Tag Archives: books

[REVIEW] – In Love With Hell

My review of William Palmer’s In Love With Hell: Drink in the Lives and Work of Eleven Writers (Robinson, 262pp, £20) is out now in May’s issue of Literary Review. Subscribers can also read the review via the Literary Review website. To my mind, the best aspects of the book are the passages describing postwar backstreet & provincial pub culture. Parts chimed sometimes of the work of C.P. Snow (early Strangers and Brothers), Colin Dexter, Stan Barstow, and Keith Waterhouse. Elsewhere in In Love With Hell, I had reservations about the author’s depiction of non-consensual sex, as I discuss in the review.

Weekend Miscellany

(This is a type of post stolen entirely from the lovely Simon at Stuck In A Book. Simon and I first met when we were the only two Masters students who wanted to do nineteenth- and twentieth-century drama. Simon now has a job that I don’t really understand, but which seems to involve him using MS Paint for money, at OUP. Over the years, Simon has introduced me to many things, including the Magdalen salad bar, Irene Vamburgh, and middlebrow interwar women’s fiction. Kirstie Allsopp once replied to him on Twitter).

  • This weekend, I have been reading How To Live Alone And Like It [1936] and Diary of a Provincial Lady for the first time. The first is a bible for the ‘extra woman’ and a fabulous guide to having a really nice life in one’s London flat. My flat is in Oxford, and I don’t have a maid, so by the book’s standards, I am already failing. I do wholeheartedly concur that one should have manicures and delicious food and splendid clothes whenever possible. I don’t think Margaret Hillis would approve of me eating yoghurt in my pyjamas while I proofread. I would like to read this book forty-five times and then travel back to 1936 and live the book while dressed entirely as Harriet Vane. Diary of a Provincial Lady is also wonderful. Mademoiselle and Vicky are my favourites. What I love most is how they all sit around fretting about pawning great-aunt’s diamond ring and/or the general proximity to penury, but never consider dismissing the servants.
  • I also reviewed Bitch Boxer, now playing at the Soho Theatre – read the review here.
  • An American photography and fashion blogger, Melissa Aquino, uploaded scans of the late-90s US catalogue dELiA*s, with its fashion for pre-teen girls. I have been howling in recognition. Whilst I always lived in & bought clothes in the UK, visceral memories of Tammy, Red Herring and the equivalent publications – Girl Talk, Shout, Mizz, Sugar, and the highly unsuitable More – came flooding back. I had Kangaroo platform trainers with a bit of a platform. And things with stripes down the side. What can I say? I was 11, it was 1998, and I think my parents were mostly relieved I’d come out of the Black Clothes Phase that had started when I was seven. In the spirit of the 90s, I’d like a Body Shop lip balm, some gel pens, a chain letter and a nice blue hair mascara.
  • I am currently designing my first ever term-length Shakespearean syllabus (I’ve taught Shakespeare quite a bit in the past, but not designed a course myself). This is hugely exciting. Those of you who’ve course-built yourselves, how do you prefer to structure it?
  • Other things I like: the University of Leicester and Dickens Journals‘ collaborative project to read Wilkie Collins’s No Name online; the utterly fabulous Spanish Les Mis rendition of One Day More, “Sal el Sol” (Geronimo Rauch is the current West End Valjean. The Spanish Enjolras is just pretty); and, crucially, this gin brooch (which was in the Modern Art Oxford shop for £5 more, chuh).

I will now carry on imbibing Radio 4 and trying to rewrite my latest chapter. I have pages and pages of proper theatrical history to get through before I’m allowed to talk about vampires.

[REVIEW] Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon

https://i0.wp.com/www.oxonianreview.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/shakespeareshrine-e1353084043362.jpgMy review of Jane Thomas’s Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon was published in the 18 November issue of the Oxonian Review. You can read it online here.

Apart from the legitimate book-reviewing part, there’s a healthy dollop about the time your own correspondent was a guide in the aforementioned Birthplace (2010). Let’s just say that my mother cannot recall the sight of me in costume without hysterical laughter. I talk about that too. I also go on a bit about Oscar Wilde and French nudity. As ever, any excuse.

Research 2.0

Oxford is enjoying the long vac. This is the academic summer holiday; the period running from the end of 8th week Trinity (usually in late June), to October and Freshers’ Week. It is also the period to which proper academics refer as “time for getting some real work done”.

i've got 99 problems but mrs patrick campbell ain't one (sorry)

Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Doing ACTING. She's not trying very hard.

I’m doing my best. I’ve handed in a chapter draft & started work on another, only to discover that while reviews of Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s Shakespearean heroines (my last topic) were relatively few (journalists preferring to focus on Weird Saintly Johnstone F-R), every fin-de-siecle hack seems to have had at least 1,000 mind-numbing words to say about Ellen Terry in Cymbeline.

My DPhil project is (currently) entitled “Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle”, a title I love & cling to because

a) it’s short

b) it doesn’t have a colon in it (ergo no need to find Witty Quotation/make Unfortunate Pun), and

c) it lets my project do what it says on the tin. At present, though, it’s  the Fin de Siècle, rather than Shakespeare’s Women, giving me a mild academic headache.

Ellen Terry: The Psychedelic Years.

Oxford’s broadly/tacitly historicist approach to English (yes, all right, excluding Wadham, & NDKAlex) has always suited me perfectly. Unfortunately, while beginning my last chapter, I realised I had absolutely no idea what happened in theatre, literature or indeed British history, in the years immediately following 1895. Apart from Jude Law shouting “OSCAR!” across a Mediterranean courtyard, that shot of Lillie Langtry in The Degenerates, and Robbie Ross summoning a priest to Paris c. 1900, the end of the nineteenth century remained a blank.

Being gay for Sarah Bernhardt. That's my girl (Pelleas et Melisande, since you ask).

Given that much of my last chapter took place in and around 1895-8, this necessitated serious remedial research; fortunately successful. My new chapter centres on 1896, and I fondly imagined that this date – falling as it does under the big neurasthenic umbrella spread by the antics of Mrs Patrick “Skinny, Mad” Campbell – might make things easier. Oh no.

My supervisor, having reminded me that one version of my project was originally called The Actress and the Academy (I wish it’d been “The Actress and the Evangelist”, because if you’re going to have a pun, it should involve an actress and a bishop), has prescribed lots of C19 non- (and sometimes anti-)theatrical Shakespeare criticism.

Hartley Coleridge. The poster child for not-being-the-son-of-a-Romantic-Poet.

I have thus spent much of this weekend with Schlegel, Hazlitt, Coleridge, poor old Hartley Coleridge (no wonder he turned out so weird), Lamb, Ruskin and Pater. Simultaneously, I’m trying to pin down the theatrical marketplace c.1898-1901 beyond my memories of the Forsyte Saga and a Ladybird Book of Kings & Queens awareness that, in 1901, Queen Victoria Has To Die.

Fortunately, it’s brilliant. So far I’ve popped back to 1892 (Tennyson’s deathbed & the Shakespeare-hugging) and then jetted forward to 1904 (Vedrenne and Barker beginning to manage the Royal Court). In between are a series of pleasing symmetries: it gratifies me hugely that 1895 was both the year of Irving’s knighthood, and the year Shaw became critic of the Saturday Review (mostly to spend the next three years inveighing against Irving on a weekly, public basis). If you’re on Team Shaw (I’m mostly not), it’s also immensely satsifying that 1898, the year Shaw published Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, was the year Irving had to surrender the Lyceum Theatre to a syndicate.

L. Waller. REALLY, ladies?

Team Shaw and Team Henry were never actual Victorian entities (sad mistake), but today I discovered there was a Keen On Waller (Lewis Waller) Brigade, who wore K.O.W. badges, and doubtless bore resemblance to the madwomen we used to unpeel from David Tennant’s car during the RSC Hamlet.

In the midst of all this scattergun chronology, I cautiously feel I’m making progress and gaining, at the very least, some self-awareness about my research. Increasingly, I recognise a rhythm in the psychology involved in beginning a new chapter. Each time, it’s with scholarly-fingers-crossed that the distant instinct of x production potentially being useful or interesting to study (I found my first ever Thesis Outline last night. It made me laugh. And heave) will be justified by archival fulfilment of the Micawber principle that Something (Anything) Will Turn Up. So far, joyfully, it always has. But never the thing(s) I’ve expected.

Although it does nothing for my personal brand of Imposter Syndrome, I’ve learned that, in research, it’s rarely solely the Neat Planned Trajectory of Reading which delivers the goods. Obviously days-on-end of grunt work is essential (see my opening re: hacks/Shakespeare/Terry), but it’s often the chance remark made by your supervisor/panel chair/coffee buddy in the Bod/Costa/despair that sparks something new; or the book you pick up for £2 at a room-sale, or flick through in Blackwell’s. Or, it’s the “irrelevant” scrapbook you read for fun while in archives, or the weird small ads in the Post, or the lucky chronological coincidence you can’t control. The miraculous cannot, I’ve found, occur without the mundane: I usually find the Big Idea only when bored to tears by hours and hours of the Small. Perhaps there’s some weird scholarly symbiosis at work — actually, maybe this isn’t progress; on rereading, it sounds more like a retreat into archival mysticism. The Oxford Faculty of Magical Thinking. Damn.

Secondly, alongside this uncertainty principle (which COULD be interpreted as evidence of a rich field for research & hitherto unexplored complexities of fin-de-siecle theatre, thank you very much) there’s the sensation from which I’ve drawn the title of this post – the start of second-year research and an upgrade to Research 2.0.

I like pictures. Only God can judge me.

Poor old Tennyson.

Simply put, this is the unfolding student belief that, twelve months in and umpteen texts later, EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED. Suddenly, everything is linking up! Everything is helpful for everything! EVERYTHING must be written down, EVERYTHING speaks IN A VERY REAL SENSE to that other thing there, in that document, on that bit of paper, LOOK HOW IT ALL MAKES SENSE. ISN’T IT INTERESTING??? &c. Having drafted three chapters, I am suddenly transfixed: although nominally just researching Cymbeline, I start SEEING INSIGHTS EVERYWHERE re: Lady Macbeth, Marxism, big dead Tennyson, the Royal Court Theatre & other figures who belong elsewhere in my thesis… LOOK HOW IT ALL JOINS UP.

This is fun, but dangerous. A love of patterns, symmetries & the desire for a Grand Master Theory encourages me to see/overstate connections and conspiracies that might not exist. While a deepening sense of the period is crucial – definitions, relationships, geographies etc – I’m trying to balance this with caution about tying it all together in a quixotic version of the Victorian World Order (even if I really want to find that Big Idea and make it Unlock Everything Ever), and trying not to confuse INTERESTING with what’s actually important. Equally, to make progress on one chapter, I have to limit my exciting tangents re: others, at least temporarily.

Then again, I suppose that kind of tangential, experimental research is exactly what the vac is for! In the various begging letters written during my year out & time as a PRS (i.e. my Oxford, AHRC, STR, Helmore Award and other apps, thank god for imminent funding) I set out a schedule for  completing the DPhil. This schedule made no mention of the Christmas, Easter or long vacs.

At the time, I had two reasons. Firstly, I knew the timetable was ambitious, and wanted to allow myself decent margins for expansion/alteration/disasters, should they occur (secretly, I was convinced I’d have to resit transfer). Secondly, at the start of my DPhil, I was unfunded, and expected to spend most or all of each holiday working (hence the stacks of A Level papers beneath which January was crushed).

Now funding approaches, but this vac time has been essential – both for finishing my third chapter, and starting teaching prep. Finishing Cymbeline by Christmas will mean I’m on track; sounds easy, no? But, again, teaching approaches. Not merely because of the volatile summer weather, I can’t help feeling I’m in the calm before the storm.

Sophie's spiritual home. Well, 50% of it. The other half doesn't have a nice picture.

Not that I’m, you know, calm exactly. I’m moving house (yes, still), alongside one of the least calm people I know, viz. my namesake, who is taking Some Sort Of Exams on Tuesday. Most of them are about Death. Every time I bother her in the library, she’s reading books on What Happens When You Die (non-medics thinking of researching: oh my god, don’t), and her life at the moment seems to consist entirely of Palliative Care and salads from Alpha Bar. I am reassured that, after Tuesday, her eyes will return to their normal size. Her hair is going white.

Probably what stung me.

Said medic has, however, been a star this week. Last Sunday, I was in Kent, where I not only attended The Most Beautiful (And Tasteful. And Moving. And Boozy) Wedding in-the-world-ever (it was here), but was bitten by some gladiatorial tropical deathfly that had visited England on summer exchange with the humble Kentish mosquito.

The lovely Emily, also bitten, had merely a slight itch in manner of a hardy German: I chose instead to stage my personal tribute to Cheryl Cole (except I bet she never had the left leg of an elephant with sunburn).

Sophie, my v. own doctor-in-the-house (who is doing far better at masking her native glint of clinical interest with the glow of human sympathy) has been sterling in pointing out the inadequacy of my home GP, and promising I won’t die. This is a vast step forward from The Time My New Bra Gave Me A Rash, when she poked said rash with one finger before saying “ooh, it doesn’t blanch”, and losing interest. I’m happy to live with her.

Meanwhile, I hope everyone on the East Coast or otherwise in the path of Hurricane Irene (why not Imogen, hmm?) is keeping safe. I go now to sort photo-frames into cardboard boxes.

Sarah Daniels: Plays 1

Ages ago, the nice people at methuen drama very kindly offered to send me a free book (I forget why, but thank you very much and please, more of the same).

In an excess of irresponsibility, I decided NOT to choose anything vaguely useful to my course, and to instead pick, at random, the work of a female playwright with whom I was unfamiliar. Sarah Daniels’s Plays: 1 duly arrived at Brasenose the other day, and since the Orlando Project tells me she’s “the only radical lesbian feminist to have made it into the mainstream”, I think I chose rather well.

Sarah Daniels was born in 1956, in London. Her Orlando profile describes how, as a secondary school student, she

“hated school” and made a habit of sitting at the back of the class, not listening. She left at eighteen for work. Bibliographic Citation link At school she “didn’t even like drama.” Bibliographic Citation link Studying Shakespeare‘s Henry V for O level English was dominated by reading the play aloud and therefore, for her, anxiety about pronouncing the words right. She was astonished to discover that she enjoyed the play when she saw it in the theatre. Bibliographic Citation link

She was lastingly impressed by an incident at her school when a boy raped a girl at knife-point. The boy was removed to a borstal or school for young offenders, but the headmaster then addressed the whole school to tell them that in cases of rape the blame was shared equally by both parties. Bibliographic Citation link

Daniels’s playwriting career took off after she was able to spend a year as the writer-in-residence of Sheffield University’s English department. Her plays have been performed at theatres including the Royal Court and the National Theatre, and Daniels is also on the board of directors for Clean Break Theatre (trans: she is awesome beyond words). Her partner of many years, and civil partner, was the activist and schools inspector Claire Walton, who died in 2009.

Plays 1 comprises Sarah Daniels’s first six plays: Ripen Our Darkness, Ma’s Flesh is Grass, Masterpieces, The Devil’s Gateway, Neaptide and Byrthrite.

So far I’ve read Ripen Our Darkness (1981) and Masterpieces (1983). My ability to consume feminist 80s playwriting knows almost no bounds. Ripen Our Darkness is about marriage, mental illness and misery in the Anglican church; a bolder precursor to Alan Bennett’s Bed Among The Lentils, which followed in 1987 and also depicts a vicar’s wife in crisis. Daniels’s protagonist doesn’t receive even temporary redemption or escape.

Daniels’s next play, Masterpieces is about pornography, misogyny and mental illness. The roles across both plays are predominantly female, and, at its best, the writing is heart-stopping, combative and clear. However, Ripen Our Darkness is weakest and most uneven in its handling of the working-class lesbian Julie, who might have sounded cliched in her speech back in 1981. Yet, for a play that’s 30 years old, Ripen Our Darkness often strikes heart & intellect simultaneously: moreover, Hilary, the most obviously working-class woman in Masterpieces, is far more subtly characterised than Julie. Hilary, a single mother and sex worker, readily accepts a legitimate day job from a male friend of her social worker. The scene in which Hilary’s boss, Ron, begins to seduce and harass her is both timeless and excruciating, as are the unsympathetic responses of the other characters.

Daniels’s unabashedly anti-pornographic stance in Masterpieces has (regrettably) become unfashionable in contemporary feminism, but her emotionally direct style anticipates writers like Laurie Penny. I wish I could see ways of staging her plays for student audiences, but at the moment I’m unconvinced. For one thing, Oxford plays with all-female casts tend to do badly unless they’re Playhouse Creatures or The House of Bernarda Alba (both of which I love), or, at best, attract tedious expanses of critical shock at the goshness and novelty of a play without any boys (on second thoughts, maybe Daniels isn’t dated at all).

As texts, Daniels’s plays read wonderfully. I’m, um, apprehensive about the last in the collection, which is ominously titled Byrthrite and which I suspect of glorying in wom(y)nly gore, but I’m currently halfway through Neaptides (1986) and desperate to know what happens.

If I blink at the scene in Neaptides where Claire tells daughter Poppy a myth-cum-fairy-story about the goddess Persephone’s masturbation, I’m grateful that Daniels wrote in ways that are so combative, unembarrassed, and unashamed. The radical feminists of the 1980s cut swathes through misogyny and chauvinism, so that twenty-first-century girls like me could, if they chose, be embarrassed and Anglican and gay all at once, and in (relative) peace. In Daniels’s excellent first collection, I’m glad to find myself another feminist, literary foremother, and to take a look at another bit of feminism’s theatrical past.

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Mrs Patrick Campbell and George Cornwallis-West

Mrs Pat as Paula Tanqueray.

At the moment, I’m researching Mrs. Patrick Campbell (born Beatrice Tanner; familiarly called Stella). Mrs. Campbell is most famous for her “Pinerotic” roles in the 1890s, such as The Second Mrs Tanqueray and The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith; for her Hedda Gabler; and as the original Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

I, however, am interested in her Shakespearean roles. In the late 1880s and until about 1893, she had several successes in roles like Rosalind; then, at the other end of the decade, she played the trio of tragic roles that most interest me. These were, in order, Juliet (1895), Ophelia (1897) and Lady Macbeth (1898).

With the Bodleian Library doing various interminable and obscure things in the way of moving book depositories, I wasn’t able to get my hands on Mrs. Pat’s autobiography for weeks, and ended up reading everything but; finally, I caved, and bought it myself, on Ebay.
I originally conceived my doctoral project as a study of Shakespearean actresses’ autobiographies (and later, as a study of writings by actresses on the women of the Late Plays), and even though my textual focus has shifted (both in and out), I feel as if, until now, my research has been hobbled by not having My Life and Some Letters in front of me.

I may say that Mrs Pat’s name-dropping makes Madge Kendal and Constance Benson look positively restrained. I enjoy old theatrical memoirs very much for their own sake (and am looking forward to reading Irene Vanbrugh’s, on Simon’s recommendation), but this one balances incredibly useful, challenging/problematic insights (v. wholesome and good for thesis) with delicious and irresistible snobbery. Bless her, it seems she had no friends without titles. She makes me want to be called Frances something, COUNTESS of MADEUPPLACE. And then write gushy, borderline-homoerotic letters to actresses. An impulse which society cruelly demands I subdue.

Campbell is much more open about her life than Langtry (although omitting the affair with Johnston Forbes-Robertson) and – unlike Ellen Terry – absolutely fascinating in her detailed discussion of her children. I’ve just got to the bit where her son, Beo, dies in the First World War. For the first time reading one of these memoirs, I found myself welling up.

I’m also interested in Campbell’s apparently disastrous second marriage, which goes from huge affection (her son, particularly, seems to have held him in high esteem) to breakdown in a very few pages. Reading about the suicide of Elizabeth Robins’s first husband, who put on a suit of armour, then jumped into the Charles River; and about the complicated life of William Hunter Kendal has interested me in theatrical husbands.

George Cornwallis-West.

Mrs Patrick Campbell’s second husband was George Cornwallis-West. Major Cornwallis-West (who had been rumoured to be Edward VII’s lovechild) first married the stunning Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston and twenty years his senior; he remarried to Stella Campbell just five days after their divorce. The marriage broke down in 1921; Cornwallis-West also seems to have been plagued by financial troubles for most of his life. In 1940, the year of Stella’s death, he remarried for a third time, to a Mrs. Georgette Hirsch. In 1951, while suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, he took his own life.

Never a dull moment, with this lot, but what sad & eventful stories.

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Liz Woledge of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust invited me to be involved with this project.Liz Woledge of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust contacted me, asking me to participate in Happy Birthday, Shakespeare: the SBT’s 2011 project inviting bloggers to write about Shakespeare’s impact on their life and work. I was delighted to get involved. #hbws 1564-2011.

I exist because of Shakespeare. Hyperbolic though that may sound, it’s less an assertion of Shakespeare-as-self-help (although, if you’re in the market…) than a statement of historical fact.

Ben Kingsley and Niamh Cusack, 1985.

My parents worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company; my mother was a Senior Wig and Make-Up Artist, my father a Deputy Stage Manager. They met during the RSC’s production of Othello in 1985, started dating in previews, were living together by press night, and got engaged five months later. They’ll celebrate their silver wedding in July.

Although Stratford babies have yet to start gurgling in iambic pentameter, my experience of Shakespeare has always been inseparable from my experience of Stratford. This sense of ownership has, quite naturally, engendered a sense of belligerent, smug parochialism that would put the inhabitants of Royston Vasey to shame. Although wildly partisan about the glories of Stratford, from the Singing Man Of Henley Street to the architecture of the new theatre (which still looks quite a lot like a 1930s power station, but, good, I like it that way), I can, for the sake of argument, admit there might be an objectively equal town somewhere on planet Earth. The great thing about Shakespeare is that I have never needed to recalibrate my smugness. Shakespeare is the best, and the glorious thing is that the rest of the world seems to agree.

Growing up in Stratford, with theatre-loving parents and the RSC on my doorstep, I was guarded from the horrific slow death that can be a first encounter with Shakespeare at school. Instead, I saw my first production aged eight (Josie Lawrence in The Taming of the Shrew ) and benefitted from a drama teacher, Ali Troughton, who made Shakespeare’s language the birthright of seven-year-olds. The first speech I ever learned was the seven ages of man, and the first scene was the Witches in Macbeth. We were never taught that Shakespeare was difficult, boring or remote on some plain of exaltation; instead, he was immediate, exciting and ours.

I went on to take a degree in English, write a Masters thesis on Shakespeare performance history, and am now writing a doctorate on Shakespeare’s heroines at the Victorian fin de siècle. I’ve also directed and acted in Shakespeare productions, playing my way through his illustrious back catalogue of Women Who Are Short and Boys Whose Voices Haven’t Broken.

(c) Alastair Muir, 2003

Alexandra Gilbreath and Jasper Britton, 2003.

If Shakespeare has led me to some strange places, I can only apologise to my fellow-travellers. Special and fervent self-recrimination should be laid at the feet of one Jasper Britton, who had the misfortune to become the object of my schoolgirl adoration when I was fifteen, and he was in The Taming of the Shrew. Everything in my feminist, liberal, pinko-Pankhurst heart quite rightly rebels against Petruchio and all he stands for. Nothing can excuse the day I chased Mr Britton across the Bancroft Gardens to the cackling approval of a dozen other fifteen-year-old girls. Somehow, I went on to be the sort of Front of House staff member who could safely usher the Patrick Stewart/David Tennant Hamlet season. I also apologise to the student actress whom I forced to climb furniture around the edges of my college room, refusing to let her touch the floor in a “freeing” exercise to “help her find” Puck.

I, too, have suffered for Shakespeare. Part of my summer job with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (who bravely commissioned this blog post) involved me dressing as the first act of The Crucible in tropical temperatures while 3,000 visitors poured through the Birthplace each day. The upside is that I can now can now say “glovemaker” in Korean. Aged twelve, I wore a purple, gold and sky-blue blazer (I want you to take a moment to imagine that. Use this bracketed space to fully contemplate sixty eleven-year-old girls in purple, gold and sky-blue blazers. With shoulder pads) to represent my school in the Birthday Celebrations and lay flowers on Shakespeare’s tomb.

Christopher "Kit" "too cool for school but got stabbed in the eye" Marlowe. Not quite as good as Shakespeare.

As an undergraduate, my Oxford tutors tried their best to vary my literary diet of Women, Gayness, Shakespeare and Death. I studied conceptions of masculinity, attended with joy to the thrusting passion of Heathcliff and Cathy, acknowledged Middleton and swapped John Donne’s self-burying sermon for… no, I still read about Death. For a term, I even followed the cool kids by pretending I preferred Marlowe to Mr W. S.

However, while a BA is a time for experimenting with bad haircuts and all kinds of textual identities, grad school is different (for one thing, you no longer have money for a hairdresser). Critics in feminism, from Sandra M. Gilbert to Anette Federico, have described how academic research increasingly becomes “a kind of re-search into our own lives”. This is true for me: my own experience of Shakespeare is equally inseparable from my experience of theatre, and of my hometown.

Today, my academic research explores performances of Shakespeare’s heroines at the end of the nineteenth century, a time when Shakespeare was simultaneously the planet’s most idolized and most contested playwright.

Reading the writings of our most famous Shakespearean performers – then and now – convinces me that however we encounter Shakespeare, whether as readers, scholars or performers, we have always used his plays to help us understand ourselves, and to articulate our own experiences.

Responding to the Arts Council England cuts, I wrote a polemic on the value of theatre, trying to express the ways in which theatre teaches confidence, creativity, self-belief and, above all, communities in which diversity, trust and risk-taking can flourish together. Everything that is true of theatre is especially true of Shakespeare. No other writer that I’ve found so consistently challenges and empowers all those who encounter him.

(c) www.bustledress.com

Lillie Langtry, c. 1880.

Back in 1882, Lillie Langtry, by then a sidelined Royal mistress with a bankrupt husband and illegitimate baby, turned to acting largely out of financial necessity. The result was artistic liberation. Staging Shakespeare she was, for the first time “my own master, my own mistress, and freed from unaccustomed control”. Generations of performers have felt the same freedom.

If this sounds too much like Bardolatry, I should say there are some plays I absolutely hate – King Lear is always about seven hours too long, and as one very famous Shakespeare scholar noted in my hearing, consists chiefly of “all those men going mad”.

This August, I’m thrilled to be seeing Catherine Tate and David Tennant in Much Ado About Nothing. I hope the combination of superstar actors and one of the world’s most-visited cities brings a new generation of theatregoers to one of Shakespeare’s best-loved, sharpest comedies. I hope seeing their first play encourages them to track down a second – and a third, and a fourth. Happy Birthday, Shakespeare.

Call To Register: Oxford English Graduate Conference “The Famed and The Forgotten”

Registration is now open for The Famed and The Forgotten, taking place on 10th June in Oxford University’s English Faculty.

45 student speakers from Oxford and around the UK will be delivering papers on the concepts of ‘famed’ and ‘forgotten’, interrogated in the broadest possible terms across genres and periods encompassing Old English to the literature of the present day.

A panel discussion on “The Future of Reading” featuring representatives from Oxford University Press, SHM Productions consultancy and the Oxford English Faculty will take place, and we will hear a keynote address from Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively.

The £15 attendance fee covers lunch, snacks and all conference materials. Please register via our website – http://graduate-conference.english.ox.ac.uk/ – or with an email to claire [dot] waters [at] ell [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk.

Then, confirm your place by sending a cheque or postal order for £15 made out to the University of Oxford to Claire Waters, St Catherine’s College, Manor Road, Oxford, OX1 3UJ.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

5 of the best: favourite fictional writers

John Mullan’s article on ten of the best fictional poets made me smile. I’ve often speculated on why so many writers write about writers. Sometimes, it’s part of a wishful (or wistful) self-insertion into the text. The first example I ever noticed was Darrell Rivers in Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series. Darrell is pretty obviously both Our Heroine and Our Author, enjoying an intermittently tumultuous but ultimately charmed school life, replete with tousled black curls and star sporting ability. After authoring the Fifth Year panto, Darrell Rivers, along with Slightly Boring Sally (sidekick, steadfast, appendicitis) headed off to university, and an ultimate career in writing.

At the opposite extreme, Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert describes himself as “a novelist manque'” in Lolita, and memorably tries to persuade Charlotte Haze that his paedophile’s diary are “fragments of a novel”. Boy Dougdale’s biographies of dispossessed princesses set the tone for Nancy Mitford’s Love In A Cold Climate as a novel of delicious, delightful, high-society snobs.

I could have made a list of favourite fictional diarists extremely easily, with top prize for Honoria, Dowager Duchess of Denver, who chronicles her son’s wedding and the viciousness of her cat at the start of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Busman’s Honeymoon. Were I to try and list my favourite fictional journalists, Sayers’s Solcombe Hardy would be amongst them.

A list of playwrights would have had to include Clare Quilty, for me the most terrifying figure in Lolita. In isolation, my knowledge of fictional poets would not fill a blog post (not that blog posts arrive in prescribed sizes, like envelopes), but I have a soft spot for the terrible Mr. Mybug (Meyerbug) of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. Here he is in deplorable action:

It can not be said that Flora really enjoyed taking walks with Mr. Mybug.  To begin with he was not really interested in anything but sex.  This was understandable, if deplorable.  After all, many of our best minds have had the same weakness.  The trouble about Mr Mybug was that ordinary subjects, which were not usually associated with sex even by our best minds, did suggest sex to Mr Mybug, and he pointed them out, and made comparisons and asked Flora what she thought about it all,  Flora found it difficult to reply because she was not interested.  She was therefore obliged  merely to be polite, and Mr Mybug mistook her lack of enthusiasm and though it was due to inhibitions.  He remarked how curious it was that most Englishwomen (most young Englishwomen, that was, Englishwomen of about nineteen to twenty-four) were inhibited.  Cold, that was what young Englishwomen from nineteen to twenty-four were.

I am pleased still to find that Mr. Mybug would consider me young.

Here, thanks to John Mullan, are my five of the best: fictional writers.

5. Juliet Ashton, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Juliet is just delightful. This charming book is made up of many letters, in many voices, and although all the inhabitants of post-war Guernsey have been lovingly created after meticulous research, none touches your heart like Juliet. She’s an author in search of her next bestseller (and, somewhat boringly, love), and she’s amazing. If you fell for Helene in 84 Charing Cross Road (which is another way of saying: if you have a soul, but might sell it for books some day), you’ll adore Juliet. She’s sharp, scatty and disgraceful. I wish I could be her.

4. Adrian Mole, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4

I said I wouldn’t do a list of favourite diarists, but it’s as a poet I most wish to commemorate A. Mole, Esq. “Oh Pandora!/I adore ya/I implore ye/Don’t ignore me.” Yes.

3. Jo March, Little Women.

Whenever I lack self-discipline and productivity, I think of Jo March and feel guilty. [radio 4 announcer: That was Episode 46 of “How Nineteenth-Century Literature Created Sophie’s Psyche and gave her Unrealistic Expectations about the Worlds of Work and Love”. Next week: “Nelly, I am Heathcliff.”] She named her apple tree via an injoke about Charles Kean’s wife, wrote happy potboilers until Professor Daddy Issues made her stop it, and then became a bestselling novelist and playwright while raising 4,000 orphans and pretending she didn’t want her brother in law. GOOD.

2. Harriet Vane, the Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries.

Take the mewling fervour of a Twilight fan and the mad-eyed self-righteousness of an Oxonian booknut. This is the love I feel for Harriet, my favourite literary heroine of all time. Harriet writes brilliant detective novels and her amazing boyfriend shows his love by obsessively collecting her press cuttings. In secret. In the dark. She not only writes crime, but solves crime, in Oxford and at the seaside, and she knows what to do when she finds a dead body. Her moral zero is not saying someone’s beastly book is good when it isn’t, and she dances with Lord Peter in a wine-coloured frock. I would halloo her name to the something hills, and not even on the condition she were real. Start with Strong Poison and take things from there. You will love or be dead inside.

ETA: while googling “Harriet Vane” on impulse, I have discovered that some Sayers fans (see the comments) don’t like her … how can this be? My poor heart. Although this vituperative comment may amuse Sayers fans who recognise the username.

1. William Shakespeare, No Bed for Bacon.

This excellent book deserves a much greater following than its overblown film adaptation, Shakespeare In Love. The plot is essentially the same, despite the fact that screenplay writer Tom Stoppard didn’t acknowledge reading Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon’s comedy until Private Eye pointed out the similarities.

This Shakespeare is opportunistic, obsessive, fierce and endearing, furiously scribbling at his plays despite interruptions from (among others) Francis Bacon, Richard Burbage, Salathiel Pavey (“Master Will,” he said. “I wish to drown myself. But first, I wish to go mad. And sing mad songs”), Cecil, Henslowe, bears, Born Leaders, Elizabeth of England, Raleigh, Essex, and our heroine Viola Compton. Imagine Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance without Gwyneth Paltrow. Isn’t that better?

Brahms and Simon wrote in a wonderful staccato style, rich in detail and all the more rewarding for a re-read. The historical underpinning is amazing, but the best bit is Shakespeare himself, endlessly rewriting Love’s Labours Wonne and dodging letters from Anne Hathaway. And kissing pretty girls. And possibly the Earl of Southampton.

Susan Hill: Oxfam Bookshops are ‘Thugs. Thugs and Bullies.’

The office in which I value books for Oxfam is a bit of a maelstrom. Papers, books and other ephemera come and go. Some of the detritus is mine (the stamp album wrapped in paper and marked DO NOT TOUCH); some (the vinyl) is not. Some objects sit there, totems of collective despair (the Whittier volume and, some way away, its cover). The day it first appeared, I didn’t notice the Guardian Books section (I am – sad but true – incapable of working a full-size broadsheet. They fold, rip and shed ink in my hands. I’ve been reading the Guardian online for years). Not until my manager (gleefully) pointed it out to me, and directed me to the quotation from this blog post, by novelist and publisher Susan Hill.

Apparently Oxfam Bookshops are “Thugs. Thugs and Bullies.” Not surprisingly, this assertion caused a minor furore in the book blogsophere, with The Bookseller subsequently picking up the story.

I am not enough of an expert in the charities sector to defend Oxfam qua charity (see Petrona’s brilliant post here, dissecting that part of Hill’s article). I have had enough elderly books explode sawdust, paperdust, rotten leather or unmentionable horror all over my finest New Look skinnies to defend Oxfam Bookshops.

Hill’s last three paragraphs fascinate me. I value for a ‘spanking new, paint-smelling’ bookshop (well, the fumes are fading) in a ‘market town’, in the ‘next county’ from Hill. In other words, I probably value for the shop she visited. In fact, I probably valued the paperback she wanted, but refused to buy because – in her words – it cost £4.99.


Susan Hill complains that a paperback she wanted cost £4.99. Well, first off, not to be grubby about this but I’d be concerned if the Somerset Maughan and Whitbread-winning author of (lucrative set text) The Woman In Black (which has been running as a musical since 1987, presumably earning the odd bean), head of Long Barn Books publishers (god, I can’t believe I’m plugging, mid-rant, but I would like one of these bags), writer of the Simon Serallier franchise (v. good indeed) and, er, the wife of not-entirely-impoverished Shakespearean legend Prof. Stanley Wells CBE, couldn’t afford  a fiver for a book from us. I have, after all, spent much more than a fiver on hers.

But, to address the major claims of her – and other articles. If Oxfam prices seem high to someone, my first response would direct them to the Oxfam Myths section of the Oxfam GB website, responding to the claim that “Oxfam shops are too expensive”:

Ask some of the world’s poorest people – who we work with – if they’d rather we sold a top for a fiver, or a pound. Because that money directly funds what we do. So what’s a nice top worth if it helps someone break free from poverty? Glad we’ve got that one sorted out.

Book-buying from Oxfam is about more than buying books. I don’t believe we do overcharge. I used to live a few doors down from the Oxfam shop on Oxford’s Cowley Road, and my defining experience of that shop – as of all Oxfam bookshops – was crying ha-HA and making like Muttley as I purchased for £1.50 something for which Waterstones, Tesco or Amazon (remember that jolly triumvirate) would have expected a tenner. Another university friend, when I mentioned my new job, bemoaned the possibility that now Oxfam was starting to value its books accurately, it would be much harder to pick up undervalued bargains: when I emailed a third in an excess of excitement at having just found a 1st ed. by the poet on whom she did her Masters (David Jones, since you ask), she recalled picking up another edition for a triumphant fiver. In uni towns, students are frequently the mainstay of charity and non-charity secondhand bookshops. They are not a wealthy demographic.

If Ms Hill says she was offered £4.99 for a paperback, I’d dearly love to know what that paperback was. We have strict pricing guidelines that mean general fiction – not always our most profitable area, but the one which probably sprang to mind when Hill’s Spectator readers heard of her ‘paperback’ – never costs more than £2.99 a pop. If a book cost £4.99, it’s usually biography, poetry, history, art – any of the dozen or so non-fiction categories we sell. If a book costs £4.99, I probably priced it, and our evil corporate Oxfam valuation system usually works as follows:

1. I take my BA and Masters-partly-in-Bibliography upstairs and clutch at the books that look ‘sort of valuable’ (when sending our darling D of E boys to forage for me, I amend this brief to ‘sort of old’).

2. I identify them. This involves the internet, my highly-trained skillz, emergency Facebook appeals to native German speakers, the British Library and Bodleian catalogues (all hail OLIS), perserverance, dumb luck and holding things up to the light. I quite often get overexcited. I am frequently interrupted by people wondering why on earth the smallest, youngest, scattiest-looking person in the shop is the person with the computer (generally people assume I’m taking my GCSEs). Sometimes I use the dumb waiter to send down excited notes saying 1ST EDITION 1946!!!.

3. I work out the lowest feasible market price, the highest feasible, and then I pick a price below the lowest price at which I – and my manager – think the book might actually sell. Then I knock off a bit more and stick .99 on the end. Sometimes I write out excited explanations of who Janet and Anne Graham Johnstone were, or how I can tell that this Nelson Editeurs Victor Hugo is probably pre-1918.

4. None of this is done in an attempt to destroy capitalism, exalt capitalism, bring down independent bookselling or shit on the fabric of my beloved hometown. I am ecstatic every time one of my antiquarian/collectables sells, and I also die a little every time I see a Harry Potter 1st ed (we get them) go for less than it deserves. We’re not trying to create a massive loss leader – we’re trying to get people in, buying, out, and back again later. And, personally, if we’re going to talk moral authority, I think that the fact that our proceeds go to charity makes us essentially A Good Thing.

Our new shop won’t hurt the other charity shops in our town. Our next-door shop (again, a worthy cause) primarily sells clothes and homeware. Their very limited book stock consists mainly of Mills & Boon – which we don’t sell anyway. Cancer Research has been on the same street as our other Oxfam for ages, and the two have coexisted equably, as far as I know (we are, I should say, coexisting equably with our neighbours, except for when they mistook our D of E boys for vandals – they were leaping up and down, flattening boxes, while wearing their school uniforms).

Our town’s most famous charity shop(s) fundraise for a hospice that receives exceptionally well-deserved celebrity support; long may she reign, and if I seriously believed my job damaged them, I wouldn’t be doing it. Our hospice is absolutely great; we’re lucky. Previously, I’ve helped said hospice by carol-singing/event-going et cetera – this is just another form of support.

Finally, it’s ludicrous and enraging to blame Oxfam for the death of the independent bookshop. For god’s sake, we’re not taking enough to be the death of anything.  Like the nay-sayers, you might already have forgotten the trio of Amazon, Tesco and Waterstones mentioned earlier. How on earth can Oxfam be more destructive than them? Unless, of course, it was us who bankrupted Borders. My town has, I suppose, two independent bookshops: one is run by the Shakespeare Trust along from Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Shakespeare’s town in Shakespeare’s County in ShakespeareShakespeareShakespeare[Error 401] and I think we can reasonably assume it will never go out of business. The other is privately-owned, eccentric, damp, fascinating and, no, I don’t know how it’s still going. But then, I have been incredulous that it’s still going for 20 years, and since I don’t know anyone other than me who’s ever bought from it (and Shakespeare’s Birth Town is also Mine) – though I suppose some customers must exist – I cannot call myself, or Oxfam, the final nail in its coffin. I have damp-addled Plays and Players magazines I horded as a teenager. On the side of the angels, again.

Stamping on Oxfam won’t save the independent bookshop. I appreciate that actually boycotting Amazon, or tackling Waterstones as to why they advertise Bookseller positions paying less than the minimum wage might prove less cathartic and fruitful than complaining about Oxfam, particularly for authors – after all, the Big Three do pay royalties. We don’t. On the other hand, if not-paying-royalties is the major crime, let’s go and set fire to some libraries.

Still, it was very exciting to see my workplace in The Guardian. I love my job. I love it because it’s teaching me new skills in valuation and conservation that I couldn’t otherwise learn without paying yet more money for yet another expensive course. I enjoy being with my coworkers; far from being charinazis, they generally range from bleeding-heart, sweet-as pinkos to Tories of the babiest blue. I enjoy the mix of people who come through the shop. I’m proud when one of my discoveries sells, and I’m proud, above all, to work for a company I can believe in (I’m not prepared to spend my between-year as a Waterstones less-than-minimum wage-slave).

Unfortunately, I don’t think we – or any bookshop – can afford to negociate Ms Hill a special discount, and alas, I doubt we, at least, will be giving her continued glee by seeming empty and sad. I understand there’s been a half-term rush on kids’ fiction, and I spent yesterday valuing the loveliest French-language books. Our greetings cards are also unexpectedly popular. I wonder if we’re going to be accused of killing off W. H. Smith?