The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing and WORDS BY DESIGN are pleased to introduce a new collaboration. Together we are making skilled writers available to help clients write their biographies. Click here for more details.
The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing and WORDS BY DESIGN are pleased to introduce a new collaboration. Together we are making skilled writers available to help clients write their biographies. Click here for more details.
Chair: Peter Wilson
The event explores the problems and challenges of writing historical biography, ranging from questions of context and human agency, to issues of interpretation and presentation. As authors of two recent best-selling biographies of Empress Maria Theresa and the reformer Martin Luther, Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger and Lyndal Roper will discuss how they tackled these and other issues. Their two short papers will be followed by general discussion.
Originally posted by Oxford University Press.
We are delighted to announce the recipients of the Oxford DNB/OCLW research bursaries for 2017/2018. This time, OUP has awarded two bursaries in association with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing: they go to Dr Katherine Collins, an academic and creative writer working across the disciplines of sociology and life writing, for her project on British expatriate communities in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries; and Alice Little, DPhil candidate in Music at the University of Oxford, who will study the unacknowledged musicians contributing to J.B. Malchair’s music collection in the 18th century.
Katherine and Alice will use the Oxford DNB as the focus of their research and will work closely with academic staff at the Oxford DNB and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. Find out more about their projects below:
Dr Katherine Collins (Wolfson College, University of Oxford)
Brexpats: British Expatriate Communities in Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Katherine will undertake a prosopographical survey of the ODNB to identify individuals that belonged to a British expat community in the 19th or 20th centuries, to draw connections between those individuals temporally and spatially, and to place them in an historical and social context. She will focus particularly on how living abroad may have influenced their work and its subsequent reception in Britain.
The project seeks to contribute new data to the ODNB by consulting primary sources in The Expatriate Archive Centre in The Hague, which carries a collection of life writings, photos, letters, digital material and secondary sources from the late 19th century to the present day, created from donations by expatriates and their families. It will provide a deep historical and cultural context to this highly topical and important work, enriching our understanding of the lives of expatriated Britons in Europe at various times in the British past, in various locations and political climates.
Dr Katherine Collins is a Visiting Scholar at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing and Associate Lecturer in the Social Sciences Division at the University of Oxford. From September she will be a researcher on the U.K. in a Changing Europe funded project “BrExpats: Freedom of Movement, Citizenship and Brexit in the Lives of Britons Resident in the European Union” at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Alice Little (Music Faculty, University of Oxford)
Unsung Musicians of Eighteenth-Century Oxford
Alice’s research focuses on the collecting practices of the band leader and artist John B. Malchair, who collected ‘national music’ in Oxford from ca. 1770 until his death in 1812. In her project, she plans to uncover the network of previously unacknowledged – or ‘unsung’ – musicians who contributed to his collection. Using the ODNB to research these figures will make it possible to identify for the first time a group of people involved in musical networks in Oxford in the 18th century who did not necessarily have any connection to the Oxford Music Room or the University’s School of Music.
Alice’s research responds to the need to reassess our understanding of music collecting, how music was shared, and its social and cultural function in 18th-century society. She will use digital technology to visualise her findings, showing Malchair’s network of contacts and their chronological and geographical coincidence in Oxford and at the Oxford Music Room, which she plans to make available as an online resource. Ultimately, her project will make an essential contribution towards a biography of Malchair, which Alice is in the process of writing.
Alice Little is studying for her doctorate at the University of Oxford’s Music Faculty. She writes her thesis on eighteenth-century collecting practices, focusing on the music collection of J.B. Malchair. Her research interests include 18th- and 19th-century traditional music; folk music; the history of collecting; and musical instruments.
Dr Kate Kennedy, our Weinrebe Fellow in Life-Writing, has won an Early Career Researcher award in this year’s Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Awards, which celebrate public engagement work across the University. The announcement was made at an awards ceremony at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on 28 June hosted by Vice-Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson.
Dr Kennedy won her award for her public engagement work relating to a triple biography of poet Rupert Brooke, and composers F.S. Kelly and W.D. Browne she is writing. The three men were close friends who sailed to Gallipoli together and were all killed in the First World War.
Studying archives, letters and diaries, and animating the stories she has uncovered has enabled Dr Kennedy to work with young people and adults, musicians and theatre professionals through drama, music, the media and public events, including:
The biography of Brooke, Kelly and Browne is due to be published in 2018.
The project has transformed Dr Kennedy’s research, developing her understanding of the stories and how they can be communicated effectively. In turn the neglected work of the composers has now been shared with many thousands.
The Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Awards recognise and reward those at the University who undertake high-quality engagement activities and have contributed to building capacity in this area. Dr Kennedy was one of five Early Career Researcher winners at the awards.
Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor says: “I have been deeply impressed by the quality of the public engagement with research projects submitted for this year’s awards. The breadth and diversity of the activities taking place show how seriously the University takes its commitment to public engagement.”
Professor Alison Woollard, the University’s Academic Champion for Public Engagement with Research says: “Public engagement enriches both research and society and the University is committed to enabling our researchers to inspire, consult and collaborate with the public. I’m delighted that we are able to recognise and highlight the fantastic work our researchers are doing and hope these awards encourage more colleagues across the University to carry out their own public engagement with research.”
About the awards
The Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Awards recognise and reward those at the University who undertake high-quality engagement activities and have contributed to building capacity in this area. The awards are awarded in three categories: Early Career Researcher, Building Capacity and Projects. Entrants can be at any level in their career and activities of any scale are welcome. Winning entries received recognition for their achievements at the Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Awards Ceremony that took place on 28 June 2017.
The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing invites applications for the Tony Gray Visiting Scholarship, tenable for one year.
Closing date: 28 July 2017
Start date: 9 October 2017 (or as soon as possible thereafter)
The scholarship awards £500 expenses to the recipient, and a further £500 towards the organisation of an event. We are interested in applications from anyone who has recently completed their PhD, up to experienced senior researchers.
The scholarship comes with the expectation that the recipient will organise an event related to their field, with our financial and administrative support. This could range from a seminar, invited guest speaker, to a day colloquium or full conference.
The researcher will play an active role in the community of academics at OCLW, and take part in the weekly seminar meetings. The elected scholar will obtain membership of Wolfson Common Room (entitling them to a University Card and use of the Bodleian Library; use of the dining hall for meals; use of the college library and sports facilities; room hire and eligibility of most College committees). The researcher will benefit from the intellectual community of the College and University: they may join College clubs and societies (a charge may apply for some clubs), use all the College facilities, attend Guest Night dinners and bring guests to dine in Hall for lunch and dinner. They may also apply to the Accommodation Office for housing during their stay, although there is a great demand, and it may not be possible to meet their needs.
Please submit the application form, accompanied by a current CV, to email@example.com [marked ‘OCLW Tony Gray Visiting Scholarship application’] or by post to: Dr Kate Kennedy, OCLW, Wolfson College, Linton Road, Oxford, OX2 6UD.
Photo by Prasanna Kumar (CC0 1.0)
There’s been so much interest in OCLW and DANSOX’s event Dancing Lives, and here is another brilliant event about dance, happening in Sadler’s Wells just a week before ours:
Join the Society for Dance Research in a discussion on Alain Platel / les ballets C de la B’s nicht schlafen on Monday 3rd July with invited speakers Katalin Trencsényi and Dr Kélina Gotman, two days after the performances at Sadler’s Wells on 30th June and 1st July.
Dramaturg Katalin Trencsényi will present her research on Alain Platel’s collaborative dramaturgy and the development of nicht schlafen over the past year, while Dr Kélina Gotman will discuss the consequences of nation/post-nation or transnationalism, and how we might read cohabitation onstage. Both speakers will then propose some questions to open up the discussion.
Katalin Trencsényi is a London-based dramaturg, researcher and associate lecturer at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). As a freelance dramaturg, Katalin has worked with the National Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre, Deafinitely Theatre, Corali Dance Company, and Company of Angels, among others. Katalin is co-founder of the Dramaturgs’ Network (d’n), worked on its various committees, and from 2010 to 2012 served as its President. Katalin is the author of Dramaturgy in the Making. A User’s Guide for Theatre Practitioners (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015), co-editor of New Dramaturgy: International Perspectives on Theory and Practice (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2014), and editor of Bandoneon: Working with Pina Bausch. (Oberon Books, 2016). For her research on dance dramaturgy, Katalin was recepient of the the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas’ Bly Creative Fellowship Grant. Katalin has a PhD from the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest.
Kélina Gotman teaches Theatre and Performance Studies at King’s College London. She writes regularly on the history and philosophy of theatre and dance, cultural history, writing, translation, and the history and theory of disciplines and institutions. She has contributed among others to Performance Research, About Performance (on the work of Alain Platel), Choreographic Practices, Textual Practice, SubStance, and various edited collections. She is author of Choreomania: Dance and Disorder (forthcoming, Oxford University Press, Studies in Dance Theory) and Essays on Theatre and Change: Towards a Poetics Of (forthcoming, Routledge). She has collaborated on over two dozen dance, theatre, and experimental opera productions in Europe and North America, as a translator, dramaturg, performer, director, writer, designer, movement director and curator. She is currently preparing among others an edited volume on performance, translation and everyday multilingualism, and a chapter on choreic gesture in Platel and the ballets C de la B’s Out of Context: For Pina for an edited volume on Platel’s work.
SDR’s Choreographic Forum is open to students, researchers, artists, and practitioners.
Attendance is free for Society for Dance Research (SDR) members / £6 full price / £3 concessions (students) + booking fees. Tickets available here.
The 2017 series is curated by Iris Chan, Victoria Thoms, Florent Trioux & Lise Uytterhoeven.
Photo credit: © Chris Van der Burght
Marie Taglioni’s overwhelming success in ballets such as La Sylphide triggered a cult of the ballerina which was to last for many decades, and which swept away the image of the acclaimed male dancers of the past. This paper for Dancing Lives accompanies Marie Taglioni on her way to celebrity from Stockholm over Vienna and Stuttgart to the Paris Opera, where she created some of her most memorable roles, and from there to other major ballet cities.
It explores questions such as: which changes in the world of ballet paved the way for Marie Taglioni’s triumph, and how did she acquire her reputation? How did Taglioni describe her own life in her memoirs, and what did others write about her? Furthermore, it reveals how Taglioni’s glory was documented and diffused through artistic representations of her.
by Clare Brant, Professor of Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture and Co-Director, Centre for Life-Writing Research. Cross-posted with permission from the Department of English at King’s College London.
The Dear Diary exhibition is now open, until 7th July! Promotion got underway well before opening, with various radio features including Radio 2’s Jonathan Ross Show on 4th May, and BBC London, Monocle Radio, Radio Oxford and other outlets; on 3rd June, I take Dear Diary to Radio 4’s Saturday Live show (listen from 9:00 BST).
One publicity commission was for the Sunday Times series ‘6 of the Best’. I thought long and hard and put together a list only to discover that ‘Best’ is determined by what the picture editor thinks can be illustrated best. Several suggestions hit the cutting room floor. One was British artist Ian Breakwell’s visual diary – an idea I owe to Lucy Bayley, a PhD student at the ICA (thank you, Lucy). You can see a selection of Breakwell’s work at the Tate, including The Walking Man Diary (1975-1978).
A diary’s lure of intimacy…
Breakwell has made various experiments with the diary form. One of the most compelling is the photographic diary he made of an unknown man who regularly walked past Breakwell’s flat in Smithfield in the City of London, where from his third floor window the artist was often looking out. The images all have the same vantage point and the same mysterious subject; the passing of time is captured through the diary unevenly, so that some photographs are taken seconds apart while others are separated by months. The resulting pattern of similarity and difference, heightened by collage, plays with a diary’s lure of intimacy: by denying us even incremental knowledge, Breakwell makes his diary intriguingly baffling.
Another suggestion was W.P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919). This diary has an extraordinary story. The author’s real name was Bruce Cummings; he made his pseudonym from Wilhelm, Nero and Pilate as examples of the most wretched people to have lived.
Writing a diary gave Cummings the opportunity to call on philosophy for help; as his illness progressed he prepares for death with gentle humour and a sense of beauty…
In 1915 Cummings was a naturalist who went for a medical prior to signing up for the First World War; the doctor sent him home with a letter. On the way back he read it, and discovered he had multiple sclerosis – and that his family already knew, and indeed had known for some time. Aged 26, he suddenly had a very short future. Multiple sclerosis comes in several forms, all cruel. Barbellion knew he would be facing loss of functions like mobility, but he mobilised all his mental and emotional resources. Writing a diary gave him the opportunity to call on philosophy for help; as his illness progressed he prepares for death with gentle humour and a sense of beauty. His celebration of existence is poignant: ‘To me the honour is sufficient of belonging to the universe — such a great universe, and so grand a scheme of things. Not even Death can rob me of that honour. For nothing can alter the fact that I have lived; I have been I, if for ever so short a time’.
The title of the work The Journal of a Disappointed Man, is slightly misleading: Barbellion is disappointed in the sense that life is being taken away from him, but he converts disappointment into the most profound celebration of life. Being a naturalist helps: the complexity, beauty and vivacity of other forms of life gives him much to celebrate, and reminds him – and us – that humans are organisms in a mutable universe. The MS Society recommends Barbellion’s Journalto people with multiple sclerosis. I recommend it to everybody. It is sobering, humbling, cheering, comforting and touchingly human.
William Wyndham’s diary provided me with a wonderful case study in balloon madness…
Just as the exhibition powered up, I was also running around giving talks related to my forthcoming book on eighteenth-century ballooning: Balloon Madness: Flights of Imagination in Britain, 1783-1786(Boydell & Brewer, autumn 2017). It was a hectic doubling, except my balloon book does have a whole chapter about a diary. It belonged to William Wyndham, who was an MP, mathematician, classicist and convivial dreamer, and it provided me with a wonderful case study in balloon madness. It also provided methodological challenges, because the diary’s entries about balloons are frustratingly laconic. Having just started his diary, Windham confided to it, like many eighteenth-century people, a sense he was not getting enough done. On 7th February 1784 he wrote ‘Did not rise till past nine; from that time till eleven, did little more than indulge in reveries about balloons.’ (You can read the whole text online, as The Diary of the Right Honourable William Windham, 1784-1810, ed. Cecilia Anne Baring, 1866).
What did that entry mean? What was going on in his head? I had to adapt critical tools from life writing to reconstruct Windham’s balloon reveries, though joyfully he did turn those reveries into action . On 5 May 1784, at the height of balloon madness, he made a successful ascent with the Oxford aeronaut James Sadler from grounds near Hampton Court, watched by a collection of Fellows from the Royal Society. His diary entry afterwards begins: ‘Went up in balloon. Much satisfied with myself; and, in consequence of that satisfaction, dissatisfied rather with my adventure…’ It seems to have cured his balloon madness; his reveries moved on to other things.
Air-minded people can be generous in sharing stories, and a later balloon episode also involving a diary came to me by way of a former student, Eric Larsson (thank you, Eric). It joins a literature of ice which also has dedicated admirers, and a fine critic in Frances Spufford , author of I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (Faber & Faber 2003). This story begins in 1930 on a Norwegian sloop in the Arctic, with geologists and seal hunters aboard. They discover the remains of an expedition, long presumed lost. On 11 July 1897, the Swedish engineer S.A. Andrée and two companions had ascended in a hydrogen balloon aiming to discover the North Pole. They had had to land on the ice and travel on foot in rigours which eventually defeated them. (Read more of their story in the New Yorker magazine).
Each of the three men had kept diaries and all were eventually published. One waterlogged notebook was recovered by a reporter, Knut Stubbendorf, who dried it in his cabin, and recounts the experience of turning the pages for the first time:
“I have seldom, if ever, experienced a more dramatic, a more touching succession of events, than when I began the preparation of the wet leaves, thin as silk, and watched how the writing or drawing, at first invisible, gradually became discernible as the material dried, giving me a whole, connected description written by the dead – a description which displayed unexpected and amazing details, and which allowed me to follow the journey of the balloon across the ice during the three short days from July 11 to 14, 1897.”
This thrilling moment in which invisible writing emerges to be readable, and the visible writing tells of what happened, has stayed with me: it could be a compelling metaphor for what all diaries are and what they do. They say what happened, and they make that a mystery to be revealed, a voice from the dead which can become alive again.
So please keep a diary – you never know if it may fall into a researcher’s hands! And please come and visit the Dear Diary exhibition! You can share your thoughts about diaries and your diary practice via the exhibition website.
You can also contribute to ongoing research in the Ego-Media group by going to their DiaryBox. The Ego-Media team (also members of the Centre for Life Writing) would like to know about the shape of your online day – or night! – so as to understand better how digital traces can be read as diaries, and what they can tell us about self-presentation online. Your contributions will be ‘leaves of silk’, with invisible ink drying into unexpected and amazing details… Share your stories today.
You may also like to read: It’s In My Diary – behind the scenes of ‘Dear Diary’.
Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and not those of the English Department, nor King’s College London.
Global Lives and Local Perspectives was the second largest collaboration between two research clusters of Wolfson College: OCLW (Oxford Centre for Life Writing) and THSC (Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Centre). In 2012, Wolfson College hosted the conference Beyond Biographies: New Perspectives on Tibetan Life-Writing; convened by Professor Ulrike Roesler and held in collaboration with OCLW, the meeting had the merit of attracting attention to the rich tradition of biographical writing within the Tibetan literary corpus by placing Tibetan biographies and autobiographies within the broader context of life writing across the world. New avenues of interpretation and understanding were advanced at the time, and, by taking our cue from that, we proposed to slightly enlarge the focus of the analysis to embrace other forms of indigenous life writing, such as journals, memoirs, songs, oral testimonies, and personal narratives, as they are documented in Tibetan historical, poetic, legal and religious literature, as well as on social media.
In the course of Global Lives and Local Perspectives, new approaches to Tibetan life writing had been proposed by the speakers. Whereas it is undisputable that biographies and autobiographies are at the core of the Tibetan practice of recording memories and experiences of the self, it is also clear that such a label crosses over and includes diverse genres and forms, thus opening the field of investigation to different analytical means.
Biographical and autobiographical writing can be used, for example, as a source of information about social, cultural, and political history, as demonstrated by Dr Franz Xaver Erhard and Rachael Griffiths. Through the eyes of the authors, modes of identity construction come to the foreground, thus allowing for a better understanding of the different ways in which Tibetanness was, and still is, expressed. It has been reiterated throughout the workshop that the role on self-perception by the socio-cultural and historical milieu should not be underestimated; individuals are in fact urged to adhere to specific kinds of personhood, that is to say behavioural models considered to be socially acceptable. Dr Marta Sernesi, Miroslav Hrdina, and Sangseraima Ujeed presented contributions describing the edifying character of rnam thar, and the importance given to the observance of precise schemas in the portrayal of the life of an individual considered to be “exemplary”. Interestingly, it is the analysis of the themes and structures of these texts that makes it possible to gain a new perspective on rnam thar, the most popular form in which life writing was carried out in Tibet. Tibetan biographies also provide interesting information about the biographers themselves, so much so that sometimes the real value of these works lies not in the amount of details about the life of their characters, but rather on what the authors or the compilers reveal about their understanding of both their own identity and the socio-cultural environment they lived in, as shown by the presentations of Prof. Per Kværne and Dr Lewis Doney. Furthermore, the recording of life-stories of remarkable individuals was not a perfunctory implementation of a traditional practice; rather, Tibetan authors reflected on the issues of literary theory, developing indigenous explanations regarding the worth of their compositions as well as proposing new ways of narrating the self.
If the importance of biographies and autobiographies for social and cultural historians is clear, the perils of considering these works as mere deposits of dates and names should not be forgotten. Life writing, in all its forms and expressions, is a literary manifestation, and as such it deserves to be considered and discussed. The literary value of autobiographies, journals, and memoirs affects the surrounding society; the creation of a relationship between the work and its audience may lead to the negotiation of issues of exemplarity and legitimacy, as illustrated by the case-studies brought by Prof. Per K. Sørensen and Lucia Galli. Personal recollections may shed a new light on past events, improving our understanding of controversial historical periods, as the decades of the 1940s to the 1960s certainly were for the Tibetan communities along the Sino-Tibetan borders as well as for those living in the central provinces of the plateau, as showed by Prof. Heather Stoddard, Dr Lara Maconi, and Xénia de Heering.
What has been said so far applies not only to biographies and autobiographies compiled in pre-modern times, but also to new forms of individual expression, such as social media, blogs, and instant messaging apps. Creating the self in the moment is a feature that we ascribe to modernity. Technology provides us with the means to immediately share small personal stories, updating our identities constantly though multi-semiotic forms. But writing on the spot, recording the ebbs and flows of the mind, is indeed a rather ancient practice; diary, personal journals, travelogues are all instances of what can be defined as life writing of the moment, jotting down impressions as well as reflections on the self and the other. The contributions offered by Prof. Charles Rambles, Dr LamaJabb, and Dr Theresia Hofer broached the issue of “fragmentary” selves and how it is possible to reconstruct a personal identity by putting together snapshots of life as they appear in legal documents, poems, songs, or instant messages shared on social media platforms.
These are indeed exciting times for those working on Tibetan life writing. The field is ripe with possibilities. Not only the past may be looked at with different eyes, but also the present, and more importantly, the future, all reserve new and unexpected ways of studying and comprehending the ever-evolving Tibetan identity. We planned to collect and publish the contributions to this workshop, with a sincere hope that the study of Tibetan life writing may continue to thrive and develop.
We would like to express once again our gratitude towards those who have made this workshop such as successful event: Oxford Centre for Life Writing (OCLW), Ti se Foundation, Wolfson College Academic Committee, Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Centre (THSC), and the Linying Foundation.
Lucia Galli and Franz Xaver Erhard (Conveners)
Photo by Nadja Friesen (CC0 1.0)
Clio Barnard is one of Britain’s foremost directorial talents. She first gained critical acclaim for her film The Arbor (2010), which followed the life of West Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar, and whose formal innovation mixed a documentary soundtrack with fictional reenactment, as actors lip-synched to the words of her interviewees.
Barnard gained further acclaim when she returned to the West Yorkshire council estates to make The Selfish Giant (2013), which, like The Arbor, challenged the conventions of social realist drama, creating a loose interpretation of the 1888 Oscar Wilde story of the same name. On May 30th at 5:30pm, she will be in conversation with OCLW about her film practice and career, especially as it relates to the role of life-writing in filmmaking.
In a letter to his father sent from Florence in September 1826, the 22-year-old Benjamin Disraeli proudly recounts his visit to Tasso’s prison cell in Ferrara, where he marvelled at Byron’s name – “here scratched with a great nail on the brick wall”. In his 1837 novel Venetia, Disraeli’s complex biofictional engagement with his Romantic literary heroes, Marmion Herbert, a curious fictional amalgam of Byron and Shelley, becomes the lucky master of Petrarch’s house at Arquâ and gives orders “that his absence should never deprive a pilgrim from paying his homage to the shrine of genius”. This ‘shrine’ is clearly on the map of the early-nineteenth-century tourist trail of literary celebrity, visited by Herbert’s estranged wife, Lady Annabel, and their daughter, the eponymous heroine, who – like Byron when he visited Tasso’s prison cell and Petrarch’s tomb – can’t resist the urge to leave her own mark: “I must write my name in Petrarch’s house”.
Disraeli’s fantasy of literary pilgrimage pays tribute to the auratic appeal of physical spaces, laying bare the thin line between the extraordinary and the ordinary. They promise privileged access to an individual’s ‘real’, ‘private’ self, the cradle of ‘genius’ and artistic creation, across temporal and spatial distance, tricking us into an illusion of getting closer to the bodies, and therefore the historical ‘truth’ of our subjects. There lies a central ambiguity in the fact that the houses of famous individuals promise access and intimacy, while at the same time they are part the public sphere, ‘homes and haunts’ eagerly sought out by scholars and tourists. They promise authenticity, while at the same time they present a specific version of a life, shaped by socio-political agendas and notions of creating and preserving cultural memory; a version sometimes uneasily positioned between commemoration and commodification.
“Lives of Houses” will explore new ways of thinking about the intersections of biography, material culture, and notions of fame and celebrity. It aims to encourage a dialogue between academics, biographers, curators, and audiences who study, tell, and productively consume the stories of famous or obscure lives through a variety of different media. Questions to be addressed include: Whose life gets commemorated through physical spaces? How do we recover marginal voices? Who are the agents involved in shaping these narratives and what are the media they avail themselves of? What is the balance between historical accuracy and imaginative reconstruction? What is shown, what is concealed? What survives and what is lost, and how do biographers, scholars, curators deal with the challenges posed by presences and absences? How do scholars write their own experience of their subjects’ private space into their work?
The day’s programme features a keynote lecture by Daisy Hay; a roundtable discussion on “Presenting Houses” with Nino Strachey, Serena Dyer, and Alexandra Harris; a panel on “Writers’ Houses” with papers by Alexandra Harris, Frankie Kubicki, and Nicola Watson; and a panel dedicated to “Musicians’ and Architects’ Houses” with papers by Gillian Darley, Lucy Walker and James Grasby.
Click here for more information and to book your place.
The Wolfson Life-Stories Day is back, and this year it will be accompanied by an exhibition: A Day in the Life of a College. Wolfson through its Objects.
We are seeking members of College to contribute to either or both events. Please click here for more information.
We invite papers that explore new approaches to the various forms of Tibetan life writing for a two-day workshop to be held at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, on May 12-13, 2017.
The aim of this workshop is to examine Tibet’s rich tradition of biographical writing as documented in Tibetan narrative, poetic, legal and religious literature. Particular attention will be devoted to journals, memoirs, letters, oral testimonies, personal accounts, and ritual inscriptions as expressions of the relationship between the individual and the society, the local and the global, the past and the present, the public and the private.
How and in which ways does life writing shape the public and private identity of the protagonists? What do personal narratives say about the way Tibetans perceived and made sense of the outside world? What role, if any, does life writing play in historical revisionism? Why does Tibet have such an unusually rich tradition of biographical writing and how much creativity was allowed by literary and cultural conservativism? What does material culture say about the life of artists, patrons, and spiritual masters? In addressing these and other questions pertaining to Tibetan life writing, contributors are invited to broach topics including, but not limited to:
Postgraduates and scholars are encouraged to submit an abstract of up to 500 words (for a 30-minute presentation) together with a short academic CV at firstname.lastname@example.org by February 1, 2017.
In his President’s Column in the most recent Modern Language Association Newsletter (Fall 2016), K. Anthony Appiah tells the story of how a few years ago he decided to organize his books. A daunting task. A philosopher, he tried first to sort his philosophy books into metaphysics and epistemology on the one hand and political and moral philosophy on the other. The result was a philosophical mish-mash. Then he began to wonder whether books about French cooking should go with books about France or books about cooking. Should accounts of African Americans visiting Africa belong with books about Africa or books about America? This is a familiar dilemma for all who buy books, teach them, write about them, and struggle fruitlessly to construct a beautifully coherent shelving system.
As I read Appiah’s provocative column, it occurred to me that those who read, write, and attempt to shelve something as deceptively manageable as biographies run into similar roadblocks. Should all biographies focusing upon a single subject and adopting the conventional cradle-to-grave narrative belong on the same shelf? Perhaps, but then where do you place such books as Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida? She writes about three couples involved in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s: photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn, and journalists Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar. Photography perhaps, given Capa’s fame: but then what about Hemingway? Surely the book belongs on the Hemingway shelf. Or perhaps not, since Vaill’s book is a group biography and one could dedicate many bookcases to that sub-genre. And then there are slice-of-life biographies, books that zero in on a particular moment and then fan out to explore the rest of the narrative territory. Prominent among books on the group biography shelf one would surely find Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923, the moving story of unknown ordinary people who took to the streets to fight for independence. But then Foster’s book is as much compelling social history as it is group biography. And Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe would surely confound Appiah’s shelving efforts in its deft study of figures such as Sartre, Beauvoir, Husserl, and Heidegger, and their intellectual and romantic relationships. Existentialism? WW2? Feminism?
Appiah, of course, is interrogating disciplinary boundaries, but as I read his column I realized more fully than I had before that the impetus for our Biography Beyond Borders day of roundtable discussions (to be presented by OCLW and BIO on November 5) was precisely an effort to leap the fences, to muck up all the neat shelving if you will.
Some twenty-eight biographers will gather at Wolfson, roughly two thirds of them American and one-third European, to discuss such questions as whether biography can be defined nationally; whether biographies of little-known figures (think of Foster’s Vivid Faces) garner more readers in Europe than in America; whether slice-of-life studies (think of Candice Millar’s recently published book about Churchill’s three-month long adventure of capture, imprisonment, and escape in the Boer War: Hero of the Empire) can safely be nestled next to a monumental study (998 pages) of Hitler’s first fifty years (Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939); and whether we can safely say there are any borderlines between history and biography; if so, how can we draw them?
In my recent reading, I found that Ruth Scurr’s innovative study of John Aubrey presented a provocative challenge since she contends that ‘Biography is an art form open to constant experiment’ and she constructs Aubrey’s diary based on his manuscripts, correspondence, and records of those who knew him. It’s an autobiography in the form of a diary written by a biographer. Where would we shelve it? But I’ve come to realize that answering this question is actually not that difficult: Scurr’s book belongs on that massive bookshelf called ‘Life-Writing.’ All of us who will meet on November 5 know that the generous fluidity of biography as a genre has long demolished the boundaries, broken down the walls, and generated multiple ways of writing a life.
Deirdre David is Professor Emerita of English at Temple University. Throughout her long career she has taught courses in Victorian literature, the history of the British novel, and women’s writing. She has published books dealing with social problems in the Victorian novel (Fictions of Resolution in Three Victorian Novels , 1981), the conflicted position of the woman intellectual in Victorian culture (Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy, 1987), and the importance of British women in imperialism (Rule Britannia: Women, Empire, and Victorian Writing, 1995). She also edited The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel (2001), and co-edited (with Eileen Gillooly) Contemporary Dickens (2009). She published her first biography in 2007 (Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life); her most recent work is Olivia Manning: A Woman at War (2013). She continues to teach as a member of the Society of Senior Scholars at Columbia University.
Photo by Glen Noble (CC0 1.0)
The Wolfson Arts Society & the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing invite you to a private view and talk by Michèle Roberts and Caroline Isgar, on Friday 14 October 2016 at 5.30 pm.
The Secret Staircase is an exhibition/installation comprising etchings, a woodcut block, a woodcut print, a printed text, an artist’s book, and some associated artefacts. It was originally commissioned by the Foundling Museum in London.
It is a joint project created by artist Caroline Isgar and writer Michèle Roberts, who had the original inspiration together and collaborated all the way through, discussing ideas and methods at every stage, naming and solving problems together.
The Secret Staircase explores mother-child separation, the loss and grief felt by an adult daughter as her mother goes through the process of dying, how she collects her memories of her mother and attaches them to various significant objects. The Secret Staircase performs, therefore, a kind of Life-Writing.
We took as our initial inspiration the tokens (dating back to the late eighteenth-century) at the Foundling Museum. These tokens (identifying tags, rings, plaques, coins, etc) were left with the foundlings by their mothers, who may have hoped to come and reclaim their children some day.
The Secret Staircase etchings represent experimental ideas around children’s doodles, children’s early attempts to write, children’s carvings on tables and desks. These images subsequently informed the images in the book.
The book/text takes the form of an inventory of items connected with the lost mother, such as a hairbrush or a button box, which provoke childhood memories plus reflections on the present. Underneath the daughter’s direct speech runs a series of rewritten nursery rhymes, which express all that the daughter does not dare openly say.
The book/images suggest folklore, legends and myths, with particular reference to animals, domestic artefacts, and children’s writing exercises.
Associated artefacts comprise materials relating to our work process, ranging from sketches to commemorative items to found objects.
The book/images have been printed as an unusually large-scale woodcut (1 x 3 ) metres. The form of the woodcut block itself is a table, inspired by the elm refectory table at the Foundling Museum. The foundlings sat around this table for their meals.
The book/text has been printed on a single sheet of paper of corresponding size. The narrative sequence of the text begins at the lower left-hand corner and continues in an anti-clockwise direction.
The Secret Staircase print and text can both be wall-hung for display. They can simultaneously be displayed folded into a free-standing double zigzag, on a table. They have both been folded into a limited edition artist’s book, bound in a white tablecloth formerly belonging to Monique Roberts, Michèle Roberts’s mother. Her monogram M.C. is visible. As a young woman she hemmed the cloth and embroidered it with the initials of her maiden name Monique Caulle. Before she died in December 2007 she gave the cloth to her daughter.
Paperback versions of The Secret Staircase have also been printed and are available.
Caroline Isgar & Michèle Roberts
The Exhibition runs from Sunday 2 October to Friday 21 October 2016. Open daily from 10 am to 7 pm subject to College commitments. Visitors are advised to ring the Lodge on 01865 274100 beforehand.
It was John Donne (1572-1631) who wrote ‘More than kisses, letters mingle souls; for thus, friends absent speak.’ In an age dominated by ‘social media’, written correspondence networks are a formidable challenge for scholars. The increasing proliferation of digital formats has seen a transformation in the way we conceptualise ‘texts’ and ‘editions’ but also a remarkable resurgence in interest in printed books. Correspondence is a particularly fascinating vehicle for examining these phenomena. Digital tools can illuminate connections and patterns difficult to see through analogue handling, while drawing attention to aspects of the original material that might be lost when reading a conventional print edition. This material experience, in the case of a personal source, is something magical and ephemeral that warrants preservation as much as the source content. The Speaking in Absence: Letters in the Digital Age Conference (21 June 2016), then, was dedicated to exploring how new technology can help critics and historians understand, interpret and engage with the letters of historical men and women (both famous and non-famous); trace networks and connections among the almost limitless texts that can be preserved and searched in archives; and what roles there are for editors and publishers of letters in a world of ‘digital correspondence’.
Held at the Weston Library and Wolfson College the conference consisted of a keynote address, panel discussions, a practical demonstration, a visual tour, research poster presentations, and a conference dinner. Generously sponsored by The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH), Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Bodleian Libraries and Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute, and further involved the participation of Oxford University Press and Blackwell’s, the conference aimed to facilitate communication between the diverse entities involved in the digitization of correspondence. Professor Christopher Ricks opened the day with his keynote address The errors of our ways when editing letters, which drew upon material from several literary biographies and poetical works. Through careful and astonishingly good analysis, Ricks provided many elucidations and inspired emendations of the correspondences under examination.
The first panel focused on projects that bring letters into a digital forum through cataloguing and editing, or the digitisation of existing editions of letters. Panelists included representatives of Electronic Enlightenment, Darwin Correspondence Project and Cultures of Knowledge who cast an interesting light on the potential for interconnection between both the projects they themselves are involved in, and the correspondence sources they host. In addition, they explored the infrastructure surrounding these resources, and the potential they hold for further collaborative development. Next Miranda Lewis (Digital Editor, Early Modern Letters Online) discussed how bringing manuscript, print, and electronic resources together in one space not only increases access to and awareness of them, but allows disparate and connected correspondences to be cross-searched, combined, analysed and visualized. Moreover, that the collection of unprecedented quantities of metadata, and the standardization of the means of describing and processing them, is the precondition for efficient collaborative work on the development of new digital tools, new scholarly methods, and new historiographical insights in this large and central field.
The morning portion had been a success; testament was the hum of conversations between academics from a multitude of disciplines, professionals, institutional representatives and the public that filled Blackwell Hall over lunch. Afterwards the audience reconvened for a visual tour of correspondence collections in the Bodleian Libraries with Bodleian curators and a lively discussion surrounding the publishing of letters. Professor Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin offered compelling Russian historical and literary case studies, while Jacqueline Norton of OUP Academic; Rupert Mann of Oxford University Press; and Kieron Smith of Blackwell’s revealed the relationships between the ‘editor’ as a critical textual scholar and the ‘editor’ who commissions or prepares an edited text for publication.
The day’s final panel was held at Wolfson College in the Leonard Wolfson Auditorium. It boasted multiple award winning film editor Sabine Krayenbühl and photographer Zeva Oelbaum who presented their documentary film Letters from Baghdad – based on the letters of Gertrude Bell, a pioneering adventurer, diplomat, archeologist and spy; Georgina Ferry, author, dramatizations of the letters of Ada Lovelace and Dorothy Hodgkin; and Neale Rooney of Letters 1916 (Ireland’s first crowdsourcing project). Each of the projects being showcased explored letters through such varied media as radio, film, and the internet, as a means of communicating this personal material to a wider audience. Although nearing the end of the day Dr. Kathryn Eccles expertly chaired a lively and scintillating discussion about the place of letters in the digital age.
Winding down with a drinks reception postgraduates had the opportunity to display research posters covering topics as diverse as: the language of autobiographical letters sent by women in the Russian language to Soviet newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s; letter-writing in fifteenth century princely education; the use of fictional letters as a literary genre in early modern England; detecting patterns of interaction in ancient papyrus letters; and letters as a resource for biographical research. Finally, it was time for dinner and after a full program it seemed clear to all those who took part in the day that “letters have a bright future”.
This guest post was written by Michaela Crawley, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. For more information about the conference program and guest speakers, please visit The Digital Epistolary Network
This piece originally appeared on LSE Review of Books.
It’s rather like a ball of yarn when it gets tangled up. We hold it this way, and carefully wind out the strands on our spindles, now this way, now that way. That’s how we’ll wind up this war, if we’re allowed: unsnarling it by sending embassies, now this way, now that way (Lysistrata).
Often there is no space in my favourite café with its walls of textured teal, thronged with faces that may have meant something once to people who’ve long since donated the quirky paintings and photos to a charity shop. Anyone can find their place among them, bending or stretching to frame a new face in one of the pitted art deco mirrors. Even the rickety tables in the middle, little inhospitable islands buffeted by passing elbows and rucksacks, are full. Academic disciplines are like this: bustling, tightly knit communities, space at a premium. Customs and practices woven into a rich tapestry of enquiry and knowledge; questions and answers interlaced; threads taken up from the writings of the serious, scholarly faces peering down from their frames. But different as each discipline might be from the others – the colours of the walls, the style of the frames and how they are arranged – there’s a common strand that runs through: we write.
Weeks later, I sit at my temporary desk – a borrowed kitchen table with one leaf folded down – in my new study that used to be a kitchen. I can see the eighty-year-old seams of the house: two doorways once led to a scullery and a coal store, bricked up now but not yet smoothed out of sight by plaster. Copper pipes, dully glowing, cut off partway down the wall. Compared to what would have been the parlour and dining room, this kitchen was tiny, more reflective of the lowly status of the person who cooked and cleaned than how much space they might need. The women of this house would toil here and now so do I, writing to reinvent, to cobble together fragments in the pauses between other things. Stitching rejected remnants, making a form of frameless art, like a patchwork quilt.
The previous two paragraphs are stuffed with material metaphors: knitting, weaving, tapestry, embroidery and quilting variously represent kinship, identity, complexity, time, structure and style. In the social sciences, though, often we write about our research as if theories and arguments are buildings. Theories have frameworks and foundations and they need support. Arguments can be constructed, shored up by facts and buttressed with a solid line of reasoning. Sometimes they can be shaky and even fall down. But as well as communicating what we mean, metaphors structure our thinking. Or, at least, the metaphors we choose when we write can reveal a great deal about underlying assumptions. The theories-as-buildings metaphor always makes me imagine an enormous wall made of rectangular bricks, orderly and straight, progressing upwards and onwards. The researcher’s job is to climb the scaffolding, find a gap near the top and make a brick to fill it, or to knock a few crumbling bricks out and replace them with others, strong and freshly fired. Or rarely, to grab a spade and start digging a new foundation, because this metaphor doesn’t work like Minecraft: bricks can’t float, unsupported.
Why does this way of thinking about knowledge hold such sway over us? For one thing, it offers a comforting sense of progress and control. Buildings have blueprints; their construction appears to proceed in a predictable fashion; engineers can calculate precisely where the load bearing walls and lintels need to be; construction workers know how to mix the mortar so it won’t crumble. Making buildings is also something that happens in the public sphere; even with houses, the insides only become private when the work is finished and people move in. And though we all know full well that knowledge creation doesn’t actually happen in the controlled and predictable way the metaphor implies, this is the structure that it imposes on our writing: an activity that is orderly, involves rationality over emotion and inhabits the public sphere not the private. Notice that these are a set of characteristics that fit nicely with conventional notions of masculinity.
Needlecraft metaphors offer another way of thinking about the creative and generative practice of writing – and about how we write in relation to particular knowledge claims and communities – that is more about piecing together fragments…
…patchwork from best gowns,
winter woollens, linens, blankets, worked jigsaw
of the memories of braided lives, precious
scraps…(Marge Piercy, ‘Looking at Quilts’, 21)
…of things of varying source and quality (at least, in conventional terms) that wouldn’t necessarily fit together seamlessly in the more structured metaphorical tradition of theories-as-buildings. This essay, for example, was stitched together ‘by squares, by inches’ (Joyce Carol Oates, Celestial Timepiece, 22) from fragments of life writing, books, articles and blogs written by feminist art historians and quilt makers, poetry, references to Aristophanes and Thomas Pynchon, books about linguistics and philosophy, personal experience and belief. And now it forms a single piece.
But why do I regard switching from a metaphor of building to one of stitching as a subversive act? For several reasons. Throughout history, needlework has been a marker of femininity in its various iterations, a means to inculcate it, and something to sneer at as a way of shoring up women’s supposed inferiority. Theodore Roethke described women’s poetry as ‘the embroidering of trivial themes […] running between the boudoir and the alter, stamping a tiny foot against God…’ (165), for example. Women’s naturally nimble fingers were to be occupied; we were to be kept out of the way and out of trouble, shut in the top room of a circular tower and thus prevented from engaging in the masculine pursuits of politics, thinking, reading and writing and making Art (for a fascinating discussion on women, folk art and cultural femicide, I recommend this post by Dr Lucy Allen). The frills and fripperies our needles produced were ample evidence, should anyone require it, that we were frivolous creatures entirely unsuited to public life. Or so the story was. So using needlework metaphors in my academic writing blows a resonant raspberry to that notion, for one thing. But the subversion here is not as straightforward as reclamation, of presenting something usually disparaged as having value after all. Femininity and its inculcation is a displeasingly twisted yarn of benevolence and belittlement. The trick is to unpick the knots without snapping the thread and unravelling the beautiful work, to value that which has been constructed as feminine while at the same time escaping its constricting net.
Imagining academic writing as piecing fragments is one way of recognising that it can integrate all sorts of sources but, more significantly, piecing is also a decentred activity. When quilting, one can plan, cut and stitch many individual squares whenever there is a moment spare, before bringing them together to form the overall pattern, which is flat and in aesthetic terms may have no centre or many centres, and no predetermined start or end. This holds true both for the practice of quilting and how we might think differently about academic writing, with each contribution not a brick in a structured wall but a square ready to stitch onto other squares to make something expected or unexpected, the goal depth and intensity rather than progress (see Mara Witzling). There is sedition here in several senses. This way of imagining how writing works is not individualistic or competitive. Each voice is a thread, and only when they are woven together do they form a whole, as Ann Hamilton’s tapestries represent social collaboration and interconnectedness; many voices not one, cut from the same cloth or different.
But acknowledging that one might have to fit the work of writing around other things, a problem that has occupied me from the moment I became a mother, is a particularly rebellious act, I think. As Adrienne Rich expresses in the poem ‘Transcendental Etude’:
Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells
sent in cotton-wool from somewhere far away,
and skeins of milkweed from the nearest meadow –
original domestic silk, the finest findings
This way of imagining academic writing as something that is part of life, rather than something apart, challenges the view of the scholar as the extraordinary, solitary genius who sits alone in his study day after day while the minutiae of clothing and food is organised for him, around him, despite him. But with metaphors that emphasise the piecing of fragments, both everyday and exceptional, we recognise a way of working in which every fragment that can be pieced together into a square is ‘the preservation of a woman’s voice’.
Dr Katherine Collins is a Visiting Scholar at OCLW. Her current project is a work of creative non-fiction, family fables organised as a collection of short stories narrated from different points of view, fragments stitched together into a multi-layered autoethnogaphic family herstory spanning 100 years.
‘We All Have These Thoughts Sometimes’: A conference on the work of Stevie Smith (1902-1971)
For this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to point the moral, to adorn the tale.
The people who ‘come and go’ in Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper (1936) are versions of her own friends and family, fictionalised with almost ostentatious thinness. The manuscript of the novel, typed on yellow office paper and held in the Hull History Centre, shows that she originally used her acquaintances’ real names and altered them afterwards in pen. Novel on Yellow Paper is so autobiographical that it poses real analytic and generic dilemmas for readers. Here, as in many of her poems, Smith’s boundary between life-writing and “imaginative” or “fictitious” work is strikingly porous.
The organisers of the first one-day conference on the work of Stevie Smith, held at Jesus College on 11 March 2016, were therefore very grateful for the support of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, recognising the value of considering Smith’s work as ‘life-writing’ as much as ‘fiction’ or ‘poetry’. Over 70 delegates gathered to explore and discuss this well-loved but critically understudied author from a variety of perspectives.
Many speakers took the opportunity to explore life-writing as a helpful critical lens. Hermione Lee, director of OCLW and editor of Stevie Smith: A Selection, and eminent biographer Frances Spalding, author of Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography, opened the conference with a panel on Smith and life-writing. Lee and Spalding discussed Smith’s short piece ‘The Story of a Story’, a lightly-fictionalised account of Smith’s conflict with friends who were offended by her literary renditions of their lives. The story, itself a piece of life-writing, traces the perils of life-writing as well as its irresistible lure for Smith.
‘Do you think it is immoral to write about people?’
‘No no, it is very difficult.’ (Stevie Smith, ‘The Story of a Story’)
Throughout the conference, life-writing continued to represent a significant part of the conversation. Often it was practised extempore: several delegates had known Smith in person and were eager to recount and re-interpret their memories of her life. Judith Woolf of the University of York gave a well-received account of interactions she had had with Stevie Smith, during an early panel on Stevie Smith’s ‘voices’. In another paper, Rachel Cooke, award-winning journalist and writer, discussed how Stevie Smith explored ideas about female independence by fictionalising aspects of her life as a spinster.
In an afternoon panel, Rachel Darling of the University of Goldsmiths delivered a paper called ‘Working it Out For Herself: The Writing Subject in Novel on Yellow Paper’.
Darling noted how Smith positions her protagonist Pompey in Novel on Yellow Paper as a writer, and has her imitate her own writing-process: Pompey remarks in passing, ‘I am typing this book on yellow paper’. Both Pompey and Smith type novels on yellow copy-paper, then, ‘copying’, as Darling suggested, from life. Early criticism of Smith’s work over-simplified the relationship between Smith and Pompey, however, and Darling ultimately concluded that the novel Pompey writes is not itself Novel on Yellow Paper.
In the final academic event of the day, Will May gave the keynote speech on Smith’s ‘untimeliness’. His paper moved between Smith’s offbeat or ‘untimely’ metrical rhythms, her marginal or ‘out-of-time’ position among her contemporaries, and moments in her poetry where events happen at wrong or inopportune times.
The conference closed with a performance of ‘River Gods’ in Jesus College Chapel. This piece is a setting of seven of Smith’s poems for viola and spoken voice, composed by Simon Rowland-Jones. Rowland-Jones provided the viola accompaniment as Hermione Lee read some of Smith’s most haunting poems, including ‘The Frog Prince’ and ‘The River God’. Listen to a 2011 recording of ‘River Gods’ here.
Stevie Smith has experienced something of a revival in the last two years. ‘We All Have These Thoughts Sometimes’ followed Virago’s reissue of Smith’s novels in 2014, and Will May’s new edition of Smith’s Collected Poems and Drawings in 2015. We hope that this conference will play a part in extending Smith’s own literary afterlife.
This guest post was written by Noreen Masud, DPhil student at the University of Oxford and co-organiser of the Stevie Smith conference. She blogs at Parrots Ate Them All. With thanks to OCLW, Virago, Faber, S H Jones, Manchester University Press, Oxford University Press, Edinburgh University Press, Oxford English Faculty, Oxfordshire History Centre and Blackwells. Photography courtesy of Mr Josey Photography. Poster drawing taken from Not Waving But Drowning © Estate of Stevie Smith and reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd.
Art and Action: The Intersections of Literary Celebrity and Politics – Symposium Report
For a selection of podcasts from the symposium, please visit https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/series/art-and-action-intersections-literary-celebrity-and-politics
David Hare’s Richard Hillary Memorial Lecture at the Blavatnik School of Government on 3 March, offering a “playwright’s view of dismal conservatism” that turned into a scathing invective against the (Oxford-educated) key players in the current Tory government, was yet another poignant reminder of the distinctly political edge that has always marked performances of the authorial self. It certainly underscored the relevance and timeliness of a one-day symposium dedicated to exploring the complex and multi-layered intersections of literary celebrity and politics, which took place two days later at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. Generously supported by the TORCH Celebrity Research Network and the Austrian Science Fund, “Art and Action” joined the debate about writers’ migrations between literature and politics – a phenomenon that is closely tied to the idea of the artist as “hero-explorer”, as the eponymous character in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello puts it. In this present ‘Age of the Celebvocate’, such writerly cross-field migrations have become familiar multi-media events that highlight the possible tensions between authorial self-fashioning and media and industry appropriation. They come not without their risks of compromising artistic integrity and sometimes lead to a rather uncomfortable entanglement of the author’s public and private selves caught up between ideals of moral responsibility and marketplace considerations.
These wider debates were addressed by eight thought-provoking papers and a lively roundtable discussion that cast an intriguing spotlight on the interactions of authorship, politics, and celebrity culture in the Anglophone world across historical periods and media. Case studies ranged from the early modern period to the present and covered a broad spectrum of themes, including performances of authorial self-fashioning, the gender, body, and fashion politics of literary celebrity, and the convertibility of ‘celebrity capital’.
Michelle Kelly and Sandra Mayer opened the symposium with a panel that focussed on the celebrity writer’s often uneasy trajectory between aesthetic and political performance. Both papers laid bare the theatricality of such ‘double acts’ in writers’ interventions as public personae and in the fictional worlds they create. Drawing on material from the Coetzee Archive, Michelle Kelly in her talk explored the ways in which J.M. Coetzee’s celebrity status and dedication to animal activism inform his novel Elizabeth Costello and its preoccupation with the body, performance, and theatricality. Frequently interpreted as Coetzee’s fictional avatar, Elizabeth Costello, whose concern with animal death and suffering is a recurring theme in her public lectures, becomes a performing animal in a literary marketplace that expects her to live up to the roles of celebrity novelist and public intellectual. While 21st-century audiences seem to take Coetzee’s conflation of the author’s public and private selves for granted, their Victorian counterparts were puzzled and intrigued by the dual commitment to art and action of author-cum-politicians like Benjamin Disraeli. Looking at ‘fan letters’ among Disraeli’s personal papers in the Bodleian Library, Sandra Mayer demonstrated that his position in the popular imagination was shaped and sustained by a highly ambivalent performance of the self that reconciled political action and creative achievement.
The gendering of authorial fame and its media representations was the theme uniting the second pair of papers by Kate McLoughlin and Matthew Lecznar. The story of Ernest Hemingway’s and Martha Gellhorn’s D-Day dispatches for Collier’s Magazine, presented by Kate McLoughlin, offered captivating insights into the personal and textual rivalry of two high-profile writers for whom the right to write about war was earned through first-hand experience. The magazine’s editorial interventions were aimed at presenting Hemingway as a war hero and provide an illuminating case study of the privileging of an eye-witness account by a male ‘national treasure’ over the report by a female war correspondent. The unsettling (non)visibility of the female body was also a central concern of Matthew Lecznar’s paper on the fashion and body politics of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her dynamic and self-reflexive use of fashion and femininity is played out in a transmedia space of fiction, fashion blogs and TED talks that enables her to engage with a broad range of political issues and disseminate her message across diverse cultural and socio-economic contexts.
Over lunch, the third-floor corridor of the Radcliffe Humanities Building was abuzz with lively conversations before speakers and audience reconvened for the afternoon’s first panel on the “Artist as Propagandist”. Kate De Rycker and Simon Morgan offered compelling historical case studies of how writers in the 16th and 19th centuries respectively made use of their celebrity capital to engage in political activism and persuade the public. Kate De Rycker’s talk on the “Rhetoric of Fame” employed in the ‘paper war’ between the fictional persona of “Martin Marprelate” and the established Church revealed that the social role of English writers in the late 16th century was increasingly affected by the commodification of the writer’s reputation. By availing themselves of strategies that still inform the production and consumption of celebrity today, such as the creation of recognisable public personae, Marprelate and his detractors fashioned a template for new forms of engaging in political debate and mobilising the reading public. The convertibility of celebrity capital was subsequently highlighted by Simon Morgan, whose paper explored the tensions within the transatlantic anti-slavery movement “Between Morality and the Marketplace.” Looking at popular responses to Frederick Douglass’s and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s visits to Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, it pointed towards the close entanglement of celebrity activism, self-promotion, and commercialisation.
The day’s final pair of papers cast a spotlight on the often symbiotic conflation of literary celebrity and the politics of self-fashioning. Michèle Mendelssohn made a case for reconceptualising Oscar Wilde – often hailed as an exclusively queer icon – as a media professional who, on his 1882 American lecture tour, skilfully harnessed his gender fluidity in order to enhance his celebrity appeal. Authorial self-fashioning as a more overtly political act was addressed by Adam Perchard in his exploration of Salman Rushdie’s self-fashioning as the ‘new Voltaire’. Perchard argued that by placing himself within an invented tradition of eighteenth-century thinkers, Rushdie invokes simplistic East/West binaries in which Western Enlightenment tradition is threatened by Islamic fundamentalism.
At the end of a long day of discussing art and action, the recurring themes of the symposium were revisited in a roundtable featuring Peter McDonald, Caroline Davis, and Olivier Driessens, and chaired by Elleke Boehmer. Reviewing the intersections of authorship, politics, and celebrity from a broad range of theoretical and methodological perspectives, the expert panel launched a general plea for institutional readings of literary production that abstain from fetishising the author as a lone genius and acknowledge his/her embeddedness within a network of agents. Peter McDonald opened the conversation by posing the key question of the day: “Why are we having this discussion and what does it tell us about our culture?” The answer, according to McDonald, lies in the ambivalent status of literature as a form of public discourse uneasily positioned between the histories of thought, entertainment, and taste. Caroline Davis then offered poignant insights into the gatekeeping position of publishers in the process of enabling or inhibiting cross-field migrations between literature and politics. Looking at the ‘repackaging’ of African authors for the UK and US markets, she drew attention to the fine and arbitrary line between literary celebrity status and being completely silenced. Finally, Olivier Driessens reiterated the importance of collaborative efforts for the creation of literary reputations and encouraged scholars to pay attention to institutions of cultural diplomacy, promotional logics, ideologies, and genre, all of which shape the author’s position within the ‘Art Worlds’.
The roundtable statements gave rise to a stimulating discussion that raised some crucial questions about writing and reading as social practices that can never be isolated from their political dimension and impact. Literature, it emerged, must be regarded as a mode of public intervention in its own right, strikingly exemplified by what Peter McDonald referred to as J.M. Coetzee’s “Celebrity of Refusal” – his unwillingness to step out of his medium and play up to the demands of literary celebrity culture. Most importantly, the symposium flagged the interdependence of authorial agency and processes of industry, media, and audience appropriation, pointing towards ways of how we might keep a healthy distance from the seductive pull of the celebrity author.
Sandra Mayer is an Erwin Schrödinger Research Fellow (Austrian Science Fund) at the University of Vienna’s English Department and Wolfson College, University of Oxford. She is currently working on a monograph that focuses on the intersections of authorship, literary celebrity, and politics in nineteenth-century Britain. http://www.sandramayer.org/
Conference Website: http://www.torch.ox.ac.uk/art-action-intersections-literary-celebrity-and-politics
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.
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.
Author Julian Barnes boasts an impressive resume, and Hermione Lee’s introduction gave what she called a sampling of Barnes’ ‘biographical ingredients’: the author of 22 novels, Booker Prize winner, Francophile, Flaubertophile, and — not least — Leicester City supporter. Barnes began his talk by asking the audience a hypothetical: think about the room you’re to sleep in tonight. How many windows does it have?
He let this question linger in our imaginations as he delved into the broader topic of his talk: the biographizing instinct in all of us, and his own deep ambivalence and suspicion of it. Biography, he said, comes at him from many directions. While he takes pleasure in reading biography, he is also suspicious of that pleasure—as he reads, the thought pops into his head, ‘Are you sure you should be reading this? Shouldn’t you be reading the author’s work instead?’ Barnes pointed to the fact that we are often suspicious after reading a biography as well, in a way that we are not after reading a novel. The novel after reading is still true in what presents, but is the biography? The reader is wracked by doubt: what’s this biography’s angle? What is it leaving out?
Barnes of course has used biography in his own work, including Flaubert’s Parrot (1984). Barnes said that as a child he used to think that a biography could give you all the facts, much like a dictionary could give you all the facts about language. Growing older, however, and having become a lexicographer, he began to see that the things were not so straightforward, and in Flaubert’s Parrot he took a different approach. A simply chronology of Flaubert’s life would not do, for this kind of biography neglected the counterlives Flaubert might have lived. These counterlives—or what might have happened—say more about the hopes, dreams, successes, and fears Flaubert had than anything else; for instance, his wish that he could have burned every copy of Madame Bovary. Yet for Barnes, even these counterlives were unsatisfying, because of their strict binary between what had happened and what had not. He tried again: what about writing Flaubert’s life in metaphors and similes? Barnes offered up a string of delightful phrases: ‘me and my book in my apartment, like a gherkin in its vinegar’; ‘life: like a soup with lots of hairs floating on the surface’.
Flaubert, Barnes told us, had three great favourites: the sea, Shakespeare, and Don Giovanni. Flaubert loved the fact that so little is known about Shakespeare, and Barnes shifted to a discussion of letter-burning: is it justified, and how does it shape how we think about authors? He pointed to the burning of Byron’s memoirs in 1824. Pushkin wrote that the burning was just as well, and why bemoan it? For Pushkin, we know everything we need to know about Byron in his verse, and the desire for his biography is nothing more than a desire to ‘see him on his chamber pot’, to relish the insalubrious details of his life. John Updike has similar thoughts in this vein: there is a strand of biography that ‘reduces celebrities to a set of ailments and antics to which we can feel superior’. Barnes himself leans more towards the side of letter-burning. As he said, ‘the dead have rights too, and those rights are more important than the curiosity of the living’.
Barnes then launched into a list of what he termed ‘Nefarious Biographical Tendencies’, or for short, ‘NBT’. To illustrate his first NBT, he pointed to Radio 3, and what he described as their tendency make music a dramatic episode in a composer’s life. To ascribe such biographical qualities to music diminishes its artistry. Secondly, Barnes impugned the skewing of subordinate lives, what he also described as the ‘two-adjective dismissal’—i.e. in biography, a tangential character being described as ‘witty and compassionate’ and then never mentioned again. He then pointed to the sin of using the past conditional, the ‘Surely they must’ve felt’, rather than ‘we cannot know’, in doing so unfairly projecting onto the mind of the biographical subject. He also spoke of the tendency to locate artistic talent in a single place. For instance, El Greco’s elongated figures have been ascribed to an astigmatism—a point that Barnes showed was not only factually incorrect, but also entirely beside the point. Finally he spoke of the biographer’s tendency to locate creativity in madness, as if the artist takes on the scapegoat of madness so that we don’t have to. Barnes says rather that it is in spite of madness that people can make art, not because of it, citing the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.
To avoid these Nefarious Biographical Tendencies, Barnes offered advice for biographers. Most notable of this was the way photographs can stand in for written biography. He talked of his penchant for collecting photographs of famous artists, and among these was Clara Schumann. In the photograph her hands are swollen, evidencing the arthritis that ravaged her hands and her ability to play the piano. Johannes Brahms wrote music that would accommodate her arthritic hands, and this photo of her hands told the story of their love far better than any biography could.
And with this story Barnes returned to the question with which he began his talk. How many windows are in the room where you sleep? Barnes took a poll of the audience. One or two said four, almost none three, and the majority two or one. And this brought Barnes to a story about Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005). Walking around McEwan’s house, he realized that many of the personal details from McEwan’s life coincided with the novel’s main character, a neurosurgeon—right down to the peculiar three windowed bedroom. Barnes realized that McEwan had set the novel in his own house.
All of this is not to say that Saturday is autobiographical—rather, Barnes asserts that McEwan uses bits of his life in an objective manner, as fodder for his fiction. And yet, this is the issue for Barnes: now that he knew all of these biographical details that had been mined for McEwan’s fiction, he was distracted in his reading of it, looking for continuities between life and art instead of appreciating the novel in itself. This led Barnes onto describing his fears about his own possible biography. He worries that his life will be reduced to a list of ailments and antics; that the privacy of his close friends will be invaded, and the story of their lives made contingent upon his own. He worries that his biographer will write about him as if the biography is all there is to know. He ended his talk with a final wish for his future biographer: that she or he include in small type, ‘This is not how I was—this is how I look when being biographized.’
Elleke Boehmer set the scene for this talk by showing us a photograph of William Rothenstein and Abaninadrath Tagore. The two had their first contact in India and through these visual means, Boehmer opened up questions of centre and periphery when discussing the British imperial legacy. The photo, Boehmer told us, showed conform in the domestic home, the Indian poet being welcomed into the interior space of the Rothenstein home. In this sense, the relationship between the two offers a paradigm of understanding that goes against the usual imperial grain to offer a more nuanced understanding of colonial contact.
Alexander Bubb continued this theme of reimagining colonial impact in his talk, ‘Meeting without Knowing It: the Intertwined Lives of Rudyard Kipling and W.B. Yeats’. Bubb began with the issue of centenaries—why are centenaries so popular, and what can they tell us about the subjects they celebrate? Why do we choose births and deaths as moments of commemoration? For Bubb, the fact that Kipling and Yeats were born in the same year offered him an opportunity to re-examine the legacies these two authors left behind, as well as their uniquely intertwined and parallel histories.
As Bubb’s biography demonstrates, Kipling and Yeats were in direct political opposition for much of their careers. Yet the two were pained by the same antithetical influences, and grappling with many of the same problems, albeit in radically different ways. They even found the same patron in W.E. Henley, and in 1890s London they were stylistically, ideologically, and literally proximate. And yet, they never quite met, both on political grounds, or in person. The Boer war was a good example of this proximity at a distance; while Kipling was in favour of it, Yeats, on the other hand, discouraged Irish enlistment. Yet in both these aims, their poetry drew on similar themes of mythology in culture. Bubb explored close-readings of several of Yeats’ and Kipling’s poems to show how reading them in parallel produces echoes across both lives and works—for instance, when Kipling adapts Yeats in ‘Chant-Pagan’, both drawing on nationalist and colonialist discourses in different ways. Despite different political ends, their shared conservatism arose from similar anxieties, and both concerned themselves with what they saw as the corruption of their respective national identities.
Underlying all this was the question of proximity with a distance, which arose again explicitly in the questions asked as Bubb finished. What does it mean to meet without knowing it—to circle around each other obliquely, to come into contact only through print and a shared historical context? What would it have meant if Yeats and Kipling had met, even briefly? (Indeed, there was a point in the project where Bubb was afraid this might have been the case, given their close proximity in London). Bubb represents a new kind of biography that traces individual lives through a shared aesthetic, historical and political context, not unlike the recent biography Wildly Romantic: The English Romantic Poets, by Catherine Adronik. Like the photograph Boehmer began with the talk with, it represents a paradigm that, by going against the traditional grain, promises new directions in biographies of authors.
In a very thoughtprovoking lecture, Alexandra Harris used the framework of her book Weatherland to reflect on the seasonal shape of lives.
She suggested that there are times in the most immersive biographies when the reader can feel the weather through the subject. We live in the weather and the seasons, we change in relation to them. But indexes never refers to seasons or weather. Coleridge, for example, lived a very weathered life, but there is nothing in the index of his biography which would indicate that. Harris suggested that it matters that the seasons are considered in passing rather than as an arc. Shelley, for example, had a relationship with the wind and Turner with the sun. Bacon and Burton had very different relationships to the air. Perhaps you may only be able to tell a little of a life story that way but it may colour the rest. Ruskin, for example, had a passion for the weather and was horrified by what he saw as a new and dreadful climate.
Today, the idea that life is like a progress through the seasons is a cliché and a dead metaphor. But for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, it was the central metaphor. It even resonated for Woolf, who had originally planned to structure The Waves around the seasons.
People used to draw relationships between the humours and the seasons. Spring was thought to encourage the blood; Summer, the red bile; Autumn, the black bile or melancholy and Winter, the phlegm. There was thought to be a relationship between the seasons, health and mood. The move away from this way of understanding the body also changed the relationship between people and the seasons. Temperaments could no longer be explained with reference to temperature.
Sometimes, though, it is clear when things are out of season: as in Hardy, or Eliot. Larkin shows what happens when we cannot meet the expectations of a seasons: he has a sense of falling short in Summer. For Keats, time is both still and leaping ahead, and a poem can encompass a whole year.
Milton did not write much in spring or summer. Johnson, though, needed to believe that the rational human mind can rise above these external influences. But he protested too much. He was always telling people seasons don’t matter: but also wanted to work at all times and to be superior to the weather.
Why is it that the seasons and biography don’t sit more comfortably together? In other genres, it is satisfactory: for example, Persuasion, or A Winter’s Tale. Writing about nature and the seasons has been the surprise hit genre of recent years. The writer Tim Dee is following the spring around the world so that he is in continual spring for a year. Perhaps we might reflect on the idea that our seasonal selves have lives of their own: and that our winter selves might be different to our summer selves.
In a fascinating contribution to the Weinrebe Lectures, Adam Phillips discussed the work of three thinkers who were suspicious of and hostile to biography.
In his 1836 work Nature, Emerson set out his case against biography. He liked originality, not to interpret through filters. Biography, history and criticism prevent us having an original relationship to the universe. Emerson wants us to be on the road, not too much in the library. He was preoccupied with biography and endlessly debated how the past was being used and how it should be used. History could be a source of freedom, and biography could be about our fundamental possibilities and potential. Emerson wanted to know what the best use we could make of other people’s lives in our own lives, but feared that they gave us tradition but not insight. Emerson was not sure if he wants end to biography or new biography.
For Proust, the tyrannies of past were bound up with biography. Proust biographies, of course, assume that books are fictionalised autobiography. His narrator has a lot to say about the uses and abuses of biographical truth. For example, he suggests than an interest in biography is a consequence of sexual jealousy. The biographical imperative is to find out about the life we hope to possess as though there is no other way to know people except biographically. Proust’s narrator hates his need for the subject of biography and wants to know her to create illusion he is in control. Proust suggests biographical research & writing may save us from entrapment/inertia/paranoia. But biography itself can be entrapment.
Freud believed that biography was the past and psychoanalysis was the future. He believed that there was danger in biography’s claims to truth and effectiveness. Freud was both threatened and obsessed by biography. Contemporaries were interested in ‘pathography’- the uses of illness to explain work. Freud was concerned that psychoanalysis was reductive when applied to great men and didn’t want it misused. Pathography makes individuals the same and reduces them to symptoms. But if pathographers make them worse, biographers idealise them. He saw biographers as fixated on their heroes and that people who read and write biography are people who’ve never grown up. They are addicted to their own pasts in the guise of giving us other people. Freud was threatened by the idea that he might be a subject. He thought that truth telling can only be done by the subject himself through free association.
All three, Emerson, Proust and Freud want us to be suspicious about biography, but ultimately this is very revealing of their own fears and wants.
The podcast will be available shortly.
Ian Bostridge’s wonderful lecture and performance of extracts from Winterreise encompassed biography, autobiography and history. Ian began by reflecting on whether his book has influenced the way he sings the work and whether this is a valid or problematic pursuit: should the music speak for itself?
Though Ian’s own first interest was in science, he eventually became a historian, interested in the history of philosophy in science. This was a time in which the personal was not allowed into history: so one of the reasons he became a singer was the licence to talk about himself!
The question of the role of the singer in the performance is also a critical one. Some argue that the singer is there to transcend. The intrusion of the biographical into assessments of the composer are even more difficult: some suggest that biography cannot give deeper insights into the art. Yet as Ted Hughes said ‘as an imaginative writer, my only capital is my own life.’
Schubert formed part of a highly sociable group, who introduced his music to his friends on the guitar. The circle kept up to date with new developments – like the bicycle and the kaleidoscope – and a famous painting has been made idealising their friendship. One friend, Schober, however, has been viewed very critically. Schober took Schubert to the brother where he contracted syphilis: and when Schubert lay dying, he asked Schober to bring him a James Fenimore Cooper novel. He never came.
The Winterreise was originally performed for this group of friends and they disliked it! But it was unpromising material, perhaps: a man wanders off into the snow to pick over his feelings of disappointed love. There is a lack of narrative beyond the narrative of the music itself.
Schubert is the first canonical composer to have made a living without a patron. He lived a bohemian lifestyle and made money but was very insecure. Becoming a musician was still disreputable. His work was written with an awareness of his own prognosis. Schubert has been interpreted as a ‘simple’ composer, but in truth his work has a profound complexity, and a recording of Winterreise does not convey what the music is about: it needs to be embodied.
The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing started off this term with a fascinating talk by Lucasta Miller on the elusive life of Letitia Landon. More commonly known by her initials LEL, this ‘female Byron’ was a high-profile figure in the literary coteries of 1820s and 1830s London. In spite of being one of the leading writers of her time, after her mysterious death in West Africa in 1838 she was largely forgotten. As Miller revived the shadowy life of this deeply self-aware poet, she also gave an account of the biographical challenges inherent in such a project.
Many marginal figures present a problem for the biographer who cannot find enough material to give a full account of a life. In Landon’s case, however, a plethora of source material could serve to overwhelm and misguide: there were numerous biographies written about Landon after her death, her poetry is full of the seemingly confessional first person pronoun, and the details of her life often appear consciously constructed to deceive. Miller was not in the least consoled by the fact that Landon’s first biographer had slit his throat. Faced with such sources, it did not take Miller long to realise that ‘nothing is what it seems in her world’. Landon’s sexual life was particularly mysterious. Miller described how a man claimed to be her direct descendent in spite of the fact that she was not known to have given birth to any children. This revelation led to the discovery that Landon had in fact had three clandestine children probably with William Jerdan, the editor of the Literary Gazette who mentored Landon and became her lover. Both editor and poet, Miller noted, were responsible for creating the mysterious LEL. They built Landon’s reputation based on both her innocence and experience. This campaign of mixed messages was designed to keep the reader ‘in a permanent state of frustrated arousal’. After two and a half years of publishing semi-anonymous verse in the Literary Gazette, Landon published her first volume of verse. This thrust her into London’s literary scene, where she walked a fine line between ‘celebrity and notoriety’.
Miller spent the second part of her talk going through several portraits of Landon, illustrating how this highly constructed self-image evolved. The first portrait showed a pretty youth with a ‘calculated ingénue air’. Miller described it as a feminine mascarade, consciously trying to portray a female Don Juan, with a smile open enough for the viewer to glimpse her teeth, a characteristic of portraits of actresses and fallen women. The second portrait was consciously designed to emphasise Landon’s innocence. It was painted when a Sunday Times exposé gave an account of a chairwoman who witnessed Landon and Jerdan together while his wife and children were away. Miller noted how the literary circle was invested in her innocence, since their respectability depended on the company that they kept. The third portrait was more mysterious, depicting Landon with a turban which both emphasised her association with Byron and connected her to a tradition of female intellectuals. Miller believed that this portrait was conceived together with one of her poems, but publication had to be delayed when she was pregnant with her first child. Miller also showed us some cartoons drawn by Daniel Maclise. These were published in a series of semi-satirical drawings of contemporary writers in Fraser’s Magazine that Miller felt summed up the slipperiness of literary culture in the 1830s. In one of them Landon is drawn with unfeasible girlishness (dove like eyes, small hands, tiny hips). Although Landon had lost her reputation by 1833, she continued to perform a mascarade of female vulnerability. Miller pointed out how Landon was losing control over her own image and feared another exposé would destroy her. A second cartoon depicted her as a sexy equestrian, with a groom – standing in for all men – ogling her from behind the horse’s peachy buttocks, which seem to connect Landon with the animal.
Landon’s life ended unhappily. Jerdan finally left his wife when Landon was in her 30s, only to marry a teenager instead. Although she had a reputation as a highly commercial writer, it is unclear that she made much money at all. Accounts from the Literary Gazette show she was not paid for her work, even though it was on the back of her fame that the magazine got established as the leading literary magazine of the period. As times changed, LEL found there was no room for her among Victorian sensibilities. She was therefore sent away to Africa and was soon found dead with a bottle of prussic acid in her hand. Miller ended with a final private picture by Maclise that showed a woman who was not an object of desire. There are shadows under her eyes, the result of a life-style that meant late nights, drinking and drug addiction. Miller concluded that the real and imagined selves destroyed Landon, and long after her death, they continue to tease us.
The 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:
Dr Katherine Collins was a delegate attending Silence in the Archives on 7th November. She has kindly given us permission to reproduce her response to the day. Katherine is on twitter @aliceinacademia.
Are we silence proof?
I said sometimes
I hear my voice
And it’s been here
Silent All These Years
The interior of Wolfson College is a concoction of natural materials: vivid green grass visible through the windows, slate and stone, wood old and new (and, apparently, the best toilets in the university). I had come to Oxford for Silence in the Archives, to learn about censorship and suppression in women’s life writing in the long nineteenth century. A strange choice of conference perhaps, for a social researcher more typically found in her native habitat of critical ethnography, working with marginalised and excluded groups of people. So, why was I there?
I left home in the sort of dark early morning silence where headlights make the world crinkle its eyes at the intruding brightness. By the time I reached the Cotswolds the streetlights were off but the wind wasn’t, trees stirring the sky with the tips of their branches, whipping up an orange snowstorm across the fields. But my journey towards the study of silence began many months before that blustery morning in early November. In my doctoral thesis, I had written about the ways in which participatory research methods, conceived by activists and radicals as a political methodology of empowerment, are being adopted (co-opted, really) by local government and health services to change people’s behaviour. The context was two deprived neighbourhoods, the behaviour risky drinking. I wrote about the loneliness of young mothers gulping wine at lunchtime, about the need to hide the bruises of alcohol-fuelled domestic violence, and women’s determination to keep families together under a protective blanket of silence.
But there’s something missing in the books and articles I’ve read about the origins of participatory methods of enquiry. These methods are founded in conscientização, or critical consciousness: the process whereby people wake up to the political, socioeconomic and cultural contradictions that work together, externally and internally, to oppress them (Ledwith, 2011). It involves techniques like culture circles: discussion groups based on participants’ lived experiences. Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the women’s liberation movement will be hearing some bells ringing right about now, and engraved on those bells will be the words ‘consciousness raising’. And yet, Freire, Horton, Gramsci, Nyerere, Ghandi – radical males – are given the credit for the innovations that led to participatory enquiry. bell hooks is thrown some crumbs in these accounts, for her innovations in feminist pedagogy.
That’s a very specific example of a very specific silence, but what is fascinating and frustrating in equal measure is that, much as Elaine Bailey argued so eloquently of the poet Matilda Betham, the radical women in 1970s New York knew that this silencing was happening. Like Betham, ruefully they watched the spaces appear as they were rubbed away from their work:
“Shulamith Firestone, in the women’s liberation movement’s first theoretical journal Notes From The First Year, described and wrote about the process of the feminists in general and the radicals in particular being written out of the history of the last century and we ourselves almost immediately began to experience this invisibility happening to us even as we were there. The more successful the radical, feminist women became, the more widespread our slogans and ideas, the more invisible we got – even as what we produced was becoming visible” (Sarachild, 1976, p. 13).
It seems women may face a stark choice: on the one hand speak and write radical words and risk suppression, erasure, absence. Face punishment like Betham, who was once incarcerated for insanity; or Germaine Greer who has met accusations of bigotry and rhetorical violence recently, and been dismissed as old, irrelevant, rigid and authoritarian in editorial and on social media. On the other hand, we can censor and sanitise our radicalism, and be remembered through a rosy lens of male approval. As Bailey pointed out, her calm, musical voice in stark counterpoint to the humming, floodlit intensity of the lightbulb moment this represented for me: men’s silence ensures their continued grasp on power. But women’s silence is just… silence.
Feeling silenced as an individual and a scholar can be hard to talk about (take a moment to appreciate the irony). It feels like paranoia verging on narcissism. I’m not silenced; I just don’t say anything worth listening to, don’t write anything worth noticing. But the more I explore this topic of women’s erasure across disciplines, the more silence I find. In 200 years, when another group of scholars gather in Wolfson College on a rainy autumn day, I can’t help but wonder about our contemporaries: active, curious, creative, radical female scholars, writers, performers, composers, and poets, prolific as the falling leaves… today. How many of us will be, as Karen Hunt said in her keynote, “hidden beneath the noise”.
Are we silence proof?
Harvey, J. (1999). Civilized oppression. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Ledwith, M. (2011). Community development: A critical approach. Bristol: Policy Press.
Sarachild, K. (1976) “The Power of History” in Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement (ed) Feminist Revolution. New York: Random House.
Thank you to Bethany Sagar-Fenton and Millie Slavidou, who offered constructive suggestions on the first draft and whose contribution should not be silent.
On 7th November, OCLW welcomed scholars from around the globe to our much anticipated conference, Silence in the Archives. This conference was designed to bring to life ways in which women’s life writing was censored or suppressed in the long nineteenth century, whether by the self or others, what those silences meant, and how they might speak to us today.
Our two keynote speakers were obvious highlights. Karen Hunt, of Keele University, spoke about silence – and rumours and gossip – in the representation and self-representation of Dora Montefiore: a ‘difficult woman’. Involved with a married man – an ‘intellectual soul friendship’ she claimed, though the scandal-mongers drew different conclusions – there was much chatter and little silence at the time, as private letters were made public, privileged communications were dragged into a court case, and the whole thing written up in the press. Montefiore was moved to defend herself in a powerfully emotional letter to Keir Hardie, expressing her disappointment at ‘sliding scales of morality’ among socialists. Yet in her autobiography, the entire episode was completely ignored. Hunt suggested that in working on women’s lives, scholars must take care to work around the silences without creating ‘straw women.’
Our evening keynote speaker was Janet Todd, departing president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Her topic was the biographies of Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft by their relations: nephew Austen-Leigh and husband Godwin. Both, Todd suggested, were writing autobiographies as much as biographies. They took on the role of ‘keepers of the flame’ but prioritised male figures in their stories and their own particular roles. Godwin was successful in personalising the feminist cause, but in his over-frank candour he made it impossible for other women to take Wollstonecraft as a role model. Austen-Leigh praised his aunt’s femininity. Godwin rejected Wollstonecraft the polemicist, criticising her writing as too masculine; Austen-Leigh rejects Austen the professional writer. Both wrote within the ideological confines of their cultural moment: Godwin emphasising sensibility; Austen-Leigh stressing sweetness. But neither engaged with or analysed the work. Godwin’s changes made Wollstonecraft less exceptional: the woman who had so trenchantly critiqued gender was situated firmly within it. Austen-Leigh did encourage a new generation of readers: he was the first of many men to try and rescue ‘dear Aunt Jane.’ Both were hugely influential biographies, but as Todd said, ‘happily neither had the last word on their subject.’
In between we were treated to a series of diverse and intellectually challenging papers: some engaged in the recovery of forgotten figures; some taking fresh perspectives on well-established figures. Our first panel of the day confronted issues of representation, reputation and manipulation. We were introduced to the ‘hostage letter’ by Catherine Delafield in her talk on the correspondences of Austen and Burney; the ‘ghost manuscript’ by Sonia Di Loreto, exploring the post-humous legacy of Margaret Fuller Ossoli; and the ‘White Queen’ image of Mary Margaret Slessor, so at odds with her Victorian heroine persona, by Baptiste Moniez. A concurrent panel focused on silencing poetic voices was led by Elaine Bailey, whose paper on Mathilda Betham revealed the empowering, if dangerous, capability of poetry for women writers as a tool against oppression; Jordan Lavers discussed the vital task of investigating beyond established critical representations, particularly in the case of Romantic poet Karoline von Gunderrode; and Mary Breen unravelled the public and private discrepancies in the suppressed archive of Mary Tighe, detailing how newly discovered manuscripts prompt fresh evaluations.
In a panel on politics and conflicts, Helen Mathers explored Josephine Butler’s complex and contradictory attitudes to autobiography and biography; and Stephenie Woolterton drew a tentative trail between suggestive archival clues and family traditions about a link between William Pitt the Younger and some servant girls within his household. Another panel looked at women involved with public life through theatre and the arts. Kate Newey led the discussion with her comparison of the archival remnants of Fanny Kemble and Constance Beerbohm, probing the ethical limitations of what researchers confront in the archive; Natalia Yakubova looked at the skewed representation of Polish actress Irena Solska through public censorship; and Paula Higgins spoke on the challenges facing talented women composers through familial suppression by investigating the case of siblings Fanny Hensel and Felix Mendelssohn.
In a fantastic session on the private (and not-so-private) thoughts contained within diaries, Kathryn Gleadle brought to life the lively, self-conscious and subversive Eva Knatchbull-Hugesson, elaborating on how her extraordinary diary might open up new perspectives on juvenile agency. Rhea Sookdeosingh analysed how women spoke about their complex relationship with food without a cultural discourse; while Lucy Ella Rose explored how women used diaries as a form of dissent by discussing her recent transcription of Mary Watt’s journal.
Our next panel brilliantly confronted some of tactical interventions made by women on their own archival records. Susan Civale discussed the ellipses in Mary Robinson’s memoir, rereading omissions as a strategic method of self-representation; Elizabeth Denlinger spoke on the potentially fabricated letters of Claire Clairmont, which could be read as autobiographical correctives rather than authoritative records; and Ceylan Kosker unravelled the coded meaning within the existing archival fragments of Violet Fane through a comparison of her multi-layered autobiographical projects.
The final panel discussed how women confronted and understood mortality. Wendy Jones discussed Mrs Birkbeck’s album as a form of life-writing; Sophie Coloumbeau described Hester Thrale Piozzi’s fragmented attempts to write her own life; and Joetta Harty suggested how two parents movingly wrote and rewrote their experiences of an exceptional child’s untimely demise. The parallel final panel investigated documentations of displacement in women’s archives. Molly Mann grappled with the mediation of the male-authored captivity narratives of Olive Oatman and Susannah Willard Johnson; Carrie Crockett presented her methods for assembling a fragmented archive based on the undocumented women of the Sakhalin Island penal colony; and Lorraine Paterson traced the paper trail of exilic experience in Algeria, revealing the gender transformation of one Vietnamese woman made possible by her expatriation.
Our aim throughout the conference was to overcome the challenges of silence by promoting discussions which would challenge the boundaries of period, genre and discipline. We were delighted by the positive atmosphere and the many exciting conversations and would love to hear of any future research avenues or collaborations which may develop.
We are grateful to Janet Todd, Karen Hunt, Kathryn Gleadle, Laura Marcus and all our chairs, speakers and delegates for their contributions to this very successful day. We also thank the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities and the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies for their generous sponsorship.
Lyndsey Jenkins (OCLW DPhil Scholar) and Alexis Wolf (PhD candidate, Birkbeck University)
In a fascinating talk, Clare Broome Saunders introduced friends of OCLW to Louisa Stuart Costello: poet, travel writer, artist, historian, medievalist and biographer. Across her long life, she exploited her skills as a writer across genres and had an acute grape of reading trends and publishing markets. In her time she was extremely well-connected and had a strong critical reputation. But she was forgotten in the modern period: her image as a ‘poetess’ jarred with the changing times and Stuart Costello fell out of fashion. In the 1990s her poetry was rediscovered, and there has also been some academic interest in her travel writing, but both of these only give a snapshot of her extraordinary breath and range.
Louisa Stuart Costello was born in Middlesex to an Irish father. He was in the army and died in the Napoleonic Wars, possibly after changing sides. Thereafter she was the family breadwinner, aged only fifteen, and put her brother through Sandhurst. Her mother, Elizabeth Totridge, wrote a novel which reads like a plea for female education and possibly explains Louisa’s breath of reading and grasp of languages. Her first job was copying manuscripts in Paris, which gave her a lifelong passion for medievalism.
Her first book of poetry was published in 1815 when she was only sixteen. More books followed, which earned her the patronage of Francis Burdett and Walter Scott. By 1825, one critic said that she was revitalising poetry after the death of Byron. She was savvy and knew how to make money, publishing her work in periodicals, and writing reviews which enabled her to mention her own poems. In 1829 she wrote the first 19th century version of the Lady of Shalott, heavily influenced by medievalism. In her version, the Lady is mistress of her own space and chooses to die.
Louisa Stuart Costello translated and illustrated French poetry, reintroducing forgotten poems into English. Though this was a work of serious scholarship, critics focused primarily on the pretty pictures. She switched genre as poetry began to fall out of favour, and became part of the mid-nineteenth century boom in travel and travel writing. Her travel writing encompassed an extraordinary range of styles: from guides to sights, to practical advice, to masculine subjects women were not supposed to engage with. From the 1840s she began to write novels: primarily historical novels which drew on her extensive scholarship, but also a contemporary story which used her travel experiences.
She also capitalised on the genre of life writing: acceptable for women where history was not, writing both literary and historical biographies. Her masterpiece, published in 1850, was The Lay of the Stork, an analogy of the catastrophic Crimean War, again drawing on medieval allusions to suggest that women should have a role in public and political life.
After her mother died in 1846 and her brother in 1865 she moved to France, but returned to England in 1869. She died shortly afterwards of cancer of the mouth, caused by her habit of sucking her paintbrushes. Among her artworks is a miniature of Queen Victoria on her accession.
Louisa Stuart Costello was not only a gifted writer and exceptional scholar but also an extremely professional woman. She had a thorough understanding of the literary marketplace and was confident in switching genres in order to capitalise on new trends. Clare Broome Saunders gave a thoroughly engaging presentation which more than did justice to this multi-talented 19th century author.
Louisa Stuart Costello: A Nineteenth Century Writing Life is available now.
Caroline Criado-Perez opened her event at the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing by reading from her book Do It Like a Woman. The powerful excerpt focused on the stories of female poets living and writing in Afghanistan. Caroline spoke of the necessity of poetry, how women engaged with and subverted Pashtun poetic traditions, and the obstacles women had to overcome to participate: one setting herself on fire in a desperate protest.
Caroline and OCLW’s Rachel Hewitt began the question and answer session by discussing the global picture presented in the book. Caroline was keen to emphasise the international feminist movement because ‘patriarchy isn’t parochial’ and many of the problems facing women today, from female genital mutilation to slut shaming, exist on a continuum, both attempts to suppress female sexuality albeit on a different scale. She also noted that in the 21st century feminism can be a truly global movement, through the internet: this means women can forge links around the world, think outside their own experience and create a more dynamic movement, with a wider reach. She gave the example of a recent conference bringing together women from Syria and Bosnia, so that the Bosnian women could share their experiences of rebuilding society after a traumatic war in which rape had been used as a weapon of war and then women had been excluded from the peace process. Caroline stated that the image of the tapestry had been used on the cover to reflect Liz Kelly’s quote that ‘every woman brings their own thread’. Feminism, she said, can not only reflect the very different experiences of different women: it is better and stronger for not being homogenous.
The next issue discussed was whether western women can really be said to be oppressed. Caroline highlighted numerous statistics on violence against women, sexual violence, equal pay and even FGM to draw attention to the breadth of issues facing women in the UK today. Caroline then reflected on the role of emotion in feminist politics. It’s a fine line to walk: breaking women out of a box of stereotypical femininity, without suggesting that femininity is inferior, or even that emotions are inherently female. Women expressing emotion are conforming to gendered norms, but in doing so, they are easily dismissed. Caroline expressed the difficulties she’d faced in her own experience: some suggesting that she wasn’t upset enough, others that she was ‘crying all the way to the bank’ and others saying that if she did crack, she was simply being an overemotional, hysterical woman. The Crown Prosecution Service even refused to prosecute one individual who was harassing her, because she hadn’t appeared concerned enough on television, so he couldn’t be expected to know that his behaviour was affecting her. One of the women in her book, the explorer Felicity Ashton, deals with this issue every day: she has to put up with many preconceptions about what she can and can’t do, but also states that whether she cries or not shouldn’t take away from her achievements (and men around her also cry!)
Free speech, especially in universities, came up as a particularly topical issue. Caroline recognises that proposed restrictions on free speech can be well intentioned, arising from a desire to create more spaces for other people to speak. But what is ‘offensive’ and what makes people ‘uncomfortable’ are very subjective calls: who gets to decide that? Caroline argued that it is far better to engage, argue and demonstrate why the opposing view is wrong. She also suggested restrictions on free speech gives fuel to the fire of people like Nigel Farage, who are able to present themselves as the silenced and oppressed voice of the majority, when they are anything but. Staying with current issues on campuses, Caroline and Rachel discussed how feminism can reach beyond academia; again, Caroline suggested the internet has been an incredibly powerful tool. It has taken away the gatekeeping function of traditional publishing and enables access and participation (through, for example, the growth of online petitioning). Online feminism can be fractious but it can also be fantastic.
Finally Caroline reflected on whether the process of writing the book had changed her feminism. As well as making her better informed, it had also reshaped the way she campaigns: it’s not just about highlighting problems, but also giving people solutions, inspiring them and offering hope.
For the latest in our series looking back at some of our most interesting podcasts, we aren’t looking back very far at all: in fact, this is the most recent recording, but it is both extraordinary and unique. Victoria Van Hyning has worked for several years on making this recording of Anne Sexton’s last reading available: here she plays the recording and leads a discussion with a panel of poets and critics. Those unfamiliar with the power and impact of Sexton’s voice will find a great deal to enjoy and reflect on.
Stella Tillyard, biographer, historian and novelist, came to OCLW as part of our earliest Weinrebe series in life writing, which explored the idea of portraiture. Trained in the visual arts, Stella Tillyard was the ideal speaker to round off this series, and she spoke with reference to eighteenth century writing and pictures.
The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, together with The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities and the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies is sponsoring a conference at Wolfson College called ‘Silence in the Archives: Censorship and Suppression in Women’s Life Writing in the Long Nineteenth Century’ to which all are warmly invited. The full programme is available now.
Registration is open and can be booked here through Oxford’s University Stores.
Booking before 5th September entitles you to the early bird rates of £20 for the unwaged and £30 for the waged, which includes pastries during registration, tea and coffee breaks, lunch, two keynote lectures and a wine reception.
There is also the option to attend only the evening keynote lecture and wine reception for £5. Professor Janet Todd will be speaking on ‘Male memory, female subject: the case of Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft’. This can also be booked through the University Stores.
Please email email@example.com and not OCLW directly with any questions.
Paula Byrne is one of the UK’s most prolific and successful biographers, with critically acclaimed and best selling lives of Mary Robinson, Evelyn Waugh and Dido Belle. In 2013, she visited OCLW on the publication day of her book on Jane Austen, an innovative exploration of the objects which mattered to Austen. More podcasts on the lives of objects can be found across our archive.
For our next look back, listen back, we return to a former Weinrebe series on Writing the Self, exploring how the self is revealed and concealed in life writing. Publishing in a wide ranges of genres, Blake Morrison is perhaps best known for And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Things My Mother Never Told Me. In this talk he articulates the myriad and conflicting motives for confession and the contemporary memoir.
Need something to listen to on your commute, at home, or just for fun? Over the summer, we’ll be revisiting some of OCLW’s most successful and popular talks by reposting the event podcasts. Many of our events are recorded, so you don’t have to miss out on our fantastic speakers – even if you live on the other side of the world.
The first lecture we’ll be revisiting was by Kathryn Hughes, author of biographies of Isabella Beeton, and George Eliot, who spoke on Eliot’s milk churn, exploring how the object and the body interact, and how that story is written – or unwritten – in her biography. This lecture came out of our very successful conference on The Lives of Objects and a number of other associated talks are available: why not check them out?
The Centre recently hosted an extraordinary and unique event: an opportunity to hear the tapes of Anne Sexton’s last public reading, hosted at Goucher College four days before her seat in 1974. Thirty years later, these tapes were rediscovered, entirely degraded, and careful work has been done to transfer them to digital format.
This event was organised and led by Victoria Van Hyning, herself a graduate of Goucher College and now a post-doctoral fellow at Oxford. Van Hyning began the evening by introducing Sexton’s life and work. Sexton began writing poetry as a response to mental illness, probably postpartum depression, which led her to be institutionalised as a young wife and mother. Her therapist encouraged her to write as a way of understanding and coping with her situation, and she quickly become part of the literary scene in Boston in the late 1950s, first studying under John Holmes, and then Robert Lowell, where she became friends with Sylvia Plath. Her poetry is first person confessional and autobiographical, covering themes such as sex, love and anguish, and appealed to many while also appalling some. Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and was well known as a performer and entertainer as well as a poet, drawing inspiration from Dylan and Joplin. However, she could be ambivalent about performance and gave them up intermittently, alarmed at the ‘freak show’ aspect of public readings and arguing that she wanted to be a priest or prophet as much as a performer.
While it is easy to focus on the darkness and suicidal imagery of some of her poetry, Van Hyning cautioned against hearing the tapes as an intentional last reading, drawing attention to the human and sensuality in her poems. In the seven months before her death, Sexton had made two other suicide attempts, but had also undertaken twelve public readings, and there is nothing in the material to indicate Sexton never intended to perform again.
The reading began with Sexton quoting from JFK’s planned speech for his 1963 visit to Dallas: a speech which was never delivered because of his assassination. This was followed immediately by Her Kind with which Sexton always began her readings. Other poems chosen for this evening include The Little Peasant, Making a Living, and The Touch. This certainly was a performance, with Sexton commenting at one point ‘I’ve got to get my kicks too,’ smoking, and relishing the pronunciation of the repeated word ‘dingo-sweet’. Commenting on The Death Notebooks, Sexton alluded to Hemingway’s posthumous publications and suggesting that she had expected hers to be posthumous too; a bleak remark tempered by the aside that her dog had eaten the manuscript.
Van Hyning had assembled an impressive panel of speakers to respond to the readings. Jo Gill, a professor at Exeter, commented on the differences between Sexton’s formal recordings in the studio, and the theatricality of this event. Gill suggested that Sexton walked a narrow line between control and collapse. Erica McAlpine, from Keble College, commented that the performance was very stagey, making the work itself less intimate, but that Sexton’s approach to her readings invited new understandings and connotations of particular words and phrases. Leo Mercer, from Kellogg College, noted the differences between the spoken word and the word on the page, raising the broad question of which of these poetry ‘is’. He later reflected that when studying poetry, we are taught how to read and to analyse, but not how to listen: when perhaps the poet intended the poem to be heard.
McAlpine stated that she felt ‘annoyed’ with Sexton and Gill noted that Sexton’s friend Maxine Kumin also felt that Sexton ‘hammed it up’ too much in performance. Kumin was horrified by the person Sexton seemed to become on stage. Sexton’s ambivalence about performance was contrasted with Elizabeth Bishop’s reticence and refusal to participate in the circus of public readings. Sexton’s ambivalence about her position in the poetry world was also discussed: on the one hand, she wanted to be part of the scholarly world, with references to her editor and manuscript, and college performances; on the other hand, Sexton saw herself as part of a countercultural movement, and engaged in spectacle, particularly with her band.
There was some discussion of the sexuality of the event, again contrasting with Elizabeth Bishop, and whether this was a form of empowerment and self-assertion, a way of competing with other poets who were perhaps more intellectual and academic. This discussion was complicated by the fact that Gaucher College was then all-female and the audience would likely have been dominated by women.
Sexton’s biography recounts that she returned ‘triumphantly’ from this event, ‘regaling’ her students with tales of her success. Though metaphors of and allusions to death ran throughout Sexton’s readings, the reading did appear to end on a hopeful poem, and Sexton certainly did seem a vivid and vibrant presence, very much alive. As she herself commented, ‘I thought these poems woud be posthumous, but here I am.’
We have a busy and exciting programme of events coming up this term and very much hope you’ll be able to join us!
Unless otherwise stated, all events are open to all, free of charge, with no reservation required.
Thursday 7 May (Week 2), 5.30-7pm, Florey Room, Wolfson College:
Seminar: ‘Life-Writing Operations’. The speakers (OCLW visiting scholars) will present their current life-writing projects, and discuss the use of archives and memoirs in life-writing, and alternative methods of writing biographies.
John Bak: ‘Editing Tennessee Williams’ Ur-Memoirs’
Lorraine Paterson, ‘Global Exile: Tracing a Life of Deportation from French Indochina.’
Jennifer Cooke, ‘The New Audacity: Contemporary Women’s Life Writing and the Politics of Intimacy’
Thursday 14 May (Week 3), 5.30-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:
Reading & Seminar: Siddhartha Bose, ‘Memory as Imagination in a Globalised World’. Siddhartha will be reading from his books of poetry, Kalagora and Digital Monsoon, showing clips from his theatre work and film, as a way into exploring the relationship between memory, imagination and globalised environments. He will reflect on how the very idea of writing lives in the 21st century, of creatively using memory and imagination, are being renegotiated in radical ways in contemporary thought and aesthetic practice.
Saturday 16 May (Week 3), 10am-4.30pm (tbc), Haldane Room/PRD, Wolfson College:
Workshop: ‘Disputed Lives’. Led by Hermione Lee, Elleke Boehmer, Rebecca Abrams, Kate McLoughlin and Jacob Dahl, this full-day workshop will focus on the challenges contradictory accounts about their subjects’ lives pose to life-writers. £70 (£55 unwaged). For more details & to register please visit http://www.oxforduniversitystores.co.uk select ‘Oxford Centre for Life-Writing’ under Product Catalogue, & ‘Workshops’.
Friday 29 May 2015 (Week 5), 5.30-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:
Lecture: President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, renowned politician, diplomat, and former President of Latvia (1999-2007), will talk autobiographically about her life and career.
Tuesday 2 June (Week 6), 5.30-7pm, Buttery, Wolfson College:
Seminar & Reception: Lyndsey Jenkins, ‘The Hunger Games: Constance Lytton, Jane Warton and the Suffragettes’. OCLW DPhil scholar Lyndsey Jenkins will speak about her new book, Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette and Martyr, which tells the story of Constance Lytton, an unexpected but important militant suffragette in the Women’s Social and Political Union. The talk will be followed by a drinks reception, to which all are welcome.
Tuesday 9 June 2015 (Week 7), 5.30-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College:
Reading & Seminar: ‘Re-reading with Anne Sexton’. Victoria van Hyning will introduce, play, and lead a discussion on poet Anne Sexton’s last public reading, delivered at Goucher Colleger just four days before her death in 1974. Participants in the seminar discussion: Jo Gill, Erica McAlpine, Leo Mercer.
Monday 15 June 2015 (Week 8), Haldane Room, Wolfson College:
Seminar: ‘The Author in the Medical Imagination’. The third of a series of seminars organised by Joanna Neilly (Wadham, Oxford) under the general theme of ‘The Author in the Popular Imagination’, features Ann Jefferson (New College, Oxford) with Geoffrey Wall (York) as Respondent. The seminar series is supported by OCLW and TORCH.
Tuesday 16 June 2015 (Week 8), 1-2pm, Haldane Room, Wolfson College:
Life-Writing Lunch Seminar: prize-winning British novelist and travel-writer Joanna Kavenna, author of The Ice Museum (2006), Inglorious (2007) and The Birth of Love (2010). Kavenna will talk about time, memory and the self. She’ll discuss individual experience and how we pass through different stages of life – the child, the teenager, the adult, perhaps the parent, later the elderly person – changing all the time. Yet, there is something continuous within this process of individual metamorphosis, otherwise we would cease to recognise ourselves; we would lapse into incoherence. How do we fashion our life stories? How do we fathom and describe the changing self? Free of charge. Please book online at www.oxforduniversitystores.co.uk (go to Product Catalogue, select Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, and this event is listed under seminars). A sandwich lunch will be provided.
The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW) and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) are offering TWO grants of £1000 each, available to post-graduate students in the Humanities Division at the University of Oxford, to organise conferences on any aspect of life-writing.
The grant is available to students on taught-course and research-based masters courses and DPhils, in any of the following Faculties: Classics; English Language & Literature; History; Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, or Phonetics Laboratory; Medieval and Modern Languages; Music; Oriental Studies; Philosophy; Rothermere American Institute; Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art; Theology and Religion; and the Voltaire Foundation. Re-applications from students who have applied in the past (on the same or different topics) are welcome.
Life-Writing’ may be interpreted in the broadest terms. Conferences may be proposed on related themes including (but not limited to) biography and autobiography, memoir, interviews, journals, letters and correspondence, auto/biographical form, methodology, criticism and history, and on thematic relationships between life-writing and the humanities, such as ‘life-writing and war’. For more information about life-writing, and about the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, please see OCLW’s website: www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing. For more information about The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, please see TORCH’s website: http://www.torch.ox.ac.uk.
Applicants should propose a one-day conference, to be held at TORCH’s premises in the Radcliffe Humanities Building, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, with some aspect of the conference (eg. keynote lecture, workshop, drinks reception, film showing, dinner) to take place at OCLW in Wolfson College. (The conference could take place entirely at Wolfson College, but this will likely incur greater costs, which should be researched prior to submission of the application with Wolfson’s Events Office, firstname.lastname@example.org). The conference should take place on Saturdays during full term, or any day outside full term (except Sundays), between the start of Trinity Term 2015 and the end of Michaelmas Term 2015. Applicants will be responsible for all administrative aspects of the conference, including formulating the theme and intellectual rationale, devising the format (invited speakers or open call for papers), inviting speakers and/or issuing a Call for Papers, organising the schedule, and managing the budget, promotion and advertising. OCLW will provide limited support, such as setting up a webpage, online registration and payment, and some assistance with publicity. Please note that all applicants must be formally registered as postgraduate students on the proposed date of the conference itself.
Applications should be submitted by 5pm on Monday 5th January 2015. Applicants should email a completed application form, together with the specified supporting materials and a covering letter, to Dr Christos Hadjiyiannis (Maternity Leave Cover Administrator at OCLW: email@example.com). Applicants will be notified of the outcome by Tuesday 20 January 2015. Any queries should be directed to Dr Hadjiyiannis.
Click here to open the application form OCLW and TORCH application
We are pleased to announce all our events from Michaelmas Term, we have a lot of exciting things on offer. They are all detailed below and we hope to see you all there. Please note that the Workshop in Week 3 and our Life Writing Lunch in Week 8 both require booking so use the links provided to avoid disappointment.
Here’s to a successful term
Oxford Centre for Life-Writing: Events: Michaelmas Term 2014
Unless otherwise stated, all events are open to all, free of charge, with no reservation required.
14 October (Week 1), 5.30-7pm, Haldane Room, Wolfson College
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 will be talking about her biographical research on the novelist Jean Rhys, whose works include Good Morning, Midnight and Wide Sargasso Sea.
21 October (Week 2), 5.30-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, ‘The Poet Who Doesn’t Know: Gabriele D’Annunzio’. British cultural historian and biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett will be delivering a lecture on her award-winning biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio, The Pike. The Pike tells the story of the poet-turned-dictator who wrote ‘One must make one’s life as one makes a work of art’. It won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Costa Biography Award and the Duff Cooper Prize. Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s previous books are Cleopatra and Heroes.
1 November (Week 3), 9am-4.15pm, Haldane/Florey Rooms, Wolfson College
OCLW will hold a full-day Workshop on ‘Quest for Materials: Life-Writing Challenges’. Led by Hermione Lee, Elleke Boehmer, Lyndall Gordon, and Clare Morgan, this workshop will focus on the challenges that life-writers face in finding, dealing with, selecting, and using materials. It is intended for postgraduate students working in life-writing as well as professional and amateur life-writers, irrespective of the stage of their research. Among other issues, the Workshop will deal with how materials and data shapes the writing; how to work with archives (and archivists); and what to make of ‘gaps’ or contradictory clues. To apply, please follow the link on https://www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing/events
4 November (Week 4), 5.30-7pm, Leonard Wolfson Auditorium, Wolfson College
Miranda Seymour, ‘The Pity of War: The Longer View of England and Germany’. Literary critic, novelist and biographer Miranda Seymour will be talking about her recent book Noble Endeavours: The Life of Two Countries, England and Germany, in Many Stories. The Anglo-German relationship is explored through the lives of kings, painters, soldiers, charlatans and saints.
11 November (Week 5), 7.30-9pm, Haldane Room, Wolfson College
Rosie and Ellie Lavan, Wild Laughter. Albert James, D’Oyly Carte stage clown, is brought back to life in an innovative performance devised by his great-granddaughters, which fuses biography and cultural history. Join us for an after-dinner performance over wine.
14 November (Week 5), 5.30pm, Haldane Room, Wolfson College, EXTERNAL
The first of two seminars organised by Joanna Neilly (Wadham, Oxford) on The Author in the Popular Imagination, features Tom Mole (Reader in English Literature and Director of the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh) on memorials to Romantic writers in nineteenth-century Britain, and Sandra Mayer (Erwin Schrödinger Research Fellow, Vienna) on the connections between Benjamin Disraeli’s public personae as literary celebrity and celebrity politician. The seminar series is supported by TORCH and OCLW, and is one of many collaborative projects between OCLW and TORCH.
26 November (Week 7), 2-6pm, Buttery, Wolfson College, EXTERNAL
‘Life Times: Temporality and Narrative Seminar’, organised by Lee-Von Kim (Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Autobiography in Comparative Perspective in the
Faculty of Medieval & Modern Languages and Faculty of English Language & Literature, University of Oxford). Temporality is a central preoccupation of contemporary narrative, from literary fiction to life-writing to cinema. This seminar will consider how time and its relationship to narrative, self-representation and memory are explored in writing. Please direct all queries to Dr Lee-Von Kim, firstname.lastname@example.org
27 November (Week 7), 5.30-7pm, Haldane Room, Wolfson College
‘Reclamations: Writing on the Lives of Shirley Hazzard and Hannah Lynch’. This informal seminar features Brigitta Olubas, Associate Professor in English at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and a Visiting Scholar at OCLW from November-December 2014. Brigitta will be joined by Kathryn Laing (Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick) and Faith Binckes (Bath Spa) to discuss the lives, work, and reception of different women authors. Brigitta will be talking about her biographical research on the Australian author of fiction and non-fiction Shirley Hazzard, whose 1970 novel The Bay of Noon was shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize in 2010, and whose 2003 novel The Great Fire won the US National Book Award for Fiction. Shirley Hazzard is celebrated in Australia and the US, but is perhaps less known in other parts of the world. Kathryn Laing and Faith Binckes will be speaking on their experience of working on the neglected author Hannah Lynch. Kathryn’s paper is entitled ‘“I am an unexplained enigma. I live alone. I follow art”: Textual Traces, Literary Recoveries and the Irish writer, Hannah Lynch (1859-1904)’. Faith Binckes will be talking on ‘“What we no longer know we have forgotten”: Canonicity, Gender, and the Lives of the Obscure’.
2 December (Week 8), 1-2pm, Haldane Room, Wolfson College
Life-Writing Lunch Seminar: Michelle Kelly, ‘J. M. Coetzee, Autobiography, and Confession’. Michelle Kelly, Departmental Lecturer in World Literatures in English, at the University of Oxford, will discuss the relationship between J. M. Coetzee’s autobiographical writings and his career-long engagements with confessional forms in his fiction. The Life-Writing Lunch is a termly lunchtime seminar series, in which practising auto/biographers discuss their work in an informal, friendly setting, over a buffet sandwich lunch. There is no charge, but you must register well in advance, as these seminars often sell out. To register online, please go to http://www.oxforduniversitystores.co.uk/browse/extra_info.asp?compid=1&modid=1&deptid=244&catid=2263&prodid=9039
In The Art of Life, a debate hosted by the Institute of Art and Ideas, Wolfson College President and biographer Hermione Lee, director Stephen Frears and biographer Ray Monk consider the boundaries that lie between fact and fiction in biography. Discussing questions of responsibility to their subjects, the making of myth and how to shape a life, they explore whether biographers are ever really able to create a ‘definitive’ life of a person.
The video can be viewed here: http://iai.tv/video/the-art-of-life