Talking about Rose

This week I gave a Zoom talk about Rose Allatini, at the kind invitation of the Huddersfield University Research Seminars. It was good to do. This year I had three academic conferences lined up at which I was to give a paper, and each of them has either been cancelled, or has disappeared into the long grass of the distant future.
The title of my talk was ‘Rose Allatini: How Not to be Canonical’, and I gave a run-though of her career, stressing those factors that prevented her from getting anywhere near the accepted canon of English literature. The main ones were:
1. She was born into a rich family, and had little contact with the mass of English people.
2. She wrote a book that was controversial in the wrong way – a book that nobody wanted to remember.

3. She allied herself with theosophy, a creed that had serious believers, but, by the time she discovered it, was already out of fashion, and became increasingly so.

4. Her best books were very much of their time, dealing with topical issues that would date.

5. She changed her pen-name, several times, so that she had to build a new reputation every time, and readers would get no idea of the continuity of her work.

6. When her books were taken up by Hodder and Stoughton, a major publisher, their expectations were constricting.

7. Her later novels especially had most appeal for a coterie of believers – and not a fashionable one. They were mostly female, elderly.

8. When feminist publishers like Virago did a great job rediscovering many women writers, her novels did not fit their agenda.

One of he most interesting books – with a terrible cover.

After the paper we chatted (and could have done so for longer) about how writers attain canonical or near-canonical status. I’m always very conscious that the canon is mutable, something that changes from period to period. Mostly this happens because readers discover that writers do or do not connect with the issues and interests of their age. I always think of George Meredith, regarded as a great novelist in the second half of the nineteenth century, and now hardly read at all. Whereas Oscar Wilde, first vilified and then regarded as a minor writer, now has a classic status that derives partly from the Gay Liberation movement of the seventies and onward. Frankenstein, fifty years ago, was seen as a minor classic of the Gothic, best known for the rather camp film versions. These days it is generally seen as a key text that illuminates all sorts of our interests.

As for twentieth-century fiction, the ones that have become canonical are the ones that fit neatly into academic modules – Modernism, Fiction of the wars, Feminist fiction, Post-Colonial fiction. Novels that do not fit neatly into categories like these stand much less chance of being included on syllabuses, or being the subject of academic commentary and debate.

As usual after giving a talk, I felt mildly dissatisfied. I had to squeeze a lot into the time (and had I.T. Problems, which did not help.) Probably I could have said more about the positive features of her work, especially her wit and humour. Even the most anguished of her books has flashes of sharp with and an amused appreciation of human nature. I think that’s a criticism that applies to my short book on Rose, too. In that I had much to say about her life, her troubles, her struggles and her ideas, and sometimes neglected to say enough about the literary qualities of her work, or about what makes (most of) them a good read.

Preparing this talk has made me realise how lazy I’ve become during lockdown. I’m someone who responds to a deadline, and the cancellation of those three conferences has rather taken away my motivation for concentrated work. Not that I haven’t been reading (I’ve had a big binge on Dickens recently) but I’ve not kept up with my Great War interests very well – as those who follow the blog will have suspected. I’ve neglected it.

Mind you, I have looked at some fiction relevant to the War. On the Sheffield Hallam Popular Reading blog you can find two reviews of novels with a First World War interest – Louis Golding’s Magnolia Street and D.E. Stevenson’s Young Clementina.

But I’ve made a resolution to get back to blogging at least once a week. And if any groups or institutions out there would like to hear a Zoom talk on any aspect of the fiction of the Great War, I’d be happy to oblige.

One Comment

  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted November 20, 2020 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad it went well. Your book on her is excellent.

    And: ‘But I’ve made a resolution to get back to blogging at least once a week.’

    Yaaaaaay!


Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: