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.
The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing started off this term with a fascinating talk by Lucasta Miller on the elusive life of Letitia Landon. More commonly known by her initials LEL, this ‘female Byron’ was a high-profile figure in the literary coteries of 1820s and 1830s London. In spite of being one of the leading writers of her time, after her mysterious death in West Africa in 1838 she was largely forgotten. As Miller revived the shadowy life of this deeply self-aware poet, she also gave an account of the biographical challenges inherent in such a project.
Many marginal figures present a problem for the biographer who cannot find enough material to give a full account of a life. In Landon’s case, however, a plethora of source material could serve to overwhelm and misguide: there were numerous biographies written about Landon after her death, her poetry is full of the seemingly confessional first person pronoun, and the details of her life often appear consciously constructed to deceive. Miller was not in the least consoled by the fact that Landon’s first biographer had slit his throat. Faced with such sources, it did not take Miller long to realise that ‘nothing is what it seems in her world’. Landon’s sexual life was particularly mysterious. Miller described how a man claimed to be her direct descendent in spite of the fact that she was not known to have given birth to any children. This revelation led to the discovery that Landon had in fact had three clandestine children probably with William Jerdan, the editor of the Literary Gazette who mentored Landon and became her lover. Both editor and poet, Miller noted, were responsible for creating the mysterious LEL. They built Landon’s reputation based on both her innocence and experience. This campaign of mixed messages was designed to keep the reader ‘in a permanent state of frustrated arousal’. After two and a half years of publishing semi-anonymous verse in the Literary Gazette, Landon published her first volume of verse. This thrust her into London’s literary scene, where she walked a fine line between ‘celebrity and notoriety’.
Miller spent the second part of her talk going through several portraits of Landon, illustrating how this highly constructed self-image evolved. The first portrait showed a pretty youth with a ‘calculated ingénue air’. Miller described it as a feminine mascarade, consciously trying to portray a female Don Juan, with a smile open enough for the viewer to glimpse her teeth, a characteristic of portraits of actresses and fallen women. The second portrait was consciously designed to emphasise Landon’s innocence. It was painted when a Sunday Times exposé gave an account of a chairwoman who witnessed Landon and Jerdan together while his wife and children were away. Miller noted how the literary circle was invested in her innocence, since their respectability depended on the company that they kept. The third portrait was more mysterious, depicting Landon with a turban which both emphasised her association with Byron and connected her to a tradition of female intellectuals. Miller believed that this portrait was conceived together with one of her poems, but publication had to be delayed when she was pregnant with her first child. Miller also showed us some cartoons drawn by Daniel Maclise. These were published in a series of semi-satirical drawings of contemporary writers in Fraser’s Magazine that Miller felt summed up the slipperiness of literary culture in the 1830s. In one of them Landon is drawn with unfeasible girlishness (dove like eyes, small hands, tiny hips). Although Landon had lost her reputation by 1833, she continued to perform a mascarade of female vulnerability. Miller pointed out how Landon was losing control over her own image and feared another exposé would destroy her. A second cartoon depicted her as a sexy equestrian, with a groom – standing in for all men – ogling her from behind the horse’s peachy buttocks, which seem to connect Landon with the animal.
Landon’s life ended unhappily. Jerdan finally left his wife when Landon was in her 30s, only to marry a teenager instead. Although she had a reputation as a highly commercial writer, it is unclear that she made much money at all. Accounts from the Literary Gazette show she was not paid for her work, even though it was on the back of her fame that the magazine got established as the leading literary magazine of the period. As times changed, LEL found there was no room for her among Victorian sensibilities. She was therefore sent away to Africa and was soon found dead with a bottle of prussic acid in her hand. Miller ended with a final private picture by Maclise that showed a woman who was not an object of desire. There are shadows under her eyes, the result of a life-style that meant late nights, drinking and drug addiction. Miller concluded that the real and imagined selves destroyed Landon, and long after her death, they continue to tease us.
The fields of life-writing and celebrity studies have separately gained traction in academia in recent years, but have seldom been explored together. With help from the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, the Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities and King’s College London, we organized a one-day conference exploring the intersections between these two fields. The conference, entitled ‘After-Image: Life-writing & Celebrity’, was held in Oxford on 19 September 2015, and organized by Oline Eaton (PhD candidate, King’s College London) and Nanette O’Brien (DPhil candidate, Wolfson College, Oxford).
As essential preparation for the conference, we spent a morning walking the hallowed halls of Madame Tussauds wax museum. We were initially disturbed by the uncanny representations of contemporary celebrities like Russell Brand and Kim Kardashian. We laughed in disbelief at how badly Emma Watson, Colin Firth, and George Clooney were captured. Among the bodies in the rooms of figures past and present, the evanescent and emotional quality of celebrity became a material reality for us.
We were also amazed by how hardy a material wax is and to see that Tussaud’s original 18th century figures of Voltaire and the French royal family survive today. Certain life stories endure like that, and life-writing plays a key role in their preservation. And yet, the connection between celebrity and life-writing has been under-explored. In celebrity studies, celebrities are more often considered as texts. And in life-writing the phenomenon of celebrity is often portrayed as an event rather than as an on-going part of an individual’s life-experience. Our aim in organizing ‘After-Image’ was to begin a dialogue exploring the deep connections between these two subjects, and stimulate discussion of them across a range of approaches, periods, and genres.
As Richard Dyer has suggested, celebrities become a part of ‘the coinage of everyday speech’. Historically, writing has been the primary means of this transfer, and it is through stories from the celebrity’s life that the celebrity becomes familiar to us. Below, we’ve loosely summarized and reflected on the papers from the conference. We hope this is just the beginning of the critical conversations about the intersection of life-writing and celebrity.
Celebrated and/or Reviled: Politics and Power
In his paper on Charles I, Benjamin Woolley suggested celebrity is a useful lens for thinking about biography, a genre that sits—sometimes quite uncomfortably— at the intersection of theory and life. Emily Bowles elaborated upon these tensions in her analysis of the changing rhetorical concept of ‘the Dickensian’, looking at how the name of Charles Dickens became a part of everyday speech and the various meanings his name has assumed in the 20th and 21st centuries. As both papers reveal, celebrities played an integral role in the everyday life of earlier centuries, exerting a power that inspired the way people thought and which moved them to act—whether by writing letters of admiration or founding a society in a celebrity’s name.
Authorial Voice and Aesthetic Creation
In a panel that examined the surface aesthetics of intimacy, clothing, image and self-fashioning, the speakers explored the effects of 20th century technologies—including photography, blogging and social media forms—on celebrity image. Christine Fouirnaies examined the authenticity of Gertrude Stein’s self-presentation through photographs, sculpture and paintings, comparing the ‘weightiness’ of the modernist celebrity with the concept of Stein as ‘a consumable avant-gardist’. Rod Rosenquist also explored the relationship between images of modernist writers, asking whether we should interpret their self-presentation in various states of undress as an authorial posture of self-fashioning. These themes intersected in Nicola Sayers’ talk about the celebrity image of contemporary style blogger Tavi Gevinson. Across the panel, it became clear that intimacy, imagination, image and vulnerability are significant aspects of contemporary celebrity and our idea of the normal.
Crafting the Narrative, Contesting the Narrative
Self-fashioning was a crucial theme for the Sitwells (Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell), explored by Deborah Longworth, as a literary family defined by fantasy, invention, decoration and a hatred of doctrine. This anti-doctrinal feeling resurfaced in Nanette O’Brien’s paper, which considered foreshadowed doom and neuroses in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. Following from this, focusing on ‘the Cult of Iris Murdoch’, Lucy Bolton explored the ways in which famous authors’ voices are appropriated in contemporary representations from biopics to Pinterest pages. The panel made a compelling case overall for the importance of self-fashioning to authors and how later generations appropriate these images and narratives.
National Paradox: Exceptionalism versus Decline
This panel explored the new heroic icons being projected in 20th century life and the role of the mass media in this projection. Tom Ellis’ paper considered Life magazine’s portrayals of Russian cosmonauts, Max Jones looked at accounts of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, and Oline Eaton contextualized Norman Mailer’s 1973 depiction of Marilyn Monroe. Despite what might appear to be a topical disconnect between the papers, all three were engaged in interrogations of the contemporary culture’s impact on the stories we tell and each examined how this shapes the telling. It’s a preoccupation that suggests the level of manufacture involved in celebrity stories but also the cultural usefulness of such tales, particularly in the 20th century and at the national level.
Roundtable: ‘Historical Re-evaluations of Celebrity in the 18th and 19th Centuries’
Sandra Mayer and Ruth Scobie chaired a lively roundtable on the historical origins of celebrity. The featured speakers were Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Jessica Goodman, Tom Mole, and Simon Morgan and they engaged in spirited debate about the definition of celebrity and its date of origin. Specifically, the roundtable considered what differentiates ‘fame’ from ‘celebrity’, and at what point did this differentiation begin. Ultimately, there wasn’t agreement on a specific starting date, but there was a consensus that the modern concept of ‘celebrity’ and a ‘culture of celebrity’ could not have existed prior to the rise of print media. Certain elements of celebrity were present in prior centuries, but they did not coalesce until the 18th century, as actresses and public figures increasingly became known for their personalities rather than the positions they held.
Andrew O’Hagan’s mid-day keynote, ‘Stealing Lives: Does Your Story Belong to You’, weighed some of the ethical questions surrounding writing the lives of famous people either as fiction or in profile. As O’Hagan noted, ‘life-writing starts from the assumption that lives are free to write about’. But a life being ‘free’ to write about is a difficult concept to quantify when it effects the living family and possibly also a living subject. Ultimately, however, O’Hagan emphasized that because the boundaries of life-writing and fiction are porous, the best life-writing depends on a kind of novelistic brio.
Rather than deferring to other people’s demands, O’Hagan argued, the writer must write the story that presents itself. As a coda, O’Hagan reflected that the writer pays a price for the lives he steals. Life-writers don’t just steal stories from other people; they steal time, energy and life from themselves by writing: the writing diminishes the writer over time.
In her evening keynote, entitled ‘Ghosting’, Sarah Churchwell suggested that the two fields are so connected that celebrity life-writing is a tautology. Because well-knownness is precondition of almost all biography, Churchwell persuasively argued, all life-writing is, by necessity, about celebrities. Churchwell sounded a call to arms for the restoration of pleasure to academic criticism, insisting on the necessity for creating different acts of homage and restoring the open relationship between biography and poetics as we think critically through pleasure.
Churchwell likened the biographer to a ghost-writer hunting for details in the archives. And in an example from her own research on F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Churchwell introduced us to the term pentimento: ‘a sign or trace of alteration in a literary or artistic work’. Churchwell walked us through a scenario in her own work in which a discovery of a ghostly trace in a notebook dramatically changed the story. The search for truth in the archives isn’t always going to pay off like this but, as Churchwell argued, biographical enterprise is about catching the ghosts of history.
The Oxford Centre for Life Writing had the pleasure to host one of its own DPhil scholars, Lyndsey Jenkins, who gave a presentation on Lady Constance Lytton, the subject of her new book Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette and Martyr.
In 1910 a working class suffragette by the name of Jane Warton was arrested for throwing rocks at an MP’s car, but the police who took her into custody did not know that Jane Warton was actually Lady Constance Lytton in disguise. Lyndsey captured her audience with an excerpt from Warton’s account of being force-fed in jail to put an end to her hunger strike. The testimony detailed how a tube was forced down her throat, how she was slapped and left covered in her own vomit as she had to listen how a friend endured the same procedure next to her. After experiencing this eight times, Warton’s true identity was discovered and she was promptly released from jail. Lyndsey explained that the fundamental question she had set out to answer was why a woman of Lytton’s position and privilege would knowingly choose to put herself in such a dramatic situation.
Lyndsey gave us a brief overview of Lytton’s ancestors in an attempt to identify what it could have been like to be a Lytton. Showcasing various prominent individuals from late Victorian and early Edwardian society, Lyndsey emphasised that the Lytton family had long been made up of strong personalities. Lytton, by contrast shy and awkward, was unsuited for the public and social life of her surroundings, turning instead to book reviewing and caring for her mother. When she did not marry, her life became essentially a private one. Lyndsey explained Lytton’s self-denial by informing us of her favourite ‘pass time’: cleaning the toilet. While outwardly she appeared the model of the dutiful Edwardian daughter, inwardly it seems unlikely that she experienced life in that way.
Lytton had her first encounter with suffragettes while on holiday, meeting Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Annie Kenney. While she sympathized with their cause, Lyndsey argued that she became a militant for three main reasons: to establish friendships, to develop a sense of purpose, and for the ‘total excitement’ of the experience. It was also a way to connect her private frustrations to a broader problem. But public life was a challenge since she did not like being looked at or being listened to. It is striking that, in spite of this, her public acts were often radical. There are accounts that on her first day at Holloway Prison she carved a ‘V’ for Votes for Women on her own body. Determined to go to prison and experience force feeding, Lytton came up with a fake name knowing that they would not let such a well-known individual as herself be subjected to that kind of procedure. Lyndsey noted how this experience was also deeply spiritual for Lytton, who once saw a vision of Christ encouraging her to continue with her work. Lyndsey argued that her constructed identity as Jane Warton helped her perform her new leadership role. The brutality of force feeding and the stress and exertion of her activism took a toll on Lytton’s health, suffering a heart attack and then a stroke. But even while confined to her bed, she kept on helping in any way she could.
In her presentation Lyndsey introduced us to a fascinating individual, offering accounts of her strength and determination. We will now have to turn to Lyndsey’s book to continue discovering the life of such an exemplary woman.
Below we have a summary of the Disraeli symposium at Oxford on 24 March 2015, organized by Sandra Mayer and Megan Kearney. The symposium was funded by TORCH Celebrity Research Network and the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. We hope you enjoy their conference report.
Exploring “The Many Lives of Benjamin Disraeli”: Symposium Report
It was a crisp morning in early spring when a group of Disraeli enthusiasts gathered at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities to take a fresh look at the many parallel (after)lives and personae of one of the most intriguing Victorian public figures. A set of brightly coloured primulas had been duly arranged on the speakers’ table as a suitable (even if over-optimistically spring-like) floral tribute to the symposium’s subject, whose life Oscar Wilde once described as “the most brilliant of paradoxes.” What Wilde appears to have had in mind were the myriad contradictions, tensions, and ambiguities of Disraeli’s life and work, many of them arising from the ‘strange mingling’ of novelist and politician, Byronic socialite and Jewish-born prophet-hero, pragmatist and visionary. The vast and multifarious panorama of Disraelian identities highlights the need for cross-disciplinary scholarly dialogue – a desideratum that was fully met by this workshop, which had started out as a research ‘blind date’ between the conference organisers, Sandra Mayer and Megan Kearney, at the Bodleian Library’s Special Collections. The initial onset of paranoia, born of an irrational fear of accidentally trespassing on someone else’s ‘research territory,’ quickly dissolved and developed into a mutually enriching dialogue and friendship between a literary scholar and an ecclesiastical historian.
Kindly supported by the TORCH Celebrity Research Network and The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, the symposium boasted an exciting programme. The three panels featured an impressive line-up of eminent Disraeli scholars with diverse disciplinary backgrounds in English Literature, History, Theology, Politics, and Art History. Their innovative and thought-provoking papers – some of which will shortly be available as podcasts – outlined new approaches to Disraeli’s life and work, adding yet another set of facets to his mercurial reputation. In their reassessment of his reception, fame, and legacy from a broad range of disciplinary perspectives, they allowed for further illuminating glimpses into Disraeli’s many lives.
The first panel was dedicated to the theme of “(Self-)Representations & Reception.” The papers that followed reflected on nuanced religious and political themes in Disraeli’s fiction, as well as how those themes have been read in the thorny historiography of Disraeli. Michael Flavin opened with a discussion of one of Disraeli’s least-known novels, Venetia (1837), and considered the manner in which the novel illuminates Disraeli’s position on class when read in the context of urban working class political organisation in the 1830s. Flavin also suggested that in Venetia, for the first time in Disraeli’s novel writing career, the narrative sympathy is weighted toward the expedient at the expense of the visionary. Flavin interpreted this as an interesting mood change in Disraeli’s thought, which rather suitably coincided with his first election to Parliament in 1837. Overall, Flavin showed that Venetia can be understood as useful political fable in dissecting the formation of Disraeli’s political ideology.
Jonathan Parry then led his audience into the next decade of Disraeli’s career when he considered “Tancred in Context.” Parry complicated the existing interpretations of Tancred (1847) as either a chaotic and confused novel, as an imperial novel that comprised fantasies of Eastern conquest, or as a novel indicative of Disraeli’s Jewish identity. Instead, Parry suggested that when placed in the context of the British political and religious activity in the Middle East in the 1840s, Tancred reveals Disraeli’s nuanced perception of religious multiplicity and his critique of the hubris of British evangelicals whose efforts at conversion in the Holy Land disregarded Jewish antiquity. Rather than a novel that imagines the triumphant union of East and West, Parry showed that through Tancred, Disraeli actually points to the impossibility of such a fusion.
Megan Kearney finished the session by delving into the many interpretations of Disraeli’s Judaism throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She argued that whilst twentieth-century historians regarded Disraeli’s Jewish expression as merely an expedient manoeuvre of self-fashioning, or as simply the belief that the Jews had exceptional racial qualities, Disraeli’s earliest historians – who were complicated Victorian religious figures themselves – were aware of the salience of Judaism to Disraeli. Kearney claimed that twentieth-century historical priorities allowed for the disappearance of Disraeli’s Judaism, but that Victorian attitudes to his religious position are instructive to our own understanding of how Disraeli can be situated in the religious and intellectual landscape of his time. This led to a dynamic discussion about the intellectual or religious connections that might be drawn between Disraeli and Carlyle, especially considering Carlyle’s classification of Islam and Judaism in On Heroes.
Fortified by an early sandwich lunch, speakers and audience reconvened for the afternoon’s first panel, dealing with the theme of Disraeli’s “Fame and Reputation.” All of the three papers cast a spotlight on three different aspects that shaped and fuelled Disraeli’s celebrity status: his unconventional marriage, his dual public persona of statesman-cum-novelist, and the performance of sexual ambiguity that informed the long tradition of caricature representations of Disraeli. Daisy Hay opened the session with some reflections on the process of working on her double biography Mr and Mrs Disraeli: A Strange Romance, recently published to great critical acclaim. In her talk, she drew attention to the remarkable ‘hidden histories’ of silent and forgotten female lives yielded by Mary Anne Disraeli’s phenomenally rich personal papers. Hay’s references to the tragic fate of social disgrace and ostracism suffered by some of these women served to throw into sharp relief the successful self-fashioning undertaken by the Disraelis, two seemingly ill-matched social outsiders of questionable respectability who repeatedly found themselves on the brink of financial disaster.
Sandra Mayer then explored Disraeli’s pre-eminence in Victorian public life from the perspective of Celebrity Studies, arguing that his position crucially relied on his deft and life-long migration between the literary and the political field as equally significant and interconnected arenas of self-fashioning and self-projection. She demonstrated how to his contemporaries the alliance of ‘Pegasus’ and ‘Carthorse,’ creative artist and pragmatic politician, represented a puzzling blurring of boundaries that contributed to the mercurial quality of his public image and thus fed processes of myth-making and celebrification. Disraeli’s novel Lothair (1870) and the contexts of its production and reception were presented as a case study highlighting the convertibility of the author’s ‘celebrity capital’ and his shrewd reaction to the growing pervasiveness of celebrity culture.
Early-nineteenth-century celebrity culture, as Dominic Janes subsequently showed in his intriguing paper, both encouraged and was fed by the performance of effeminate Byronic dandyism. He stressed the need to re-examine Punch’s feminised cartoon representations of Disraeli, which reused earlier stereotypical images of him as effete dandy and literary lion and often established a direct connection between effeminacy, social climbing, and radical social and moral transgressions. The panel subsequently gave rise to a vivid discussion about the use of concepts and categories such as ‘queerness’ and ‘celebrity’ in a historical context; the striking parallels between Disraeli and Oscar Wilde; and about how to resolve the tension between emphasising the idiosyncrasies of Disraeli’s career and connecting him to the broader political and socio-cultural currents and conventions of his day.
The day’s third and final panel, “Afterlives and Legacy,” was dedicated to the ‘practitioners’ voices.’ It provided fascinating insights into the questions and challenges faced by editors, archivists, and museum curators in their work of mediating Disraeli’s life and work to the general public and assisting scholars in their research. Michel Pharand – who had travelled from Kingston, Ontario, to attend the symposium – in his paper reflected on the process of collecting and annotating the excellent volumes of the Benjamin Disraeli Letters, a long-standing project of which he is now General Editor. In addition to describing the laborious and adventurous procedure of discovering new correspondence and letters over the years, Pharand’s account provided fascinating insights into how information about each letter was gathered and the minutiae of Disraeli’s daily life could be pieced together through his letter writing. It was noted how Pharand’s perspective differs from that of most Disraeli scholars: while they construct large, sweeping narratives of Disraeli’s thought, Pharand’s task is to reconstruct and understand Disraeli’s minute-by-minute life.
Helen Langley, formerly Modern Political Manuscripts curator at the Bodleian Library and now a historical consultant, expanded on this theme as she outlined the processes, considerations, and challenges involved in creating a major exhibition on Disraeli’s life and work. The Bodleian Library’s “Scenes from an Extraordinary Life,” its accompanying book, and an expanded online exhibition marked the bicentenary of Disraeli’s birth in 2004. Langley spoke of the curatorial challenges posed by what turned out to be a ‘snapshot approach’ to presenting Disraeli’s multifaceted life, primarily dictated by the availability of objects and materials as well as spatial limitations.
Finally, Robert Bandy, National Trust heritage manager at Disraeli’s former country estate, Hughenden Manor, in Buckinghamshire spoke about the challenges and rewards of presenting Disraeli’s complex life and political work to an interested public. He was joined by Oliver Cox, Knowledge Exchange Fellow at TORCH and director of the Thames Valley Country House Partnership, who worked with Bandy and other Oxford researchers to refashion the ‘Congress of Berlin’ room at Hughenden in the summer of 2014. Bandy and Cox pointed out the vast potential of partnerships between historical sites like Hughenden, and academic researchers who can help bring spaces to life and invigorate them in the minds of the public. Theirs was an interesting new perspective on how Disraeli’s life remains relevant in the society and political imagination of today.
At the end of a long ‘Disraeli Day,’ speakers and audience had a chance to revisit some of the key themes and dominant questions that had emerged from the papers in a vivid closing discussion that might well have continued into the evening hours. One issue that kept haunting papers and conversations was the tension between principle and expediency, romance and realism, the spiritual and the secular in Disraeli’s life and career. The question was raised whether by constructing Disraeli as visionary, or, conversely, as arch-pragmatist, scholars are at risk of underrating the complexity not only of Disraeli’s own personality but also of the interplay between individual agency and structural framework. Other commentators noted that Disraeli’s parallel lives were shaped by his attempt to reach different audiences and that the phases of his celebrity are closely related to the momentous changes in the political system in the 1860s and 70s, brought about by the expansion of the electorate. Following on from this observation, it was also remarked that scholarship on Disraeli requires a greater sensitivity to the political, religious, intellectual, and socio-cultural contexts in which he moved and operated. As the conversation was eventually continued over a well-deserved conference dinner, it was agreed that the symposium had provided a crucial impetus to Disraeli scholarship across disciplines that will hopefully result in a large-scale follow-up event.
Sandra Mayer & Megan Kearney
Sandra Mayer is an Erwin Schrödinger Research Fellow (Austrian Science Fund) at the University of Oxford’s English Faculty and Wolfson College. She is currently working on a post-doc project that focuses on the intersections of literary and political fame in the career of Benjamin Disraeli. http://www.sandramayer.org/
Megan Kearney is a DPhil Candidate in Ecclesiastical History at Keble College. Her research interests lie in the changes in faith, liturgy, and literature in Victorian Britain. Her doctoral work is on Benjamin Disraeli’s religious thought.
As part of the Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing on the theme of Political History and Life-Writing, OCLW welcomed Professor Lord Peter Hennessy last Tuesday to give a lecture entitled ‘The Importance of Being Personal: Political History and Life’. True to his chosen title, Hennessy’s lecture was in large part introspective. Reflecting on his personal development as a historian, he gave an account, rich in anecdotes and humour, of the strata underpinning his historical outlook; what he vividly referred to as his “compost”. This biographical narrative was presented alongside a plethora of anecdotes illustrating the role of the personal in British political history and its effect on the current political landscape.
Hennessy started by explaining the rationale behind his lecture: an attempt at examining the degree to which others’ personality has shaped his own approach to history. Quoting Thomas Carlyle’s dictum -“History is the essence of innumerable biographies” – he went on to consider how a historian’s own biography could also be of the essence. Confessing to having his hippocampus “stamped with biographies”, Hennessy intimated that his first conscious memories of a Prime Minister were of the 1950s when Winston Churchill was in power. Although professing to shy away from theories—“Gossip with footnotes is what I believe” – Hennessy maintained that British people acquire expectations of the activities of a Prime Minister through their experience of the first Prime Minister they encounter in their own lives. The man who made his mark in Hennessy’s case was Harold McMillan. Through that experience, Hennessy gained the sense that a Prime Minister should be steeped in history, polished by the classics and dripping in self-confidence. It is no wonder, he pointed out, that he felt disappointed from then on.
Politicians have a way of constructing an image of themselves almost from the start of their careers. To this purpose, Hennessy argued, props are useful. Odd names, such as Winston, Enoch or Boris may help. Or physical props, like hats or cigars. Even initials, such as R. A. Butler can serve the purpose. But glasses, he added, can be a problem. Seemingly insubstantial, such factors “have a chance of clinging to the velcro of collective memory”. Language is also extremely important. Referring to the contemporary political scene, Hennessy noted that even before the election, our “palates are jaded”. The language of political exchange, he argued, is very meagre and inadequate for the political conversation that is needed in Britain today. Hennessy proposed the need for a model, and offered Orwell, who famously warned that the “slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”, as a candidate. Hennessy argued that Orwell’s list of bad examples in his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ reads well by today’s standards, and it could serve as an antidote for what Hennessy described as the “Blue Peter out of management consultants’” language – a “preachiness combined with opacity”—that is currently pervasive in politics.
Hennessy’s concern with current political discourse led him to share his doubts about the efficacy of debates as a platform through which to discern who could best perform the task of prime minister. Hennessy worried that to succeed in a debate one needed the skills of a “plausible tart”, which would rarely be needed in the role itself. Although these ideas were shared with a great deal of wit, the underlying concern was serious: there is a real possibility that current practice is narrowing the flow of good prime ministers, favouring instead those with “well-rehearsed spontaneity”.
Hennessy made passing mention of a few personal regrets. One of these was not having written a history of the role of rumours and gossiping in politics. Recognising this is something hard to preserve, he argued that it was nevertheless crucially important: “in some weeks the world is moved by little else”. Although he felt it went too far, he quoted Carlyle again, this time stating: “History is a distillation of rumour”.
The point the lecture kept illuminating was that “one’s personal biography jostles with other people’s”. Rejecting Napoleon’s theory that one looks at the world the way one did when one was 20, Hennessy believed that his defining moment was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, which coincided with the first ascent of Everest. To this, he added the shaping influence of Eagle comics as well. This experience of 1953 led him to acquire a belief that the British are good at mixing tradition and modernity. He described how at that time people still talked in terms of before and after the war, and they were still rationed. And yet, in spite of this, there was an enormous sense of optimism. Hennessy felt that living in that atmosphere allowed him to consciously absorb the notion that “my country was a success story country”. He asked us in the audience to think, on the way home, about the year that formed our norms.
Emphasising the importance of bringing both humility to the writing table and a sense of what is unknowable, Hennessy ended the lecture with a nod to two writers who informed his view of the process of writing history. The first was Lytton Strachey, who in his biography of Queen Victoria spoke of the “secret chamber of consciousness”. Hennessy warned that “It’s hard enough to know one’s own, let alone anybody else’s”. Fittingly for a historian lecturing at Wolfson College, Hennessy ended with Isaiah Berlin quoting Kant: “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”.
On 26 January Professor Roy Foster opened our Weinrebe Lecture series with an excellent talk entitled ‘The Making of Saints: politics, biography and hagiography in modern Irish history.’ It was a fascinating and engaging presentation that held the audience captivated, so I will begin with a request that everyone who missed it take advantage of the podcast when it is available.
Roy Foster began his lecture by reminding us that the Irish are very good at making saints and this tradition of pious hagiography translated very easily into the way in which lives of revolutionaries were written. Catholicism became a central part of their politics; they were revered as martyrs to their cause and the language used was borrowed from hagiography. Those who fought in the rebellion of 1916 were always going to be remembered as heroes and after 1918 as saints. Following a traumatic civil war Ireland settled down into a deeply conservative environment, the participants could only be written about with reverence, everything else was silenced and as a consequence their lives were immobilised.
Both the timing of the revolution, and those who became involved in the violence came as a surprise to many. Foster argued that the best way to get a clear picture of those who took part is by creating a group biography, focusing on their temperaments as much as ideology. Interpreting their lives before they became saints is the key to understanding how the uprising went from thoughts to actions. As a generation they were not just rebelling against the British State, but also their parents and their values. They were conscious of living at a time of flux. It was not just nationalism that bound them together, but also radicalism, suffrage, secularism and vegetarianism, among other things, which does not fit easily with the Catholic image of sainthood.
Foster explained that for half a century hagiography dominated, in 1966 there was an outpouring of comment and celebration but not scepticism. Behind the scenes, however, things were very different. The Bureau of Military History was recording a lot of the personal memories of revolutionaries. These added extra depth and dimension to their stories, although it did not question hagiography. The 1960s helped to set in motion the questioning of this practice and a rethinking of their lives. It came about as a reaction to escalating violence in Northern Ireland and as a new way of looking at Republican history was growing in Ireland. Leaders were critically examined for the first time. Over the last 2 years the re-evaluation has stalled somewhat in the lead up to the centenary, with a Government concern that Sinn Fein will hijack 1916.
In conclusion Foster argued that group biography is a better guide to reconstructing the revolutionaries’ efforts and youth. He left us with the thought that if the revolutionaries became martyrs, they certainly were not saints.
A summer treat for you: today’s guest post comes to you from biographer and Reader of Modern French at York, Geoffrey Wall, who shares his playful advice to himself on the art of biography.
Sixteen Peremptory Injunctions to Myself as Biographer
Seize upon the detail, the flash of sense that evokes the person, the
place, the moment in history. No need to call it a biographeme.
Don’t spoil the shape of the story with cherished but inert
accumulations of fact. Don’t display your omniscience. It is of no
Escape from the writing desk. Cultivate the sense of place. You will
never be your subject, but you can at least be there, in the same
place, though in another time.
Don’t wait until you know everything. Get writing: sketches, a time-
line, a speculation. Because you will never know everything.
Don’t conceal the gaps. Use them. The gaps are part of the story,
part of the effect. The gap is like the jump-cut in a film, a pleasant
little shock that will refocus the attention of the delighted reader.
Learn to inhabit the past, to walk up and down in it. Learn to read
old buildings, old maps, old newspapers, old drawings. What did
that room smell of? What were the sounds from the street?
Don’t moralise. You may disapprove of your subject’s sexual habits,
his political loyalties, his financial competence. Keep it to yourself.
Cultivate a generous intellectual amusement. You are allowed to be comic-satiric as well as sympathetic-evocative.
Learn to write the simple things, the things that don’t come easily,
description, dialogue and narrative. For this you must renounce
obstinate fantasies of intellectual omnipotence.
Don’t idealise your subject. Don’t be pious, benign and reverential.
Your subject would rather you were moderately demonic.
Attend to changes of tempo in the life of your subject. Some days
are gloriously picaresque, full of bold adventures, exotic landscapes
and strange encounters. Some days are havens of creative
stillness. Some days are boredom or misery. The larger truth lies in
the sequence, the progression, the transformation.
The inevitable dream-encounters with your cherished subject are an
excellent opportunity to speak your mind. Make the bugger listen,
Write a letter or two to your subject. Never post them.
You must be master of the archive, but also and equally master
of the subjunctive. Explore the might-have-been, the path not
taken, the life not lived. Where does your subject keep those buried
Conjecture: originally, a throwing or casting together. Legitimate
conjecture flows from your sustained, playful, obsessive, inward,
conversation with the subject. Conjecture needs to come clean. Let
the reader to be your judge.
Without that lucidly affectionate union of the archival and
conjectural, how can you produce that compassionate effect of the
real, that sudden and delicately compelling enlargement of human
sympathy that constitutes the principle intellectual pleasure of the
Geoffrey Wall is the author of Flaubert: A Life (Faber, 2001). More recently, he has published The Enlightened Physician (Peter Lang, 2013) which explores the medical-political world of Flaubert’s father. Geoffrey Wall is currently working on a biography of George Sand for OUP. Alongside that project, he is also compiling a series of life-history interviews with twelve political activists: Quakers, anarchists, feminists and Trotskyists.
We are delighted to bring you another three-part guest post series this summer. Seraphima Kennedy, a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, reviews aspects of the 2014 IABA conference in Banff.
——— Conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography (IABA)
Auto/biography in Transit May 29-June 1, 2014 Banff Centre, Alberta, Canada
‘Autobiography in Transit’ and Theory on the Front Line: How IABA 2014 is Sounding out New Depths in Life Writing Scholarship
Canada! Migration! Being and illness! Ethics, artists, comics! The ninth international conference for the International Association for Biography and Autobiography took place from 29 May – 1st June at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada, its mission to investigate all things Life Writing-related. Seraphima Kennedy swapped Goldsmiths for the Canadian Rockies to report back.
Ever seen a bear being paintballed out of a national park? An elk swimming across a river? Deer leaping across the path on your morning run? Delegates got more than they bargained for at the at the IABA 2014 conference at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, a multidisciplinary institution in a spectacular setting surrounded by ice-capped mountains, fast-flowing rivers and seemingly endless grasslands. The conference programme was packed with some of the biggest names in contemporary life writing scholarship and practice. In a series of three guest posts, I will outline some of the key developments in the field, while focusing on a couple of papers in detail which may be of interest to OCLW readers.
The topic of the conference, organized by Eva Karpinski, Laurie McNeill, Julie Rak and Linda Warley, was ‘Autobiography in Transit.’ Papers were invited on transit and transition as ways of interrogating how lives, narratives and other forms of self-representation are constantly in motion. Over three days delegates attended to a range of questions concerning the practice and critique of auto/biography, representation and transits of the self, and new methodologies of reading. Uniquely the conference also created a high-voltage opportunity for new scholars and graduate students to engage with expert mentors, through a dedicated workshop with contributions from Sidonie Smith, Alfred Hornung, Craig Howes, Rocio Davis, and many others who were on hand to offer advice to early career researchers in the field of life writing publishing.
The conference proper began with a blessing from Elder Tom Crane Bear, caretaker of the land and a member of the Siksika nation. ‘We came up through the southwest where the chockecherries grow,’ he said, speaking about the journey of his people, the Blackfoots. Ideas of lives in transit, of movement both between and within life stories, were central to the conversations scholars would go on to have over the next few days during panels on Theorizing Human Rights, Representing Islam, Digital Futures, Nineteenth-Century Women’s Narratives, Neoliberal Stories, and Comics and Justice, among many others.
In her keynote address ‘Memoir, Blog, and Selfie: Genre as Social Action in Autobiographical Representations,’ Carolyn Miller treated the audience to a history of the self-referential portrait, linking genre expectations, social structures and Lejeune’s ‘autobiographical pact’ with James Frey, Oprah, and the ‘fifteen types of selfie.’ Could selfies be seen as a form of life writing? A lively debate set the tone for a stimulating and at times controversial three days, while the Twitter-sphere saw the emergence of a new kind of selfie – the ‘IABA 2014 selfie.’ This proved a popular genre among assembled scholars, and provided much entertainment over the course of the conference (look for #iaba2014selfie on Twitter, or scroll through #iaba2014 to see some of the best of these).
Elder Tom’s novelistic turn of phrase also pointed to an awareness of the links between critical theory and creative practice. This was reflected in the foregrounding of creative writers in the Life Writers Reading Series: Patrick Lane, Sharon Proulx-Turner and Fred Wah all gave stellar readings and keynotes that called into question the links between political and personal, national and international, domestic and public.
Sharron Proulx-Turner was generously sponsored by the journal a/b: auto/biography studies and Patrick Lane appeared courtesy of the Writer’s Union, bringing two of the finest voices in Canadian literature into the conference fold. The first day of the conference ended with a drinks reception in the stunning Tom Crane Bear Hall of the Max Bell Building, with views of the sun setting over the glorious Rocky Mountains. Métis poet Sharron read from a series of poems including ‘A Houseful of Birds,’ before talking about sealed records and the legacy of Canada’s Residential School system. ‘There was another story there,’ she read, ‘where a girl opened her mouth and inside was the universe.’ Sharron was a compelling speaker about the impact of trauma on her own writing, her methods of using autobiographical material, and a compassionate and singular presence throughout the rest of the conference.
Patrick Lane was just as frank with his discussion of the uses of autobiography, the writing process, fear of failure and his decision to start writing. Hinting at a combination of memory, experience and sense, writing for Lane was bound up with affect: ‘I can still feel those dark mountains, they rose like morning clothes from Kootenay lake.’ Somehow the act of writing coexisted with the fear of erasure, an awareness of not being fully represented: ‘’Canada did not exist, and neither did I. I wanted to exist,’ he said. These were powerful, intimate readings, highlighting some of the faultlines inherent in the theorization of writing about the self that would be plotted over the next two days. And, as Lane acknowledged, this was why we were there. ‘You guys are the academics,’ he said. ‘I’m just a writer.’
Next week: Leigh Gilmore on ‘Getting a handle on pain,’ Fred Wah on hyphens and the swinging door, Julia Watson on comics and justice.
Seraphima Kennedy is a writer and final year Ph.D candidate in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London where she is also a Visiting Tutor in Creative Writing. Her practice-based research focuses on contemporary memoir and autobiography, with a particular focus on adoption memoirs. Seraphima writes poetry, fiction and life writing, and is currently writing her first novel.
The final OCLW event of the year saw its audience captivated by Mark Thompson’s talk about the life and work of Yugoslavian author Danilo Kiš and the problems he faced writing his critically acclaimed biography Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kiš.
Kiš is an author who is little known in the Anglophone world, so Thompson began by giving the audience an insight into the man himself and the driving forces behind his work. He was born in 1935 in a small town in Northern Yugoslavia, his mother a member of the Eastern Orthodox faith from Montenegro, and his father a Hungarian Jew. Kiš described himself as an ‘ethnografic rarity’ which was very important to him, he saw it as his destiny. His first language was the now ostensibly extinct Serbo-Croatian. He was raised in Vojvodena and baptised into the Orthodox Church, along with his sister. It was seen as a safety measure, as his parents could already see the way in which things were moving in Europe.
When war broke out the family were living in Novi Sad, a city on the banks of the River Danube. They stayed in the city until January 1942 when a pogrom was carried out by Hungarian troops. Kiš’ father was rounded up but was given a reprieve. Consequently the family moved to his father’s home village in Hungary as it was felt it would be safer, which it was, until the deportation of the Hungarian Jews in 1944. Kiš father was taken on one of the last trains to Auschwitz. As a result of cultural relaxation in 1954, Kiš was part of the first year to study a new degree in World Literature that looked at works from the Bible to Kafka. It was intended to be anti-nationalist and discreetly anti-communist and had a significant effect on Kiš’s future life.
Kiš was to spend long periods of time in France, teaching students to understand Serbo-Croatian, living a bohemian existence, although this philosophy did not apply to his writing. This continued until the 1970s when he suffered two crises, professional and personal. After the publication of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, he was troubled by plagiarism accusations and found himself being coerced by the police into leaving the country. His marriage also broke down during this time and so he emigrated to Paris in 1979 to live with his mistress, a former student of his. He died from lung cancer in 1989 at the age of 54, the same age at which his father was deported to Auschwitz.
Thompson described Kiš as a modernist author who could not write in his surrounding literary tradition. He was not interested in celebrating Yugoslav national culture, that of folk tales told to generations. He was influenced by Kafka, Proust and above all Joyce, Kiš drew heavily on Ulysses when writing about his own father. He believed in ‘art for my sake, art to find out who I am’ and used his work to recreated his identity through fictional explorations. By the 1960s the distance from his childhood freed him from constraint and allowed him to write Hourglass, a novel about his father. Thompson likened Kiš to Orwell and Camus. He incarnated certain values, such as individualism and a refusal to bow down to institutional dominance and ideology.
In the final part of his presentation, Thompson described the difficulties he faced when writing his biography. Firstly he encountered the issue that biography in South Eastern Europe means something very different. As a discipline it is much weaker and it has the potential to be very dangerous. Other key Yugoslavian literary figures had rather shady wartime pasts that they were eager to keep hidden. This made Kiš family and friends wary of what Thompson was trying to do. Sometimes people were trusting, but often they were not. The form the biography would take presented a problem, as Thompson felt he could not use a linear narrative and this was a form that Kiš himself distrusted and would never have used. Thompson also lacked what he described as the ‘dense tissue of information’ that is the backbone of many literary biographies. Finally, in the 90s, Kiš became iconic to Serbian intellectuals who hated what was happening to their country. Many were looking for positive examples of their culture and used him as proof that Serbian culture could produce something universal. So how do you write about a saint? The key was provided by a Montenegrin journalist who knew Kiš best in the last years of his life. He pointed out that Kiš was not a liberal hero in the grain of Vaclav Havel, but simply an impassioned and often desperate artist, who gained his cosmopolitanism from hard fought experience.
The discussion painted Kiš as an émigré author who remained outside of the already established group in Paris, uninterested in being a part of the culture and lifestyle. He was not interested in promoting non-literary views, although he thought the worst about the Communist regime. Thompson described him as politically naïve, Kiš lent his support to a Serbian poet who would become a great supporter of the Milosevic regime. In conclusion Thompson showed Kiš as man of conflicting aspects, with many conflicting statements surrounding him proving to be true.
Hermione Lee opened her talk about Penelope Fitzgerald with the epigraph from her recent biography: ‘If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching’. Lee began Penelope Fitzgerald’s story by reflecting on her accomplished career. Late in life, Fitzgerald was the unlikely winner of the 1979 Booker Prize for her novel Offshore. At the time of her death in 2000, she had published three biographies and nine novels, been nominated twice more for the Booker Prize, and earned widespread admiration for her unique, controlled style. Over the next hour, Lee held the audience spellbound as she led them in search of the life that made this gifted, insightful, and intensely private novelist.
Lee’s talk, like the biography, followed the chronology of Fitzgerald’s life. Researching this life cannot have been an easy task: Penelope kept many secrets. She cultivated a public persona as a grandmotherly figure to protect her privacy. Her literary career is a story of patience and endurance, ‘an old writer who never got to be a young writer’ as Lee said.
Fitzgerald was born Penelope Knox to an accomplished family; she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford and was so successful in her exams that her papers were purportedly bound in vellum (Lee admits this story may be apocryphal). She married her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, in 1942, and wrote for the BBC during the war. On Desmond’s return, the two settled in Hampstead and had three children. Desmond worked as a lawyer, and together the two started an ambitious literary magazine called World Review. The stage seemed set, Lee said, for a comfortable, literary life.
That life was unfortunately not to be. The young couple was over-extended financially. Desmond developed a drinking problem and began forging checks; he was eventually found out and disbarred. After that, the Fitzgeralds lived in true poverty. Penelope moved the family to Suffolk, where she worked in a bookshop, and then to a houseboat in Clapham, which sank. Lee recounted a poignant story of Penelope’s children coming home to find a cat clinging to the mast, and Penelope’s books stained yellow with Thames water. Penelope took up teaching to make ends meet. She did not publish a novel until after her husband’s early death in 1976.
These experiences affected Penelope deeply. From the religious Knox family, she inherited a fascination for the clash between reason and the vagaries of human emotion. The extremities she faced in adulthood drew her to the poor, the downtrodden, to those born defeated, and it lent her writing a feel for dark comedy and for acute sadness. As Lee put it, ‘she knew the worst that people can do to one another, and to themselves’. But her life also supplied the subject matter for her early novels: her time in the Suffolk bookshop became The Bookshop, while her stint at the BBC found use in Human Voices.
Fitzgerald’s later novels move away from her own life experiences, but they retain the characteristics that make her early novels compelling—the exploration of reason and emotion in spare, austere prose. In them, she developed a style Lee characterised as ‘reticent’ and ‘full of silences’, qualities which mask passionate conviction. Fitzgerald researched her historical novels intensely, even re-learning German for her last novel The Blue Flower, but her careful choice of detail masks the range and depth of her research. In their understated control, Lee felt, the novels achieve something profound and original.
Lee admitted that she felt great responsibility to her subject in writing this biography, the first ever written on Fitzgerald, not least because many living people still remember Penelope fondly. With this, as with other biographies, Lee concluded, the biographer has a duty to get the story as right as possible, but acknowledge that no biography is ever complete. We can follow Penelope Fitzgerald’s life, trace connections between it and her work, but ultimately we are ever in search of the whole story.
Nanette here for you with a delayed summary from Richard Holmes’ lecture from Tuesday 18th February. Full disclosure: I was unable to attend this lecture and have written this summary by listening to the unedited podcast of the event which will soon be edited and available on our Wolfson College Podcasts page with the other Weinrebe lectures. If you missed the event I hope this summary can tide you over until you can listen to the podcast (and you should, because Richard Holmes has a lovely voice!).
Hermione Lee introduced Richard Holmes as ‘at once one of the most influential and distinguished of our biographers and one of the most innovative and pioneering’. And what did one of the most eminent biographers in the world do to begin his lecture? In a simple and humble way, he put our interest in life-writing (and human lives) utterly in perspective. Commencing his lecture with what he called a ‘litany,’ titled ‘Some Average Lifespans,’ he asked us to think of how precious a single human life is and also at once how insignificant it is. His ‘litany’ of lifespans began by listing the Coriscan pine tree with a lifespan of three hundred years, then cited the Galapagos tortoise at one hundred and ninety years, then European homo sapiens at 70 years (20 years asleep ‘in brackets’), and on down through various species to the mayfly whose lifespan consists of a single day.
With this opening reminder of our place among the many species on our planet, Holmes then took us back through his own past in the first section of his lecture, which he titled, ‘Time and Identity’. He recalled his travels as an aspiring young writer, joking that the occupation of ‘writer’ in his passport was often misread as ‘waiter’. Drawing on the misinterpretation as a metaphor for what the biographer does, Holmes said writing a biography is in a sense ‘always waiting at someone else’s table’.
Moving from this apt comparison to the subject of the title of the lecture, ‘The Biographer’s Other I’, Holmes read from the opening of his early narrative on biography and travel, Footsteps (1985). He noted that even in this early book he was employing two forms of narrative: an immersive past tense narrative that recounted events with a feeling of immediacy, alternated with a kind of reflective present tense that created a distance between the past and the current moment, illustrated in the sentence, ‘I was eighteen’. So, as Holmes explained, the biographer’s other ‘I’ is actually a means for observing one’s subject while immersing oneself in the subject’s life and times. These various viewpoints stress that the bridge to the past is broken, subjective, and that biography needs to cross the bridge by other methods.
Upon reflecting on the ways in which a biographer might access the past, through travelling the paths of his subject, taking photographs of these places and attempting to make these connections across time, Holmes asked himself why does one choose particular biographical subjects? He realised that all of his subjects represented to him the principle of hope. Stevenson, Shelley, Coleridge, and the Age of Wonder all presented moments of overcoming challenges. The individuals were driven to change their lives and the Age of Wonder represented the hope that science has brought to us.
The second part of Holmes talk addressed the ‘subjectivity’ that is present in every biography. Holmes argued subjectivity has always been a great strength in biography, taking Boswell’s Life of Johnson as an example where Boswell’s dialogue and subjectivity are the key devices to opening up Johnson’s biography. Holmes pointed out other instances in which the biographical ‘I’ was a subjective and often sympathetic one. Drawing on an example from Johnson’s own Life of Richard Savage (1744) Holmes argued Johnson uses the rhetorical figure ironic chiasmus, or a reversal of terms, to describe Savage, but in doing so gives himself away. Holmes also mentioned Lytton Strachey’s portrait of Florence Nightingale from Eminent Victorians (1918) in which Strachey’s biographical ‘I’ takes over Nightingale’s voice, putting himself in the room with her, but giving her his own vehement language to describe the horrors of the hospital conditions. I think there is also an argument to be made here about this kind of projection of the biographical ‘I’ into the narrative as part of the modernist project of life-writing that the Bloomsbury group were interested in. If you’d like to read more about that, Laura Marcus delves with insight into Strachey’s biographical style in Auto/biographical Discourses (1994). Holmes’ final example of the biographical ‘I’ working with successful subjectivity was Wolfson’s own Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf (1996). Holmes mentioned both the opening and closing passages of the work as emblematic of effective and moving autobiographical interjections. Holmes quoted from the opening of the biography which itself quotes Virginia Woolf, ‘My God, how does one write a biography’ and from the final scene in which Lee allows herself to connect across time with the view Woolf would also have had: ‘My view overlays with, just touches, hers. The view, in fact, seems to have been written by Virginia Woolf. The lighthouse beam strikes round; the waves break on the shore.’
Holmes closed with a final thought on his concept of the ‘vertical footnote’ as an ideal place to put the ‘I’. It provides a way of including personal detail and allows the biographer to reach backwards and forwards within a chronological narrative without interrupting the pace of the main narrative.
We are terribly excited to present to you the next edition in our series of guest posts. Here, the talented Oline Eaton (King’s College London) explores the implications of stereotypes in her work on biography. We look forward to hearing your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section below!
Pirates of the Aegean
Halfway through the writing (which is far too simple a word as it’s more like an exorcism) of the third chapter of my biography of Jackie Onassis, I was surprised to see the emergence of a piratical theme. Images of rubies, treasures, pilfering, and plunderers studded the text, along with an embarrassment of similes involving semi-precious gems.
The imagery was vivid and the story read well, almost too well, which is why it struck me as off.
These pages covered the early months of Jackie’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, quiet months wherein she was often alone whilst Onassis, working to close a business deal, commuted to Athens. Not the stuff of high drama, so it was odd that the prose had the momentum of a swashbuckler.
Re-reading these pages, I realized that, though Onassis emerged from them as a colorful and memorable character, it was a character steeped in stereotypes.
While it was tempting to dismiss this as the fault of lazy writing and re-write the whole thing, as I’m doing a PhD that explores how we can re-tell Jackie’s story by engaging with the ways it has been told in the past, that wasn’t an option. And so I examined the story telling.
Jackie’s is a story with which I’m now intimately familiar. Why, then, was I telling this particular part of it in this particular way? There had to be a reason.
There was. I’d fallen back on this portrayal because, historically, it is how Aristotle Onassis has been depicted: as a pirate.
This image took root early. In 1954, two years before he and Jackie met, the Peruvian press reportedly called him ‘a whaling pirate.’ In 1963, when she was planning to vacation on Onassis’s yacht, we’re told JFK warned Jackie— in dialogue more evocative of a made-for-TV movie than real life— of the shipping tycoon’s pernicious ways. ‘Onassis is a pirate,’ John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, allegedly cautioned his wife. ‘That’s not just a turn of phrase. He is a real pirate.’
A real pirate! The image, presumably, stemmed from Onassis’s business success, to which—in America, at least—the stink of ill-gotten gains would always cling. Often, he would be identified as ‘The Greek Tycoon’, with the emphasis on his Greek-ness (an inaccuracy as he was born in Turkey) implying that Onassis’s success was the result of foreign and, therefore, not entirely legit tactics.
Pirates are, at times, romanticized, but make no mistake, his was a decidedly un-sexy business. In the press, the man was always found wanting: he was too short, too Greek, too rich, too ugly. In October 1968, the Italian publication L’Espresso celebrated his marriage to the former Mrs. Kennedy— a woman still, five years after her husband’s death, receiving letters addressed simply to ‘Lady Kennedy, USA’— by pronouncing the happy bride-groom a ‘grizzled satrap, with his liver-colored skin, thick hair, fleshy nose, the wide horsey grin, who buys an island and then has it removed from all the maps to prevent the landing of castaways.’
It’s unclear whether the writer found Onassis’s purchase of the island or his cartographical interference more repellent, but this screed from Italy captures the general vibe in America then. As Jackie’s sister, Lee Radziwill, observed shortly after the nuptials: ‘If my sister’s new husband had been blond, young, rich, and Anglo-Saxon, most Americans would have been much happier.’
Jackie was a national treasure and Onassis was Blackbeard come to plunder America’s queen.
Not surprisingly, this characterization of Onassis leeched into the biographies. In Kitty Kelley’s Jackie Oh! (1978), he is ‘an international buccaneer with a sixth grade education,’ whilst Lee Guthrie’s Jackie: The Price of the Pedestal (1978) casts him as ‘a modern pirate, a Mediterranean womanizer, social climber, and shipping tycoon who also happened to be one of the richest men in the world.’
Sarah Bradford’s America’s Queen (2000) seemed to auger a more nuanced portrayal when she introduced him in her text as an Odysseus figure, a comparison Onassis himself was evidently wont to make. Unfortunately, when her narrative arrived at the marriage to Jackie, Bradford reverted to the old trope, flatly declaring, ‘Onassis was a pirate,’ and, a few lines later, again referencing ‘Onassis’s piratical image and jet-set baggage.’
As Jackie’s biographer, it’s tempting to give into this notion of Onassis as pirate—his biographical baggage, if you will—not because it makes for easy story telling, but because it aligns so well with my sense of who Jackie might have been.
She liked calculated risks and adventure. She was, repeatedly, attracted to successful men of dubious repute and questionable character. Upon her death in 1994, George Plimpton wrote: ‘I’ve always identified Jackie with pirates […] Her father looked like a pirate. She married a pirate, Ari Onassis.’
In her story, the image of Onassis as a pirate makes sense. Which is likely why it’s been so frequently used.
But can we justify its continued use? Just as it’s an injustice to Jackie to impose Freudian readings on her remarriage and say she only married Onassis because he reminded her of ‘Black Jack’ Bouvier, so it seems equally unethical to reduce Onassis’s complex self to piratical imagery. What goes missing in such limited portrayals? In the forty years wherein Onassis has been nothing but a pirate, what aspects of his character have been obscured? What have we lost?
Never mind that Elizabeth Taylor called him ‘charming, kind, and considerate,’ an acquaintance declared him ‘a moral leper’ and a business associate said ‘He is black in his heart!’ I daren’t think he was all sweetness and light, but was he all bad? By and large, the biographical portrayals would suggest so, a circumstance for which the piracy imagery is, in huge part, to blame.
He’s always a tycoon, always a pirate, always misleadingly identified as Greek. And yet, how irresponsible and inhumane to suggest that’s the full extent of who he might have been.
Oline Eaton is a doctoral student at King’s College London. Her current work- a mix of theoretical and practical interrogations of biography- uses the Greek life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as a case study to experiment with a gossip-based, adventure-driven, reader-directed form of life narrative.
Nanette here with some exciting news! The OCLW publicity team would like to announce a new series of life-writing guest posts and book reviews, for which we are now accepting submissions. Our guidelines are as follows:
Style: a critical style (not necessarily academic), which might include book reviews and explorations of research questions around broader themes within life-writing. We are not opposed to you having fun with your topic and an up-beat humorous tone appropriate to a blog would also be welcome.
Word limit: approximately 500-1000 words
About you: a brief intro, a link to your own blog/website
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Updated: Send submissions to the publicity team in an email titled ‘Guest Blog Post Submission’ to our new email address: oclw(at)wolfson.ox.ac.uk
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To begin, below we have some reflections from Paul Murphy on what it is like to write a biography about a literary hero, and on exploring the feeling of having that hero fall in one’s esteem.
I had never been much interested in biography until life intervened. Redundancy. Divorce. Bereavement. I then did feel a need to seek out truths, journey into the past, find myself through others.
I have just completed a book* about Laurie Lee. The 1930s, before, during and after the Spanish Civil War, changed him forever. I first read his memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning as an adolescent.
It tells the tale of a walk made through Spain in 1935 and into the eye of a perfect storm of a civil war. In April 2012 I set out to retrace his journey, to better understand a man who had always been a hero. During the journey, I realized I was also looking for myself, and grieving for a father who had died years before. I came to understand that heroes can have feet of clay and that writers and fathers often lie.
I recently attended the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing Weinrebe Lectures. It was fascinating to listen to Blake Morrison and Richard Holmes discussing the many forms that the “I” can take in Biography: both writers having influenced my book. Despite protests from university tutors and publishers, I had chosen to write my life of Lee in the only way I felt I could, through the prism of my own life experience and my Spanish journey. I open my book by going to a point high above the place where Lee first set foot in Spain and describe his arrival as if it were happening before my very eyes. I then suggest that he looks up at me and our eyes engage.
It is important for me to feel a connection with my biography subject, even if it is a fictional one. It is a two-way process. Alain De Botton wrote of Proust: ‘A genuine homage to Proust would be to look at our world through his eyes, not look at his world through our eyes’.
I cannot change Lee through my journey but he has changed me. I need to share a space with my subject even if I cannot redeem the time difference in occupying such a space. The occupying of the same physical space seems to sharpen the senses.
The turning point in my book occurs in Valdepenas. Lee describes it as an oasis of gentility in a harsh desert. I found it run-down and depressing but it is what happened next in Lee’s account that seemed to hit me hard.
Lee had written in his memoir of an encounter with an under-age prostitute in a brothel in this town run by the girl’s grandfather:
The girl’s wandering finger, tipped with precocious cunning, seemed the only thing left in the world, and moved absently about me, loosening knots in my flesh, then tying them up again.
When I first read this passage, I got caught up in the beautiful prose. I missed what the episode was telling me about Lee as a person.
I had stopped at an old bodega in the town. A perfect place, I imagined, for the siting of a 1930s brothel to sate male needs with a steady supply of young female grape pickers on tap. I rewrote the scene:
He coughs, spits, shuffles across on his board, strong gnarled wrists propelling him along, reaches up high, slips the latch and lets the customers in. Encarnacion lies with Julio, mute but not unresponsive, examining her hands and feet, scratched by the rough vine roots. Round and round goes the wine press mangle, squeezing, crushing, draining the skin, till finally leaving it lifeless, limp, spent.
She goes to Lorenzo, the English boy. It is quick. She likes him for that.
The candle has burned to the stub, the customers have gone, she waits for the scrape on the ground, the pumping of thin, wiry wrists. She waits for him to come for her as she knows he will.
I felt for the first time that I was judging Lee rather than observing him. I had gone from being a detached member of the audience to an active member of the players on stage. It did not feel good.
My journey was motivated by personal loss and grief but driven also by a strong emotional connection and empathy with Lee. Richard Holmes, a great believer of placing the self centre-stage when tracking heroes, says of those whose footsteps we follow in, ‘If you are not in love with them you will not follow them-not very far anyway.’
As a writer, attempting a first biography, I see now that this turning point was critical to my book becoming biography. The ‘girl’s wandering finger’ had shaken me out of a sense of sentimentality that had enveloped me over the years;I saw Lee for the first time as a man of imperfections, a flawed specimen. I had reached a biographical point of no return, moving away from a pre-biographic state to a place from which I could realistically endeavour to identify Hermione Lee’s ‘vivid sense of the person’. In the words of Richard Holmes I had arrived at ‘the moment of personal disillusion, the moment of impersonal, objective re-creation’.
I have created a very personal portrait of Lee and accept the possible charge of unreliable narrator. Yet is not most biography the sum product of subjective third party narration? Blake Morrison confessed that he almost called his seminal book As If, on the James Bulger 1993 murder case, The Worst Thing I Ever Did. In an attempt to bring perspective to the actions of the perpetrators, he had taken us into the complex mind of an average young heterosexual boy’s mind, his own. He was charged with the sin of making the story about himself.
I have taken a risk too, in placing myself at the centre of my narrative alongside Lee, and have trusted in my ability to speak to, and perhaps for, a generation of smitten Lee followers.
Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer.
Lucinda Fenny here, the final member of the OCLW publicity team, welcome to my first blog post and I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts with you over the coming months.
On Wednesday evening, in the company of an intimate audience, OCLW’s visiting members presented an outline of the work they are conducting whilst in residence in Oxford. Everyone stuck to their allocated time of 10 minutes which was very impressive, and were able to give us a very succinct view of their, in some cases, vast topics, and the challenges that they face. The seminar was chaired by Hermione Lee.
First to speak was Sophie Scott-Brown from the Australian National University in Canberra, who is working on a biography of the British radical historian Raphael Samuel. She began by challenging the view of Samuel as a Marxist historian, instead describing him as a people’s historian, despite the difficulties in defining what that term actually means. Sophie claimed that biography is key to bringing out Samuel’s architectural type, explaining why and how he did what he did. She also emphasised Samuel’s relevance to contemporary debates on the social role of the intellectual and historian, he advocated for empowering people to speak for themselves.
Our second speaker was Jeffrey Gutierrez from Boston who talked about the issues that surround the editing of collections of letters, in particular reference to William Carlos Williams. Jeffrey explained how the first edition of his letters were heavily censored, as the poet was still alive at the time. An important question is how to transcribe Williams’ letters into print, as he often did something artistic with the form of them and although past editors have argued that his is of no relevance, Jeffrey contested this view. He showed the audience two letters written only a few months apart. One had been left uncorrected, and showed the state of Williams’ mind following a series of strokes due to the large number of errors. The corrected letter gives the impression that Williams had made a miraculous recovery, which was, of course, not the case.
Maria Rita Drumond Viana highlighted the vast resources available in relation to W.B. Yeats and how fortunate she felt to now have access to them here in Oxford. She put forward the notion of letters as a literary genre in themselves, in contrast to how they are used by other scholars, as documents, evidence and testimony. This distinguishes what a letter says from how it says it. She put forward the contested notion that the correspondence of a writer can be considered as part of their work, which is not possible with any other artist. In the discussion this was further covered, where Maria Rita argued that while letters may not be considered part of a writer’s work, they can be included as examples of the way in which they write.
Finally Tracey Potts our visiting scholar from Nottingham University gave us an insight into the methodology and its problems when writing about the biography of objects. Her work focuses on clutter and procrastination, which Tracey was quick to point out was not a reflection on her own life! One of the problems when working with clutter in particular is how we deal with piles of stuff, and how we relate to the material world. Clutter is a certain challenge as it is a thing that is not a thing. An important part of her work is extending the notion of agency to the non-human world, when at present humans are at the centre of the stories of things. This counters the idea that humans control things; Tracey posited the fact that perhaps it was the other way around and that things might have designs on us. To further pique our interest in her work she informed us that penguins and coffee tables are two cast members in the book.
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.
Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer’s Journal is a fascinating account of a biographical quest and of a personal journey. While working on her biography of the writer and traveller Rose Macaulay, Sarah LeFanu kept a journal that charts the details of that quest: the people she met, the places she visited, and her strange dreamworld encounters with the very subject of her biographical pursuit.
‘This is such a wise and charming book, giving us a glimpse over the shoulder of a biographer at work. It captures what it’s really like to write a biography, which is nothing like the soothing sensation of reading one. Here are the highs and lows, the episodes of frustration and exhilaration, the serendipity, the slog, the networking, “the biographer’s art of bullying” – and the constant shifts in emotional weather between biographer and biographee. People imagine that biographers “identify” with their subjects in some simple sense, but Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer’s Journal conveys how much more complicated the
relationship is. The book becomes a tribute to biography itself, as a quest, as an art, and as the most generous and selfless of literary genres.’
Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer
About the Author
Sarah LeFanu is the author of Rose Macaulay: A Biography. Her other books include S is for Samora: A Lexical Biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream and In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction. She is also a noted anthologist and short story writer. Sarah is a part-time tutor in the English Department at the University of Bristol, and teaches on the BA in English Literature and Community Engagement. Dreaming of Rose is the companion to Sarah LeFanu’s biography of Dame Rose Macaulay.