I’ve just returned from Hull, where I presented a paper on Stevie Smith’s ‘The Holiday’ at a one-day conference on mid-century women’s writing.
The conference was organised by my lovely friend Sue Kennedy, who’s doing a PhD in Hull focusing on this period, and Dr Jane Thomas. Stevie Smith was born in Hull, and the Hull History Centre holds a good many of her papers. And while I’ve presented on Smith in conferences about modernism, this was the first time I’d be speaking about her from a mid-century perspective. It was a fantastic opportunity.
I found it odd coming from Oxford to Hull the night before – because it was also the night before the Brexit referendum. Oxford was solidly Remain; in Hull, there were ‘Vote Leave’ signs everywhere.
It was of course even odder to wake up the following morning to find that Britain had voted to leave the EU.
So I don’t think many of us had got much sleep. And there was a real sense of grief as we – academics, who depend on international mobility to do our research, collaborate with colleagues and find jobs – gathered for the first keynote. Mary Joannou, author of The History of British Women’s Writing 1920-1945, responded to the sorrow in the room. Her speech about women’s mobility during World War Two, and the new personal and political freedoms which this enabled, felt very prescient on a day when those hard-won powers of movement seemed to be endangered.
I was speaking on the first panel: Re-veiling and Re-petition (Re-connecting Hull). The papers on this panel were grouped by their Hull connection, with two papers on Smith and one on Winifred Holtby. I’ve never read anything by Holtby, and enjoyed Lisa Regan‘s rich and witty presentation on Holtby’s Mandoa, Mandoa!
James Underwood spoke next, on how Philip Larkin’s (in)famous review of Stevie Smith, ‘Frivolous and Vulnerable’, has perhaps skewed the subsequent development of Smith criticism. Larkin wrote that Smith had ‘written a book about cats, which as far as I am concerned casts a shadow over even the most illustrious name’ – but James pointed out, very illuminatingly, that we should take this apparently scathing remark with a pinch of salt. Larkin’s letters, after all, are filled with drawings of ‘cuddly animals’; it is perfectly possible to read this remark as a dig at himself as much as at Smith.
When it was my turn, I talked about Stevie Smith’s acts of quotation and allusion in The Holiday. They are so repetitive, I suggested, that it’s not meaningful to read them as Smith allying herself with (or subverting) the texts that she quotes. Instead, perhaps these monotonous repetitions provide a way of not-knowing – of opting out of engaging either with the texts themselves, or with the characters in the book who quote them. And as a little nod to the Hull theme, I shared a moment in The Holiday where Smith reminisces about the River Humber.
I ended up chairing the next panel, Revising and Re-assessing, on Iris Murdoch and Barbara Comyns. I love Comyns – whom I will blog about some time – and Nick Turner showcased her brilliant black wit very successfully.
After lunch, I opted for a panel on Elizabeth Taylor. One of my upcoming chapters is on Smith and the still-life, and I came away from Alice Ferrebe‘s exciting, tightly-argued paper on Taylor and realism with a long reading list. I really value papers which make you feel excited about your thesis all over again, and Ferrebe’s paper made me think that Taylor’s A Wreath of Roses will be very relevant to my work.
The day closed with a final keynote by Gill Plain, on deferred childhood and fragile masculinity in Agatha Christie and Pamela Hansford Johnson (whom I don’t know at all – a running theme of the conference!)
Though the day was overshadowed by the sadness of the referendum – and a strong sense of the country wrenching itself out of painfully-won partnerships – Sue and Jane put together an amazing event, and brought some brilliant people together. ‘Connection’ – or perhaps ‘re-connection’ – felt, in the end, like the take-home message of the day.