The Poetry of Elizabeth Siddall

Di9zm8fX0Ac28-5Over 20 years ago, when I was doing an MA, I came across some poems by Elizabeth Siddall (1829-1862). I spent a lot of time reading them and thinking about them, and decided I’d like to produce an academic edition. Today, that book has been published with Victorian Secrets and I am SO excited! It’s available on Amazon here.

Siddall’s poetry was something she kept to herself. She is, of course, much better known as the Pre-Raphaelite muse, model for Millais’s Ophelia and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and increasingly the significance of her paintings has also been recognised. Her poems were less acknowledged, however. Her brother-in-law, William Michael Rossetti, became the keeper of the Pre-Raphaelite flame and published her poems in magazines such as the Burlington in the early 20th century, but he edited them, tidying them up, altering punctuation, changing words and omitting stanzas. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years in the archives at the Ashmolean working with Siddall’s awful handwriting, trying to reconstruct the poems as she wrote them. The book also includes fragments not previously published. The effect is much less polished than published poetry usually is, but I think it offers her authentic voice, a voice which is usually overshadowed by her face in the many paintings of her. The poems are few, but they are significant. The book also includes notes on each poem, and an introduction that indicates some of the wider context in which we might read Siddall’s poetry, considering her as a poet in  her own right rather than just as a beautiful adjunct to Pre-Raphaelitism.

I’m having a launch party on September 28th at the Birmingham & Midland Institute in central Birmingham, which is free to attend and all are welcome. Details available here – do come and celebrate with me!

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The Library of Birmingham

20130904-031355-PM.jpgAs I’m sure you will know, the new Library of Birmingham opened yesterday, amid much press fanfare and a lovely opening speech by Malala Yousafzai, the text of which you can read here. I am partial to a good library, so I went along to have a look, and I must admit I was impressed. I spent many hours in the old library, and the contrast is amazing: the light and open space of this library is remarkable, and I hope will prove inspiring to those who visit it. Spread across nine floors, the Library is reaching for the sky, both metaphorically and literally. The view from the terrace is wonderful, and the design on the outside casts beautiful shadows across the interior.

I didn’t have time to explore as much as I would have liked, but will return again and again, I think, and am looking forward to researching there. From the lending library, with comfortable chairs to encourage readers to relax and browse, to the desks and private study rooms dotted around the upper floors for those needing to work, it is a space which seems to encourage intellectual activity. Trave20130904-031301-PM.jpglling up through the building on a travelator, one is surrounded by enormous circles of books (based on the British Library’s space) and pieces of specially-commissioned art, and the effect is awe-inspiring. Yet, as my colleague said, it is both vast and intimate as a space, which seems appropriate for a library (I could draw parallels between the boundless limits and yet personal voice of books, and the space of the library, but perhaps this is taking it too far!)

The building is a great example of what a library might be: focused on books but also on learning and culture in a wider sense, perhaps aided by the building’s incorporation of the Rep Theatre. The children’s section includes ‘Middle Earth’, as well as a Chill-out Lounge and Beatbox, while upper floors include an art gallery and film-viewing booths, as well as a café and the Shakespeare Memorial Room, reconstructed to match the original room with elaborate ornamentation, and a fascinating range of Shakespearean collections. The Library is running a great range of events to make the most of their remarkable facilities.

Of course, the crucial question is what it will be like as a space in which to study, research and write. The reference collections there are good, and I often recommended students to visit the old library for this reason, and with the help of the floor plan and the online catalogue it shouldn’t be difficult to find things. The spaces for study include private rooms and public tables, as well as the balcony where one can read and relax, and I am looking forward to returning.

20130904-031400-PM.jpgBirmingham has for so long had a bad reputation, for a lack of culture (quite undeserved, with the Rep and other theatres, Symphony Hall and other concert venues, the Museum and Art Gallery, and of course several universities) but this Library should show how serious Birmingham is about learning and culture. It is a monument to the benefits of culture, just as the Victorian museums and other public buildings were – a statement of intent from the council and people of Birmingham that a high priority should be placed on the education, culture and pleasure of the inhabitants. It is also even more significant: Malala said in her speech that world peace can be developed through reading; books are a weapon in the war against terrorism. The more one reads, the more one understands, and Malala is right: through books lie the path to mutual, cross-cultural understanding.

World Book Night

whatisworldbooknightApril 23rd is now not only St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday, it has also been, for the last 2 years, World Book Night. The idea behind World Book Night is basically to encourage those who love books and reading to inspire others around them with that love. Consequently, one can apply to be a ‘giver’, and is then given a box of books (you can choose a book you love from a list of 20) to give out. I like the idea of inspiring others about literature (after all, that is my job), and I have relished the opportunity to give out copies of books I have enjoyed (for me, this was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the first WBN year; I Capture the Castle last year, and The Eyre Affair this year).

The Eyre Affair seems to me to be the ideal book for WBN. Jasper Fforde’s books are sort-of sci-fi, but set in a world where literature is taken very seriously indeed, as it should be. The book blurb says : ‘There is another 1985, somewhere in the could-have-been, where the Crimean war still rages, dodos are regenerated in home-cloning kits and everyone is deeply disappointed by the ending of ‘Jane Eyre’. In this world there are no jet-liners or computers, but there are policemen who can travel across time, a Welsh republic, a great interest in all things literary – and a woman called Thursday Next.’  In this alternative world, then, there is a detective called Thursday, who features in several of Fforde’s books, and so in theory this is a detective novel. But in fact, Fforde’s marvellous and infectious style of writing covers a huge range of ideas, genres, characters and concepts: he plays with the text, with intertextuality, wthe_eyre_affairith the idea of reading and how we react to it (for example, getting lost inside a poem – literally, and characters who can jump from one book to another). What I like most about Fforde’s books, however, is the idea that literature is the most important thing in the world: it drives everything – politics, relationships, technology, even war. The unquestioning acceptance that books are so important that they touch every aspect of our lives is very appealing to me, and I am looking forward to giving out my copies of the book (though not until tomorrow, sadly, as I’m sick today).

Like last year, I’m planning to give my books out mostly to mothers of young children. It can be difficult to make time to read with babies or toddlers around, but the right book demands to be read and draws the reader in, so I hope that this one will do just that and give some new mums a break from childcare. This is important not only because reading as escapism is often a very healthy thing, but also because children of reading parents are more likely to become keen readers themselves. So World Book Night is not just about giving out some books: it’s about encouraging present and future readers, celebrating our reading culture, and also supporting our libraries and bookshops. Go and read a book now!

The Man Booker Prize 2012

On Tuesday 16th October, the winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced. The shortlist is an exciting one, and has not been without controversy. The Chair of the judging panel, Peter Stothard, has upset some book-bloggers by suggesting that criticism is best left to the critics; and it’s clear that this year’s shortlist is a change from last year’s more populist list – this year’s judges  have made it clear they prioritise literary strengths such as the innovative use of language and the power of prose over mere plot. In some ways I agree with this, although it’s impossible, of course, to separate brilliant plotting from outstanding writing, and the two often go hand in hand.

Still, I love that, for a few weeks, bitching about books is in the headlines; you can bet on your favourite, the authors appear on the radio and in magazines, there is controversy and debate, you can watch videos in which people root for a particular book (see here) and, well, books are hot for a while. I wish it was like this all the time, because, whether you’re a professional critic or someone who just likes to read, books are important, and the fuss around the Booker Prize shows us just how much people care.

I’m pleased to say that I have managed to read and review all six shortlisted books: Narcopolis; Swimming Home; Bring up the Bodies; Umbrella; The Lighthouse and The Garden of Evening Mists. They all have their strengths, though it’s not quite the shortlist I would have preferred, but I’m glad to have taken the time to read them all and consider their merits; I’ve learned a lot from the experience that I would otherwise have missed, and it makes the wait until the announcement of the winner much more exciting. I’ve taken something different from all of them, and they are all the kind of books which stay in your mind and benefit from slow reflection. My favourites are Bring up the Bodies and Umbrella, I think, which is annoying as those are the bookies’ favourites and I would rather have gone for something different. But in narrative style, amazing, transportative prose, novelistic structure and breadth of subject matter, those are the top two for me. Although I probably enjoyed Mantel’s book slightly more, if I had to pick my favourite to win, it would be Umbrella, because I was blown away by the prose, the casual allusiveness, the relationship of style and theme. It’s certainly the most literary of the six, though probably the least accessible. I await the announcement with bated breath – who’s your money on?