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Emily Bowles, ‘Writing Lives Together: A Conference on Romantic and Victorian Biography’

2015 October 5

Emily Bowles is a PhD candidate at the University of York. Her research focuses on Charles Dickens’s self-representation 1857-1870, and representations by Dickens’s friends and family in life writing 1870-1939. She is also a postgraduate representative for the Northern Nineteenth Century Network, and you can find her on Twitter @EmilyBowles_. She has co-edited a special issue of ‘Peer English’ on Victorian biography.

Writing Lives Together was a one-day conference that took place on 18 September 2015, put together with the aim of uniting those working on Romantic and Victorian life writing and recognising the move away from the solitary Life towards a greater understanding of creative relationships and influences, family writings, and community groups as life writers – particularly relevant for my own research into how Charles Dickens’s image was shaped through the efforts of his family and those who came after. The way we understand Victorian auto/biography is increasingly democratised and pluralised, and this conference recognised that trend.[1]

The idea was to reflect on these different kinds of ‘writing lives together’, and the theme was explored through author-specific panels on the Brontës’ writings and Dickens and his family, and also consideration of the future of auto/biographical studies as demonstrated in Helen Rogers’ (LJMU) paper on the Writing Lives archive (writinglives.org) and the development of the online Archive of Working-Class Writing. The inclusion of posters and displays was another good way of including diverse approaches to the theme, and the whole conference was a very friendly one, encouraging open dialogue and discussion of ideas from postgraduate students to professors – there was even a keen sixth form student present.

The conference opened with a keynote from Daisy Hay (Exeter), titled ‘Adventures of an Unromantic Biographer’. Hay described her archival work in retrieving overlooked and forgotten lives, and the process of tracing the biographies of peripheral and marginal figures. She has written several biographical books including Mr and Mrs Disraeli, exploring the unconventional marriage of the Disraelis, and thinking about the way that archives shape the writing of biography today was an excellent start to the conference; it opened discussions not only about the nature of Victorians writing biography, but also how we read and write Victorian biography today.

The first set of parallel panels included sessions on ‘Intellectual Families’, ‘Artists And Artisans’ and ‘Women Writing Together’, demonstrating the broad interpretations of the conference topic. The panel I attended, on ‘Women Writing Together’, was comprised of three papers that explored the different agendas and approaches of women writers. Amy Culley (Lincoln) presented her work on the supportive relationship of writers Joanna Baillie and Mary Berry as they both navigated ‘the state of octogenarianism’, and the way they each presented themselves in their life writing – their relationship was full of self-aware humour. Catherine Delafield (independent) discussed the role of letters in Jane Austen’s biographical history, and Valerie Sanders (Hull) talked about the motivations of Elizabeth Fry’s (who used to be the face of the £5 note) family in writing her life, and the shaping of her legacy and biographical persona.

The second set of panels, on the Brontës, the role of religion in auto/biography, creative and digital lives and collaborative ‘suppressions and experiments’ included papers on the ‘impossible’ biography of Emily Brontë and the desire to read her in the same vein as her books, Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son and the interaction between biography and portraiture in life writing about Tennyson.

Emily Paterson-Morgan (independent) discussed the censorship of parts of Thomas Love Peacock’s life, a process instigated by himself and continued by his granddaughter, while Lucy Johnson (Chester) gave an insightful exploration and rereading of punctuation in the love letters of the Shelleys; the collusion of families in shaping biography was a key theme of the conference. Jane Darcy (UCL) presented her work on some key portraits of Tennyson, probing the interplay between Julia Margaret Cameron’s images and Anne Thackeray Ritchie’s ‘photographic’ imagination. Tennyson was a testy subject for both biography and photography, claiming that the famous portrait of him made him look like a ‘dirty monk’.

Alfred Tennyson with book

Throughout the day, auto/biography was considered in dialogue with other kinds of media and genres, giving a sense of ‘writing lives together’ not only as a collaboration between people, but also as a collaboration between forms; this includes fiction, such as Lucy Thornton’s adopting of the persona of Gaston the poodle in The Story of a Poodle (1889) as discussed by Amber Regis (Sheffield).

From poodles to poets, the final set of panels included a second session on women writing together, as well as panels on Dickens’s lives and the literary communities of authors and publishers. The Dickens panel saw two papers exploring the writings of the Dickens family, the first from Azure Rissetto (Auckland) on the maintenance of Dickens’s image by his biographer John Forster and Dickens’ sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth, the second problematising the sense of uniformity in the Dickens family writings by exploring the significance of other kinds of ‘writing’ Dickens’s life in the form of the machinations of the Boz Club and the Dickens Fellowship. Jonathan Buckmaster’s (Royal Holloway) paper discussed the overlooked Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi edited by Dickens, showing parallels in Dickens’s own writings at the time. Together the papers showed the influence of life writing on Dickens’s own life and work, and on posthumous image-making in the Victorian period and after.

The conference closed with a second keynote from David Amigoni (Keele) on the Darwin family writings, from Anna Seward’s description of Erasmus Darwin as a ‘mass of sarcasm’ to the ‘curatorial defensiveness’ that followed. Family writings and the need for image control was a recurring idea throughout the day, and the final talk provided a fitting end to a very successful event.

Thanks to the organisers Felicity James and Julian North for putting together such a friendly and insightful conference – there are plans to publish a selection of papers from the day, so hopefully the discussions can continue. If you’d like to catch up on all the panels, the tweets have been storified here.

[1] For more on the rediscovery of marginalised biography, see Regenia Gagnier’s Subjectivities: A History of Self- Representation in Britain, 1832-1920 (1991), Mary Jane Corbett’s Representing Femininity: Middle-Class Subjectivity in Victorian and Edwardian Women’s Autobiographies (1992), Juliette Atkinson’s Victorian Biography Reconsidered: A Study of Nineteenth-Century ‘Hidden’ Lives (2010), and Julie-Marie Strange’s exploration of working-class biography, Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865–1914 (2015).

Related Posts:

Celebrity Circulation I: Dickens in Photographs

The Stories of My Life: Disraeli in Politics and Prose

Family Values: Tracing Ideas through the Generations

Related JVC Articles:

Kathryn Hughes’ “Dickens World and Dickens’s World.” JVC 15.3 (2010)

Simon Morgan’s “Material Culture and the Politics of Personality in Early Victorian England.”

John Plunkett’s “Celebrity and Community: The poetics of the Carte-de-Visite.” JVC 8.1 (2003)

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