Conference “The Self in Verse. Exploring Autobiographical Poetry”

A common observation in autobiographical studies today is that poetry, and in particular lyric poetry, has yet to be investigated to its full potential. The conference entitled The Self in Verse. Exploring Autobiographical Poetry, held at St Hilda’s College, Oxford from April 9-11 2017, attempted to responded to this desideratum, which may come as a surprise to some given the very personal and emotional sentiments that lyric poetry is supposed to communicate. A collaboration between the University of Oxford (St Hilda’s College, Oxford Centre for Life Writing, Faculty of English Language and Literature and the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages) and the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School for Literary Studies (FSGS) at the Freie Universität Berlin, the three-day conference brought together some of the leading international literary scholars in the field. Amongst the participants were Jutta Müller-Tamm (Berlin), Patrick Hayes (Oxford), and Dieter Burdorf (Leipzig), who gave keynote speeches, as well as other scholars from the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, and Poland. In the productive atmosphere of St Hilda’s College, the conference paved the way for further investigations into the topic of autobiographical poetry.

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Poetry as a means of autobiographic self-expression has constantly fascinated writers across the ages and cultures. Early examples are ancient authors such as Catullus and Ovid, whose Latin poems Carmina and Tristia relate the stories of lives spent in controversy and exile. In the Middle Ages, French and German troubadours such as Chrétien de Troyes and Walther von der Vogelweide sought to cultivate a courtly mode of self-fashioning in their songs. Likewise, ever since the Renaissance, eminent writers have penned some of their most important works in the form of autobiographical poems. Dante’s Vita Nuova, Petrarch’s Canzionere, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Goethe’s Sesenheimer Lieder and Wordsworth’s Prelude represent just a few crucial milestones of the genre. As we can see, autobiographical approaches are located at the very heart of lyrical expression: attempts by poets to represent and narrate the self, and thus achieve ‘selfhood’ (poetically at least), have played as integral a role in historiographic and epic poems as they have in the more intimate domains of love and religious poetry. Since the nineteenth century, the boundaries of autobiographical poetry have been tested and pushed time and time again by modernists such as Arthur Rimbaud, Gottfried Benn and the Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet (“Otobiyografi”, 1961), or via the confessional poetry of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath and the multi-layered lyrics of certain modern singer-songwriter poets. Prominent examples of the latter are texts by singers like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, the 2016 laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The prevailing term “autofiction” and an increasing tendency towards self-expression, as well as self-staging through performance or various forms of trans- and intermediality, have broadened the artistic and aesthetic possibilities of the autobiographical genre not only for novelists but also for poets.

Within this broad historical frame, the conference participants presented on different forms of poetical self-portrayal from the medieval to the present time, with an emphasis on 20th and 21st-century literature. Over the course of the conference, autobiographical poetry was analysed and discussed amongst other things in relation to poetical multiplication of the self, paratextual references and functions, biographical facts, constitution of the lyrical self, the poem as an independent entity in an embryonic state, lyrical life-writing from a feminist perspective, autobiographical poetry as digital performance, and the emerging tendency of autobiographical and autofictional poetry. Collectively, the conference presented an initiatory mapping of the scholarly field of autobiographical poetry, which until now has been an underrepresented research area. Differences between autobiography in epic and lyric form were widely discussed, as well as the dialogic references connecting the different poems presented and analysed by the conference’s participants. What does it mean for literature, especially poetry, to thrive on unveiling and/or concealing personal matters and how do we as scholars tackle this literary interplay between author and text? Thanks to this successful collaboration between the University of Oxford and FSGS, these and other important questions of current literary theory were raised, revealing the plethora of potential that exists for future (diachronic as well as synchronic) investigations. A publication of the contributions is currently in preparation.

Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies is a structured programme for doctoral candidates, which has been funded by the Excellence Initiative of the German Federal and State Governments since 2007. The Graduate School belongs to the Freie Universität Berlin and in 2012 Humboldt University joined the programme as an important co-operation partner. The FSGS promotes and supervises theoretically and conceptually outstanding PhD projects in the field of Literary Studies analysing texts of European and Non-European origin. The Graduate School strives for the advancement of genuine research perspectives of Literary Studies, which cross single-language borders and challenge the technologies of globalization, last but not least by locating past and present phenomena of cultural practice within a broad historic horizon.

With this imminent conference on autobiographical poetry, we are happy to have strengthened our partnership with the University of Oxford and our colleagues at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages.

We would like to express our gratitude to Georgina Paul for her outstanding co-organisation and last but not least we would like to thank the director of FSGS, Jutta Müller-Tamm, for making this conference possible.

2015-Marie-Lindskov-Hansen

Marie Lindskov Hansen, was born in Copenhagen, and studied Scandinavian and European Literature at the University of Copenhagen and the Humboldt-University in Berlin. Currently she is a PhD-fellow at the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies at the Freie University Berlin doing research on Autofiction as a literary and theoretical construct. 

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‘Writing War, Writing Lives’ – Chair: Lara Feigel, panellists: Santanu Das, Hope Wolf, Kate McLoughlin, Sue Vice

For the last event of Hilary term OCLW hosted a panel on ‘Writing War, Writing Lives’ to launch a special issue of Textual Practice with that same title. Lara Feigel, who chaired the event, introduced the panellists and asked them each to speak for five minutes on the notion of authenticity in war writing.

Kate McLoughlin started, focusing on the relationship between authenticity and intangibility. Her article centres on a collection of letters at the National Army Museum in London written by Lieutenant Edward Teasdale, who sailed to the West Indies in 1806. Teasdale wrote four letters to his mother, but she did not respond until sixteen months after his first letter. McLoughlin is intrigued by the concept of a letter that is desired and anticipated. In Teasdale’s case, the desire and desperation is ‘palpable’, constituting a counter-narrative that, McLoughlin argued, has no textual trace except for the absence itself. In the letters that fail to materialise, McLoughlin found productive readings of phantom narratives that are often neglected. While recognising that authenticating these narratives is difficult, McLoughlin felt they were nevertheless important, and suggested the issue for open discussion.

Hope Wolf considered the connection between authenticity and digital life-writing. Wolf’s article looks at Farah Baker’s tweets about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Baker’s digital contributions have acquired a significant following, and she has been described controversially as the ‘Anne Frank of Palestine’. Wolf discussed the nature of Twitter, asking how trust may be ascertained in such a medium. Wolf argued that the ‘real-time quality’ of the tweets makes swift and scantily edited comments come across as more authentic. There is a prescribed fragmentation, imposed by Twitter itself, which does not lend itself to sustained reflective work. The ‘ordinary voice’ (by implication non-literary) takes precedence. Wolf noted how Baker’s age (she is often referred to as a ‘girl) and her gender both suggest that the value of rhetorical skills and the construction of arguments are discouraged. Since patience is not associated with digital technology, Wolf questioned the implication this medium could have for the authenticity of life-writing more generally.

Sue Vice talked to the audience about (in) authenticity, the question of whom we decide to trust.  Vice described the case of two American creative writing authors who both claimed to be witnesses of war when they were, in fact, writing fictive accounts. Vice is interested in the boundaries of authenticity – does it define reality or the appearance of reality? How can one trace the appearance of authenticity? Lynda La Plante’s Entwined tells the story of twins in a concentration camp. It was discovered that the author had copied part of this account from the archive of Olga Lengyel, which aroused a great deal of suspicion and judgement directed toward La Plante. Vice gave us another example to consider the problems of defining what is ‘authentic’. Judith Kelly wrote a memoir of suffering in a convent in East Sussex during the 1950s called Rock Me Gently. It turned out that some of the descriptions were copied from Hilary Mantel’s novel Fludd. Vice questioned if this revelation compromised the authenticity of what Kelly wrote. If everybody does it, Vice asked the audience, does it matter?

The final panellist was Santanu Das, who spoke about the problem of recounting the South Asian experience of World War I when the life-narratives are scarce, and the problem becomes one of amnesia and absentia. Lacking literary material, Das worked with sound recordings of prisoners of war. These, he argued, raise fundamental impulses in life writing: the sense of being in the presence of ‘the authentic’, the allure of the archival, the need to establish a narrative to document it, and the tendency to image home in terms of food. Das noted that this material made for complex research, for there is a lot to work with, yet none of it has a narrative. He gave us the example of a postcard from a young girl who learned to write in order to be in touch with her father who was at the front. What happens to the authentic, Das asked, if you don’t have a narrative?

The panellists raised diverse and stimulating questions surrounding the concept of authenticity, which encouraged lively discussions among the panel and with the audience. At the end of the event, several issues stood out: a general suspicion of the notion of authenticity; the value of authenticating intangibles (such as feelings, longings, or touch); the problem of narrating/documenting absences; the difference between experience and representation; the dangers inherent in the seductiveness of the archives; and finally, the political problems surrounding authenticity.

Marcus du Sautoy: ‘The life of primes: the biography of a mathematical idea’

OCLW is generally engaged in conversations on literature, history, and art, but for the second Weinrebe lecture the centre welcomed a voice ‘from the other side of the divide’. Marcus du Sautoy’s lecture on the life of prime numbers opened up an entirely different way of thinking about biography. Delivered in a manner that was as enlightening as it was entertaining, du Sautoy breathed life into mathematics in a way that surely left many in his audience wanting to learn more.

Challenging the traditional understanding of mathematics as an impersonal science, du Sautoy explained that his relationship to numbers was, in fact, a personal affair. Consequently, when he decided to write a book about prime numbers, du Sautoy chose to include the men behind the numbers, showing how theories and equations are linked to the people who created them and to the period in history in which these individuals lived. Biography was the means through which du Sautoy brought life into the narrative, re-inserting mathematics into history.

Du Sautoy wanted to tell his audience about the important characters in his life: prime numbers. These form the ‘atoms of his subject’ in his book The Music of the Primes: Why an Unsolved Problem in Mathematics Matters. Like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which travels through many generations, primes have a very long life and have thus interacted with many different lives in different epochs. The people connected to these numbers are as important as the numbers themselves. Du Sautoy told us a story that stretched back from the Ancient Greeks to the present day, of men across the ages trying to understand primes. Each grappled with them in different angles, adding new ways of seeing to a process that still absorbs many today.

This delightfully illustrative lecture gave details of many biographical experiences that informed the history of primes. These included the productive intellectual relationship between G. H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan, the 17th century monk Marin Mersenne who believed he had found the formula to solve the problem of primes, Carl Friedrich Gauss who, in the 19th century, tried to the find overarching patterns to calculate primes, and Bernhard Riemann who transformed prime theory by developing the musical zeta function. The story changed again in the 20th century, when Hugh Montgomery and Freeman Dyson used ideas from quantum physics as models to study primes, starting yet another journey for the life of primes. It is a life that remains very important today, since prime numbers are integral to our contemporary existence, forming the foundations of our banking and internet security. Primes are the keys which protect our electronic secrets.

Du Sautoy concluded by reminding us that math is much more of a creative subject than most people realise, a point his lecture beautifully illustrated. With his vivid examples – like the curious prime-centred life-cycle of the North American cicada that happens to hide underground for 17 years – and his engaging narrative, du Sautoy made the biography of primes come alive for a palpably engaged audience at OCLW.

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.

Jones-Ellis-Eaton

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

 

 

 

Nicoletta Demetriou, ‘Collecting music, collecting life stories: The Cypriot Fiddler Project.’

The OCLW started Michaelmas term with a wonderful talk by Nicoletta Demetriou who presented her work on ‘The Cypriot Fiddler project’. Demetriou introduced her research through her own life-story. It was as an ethnomusicologist studying at SOAS that she travelled to do her fieldwork in Cyprus in 2005 and first became aware of the gaps in the history of traditional Cypriot folk songs. The ‘seeds’ of this project were allowed to grow when Demetriou received a Wolfson Research Fellowship in 2012. In Cyprus, Demetriou developed a network of folk musicians, interviewing many of them to learn how music had been performed and to record their life-stories. She chose to conduct these interviews in a very open format, asking the men about their lives and letting them speak freely. This approach has resulted in a ‘mammoth’ collection of recordings that presents challenges (how to catalogue, what to cut), but in their depth and range they constitute a rich record of a ‘distinct professional class that has disappeared.’

The ‘Cypriot Fiddler project’ studies the lives of men of limited financial means who used to play the violin or the laouto whenever there was a need for musicians in traditional villages in Cyprus. Demetriou explained that women only trained as musicians if they were excluded from traditional female roles, as was the case of a blind female fiddler she interviewed. Training to become a fiddler took between 6 months to 1 year, during which time the student would mainly learn the ritual of the Cypriot wedding. Lessons were expensive, so most of the learning took place ‘on the spot’ at village festivals, fairs and weddings, where a player would be expected to play any song that was requested. Demetriou identified fiddlers as ‘a concrete professional class’ that existed until the 1960s. Various factors changed the role of tradition in the last half of the twentieth century: Cyprus’ independence from Britain in 1960, the societal changes caused by the de facto partition of 1974, and the overall modernisation of society. The 1930s had already seen changes in rural migration and labour consciousness, but it was only after the 1960s, particularly after 1974, that the political changes and the scale of urbanisation altered the landscape of folk music in the island. Fiddlers started finding no places to play – the village square was replaced by private venues as the location for weddings, and modern bands and DJ’s became the norm when music was needed.

The goal of the project is for the life stories of these musicians to be preserved as part of a group biography. Demetriou described her own role as that of an editor of the musicians’ own accounts of their lives. She hopes her work will convey the experience of the life of the fiddler, to understand why they chose to learn to play their instrument and what this life has meant to them. In this portrait, Demetriou also aims to convey what the fiddlers’ considered a good musician and how others in society viewed them. She stressed that this was not the story of individual musicians – it was the story of a country, and of a world that no longer exists.

Since many of her interviewees are quite old now, her priority at the moment is to put together a documentary in the hope that they can have the chance to see it. During the second half of her talk, Demetriou showed the first edits of a few of her interviews. These illustrated some of the particular challenges of such recordings, chief among them the question of translation. A poignant example was the phrase ‘making a wedding’ used by one of her interviewees in lieu of ‘playing at a wedding’, conveying the integral role of musicians in that traditional rite of passage. Another interviewee spoke of his music in terms of feeling satisfied, using a word that refers to having enough food which Demetriou chose to translate as ‘satiated’.

Having the opportunity to see clips from Demetriou’s research gave the audience a glimpse of the cultural richness collected in her work. Given the lively discussion after the talk, I am sure many of us will be looking out for Demetriou’s documentary when it is finished in early 2016.

To keep up to date with ‘The Cypriot Fiddler Project’, please follow this link to their Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/TheCypriotFiddler/timeline

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 Seminar: Lyndsey Jenkins, ‘The Hunger Games: Constance Lytton, Jane Warton and the Suffragettes’

The Oxford Centre for Life Writing had the pleasure to host one of its own DPhil scholars, Lyndsey Jenkins, who gave a presentation on Lady Constance Lytton, the subject of her new book Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette and Martyr.

In 1910 a working class suffragette by the name of Jane Warton was arrested for throwing rocks at an MP’s car, but the police who took her into custody did not know that Jane Warton was actually Lady Constance Lytton in disguise. Lyndsey captured her audience with an excerpt from Warton’s account of being force-fed in jail to put an end to her hunger strike. The testimony detailed how a tube was forced down her throat, how she was slapped and left covered in her own vomit as she had to listen how a friend endured the same procedure next to her. After experiencing this eight times, Warton’s true identity was discovered and she was promptly released from jail. Lyndsey explained that the fundamental question she had set out to answer was why a woman of Lytton’s position and privilege would knowingly choose to put herself in such a dramatic situation.

Lyndsey gave us a brief overview of Lytton’s ancestors in an attempt to identify what it could have been like to be a Lytton. Showcasing various prominent individuals from late Victorian and early Edwardian society, Lyndsey emphasised that the Lytton family had long been made up of strong personalities. Lytton, by contrast shy and awkward, was unsuited for the public and social life of her surroundings, turning instead to book reviewing and caring for her mother. When she did not marry, her life became essentially a private one. Lyndsey explained Lytton’s self-denial by informing us of her favourite ‘pass time’: cleaning the toilet. While outwardly she appeared the model of the dutiful Edwardian daughter, inwardly it seems unlikely that she experienced life in that way.

Lytton had her first encounter with suffragettes while on holiday, meeting Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Annie Kenney. While she sympathized with their cause, Lyndsey argued that she became a militant for three main reasons: to establish friendships, to develop a sense of purpose, and for the ‘total excitement’ of the experience. It was also a way to connect her private frustrations to a broader problem. But public life was a challenge since she did not like being looked at or being listened to. It is striking that, in spite of this, her public acts were often radical. There are accounts that on her first day at Holloway Prison she carved a ‘V’ for Votes for Women on her own body. Determined to go to prison and experience force feeding, Lytton came up with a fake name knowing that they would not let such a well-known individual as herself be subjected to that kind of procedure. Lyndsey noted how this experience was also deeply spiritual for Lytton, who once saw a vision of Christ encouraging her to continue with her work. Lyndsey argued that her constructed identity as Jane Warton helped her perform her new leadership role. The brutality of force feeding and the stress and exertion of her activism took a toll on Lytton’s health, suffering a heart attack and then a stroke. But even while confined to her bed, she kept on helping in any way she could.

In her presentation Lyndsey introduced us to a fascinating individual, offering accounts of her strength and determination. We will now have to turn to Lyndsey’s book to continue discovering the life of such an exemplary woman.

More information about the book can be found at:

https://www.bitebackpublishing.com/books/lady-constance-lytton

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.

OCLW lunchtime seminar: Frances Larson on ‘The Things About Henry Wellcome’, 10 March 2015

Exploring the miniature, the gigantic and biographies of scale, anthropologist and writer Frances Larson shared her work on Henry Wellcome (1853-1936) from her 2009 book An Infinity of Things with the OCLW lunchtime seminar.

The talk explored Larson’s use of objects as biographical evidence for Wellcome’s life. Her approach was to view Wellcome’s life through these objects, investigating the form they take and how they cohere around a person in groups and sets.

Henry Wellcome was born in America, but came to the UK in his twenties, where he founded the successful pharmaceutical company Burroughs, Wellcome & Company, which later became Glaxo Smith Klein.  At the time, Burroughs, Wellcome & Company manufactured tablets, ointments, soap, tea, coffee and more.

Wellcome was a businessman, designer and inventor, but he was also a private collector of objects. His holdings were the equivalent of five times the size of the Louvre, or approximately one million objects (a lower estimate). The innumerable objects and relics he collected included, among others, surgical instruments, antiques, scraps, ethnographic objects, cases, masks and weaponry.

Wellcome’s whole work life was taken up with the physical design of objects and patterns of scale. Larson is particularly interested in patterns of scale and she divided her discussion of Wellcome’s life into ‘small things’ and ‘big things.’ Larson argued Wellcome’s life as a businessman fall into the category of ‘small things’. She explained that the anthropological associations with small things are control, transcendence, convenience, privacy and magic. One manifestation of this interest in the small is that Wellcome commissioned the world’s smallest medicine cabinet. It was the size of a penny and held twelve bottles of real medicine. Wellcome coined the term ‘tabloid,’ another term for ‘tablet’ or ‘pill’, and spent a lot of time working to make his products smaller. Larson considered whether Wellcome’s personality matched these objects. He was a fastidious person and a controlling and perfectionist employer. Larson proposed that the creation of small, very perfect things might require a fanatical perfectionist. The person and the objects create each other as time goes on.

The second half of the talk focused on Wellcome’s ‘big things’: his enormous collection. In anthropology, big things are associated with the impenetrable, disorientation, being out of control, the public and the frightening. The same characteristics underlie both sides of Wellcome’s life: perfectionism, discipline, control and secrecy.

Wellcome wanted the prestige of being a big collector. He thought there could be a coherent narrative or ‘final picture’ for an unveiling of his collection. But Larson noted that the collection was simply too overwhelming and complex. It was only possible to make the collection coherent after his death when it was broken up.

Wellcome delegated the acquisition of objects to collecting agents, but he didn’t allow them to interpret it. He was not a small-scale collector who simply could not stop. He wanted the collection to be meticulously big and he delighted in the detail. Wellcome thought that he alone could make his enormous collection small and interpret it.

Larson concluded with the question of whether his large collection made Wellcome feel big or small. She argued that he died amongst the chaos of his objects – without achieving his vision of a cohesive exhibition. And although he did open a museum in his lifetime, he never felt it lived up to his vision. Looking at Wellcome through the lens of his collection of objects undercuts the idea of him as a great man.

Claire Harman: ‘The Suspicions of Mrs Gaskell’, 24 February 2015

Claire Harman, renowned biographer of Jane Austen and Robert Louis Stevenson among others, has a forthcoming biography of Charlotte Brontë. In this talk, Harman instructed her audience in the making and legacy of Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Brontë. Published in 1857, it was the first, and remains a popular, biography of Charlotte Brontë.

Harman explored Gaskell’s efforts to provide an impression of Brontë’s character. In acquiring and describing this information, Gaskell relied partly on gossip, and partly on fact, constructing her approach through anecdotes and stories.

Brontë herself also had some agency in the creation of the ‘Brontë myth’.[1] Gaskell and Brontë were writing their novels at the same time and place in 1846 in Manchester. Gaskell had written to ‘Currer Bell’ (Brontë’s pen name) to compliment her on her novel Shirley and then the two were introduced by Lady Kay Shuttleworth over a three day visit in the Lake District. After this visit, Gaskell wrote to Catherine Winkworth describing Brontë’s appearance. She appears to Gaskell to be ‘a little lady in a black silk gown. She is, as she calls herself, underdeveloped.’ The letter also described what Haworth (Brontë’s hometown) looked like, and included stories about Patrick, Charlotte’s father, being half-mad. It also included Charlotte Brontë’s anecdotes about the starvation regime at her school and the poverty at home, anecdotes that seemed to be fully crafted, narrated and full of significance. Claire Harman sees these anecdotes from Brontë as something that Brontë gifted to Gaskell, a kind of special nod from one novelist to the other. Gaskell went on to re-use this material in The Life.

After her sisters Anne and Emily Brontë died, Charlotte wrote the preface to the second edition of Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights (1850). The preface included biographical information about her sisters, evoking their life in their Moorland home, and the edition was well received. This preface also helped initiate the Brontë myth. Charlotte Brontë was subsequently invited to many London parties, but, extremely reticent, was disgruntled by the attention stemming from her celebrity, and was a difficult dinner guest. Then Brontë met her husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls, who was a curate to her father, Patrick Brontë. She was married to Nicholls and, Harman speculates, quickly became pregnant. Gaskell had been abroad, and said that she felt she would have been able to prevent Brontë’s death if only she had been in the country. Claire Harman suggested that Gaskell would have had access to abortion doctors for Brontë and that Gaskell’s confident statement leads us to infer this was a problematic pregnancy. From the symptoms, Harman believes Brontë contracted the severe morning sickness, hyperemesis gravidarum: the same illness the Duchess of Cambridge Katherine Middleton has suffered with in her pregnancies. Unfortunately the care Brontë received was inadequate and Harman assumes Brontë’s death was terribly painful.

After Brontë’s death, Gaskell received a letter from Patrick Brontë asking her to write the official and ‘truthful’ biography. This would turn out not to be a traditional ‘life and letters’ biography, a ‘portrait’ of an author, but a novelist’s view of a character. Gaskell did seek out letters and anecdotes for the biography, however, including the letters from Brontë to her married mentor in Brussels, Constantin Héger. Gaskell had not realized Héger was such a meaningful figure in Brontë’s life until Gaskell visited him in Belgium on a trip for research. Gaskell soon realized she could not use this story of unrequited love in the biography. It was too revealing and diverged from the character of Brontë she was trying to represent.

After the publication of the first edition (1857) of Gaskell’s biography of Brontë, there was what Claire Harman called a ‘shaking up of material, a loosening of anecdotes’. The second and third editions of the biography have ‘odd lacunae’ where Gaskell rescinded material that Patrick Brontë objected to about himself, mostly accounts that suggested he was controlling of his wife’s and his children’s behavior. Harman thinks that what has remained then in these subsequent editions must therefore have been reliable, like the report that Brontë’s mother Mariah wasn’t pretty.

The anecdotes that make up Gaskell’s biography helped form the idea that its subject is a character within a wider story. Claire Harman took her rapt audience through some of these anecdotes and the process that Gaskell underwent in constructing this lasting and popular biography of Charlotte Brontë.

[1] To see more on this term, see Lucasta Miller, The Brontë Myth (2001)

Margaret MacMillan: ‘Sometimes it matters who is in power’

For the fourth and final talk in the Weinrebe lecture series, world-renowned historian Margaret MacMillan joined us to share her reflections on the topic of moments when it matters who is in power.

Professor MacMillan began by talking about what drew her to history: a sense of curiosity about the past which extends to people and personalities, emotions and values. She suggested that biographers and historians tend to ask different questions of their subjects and this can sometimes lead to misunderstandings.

She argued that there was a time when history, misinterpreting Carlyle, wasn’t interested in people: the logical extreme of this is cliometrics, where the focus is on numbers not individuals. But the rise of social history – recovering the lost voices of the past – and then cultural history – exploring meanings – has brought the focus back to people. Biography is relevant in this context, she suggested, because you cannot understand the history of the twentieth century without understanding Hitler, Stalin or Mao. These people may not ‘make’ history in the way that expression is commonly used, but they do ‘catch the currents of history,’ in Professor MacMillan’s phrase, and come to ’embody’ history.

Historians of the twentieth century have often turned to biography to express their ideas.  They start as social historians of a particular time and place but end up focusing on the individuals at the apex of that regime. These people bring up counterfactual questions for historians: if this particular individual was not there, what difference would it have made? Professor MacMillan argued that history would have been very different if, say, Hitler had died in World War One, Churchill had died in an accident in New York, or Stalin had died while having his appendix out.

She also suggested that there are moments in history when it matters who is is holding a particular office and decides whether or not to go to war: examples include not only the Kaiser, considering war in 1914, but more recently George Bush and Tony Blair in 2001. Those choices could have been made very differently by another person in power at that moment: there was nothing inevitable about them. As such, we cannot get away from the significance of these key individuals, though they also need context, and a careful consideration of the relationship between the person and their times. These means reflecting on the ‘unspoken assumptions of any time’ such as what is taught in schools, the prevailing beliefs and values, and contemporary conceptions of ideals such as manliness and honour.

Nevertheless, there are individuals who not just products of their time but actually transcend and shape those times. Bismarck is the class example of this phenomenon: modern Germany would not exist in the same form without his unique combination of brilliance and ambition – though of course, Prussian nationalism, growing economy and military strength also played a crucial role. But there are drawbacks to this model of leadership: Bismarck created a system which perhaps only he could run.

There are a number of leaders who might fairly, perhaps, be described as the only individual who could have done what they did. Nixon is a good example: with his staunch anti-communist background, he was perhaps the only person who could achieve a rapprochement with China. Margaret Thatcher is also relevant here: she was lucky in that the time was right for her brand of politics; but she did not just ride the tide but rather pushed British politics in a particular direction. FDR is another example: would there have been another US president who could persuade the public of the need for an internationalist outlook and to support Britain in its greatest hour of need? At the other extreme are Hitler and Stalin: other German and Soviet leaders might not have been so utterly ruthless in pursuit of their goals. Biographers of these figures generally agree that without their presence, history would have been very different. Having focused on key decisions at critical moment, Professor MacMillan paused to ask how much history is shaped by indecisiveness: for example, Gordon Brown’s failure to call an election early in his term.

Professor MacMillan concluded by suggesting that there are huge personalities who are able to seize power by capturing the mood of their time. But there have to be forces at work within society that allow that person to operate. This balance between the personal and the political seems the ideal thought with which to conclude this fascinating lecture series.

Anne Deighton: ‘The Value Added of Political Life-Writing’

In the third of the Weinrebe lecture series, Professor Anne Deighton spoke about ‘the value added of political life-writing’ with reference to her work on Ernest Bevin. She reminded us about the durability of this genre: there have been so many recent biographies of Attlee, Thatcher and Blair. Former ministers love to write autobiographies as well as publishing their diaries: they are often used to settle scores. These books have two things in common: they are very long, and not many people read them. Professor Deighton spoke of some of the questions facing historians who write biography. Are their private lives really relevant to history? How significant are the lives of individuals? She suggested that there are occasions when the individual perspective really does matter to the broader historical context. For example, with Blair and Iraq, or with Thatcher and the Falklands: these were instances in which individuals were really exercising agency, not solely defined by the structures around them. Professor Deighton is interested in the ways in which ideas are transmitted and the ways in which institutions (for example, the Church, or the Conservative party) channel those ideas. For example, how did the Labour party turn ideas into practical policies in the years after 1945. She suggested that it is harder to shift existing policies in foreign policy, the sphere in which Bevin was operating. Bevin himself represents particular challenges for the biographer: he left no diary, no letters, no memoir; he preferred to deal in conversations with officials and his handwriting is barely legible. This, however, did not prevent an exhaustive three volume work which took eleven years to write, published in the early 1980s. But Professor Deighton argues that there is merit in taking a fresh look at his life. Bevin was a child labourer and always an unskilled worker: without skill, he had little prospect of upward mobility. He was, however, a passionate trade unionist, always more interested in the unions than the Labour party. He was in his 30s before his political career took off as part of the TGWU. He was interested in the international labour movement and aspired to become Secretary General of the ILO: instead he was appointed Minister of Labour in the wartime government, working closely with Churchill despite personal antipathy. In 1945 he was unexpectedly appointed Foreign Secretary. The odds were stacked against success: expectations of the socialist government were very high yet the UK was bankrupt. He was came under personal attack for an apparent failure to deliver change and the perception that he had too readily become part of the establishment. But Professor Deighton suggested that change is harder to deliver in foreign policy because there is greater institutional inertia. Bevin believed in Britain’s status as a great power and that possessing an atom bomb was necessary to underlining this. He saw that Britain had leadership obligations but also acknowledged the USA’s unique role in the post-war world. He saw economics as central to diplomacy and prosperity as a pathway to lasting peace. As a union man, he was ambivalent about free trade, and wanted to secure benefits for ‘my people’ – on the other hand, he was a transnationalist who cared about the fate of the working classes across the world. There were issues – China, Palestine and India – where he could have little impact (India, for example, was not in his brief.) But he perhaps had the most significant and lasting impact on foreign policy of any Foreign Secretary in the 20th century. The institutions which he helped shaped – the UN, World Bank, IMF, NATO, and the Council of Europe, to name just a few – continue to play a significant role in the world today. Issues that he grappled with – the ending of imperial regimes, the role of Russia, nuclear power – continue to have echoes into our own day. Bevin wanted to integrate his own experience and background into foreign policy: he believed in bringing people into decision making through democratic engagement. He knew the vulnerability of people at the bottom of the pile because he had once been there himself, and so he understood their inherent conservatism and resistance to change. As a trade union man, he also became a pragmatist and could live with less than ideal outcomes. Bevin was a do-er, not a thinking or an ideas man. He could sometimes blunder and sometimes be a bully. But he wanted to make things happen, and he saw this set of institutions as the most effective way to channel power in the new world order. He recognised the importance of soft power as well as military might. His effectiveness can easily be measured against his successor, Morrison, whose term shows how weak the Foreign Secretary can be. But though active and dynamic in the early years, towards the end of his term, Bevin became increasingly constrained by Foreign Office operations. Attlee sacked Bevin over the phone while at his own birthday party: he died shortly after. Professor Deighton concluded by suggesting that for historians, a chronological life is not enough: the research must speak to the literature in the discipline. Biography is a narrative: history is a judgement.

Professor Lord Peter Hennessy: ‘The Importance of Being Personal: Political History and Life’

As part of the Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing on the theme of Political History and Life-Writing, OCLW welcomed Professor Lord Peter Hennessy last Tuesday to give a lecture entitled ‘The Importance of Being Personal: Political History and Life’. True to his chosen title, Hennessy’s lecture was in large part introspective. Reflecting on his personal development as a historian, he gave an account, rich in anecdotes and humour, of the strata underpinning his historical outlook; what he vividly referred to as his “compost”. This biographical narrative was presented alongside a plethora of anecdotes illustrating the role of the personal in British political history and its effect on the current political landscape.

Hennessy started by explaining the rationale behind his lecture: an attempt at examining the degree to which others’ personality has shaped his own approach to history. Quoting Thomas Carlyle’s dictum -“History is the essence of innumerable biographies” – he went on to consider how a historian’s own biography could also be of the essence. Confessing to having his hippocampus “stamped with biographies”, Hennessy intimated that his first conscious memories of a Prime Minister were of the 1950s when Winston Churchill was in power. Although professing to shy away from theories—“Gossip with footnotes is what I believe” – Hennessy maintained that British people acquire expectations of the activities of a Prime Minister through their experience of the first Prime Minister they encounter in their own lives. The man who made his mark in Hennessy’s case was Harold McMillan. Through that experience, Hennessy gained the sense that a Prime Minister should be steeped in history, polished by the classics and dripping in self-confidence. It is no wonder, he pointed out, that he felt disappointed from then on.

Politicians have a way of constructing an image of themselves almost from the start of their careers. To this purpose, Hennessy argued, props are useful. Odd names, such as Winston, Enoch or Boris may help. Or physical props, like hats or cigars. Even initials, such as R. A. Butler can serve the purpose. But glasses, he added, can be a problem. Seemingly insubstantial, such factors “have a chance of clinging to the velcro of collective memory”. Language is also extremely important. Referring to the contemporary political scene, Hennessy noted that even before the election, our “palates are jaded”. The language of political exchange, he argued, is very meagre and inadequate for the political conversation that is needed in Britain today. Hennessy proposed the need for a model, and offered Orwell, who famously warned that the “slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”, as a candidate. Hennessy argued that Orwell’s list of bad examples in his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ reads well by today’s standards, and it could serve as an antidote for what Hennessy described as the “Blue Peter out of management consultants’” language – a  “preachiness combined with opacity”—that is currently pervasive in politics.

Hennessy’s concern with current political discourse led him to share his doubts about the efficacy of debates as a platform through which to discern who could best perform the task of prime minister. Hennessy worried that to succeed in a debate one needed the skills of a “plausible tart”, which would rarely be needed in the role itself. Although these ideas were shared with a great deal of wit, the underlying concern was serious: there is a real possibility that current practice is narrowing the flow of good prime ministers, favouring instead those with “well-rehearsed spontaneity”.

Hennessy made passing mention of a few personal regrets. One of these was not having written a history of the role of rumours and gossiping in politics. Recognising this is something hard to preserve, he argued that it was nevertheless crucially important: “in some weeks the world is moved by little else”. Although he felt it went too far, he quoted Carlyle again, this time stating: “History is a distillation of rumour”.

The point the lecture kept illuminating was that “one’s personal biography jostles with other people’s”. Rejecting Napoleon’s theory that one looks at the world the way one did when one was 20, Hennessy believed that his defining moment was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, which coincided with the first ascent of Everest. To this, he added the shaping influence of Eagle comics as well. This experience of 1953 led him to acquire a belief that the British are good at mixing tradition and modernity. He described how at that time people still talked in terms of before and after the war, and they were still rationed. And yet, in spite of this, there was an enormous sense of optimism. Hennessy felt that living in that atmosphere allowed him to consciously absorb the notion that “my country was a success story country”. He asked us in the audience to think, on the way home, about the year that formed our norms.

Emphasising the importance of bringing both humility to the writing table and a sense of what is unknowable, Hennessy ended the lecture with a nod to two writers who informed his view of the process of writing history. The first was Lytton Strachey, who in his biography of Queen Victoria spoke of the “secret chamber of consciousness”. Hennessy warned that “It’s hard enough to know one’s own, let alone anybody else’s”. Fittingly for a historian lecturing at Wolfson College, Hennessy ended with Isaiah Berlin quoting Kant: “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”.

Roy Foster: ‘The Making of Saints: politics, biography and hagiography in modern Irish history’

On 26 January Professor Roy Foster opened our Weinrebe Lecture series with an excellent talk entitled ‘The Making of Saints: politics, biography and hagiography in modern Irish history.’ It was a fascinating and engaging presentation that held the audience captivated, so I will begin with a request that everyone who missed it take advantage of the podcast when it is available.

Roy Foster began his lecture by reminding us that the Irish are very good at making saints and this tradition of pious hagiography translated very easily into the way in which lives of revolutionaries were written.  Catholicism became a central part of their politics; they were revered as martyrs to their cause and the language used was borrowed from hagiography.  Those who fought in the rebellion of 1916 were always going to be remembered as heroes and after 1918 as saints.  Following a traumatic civil war Ireland settled down into a deeply conservative environment, the participants could only be written about with reverence, everything else was silenced and as a consequence their lives were immobilised.

Both the timing of the revolution, and those who became involved in the violence came as a surprise to many.  Foster argued that the best way to get a clear picture of those who took part is by creating a group biography, focusing on their temperaments as much as ideology.  Interpreting their lives before they became saints is the key to understanding how the uprising went from thoughts to actions.  As a generation they were not just rebelling against the British State, but also their parents and their values.  They were conscious of living at a time of flux.  It was not just nationalism that bound them together, but also radicalism, suffrage, secularism and vegetarianism, among other things, which does not fit easily with the Catholic image of sainthood.

Foster explained that for half a century hagiography dominated, in 1966 there was an outpouring of comment and celebration but not scepticism.  Behind the scenes, however, things were very different.  The Bureau of Military History was recording a lot of the personal memories of revolutionaries.  These added extra depth and dimension to their stories, although it did not question hagiography.  The 1960s helped to set in motion the questioning of this practice and a rethinking of their lives.  It came about as a reaction to escalating violence in Northern Ireland and as a new way of looking at Republican history was growing in Ireland.  Leaders were critically examined for the first time.  Over the last 2 years the re-evaluation has stalled somewhat in the lead up to the centenary, with a Government concern that Sinn Fein will hijack 1916.

In conclusion Foster argued that group biography is a better guide to reconstructing the revolutionaries’ efforts and youth.  He left us with the thought that if the revolutionaries became martyrs, they certainly were not saints.

Michelle Kelly: ‘J. M. Coetzee, Autobiography, and Confession’

For this term’s Life-Writing Lunch the Centre welcomed Michelle Kelly, departmental lecturer in World Literatures at the University of Oxford, who came to talk about ‘J. M. Coetzee, Autobiography and Confession’. Kelly, currently at work on a book about the idea of confession that engages with Coetzee’s work, gave a fascinating paper about the role of confession as a life-writing genre in Coetzee’s well known trilogy: Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002) and Summertime (2009).

Kelly started her talk by quoting a 1992 interview with Coetzee, where he questioned how to write up his own career: “But which facts? All the facts? No. All the facts are too many facts.  You choose the facts insofar as they fall in with your evolving purpose”. Kelly’s research in the newly available archive of Coetzee papers at the Harry Ransom Centre in Texas brought her face to face with the problem of selection and choice in the presence of a vast collection of facts. Painstakingly recording countless details from his life, Coetzee had ordered and archived a veritable treasure trove for biographers and scholars. With the exception of his diaries, which are expected to be included after his death, this “monumental act of recording and documentation”, as Kelly noted, seems to “promise all the stories”. Having described “all writing is autobiography”, Coetzee’s act of collecting the paper trail of his life seems to reinstate his belief that “everything you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it”.

Kelly clearly stated that her work on confession and Coetzee does not intend to read Coetzee’s fiction as confessional. Instead, she aims to study how Coetzee uses the confessional in his work. Kelly is interested in confession as a cultural phenomenon rather than as a term simply interchangeable with life-writing: she sees it as a kind of language that can provide “force” to a text. Kelly identified the central contradiction of confession as a process that is highly ritualized and mechanical, while at the same time seen as a free, liberating force that suggests “unmediated expression”. Kelly is interested in the modulation between these two meanings and the implication they have for autobiography. Kelly discussed the authoritative value of confession for autobiography, referring to the fundamental history of the term in legal practice.

Focusing on Coetzee’s 1985 essay ‘Confession and Double Thoughts: Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky’ where he asked “how does one start confessing”, Kelly argued that Coetzee found completion or closure impossible. The process of confessing resulted, therefore, in endless self-confession. Kelly moved on to Coetzee’s highly autobiographical trilogy to trace how his understanding of confession worked itself into these books. Kelly gave a stimulating close reading of the texts, tracing how motifs of confession were activated. In Boyhood and Youth, Kelly addressed the idea of the “shameful secret” as the trigger for structured revelations in the books. Shameful secrets constituting, of course, the highest valued form of confession. Kelly linked these secrets to the role of Apartheid in the books, alluding to the public discourse of separation taking place in South Africa. Another prominent motif in the trilogy was writing itself as a source of shame: writing as something that needed to be confessed. Kelly quoted Coetzee’s description of writing as “spilling mere emotion on to the page”. Summertime was identified as a statement on confession, particularly with the problem of ending. From Coetzee’s notes in his archive, Kelly traced him speculating how to end the book from the moment he started it. While on the face of it, this may be read as a mere formal problem, Kelly interpreted it as a more fundamental engagement with the problem of ending a confession that Coetzee addressed in his 1985 essay.

Kelly’s stimulating talk was followed by some thought-provoking questions. Hermione Lee, interested in the relationship between confession and autobiography, asked if the revelation of sins, shame, secrets or apologies was a prerequisite for autobiographical writing. Kelly did not think this was necessary, but pointed out the different expectations in other contexts: in a legal framework, for example, confession has very specific consequences, and in a therapeutic sense the force of confession is a healing requirement. Another member of the audience, in a question about self-scrutiny, confession and style in Summertime, opened up a discussion about the interesting associations between self-forgiveness and self-advertisement, leaving us with the fascinating question: to what extend can confession in literature be read as exhibitionism?

 

‘Reclamations: Writing on the Lives of Shirley Hazzard and Hannah Lynch’

On the 27th of November, under the theme of “reclamations”, the Centre hosted Brigitta Olubas, Kathryn Laing and Faith Binckes, who talked about their experiences of working on life-writing projects of lesser known writers.

Brigitta Olubas started the evening presenting her biographical research on Shirley Hazzard. Hazzard is a highly recognized author in the US and in Australia, and Olubas acknowledged that in writing Hazzard’s life she was not “recovering” her work. Instead, she was reclaiming her “in reverse”, by taking her outside the boundaries of Australian culture and internationalizing her. This is an important project because Hazzard continuously crossed cultural and international borders during her life, living in Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the U.S and Italy.

Olubas set out to achieve this by writing Hazzard’s life alongside that of her husband Francis Steegmuller, a translator, biographer, writer of detective fiction and Flaubert scholar, who was a cosmopolitan individual in his own right. By paying close attention to the life of the couple, Olubas is attempting to reorientate our understanding of Hazzard towards a global context. Working on this cosmopolitan couple has helped Olubas unearth extensive networks of writers, reclaiming shadowy secondary figures that would otherwise probably remain unknown. It has also traced a shared history of self-didacticism, since Hazzard, who never finished secondary school, actively educated herself, and Steegmuller worked independent of the academy thanks to a financial legacy.

Born in Australia from migrant parents from the UK, Hazzard moved to Hong Kong in 1916, and from there to New Zealand. Early in the 1950s she moved again, this time to New York where she worked for the UN (the source of her essays criticising this institution). She started writing fiction for The New Yorker magazine, where her friend, Muriel Spark introduced her to her future husband (allegedly “her own best story ever”).

Olubas is currently working on an archive that contains the books Hazzard read, and it illustrates the importance of reading in her life. Olubas talked of heavily annotated copies of Byron’s Don Juan and Auden’s collected poems, full of political notes, such as “just like Nixon”. Olubas ended her talk by sharing an anecdote about an interview with Hazzard where, talking about Auden’s famous dictum — “poetry makes nothing happen”— Hazzard described how the literary life did make something happen for her; it rescued her from her past.

Kathryn Laing: ‘“I am an unexplained enigma.  I live alone.  I follow art”Textual Traces, Literary Recoveries and the Irish writer, Hannah Lynch (1859-1904)’.

Kathryn Laing and Faith Binckes gave very different talks on their joint project writing the life of Hannah Lynch. Laing’s paper discussed her work trying to unearth Lynch’s life story. Educated in a French convent and possibly working as a governess early on, Lynch was a traveller, a translator of Spanish and French, a novelist and a journalist who had a hybrid, cross cultural identity, and a strong sense of restlessness. She wrote new woman novels set in Iceland, Greece and Spain, and was a prolific contributor to newspapers and journals (a bibliography of her non-fiction work is a complicated work in progress because she published a great deal anonymously).

Laing discussed the experience of working on a writer for whom there is no known portrait, hopeful that they would someday solve this “unexplained enigma”.  Repeatedly returning to the term “glimpses”, Laing described the process of searching for a “buried artist”, of recovering a life. Her talk elucidated Lynch’s connection with well-known literary circles in Dublin, where she had a brief encounter with Yeats, describing him as a “poet of Titanic power”. Lynch has also been associated with the Ladies Land League, a feminist network, and with the London Literary Salon. Little of her life is known before the 1880s.

Laing evocatively described researching Lynch’s life as a process of “exposing sedimental layers”, sometimes surfacing other obscure lives in the process. Laing emphasised that Lynch’s life was still enigmatic, with little personal material as their disposal. Lynch wrote Through Troubled Waters, an attack on the institution of marriage, and Laing highlighted how combative she could be in her writing. Laing suggested that this tendency for ruffling feathers, when added to her use of satire, and her feminist self-assertion, may have limited her chances of advancing her writing career. Laing ended by suggesting that tracing Lynch’s writing offered a counter-narrative to established versions of the Irish literary revival.

Faith Binckes: ‘“What we no longer know we have forgotten”: Canonicity, Gender, and the Lives of the Obscure’.

Taking a step back from the details of Lynch’s life, Binckes’ talk addressed the issues and problems arising from doing work on such an unknown figure. Binckes began her talk questioning the ways in which a process of recovery fits into a wider academic discourse. In an exercise in self-reflection, Binckes asked what we mean by “recovery”. Given that historical completeness is unrecoverable, all we can do is think about the process. Alluding to Woolf’s “lives of the obscure”, Binckes questioned what could be done with the gaps in Lynch’s life. Quoting E. E. Cummings’ verse, “all ignorance toboggans into know/ and trudges up to ignorance again”, Binckes emphasised the central challenge biographers face of ever knowing their subject.

Binckes introduced the problem of “placing Lynch”. This process, never neutral, is complicated further in Lynch’s case because of her problematic national identity. This raised the difficulty of thinking of Lynch as an “Irish author” when she had long residences in both England and Paris, and her national identity was configured in opposition to dominant trends of the time: against nationalism and imperialism, against Anglo-American New Women, and against aestheticism. This “contestative” position made her a very successful critic, but this very success generated problems for her, because her satirical forceful writing often got her into trouble. Binckes suggested that while this aggressive tone may be the cause for her neglect, it could also merely be a case of her dying early.

Binckes reminded us that placing Lynch was also a problem of audience. English publishers would recover her into the British canon, Irish publishers into the Irish. Lynch was continuously thinking of ways to “pitch herself”, just as Binckes and Laing are trying to pitch her to publishers now. Lynch tried to find “a narrative to suit”, sometimes writing on certain topics because she was asked by her patron, so that an autobiographical reading of her non-fiction is far from straightforward.

After vividly discussing the perils of engaging in the life-writing of an obscure writer, Binckes ended her talk by questioning the benefits of writing about a minor author. In citing examples of successful “recoveries”, such as the re-canonisation of native-American authors by Leif Sorensen, and Alice Walker’s recovery of Zora Neale Hurston’s work, Binckes seemed to encourage the importance of such reclamations.   

Miranda Seymour: ‘Noble Endeavors: The Life of Two Countries, England and Germany in Many Stories’ 4 November 2014

On 4 November OCLW welcomed Miranda Seymour, to discuss her latest book Noble Endeavours: The Life of Two Countries, England and Germany, in Many Stories as well as her award winning biography of her father, In My Father’s House.

Noble Endeavors takes a longer view of the relationship between England and Germany, focusing on the theme of reconciliation rather than conflict.  Seymour explained that the idea for the book started with Herman Sulzbach, a German Jew whose spirit runs through the book.  During the First World War he fought for his beloved Germany; in 1933 he was forced out of the country and came to Britain.  When the Second World War came he was interned as an enemy alien and, on his release he began the rest of his life’s work: first the de-nazification of captured German soldiers and SS Officers and later Anglo-German reconciliation.

Seymour described some of the stories and characters that illustrate the long and harmonious relationship between England and Germany.  It begins before Germany became a unified state in 1613 with the marriage of James I’s daughter to Prince Frederik the Elector Palatinate.  This was the foundation of the Hanoverian presence in England.  All the way through the book switches countries, looking at individuals ranging from royalty, to British Prisoners of War performing The Merchant of Venice to a very warm reception.  Writers such as Coleridge and Eliot spent time in Germany in order to better understand the philosophies of Kant and Goethe and bring them back to England.

Cordial relations remained up until the days before the First World War.  Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm were an interesting pairing.  The Kaiser spoke immaculate English thanks to his mother Princess Victoria and he was even able to speak in local dialects.  By contrast Edward VII spoke English with a heavy German accent, as Queen Victoria made sure all her children spoke immaculate German, oftentimes better than their English.  At the outbreak of hostilities the German ambassador left London with a guard of honour, while the British ambassador had to flee for his life due to bitter feelings in Berlin.

In order to transition between the two parts of her talk Seymour told the story of her uncle learning to drive in Munich with his Nazi sympathising hosts.  He knocked down a man in the road with his car, this man was Adolf Hitler.  Her uncle remained in Germany, which was her family’s link to the country.  Her father had in fact never been to Germany and had no involvement in the war, but here Seymour’s talk moved into the complicated world of writing the biography of a Father who had been such an unorthodox character, while still living in the house he was so obsessed with.

Seymour described how when she was growing she had to wear a wig, to fit with her father’s idea of how they should look in the house.  In 1950 his life changed direction drastically as he came out as gay or bi-sexual.  Her mother accepted this and so they all lived together in the house until her father’s lover killed himself and her father died of a broken heart.  Seymour’s mother added an extra complication to writing the book as she too still lives in the house, aged 92.  She became the counter voice to Miranda in the story, providing the positive to her negative views.

This fascinating talk ended with the most relatable and vivid story in which Seymour described the moment when she showed her mother the book for the first time on Christmas Eve.  Her mother did not come downstairs for the whole of Christmas Day.  When she eventually emerged she asked for a glass of whiskey, something Seymour stated was not unusual.  She then, however, asked for a top up and proceeded to knock it back.  Her mother then said ‘The book’s all lies and all wrong.’  Miranda asked what particularly the problem was.  Her Mother replied ‘My nail varnish wasn’t always chipped and I never had freckles.’ ‘Is that it?’ Seymour questioned. ‘Isn’t it enough?’ answered her Mother.

In the discussion Seymour explained that it was her mission in writing Noble Endeavors that people would take away a more generous image of England and Germany, moving away from an attraction to just the Nazis.  Britain’s close ties with Germany pre-date the Third Reich by 200 years.  Thirteen years of Nazi power can never be forgotten but should thirteen years blot out four centuries of friendship?

The Quest for Materials: OCLW conference write-up

The Centre recently hosted a conference of thirty life-writers, all at various stages of their project and all keen to get to get to grips with some of the practical and ethical questions involved in writing a life.

Lyndall Gordon, Elleke Boehmer and Clare Morgan facilitated a series of engaging and thoughtful workshops which encouraged people to share their challenges, work through their difficulties, and gain fresh inspiration from the insights of other participants.  Some were working on family histories, others approaching well-known figures and still others uncovering untold stories.

The first session I attended, run by Lyndall Gordon, worked through some of the challenges involved in archival research.  Everyone faces the same problems: either too much material or too little!  But the important thing is to go in with ‘all your feelers waving’ as Lyndall put it, alert for whatever detail might enrich your narrative or change your perspective.
Don’t necessarily trust the archives.  Be prepared to be critical and wary of the agendas of those writing the sources or putting together the archive.  Always allow enough room for another agenda to evolve, and remember that people want to make themselves the heroes of their own stories.  The problem of ‘archive time’ came up – where the hours fly past at a speed unknown elsewhere!
The second session, led by Elleke Boehmer, addressed the technical challenges of archives: where material might be unavailable, have disappeared, be inaccessible, obscure or contradictory.  Participants spoke of letters whisked away by executors, of materials in unknown languages and of the future challenges posed by digital correspondence.  It was suggested that gaps and silences could be part of the story: life-writers can explore the meanings of omissions without necessarily jumping to conclusions.  But some issues will always be unresolved and there is no need to try and fill in all the gaps.
Beginning to write up research early is a good general solution: it forces the writer to think through the implications and makes the connections for you.  Timelines and spider diagrams are also useful tools to map connections visually.
The final session, overseen by Clare Morgan, considered some of the ethical questions which come up in writing a life.  There is no such thing as a neutral narrator, and so the writer needs to position themselves in relation to the reader: setting out their stall.  The boundaries between fact and fiction and the nature of truth and authenticity were discussed: and it was agreed that while there is room for supposition, readers don’t like to be ‘tricked,’ and biographers should have regard to established historical facts.
We reflected on how to deal with sensitive private issues, especially where there are living relatives, and particularly how to ask the right questions of interview subjects.  The biographer must decide whether to tackle these head on – though sensitively – or to come at them in a roundabout way.
Though the conference was focused on ‘the quest for materials’ the discussion was very broad and wide-ranging.  Biography is appealing because it illuminates what it means to be human: and the individual biographer must decide what that means in this particular story.  No single trajectory can do justice to a life; many interpretations are valid and there are many ways through a life.  Perhaps most importantly, have a passionate commitment to the subject.
Our facilitators summarised the day with some final pieces of advice:
Lyndall Gordon: decide early on what story you want to tell and don’t lose track of that story
Clare Morgan: consider how to structure and present the story
Elleke Boehmer: think and research laterally, but within clear boundaries, and have a strong voice
Hermoine Lee: never say ‘yes, I know,’ to an interview subject, or they will stop talking!

OCLW event reviews: Sue Thomas on 14 October and Lucy Hughes-Hallett on 21 October 2014

The opening weeks of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing’s 2014-15 lecture series were of great interest to those studying the modernist period. In the first week of term we heard from Sue Thomas about her biographical work on Jean Rhys’s Creole heritage. This week, Lucy Hughes-Hallett shared excerpts from her biography of the Italian poet-turned-dictator Gabriele D’Annunzio. Both events are summarized below.

Sue Thomas, ‘Ghostly Presences: James Potter Lockhart and Jane Maxwell Lockhart in Jean Rhys’s Writing’

Sue Thomas, Professor of English at La Trobe University, Australia, is a Visiting Scholar at OCLW in October 2014. In this informal seminar, she shared some of her biographical research on the novelist Jean Rhys, whose works include Good Morning, Midnight and Wide Sargasso Sea.

In particular, Thomas focused on the slave-holding history of Rhys’s family and attempted to trace the darker family secrets throughout Rhys’s fiction. Thomas related the story of Rhys’ great-grandfather, James Potter Lockhart, who was a Scottish slaveholder in Dominica on his sugar plantation in the first half of the 19th century. Lockhart defended the rights of slaveholders throughout the conflicts over whether slaveholders should be compensated after the emancipation of their slaves. Lockhart also had sexual relationships and illegitimate children with his slaves.

Thomas then sketched out references to the sexual profligacy of slaveholders in Rhys’ fiction, as in the character of Old Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea. Thomas read both The Black Exercise Book and Smile Please as portraits of Rhys’s great grandparents. About these works Thomas argued that ‘altered language refers to what is unspeakable through ellipsis and concealment’. Thomas showed how Rhys was subjecting her slaveholding family history to a critical lens in several novels where haunted language circles around ‘unspeakable traumas and family secrets’.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, ‘The Poet Who Doesn’t Know: Gabriele D’Annunzio’

British cultural historian and biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett shared excerpts and juicy details from her award-winning biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio, The Pike, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Costa Biography Award and the Duff Cooper Prize.

Hughes-Hallett introduced D’Annunzio (1863-1938) by relating his own description of himself as ‘the greatest Italian writer since Dante’. D’Annunzio was a writer but he was almost as famous as a seducer of women. Hughes-Hallet described his ‘astonishing’ success with women considering he was ‘an undistinguished little man’ with a receding hairline who wore excesses of perfume.

The political dimension of D’Annunzio’s life was equally astonishing. He was a fascist and proto-Futurist. He liked driving fast cars, flying in aeroplanes as soon as they were introduced and became prominent as a pilot and orator in the First World War. D’Annunzio described democracy as ‘a rising tide of gray sludge’ but nevertheless he won a seat in Parliament as an Independent, calling himself a ‘candidate for beauty’. Thereafter his writing became more nationalist and militarist and he called for a ‘baptism of blood’. The pinnacle of D’Annunzio’s political career came when he was asked to be the figurehead for protesting Italian soldiers over the annexation of Fiume in 1920, culminating in D’Annunzio’s naming himself dictator of the city rather than allowing it to go to the former Yugoslavia. The Italian government eventually intervened and D’Annunzio stepped down.

Hughes-Hallet called her biography The Pike after a nickname a friend had given D’Annunzio, but the name is apt considering the animal’s habit of lying low in shallow water, snapping at passing prey. Hughes-Hallet repeatedly drew attention to the difficulty of writing a biography about a subject who was not a good person, and to the attention she attracted for having done so. But she emphasized that there was no reason she needed to feel she had to like an individual in order to write an interesting biography about an interesting person whose life was never boring.

Please join us for our next two events, a workshop on Quest for Materials: Life-Writing Challenges’ on 1 November (Week 3) from 9am-4.15pm, Haldane/Florey Rooms, Wolfson College. To apply, please follow the link on https://www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/event/oclw-workshop-quest-materials-life-writing-challenges.

For our next lecture, Miranda Seymour will speak on the subject, ‘The Pity of War: The Longer View of England and Germany’ on 4 November (Week 4), 5.30-7pm, in the Haldane Room, Wolfson College. Please note the change of location to the Haldane Room.

Guest post: Procrastination Conference at OCLW

For your those of you supposed to be working right now, but are reading this blog instead, conference organizers Liz Chatterjee and Danielle Yardy share their  illustrated and humorous summary of the ‘Procrastination: Cultural Explorations’ conference at OCLW in July. This conference was the winner of the OCLW-TORCH postgraduate conference award, and the competition will be repeated this year. Stay tuned for further details!

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Procrastination: Cultural Explorations
2 July 2014
Wolfson College, Oxford
http://procrastinationoxford.org

Frontispiece of Anthony Walker’s The Great Evil of Procrastination (1682)
Frontispiece of Anthony Walker’s The Great Evil of Procrastination (1682)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas de Quincey claimed it was worse than murder. Krishna declared it a sign of a degenerate soul. For Abraham Lincoln’s wife it was her ‘evil genius’. Estimates suggest that 80-95% of college students engage in it, and 20% of people are chronic sufferers. Even the Ancient Egyptians bitched about it in hieroglyphics.

Lollygagging, swithering, dithering, dillydallying, shillyshallying. Procrastination is ubiquitous—perhaps especially among academics and writers. Yet it remains curiously understudied. It is a dirty word.

One balmy July morning at the very unprocrastinatory hour of 8.30am, we set about rectifying the deficit. A host of bleary-eyed scholars, students, journalists and miscellaneous others straggled in with a variety of excuses. Our favourite: ‘Sorry, I accidentally came yesterday.’

A mere two months later, we’ve finally got around to summarizing the day.

 

The economic approach

Though the humanities haven’t got round to saying much about procrastination, other disciplines have. Economic historian Avner Offer opened by summarizing the state of the field. Rational choice theory can tell us how long we ought to delay. Behavioural economics can explain why we delay. But the humanities can tell us what procrastination feels like: ‘indecision is destiny’. As one participant later suggested, it is only through such cultural explorations—from Hamlet to Homer—that we can understand ‘the phenomenology of procrastination’ in all its richness.

Homer Simpson, icon of immediate gratification
Homer Simpson, icon of immediate gratification

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Avner concluded with some helpful advice about being more decisive. When to stop dating and put a ring on it? The optimal number of prospective mates to ‘sample’ is 37 (!!!)—or if you have lower standards, 12.

 

Procrastination, creativity, and form

Albert Einstein famously played the violin, while Keith Vaughan, mid-century British painter, prolific diarist and the subject of Alex Belsey’s presentation, was a prolific masturbator. The first panel tackled the fraught relationship between procrastination and creativity, the spectrum between Einstein’s creative ‘play’ and Vaughan’s self-loathing. Will May discussed poetry as product of and prompter toward procrastination, part of his broader project on the cultural history of poetry and whimsy. Rebecca Birrell later expanded this theme, with a sensitive exploration of contemporary poets Rachael Allen and Sam Riviere.

In his paper on The Tempest, Johannes Schlegel explored the possibility that procrastination describes the theatre, where the deceleration of real time to absorb theatrical time creates a meaningful stasis. Conversely, the modernist novel captures the flux of capital and commodity culture, argued Oliver Neto. Stephen Daedalus’s flânerie and the hybrid prose-poetry of Ulysses together evoke the widespread boredom of capitalist Dublin.

A flâneur, ‘botanising on the asphalt’ (Walter Benjamin)
A flâneur, ‘botanising on the asphalt’ (Walter Benjamin)

 

Resisting demonization

Ulysses thus offered an emancipatory opening in the face of colonialism and alienation. Later speakers took up this theme: the revalorization of procrastination as possibly positive.

Papers by Lilith Dornhuber de Bellesiles and Mrinalini Greedharry presented alternative subjectivities of procrastination. Lilith offered a theoretically robust ‘queering’ of mainstream conceptions of time, while Mrinalini considered procrastination as ‘an epistemological condition situated somewhere between awareness, habit, and unknowing’. Reading together postcolonial theory with Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling, she called for alternative—and more humble—forms of knowledge.

Two papers on francophone authors, by Anna Della Subin and Kamel Boudjemil, opened up more revolutionary alternatives. If procrastination depends on internalizing clock time, Anna Della argued, the debonair Egyptian novelist Albert Cossery lived and wrote a radical idleness entirely outside this model. The Marxist theorist Guy Debord chalked Ne travaillez jamais on a Parisian wall, Kamel noted; the booze-fuelled wanderings of his Situationist International attempted to subvert not only the notion of work but the bourgeois city itself.

 

Historically specific or human universal?

This raises the question of whether procrastination is a universal—all those hieroglyphic rebukes—or whether it is inextricably linked to a very specific ‘modernity’. Is procrastination a product of factory time and the Protestant work ethic, spread about the world via colonialism and the inexorable spread of capitalism?

Our speakers broadly agreed that perceptions and manifestations of procrastination are historically variable and culturally conditioned, from James Joyce’s Dublin to Cossery’s Egypt and the contested coffee houses of early-twentieth-century Baghdad (Pelle Valentin Olsen). Susanne Bayerlipp even uncovered procrastination in early modern letters. Young English travellers in Italy were chastised by their elders for sidelining their academic pursuits in favour of pleasure. The Erasmus program, she seemed to suggest, is named for the humanist scholar with good reason.

 

Samuel Smiles’ Victorian bestseller, Self-Help (1859)
Samuel Smiles’ Victorian bestseller, Self-Help (1859)

 

Self-Help

Nowhere is this cultural contingency more apparent than in the flowering of self-help literature, explored by our three final speakers. Susan Machum provided a devastating summary of the endless lists of advice in twenty contemporary self-help books, noting the message of individual responsibility they propagate. In contrast to the fluffiness of this literature, Barbara Leckie offered a witty reading of Middlemarch as an exploration of procrastination—with Casaubon as the everyman academic.

The closing keynote, by OCLW visiting scholar Tracey Potts, presented a genealogy of procrastination. The work forms part of Tracey’s Leverhulme-funded research project for her forthcoming book, Neither Use Nor Ornament: Friction and Flow in the Information Age.

Tracey argued that the demonization of procrastination is a form of biopower, achieved through the factory, the military, and the clinic. Attendees were alarmed to hear that ‘procrastination’ appeared (alongside ‘pouting’ and ‘stubbornness’) in the American Psychiatric Association’s 1952 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—as a direct import from the US military.

Swiftly procrastination became reconfigured not as a behaviour, but as a symptom of a pathological personality. This theme is continued in contemporary self-help books, more and more colonized by cod-neurobiology.

Tracey concluded the conference with a rousing call to resist moralization and medicalization. ‘The maths simply doesn’t stack up,’ she argued. Not all causes of delay are down to individuals ‘choosing’ failure. And, following Zygmunt Bauman, ‘indolent people are only a problem in a society of producers.’

 

Mañanarama

After a stimulating communal discussion—covering everything from zero-hours contracts to the masochistic writers’ aid ‘Write or Die?’ (link: http://writeordie.com/)—participants headed to the Mañanarama exhibition for some much-needed drinks.

The exhibition displayed a host of procrastinatory artefacts, including an Ostrich pillow (link: http://www.ostrichpillow.com/), a 91-year-old magazine advertising wacky invention ‘The Sleep Eliminator’, original documents from the Situationist International, and Tracey’s very own Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter—made, of course, while avoiding work.

Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter - Tracey Potts
Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter – Tracey Potts

 

The Cunctator Prize for the best graduate paper (sponsored by the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust) was awarded to Frank Hangler of the Oxford Internet Institute. His lively paper, ‘Cutting the Cord’, assessed technology as both the source of and solution to procrastination.

You can see the full paper, along with other exhibits, on our website (link: http://procrastinationoxford.org/2014/07/25/cutting-the-cord/).

‘The Hidden Cost of Gangnam Style’, The Economist, 3 June 2014
‘The Hidden Cost of Gangnam Style’, The Economist, 3 June 2014

 

 

Questions left to ponder

After the conference we were still left wondering: what exactly is procrastination? If we’re not happy with the economists’ model, how can we begin to define it? What is its relationship with cousin concepts, like idleness and boredom?

More terrifying was the realisation that maybe we academics are the peculiar ones. As Jane Shilling summarized for The Telegraph:

It was during a paper on Procrastinating Abroad that the God in the machine made an unexpected appearance. We were considering Hieronymus Turler’s 1585 warning to the concerned relations of 16th-century gap-year travellers: (‘Three things come out of Italy: a naughty conscience, an empty purse and a weak stomach’) when from somewhere in the roof came the clarion sound of a duo of distinctly unacademic voices engaged in an animated discussion of air vents. Above the sussuration of ruffled scholarly feathers, a quick-witted attendee remarked, ‘I hate to tell you, but they’re probably working!’

Interested? We’ll be debating all these questions and more next term at the Procrastination Seminar, on Wednesdays at 5.30pm at All Souls College.

Further details…are coming soon.

The Procrastination: Cultural Explorations conference was generously supported by OCLW, TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), and All Souls College.

 

 

Guest Post: Review of IABA 2014 Conference, Part III of III

Seraphima Kennedy reviews the third day of the IABA Conference in Banff in this final installment of her three part guest post series.

Crash! Fictional Transits, Neoliberal Stories and Indigenous Representations

The Banff Centre emerged as a sparkling venue for a conference of this size, not only because of the spectacular scenery and great food. As well as a fully stocked library open to text-hungry delegates, the centre’s programme of residencies for emerging artists meant a quiet drink in the bar could be spiced up by a percussion performance, jazz guitar or saxophone solo.

By the final day of IABA 2014, delegates had encountered tranquil species of deer in the surrounding grounds, and some had even seen bears in the national park. We watched an elk swim from one side of the river to another at the same time as new areas were opening up in the field of life writing and creative practice.

Elk crossing the river_post 3

bridge_post 3

 

Much new work was pulling auto/biography into uncharted territory. Delegates extended their analyses away from the academic ‘ivory tower’ to the real world implications of memoir’s life writing cousins: the fourth wave of human rights narratives (Margaretta Jolly), the unique human rights work accomplished by semi-autobiographical texts (Meg Jensen), zines about suicide (Anna Poletti), testimonies of child soldiers (Kate Douglas), and narratives written by legal representatives of Guantanamo inmates (Terri Tomsky).

An awareness of place returned on day three, as critics examined the relationship between mainstream Canadian culture and Indigenous Literature. Laurie McNeill presented a valuable critique of one university’s pedagogy of decolonization in relation to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission directives. How can instructors create an ethical awareness without allowing testimonies to be simply consumed? This was a practical, as well as an ethical concern.

For Caitlin Elm, the critical tools available for reading indigenous texts were insufficient. In the current framework, she argued, indigenous texts are inevitably colonized in their very production. There was a lively discussion from the floor about whether acts of resistance can avoid being forced into a canon. ‘The way to meet cultures,’ said Sharron Proulx-Turner, ‘is to witness the culture rather than manipulate for a western ‘I.’

Janice Hladki’s analysis of visual artist Kent Monkman’s practice raised important questions about memory and affect, with Monkman’s video character ‘Miss Chief Eagle Testickle’ interrogating the ways that countermemorial artworks can reclaim/recast dominant narratives. Using elements of Hollywood melodrama and the Bluebeard saga, Monkman satirically deconstructed nation-state celebrations of white settler histories through the paradigm of an S&M relationship.

In the final keynote address, Rocio Davis reversed the analysis, looking at the embedding of fictive autobiographical narratives within contemporary novels rather than sifting representation for fictive constructs. Using Michael Ondaatje, J.M. Coetzee, Dave Eggers and Ruth Ozeki, Davis examined the transits between fiction and nonfiction in twenty-first century novels.

Davis went on to question the difference between a ‘sense of truth’ and ‘faking it’. Is it ‘truthiness’ rather than truth that readers seek in memoir? As Ondaatje himself said in an appearance at Wolfson College, Oxford earlier this year, wanting a ‘feel of memoir’ about your book is very different from writing an autobiography. The fact that an author’s presence slips in and out of a text does not mean the book is autobiographical.

This sense of narratives being made somehow more ‘real’ by authorial interventions moved in interesting directions in Davis’ discussion of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. ‘I am writing this and wondering about you somewhere in my future,’ Ozeki’s story begins. Davis referenced a metatextual discourse in which cognitive pleasure arises from the reader’s understanding of narrative mechanics. Memoir and fiction are locked in productive tension, each providing a fundamental quality the other just can’t match.

This tension was foregrounded in John David Zuern’s dissection of US memoirs written after the economic crisis of 2008. Pinning down the idea of post-crash memoirs as transitory texts, Zuern highlighted the transits of the memoirist’s self into pre-written narrative modes, and argued that austerity had led to a ‘precarization of the self’ in which the centre does not hold.

Emily Hipchen gave a thrilling paper on the construction of Steve Jobs in Walter Isaacson’s memoir of the same name. Hipchen showed how Jobs’ life is narrated in orbit by his status as hyper-capable human, traumatised adoptee, and ‘supercrip.’ There was a lightbulb moment in the discussion between Hipchen and Craig Howes when the relevance to liberal ideology, the self-made man and the Superman story was noted. This was the kind of electricity of which the best intellectual discussions are made.

IABA 2014 showed that traditional genre boundaries can be inadequate when discussing life writing in the current moment. Beginning with Carolyn Miller’s discussion of genre as social action before moving through human rights, selfies and post-boom memoirs, delegates demonstrated the capacity of life writing in all its forms for ‘holding disparate moments in tension’ (Julia Watson). This was also the capacity to create and to consume, to allow unheard voices into the cultural archive, and to hold up the stories that are written down against those that are forgotten.

Literature is often placed in a different category from memoir on the one hand and autobiographical acts on the other. At IABA 2014, delegates asked how the three are interlinked. Do different ethical standards apply to a fictional rather than a life writing text? What are the transits between high literature and human rights testimony? How do we create new methodologies to respond to lives, narratives and other forms of self-representation that are constantly in motion?

Perhaps we can look to Ozeki’s text, in which the main character’s father finds an internet app that allows him to erase his daughter’s name from the internet. In light of the EU/Google ‘right to be forgotten’ case, this travelling concept illustrates the transits between fiction, life writing, and contemporary culture. As we interrogate life writing texts and practices, we can perhaps concur with Ozeki: ‘Life is full of stories – or maybe life is only stories.’

Guest Post: Review of the 2014 International Association for Biography and Autobiography Conference, Part II

In part two of a three-part series, Seraphima Kennedy reports back from ‘Autobiography in Transit,’ conference of the International Association for Biography and Autobiography in Banff, Canada.

Biotexts, Justice and the Metonymics of Pain 

By the second day of IABA 2014, standards were already high. The Banff Centre, tucked into one end of the Bow River Valley, delivered stunning views of ice-capped Rocky Mountains from each of its lecture rooms. A lunchtime walk meant bumping into dainty groups of white-tailed deer emerging from the forest to nibble roadside grass. The breakfast buffet was a destination in itself and, this being Canada, the swimming pool came with a hot tub.

Of course it wasn’t all about the buffet. Many of those assembled were international scholars at the top of their game, and new themes quickly emerged. The conference was marked by a focus on ethics, the interplay between verbal-visual matrices, comics, the internet, geography and new methodologies for reading and writing life narratives.

Leigh Gilmore’s paper, ‘Getting a Handle on Pain,’ took up Carolyn Miller’s challenge in the first keynote to extend life writing theory from the verbal to the visual. Examining the use of metonymy and synecdoche in memoir book jackets, Gilmore showed how stories of chronic pain often use images of body parts to stand in for a frailty that’s also a punishment. Following Susan Sontag, Gilmore argued that, as readers, we need to hold ourselves accountable for how we look and read, ending with a call to develop new critical tools.

Sidonie Smith raised similar concerns around ethics and methodology in her paper ‘Auto/biographical Transit on the United States – Mexico border.’ Smith used the skills associated with close reading to critique a form of visual practice by artists in the ‘State of Exception’ exhibit, noting how in this exhibit (and in real life), undocumented migrants pay the price of transit with loss and even death. This paper reflected the concern of many academics at IABA that the practice and critique of life writing should not just be theoretical.

What was at stake in life writing, for many of those present, were the real world implications of individual and collective transits. Dynamics of space and geography were also important for Alfred Hornung, who discussed the Chinese management of Tibetan autonomous prefectures. Hornung explored a coexistence of different forms of life writing on Tibetan land, ranging from Han Chinese attempts to impose bureaucratic processes through inscriptions on hillsides and stone markers relating to the Long March, to Tibetan prayer flags and evidence of sky burials.

For this writer, the panel on ‘Comics and Justice’ provided a high point: Candida Rifkind, Eleanor Ty and Julia Watson all gave insightful analyses of very different forms of life writing practice.

Julia Watson’s presentation on Iranian writer Parsua Bashi’s Nylon Road took up the challenge of life writing in the verbal/visual matrix. Watson looked at ‘the affordances of comics for holding disparate moments in productive tension,’ and argued that the graphic memoir can ‘help us sharpen our notion of what transnational memoirs can do.’ The inherent instability in comics, she argued, produces ‘both confusion and new possibilities for autobiographical subjects in transit.’ This was thrilling stuff.

The second keynote speaker of the conference was Fred Wah, Professor Emeritus in Poetry at the University of Calgary. Born in Saskatchewan in 1939 to Chinese- and Swedish-Canadian parents, Wah grew up in a succession of cafés and restaurants, the memory of which heavily influenced his most famous collections of poetry, Waiting for Saskatchewan (which won the Governor General’s award) and, more recently, the acclaimed Diamond Grill.

Wah slipped between the academic and poetic, weaving extracts from his ‘biotext,’ Diamond Grill, into notes on the history of the long form poem in Canada and the discourse of multiculturalism. Emphasising the use of the cadence in Diamond Grill, Wah said that he aimed to challenge the ‘tyranny of the sentence’ as a closed measure of thought. Like Michael Ondaatje, Wah’s writing embodies a formal hybridity and playfulness that seeks to transcend its immediate environment.

For Wah, the idea of ‘place’ becomes ‘a crucial and dynamic term for how we negotiate our literature.’ Yet ‘place’ is not static: there is a sense of movement between and across nations, and through fluid identities. Wah’s sense of place is defined by the swinging door in his parents’ Chinese café, an open metaphor operating throughout much of his work. This allows him to locate himself within the ‘swinging door’ of the hyphen, which is also the space between Chinese and Canadian.

This kind of formal innovation is the best kind of theory in practice, emphasizing the ways in which life writing can be used to broaden the stories in our cultural archive. ‘My foot registers more than its own imprint,’ Wah said, while through the big picture window in the lecture theatre two young deer hopped through the clearing between the mountains.

Next week: Crash! Fictional Transits, Neoliberal Stories and Indigenous Representations

 

Guest post: Review of the Conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography (IABA) 2014, Part I of III

Hello life-writers!

We are delighted to bring you another three-part guest post series this summer.  Seraphima Kennedy, a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, reviews aspects of the 2014 IABA conference in Banff.

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Conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography (IABA)

Auto/biography in Transit
May 29-June 1, 2014
Banff Centre, Alberta, Canada 

‘Autobiography in Transit’ and Theory on the Front Line: How IABA 2014 is Sounding out New Depths in Life Writing Scholarship

Canada! Migration! Being and illness! Ethics, artists, comics! The ninth international conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography took place from 29 May – 1st June at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada, its mission to investigate all things Life Writing-related. Seraphima Kennedy swapped Goldsmiths for the Canadian Rockies to report back. 

Ever seen a bear being paintballed out of a national park? An elk swimming across a river? Deer leaping across the path on your morning run? Delegates got more than they bargained for at the at the IABA 2014 conference at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, a multidisciplinary institution in a spectacular setting surrounded by ice-capped mountains, fast-flowing rivers and seemingly endless grasslands. The conference programme was packed with some of the biggest names in contemporary life writing scholarship and practice. In a series of three guest posts, I will outline some of the key developments in the field, while focusing on a couple of papers in detail which may be of interest to OCLW readers.

The topic of the conference, organized by Eva Karpinski, Laurie McNeill, Julie Rak and Linda Warley, was ‘Autobiography in Transit.’ Papers were invited on transit and transition as ways of interrogating how lives, narratives and other forms of self-representation are constantly in motion. Over three days delegates attended to a range of questions concerning the practice and critique of auto/biography, representation and transits of the self, and new methodologies of reading. Uniquely the conference also created a high-voltage opportunity for new scholars and graduate students to engage with expert mentors, through a dedicated workshop with contributions from Sidonie Smith, Alfred Hornung, Craig Howes, Rocio Davis, and many others who were on hand to offer advice to early career researchers in the field of life writing publishing.

The conference proper began with a blessing from Elder Tom Crane Bear, caretaker of the land and a member of the Siksika nation. ‘We came up through the southwest where the chockecherries grow,’ he said, speaking about the journey of his people, the Blackfoots. Ideas of lives in transit, of movement both between and within life stories, were central to the conversations scholars would go on to have over the next few days during panels on Theorizing Human Rights, Representing Islam, Digital Futures, Nineteenth-Century Women’s Narratives, Neoliberal Stories, and Comics and Justice, among many others.

In her keynote address ‘Memoir, Blog, and Selfie: Genre as Social Action in Autobiographical Representations,’ Carolyn Miller treated the audience to a history of the self-referential portrait, linking genre expectations, social structures and Lejeune’s ‘autobiographical pact’ with James Frey, Oprah, and the ‘fifteen types of selfie.’ Could selfies be seen as a form of life writing? A lively debate set the tone for a stimulating and at times controversial three days, while the Twitter-sphere saw the emergence of a new kind of selfie – the ‘IABA 2014 selfie.’ This proved a popular genre among assembled scholars, and provided much entertainment over the course of the conference (look for #iaba2014selfie on Twitter, or scroll through #iaba2014 to see some of the best of these).

Elder Tom’s novelistic turn of phrase also pointed to an awareness of the links between critical theory and creative practice. This was reflected in the foregrounding of creative writers in the Life Writers Reading Series: Patrick Lane, Sharon Proulx-Turner and Fred Wah all gave stellar readings and keynotes that called into question the links between political and personal, national and international, domestic and public.

Sharron Proulx-Turner was generously sponsored by the journal a/b: auto/biography studies and Patrick Lane appeared courtesy of the Writer’s Union, bringing two of the finest voices in Canadian literature into the conference fold. The first day of the conference ended with a drinks reception in the stunning Tom Crane Bear Hall of the Max Bell Building, with views of the sun setting over the glorious Rocky Mountains. Métis poet Sharron read from a series of poems including ‘A Houseful of Birds,’ before talking about sealed records and the legacy of Canada’s Residential School system. ‘There was another story there,’ she read, ‘where a girl opened her mouth and inside was the universe.’ Sharron was a compelling speaker about the impact of trauma on her own writing, her methods of using autobiographical material, and a compassionate and singular presence throughout the rest of the conference.

Patrick Lane was just as frank with his discussion of the uses of autobiography, the writing process, fear of failure and his decision to start writing. Hinting at a combination of memory, experience and sense, writing for Lane was bound up with affect: ‘I can still feel those dark mountains, they rose like morning clothes from Kootenay lake.’ Somehow the act of writing coexisted with the fear of erasure, an awareness of not being fully represented: ‘’Canada did not exist, and neither did I. I wanted to exist,’ he said. These were powerful, intimate readings, highlighting some of the faultlines inherent in the theorization of writing about the self that would be plotted over the next two days. And, as Lane acknowledged, this was why we were there. ‘You guys are the academics,’ he said. ‘I’m just a writer.’

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Next week: Leigh Gilmore on ‘Getting a handle on pain,’ Fred Wah on hyphens and the swinging door, Julia Watson on comics and justice.

Seraphima Kennedy is a writer and final year Ph.D candidate in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London where she is also a Visiting Tutor in Creative Writing. Her practice-based research focuses on contemporary memoir and autobiography, with a particular focus on adoption memoirs. Seraphima writes poetry, fiction and life writing, and is currently writing her first novel.

Email: s.kennedy@gold.ac.uk

Twitter: @seraphimak

 

OCLW event: “Coetzee’s Lives” Colloquium, 13th June 2014

Today we have an event summary of the recent “Coetzee’s Lives” Colloquium at OCLW. This summary was written by English DPhil students Eleni Philippou and Erica Lombard with Professor Elleke Boehmer.

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The airy and finely crafted Leonard Woolf Auditorium was the perfect setting for the OCLW colloquium, the last of the year, on that arch artist, J.M. Coetzee, the South African (and now Australian) novelist and 2003 Nobel Laureate for Literature. Following on from a reading that J.M. Coetzee himself gave at Wolfson the evening before, the 13 June 2014 colloquium, entitled “Coetzee’s Lives”, sought through a discussion of Coetzee’s often self-reflexive work, to highlight questions of how we represent a life: how life might be used as material for fiction, and how life-writing takes fictional forms.

Prof David Attwell
Professor David Attwell

Organised by OCLW’s Deputy Director Professor Elleke Boehmer, together with English DPhil students Eleni Philippou and Erica Lombard, the afternoon began with a keynote address delivered by Professor David Attwell of the University of York, entitled “The Life of Writing in J.M. Coetzee: Autobiography into Fiction”. One of the world’s leading Coetzee scholars, Attwell shared with the audience some central observations from his forthcoming book, Face to Face With Time: the Authorship of J.M. Coetzee (2014), concerning how Coetzee has consistently, across his oeuvre, transmuted personal dilemmas and concerns into fiction. Based on his research into Coetzee’s newly available archive at the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas in Austin, USA, itself a highly crafted artefact, Attwell gave the audience a fascinating glimpse into the author’s writing process, revealing how Coetzee’s detached prose belies the deeply autobiographical and existential roots of his novels. Leading us on a deftly curated journey through the successive drafts of the novel that became Life & Times of Michael K (1983), Attwell detailed how Coetzee’s sparse, impersonal style is the end result of a long, painstaking, and sometimes painful, process by which Coetzee writes himself out of his work. In manuscript after manuscript, his life can be seen to give way or give up to fiction.

Coetzee's Lives panelAttwell’s keynote address was followed by a panel discussion between Professor Elleke Boehmer, Professor Patrick Hayes, Dr Michelle Kelly, and Professor Peter D. McDonald, all members of the English Faculty here at Oxford who have worked on Coetzee. The panellists’ responses to the keynote centred, firstly, on the implications of Coetzee’s archive as a curated “life”, with Boehmer suggesting that we might consider the archive, the work, and the life as three mutually illuminating aspects of Coetzee’s literary life. Secondly, the discussion turned to what Attwell’s research suggests about the location of the writing self in Coetzee’s work, and the critic’s desire to uncover the traces that remain despite Coetzee’s self-effacing process of writing.

The final section of the colloquium comprised a series of short papers presented by six early career researchers, including four current Oxford DPhil students. Each paper interpreted the colloquium’s theme “Coetzee’s Lives” in rich and innovative ways, and, indeed, covered the gamut of human life from motherhood and childhood to death and decomposition. The first speaker, Eleni Philippou, presented a paper entitled “‘Sons and Lovers Mothers’: Coetzee on Motherhood”, which highlighted the surprising resonances between the complex mother-son relationships in Coetzee’s memoir Boyhood and D.H. Lawrence’s autobiographical Sons and Lovers. Alicia Broggi followed with “Demythologizing Discourse ‘to make writing possible’: Calvinism in Dusklands”, a fascinating exploration of the ways in which Coetzee contends with and works out Calvinism, one of the shaping forces of his own Afrikaner history, in his first novel, Dusklands.

“Coetzee on Criticism; Coetzee and Criticism”, Andrew Dean’s paper, investigated Coetzee’s deep investment in exploring the limits of critical discourse, and how this impacts the formal aspects of his texts. Dean’s paper fitted perfectly with “‘Not poetry, economy’: J.M. Coetzee and Authorship”, Charlotta Salmi’s eloquent piece that considered Coetzee as a skilled craftsman, carefully balancing the act of personal confession with the reserve involved in the calculated crafting of words in fiction.

Jarad Zimbler’s paper, “Death Writing: An Essay in Decomposition”, followed. Conceived of as a kind of farewell as Zimbler prepares to move beyond Coetzee in his own work, this poetic experimental paper was an emotionally and semantically rich exploration of remains in Coetzee’s oeuvre. The colloquium ended on a lighter note with Erica Lombard’s “Making Fun of Coetzee”, a tongue-in-cheek yet itself in part autobiographical exploration of how Coetzee’s very serious, even godlike, status in South African literature makes the very act of criticism fraught for those wishing to speak about him in less-than-reverential tones.

Its title part-riffing on one of Coetzee’s own titles, The Lives of Animals, the colloquium in several ways embodied new “lives” for Coetzee criticism, and articulated a new boldness in approaching the links between life and fiction in his work. Wolfson President Professor Dame Hermione Lee ended the afternoon’s events by asking the senior Coetzee scholars where they thought the future of Coetzee criticism was headed, and how this had changed from when they had first started writing about Coetzee. Not only were these critics clear that they felt the “Australian” Coetzee provided critics with worthwhile avenues of research, but they also asserted that their current encounter with the new cohort of aspirant literary critics at the colloquium boded well for future work. If the OCLW colloquium could be held to offer a taste of where future discussion of the multivalent “lives” of Coetzee is going, then it would seem that various fascinating critical and representational possibilities are to come.

 

 

Life-Writing Lunch: Mark Thompson on ‘Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kis’

The final OCLW event of the year saw its audience captivated by Mark Thompson’s talk about the life and work of Yugoslavian author Danilo Kiš and the problems he faced writing his critically acclaimed biography Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kiš.

Kiš is an author who is little known in the Anglophone world, so Thompson began by giving the audience an insight into the man himself and the driving forces behind his work.  He was born in 1935 in a small town in Northern Yugoslavia, his mother a member of the Eastern Orthodox faith from Montenegro, and his father a Hungarian Jew.  Kiš described himself as an ‘ethnografic rarity’ which was very important to him, he saw it as his destiny.  His first language was the now ostensibly extinct Serbo-Croatian.  He was raised in Vojvodena and baptised into the Orthodox Church, along with his sister.  It was seen as a safety measure, as his parents could already see the way in which things were moving in Europe.

When war broke out the family were living in Novi Sad, a city on the banks of the River Danube.  They stayed in the city until January 1942 when a pogrom was carried out by Hungarian troops. Kiš’ father was rounded up but was given a reprieve. Consequently the family moved to his father’s home village in Hungary as it was felt it would be safer, which it was, until the deportation of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.  Kiš father was taken on one of the last trains to Auschwitz.  As a result of cultural relaxation in 1954, Kiš was part of the first year to study a new degree in World Literature that looked at works from the Bible to Kafka.  It was intended to be anti-nationalist and discreetly anti-communist and had a significant effect on Kiš’s future life.

Kiš was to spend long periods of time in France, teaching students to understand Serbo-Croatian, living a bohemian existence, although this philosophy did not apply to his writing.  This continued until the 1970s when he suffered two crises, professional and personal.  After the publication of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, he was troubled by plagiarism accusations and found himself being coerced by the police into leaving the country.  His marriage also broke down during this time and so he emigrated to Paris in 1979 to live with his mistress, a former student of his.  He died from lung cancer in 1989 at the age of 54, the same age at which his father was deported to Auschwitz.

Thompson described Kiš as a modernist author who could not write in his surrounding literary tradition.  He was not interested in celebrating Yugoslav national culture, that of folk tales told to generations.  He was influenced by Kafka, Proust and above all Joyce, Kiš drew heavily on Ulysses when writing about his own father.  He believed in ‘art for my sake, art to find out who I am’ and used his work to recreated his identity through fictional explorations.  By the 1960s the distance from his childhood freed him from constraint and allowed him to write Hourglass, a novel about his father.  Thompson likened Kiš to Orwell and Camus.  He incarnated certain values, such as individualism and a refusal to bow down to institutional dominance and ideology.

In the final part of his presentation, Thompson described the difficulties he faced when writing his biography.  Firstly he encountered the issue that biography in South Eastern Europe means something very different.  As a discipline it is much weaker and it has the potential to be very dangerous.  Other key Yugoslavian literary figures had rather shady wartime pasts that they were eager to keep hidden.  This made Kiš family and friends wary of what Thompson was trying to do.  Sometimes people were trusting, but often they were not.  The form the biography would take presented a problem, as Thompson felt he could not use a linear narrative and this was a form that Kiš himself distrusted and would never have used.  Thompson also lacked what he described as the ‘dense tissue of information’ that is the backbone of many literary biographies.  Finally, in the 90s, Kiš became iconic to Serbian intellectuals who hated what was happening to their country.  Many were looking for positive examples of their culture and used him as proof that Serbian culture could produce something universal.  So how do you write about a saint?  The key was provided by a Montenegrin journalist who knew Kiš best in the last years of his life.  He pointed out that Kiš was not a liberal hero in the grain of Vaclav Havel, but simply an impassioned and often desperate artist, who gained his cosmopolitanism from hard fought experience.

The discussion painted Kiš as an émigré author who remained outside of the already established group in Paris, uninterested in being a part of the culture and lifestyle. He was not interested in promoting non-literary views, although he thought the worst about the Communist regime.  Thompson described him as politically naïve, Kiš lent his support to a Serbian poet who would become a great supporter of the Milosevic regime.  In conclusion Thompson showed Kiš as man of conflicting aspects, with many conflicting statements surrounding him proving to be true.

 

  

Hermione Lee: ‘Penelope Fitzgerald – The Whole Story?’

Hermione Lee opened her talk about Penelope Fitzgerald with the epigraph from her recent biography: ‘If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching’.  Lee began Penelope Fitzgerald’s story by reflecting on her accomplished career.  Late in life, Fitzgerald was the unlikely winner of the 1979 Booker Prize for her novel Offshore.  At the time of her death in 2000, she had published three biographies and nine novels, been nominated twice more for the Booker Prize, and earned widespread admiration for her unique, controlled style.  Over the next hour, Lee held the audience spellbound as she led them in search of the life that made this gifted, insightful, and intensely private novelist.

Lee’s talk, like the biography, followed the chronology of Fitzgerald’s life.  Researching this life cannot have been an easy task: Penelope kept many secrets.  She cultivated a public persona as a grandmotherly figure to protect her privacy.  Her literary career is a story of patience and endurance, ‘an old writer who never got to be a young writer’ as Lee said.

Fitzgerald was born Penelope Knox to an accomplished family; she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford and was so successful in her exams that her papers were purportedly bound in vellum (Lee admits this story may be apocryphal).  She married her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, in 1942, and wrote for the BBC during the war.  On Desmond’s return, the two settled in Hampstead and had three children.  Desmond worked as a lawyer, and together the two started an ambitious literary magazine called World Review.  The stage seemed set, Lee said, for a comfortable, literary life.

That life was unfortunately not to be.  The young couple was over-extended financially.  Desmond developed a drinking problem and began forging checks; he was eventually found out and disbarred.  After that, the Fitzgeralds lived in true poverty.  Penelope moved the family to Suffolk, where she worked in a bookshop, and then to a houseboat in Clapham, which sank.  Lee recounted a poignant story of Penelope’s children coming home to find a cat clinging to the mast, and Penelope’s books stained yellow with Thames water.   Penelope took up teaching to make ends meet.  She did not publish a novel until after her husband’s early death in 1976.

These experiences affected Penelope deeply.  From the religious Knox family, she inherited a fascination for the clash between reason and the vagaries of human emotion.  The extremities she faced in adulthood drew her to the poor, the downtrodden, to those born defeated, and it lent her writing a feel for dark comedy and for acute sadness. As Lee put it, ‘she knew the worst that people can do to one another, and to themselves’.  But her life also supplied the subject matter for her early novels: her time in the Suffolk bookshop became The Bookshop, while her stint at the BBC found use in Human Voices.

Fitzgerald’s later novels move away from her own life experiences, but they retain the characteristics that make her early novels compelling—the exploration of reason and emotion in spare, austere prose.  In them, she developed a style Lee characterised as ‘reticent’ and ‘full of silences’, qualities which mask passionate conviction.  Fitzgerald researched her historical novels intensely, even re-learning German for her last novel The Blue Flower, but her careful choice of detail masks the range and depth of her research.  In their understated control, Lee felt, the novels achieve something profound and original.

Lee admitted that she felt great responsibility to her subject in writing this biography, the first ever written on Fitzgerald, not least because many living people still remember Penelope fondly.  With this, as with other biographies, Lee concluded, the biographer has a duty to get the story as right as possible, but acknowledge that no biography is ever complete.  We can follow Penelope Fitzgerald’s life, trace connections between it and her work, but ultimately we are ever in search of the whole story.

Lyndall Gordon: Seminar on ‘Writing Family Memoir’, 19th May 2014

On a sunny afternoon last week Lyndall Gordon presented to OCLW the first ever reading for her forthcoming memoir, Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter (Virago hardback 2014; paperback: spring 2015).

Gordon’s talk dealt with the motivations for and creation of her latest memoir, which is primarily about the relationship between herself and her mother. Gordon grew up in South Africa, from a young age acting as a partial caretaker for her mother. Gordon’s mother suffered from a psychological illness which was not discussed in the family, but for which she eventually took medication. Her mother’s illness and reclusiveness was somewhat like Emily Dickinson’s in that it was bound up in the writing and reading of poems and greatly influenced Gordon’s love of literature.

Gordon summed up one of the major issues in family memoir: ‘To write about family is to take as subjects people who most intimately shape our lives’. Gordon opens the memoir with a passage about being four years old and feeling the privilege of being with her mother when she is ill. Illness and the ill mother is a powerful theme for a writer. Gordon quoted from Virginia Woolf’s essay, ‘On Being Ill’, in which Woolf exclaims, ‘what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness’. Katherine Mansfield said of her own illness that it opened her eyes to her writing. In Gordon’s memoir, illness transforms their relationship, for the mother and daughter are alike as dreamers: the mother is a visionary – the daughter is to go on to explore what it means to be a woman.

Gordon’s generation explored women’s lib which she explained was a divergent path from the one her mother wished her to follow: to live in Israel. Gordon remembers being at Columbia University for her PhD and hearing Lionel Trilling speak about literature as being about the “hum and buzz of implication” just under the platform of history. This leads Gordon to question whether family narratives are predetermined – are they chosen from an array of narratives, a generated story familiar to history? A memoirist must attempt to avoid predetermined stories and challenge these popular narratives by plunging the subjects into a testing moment.

However, in writing a family memoir, Gordon warned us, family secrets arise, and it is these hidden things that are at the core of creativity (of the memoir and of the life). Each written life has a unique form – dictated by the life or the art. With memoir, we ask the question, might there be an underlying pattern to each life? This may be more obvious in great lives, but the practice of biography compels biographers to consider their own lives. It is important for the memoirist to distinguish between what is lively detail and what is digression. But the record itself still matters; we do need to know who we are. One secret Gordon discovered was a passionate but unconsummated affair between her mother and a charismatic Zionist man who inspired her mother’s wish that her daughter would go to live in Israel. This also regenerated the story of Gordon’s ancestors who had been Eastern European Jews who migrated to South Africa. This kind of information needs to be remembered and documented, Gordon said. This is only possible with access to family records, papers and letters which are so crucial to the family memoirist.

Continuing along these lines, Gordon asked, how do we turn papers and letters into the coherent narrative of memoir? Gordon’s answer reiterated her earlier thoughts about diverging from predetermined narratives to figure out which story you want to tell. Gordon found that writing the story of the mother and daughter’s shared love of literature was a wonderful experience but writing about the divide was difficult. She had to manage balancing truth from her own point of view alongside empathy for her mother’s.

Gordon has found her life is bound up with her mother’s even as it is and was divided. In a sense, both women’s stories are about thinking about migration and feminism. In her mother’s dedication to the unseen life, to being a poet as well as a mother, she paved the way for Gordon’s love of stories. Both women shared a commitment to literature, which led Gordon to the path of writing lives.

 

Guest post: OCLW conference, ‘Genius for Sale! Artistic Production and Economic Context in the Long Nineteenth Century’ on 8th May 2014

Below is Diana Greenwald’s summary of “Genius for Sale!” an OCLW conference organized by Diana Greenwald and Jonathan Paine:

Most academic conferences are discipline-specific— historians meet with historians, economists with economists, etc. The goal of “Genius for Sale! Artistic Production and Economic Context in the Long Nineteenth Century” was to break this pattern. This conference aimed to bring together scholars from a wide-range of disciplines who share an interest in the intersection between economics and the arts. Making interdisciplinarity of this scope successful is difficult. Co-organizer (and Wolfson student) Jonathan Paine wrote in his instructions to participants, “The challenge will be to retain the interest of specialists within each discipline while making sure that papers are accessible to a broader audience of academics in other disciplines who will be looking for themes of more general relevance.” The excellent group of speakers and discussants who participated in the conference not only achieved this goal, but also surpassed the organizers’ highest expectations.

Throughout the conference—in the introductory remarks, in the presentation and during the panel discussions—several recurring themes emerged. The first was an emphasis on the necessity of understanding the economic context of artists’ lives. This was the argument made in the introductions by Prof. Dame Hermione Lee and Dr. Philip Ross Bullock’ and in Narve Fulsas’ presentation about Ibsen. They all demonstrated that money concerns were central to famous writers’ and composers’ lives. This financial reality challenges an entrenched image of the starving artist who exists beyond monetary distraction. Going beyond this romantic myth and into Tchaikovsky’s, Henry James’ and Ibsen’s account books, Dr Bullock, Dame Prof. Lee and Prof. Fulsas scrutinized the personas that famous figures publically cultivated or that have been retroactively imposed on them. Prof. Karol Borowiecki’s presentation on the letters of famous composers also sought to examine a common generalization made about creative geniuses—that they are emotionally volatile and sad, and that this sadness is crucial to their creative process. Using instrumental variable analysis and drawing on recent research in the economics of wellbeing, he confirmed the existence of a link between negative emotion and creative output.

Prof. Borowiecki’s project was also representative of another attribute common to many of the presentations: the application of quantitative methodologies to sources and research questions that are normally the domain of qualitative research. Prof. Borowiecki’s work, along with that of Prof. Kathryn Graddy and Oxford doctoral student Diana Greenwald quantified evidence that is traditionally qualitative—letters, art exhibition records and descriptions of the color, line and other qualities of certain artists’ work. Converting qualitative evidence to quantitative allowed not only for the use of statistical tests, but also for a “zoomed out” view of evidence that is often examined word-by-word or canvas-by-canvas. From this perspective, one can see general trends that would be invisible when looking at smaller samples of art, literature or music in meticulous detail.

Finally, a number of presenters demonstrated that economics not only provides empirical quantitative methods, but useful theoretical lenses for understanding the arts. Dr Richard Taws’ presentation was organized around an in depth visual analysis of a painting by the French genre painter Swebach-Desfontaines. He situated the painting in the context of reciprocal flows of money, information and resources throughout the modernizing 19th-century French economy. These economic flows were not only relevant historical context, but the concept of flow also became an organizing structure for understanding the numerous complex themes at play in a specific work of art. Jonathan Paine and Prof. William Todd used economic concepts to analyze Russian literature. Paine proposed a framework for understanding how narrative behaves as an economic commodity, while Prof. Todd explained the sometimes-inconsistent behaviors of Russian publishers, editors, authors and state censors by viewing their choices through the lens of moral hazard.

The most important conclusion of the conference came from attendees’ reactions to the research presented. Their questions and comments made it clear that there is not only space, but rather demand for collaboration between humanities scholars and social scientists. The nuanced knowledge of sources provided by art historians and literary scholars paired with the empirical approaches of economists and sociologists can create potent arguments poised to overturn decades of received knowledge in different fields. As historian and presenter Prof. Robert Gildea said in his response to the last question of the day: “Now, it’s all up for grabs.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part III – Letters and reputations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part II: Writing Motherhood: poetry and autobiography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Part I: What to do about Dorothy’s Journal 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weinrebe Lecture: Richard Holmes, ‘The Biographer’s Other I’ on 18 February 2014

Nanette here for you with a delayed summary from Richard Holmes’ lecture from Tuesday 18th February. Full disclosure: I was unable to attend this lecture and have written this summary by listening to the unedited podcast of the event which will soon be edited and available on our Wolfson College Podcasts page  with the other Weinrebe lectures. If you missed the event I hope this summary can tide you over until you can listen to the podcast (and you should, because Richard Holmes has a lovely voice!).

Hermione Lee introduced Richard Holmes as ‘at once one of the most influential and distinguished of our biographers and one of the most innovative and pioneering’. And what did one of the most eminent biographers in the world do to begin his lecture? In a simple and humble way, he put our interest in life-writing (and human lives) utterly in perspective. Commencing his lecture with what he called a ‘litany,’ titled ‘Some Average Lifespans,’ he asked us to think of how precious a single human life is and also at once how insignificant it is.  His ‘litany’ of lifespans began by listing the Coriscan pine tree with a lifespan of three hundred years, then cited the Galapagos tortoise at one hundred and ninety years, then European homo sapiens at 70 years (20 years asleep ‘in brackets’), and on down through various species to the mayfly whose lifespan consists of a single day.

With this opening reminder of our place among the many species on our planet, Holmes then took us back through his own past in the first section of his lecture, which he titled, ‘Time and Identity’. He recalled his travels as an aspiring young writer, joking that the occupation of ‘writer’ in his passport was often misread as ‘waiter’. Drawing on the misinterpretation as a metaphor for what the biographer does, Holmes said writing a biography is in a sense ‘always waiting at someone else’s table’.

Moving from this apt comparison to the subject of the title of the lecture, ‘The Biographer’s Other I’, Holmes read from the opening of his early narrative on biography and travel, Footsteps (1985). He noted that even in this early book he was employing two forms of narrative: an immersive past tense narrative that recounted events with a feeling of immediacy, alternated with a kind of reflective present tense that created a distance between the past and the current moment, illustrated in the sentence, ‘I was eighteen’. So, as Holmes explained, the biographer’s other ‘I’ is actually a means for observing one’s subject while immersing oneself in the subject’s life and times. These various viewpoints stress that the bridge to the past is broken, subjective, and that biography needs to cross the bridge by other methods.

Upon reflecting on the ways in which a biographer might access the past, through travelling the paths of his subject, taking photographs of these places and attempting to make these connections across time, Holmes asked himself why does one choose particular biographical subjects? He realised that all of his subjects represented to him the principle of hope. Stevenson, Shelley, Coleridge, and the Age of Wonder all presented moments of overcoming challenges. The individuals were driven to change their lives and the Age of Wonder represented the hope that science has brought to us.

The second part of Holmes talk addressed the ‘subjectivity’ that is present in every biography. Holmes argued subjectivity has always been a great strength in biography, taking Boswell’s Life of Johnson as an example where Boswell’s dialogue and subjectivity are the key devices to opening up Johnson’s biography. Holmes pointed out other instances in which the biographical ‘I’ was a subjective and often sympathetic one. Drawing on an example from Johnson’s own Life of Richard Savage (1744) Holmes argued Johnson uses the rhetorical figure ironic chiasmus, or a reversal of terms, to describe Savage, but in doing so gives himself away. Holmes also mentioned Lytton Strachey’s portrait of Florence Nightingale from Eminent Victorians (1918) in which Strachey’s biographical ‘I’ takes over Nightingale’s voice, putting himself in the room with her, but giving her his own vehement language to describe the horrors of the hospital conditions. I think there is also an argument to be made here about this kind of projection of the biographical ‘I’ into the narrative as part of the modernist project of life-writing that the Bloomsbury group were interested in. If you’d like to read more about that, Laura Marcus delves with insight into Strachey’s biographical style in Auto/biographical Discourses (1994). Holmes’ final example of the biographical ‘I’ working with successful subjectivity was Wolfson’s own Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf (1996). Holmes mentioned both the opening and closing passages of the work as emblematic of effective and moving autobiographical interjections. Holmes quoted from the opening of the biography which itself quotes Virginia Woolf, ‘My God, how does one write a biography’ and from the final scene in which Lee allows herself to connect across time with the view Woolf would also have had: ‘My view overlays with, just touches, hers. The view, in fact, seems to have been written by Virginia Woolf. The lighthouse beam strikes round; the waves break on the shore.’

Holmes closed with a final thought on his concept of the ‘vertical footnote’ as an ideal place to put the ‘I’. It provides a way of including personal detail and allows the biographer to reach backwards and forwards within a chronological narrative without interrupting the pace of the main narrative.

OCLW Lunch with James Hamilton: “Unrolling the Tapestry: Weaving Interrelated Lives in Books and Exhibitions” on 11 March

Matthew here, reporting on the final event of what proved to be an eventful Hilary Term 2014.  Over lunch on Tuesday, 11 March, the noted author, biographer, and curator James Hamilton gave a talk entitled ‘Unrolling the Tapestry: Weaving Interrelated Lives in Books and Exhibitions’.  Hamilton’s wide-ranging interests include art and science in nineteenth-century London, and he has written biographies of J.M.W. Turner and Michael Faraday as well as curated exhibits on Turner and Helen Frankenthaler.

His presentation moved fluidly between the personal/autobiographical and the historical/biographical, between individual lives and their relationships to the intellectuals and artists who shared their milieu.  He began with his own first encounters with visual art—he was drawn to pictures, he said, because they spoke without asking him to reply—and then discussed how that interest led to Turner, and in turn how his biography of Turner piqued his interest in Faraday.  As a biographer, he aimed to draw connections between these two lives, to weave them together.  Throughout his talk, Hamilton drew on the metaphor of weaving to show how a life becomes entangled with other lives and made a compelling case for a biographer’s interest in interconnection.

The metaphor of weaving in Hamilton’s title, both, as he noted when he began, includes both the sense of a finished product (a tapestry unrolling) and an unfinished process (weaving).  As Hamilton put it: a biographer follows the “thread” of a life.  On the one hand, then, a life yields up raw material for the biographer—thread for a tapestry.  On the other, though, a life is also complete: a finished picture of an individual.  The biographer’s fundamentally creative task is to shape a picture of the individual based on the finished life but nonetheless original.  In that vein, Hamilton voiced his belief that biographies need updating every generation or so, as aspects of a remarkable individual’s life take on new significance in light of contemporary events.

Hamilton took the metaphor of weaving one step further, to make a point about relationships and networks.  Turner, he points out, was not working in a hermetic environment: he was part of a vibrant cultural scene in London, made up of other artists, intellectuals, and scientists—like Michael Faraday.  These connections not only captivate the imagination, they are crucial to capture a complete picture of an individual’s life and a historical moment.  Hamilton said the name of the subject of his next book invariably comes up as he works on his current book.  So, after writing about Turner, Hamilton turned his attention to Faraday to uncover the threads running between Turner’s art and Faraday’s science.  Hamilton’s writing shows how an extraordinary artist and an exceptional scientist approached shared concerns in a shared cultural milieu.  He views his books, which examine artistic and scientific communities in London in the nineteenth century, as part of this process of weaving together lives to give a holistic portrait of an age.

OCLW lecture by Paul Strohm: ‘Was there Life-Writing in the Middle Ages?’ on 6th March 2014

Hello there, life-writers, it’s Nanette again with a report on Paul Strohm’s lecture last week. To answer the question in the title of his lecture, Paul Strohm began with a qualified ‘yes’. He introduced us to the idea that some of the more obvious locations for life-writing in the Middle Ages are not necessarily the most productive. The early biographies tend to be classically inspired, accentuating respect for prior models and decorum over factual accuracy of the individual at hand. There was a strong desire that the biography be exemplary, with the didactic purpose of providing an example or model for its readers. Strohm called out Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne as a biography that emphasises the dignity of the monarch over the more humanizing details. Hagiography, or the lives of saints, is another specifically exemplary genre of narrative that follows very particular conventions of the life of the saint. Hagiography establishes each saint’s position in the community of saints: the life and passion of the saint, the life and miracles of the saint, the trials of the person on their way to sainthood. Eventually the lives of saints became free-standing vernacular narratives, but, Strohm argued, there remained a frame of expectations and the problem of generic decorum on medieval hagiographical and biographical writing that influenced what might be called the factual accuracy of the works.

The places to look, then, Strohm pointed out, are not hagiography or biography, but other genres in medieval culture. Documents of practice, record keeping about promotions, rank, payment stubs all offer titbits of life narratives. Historians may look at these documents as kernels of evidence, but they are still texts and objects which can be analysed in a literary way. Isolated facts can become narrative, and Strohm gave the example that in writing his biography of Chaucer he learned from documents like these that Chaucer was a customs officer on the waterfront, and was given a jug of wine daily on a Royal grant with the expectation that he would show up to work daily. These facts helped him to form a picture of Chaucer’s life: like many writers, he held down a day job and thus must have done his writing on his off hours.

Legal documents may present opportunities to find details and life narratives. Strohm told us the Latin ‘narratio’ (which only entered vernacular in the 16th century) belongs to the legal profession, as part of the art of persuasion in pleading a case. Medieval case histories are an interesting place to look for narrative, or for specific life details that could be more likely to be true than not. Strohm covered a few examples of these historical cases involving prostitution and deception. The philosophical treatise is another genre where life details and bits of narrative may be slipped in, as is the case with Thomas Usk’s Testment of Love. More relevantly to the literature-specialists and literary biographers, Strohm also argued that there were some life facts to be found in the literary work of John Gower, Robert Greene and Chaucer, providing Strohm with some fodder for his Chaucer biography. The problem with the literary ‘I’ in these works is that it is an amalgam of life and art, crossing ‘the bounds of making and making-up’. But if elements of a life represented to us in a literary work can also be corroborated by legal documents, it would be possible to construct a plausible narrative from the combination. Strohm’s thoughts here about the literary ‘I’ struck me as one of the best articulations of the problem readers encounter with literary memoir or any category of autobiographical fiction. One of the easiest traps a reader can fall into is that of assuming the literary ‘I’ equates with a personal, biographical ‘I’. But if we read carefully, we may find elements of factual ‘truth’ and certainly kinds of emotional, human truths in these literary representations of authors.

The questions and answer section covered a variety of topics from the assertion that there were no diaries per se in medieval England and that it would be extremely unusual to see a medieval biography that didn’t emphasise continuity of the subject’s life with past lives. An audience member raised the point that in Italy, however, things were different. Dante falls between the tendency towards writing within a tradition and expressing individuality with the lyric ‘I’. Strohm agreed, joking that there was probably a hundred year lag between medieval England and Italy. Another question raised the idea of changing notions of conscience, moving from a sense of communal conscience to individual conscience. Strohm replied that until the 14th century, the phrase ‘my conscience’ is never used in English and the word has a capital ‘C’, meaning it is common to all. From the 16th century, you get a sense of distinctive individual conscience. This tied in with another audience comment about the practice and influence of confession on life narrative, which Strohm agreed could be considered a generative form for life narrative as it would be created or shaped for the confessional. Strohm concluded by reiterating his argument that medieval writers often opened up with less self-consciousness about their lives when they were writing in alternative genres (which is why the legal framework becomes revelatory).

OCLW lecture by Tom Couser: ‘The Work of Memoir, or Why Memoir Matters’ on 4th March 2014

Nanette here with a report for you on Tom Couser’s lecture last week, which surveyed the recent history of memoir and the implications of the genre in our culture. This was our second lecture on the memoir form at OCLW this term (see here for Blake Morrison’s perspective on the genre); and I think we learned very different things about memoir as a genre. It was great to have an American perspective on memoir’s place in literature and culture as a form that celebrates identity. Couser opened his lecture by describing the cover design of his book, Memoir: An Introduction (Oxford, 2012). The cover represents a fingerprint on a page divided by black and white blocks of colour. It was, he explained, a visual key to understanding memoir: ‘identity (the fingerprint) in black and white’. Couser’s argument, as indicated by his title, was that memoir does matter, but that it matters more collectively, as a genre, than individually.

Much of Couser’s talk explored the inclusiveness of memoir, and he emphasised that memoir is in fact the most democratic of prose forms: there has been a boom in the genre which reaches audiences and writers both high and low. The form encompasses both ‘somebody’ memoirs (those written by the already famous) and ‘nobody’ memoirs (who might become famous because of their memoir). Somewhere in between these two categories falls the ‘literary’ memoir, which might be written by a nobody or a somebody.

But the backlash to the twentieth century boom of the memoir industry (‘industry’ was not Couser’s word, but one that might be applicable) brought charges of narcissism from novelists. In Couser’s view some of the only other genres to be denounced in their entirety like memoir are pornography and rap music. Narcissism is not the only charge against memoir; it is also accused of inaccuracy (a theme that was later explored by the audience’s questions). From the mid twentieth-century memoir became so popular as a genre that at least initially it seemed there was little fact checking done by agents or publishers, discrediting the genre.

The egalitarian element of memoir has also been noted in early versions of the genre, particularly in the nineteenth century. Defining the category of ‘nobody’ memoirs had me thinking about Emily Dickinson’s famous lines, ‘I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody, too?’, arguably an early version of literary, lyric ‘nobody’ memoir. Dickinson’s poetic speaker shuns the appearance of being a ‘frog’-like ‘public’ somebody, while in nineteenth century New England, celebrities both literary and political were certainly trumpeting their names to admiring audiences. I think Dickinson speaks to some of our suspicion of celebrity memoirs in general, and certainly to the claim of narcissism. Tom Couser cited a review by William Dean Howells, an American author and a friend of Mark Twain’s, in which Howells called memoir ‘the most democratic province of the republic of letters’. While reiterating that memoir matters because it is democratizing, Couser pointed out that this is also why some disdain it. And yet, memoir is a threshold genre, a gateway to the literary, straddling the border between literary, non-literary and sub-literary. It is also a potentially literary form as part of the wider genre of life-writing, which Couser understands as a term that explains how much of our lives is caught up in telling our lives. To Couser, life-writing takes the form of, among other things, the scrapbook, celebrity gossip magazines, reality TV, email, social media networks and gossip.

Recalling that early versions of the novel form involved works of fiction that portrayed themselves as truthful narratives, such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Couser noted that the novel and the memoir developed symbiotically in the eighteenth century. Using first person narrative, diaries and epistolary forms, the classic early British novel didn’t so much imitate life as it imitated life-writing. Couser explained that across the Atlantic, early American life-writing appeared in the form of spiritual conversion narratives by Puritan writers, and later in slave-narratives, many beginning with the same five words: ‘I was born a slave’. Later versions of American memoir broached themes of immigration/assimilation, the civil rights movement, and memoirs on rights movements in general. Couser’s personal experience of the life-writing in the 1960’s was that he couldn’t think of another time when so many people were reading the same books. The experience of these populations has successively become part of the public record through the genre of memoir. Memoir has served as the threshold through which ordinary citizens make their claim for equal rights.

The question and answer section was lively and full of debate about the different ways we read memoirs, how much we can trust them, for their accuracy and truthfulness, as historical sources and as literary works. A historian argued that letters tend to be more accurate as records of historical events because they are written more recently than memoirs, which tend to look back with hindsight on events. Couser replied that all memory is inherently unreliable and that hindsight also brings unconscious or conscious justification of one’s actions. And letters do prove useful as evidence of a relationship or emotional life. Further questions continued to elaborate on this theme, reflecting on whether readers expect memoir to be true. Couser answered that readers do expect truthfulness, or they become angry and feel betrayed by a made-up memoir, particularly in the case of recovery narratives, where a reader has an emotional investment in the example of the author’s recovery.

And by email the discussion on this subject continued with audience member Jeremy Wilson’s thoughts:

“A historian questioned the merit of memoir compared to contemporary letters. I saw his point (as both a biographer and editor of letters) but don’t entirely agree. Letters – provided they are not “written for publication” – can give a valuable immediate account of, and reaction to, historical events. But they may be knee-jerk reaction rather than considered opinion, and they may be slanted to accommodate (at least) the opinions of the recipient.

In different memoir accounts (to avoid the plural “memoirs”) of the same historical event, you can get a selection of personal views that may give a far more accurate overall impression (Example? Maybe the assassination of President Kennedy?). Yes, there’ll always be some way-out contributions; but an intelligent reader should be able to question those.”

Jeremy’s thoughts here on memoirs providing different impressions of a single event, which might give more comprehensive view of the event as a whole, ties in with Couser’s argument that memoirs are particularly important collectively rather than individually.

Further questions explored the boom of memoir in the publishing business and the peak of the boom, and the difference between autobiography and memoir. Couser’s take on the two genres was that they’re both difficult to define, but that autobiography implies the full life will be explored, whereas memoir foregrounds memory itself and could focus on an aspect or specific relationship within a life. Final questions centred around memoir’s status as a democratic genre, and whether literary memoirs could still be considered democratic, and on the similarities in English and French between the French terms les mémoires d’ (meaning the memoirs of) and  le mémoire (meaning the memoir). The concept of the plural ‘memoirs’ evokes a more comprehensive work, more like autobiography. Couser’s talk provoked many questions and discussions, which were continued over a drinks reception in the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium Foyer.

Marina Warner ‘Hearing Voices and Travelling Back’ 25th February 2014

On Tuesday 25th February Marina Warner kept the packed Leonard Wolfson Auditorium captivated by her insights into her work in progress, a work of fiction partly based on her own childhood, and partly the history of her father’s bookshop in Cairo.

Marina’s father was the son of a famous cricketer, Plum, who was well loved in his day.  He grew up rich, but became very poor due to unfortunate life circumstances.  He fought in North Africa under Monty, whom he adored, and then on to Italy, where he met Marina’s mother.  After the war, after being captivated by Cairo, he asked a friend, David Smith, of W.H. Smith, to open a branch of their shop the city in 1948.  The shop was then burned down in the riots of 1952, Marina described seeing the ruins as one of her earliest memories.

Marina described writing as a descent into the underworld, the desire to hear voices once again.  Books play a part in their own story as both a hymnal and a tombstone, moving the past into the permanent present.  Fiction implies invented and imagined things, a narrated story becomes something deposited for those who come later.

The starting point for Marina’s work was an inventory found in her parent’s personal papers that listed the items to be shipped from London to Cairo in 1948. Selected objects form the basis of the various parts of the novel.  The objects are charged with a living voice, speaking the life of things became the organising principle.  What was interesting is that the inventory contained nothing of her mother’s she brought nothing with her, except a list of recipes she learnt; English vocabulary and a school textbook on Europe from 1941.

She read a particularly captivating extract from her novel, describing the first meeting between her mother and in-laws, it painted a very vivid picture of an interaction that many can identify with.  It highlighted the ‘Englishness’ of her grandparents and the very different lifestyle that her mother found herself in having moved from a working class Italian family.

Marina talked about how her Catholic education imprinted on her and has led her to often go against the nuns who taught her.  The Bible is the work of four life-writers, who all had to agree with each other.  Marina’s own work has never accepted one version of a story, that there is only one ending.  The Rosary, going through the scenes from Mary’s life, showed that it was possible for life to be dictated by that of another, while the Station of the Cross shows the importance of objects.

The discussion raised some interesting points about the way in which Marina approached writing a fictional novel based on reality, in particular the lives of her own family.  The decision to move away from strict life-writing, meant that she was able to make mistakes and invent, which is not possible with biography.  She wanted to be able to invent dialogue and scenes, getting inside the character’s minds as a witness to the story.  Marina likened it to being a prompt for a play, allowing characters to speak for themselves, but every now and again she provided the lines.

Marina’s work also now takes on an interesting new dimension given the events in the Arab world that started in 2011.  The context of her work has altered by what is happening in the present.  It was discussed as to whether Marina would leave her work unchanged, and allow the read to draw their own conclusion, but she has made the decision that the events were so important that they would have to influence her novel.

This was an excellent lecture, and I would encourage everyone who missed out on it to take advantage of the podcast when it becomes available.

Work in Progress Seminar 19th February 2014

Lucinda Fenny here, the final member of the OCLW publicity team, welcome to my first blog post and I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts with you over the coming months.

On Wednesday evening, in the company of an intimate audience, OCLW’s visiting members presented an outline of the work they are conducting whilst in residence in Oxford.  Everyone stuck to their allocated time of 10 minutes which was very impressive, and were able to give us a very succinct view of their, in some cases, vast topics, and the challenges that they face.  The seminar was chaired by Hermione Lee.

First to speak was Sophie Scott-Brown from the Australian National University in Canberra, who is working on a biography of the British radical historian Raphael Samuel.  She began by challenging the view of Samuel as a Marxist historian, instead describing him as a people’s historian, despite the difficulties in defining what that term actually means.  Sophie claimed that biography is key to bringing out Samuel’s architectural type, explaining why and how he did what he did.  She also emphasised Samuel’s relevance to contemporary debates on the social role of the intellectual and historian, he advocated for empowering people to speak for themselves.

Our second speaker was Jeffrey Gutierrez from Boston who talked about the issues that surround the editing of collections of letters, in particular reference to William Carlos Williams.  Jeffrey explained how the first edition of his letters were heavily censored, as the poet was still alive at the time.  An important question is how to transcribe Williams’ letters into print, as he often did something artistic with the form of them and although past editors have argued that his is of no relevance, Jeffrey contested this view.  He showed the audience two letters written only a few months apart.  One had been left uncorrected, and showed the state of Williams’ mind following a series of strokes due to the large number of errors.  The corrected letter gives the impression that Williams had made a miraculous recovery, which was, of course, not the case.

Maria Rita Drumond Viana highlighted the vast resources available in relation to W.B. Yeats and how fortunate she felt to now have access to them here in Oxford.  She put forward the notion of letters as a literary genre in themselves, in contrast to how they are used by other scholars, as documents, evidence and testimony.  This distinguishes what a letter says from how it says it.  She put forward the contested notion that the correspondence of a writer can be considered as part of their work, which is not possible with any other artist.  In the discussion this was further covered, where Maria Rita argued that while letters may not be considered part of a writer’s work, they can be included as examples of the way in which they write.

Finally Tracey Potts our visiting scholar from Nottingham University gave us an insight into the methodology and its problems when writing about the biography of objects.  Her work  focuses on clutter and procrastination, which Tracey was quick to point out was not a reflection on her own life! One of the problems when working with clutter in particular is how we deal with piles of stuff, and how we relate to the material world.  Clutter is a certain challenge as it is a thing that is not a thing. An important part of her work is extending the notion of agency to the non-human world, when at present humans are at the centre of the stories of things.  This counters the idea that humans control things; Tracey posited the fact that perhaps it was the other way around and that things might have designs on us.  To further pique our interest in her work she informed us that penguins and coffee tables are two cast members in the book.

Weinrebe Lecture Series in Life-Writing: Edward St Aubyn in Conversation with Hermione Lee

Matthew Sellers here for the OCLW publicity team.  Last Thursday, 13 February, I had the pleasure of listening to novelist Edward St Aubyn discuss his writing process with Hermione Lee as part of the Weinrebe Lecture Series in Life-Writing.  Edward St Aubyn is the author of seven novels, five of which were collected in 2012 as The Patrick Melrose Novels.  This year’s theme, ‘Voicing the Self’, is especially apt for a writer as adept as St Aubyn at revealing his characters’ inner lives. 

With his witty, stylish prose, St Aubyn accesses fully realized characters and a range of human experience, from the hilarious to the truly tragic.  His novels, at turns sharp, humorous, and poignant, satirize the English upper class with pointed sophistication.  Yet in The Patrick Melrose Novels St Aubyn grapples with traumatic events of his own life, and his works never lose their awareness of this deep pathos.  Brutally honest in his prose, St Aubyn was equally forthcoming with the large audience gathered to see him on subjects from the inexpressible to the experience of making personal trauma public in autobiographical fiction.

Lee opened the talk with a question about the plan of The Melrose Novels, which St Aubyn confessed he initially intended as a trilogy before he reconceived the series to include two additional novels, including the Man Booker Prize shortlisted Mother’s Milk.  The five novels follow a protagonist, Patrick Melrose, who endures a traumatic childhood and copes in adulthood with a combination of booze and drugs.

Though all five novels center on Patrick, Lee noted that they are all written in third person.  St Aubyn replied that he felt “attracted to the freedom” of third person, that third person helped avoid confession and establish distance.  Establishing a core dramatic truth was more important to his autobiographical project than a faithful representation of the facts.  With that, St Aubyn set the scene for a rich discussion of his authorial relationship with his fictive protagonist, the function of his pithy style and cutting irony, and influences on his writing.

St Aubyn was frank about the difficulty of writing his first novel, Never Mind, which features a graphic rape scene; he recounted how he wrote longhand before handing the leaves off to be typed, how the sound of typing took on a reassuring constancy that enabled St Aubyn to continue.  Crucial to his writing experience, and indeed to the novels’ handling of trauma, are the moments when language runs up against the inexpressible.  Lee noted that Patrick Melrose is a vocal, witty protagonist, but he often longs for silence, and St Aubyn noted that Patrick’s efforts to articulate cause confusion.  Indeed, his drive drive as a novelist often seems an effort to evoke an unsayable moment of experience.

The redeeming qualities of silence may seem odd given St Aubyn’s elegant style—he’s been compared to Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde.  Lee gave an exemplar of his epigrammatic wit from At Last: ‘As a guest, Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you, and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions’.  St Aubyn replied that the compression of epigram, of wit, provides a strong structure for the inner drama of the novels, a horrifying contrast of perfect control, balance, and brevity against uncontrolled violence and uncontrollable inner emotion.  And it is in that balance of polished irony and violence that St Aubyn’s novels voice a self at once dazzlingly witty and painfully troubled.

Blake Morrison launches The Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing: ‘Voicing the Self’

Blake Morrison, ‘The Worst Thing I Ever Did’: Confession and the Contemporary Memoir’

Hi there, Nanette here for OCLW publicity, and I’ll be summarizing for you the first of the OCLW Weinrebe Lectures, given by Blake Morrison on Tuesday 4th February in the packed Leonard Wolfson Auditorium at Wolfson College, Oxford.

Blake Morrison began his lecture last Tuesday by revealing that his lecture title, ‘The Worst Thing I Ever Did’, was the original title for his 1997 book about the James Bulger murder case.  The story of the two ten-year-old boys who tortured and murdered the two-year-old James Bulger is examined in conjunction with Morrison’s own life, and in the end he titled his book, As If. Asking us to think about private and public deaths and the bad things we do in our own childhoods, Morrison explained As If was an attempt to ‘reclaim’ for humanity the children who do bad things.

Morrison went on to explore things that bother us about memoir as a genre. Confessional memoir, and talking about yourself have something ‘indecent’ about them, he said. The intimacy and painful truths of the form lead us to think about mortality: life-writing often turns into death writing.

The connection between this opening and the remainder of Morrison’s lecture was the theme of ‘motive’: we question the motives of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who murdered James Bulger; perhaps they are impossible to know or understand because children do not have a fully developed moral sense. The motives for confession and memoir are manifold, and can be difficult to discern because a certain amount of strategy and calculation are required to structure a narrative. Morrison described the following as some of the motives for confessional literature:

  • Shock value / sensationalism: attempts to redefine what is shocking by exposing lies and secrets
  • Performance / showmanship: writers who bear witness versus confessional writers who dare readers to judge them, and self-dramatization or the pleasure of constructing the narrator’s persona
  • To set the record straight: incorporating elements of ‘objectivity’ and journalistic witness, but intimacy sets this writing apart from reportage
  • Catharsis / cleansing: writing as therapy and memoir as a form for airing grievances and for grieving

Blake Morrison concluded his lecture by reading Sharon Olds’ “First”, a poem from her 2010 collection, The Wellspring, that describes a scene of sexual abuse to the young speaker. Morrison explained that the poem employs the confessional mode to transform a memory of abuse into one of empowerment, and this transformational element is one of the most liberating motives of confession.

Questions afterwards ranged from ‘how do we know a confession is true’ to ‘does confessional literature say anything about its audience?’ In addition, a reference to Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ as being ‘recollected in tranquillity’ spurred the question of ‘whether there is something to be said for what’s recorded in the heat of the moment and will be shaped later as memoir?’ Final questions considered the stigma in academic writing of using the first person ‘I’, and the importance of understanding any writer’s subjectivity.

OCLW Workshop on Literary Letters

Hello life-writers! My name is Matthew Sellers, and I’m one-third of the new OCLW publicity team.  Over the course of the term, Nanette O’Brien, Lucinda Fenny, and I will be blogging about the events OCLW hosts.  To kick off, here’s a summary of our first event, the OCLW Workshop on Literary Letters, convened by Professor Pamela Clemit on Tuesday, 28 January 2014.  The speakers included Professor John Barnard, Professor Pamela Clemit, Grace Egan, Daniel Hitchens, Priyasha Mukhopadhyay, Dr Mark Pottle, Dr Henriette van der Blom, and Maria Rita Drumond Viana.

The first half of the session focused on eighteenth century and early-nineteenth century letter-writers who, while adhering to epistolary etiquette, wrote letters as a form of self-representation and reciprocal social exchange with their contemporaries.  The second half of the workshop gave speakers working in different eras and in different disciplines the opportunity to note continuities and changes in conceptions of letter-writing across periods, social milieus, and material forms.

The workshop concluded with a wide-ranging discussion of the issues raised by the panelists, from which emerged some common themes.  Across all disciplines and periods, for example, the speakers and workshop participants foregrounded the notion of self-representation in letters.  This shared concern sparked lively discussions, from how to read letters (whether as individual, standalone texts or as “narratives” revealed in long correspondences) to censorship/self-censorship and the importance of social and political context.

In the first half, Daniel Hitchens and Grace Egan both drew on examples from the eighteenth century to show how letter-writing form and convention suggest that letters constitute a unique genre, influenced by factors such as epistolary etiquette, social protocol, and personal relationships.  They stressed the particularity of the letter, intended for a specific addressee and discussing shared interests or experiences, or even asking for particular advice.  Professor Clemit’s presentation further explored the social bonds engendered by letter-writing.  Her paper posited a notion of reciprocity, arguing that letters construct and sustain social networks and intimate personal bonds.  Professor Barnard concluded the session with an insightful discussion of how John Keats crafted his letters to represent himself to his contemporaries.

Dr Henriette van der Blom began the second half by contrasting Cicero’s and Pliny’s letters with the eighteenth-century examples, noting that letters in the ancient world were frequently made public and often deployed the art of rhetoric to persuade readers.  Priyasha Mukhopadhyay presented on the material life of the letter, arguing that features like handwriting versus type-writing can say as much about social relationships and new technologies can say as much as form or content.  Maria Rita Drumond Viana shared her thesis research on W.B. Yeats.  Demonstrating continuity between self-presentation in eighteenth-century and modernist letter-writing, she called letters a “laboratory of the self.”  Finally, Dr. Mark Pottle came at letters from a historical perspective, raising the point that letters can serve as historical evidence as well as objects of textual or material analysis.

Report – Symposium at OCLW on Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle

A Report from Dominic Davies

This Day Symposium, hosted by the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College, Oxford, marked and celebrated the centenary of the publication of Leonard Woolf’s path-breaking first novel, set in then Ceylon, The Village in the Jungle (1913). It explored the novel from a number of different critical and informed angles, all of which addressed and emphasized its richness, complexity and importance as a piece of literature. The Symposium was well attended, with over 60 delegates engaging with the various presentations, lectures and papers in the rich discussions that followed them.

After a short introduction from Professor Hermione Lee, the President of Wolfson College and Director of Oxford Centre for Life Writing, and Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literatures in English at the University of Oxford and the Symposium Convenor, the opening keynote was given by Chandani Lokuge. An Associate Professor at Monash University in Australia, Chandani’s lecture gave a comprehensive introduction to, and analysis of, the novel. The new perspectives that she offered stimulated some productive discussion in the questions that followed.

This was followed by a roundtable discussion that drew on a varied selection of writings by and related to Leonard Woolf, including excerpts from Woolf’s short stories, his later political writings and extracts from Virginia Woolf’s work, as well as from The Village in the Jungle. These passages were selected by a range of academics from universities across the UK, each of whom introduced their choices and drew out some interesting points from them. The discussion that followed emphasized the complexity and breadth of Leonard Woolf’s literary output, as well as exploring several of the novel’s thematic concerns. The Symposium was further enriched by the presence of a fascinating display table, kindly put together by Nathan Sivasambu, that included a number of articles, etchings and books related to Leonard Woolf.

After lunch, four papers were given as part of a panel discussion entitled ‘Perceptions of the Jungle’. These papers expanded on various aspects of Woolf’s novel on both a textual and historical level, and traced some of the various critical receptions that it has received. The panel was followed by another engaging question and answer session, before prize-winning biographer and novelist, Victoria Glendinning, gave the closing plenary. Victoria gave a rich account of the biographical period during which Woolf produced The Village in the Jungle. In the conversation with Hermione Lee, biographer of Virginia Woolf, that followed her lecture and that was also opened up to contributions from the floor, this biographical context was explored further to bring the life of Leonard Woolf to the fore.

The Symposium concluded with a series of readings from three contemporary writers: Roshi Fernando, Roma Tearne and Romesh Gunesekera. The writers offered some thoughtful responses to Woolf as well as reading some superb extracts from their own work, and the return to literature provided a productive and enjoyable conclusion to the day. 

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