Claire King

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Posts Tagged ‘Nicola Beauman’

Literary ladies, canons, bottoms and inspiration.

Posted on: April 30th, 2011 by Claire - 6 Comments

I have just the juiciest and best talks on writing and books linked below! They’re taken from the launch of the Newnham College Literary Archive in February. You might not have heard of Newnham. I spent three of the most amazing years of my life there in its beautiful surroundings.

But even more fabulous than the gardens and the buildings are the alumnae, of whom you will have heard. I am privileged to count myself amongst such amazing women as Sylvia Plath, AS Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Salley Vickers, Mary Hoffman, Caroline LawrenceJenn Ashworth, Ali Smith, Patricia Duncker, Sarah Dunant, Gillian Allnutt, Wendy Mulford, Claire Tomalin; Elaine Feinstein; Lisa Jardine, Joan Bakewell, Katharine Whitehorn, Julia Neuberger… It reads like a ‘Who’s who?’ of literature, doesn’t it? And that’s before you even start broadening out to include actresses and directors such as Miriam Margolyes, Eleanor Bron, Emma Thompson…

Sorry, I am a little bit star-struck. So imagine, in February I found myself sitting in a small room, densely packed with women of this caliber, to talk about literature. It was a very exciting and inspirational moment for me! And that was really the idea Newnham had in creating the literary archive – to bring together donations of work, photos, manuscripts etc from these and other alumnae, to celebrate the achievements of Newnhamites past, and to encourage and inspire current and future students.

You’ll notice that I’m only mentioning women. Newnham is an all-women college, and whilst in many respects that doesn’t make a bit of difference to studying there and our lives afterwards, it does mean that topics specific to women, or examined from a women’s point of view are often on the table. I don’t believe this is intended to create a gender gap, but to acknowledge that one exists and take that as a context.

Over eighty years ago, Virginia Woolf visited Newnham to give a talk to the students on ‘Women and Fiction’. She discussed the idea that, ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ and this talk was to become  ‘A Room of One’s Own’, an essay that has proved inspirational for many women writers ever since.

Alison Wells’ recent series on Mother-Writers on her blog highlights, I think, that we still have a lot in common with women writers of the last century. Do we have the space yet to write as successfully as we could – either physically, or figuratively?

I’m so pleased that the video clips of the talks and the Q&A have been made available and I really recommend having a look when you have a chance (men and women alike, of course!). They are really worth it.

Here are the links, enjoy:

Sarah Dunant on Renaissance art, inspiration for her novels, and babies’ bottoms. This talk inspired this post Everything Speaks.

Nicola Beauman on Persephone books, and why women write so well. This talk inspired my post The Illicit Pleasures of Dorothy Whipple

Claire Tomalin on biography

Q&A Part 1 (on Feminism; female writers and racy novels; the literary canon; crime writing; and is there a difference between men and women?) and Part 2  (Male/Female ratios in publishing and reviewing; positive discrimination; The Orange Prize; the impact of new university fees on reading literature at universities)

The Illicit Pleasures of Dorothy Whipple

Posted on: February 13th, 2011 by Claire - 15 Comments


You might think you've got it covered, but we all know what you're reading.

Yesterday I had the privilege of hearing Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone books, talking about women writers and some of the constraints that they face in the literary world. In particular, why female authors are notably absent from the literary canon, despite the fact that their work is excellent and much appreciated by readers.

Nicola gave the example of Dorothy Whipple, who is one of their most popular authors at Persephone, although she was not considered to be a ‘serious writer’.

She also mentioned that it was not unheard of for ‘serious writers’ to own Dorothy Whipple novels and hide them away inside other books, as though they were shameful reading, a sort of literary guilty pleasure.

This was an interesting point, because only that morning my friend had admitted to me that she now regularly reads Jilly Cooper on her Kindle on her morning commute, when previously she would have read something more literary or maybe a decent biography. “The thing is,” she said, “now no-one can see what I’m reading.”

It’s true, you can’t judge a person by the cover of the book they’re reading when you can’t see the cover. Indeed, romance seems to be the fastest growing genre on e-books and part of the reason is that readers who may have been bashful reading romances in public, or even in front of their husbands, can now download entire back catalogues and read them discretely, while claiming to be working through something more highbrow.

Where does this shame come from that tells us what we ‘should’ be reading? What kind of books we should enjoy and what books are a sort of literary gluttony? Are e-readers helping to throw off the shackles of snobbish oppression, and will our new status as anonymous readers change our reading habits? Will people still buy Jonathan Franzen in hard back so they can show off on the tube?

But the most important question is…What’s your guilty pleasure?

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