Monday, October 31, 2011

Crossing Over

Source: Wikipedia
I was particularly struck by an article in this week's Times Higher Education: ‘Through the eyes of others (27 Oct–2 Nov 2011). It asked what the positives and pitfalls are of ‘crossing over’ as a life writer, of writing the life of a differently-gendered subject. Can a woman write the life of a man, and vice versa?

The article’s author, Matthew Reisz, surveyed the opinions of various biographers. Many argued for the neutrality of the biographer-subject relationship. For Frances Spalding, gender should present no obstacle: “the notion that certain subjects should be barred to certain people is abhorrent.” For Miranda Seymour, the biographer must adopt the imaginative stance of the fiction writer and “write about either sex with equal empathy and confidence.”

None of the biographers surveyed came out in favour of gender-limited subject choices -- none argued that women should stick to women, and that men should stick to men. Indeed, the benefits of ‘crossing over’ were vehemently defended. Rather than life-writing seeking to transcend the biases and perspectives of gender, to approach all subjects from a position of neutrality, Jane Ridley celebrated the insights afforded by gender difference. She rejected the notion that biographers must “unsex themselves”. Choosing instead to embrace and exploit the gender divide in her own work, emphasising the lives of women in male-dominated spheres and claiming a privileged, yet decidedly gendered view: “As a woman I am more detached, and I hope that I can combine sympathy with salty scepticism.”

In current life-writing theory, much is made of the relationship between the life of the subject (whether biographical or autobiographical) and the lives of others. Theorists have sought to understand how encounters and interactions with relatives, friends and passing strangers impact upon our self-understanding(s). Recent work has also stressed the relationship between different versions of the same life, between different life narratives in successive biographical texts (and I count myself among this number; you can read my article on the different literary ‘portraits’ of Vita Sackville-West here). But we haven’t fully investigated the relationship between biographer and subject, nor the significance of those threads that connect and separate (such as gender, but also race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc). To what extent does the biographer-subject relationship, real or empathetically imagined, gendered or otherwise, function as a ‘script’ that shapes and forms the resulting narrative?

Eliza Lynn Linton
Source: Victorian Web
‘Crossing over’ in life-writing has been something of a hot topic this week. It has also been brought to my attention by the recent arrival through the post of Eliza Lynn Linton’s ‘autobiography in drag’, the gender-bending The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland (first published in 1885; reissued in 2011 by Victorian Secrets). Though we are unlikely now to be surprised by a nineteenth-century woman writer adopting a male pseudonym, there is something distinctly ‘queer’ about this case.

Linton did not require a male pen-name to facilitate her entrance into the literary public sphere; she was already a well-known writer in her own right, and in her own name. Rather, the shift in gender enables (and mitigates) a rather frank revelation of lesbianism. I’m looking forward to reading this book over the coming weeks, and I’ll be keen to see whether Linton’s “literary transvestism” (as it is described on the back cover) is truly liberating. Will the adoption of a male persona restrict Linton’s narrative in other ways? Will it require a certain performance in terms of plot and gendered speaking posture? I guess I’ll have to get reading…

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Allusive Biography: The Life of Charlotte Brontë

Haworth Parsonage, 1860s.
Source: Mick's Pad
I’ve just finished re-reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1857 biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë. The book caused widespread controversy on its first publication; lawsuits were threatened and readers were scandalised by Gaskell’s ventures behind closed doors, her attempts to reveal the private and ‘proper’ woman behind the famous writer. The Life of Charlotte Brontë certainly gives the lie to Victorian biography’s poor reputation for dryness and needless verbosity.

I first read Gaskell’s biography while researching and writing my doctoral thesis. As I re-read the work, I was struck again by a startling and allusive moment. Early in the biography Gaskell describes the  remarkable habit of the three Brontë sisters, pacing up and down the parsonage sitting-room, sharing their ideas for writing, discussing their works in progress and ‘making out’ their plots. After the deaths of Emily and Anne, Charlotte continues this ritual alone:

Three sisters had done this,—then two, the other sister dropping off from the walk,—and now one was left desolate to listen for echoing steps that never came,—and to hear the wind sobbing at the windows, with an almost articulate sound. (381)

All the grim superstitions of the North had been implanted in [Charlotte Brontë] during her childhood by the servants, who believed in them. They recurred to her now,—with no shrinking from the spirits of the Dead, but with such an intense longing once more to stand face to face with the souls of her sisters, as no one could have felt. It seemed as if the very strength of her yearning should have compelled them to appear. On windy nights, cries, and sobs, and wailings seemed to go round the house, as of the dearly-beloved striving to force their way to her. (401) 
Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, ed. by Alan Shelston (London: Penguin, 1985)

Wuthering Heights, 1847
Source: Wikipedia
The tone of these passages may surprise you—this is biography, remember, not fiction. But Gaskell’s biography is as lyrical and dramatic as any novel, and the more seasoned Brontë readers among you may well have been struck by something familiar.

Do you remember Lockwood’s dream from the opening section of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights? Do you remember Heathcliff’s reaction to this dream?

I was lying in the oak closet, and I heard distinctly the gusty wind, and the driving of the snow; I heard, also, the fir bough repeat its teasing sound, and ascribed it to the right cause: but it annoyed me so much, that I resolved to silence it, if possible; and, I thought, I rose and endeavoured to unhasp the casement. The hook was soldered into the staple: a circumstance observed by me when awake, but forgotten. ‘I must stop it, nevertheless!’ I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in—let me in!’ ‘Who are you?’ I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself. ‘Catherine Linton,’ it replied, shiveringly […] ‘I’m come home: I’d lost my way on the moor!’ (20) 

[Heathcliff] got on to the bed, and wrenched open the lattice, bursting, as he pulled at it, into an uncontrollable passion of tears. ‘Come in! come in!’ he sobbed. ‘Cathy, do come. Oh, do—once more! Oh! my heart’s darling! hear me this time—Catherine, at last!’ The spectre showed a spectre’s ordinary caprice: it gave no sign of being; but the snow and wind whirled wildly through, even reaching my station, and blowing out the light. (24) 
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, ed. by Ian Jack (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Gaskell transforms Charlotte Brontë’s act of pacing—and thus her continued attempts to write—into a ghostly haunting, employing a direct and explicit (yet unnamed, unspoken) allusion to her dead sister’s only novel. Thus she blurs the dividing line between life narrative and fiction. The biography appropriates the energy and fantasy of Emily’s novel, and strange moments like this punctuate Gaskell’s text. They typically deal with Brontë as a writer, whereas realist narratives are used to depict Brontë as a ‘proper’ woman. Here, therefore, the ghostly allusion to Wuthering Heights serves to displace Brontë’s act of writing, making it somehow ‘unreal’, strange and supernatural.

The allusiveness of Gaskell’s biography, its use and borrowing from a range of texts (declared or otherwise), reveals the permeable nature of genres and the artificiality of separate traditions where fiction and non-fiction are rendered asunder.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Holy Flying Circus

Holy Flying Circus, broadcast on BBC Four earlier this week (19.10.11), contained all the classic ingredients of TV biopic.

The cast of Holy Flying Circus (left to right): Steve Punt as Eric Idle,
Phil Nichol as Terry Gilliam, Charles Edwards as Michael Palin,
Tom Fisher as Graham Chapman; Darren Boyd as John Cleese,
and Rufus Jones as Terry Jones.
First of all, the plot was grounded in a recognisable history: that of Monty Python as comic phenomenon, and debates in the 1970s over social permissiveness and TV censorship. It re-told the story of Python’s Life of Brian, the controversy it sparked even before its release in cinemas, and the attempted defence of the film by John Cleese and Michael Palin on the BBC chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning. Thus far, we remain safely in biopic territory.

The show’s casting and character performances made for an uncanny viewing experience. Close physical likenesses aside (and these were particularly striking, just look at Steve Punt as Eric Idle!), a broader attempt for accuracy was being made. In the Friday Night, Saturday Morning sequence, Charles Edwards and Darren Boyd, playing Michael Palin and John Cleese respectively, both re-enacted, with an accuracy we now associate with Michael Sheen (in films such as Frost/Nixon), the Pythons’ behaviours and utterances. In the slot immediately following Holy Flying Circus, BBC Four broadcast the original interview. Viewers who stayed up to watch both programmes could see that the drama not only reproduced original dialogue, but had reconstructed the multi-coloured, multi-foliaged Friday Night, Saturday Morning set. This pairing invited comparisons between ‘original’ and ‘copy’; it seemed to demonstrate a confidence in the drama’s accuracy, reinforcing its links to actual events.

Cleese and Palin on Friday Night, Saturday Morning (1979).
Source: Wikipedia
Biopic, then. A genre -- to adapt George Custen’s definition -- that depicts the lives of historical persons; a genre comparable to literary biography and sharing in its problematic claims to “truth, accuracy and interpretation”. But Holy Flying Circus was something more, something different. Indeed, it demonstrated a keen awareness that truth and accuracy are problematic -- that any claim to represent ‘real life’ should be treated as suspect. And anyone, I am sure, who saw the programme will realise that something fundamental is missing from my description above.

A biopic, yes. But a delightfully, self-consciously Pythonesque biopic. Fantasy sequences erupt into -- and disrupt -- the programme’s nominally factual narrative. Described by the BBC as a “re-imagining” of events, Holy Flying Circus employed Gilliam-inspired animation, a puppetry fight sequence between Palin and Cleese (complete with Star Wars light sabre), an Inception­-like sequence of multi-layered nightmare, Stephen Fry as God, and a whole range of self-conscious anachronisms. It was also richly intertextual, referencing many famous Python gags. Rufus Jones played Terry Jones, but also Terry Jones in character as Michael Palin’s wife, cue a manly walk and occasional gruff voice, reminiscent of Mandy (mother of Brian) and the falsely-bearded women who surreptitiously attend a stoning. Standing-in for Mary Whitehouse’s ‘Festival of Light’ pressure group are The Popular People’s Church of St. Sophia, formerly The People’s Church of St. Sophia, formerly The St. Sophian People’s Church. And these are just two of the many, many allusions that Python fans will enjoy, and which serve to distance Holy Flying Circus from traditional biopic. Their inclusion, it might be argued, offers a parallel biographical strand, one concerned with Python’s humour, style, and ethos, thus extending the reach of the programme beyond the immediate events of 1979. But these references also signify performance and the (re)construction of events; they highlight (and make a virtue of) the impossibility of holding a mirror to the past.

But as a life-writing researcher, it was the portrayal of John Cleese that interested me most. In one of the many interrupting sequences, a “Party Political Broadcast by John Cleese on behalf of John Cleese” made it clear that the subject we saw on screen was “based loosely” on the “Basil Fawlty persona”. For me, this moment encapsulated the programme’s complex play with life narrative and representation. We expect -- to return again to George Custen -- that biopic is concerned with historical persons, but here this is undermined by a self-conscious disavowal. We are watching ‘Boyd as Cleese as Fawlty’, not Boyd as the historical Cleese. What makes this more intriguing is the suggestion, writ large, that Cleese has become inseparable from Fawlty in our popular consciousness. Thus, life narratives are shown to create and reinforce ‘character’ rather than reveal a pre-existing and referential subject. Where the Friday Night, Saturday Morning sequence signalled accurate reconstruction, here the necessarily fictive quality of biopic is revealed.

I will end, however, where Holy Flying Circus began. In the programme's opening sequence, Ben Crispin as Jesus addresses the camera: he asserts that most of what we are about to see is “largely made up… like the Bible”. Without daring to open this theological can of worms, I’ll simply suggest this statement resonates in terms of genre and that Holy Flying Circus has much to tell us about the creativity of life narrative and biopic.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Looking Glasses At Odd Corners

Source: Wikipedia
The title of this, my new blog, is taken from Virginia Woolf's essay, 'The Art of Biography'. She argues that modern day biographers, living in a world of fast communications and new media, must be prepared to experiment -- must be prepared to hang 'looking glasses at odd corners', to 'admit contradictory versions of the same face.'

Woolf was writing in 1939 -- a time when photography, telephones, radio and cinema were changing the way we perceived our selves, our lives and our relations with others (not to mention the epoch-making war that loomed around the corner). But how contemporary these words sound? How relevant to us today? New technologies, such as social media and immersive online environments, have revolutionised the way we present and represent our lives, our selves. Can the voice and identity I adopt on Twitter (@AmberRegis) be called authentic? What about the voice and identity I adopt here as I blog? If the medium is the message (to repeat Marshall McLuhan's well-worn phrase), how do such forums shape the way I turn my life into a story? 

Questions such as these intrigue me, but they cannot be limited to our 20th and 21st-century modernity. As such, my eyes as a researcher are often cast backwards. I spend my days with Victorian life writing -- with biographies and autobiographies from the long 19th century. Such works have a bad reputation. In the same essay quoted above, Woolf compares Victorian biography to the wax figures carried in funeral processions, baring only 'a smooth superficial likeness to the body in the coffin.' Victorian autobiographies and biographies alike share in this tainted view: they are seen to be long, prosaic, preachy, censored, dull. Much is the fault of the modernists. The critical views of Woolf and her contemporaries -- particularly those of Lytton Strachey in his Preface to Eminent Victorians (1918) -- have stuck, have been oft-repeated, and have become a truism. But surely Victorian life writing was just as concerned with questions of how we craft a life in language? Just as concerned to try out new ideas and explore new forms? Just as concerned to hang looking glasses at odd corners? As 21st-century readers, we might not warm to the answers they give, but we must not dismiss them.

For my part, I am intrigued by the Victorian/modern divide, and I enjoy looking for continuities as well as breaks. What form(s) do life narratives take? How do genres and media blend and borrow from each other? To what use(s) are life narratives put? My blog will explore these issues. I will try out new ideas. I will discuss things that interest me (and hopefully you, dear reader). It will be a life narrative of my very own, filled with the books I read, the events I attend, and the musings I have.