Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dame Penelope Lively at the University Museum

Last Friday, Penelope Lively gave Somerville College's James Bryce Memorial Lecture at the University Museum. The setting for the talk, evocative as it is at any given time, couldn't help but strike the fan of Lively's children's books especially: The House in Norham Gardens has scenes set just down the stairs in the Pitt Rivers Museum. (As does His Dark Materials, making the Pitt Rivers itself an artefact of children's literature, though Lively positioned it more irreverently via James Fenton's description: 'shut / 22 hours a day and all day Sunday'.) Lively's lecture, which took shape around themes of memory, remembering, and history, also gave a substantial record of her reading in childhood and youth. 

Reading that shaded into writing: early encounters with classical mythology via Andrew Lang, which were followed by her own retellings (although Penelope was front and centre and full of virtue in the Odyssey, Lively ascribed other attributes to her namesake). Forbidden reading, reading as 'cherishing a subversive practice' amid the 'stern philistinism' of her boarding school. The Oxford use of reading to describe undergraduate study ('reading History', 'reading English'), with the phrase glossing such study as 'long-term inclination rather than mandatory application'. The distinction between 'undirected, unstructured reading' and 'deliberate reading', or research, as it pertains to her career as a writer. 

Lively's readings ranged over an hour, and it wasn't nearly long enough.

Above: A house in Norham Gardens, circa 1875.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Centre for the History of Childhood in Michaelmas

The Centre for the History of Childhood at Magdalen College will hold four Michaelmas sessions dedicated to new work on the history of childhood and young people in Britain and its empire since 1700. The details are as follows:

17 October: Laurence Brockliss & George Rousseau: ‘Orphans and the History of Childhood’: a discussion based around Cheryl L. Nixon, The Orphan in Eighteenth-Century Law and Literature. Estate, Blood and Body (Ashgate, 2011).

31 October: Hugh Morrison (Otago), ‘Competing Kingdoms? British Settler Children, Religion and Imperial Identity c.1890-1930’.

14 November: Hilary Marland (Warwick), ‘“Bounding Saucy Girls”: Visions and Practices of Health and Girlhood in Britain 1874-1920s’.

28 November: Heather Ellis (Liverpool Hope), ‘Juvenile Delinquency and the West, 1800-2000’.

All meetings take place in the Old Practice Room, Magdalen, at 5 pm.

The CfP for the 2013 Child and the book conference, to be held at the University of Padua, has also been released: see here for details.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Book Launch: Carmen Bugan's Burying the Typewriter

On 8 June, Carmen Bugan will launch her childhood memoir Burying the Typewriter: Childhood under the Eye of the Secret Police in Oxford. This exciting event will be held in conjunction with the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College. Hope to see you at 5.30 at Wolfson to celebrate Carmen's new book!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Matthew Kerr on The Water-Babies

Matt, a final-year D.Phil. candidate in the English Faculty, came to CLYCC from a slightly different angle than many speakers: his interest in Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies (1862–63) stems not from research into children's literature per se, but research into the sea in the nineteenth-century novel. Matt's paper provided some marine contexts for Kingsley's 'fairy tale', as well as associated comments on the relationship between adult and child therein. It is indicative, for example, that the dynamic between disbelief and belief which is so crucial to Kingsley should be incarnated by Professor Ptthmllnsprts (is this the thorniest name to pronounce in the whole of literature in English?—Matt handled it valiantly) and the little girl Ellie, and that the pair's exchange should take place at the archetypal littoral zone of the shoreline. The fantastic rewriting of Tom's drowning in The Water-Babies was positioned by way of drowning motifs in Tennyson's 'In Memoriam A. H. H.' and divers other Victorian sources, with Matt noting that pseudo-scientific writings about drowning at this time (in the British Medical Journal, for instance) relate to psychoanalytical paradigms for both memory and childhood. One's life flashing before one's eyes entails a crystalline recollection of childhood events, a watery version of Susan Stewart's statement that '[w]e imagine childhood as if it were at the other end of the tunnel: distanced, diminutive, and clearly framed’.
W. Heath Robinson's illustration of Professor Ptthmllnsprts and Ellie, taken from the 1915 Houghton Mifflin edition of The Water-Babies.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Trinity 2012 Termcard

An all-nineteenth-century programme this term, by coincidence! We are once again stationed in the English Faculty's Seminar Room A (ex-Meyerstein) at 5.15pm.

Hope to see you there!

7 May (Third Week): ‘Feeling for Depth: The Water-Babies in and around the Victorian Sea’. Matthew Kerr, Somerville
On the last page of his popular Glaucus or, The Wonders of the Shore (1855), Charles Kingsley tells his readers that, if they cannot get to the seaside themselves, they may purchase a special mixture of ‘salts’ needed to manufacture ‘Mr. Gosse’s artificial sea-water’—this, he is satisfied, ‘will form a perfect substitute’. What was in Gosse’s salt is not clear, but it is easy to imagine that some Londoners may have found alternative uses for it. Richard Rowe, for one, may have been glad of the recommendation: the sound of London costermongers made him ‘pine so for a whiff of “the briney”’ that he found he ‘must undress and give myself a second tub, and put some Tidman’s sea-salt in it’. For the Victorians, the sea magnetically drew both thoughts and bodies towards itself. In this paper Matt, a final-year D.Phil. candidate at Somerville, considers the ambiguities of, and contexts for, Kingsley’s own longing for immersion as expressed in his famous children’s novel The Water-Babies (1863).

21 May (Fifth Week): ‘“The Laughing Philosopher”: Thomas Hood’s Comic Imagination and Its Place in Nineteenth-Century Children’s Literature’. Karen Williams, Roehampton University
The figure of the child is central to the work of the nineteenth-century poet and illustrator Thomas Hood. Representing an ambivalent blend of innocence and wisdom, Hood uses his child figures to present laughter and play as an antidote to the drudgery and hardships of life in an increasingly industrialised London. This paper discusses how, by connecting the laughing child with the classical trope of Democritus, the Laughing Philosopher, Hood employs seemingly innocuous humour and simple childlike forms—ballads, nursery rhymes, fairy tales—to interrogate serious issues in contemporary society. In so doing, Hood writes an extensive canon of literature both for and about children that deserves much greater recognition in the wider trajectory of children’s literature. Karen is currently undertaking her PhD at Roehampton’s National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature (NCRCL).

4 June (Seventh Week): ‘“Not Classic, But Quite Correct”: Reinventing Classical Mythology for the Nineteenth-Century Juvenile Drama’. Dr Rachel Bryant-Davies, University of Cambridge
Juvenile Dramas, often based on popular London shows, cover an astounding variety of venues, genres, and topics. Their backdrops and character cut-outs offer unparalleled evidence for reconstructing these performances, both in the theatre and at home, and assessing their reworkings of classical antiquity. This paper will consider two key examples: Planché’s first classical extravaganza Olympic Revels (1831) and an ‘equestrian burlesque’ The Siege of Troy (1833). While the former proudly introduced ‘authentic’ classical costuming, the latter delighted in its carnivalesque confusion of multiple ancient pasts. These now obscure spectacles and their souvenirs not only show diverse audiences interacting with this recreated antiquity, but also reveal children as active agents of classical reception.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tamara Moellenberg on the Child Soldier Novel

Tamara began with a clip from the film Skin (2008), in which a black child is born to two white Afrikaner parents in apartheid-era South Africa. The girl, Sandra, is brought into a courtroom that will decide her legal ethnicity: a courtroom in which the child’s body, not her words, provide the only acceptable form of testimony. Throughout her paper, Tamara explored parallel tensions between body and speech in a number of recent child soldier novels. For example, Chris Abani’s novel Song for Night, published in 2007, is narrated by a mute child soldier in 1960s Nigeria who develops his own form of home sign. This method of communication relies on the truth in, or the truth of, the child’s body—an exteriorisation of interiority. In effect, Tamara proposed, the child’s body provides a way of talking about suffering and physical pain that is resistant to or even defiant of verbal witness, but is at the same time potentially problematic. Moreover, the crisis of credibility around the child soldier novel (Tamara referenced the controversy over Ishmael Beah’s 2007 A Long Way Gone), must provoke a broader reassessment of the nature of testimony, as opposed to the need to challenge false testimony.

Tamara will present further research at the Child and the Book conference at Cambridge later this month—registration and further information now available here.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Green Man/Wild Man in Children's Literature and Culture

Trinity College Dublin will host a conference on the Green Man/Wild Man in children's literature and culture in July this year. For more information visit the conference blog.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Melissa Dickson on the Arabian Nights

In a discursive and thought-provoking session, Melissa Dickson took us through some aspects of her doctoral research at King's College London, which focuses on nineteenth-century receptions of the Arabian Nights. This collection, diverse both in terms of sources (many of the tales came from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Egypt and Syria, by way of an eighteenth-century French collector of folklore, and supplemented in many editions with other, unrelated tales) and genres (Melissa listed fables, fairy tales, romances, crime stories, animal transformations as only a few of the types represented), constituted a formative reading experience for such nineteenth-century luminaries as Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontës, and Letitia Elizabeth Landon. Melissa suggested that, with history and memory increasingly contested forms of 'time' in the period, the Arabian Nights represents attempts to snatch fragments from the past, to make the past accessible through the retelling of ancient tales. This process also occurred within personal histories, as the famous authors who read the Nights as children recounted their readings as a way of recapturing what was lost in the progression from childhood to adulthood. Moreover, the non-linear quality of the Nights apes the non-linear quality associated with child consciousness in the nineteenth century, as the form of the Arabian Nights becomes metonymically associated with its readers.

We wish Melissa the best of luck with this fascinating project!

At top, the poster for an 1888 burlesque of the Arabian Nights: Melissa concluded by discussing the huge range of such theatrical spectacles as another way of exploring the relation of the Nights to issues of narrative and memory.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

James Williams on Edward Lear

James’ paper, the first in a number of bicentenary celebrations of Lear which will occur at Oxford this year, examined Lear’s nonsense verse in the context of children’s language acquisition. Observing that Lear, like Carroll, is a great nonsense writer whose work springs from direct contact with children, James read Lear’s limericks as a form of what Wittgenstein referred to as ‘those games by means of which children learn their native language.’ James ranged over a number of writers on such language-games, from Henri Wallon to the Opies to Roman Jakobson, to explain aspects of the limerick as they relate to children: the limerick’s delight in coincidences of sound, for instance, mimicking children’s own pleasure and delight in sound patterning. James finished with an example of Lear’s direct address to children which is worth quoting at length. ‘You will excuse my familiar mode of addressing you,’ wrote Lear to Ruth Decie in September 1862, ‘because, you know,—you have as yet got no Christian name—;—& to say—“my dear Miss Decie” would be as much too formal, as “my dear Decie” would be too rude. But as your Grandmama has written to me that you are just born I will write to congratulate you, & possibly this is one of the first letters you have yet received.’ Lear’s letter eloquently answers, without condescension or staginess, the question of how adults should speak to children—and provided a charming conclusion to James’ paper.

James is organising a conference on Lear at Jesus College on the 21st and 22nd of September this year, with confirmed speakers including Gillian Beer, Hugh Haughton, and the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. For more information, and to pre-register your place, please visit the conference website.

At left, the 'intrinsic Old Man of Peru'—James also pleasurably riffed on Lear's use of 'intrinsic' in this verse.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hilary 2012 Termcard

Happy New Year!

Our first offerings for 2012 are as diverse as ever. Same location (Seminar Room A in the English Faculty Building) and time (5.15pm). All welcome.

Please contact me if you have any questions or would like to present in the future.

30 January (Week 3): ‘Edward Lear’s Origins’. Dr James Williams, Brasenose and Jesus Colleges
Lear was a writer of and for children, people at the beginning of their life: he is also considered, rightly or wrongly, as a starting-point, the originating ‘Father of Nonsense’. This paper considers Lear’s concern with origins (both a private fascination and a Victorian cultural obsession): where we come from, how we begin to speak, how to make new starts. It also gives some thought to the origins, and originality, of his nonsense, in the context of a Romantic inheritance of writing about children. The paper is part of on-going work towards the first critical monograph on Lear in over thirty years.

13 February (Week 5): ‘Encountering the Arabian Nights’. Melissa Dickson, King’s College London
The Arabian Nights, never adequately situated in historical time, was often first encountered in childhood and became a powerful memory for many individuals in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Knowledge of this protean collection of Persian, Arabian, and Indian folk tales cannot stem from a first text or clearly identifiable source, but from a series of individual encounters with illustrations, concepts, characters, and stories drawn from different and even contradictory versions of the work. In this paper, Melissa Dickson, a PhD candidate at King’s College London and fellow of the Australian Federation of University Women, will explore the circumstances surrounding childhood exposure to the tales and the potential return to childhood offered by rediscovery of the work across various media in later life.

27 February (Week 7): ‘“The Soul Has No Sign”: A Prosthetics of Pain in the Child Soldier Novel’. Tamara Moellenberg, Brasenose College
Examining recent novels by Uzodinma Iweala, Chris Abani, and Delia Jarrett-Macauley concerned with the experience of the child soldier in regions of West Africa, Tamara Moellenberg, a second-year DPhil candidate at Brasenose, considers the instrumentalisation of the child-body as a vehicle for human rights, bearing witness to physical atrocity. Focalizing her analysis through the representation of pain, Tamara will look at wounded child bodies as ‘narrative prostheses’ for concepts of discursive immediacy, psychic trauma, and the act of impugning blame in international contests of culpability.