, signification and the dancing body, print culture, portraiture and iconography of celebrity dancers (including studies of several new discoveries), patronage and performance, ballets at court, in the Jesuit colleges and on the commercial stage.  Studies of specific dance celebrities took us from the mid-seventeenth to the early-nineteenth centuries, in the dancing careers of James, Duke of York (the future King James II), Hester Santlow, Nancy Dawson, Giovanna Baccelli, Jean-Georges Noverre, Salvatore Vigano, and Marie Taglioni; and the symposium ended with a lively trio of papers on dance and showmanship in London during the 1780s, in the form of John Astley the equestrian dancer, the tumbler Carlo Delpini (see illustration), and the links between ballet, balloonmania and celebrity.

It was a great pleasure to return again to Wolfson College for the symposium, and to work again in association with the Oxford Centre for Life Writing. Yet again we were all most impressed by the efficiency and friendliness of all the Wolfson College staff, both before and during the event, and the excellent service they provided to ensure the success of the symposium.

For more details of the annual Oxford Dance Symposium, see http://www.new.ox.ac.uk/annual-oxford-dance-symposium

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.

———

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.

———

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

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!”

———

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.

———

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.

———

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.

———

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.

———

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.

———

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]

— — —

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/

— — —

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

Guest post: Jackie and Aristotle Onassis in ‘Pirates of the Aegean’

We are terribly excited to present to you the next edition in our series of guest posts. Here, the talented Oline Eaton (King’s College London) explores the implications of stereotypes in her work on biography. We look forward to hearing your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below!

Pirates of the Aegean

From http://goo.gl/Ph6UkE
Booker, Bob & George Foster – Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts album cover, 1968 (Image from http://goo.gl/Ph6UkE)

Halfway through the writing (which is far too simple a word as it’s more like an exorcism) of the third chapter of my biography of Jackie Onassis, I was surprised to see the emergence of a piratical theme. Images of rubies, treasures, pilfering, and plunderers studded the text, along with an embarrassment of similes involving semi-precious gems.

The imagery was vivid and the story read well, almost too well, which is why it struck me as off.

These pages covered the early months of Jackie’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, quiet months wherein she was often alone whilst Onassis, working to close a business deal, commuted to Athens. Not the stuff of high drama, so it was odd that the prose had the momentum of a swashbuckler.

Re-reading these pages, I realized that, though Onassis emerged from them as a colorful and memorable character, it was a character steeped in stereotypes.

While it was tempting to dismiss this as the fault of lazy writing and re-write the whole thing, as I’m doing a PhD that explores how we can re-tell Jackie’s story by engaging with the ways it has been told in the past, that wasn’t an option. And so I examined the story telling.

Jackie’s is a story with which I’m now intimately familiar. Why, then, was I telling this particular part of it in this particular way? There had to be a reason.

There was. I’d fallen back on this portrayal because, historically, it is how Aristotle Onassis has been depicted: as a pirate.

This image took root early. In 1954, two years before he and Jackie met, the Peruvian press reportedly called him ‘a whaling pirate.’ In 1963, when she was planning to vacation on Onassis’s yacht, we’re told JFK warned Jackie— in dialogue more evocative of a made-for-TV movie than real life— of the shipping tycoon’s pernicious ways. ‘Onassis is a pirate,’ John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, allegedly cautioned his wife. ‘That’s not just a turn of phrase. He is a real pirate.’

A real pirate! The image, presumably, stemmed from Onassis’s business success, to which—in America, at least—the stink of ill-gotten gains would always cling. Often, he would be identified as ‘The Greek Tycoon’, with the emphasis on his Greek-ness (an inaccuracy as he was born in Turkey) implying that Onassis’s success was the result of foreign and, therefore, not entirely legit tactics.

Pirates are, at times, romanticized, but make no mistake, his was a decidedly un-sexy business. In the press, the man was always found wanting: he was too short, too Greek, too rich, too ugly. In October 1968, the Italian publication L’Espresso celebrated his marriage to the former Mrs. Kennedy— a woman still, five years after her husband’s death, receiving letters addressed simply to ‘Lady Kennedy, USA’— by pronouncing the happy bride-groom a ‘grizzled satrap, with his liver-colored skin, thick hair, fleshy nose, the wide horsey grin, who buys an island and then has it removed from all the maps to prevent the landing of castaways.’

It’s unclear whether the writer found Onassis’s purchase of the island or his cartographical interference more repellent, but this screed from Italy captures the general vibe in America then. As Jackie’s sister, Lee Radziwill, observed shortly after the nuptials: ‘If my sister’s new husband had been blond, young, rich, and Anglo-Saxon, most Americans would have been much happier.’

Jackie was a national treasure and Onassis was Blackbeard come to plunder America’s queen.

Not surprisingly, this characterization of Onassis leeched into the biographies. In Kitty Kelley’s Jackie Oh! (1978), he is ‘an international buccaneer with a sixth grade education,’ whilst Lee Guthrie’s Jackie: The Price of the Pedestal (1978) casts him as ‘a modern pirate, a Mediterranean womanizer, social climber, and shipping tycoon who also happened to be one of the richest men in the world.’

http://foto.libero.it/alcyon57/foto/tuttelefoto/aristotele-onassis
Aristotle Onassis, Brazil, 1967 (Image from http://foto.libero.it/alcyon57/foto/tuttelefoto/aristotele-onassis)

Sarah Bradford’s America’s Queen (2000) seemed to auger a more nuanced portrayal when she introduced him in her text as an Odysseus figure, a comparison Onassis himself was evidently wont to make. Unfortunately, when her narrative arrived at the marriage to Jackie, Bradford reverted to the old trope, flatly declaring, ‘Onassis was a pirate,’ and, a few lines later, again referencing ‘Onassis’s piratical image and jet-set baggage.’

As Jackie’s biographer, it’s tempting to give into this notion of Onassis as pirate—his biographical baggage, if you will—not because it makes for easy story telling, but because it aligns so well with my sense of who Jackie might have been.

She liked calculated risks and adventure. She was, repeatedly, attracted to successful men of dubious repute and questionable character. Upon her death in 1994, George Plimpton wrote: ‘I’ve always identified Jackie with pirates […] Her father looked like a pirate. She married a pirate, Ari Onassis.’

In her story, the image of Onassis as a pirate makes sense. Which is likely why it’s been so frequently used.

But can we justify its continued use? Just as it’s an injustice to Jackie to impose Freudian readings on her remarriage and say she only married Onassis because he reminded her of ‘Black Jack’ Bouvier, so it seems equally unethical to reduce Onassis’s complex self to piratical imagery. What goes missing in such limited portrayals? In the forty years wherein Onassis has been nothing but a pirate, what aspects of his character have been obscured? What have we lost?

Never mind that Elizabeth Taylor called him ‘charming, kind, and considerate,’ an acquaintance declared him ‘a moral leper’ and a business associate said ‘He is black in his heart!’ I daren’t think he was all sweetness and light, but was he all bad? By and large, the biographical portrayals would suggest so, a circumstance for which the piracy imagery is, in huge part, to blame.

He’s always a tycoon, always a pirate, always misleadingly identified as Greek. And yet, how irresponsible and inhumane to suggest that’s the full extent of who he might have been.

———

Oline Eaton is a doctoral student at King’s College London. Her current work- a mix of theoretical and practical interrogations of biography- uses the Greek life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as a case study to experiment with a gossip-based, adventure-driven, reader-directed form of life narrative.

www.findingjackie.com

———

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

Call for submissions for our new series of guest posts. First up: Paul Murphy on turning points

Nanette here with some exciting news! The OCLW publicity team would like to announce a new series of life-writing guest posts and book reviews, for which we are now accepting submissions. Our guidelines are as follows:

  • Style: a critical style (not necessarily academic), which might include book reviews and explorations of research questions around broader themes within life-writing. We are not opposed to you having fun with your topic and an up-beat humorous tone appropriate to a blog would also be welcome.
  • Word limit: approximately 500-1000 words
  • About you: a brief intro, a link to your own blog/website
  • NB: We reserve the right to accept or reject submissions and we will not submit feedback
  • Updated: Send submissions to the publicity team in an email titled ‘Guest Blog Post Submission’ to our new email address: oclw(at)wolfson.ox.ac.uk
  • We look forward to hearing from you!

To begin, below we have some reflections from Paul Murphy on what it is like to write a biography about a literary hero, and on exploring the feeling of having that hero fall in one’s esteem.

——

I had never been much interested in biography until life intervened. Redundancy. Divorce. Bereavement. I then did feel a need to seek out truths, journey into the past, find myself through others.

I have just completed a book* about Laurie Lee. The 1930s, before, during and after the Spanish Civil War, changed him forever. I first read his memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning as an adolescent.

It tells the tale of a walk made through Spain in 1935 and into the eye of a perfect storm of a civil war. In April 2012 I set out to retrace his journey, to better understand a man who had always been a hero. During the journey, I realized I was also looking for myself, and grieving for a father who had died years before. I came to understand that heroes can have feet of clay and that writers and fathers often lie. 

I recently attended the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing Weinrebe Lectures. It was fascinating to listen to Blake Morrison and Richard Holmes discussing the many forms that the “I” can take in Biography: both writers having influenced my book. Despite protests from university tutors and publishers, I had chosen to write my life of Lee in the only way I felt I could, through the prism of my own life experience and my Spanish journey. I open my book by going to a point high above the place where Lee first set foot in Spain and describe his arrival as if it were happening before my very eyes. I then suggest that he looks up at me and our eyes engage.

It is important for me to feel a connection with my biography subject, even if it is a fictional one. It is a two-way process. Alain De Botton wrote of Proust:  ‘A genuine homage to Proust would be to look at our world through his eyes, not look at his world through our eyes’.

I cannot change Lee through my journey but he has changed me. I need to share a space with my subject even if I cannot redeem the time difference in occupying such a space. The occupying of the same physical space seems to sharpen the senses.

The turning point in my book occurs in Valdepenas. Lee describes it as an oasis of gentility in a harsh desert. I found it run-down and depressing but it is what happened next in Lee’s account that seemed to hit me hard.

Lee had written in his memoir of an encounter with an under-age prostitute in a brothel in this town run by the girl’s grandfather:

The girl’s wandering finger, tipped with precocious cunning, seemed the only thing left in the world, and moved absently about me, loosening knots in my flesh, then tying them up again.

When I first read this passage, I got caught up in the beautiful prose. I  missed what the episode was telling me about Lee as a person.

I had stopped at an old bodega in the town. A perfect place, I imagined, for the siting of a 1930s brothel to sate male needs with a steady supply of young female grape pickers on tap. I rewrote the scene:

He coughs, spits, shuffles across on his board, strong gnarled wrists propelling him along, reaches up high, slips the latch and lets the customers in. Encarnacion lies with Julio, mute but not unresponsive, examining her hands and feet, scratched by the rough vine roots. Round and round goes the wine press mangle, squeezing, crushing, draining the skin, till finally leaving it lifeless, limp, spent.

She goes to Lorenzo, the English boy. It is quick. She likes him for that.

The candle has burned to the stub, the customers have gone, she waits for the scrape on the ground, the pumping of thin, wiry wrists. She waits for him to come for her as she knows he will.

I felt for the first time that I was judging Lee rather than observing him. I had gone from being a detached member of the audience to an active member of the players on stage. It did not feel good.

My journey was motivated by personal loss and grief but driven also by a strong emotional connection and empathy with Lee. Richard Holmes, a great believer of placing the self centre-stage when tracking heroes, says of those whose footsteps we follow in, ‘If you are not in love with them you will not follow them-not very far anyway.’

As a writer, attempting a first biography, I see now that this turning point was critical to my book becoming biography. The ‘girl’s wandering finger’ had shaken me out of a sense of sentimentality that had enveloped me over the years;I saw Lee for the first time as a man of imperfections, a flawed specimen. I had reached a biographical point of no return, moving away from a pre-biographic state to a place from which I could realistically endeavour to identify Hermione Lee’s ‘vivid sense of the person’. In the words of Richard Holmes I had arrived at ‘the moment of personal disillusion, the moment of impersonal, objective re-creation’. 

I have created a very personal portrait of Lee and accept the possible charge of unreliable narrator. Yet is not most biography the sum product of subjective third party narration? Blake Morrison confessed that he almost called his seminal book As If, on the James Bulger 1993 murder case, The Worst Thing I Ever Did. In an attempt to bring perspective to the actions of the perpetrators, he had taken us into the complex mind of an average young heterosexual boy’s mind, his own. He was charged with the sin of making the story about himself.

I have taken a risk too, in placing myself at the centre of my narrative alongside Lee, and have trusted in my ability to speak to, and perhaps for, a generation of smitten Lee followers.

 

Works Cited:

  • Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer.
  • Hermione Lee, Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing
  • Alain De Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life. 

*As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee. Publication date June 14 www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk

Laurie Lee Centenary www.laurielee.org

Paul Murphy Blog: www.thelittlesummerofthequince.wordpress.com

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑