Monday, January 30, 2012

Virginia Woolf Birthday Lecture, 28 January 2012

Virginia Woolf (photographed in 1902)
by George Charles Beresford
Source: Wikipedia
Last Saturday I travelled down to London for the annual Virginia Woolf birthday lecture organised by the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain. Fittingly, the event was held in the Keynes Library at 43 Gordon Square, complete with Vanessa Bell paintings looking down upon the audience from the rather grand walls. There was birthday cake and champagne, and a fascinating lecture by Michael Whitworth on the topic of ‘Virginia Woolf, Fame and Gloire’.

Whitworth traced the nuances of fame, reputation and ‘afterlives’ as debated and explored in Woolf’s fiction, essays and her correspondence with Logan Pearsall Smith. Ranging from Night and Day to Between the Acts -- and taking in Jacob’s Room, To The Lighthouse and Orlando along the way -- Whitworth teased out the multiple meanings of fame and longevity in Woolf’s work. What is the relationship between the celebrity of an author and the value of a text? Is fame to be measured in terms of money, revenue and sales? Or is it the product of genius and the result of a lasting work of art? And where is the book as physical object in all this? What is the relationship, if any, between the preservation of pages and bindings, and preservation of a writers’ reputation?

An extended version of Whitworth’s lecture will soon be published and available to buy from the VWSGB, and I look forward to getting my hands on a copy. As a life-writing researcher, I was intrigued by the questions raised and Whitworth’s exploration of the relationship between authors (or author figures in fiction) and texts, between authors and books. For Whitworth, Logan Pearsall Smith -- with whom Woolf debated the issue of fame, defending modern writers against accusations of debased chasing after money -- provided the model for Nick Greene in Orlando (revising a critical tradition that would have Edmund Gosse as the template for this character). As readers, we are invited to suspect Nick Greene and his championing of ‘gloire’; he is vulgar, grotesque and his views seem detached from the realities of the writing and book trade, from the vitality of writing as it is practised now, with his head stuck firmly in the past. But the reference to Nick Greene set my mind to thinking about a different aspect of fame, reputation and ‘afterlives’…

Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry: A Biography (1940)
Nick Greene writes a satire of his patron Orlando; as such, the ‘gloire’ of his poem depends on the cannibalised reputation of another. Orlando as a novel is a mock-biography of Vita Sackville-West and much of its humour and playfulness depends on the reputation (and infamy) of its subject. While Woolf was writing Between the Acts and exploring the lastingness -- or rather, the “scraps, orts, and fragments” [1] -- of a work of art, she was also writing her life of Roger Fry, a book that would cause much difficulty in the writing, not least because of the responsibility she felt to friends and family to ‘capture’ Roger, yet also to preserve and protect his reputation. When dealing with his affair with her sister, Vanessa Bell, Woolf exclaimed: “What am I to say about you? […] Do give me some views; how to deal with love so that we’re not all blushing” [2].

In the case of Roger Fry, the fame and reputation of the biographer was intimately tied to, and responsible for, the fame and reputation of the biographical subject. It is striking, therefore, that Roger Fry is the most forgotten, most neglected of Woolf’s major works; it enjoys the least fame and the most doubted, the most questioned reputation. (It is, however, a fascinating biography offering a sensitive and experimental account of Fry’s life -- but this is an argument for another day.)

Literary biography is a pertinent genre for an exploration of fame and longevity: of text, of subject, of biographer. And thus, when the published version of Whitworth’s lecture arrives through my letterbox, I’ll be keen to see how its arguments relate to Woolf’s career-long interest in the writing of lives.

[1] Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts, ed. by Frank Kermode (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 169.

[2] Virginia Woolf to Vanessa Bell, 8 October 1938. Leave The Letters Till We’re Dead. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume Six: 1936-1941, ed. by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (London: The Hogarth Press, 1980, p. 285.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

TLS, 20 January 2012

Just a quick note to announce the publication of my ‘In Brief’ review of Richard Locke’s Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) in this week’s Times Literary Supplement (20 January 2012).

Source: Columbia University Press

Locke’s study accomplishes that difficult task of balancing astute criticism with readability; his chapters perform elegant and absorbing close readings, and will no doubt captivate both academic and popular audiences. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On Blogging and Being Busy

Little Crackers
Source: Sky 1
Regular visitors to the blog will no doubt have realised this is not the long awaited third instalment of my series on celebrity memoir. Be assured this post is on its way and will feature a discussion of Little Crackers, a series of mini celebrity biopics aired on Sky 1 over Christmas.

But in my first post, I described this blog as ‘a life narrative of my very own’. And so, it only seems appropriate that I interject a brief, autobiographical account of what I’ve been up to, the projects I have on the go, and how these relate not only to life narrative, but also to the act of blogging.

What’s the phrase? We apologise for the disruption, normal blogging services will be resumed as soon as possible. But why the disruption? In brief, I’ve been busy. January has brought with it the beginning of a new semester and an increased teaching load. But there is much to look forward to, and two of the modules I am teaching will involve the study of life narratives. (Life writing continues to be under-represented on university syllabi, most often limited to specialist modules, read in isolation, and only rarely alongside other texts and genres.)

An Account of the Trial Execution and
Dying Behaviour of Henry Fauntleroy (1824)
Source: Criminal Broadsides Project
Harvard Law School Library
In Prison Voices at LJMU I will be making use of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century criminal broadsides (many courtesy of the Old Bailey Online). Published and sold to accompany public executions, these pamphlets contain the fictive, “ventriloquised” confessions and laments of criminals -- a macabre souvenir of the day.

I will also be teaching a survey course for the Open University on The Arts Past and Present (AA100). The module ranges across disciplines, from philosophy to music, religion to architecture, literature to film. The course is arranged into four thematic books, the first of which is titled Reputations. This book investigates the concept of fame (and infamy) and how the biographical/historical record shifts and changes, how lives are constructed and reconstructed, how reputations wax and wane, ebb and flow.

This has been a topic of interest in my own work, and last year I published an article exploring competing accounts of Vita Sackville-West’s life and how her sexuality has been subject to successive concealments and revelations. It will be a treat to return to these issues, to investigate new and different case studies (and these will include Cleopatra, Stalin and the Dalai Lama).

I’ve also had a few exciting commissions in recent weeks. I’ve been invited to become a guest blogger at JVC Online (the virtual counterpart to the academic journal, Journal of Victorian Culture). So keep a look out for link ups and re-posts between this blog and JVC Online!

I’ve also been invited to write a short article on blogging and Twitter in the field of Victorian Studies. Now this may raise a few eyebrows. Academics have a reputation for resembling their research and many terrible stereotypes result: historians are as dusty as archives; artists are bohemian; mathematicians are bespectacled and methodical. From the outside looking in, therefore, Victorian Studies might not seem particularly fertile ground – surely we’d all be happier communicating via the telegraph and through letters with a penny black stamp? Well, you might be surprised. There are so many interesting Victorian bloggers and tweeters, and the field of Victorian Studies has produced a vast and diverse array of digital projects, such as the Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition, the Database of Mid-Victorian Wood-Engraved Illustration, and Charles Darwin Online (to name but a very few).

As I set out on my adventures through the Victorian Studies blogosphere, look out for posts and tweets asking for your opinions and input. To what uses are blogs and Twitter put in the field of Victorian Studies? Do users represent a distinct demographic? Are they PhD students and early career academics? Are they on the receiving end of bemused looks and skepticism from more senior (and older) colleagues? Or, is this an unfair distinction? What identities are adopted and performed by Victorian Studies academic and enthusiasts in the blogosphere and on Twitter? I’ll be considering all of these questions in the coming weeks, so get your thinking caps on!

Thank you for your patience; normal blogging services will now resume…