Hermione Lee is a well-known biographer of literary figures, admired for scrupulously researching her subjects. Her recent book, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (2013), details the life of the late-blooming author as Lee discovered her in the archives.
Lee will speak at the Ransom Center about her experiences pursuing subjects through their archives on Wednesday, April 8 at 4 p.m. The lecture is free and open to the public, but seating is first-come first-served.
In anticipation of Lee’s visit, Cultural Compass reached out to her about her work and research.
How do you choose your subjects for a biography?
I choose my subjects out of a passionate admiration for their work, a desire to communicate that admiration and interest in their lives as broadly as possible, and a sense that I haven’t yet read the biography I want to read about them–so had better write it myself.
During her lifetime Penelope Fitzgerald wrote three biographies. What was it like applying the same act of analysis to her?
I would have liked to take a leaf out of her book and write a very slim, cryptic, suggestive book about her, since she felt it “insulted the reader to explain too much.” But as I was writing the first biography of her and as she is not a mainstream, popular writer, I felt I needed to write at more length and with more detail than she would have done herself. However, my motives were the same as the motives which led her to write biography: a desire to communicate to as wide an audience as possible the heart and meaning of her life and work. Fitzgerald’s biography of Charlotte Mew, an unjustly neglected early-twentieth-century English woman poet, was particularly in my mind when I was writing my biography.
There are more than 800 footnotes in your book. Is that average or unusual in a biography?
Some biographers put their footnotes on line, some don’t have many, some have many more. I like readers to know where the facts have come from.
Fitzgerald was a private person. How does that make the work of a biographer more challenging?
There were times when I felt she would have resisted what I was doing, had she still been alive, but there were also times when I hoped that the attention I was drawing to her writing would have pleased her. Many of her secrets remain with her, and I admire and appreciate that, even though it can also be frustrating.
Can you talk about your research in the Ransom Center’s Penelope Fitzgerald archive? What insight did her personal papers provide?
My work in the archive was invaluable to me. It contains many of her manuscripts, letters to readers and publishers, notebooks, and first drafts. I understood her writing much better-particularly her brilliant use of sources for her novels–when I had worked in the archive.
Were you drawn to a particular item in the collection?
I was very moved by the last, unfinished story in her notebook, which ends, like so much of her life, with a mystery and a secret. I end my biography with it.
You are working on a biography of Tom Stoppard. Have you worked with the Stoppard papers in the Ransom Center’s collections?
I am starting work in the archive now, with great excitement and anticipation.
The titular heroine of Lewis Carroll’s whimsical classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass has changed to reflect the aesthetics of the times outside her fictional word. The fantastical nature of the story allows a certain freedom of temporality: although the narrative was written to occur in Victorian Britain, there are no specific indicators of the year, and the story could just as easily have been set in the twenty-first century. The changing visual depictions of Alice reflect this sense of timelessness. Having a contemporary-looking Alice makes it easy for younger audiences to relate to her and helps to explain Wonderland’s enduring popularity.
First published in 1865, Sir John Tenniel’s iconic illustrations imagine Alice in a contemporary mid-Victorian pinafore, apron, and stockings. Tenniel’s depiction of Alice was the standard for the rest of the 1800s, but by the turn of the century, when the book went out of copyright, other illustrators reimagined the tale. Bessie Gutmann created Nouveau Alice in 1907, who wears a white, high-necked dress with full, long sleeves; her hair is long, swept up, and adorned with a flower.
In the 1920s Alice became a sporty flapper. Willy Pogany’s 1929 illustrations depict a lanky Alice, somewhat older than previous representations, wearing a short, plaid skirt, short sleeve top with a tie at the neck, and knee socks. Her hair is bobbed and boyish, as per the androgynous Jazz Age fashion.
Mid-century Alice reverts to the traditional, much like popular culture at the time. Disney released the animated Alice in Wonderland film in 1951, in which Alice dons a blue dress, white apron, and a black ribbon in her hair, very similar to Tenniel’s depiction. Subsequent illustration from the period shows Disney’s influence.
During the 1960s and ’70s, Alice adapts to the fashion of the period. One 1970 edition puts an older-looking Alice in a hot pink minidress with a Brigitte Bardot-esque bouffant; another illustration from the same year makes Alice look like she walked off of the set of The Brady Bunch, in a floral-accented minidress, knee socks, and long, straight hair.
The continued success of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is related to its ability to stay relevant and fresh to generations of readers. The story itself is not rooted in any particular temporal setting, and thus Alice has the ability to change her style to look like her readers. Although Alice was created in the Victorian era, she is anything but drab and prim: she is, more than many other literary heroines, thoroughly modern.
See examples of some of these book covers in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, on view through July 6. Share “Thoroughly Modern Alice” with #aliceinaustin.
2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s classic story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Since its publication in 1865, the book has never been out of print. It has been translated into countless languages and has become a work that truly transcends the time and culture in which it was written.
In honor of the book’s legacy the Harry Ransom Center presents Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This exhibition follows the evolution of Carroll’s story through time, around the world, and across different types of media, from stage and screen to children’s toys. The exhibition offers something for everyone and provides interactive opportunities throughout. Highlights of the exhibition include a rare copy of the 1865 “suppressed” edition, Carroll’s own photograph of Alice, Edith, and Lorina Liddell, the sisters who inspired the story, and Salvador Dalí’s 1969 illustrations.
View the Ransom Center’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandvideo preview.
Museums and libraries around the world are joining in the observance of Alice’s sesquicentennial. In New York City, the Morgan Library & Museum will display Dodgson’s original manuscript (on loan from the British Library) in its upcoming exhibition Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland, while Vassar College Archives and Special Collections Library will exhibit an early printing of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland alongside other works of fantasy from the period. John Tenniel’s original drawings will be shown at Harvard’s Houghton Library, and Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library will exhibit Carroll’s letters to publisher Alexander MacMillan and a first edition of the book from his library.
Browse upcoming Alice-related events on this list, compiled by The Lewis Carroll Society and the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.
Share your exhibition experience with #aliceinaustin.
Sir John Tenniel. Dalí. Yayoi Kusama. What do these artists of vastly different styles, mediums, and artistic movements have in common? Each, along with many other artists, has tried their hand at illustrating Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a tale so whimsical it demands illustrations. Alice appeals to such a broad range of artists because the creative quality of the story gives artists freedom to interpret the look of the story in any way they please, and the book’s quirky sense of fun is irresistible.
The novel’s first illustrator was none other than its author. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson—alias Lewis Carroll—created a handwritten manuscript with 37 illustrations for the story’s muse, Alice Liddell, after she asked him to write down the fantastical story he told her one lazy summer afternoon on a boat ride. Although somewhat amateurish, the ink illustrations depict a sweet, pretty Alice, not unlike the famous Tenniel illustrations. Indeed, Tenniel, a famous Victorian political cartoonist, and Dodgson worked closely together in creating the now-classic illustrations for the first published edition.
Tenniel’s classical and rather prim imagining of Alice remained the standard throughout the nineteenth century and still remains the most recognizable Alice illustration today. It was not until the turn of the twentieth century that other illustrators tried their hands at Alice. These illustrations reflect the aesthetic of their time. Mabel Lucie Attwell’s 1910 rendering of Alice and Margaret W. Tarrant’s 1916 version are sweet and feminine and still very much geared toward a young audience.
By the middle of the century, illustrations of Alice became more experimental. German illustrator Wiltraud Jasper’s 1958 version is edgy and minimal, all in black and red. In 1969, iconic surrealist Salvador Dalí put his spin on Carroll’s story, creating a dreamy, abstract, and characteristically melty Wonderland in a melancholy color palate.
More recently, Japanese pop artist Yayoi Kusama has re-imagined Alice in her signature polka dots in a 2012 Penguin publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Kusama steers away from the “classic” scenes of illustrations and instead focuses on details. For instance, the Mad Tea Party chapter features a red-and-black polka-dotted bowler hat instead of the traditional scene of the eccentric cast of characters tucking into high tea at a long table.
At the very onset of her story, Alice muses to herself about the importance of illustrations: “‘And what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without any pictures?’” What use indeed? Would Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland be the classic book and cultural phenomenon that it is without pictures? Likely not—both readers and illustrators alike have fun with the creative freedom offered by the Alice books.
See examples of some of these illustrations in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, on view through July 6. Share with #aliceinaustin.
The book, When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning, celebrates the importance of the Armed Services Editions. Published between 1943 and 1947, these inexpensive paperback editions were given to servicemen on the frontlines. As Manning points out, not only did the editions achieve their principal purpose of raising morale, they encouraged a whole generation of readers who retained their appetite for reading when they returned home. Possibly a few stopped bullets or shrapnel. It’s necessary to remember that the cheap paperback edition was still a novelty at the beginning of the war, having been pioneered by Penguin Books in England and Albatross Books in Germany during the 1930s.
Armed Services Editions were made possible by a group of publishers called the Council of Books in Wartime. This group collaborated by eliminating royalty payments and arranging for the production and distribution of paperbacks in the most inexpensive possible formats. The Ransom Center has a couple of connections with these books. Although there are larger collections at the University of Virginia and the Library of Congress, we own more than 1,400 of the books, most of them shelved together as a discrete collection in the stacks, while some are kept with other editions of our major authors, such as John Steinbeck. Because they were printed on poor-quality wartime paper that is now brittle and brown, each is protected in a simple acid-free enclosure, invented by the Center’s Conservation department in the 1980s, and called a “tuxedo case.” Students of publishing history can use the collection to study which books were most successful (Manning concludes that books with a touch of nostalgia or sex were particularly popular with soldiers, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was one of the best-selling titles, even though it was considered a flop when first published in hardback during the 1920s). The books were generally published in an oblong format, with the cover notation “This is the complete book—not a digest.” In all, some 125 million copies were produced.
Among the founding members of the Council of Books in Wartime was Alfred A. Knopf, the eminent literary publisher (the massive Knopf, Inc. archive is here at the Center). Ironically, Knopf was famous for encouraging high production values in his own trade books, but he immediately recognized the importance of encouraging reading and raising morale and contributed a number of series titles by familiar authors in the Knopf stable, including thrillers by James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler and more literary works by Thomas Mann and Sigrid Undset.
In the postwar era, a number of paperback reprint publishers capitalized on increased demand for books, the availability of new outlets for cheap editions, such as chain department stores and drugstores, and Americans’ newly enhanced disposable income. Pocket Books debuted in 1939 and became well known after the war for its lurid covers, which, as Louis Menand points out in an illustrated recent New Yorker piece, graced not only the unabashed pulp of Mickey Spillane but also higher-toned works by William Faulkner and James Joyce. Ballantine and Bantam editions flourished, and the era of the mass market paperback had arrived. Nearly every prominent American hardback publisher developed a line of paperback books. Oddly, Knopf, Inc. was a holdout, arriving late to the game with Vintage Books in 1956. But it was the Armed Services Editions that gave the American paperback its big push.
Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Heather has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a Master of Arts from Buffalo State College with a Certificate of Advanced Study in Art Conservation and Paper Conservation. She joined the Harry Ransom Center after working as a Special Collections Conservator at the Harvard College Library.
How did you decide to become a paper conservator?
When I was an undergraduate, I got a job at Harvard working in the conservation department doing some very entry-level work. That was where I saw the book conservators’ work and thought it was so interesting. A colleague recommended the North Bennet Street School, which has a full-time, two-year training program in which they teach the traditional methods of book binding. After I finished that program, I started as a technician in book conservation, which was when I decided to take it further and go back to graduate school to study paper conservation.
What is one aspect of your job that people would find surprising?
They might be surprised at the decision-making part of my job. People expect that when they come into a conservation lab, they are automatically going to see people working at a microscope, working with their hands, and working with their tools. While that certainly is a big part of what we do, conservation is about managing collections and having an understanding for the Ransom Center’s collections as a whole. We need to make sure that the hours we can sit down and work closely are allocated properly. The decisions are often made on a collection-wide level, rather than on an item level. Conservation is broader than what people expect because it is also related to preservation of collections, environmental monitoring of collections, and making sure that damage doesn’t happen in the first place.
Do you have a preference between hands-on work and decision-making?
I think just about any conservator would have to say that their favorite thing is to sit down at the bench with tools and actually have their hands on the items. That is the most fun part of the job, but the longer I’ve been in the field, the more I’ve learned to see the value of the administrative side. We have a large collection at the Ransom Center and we can treat only so many items in a year. So a lot of attention has to be put on which items should be treated now. I need to know what the most important item for me to be working on today is because I can work on only one item at a time.
Is there a specific item that you felt was particularly rewarding to work?
Items that I recently treated for the upcoming Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition were challenging—toy film strips called “Movie Jecktors.” While it is a paper object, it is a strip of paper that is wound onto a wooden dowel. It was very fragile and needed quite a bit of repair. It has been one of the most fun objects I’ve treated and so interesting because the paper was similar to tracing paper, and the transparency made it challenging to treat.
Do you have a preference between reading books electronically or tangibly?
I think about that question every time I read. I do both. I read a lot on my iPhone, but then I’ll read paper books as well. I can tell that the convenience of electronic readers is undeniable and that there is nothing we can do to reverse it. We need the convenience of having a library on our device. I’m at peace with this change because I recognize it as the nature of books to become this. But at the same time, people still love paper books. And just about anyone you talk to about reading will say that they love to be able to turn the pages in a book. I still think that reading a paper book is a lot more comfortable for my eyes, and I’m even more comfortable holding it. So, I use both, and I feel good about both.
What book is on your nightstand or iPhone right now?
Hard Choices by Hilary Clinton. I checked out the hardcopy from the library a couple of weeks ago, and I’m just starting it.
Do you have a favorite place in Austin?
I’m a big fan of Zilker Park because of the idea that you can see all of Austin in one place enjoying Zilker for free on a Sunday afternoon. I guess I consider Zilker to be Austin. Also, I love to go to all of the different Mexican food places. I recently moved to South Austin, and I’m learning a lot more about Austin food just by being in the thick of it.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Take my daughter to Zilker Park. That does take up quite a bit of my free time, but I also have an interest in artists’ books, book making, and print making. I try to work on those and take printmaking and book-making classes when I can. I’m a member of the Women Printmakers of Austin. I’m also a knitter and a sewer.
Have you made your own book before?
Before I went to graduate school, I studied book binding at North Bennet Street School, and during that two-year period, I made historical book models all the time. The books that I am making now fit more in the category of artists’ books, which are more like artwork. Imagine a book almost like a sculpture where the book itself is a piece of artwork and might have unusual formats or something like that. I’ve been trying to combine bookbinding and printmaking into one process of book-making, though my projects have been quite simple because the printmaking is so new to me. I really enjoy it.
Have you brought your daughter to the Ransom Center or any of its exhibits before?
Not yet. I am bringing her to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland this spring.
The Harry Ransom Center announces the appointment of Gerald W. Cloud as its Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts.
Cloud will be responsible for overseeing the Ransom Center’s extensive holdings of early books and manuscripts, including promoting access to, and use of, the collections and interpreting them for varied audiences. The Ransom Center’s Pforzheimer Library of English Literature is one of the cornerstones of the Center’s early books and manuscripts collections.
Prior to joining the Ransom Center, Cloud served as head librarian at UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, curator of literature at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and most recently as an antiquarian bookseller at James Cummins Bookseller.
“Gerald’s professional experiences—academic teaching, collection development, knowledge of the antiquarian book trade, scholarship in bibliography and the history of the book—will be invaluable to the Ransom Center and its patrons,” said Steve Enniss, Director of the Harry Ransom Center.
Cloud will support researchers working with the Ransom Center’s early book and manuscripts collections and collaborate with colleagues to promote enhanced access to collections, including digital initiatives and exhibitions. He’ll also work closely with the Center’s conservation department on setting treatment priorities for collection materials as well as expanding and strengthening the Pforzheimer Library.
“I look forward to raising the profile of the Ransom Center’s collections and invigorating use for original research with scholars, students, faculty and others,” said Cloud.
Holdings within the Pforzheimer Library include the plays, poems, novels, essays, polemical writings, and translations of some of the most important English writers from 1475 to 1700. All major writers (William Caxton, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, John Donne, Francis Bacon, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, John Dryden, and William Congreve, among many others) are represented by first and important editions. The Pforzheimer books are supplemented by 2,000 manuscript items.