Category Archives: OCLW

The Celebrity Interview: History, Aesthetics, Method

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.

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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.

Photo by Samuel Zeller (CC0 1.0)

The Celebrity Interview: History, Aesthetics, Method

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.

The event is free and open to all.

For more information, please contact Kate Kennedy 

Photo by Oscar Keys (CC0 1.0)

 

Celebrity and Life-Writing in Dialogue

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 Dialogue at 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.

Photo by Anthony Delanoix (CC0 1.0)

This event is open to all, to register click here.

Lucasta Miller, ‘Letitia Landon: portraiture and the slippery subject in post-Byronic literary culture’

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.

 

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

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

Russell Brand

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

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

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

Celebrated and/or Reviled: Politics and Power

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

Woolley Bowles

Authorial Voice and Aesthetic Creation

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

Rod Nicky Christine

Crafting the Narrative, Contesting the Narrative

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

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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.

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

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

roundtable pic 1 from ruth

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

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

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

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

Poster Draft 1

 

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

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

 

 

Grevel Lindop, ‘Unveiling an Esoteric Life: Writing the Biography of Charles Williams.’

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:

http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199284153.do

 

 

 

OCLW Lunch Seminar: Joanna Kavenna on 16 June 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

flowers

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

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

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

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

Megan

Megan Kearney

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

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

Sandra Mayer

Sandra Mayer

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

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

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

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

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

Sandra Mayer & Megan Kearney

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

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

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

OCLW Visiting Scholars: ‘Life-Writing Operations’

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.