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.
Have you ever wondered how a play or film might have turned out differently? This was the guiding question in the new Humanities Honors course—titled “Drama in the Archives”—offered in fall 2014 by Dr. Elon Lang, lecturer and former part-time archivist at the Ransom Center. During the semester, Lang brought students from his class to the Ransom Center at least once per week to learn about the Center and to learn how to conduct original primary research in the Center’s theater and performing arts collections.
In the course, students studied several representative examples of modern and contemporary Anglophone drama, as well as Shakespeare and Shakespearean performance. These included Shakespeare’s King Lear, Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, David Mamet’s Oleanna, and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. All of these are supported by strong collections in the Ransom Center. Students were asked to read, analyze, and discuss printed editions of these plays during regular class meetings and then to examine selections from Ransom Center archives that illustrated how those plays were shaped by their authors and publishers and how they have been altered by various performances and interpretations over time.
For example, regarding King Lear, students compared the Ransom Center’s copy of the 1619 Second Quarto edition of the play to its three copies of the 1623 First Folio edition—noticing intriguing differences in key speeches that altered their perception of the characters. They then also viewed artistic representations of Lear’s throne room from the Ransom Center’s Boydell Shakespeare print collection (neo-classical style including architecture with Grecian columns, emphatic facial expressions and rippling musculature) and the Norman Bel Geddes collection (expressionist style with intense colors, outlines of figures, and primitive architecture resembling Stonehenge). Students compared all these variations to recent productions and films of the play and wrote extensively about how the archival context helped them understand the history and impact of choices made by directors and producers.
Lang came up with the idea for the class after describing some of his archival work on the Ransom Center’s Pforzheimer manuscript collection to his humanities students. Despite their interest in what Lang suggested could be learned from archival materials, very few students had actually visited the Ransom Center, and even fewer had contemplated doing research there.
“This struck me as a terrible shame,” Lang said, “but also a remarkable opportunity.”
As Haley Williams, a third-year student in the class and president of Liberal Arts Honors Student Council, wrote: “In my first two years of undergrad, I often passed the ‘big glass buildings with the pretty pictures’ on my way to and from class. I had even visited the exhibits on occasion and meandered over to listen to a lecture from time to time. However, in my mind, the Harry Ransom Center was for graduate students and professors, a place off limits to undergraduate students such as me. Thankfully, this semester I was proven wrong.”
Lang decided that it should be his mission to design a course that would show how the Ransom Center could serve as a valuable and approachable research tool for all interested users—especially the University of Texas at Austin’s undergraduates—and to show how much students could gain from working with archival materials. He chose important plays as the subject matter for the class partly because of the Ransom Center’s impressive collections and partly because the consequences of creative choices that can be revealed in an archive become clear very quickly when analyzing dramatic texts.
“When you imagine a text being performed by actors, you are already engaged in a process of analyzing unstated elements of movement, intonation, emphasis—and these interpretations can change drastically when you see how the words in a speech or the sequence of actions in stage directions transform over time,” Lang said.
For A Streetcar Named Desire, students analyzed the numerous original drafts of the play in the Tennessee Williams collection (one of which includes an ending where Blanche DuBois does not go crazy). They then considered how the changes in the text correlated with Williams’s correspondence with his agent, Audrey Wood, about how to edit and then cast the play—and finally how to handle his objections to the famous 1951 screenplay starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. For a final exercise, students attended a production of the play being staged on campus and had in-depth discussions with the director (Jess Hutchinson, M.F.A. candidate in directing in the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin) about how she used the Ransom Center’s collections to inform her production process.
Viewing rare and valuable materials in the Ransom Center reading room offered students a chance not only to develop a critical eye but also to realize a new and sometimes spiritual appreciation for humanistic inquiry.
“The pages spoke like the hinges of a haunted house, [both] daunting and enticing,” wrote Abraham Kinney about the Shakespeare First Folio. A senior English major and long-time Austin resident, Kinney describes how, in the class, “we were able to see the meticulous care that goes into the preservation of the vast archives compiled at the Ransom Center… In this place of intellectual agency, my focus shifted from merely researching in the dull categoric [sic] way, talking, writing, getting a grade, and moving on, to digging deep within the traces that our cultural heritage has left us, in a way that sparked a serious level of critical thought about who we are and how we are bound in the ways we think.”
After several weeks of guided readings and archival work, Lang had students develop their own research projects that involved close attention to an item in the Ransom Center’s collections and its historical and critical contexts. Students presented their research to an audience of Ransom Center staff and Liberal Arts faculty. Paul Sullivan, a lecturer in Plan II and the English Department who also volunteers at the Ransom Center, wrote, “Clearly, encounters with the archives made a big difference in how these bright young people will now read texts, and the world!”
Lang hopes to offer this course again in spring 2016, and in the meantime he is working to develop a summer workshop for high school English teachers through UTEACH to adapt some of his archive-oriented teaching methods for secondary education.
The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of writer Ian McEwan (b. 1948), one of the most distinguished novelists of his generation. The archive documents McEwan’s career and includes early material from his childhood and adolescence, as well as his earliest abandoned stories dating from the late-1960s and early 1970s. The archive includes drafts of all of McEwan’s later published works including his critically acclaimed novels Amsterdam and Atonement up through On Chesil Beach and Solar.
McEwan composed his novels partly in longhand, typically in uniform green, spiral-bound notebooks, and party on the computer. After an initial draft, he would transfer the entire text to a computer, printing out multiple drafts, which he would revise further by hand. McEwan’s Booker Prize-winning novel Amsterdam is represented in the archive in its earliest form as a handwritten notebook, followed by two further revised drafts. McEwan often notes details of composition in these drafts, including their completion or revision dates.
“The writer tends to forget rapidly the routes he or she discarded along the way,” McEwan said, commenting on his manuscripts. “Sometimes the path towards a finished novel takes surprising twists. It’s rarely an even development. For example, my novel Atonement started out as a science fiction story set two or three centuries into the future.”
McEwan’s archive will reside at the Ransom Center alongside the archives of many of his peers and contemporaries, including his longtime friend Julian Barnes, as well as J. M. Coetzee, Doris Lessing, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Tom Stoppard. The McEwan materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.
McEwan will visit Austin and speak at the university on Sept. 10. More details about this event will be posted here later this summer.
Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.
In January 2015, Tom Stoppard’s newest play—yet to be titled—will premiere at the National Theatre in London. Stoppard, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, is best known for the production, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, first performed by Oxford University students in 1966. Throughout his career, Stoppard has received four Tony Awards, in addition to an Academy Award for his screenplay for Shakespeare in Love. Philosophical in nature but comical in language and presentation, his work is often described as “serious comedy.”
The forthcoming play is Stoppard’s first since the production of Rock ’n’ Roll by the Royal Court Theatre in 2006. The content and cast of his most recent work has been kept secret by both the writer and the National Theatre’s artistic director, Nicholas Hytner. Hytner will be directing the play during his final season with the National Theatre.
To celebrate this news, Cultural Compass will be giving away a signed copy of Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. To be eligible to win, tweet a link to this blog post and mention @ransomcenter. If you’re not on Twitter, send an email to hrcgiveaway(at)gmail.com with “Stoppard” in the subject line. All tweets and emails must be sent by midnight CST tonight, and winners will be drawn and notified Monday, April 21. [Editors Note: This contest has now closed, and the winner has been notified.]