Category Archives: Musings

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

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

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Sixteen Peremptory Injunctions to Myself as Biographer

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Geoffrey Wall
2014

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

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

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

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Selling toys and tech in 18th-century London

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

Post Man and the Historical Account, 22 October 1720.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisement for Willdey's shop

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

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

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

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

This barrel of this non-achromatic telescope is covered in black rayskin, while the four draw tubes are made of green leather and decorated with gold tooling. The lens holders and other fittings are made of ivory, but all the lenses and eyepiece fitting are missing. Black rings around the draw tubes indicate the optimum length in use.  A handwritten inscription around the base of one of the draw tubes names 'George Willdey', an optical instrument maker working in London in the early 18th century. Copyright National Maritime Museum.

This telescope, one of only two surviving Willdey telescopes identified so far, is covered in black rayskin. It has four draw tubes in green leather and gold tooling – one of which was hand-signed by the toyman – and ivory lens holders and other fittings. Its lenses and eyepiece fitting are missing – although they survive in the other Willdey telescope in Germany, which has silver fittings engraved with a maker’s mark rather than ivory. Copyright National Maritime Museum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest post: An exploration of narratives from Gandhian women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part III – Letters and reputations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part II: Writing Motherhood: poetry and autobiography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Part I: What to do about Dorothy’s Journal 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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

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

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.

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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