Report from Writing Lives Together (University of Leicester, 2015) – Lucy Johnson

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Alfred Tennyson with book, by Julia Margaret Cameron

The 2015 Writing Lives Together: Romantic and Victorian Biography conference was held on the 18th September at the University of Leicester.  Organised by Dr Felicity James and Dr Julian North, the day provided fascinating papers and stimulating discussion (along with a fabulous lunch!).

The opening keynote lecture, ‘Adventures of an Unromantic Biographer’, was delivered by Dr Daisy Hay (University of Exeter), in which she discussed the ‘creative potential of life-writing’ for women who have been ‘erased from history’.  In this compelling lecture, Hay framed life-writing as an empowering act that can give voice and autonomy to those who might otherwise have been silenced.

The first panel I attended was Women Writing Together, and it was opened by Dr Amy Culley (University of Lincoln).  Her paper, titled ‘Ageing, authorship, and female friendship in the life writing of Mary Berry and Joanna Baillie’, examined the life writing of Mary Berry (1763-1852) through the lens of her friendship with Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) during the two writers’ later lives.  Culley discussed the processes of supporting each other as older literary women, and provided a fascinating reading of rry’s desire to leave a legacy of sorts that might inspire creative acts in other older women.   Culley’s discussion of the ‘gendering’ of the experience of old age gave an especially interesting and unique perspective on the perhaps overlooked complexity of an older woman writer’s role in eighteenth and nineteenth century literary communities.

Next up was Dr Catherine Delafield (Independent), with her paper ‘“I attempt no memoir”: Austen family values and the letter as life writing’.  Delafield examined the two-volume edition of the letters of Jane Austen published by her great-nephew Lord Brabourne in 1884 as an ‘answer’ to James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen (1870), and discussed how the two texts formed a dialogue on the ‘ownership’ of Austen as a figure.  As Delafield demonstrated, Austen herself has been frequently marginalised in the various attempts to write her life.

The final paper on this panel was delivered by Professor Valerie Sanders (University of Hull).  In ‘The Many Lives of Elizabeth Fry’, she analysed how women write together as editors after the subject’s death, and asked whether editors could be considered writers or collaborators.  Sanders looked at the vexed issue of family members editing other family members’ lives through the prism of Fry’s daughters’ decision to write their mother’s life, asking who ultimately ‘owns’ or ‘controls’ life-writing.

Following the aforementioned fabulous lunch, the second round of panels took place.  I was presenting on Collaborative Suppressions and Experiments, which was opened by Dr Emily Paterson Morgan (Independent) with her paper, ‘Repackaging Peacock: The Collaborative Censorship of The Life and Works of Thomas Love Peacock’.  In this compelling and diverse paper, Morgan examined Peacock’s deconstruction of his own life and explored how this potentially conflicted with the ‘repackaging’ of Peacock’s reputation by the friends who wrote his life.  In particular, Morgan highlighted Peacock’s antipathy towards biography, and discussed how Peacock’s granddaughter  Edith Nichols’ provided a ‘deceptively’ edited version of his life.

Following my own paper, Dr Jane Darcy (UCL) closed the panel with ‘Contemporary portraits of Tennyson’.  Darcy explored the conflict between Tennyson’s disregard for fame and the desire of his circle of friends who wished to record and memorialise aspects of their life with the poet.  In particular, her paper focused on the link between Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait photographs of the poet and the ‘biographical narratives’ of Tennyson’s daughter Anny Thackeray Ritchie.  This paper was a genuine highlight for me, bringing to life the unique and vivid character of Anny Thackeray in particular, complemented by some of Cameron’s stunningly intimate photographs. Darcy also drew our attention to two upcoming exhibitions of Cameron’s work to mark the bicentenary of the artist’s birth: Julia Margaret Cameron at the V&A, running 28 November 2015 to 21 February 2016, and Influence and Intimacy at the Science Museum, running 24 September 2015 to 28 March 2016.

The third and final panel I attended was Women Writing Together II, and was opened by Rebecca Shuttleworth (University of Leicester) with her paper ‘The Domestic Politics of Life-Writing: Elizabeth Heyrick, Susanna Watts, and Rewritten Identities in Dissenting 19th Century Biography’.  Shuttleworth examined the various tensions inherent in how these women chose to present their identities versus how they have been depicted by Victorian biographers, and the ways in which this contrasted with how Watts and Heyrick presented themselves as activists and anti-slavery abolitionists.

Next was Dr Amber Regis’s (University of Sheffield) paper, ‘Canine collaboration: memory, reflection, and human-animal voices in Lucy Thornton’s The Story of a Poodle (1889)’.  In this lovely and engaging paper, Regis examined how Thornton ‘made didactic use of Gaston’s [the poodle] life’, exploring the analogy between children and animals.  This is, Regis told us, the only example she knows of human-animal autobiography and biography, and she explored the concept of dog and mistress as ‘literary collaborators’.

The third and final paper was given by Dr Rebecca Styler (University of Lincoln), ‘Finding Vocation Through the Lives of Others: Josephine Butler’s Spiritual Auto/Biographies’.  She discussed how feminist and reformer Butler ‘overcame her fear of ‘unfeminine’ public discourse’ in order to lead the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act that placed her in direct opposition to the establishment of the later Victorian period.

The closing keynote lecture was given by Professor David Amigoni (University of Keele), and was titled ‘Writing Lives Together in the Darwin Family, 1804-1876: gender, heredity, and authority’.  Amigoni discussed Gwen Raverat’s memories of her grandfather Charles Darwin in Period Piece, and highlighted how those writing lives on the Darwin family conceptualised sympathy as a ‘key moral category in life writing’, particularly in how it influences readers’ perceptions.  Amigoni also discussed Nora Barlow’s publication of Darwin’s Beagle diary as a focal point in the construction of his afterlife persona.

Many thanks to the organisers Dr James and Dr North and to all involved in making this a genuinely fantastic, friendly, and diverse day!

– Lucy Johnson, University of Chester.