On Thursday, 18th April 2024.

Review of a talk 'Anti-heroes and Why We Love Them'.

What do Mr Toad, Becky Sharp, Long John Silver and Sherlock Holmes all have in common? The answer, as local author Simon Mason suggested in his entertaining talk, is that they can all be described as lovable anti-heroes. Their behaviour may be unconventional, anti-social or even homicidal, but they endear themselves to us by their resistance to authority and success against the odds.

As an author of books for children and young adults, Simon illustrated how the youngest readers respond to these qualities in protagonists, from wily Brer Rabbit outwitting Brer Fox in the Uncle Remus stories to Mr Toad refusing to be bullied into sensible behaviour by boring old Badger in Wind in the Willows. And while Long John Silver and Sherlock Holmes are both likely candidates for cancelation to protect modern sensitivities, they are both anti-heroes who defy convention – to put it mildly - but have a keen sense of justice.

Simon modestly claimed not to be an academic expert, but as the author of The Rough Guide to Classic Fiction he is obviously very widely read, and cited as one “classic” example Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, whose behaviour may be considered immoral but has to be admired for inventiveness in the face of adversity. Sharp wits are often the hallmark of the anti-hero.

Inventiveness is certainly a characteristic of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, one of the coolest and most charming psychopaths in crime fiction. In Simon’s own crime novels, the anti-hero is not an assassin but a detective, Ryan Wilkins, whose unconventional methods succeed in catching more villains than his more privileged counterpart, D.I. Ray Wilkins. Simon explained that he wanted to move away from the middle class Oxford world of Inspector Morse, and create a sleuth from the other side of the tracks who, despite his disadvantages, uses his native wit to bring about justice.

The audience responded warmly to this interesting discussion of some well-loved books, with much lively discussion after the talk.

Anne Handsley

Post talk book signing.


On Saturday, 23 March 2024.

Review of a talk 'All Sorts of Lives:

Katherine Mansfield and the Art of Risking Everything'.

Professor Claire Harman told us the story of Katherine Mansfield, the brilliant short story writer, whose extraordinary life was cut tragically short.  How did a young woman from New Zealand in the early 20th century reach the heart of the avant-garde literary world in London, becoming friends and colleagues with the likes of D H Lawrence, Ottoline Morrell, and Virginia Woolf (who even type-set Katherine's short story Prelude for the Hogarth Press)? 

Prof Harman was astonished that nothing was being planned to mark the centenary of Katherine Mansfield’s death in 1923 and set about writing All Sorts of Lives – Katherine Mansfield and the Art of Risking Everything.  As she immersed herself in Katherine’s books, journals and letters, she found them a companiable read through a lockdown project.  A strong case was made for the value of the short story form, with its great exemplars Tolstoy and Chekhov and its modern Nobel prize winner Alice Munro continuing to write in this genre.  Katherine’s short stories were new in technique, powerful and often comic.

Katherine and her sisters, Vera and Chaddy studied for three years at Queens College, Harley Street before returning to Wellington in 1906 where Katherine wrote morbid poems and complained about the cultural backwater of New Zealand.  Katherine wanted to return to London to study music and in 1908 her parents were persuaded to allow her to return to Beauchamp Lodge on Regents Canal.  She was an astute observer and seemed to like the squalor and loneliness of the city.  Prof Harman drew a similarity in the Milliner’s journey home on the bus in The Tiredness of Rosabel with a modern-day commute on the underground - from experience I sometimes feel the experience is travel in crowded isolation. 

We were given an overview of the many circles Katherine moved in. Meeting John Middleton Murry, editor of the influential modernist magazine, Rhythm (1911-13), was significant. Katherine’s work was published in the magazine, and she later became co-editor.   

Prof Harman drew attention to Katherine’s innovation of telling a story across a single day, a style Virginia Woolf used in Mrs Dalloway.  Virginia Woolf said Katherine Mansfield was the only person she felt jealous of and in a diary entry after Katherine’s death she wrote: Quite relieved one rival the less.

Sadly, Katherine died before she was able to develop her thoughts and ideas further.  Prof Harman’s talk showed us how Katherine Mansfield 'risked everything' in her life and, most importantly, in her art.  My interest has definitely been piqued in reading Katherine Mansfield’s stories.

Julia Johnson


On Saturday, 24 February 2024.

Review of a talk 'The Norse Myths that Shape the Way with Think'. 

Professor Larrington confessed that when she first considered writing her book on the Norse Myths, she thought the title something of a tall order. Do they really shape the way we think? How relevant are they today? However, her very accessible talk answered those questions and placed the myths firmly in present day culture.


Our knowledge of Norse Myths comes from the Poetic Edda, mythological poems written in Iceland, and the Prose Edda, both from the 13th century, small amounts of other verse and prose and limited archaeological evidence, but much has been lost. Interest in the old myths was kept alive by the translation into Latin of what did survive and by the publication of Northern Antiquities in the late 18th century, providing source material for both children’s and adult literature such as The Heroes of Asgard by Anna Keay (1857), Ragnorak - The End of the World by A S Byatt (2011), Norse Mythology by Neil Gaimon (2017) and The Saga of Asgard by Roger Green (1960).


Professor Larrington went on to talk about the characters in the stories, beginning with Odin, the ruler of the gods and the god of poetry, wisdom, and war. He continually sought an alternative version to the ending of the world, and he it was who brought wisdom and laws to Scandinavia, the gods, according to the myths, originally refugees from Troy who travelled to Scandinavia and persuaded the people there to worship them. The Grimm brothers drew on the Norse Myths for their tales and Wagner’s Wotan has some of the features of Odin. In his 1840 lectures on hero worship Thomas Carlyle saw Odin as a cultural hero, the lecture on Odin being entitled The Hero as Divinity. Next was Thor, the god of weather, and from the 1960s appearing in the Marvel comics as well as modern novels - The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris and The Lost Gods by Francesca Simon. Loki is also prominent in the Marvel comics and Loge in Wagner’s Ring Cycle is based on him.


Tolkien too drew on the myths to a limited extent, in particular his use of the dragon Smaug, and their influence can be seen in contemporary culture in films, television, opera and novels, and Professor Larrington posed the question ‘Why?’. Why are writers and film makers so keen on the Norse Myths? Her answer was that the genuine interest in the topic since 2000 in Northern Europe, the USA and Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, is in large part due to the familiarity of the subject matter of the myths. The characters look like us, they move in a familiar landscape, and they wear sensible clothing. Their names are in common usage: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. The Norse gods have a certain grandeur, keeping going despite knowing they will die at Ragnorak.


In conclusion Professor Larrington pointed out how pervasive their influence is currently, from the 2022 film The Northman to the Thor hammer tattoo on the QAnon leader Jake Angeli in the attack on the Capitol in January 2021.

Our speaker had comprehensively answered the question she put to herself at the start of the talk and had given her audience an entertaining and illuminating insight into Norse culture.


Trevor Caldecott


On Saturday, 20 January 2024.

Review of a talk 'Retroland'. 

We were delighted to welcome back Peter Kemp to talk about his latest book, “Retroland”.  When approached by his publishers to write a book about fiction written in English over the last 50 years, his work as fiction editor for the Sunday Times placed Peter in an excellent position to undertake this daunting task.

He began with a dazzling gallop through some of the many oddities and experiments in fiction writing over the past half century. Who could have imagined a story narrated by a foetus or a woodworm, for example – yet two of the greatest modern British writers, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes have done just that, in “In a Nutshell” and “A History of the World in 10 and a half Chapters”.  Peter also highlighted experiments in narrative structure, Martin Amis’ “Time’s Arrow”, with its reverse chronology, being a notable example.

It seemed, in fact, with so much experimentation and novelty, that it was almost impossible to pinpoint a universal theme linking modern fiction, but Peter observed how much modern writing has been concerned with how the past impacts on the present. He began by pointing out how Paul Scott’s “Raj Quartet” paved the way for many post-colonial works by authors such as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Ben Okri and Timothy Mo, recommending in particular Scott’s “Staying On” and Rushdie’s “Shame”, and a lesser known work by JG Farrell set in Northern Ireland called “Troubles”.

Peter went on to discuss some novels where personal past trauma has impacted on protagonists, for example in Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy. He also recommended her earlier trilogy, beginning with “Union Street”, which charted the lives of working-class women in the North East. One chapter of “Retroland” is titled “Scars and Silences”, a reference to the repression of past traumas, which Peter linked to repression of sexual identity in the novels of Sarah Waters and Alan Hollinghurst.

Readers today have a keen appetite for novels set in the past, due in large part to the success of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor series, which as Peter pointed out are written in the present tense, giving readers a real sense of immersion in Thomas Cromwell’s world. Another series he recommended was William Golding’s “To the ends of the Earth” trilogy, which explores the experiences of migrants to Australia at the beginning of the 19th century.

Finally, Peter touched on the many recent novels which make use of the literary past. Like McEwan, John Updike (“Gertrude and Claudius”), Margaret Atwood (“Hagseed”) and Angela Carter (“Wise Children”) have all written novels making use of Shakesperean characters and plots.  He also introduced us to some rather less serious novels which use earlier authors as protagonists. I made a particular note of Michael Dibden’s “A Rich and Full Death” – a crime novel set in Renaissance Florence with Robert Browning as detective (what’s not to like with that?) – but will probably pass on the series of novels charting Jane Austen’s success as an amateur sleuth.

Thank you, Peter, for entertaining and edifying a packed hall on a dismal January afternoon with your extensive knowledge. I’m sure we all left with lots of ideas for future reading, not least “Retroland” itself.

Anne Handsley


On Saturday 18th November 2023.

Review of a talk 'Kingsley Amis at 101'.

On a dank and drab Saturday afternoon a happy hub-bub could be heard from the Town Hall Assembly Room as an eager audience settled to enjoy Professor Zachary Leader’s talk.  Called by many the biographers’ biographer, Professor Leader opened by giving an overview of how an American had been authorised to read and edit the letters of Kingsley Amis.  In his teens, a move from California to a school in Hertfordshire led to immersion in literature; he remembered being captivated by Isabelle Archer in Portrait of a Lady, determined to find out what it meant to be English.  Years later, Professor Leader became friends with Martin Amis, whose father’s papers were initially sent to journalists and an academic professor of English, but none were deemed appropriate by the family to write the biography.  Martin Amis recommended his friend, Professor Leader, who was at the time working on the poems of Shelley.  Agreement was reached and the rest is history!

Professor Leader gave examples of what led to Amis’ views on Americans, including his dislike of Americans’ perceived love of over sharing.  However, he pointed out that Amis was heard to say, ‘America is my second country and always will be’.  Attention was also drawn to Amis’ prolific writing not only of books but also poetry, referencing one written especially for The Garrick Club, now hanging on its walls.  It was there that the two men had their one and only meeting, which Professor Leader recalls as daunting.

Professor Leader also discussed the friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, both influential writers of their time often regarded as ‘Little Englanders’, writing of what has gone. Not necessarily so, according to Professor Leader, who feels Lucky Jim, Amis’ evergreen first novel makes fun of the English, their folkloric traditions, love of punting, folk dancing and madrigals.  But what caused Amis to write such aggressive humour?  A key figure in Amis’ life was his father-in-law, known as Daddy B, with whom he had an uneasy relationship.  His own father’s anxieties over social standing also impacted Amis.  You Can’t Do Both was cited as a window into Amis’ childhood through Robin’s experiences.    

Professor Leader closed by sharing an observation of Amis by his friend, Philip Larkin: ‘Depravation to him was as daffodils were to Wordsworth’.  This was an excellent finale to the 2023 Programme, an afternoon full of interest and plenty of laughter.

 Julia Johnson

St Petersburg: Pushkin outside The Russian Museum 26/7/19


On Saturday 21st October 2023.

Review of a talk 'Russian literature and the emergence of a national genius'. 

A large audience attended a talk on Pushkin, given by Professor Andrew Kahn of Oxford University. His theme was ‘Russian literature and the emergence of a national genius’. Although Pushkin was recognized as a huge talent from an early age, it seemed unlikely that he would ever become Russia’s national poet, despite a large output in a short life: over 600 poems, the verse novel Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunov, The Queen of Spades and much more.  Russia at that time had no middle class and a very small number of book readers. French, not Russian, was the language of the educated classes. Pushkin himself was continually involved in scandals: writing blasphemous, obscene or politically dangerous poetry; having affairs; fighting duels (one of which eventually killed him); gambling and incurring huge debts (his debts when he died were more than he could ever have repaid). His initial popularity was already waning when he died – he was seen as ‘old hat.’ So how did he become Russia’s national poet?


The main contributors were Dostoevsky and Stalin. In 1880 a statue of Pushkin was commissioned and a festival held, at which Dostoevsky was the final speaker. His speech caused a sensation. He acclaimed Pushkin as the national genius and praised the ‘beautiful Russian types’ of his characters. But he also saw Pushkin as a universal figure (perhaps a convenient way of accepting that Western literature had influenced Pushkin). Finally he saw Pushkin as a prophet of Russia’s future. This may not all have been true, but it had a huge impact.


After the Russian revolution the Bolsheviks praised Pushkin, comparing him (surprisingly) to Lenin. Then in 1935, at the height of Stalin’s terrors, an article in Pravda called Pushkin a great man of the people (surprisingly given Pushkin’s class origins and behaviour). It was decided to publish a full edition of his works, distribute millions of cheap copies of the major works and erect over 200 statues. Factory workers were told ‘Workers of the world! Unite around Pushkin!’ When the Soviet Union collapsed Pushkin was reinvented, making much more of his rebellious side, and he is now firmly Russia’s national poet.


Sadly Pushkin isn’t read much here: poetry is a minority taste and doesn’t travel well. It’s a pity, because he is a major writer and was a very interesting and strange person. If you want to know more, there are good translations of his works in Penguin and elsewhere and an excellent biography by Tim Binyon.

Steven Bliss 


On Tuesday 19th September 2023.

Review of a talk 'Dante's Sparks of Glory'. 

Dante was guided through Hell by Virgil, and into Heaven with Beatrice at his side: we embarked on a journey of discovery into The Divine Comedy in the expert hands of Dr Ross King. A show of hands indicated that a few had read the whole work, some had read The Inferno, while others, myself included, had never ventured inside this formidable world. After a fascinating hour delving into Dante’s intentions and methods in writing the book, however, I feel inspired now to have a go.

Dr King emphasised how Dante is, for Italians, what Shakespeare is to the British: not just the greatest native writer, but a symbol of the nation itself. It took half a millenium for a full English translation of the Divine Comedy to appear in 1805, but the Victorians loved Dante – Gladstone, for example, attempted a partial translation – and T.S.Eliot, who influenced so much literary thought in the 20th century, was a big fan.

In order to understand Dante’s purpose in writing the poem, Dr King outlined the world of Florence in the late 13th century, where the desire for wealth and political power was leading to corruption – “Florence” he wrote “Your name is widely known in Hell” - and the Church itself often set a bad example, rather than leading people away from Sin. Dante’s support for a faction which opposed Pope Boniface VIII was what led to his enforced exile from Florence and his writing of the poem.

One significant point made by Dr King was that despite Dante’s extensive knowledge of Roman authors, he chose to write the poem in the Tuscan dialect rather than Latin, and wrote as a first person narrator, enabling the reader to identify with the man lost in the dark wood, searching for truth and salvation. The poem has an elaborate structure, but the time frame simplifies this, taking us from Maundy Thursday 1300 to Easter Monday, and thus from the depths of Hell and despair to the Glory of meeting God face to face at the end.

Dr King ended his talk with a taste of some of the fascinating symbolism of sea journeys, quests and uncharted waters within the poem – it’s no surprise to discover that there’s a video game based on the Inferno.

Anne Handsley


On Saturday 17th June 2023.

Review of a talk 'Shakespeare's Dramas of Substitution'.

The audience at the WLS talk in the church enjoyed a treat; not only a thoughtful and illuminating talk on substitutions in Shakespeare by Professor David Womersley, but also some wonderful acting from Francesca Coleman and Daniel Metcalfe from the Oxford School of Drama. The combination of the scholarly talk and the lively, accomplished acting was a great success.


Professor Womersley began by pointing out the close affinity drama has with substitution in that all actors are substituting themselves for someone else, and he emphasised how important substitution was in the work of Shakespeare throughout his career. The act of substitution allows the playwright to examine a wide variety of ethical possibilities, from the comedy of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the darker aspects of substitution in Measure for Measure.

Shakespeare used substitution and interchangeability to give dramatic shape to moral issues.

The first scene acted by Francesca and Daniel was from A Midsummer Night’s Dream where, Puck having put magical drops in the sleeping Lysander’s eyes, Lysander wakes and falls in love with Helena thereby substituting Hermia. This is substitution as comedy and ultimately benign. As Professor Womersley pointed out, however, substitution in tragedy is of a different order. Moving onto King Lear he considered the question posed by Lear to his daughters at the beginning of the play “Which of you shall we say doth love us most …..?” He suggested the question can be interpreted in one of two ways, either a question about volume of love, which daughter loves more than the other two, or a question of ranking of love, which loves him more than anything else. Goneril and Reagan choose the first option saying they love him more than anything including their husbands; Cordelia chooses the second, unable to substitute a father for a husband. The importance of this question is only brought to light over the course of the play. It is a moral litmus paper.

Turning to Measure for Measure Professor Womersley described the numerous literal and imaginative substitutions in the play, and Francesca and Daniel performed a scene between Isabella and Claudio to illustrate imaginative substitution, and later Mariana’s plea to Isabella to put herself imaginatively in her position. Their acting throughout was full of energy, their diction clear and the standard of performance high, an excellent advertisement for the quality of the School.

Professor Womersley ended by saying there was no settled or simple view of substitution in Shakespeare; its use does however allow the playwright to demonstrate the flexibility of the moral imagination.

Afterwards a very satisfied audience enjoyed tea, cakes and strawberries, and reflected on a very entertaining afternoon.

Trevor Caldecott


On Tuesday 9th May 2023.

Review of a talk 'The Importance of being Poirot'.

Professor Jeremy Black gave us a fascinating talk in which he argued that Agatha Christie was a serious writer concerned with how the forces of evil were working to destroy society in the 20th century.

Like Jane Austen, who shared her moral stance and conservative beliefs, she has been trivialized and made “cosy” as a result of countless film and television adaptations. Professor Black urged us to return to Christie’s novels and short stories, of which he displayed an encyclopaedic knowledge, to observe her frequent references to political and spiritual threats to society in the modern world. In particular, he mentioned the little known Christie character Harley Quinn ( The Mysterious Mr Quinn, 1930 ) who appears as an almost supernatural power urging human agents to discover truth and right wrongs – and indeed  a late novel bears the title Nemesis (1971).

With his distinguished academic background, Professor Black was able to place Christie firmly in both historical and cultural contexts. He pointed out that her earlier work was written when the moderate conservative Baldwin was in power, but also that Poirot’s famous analytical deductions are influenced by the work of Freud and Jung. He also suggested an alternative to the “Golden Age of Crime” idea, which limits her work to that of female genre writing, and pointed out that the fight between Good and Evil has been at the heart of literature since the story of Adam and Eve was conceived.

Professor Black was a delightfully entertaining speaker – for whatever reason, we all seem to have a real love of crime fiction, even if we sometimes strive to keep our addiction hidden!

 Anne Handsley

Elizabeth Lowry at the post-talk book signing.

The paperback edition of 'The Chosen' was published on the day of the talk.


On Thursday, 13th April 2023 

Review of a talk 'The Chosen'.

The craft of the biographical novelist was vividly brought to life in this well attended and fascinating WLS talk at the Town Hall when  Elizabeth Lowry explained the genesis of her latest novel The Chosen. How does the novelist add to the known facts and biographical detail of a writer like Thomas Hardy? For The Chosen is set in the aftermath of the death of Hardy’s first wife Emma and deals with Hardy’s profound reaction. The novel follows in the tradition of the biographical novel such as the Wolf Hall trilogy and Colm Toibin’s The Magician.

Elizabeth Lowry spoke of the novelist filling in the gaps between the known facts, and supplying the interior lives and the thoughts of the real characters by means of invention, something the literary biographer cannot do to the same extent.

The novel begins with Hardy, aged 72, surrounded by books, leading a largely separate life from his wife, he in his study and she upstairs. Then Emma dies, suddenly. Hardy is plunged into grief, regret and reflection, which is the spark for his wonderful poems of 1912/13 in which he works through his grief. Too late he realises what he has lost, that he has treated Emma complacently, ignored her. These poems are an outpouring of love poetry in which Hardy is looking for Emma incessantly and recording the whole arc of his feelings for her from courtship and bitterness to death and the rebirth of love.

In The Chosen known facts like the existence of Emma’s notebooks and diary, now lost, and Hardy’s meetings with Edmund Gosse are used as stepping off points for the fiction of what Hardy reads in the notebooks and diary and how Gosse helps him when he is struggling to finish Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

The speaker explained the poems as a way for Hardy, through writing, to speak to Emma. They are his way of saying what he could not say when she was alive because he understood the fictional women in his novels far better than he understood the real women and their needs in his own life.

When asked why she had taken on this subject Elizabeth Lowry said she wanted to talk about the writing life, to talk about marriage, and to take on the challenge of becoming, for a time, Thomas Hardy the writer, a daunting challenge but one in which I think she has succeeded.


Trevor Caldecott


On Saturday 18th March 2023.

Review of a talk 'The Last of the English: The Legend of Hereward the Wake'.

The legend of Hereward the Wake, based in recorded history but transmuting into folklore and legend, was the topic of this fascinating talk by Dr Eleanor Parker a lecturer in Medieval Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford, and author of The Last Children of Anglo-Saxon England (2022).


Dr Parker looked at the Norman conquest’s aftermath, the consequences on society, politics, language, and literature over the decades and reflected on how that generation experienced the invasion, did they rebel or adapt and survive.  How were they remembered and their stories subsequently retold.   


Hereward rebelled, repeatedly outsmarting the scornful Normans.  His story blends history with mythical legend and romance (comparisons are drawn with Robin Hood) and the re-tellings emphasised and coloured how we now view that period.  One of the few factual references to Hereward by name occurs in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles detailing the Siege of Ely in the 1070s.


Dr Parker’s stimulus for her research was a fascination with the generation of young people who lived through the Norman conquest, and lost their inheritances, one such was Hereward.


Hereward was the child of a minor landowner and grew up in the sparsely populated Lincolnshire fenlands, then a wetland area of marshes and rivers which regularly flooded and with monasteries founded on the islands of higher ground.  After troubled teens, Hereward set off on swashbuckling adventures at home and abroad.  On hearing of the invasion, he returned to Lincolnshire and embarked on revenge for the murder of his family, holding a personal grudge against the Normans. 

However, a growing mutual respect developed as Hereward accepted the Normans were here to stay. 


The stories of Hereward are perhaps a reflection of the mores prevailing at the time of the author.  From the Middle Ages to the present day there was romantic glamour about rebels who fought to the end but failed whilst the Victorians viewed him as a symbol of liberty and independence; Charles Kingsley referred to Hereward as The Last of the English, whilst others heralded him as the First Englishman.   


Hereward’s story is full of ‘What ifs’.  He was living through times when the English identity was under threat and stress and was held up as an emblem; he was wild, pure, untainted by outside influence.  His story perhaps reflects not what was lost but what was able to survive.


I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about a period of history I know so little about through such an entertaining and informative presentation.


Julia Johnson

Photo by Caroline Priday


On Saturday 18th February 2023.

Review of a talk 'Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers'.

The Society welcomed back Professor Emma Smith, the eminent Shakespeare scholar, to talk about her recent book Portable Magic, in which she considers the book as object and the unique ways in which we treat books. Professor Smith admitted to owning more books than she might ever read, and noted that no one finds anything shameful in this (whereas if she owned more shoes than she would ever wear we might start to wonder). Interestingly there is no VAT on books, but there is on e-books and audiobooks. The book has always been a special sort of object.

Books are, surprisingly, nearly 2,000 years old: the Roman poet Martial mentions them. Before that there were only scrolls, which had to be read in sequence. A book enabled the reader to dart about, skip passages or re-read passages at will: reading became a more creative experience.

During lockdown many of us held Zoom meetings with our books in the background, and these books told something about ourselves. The ‘shelfie’ became a portrait genre. But it isn’t actually new: in the seventeenth century Lady Anne Clifford had herself painted with fifty of her books in the background, their titles visible, conveying the image of herself that she wanted to project. More recently Marilyn Monroe had herself photographed reading the Molly Bloom section of Joyce’s Ulysses, to show herself as an intelligent and liberated woman.  

Many of us know how Allen Lane created the first English paperbacks because he couldn’t buy a cheap book for a long train journey. The US government created paperbacks for a different purpose, when America joined the Second World War, creating thousands of small-format paperbacks which soldiers could carry with them. Now, with paperbacks and e-books so widely available, there is a growing demand for beautifully produced editions of classic texts.

It was a fascinating talk which kept a large audience enthralled. It ended, however, on a worrying note: the growing self-censorship of publishers for political correctness.

Steven Bliss

Lingering fog - afternoon on The Causeway.

Linda makes introductions to a keen audience.

Illustration from Melanie's lively talk.


On Saturday 21st January 2023.

Review of a talk

'Rude, Crude and Lewd: The Literature of the English Spa'.

Melanie King's well-illustrated talk on the history and literature of spas provoked roars of laughter throughout.  Melanie reminded us to bear in mind the mores and politics of the time(s) as spas were a hot bed of shenanigans around gambling, promiscuous behaviour and ‘bashing’ the medical profession.


Spas originated from mineral wells with religious associations.  When Henry VIII broke with Catholicism he closed the wells citing them as a danger to health with water being taken in blind faith, with no scientific evidence of benefit.  Elizabeth I re-opened the wells but made them secular.  Visitors to the wells became more sexual during the reign of Charles II, as reflected in Thomas Rawlins’ comedy Tunbridge Wells; Or, A Day’s Courtship. Tunbridge Wells’ reputation tumbled, being referred to as ‘Cupid Wells’ and ‘The Wells of Scandal’. 


Debauchery in spas continued. Samuel Pepys hi-lighted health concerns, writing: ‘. . . methinks it cannot be clean to go so many bodies together in the same water’.  William and Mary’s determination to end the moral decline of society was perhaps timely.


Spas reached a golden age in the 1700s, inextricably linked with Bath and Richard “Beau” Nash, author of the blueprint of spa etiquette rules. Each spa produced miscellanies of poetry written anonymously by their own ‘Water Poets’.  Tobias Smollett was both a novelist, exposing the Spa vices of gambling and sexual exploitation by both sexes, and a medical man.  In 1752 he published An Essay on the external use of water attacking the medicinal properties of the waters in Bath, a city synonymous with Jane Austen, who featured the spa in Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Other authors referenced included George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott.


The old health spas disappeared with the introduction of the NHS when healthcare became widely accessible.  The modern equivalents are probably the more sedate beauty and massage parlours.  Being immersed in steamy spa life proved a great escape from the chilly Woodstock afternoon and an excellent launch to the 2023 programme.


Julia Johnson

Amanda Craig at the post-talk book signing.


On Saturday 26th November 2022.

Review of a talk 'The State of the Nation Novel'.

Amanda Craig gave us a fascinating in-depth talk. Novels are now labelled. 'The State of the Nation' genre is one that is not currently popular despite the fact that it has wide reaching plots that include crime, detection, mystery, love, law, medicine, marriage and, of course, money. The progenitor of the genre is Anthony Trollope, his novel The Way We Live Now was prompted by his disgust of the literary, political, social and financial life in Britain at the time, he saw himself as both an insider and an outsider coming as he did from a poor background. Then came Thackeray’s social comedy Vanity Fair and then George Eliot’s rich, subtle novel Middlemarch.

In the 1990’s The State of the Nation Novel re-emerged prompted by the mysterious death of the questionable financial Robert Maxwell, a Jew and an immigrant, a bully and a sycophant who can be likened to Trollope’s villain Melmotte. However, Craig questions his Jewishness and wonders if he was not so much considered a Jew as a foreigner, a European. More stories followed about financial scandals: Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up, Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December John Lanchester’s Capital, Tom Wolfe’s A Bonfire of the Vanities and Craig’s novel The Lie of the Land. All have money at their heart prompted by the inequality of rich and poor. Jonathan Coe’s Middle England was published during Brexit which gave rise to a national moral crisis. Craig’s own forthcoming The Three Graces’ deals with panic of the pandemic soon to be overshadowed by the war in Ukraine.

Key aspects of The State of the Nation' Novel are politics, economy and morality. The authors need “energy, inventiveness, sympathy, and plotting” and they “must balance comedy and tragedy, satire and sweetness, style and savagery” if they are not to be labelled as simply journalism.

She raises key questions. What is the purpose of a novel? Is it a warning, a catharsis, can it change anything? Can a novel help in times of trouble? Why it is that The State of the Nations Novel is often seen as simply urban? Why are the authors mostly white, middle-class men? Writing about the present day is not easy, we have no history books, nor biographies to draw upon - the news is not the answer.

We enjoyed and were stimulated by this wide raising and thought provocative talk.

Jan Lee


On Saturday, 22nd October 2022.

Review of a talk 'Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn’. 

Writer Ernest Hemingway famously said that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”  The audience at October’s meeting of the Woodstock Literature Society was able to hear the considered opinions of Dr David Grylls of Kellogg College, University of Oxford about this feted book and its author.


In a fascinating talk divided into three parts, Dr Grylls first gave the listeners a biographical overview of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, now known to all by his pen-name of Mark Twain. He then took us through points of interest in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn itself, always tying his comments back to the author, his background and life experiences. This included the need to take on board how Twain’s own views of the world in which he lived were shifting, and how the book set in the mid-1840s, written and published in the post American Civil War period, was able to use the hindsight that time shift provided. With apologies to any Americans in the audience confused by his improvised Missouri accent, Dr Grylls interspersed his presentation by reading both funny and moving excerpts, some of which were good examples of the “gross humour” complained about by early critics, but greeted by the audience with approving laughter! The third section of Dr Grylls’ talk focused on the “afterlife” of the book and its author, including the controversies which have surrounded it since it was published in 1884, as well as its undoubted legacy and lasting influence on literature and other media.


Although Dr Grylls concluded that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is uneven, with an unsatisfactory “light” end section, he acknowledged that this in no way detracts from its humour, pathos and ground-breaking aspects, one in particular being the use of local dialect speech forms for both the white and black characters.  The biographical and historical context provided by Dr Grylls, shows how Twain’s book reflects complex and changing social conditions in a text created by a complex and conflicted man who, like his character Huck, sought the approval of the genteel society whose conformity and constraints he abhorred.


Despite the onset of rain outside the venue, the tea, coffee and homemade ginger cake rounded off a very enjoyable afternoon.


Rebecca Vickers


On Thursday 22nd September 2022

Review of a talk 'Edith Wharton - novelist and legend'.

“America’s greatest woman novelist” was how Peter Kemp described Edith Wharton is his talk at The Town Hall.


Concentrating on The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence he explained with insight and enthusiasm why that was the case. He referred to the title of Wharton’s autobiography, A Backward Glance, as a summary of her fiction, harking back to the Gilded Age of 1870’s New York, the age of the Astors and the Vanderbilt, of leisured gentle folk contemptuous of new money. Edith Wharton was both an insider, born to wealth, and an outsider, considered unusual in her desire to read books. Europe became a magnet for and liberated her.


Before a rapt audience Peter Kemp contrasted The House of Mirth with The Custom of the Country, calling them companion pieces, the former telling of the story of the weak-willed Lily Bart’s downward progress and the latter dealing with the cynical, upward mobility of Undine Spragg. Both novels are written with Wharton’s trademark energy, and use mockery, nostalgia and ambiguity.


The Age of Innocence has the life of Newland Archer at its centre, a life stultified by old New York, from which he does not have the nerve to break away. Peter Kemp contrasted this novel with the novel Wharton was writing at the time of her death, The Buccaneers, about a group of young New York women seeking their fortunes overseas. They have the energy to break away that Archer does not. In her early work Wharton had imitated her friend Henry James but as she developed, she became more lucid, fast moving and accessible than him, going on to influence writers who followed her like Alison Lurie.


Peter Kemp’s talk was wide ranging, full of insight and as accessible as his subject, who is a writer to be explored and enjoyed.


Trevor Caldecott


On Wednesday 23rd June 2022

Review of a talk 'The Age of Johnson'.


It was a glorious mid-summer’s evening as we gathered at the Church for an outside party with strawberries and homemade shortcake before enjoying Dr Freya Johnston’s talk on Samuel Johnson, the most distinguished man of letters in English history.  Dr Johnston opened her talk referencing many of Dr Johnson’s well-known sayings in common use which appeal to and are quoted by a broad-church of causes and people as diverse as Bob Dylan, J K Rowling and Donald Trump.

Dr Johnston pointed out that the stereotyped image of Samuel Johnson also needs to be imagined together with a thick Birmingham accent.  Standing at 6ft, he struck contemporaries as a gigantic figure.  He did not enjoy good health, being deaf in one ear, blind in one eye and having partial sight in the other.  He had compulsive rituals, was prone to outbursts and facial tics, possibly indicative of Tourette’s syndrome, so perhaps a daunting figure to encounter.

Samuel Johnson gained a good early grounding in the literary world, growing up as the son of a bookseller he had a rich eclectic source of reading at home.  He tended to be an impulsive rather than a systematic reader and seldom finished a book.  He is quoted as saying ‘He who reads as a task will do him little good’.  However, there was also humour.  In an encounter with two old ladies, when they told him they were sorry there were no naughty words in his dictionary, he retorted ‘Oh, so you’ve been looking for them’.

Unfortunately, his time at Pembroke College, Oxford was curtailed by lack of funds.  However, knowing the value of education, Dr Johnson gained a teaching post at Market Bosworth Grammar School.  It was not a happy experience, Dr Johnson compared it to a prison under the control of Sir Wolstan Dixie.  Undeterred, in 1736 Dr Johnson set up his own school for young gentlemen.  Whilst he planned meticulously, Dr Johnson’s oddities of manner were disconcerting, proving a distraction and a source of merriment and ridicule and Edial Hall School only ever had a handful of pupils, perhaps the most notable being David Garrick, the influential theatre actor manager.

In 1738 Dr Johnson began his association with ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ as a jobbing journalist.  He was a prolific writer of essays reflecting on the range of experiences in society, from the poorest to the nobility.  His desire to educate was constant, as illustrated in his quote that ‘every author worth reading is a teacher’.  

Dr Johnston’s informative overview of the life and work of Dr Johnson showed how he became the most quoted English author - his writing is not period specific and every generation can relate to and find meaning in his text.

Julia Johnson


On Wednesday 18th May 2022.  

Review of a talk 'The Wife of Bath's Progeny'.

Professor Turner began her talk at the Church of St Mary Magdalene with a quotation from Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light in which the Wife of Bath is mentioned. A modern novelist assumed her readers knew who the character was and was using her to indicate what she might signify in Thomas Cromwell’s world. That this character can span the centuries suggests she is part of our cultural fabric.

In a wide ranging and fascinating talk Professor Turner went on to examine why the Wife of Bath has such an impact and to illustrate how her character has developed and been used by writers since Chaucer. She pointed out that Alison is the first middle aged, middle class, sexually active woman, in fact the first ordinary woman in English Literature.

There have been many reinventions of the Wife of Bath and Professor Turner guided her audience through examples ranging from 1600 to the 21st Century. The first was an early 17th Century ballad, rewritten and republished in 1632, and on each occasion suppressed by the authorities, uncomfortable with the Wife’s propensity to argue against authority. Each version of the ballad had to be toned down to make the text more acceptable.

Then came the 18th Century rewritings by Dryden and Pope, both finding the original Wife too licentious and cutting the Wife’s Prologue and Tale, removing sexual references, and generally making the text less interesting, less daring.

The 20th Century interestingly produced the more misogynistic reinventions according to Professor Turner, including Pasolini’s 1972 film and Vera Chapman’s novel. Both reveal a discomfort with the Wife’s character, the novel converting her to a more familiar heroine.

The most interesting ‘new’ Wife of Bath however is the most recent, Zadie Smith’s play The Wife of Willesden. Here the Wife is of Jamaican heritage, living in north-west London and her tale is set in 18th Century Jamaica. The play is written in iambic pentameter and this Wife’s world reflects Chaucer’s world - that of immigrant London, a multicultural environment, not a mono cultural, white world. Smith draws out elements already to be found in Chaucer’s world.

Professor Turner concluded that both Wives are performers and in control, and that this most modern version of the Wife is a reflection of how much the Wife of Bath is a living text and a living character. The evening certainly brought home how universal are Chaucer’s pilgrims and how relevant to our lives today.


Trevor Caldecott


On Tuesday 26th April 2022.

Review of a talk 'Shakespeare's Actresses on the Victorian Stage'.

Long-anticipated, postponed from 2020, I was immediately caught up in Dr Duncan’s excellent talk in St Hugh’s Hall.  Born in Stratford-upon-Avon to parents who met at the RSC, Dr Duncan’s passion for Shakespeare shone through as the talk started with an overview of how Shakespeare’s status grew in the 19th century when he became a national playwright as never before.  The popularity of his plays resulted in English and Irish actresses becoming more widely known.  The core interests of his plays mirrored those in society, it was the right time and place to discuss what a woman’s role in society should be, and all sections of the population throughout the country were doing just that.  Dr Duncan focused on three actresses who re-imagined Shakespeare’s heroines as idols of domestic virtue or an inspiration for the suffragettes (many well-known actresses supported the suffrage movement and formed the Actresses Suffragette Movement).


Madge Kendal, astonishingly the twenty-second child of an acting dynasty, was self-effacing working with her husband William Hunter Grimston whilst being the driving force of the partnership.  She was highly regarded by George Bernard Shaw and was the first actor to perform for the widowed Queen Victoria, by Royal request, at Osborne House.  At a time when it was not considered appropriate for women to act, Madge Kendal expressed her view that there was nothing better to do, it provided a good earning (a potential of earning £41/£54,000 per annum in today’s money) giving the blessedness of independence.  She was so focused on her acting she couldn’t understand her mother’s dismay when she married in the morning and was on stage in the afternoon as Rosalind in As You Like It, opposite her new husband as Orlando.  At a time when there was cultural distrust of theatrical emotion, seeing real life married couples gave a sense of respectability, prolonged romantic scenes became more acceptable, and were popular with the audience.


Ellen Terry was born into an acting family and first trod the boards as a child.  Ellen Terry in Macbeth seemed casting against type when Sarah Siddons had made the role of Lady Macbeth her own.    Ellen Terry’s portrayal was more of seduction than bullying Macbeth, a siren rather than a virago. Notes in her prompt book show Ellen believed Victorian women did do crimes for their men and being a good wife required being a bad woman – contrary to Victorian sensibilities.  It was noted that the Jack the Ripper killings were gripping the nation at the time of the production.


Lillah McCarthy was a committed socialist and suffragette, attending rallies, selling their papers and with her striking beauty was far from the public perception of an actress’ characteristics.  The treatment of Hermione, imprisoned in The Winter’s Tale reflected the suffragette struggle when prosecuted women endured brutal treatment in prison.  Esme Beringer played Paulina who with her militant spirit epitomized the power the suffragettes wanted.  Shakespeare’s 17th century text was as fresh to the suffragettes as if it had been written specifically for them.  It was not unusual for suffragette banners to be unfurled in the auditorium during the intervals, which must have made things lively!


In conclusion, all three women were accomplished trail blazers, each making money from both acting and writing, entering high culture academic debates.  The fact that modern audiences are used to seeing productions which speak directly to the politics of the day in a very real way is largely down to the Victorian actresses.


Julia Johnson


On Saturday 5th March 2022.

Review of a talk 'The Bookseller of Florence'.

The Florence of the Renaissance was the setting for Dr. King’s talk at St Hugh’s Centre, and Vespasiano da Bisticci, ‘the prince of booksellers’ was at its heart.

Before describing Vespasiano’s life and work Dr King provided an attentive audience with an answer to the question ‘why Florence?’ Why was there such an intellectual flowering of the Arts in this Tuscan town in the 15th Century and why did Florence come to be known as the Athens on the Arno? Part of the answer lay in the very high (70%) literacy rate and the fact that after the wreckage of the 14th Century scholars and intellectuals in Florence had become increasingly interested in the Greek philosophers and the Latin texts of writers such as Cicero. The citizens of the town actively participated in its governance and wanted knowledge of subjects not taught by the Church - patriotism, liberty, equality, duty, citizenship. Europe was scoured for old texts in Greek, Latin and Hebrew which could then be translated for modern use.

This is where Vespasiano came in. Born in 1422 and having grown up in poverty, at the age of 11 he went to work for a bookseller in the Via dei Librai, where there were a number of other booksellers, and ended his career as the favourite bookseller of Cosimo de Medici and the Duke of Urbino. Dr King explained how he found the ancient works of the Greek and Latin writers and produced beautifully illustrated modern versions for his clients, effectively creating their libraries for them. Each book was expensive and time consuming to prepare. His clients, including Pope Nicholas V, King Alphonso of Naples, the Duke of Worcester and Cosimo, were not the kindest of men but they lavished money on book creating, and through Vespasiano saved the ancient texts.

Vespasiano would have no truck with the printing press, and with its advent he retired, his work done. The books he produced became scattered throughout Europe, a fitting epitaph for the 11 year old who had started out as a lowly assistant to a bookseller.

Dr. King brought the Renaissance to life in his illustrated talk and shone a light on an often ignored element of that rich artistic era.

Trevor Caldecott


On Saturday 19th February 2022.

Review of a talk 'George Eliot: Naming Novels and Choosing Endings'.

Novelists have the twin problems of choosing a title and writing an ending. Even George Eliot, as Professor Rosemary Ashton vividly and thoughtfully explained to a full audience at St Mary’s Church for the second of our 2022 talks.

After reviewing the author’s life from her birth in Nuneaton to her death in London Professor Ashton illustrated the difficulties of title and ending by referring to The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch. The first problem, that of the title, can be dealt with by naming the book after the main protagonist, as Eliot did in Adam Bede. If the story follows the development of that character, their learning and the living of their life, why not use the name? In the case of The Mill on the Floss, the obvious title would have been ‘Maggie Tulliver’. However George Eliot’s aim in writing novels was to range widely over individuals and society, developing an imaginative telling of truth and inviting readers to recognise our shared humanity with even dislikeable characters. She wanted to enter into the hearts and minds of her characters, to make them rounded not flat, and using two provisional titles, ‘Sister Maggie’ and ‘The House of Tulliver’ simply did not fully reflect the broad sweep of the novel. They fitted the early chapters on Maggie’s childhood and the concluding chapters, but not the rest. Also ‘The House of Tulliver’, hinting at the tragic, was too pessimistic an ending. The dramatic drowning is certainly tragic but the actual ending is quieter, more hopeful.

The alternative title to an individual’s name, using a place, was, Professor Ashton suggested, more appropriate here, reflecting the novels panoramic study of time, place and individuals.

By contrast Middlemarch was the title of that novel from the outset. When Eliot started writing the main character was Lydgate, the new doctor in the Midlands town in the ‘middle’ of the country. When she began writing a new story ‘Miss Brooke’ Eliot was inspired to combine the two strands to form the novel we have today, the ‘web of interrelationships, personal and professional’ which Eliot narrates. The place name as title is the only possibility here. As for the ending, despite the author wanting to reward the characters she admired and punish others, Professor Ashton reminded us that neither Lydgate nor Dorothea succeeded with their plans and the ending is pessimistic with no sense of progress. The Finale is ambivalent, full of negatives and positives.

The titles of both novels work and the endings, despite the drowning, are rooted in the realism George Eliot favoured over the romantic. In the words of our speaker, George Eliot runs “the whole gamut - tragedy, comedy, pessimism, optimism.”

Trevor Caldecott


On Saturday, 15th January 2022.

Review of a talk 'Berlin, Spies and Women's Lives'.

An eager audience filled the St Hugh’s Hall for the launch of our 2022 programme, which got off to a flying start with Jane Thynne’s illustrated talk on the background to writing ‘Widowland’ and her fascination with Berlin, which had been a magnet to authors such as John Le Carre, Len Deighton, Richard Harris and Christopher Isherwood.  Jane observed the majority of spy stories featured a male lead and she particularly wanted to create a female protagonist, and so began the series of ‘Clara Vine’ spy thrillers set in Nazi Germany, under the pen-name C J Carey.  Jane said how as a journalist, with the ingrained discipline of writing fact-based pieces, it seemed counterintuitive to write fantastical ‘what if’ fiction.


Jane was keen to look at the lives of women in Germany and her meticulous research threw up some interesting surprises.  A woman wanting to marry into the SS had to attend a six-week residential ‘Bride School’ which included tuition on good motherhood. Hitler was concerned about the low birth rate and created The Reich Fashion Bureau, a garment industry (to be free of Jews, who at the time formed 98% of the textile trade), designed to release women from the constraints of the 1920s designs, favouring loser clothing and showing women how to look German.  Hitler proved popular amongst women, receiving more fan letters than The Beetles and The Rolling Stones put together!


Jane explored the status of the top SS officers’ wives and how far they were complicit in their husband’s actions.  As an actress Emmy Goering was able to arrange the escape of Jews by liaising with a director based in Vienna, who got 34 Jews to safety. However, Lina Heydrich was more Nazi than her husband.  Eva Braun was described by Albert Speer as ‘the unhappiest woman in Europe’. She was a modern woman, a keen photographer, enjoyed cine-filming and hoped to be an actress but Hitler kept her hidden away.  An awful instance of the personal becoming political was when Hitler banished Joseph Goebbels from his inner circle for the way he treated his wife.  When Goebbels determined to devise a plan to please Hitler and regain his favoured position, the result was Kristallnacht. 


In ‘Widowland’ we are introduced to Rose Ransom.  The story imagines an alternative history had there been an alliance between the United Kingdom and Germany with King Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson ruling a protectorate of Greater Germany.


In conclusion, Jane stressed how important it is to look at the ‘what if’ as dystopian novels are written as a warning as to what might lie ahead if we do not take care of our standards and values and guard against extremism.


There was an unexpected treat for the audience in the Question and Answer session when Jane generously said she would give a complimentary copy of ‘Widowland’ to the person who asked the most interesting question.


I’m now looking forward to spending my Christmas book token on ‘Wonderland’, which promises to be a good read!

Julia Johnson


On Saturday, 4 December 2021.

Review of a talk on Tom Stoppard.

A large audience attended the Society’s final talk of 2021, given by Professor Dame Hermione Lee, a distinguished biographer whose authorised biography of Stoppard has been widely praised. Her talk was extremely well received. She began by quoting Stoppard – ‘What’s the first thing you remember?’ – and saying that for him it was being a three year old Czech boy in Singapore. His mother’s eventual remarriage made him a British citizen, for which he was always grateful. 

Dame Hermione argued that Stoppard’s work was a rare combination of three features: language, feeling and knowledge. The brilliance of Stoppard’s language is well known – it came from multiple redrafts. So is the arcane knowledge he plays with (Dame Hermione said that working on the plays was a constant process of self-education). Feeling was less obvious originally, when Stoppard was seen as an apolitical dandy, but it was always there, and is very strongly there in his latest play Leopoldstadt

It took Dame Hermione six years to write her biography, and it involved long conversations with Stoppard. Despite his view that ‘Biography adds a new terror to death’, he wanted this biography to get things right - or as right as they can be for a man who can make himself invisible while showing off. 

Steven Bliss

Photo by Anthony Glees


On Saturday, 13 November 2021.

Review of a talk on V.S. Naipaul.

On a grey November afternoon members and guests of the Woodstock Literature Society were miraculously transported to the brighter world of both colonial and post-colonial Trinidad by Dr William Ghosh, a passionate admirer of the novels of V.S.Naipaul.  However, as Dr Ghosh demonstrated in his panoramic overview of Caribbean writing and Naipaul’s place in this context, this world was every bit as diverse, divided, and complex as our own. Naipaul’s own heritage bears this out: he was the grandson of indentured Indian workers, brought to Trinidad to work on the sugar plantations after the abolition of slavery required new sources of labour. These Indians were an isolated rural population living a segregated life, separated from both the white colonial rulers and the mainstream Black population. Naipaul’s abiding sense of alienation stems from this background. A highly competitive school system (in which the highest –achieving school students were more well-read in European literature than most contemporary Oxbridge undergraduates) helped Naipaul on his way to a scholarship to University College, Oxford, a lifetime of writing, and ultimately to the Booker Prize in 1971 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. Dr Ghosh, in a multi-layered talk, discussed his novels from the early tragi-comic A House for Mr Biswas through to the later masterpiece A Bend in the River.  Symbolically, the bend in the river at the end of that novel prevents the writer and reader alike from having a view of the past and the future. The novelist asks us to reflect on the formation of subjectivity, in a landscape of many intersecting worlds. Barack Obama once remarked that the three writers who had most influenced him were Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, and V.S.Naipaul: this talk gave us great insights into the sheer importance of Naipaul.

Linda Glees


Professor Mullan at the post-talk book signing.


On Saturday, 16 October 2021.

Review of a talk 'The Artful Dickens: the Tricks and Ploys of the great Novelist'.

The society was delighted to welcome back Professor John Mullan, whose 2020 book The Artful Dickens won glowing reviews (it is now out in paperback). Professor Mullan began by reminding us that Dickens is best when read aloud, and the passages he read so powerfully to us proved that.


Dickens has always been popular (too popular for some of his fellow-writers) but we often miss what a good writer he is, and that was what Professor Mullan came to show us. Dickens entertains, but he is also sophisticated, daring and strange. He is also one of the great comic writers, even at moments of great sadness, such as when David Copperfield is told that his mother has died while his ghastly headmaster stops a sigh ‘with a large piece of buttered toast’.


Dickens wrote copiously and quickly, but he planned carefully how his novels would work in serial publication, and he re-wrote until he got the maximum effect, with brilliant images such as (from Bleak House) mud ‘accumulating at compound interest’ and Lincolns Inn ‘in the valley of the shadow of the law’. His prose can convey the feeling of being drunk, or of waking up after opium (in the unfinished Edwin Drood, described as ‘Barchester Towers on acid’!). Professor Mullan summed up by saying that Dickens ‘writes brilliantly by writing in a way you’re not supposed to.’

Steven Bliss


On Saturday, 2 October 2021.

Review of a talk 'The Contradictions of Thomas Mann'.


Thomas Mann’s statement “where I am, there is Germany” is an indication of both his place in German literature and his own sense of worth, and Professor Louth’s wide ranging and entertaining talk in the Town Hall ably explained the man and his work.

Concentrating on Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice and Doctor Faustus Professor Louth emphasised the strong autobiographical element in his work, comparing Mann’s own family of businessmen with the Buddenbrooks family, and talked of Mann’s precisely textured world, his shaping of his subject matter to produce a work of art enhancing the reader’s knowledge of life. He offered Buddenbrooks as a good starting point for the reader new to Mann, the novel not depending on characters producing long monologues as in other works.

Death in Venice also draws on Mann’s own life and the contradiction between the outer public figure and inner repressed desire. The novel tells of the character Aschenbach’s obsession with a boy encountered on holiday in Venice, reflecting an incident in Mann’s own life when he too became infatuated with a boy while on holiday in the same city. Professor Louth pointed out that during his lifetime the author’s latent homosexuality remained hidden , and only with the posthumous publication of his diaries did this aspect of his character become clear. He lived a life of contradiction and his work reflects that. He produced novels of ideas, intricate, full of references to music, and subtle vehicles for the transmission of his views on German culture.

Professor Louth took his audience on a tour of a complex and complicated man whose understanding and depiction of art, desire and Germany are as relevant now as when the novels were published.

Trevor Caldecott



On Thursday, 16 September 2021.

Review of a talk 'Philip Roth in Retrospect'


Excitement overrode feelings of trepidation as I set off for the re-launch of the WLS lecture programme.  The bells of the Parish Church rang out a clarion call as the audience were welcomed in to hear Dr Hayes give a lively and thought-provoking talk on Philip Roth.  Dr Hayes opened with a reflection of how the recent past has impacted society with a rising of the moral temperature, people have become angrier and more self-righteous, holding others to account by Twitter feed.

Whilst Roth was admired by a wide audience in his lifetime, in seeking to re-educate us, saying we should not be ashamed of ourselves as human beings and learn not to be embarrassed by human life, and accept our condition is a difficult task, his provocative writing ruffled many feathers.  His work was avoided by Academic Literature Departments, and he was snubbed by the Nobel committee.

Dr Hayes illustrated his points with reference to three key works: ‘Sabbath’s Theater’, ‘Patrimony’ and ‘The Human Stain’, which he considered has the greatest deathbed scene in a novel having a resonance to the finale in Henry James’ ‘Portrait of a Lady’.  There was a lively Q&A following the talk before Linda eloquently expressed what I’m sure we all felt, thanking Dr Hayes for his steadfastness, coming to speak to us two years after agreeing to give a talk, bringing us back into the world of thought and ideas.

Julia Johnson


On Saturday, 29th February 2020.  

Review of a talk 'Burning Man: Tales of DH Lawrence'.

"D H Lawrence was cancelled in 1970". So began Dr. Frances Wilson in her talk on Lawrence for Woodstock Literature Society at the Town Hall.

Dr Wilson explained the effect on Lawrence’s reputation of Kate Millett’s 1970 book Sexual Politics and the failure of that reputation to revive. She told a rapt audience of her own furtive reading of Lawrence when a teenager and put forward with some passion her view that Lawrence’s novels are the least interesting of his works, his power lying rather in his poetry and nonfiction. She described a writer faithful to his own contradictions: he was a modernist and yet prone to nostalgia; an intellectual who disavowed the intellect; and one who believed in the body while slowly dying from tuberculosis.

Dr. Wilson is writing a new biography of Lawrence which she wants to shape around the entire man, not just the novelist. She believes F R Leavis destroyed Lawrence placing the novels at the centre when his work included poetry, travel writing, short stories, plays, letters, book reviews and essays. The new biography, covering the years 1915 to 1925, acknowledges the influence of Dante and is divided into 3 sections: Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. It will also pursue 3 elements in Lawrence: his thinking in symbols and his identification with Christ; the two people in Lawrence, the vital, magical man and the human tannoy spouting his own view; and his sense of destiny, his Phoenix like rising from the ashes.

The talk was highly entertaining and at times the room rang with laughter. If the biography is half as good it will be a bestseller.

Trevor Caldecott


On Saturday, 25th January 2020.

Review of a talk 'Jane Austen, her Work, Life and Afterlife'.

We were delighted to welcome Dr David Grylls, an old friend of the WLS, to Woodstock Town Hall for the first talk in our new year. One could have thought it probably impossible for anyone to cast a new, fresh light and inspire added enthusiasm for this much loved, researched and discussed author.  But that is exactly what Dr David Grylls gave us in his fascinating talk.

Beginning with an overview of Jane's life, describing the very restricted circle of family (many of her male relatives were clergymen) and social milieu, a life with no striking incidents, no great love affairs, spent as a member of the middle-of-the-road 'upper gentry', a world of very limited aspirations for women, he described her education and wide reading.  

It was interesting to hear about her youthful writings, the 'Juvenalia', where even as a child of about eleven, she revealed the trademark wit, the wish to parody, which developed into the use of apparently objective narrative, lightly covering her searing irony.  The acute psychological insight and humour were evident even at that stage.  Dr. Grylls then discussed Austen’s work, examining the different types of hero and heroine, the recurrent themes - primarily what makes a good husband!  And in true 'Jane' style, she regarded integrity and honesty as the primary requirements, with physical appearance being fourth on the list.

Pointing out the criticisms of Jane Austen - a writer of the head, not the heart, devoid of great passion, the stiff upper lip concealing a snob, Dr. Grylls awakened us to the exhilarating nature of the razor-sharp clarity underlying all she wrote, the 'cauldron bubbling beneath the surface'.  Jane deliberately limited the scope of her writing, to give her work accuracy, integrity, sticking to what she knew. The accuracy of the close-ups didn’t need the variety of a wider range.  Jane parodied superficial social manners to show her belief that the underlying morality was what mattered, hardly the view of a snob.

The talk concluded with a list of the many and varied prequels, sequels, satires and skits of Austen's work in modern culture - some of them hugely amusing, some really 'off the wall', and Dr. Grylls' view that Austen is  'a miniaturist who conquers the world, a regional writer with global appeal'.  I imagine most of the audience left to go straight back to the novels, to read and enjoy anew.   

Wendy Ralph


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


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


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


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 focusing 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

Our speakers arrive/audience in anticipation.

In animated conversation.

A teatime treat awaits.

The Woodstock Literature Society's 10th Anniversary Event

On Saturday, 11th May 2019. 

Review of Michael Billington in Dialogue with Peter Kemp   

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


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


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

Professor Leader.

An attentive audience in the Town Hall.


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


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 focusing 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


On Saturday, 17th November 2018.  

Review of a talk 'Flaubert's 'Madam Bovary':  The Great 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


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


On Wednesday 19th September 2018.  

Review of a talk '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 focused 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


On Wednesday 13th June 2018.  

Review of a talk '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


On Thursday 17th May 2018.  

Review of a talk 'The Uncommercial Traveller:  Stories by Charles Dickens'. 

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


On Thursday 19th April 2018.  

Review of a talk 'The Memory of Trees'. 

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


On Wednesday 21st March 2018.  

Review of a talk '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


On Saturday 24th February 2018. 

Review of a talk 'Seamus Heaney'. 

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


On Saturday 27th January 2018.

Review of a talk 'Saki, the Master Story-Teller'. 

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


On Tuesday 24th October 2017.

Review of a talk 'Russian Literature and the 1917 Revolution’. 

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, focusing 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.



On Saturday 25th November 2017.

Review of a talk 'Thomas Hardy, the Novelist'.

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 '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