Brontë Society Conference 2016

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My brain feels like it is leaking out my ears in the best possible way. The 2016 Brontë Society conference has just concluded and I am drinking tea in a Manchester café trying to process everything I have heard over the last 48 hours. It has been a brilliant weekend, full of thought-provoking, challenging, fantastic ideas and new readings and theories that were both surprising and strange. I had previously deliberated over attending, unsure if I could justify the cost to myself. I am so, so glad I went with my gut. Not only was it Charlotte’s bicentenary (and therefore a once-in-a-lifetime event), but it fitted nicely with my philosophy of trying everything in the UK that is unavailable to me back in Australia. I’m very lucky that I was able to find the money and go.

The Midland hotel in Manchester is just as grand as I had imagined, and is far more pricey than the usual hostel dorms I would travel in, so it was nice to spoil myself for a few days. After taking the train from Edinburgh, grabbing some lunch, and checking in, the afternoon kicked off with an introductory lecture from Professor Christine Alexander on Charlotte Brontë’s early literary ambitions. The theme of the conference was: “the business of a woman’s life” – Charlotte Brontë and the Woman Question. This title refers to the infamous exchange between Charlotte at the age of twenty and the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, who (probably meaning well) advised her that “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and it ought not to be”. Professor Alexander’s lecture was therefore well-placed to introduce us to Charlotte as a young writer, and explore how this advice was to affect her literary trajectory, transitioning from her copious amounts of juvenilia through to her adult, post-teaching career as a novelist.

This was followed by a drinks reception doubling as a launch for a bicentenary publication by the Bronte Society – Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: Transforming Life into Literature in Jane Eyre. The authors, Professor Alexander and Sara L. Pearson were both present to sign our copies and tell us about the writing process, and so commenced my potentially unwise spending spree at the conference book stall. Dinner was lovely, and was my first proper opportunity to get to know the other delegates. The Brontë community is exceedingly welcoming and warm – all weekend I was introduced and included and drawn into friendly conversations, given phone numbers and email addresses, and engaged in fascinating discussion with my fellow Brontëphiles. After dinner, Helen MacEwan, who has written extensively on the Brontë’s experiences in Brussels, gave a talk on how the Belgians perceive Charlotte, both in the past and present. As Charlotte was generally less than complimentary towards Belgium and its inhabitants, this talk was quite funny, though Helen MacEwan was careful to detail the reasons why Charlotte held the opinions that she did. Helen was written extensively on Belgium and the Brontës, and guides literary tours around Brussels, for which I will now commence saving…

My bed was king-size, comfy, and I was too fast asleep to properly appreciate it. Breakfast was enormous and delicious, served buffet-style with all manner of options you can imagine. Unfortunately I had not bought my bathers with me, otherwise I would have been sure to use the spa/sauna/relaxation pool available and fully enjoy the hotel experience. But it didn’t matter – we started again promptly at 9.30am on Saturday morning for the keynote address from Professor Germaine Greer. I just can’t overestimate how wonderful this was. It was bold and controversial (no surprises there, it was written by Germaine Greer), and argued that Jane Eyre as a text broaches the last great taboo, positioning Rochester as a father-figure and Jane as the daughter-figure and seducer of the father. Basically labelling the novel as an exploration of father-daughter incest is an unusual claim to make in a room full of Brontë devotees, but in true Greer fashion, she was unapologetic without being aggressive, firm in her words while inviting us to argue with her, and presented some truly nuanced and brilliant observations on femininity, physicality, the relationship between Patrick Brontë and his children, and Charlotte herself. I know Germaine Greer is a divisive figure, and there are positions of hers that I most definitely disagree with, but hearing her speak was an honour, and a memory I will cherish forever.

Tea and cake played a large role in this conference. There were lots of breaks for both, and it delighted me. After a short indulgence, we re-assembled to hear a group of speakers discussing Charlotte Brontë’s 20th century impact – Dr Siv Jansson on the biographical films of the Brontës, Dr Catherine Han on contemporary literary adaptations and how they relate to Gilbert and Gubar’s 1979 seminal critical text, The Madwoman in the Attic, and Dr Sarah E Fanning on feminism and representations of Jane Eyre on screen. All of these presentations were wonderful, and this section was a conference highlight for me.

After lunch, a group of us went to Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Manchester, and although the visit was a bit rushed, it was a delight to see the residence that Charlotte had visited during her friendship with Mrs Gaskell and hear about the way the Gaskell family lived and worked. I will definitely return for a longer visit at a later date.

We returned to the hotel just in time for the next set of speakers, discussing the theme of writing and a woman’s life – Heather Williams on the plight of unwed daughters standing in as substitute wives for their widowed fathers in Victorian literature, Professor Temma Berg on the business and representation of coquetting in fiction, and Dr Jian Choe on Charlotte’s urban experiences and the impact on her life and art. (Unfortunately Dr Choe was not present, but the paper was read to us by Jan Lee). Dinner was a formal affair followed by a talk by Claire Harman on the lives of Charlotte’s schoolfriends, Mary Taylor and Ellen Nussey, and their behaviour and influence on Charlotte’s work. I really enjoyed this talk, though by this time it was so late that I couldn’t absorb it as thoroughly as I wanted – I am looking forward to seeing it reproduced in print further down the line, hopefully.

This morning after another delicious breakfast, Professor Sally Shuttleworth spoke to us about justice and injustice in Charlotte Brontë’s fiction, particularly as seen through the experience of the child characters. Professor Shuttleworth has written extensively on child psychology and how this is represented in literature of the Victorian period, and just happens to be Professor of English Literature at Oxford so, y’know, she knows what she is talking about. A truly brilliant lecture. We leapt straight into the last section afterwards, on employment, education and economics. Margaret Mills was also absent, so the Vice President of the Brontë Society, Dr Patsy Stoneman, read her article on education and employment in Charlotte’s work, while Professor Joanne Rostek spoke about feminist economics and different economic readings of Shirley, and Professor Deborah Wynne discussed the influence of the textile trade and manufacturing industries of Yorkshire and how they framed Charlotte’s life and work.

And just like that, the conference was finished! Thanks were given and lunch was eaten, contact details were exchanged and goodbyes were said. It has been an absolutely mind-blowing experience for myself, and I am trying to figure out how to get back in 2018 after my visa has expired in order to attend Emily Brontë’s bicentenary conference…

I have to finish writing this blog now. My mind needs a rest, but I wanted to get all the details down before I forgot them! My train leaves shortly and this café is closing soon, so until next time, you will find me reading my enormous pile of new books.

 

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August in Edinburgh

I have had a very busy month. It’s been wonderful, because I have also done my best to prioritise sleep and getting enough rest in between enormous amounts of running around, so I haven’t become ill or crazy. In my previous blog post I mentioned the things I’ve done this month thus far, and I’ve done even more since. So, in-between work and even some social events, here is what I have been up to since…

Night at the Museum – went to this with a British lass I met in Paris at the start of the year! She had popped up to Edinburgh for the fringe with some mates and we had a quick drink before seeing several comedians pretend to be experts in artefacts found throughout the National Museum of Scotland’s collections. Pretty nice improv, I must say.

Dr Neil’s Garden – not a fringe show, but a nice visit nonetheless with an Edinburgh friend of ours. This is a beautiful little oasis in the middle of Edinburgh, situated in a corner of the enormous Holyrood Park, just near Duddingston Loch. Beautiful garden, peaceful environment – definitely a place to go back to!

Best of the Bohemians – a variety show by a local theatre group. A friend from work was performing in this and it brought me right back to being involved with theatre back in Melbourne. Very nostalgic, and some beautiful voices on display.

Northanger Abbey – with puppets!! This little company is brilliant, with the two actors adapting the material, performing, and making all the puppets themselves. It was entertaining and polished and showcased immense talent as the performers moved between their own characters and the puppets they were using.

Austentatious – this is a fringe favourite for a lot of people and had been recommended to me multiple times. It definitely lived up to the hype, mainly due to the mad improv skills of the ensemble cast. They are obviously well-matched and have worked together enough to achieve a really seamless style of performance, despite improvising an entirely new show from scratch, every performance, being prompted by a title suggestion from the audience.

Eimear McBride – My first ever Edinburgh International Book Festival event! A Girl is a Half-formed Thing remains one of the most interesting (and devastating) books I have ever read, and Eimear was at the festival to talk about her newest book, The Lesser Bohemians. Hearing her read her work, and talk about the process of writing it – such an honour. And I met her in the signing queue afterwards!

Half Blood Prince trivia – our monthly Harry Potter pub quiz and we won! A 30 pound bar tab to spend 😀 These questions are HARD WORK and I am very proud of us!

Philippa Gregory – The way this woman talks about feminism and women in history makes me so happy. She is so knowledgable and witty, and a really passionate defender all of kinds of women that history has deemed either unimportant, stupid, evil, sluttish, or prudish. She spoke about what she calls the ‘she-wolf/dolt’ complex and pointed out the many double standards that exist in the reporting and interpretation of the personalities and actions of historic men and women. A wonderful experience (and I met her in the signing queue!)

Alison Weir – a historian and novelist that tortures me with the amount of work she has written that I haven’t had the chance to read yet. Her latest book is about Katherine of Aragon and the breadth of her knowledge and research is staggering. She also has some interesting things to say about the age-old question of the legitimacy of Katherine and Henry VIII’s doomed marriage and whether her marriage to Arthur was consummated or not, but more importantly, whether or not it actually mattered in a scriptural sense. And I met her in the signing queue 😀

Tracy Chevalier – the problem with going to these events to see authors you admire speaking, is that you leave them with an urge to buy every book of theirs and that is an expensive impulse. I resisted – just – but as I don’t yet own Tracy’s new novel At the Edge of the Orchard, I will need to save my pennies in order to get my mitts on it asap. It sounds amazing. I asked her to sign my copy of Reader, I Married Him, an anthology that she edited of stories inspired by Jane Eyre.

This afternoon I am off back to the book festival to see Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke, and then first thing tomorrow I am off to Manchester for a weekend with The Bronte Society for their annual conference, this year celebrating Charlotte’s bicentenary. This month has been one of the best of my life.

Bath, finally!

This is my fourth trip to the UK. Every time I have been in this corner of the world, I have tried to get to Bath, and every time, I have missed out. Until now! Before I left Australia, I saw that one of my favourite people, Marian Keyes, was going to speaking at the Bath Literature Festival. So I bought a ticket, put it in my diary, and then delayed organising how to get there until the day before I left Edinburgh. Excellent. But I booked a flight from Edinburgh to Bristol that was far cheaper than the train, so all good!

I arrived on a Friday night, around 10pm, after taking a bus from Bristol Airport into the centre of Bath. I found my way to my hostel which was above an extremely noisy pub, but by the time I checked in – yelling painfully over the sound of a bazillion drink students – I found my room up near the top of the building which was a little quieter. My roommates were very quiet, but I still had a pretty fractured nights sleep, mainly due just to being in a strange bed. I bounced out of bed the next morning with the determined – read: crazed – look of someone who uses the power of pretence to convince themselves they aren’t tired, and trotted down to the showers.

Perhaps I have discussed hostels with you in person and you have heard me lament of a hostel in Belfast that was home to the world’s worst shower. Friends, I stand corrected. I carefully hung my towel, pyjamas, and a plastic bag of toiletries on the little hooks provided. I am all for saving the environment, and the showers used those push button thingamies that I’ve used before, where you press the button and the water runs for twenty seconds before it shuts off, and then you press it again. That’s FINE. That’s GOOD. What I can’t get behind is the fact that the spray of the shower is so forceful, it slams into the door with a banging noise, or, if, like me, you had not yet stepped inside and closed the door, it just hits you in the face instead. Also, this first spray is never hot. Why should it be? The water has not had time to warm up, so the forceful drenching that accompanies that first push of the button is frigidly cold. The spray is so huge and all-encompassing, that there is no way to dodge or avoid it. The teeny-tiny cubicle is no match for the range of the spray’s reach. I hadn’t planned on washing my hair, but it was immediately saturated so it seemed as good a time as any. Once I’d gotten over my complete and utter shock, gasping for air and blinking all the ice water out of my eyes, I gritted my teeth and reached for the button again, willing the water to warm a little. I now had the foresight to close myself in with the door shut properly so it wouldn’t soak my towel, PJs, and toiletries anymore. I grabbed the soap and scrubbed furiously as the water hit again, trying to use the vigorous motion to warm myself up a little. The water ran out once more, mid-soap, so I pressed it again. Then again. And again. NOTHING HAPPENED. The showerhead looked down at me, smug and superior, as I stood naked and shivering, half covered in soap. After a period of about two freezing minutes, it deigned to send a dribble of icy water down and I leapt under it and rinsed as quickly as I could to get all the soap off me. When I tried my luck again, it declined, so I said ‘well, fuck you too then,’ and got out, wrapping the towel around me and trying to convince myself that I was the winner in this particular rumble, or at least the bigger person for walking away.

Sorry, bit of a tangent. For anyone still reading, I avoided that particular cubicle like the plague afterwards and took my chances on a different bathroom. Far more satisfactory. The free breakfast almost made up for my violation at the hands of shitty plumbing, and then when I exited the hostel, I found a truly delicious chai latte at a bakery before going on a free tour of the city! They run every day by a group called the Mayor’s Guides and they strictly accept no tips, which is brilliant for a two and half hour tour! Bath, and the colourful characters who lived here, present a fascinating history. Also, the architecture makes you want to weep. It is one of the most beautiful cities I have seen. I don’t know if the word ‘Bathitecture’ has been coined yet, but I’m claiming it.

After the tour and lunch with a view, I visited Bath Abbey. It’s free to enter, though they encourage donations, and is a gorgeous way to pass the time. Of course, I need a little soul food after so long, and to top the experience off, there was a choir practising for a concert later that day. Their sound was utterly angelic. I sat with my eyes closed, listening. A visit to the Roman Baths was next – the entrance fee might seem steep to tight-asses like myself, but really, 15 pounds is very good for what the museum offers. It included audioguide hire, and they have multiple tracks in different languages, for children, and also one by the American writer Bill Bryson at various points around the place. The museum is really informative and interesting, delving into ancient history and showcasing many ruins, but it is the actual hot springs that I found the most fascinating. The large green pool in the middle you are not supposed to touch because that water isn’t treated (everyone sticks their fingers in anyway to see how warm it is), but there is a fountain inside the museum with water from the spring that is safe to drink. It is WEIRD. Unlike a lot of other natural mineral springs, it doesn’t contain sulfur, so it doesn’t smell or taste bad, but it definitely doesn’t taste like normal tap water. And of course, it’s warm, which makes it even stranger!

I was now on the hunt for tea and cake, and found a beautiful tea shop on Pulteney Bridge that delivered (though beautiful tea shops really are everywhere in Bath). I had the best slice of carrot cake I’ve ever had, all fragrant and cinnamon-y, with a pot of Earl Grey tea. I read my Marian Keyes book and watched the dusk happen out the window. (I also had a moment while ordering where I asked for my Earl Grey tea and the guy looked at me like I was wearing my bra on my head – he completely misunderstood my accent and just heard gibberish and I felt like a huge bogan, but I’ll not think about that bit).

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That evening I attended my first festival event – Shakespeare Gala! The first half was great – a group of performers who had practiced the old-fashioned way: learned their lines and their cues, but had not rehearsed together until that night onstage! They performed scenes from particular Shakespearean plays with remarkably few errors! The second half however, was FABULOUS – a duo called Rhapsodes, who IMPROVISED an ENTIRE PLAY in iambic pentameter, gathering anecdotes, titles, and words from the audience to include in particular scenes and to write sonnets. It was insane. It was so, so funny, but I also sat there with my mouth hanging open for a lot of it in awe. I have never seen performers so quick to think on their feet. I got chummy with one of them the next night at another event and he said they will be coming to Edinburgh for the festival so HUZZAH! I can take Sean and I can force everyone who hasn’t seen them yet to GO GO GO. One of the cleverest theatre experiences of my life so far.

I embarked on a fruitless search for a burger afterwards, and ended up eating convenience store pasta. It was highly entertaining to watch the Saturday nightlife around me. By day, Bath is full of tourists, but at night it becomes apparent that this really is a city full of students, and every one of them was out after dark.

The next morning I ducked into another church, just to sit and breathe and listen to another music rehearsal. This one was St Michael’s, right near my hostel. They invited me to stay for the service, but I had an event to go to, so I trotted off for a cup of tea and arrived at a panel called ‘Creating Suspense’. The crime authors Sam Baker and Susie Steiner were being interviewed about their latest novels by Stephanie Merritt, and they said some brilliant and insightful things about writing crime (or, ‘grip-lit’, a slightly better term than the awful ‘domestic noir’). It’s a genre I haven’t read a lot of, and one I don’t write in (yet), so it was really interesting to hear their perspectives. I bought a copy of Sam Baker’s new novel, The Woman Who Ran, because it’s inspired by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, and asked her to sign it. It’s a brilliant novel, combining politics, the internet, domestic violence, and Syria, all the while weaving through the links back to Anne Bronte’s original. Sam said she took strands of her favourite writers – Daphne du Maurier, the Brontes, Patricia Highsmith etc. – and tried to combine them. She said there are too many expectations on female characters in crime – the woman is either the victim, or too ‘strong’; they can never just be normal. For her research, most of it involved simply talking to people. A Twitter campaign on domestic violence earned her more abuse than any other campaign (go figure). When she started in journalism in women’s magazines around 1990, every second story involved domestic violence, yet marital rape wasn’t illegal yet. For Sam, suspense is a process of cranking up the tension, then loosening it, then cranking it up once more. Susie Steiner cherry picked from the things she wanted to read about – suspense isn’t just about finding a body, or awful violence. There is suspense in the small things too, like falling in love. It’s on the same spectrum of fear and hope. Susie spent time in the major crime unit with the Cambridge police, and witnessed several murder investigations – women were pretty much always killed by familiar men. All the police she spoke to were really helpful. Susie’s plots become complex through rewriting – she rewrites about 18 times! The first draft is ‘awful’, so rewriting is a pleasure. In rewriting, you can backfill a lot of suspense, and delete the obvious clues left over from first draft. You can trace in new things, and in literary thrillers, the reason the jeopardy matters is that you care about the characters. By engaging the reader’s empathy, jeopardy can be contained in the small things. Susie says that fiction is easier than journalism – it’s freer, more fun and playful because you can go where you want, not where you have to. She also mentioned that she thinks flashbacks are sometimes unnecessary. Often the author has to know something, but not necessarily the reader. Information comes from the orbit of the victim, not from one place, and this is why it’s useful to use multiple characters and narration.

I then went to a panel with Stephanie Merritt, Viv Groskop, and Mark Lawson, who were honouring the theme of this years festival – ‘Forever Young’ – by discussing the 21 best coming-of-age novels. The list was really interesting, and they basically spent the hour arguing in favour or against the inclusion of particular works. They defined coming-of-age as an individual moving from innocence to experience (and of course the German word ‘bildungsroman’ is also a definition in itself). Mark Lawson mentioned the concern he felt at the popularity of Catcher in the Rye (no. 1 on the list), and the glorification and fetishisation of lonership and alienation it contains. He also pointed out that the most often used word in a coming-of-age novel tends to be ‘I’. In The Virgin Suicides, it’s ‘we’, which is highly unusual, due to the books narration. The panel tended to disagree quite a bit regarding Go Set A Watchman. Mark Lawson loved it, and Viv Groskop won’t read it, and it was recommended to the audience to read Sarah Churchwell’s opinion on it, so I’ll definitely look that up. Mark Lawson told a funny anecdote about nearly killing Maya Angelou by accident when he realised he’d accidentally stood on the tube of her oxygen tank, and at the end, they each ‘championed’ a novel – for Viv it was To Kill a Mockingbird, for Stephanie, Jane Eyre, and for Mark, Oranges are not the only fruit – and the audience voted. Mockingbird won by a landslide! At one point they spoke about YA as a genre and how they felt the two distinctions differed – YA vs coming-of-age – and how they intertwined. I disagreed with a few of the things said about YA…there seems to be a tendency to not regard it at a level equal to ‘adult’ literature, and that always grinds my gears. Of course there is plenty of tat within the genre, but there is an outstanding body of work within it to, just as exquisitely written as plenty of adult fiction I have read.

I found lunch at the famous Sally Lunn bun shop (super yummy!) and then it was time for Marian Keyes. Okay, so for those of you who don’t know, Marian Keyes writes ‘commercial women’s fiction’ or ‘chick-lit’, and I apologise if you take issue with either of those terms, as I myself do, but that is what her work is widely known as. They’re always funny, romantic comedies that tend to deal with darker themes such as addiction, depression, and domestic violence. I’ve read all her books and I love them. But she’s also written a lot of journalism and personal publications about her struggles with mental health. She had an awful few years where she contemplated suicide every day and thought she would never be able to write again or do any kind of book promotion or public speaking. She tried so many different ‘cures’ and has come to some really wise realisations about acceptance and how to live life in a way that’s gentle and kind to yourself. Her writing about mental health has helped me so profoundly. When I was going through some of the darkest times of my life, which I have written about on my blog before, I started reading her writing just to feel like I wasn’t alone. Everything she writes about mental health is so relatable, while making me laugh at the same time. And then to see her in front of me, glowing with good health and making jokes and doing the sort of events she thought she would never be able to do again, was such an emotional experience for me. First of all, she is BLOODY TINY!! Like a little Irish elf-queen! She brushed right past me on her way to the stage and I will never wash my jeans again. She was being interviewed by Sali Hughes, and described her new book, Making It Up as I go Along, as a sort of ‘anti-self-help book’. Her husband was sitting about two feet from me, and the audience was enraptured as she spoke about how she has realised during her MITH-ness (Mad-In-The-Head-ness) that we are not meant to be HATT (happy all the time) and how accepting this has, in fact, made her happier. She is a feminist, she has the most gorgeous accent, and she gave us tips on what has worked for her – using Twitter to connect (one time after she tweeted about feeling awful, people who lived near her posted Magnums through her letter box), rising above social media trolls and arsehole journalists who write nasty things about mental illness and call it ‘self-pity’, and working on keeping gratitude lists for help with reflecting. She also passionate about #RepealThe8th, which is a movement in Ireland pushing to decriminalise abortion. She praised fellow Irish writer Louise O’Neill, who I also love, and told us as an audience that ‘there is an awful lot of love and support in the world’, which had us all feeling warm and fuzzy. THEN everything sort of became a massive blur. It came to question time and I had the most eloquent, articulate speech in my head to give her, which basically boiled down to thanking her for her writing about mental health because I think it partially saved my life, and how I was sure I spoke for a lot of people in the room. Instead, it went something like this:

Me (into microphone): Hi Marian, I don’t usually speak up at these things and I’m quite nervous. My heart is pounding.

Marian Keyes: Oh don’t worry, we’re all friends here!

Me: Okay, I just wanted to say thank you for the writing you’ve done about your mental health and I’m sure I speak for everyone here when I say that- *huge sniff*-it’s okay, I’m not going to cry- *proceeds to burst into noisy tears*

Everyone else: makes cooing noises and tries to comfort me.

Me: BLUB BLUB GARH I’ve been through some SNIFF hard stuff and GAHHHH BLUH BLUB I think your writing saved my life SNIFF BLUB GAH and I FLSJKEJKJNX just wanted to BDLJHESH say thanks

I hurriedly hand the microphone back and try to wipe my nose

Marian Keyes: That’s so kind, and the best thing I can say to you is to just endure. Endure when things get terrible.

Me: I’m feeling JFBLJDH better, I don’t know GAHRBLUB why I’m crying.

Thankfully, we moved on quickly to the next question. After the talk, we all got up to go and get our books signed, and a whole lot of people came up to check if I was okay and to thank me for speaking up and to say they understood and everything and it was really nice, but every time someone spoke to me I’d feel myself welling up again! Gah, it was awful! I have rarely been more embarrassed. When I got to the front of the signing queue, Marian was her usual beautiful self and signed my book, listened while I explained that I really have been feeling better, and have in fact just moved to the UK from Australia (something I thought I would never be able to do) and when I’d finished speaking she told me to be kind to myself, and I think I’m going to get it tattooed so I’ll never forget she told me to.

Feeling emotionally crippled, I went outside to call Sean and tell him about it, and then cried all over again (not really surprising). THEN, I composed myself and went back to the venue for the final event I had tickets to – Writing History, with Stephanie Merritt and Kate Williams, chaired by James Long. Kate Williams is a social historian who has written lots of books and appeared on television lots. Stephanie Merritt writes books set in the 1580s about Giordano Bruno – her latest is set in France with the crazy House of Valois royal family. It was a wonderful panel and the women were wonderful speakers, but to be honest, I was so emotionally wrought after the Marian Keyes event, that I didn’t take this event in like I wanted to! I did however, have a good chat to both authors afterwards as they signed my books for me, talking about Anne of Green Gables and Reign of all things!

I went back to the hostel afterwards and chatted with my roommates for a bit. I’ve met some lovely people on this trip, and the weird thing about hostels and travel in general is that you meet all sorts of great folk and you might have a couple of hours of deep and meaningful chats, and might never learn their names! I’ve started adding more people on Facebook because of this – it’s always nice to reconnect later.

The next morning I stumbled across a lovely book shop – Mr B’s Emporium – and managed to only buy one book. They have a bibliotherapy room with complimentary tea and coffee. I also spent some time in front of a real estate agents window fantasising about being able to buy a Grade II listed manor property with 5 bedrooms and a woodland for the price of an inner-city Melbourne apartment. But then, it was off to the Jane Austen Centre! This was a lovely little museum, smaller than I expected, but with an introductory talk about Jane’s life and a film with Adrian Lukis about her time in Bath, so the 11 pound entrance fee is more than fair. They have costumes and signed posters from the film adaptations and a much-publicised wax mannequin of Jane, as well as a display of the different portraits associated with Jane over the years. They also have a lovely tea room on the top floor. I had lunch with a girl from my hostel who is from New Zealand and traveling around the UK with her partner and we drank ‘Jane Austen blend’ tea and talked about books and travel. Bliss! Oh, and I only bought one book from the museum because I am disciplined as. I spent the rest of the afternoon browsing the souvenir shops (I bought the Bath Gin with Jane Austen winking on the label. It’s a pure tourist trap – Jane never mentioned gin in any writing – but it was cute, so I got it). I went to the library and read some of the books that I have bought over the past couple of days (I needed to save some money, as I spent way more than I meant to over the festival), and then I chatted more with my roommates. By the time I got back to Edinburgh the next night, we were ready to sign the lease for our new apartment – one of the only things worth leaving Bath after only three days for!

Men of Letters

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about privacy and the fine lines that criss-cross over the whole idea. Recapping Women of Letters events has become somewhat of a habit, and there was totally that one time that Marieke Hardy read my recap and thanked me for it which made my life. But I read this article this morning and have had second thoughts. What goes down at these events is public in the sense that several hundred people attend and listen to the letters. But it is also intrinsically private. Some letters tell stories of unimaginable grief, some of childhood secrets, some detail personal relationships. All of them are touching and many of them are funny, even amongst sadness. But it’s made me think twice about some of the detail I put into my recaps. Although the letters are often reproduced in anthologies or online, it is always with the writer’s permission. Their stories are not mine to retell, however summarised they might be. So I’ll keep going to these events, and I’ll keep laughing and crying and appreciating, but I don’t think I’ll keep recapping.

I will say this: yesterday I went to my first ever Men of Letters event, and it was fabulous. 11 men – Casey Bennetto, Glenn Robbins, Gideon Haigh, Peter Russell-Clarke, Tony Wheeler, Richard Flanagan, Brian Mannix, Sam Cooney, Frankie J Holden, Bert Labonte and Derryn Hinch – were writing to ‘The Woman Who Changed My Life’. Some wrote to wives, daughters, mothers, friends, some to women who were no longer with us, some who were sitting in the Regal Ballroom listening. One letter was written to the ocean, one to Marieke Hardy herself, and one to Brittanica – definitely three of the most enthralling letters I have ever heard.

I’ve already bought my ticket to next month’s event, and I’m so excited to hear that this show is going even more global than before (Britain and Ireland yeow!). Also, the third anthology is being launched next month! Hopefully, there’ll be plenty more to come.

Women of Letters recap

The sun was absolutely blazing when we walked down High St Northcote, and we had to wait for our eyes to adjust when we entered the cool, dim Regal Ballroom. This afternoon both Michaela McGuire and Marieke Hardy were present, along with a line-up of wonderful women who were writing to the theme ‘a letter to the thing I lost’.

First up was singer-songwriter Rebecca Barnard, who wrote to her car, lost deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Crown Casino carpark. She described perfectly the creeping, irrational anxiety we have all felt when losing our bearings in a sea of parking spaces, complete with thinking up various rapist deterrents, which in Rebecca’s case included shooting them in the face with breast milk. She told us of her utter and desperate relief upon finding the parking attendant, and apologising to him for ‘having no spatial awareness because I’m so hormonal at the moment’. A side-splitting letter to start off a potentially devastating topic.
Next up was the simply glorious slam poet Maxine Beneba Clarke. She performed her letter in a glorious mix of spoken word and song, and wrote to her fears, specifically to her fears for her children. Her voice sent shivers through me, and the ballroom was completely speechless as we listened. She spoke of the most terrible things she could imagine happening to them, and when juxtaposed with lines like ‘the truth is we walked death row before we learned to crawl’ and ‘these fears will drift like powdered charcoal on the wind’, it made for an almost surreal experience. The applause was long and loud.
Culinary queen Stephanie Alexander was next. She wrote to a beloved letter from her ‘guru’, the food writer Elizabeth David, who she tragically never met properly in the flesh. Stephanie is a Francophile who was heavily influenced by Elizabeth David’s writings, but it was Stephanie’s prose that had the audience completely and utterly drawn in. Her letter was articulate, masterful and clear, and there was an audible groan when she revealed at the end that she had lost the treasured letter from her hero!

Randa Abdel-Fattah, author and academic, wrote one of the most intense letters I have heard. She wrote to her composure, and put us in vivid context – travelling with her elderly father and her young daughter, trying to get through the checkpoints to the Palestinian West Bank to see her father’s birthplace and her grandfather’s grave. As Randa marvelled at the patience of the Palestinians she shared the bus with, knowing it was a normal, everyday experience that they had to deal with, she was infuriated by the treatment dealt to them. ‘Those who are denied their human rights do not have the luxury of despair’. Thankfully, Randa and her father managed to obtain a 7-day pass, which was better than nothing. You could have heard a pin drop in the ballroom as she read.

Finally, Gorgi Coghlan brought the entire place to tears with her letter to the deceased child of a close friend. The bereavement was fresh, but Gorgi wrote with warmth and heart in the face of what was obviously the rawest of experiences. She acknowledged that while there was nothing good that could ever possibly come from such a tragedy, such things can help us remember to find the good in our own lives we’re lucky enough to still have. Keeping a clean house pales in comparison with keeping a happy family. Stories and laughter and songs are more important than timetables and groceries. And on that note, the reading was finished, and we had a break to buy more drinks, write our own letters, and listen to a very entertaining Q & A!

I think my favourite thing about Women of Letters is that it exposes you to a range of people and experiences you would not otherwise have come across, all linked by a common thread. It really drives home the similarities we share, whatever someone’s circumstances, and the understanding that transcends differences and binds us together.

Women of Letters recap

Okay, so I lied in my last recap when I said it would probably be my last recap for a while. As soon as I found out the lineup for this event, I jumped online to find it had already sold out, and my couple of days of hesitation had cost me a ticket to the lineup I was perhaps looking forward to more than any other WoL event I had attended, ever. So, I moped for a month, then in the days leading up to the event I stalked the Facebook and Twitter pages obsessively hoping someone would have a spare ticket to unexpectedly get rid of. Thanks to Elyse, best person in the world, she found some this morning and promptly snapped me one up. So I headed to the Regal Ballroom, in my new and improved traffic-free route (ie. NOT Punt Road) and met up with Elyse and co!

Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire were at Splendour in the Grass (half their luck!) and our wonderful host today was musician and actress (and WoL alumni), Clare Bowditch. The host plays such an important part in these salons, and she did not disappoint, introducing each guest and giving us some kind of insightful comment that tied back to the letters that had been read. And she looked beautiful, as usual. The theme today? A letter to my temptation.

First up was Estelle Tang, writer, bibliotherapist (ahem, awesome!) and personal hero of mine. Estelle wrote to Gwyneth Paltrow, and the weekly newsletter sent out by Paltrow’s company- Goop. This was a cheeky letter, relishing in the more outlandish statements made by Paltrow – including the phrase ‘I would rather die than let my kids eat Cup-A-Soup’ – and poking fun at the ludicrously expensive items on the weekly newsletter available for purchase. Estelle has subscribed to Goop, and continues to read the newsletter every week, and I must confess, I am quite curious myself. Estelle’s timing and delivery was flawless, and it was an riotously good letter to kick of the salon with.

Next up was musician Joanna Nilson. She listed a number of temptations throughout her letter, trying to decide what was her biggest one. Her letter was 8 parts hilarious, 2 parts utterly devastating, and included musings on smoking (“a more thrillingly dangerous version of chewing my nails”), booze, marijuana and other, harder drugs (though her paragraph on heroin and its utter shitness was sobering after all the laughing we’d been doing), food (chocolate, cheese…basically everything I enjoy as well) and a glowing reference to the town she was from as “a herpes sore on the twat of the nation”. Eventually she mentioned her final temptation – bad men – and listed a Greatest Hits of her “man-baby boyfriends” which, again, had us in stitches. Her accurate and painful description of the depression she experienced after a particular break-up really hit home, and it was this which made her decide she needed to avoid terrible boys above all else.

Judith Lucy, comedian and author, began her letter with the sentence “Annoyingly, I don’t have many temptations left”. She then went on to wax lyrical about her oldest and dearest temptation – television. Her letter was, predictably, gut-bustingly hilarious and included phrases such as “Mum would have to physically lock me out of the house so I could get some sunshine”. Her reading included singing, and a demonstration of how she used to watch a wall-mounted, fridge-sized television (hint: it involved lying flat across the WoL table with her legs crooked as though she were “watching Gilligan’s Island with [her] genitals”. Impressions of Days of Our Lives (her favourite soap) and the mention of something called ‘Dr Feather Weather’s Wonderful Workshop’ rounded out one of the funniest letters I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing.

An audible ripple ran through the ballroom as Kat Stewart took the mic. Was it because her character on Offspring is making crazy storyline waves in the show, or was it just because she’s amazing? It didn’t matter. Kat’s letter was an ode to motherhood, and trying to achieve a work/life balance. It was honest, and it was touching. Her love for her son cannot be contained in words, but she did her darndest to communicate it, with phrases like “his laugh makes me euphoric”. She spoke about the longing she felt for another baby, a sibling for her son who she adores unconditionally, and the simultaneous longing to continue working, and creating and being artistic, and having a life that was hers, and not held in place by a baby. She mentioned a book, The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood, which sounds amazing (and includes a contribution from Clare Bowditch) that elaborates on the topic. I don’t think she knew which longing (temptation) would win out, but it was obvious that this is a subject close to many women’s hearts.

Finally, we had Libbi Gorr, broadcaster and author. Libbi wrote to Kate Middleton. More specifically, she wrote to the temptation she continually gives into – wishing she was Kate Middleton. In fact, one of the only times she didn’t want to be Kate Middleton, was when she wanted to be her sister, Pippa, instead. And one of the strongest reasons for wanting to be Kate Middleton, is because her mother is Carole Middleton. The tongue-in-cheekness of this letter was countered by the rather sweet and poignant realisation, that she didn’t really want to be Kate Middleton, because wishing to be Kate Middleton means wishing away her own life, and all the richness of it. (Also it would mean wishing away her other temptation of wanting to be Jane Kennedy). She finished by acknowledging how difficult it would be to be Kate Middleton, and how Kate Middleton probably wishes at times that she could be Libbi Gorr – being allowed to tell people to ‘fuck off’ for example. She listed some affirmations for Kate which we had to repeat back to her, and took her seat amidst of shower of laughter and applause.

In the break I wrote a question for the panel (as we are invited to) without really expecting it to be read. But it was read! Yay! But it wasn’t answered, because my question was “Will Billie die on Offspring?” and that would violate the terms of Clare Bowditch and Kat Stewart’s contracts to tell us. Boo. It’s probably for the best. Because if the answer was “yes”, I’d be inconsolable and avoid the show, but if the answer was “no”, I’d work myself into a knot of anxiety wondering if it will be Jimmy or Patrick instead, and I really don’t want any of them to go. Sigh.

Women of Letters recap

I tried to treasure this experience more than usual today because I am entering a stage of the year where I may not be able to keep Sundays free anymore. Missing Women of Letters is not fun, but I’m sure I have other anthologies to look forward to, and perhaps more writers will post their letters a few weeks or months down the track on their personal websites (like Bindi Cole and Jess McGuire etc). Anyway, it was just Sean and I today, and we found a far more efficient route to the Regal Ballroom than up Punt Road, so hopefully will use that again! Marieke Hardy looked like Arwen, and Michaela McGuire was MCing once more. Our theme today: a letter to someone I once made cry.

First up was comedian Hannah Gadsby. She wrote to her mother about the two occasions she can recall making her cry, pointing out that her mother too, had made Hannah herself cry more than once. Her letter was hilarious – dry and witty, including an imitation of her mother’s voice and discussion of being high on furniture polish. Despite being “sensitive to sound, and hungry” as she was reading her letter, she still managed to finish it on-the-fly, having run out of time to complete the letter before the start of the salon today. Her letter was funny, yes, but also incredibly touching, and a lovely portrait of her relationship with her mum.

Next was writer Josephine Rowe. The lyrical nature of her prose shone through beautifully, writing to a traveling friend (as in, a friend she once went traveling with) who she has lost contact with. Her letter navigated the muddy waters of relationships, things that can go misunderstood and unsaid, and detailed the confusion people can feel with someone even when they feel closer than ever. Very poignant and all read out with a very sore throat, so we were very lucky she was able to attend at all!

Senator Christine Milne was next, writing to the students she taught at Devonport High School during the late 70’s and early 80’s before embarking on a political career. She made them (and herself) cry, by playing them the LP of “The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk” with music by Ed Welch and the voice of Spike Milligan. Her passion for this story was evident and she expressed her interest to know how the students would react to it today when they listened to it as adults. I’ve never read/listened to this before, so I’ll have to add it to my list…

Musician Grace Knight’s letter had the entire room in tears. She wrote to a childhood friend of hers, upon whom she had unloaded terrible secrets. For many years this friend was the only person who knew of the dreadful abuse Grace had suffered, and Grace’s letter explored her fear of telling people about it and the effects on her later life, when she punished herself relentlessly for something that wasn’t her fault. Then she spoke about forgiveness, and the completely unexpected healing that it brought. This part was the most tender and the most affecting, though her entire letter was beautiful and brave. I think out of all the WoL events I have attended, Grace’s letter has elicited the strongest emotional response in me yet. Michaela McGuire thanked her for her bravery also, which made us all cry some more.

Finally (and with a perfect letter to finish on), it was journalist Ramona Koval, writing to her mum. Her letter was funny and sweet and touching, but had the undercurrent of seriousness that tends to pervade letters at these salons. Her mother had spoken to Ramona about having to hide that she was Jewish, in order to keep safe during the Second World War. Baby Ramona than assumed she would need to do the same thing, and subsequently spent several months doing Christian Religious Education at school while her Jewish classmates went off to be taught by a rabbi elsewhere. Ramona gave some gorgeous anecdotes about how she liked the Bible stories and was chosen to be Mary in the nativity play, all before she was found out, but (and maybe it was just because I was still emotionally broken from Grace  Knight’s letter), I felt quite sad during the whole letter, thinking of the fears of children during the Holocaust continuing through the generations.

We had to leave early today for other commitments, so we didn’t stay for questions, but if this does turn out to be my last Women of Letters event for a while, I feel pretty lucky that it was this one.