[EXHIBITION & TALK] Magdalen’s Wilde

wilde-poster-1-768x1086The current Old Library exhibition at Magdalen is on Oscar Wilde – I curated it, alongside our former Fellow Librarian Christine Ferdinand. The exhibition is open to the public on 15, 22 and 29 November, and at other times by appointment (contact library@magd.ox.ac.uk ). Displaying the very best of Magdalen’s holdings on one of our most famous alumni, the exhibition includes a little-known MS of Lady Windermere’s Fan, an array of first editions (and pirated editions!) from the UK and Europe, odd appropriations, Cecil Beaton costume designs, theatre programmes, salacious details from the trials, and (slightly heartbreaking) original letters.

On 21 November at 5.30 p.m. I’m giving a talk to accompany the exhibition, followed by a reception and viewing of the exhibition. To attend the talk, please email library@magd.ox.ac.uk – it’d be wonderful to see you there. Pia de Richemont reviewed the exhibition for Oscholars over the summer: read her review here.

P.S. this is a (reasonably) rare opportunity to get inside Magdalen’s beautiful Old Library and see the petrified wig. To give you an idea, it’s the central image in my blog header (if you’re reading this on RSS, click here).

[CFP]: Victorian Dirt

Victorian Network is an open-access, MLA-indexed, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to publishing and promoting the best postgraduate and early career work across the broad field of Victorian Studies.

The tenth issue of Victorian Network (Summer 2015) will be guest edited by Professor William A. Cohen (University of Maryland) on the theme of Victorian Dirt. Dirt – its causes, consequences, and control – obsessed the long nineteenth century, from the fuels and detritus of the Industrial Revolution, to the obscene books sold on London’s Holywell Street (which boasted fifty-seven pornographers by 1834). Technological advances brought increased pollution, while cities’ growth generated more dirt and the new urban workforce crowded together in sickness and in health. Meanwhile, public legislation and agitation tried to clean, civilise and purify the populace in both body and mind. Writers and cultural commentators debated the middle and upper classes’ responsibility to relieve the plight of the poor and dirty, but also drew on the metaphorical valences of dirt to explore cross-class attraction and repulsion. Rubbish mounds and the filthy, sewage-infested Thames are the iconic images of Charles Dickens’s exploration of class relations in Our Mutual Friend; Hannah Cullwick, diarist and domestic servant, documented her relationship with the barrister Arthur Munby – a secret connection based on the potential eroticism of dirt on the working-class body; and ‘slumming’ emerged as a term and practice in the 1880s, as well-to-do Londoners went on organized or individual tours of the East End. Recent scholarship and exhibitions have revealed the changing nature and status of dirt in the nineteenth century, taking an interdisciplinary approach to uncover (quite literally) the science and significance of the filthy, disposable or disgusting in Victorian life.

We are inviting submissions of no more than 7,000 words, on any aspect of the theme. Possible topics include, but are by no means limited to, any of the following:

  • Dirt in industrial processes and products: coal, smog, smoke or ashes.
  • Dirty money: blackmail and corruption; smuggling; the sex trade.
  • Filth: scandal, gossip, obscenity and pornography.
  • Disgust and horror; dirt and the Gothic; dirt and the atavistic or bestial; dirt in the laboratory.
  • The earth: dirt as life source; dirt as land; possession; burial ground and charnel house.
  • Roads, woodlands, waysides and canals.
  • Ashes to ashes: dirt and putrefaction; decay; decomposition and death.
  • Dirt and disease: overcrowding, sanitation; refuge, dust and disposal; the relationship between dirt and poverty.
  • Washing, cleanliness, purification; moral and physical dirt.
  • Housework and domestic service
  • The use of dirt in racialised imagery; dirt and the exotic; dirt and the colonial mission.
  • The dirty body; sweat, grime, and other fluids; eroticised dirt.

All submissions should conform to MHRA style conventions and the in-house submission guidelines. Deadline for submissions: 15 January 2015.

Contact: victoriannetwork@gmail.com


This is my first issue as Editor of VN, and I am extremely excited. And resisting (temporarily) all manner of “send us your dirtiest work in Victorian Studies” puns. And slightly alarmed by the kind of google searches that might lead people to this post. Fifty-seven pornographers, though.

 

[Lectures] Before Oscar 2013

Before Oscar

Before Oscar:

Reading Gender and Sexuality Pre-1880

a cross-period lecture series

Hilary Term 2013

2pm Wednesdays – Weeks 1-8 – Seminar Room K

Oxford University Faculty of English, Manor Rd, Oxford

Crossing period and national boundaries, this lecture series will introduce the pleasures and dangers of reading pre-twentieth century literature through a queer-studies and gender-studies lens.

1st Week, 16th January, Sophie Duncan

“The Reinvention of Love”:

or, why the Victorians didn’t think Oscar Wilde was built that way

2nd Week, 23rd January, Emma Smith

The Room in the Elephant: Shakespeare and Sexuality Again

3rd Week, 30th January, Bronwyn Johnston

Gendering Magic: Male Witches and Female Magicians on the Early Modern Stage

4th Week, 6th February, Anna Camilleri

Que(e)rying Poetics from Pope to Byron, or, Doing Boys Like They’re Girls and Girls Like They’re Boys in the Long Eighteenth Century

5th Week, 13th February, Liv Robinson

Reading Gender in the Romance of the Rose

6th Week, 20th February, Daniel Thomas

Belocen on ecnysse: the spatialization of gender in Old English literature

7th Week, 27th February, Anna Caughey

Blood, Sweat and Tears: Chivalry and Masculinity

8th Week, 6th March, Naomi Wolf, title TBA*

* please note that in Week 8, lecture will take place in Lecture Theatre 2.

Building on the success of last year’s Before Oscar lecture series, we’re back in 2013 – now with added Emma Smith and Naomi Wolf. I hope to see many of you there (you may have noticed that I’m first up, this coming Wednesday…).

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

https://i2.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.

[PODCAST]: Oscar Wilde’s Women for Great Writers Inspire

A couple of weeks ago, Alex recorded me for a podcast that rounds off the series called Great Writers Inspire. Great Writers Inspire is an amazing project providing open access, FREE lectures, talks, ebooks and other material on all sorts of writers. You don’t need any kind of educational affiliation or specialist background to enjoy them – they’re a great way to discover new writers.

Equally, listening to the other podcasts (generally in a state of sweaty apprehension and/or while on trains) allowed me to revisit authors I’d not studied since undergrad. Since I’m massively about to plug my own contribution, I’ll pre-emptively recommend those I most enjoyed:
Dr. Jennifer Batt on Mary Leapor, a fascinating eighteenth-century kitchenmaid and poet of whom I’d never heard (I didn’t get much beyond Stephen Duck).

Professor Daniel Wakelin on Chaucer (I loved this & enthused nostalgically about glory days of undergad).

Professor Tiffany Stern on Shakespeare and the Stage (concise, entertaining and illuminating, this is the best of the introductory talks).

My talk is here: Oscar Wilde’s Women. If the link dies, I am also searchable on iTunes, which will never stop being bizarre. In the podcast, I talk a bit about the ways in which I find seeing Wilde’s life as radical or inspirational problematic, wave the flag for Constance Wilde, and then suggest where the really radical Wilde is to be found – in his society plays’ depictions of women. I very much hope you enjoy it.

I was incredibly nervous about participating, but am so glad to have been involved. Do check out the Great Writers Inspire blog and library (including the unexpected opportunity to download Fanny Hill to your Kindle).

And, if you’re reading this in Oxford, enjoy the last of -1st week…

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.

CfP: Production and Consumption in Victorian Literature and Culture

Victorian Network is an MLA-indexed (from 2012) online journal dedicated to publishing and promoting the best postgraduate work in Victorian Studies.

The fifth issue of Victorian Network, guest edited by Dr Ella Dzelzainis (Newcastle University), is dedicated to a reassessment of nineteenth-century investments in concepts of productivity and consumption. Accelerating industrialisation, the growth of consumer culture, economic debates about the perils of overconsumption as well as emerging cultural discourses about industriousness, work ethic and the uses of free time radically altered the ways in which Victorians thought about practices of production and consumption. Literary authors intervened directly in these economic and social debates while also negotiating analogous developments within a literary marketplace transformed by new forms of writing, distributing and consuming literature. We are inviting submissions of no more than 7000 words. Possible topics include but are by no means limited to the following:

•   Literature of industrialisation
•   Victorian (global) spaces of production, forms and practices of consumption
•   Images of the industrial city, the factory, factory workers, and machines
•   Consumption as spectacle, the rise of the department store and the advertising industries
•   Changing concepts of literary production and new agents in the literary marketplace: publishers, editors, book sellers
•   Celebrity authors, audiences, and self-marketing in the literary sphere
•   Economic theory, finance, and nineteenth-century literature
•   Leisure, spare time and other modes of ‘unproductiveness’
•   Productivist and consumerist ideologies and the politics of social class
•   Reassessing Marxist perspectives on Victorian literature and culture

All submissions should conform to MHRA style conventions and the in-house submission guidelines.

The deadline for submissions to our next issue is 30 September, 2011.

Contact: victoriannetwork@gmail.com

Supervision, Publication!

an issue of the BLR which does NOT contain my article.

Supervision went well! Poor old William Archer was worried about nothing.

Equally important: I am finally published! My first article is now in print in the Bodleian Library Record, and sitting on my desk.

The citation is as follows: “Oscar Wilde’s ‘A Good Woman’: A Bibliographical Investigation into Magdalen MS. 300”, BLR vol 23 no 2 (October 2010), pp. 230-246. I am now Duncan (2010). This is very exciting, not least because the contributor list is so illustrious (the contributor bios are sort of hilarious. X is Emeritus, Y is Research Associate, and Sophie Duncan is a squit, we can say NOTHING about her really). Mary Clapinson, the Editor, was incredibly kind and helpful throughout the whole process, hacking the piece into shape and (above and beyond the call of duty) teaching me MS pagination. Helpfully, this ended years of me using recto and verso without any real idea what they meant.

So. Yes. An expensive and last-minute research trip has also been postponed until such time as it need be neither: today is a good day.

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!

NaNoWriMo, murder and the Wallace affair…

This is, I guess, an appropriate post for the run-up to Hallowe’en! Warning: gory/disturbing stuff beneath the cut (my first attempt at using one on WordPress, hope it works!)

A couple of days ago, I signed up for NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. For the uninitiated, this is a worldwide online project where participants each write a novel – 50,000 words – in the 30 days of November. Since signups, I’ve been fretting about the possibilities of libel, slander and nobody speaking to me ever again. I hope this is merely a clever displacement activity to avoid the most likely reason for failure – simply not producing those 50,000 words.

The prospect of winning NaNo (trans: successfully meeting the word limit) fills me with huge relief: in 30 days, it’d be done. I’d have written a novel, and – no matter how bad, boggy and unpublishable – I would know it could be done. And then I could do it again, rather better – it’d never be so difficult again, not until the tricky third-novel-slump where I have to go and stay in a friends’ house in the Fens and drink tea and stare out and possibly have a passionate/doomed love affair with the man who brings the post/dark-eyed waif from the village. And then produce something a bit Woolf and a bit Dylan Thomas.

God, can you imagine how that child would have looked.

I am also, my brothers, joining A Book Club. I have never been sure about Book Clubs. They always screamed Richard & Judy and those 3 for 2 stickers (no that’s not just snobbery, those stickers induce HORRIBLE ANXIETY, I can NEVER find 3 books I want on the table and then the girl asks and god), also the prospect of sitting round discussing Clarissa Dalloway’s Motivation does tend to make you scream when it’s what you do for – well, not a living. For the three years that push you dramatically into debt, teach you to eat plovers’ eggs and are so golden-and-aquatint that the rest of the world seems cold and dark, woe, woe, et cetera. But Simon is in lots, so they must be okay, and now Book Clubs appeal to me in the same way as NaNoWriMo. I am jobless. I am dolescum. I finally have the time.

Plus, my sole close schoolfriend currently in Really Gainful Employment (Recruitment Consultant, hoyes) hates it so much he suggested a Book Club in his first recorded moment of speech without irony. Sincerity, from him, indicates a man on the edge of a quarter-life crisis/a Birmingham-based Columbine, so we’re all going to sit in a pub and mock our own literary endeavours, before choosing books to read for next time.

Of the two readers whose tastes I know well, I predict – respectively – Nabakov and Orwell as opening gambits. I’m veering towards Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (haven’t read it yet – any thoughts?) for several reasons: 1) love my boys though I do, I’d be surprised if they chose many women writers – they’re Salinger & Orwell kind of guys, and 2) the fact it’s dystopian means they might actually like it. I’m not a big reader of dystopia, but I adored Oryx & Crake. Here’s another reason I’m nervous of the Book Club – when I talk about books outside an academic context, I sound sort of stupid. I don’t know whether to play nice and seem witless, or leap into a tutorial-style discussion and attempt to shed their hearts’ blood.

In terms of what I’m actually reading, I’m on a massive P. D. James kick, and waiting (probably forever) for Gary Taylor’s Inventing Shakespeare to arrive from Amazon. I heard P. D. James preach in chapel once, but until now Dalgliesh has been a big omission from my personal detective-canon. Having read Cover Her Face, Shroud For A Nightingale, The Black Tower, A Mind to Murder and now Death of an Expert Witness, I watched an ITV3 profile of her earlier in the week. Gyles Brandreth being an amiable idiot, Ruth Rendell being surprisingly closed-lipped on a woman she obviously loves, Mark Lawson being an unforgivable cretin (apparently Dorothy L Sayers “was all right on character but couldn’t really write a sentence”, berk berk “>berk berk) and Val McDermid rather ostentatiously calling her “Phyllis” (I wanted to link directly to McDermid’s website, but the typewriter sound effects are too annoying).

Several of PD James’s novels owe a positive debt to Dorothy L. Sayers. Shroud for a Nightingale has the same closed female community, sexual spectres and last-minute-assault-on-the-sleuth as Gaudy Night and, not coincidentally, is my favourite thus far. Set in a nurses’ training school in the 1970s, its opening pages contain one of the most horrific murders in detective fiction, the death of Nurse Pearce in the nurses’ demonstration room.

Talking of horrific murders, it cannot be every family that stores an almost-forgotten cache of crime scene photos in the same blanket box as old letters and birth certificates. I guess I’m just lucky. Our blanket box is a last-chance saloon for paperwork, never opened except  for those mysterious periods in my childhood when my father would get out 400 pieces of paper and  balance our finances (or at least acquaint himself with the imbalance).

Beneath the layers of respectable bills and invoices lies stuff from a film my dad worked on in 1990,about an unsolved murder in 1930s Liverpool. Do you remember the Prudential insurance ads? The Man From The Pru was the story of William Herbert Wallace, whose wife Julia was bludgeoned to death on the hearth in their shabby, cramped front room. Wallace claimed he’d been out at the time of the murder, searching for a non-existent in a street that was never built. The client was R. M. Qualtrough and the street was Menlove Gardens East, and I am enough of a terrifying crime nerd that I’m telling you all this from memory.  Wallace was tried, convicted and then sensationally acquitted. He didn’t hang, but died a broken man. The film starred Jonathan Pryce, Anna Massey and it dates horribly and as a child I was strictly, strictly forbidden to read the contents of the THE MAN FROM THE PRU file that was exacavated during my father’s financial archaeological digs.

My parents rarely censored what I read. Occasionally my mother has guilt that I got hold of trashfests like Yes, Mama (illegitimate orphan cruelly treated father disinherits mother senile child abuse prostitution suicide marries one-armed Boer veteran) and A Lady in Berkshire (“Kitty Winters could never have been called handsome but at that moment she looked almost beautiful” — trufax, and I found that at primary school) at nine, but since I also read all her Shakespeare, Dickens, Blyton, Christie & EJ Howard, it didn’t hurt. I think censoring children’s reading is pointless and stultifying, unless your precious lamb is somehow veering towards Firearms Monthly and Mein Kampf. I was only ever banned from The Jewels of Tessa Kent, which I read surreptitiously and guiltily in five-minute intervals (at thirteen, two years after Emily Organ passed round the sex bits in The Horse Whisperer to an awestruck Form 7X), The Betsy (mother decides Harold Robbins automobile expose will destroy child’s innocence) and, unforgettably, The Contents Of This Folder. My father said sternly that it was Not Very Nice (I must have been about five or six the last time the folder was unearthed in pursuit of papers – not long after the film was made, in fact), but otherwise I think he’d forgotten the thing existed.

I must have been a compliant kid. I didn’t read the folder until yesterday. And yes – apart from the respectable and fascinating original newspapers, it was horrible, horrible stuff… Continue reading “NaNoWriMo, murder and the Wallace affair…”