A forum for the discussion of biography in the 21st century.

Biographies have risen in popularity significantly in recent years. Amongst the signs of this increased popularity is the growing number of biographies that have been published as dissertations. As a response to this development the Biography Institute within the University of Groningen was installed in 2004. A chair in biography was founded on 1 March 2007.

The Biography Institute is associated with the Faculty of Arts. The Biography Institute has the following objectives:

– to offer an infrastructure and specific support to graduate students conducting biographical research and writing biographies

– to stimulate the development of theoretical perspectives on biography as an academic genre

The Biography Institute supervises graduate students preparing PhD’s, as well as undergraduate students writing master theses or taking part in research classes within the domain of biography. So far, seven biographies have been succesfully supervised as PhD thesis. In the academic year 2010-2011 a new course of lectures has been designed titled ‘Historical Approach to Biography’, intended for master students of the Faculty of Arts.

With regard to the development of theoretical perspectives on biography the Biography Institute aims at organizing conferences and symposia and at publishing biographies, conference proceedings and academic articles. Ten conferences already have been (co)organized by the Institute so far. For more information about the Biography Institute, see the latest annual report in English.

Virginia Woolf’s voice

April 24th, 2012 | Posted by Ray Monk in Discussion - (0 Comments)

This is probably old news to many of you, but I only came across this recently. I hadn’t realised any recordings of Virginia Woolf’s voice survived. Is this what you imagined her to sound like? I imagined something a little less plummy, a little thinner & higher, more “arty.” I hadn’t imagined her to sound like an Edwardian grande dame.

At Leicester’s De Montfort University on 30 March the International Centre for Sports History and Culture hosted a joint conference with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) on the theme of ‘Sport and Biography 1993-2013: Challenges, Approaches and New Developments’ . The ODNB’s research editor Mark Curthoys opened procedings with a very full and illuminating account of how and why sport has enjoyed such a high profile within what is probably the most successful of all Britain’s supposed Millenium projects. Leading sports historian and ICSHC stalwart Richard Holt complemented the first speaker in also going back to the origins of the project in 1993, and reflecting upon his role in establishing which of the sports-related individuals recognised by Lesley Stephen’s late Victorian initiative, the multi-volume Dictionary of National Biography, a century later warranted retention in either an amended form or as a wholly fresh entry. Dick Holt reflected upon the informal categories of sportsmen (no women) in the original DNB, observing how the prominence of leading huntsmen reflected the continued centrality of the traditional landed classes to public life.

Conference organiser, the ICSHC’s Jean Williams, drew on the lives of East Midlands women Olympians to illustrate how, notwithstanding impressive athletic achievements, they returned to near anonymity, devoid of formal biographical record: her involvement with the ODNB has enabled a significant number of sportswomen to be rescued from Thompson’s ‘condescension of posterity’. Tony Collins, head of the ICSHC, offered an entertaining but nevertheless insightful commentary upon the all too familiar failings of sporting autobiographies, identifying the ghost writer as a key determinant in the success, credibility, and verisimitude of what often these days proves to be a succession of memoirs – a creative ghost writer can prove remarkably successful in forging ‘the truth’, to the point where the ‘author’ eventually translates fiction into proven personal experience. The third of the ICSHC’s chairs to speak, Dil Porter, used the Edwardian amateur footballer the Rev. Kenneth Hunt as an avenue into reflecting upon the problems of describing the sporting achievements of a subject unrecorded on film. He suggested that creating a persuasive portrait of skill and natural talent was a formidable challenge for the biographer, highlighting David Kynaston’s genuinely evocative description of Bobby Abel’s batting as a rare achievement. I rounded off the day by talking about the research network, and the perceived crisis in biography discussed so fully at the last symposium in Nottiungham [hear the podcasts], before complementing Mark Curthoys remarks by highlighting how too often in the past the sporting preoccupations of figures in public life have been ignored by their biographers; in fact to gain a truly rounded view of the individual one must acknowledge the centrality of sport to his or her’s day-to-day life – my examples ranged from Kaiser Wilhelm II’s obsession with tennis to Clement Attlee’s passion for cricket [paper available on request: as5@soton.ac.uk].

The conference acknowledged two decades of close collaboration between British sports historians and the editorial staff of the ODNB, with all three editors [Colin Matthews, Brian Harrison, and Lawrence Goldman] recognising the need to record – and to keep on recording online – how vital the lives of a myriad of sportsmen and sportswomen have been to British life from medieval times through to the present day. That acknowledgement reflected how the history of sport has grown over the past thirty years from an adjunct of social and cultural history to a widely recognised and respected branch of academic history, not least thanks to the efforts of the ICSH conference contributors and their colleagues (of the latter in particular the doyen of football history Tony Mason, who through illness was unable to deliver his lecture, but who hopefully will soon be fighting fit again).

Narrative Lives

March 31st, 2012 | Posted by CLLynch in Discussion - (0 Comments)

The final seminar in the Narrative Lives series on “Working Class Autobiography” will take place on Friday 10th June 2011, 11.45-16.00 in AA003 Antonin Artaud Building at Brunel University London.

Directions to Brunel can be found at http://www.brunel.ac.uk/about/campus/directions

The event will include readings of new short fiction by students from the Brunel MA in Creative and Professional Writing, a demonstration of the digitised Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography on the Archive of Working Class Writing Website and the following papers:

• ‘Writing from the interior: inmate experiences of lunatic asylums and lodging houses in late 19th- and early 20th-century working-class autobiographies
Rebecca Preston and Lesley Hoskins, (ESRC At Home in the Institution project Department of History Royal Holloway, University of London)
• First Aid for Archives: A Case Study of the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography
Claire Lynch (Lecturer in English, Brunel University)
• Working Class Life Writing: Cross-European Perspectives on Archives and Research
Timothy Ashplant (Emeritus Professor, LJMU)

Lunch and refreshments are provided. Please RSVP to claire.lynch@brunel.ac.uk

This is draft chronology of the life of G.B. Edwards, currently on display as part of the exhibition on the author and The Book of Ebenezer Le Page at the Priaulx Library in St Peter Port, Guernsey. I am writing both a full length biography and a shortened version for the ODNB. I hope anyone who has anything to add will be so kind as to get in touch: edward.chaney@solent.ac.uk

Timeline for Gerald Basil Edwards: author of The Book of Ebenezer le Page.

1899 Gerald Edwards born 8 July at Sous les Hougues in the Vale, son of the forty-year-oldThomas Edwards, quarryman, and his thirty-year-old, second wife, Harriet Mauger.

1900 By the date of the census, Tom Edwards had moved with Kathleen, one of two daughters by his previous wife, and his one-year-old son Gerald, to the more substantial ‘Hawkesbury’ in Braye Road,

1905 Postcard addressed from Alderney to Gerald at Hawkesbury. Clary Dumond said that Tom and George’s mother lived on Alderney and when Archie Edwards got Isobel Mansell pregnant she was packed of there to have the baby which was still born. Archie then went to America and never came back, his mother Rachel (la Prissy in the novel) took to drink and died in 1940. Her other son Herbert starved to death later during the occupation.

1909 From the Hautes Capelles School, Gerald wins scholarship to the Boys’ Intermediate School.

1913-14 October 1913-March 1914; sketches in surviving school sketchbook (signed ‘Gerald Bazil Edwards’).

1914? Pupil teacher at Hautes Capelles but left after getting too fond of fellow teacher Miss Weymout and transferred to the Vauvert in St Peter Port.

1917 Called up to the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry. Becomes sergeant-instructor in gunnery but doesn’t see action and at the Armistice is in Portsmouth.

1919-23 Attends Bristol University but leaves without graduating

1923 Works as a teacher in London teaching literature and drama. Obtains copy of birth certificate 5 July. According to Clary Dumond, he married in this year but one of Gerald’s closest friends in this period, J.S. Collis, recalls being introduced to Kathleen in 1928.

1924 Gerald’s mother dies of a heart attack age 53 on 3 February. Funeral on the 7th with burial at St Sampson’s cemetery. Tears up his mother’s will leaving Hawkesbury to him thereby allowing his father to remarry and losing the property and residence on Guernsey. His father ‘sold the lot for old Mrs Cook, the house-keeper and married her and with the money purchased Les Rosiers, Baubigny, St Sampsons.’ (letter to Chaney from Clary Dumond).

1925 Living at Ide Hill, Sevenoaks, Kent (letter to J.S. Collis dated 18 March). Finished a play entitled: ‘Millstones’. Gerald marries and begins writing for John Middleton Murry’s Adelphi Magazine.

1926 July-December issue of the Adelphi features Gerald’s critique of Bernard Shaw. (His friend Jack Collis had published book on Shaw the previous year.

1928-30 Gerald commissioned by Jonathan Cape to write a book about D H Lawrence. In late spring Gerald leaves for Switzerland with his wife Kathleen and their first child, Adam, planning to meet D.H. Lawrence. Letters to Collis and Murry from c/o Gerhard Spinner, Erstfeld, Kanton Uri, Frau Rami, ‘Konsum’, Fluelen, Kanton Uri, and Alfredo Weilenmann in Carpenteria, Ascona (‘if the Lord were to know how pathetically I love it, he might send me away to teach me sense.’).

1929 23 February 1929. From Erstfeld, sends Murry his play Margaret to read and suggest publisher, after ‘it has been turned down by Cape, Heinemann, and Chatto and Windus.’ Long review of Geoffrey West’s The Life of Annie Besant, appears as ‘Humanism versus Philosophy’ in September-November issue of The New Adelphi. Writing Jesus, about which he corresponds with Murry.

1930 I January; writes to Lady Lutyens. Kathleen and Adam return to London in January in order for her to have her second baby. Thanks Murry for cheque and his appreciation of Jesus and sends manuscript of another play: Waysmeet. After the death of D.H. Lawrence in Vence on 2 March1930, Gerald returns to London where his second child, Dorcas, was born on 16 April (letter to Murry dated following day, asks for return of ‘Waysmeet’. From April to early summer there address is 59 Victoria Road, Finsbury Park, London N4 (J. Marr, Guernsey People, refers to Hornsey tenancy agreement in which he described himself as ‘author’. Leaves Finsbury Park in mid-May for Moor House, Westerham, Kent. In August 1930 writes to Murry from Pillar Box Cottage, Moor House, Westerham, Kent. Mentions ‘an American woman, one Mrs Elmhirst (formely Mrs Strait) of Totnes, Devonshire, who has an interest in the sort of thing I’m trying to do and who might be helpful, and a friend of mine, Kenneth Lindsay, who has some influence with her…’. (Collis was engaged to Lindsay’s sister, Margaret). Asks Murry to help.

1931 31 May; writes to Murry from Raymond’s Hill that ‘I’m going with [Richard] Rees to Holland from July 3rd to the 8th… My [WEA] job here is more formal than real until September. There’s no lectures to give and precious little organizing is possible. I’m writing again: a sort of hybrid play-novel – free drama if you like.’
By 25 November lecturing for the Workers’ Educational Association (East Devon Extension Scheme) and living at ‘The Brackens’, Raymonds Hill, near Axminster, Devon, in a ‘full and complicated household’ consisting of his wife Kathleen, Solomon, with children Adam and Dorcas ‘plus a little Stranger due at any time’ (Solomon Simon’s son David Simon Edwards).

1933-4 Gerald’s marriage ends soon after Kathleen has a fourth child, John, by George Cruikshank, who worked at the BBC. All four brought up by the Elmhirsts at Dartington.

1938 Gerald returns to Guernsey to visit his father at Les Rosiers, Les Effards, StSampsons

1946 Gerald’s father dies aged 89. Is buried at the Foulon Cemetery ‘in an old Rangers Red and Black shirt’ with Rose Cook’s first husband, Sergeant Major Cook (not with his first wife, Gerald’s mother) and she on top of both.

1947 Living at 9 Ritherdon Road, Balham. He writes to Middleton Murry enclosing poem for the Adelphi: ‘Song of a Man who saw God’ (don’t think was published but need to check).

1961 Still living at 9 Ritherdon Road, Balham, from which address he writes to his cousin Hilda Dumond, on 23 December, ‘feeling depressed and worn out and not at all like Christmas’, which he says he will spend on his own. Thinking of moving to Southampton, where he would call on Hilda’s daughter, Violet. According to Marr in fact moved to Penzance (1961-64) and then to Plymouth (1964-67).

1967 Moves to Weymouth. Visits his cousin Hilda Dumond on Guernsey and asked for copy of his mother’s photograph. Tells her how he had torn up his mother’s will leaving Hawkesbury to him (see above 1925). Stays at Mrs Mead at Le Galliennes, Torteval.

1971? Gerald becomes a lodger with Bert and Joan Snell, 654 Dorchester Road, Upwey, Weymouth, in Dorset.

1972 He moves temporarily to ‘Rose View’, 4 Coker Marsh, East Coker in Somerset with an old friend ‘Olive’ (letter to ‘My dear friend Joan [Snell]’ dated 1 June 1972). He returns to the Snells’ and the following summer he meets art student Edward Chaney who is staying with his great aunt in Upwey. They become friends and he informs Chaney that he is writing a novel set in Guernsey.

1974 He completes Sarnia Cherie: The Book of Ebenezer le Page and on 2 August presents the typescript to Edward Chaney to read. He dedicates the Book to Edward and Lisa Chaney. On12 August draws he send Edward Chaney a formal document in which he gives ‘unconditionally the definitive Typescript’ to him, echoing Ebenezer’s gift of his Book to Neville Falla. In this case he writes that: ‘you are therefore free to get it published if and as you think fit, to own the copyright … without any obligation to me.’ Over the next two years Edward Chaney delivers a copy of the typescript to a series of London publishers, including Capes, Cassells, Fabers and Calder and Boyars, all of whom reject it.

1975 On 5 July Gerald sends Edward Chaney ‘a couple of spontaneous lyrics – as L’ENVOI to SARNIA CHERIE’ on the eve of his departure for Lerwick on Shetland (88 St Olaf’s Street and Rockvilla). Returns to the Snells on 28 August.

1976 16 February Gerald leaves Weymouth for Haverfordwest and thence to St Mary’s on the Scilly Isles. On the 19th he wrote that ‘These islands are out of this world for loveliness; but in total grip of tourism. Am returning to the mainland by helicopter this afternoon’. Back in Upwey, Gerald asked Chaney for the typescript of Sarnia Cherie back as he is ‘retyping (with Carbon) the whole thing, and making sundry changes’. He goes to south Wales in July, having ‘got rid of all fragments, correspondence and records (except for those essential or my official survival)’. 19 August cheered by unpublished critique solicited by Chaney from John Mellors. Gerald dies of a heart attack in his room at the Snells on 29 December. His ashes are brought over to St Peter Port…

1977 Hilda Dumond dies aged 85.

1979 Through a friend, Edward Chaney persuades Hamish Hamilton to read the typescript and in October 1979 a contract is signed.

1981 Having abridged the title but little else and arranged for John Fowles to write the introduction, in 1981, The Book of Ebenezer le Page is published to great acclaim. It was published by Penguin as a paperback in the following year and by Knopf in America, where it is subsequently published in paperback by Moyer Bell.

1982 A French translation by Janine Herisson is published by Maurice Nadeau with a C.N.L. grant. The Book is broadcast on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in 28 five minute episodes, read by Roy Dotrice. The producer, Pat Macloughlin, writes in 1992 that ‘THE BOOK OF EBENEZER LE PAGE was, without question, the most popular serial I have ever done in the five hundred or so I have produced in twenty-one years… we still get enquiries about it’ (letter to Martin Ellis forward to Edward Chaney. Martin Ellis of Crescent Films buys option.

1994 Edward Chaney lectures on Gerald Edwards and The Book of Ebenezer le Page at St James’s and is interviewed on BBC Guernsey.

2002 6-14 September Roy Dotrice and Emma Cleasby appear at The Theatre Royal, Lincoln, in an adaptation of the book entitled ‘The Islander’ by Anthony Wilkinson.

2007 The Book of Ebenezer le Page is republished by New York Review Books in their ‘Classics’ series. The Italian translation ‘Il Libro di Ebenezer le Page’ is published by Elliott Edizioni in the same year.

2008 Guernsey’s first blue plaque is erected at ‘Hawkesbury’, the house in Braye Rd where Gerald lived with his parents from 1900 to 1916. Joyce Cook’s play …..

2011 Exhibition and lectures on GB Edwards and Book at Guernsey Literary Festival.

Since 2002 I have been gathering data for a biography of American travel writer, adventurer and counter-espionage agent Neill James (b. 03 Jan 1895,Grenada, Mississippi; d. 15 Sept 1994, Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico). Although Neill James published four travel books and one novel at Charles Scribner’s Sons and was edited by the inestimable Maxwell Perkins, hers remains a minor life. She is all but unknown in the US and, as far as I can tell, totally unknown elsewhere as either writer or spy. She has a legacy, however, as an iconic cultural figure in the recently gentrified village of Ajijic, on the north shore of Lake Chapala in Mexico—she was influential in developing what was a tiny, sleepy fishing village into an upscale expatriate retirement enclave.
Although I face many daunting problems of missing data, some of which must be resolved before I proceed very far into this project, I have nonetheless started drafting my narrative (this will be my fifth book, the previous four all having been scholarly monographs or edited anthologies). One of the problems I face concerns Miss James’s putative husband. She was known to have been a lesbian, yet she reported to her sisters that on 18 March 1937 she wed an “English aristocrat” (as family members now describe him) named Harold Child Kaniel Scott McGregor Campbell. The two shared an apartment in New Haven, Connecticut from 1937 until their supposed divorce in 1944. Much of that time Neill was away on one or another of her adventures. I find no record of Harold C. K. Campbell (as he signed the two letters I have, which were written to Max Perkins regarding Neill’s situation in Mexico). It is very likely that he was part of an elaborate identity fabrication which Neill’s clandestine agencies (she worked for three in her career) created. One personal source tells me she believes Campbell worked for British intelligence. Still, I find nothing via Internet searches about him that hadn’t been initiated by Neill or her credulous family members. I am seeking advice from the British biographers among members of this discussion forum about how to proceed in tracking down Harold Child Kaniel Scott McGregor Campbell in Great Britain (the spelling of Kaniel variously appears as Keniel or Kaniell; that name also has appeared as Kniland). Any ideas or commentary would be most appreciated. Stephen P. Banks, PhD, Emeritus Professor, University of Idaho.

Following on from Adrian’s report of the Nottingham Symposium, here are streamable and downloadable podcasts from the day. Ideally, these will provoke further discussion here on the site – feel free to add your comments!

Andrew Lycett – The Business of Biography

Miranda Seymour: Reflections of a Freelance Biographer

Prof. John Charmley: “You’ll never get a Chair if you continue to write
biographies.” The challenges of biography for an academic

Dr Lawrence Goldman (Oxford): Biography in the digital era

Prof. Ray Monk: Is there still a place for biography within the academy?

The symposium speakers: panel discussion

Members of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing have received details of Hilary Term events. For information about these and the Centre’s other activities see its website: www.wolfson.ox.ac.uk/clusters/life-writing [accessible from this website via ‘Links’] for details of our other activities and collaborations. For any queries or comments about the Life-Writing Centre please get in touch with OCLW’s Research Fellow and Administrator, Dr Rachel Hewitt (rachel.hewitt@wolfson.ox.ac.uk).

Symposium 2

December 20th, 2011 | Posted by administrator in Events - (1 Comments)

Start: December 20, 2011                                                 Venue:    University of Nottingham

                                                                                                 Address: United Kingdom


10.00 Introduction
Prof. Alex Danchev (Nottingham), chair

10.15-11.00 Session 1
Ion Trewin (Nottingham): Biography – the commercial dimension

11.00-11.15 COFFEE

11.15-12.00 Session 2
Miranda Seymour: Reflections of a freelance biographer

12.00-12.45 Session 3
Prof. John Charmley (UEA): : “You’ll never get a Chair if you continue to write
biographies.” The challenges of biography for an academic.

12.45-2.00 LUNCH

2.00-2.45 Session 4
Dr Lawrence Goldman (Oxford): Biography in the digital era

2.45-3.30 Session 5
Prof. Ray Monk: Is there still a place for biography within the academy?

3.30-3.45 TEA

3.45-4.30 Session 6
The symposium speakers: panel discussion

Report from Edinburgh

November 11th, 2011 | Posted by Ray Monk in Discussion - (1 Comments)

A bit delayed, I’m afraid, because I’ve been away, but here, better late than never, is a report of our first symposium in Edinburgh.

Led by Frank Cogliani, our Edinburgh hosts did us proud, providing us with a well-equipped lecture room (complete with microphone to record discussions for future podcasts), a lovely room in which to have coffee and some very good sandwiches for lunch. The first paper of the symposium was a superb historical account by Max Saunders of the challenges to biography presented by modernism. With the rich literary and historical scholarship at his disposal, Max was able to show that these challenges echoed and recapitulated ideas that had been expressed several decades before the modernist movement began. From this historical perspective, Max presented a reassuringly optimistic assessment of the current situation, arguing that, despite the attacks upon it by modernists, postmodernists and deconstructionists, biography was in fact gaining respectability in the academy.

More defence of the genre came from June Hannam, whose discussion of “Biography, Feminism and History” was extraordinarily wide-ranging. One of the many themes June dealt with was the idea that feminist biography was a contradiction in terms, an idea she countered with the thought that biography is capable of treating its subjects, not simply as individuals but also as exemplifications of social, political and cultural trends. Though her topic was, on the face of it, far removed from the issues discussed by Max Saunders, there were significant and intriguing areas of overlap, particularly when June came to consider the threats to feminism presented by postmodernism.

Geoffrey Cantor, in his extremely interesting and well-researched discussion of “Psychobiography and Science,” provided further areas of overlap, while at the same time taking the discussion into new territory. With regard to the understanding of science, Geoffrey argued, the “sociological turn” of the 1980s – which treated science as a “social construct” – needed to be counter-balanced by a long overdue “psychological turn.” In other words, a full understanding of the history and development of science requires some insight into the “inner self” of scientists. It needs, in other words, biography. But the biography it needs, Geoffrey insisted, should be armed with the insights of psychology. In the question period that followed, Geoffrey conceded that the insights required might equally be acquired from poetry or fiction; what was essential was some way of understanding people.

After the lunch break, Liz Stanley delivered a paper with the dauntingly long title: “Ex Biographie semper aliquid: Olive Schreiner, ‘A Rational South African,’ her letters, her essays, her theorizing, her fictions, her politics, her life.” In it, she gave a detailed account of the on-going project to edit Olive Schreiner’s letters, while also developing a new approach to the theory of biography, a genre which, she insisted, was “under-theorized.” The bold metaphysical claims she made in developing and defending her theory of biography will no doubt provide the fuel for much future debate, but the case for treating Olive Schreiner as a subject worthy of detailed and exhaustive biographical research was incontestable.

The final paper was a tour de force: Kathryn Hughes on “Biography and the Reality Principle.” Supporting her argument with a delightful Powerpoint presentation, Kathryn drew attention to a glaring and yet neglected tension in modern cultural life between, on the one hand, the tendency to insist that novels, plays, movies etc. be based on real events, and, on the other, the tendency, on the part of publishers and the reading public, to treat footnotes, references and supporting documentation as superfluous in works of biography and history. At one and the same time, it seems, we want our fiction to be “real,” but are happy to treat our non-fiction as if it were imaginary. Kathryn did not have an explanation for this curious dichotomy, but she explored it with an array of fascinating examples.

The symposium ended with a group discussion dominated by questions concerning biographical practice. Is it ever right to conceal information in order to protect the reputations of our subjects? How much personal information is it right for biographers to give? How far, for example, should we explore the sexual lives of our subjects? Is it possible to write a good biography of a person one dislikes?

In December we will meet again, this time at Nottingham, where we will address a different set of “challenges to biography,” namely those presented by the rapid changes taking place in technology, in publishing and in the economy. In the meantime, look out for the texts of the Edinburgh papers, which we hope to have up on this website soon, and also the podcasts of the discussions.