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!