This month the fifth North Cornwall Book Festival welcomed Dame Hermione Lee, OCLW’s Advisory Director and Emeritus Professor of English Literature in the English Faculty at Oxford University. Hermione spoke to the festival’s artistic director, Patrick Gale, about Edith Wharton and Penelope Fitzgerald, and what they can teach us about the peculiar pressures on women novelists.
“Our contributors, who include new and established writers, artists and poets, embrace the concept of life-writing as a project. They work here within a set of self-imposed constraints, in order, as Michael Sheringham puts it, ‘to allow something unforeseen to happen’.”
In The Uses of Photography, Annie Ernaux and Marc Marie make a literary project out of their erotic relationship and Annie’s treatment for breast cancer, defying death and grief.
Similarly, in the poetry, prose and photographs of Breastless: Encounters with risk-reducing surgery Clare Best tracks her journey through grief and loss to a new physical shape and powerfully creative identity.
In The ‘Campus’ Blouse, Lyn Thomas describes the uncertainties and disorientation of arriving in Oxford from a working-class background, and the pleasure of at least looking the part.
In the Books section of the site, pieces explore the role of encounters with books and reading in life history narratives, including an audio recording of bookshop browsers’ memories of favourite books made at independent bookshop Much Ado Books in Alfriston, Sussex.
In Desperately Seeking Susan, Lyn Thomas reflects on her childhood reading of Jane Shaw’s Susan books, and her return to them in later life.
Life Writing Projects was devised and is edited by Professor Lyn Thomas and was designed by Dr Tanya Kant.
Writing in a late 1870s ‘confession album’, a young Oscar Wilde answered the question ‘What is your aim in life?’ with a characteristically cocky ‘Success, fame or even notoriety’. Intriguingly, the term ‘confession album’ points towards the darker, more menacing undercurrents of a format often dismissed as idle celebrity gossip, and there is a ring of eerie foresight in Wilde’s youthful bragging. Almost twenty years later, Wilde was tried for ‘gross indecency’ and found himself subjected to gruelling cross-examination, during which he gave a brilliant performance of rhetorical bravado, but during which he also passed, as he observed in De Profundis, ‘from a sort of eternity of fame to a sort of eternity of infamy’.
The most recent event in OCLW’s ‘Life-Writing and Celebrity’ series cast a spotlight on the history, aesthetics, ethics and methodology of the celebrity interview as a form uneasily positioned between the public and the private, art and commerce, individual agency and appropriation. Its complexity is rooted in its paradoxical double nature: promising intimacy, privacy and access, it is yet firmly embedded within the public sphere; successfully creating an illusion of authenticity, it is yet blatantly staged and orchestrated, a key site for self-fashioning and performance, subject to editorial conventions and the constraints of the medium – print, television, radio; live or recorded. As a metaphorical dialogue between revelation and concealment, the interview format therefore lends itself to a fruitful interrogation of the forces at play in the production and consumption of celebrity.
Drawing on her foundational research on the genre of the literary interview, Becky Roach (King’s College London) in her talk outlined some of the basic premises underlying a ‘theory of the interview’. The interview is fundamentally concerned with the transfer of specialised knowledge, but, at the same time, points towards the insufficiencies and pitfalls of mediation. Catering to our desire for imminence in an age of mass communication, it offers a platform for deception, ghosting, false portraits and variably serves as a vehicle of rambling chatter and communicative clarity. Moreover, the audience was reminded that the interview promotes two versions of subjectivity: the highly constructed personal identity of the interviewee, promising an accurate portrait of psychological depth and interiority, and the frequently de-emphasised personhood of the interviewer. Even though the interview is generally considered an autobiographical life-writing genre, its authorship is shared, raising questions of attribution and ownership. The role of the interviewer often uncomfortably hovers between self-effacing listener and highly visible co-protagonist on a spectrum that ranges from observation to dialogic participation and and can even take on the form of coercing the narrative of the interviewee.
Providing intriguing insights into the form of the ‘staged last interview’ by renowned public intellectuals and writers, Anneleen Masschelein (University of Leuven) highlighted the ethical dimensions of the celebrity interview. She began by outlining the historical and socio-cultural contexts of what German art historian Peter Geimer calls the ‘Dramaturgy of the Last’: the memorial function of the death-bed conversation and the ars moriendi tradition. Masschelein’s case study focused on the legendary last interview given by dramatist and screenwriter Dennis Potter, broadcast by Channel 4 in 1994. Seemingly unedited and unmediated, it features a chain-smoking and champagne-drinking Potter, who frequently interrupts the interview to take a sip from his flask containing liquid morphine. What uncomfortably strikes the viewer as turning death into a spectacle feeding audience voyeurism is in fact a minutely choreographed performance that serves a concrete agenda – in Potter’s case, to self-reflexively engage with his authorship status, secure his legacy and ‘go out with a fitting memorial’. The staged last interview, Masschelein suggested, is symptomatic of a new ‘death style’ that emerges in the late 20th century as a response to the biopolitics of life-style and the possibilities of staging and performing our deaths just like our lives.
The two talks on the history, aesthetics and ethics of interviewing were meant to be followed by a practical demonstration of the art and method of interviewing by Hermione Lee and Mark Lawson, two ‘celebrity interviewers’ par excellence. With train security alerts and unreliable Skype connections preventing both Mark Lawson’s physical and virtual appearances, the planned meta-interview turned into a master-class of how to deal with the unpredictability of interview situations with professionalism and aplomb. Hermione Lee thus shared with the audience her rich experience as seasoned interviewer and interviewee in her multiple roles as academic, biographer and broadcaster. She emphasised the interviewer’s need to remain flexible and readiness to abandon their tactics and agenda in order to respond to the interviewee’s moves and potential refusal to play along: “Sometimes you need to throw away your notes, you need to go with the flow.” She impressively drew attention to the power games between the interviewer and the interviewee that can make the interview situation go off kilter and the importance of silences, encouraging interviewers to resist the temptation to fill in those pauses, excruciating as they may be.
The evening was an apt reminder of the need to pay more critical and scholarly attention to a format that can hardly be dismissed as a mere self-marketing tool or vehicle for spreading trivial celebrity gossip. Participating in different types of discourse and serving a whole range of different purposes, from market research to psychotherapy, it is impossible to ignore its ubiquity in contemporary society and its importance as a platform for articulating public and private identities.
On 6 June there will be a second chance to experience Mark Lawson, one of Britain’s leading arts journalists and broadcasters, in conversation with Hermione Lee about the pitfalls and opportunities of the celebrity interview.
Sandra Mayer is a Lecturer in English Literature and Culture at the University of Vienna and an OCLW Visiting Scholar. She is currently working on a project that explores the intersections of literary celebrity and politics in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain.
Please join us on Tuesday 17th January at 5:30pm, at the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College.
The second in a new series of OCLW events focusing on the intersections of life-writing and celebrity, this discussion panel is dedicated to the genre of the celebrity interview. Scholars and practitioners will cast a spotlight on one of the dominant forms in contemporary media and celebrity culture, exploring its history, aesthetics, and methodology.
In her talk on “Interviews and the Work of Celebrity”, Rebecca Roach (King’s College London) will consider the labour involved in a format often derided as being little else but celebrity gossip, even though it has become the predominant mode of (self)promotion for authors and other public figures.
Anneleen Masschelein (University of Leuven, Belgium) examines the practice of the recorded last interview by eminent intellectuals, such as Dennis Potter, Edward Said, and Stuart Hall. Her contribution looks at this media phenomenon in the light of the ‘famous last words’ tradition and against the background of a shift in practices of dying in contemporary Western culture.
The panel will be rounded off by a ‘meta interview’: a conversation between critic and biographer Hermione Lee and arts journalist and broadcaster Mark Lawson about the art and method of the celebrity interview.
Abounding with buzzwords such as ‘myth’, ‘image’, ‘authenticity’, ‘public and private persona’, ‘iconicity’ and ‘cultural memory’, the links between celebrity and life-writing seem self-evident. There are, for one, the ambivalent motives underlying our fascination with both biography and celebrity, ranging from a desire for emulation and hero-worship to a hunger for gossip, revelation and social levelling through a vengeful ‘dethroning’ of celebrities. We are drawn towards the extraordinariness of exemplary lives and tempted into semi-religious veneration of their ‘relics’, while, at the same time, the appeal of individual life narratives is rooted in their ‘ordinariness’. Their promise is the democratic attainability of fame: that, with a bit of luck and a good marketing strategy, we can all become at least ‘micro celebrities’ as the stars of our own YouTube channel.
Both life-writing and celebrity – as practices, phenomena and fields of research – are concerned with the notions of authenticity and intimacy, public and private, accessibility and aloofness, myth-making and revelation. Both explore the tension between individual agency and the shaping and appropriation of public images by cultural and socio-political frameworks, media industries, ideologies and a whole network of agents. Life-writing is a multi-media genre, and it is one that both creates, and is fuelled by, celebrity, which emerges from the visibility and circulation of public images through a broad variety of media, from portraits to biopics and social media. A biographical subject’s celebrity status often determines whether their lives get written or not; it often obscures and obstructs our vision, necessitating a critical look at the workings of the ‘celebrity apparatus’ itself.
In spite of their many shared concerns, the close interconnections of life-writing and celebrity have only recently begun to be specifically addressed. The one-day colloquium Celebiography: Celebrity and Life-Writing in Dialogueat The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing on 19 November takes up a conversation begun last year at the TORCH/OCLW co-funded conference After-Image: Life-Writing and Celebrity, organised by Nanette O’Brien and Oline Eaton. It aims to contribute towards a more sustained dialogue between these two closely interwoven fields and to trigger a conversation about what we as scholars and ‘practitioners’ may gain from combining their theories and methodologies. How can we benefit from integrating a life-writing perspective into our work on celebrity, and how does thinking about the nature of celebrity, the conditions of producing and consuming celebrity, change the way in which we write, read and study life narratives?
The mix of formats though which this conversation unfolds – research papers, a roundtable discussion, a ‘performance’ and Q&A – reflects the diversity of thematic and disciplinary approaches to celebrity and life-writing in dialogue. Research papers by Emma Smith, Tobias Heinrich, Julia Lajta-Novak, and Ginette Vincendeau offer specific case studies of the intersections of life-writing and celebrity in different cultural and historical contexts. They focus on biographical subjects as diverse as celebrity actresses and celebrity books and cover a broad spectrum of themes, including the (after)lives of iconic objects and the ways in which they inform discourses of cultural memory and value; or the relationship between life-writing, celebrity, and concepts of gender, class, and genre.
A round table discussion featuring biographers and scholars Hermione Lee, Philip Bullock, and Ruth Scobie, and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero will address the challenges and opportunities of representing lives of different types and degrees of celebrity and fame (e.g. musicians, writers, politicians, explorers) through different media. Another aspect that links life-writing and Celebrity Studies is that the work undertaken in their respective disciplinary frameworks is often intensely personal, and scholars have not shied away from drawing on their own experience as fans. In a Q&A with author, academic and filmmaker Will Brooker, whose documentary Being Bowie captures the immersive research process behind his forthcoming book on David Bowie, we will have a chance to dwell on the question how this personal level of affective involvement can be turned into a form of auto/biographical experimentation.
The first in a new series of OCLW events dedicated to exploring the intersections of life-writing and celebrity, the colloquium will spark debates on how different degrees of fame, celebrity, and public (non-)visibility affect the representation of lives; on the challenges and the ethical questions that arise in the context of working on famous lives; and on the relationship between life-writing, celebrity and questions of selfhood and identity.
Sandra Mayer is a Lecturer in English Literature and Culture at the University of Vienna and an OCLW Visiting Scholar. She is currently working on a project that explores the intersections of literary celebrity and politics in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain.
The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing started off this term with a fascinating talk by Lucasta Miller on the elusive life of Letitia Landon. More commonly known by her initials LEL, this ‘female Byron’ was a high-profile figure in the literary coteries of 1820s and 1830s London. In spite of being one of the leading writers of her time, after her mysterious death in West Africa in 1838 she was largely forgotten. As Miller revived the shadowy life of this deeply self-aware poet, she also gave an account of the biographical challenges inherent in such a project.
Many marginal figures present a problem for the biographer who cannot find enough material to give a full account of a life. In Landon’s case, however, a plethora of source material could serve to overwhelm and misguide: there were numerous biographies written about Landon after her death, her poetry is full of the seemingly confessional first person pronoun, and the details of her life often appear consciously constructed to deceive. Miller was not in the least consoled by the fact that Landon’s first biographer had slit his throat. Faced with such sources, it did not take Miller long to realise that ‘nothing is what it seems in her world’. Landon’s sexual life was particularly mysterious. Miller described how a man claimed to be her direct descendent in spite of the fact that she was not known to have given birth to any children. This revelation led to the discovery that Landon had in fact had three clandestine children probably with William Jerdan, the editor of the Literary Gazette who mentored Landon and became her lover. Both editor and poet, Miller noted, were responsible for creating the mysterious LEL. They built Landon’s reputation based on both her innocence and experience. This campaign of mixed messages was designed to keep the reader ‘in a permanent state of frustrated arousal’. After two and a half years of publishing semi-anonymous verse in the Literary Gazette, Landon published her first volume of verse. This thrust her into London’s literary scene, where she walked a fine line between ‘celebrity and notoriety’.
Miller spent the second part of her talk going through several portraits of Landon, illustrating how this highly constructed self-image evolved. The first portrait showed a pretty youth with a ‘calculated ingénue air’. Miller described it as a feminine mascarade, consciously trying to portray a female Don Juan, with a smile open enough for the viewer to glimpse her teeth, a characteristic of portraits of actresses and fallen women. The second portrait was consciously designed to emphasise Landon’s innocence. It was painted when a Sunday Times exposé gave an account of a chairwoman who witnessed Landon and Jerdan together while his wife and children were away. Miller noted how the literary circle was invested in her innocence, since their respectability depended on the company that they kept. The third portrait was more mysterious, depicting Landon with a turban which both emphasised her association with Byron and connected her to a tradition of female intellectuals. Miller believed that this portrait was conceived together with one of her poems, but publication had to be delayed when she was pregnant with her first child. Miller also showed us some cartoons drawn by Daniel Maclise. These were published in a series of semi-satirical drawings of contemporary writers in Fraser’s Magazine that Miller felt summed up the slipperiness of literary culture in the 1830s. In one of them Landon is drawn with unfeasible girlishness (dove like eyes, small hands, tiny hips). Although Landon had lost her reputation by 1833, she continued to perform a mascarade of female vulnerability. Miller pointed out how Landon was losing control over her own image and feared another exposé would destroy her. A second cartoon depicted her as a sexy equestrian, with a groom – standing in for all men – ogling her from behind the horse’s peachy buttocks, which seem to connect Landon with the animal.
Landon’s life ended unhappily. Jerdan finally left his wife when Landon was in her 30s, only to marry a teenager instead. Although she had a reputation as a highly commercial writer, it is unclear that she made much money at all. Accounts from the Literary Gazette show she was not paid for her work, even though it was on the back of her fame that the magazine got established as the leading literary magazine of the period. As times changed, LEL found there was no room for her among Victorian sensibilities. She was therefore sent away to Africa and was soon found dead with a bottle of prussic acid in her hand. Miller ended with a final private picture by Maclise that showed a woman who was not an object of desire. There are shadows under her eyes, the result of a life-style that meant late nights, drinking and drug addiction. Miller concluded that the real and imagined selves destroyed Landon, and long after her death, they continue to tease us.
The fields of life-writing and celebrity studies have separately gained traction in academia in recent years, but have seldom been explored together. With help from the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, the Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities and King’s College London, we organized a one-day conference exploring the intersections between these two fields. The conference, entitled ‘After-Image: Life-writing & Celebrity’, was held in Oxford on 19 September 2015, and organized by Oline Eaton (PhD candidate, King’s College London) and Nanette O’Brien (DPhil candidate, Wolfson College, Oxford).
As essential preparation for the conference, we spent a morning walking the hallowed halls of Madame Tussauds wax museum. We were initially disturbed by the uncanny representations of contemporary celebrities like Russell Brand and Kim Kardashian. We laughed in disbelief at how badly Emma Watson, Colin Firth, and George Clooney were captured. Among the bodies in the rooms of figures past and present, the evanescent and emotional quality of celebrity became a material reality for us.
We were also amazed by how hardy a material wax is and to see that Tussaud’s original 18th century figures of Voltaire and the French royal family survive today. Certain life stories endure like that, and life-writing plays a key role in their preservation. And yet, the connection between celebrity and life-writing has been under-explored. In celebrity studies, celebrities are more often considered as texts. And in life-writing the phenomenon of celebrity is often portrayed as an event rather than as an on-going part of an individual’s life-experience. Our aim in organizing ‘After-Image’ was to begin a dialogue exploring the deep connections between these two subjects, and stimulate discussion of them across a range of approaches, periods, and genres.
As Richard Dyer has suggested, celebrities become a part of ‘the coinage of everyday speech’. Historically, writing has been the primary means of this transfer, and it is through stories from the celebrity’s life that the celebrity becomes familiar to us. Below, we’ve loosely summarized and reflected on the papers from the conference. We hope this is just the beginning of the critical conversations about the intersection of life-writing and celebrity.
Celebrated and/or Reviled: Politics and Power
In his paper on Charles I, Benjamin Woolley suggested celebrity is a useful lens for thinking about biography, a genre that sits—sometimes quite uncomfortably— at the intersection of theory and life. Emily Bowles elaborated upon these tensions in her analysis of the changing rhetorical concept of ‘the Dickensian’, looking at how the name of Charles Dickens became a part of everyday speech and the various meanings his name has assumed in the 20th and 21st centuries. As both papers reveal, celebrities played an integral role in the everyday life of earlier centuries, exerting a power that inspired the way people thought and which moved them to act—whether by writing letters of admiration or founding a society in a celebrity’s name.
Authorial Voice and Aesthetic Creation
In a panel that examined the surface aesthetics of intimacy, clothing, image and self-fashioning, the speakers explored the effects of 20th century technologies—including photography, blogging and social media forms—on celebrity image. Christine Fouirnaies examined the authenticity of Gertrude Stein’s self-presentation through photographs, sculpture and paintings, comparing the ‘weightiness’ of the modernist celebrity with the concept of Stein as ‘a consumable avant-gardist’. Rod Rosenquist also explored the relationship between images of modernist writers, asking whether we should interpret their self-presentation in various states of undress as an authorial posture of self-fashioning. These themes intersected in Nicola Sayers’ talk about the celebrity image of contemporary style blogger Tavi Gevinson. Across the panel, it became clear that intimacy, imagination, image and vulnerability are significant aspects of contemporary celebrity and our idea of the normal.
Crafting the Narrative, Contesting the Narrative
Self-fashioning was a crucial theme for the Sitwells (Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell), explored by Deborah Longworth, as a literary family defined by fantasy, invention, decoration and a hatred of doctrine. This anti-doctrinal feeling resurfaced in Nanette O’Brien’s paper, which considered foreshadowed doom and neuroses in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. Following from this, focusing on ‘the Cult of Iris Murdoch’, Lucy Bolton explored the ways in which famous authors’ voices are appropriated in contemporary representations from biopics to Pinterest pages. The panel made a compelling case overall for the importance of self-fashioning to authors and how later generations appropriate these images and narratives.
National Paradox: Exceptionalism versus Decline
This panel explored the new heroic icons being projected in 20th century life and the role of the mass media in this projection. Tom Ellis’ paper considered Life magazine’s portrayals of Russian cosmonauts, Max Jones looked at accounts of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, and Oline Eaton contextualized Norman Mailer’s 1973 depiction of Marilyn Monroe. Despite what might appear to be a topical disconnect between the papers, all three were engaged in interrogations of the contemporary culture’s impact on the stories we tell and each examined how this shapes the telling. It’s a preoccupation that suggests the level of manufacture involved in celebrity stories but also the cultural usefulness of such tales, particularly in the 20th century and at the national level.
Roundtable: ‘Historical Re-evaluations of Celebrity in the 18th and 19th Centuries’
Sandra Mayer and Ruth Scobie chaired a lively roundtable on the historical origins of celebrity. The featured speakers were Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Jessica Goodman, Tom Mole, and Simon Morgan and they engaged in spirited debate about the definition of celebrity and its date of origin. Specifically, the roundtable considered what differentiates ‘fame’ from ‘celebrity’, and at what point did this differentiation begin. Ultimately, there wasn’t agreement on a specific starting date, but there was a consensus that the modern concept of ‘celebrity’ and a ‘culture of celebrity’ could not have existed prior to the rise of print media. Certain elements of celebrity were present in prior centuries, but they did not coalesce until the 18th century, as actresses and public figures increasingly became known for their personalities rather than the positions they held.
Andrew O’Hagan’s mid-day keynote, ‘Stealing Lives: Does Your Story Belong to You’, weighed some of the ethical questions surrounding writing the lives of famous people either as fiction or in profile. As O’Hagan noted, ‘life-writing starts from the assumption that lives are free to write about’. But a life being ‘free’ to write about is a difficult concept to quantify when it effects the living family and possibly also a living subject. Ultimately, however, O’Hagan emphasized that because the boundaries of life-writing and fiction are porous, the best life-writing depends on a kind of novelistic brio.
Rather than deferring to other people’s demands, O’Hagan argued, the writer must write the story that presents itself. As a coda, O’Hagan reflected that the writer pays a price for the lives he steals. Life-writers don’t just steal stories from other people; they steal time, energy and life from themselves by writing: the writing diminishes the writer over time.
In her evening keynote, entitled ‘Ghosting’, Sarah Churchwell suggested that the two fields are so connected that celebrity life-writing is a tautology. Because well-knownness is precondition of almost all biography, Churchwell persuasively argued, all life-writing is, by necessity, about celebrities. Churchwell sounded a call to arms for the restoration of pleasure to academic criticism, insisting on the necessity for creating different acts of homage and restoring the open relationship between biography and poetics as we think critically through pleasure.
Churchwell likened the biographer to a ghost-writer hunting for details in the archives. And in an example from her own research on F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Churchwell introduced us to the term pentimento: ‘a sign or trace of alteration in a literary or artistic work’. Churchwell walked us through a scenario in her own work in which a discovery of a ghostly trace in a notebook dramatically changed the story. The search for truth in the archives isn’t always going to pay off like this but, as Churchwell argued, biographical enterprise is about catching the ghosts of history.
The lights dimmed at the Leonard Wolfson auditorium, and a clip from the ITV series Inspector Lewis filled the main stage. Turning to one of his aides, the famous detective said the case at hand was connected to a certain Charles Williams, described as the ‘lesser known inkling’. With this opening, Grevel Lindop, who has just published a biography of Williams, emphasised the obscurity of his biographical subject while at the same time suggesting the similarities between detective work and biography writing.
To give his audience an initial impression of Williams, Lindop took us back to the lecture room of the Oxford Divinity School on the 5th of February 1940. A large audience waited as three men walked onto the stage: C.S. Lewis, then Professor of English, J. R. R. Tolkien, then Professor of Anglo-Saxon Literature, and in between them Charles Williams, the new lecturer in English Literature. Leaving his notes aside, Williams gave a powerful lecture on Milton’s poetics and the theme of chastity, telling the students that chastity was not only an issue of restraint but ‘a matter of spiritual power’. Lindop described Williams’ lecture as a ‘spell’ that ‘hypnotized’ the audience. By starting with an account of this lecture in his preface, Lindop wanted to give a sense of Williams’ time at Oxford, where he ‘hit the place like a thunderbolt’, drawing many disciples. But Lindop was quick to point out that this was only one aspect of a very complex life. Williams had a tormented personal life; he was a prominent Christian theologian immersed in occult traditions; he worked for Oxford University Press for many years, eventually selecting the Oxford World’s Classics series; and he was a poet who was admired by the likes of Eliot and Auden.
The biographer’s task, in Lindop’s view, was ‘to find out what was going on’, and working on an obscure figure added an extra challenge. Finding a publisher was not easy, and the final title of the book, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, is specifically designed to bring attention to Williams by connecting him to the famous Lewis and Tolkien. Finding a suitable structure for the biography was also an obstacle. Lindop pointed out that traditional cradle-to-grave biographies often start with an exciting and interesting childhood, move on to an early adulthood that reveals the seeds of what the person will eventually become and, if they do not die young, generally devolve into duller narratives until death ends the story. Williams’ life, however, did not fit this pattern. Lindop described a childhood devoid of romanticism, living with ‘boring’ conformist parents in North London with no record of intense childhood memories. To overcome this, Lindop decided to start his biography with the 1940 lecture described above, offering the reader a promise of interesting content further ahead; a promise that would be fulfilled since Williams’ life became more interesting and more active as he aged. Born in 1886, it was at age 58, Lindop felt, that Williams had been at the height of his powers.
Examining the life-story of his biographical project, Lindop told us that the idea of writing a biography of Williams has been on ‘the back burner’ for some time. In the late 1990’s, when many of Williams’ friends were getting old, Lindop decided to start collecting material, since there is ‘nothing like having people who had known your subject’. Through many conversations Lindop built a sound archive of ‘vivid lived memories’. After he secured a contract with OUP in 2005, Lindop had access to the OUP archives where he found masses of material through which he could put together a timeline and identify ‘the connections and the gaps’. It became evident that there was a mystery at the centre of Williams’ life: the nature of his occult activities. Evidence suggested that Williams was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, which was not associated with a particular faith, but it taught magic, clairvoyance and had rituals designed to alter the cause of events. At the same time, there was contradictory evidence that Williams was part of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, a Christian organization that didn’t dabble in magic. While Williams said he belonged to the first organization, documentary evidence suggested he belonged to the second. Lindop needed to find out why, when there was so much information about Williams’ life, this fact remained obscure. Intricate detective work and a biographers’ ‘obsession’ finally revealed that Williams had belonged to both organisations. Lindop read an extract from his biography where he reconstructs the initiation ritual at the Rosy Cross to give the reader a sense of the experience.
Lindop offered many examples to illustrate the sleuth nature of biographical work. One day, for instance, he received an email from someone letting him know he had found a bundle of papers by Williams left in trash bags at a skip. Discovering the circumstances of Williams’ death was also a fortuitous find. Even though the records of Radcliffe’s Infirmary from the relevant period had all been shredded, Lindop managed to locate the doctor who had been present as a medical student at Williams’ operation and post mortem.
Lindop told his audience that in his biography he wanted to confront readers with an enigmatic figure, one he felt it was time to reassess. He hopes that this biography will inaugurate a new era of Charles Williams studies and that it will encourage people to read his novels and his poetry. Lindop ended by saying that ‘there is still so much research to be done. Over to others now’.
To enjoy what promises to be a fascinating read, please find the book here:
In a wide-ranging lunchtime talk, novelist and travel writer Joanna Kavenna discussed the concepts that preoccupy nearly every writer of biography, memoir and indeed fiction. Through her thinking around the philosophical precepts of time, memory and the self, she considered the questions of how the writer relays the self in time, how the self changes and what constitutes the self. And building on these, then, she asked, how does a writer convey time in writing?
Kavenna explored the range of individual experiences of time. First she reminded us that we have objective ‘clock time’ versus the subjective individual time. We are inducted into ‘clock time’ at birth – we do not start out this way, but we gradually come to accept the conventions that are imposed upon us.
The way we experience time as adults, Kavenna outlined, citing William James and Henri Bergson, is in an eternal present – a perpetual experiential now.
To illustrate the point more lyrically, Kavenna turned to Philip Larkin (who is quoted in all her talks). She read from his poem, ‘Days’:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
(Larkin, “Days” from Collected Poems (2001))
From Larkin Kavenna turned to the genre of the bildungsroman as the classic example of the novel of the formative self which impresses a formative self (i.e. is read by young readers). The self of childhood and youth is rapidly in flux, only later coming to form a more determined being. Kavenna identified types within this genre: where the self is defined in opposition to a force, defining what you don’t want to be, and reconciling many versions of the self. Looking even farther back to early childhood, Kavenna pointed to the mystery of ourselves and the times we cannot remember—the ‘embers of consciousness.’
But in all this strangeness, according to Kavenna, there is an incredible freedom for writers and individuals – each self is distinctive – there’s no such thing as the self. There are myriad selves with experiences resonating across time. Concluding with an apt quotation from Virginia Woolf on the elasticity of time, Kavenna reminded us again of the authorial control we have over the way we understand and represent time:
‘Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect on the mind of man. The mind of man moreover works with equal strangeness upon the body of time.’ (Virginia Woolf, Orlando)
Poet and performer Siddhartha Bose delighted the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing on 14 May with readings and meditations on identity, collective memory, and space with readings from his books Kalgora and Digital Monsoon and video clips from his films and performance works.
In an introduction to his wide-ranging and captivating readings, Bose suggested that memory mutates constantly in relation to space, physical environment and the virtual world. Reading poems from Kalgora, he asked whether we live in a world where everyone, regardless of passport, is a foreigner. In a contemporary global environment, he suggested, you can’t write about just one city, but the reflection of cities upon each other and the multitude of things in cities.
Bose shared a range of media with the audience. In a journey for the audience, he began in India with clips from ‘Animal City’, his ethnographic film about Mumbai. A striking excerpt featured a voyeuristic scene: hundreds of people milling around an urban area while a camera hovers above them. The camera goes mostly unobserved: only a few look up at it, their eyes meeting the viewer’s.
Bose also showed a recording of his comic one-man play entitled ‘Thresholds’, depicting a border control gate at a New York airport. This was followed by a video called ‘The Shroud’ about trials of death and mourning, and a recording of live performance of poetry with musicians.
Transporting us back to England, Bose read from Digital Monsoon, a collection of dystopian poems about London. Describing the eerie urban atmosphere of ‘corporate rain,’ ‘paper-strewn streets’, and a ‘concrete island,’ the poetic speaker asks, ‘And who did we build this England for?’
Crossing thresholds of life and death, memory, alienation, distance, subject and other, Sid Bose tantalized his audience with poetic renderings of challenges to identity, subjectivity and genre.
You can read more about Sid Bose and watch clips and trailers for the works discussed here on Bose’ website: http://www.kalagora.com
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the first event of Trinity Term the OCLW welcomed its own visiting scholars who gave brief presentations on their current life-writing projects. John Bak started the seminar with a fascinating summary of his work editing Tennessee Williams’ Ur-Memoirs. Bak introduced his audience to the problems of working with this material by way of an analogy with a pile of dinosaur bones at the Pitt Rivers Museum: the material evidence is there, but until palaeontologists assemble it together, it is difficult to identify the creature one is faced with. The archives of Williams’ memories, dispersed in many locations and rarely collected in sequential order, are like bones belonging to different dinosaurs that potentially lived in different eras. Williams’ tendency to give manuscripts to friends or to sell them when he needed some money has meant that his papers are widely spread out. Bak’s work consists of identifying how all these pieces of paper may fit together. This endeavour is full of complicated challenges: how is the material to be ordered, matched together, or even dated? First published in 1975 and quickly becoming a bestseller, Williams’ memoirs have gone through many transformations before appearing in the public eye. Originally believed to have been written from 1972, it now seems as though Williams was working on them from 1959 onwards, and different versions with different titles further complicate any attempt at compiling the book Williams actually wrote. The greatest challenge lies in the composition of the final published version. Taped recorded interviews with Williams were compiled by his publishers and converted into manuscript form, resulting in an extremely edited version of Williams’ life-story. Bak’s work bravely attempts to give a more faithful version of Williams’ memories by tracking down and organising the writer’s extensive autobiographical work.
Lorraine Paterson gave an enthralling account of her biographical work on Nguyễn Văn Cẩm. Born in 1875 in North Vietnam, he was exceptional from a young age, reciting and writing poetry, and believed to have fortune telling powers. He was considered ‘the dragon under the mountains’, a reincarnation born to lead his people from oppression. Paterson showed woodblock prints that suggest his prodigious intelligence: one shows him surviving after being buried alive for three days. His great political status while he was still very young meant he was used at the front of a procession in an uprising against French colonial authority: people believed that walking with him would protect them. He was then 12 years old. Seeing him as a threat, the French took him prisoner and sent him to a French school in Algeria with the intent of shaping him into a French man. At 21, he returned to Vietnam allegedly to ‘grow a cash crop’, but the French arrested him, fearing her was planning another uprising instead (his poetry from that time suggests that he was). Authorities decided to exile him, and after some time in Tahiti, he was sent to live in the remote Marquesas Islands, mostly known for tattooing and cannibalism. Here he befriended Gauguin, and they became very close, even sketching the painter’s last portrait. Paterson explained how this friendship gave him the opportunity to re-write his own life. When the painters’ biographers asked him about his life, he invented it, telling them he had been a colonial administrator that, realising the injustice of the system, turned into a revolutionary instead. Even after his death, the narrative of his life is still a point of contention. Paterson exemplified the conflicting life-stories by showing us a photograph of the communal hall of his village in Vietnam where an image of Cẩm in his French school uniform hangs on the wall, still the spirit of his home town.
Jennifer Cooke’s presentation introduced us to her innovative work on contemporary women’s life writing. Her archive consists of young women writers, aged 25 to 45, many of whom are academic or academically trained. Working in a new academic field, literary intimacy, Cooke’s project questions how reading as an experience can be intimate. Her research focuses on experimental writing – Cooke is fascinated by how ‘making it new quickly turns old’. Life-writing may seem to offer fewer opportunities for experimentation, but the writers Cooke works on use this genre to be innovative and yet also authentic. Challenging literary and formal boundaries of autobiography and engaging in social and political issues, ‘audacity’ marks out their writing and secures their authenticity. Cooke’s writers publish accounts of what is seen as shameful, they ‘expose it’, engaging frankly on difficult issues. Cooke noted an ‘aesthetic of provocation and perversity’ at work in these texts, which can understandably make for uncomfortable reading. By making the account awkward for readers, these texts are exposing how public discourse treats victimhood. An emerging body of theory states that seeking authentic experiences is a representation of the cotemporary world being so mediated – we prefer ‘messy lives’ that seem more authentic. Cooke’s study is centred on norms of auto/biography and how writers challenge them. Her research raises many questions about form (genres bleeding into each other) and ethics of inclusion (who can you name?). While often on the cusp of a different genre, these texts remain within the boundaries of life-writing. Cooke contended that this is because they have a political intention: their feminism is ‘strident and impotent’. Their accounts also emphasise how female sexuality is not straight forward, questioning how this may fit in with feminism. Cooke’s reading of these transgressive biographies ultimately seeks to understand how contemporary women’s lives can be written.
OCLW and TORCH are funding two conferences related to life-writing this year, please see below for details on the conference, ‘After-Image: Life-Writing and Celebrity’:
Call for Papers, 15 May abstract submission deadline
After-Image: Life-Writing and Celebrity Saturday, 19 September 2015 The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW) at Wolfson College, Oxford
With funding from the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, and the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College London (CLWR)
Confirmed Keynote Speakers:
Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities, University of East Anglia
2015 Writer in Residence, The Eccles Centre at the British Library
Creative Writing Fellow,
King’s College London
In the last decade, the fields of life-writing and celebrity studies have separately gained traction as areas for provocative critical analysis, but the significant connections between them have been overlooked. In celebrity studies, stories about individual people are examined through national, cultural, economic and political contexts. The function of the person’s image is considered rather than the life from which that image was/is derived. Conversely, life-writing does not always take into account the impact of celebrity on the life, and instead portrays it as an event rather than a condition with psychological impact which could be an integral part of the narrative.
Through a one-day conference entitled ‘After-Image: Life-Writing and Celebrity,’ we want to consider the interplay between celebrity and life-writing. The conference will explore ideas of image, persona and self-fashioning in an historical as well as a contemporary context and the role these concepts play in the writing of lives. How does the story (telling) of a historical life—of Cleopatra or Abraham Lincoln, for instance— alter when we re-read it in terms of celebrity? What is the human impact of being a celebrity— in the words of Richard Dyer, ‘part of the coinage of every day speech’? And how does this factor in when we use archival materials related to celebrities, such as diaries, letters, memoirs, interviews, press accounts, oral histories, apocryphal tales, etc.? Furthermore, what are the ethical responsibilities of life-writers when approaching such famous stories?
Possible topics for papers include but are not limited to:
Celebrity in the fields of literature, politics, entertainment and public life
Historical reevaluations of celebrity from earlier periods
The celebrity as life-writer (i.e. celebrity memoirs, etc.)
Using celebrity lives in historical fiction
The celebrity and identity
Showmanship, freak shows and the circus
Identity, power and violence in lives of the famous
Images and the press
Writing celebrity lives from below
We also welcome papers on any issues arising from these questions and disciplines.
The conference organizers invite abstracts for individual 20-minute presentations/papers or panel proposals. Presenters should submit abstracts of 300 words by 15 May 2015 to Nanette O’Brien (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Oline Eaton (email@example.com). Please send your abstract as a separate attachment in a PDF or Word document, and include on it your name, affiliation, and a brief bio.
Exploring the miniature, the gigantic and biographies of scale, anthropologist and writer Frances Larson shared her work on Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) from her 2009 book An Infinity of Things with the OCLW lunchtime seminar.
The talk explored Larson’s use of objects as biographical evidence for Wellcome’s life. Her approach was to view Wellcome’s life through these objects, investigating the form they take and how they cohere around a person in groups and sets.
Henry Wellcome was born in America, but came to the UK in his twenties, where he founded the successful pharmaceutical company Burroughs, Wellcome & Company, which later became Glaxo Smith Klein. At the time, Burroughs, Wellcome & Company manufactured tablets, ointments, soap, tea, coffee and more.
Wellcome was a businessman, designer and inventor, but he was also a private collector of objects. His holdings were the equivalent of five times the size of the Louvre, or approximately one million objects (a lower estimate). The innumerable objects and relics he collected included, among others, surgical instruments, antiques, scraps, ethnographic objects, cases, masks and weaponry.
Wellcome’s whole work life was taken up with the physical design of objects and patterns of scale. Larson is particularly interested in patterns of scale and she divided her discussion of Wellcome’s life into ‘small things’ and ‘big things.’ Larson argued Wellcome’s life as a businessman fall into the category of ‘small things’. She explained that the anthropological associations with small things are control, transcendence, convenience, privacy and magic. One manifestation of this interest in the small is that Wellcome commissioned the world’s smallest medicine cabinet. It was the size of a penny and held twelve bottles of real medicine. Wellcome coined the term ‘tabloid,’ another term for ‘tablet’ or ‘pill’, and spent a lot of time working to make his products smaller. Larson considered whether Wellcome’s personality matched these objects. He was a fastidious person and a controlling and perfectionist employer. Larson proposed that the creation of small, very perfect things might require a fanatical perfectionist. The person and the objects create each other as time goes on.
The second half of the talk focused on Wellcome’s ‘big things’: his enormous collection. In anthropology, big things are associated with the impenetrable, disorientation, being out of control, the public and the frightening. The same characteristics underlie both sides of Wellcome’s life: perfectionism, discipline, control and secrecy.
Wellcome wanted the prestige of being a big collector. He thought there could be a coherent narrative or ‘final picture’ for an unveiling of his collection. But Larson noted that the collection was simply too overwhelming and complex. It was only possible to make the collection coherent after his death when it was broken up.
Wellcome delegated the acquisition of objects to collecting agents, but he didn’t allow them to interpret it. He was not a small-scale collector who simply could not stop. He wanted the collection to be meticulously big and he delighted in the detail. Wellcome thought that he alone could make his enormous collection small and interpret it.
Larson concluded with the question of whether his large collection made Wellcome feel big or small. She argued that he died amongst the chaos of his objects – without achieving his vision of a cohesive exhibition. And although he did open a museum in his lifetime, he never felt it lived up to his vision. Looking at Wellcome through the lens of his collection of objects undercuts the idea of him as a great man.
Claire Harman, renowned biographer of Jane Austen and Robert Louis Stevenson among others, has a forthcoming biography of Charlotte Brontë. In this talk, Harman instructed her audience in the making and legacy of Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Brontë. Published in 1857, it was the first, and remains a popular, biography of Charlotte Brontë.
Harman explored Gaskell’s efforts to provide an impression of Brontë’s character. In acquiring and describing this information, Gaskell relied partly on gossip, and partly on fact, constructing her approach through anecdotes and stories.
Brontë herself also had some agency in the creation of the ‘Brontë myth’. Gaskell and Brontë were writing their novels at the same time and place in 1846 in Manchester. Gaskell had written to ‘Currer Bell’ (Brontë’s pen name) to compliment her on her novel Shirley and then the two were introduced by Lady Kay Shuttleworth over a three day visit in the Lake District. After this visit, Gaskell wrote to Catherine Winkworth describing Brontë’s appearance. She appears to Gaskell to be ‘a little lady in a black silk gown. She is, as she calls herself, underdeveloped.’ The letter also described what Haworth (Brontë’s hometown) looked like, and included stories about Patrick, Charlotte’s father, being half-mad. It also included Charlotte Brontë’s anecdotes about the starvation regime at her school and the poverty at home, anecdotes that seemed to be fully crafted, narrated and full of significance. Claire Harman sees these anecdotes from Brontë as something that Brontë gifted to Gaskell, a kind of special nod from one novelist to the other. Gaskell went on to re-use this material in The Life.
After her sisters Anne and Emily Brontë died, Charlotte wrote the preface to the second edition of Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights (1850). The preface included biographical information about her sisters, evoking their life in their Moorland home, and the edition was well received. This preface also helped initiate the Brontë myth. Charlotte Brontë was subsequently invited to many London parties, but, extremely reticent, was disgruntled by the attention stemming from her celebrity, and was a difficult dinner guest. Then Brontë met her husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, who was a curate to her father, Patrick Brontë. She was married to Nicholls and, Harman speculates, quickly became pregnant. Gaskell had been abroad, and said that she felt she would have been able to prevent Brontë’s death if only she had been in the country. Claire Harman suggested that Gaskell would have had access to abortion doctors for Brontë and that Gaskell’s confident statement leads us to infer this was a problematic pregnancy. From the symptoms, Harman believes Brontë contracted the severe morning sickness, hyperemesis gravidarum: the same illness the Duchess of Cambridge Katherine Middleton has suffered with in her pregnancies. Unfortunately the care Brontë received was inadequate and Harman assumes Brontë’s death was terribly painful.
After Brontë’s death, Gaskell received a letter from Patrick Brontë asking her to write the official and ‘truthful’ biography. This would turn out not to be a traditional ‘life and letters’ biography, a ‘portrait’ of an author, but a novelist’s view of a character. Gaskell did seek out letters and anecdotes for the biography, however, including the letters from Brontë to her married mentor in Brussels, Constantin Héger. Gaskell had not realized Héger was such a meaningful figure in Brontë’s life until Gaskell visited him in Belgium on a trip for research. Gaskell soon realized she could not use this story of unrequited love in the biography. It was too revealing and diverged from the character of Brontë she was trying to represent.
After the publication of the first edition (1857) of Gaskell’s biography of Brontë, there was what Claire Harman called a ‘shaking up of material, a loosening of anecdotes’. The second and third editions of the biography have ‘odd lacunae’ where Gaskell rescinded material that Patrick Brontë objected to about himself, mostly accounts that suggested he was controlling of his wife’s and his children’s behavior. Harman thinks that what has remained then in these subsequent editions must therefore have been reliable, like the report that Brontë’s mother Mariah wasn’t pretty.
The anecdotes that make up Gaskell’s biography helped form the idea that its subject is a character within a wider story. Claire Harman took her rapt audience through some of these anecdotes and the process that Gaskell underwent in constructing this lasting and popular biography of Charlotte Brontë.
 To see more on this term, see Lucasta Miller, The Brontë Myth (2001)
For the fourth and final talk in the Weinrebe lecture series, world-renowned historian Margaret MacMillan joined us to share her reflections on the topic of moments when it matters who is in power.
Professor MacMillan began by talking about what drew her to history: a sense of curiosity about the past which extends to people and personalities, emotions and values. She suggested that biographers and historians tend to ask different questions of their subjects and this can sometimes lead to misunderstandings.
She argued that there was a time when history, misinterpreting Carlyle, wasn’t interested in people: the logical extreme of this is cliometrics, where the focus is on numbers not individuals. But the rise of social history – recovering the lost voices of the past – and then cultural history – exploring meanings – has brought the focus back to people. Biography is relevant in this context, she suggested, because you cannot understand the history of the twentieth century without understanding Hitler, Stalin or Mao. These people may not ‘make’ history in the way that expression is commonly used, but they do ‘catch the currents of history,’ in Professor MacMillan’s phrase, and come to ’embody’ history.
Historians of the twentieth century have often turned to biography to express their ideas. They start as social historians of a particular time and place but end up focusing on the individuals at the apex of that regime. These people bring up counterfactual questions for historians: if this particular individual was not there, what difference would it have made? Professor MacMillan argued that history would have been very different if, say, Hitler had died in World War One, Churchill had died in an accident in New York, or Stalin had died while having his appendix out.
She also suggested that there are moments in history when it matters who is is holding a particular office and decides whether or not to go to war: examples include not only the Kaiser, considering war in 1914, but more recently George Bush and Tony Blair in 2001. Those choices could have been made very differently by another person in power at that moment: there was nothing inevitable about them. As such, we cannot get away from the significance of these key individuals, though they also need context, and a careful consideration of the relationship between the person and their times. These means reflecting on the ‘unspoken assumptions of any time’ such as what is taught in schools, the prevailing beliefs and values, and contemporary conceptions of ideals such as manliness and honour.
Nevertheless, there are individuals who not just products of their time but actually transcend and shape those times. Bismarck is the class example of this phenomenon: modern Germany would not exist in the same form without his unique combination of brilliance and ambition – though of course, Prussian nationalism, growing economy and military strength also played a crucial role. But there are drawbacks to this model of leadership: Bismarck created a system which perhaps only he could run.
There are a number of leaders who might fairly, perhaps, be described as the only individual who could have done what they did. Nixon is a good example: with his staunch anti-communist background, he was perhaps the only person who could achieve a rapprochement with China. Margaret Thatcher is also relevant here: she was lucky in that the time was right for her brand of politics; but she did not just ride the tide but rather pushed British politics in a particular direction. FDR is another example: would there have been another US president who could persuade the public of the need for an internationalist outlook and to support Britain in its greatest hour of need? At the other extreme are Hitler and Stalin: other German and Soviet leaders might not have been so utterly ruthless in pursuit of their goals. Biographers of these figures generally agree that without their presence, history would have been very different. Having focused on key decisions at critical moment, Professor MacMillan paused to ask how much history is shaped by indecisiveness: for example, Gordon Brown’s failure to call an election early in his term.
Professor MacMillan concluded by suggesting that there are huge personalities who are able to seize power by capturing the mood of their time. But there have to be forces at work within society that allow that person to operate. This balance between the personal and the political seems the ideal thought with which to conclude this fascinating lecture series.
In the third of the Weinrebe lecture series, Professor Anne Deighton spoke about ‘the value added of political life-writing’ with reference to her work on Ernest Bevin. She reminded us about the durability of this genre: there have been so many recent biographies of Attlee, Thatcher and Blair. Former ministers love to write autobiographies as well as publishing their diaries: they are often used to settle scores. These books have two things in common: they are very long, and not many people read them. Professor Deighton spoke of some of the questions facing historians who write biography. Are their private lives really relevant to history? How significant are the lives of individuals? She suggested that there are occasions when the individual perspective really does matter to the broader historical context. For example, with Blair and Iraq, or with Thatcher and the Falklands: these were instances in which individuals were really exercising agency, not solely defined by the structures around them. Professor Deighton is interested in the ways in which ideas are transmitted and the ways in which institutions (for example, the Church, or the Conservative party) channel those ideas. For example, how did the Labour party turn ideas into practical policies in the years after 1945. She suggested that it is harder to shift existing policies in foreign policy, the sphere in which Bevin was operating. Bevin himself represents particular challenges for the biographer: he left no diary, no letters, no memoir; he preferred to deal in conversations with officials and his handwriting is barely legible. This, however, did not prevent an exhaustive three volume work which took eleven years to write, published in the early 1980s. But Professor Deighton argues that there is merit in taking a fresh look at his life. Bevin was a child labourer and always an unskilled worker: without skill, he had little prospect of upward mobility. He was, however, a passionate trade unionist, always more interested in the unions than the Labour party. He was in his 30s before his political career took off as part of the TGWU. He was interested in the international labour movement and aspired to become Secretary General of the ILO: instead he was appointed Minister of Labour in the wartime government, working closely with Churchill despite personal antipathy. In 1945 he was unexpectedly appointed Foreign Secretary. The odds were stacked against success: expectations of the socialist government were very high yet the UK was bankrupt. He was came under personal attack for an apparent failure to deliver change and the perception that he had too readily become part of the establishment. But Professor Deighton suggested that change is harder to deliver in foreign policy because there is greater institutional inertia. Bevin believed in Britain’s status as a great power and that possessing an atom bomb was necessary to underlining this. He saw that Britain had leadership obligations but also acknowledged the USA’s unique role in the post-war world. He saw economics as central to diplomacy and prosperity as a pathway to lasting peace. As a union man, he was ambivalent about free trade, and wanted to secure benefits for ‘my people’ – on the other hand, he was a transnationalist who cared about the fate of the working classes across the world. There were issues – China, Palestine and India – where he could have little impact (India, for example, was not in his brief.) But he perhaps had the most significant and lasting impact on foreign policy of any Foreign Secretary in the 20th century. The institutions which he helped shaped – the UN, World Bank, IMF, NATO, and the Council of Europe, to name just a few – continue to play a significant role in the world today. Issues that he grappled with – the ending of imperial regimes, the role of Russia, nuclear power – continue to have echoes into our own day. Bevin wanted to integrate his own experience and background into foreign policy: he believed in bringing people into decision making through democratic engagement. He knew the vulnerability of people at the bottom of the pile because he had once been there himself, and so he understood their inherent conservatism and resistance to change. As a trade union man, he also became a pragmatist and could live with less than ideal outcomes. Bevin was a do-er, not a thinking or an ideas man. He could sometimes blunder and sometimes be a bully. But he wanted to make things happen, and he saw this set of institutions as the most effective way to channel power in the new world order. He recognised the importance of soft power as well as military might. His effectiveness can easily be measured against his successor, Morrison, whose term shows how weak the Foreign Secretary can be. But though active and dynamic in the early years, towards the end of his term, Bevin became increasingly constrained by Foreign Office operations. Attlee sacked Bevin over the phone while at his own birthday party: he died shortly after. Professor Deighton concluded by suggesting that for historians, a chronological life is not enough: the research must speak to the literature in the discipline. Biography is a narrative: history is a judgement.
As part of the Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing on the theme of Political History and Life-Writing, OCLW welcomed Professor Lord Peter Hennessy last Tuesday to give a lecture entitled ‘The Importance of Being Personal: Political History and Life’. True to his chosen title, Hennessy’s lecture was in large part introspective. Reflecting on his personal development as a historian, he gave an account, rich in anecdotes and humour, of the strata underpinning his historical outlook; what he vividly referred to as his “compost”. This biographical narrative was presented alongside a plethora of anecdotes illustrating the role of the personal in British political history and its effect on the current political landscape.
Hennessy started by explaining the rationale behind his lecture: an attempt at examining the degree to which others’ personality has shaped his own approach to history. Quoting Thomas Carlyle’s dictum -“History is the essence of innumerable biographies” – he went on to consider how a historian’s own biography could also be of the essence. Confessing to having his hippocampus “stamped with biographies”, Hennessy intimated that his first conscious memories of a Prime Minister were of the 1950s when Winston Churchill was in power. Although professing to shy away from theories—“Gossip with footnotes is what I believe” – Hennessy maintained that British people acquire expectations of the activities of a Prime Minister through their experience of the first Prime Minister they encounter in their own lives. The man who made his mark in Hennessy’s case was Harold McMillan. Through that experience, Hennessy gained the sense that a Prime Minister should be steeped in history, polished by the classics and dripping in self-confidence. It is no wonder, he pointed out, that he felt disappointed from then on.
Politicians have a way of constructing an image of themselves almost from the start of their careers. To this purpose, Hennessy argued, props are useful. Odd names, such as Winston, Enoch or Boris may help. Or physical props, like hats or cigars. Even initials, such as R. A. Butler can serve the purpose. But glasses, he added, can be a problem. Seemingly insubstantial, such factors “have a chance of clinging to the velcro of collective memory”. Language is also extremely important. Referring to the contemporary political scene, Hennessy noted that even before the election, our “palates are jaded”. The language of political exchange, he argued, is very meagre and inadequate for the political conversation that is needed in Britain today. Hennessy proposed the need for a model, and offered Orwell, who famously warned that the “slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”, as a candidate. Hennessy argued that Orwell’s list of bad examples in his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ reads well by today’s standards, and it could serve as an antidote for what Hennessy described as the “Blue Peter out of management consultants’” language – a “preachiness combined with opacity”—that is currently pervasive in politics.
Hennessy’s concern with current political discourse led him to share his doubts about the efficacy of debates as a platform through which to discern who could best perform the task of prime minister. Hennessy worried that to succeed in a debate one needed the skills of a “plausible tart”, which would rarely be needed in the role itself. Although these ideas were shared with a great deal of wit, the underlying concern was serious: there is a real possibility that current practice is narrowing the flow of good prime ministers, favouring instead those with “well-rehearsed spontaneity”.
Hennessy made passing mention of a few personal regrets. One of these was not having written a history of the role of rumours and gossiping in politics. Recognising this is something hard to preserve, he argued that it was nevertheless crucially important: “in some weeks the world is moved by little else”. Although he felt it went too far, he quoted Carlyle again, this time stating: “History is a distillation of rumour”.
The point the lecture kept illuminating was that “one’s personal biography jostles with other people’s”. Rejecting Napoleon’s theory that one looks at the world the way one did when one was 20, Hennessy believed that his defining moment was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, which coincided with the first ascent of Everest. To this, he added the shaping influence of Eagle comics as well. This experience of 1953 led him to acquire a belief that the British are good at mixing tradition and modernity. He described how at that time people still talked in terms of before and after the war, and they were still rationed. And yet, in spite of this, there was an enormous sense of optimism. Hennessy felt that living in that atmosphere allowed him to consciously absorb the notion that “my country was a success story country”. He asked us in the audience to think, on the way home, about the year that formed our norms.
Emphasising the importance of bringing both humility to the writing table and a sense of what is unknowable, Hennessy ended the lecture with a nod to two writers who informed his view of the process of writing history. The first was Lytton Strachey, who in his biography of Queen Victoria spoke of the “secret chamber of consciousness”. Hennessy warned that “It’s hard enough to know one’s own, let alone anybody else’s”. Fittingly for a historian lecturing at Wolfson College, Hennessy ended with Isaiah Berlin quoting Kant: “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”.
On 26 January Professor Roy Foster opened our Weinrebe Lecture series with an excellent talk entitled ‘The Making of Saints: politics, biography and hagiography in modern Irish history.’ It was a fascinating and engaging presentation that held the audience captivated, so I will begin with a request that everyone who missed it take advantage of the podcast when it is available.
Roy Foster began his lecture by reminding us that the Irish are very good at making saints and this tradition of pious hagiography translated very easily into the way in which lives of revolutionaries were written. Catholicism became a central part of their politics; they were revered as martyrs to their cause and the language used was borrowed from hagiography. Those who fought in the rebellion of 1916 were always going to be remembered as heroes and after 1918 as saints. Following a traumatic civil war Ireland settled down into a deeply conservative environment, the participants could only be written about with reverence, everything else was silenced and as a consequence their lives were immobilised.
Both the timing of the revolution, and those who became involved in the violence came as a surprise to many. Foster argued that the best way to get a clear picture of those who took part is by creating a group biography, focusing on their temperaments as much as ideology. Interpreting their lives before they became saints is the key to understanding how the uprising went from thoughts to actions. As a generation they were not just rebelling against the British State, but also their parents and their values. They were conscious of living at a time of flux. It was not just nationalism that bound them together, but also radicalism, suffrage, secularism and vegetarianism, among other things, which does not fit easily with the Catholic image of sainthood.
Foster explained that for half a century hagiography dominated, in 1966 there was an outpouring of comment and celebration but not scepticism. Behind the scenes, however, things were very different. The Bureau of Military History was recording a lot of the personal memories of revolutionaries. These added extra depth and dimension to their stories, although it did not question hagiography. The 1960s helped to set in motion the questioning of this practice and a rethinking of their lives. It came about as a reaction to escalating violence in Northern Ireland and as a new way of looking at Republican history was growing in Ireland. Leaders were critically examined for the first time. Over the last 2 years the re-evaluation has stalled somewhat in the lead up to the centenary, with a Government concern that Sinn Fein will hijack 1916.
In conclusion Foster argued that group biography is a better guide to reconstructing the revolutionaries’ efforts and youth. He left us with the thought that if the revolutionaries became martyrs, they certainly were not saints.
The Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing: ‘Political History and Life-Writing’
Tuesday 27 January (Week 2), 5.30pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:
Roy Foster, Carroll Professor of Irish History at Hertford College, Oxford, will speak on ‘The Making of Saints: Politics, Biography and Hagiography in Modern Irish History.’ Professor Foster is one of Britain’s most eminent historians; he is also a world-renowned biographer and an accomplished and prolific critic, reviewer, and broadcaster. His books include Charles Stewart Parnell: The Man and His Family (1976); Lord Randolph Churchill: A Political Life (1981); Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (1988); The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland (2001), which won the 2003 Christian Gauss Award for Literary Criticism; W.B. Yeats, A Life. I: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914 (1997), which won the 1998 James Tait Black Prize for biography, and Volume II: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939 (2003); and Words Alone: Yeats and his Inheritances, derived from his Clark Lectures at the University of Cambridge.
Tuesday 3 February (Week 3), 5.30pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:
Tuesday 10 February (Week 4), 5.30pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:
Anne Deighton is a fellow of Wolfson College, and Professor of European International Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. Professor Deighton will speak about her latest research project, a political biography of Ernest Bevin, who was British Foreign Secretary in the 1940s and a central figure in the creation of many of the international institutions which shape our world today. Her talk is called ‘The Value-Added of Political Life-Writing: Ernest Bevin (1881-1951)’. Professor Deighton is a renowned historian who has published important works on themes ranging from the contemporary history and political integration of Europe, European security institutions, the genesis of human rights issues, and the use, and abuse, of military force in the contemporary world.
Tuesday 17 February (Week 5), 5.30pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:
Margaret MacMillan will give a talk entitled ‘Sometimes It Matters Who is in Power.’ Professor MacMillan is a world-renowned historian and an eminent public intellectual. Her books include Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India (2007) and Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to Make Peace (2009). The latter was published in North America as Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, and won the Duff Cooper Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction (the first woman to do so), the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for History, the Silver Medal for the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award, and the Governor-General’s prize for non-fiction in 2003. She is also the author of Nixon in China: The Week That Changed the World (entitledNixon and Mao in the US) (2006), which was nominated in January 2007 for a Gelber Prize, awarded annually to the best book on international affairs published in English, and The Uses and Abuses of History (2008). Her most recent book is The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War (2013). Professor MacMillan comments frequently in the media on historical issues and current affairs.
24 February, 5.30-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:
‘The Suspicions of Mrs Gaskell’: Award-winning biographer and critic Claire Harman, whose biography of Victorian novelist Charlotte Brontë is forthcoming in 2015, will speak about the composition and reception of the controversial first biography of the subject, published in 1857.
Tuesday 10 March (Week 8), 1-2pm, Haldane Room,
Life-Writing Lunch Seminar: Frances Larson. Anthropologist and writer Frances Larson will speak from her biographical work on Henry Wellcome (An Infinity of Things, 2009) a book published to critical acclaim and which was shortlisted for the MJA Awards and chosen as a Sunday Times Book of The Year and as a New Scientist Best Book of 2009. This event is free of charge and open to all: places are limited, and because we provide a sandwich lunch, you must register in advance. To register online, please follow the link on www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing/events/lwlunch
For this term’s Life-Writing Lunch the Centre welcomed Michelle Kelly, departmental lecturer in World Literatures at the University of Oxford, who came to talk about ‘J. M. Coetzee, Autobiography and Confession’. Kelly, currently at work on a book about the idea of confession that engages with Coetzee’s work, gave a fascinating paper about the role of confession as a life-writing genre in Coetzee’s well known trilogy: Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002) and Summertime (2009).
Kelly started her talk by quoting a 1992 interview with Coetzee, where he questioned how to write up his own career: “But which facts? All the facts? No. All the facts are too many facts. You choose the facts insofar as they fall in with your evolving purpose”. Kelly’s research in the newly available archive of Coetzee papers at the Harry Ransom Centre in Texas brought her face to face with the problem of selection and choice in the presence of a vast collection of facts. Painstakingly recording countless details from his life, Coetzee had ordered and archived a veritable treasure trove for biographers and scholars. With the exception of his diaries, which are expected to be included after his death, this “monumental act of recording and documentation”, as Kelly noted, seems to “promise all the stories”. Having described “all writing is autobiography”, Coetzee’s act of collecting the paper trail of his life seems to reinstate his belief that “everything you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it”.
Kelly clearly stated that her work on confession and Coetzee does not intend to read Coetzee’s fiction as confessional. Instead, she aims to study how Coetzee uses the confessional in his work. Kelly is interested in confession as a cultural phenomenon rather than as a term simply interchangeable with life-writing: she sees it as a kind of language that can provide “force” to a text. Kelly identified the central contradiction of confession as a process that is highly ritualized and mechanical, while at the same time seen as a free, liberating force that suggests “unmediated expression”. Kelly is interested in the modulation between these two meanings and the implication they have for autobiography. Kelly discussed the authoritative value of confession for autobiography, referring to the fundamental history of the term in legal practice.
Focusing on Coetzee’s 1985 essay ‘Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky’ where he asked “how does one start confessing”, Kelly argued that Coetzee found completion or closure impossible. The process of confessing resulted, therefore, in endless self-confession. Kelly moved on to Coetzee’s highly autobiographical trilogy to trace how his understanding of confession worked itself into these books. Kelly gave a stimulating close reading of the texts, tracing how motifs of confession were activated. In Boyhood and Youth, Kelly addressed the idea of the “shameful secret” as the trigger for structured revelations in the books. Shameful secrets constituting, of course, the highest valued form of confession. Kelly linked these secrets to the role of Apartheid in the books, alluding to the public discourse of separation taking place in South Africa. Another prominent motif in the trilogy was writing itself as a source of shame: writing as something that needed to be confessed. Kelly quoted Coetzee’s description of writing as “spilling mere emotion on to the page”. Summertime was identified as a statement on confession, particularly with the problem of ending. From Coetzee’s notes in his archive, Kelly traced him speculating how to end the book from the moment he started it. While on the face of it, this may be read as a mere formal problem, Kelly interpreted it as a more fundamental engagement with the problem of ending a confession that Coetzee addressed in his 1985 essay.
Kelly’s stimulating talk was followed by some thought-provoking questions. Hermione Lee, interested in the relationship between confession and autobiography, asked if the revelation of sins, shame, secrets or apologies was a prerequisite for autobiographical writing. Kelly did not think this was necessary, but pointed out the different expectations in other contexts: in a legal framework, for example, confession has very specific consequences, and in a therapeutic sense the force of confession is a healing requirement. Another member of the audience, in a question about self-scrutiny, confession and style in Summertime, opened up a discussion about the interesting associations between self-forgiveness and self-advertisement, leaving us with the fascinating question: to what extend can confession in literature be read as exhibitionism?
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.
On the 27th of November, under the theme of “reclamations”, the Centre hosted Brigitta Olubas, Kathryn Laing and Faith Binckes, who talked about their experiences of working on life-writing projects of lesser known writers.
Brigitta Olubas started the evening presenting her biographical research on Shirley Hazzard. Hazzard is a highly recognized author in the US and in Australia, and Olubas acknowledged that in writing Hazzard’s life she was not “recovering” her work. Instead, she was reclaiming her “in reverse”, by taking her outside the boundaries of Australian culture and internationalizing her. This is an important project because Hazzard continuously crossed cultural and international borders during her life, living in Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the U.S and Italy.
Olubas set out to achieve this by writing Hazzard’s life alongside that of her husband Francis Steegmuller, a translator, biographer, writer of detective fiction and Flaubert scholar, who was a cosmopolitan individual in his own right. By paying close attention to the life of the couple, Olubas is attempting to reorientate our understanding of Hazzard towards a global context. Working on this cosmopolitan couple has helped Olubas unearth extensive networks of writers, reclaiming shadowy secondary figures that would otherwise probably remain unknown. It has also traced a shared history of self-didacticism, since Hazzard, who never finished secondary school, actively educated herself, and Steegmuller worked independent of the academy thanks to a financial legacy.
Born in Australia from migrant parents from the UK, Hazzard moved to Hong Kong in 1916, and from there to New Zealand. Early in the 1950s she moved again, this time to New York where she worked for the UN (the source of her essays criticising this institution). She started writing fiction for The New Yorker magazine, where her friend, Muriel Spark introduced her to her future husband (allegedly “her own best story ever”).
Olubas is currently working on an archive that contains the books Hazzard read, and it illustrates the importance of reading in her life. Olubas talked of heavily annotated copies of Byron’s Don Juan and Auden’s collected poems, full of political notes, such as “just like Nixon”. Olubas ended her talk by sharing an anecdote about an interview with Hazzard where, talking about Auden’s famous dictum — “poetry makes nothing happen”— Hazzard described how the literary life did make something happen for her; it rescued her from her past.
Kathryn Laing: ‘“I am an unexplained enigma. I live alone. I follow art”: Textual Traces, Literary Recoveries and the Irish writer, Hannah Lynch (1859-1904)’.
Kathryn Laing and Faith Binckes gave very different talks on their joint project writing the life of Hannah Lynch. Laing’s paper discussed her work trying to unearth Lynch’s life story. Educated in a French convent and possibly working as a governess early on, Lynch was a traveller, a translator of Spanish and French, a novelist and a journalist who had a hybrid, cross cultural identity, and a strong sense of restlessness. She wrote new woman novels set in Iceland, Greece and Spain, and was a prolific contributor to newspapers and journals (a bibliography of her non-fiction work is a complicated work in progress because she published a great deal anonymously).
Laing discussed the experience of working on a writer for whom there is no known portrait, hopeful that they would someday solve this “unexplained enigma”. Repeatedly returning to the term “glimpses”, Laing described the process of searching for a “buried artist”, of recovering a life. Her talk elucidated Lynch’s connection with well-known literary circles in Dublin, where she had a brief encounter with Yeats, describing him as a “poet of Titanic power”. Lynch has also been associated with the Ladies Land League, a feminist network, and with the London Literary Salon. Little of her life is known before the 1880s.
Laing evocatively described researching Lynch’s life as a process of “exposing sedimental layers”, sometimes surfacing other obscure lives in the process. Laing emphasised that Lynch’s life was still enigmatic, with little personal material as their disposal. Lynch wrote Through Troubled Waters, an attack on the institution of marriage, and Laing highlighted how combative she could be in her writing. Laing suggested that this tendency for ruffling feathers, when added to her use of satire, and her feminist self-assertion, may have limited her chances of advancing her writing career. Laing ended by suggesting that tracing Lynch’s writing offered a counter-narrative to established versions of the Irish literary revival.
Faith Binckes: ‘“What we no longer know we have forgotten”: Canonicity, Gender, and the Lives of the Obscure’.
Taking a step back from the details of Lynch’s life, Binckes’ talk addressed the issues and problems arising from doing work on such an unknown figure. Binckes began her talk questioning the ways in which a process of recovery fits into a wider academic discourse. In an exercise in self-reflection, Binckes asked what we mean by “recovery”. Given that historical completeness is unrecoverable, all we can do is think about the process. Alluding to Woolf’s “lives of the obscure”, Binckes questioned what could be done with the gaps in Lynch’s life. Quoting E. E. Cummings’ verse, “all ignorance toboggans into know/ and trudges up to ignorance again”, Binckes emphasised the central challenge biographers face of ever knowing their subject.
Binckes introduced the problem of “placing Lynch”. This process, never neutral, is complicated further in Lynch’s case because of her problematic national identity. This raised the difficulty of thinking of Lynch as an “Irish author” when she had long residences in both England and Paris, and her national identity was configured in opposition to dominant trends of the time: against nationalism and imperialism, against Anglo-American New Women, and against aestheticism. This “contestative” position made her a very successful critic, but this very success generated problems for her, because her satirical forceful writing often got her into trouble. Binckes suggested that while this aggressive tone may be the cause for her neglect, it could also merely be a case of her dying early.
Binckes reminded us that placing Lynch was also a problem of audience. English publishers would recover her into the British canon, Irish publishers into the Irish. Lynch was continuously thinking of ways to “pitch herself”, just as Binckes and Laing are trying to pitch her to publishers now. Lynch tried to find “a narrative to suit”, sometimes writing on certain topics because she was asked by her patron, so that an autobiographical reading of her non-fiction is far from straightforward.
After vividly discussing the perils of engaging in the life-writing of an obscure writer, Binckes ended her talk by questioning the benefits of writing about a minor author. In citing examples of successful “recoveries”, such as the re-canonisation of native-American authors by Leif Sorensen, and Alice Walker’s recovery of Zora Neale Hurston’s work, Binckes seemed to encourage the importance of such reclamations.
On 4 November OCLW welcomed Miranda Seymour, to discuss her latest book Noble Endeavours: The Life of Two Countries, England and Germany, in Many Stories as well as her award winning biography of her father, In My Father’s House.
Noble Endeavors takes a longer view of the relationship between England and Germany, focusing on the theme of reconciliation rather than conflict. Seymour explained that the idea for the book started with Herman Sulzbach, a German Jew whose spirit runs through the book. During the First World War he fought for his beloved Germany; in 1933 he was forced out of the country and came to Britain. When the Second World War came he was interned as an enemy alien and, on his release he began the rest of his life’s work: first the de-nazification of captured German soldiers and SS Officers and later Anglo-German reconciliation.
Seymour described some of the stories and characters that illustrate the long and harmonious relationship between England and Germany. It begins before Germany became a unified state in 1613 with the marriage of James I’s daughter to Prince Frederik the Elector Palatinate. This was the foundation of the Hanoverian presence in England. All the way through the book switches countries, looking at individuals ranging from royalty, to British Prisoners of War performing The Merchant of Venice to a very warm reception. Writers such as Coleridge and Eliot spent time in Germany in order to better understand the philosophies of Kant and Goethe and bring them back to England.
Cordial relations remained up until the days before the First World War. Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm were an interesting pairing. The Kaiser spoke immaculate English thanks to his mother Princess Victoria and he was even able to speak in local dialects. By contrast Edward VII spoke English with a heavy German accent, as Queen Victoria made sure all her children spoke immaculate German, oftentimes better than their English. At the outbreak of hostilities the German ambassador left London with a guard of honour, while the British ambassador had to flee for his life due to bitter feelings in Berlin.
In order to transition between the two parts of her talk Seymour told the story of her uncle learning to drive in Munich with his Nazi sympathising hosts. He knocked down a man in the road with his car, this man was Adolf Hitler. Her uncle remained in Germany, which was her family’s link to the country. Her father had in fact never been to Germany and had no involvement in the war, but here Seymour’s talk moved into the complicated world of writing the biography of a Father who had been such an unorthodox character, while still living in the house he was so obsessed with.
Seymour described how when she was growing she had to wear a wig, to fit with her father’s idea of how they should look in the house. In 1950 his life changed direction drastically as he came out as gay or bi-sexual. Her mother accepted this and so they all lived together in the house until her father’s lover killed himself and her father died of a broken heart. Seymour’s mother added an extra complication to writing the book as she too still lives in the house, aged 92. She became the counter voice to Miranda in the story, providing the positive to her negative views.
This fascinating talk ended with the most relatable and vivid story in which Seymour described the moment when she showed her mother the book for the first time on Christmas Eve. Her mother did not come downstairs for the whole of Christmas Day. When she eventually emerged she asked for a glass of whiskey, something Seymour stated was not unusual. She then, however, asked for a top up and proceeded to knock it back. Her mother then said ‘The book’s all lies and all wrong.’ Miranda asked what particularly the problem was. Her Mother replied ‘My nail varnish wasn’t always chipped and I never had freckles.’ ‘Is that it?’ Seymour questioned. ‘Isn’t it enough?’ answered her Mother.
In the discussion Seymour explained that it was her mission in writing Noble Endeavors that people would take away a more generous image of England and Germany, moving away from an attraction to just the Nazis. Britain’s close ties with Germany pre-date the Third Reich by 200 years. Thirteen years of Nazi power can never be forgotten but should thirteen years blot out four centuries of friendship?
The Centre recently hosted a conference of thirty life-writers, all at various stages of their project and all keen to get to get to grips with some of the practical and ethical questions involved in writing a life.
Lyndall Gordon, Elleke Boehmer and Clare Morgan facilitated a series of engaging and thoughtful workshops which encouraged people to share their challenges, work through their difficulties, and gain fresh inspiration from the insights of other participants. Some were working on family histories, others approaching well-known figures and still others uncovering untold stories.
The first session I attended, run by Lyndall Gordon, worked through some of the challenges involved in archival research. Everyone faces the same problems: either too much material or too little! But the important thing is to go in with ‘all your feelers waving’ as Lyndall put it, alert for whatever detail might enrich your narrative or change your perspective.
Don’t necessarily trust the archives. Be prepared to be critical and wary of the agendas of those writing the sources or putting together the archive. Always allow enough room for another agenda to evolve, and remember that people want to make themselves the heroes of their own stories. The problem of ‘archive time’ came up – where the hours fly past at a speed unknown elsewhere!
The second session, led by Elleke Boehmer, addressed the technical challenges of archives: where material might be unavailable, have disappeared, be inaccessible, obscure or contradictory. Participants spoke of letters whisked away by executors, of materials in unknown languages and of the future challenges posed by digital correspondence. It was suggested that gaps and silences could be part of the story: life-writers can explore the meanings of omissions without necessarily jumping to conclusions. But some issues will always be unresolved and there is no need to try and fill in all the gaps.
Beginning to write up research early is a good general solution: it forces the writer to think through the implications and makes the connections for you. Timelines and spider diagrams are also useful tools to map connections visually.
The final session, overseen by Clare Morgan, considered some of the ethical questions which come up in writing a life. There is no such thing as a neutral narrator, and so the writer needs to position themselves in relation to the reader: setting out their stall. The boundaries between fact and fiction and the nature of truth and authenticity were discussed: and it was agreed that while there is room for supposition, readers don’t like to be ‘tricked,’ and biographers should have regard to established historical facts.
We reflected on how to deal with sensitive private issues, especially where there are living relatives, and particularly how to ask the right questions of interview subjects. The biographer must decide whether to tackle these head on – though sensitively – or to come at them in a roundabout way.
Though the conference was focused on ‘the quest for materials’ the discussion was very broad and wide-ranging. Biography is appealing because it illuminates what it means to be human: and the individual biographer must decide what that means in this particular story. No single trajectory can do justice to a life; many interpretations are valid and there are many ways through a life. Perhaps most importantly, have a passionate commitment to the subject.
Our facilitators summarised the day with some final pieces of advice:
Lyndall Gordon: decide early on what story you want to tell and don’t lose track of that story
Clare Morgan: consider how to structure and present the story
Elleke Boehmer: think and research laterally, but within clear boundaries, and have a strong voice
Hermoine Lee: never say ‘yes, I know,’ to an interview subject, or they will stop talking!
The opening weeks of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing’s 2014-15 lecture series were of great interest to those studying the modernist period. In the first week of term we heard from Sue Thomas about her biographical work on Jean Rhys’s Creole heritage. This week, Lucy Hughes-Hallett shared excerpts from her biography of the Italian poet-turned-dictator Gabriele D’Annunzio. Both events are summarized below.
Sue Thomas, ‘Ghostly Presences: James Potter Lockhart and Jane Maxwell Lockhart in Jean Rhys’s Writing’
Sue Thomas, Professor of English at La Trobe University, Australia, is a Visiting Scholar at OCLW in October 2014. In this informal seminar, she shared some of her biographical research on the novelist Jean Rhys, whose works include Good Morning, Midnight and Wide Sargasso Sea.
In particular, Thomas focused on the slave-holding history of Rhys’s family and attempted to trace the darker family secrets throughout Rhys’s fiction. Thomas related the story of Rhys’ great-grandfather, James Potter Lockhart, who was a Scottish slaveholder in Dominica on his sugar plantation in the first half of the 19th century. Lockhart defended the rights of slaveholders throughout the conflicts over whether slaveholders should be compensated after the emancipation of their slaves. Lockhart also had sexual relationships and illegitimate children with his slaves.
Thomas then sketched out references to the sexual profligacy of slaveholders in Rhys’ fiction, as in the character of Old Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea. Thomas read both The Black Exercise Book and Smile Please as portraits of Rhys’s great grandparents. About these works Thomas argued that ‘altered language refers to what is unspeakable through ellipsis and concealment’. Thomas showed how Rhys was subjecting her slaveholding family history to a critical lens in several novels where haunted language circles around ‘unspeakable traumas and family secrets’.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, ‘The Poet Who Doesn’t Know: Gabriele D’Annunzio’
British cultural historian and biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett shared excerpts and juicy details from her award-winning biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio, The Pike, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Costa Biography Award and the Duff Cooper Prize.
Hughes-Hallett introduced D’Annunzio (1863-1938) by relating his own description of himself as ‘the greatest Italian writer since Dante’. D’Annunzio was a writer but he was almost as famous as a seducer of women. Hughes-Hallet described his ‘astonishing’ success with women considering he was ‘an undistinguished little man’ with a receding hairline who wore excesses of perfume.
The political dimension of D’Annunzio’s life was equally astonishing. He was a fascist and proto-Futurist. He liked driving fast cars, flying in aeroplanes as soon as they were introduced and became prominent as a pilot and orator in the First World War. D’Annunzio described democracy as ‘a rising tide of gray sludge’ but nevertheless he won a seat in Parliament as an Independent, calling himself a ‘candidate for beauty’. Thereafter his writing became more nationalist and militarist and he called for a ‘baptism of blood’. The pinnacle of D’Annunzio’s political career came when he was asked to be the figurehead for protesting Italian soldiers over the annexation of Fiume in 1920, culminating in D’Annunzio’s naming himself dictator of the city rather than allowing it to go to the former Yugoslavia. The Italian government eventually intervened and D’Annunzio stepped down.
Hughes-Hallet called her biography The Pike after a nickname a friend had given D’Annunzio, but the name is apt considering the animal’s habit of lying low in shallow water, snapping at passing prey. Hughes-Hallet repeatedly drew attention to the difficulty of writing a biography about a subject who was not a good person, and to the attention she attracted for having done so. But she emphasized that there was no reason she needed to feel she had to like an individual in order to write an interesting biography about an interesting person whose life was never boring.
For our next lecture, Miranda Seymour will speak on the subject, ‘The Pity of War: The Longer View of England and Germany’ on 4 November (Week 4), 5.30-7pm, in the Haldane Room,Wolfson College. Please note the change of location to the Haldane Room.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
Today we have an event summary of the recent “Coetzee’s Lives” Colloquium at OCLW. This summary was written by English DPhil students Eleni Philippou and Erica Lombard with Professor Elleke Boehmer.
The airy and finely crafted Leonard Woolf Auditorium was the perfect setting for the OCLW colloquium, the last of the year, on that arch artist, J.M. Coetzee, the South African (and now Australian) novelist and 2003 Nobel Laureate for Literature. Following on from a reading that J.M. Coetzee himself gave at Wolfson the evening before, the 13 June 2014 colloquium, entitled “Coetzee’s Lives”, sought through a discussion of Coetzee’s often self-reflexive work, to highlight questions of how we represent a life: how life might be used as material for fiction, and how life-writing takes fictional forms.
Organised by OCLW’s Deputy Director Professor Elleke Boehmer, together with English DPhil students Eleni Philippou and Erica Lombard, the afternoon began with a keynote address delivered by Professor David Attwell of the University of York, entitled “The Life of Writing in J.M. Coetzee: Autobiography into Fiction”. One of the world’s leading Coetzee scholars, Attwell shared with the audience some central observations from his forthcoming book, Face to Face With Time: the Authorship of J.M. Coetzee (2014), concerning how Coetzee has consistently, across his oeuvre, transmuted personal dilemmas and concerns into fiction. Based on his research into Coetzee’s newly available archive at the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas in Austin, USA, itself a highly crafted artefact, Attwell gave the audience a fascinating glimpse into the author’s writing process, revealing how Coetzee’s detached prose belies the deeply autobiographical and existential roots of his novels. Leading us on a deftly curated journey through the successive drafts of the novel that became Life & Times of Michael K (1983), Attwell detailed how Coetzee’s sparse, impersonal style is the end result of a long, painstaking, and sometimes painful, process by which Coetzee writes himself out of his work. In manuscript after manuscript, his life can be seen to give way or give up to fiction.
Attwell’s keynote address was followed by a panel discussion between Professor Elleke Boehmer, Professor Patrick Hayes, Dr Michelle Kelly, and Professor Peter D. McDonald, all members of the English Faculty here at Oxford who have worked on Coetzee. The panellists’ responses to the keynote centred, firstly, on the implications of Coetzee’s archive as a curated “life”, with Boehmer suggesting that we might consider the archive, the work, and the life as three mutually illuminating aspects of Coetzee’s literary life. Secondly, the discussion turned to what Attwell’s research suggests about the location of the writing self in Coetzee’s work, and the critic’s desire to uncover the traces that remain despite Coetzee’s self-effacing process of writing.
The final section of the colloquium comprised a series of short papers presented by six early career researchers, including four current Oxford DPhil students. Each paper interpreted the colloquium’s theme “Coetzee’s Lives” in rich and innovative ways, and, indeed, covered the gamut of human life from motherhood and childhood to death and decomposition. The first speaker, Eleni Philippou, presented a paper entitled “‘Sons and Lovers Mothers’: Coetzee on Motherhood”, which highlighted the surprising resonances between the complex mother-son relationships in Coetzee’s memoir Boyhood and D.H. Lawrence’s autobiographical Sons and Lovers. Alicia Broggi followed with “Demythologizing Discourse ‘to make writing possible’: Calvinism in Dusklands”, a fascinating exploration of the ways in which Coetzee contends with and works out Calvinism, one of the shaping forces of his own Afrikaner history, in his first novel, Dusklands.
“Coetzee on Criticism; Coetzee and Criticism”, Andrew Dean’s paper, investigated Coetzee’s deep investment in exploring the limits of critical discourse, and how this impacts the formal aspects of his texts. Dean’s paper fitted perfectly with “‘Not poetry, economy’: J.M. Coetzee and Authorship”, Charlotta Salmi’s eloquent piece that considered Coetzee as a skilled craftsman, carefully balancing the act of personal confession with the reserve involved in the calculated crafting of words in fiction.
Jarad Zimbler’s paper, “Death Writing: An Essay in Decomposition”, followed. Conceived of as a kind of farewell as Zimbler prepares to move beyond Coetzee in his own work, this poetic experimental paper was an emotionally and semantically rich exploration of remains in Coetzee’s oeuvre. The colloquium ended on a lighter note with Erica Lombard’s “Making Fun of Coetzee”, a tongue-in-cheek yet itself in part autobiographical exploration of how Coetzee’s very serious, even godlike, status in South African literature makes the very act of criticism fraught for those wishing to speak about him in less-than-reverential tones.
Its title part-riffing on one of Coetzee’s own titles, The Lives of Animals, the colloquium in several ways embodied new “lives” for Coetzee criticism, and articulated a new boldness in approaching the links between life and fiction in his work. Wolfson President Professor Dame Hermione Lee ended the afternoon’s events by asking the senior Coetzee scholars where they thought the future of Coetzee criticism was headed, and how this had changed from when they had first started writing about Coetzee. Not only were these critics clear that they felt the “Australian” Coetzee provided critics with worthwhile avenues of research, but they also asserted that their current encounter with the new cohort of aspirant literary critics at the colloquium boded well for future work. If the OCLW colloquium could be held to offer a taste of where future discussion of the multivalent “lives” of Coetzee is going, then it would seem that various fascinating critical and representational possibilities are to come.
The final OCLW event of the year saw its audience captivated by Mark Thompson’s talk about the life and work of Yugoslavian author Danilo Kiš and the problems he faced writing his critically acclaimed biography Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kiš.
Kiš is an author who is little known in the Anglophone world, so Thompson began by giving the audience an insight into the man himself and the driving forces behind his work. He was born in 1935 in a small town in Northern Yugoslavia, his mother a member of the Eastern Orthodox faith from Montenegro, and his father a Hungarian Jew. Kiš described himself as an ‘ethnografic rarity’ which was very important to him, he saw it as his destiny. His first language was the now ostensibly extinct Serbo-Croatian. He was raised in Vojvodena and baptised into the Orthodox Church, along with his sister. It was seen as a safety measure, as his parents could already see the way in which things were moving in Europe.
When war broke out the family were living in Novi Sad, a city on the banks of the River Danube. They stayed in the city until January 1942 when a pogrom was carried out by Hungarian troops. Kiš’ father was rounded up but was given a reprieve. Consequently the family moved to his father’s home village in Hungary as it was felt it would be safer, which it was, until the deportation of the Hungarian Jews in 1944. Kiš father was taken on one of the last trains to Auschwitz. As a result of cultural relaxation in 1954, Kiš was part of the first year to study a new degree in World Literature that looked at works from the Bible to Kafka. It was intended to be anti-nationalist and discreetly anti-communist and had a significant effect on Kiš’s future life.
Kiš was to spend long periods of time in France, teaching students to understand Serbo-Croatian, living a bohemian existence, although this philosophy did not apply to his writing. This continued until the 1970s when he suffered two crises, professional and personal. After the publication of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, he was troubled by plagiarism accusations and found himself being coerced by the police into leaving the country. His marriage also broke down during this time and so he emigrated to Paris in 1979 to live with his mistress, a former student of his. He died from lung cancer in 1989 at the age of 54, the same age at which his father was deported to Auschwitz.
Thompson described Kiš as a modernist author who could not write in his surrounding literary tradition. He was not interested in celebrating Yugoslav national culture, that of folk tales told to generations. He was influenced by Kafka, Proust and above all Joyce, Kiš drew heavily on Ulysses when writing about his own father. He believed in ‘art for my sake, art to find out who I am’ and used his work to recreated his identity through fictional explorations. By the 1960s the distance from his childhood freed him from constraint and allowed him to write Hourglass, a novel about his father. Thompson likened Kiš to Orwell and Camus. He incarnated certain values, such as individualism and a refusal to bow down to institutional dominance and ideology.
In the final part of his presentation, Thompson described the difficulties he faced when writing his biography. Firstly he encountered the issue that biography in South Eastern Europe means something very different. As a discipline it is much weaker and it has the potential to be very dangerous. Other key Yugoslavian literary figures had rather shady wartime pasts that they were eager to keep hidden. This made Kiš family and friends wary of what Thompson was trying to do. Sometimes people were trusting, but often they were not. The form the biography would take presented a problem, as Thompson felt he could not use a linear narrative and this was a form that Kiš himself distrusted and would never have used. Thompson also lacked what he described as the ‘dense tissue of information’ that is the backbone of many literary biographies. Finally, in the 90s, Kiš became iconic to Serbian intellectuals who hated what was happening to their country. Many were looking for positive examples of their culture and used him as proof that Serbian culture could produce something universal. So how do you write about a saint? The key was provided by a Montenegrin journalist who knew Kiš best in the last years of his life. He pointed out that Kiš was not a liberal hero in the grain of Vaclav Havel, but simply an impassioned and often desperate artist, who gained his cosmopolitanism from hard fought experience.
The discussion painted Kiš as an émigré author who remained outside of the already established group in Paris, uninterested in being a part of the culture and lifestyle. He was not interested in promoting non-literary views, although he thought the worst about the Communist regime. Thompson described him as politically naïve, Kiš lent his support to a Serbian poet who would become a great supporter of the Milosevic regime. In conclusion Thompson showed Kiš as man of conflicting aspects, with many conflicting statements surrounding him proving to be true.
Hermione Lee opened her talk about Penelope Fitzgerald with the epigraph from her recent biography: ‘If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching’. Lee began Penelope Fitzgerald’s story by reflecting on her accomplished career. Late in life, Fitzgerald was the unlikely winner of the 1979 Booker Prize for her novel Offshore. At the time of her death in 2000, she had published three biographies and nine novels, been nominated twice more for the Booker Prize, and earned widespread admiration for her unique, controlled style. Over the next hour, Lee held the audience spellbound as she led them in search of the life that made this gifted, insightful, and intensely private novelist.
Lee’s talk, like the biography, followed the chronology of Fitzgerald’s life. Researching this life cannot have been an easy task: Penelope kept many secrets. She cultivated a public persona as a grandmotherly figure to protect her privacy. Her literary career is a story of patience and endurance, ‘an old writer who never got to be a young writer’ as Lee said.
Fitzgerald was born Penelope Knox to an accomplished family; she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford and was so successful in her exams that her papers were purportedly bound in vellum (Lee admits this story may be apocryphal). She married her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, in 1942, and wrote for the BBC during the war. On Desmond’s return, the two settled in Hampstead and had three children. Desmond worked as a lawyer, and together the two started an ambitious literary magazine called World Review. The stage seemed set, Lee said, for a comfortable, literary life.
That life was unfortunately not to be. The young couple was over-extended financially. Desmond developed a drinking problem and began forging checks; he was eventually found out and disbarred. After that, the Fitzgeralds lived in true poverty. Penelope moved the family to Suffolk, where she worked in a bookshop, and then to a houseboat in Clapham, which sank. Lee recounted a poignant story of Penelope’s children coming home to find a cat clinging to the mast, and Penelope’s books stained yellow with Thames water. Penelope took up teaching to make ends meet. She did not publish a novel until after her husband’s early death in 1976.
These experiences affected Penelope deeply. From the religious Knox family, she inherited a fascination for the clash between reason and the vagaries of human emotion. The extremities she faced in adulthood drew her to the poor, the downtrodden, to those born defeated, and it lent her writing a feel for dark comedy and for acute sadness. As Lee put it, ‘she knew the worst that people can do to one another, and to themselves’. But her life also supplied the subject matter for her early novels: her time in the Suffolk bookshop became The Bookshop, while her stint at the BBC found use in Human Voices.
Fitzgerald’s later novels move away from her own life experiences, but they retain the characteristics that make her early novels compelling—the exploration of reason and emotion in spare, austere prose. In them, she developed a style Lee characterised as ‘reticent’ and ‘full of silences’, qualities which mask passionate conviction. Fitzgerald researched her historical novels intensely, even re-learning German for her last novel The Blue Flower, but her careful choice of detail masks the range and depth of her research. In their understated control, Lee felt, the novels achieve something profound and original.
Lee admitted that she felt great responsibility to her subject in writing this biography, the first ever written on Fitzgerald, not least because many living people still remember Penelope fondly. With this, as with other biographies, Lee concluded, the biographer has a duty to get the story as right as possible, but acknowledge that no biography is ever complete. We can follow Penelope Fitzgerald’s life, trace connections between it and her work, but ultimately we are ever in search of the whole story.
On a sunny afternoon last week Lyndall Gordon presented to OCLW the first ever reading for her forthcoming memoir, Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter (Virago hardback 2014; paperback: spring 2015).
Gordon’s talk dealt with the motivations for and creation of her latest memoir, which is primarily about the relationship between herself and her mother. Gordon grew up in South Africa, from a young age acting as a partial caretaker for her mother. Gordon’s mother suffered from a psychological illness which was not discussed in the family, but for which she eventually took medication. Her mother’s illness and reclusiveness was somewhat like Emily Dickinson’s in that it was bound up in the writing and reading of poems and greatly influenced Gordon’s love of literature.
Gordon summed up one of the major issues in family memoir: ‘To write about family is to take as subjects people who most intimately shape our lives’. Gordon opens the memoir with a passage about being four years old and feeling the privilege of being with her mother when she is ill. Illness and the ill mother is a powerful theme for a writer. Gordon quoted from Virginia Woolf’s essay, ‘On Being Ill’, in which Woolf exclaims, ‘what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness’. Katherine Mansfield said of her own illness that it opened her eyes to her writing. In Gordon’s memoir, illness transforms their relationship, for the mother and daughter are alike as dreamers: the mother is a visionary – the daughter is to go on to explore what it means to be a woman.
Gordon’s generation explored women’s lib which she explained was a divergent path from the one her mother wished her to follow: to live in Israel. Gordon remembers being at Columbia University for her PhD and hearing Lionel Trilling speak about literature as being about the “hum and buzz of implication” just under the platform of history. This leads Gordon to question whether family narratives are predetermined – are they chosen from an array of narratives, a generated story familiar to history? A memoirist must attempt to avoid predetermined stories and challenge these popular narratives by plunging the subjects into a testing moment.
However, in writing a family memoir, Gordon warned us, family secrets arise, and it is these hidden things that are at the core of creativity (of the memoir and of the life). Each written life has a unique form – dictated by the life or the art. With memoir, we ask the question, might there be an underlying pattern to each life? This may be more obvious in great lives, but the practice of biography compels biographers to consider their own lives. It is important for the memoirist to distinguish between what is lively detail and what is digression. But the record itself still matters; we do need to know who we are. One secret Gordon discovered was a passionate but unconsummated affair between her mother and a charismatic Zionist man who inspired her mother’s wish that her daughter would go to live in Israel. This also regenerated the story of Gordon’s ancestors who had been Eastern European Jews who migrated to South Africa. This kind of information needs to be remembered and documented, Gordon said. This is only possible with access to family records, papers and letters which are so crucial to the family memoirist.
Continuing along these lines, Gordon asked, how do we turn papers and letters into the coherent narrative of memoir? Gordon’s answer reiterated her earlier thoughts about diverging from predetermined narratives to figure out which story you want to tell. Gordon found that writing the story of the mother and daughter’s shared love of literature was a wonderful experience but writing about the divide was difficult. She had to manage balancing truth from her own point of view alongside empathy for her mother’s.
Gordon has found her life is bound up with her mother’s even as it is and was divided. In a sense, both women’s stories are about thinking about migration and feminism. In her mother’s dedication to the unseen life, to being a poet as well as a mother, she paved the way for Gordon’s love of stories. Both women shared a commitment to literature, which led Gordon to the path of writing lives.
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.”
Nanette here for you with a delayed summary from Richard Holmes’ lecture from Tuesday 18th February. Full disclosure: I was unable to attend this lecture and have written this summary by listening to the unedited podcast of the event which will soon be edited and available on our Wolfson College Podcasts page with the other Weinrebe lectures. If you missed the event I hope this summary can tide you over until you can listen to the podcast (and you should, because Richard Holmes has a lovely voice!).
Hermione Lee introduced Richard Holmes as ‘at once one of the most influential and distinguished of our biographers and one of the most innovative and pioneering’. And what did one of the most eminent biographers in the world do to begin his lecture? In a simple and humble way, he put our interest in life-writing (and human lives) utterly in perspective. Commencing his lecture with what he called a ‘litany,’ titled ‘Some Average Lifespans,’ he asked us to think of how precious a single human life is and also at once how insignificant it is. His ‘litany’ of lifespans began by listing the Coriscan pine tree with a lifespan of three hundred years, then cited the Galapagos tortoise at one hundred and ninety years, then European homo sapiens at 70 years (20 years asleep ‘in brackets’), and on down through various species to the mayfly whose lifespan consists of a single day.
With this opening reminder of our place among the many species on our planet, Holmes then took us back through his own past in the first section of his lecture, which he titled, ‘Time and Identity’. He recalled his travels as an aspiring young writer, joking that the occupation of ‘writer’ in his passport was often misread as ‘waiter’. Drawing on the misinterpretation as a metaphor for what the biographer does, Holmes said writing a biography is in a sense ‘always waiting at someone else’s table’.
Moving from this apt comparison to the subject of the title of the lecture, ‘The Biographer’s Other I’, Holmes read from the opening of his early narrative on biography and travel, Footsteps (1985). He noted that even in this early book he was employing two forms of narrative: an immersive past tense narrative that recounted events with a feeling of immediacy, alternated with a kind of reflective present tense that created a distance between the past and the current moment, illustrated in the sentence, ‘I was eighteen’. So, as Holmes explained, the biographer’s other ‘I’ is actually a means for observing one’s subject while immersing oneself in the subject’s life and times. These various viewpoints stress that the bridge to the past is broken, subjective, and that biography needs to cross the bridge by other methods.
Upon reflecting on the ways in which a biographer might access the past, through travelling the paths of his subject, taking photographs of these places and attempting to make these connections across time, Holmes asked himself why does one choose particular biographical subjects? He realised that all of his subjects represented to him the principle of hope. Stevenson, Shelley, Coleridge, and the Age of Wonder all presented moments of overcoming challenges. The individuals were driven to change their lives and the Age of Wonder represented the hope that science has brought to us.
The second part of Holmes talk addressed the ‘subjectivity’ that is present in every biography. Holmes argued subjectivity has always been a great strength in biography, taking Boswell’s Life of Johnson as an example where Boswell’s dialogue and subjectivity are the key devices to opening up Johnson’s biography. Holmes pointed out other instances in which the biographical ‘I’ was a subjective and often sympathetic one. Drawing on an example from Johnson’s own Life of Richard Savage (1744) Holmes argued Johnson uses the rhetorical figure ironic chiasmus, or a reversal of terms, to describe Savage, but in doing so gives himself away. Holmes also mentioned Lytton Strachey’s portrait of Florence Nightingale from Eminent Victorians (1918) in which Strachey’s biographical ‘I’ takes over Nightingale’s voice, putting himself in the room with her, but giving her his own vehement language to describe the horrors of the hospital conditions. I think there is also an argument to be made here about this kind of projection of the biographical ‘I’ into the narrative as part of the modernist project of life-writing that the Bloomsbury group were interested in. If you’d like to read more about that, Laura Marcus delves with insight into Strachey’s biographical style in Auto/biographical Discourses (1994). Holmes’ final example of the biographical ‘I’ working with successful subjectivity was Wolfson’s own Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf (1996). Holmes mentioned both the opening and closing passages of the work as emblematic of effective and moving autobiographical interjections. Holmes quoted from the opening of the biography which itself quotes Virginia Woolf, ‘My God, how does one write a biography’ and from the final scene in which Lee allows herself to connect across time with the view Woolf would also have had: ‘My view overlays with, just touches, hers. The view, in fact, seems to have been written by Virginia Woolf. The lighthouse beam strikes round; the waves break on the shore.’
Holmes closed with a final thought on his concept of the ‘vertical footnote’ as an ideal place to put the ‘I’. It provides a way of including personal detail and allows the biographer to reach backwards and forwards within a chronological narrative without interrupting the pace of the main narrative.
Matthew here, reporting on the final event of what proved to be an eventful Hilary Term 2014. Over lunch on Tuesday, 11 March, the noted author, biographer, and curator James Hamilton gave a talk entitled ‘Unrolling the Tapestry: Weaving Interrelated Lives in Books and Exhibitions’. Hamilton’s wide-ranging interests include art and science in nineteenth-century London, and he has written biographies of J.M.W. Turner and Michael Faraday as well as curated exhibits on Turner and Helen Frankenthaler.
His presentation moved fluidly between the personal/autobiographical and the historical/biographical, between individual lives and their relationships to the intellectuals and artists who shared their milieu. He began with his own first encounters with visual art—he was drawn to pictures, he said, because they spoke without asking him to reply—and then discussed how that interest led to Turner, and in turn how his biography of Turner piqued his interest in Faraday. As a biographer, he aimed to draw connections between these two lives, to weave them together. Throughout his talk, Hamilton drew on the metaphor of weaving to show how a life becomes entangled with other lives and made a compelling case for a biographer’s interest in interconnection.
The metaphor of weaving in Hamilton’s title, both, as he noted when he began, includes both the sense of a finished product (a tapestry unrolling) and an unfinished process (weaving). As Hamilton put it: a biographer follows the “thread” of a life. On the one hand, then, a life yields up raw material for the biographer—thread for a tapestry. On the other, though, a life is also complete: a finished picture of an individual. The biographer’s fundamentally creative task is to shape a picture of the individual based on the finished life but nonetheless original. In that vein, Hamilton voiced his belief that biographies need updating every generation or so, as aspects of a remarkable individual’s life take on new significance in light of contemporary events.
Hamilton took the metaphor of weaving one step further, to make a point about relationships and networks. Turner, he points out, was not working in a hermetic environment: he was part of a vibrant cultural scene in London, made up of other artists, intellectuals, and scientists—like Michael Faraday. These connections not only captivate the imagination, they are crucial to capture a complete picture of an individual’s life and a historical moment. Hamilton said the name of the subject of his next book invariably comes up as he works on his current book. So, after writing about Turner, Hamilton turned his attention to Faraday to uncover the threads running between Turner’s art and Faraday’s science. Hamilton’s writing shows how an extraordinary artist and an exceptional scientist approached shared concerns in a shared cultural milieu. He views his books, which examine artistic and scientific communities in London in the nineteenth century, as part of this process of weaving together lives to give a holistic portrait of an age.
Hello there, life-writers, it’s Nanette again with a report on Paul Strohm’s lecture last week. To answer the question in the title of his lecture, Paul Strohm began with a qualified ‘yes’. He introduced us to the idea that some of the more obvious locations for life-writing in the Middle Ages are not necessarily the most productive. The early biographies tend to be classically inspired, accentuating respect for prior models and decorum over factual accuracy of the individual at hand. There was a strong desire that the biography be exemplary, with the didactic purpose of providing an example or model for its readers. Strohm called out Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne as a biography that emphasises the dignity of the monarch over the more humanizing details. Hagiography, or the lives of saints, is another specifically exemplary genre of narrative that follows very particular conventions of the life of the saint. Hagiography establishes each saint’s position in the community of saints: the life and passion of the saint, the life and miracles of the saint, the trials of the person on their way to sainthood. Eventually the lives of saints became free-standing vernacular narratives, but, Strohm argued, there remained a frame of expectations and the problem of generic decorum on medieval hagiographical and biographical writing that influenced what might be called the factual accuracy of the works.
The places to look, then, Strohm pointed out, are not hagiography or biography, but other genres in medieval culture. Documents of practice, record keeping about promotions, rank, payment stubs all offer titbits of life narratives. Historians may look at these documents as kernels of evidence, but they are still texts and objects which can be analysed in a literary way. Isolated facts can become narrative, and Strohm gave the example that in writing his biography of Chaucer he learned from documents like these that Chaucer was a customs officer on the waterfront, and was given a jug of wine daily on a Royal grant with the expectation that he would show up to work daily. These facts helped him to form a picture of Chaucer’s life: like many writers, he held down a day job and thus must have done his writing on his off hours.
Legal documents may present opportunities to find details and life narratives. Strohm told us the Latin ‘narratio’ (which only entered vernacular in the 16th century) belongs to the legal profession, as part of the art of persuasion in pleading a case. Medieval case histories are an interesting place to look for narrative, or for specific life details that could be more likely to be true than not. Strohm covered a few examples of these historical cases involving prostitution and deception. The philosophical treatise is another genre where life details and bits of narrative may be slipped in, as is the case with Thomas Usk’s Testment of Love. More relevantly to the literature-specialists and literary biographers, Strohm also argued that there were some life facts to be found in the literary work of John Gower, Robert Greene and Chaucer, providing Strohm with some fodder for his Chaucer biography. The problem with the literary ‘I’ in these works is that it is an amalgam of life and art, crossing ‘the bounds of making and making-up’. But if elements of a life represented to us in a literary work can also be corroborated by legal documents, it would be possible to construct a plausible narrative from the combination. Strohm’s thoughts here about the literary ‘I’ struck me as one of the best articulations of the problem readers encounter with literary memoir or any category of autobiographical fiction. One of the easiest traps a reader can fall into is that of assuming the literary ‘I’ equates with a personal, biographical ‘I’. But if we read carefully, we may find elements of factual ‘truth’ and certainly kinds of emotional, human truths in these literary representations of authors.
The questions and answer section covered a variety of topics from the assertion that there were no diaries per se in medieval England and that it would be extremely unusual to see a medieval biography that didn’t emphasise continuity of the subject’s life with past lives. An audience member raised the point that in Italy, however, things were different. Dante falls between the tendency towards writing within a tradition and expressing individuality with the lyric ‘I’. Strohm agreed, joking that there was probably a hundred year lag between medieval England and Italy. Another question raised the idea of changing notions of conscience, moving from a sense of communal conscience to individual conscience. Strohm replied that until the 14th century, the phrase ‘my conscience’ is never used in English and the word has a capital ‘C’, meaning it is common to all. From the 16th century, you get a sense of distinctive individual conscience. This tied in with another audience comment about the practice and influence of confession on life narrative, which Strohm agreed could be considered a generative form for life narrative as it would be created or shaped for the confessional. Strohm concluded by reiterating his argument that medieval writers often opened up with less self-consciousness about their lives when they were writing in alternative genres (which is why the legal framework becomes revelatory).
Nanette here with a report for you on Tom Couser’s lecture last week, which surveyed the recent history of memoir and the implications of the genre in our culture. This was our second lecture on the memoir form at OCLW this term (see here for Blake Morrison’s perspective on the genre); and I think we learned very different things about memoir as a genre. It was great to have an American perspective on memoir’s place in literature and culture as a form that celebrates identity. Couser opened his lecture by describing the cover design of his book, Memoir: An Introduction (Oxford, 2012). The cover represents a fingerprint on a page divided by black and white blocks of colour. It was, he explained, a visual key to understanding memoir: ‘identity (the fingerprint) in black and white’. Couser’s argument, as indicated by his title, was that memoir does matter, but that it matters more collectively, as a genre, than individually.
Much of Couser’s talk explored the inclusiveness of memoir, and he emphasised that memoir is in fact the most democratic of prose forms: there has been a boom in the genre which reaches audiences and writers both high and low. The form encompasses both ‘somebody’ memoirs (those written by the already famous) and ‘nobody’ memoirs (who might become famous because of their memoir). Somewhere in between these two categories falls the ‘literary’ memoir, which might be written by a nobody or a somebody.
But the backlash to the twentieth century boom of the memoir industry (‘industry’ was not Couser’s word, but one that might be applicable) brought charges of narcissism from novelists. In Couser’s view some of the only other genres to be denounced in their entirety like memoir are pornography and rap music. Narcissism is not the only charge against memoir; it is also accused of inaccuracy (a theme that was later explored by the audience’s questions). From the mid twentieth-century memoir became so popular as a genre that at least initially it seemed there was little fact checking done by agents or publishers, discrediting the genre.
The egalitarian element of memoir has also been noted in early versions of the genre, particularly in the nineteenth century. Defining the category of ‘nobody’ memoirs had me thinking about Emily Dickinson’s famous lines, ‘I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody, too?’, arguably an early version of literary, lyric ‘nobody’ memoir. Dickinson’s poetic speaker shuns the appearance of being a ‘frog’-like ‘public’ somebody, while in nineteenth century New England, celebrities both literary and political were certainly trumpeting their names to admiring audiences. I think Dickinson speaks to some of our suspicion of celebrity memoirs in general, and certainly to the claim of narcissism. Tom Couser cited a review by William Dean Howells, an American author and a friend of Mark Twain’s, in which Howells called memoir ‘the most democratic province of the republic of letters’. While reiterating that memoir matters because it is democratizing, Couser pointed out that this is also why some disdain it. And yet, memoir is a threshold genre, a gateway to the literary, straddling the border between literary, non-literary and sub-literary. It is also a potentially literary form as part of the wider genre of life-writing, which Couser understands as a term that explains how much of our lives is caught up in telling our lives. To Couser, life-writing takes the form of, among other things, the scrapbook, celebrity gossip magazines, reality TV, email, social media networks and gossip.
Recalling that early versions of the novel form involved works of fiction that portrayed themselves as truthful narratives, such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Couser noted that the novel and the memoir developed symbiotically in the eighteenth century. Using first person narrative, diaries and epistolary forms, the classic early British novel didn’t so much imitate life as it imitated life-writing. Couser explained that across the Atlantic, early American life-writing appeared in the form of spiritual conversion narratives by Puritan writers, and later in slave-narratives, many beginning with the same five words: ‘I was born a slave’. Later versions of American memoir broached themes of immigration/assimilation, the civil rights movement, and memoirs on rights movements in general. Couser’s personal experience of the life-writing in the 1960’s was that he couldn’t think of another time when so many people were reading the same books. The experience of these populations has successively become part of the public record through the genre of memoir. Memoir has served as the threshold through which ordinary citizens make their claim for equal rights.
The question and answer section was lively and full of debate about the different ways we read memoirs, how much we can trust them, for their accuracy and truthfulness, as historical sources and as literary works. A historian argued that letters tend to be more accurate as records of historical events because they are written more recently than memoirs, which tend to look back with hindsight on events. Couser replied that all memory is inherently unreliable and that hindsight also brings unconscious or conscious justification of one’s actions. And letters do prove useful as evidence of a relationship or emotional life. Further questions continued to elaborate on this theme, reflecting on whether readers expect memoir to be true. Couser answered that readers do expect truthfulness, or they become angry and feel betrayed by a made-up memoir, particularly in the case of recovery narratives, where a reader has an emotional investment in the example of the author’s recovery.
And by email the discussion on this subject continued with audience member Jeremy Wilson’s thoughts:
“A historian questioned the merit of memoir compared to contemporary letters. I saw his point (as both a biographer and editor of letters) but don’t entirely agree. Letters – provided they are not “written for publication” – can give a valuable immediate account of, and reaction to, historical events. But they may be knee-jerk reaction rather than considered opinion, and they may be slanted to accommodate (at least) the opinions of the recipient.
In different memoir accounts (to avoid the plural “memoirs”) of the same historical event, you can get a selection of personal views that may give a far more accurate overall impression (Example? Maybe the assassination of President Kennedy?). Yes, there’ll always be some way-out contributions; but an intelligent reader should be able to question those.”
Jeremy’s thoughts here on memoirs providing different impressions of a single event, which might give more comprehensive view of the event as a whole, ties in with Couser’s argument that memoirs are particularly important collectively rather than individually.
Further questions explored the boom of memoir in the publishing business and the peak of the boom, and the difference between autobiography and memoir. Couser’s take on the two genres was that they’re both difficult to define, but that autobiography implies the full life will be explored, whereas memoir foregrounds memory itself and could focus on an aspect or specific relationship within a life. Final questions centred around memoir’s status as a democratic genre, and whether literary memoirs could still be considered democratic, and on the similarities in English and French between the French terms les mémoires d’ (meaning the memoirs of) and le mémoire (meaning the memoir). The concept of the plural ‘memoirs’ evokes a more comprehensive work, more like autobiography. Couser’s talk provoked many questions and discussions, which were continued over a drinks reception in the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium Foyer.
On Tuesday 25th February Marina Warner kept the packed Leonard Wolfson Auditorium captivated by her insights into her work in progress, a work of fiction partly based on her own childhood, and partly the history of her father’s bookshop in Cairo.
Marina’s father was the son of a famous cricketer, Plum, who was well loved in his day. He grew up rich, but became very poor due to unfortunate life circumstances. He fought in North Africa under Monty, whom he adored, and then on to Italy, where he met Marina’s mother. After the war, after being captivated by Cairo, he asked a friend, David Smith, of W.H. Smith, to open a branch of their shop the city in 1948. The shop was then burned down in the riots of 1952, Marina described seeing the ruins as one of her earliest memories.
Marina described writing as a descent into the underworld, the desire to hear voices once again. Books play a part in their own story as both a hymnal and a tombstone, moving the past into the permanent present. Fiction implies invented and imagined things, a narrated story becomes something deposited for those who come later.
The starting point for Marina’s work was an inventory found in her parent’s personal papers that listed the items to be shipped from London to Cairo in 1948. Selected objects form the basis of the various parts of the novel. The objects are charged with a living voice, speaking the life of things became the organising principle. What was interesting is that the inventory contained nothing of her mother’s she brought nothing with her, except a list of recipes she learnt; English vocabulary and a school textbook on Europe from 1941.
She read a particularly captivating extract from her novel, describing the first meeting between her mother and in-laws, it painted a very vivid picture of an interaction that many can identify with. It highlighted the ‘Englishness’ of her grandparents and the very different lifestyle that her mother found herself in having moved from a working class Italian family.
Marina talked about how her Catholic education imprinted on her and has led her to often go against the nuns who taught her. The Bible is the work of four life-writers, who all had to agree with each other. Marina’s own work has never accepted one version of a story, that there is only one ending. The Rosary, going through the scenes from Mary’s life, showed that it was possible for life to be dictated by that of another, while the Station of the Cross shows the importance of objects.
The discussion raised some interesting points about the way in which Marina approached writing a fictional novel based on reality, in particular the lives of her own family. The decision to move away from strict life-writing, meant that she was able to make mistakes and invent, which is not possible with biography. She wanted to be able to invent dialogue and scenes, getting inside the character’s minds as a witness to the story. Marina likened it to being a prompt for a play, allowing characters to speak for themselves, but every now and again she provided the lines.
Marina’s work also now takes on an interesting new dimension given the events in the Arab world that started in 2011. The context of her work has altered by what is happening in the present. It was discussed as to whether Marina would leave her work unchanged, and allow the read to draw their own conclusion, but she has made the decision that the events were so important that they would have to influence her novel.
This was an excellent lecture, and I would encourage everyone who missed out on it to take advantage of the podcast when it becomes available.
Keynote speeches by Edmund De Waal and Neil MacGregor at the Lives of Objects Conference in September 2013
The complete run of Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing, featuring Alan Hollinghurst and Stella Tillyard among many others
Lectures by Kathryn Hughes, Adam Phillips, Michael Woods, Michael Burden and Hugh Haughton
14 papers from the Lives of Objects Conference, on subjects as diverse as ‘Gnomes Behaving Badly’ and Benjamin Disraeli’s locks of hair
Don’t forget to bookmark/favourite this page: in the next few weeks I’ll be uploading podcasts of the Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing 2014 (featuring Blake Morrison, Edward St Aubyn, Richard Holmes and Marina Warner), as well as lectures by David Amigoni (Keele) on Victorian life-writing and Tom Couser (Hofstra) on ‘The Work of Memoir’.
All these podcasts will also shortly be made available on the blog too.
Lucinda Fenny here, the final member of the OCLW publicity team, welcome to my first blog post and I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts with you over the coming months.
On Wednesday evening, in the company of an intimate audience, OCLW’s visiting members presented an outline of the work they are conducting whilst in residence in Oxford. Everyone stuck to their allocated time of 10 minutes which was very impressive, and were able to give us a very succinct view of their, in some cases, vast topics, and the challenges that they face. The seminar was chaired by Hermione Lee.
First to speak was Sophie Scott-Brown from the Australian National University in Canberra, who is working on a biography of the British radical historian Raphael Samuel. She began by challenging the view of Samuel as a Marxist historian, instead describing him as a people’s historian, despite the difficulties in defining what that term actually means. Sophie claimed that biography is key to bringing out Samuel’s architectural type, explaining why and how he did what he did. She also emphasised Samuel’s relevance to contemporary debates on the social role of the intellectual and historian, he advocated for empowering people to speak for themselves.
Our second speaker was Jeffrey Gutierrez from Boston who talked about the issues that surround the editing of collections of letters, in particular reference to William Carlos Williams. Jeffrey explained how the first edition of his letters were heavily censored, as the poet was still alive at the time. An important question is how to transcribe Williams’ letters into print, as he often did something artistic with the form of them and although past editors have argued that his is of no relevance, Jeffrey contested this view. He showed the audience two letters written only a few months apart. One had been left uncorrected, and showed the state of Williams’ mind following a series of strokes due to the large number of errors. The corrected letter gives the impression that Williams had made a miraculous recovery, which was, of course, not the case.
Maria Rita Drumond Viana highlighted the vast resources available in relation to W.B. Yeats and how fortunate she felt to now have access to them here in Oxford. She put forward the notion of letters as a literary genre in themselves, in contrast to how they are used by other scholars, as documents, evidence and testimony. This distinguishes what a letter says from how it says it. She put forward the contested notion that the correspondence of a writer can be considered as part of their work, which is not possible with any other artist. In the discussion this was further covered, where Maria Rita argued that while letters may not be considered part of a writer’s work, they can be included as examples of the way in which they write.
Finally Tracey Potts our visiting scholar from Nottingham University gave us an insight into the methodology and its problems when writing about the biography of objects. Her work focuses on clutter and procrastination, which Tracey was quick to point out was not a reflection on her own life! One of the problems when working with clutter in particular is how we deal with piles of stuff, and how we relate to the material world. Clutter is a certain challenge as it is a thing that is not a thing. An important part of her work is extending the notion of agency to the non-human world, when at present humans are at the centre of the stories of things. This counters the idea that humans control things; Tracey posited the fact that perhaps it was the other way around and that things might have designs on us. To further pique our interest in her work she informed us that penguins and coffee tables are two cast members in the book.
Matthew Sellers here for the OCLW publicity team. Last Thursday, 13 February, I had the pleasure of listening to novelist Edward St Aubyn discuss his writing process with Hermione Lee as part of the Weinrebe Lecture Series in Life-Writing. Edward St Aubyn is the author of seven novels, five of which were collected in 2012 as The Patrick Melrose Novels. This year’s theme, ‘Voicing the Self’, is especially apt for a writer as adept as St Aubyn at revealing his characters’ inner lives.
With his witty, stylish prose, St Aubyn accesses fully realized characters and a range of human experience, from the hilarious to the truly tragic. His novels, at turns sharp, humorous, and poignant, satirize the English upper class with pointed sophistication. Yet in The Patrick Melrose Novels St Aubyn grapples with traumatic events of his own life, and his works never lose their awareness of this deep pathos. Brutally honest in his prose, St Aubyn was equally forthcoming with the large audience gathered to see him on subjects from the inexpressible to the experience of making personal trauma public in autobiographical fiction.
Lee opened the talk with a question about the plan of The Melrose Novels, which St Aubyn confessed he initially intended as a trilogy before he reconceived the series to include two additional novels, including the Man Booker Prize shortlisted Mother’s Milk. The five novels follow a protagonist, Patrick Melrose, who endures a traumatic childhood and copes in adulthood with a combination of booze and drugs.
Though all five novels center on Patrick, Lee noted that they are all written in third person. St Aubyn replied that he felt “attracted to the freedom” of third person, that third person helped avoid confession and establish distance. Establishing a core dramatic truth was more important to his autobiographical project than a faithful representation of the facts. With that, St Aubyn set the scene for a rich discussion of his authorial relationship with his fictive protagonist, the function of his pithy style and cutting irony, and influences on his writing.
St Aubyn was frank about the difficulty of writing his first novel, Never Mind, which features a graphic rape scene; he recounted how he wrote longhand before handing the leaves off to be typed, how the sound of typing took on a reassuring constancy that enabled St Aubyn to continue. Crucial to his writing experience, and indeed to the novels’ handling of trauma, are the moments when language runs up against the inexpressible. Lee noted that Patrick Melrose is a vocal, witty protagonist, but he often longs for silence, and St Aubyn noted that Patrick’s efforts to articulate cause confusion. Indeed, his drive drive as a novelist often seems an effort to evoke an unsayable moment of experience.
The redeeming qualities of silence may seem odd given St Aubyn’s elegant style—he’s been compared to Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde. Lee gave an exemplar of his epigrammatic wit from At Last: ‘As a guest, Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you, and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions’. St Aubyn replied that the compression of epigram, of wit, provides a strong structure for the inner drama of the novels, a horrifying contrast of perfect control, balance, and brevity against uncontrolled violence and uncontrollable inner emotion. And it is in that balance of polished irony and violence that St Aubyn’s novels voice a self at once dazzlingly witty and painfully troubled.
Blake Morrison, ‘The Worst Thing I Ever Did’: Confession and the Contemporary Memoir’
Hi there, Nanette here for OCLW publicity, and I’ll be summarizing for you the first of the OCLW Weinrebe Lectures, given by Blake Morrison on Tuesday 4th February in the packed Leonard Wolfson Auditorium at Wolfson College, Oxford.
Blake Morrison began his lecture last Tuesday by revealing that his lecture title, ‘The Worst Thing I Ever Did’, was the original title for his 1997 book about the James Bulger murder case. The story of the two ten-year-old boys who tortured and murdered the two-year-old James Bulger is examined in conjunction with Morrison’s own life, and in the end he titled his book, As If. Asking us to think about private and public deaths and the bad things we do in our own childhoods, Morrison explained As If was an attempt to ‘reclaim’ for humanity the children who do bad things.
Morrison went on to explore things that bother us about memoir as a genre. Confessional memoir, and talking about yourself have something ‘indecent’ about them, he said. The intimacy and painful truths of the form lead us to think about mortality: life-writing often turns into death writing.
The connection between this opening and the remainder of Morrison’s lecture was the theme of ‘motive’: we question the motives of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who murdered James Bulger; perhaps they are impossible to know or understand because children do not have a fully developed moral sense. The motives for confession and memoir are manifold, and can be difficult to discern because a certain amount of strategy and calculation are required to structure a narrative. Morrison described the following as some of the motives for confessional literature:
Shock value / sensationalism: attempts to redefine what is shocking by exposing lies and secrets
Performance / showmanship: writers who bear witness versus confessional writers who dare readers to judge them, and self-dramatization or the pleasure of constructing the narrator’s persona
To set the record straight: incorporating elements of ‘objectivity’ and journalistic witness, but intimacy sets this writing apart from reportage
Catharsis / cleansing: writing as therapy and memoir as a form for airing grievances and for grieving
Blake Morrison concluded his lecture by reading Sharon Olds’ “First”, a poem from her 2010 collection, The Wellspring, that describes a scene of sexual abuse to the young speaker. Morrison explained that the poem employs the confessional mode to transform a memory of abuse into one of empowerment, and this transformational element is one of the most liberating motives of confession.
Questions afterwards ranged from ‘how do we know a confession is true’ to ‘does confessional literature say anything about its audience?’ In addition, a reference to Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ as being ‘recollected in tranquillity’ spurred the question of ‘whether there is something to be said for what’s recorded in the heat of the moment and will be shaped later as memoir?’ Final questions considered the stigma in academic writing of using the first person ‘I’, and the importance of understanding any writer’s subjectivity.
Hello life-writers! My name is Matthew Sellers, and I’m one-third of the new OCLW publicity team. Over the course of the term, Nanette O’Brien, Lucinda Fenny, and I will be blogging about the events OCLW hosts. To kick off, here’s a summary of our first event, the OCLW Workshop on Literary Letters, convened by Professor Pamela Clemit on Tuesday, 28 January 2014. The speakers included Professor John Barnard, Professor Pamela Clemit, Grace Egan, Daniel Hitchens, Priyasha Mukhopadhyay, Dr Mark Pottle, Dr Henriette van der Blom, and Maria Rita Drumond Viana.
The first half of the session focused on eighteenth century and early-nineteenth century letter-writers who, while adhering to epistolary etiquette, wrote letters as a form of self-representation and reciprocal social exchange with their contemporaries. The second half of the workshop gave speakers working in different eras and in different disciplines the opportunity to note continuities and changes in conceptions of letter-writing across periods, social milieus, and material forms.
The workshop concluded with a wide-ranging discussion of the issues raised by the panelists, from which emerged some common themes. Across all disciplines and periods, for example, the speakers and workshop participants foregrounded the notion of self-representation in letters. This shared concern sparked lively discussions, from how to read letters (whether as individual, standalone texts or as “narratives” revealed in long correspondences) to censorship/self-censorship and the importance of social and political context.
In the first half, Daniel Hitchens and Grace Egan both drew on examples from the eighteenth century to show how letter-writing form and convention suggest that letters constitute a unique genre, influenced by factors such as epistolary etiquette, social protocol, and personal relationships. They stressed the particularity of the letter, intended for a specific addressee and discussing shared interests or experiences, or even asking for particular advice. Professor Clemit’s presentation further explored the social bonds engendered by letter-writing. Her paper posited a notion of reciprocity, arguing that letters construct and sustain social networks and intimate personal bonds. Professor Barnard concluded the session with an insightful discussion of how John Keats crafted his letters to represent himself to his contemporaries.
Dr Henriette van der Blom began the second half by contrasting Cicero’s and Pliny’s letters with the eighteenth-century examples, noting that letters in the ancient world were frequently made public and often deployed the art of rhetoric to persuade readers. Priyasha Mukhopadhyay presented on the material life of the letter, arguing that features like handwriting versus type-writing can say as much about social relationships and new technologies can say as much as form or content. Maria Rita Drumond Viana shared her thesis research on W.B. Yeats. Demonstrating continuity between self-presentation in eighteenth-century and modernist letter-writing, she called letters a “laboratory of the self.” Finally, Dr. Mark Pottle came at letters from a historical perspective, raising the point that letters can serve as historical evidence as well as objects of textual or material analysis.
We have a great line up this term! OCLW is starting off the term with a special collaborative workshop on ‘Literary Letters’ from the eighteenth century to the present, followed by the Weinrebe Lecture series which occur in conjunction with our other events this term (see our post on the Weinrebe Lectures), and talks from our OCLW scholars, as well as Tom Couser, Paul Strohm, and a lunch seminar with James Hamilton (free, but registration required). Finally, take a look at the conferences we’re hosting in March and April!
Unless otherwise stated, all events are open to all, free of charge, with no reservation required.
Tuesday 28 January (Week 2), 5-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:
‘An OCLW Workshop on Literary Letters’. This event will focus on literary letters from the 18th century to the present day. Papers will explore aspects of genre, reciprocity, self-presentation, and the material culture of letters. Individual letter-writers to be considered include Samuel Johnson, Keats, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Yeats, and Isaiah Berlin. Convened by Professor Pamela Clemit. Speakers include: John Barnard, Pamela Clemit, Grace Egan, Daniel Hitchens, Priyasha Mukhopadhyay, Mark Pottle, Henriette van der Blom, Maria Rita Drumond Viana. This event is free of charge and open to all. For information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday 19 February (Week 5), 5.30-7pm, Haldane Room, Wolfson College:
‘Work-in-Progress Seminar’: OCLW’s Visiting Scholar, Dr Tracey Potts (Nottingham), and Visiting Doctoral Students, Jeffrey Gutierrez (Brown), Sophie Scott-Brown (ANU) and Maria Rita Drumond Viana (Sao Paolo), will discuss the research they are conducting whilst in residence at OCLW.
Tuesday 4 March (Week 7), 5.30-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:
Lecture: Tom Couser (Hofstra), ‘The Work of Memoir; or, Why Memoir Matters’. This lecture will be followed by a drinks reception in the LWA foyer, to which all are welcome.
Thursday 6 March (Week 7), 5.30-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:
Lecture: Paul Strohm (Columbia), ‘Was there Life-Writing in the Middle Ages?’
Tuesday 11 March (Week 8), 1-2pm, Haldane Room,
Life-Writing Lunch Seminar: James Hamilton, ‘Unrolling the tapestry – weaving inter-related lives in books and exhibitions’. This event is free of charge and open to all: places are limited, and because we provide a sandwich lunch, you must register in advance. To register online, please follow the link on www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing/events/lwlunch
Hosted Events Taking Place at OCLW:
20-22 March 2014, Isaiah Berlin’s Enlightenment: a two-day interdisciplinary conference will be held at OCLW to examine Isaiah Berlin’s view of the Enlightenment and the presence of the Enlightenment in his work. For information, please contact Professor Ritchie Robertson, email@example.com
15-16 April 2014, The Sixteenth Oxford Dance Symposium: The Dancer in Celebrity Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century: Reputations, Images, Portraits. Building on the success of the 2009 symposium, ‘Dance and Image’, the 16th Oxford Dance Symposium, in association with the Oxford centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College, takes as its subject dancer celebrity in all its forms. There will be a particular focus on dancers’ portraits, and also on the wider issues of patronage, practice and philosophy of dance during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. For more information, and to register, please visit www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing/events/dance
This Day Symposium, hosted by the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College, Oxford, marked and celebrated the centenary of the publication of Leonard Woolf’s path-breaking first novel, set in then Ceylon, The Village in the Jungle (1913). It explored the novel from a number of different critical and informed angles, all of which addressed and emphasized its richness, complexity and importance as a piece of literature. The Symposium was well attended, with over 60 delegates engaging with the various presentations, lectures and papers in the rich discussions that followed them.
After a short introduction from Professor Hermione Lee, the President of Wolfson College and Director of Oxford Centre for Life Writing, and Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literatures in English at the University of Oxford and the Symposium Convenor, the opening keynote was given by Chandani Lokuge. An Associate Professor at Monash University in Australia, Chandani’s lecture gave a comprehensive introduction to, and analysis of, the novel. The new perspectives that she offered stimulated some productive discussion in the questions that followed.
This was followed by a roundtable discussion that drew on a varied selection of writings by and related to Leonard Woolf, including excerpts from Woolf’s short stories, his later political writings and extracts from Virginia Woolf’s work, as well as from The Village in the Jungle. These passages were selected by a range of academics from universities across the UK, each of whom introduced their choices and drew out some interesting points from them. The discussion that followed emphasized the complexity and breadth of Leonard Woolf’s literary output, as well as exploring several of the novel’s thematic concerns. The Symposium was further enriched by the presence of a fascinating display table, kindly put together by Nathan Sivasambu, that included a number of articles, etchings and books related to Leonard Woolf.
After lunch, four papers were given as part of a panel discussion entitled ‘Perceptions of the Jungle’. These papers expanded on various aspects of Woolf’s novel on both a textual and historical level, and traced some of the various critical receptions that it has received. The panel was followed by another engaging question and answer session, before prize-winning biographer and novelist, Victoria Glendinning, gave the closing plenary. Victoria gave a rich account of the biographical period during which Woolf produced The Village in the Jungle. In the conversation with Hermione Lee, biographer of Virginia Woolf, that followed her lecture and that was also opened up to contributions from the floor, this biographical context was explored further to bring the life of Leonard Woolf to the fore.
The Symposium concluded with a series of readings from three contemporary writers: Roshi Fernando, Roma Tearne and Romesh Gunesekera. The writers offered some thoughtful responses to Woolf as well as reading some superb extracts from their own work, and the return to literature provided a productive and enjoyable conclusion to the day.
Welcome to the new blog of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing! OCLW is a research centre based at Wolfson College at the University of Oxford, designed to support those who write auto/biography and those who undertake research on different forms of life narratives. The centre is directed by acclaimed biographer Hermione Lee (Virginia Woolf; Edith Wharton; Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing), associate-directed by academic and writer Elleke Boehmer (Nelson Mandela; J.M. Coetzee in Context and Theory; Bloodlines); and administered by me, its research fellow, writer Rachel Hewitt (Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey), who will edit this blog.
OCLW was formally established in October 2010, with funding from the Dorset Foundation. Since its foundation, we’ve got off to a really exciting start, building up a busy schedule of events (including talks and lectures, ‘in conversations’, seminars, workshops, conferences and symposia, and concerts; most of which take place at Wolfson College, Oxford) and turning our thoughts to long-term research initiatives. We’ve been delighted at the enthusiastic attendance of these activities, and profoundly struck by the appetite that exists for serious discussion of issues concerning life-writing.
OCLW’s website provides a full, formal description of our activities, advisory committee, and membership; as well as details about study opportunities with OCLW. (Please email me if you’d like to be added to our e-mailing list). This blog hopes to offer a more informal forum through which many of the conversations that are begun at our events can continue; and which will enable interested parties who are unable to participate directly in our activities to take part in a different form, at a distance. We hope that articles and resources posted on this blog will extend the community of life-writers and life-writing researchers that OCLW has begun to build around us in Oxford, into the virtual landscape. I have also set up a Yahoo Groups page for OCLW, for those who prefer to converse online in a less public format (the group is restricted to members only).
As this blog is very much in its infancy, I’d be very grateful indeed if you could post any thoughts you might have about what you’d like to see on our blog. I’d also love to hear from any life-writing practitioners or researchers who would like to write for the blog! Please consider contributing the following:
Reviews of books, events, or film, TV or radio programmes relating to life-writing
Reviews and feedback on OCLW’s events
Short pieces (up to 1000 words) about any issues (theoretical, historical, political, current) pertaining to life-writing
News about current life-writing trends and experiments, in digital media or otherwise
Information about forthcoming events anywhere in the world relating to life-writing
Short reflections (up to 1000 words) on life-writing methodology; advice for other life-writers; queries about practical aspects of life-writing
Short anecdotes (up to 300 words) about your life-writing experiences