Reviews & Gallery

PROFESSOR DAVID DWAN

On Saturday, 16th November 2019.  Review of a talk 'Orwell and Happiness'.


 
 
A large audience attended the Society’s final talk of 2019 in the Town Hall.  This topic might seem odd, given Orwell’s gaunt, ascetic features and the pessimism of his final novel Nineteen Eighty Four, but Orwell often reflected on whether we could, or should, be happy. It is also a central theme of philosophy, from Socrates to Bertrand Russell. Professor Dwan gave a fascinating and wide-ranging talk, considering all Orwell’s major works and citing many philosophers.

 

Orwell’s views on happiness changed over time and reveal inconsistencies. He always believed that simple hedonism (the philosophy of the pig) was no way to live, and that no good person could ignore the sufferings of others. He believed that a capitalist society would not provide happiness for most of its population: socialists should work to replace it. But he also believed that one had to be free to be happy, so could not support Russian communism.  

 

Orwell’s characters, such as George Bowling in Coming up for Air, find happiness in the country, but these pleasures are shallow and unlikely to last. In his last years Orwell enjoyed the natural life on Jura: the happiness of a Stoic. Throughout his life he enjoyed friendship, literature, seaside postcards and much else. It is appropriate that he wrote a regular column called ‘As I Please’:  pleasure can be found but one has to be free to find it.

 

Steven Bliss



PROFESSOR ABIGAIL WILLIAMS


On Wednesday, 23rd October 2019. Review of a talk 'Cruelty and Laughter:  Swift and Satire'.



There was a warm welcome in the Parish Church for the return of Professor Williams, whose talk on the Anglo-Irish 18th century satirist and Anglican clergyman, Jonathan Swift gave us a broad brush overview of the man, his works and legacy and how they still speak to us today.

Swift disdained high favour but had a love of truth and honesty.  From 1710 – 1713 he was a spin doctor for the Tories, at the heart of British politics at a time of Party polarisation.  In the Age of Reason he was not a reasonable man but was seen as a man who dared to speak truth to power whilst having ambiguity in the meaning of his writing.  


Swift's satires were both sharp and shocking.  In ‘A Tale of a Tub’ he pilloried the corruptions of churches and scuppered his chances of ever getting an English Bishopric when Queen Mary took it as an attack on all religion.   Swift returned to Ireland and became Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.


Professor Williams gave further insight into the four volumes of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and Swift’s pamphlet ‘A Modest Proposal’, a biting satire on the poverty in Ireland.  Towards the end of his life he wrote ‘Verses on the Death of Jonathan Swift’, imagined observations on what his friends might say after his death.


As in today’s ‘Private Eye’, Swift’s ideology is hidden from view despite the clarity of the individual targets.  The beauty of his writing has endured and inspired future satirists.


Julia Johnson



DR FREYA JOHNSTON

On Thursday, 19th September 2019.  Review of a talk “The Baron of Lies”.

 


“Once upon a time” We all tell stories at some time or another, but not quite like Baron Munchausen, the subject of Dr. Freya Johnston’s illuminating and thought provoking talk for Woodstock Literature Society at Woodstock Museum. Dr Johnston introduced her audience to the real life Baron and to the creator of the fictional version, German writer Rudolf Raspe.

The original Baron was an 18th century soldier who in later life told amazing stories about his military exploits; not only riding on a cannonball but also changing cannonballs midair to ride back, and shooting a stag with cherry stones. The Baron wrote nothing down but Raspe did and published the Baron’s tall tales, and more he had made up under the Baron’s name, annoying the Baron intensely. Raspe never admitted to being the author.

 

Raspe’s tall tales became popular and soon the name Munchausen became synonymous with making up stories, inventing facts and lying. Dr. Johnston however posed the question whether labelling Munchausen a liar was fair. What is the difference between telling stories and telling lies? She pointed to the early novels such as Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels which are essentially fake autobiographies, and was Raspe not doing the same thing?

 

The Munchausen stories became popular around the world. In America they appealed to a country trying to find the myths of its own origins and in 20th century Germany a lavish film was made at the height of the 2nd World War, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Bringing the story up to date Dr. Johnston talked about the medical conditions described by Munchausen’s name and compared Munchausen with Donald Trump’s truthful hyperbole, crafting stories to outdo reality.

 

On an evening ostensibly about a story teller Dr. Johnston challenged her audience to consider whether such stories reveal the strength of the human imagination or the dangers of falsehood, and linked the question to issues troubling us today. Does it matter that Munchausen’s stories are unbelievable provided we suspend belief and enter into the world of the story? Her talk was entertaining, scholarly and highly relevant, in short a triumph.

 

Trevor Caldecott



KEITH HOPPER


On Tuesday, 18th June 2019.  Review of a talk 'My nicely polished looking-glass' - The Early Fiction of James Joyce



It was a delight to welcome back Dr Hopper to the Town Hall and hear his entertaining and informative lecture focussing on books which it was suggested are helpful pre-reads before ‘Ulysses’ ie: ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and ‘Dubliners’ with particular reference to ‘Eveline’.


The talk explored influence and relationship between James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and W B Yeats.  The latter was a key critical element, being a quiet, strong advocate of Joyce’s work, and source of encouragement.   Joyce was self-confident and did not mince his words, which were not to everyone’s taste in contemporary Ireland, to the point that George Russell, editor of ‘The Irish Homestead’ asked Joyce not to write anything that would offend their conservative readers.




Joyce said “I want to write something that will keep the professors busy for centuries”, and he certainly achieved that aim – apparently a Bodleian website search will bring up 600+ study references.

Dr Hopper observed how Joyce’s naturalism and symbolism came together in ‘Dubliners’ which is easy to read but difficult to analyse with its subtleties.  Joyce leaves the reader to determine the meaning of the stories, which can change with repeated readings.  Dr Hopper’s enthusiasm shone through and in conclusion he urged the audience to be confident readers of Joyce’s accessible early works whose powerful rhythmic prose is perhaps best appreciated when read out loud.


Julia Johnson



The Woodstock Literature Society's 10th Anniversary Event


On Saturday, 11th May 2019.  Review of Michael Billington in Dialogue with Peter Kemp

(Photos L-R:  Our speakers arrive/audience in anticipation.  In animated conversation.  A teatime treat awaits)

  

      


A large audience gathered at the Church of St Mary Magdalene and celebrated the society’s tenth anniversary by hearing a conversation about theatre between two distinguished critics. Michael Billington has been the Guardian’s theatre critic for nearly 50 years, and Peter Kemp has reviewed theatre and books for over 30 years. In the early 1960s star actors dominated the theatre; then many new writers emerged and their work became dominant; and in our time the director is king, supported by technology in sound and lighting. We now go to see classic plays re-interpreted. We also see more adaptations of novels or films – some, like Small Island, are excellent, but they are not great drama in the way that Ibsen’s Rosmersholm (playing now) is. Great drama, for Michael Billington, achieves three things: it uses language excitingly, it uses the stage excitingly, and it has something to say about our lives today. 


The practicalities of theatre reviewing have changed.  Originally critics phoned in their review after the performance (with huge scope for errors, such as the opera Doris Goodenough).  Now they email it early the next day.  Both speakers thought, perhaps surprisingly, that they enjoyed performances more when they were reviewing them, because they had to focus so intensely.  they felt strongly that a good review should give pleasure in itself and not merely support a star rating.  At best the reviewer, in Anatole France's words, 'describes the adventures of his soul amongst masterpieces'.


Steven Bliss



LYNDALL GORDON


On Thursday, 8th April 2019.  Review of a talk 'Out of Africa:  Olive Schreiner and Women's Wish to Change the World'



The April WLS meeting welcomed Dr Lyndall Gordon, a Fellow of St Hilda's College, Oxford, to speak about one of the authors who features in her recent book, Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World.


While Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf are names which are familiar to most, the focus of Dr Gordon's lecture, Olive Schreiner, although a celebrity during her own lifetime, is not as well remembered today.




Her first novel, The Story of an African Farm (1883), was an immediate bestseller, championed by fans as varied as William Gladstone and Oscar Wilde.  It sold the remarkable number for the time of 97,000 copies for its publisher Chapman and Hall, who had taken a chance on an allegorical book set on the veldt written by a young, unknown, self-educated South African governess.


Dr Gordon placed Schreiner in the context of writers and thinkers who had influenced her, including Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, as well as those Schreiner herself later influenced as an early proponent of feminist theory and radical social thought, and explained how imprisoned suffragettes would read Schreiner’s works out loud. Vera Brittain later referred to Schreiner’s Women and Labour as “the suffragettes’ Bible”.


In a talk full of fascinating details about Olive Schreiner’s life and her resolute support for the underdog in all circumstances, it emerged that Dr Gordon also had a very personal connection to her subject, as she herself was named Lyndall after the feminist heroine of The Story of an African Farm.


Rebecca Vickers



MICHAEL PARKER

On Wednesday, 27th March 2019.  Review of a talk 'The Art of William Trevor'



Professor Michael Parker spoke on William Trevor, the distinguished and prolific novelist and dramatist who died in 2016. Trevor was born in 1928 to Protestant parents in the Irish Republic, and he always considered himself ‘Irish in every vein’ although he spent most of his life in England. His parents were neither affluent nor happily married (unlike Trevor himself), and this affected his work: as he himself said, ‘All fiction has autobiographical roots’. Hence Trevor’s main themes are displacement, insecurity and unhappy marriages, especially as they affect women.

 



Trevor often writes about the Ireland he knew well. His aim was to take Irish provincialism and make it universal. A very good example, which Professor Parker discussed at length, was his novel Reading Turgenev, in which a young woman makes a disastrous marriage because she seems to have no other option. Although Trevor’s prose style is not difficult, he expects the reader to work to understand just what is happening: he makes frequent use of flashback, and he withholds information initially. He also expects us to make the connections (deeply ironic ones) between his heroine’s limited world and the way people behave in the Turgenev novels that she reads.  Gradually we understand, and, if we read carefully, we realise not everything is as it seems. All the little details matter: as the poet Patrick Kavanagh said, ‘God is in the bits and pieces’. 


Steven Bliss



ZACHARY LEADER


On Saturday, 23rd February 2019.  Review of a talk Saul Bellow: Getting into Trouble











The description “troubled writer” can be applied to many novelists, and Saul Bellow was one of the more extreme examples of the type, as Professor Zachary Leader explained in his lucid, witty and fascinating talk in the Town Hall.


Zachary Leader has written a critically acclaimed 2 volume biography of Saul Bellow and as he explained Bellow was a man of contradictions: tender yet cutting, cordial yet vengeful, warm yet cruel. He could be difficult in the extreme but his skill as a writer was never in doubt. His powers of observation and range of language, from Yiddish and slang to deft literary allusion, were outstanding. He could “put a name to everything”. He could also be caustic, unable to exercise any self-censorship. Professor Leader quoted the exchange where Bellow, dressed in a safari jacket and told he looked just like an archaeologist, replied “And you look just like something I dug up”.


During the second half of his life Bellow became the most acclaimed writer in America, following the publication of Humboldt’s Gift, Mr Sammler’s Planet and Herzog. According to Professor Leader however this acclaim only served to exacerbate his “jerk like tendencies”. He was a writer surrounded by trouble, but unquestionably a great writer, mining his own experience for the raw material of his work.


Professor Leader, steeped in Saul Bellow, gave a wonderfully erudite talk on one of the foremost American authors.


Trevor Caldecott



CLAIRE HARMAN


On Saturday, 26th January 2019.  Review of a talk 'Walking Invisible' with Charlotte Bronte 


There was a warm welcome in the Town Hall for Professor Claire Harman, the eminent literary biographer, and Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature.  Although focussing on Charlotte Bronte’s power and force of writing, this excellent talk encompassed the influence and nurturing mutual support of the Bronte siblings – an astonishingly creative group with wild imaginations creating the worlds of Gondal and Angria providing the spark for future great works.  There was speculation whether Charlotte would have persevered with her writing ambitions had she been an only child.

 

It was an anathema for women to write professionally in the 19th century.  So it was a bold step for the young Charlotte to submit her poems to the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, signing ambiguously as CB, Howarth, Yorkshire – a device later used when Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte used the androgynous monikers Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.  Fortunately Charlotte was undeterred by Southey’s damming with faint praise reply.

 

Attention was drawn to the little known ‘Caroline Vernon’, an innovative novella about an adolescent girl in love - a precursor to Jane Eyre.   When Charlotte submitted ‘The Professor’ it was declined by the publisher who expressed interest in seeing other work by the author.  ‘Jane Eyre’ was sent and the rest is history.  Professor Harman concluded by reflecting on the significance of Charlotte and her sisters being commemorated in Poets Corner alongside Southey and Shakespeare.

 

It was challenging making notes whilst enraptured.   I didn’t think I could write a review, but Reader, I wrote it!


Julia Johnson

 

 

David Grylls

On Saturday, 17th November 2018.  Review of a talk 'Flaubert's 'Madam Bovary':  The Gret European Novel?'

At our final 2018 talk David Grylls spoke on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Dr Grylls has given us many good talks, and he attracted a large audience. Madame Bovary was a new sort of novel in at least three ways: the absence of direct authorial comment (such as we often find in Dickens); the tendency towards comedy and satire; and the frankness about sex. The novel is realistic, dispassionate and non-didactic. All of this had a great influence on later novelists.

 

The novel opposes two incompatible world-views: Emma Bovary is fantasising and imaginative, and nearly everyone else is dull and matter-of-fact. Neither view is adequate; characters continually get things wrong, often comically. This isn’t entirely new in literature (think of Don Quixote), but the detached way in which Flaubert presents it, and the mass of realistic detail set against people’s delusions, is new. Emma finds no pleasure in her marriage and disappointment in her two lovers. She seeks solace in sex, religion or shopping, but nothing lasts. In the end she poisons herself (described brutally by Flaubert). Her fool of a husband remains deluded. The local apothecary, a self-important dunce, is honoured. No one is whole or happy.

 

Our speaker finished by asking ‘how great a novel is Madame Bovary?’ No one denies its importance but there is something heartless about Flaubert and his novel. He has insight without empathy (unlike Tolstoy – Anna Karenina is a greater novel). But everyone should read Madame Bovary.

 

Steven Bliss

 


Mark Bostridge

On Saturday, 25th October 2018.  Review of a talk on Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain’s famous autobiography Testament of Youth (1933) has held a different appeal to different generations.  Her grief-ridden memoir for the lost war generation was an instant best-seller, and was more widely read than similar memoirs by Sassoon, Graves, and Blunden.  She offers multiple points of view in her book, as well as a woman’s voice, and was willing to shape the narrative to frame her overall themes of pacificism and internationalism.  This was the theme of a polished and deeply knowledgeable talk by Mark Bostridge, Brittain’s literary executor and biographer. Brittain had just arrived at Somerville College at the outbreak of the First World War.  Initially, like so many others, she was seized with patriotic fervour.  She volunteered for training as a military nurse.  Her views were changed by the deaths of her beloved brother Edward and her fiancé Rowland Leighton, but most of all changed by her own harrowing experiences as a VAD nurse in France.  After the war, grieving and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she returned to Somerville.  Here she was faced with uncomprehending junior students and uninterested dons.  Her memoir helped her to pay a tribute to the war dead and to come to terms with her own grief.  It also connected her at last to others who shared her views and her experiences. 

Her pacifism and internationalism were bravely held values throughout her life and she had the integrity not to abandon these in the years leading up to the Second World War when pacifism became identified with appeasement.  Her complex life and personality were sympathetically conveyed in this timely lecture.

 Linda Glees



Tessa Roynon

On Wednesday 19th September 2018 Dr Tessa Roynon spoke to us on 'What about Glory's Story?':  Thinking again about Home

There was a warm welcome in the Library for Dr Tessa Roynon (pictured on the left of the accompanying photograph), a Teaching and Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute in the University of Oxford.  Dr Roynon’s enthusiasm and expertise shone through as she presented an introduction to the writing of Marilynne Robinson, who has a cult status to some but is completely unknown to others.   

 

Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, ‘Housekeeping’, written in 1980 looked as if it might be a ‘one book wonder’ but in 2005 ‘Gilead’ was published, the first of three novels (‘Gilead’, ‘Home’ and ‘Lila’) set in Iowa featuring the same place, characters and events with each book telling the story from contrasting points of view - a clever interweaving with the reader’s opinion and sympathy towards the characters influenced by the order in which the stories are read.  Marilynne Robinson’s writing evokes the vastness of rural Iowa, the politics and views held in 1956 and explores the impact of the hurt caused by the blindness of one person to another’s feelings of being hurt and the repercussions of misunderstandings in general.  

 


The lecture focussed on the second book ‘Home’.  Dr Roynon observed that Marilynne Robinson’s understated treatment of Glory perhaps aids the reader in overlooking the detail of her presence as her quiet heroism and dignity keeps the wheels of the house turning.

 

I confess to not having read these books, but have been inspired to do so.

 

 Julia Johnson



Peter Kemp

On Wednesday 13th June 2018 Peter Kemp spoke to us on 'Cluedo to Cadavers'



In 1827, the essayist Thomas De Quincey suggested that murder should be considered as one of the fine arts. Peter Kemp, in his June talk to the WLS, thoroughly examined the many very successful undertakings by writers of fiction over the last 180 years to achieve just that. Currently the Chief Fiction Reviewer for the Sunday Times and a former judge on many book award panels, Kemp brought a critic’s eye to the historical origins and development of this most popular of literary genres in his lecture entitled “Cluedo and Cadavers”.

 

Kemp guided the listeners through the evolution of the “who done it” from the innovative short stories of Edgar Allan Poe in the 1840s with the debut of the first detective, Auguste Dupin, to the modern forensic and technical police procedural novels of the last 40 years. The introduction of many familiar features was touched upon, such as the use of seemingly bizarre puzzles as part of the circumstances of the murder, pairs of detectives with contrasting temperaments and the juxtapositioning of a sedate setting with a gruesome crime.

 

From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ‘s Sherlock Holmes, through the upper-class detectives of the crime novel’s “Golden Age” of the 1920s and 30s, to the more psychologically adept and socially aware, but often personally flawed, detectives of more recent crime novels, all played a part in the continuing progression of the solvers of the crimes.  Interestingly, Kemp drew attention to the fact that many crime novelists of today are placing their stories in historical settings to maintain the puzzling Cluedo-like character of their books in a world awash with technologies, such as mobile phones, CCTV cameras and DNA testing.

 

Peter Kemp left us with the feeling that although the crime novel of today has in some cases turned into something far different from its Victorian beginnings, the mostly “happy” endings, where answers are found and evil does not triumph, will continue to attract readers.


Rebecca Vickers

 


Daniel Tyler

On Thursday 17th May 2018 Dr Daniel Tyler spoke to us on 'The Uncommercial Traveller:  Stories by Charles Dickens' in Woodstock Parish Church


We gathered to welcome Dr Daniel Tyler, Tutor and Fellow at Trinity Hall in the University of Cambridge, and an authority on the life and works of Dickens.  The talk opened with an overview of the author’s life before looking in more detail at the series of sketches written at the height of Dickens’ fame and power but which are less well known.


The sketches were published in three volumes in the 1860s following Dickens’ traumatic and acrimonious divorce played out in the public gaze.   Throughout there is the sense of Dickens revisiting his earlier works and the Sketches by Boz.  There is a reflective feel and recollection is a feature of as the narrator recounts his stories.  There are oblique references to characters in Dickens’ books and occasionally the mask of the persona of ‘The Uncommercial’ slips to reveal autobiographical elements and opinions held by Dickens.



The Uncommercial Traveller is used to link the series of sketches and through him we see contemporary London from unusual perspectives, visit Liverpool and witness three Chatham childhood recollections.  Dr Tyler read an extract from a vignette set in Strasbourg which exemplifies the enigmatic strangeness of a story which is enjoyable to read but has no real explanation.    Drawing to a close, Dr Tyler posed the question how far is Dickens’ fiction a commemoration of his own life?  A good note to end on . . .


Julia Johnson



Fiona Stafford

On Thursday 19th April 2018 Professor Fiona Stafford spoke to us on 'The Memory of Trees' in the Woodstock Town Hall

The warmest spring day in nearly 70 years ended on a perfect note for those who attended the April lecture. Professor Fiona Stafford of the University of Oxford gave a stimulating talk, inspired by her 2016 Yale University Press book, The Long, Long Life of Trees.

 

Professor Stafford focused her examination on the cultural influence of trees on writers and artists, in particular the way in which their early memories of trees resonated in their later creative lives. Calling upon the recollections of writers as diverse as Robert Frost, William Wordsworth and Seamus Heaney, writer-artist William Blake and artist Paul Nash, Professor Stafford drew parallels between their childhood memories of trees, the loss of innocence and the development of mature creative vision.

 

Using quotes from later writings of these and others, Stafford explored the remembered importance of trees as the inhabitants of private, idyllic worlds free from adult control, as well as the unease, anxiety and loss that the memory of trees in specific personal circumstances elicited.  The solidity, longevity and endurance of trees were often seen as symbolic of the protected, but sometimes stultifying and limited, boundaries of childhood, and on other occasions as being doorways into the instinctive, imaginative and magic world of the child. 

 

This fascinating and enlightening consideration of the influence of trees on the creative mind was an encouragement to all of us to remember the trees we have known and loved and their impact on our memories.  


Rebecca Vickers


Nora Crook

On Wednesday 21st March 2018 Professor Nora Crook spoke to us on 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' in Woodstock Library

We were delighted to welcome Professor Crook, Professor Emerita of Ruskin Anglia University.  Professor Crook reflected on the powerful impact Frankenstein had upon her when she first read the story extracted in ‘The World’s Best Books’. She found it an unsettling read, but wanted to know more, and so her scholarly journey began.  Her subsequent researches resulted in the discovery of significant Shelley papers. 






















The result of a Ghost Story challenge, Frankenstein is a complex layering of the whole story with others within told by a proliferation of story tellers.  It could be viewed as a travel book with its descriptive passages.  An inspiration was young Mary’s visits to the Covent Garden panto, seeing Grimaldi making a man from vegetables and seeing the pumpkin man arguing with his creator.  There are other elements of Mary’s life hidden in the book.  On-going speculation as to who is the true author is open to interpretation.  Mary Shelley did not want Frankenstein viewed as a ‘woman’s book’ and her husband could suggest more masculine wording.  His role as mentor/editor may be considered as co-authorship.  Sir Walter Scott, anon in Blackwoods Magazine, praised its style of writing, saying it was not the usual Gothic trash but a powerful tale in keeping with the times.


In conclusion Professor Crook observed that Frankenstein grew out of turbulent times with the aftermath of the French revolution and the continuing debates about slavery, and is as relevant today in the current world turmoil.

Julia Johnson


Roy Foster

On Saturday 24th February 2018 Professor Roy Foster spoke to us on 'Seamus Heaney' in the Woodstock Town Hall

Professor Roy Foster gave a very well attended talk on Seamus Heaney. Professor Foster has had a long and distinguished career as a historian of Ireland. He has written a biography of Yeats, and Princeton University Press will publish his new book on Heaney in 2019.  He began his talk with Yeats’ view of biography: ‘a poet’s life is an experiment in living’ and those who want to understand the poetry are entitled to ask about the life. Heaney wrote much of his poetry during turbulent and violent times in Northern Ireland, when he was pressed to take public stances – he refused, and was careful what he published, but was deeply affected.


Professor Foster argued that Heaney ‘processes and re-imagines history’, even when he is not overtly writing about Ireland. Heaney became an unofficial Irish poet laureate, speaking to the nation with more freedom than the official British laureates (and with more art than most of them!). His poems often went through many drafts and revisions, but from the beginning they showed a knack of finding the exact, sometimes shocking, image he needed. Like all good poets he could write about his own life and feelings in a way that speaks for a great many others. Professor Foster concluded by arguing that the more mature understanding of Irish history we now have was created by poets and novelists as much as by journalists and historians – none more so than Heaney.


Steven Bliss



Sandie Byrne

On Saturday 27th January 2018 Professor Sandie Byrne spoke to us on 'Saki, the Master Story-Teller' in the Woodstock Town Hall

There was a good gathering in the Town Hall on a drab winter’s afternoon to enjoy Professor Byrne’s lecture on Saki, an Edwardian short story writer who has enjoyed a major revival, referencing links through common themes with contemporaries including John Buchan, Kenneth Grahame and Rudyard Kipling. This was the golden age of the short story.
Professor Byrne painted a vivid picture of Saki’s unusual early life in Devon, his mother tragically killed by a cow shortly after their return from Burma, leaving Saki and his siblings in the ‘care’ of two strict aunts. Saki later joined the Mounted Police in Burma but following boughts of fever returned to England, writing en-route about the Russian Empire, work which received poor reviews. Undaunted he turned to writing short stories, drawing on his own experiences, producing dark, tightly written tales. He also worked as a journalist, a foreign correspondent and wrote political sketches. His influence can be clearly felt in such authors as E M Forster and P G Wodehouse.

Saki has been described as a fastidious, well-mannered and turned out man. He was also courageous and was killed in battle in the First World War. In conclusion Professor Byrne reflected that in many ways Saki has been overlooked, although he wrote on the dark side, he had great wit to rival that of Oscar Wilde. 

This was a fascinating talk, an excellent start to the 2018 programme

Julia Johnson

Rosamund Bartlett

On Tuesday 24th October 2017 Rosamund Bartlett spoke to us on ‘Russian Literature and the 1917 Revolution’ in the Woodstock Town Hall


A talk by the distinguished Russian expert Dr Rosalind Bartlett to mark the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution was attended by a large audience. Dr Bartlett covered a huge span of Russian literature from the 1840's to the 1920's, focussing on the works of Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Mayakovsky- with some atmospheric sound recordings of the latter reading his own work.  Her theme was Modernism in both its early stirrings and later flowering and the convergence of this artistic movement with the politics of the time.






David Grylls

On Saturday 25th November 2017 David Grylls spoke to us on ‘Thomas Hardy, the Novelist’ in the Woodstock Town Hall

A real treat to end the year: a talk written especially for the Woodstock Literature Society by Dr David Grylls, Fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford, on November 25th.

Dr Grylls opened observing Thomas Hardy was a rare example of a nineteenth century novelist who was also a prolific poet, publishing eight volumes of poetry between 1898 and 1928.

Dr Grylls painted a picture of Hardy’s early life in Higher Brockhampton. Although poor, his parents ensured he had a good education. A significant moment was his apprenticeship to local architect John Hicks. Hardy’s attention to detail in buildings shines through and his novels provide a vivid social history.

Hardy drew on his native Dorset and life experiences. Dr Gryll’s talk focussed on The Mayor of Casterbridge; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; and Jude the Obscure where landscapes and characters are beautifully brought to life. We agonise with Michael Henchard’s relentless woes as Donald Farfrae’s star endlessly ascends then witness the hypocrisies and double standards of the day faced by Tess and the tragic outcome of her entanglements with Alec D’Urberville and Angel Clare, before hitting the peak of bleak with Jude Fawley in Hardy’s last novel railing against Christianity and the social institutions. Hardy’s novels were often met with severe criticism and it may have been this that drove Hardy to focus on writing poems.

This was a perfect finale to this year’s programme of talks.

Julia Johnson
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