New creative life-writing collaboration launched by CLHLWR and REFRAME Sussex

Life Writing Projects is is a new collaboration between The Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research (CLHLWR) and REFRAME.

“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’.”

The project includes Oxford Centre for Life-Writing visiting scholar Katherine Collins’s piece, Back to the Beach, first presented at a TORCH Environmental Humanities seminar.

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From ‘Back to the Beach’, by Katherine Collins

In Wardrobe Diaries Louise Kenward grieves for her grandmother by working with her dresses and old wardrobe; Tanya Shadrick connects her grandmother’s loving and playful care for her as a child with her own newly discovered capacity to be creative. Jenni Cresswell’s Three Green Dresses threads together past, present and future.

Tom Ottway works through his own and his mother’s grief for his father in Negative Spaces: Postcards Home, and Nirmal Puwar laments not only the loss of close relatives but austerity’s legacy of neglect and deterioration in inner city Coventry where she grew up and lives again now.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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