Friday, December 30, 2011

Top of the Blog: 2011

And so 2011 is drawing to a close, and so too is my first year in the blogosphere. What has surprised me most is the breadth of readership and the distance a blog post can travel. Though one can see changes in academe, particularly with the rise of open-access publishing, the audience I can reach here far outstrips that enjoyed by work I’ve published more 'formally'.

Here I am able to explore tentative new ideas, those musings and wonderings that will form the basis of future research topics and projects. I am also able to explore new themes, new genres and new historical periods. In particular, I have enjoyed writing about popular culture and the contemporary moment, the worlds of film and television. And it is these posts that top my 2011 ‘hit parade’, my top three (well, top four, since I have a joint-third) ‘most read’ posts of the year:

1          Holy Flying Circus

Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting -- for turning the experience of blogging into a dialogue, a conversation. I look forward to writing more posts in 2012 (and look out for my next on celebrity mini-biopic, the third in a series on celebrity memoir at Christmas). I’ll also be writing a short article on blogging, Twitter and their impact/uses in the field of Victorian Studies, so please look out for posts and tweets asking for your thoughts and experiences!

Wishing you a very prosperous 2012.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Celebrity Memoir II: Dear Fatty

Last week I blogged about the Christmas trade in celebrity memoir, and by coincidence or serendipity, last Friday’s Guardian Books podcast contained a segment on the genre. In it, Claire Armitstead interviews John Harris, a Guardian writer whose recent article in the G2 pitted ‘sleb tome against ‘sleb tome, seeking (with tongue in cheek) the ultimate celebrity memoir. Harris is asked (in a somewhat leading fashion) whether the quality of these works is responsible for their falling sales; he replies in a familiar strain: “I would like to think, having now read close to twenty of these things, that […] the penny is starting to drop with the reading public and they’re realising, by and large, what an awful, awful thing these are and therefore stepping away.’

So much for the sympathetic stance of the Guardian described in my last post. But are they really ‘awful, awful’ things? And will reading them really drive you mad (as Harris claims earlier in the podcast)? I have already suggested that the press coverage ‘enjoyed’ by celebrity memoir, with its refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the form, is steeped in literary snobbishness. But might this stance be justified? To answer these questions, I’ve had to delve beneath the (celebrity memoir) covers…

This last week I’ve been casting an eye over Dawn French’s bestselling 2008 memoir, Dear Fatty. In terms of viewing celebrity memoir as a Christmas trade -- as a cynical, money-making collusion between ‘star’ and publisher -- this title seems to fit the bill and adhere to stereotypes. In April 2007, The Sunday Times reported that a bidding war had broken out, with publishers fighting over French’s then unwritten memoir. A week later, it reported that £2 million had been paid, with Century (part of Random House) winning the battle. Dear Fatty was also a popular success, selling more than 344, 857 copies by 6 December 2008 -- something sure to raise the hackles and suspicions of the literary establishment.

I freely confess to being surprised by Dear Fatty. First of all, it demonstrates a sophisticated awareness of genre, its limits and traditions. French resists the linear, Bildungsroman plot of much autobiography, and rejects this as a label for her work: “I have decided to think of this book as a memoir rather than an autobiography” (ix). Now, “memoir” is the term most commonly applied to celebrity works -- and it is also the description I have used, for the sake of clarity. However, one suspects that memoir is often applied in a derogatory sense, suggesting an inability to reach and attain the dizzy heights of autobiographical aesthetic unity and coherence. But French embraces the fragmentary, the disruptions to chronology, the biases associated with memoir. Rather than tell her story in a logical, ordered fashion, she will focus instead “on those memories that are especially important or vivid to me. The parts of my life I can still remember the taste and feel and smell of” (ix) [1].

These stand-out moments, encounters and events are narrated, not in flowing retrospective prose, but in a series of letters to various significant others: mother, dead father, brother, niece, daughter, old boyfriends, Jennifer Saunders, Lenny Henry, etc. Each letter assumes a different audience, and thus necessitates a different performance -- a different epistolary self (to borrow a phrase from life-writing theory). Letters to the absent father, who committed suicide when French was just nineteen, strike a plaintive, melancholic note without recourse to cloying sentiment or indulgent prose. Letters to ‘Fatty’ (French’s nickname for Saunders and a playful sleight of hand undermining reader’s expectations, the common assumption that ‘Fatty’ is French herself), by contrast, adopt an intimate and confessional tone, something akin to a (jocular) therapist’s couch. Interrupting this succession of relational selves, where each addressee shapes the autobiographical subject, is the occasional comic letter, including several to Madonna (who never agreed to appear io a French and Saunders show), fan-mail to David Cassidy and the Monkees, and an application form “to become a lifelong friend and loyal admirer of Liza Tarbuck” (205). As a reader, I felt these moments jarred; they seemed contrived, a forced attempt to reintroduce French’s public, comic persona. But again, they demonstrate a controlled playing with genre: the blurring of fact and fiction, injecting moments of levity and displacing the act of self-representation. These comic set pieces enable a pause for breath before the next letter, the next addressee and the next “important or vivid” moment.

One further surprise was the understated revelation of Dear Fatty. Where press coverage of celebrity memoir had led me to expect a voyeuristic reading experience -- replete with showbiz gossip, family secrets and ‘kiss and tell’ -- I found instead a tempered reticence. As one might suspect, letters to French’s father are raw and emotive, frequently returning to the subject of his early death and long absence. But they do not dwell or revel in the details of his suicide. When French tackles the subject, about half way through the book, her account breaks down; it fractures into questions, thus rescuing her from the task of narrating the act. But while attention is diverted onto the impact and aftermath, frightening glimpses remain: “Did you weep? Did we cross your mind? […] Did you pray that someone would knock on the car window at the very last moment and drag you out?” (216). As such, the memoir exercises a restrained exposure, a delicate balancing act between private hurts, intimate experience, and the public narration of a public persona. It follows that readers hoping for a behind-closed-doors exposé of French’s marriage to Lenny Henry and his rumoured infidelities will be disappointed. She begins her letter to “Len” with a reassuring guarantee -- “Obviously there are things I can’t and won’t write about in these pages” (303) – and continues to describe, with no exact details, the time their relationship was “buffeted by a tornado” (309). The villain of the piece is the British press, those who “dump their buckets of sleaze and schadenfreude” (309), and not “Len”. No exposé, no retribution, no ‘cheat and tell’.

Contra John Harris and the G2, reading Dear Fatty did not drive me mad. I enjoyed its jumps in chronology, its collage of vivid memories and adoption of multiple voices. While it would be naïve to claim Dear Fatty as  representative of celebrity memoir as a whole, it certainly suggests the diverse range of textual practice lurking behind that now-derogatory label. And is celebrity memoir truly on the wane? While sales this year are undeniably down, I suspect they’ll be hitting our shelves with undiminished vigour next year. While there is potential to play, to challenge and experiment – evidenced by Dear Fatty, and I, Partridge in my last post – there is potential for more celebrity memoir.

[1] Dawn French [2008], Dear Fatty (London: Arrow, 2009). All further references are to this edition.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Celebrity Memoirs I: A Tale of Literary Snobbishness?

Certain news stories recur with amusing frequency, and Christmas is a ripe time for Lazarus-like reappearances. Worried by spectres of debt, each year we are warned of the dangers of overusing our credit cards. And yet, at the same time, we hear of the high street’s woes, the waning foot-fall and revenues, and the inevitable early start of the ‘January’ sales. Life-writing too has its annual cycle, and at Christmas the book-charts are seemingly overrun by celebrity memoirs.

Much-loved yet much-maligned, ‘sleb’ tomes appear on the shelves in September and October each year, eyes (and marketing campaigns) set firmly on their hoped-for destinations: in our Christmas stockings, under our Christmas trees. And yet, ever since the economic downturn hit in 2008 -- since the credit well and truly began to crunch -- news reports have announced (and celebrated) the death of celebrity life-writing. Let’s take The Times as our example…

In 2008, the paper reported that “cash-strapped consumers [were] tiring of reading about celebrity lifestyles” -- indeed, “celebrity autobiographies” were at “the weakest end” of a struggling market. A year later, and in gleeful tone, The Times confidently remarked that “the decline of celebrity memoir comes as no great surprise.” In 2010 there was a new spin on this favourite story: the runaway success of Aleksandr Orlov’s A Simples Life (yes, that’s right, the meerkat from the adverts) was the cause of much hilarity, not least because it beat new memoirs by Stephen Fry and Paul O’Grady to the top of The Sunday Times non-fiction bestseller list. But what about this year? In yesterday’s Biteback column, Richard Brooks declared that celebrity memoirs were “staying stubbornly on the bookshop shelves.” He suggested we might finally be bored with celebrity culture, bored with “reading about the banal and the bleeding obvious.”

But what story do sales figures tell? 2006 was a bumper year for celebrity memoir, in large part due to the runaway success of Peter Kay’s The Sound of Laughter (582, 446 copies sold by Christmas, and continuing to sell well in 2007). Sales peaked in 2008 when the triumvirate of Dawn French, Paul O’Grady and Julie Walters dominated the charts. Since then, sales have declined but there has been no dramatic slump comparable to the tenacious rhetoric employed by the Times. (Forecast figures in the Guardian, however, suggest there will indeed be a noticeable drop in 2011 sales).

In a recent piece for the Guardian, Richard Lea considers why celebrity memoirs might be “[losing] star power at the tills” (yes, that’s right, this recurring story is not a Times exclusive, but the Guardian takes a different tack -- more on this anon). Lea interviews Jonathan Ruppin (of Foyles Bookshop) and his comments are singularly telling. Ruppin views current bestseller I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan (Steve Coogan’s fictional mock-autobiography of his best-known character, and spoof of the celebrity genre), as a death-knell, a sign that “[c]elebrity memoir is fading fast.” He also blames falling sales on “buyer-fatigue”: “There’s a limit to how many Christmasses in a row you can buy someone a celebrity autobiography without looking like you’re not really putting much effort in.”

“It’s the best book I’ve ever written and one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s not Hilary Mantel, it’s not Simon Schama, it’s not Andrew McNab. It’s all of those, yet it’s none of them...yet all of them.” -- Alan Partridge on I, Partridge


There are two points I’d like to address: 1) I, Partridge (and mock life-writing in general) as outrider of the apocalypse for celebrity memoir, and 2) the lavish overtone of literary snobbishness that tends to colour news reporting on celebrity memoir.

Smith College Libraries
I, Partridge follows in a long and esteemed line of mock life-writing. Virginia Woolf, for example, lampooned literary traditions of biography (particularly the ‘two fat volumes’ of Victorian biography, to borrow Lytton Strachey’s phrase) in Orlando (1928), before moving on to write the life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet cocker spaniel in Flush (1933). Elsewhere and earlier, George and Weedon Grossmith lampooned middle-class pomposity and self-importance (‘Pooterish-ness’) in their mock-autobiographical Diary of a Nobody (serialised in Punch between 1888-9). These texts are all subversive; they play with our expectations of genre and they expose or challenge social behaviours and norms. Coogan’s text is no different, and his ‘Pooterish’ Partridge fits neatly in the tradition of the Grossmith brothers. Coogan’s text also tells us something about the formulaic structures and plotting of much celebrity memoir, just as Woolf exposed the pruderies and omissions of Victorian biographical practice. And yet, a healthy dose of satire has never killed off a genre. Rather, it reinvigorates and reinvents.

Pooter paints the bath
Diary of a Nobody 
Orlando, Flush, and Diary of a Nobody. All three enjoy canonical status; they are welcomed with open arms by literary and academic audiences and they are blessed with scholarly editions on publishers’ lists. But I, Partridge, though enjoying popular success, has been met with critical suspicion. This treatment is representative of general trends, in which celebrity memoirs -- in an age too close to enjoy the benefits of hindsight -- are widely ridiculed and derided. What lies behind Richard Brooks’ conflation of celebrity memoir with the “banal and bleeding obvious” (above)? What sentiment informs Erica Wagner’s belief that a “silver lining” of the recession has been the declining sales of “volumes [and yes, he is talking about celebrity memoirs] that some would barely classify as ‘books’.” And why, might we ask, is the apparent decline in “serious biography” blamed on the rise of “vapid celebrity memoirs […] flooding the market”? These reports, reviews and headlines (and again, these examples have been taken from The Times and Sunday Times) are awash with snobbery.

Celebrity memoirs are bad; they are not literature. This has become a critical truism. But more sensitive portrayals do exist. In his piece for the Guardian, Richard Lea balances the view of Jonathan Ruppin with soundbites taken from an interview with Alan Samson (from Weidenfield & Nicolson publishers). Rather than duplicate the dominant rhetoric of a race to the bottom in terms of gossip and vulgar revelation, Samson argues that increasing numbers of celebrity memoirs have produced a comparable rise in quality: “A really good celebrity book today is much better than it used to be -- better written, better structured and much more honest. Showbiz memoirs used to be just a bunch of anecdotes strung together which gave nothing away, but now they really tell the story of a life.” In a saturated market, it seems, your book has to be good to stand out. Mark Lawson has also been sympathetic in his view of the genre. Again, writing in the Guardian, he applauds the rise in “gently confessional”, self-penned celebrity memoirs. These too have produced a rise in quality: they “[contain] more essence of the person than the soulless airline-magazine tones that ghostwriters tend to apply to the tapes they transcribe.”

Inspired by these glimmers of hope, I determined to go out in search of celebrity memoirs, to read them for myself and to judge them for myself. The fact I have never read any in the past suggests my complicity with the snobbishness on display in the newspaper articles above. And yes, when faced with the rows of memoirs in an Oxfam bookshop, there were certain titles I could not bring myself to buy -- these included books by Chris Moyles and Katie Price. But I managed to choose three titles: Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles, Dawn French’s Dear Fatty and Rupert Everett’s Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins.

Of the three, Dear Fatty has caught my attention and interest. But will my reaction be derision (in the style of The Times), sympathy (in the style of the Guardian) or (gasp!) could it be praise? Dear reader, you’ll just have to wait and see (until my next blog post that is...).

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Objects and Material Things II: Souvenirs and Collecting

Last week I blogged about two very different life-narratives emerging from two very similar items: Victorian decoupage screens -- one created by a man, Charles Dickens, and the other created by a woman, Jane Welsh Carlyle.

In turn, this was cited by Charlotte Mathieson, an early-career researcher at the University of Warwick, in a post exploring literary tourism in the run up to Dickens’s bicentenary in 2012. Mathieson argues for a similar process of storytelling at work in human interactions with place/space. In the case of Dickensian tourism, “[London] is experienced like a material object”: its streets and buildings seem to offer “a physical manifestation” of Dickens’s life and work. Thus, in engaging with the city, the Dickensian tourist seeks an “authentic connection” to author and text. Mathieson is rightly sceptical and she warns against simplistic readings that conflate “real and represented places/spaces”.

Nonetheless, the phenomenon is intriguing and Mathieson’s discussion of tourism puts me in mind of one further category of material object: the souvenir.

The author at Haworth, complete with souvenir tea-towel
Source: Photograph author's own
Souvenirs often depend on life-narratives for their resonance and meaning(s). In turn, their collection and arrangement can produce life-narratives of their own (a form of self-curation on the part of the collector). The rather embarrassing Brontë tea-towel I am clutching in this photo, complete with Haworth parsonage in the background (with modern extension cut out of shot), will serve as an example.

Why did I buy that tea-towel? Putting aside any claims I might make to ironic purchasing -- to a self-conscious seeking out of tacky/kitsch items -- my selection of the tea-towel was first and foremost the result of my interest in the life and works of the Brontë sisters. But you’ll not be surprised to hear that little can be gleaned on either count from the tea-towel itself -- I was already aware of the sisters’ names and the places they inhabited, and the tea-towel told me nothing at all of their works! But I purchased it anyway, and it seems to me the only reason I did so was to take a piece of Haworth away with me: a physical reminder; proof (if proof were ever needed) of my visit and of my own presence in the spaces previously inhabited/experienced by the Brontës.

It is particularly apt, in the light of Mathieson’s post on Dickensian tourism, that the tea-towel is primarily concerned with place. And one can safely assume that the manufacturer is targeting an audience who has visited these places (on some form of Brontë pilgrimage). As souvenir, therefore, it seeks to preserve that interaction with place/space described by Matheison; it becomes the material trace or remnant of that hoped-for “authentic connection” with text and author.

Some souvenirs from the author's collection
Source: Photograph author's own
But surely the tea-towel also says something about me? (And I would ask you to be kind…) Again, you’ll not be surprised to hear that I own several other items of a ‘literary-touristical’ persuasion. I have a mug from Sissinghurst Castle, home of Vita Sackville-West; I have pencils and pens from several writers’ homes now in the possession of the National Trust; I even have a Virginia Woolf fridge magnet.

It’s quite a collection, and one that continues to swell. In their accumulation and combination these objects cease to tell stories about their subject alone, and begin to tell stories about me. In her work on collecting, Susan Pearce views souvenirs as part of “our attempt to make sense of our personal histories”: their collection is thus representative of our efforts “to create an essential personal and social self” [1]. Souvenirs, therefore, are aids to self-fashioning. Tea-towel, mug, pencil, pens and fridge magnet all serve to ‘narrate’ my interest in nineteenth and twentieth-century literature; they help to construct and reinforce my sense of self as a literary critic and book lover.

But, to end with a question, is the self of my souvenir collection any more or less authentic than the engagement with author and text promised by literary tourism, by walking the streets of modern-day London in the footsteps of Dickens and his characters?

[1] Susan M. Pearce, ‘Collecting reconsidered’, in Interpreting Objects and Collections, ed. by Susan M. Pearce (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 193-204 (p. 196).

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Objects and Material Things I: Reading Screens

Source: Wikipedia
Charles Dickens has been in the news a lot recently. With his bicentenary in 2012, events and celebrations are being announced with increasing frequency (such as a BFI film festival and Dickens-inspired  schedule at the BBC).

One story that caught my eye in particular was the preservation work being carried out on a screen divider decorated by Dickens and William Macready in the 1850s.

Pasted over with pictures cut from prints and periodicals, this decoupage screen offers a composite snapshot of nineteenth-century politics, as well as historical, literary and scientific cultures: Lord Nelson, The Duke of Wellington, Napoleon, Henry VIII, several Shakespearean scenes, William Blake, Lord Byron, Isaac Newton, etc.

Charles Dickens' and William Macready's screen
Source: Daily Mail
The screen has been donated by Macready’s descendants to Sherborne House, Macready’s home in Dorset. Speaking in the Daily Mail, John Sunderland-Smith (chairman of the Friends of Sherborne House) described the screen as an educational device: ‘The pictures include the names of the day as well as Shakespeare and classical history -- things Macready would want his children to know’ [1]. As such, the act of decoupage, of cutting and pasting together, is read in terms of its ability to preserve and narrate. Each disparate image recalls an individual or event (someone or something deemed worthy of a place on the screen), but they combine to tell a broader story -- a distinctly national story, a snapshot of this sceptred isle, what the Daily Mail has called the ‘who’s who of Victorian England’.

Dickens’ and Macready’s screen is not the only one of its kind. Decoupage was a popular Victorian leisure activity, although one more commonly associated with feminine handicrafts. Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of Thomas Carlyle, decorated a similar screen in the late 1840s. The afterlife of this screen sheds a different light on the material objects’ relation to narrative and history.

Jane Welsh Carlyle's screen
Source: National Trust
After her death in 1866, Carlyle prepared an edition of Jane’s letters. On reaching a description of her screen, he offered the following comment: ‘Stands here to this day, the beautifullest and cleverest screen I have ever seen. How strange, how mournfully affecting to me now’ [2]. Here the screen is a tangible memorial; it embodies the same virtues -- the same cleverness and beauty -- that Carlyle mourns in his dead wife. He bequeathed the screen to Jane’s niece, Mary Aitken, for she ‘[knew] by whom it was made’ and understood ‘the value I have always put upon it, and will take best care of it to the end of her life’ [3]. Thus, in seeking to preserve the screen, Carlyle seeks to keep the memory of its creator alive.

Dickens’ screen has now become part of this biographical discourse -- his screen (and his personality invariably eclipses the input of Macready) is a relic, part of the physical record of his life and something to be visited and admired. Jane Welsh Carlyle’s screen remains on display at Carlyle’s House, 5 (now no. 24) Cheyne Row, and work is under way to identify her pasted images. Both offer an insight into the life narratives that emerge from, and are constructed by, material objects -- human interactions with objects, and the crafting and shaping of objects, become a form of storytelling.

But these stories are never neutral. For example, the two screens produce differently gendered narratives: Dickens and public, national history; Jane Welsh Carlyle and private, familial memory (despite the equally public, equally historical nature of her selected images). I’ll end, therefore, with some questions. How do we read objects, or the manipulation of material things, in the lives of auto/biographical subjects? Do we use them to support or challenge pre-existing life scripts? (In the case of Jane Welsh Carlyle, decoupage as a domestic, feminine handicraft. In the case of Dickens,  decoupage as a masculine engagement with public, national histories.)

A forthcoming conference at the new Oxford Centre for Life-Writing on the ‘Lives of Objects’ (September 2013) will provide the perfect arena to investigate further.

[1] ‘The who's who of Victorian England pasted on to a 7ft divider by Charles Dickens to educate an actor friend's children’, Daily Mail, 24 October 2011,

[2] Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle. Prepared for Publication by Thomas Carlyle, ed. by James Anthony Froude, 3 vols (London: Longmans, Green, 1883), II, p. 38.

[3] Cited in Carlyle’s House (The National Trust, 1979), p. 23.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Life Narratives in the News

Source: Flickr (Creative Commons)
Lots of life narrative stories have caught my eye in the past week…

Offering some useful reflections on nonfiction (and 'creative nonfiction') and its relation to constructed selves/identities, Fassler reviews Jonathan Lethem’s new collection of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence (Doubleday, 2011) and conducts an author interview. Fassler traces the book’s attempt to ‘unpack the authorial “I”’—those ‘alternative selves’ selected and adopted by nonfiction writers: ‘[Lethem] sits across from the public version of himself, and watches as his influences surface and his previous incarnations flit across his face.’

Britain In A Day, 12 November 2011
I blogged about this project (and its ‘parent’ project, Life In A Day) last week. Timed to coincide with the event, the Radio Times commissioned a ‘typical Saturday’ diary from Sir Terry Pratchett. Filming is complete, and now the selection, editing and post-production begins. Britain In A Day will be in cinemas and on our TV screens next year.

Wolfson College, Oxford, launched its new Research Cluster—The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing—on 16 November with an inaugural lecture by Prof Michael Wood titled ‘All About his Mother: Reading Proust’s Letters’ (podcast also available). The Centre looks set to be an active and exciting hub for life-writing research understood in its broadest sense. Keep your eyes on their events and study opportunities!

Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Mackenzie memoirs banned for spilling spy secrets to be republished’, The Guardian, 18 November 2011
An unexpurgated edition of Compton Mackenzie’s war memoir, Greek Memories, will be published next month by Biteback Books. Norton-Taylor explores the furore surrounding its first appearance in 1932 and its subsequent supression by MI5 and MI6 due to the revelation of intelligence secrets (such as the ‘C’ codename for the head of MI6). Autobiography and memoir can be dangerous genres…

This Our Still Life (dir. by Andrew Kötting), 18 November 2011
Collagistic documentary, filmed over twenty years, following the life of director Andrew Kötting and his daughter, Eden, who was born with a rare genetic disorder. An intimate portrait of this father and daughter’s life together, focused in particular on the still-life painting performed by Eden. See Peter Bradshaw’s review in The Guardian.

‘Authors breathe new life into forgotten portraits’,, 18 November 2011
Portraiture meets imagined life narrative at the NPG between December 2011 and June 2012. Contemporary authors—including Julian Fellowes and Terry Pratchett—have imagined lives and identities to accompany fourteen Tudor portraits. Tracy Chevalier’s contribution sounds particularly intriguing. She ‘queers’ the public art gallery; behind the portrait of ‘a blushing young man’, she imagines the life of ‘an object of homosexual desire’. You can read Alexander McCall Smith's story of 'Mary Peebles' in The Guardian, her life created to accompany a portrait once thought to depict Mary Queen of Scots.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Life in a Day, Britain in a Day

Source Wikipedia
I’ve just watched and enjoyed the crowd-sourced documentary Life in a Day (2011), directed by Kevin MacDonald and produced by Ridley Scott. The film is a collage of videos all shot on 24 July 2010 and submitted to YouTube. Combined together, they promise to tell “the story of a single day on earth” (or so the tagline claims).

With no voiceover or dominant plot, the film is structured around the passing of time -- cue several shots of the moon and sun, of clocks, of meals, and of daily rituals. “Characters” and “stories” recur to provide a sense of coherence and cohesion -- such as Abel the shoe-shine boy, Okhwan Yoon the Korean cyclist, or the unnamed American woman whose cancer has returned -- and throughout there is a concern to show semblance, to highlight the connections and continuities that bridge cultural and ethnic difference. Shared experiences and behaviours -- such as love, laughter, death and the raising of a family -- become narrative threads that connect the film’s disparate parts, suggesting the shrinking distance between us in this ever-more global village.

But diversity remains the keynote. Stark divisions are present in the film’s juxtaposition of third world and first world, east and west, poor and rich. But while the poverty on display is, at times, truly shocking, the insistent and repeated comparisons do little to counter an “orientalising” gaze that (re)imagines non-Western cultures in terms of the undeveloped, immature and nobly savage.

The result is a grand -- or “meta” -- life narrative that transcends (while it sustains) difference, that uses the particular life experiences of individual contributors to emphasise the universal and cyclical nature of human history. The aim is a noble one and the film certainly provides a valuable, multifaceted “snapshot” of one day in 2010, despite the inevitable shaping influence of editing and post-production.

Source: BBC
On the 12 November 2011, the experiment begins again. In collaboration with the same creative team, the BBC are asking people to “pick up a camera and film [their] day”, to create “a lasting portrait” of Britain in a DayFollowing in the footsteps of Mass Observation, and earlier projects such as the One Day For Life (1987) photograph collection, the film will, no doubt, prove to be a fascinating virtual time-capsule (not to mention the extensive video archive that will result).

It will be interesting, however, to see which “characters” and “plots” make the final cut. What social and cultural concerns will be granted an airing? What images of nationhood, of multiculturalism, will be presented? In short, what will be the grand -- or “meta”-- life narrative of Britain in a Day?

Update: Check out Joe Moran's Blog on Britain In A Day and its Mass Observation roots -- click here.

Friday, November 4, 2011

TLS, 4 November 2011

Just a quick note to announce the publication of my review of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies in this week's Times Literary Supplement (4 November 2011).

Source: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
I really enjoyed the experience of writing this review. It was a real treat to explore the pages of a/b -- pages filled with an impressive range of articles, from a variety of different disciplines, all of which explore the field of life-writing in its broadest sense. A must-read for life-writing researchers!

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.