Tag Archives: Lives of the Obscure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest post: ‘Biography from below’ with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Today we are privileged to have Philip Carter of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography walk us through the process of constructing a new entry for the ODNB. In this case the details about the subject Henry Croft were crafted together from many sources in what might be called an obscure, yet regal, life.

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If not the broomstick, the sweeper. Biography from below.

In the mid-eighteenth century biographical writing took something of a democratic turn. In place of didactic characterizations of virtues and failings came an interest in the complexities of an individual life investigated and understood. Samuel Johnson is often held up as a proponent of this more personable form of biography—notably in his life of Richard Savage (1744) and essays in the Rambler and Idler—which is well captured in his gauntlet that there ‘rarely passes a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful’.

Johnson’s interest in biographical writing grounded in human estimation and intimate acquaintance dramatically broadened the scope for biographical subjects – animate or otherwise. Well ahead of the early 21st-century publishing trend for ‘biographies’ of cod, salt, Paris etc., Johnson famously claimed he ‘could write the life of a broomstick’. Johnson, moreover, was not a lone voice. Introducing his pictorial Biographical History of England (1769), James Granger set out a study based on twelve hierarchical classes, beginning with ‘monarchs’ and ending with ‘with ballad-singers, chimney-sweepers, and beggars’.

Granger’s interest may seem surprising to us, but this plurality of lives was a common feature in late seventeenth and eighteenth-century works of collective biography in which (beginning with Thomas Fuller’s Worthies of England, 1662) mechanics, pirates, and chancers rubbed along with their social superiors. Moreover, it’s a spirit that prevails in the eminent descendants of Fuller and Granger: the Dictionary of National Biography—which first appeared between 1885 and 1900 under the founding editorship of Sir Leslie Stephen—and its successor, the Oxford DNB, which was published in 2004.

It’s often presumed, mistakenly, that—as a late-Victorian work of national record—Stephen’s DNB must be a gathering of the ‘great and the good’. In fact, the first DNB took much from these earlier biographical collections and from compendia of what we’d now call ‘human interest stories’, such as the Gentleman’s Magazine. Today, Stephen’s Dictionary lives on as the much enlarged and re-written Oxford DNB, a research and publishing project of Oxford University and OUP. In 2004 when it first appeared, in print and online, the Dictionary included biographies of 54,922 individuals active between the Roman invasion and the late-twentieth century. The work of more than 10,000 specialist authors, the ODNB was (as it continues to be) the world’s largest collaborative research project in the humanities.

Since 2004 a small team of academic editors has continued to extend the ODNB’s coverage in regular online updates. Part of this work focuses on the ‘recently deceased’ (no living people are included), with a rolling project to add entries on noteworthy Britons who died in the opening decade of the twenty-first century. Here the need is to infuse contemporary assessments, carried in newspapers obituaries (invariably written while their subject was still alive), with a historical perspective that will stand the test of time.

In addition to these shapers of modern Britain, ODNB editors also look further back—adding new biographies of men and women active across all historical periods. Many of these recent additions are people remembered (and therefore worthy of inclusion) for a single act or event in a life that’s otherwise obscure. The task here is how best to reassemble a shadowy human story to create a full narrative, from birth to death.

This is a challenge but one greatly aided in the past 5-10 years by a boom in digitized records that make accessible, as never before, the nuts and bolts of life writing. In Britain, these include (to name just a few) the census returns from 1841 to 1911, registers of births, marriages, and deaths, parish registers, wills and probate statements on ‘wealth at death’, military service records, and national and provincial newspapers from the late-seventeenth century. With such resources we’re able to continue a longstanding British biographical tradition: recording lesser-known lives and creating collective biography ‘from the bottom up’.

Take, for example, Henry Croft (1861-1930), founder in the 1890s of the London tradition of Pearly kings and queens whose dynasties continue in boroughs across the capital. Online there is no shortage of references to Croft and his ‘pearlies’, but it soon becomes clear that much of this material is partial, anecdotal, and derivative.

Writing a first-time biography always requires a ‘way in’ to the life. For Henry Croft this came via another new online resource, the Pathé news archive, which revealed a one-minute silent clip of a funeral procession for ‘the King of the Pearly Kings’ broadcast in January 1930. This was our starting point. With an approximate death date it was possible to search the digitized indexes of the General Register Office with a degree of precision—imagine how many ‘Henry Crofts’ died in ‘London’ (or elsewhere) sometime in the early to mid-twentieth century. Having found Croft’s death certificate we now had his final residence (the St Pancras workhouse), his profession (a corporation road sweeper), and his age at death (68 years). With the latter we could search the registers for ‘Henry Crofts’ born in 1861 or 1862, his known birth date. This, in turn, revealed that our man had been born on 24 May 1861, remarkably in the same St Pancras workhouse.

With these few markers it was possible to trawl the census returns for 1861 onwards to fill out details of Henry’s wider family: his parents and siblings, and their moves between the tenements of inner city London. Luckily, we also had a reference to Henry’s wife, Lily, who witnessed his death certificate in 1930. Next came a search of marriage records for Henry Crofts marrying women named ‘Lily’, ‘Lillian’, etc. across London from 1880 onwards.

This led to Lily Newton (1874-1940), daughter of a Kentish Town house painter, whom Croft married in February 1892. From here it was possible to piece together their married life, using the censuses for 1901 and 1911. By this date Henry and Lily had eight children and were living at 15 Charles (now Phoenix) Street (close by the British Library), the same address given by Lily on her husband’s death certificate 19 years later. In both censuses Henry gave his occupation as ‘road sweeper’, employment he retained until his retirement in 1928.

The outline of Croft’s biography was now in place. But what of his life as the original Pearly King, the reason for his intended inclusion in the ODNB? It’s worth remembering who we’re dealing with. Though the Pearly tradition is now well-known, its founder lived on the lowest rungs of London’s social hierarchy. Henry was poor, and very poorly educated, and there would be no personal papers with which to flesh out the life.

At this point online newspapers came to the rescue, making it possible to search across national and London titles for occasional glimpses of Croft as a pearly king. Just a few years ago finding such references would have been pure chance. Now it was possible to trace Henry’s first known appearance as a public figure: a 1902 magazine article which introduced ‘Mr Croft’, the ‘Pearlie king of Somers Town’, replete with a handmade suit of 5000 buttons. Later newspaper references identified Croft in various ‘pearly’ roles: raising money for charity, taking part in annual horse and donkey shows, and even a meeting between Croft and Edward VII at Olympia in 1907. Searches of local London papers also brought to light several death notices which provided further details of Croft’s personal and public life.

Starting from a short, silent film clip we now had enough to write Croft’s story for the first time. So Henry Croft entered the Oxford DNB in a recent update. If not the broomstick, at least the sweeper; the man who began as a beggar and ended as a monarch. Hopefully Johnson and Granger would have been pleased.

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Philip Carter is Publication Editor at the Oxford DNB and a member of the History Faculty, University of Oxford.