It happened on such an inauspicious day that I feel a little reticent to express appreciation, or indeed celebration, but I must!
Firstly, I will thank the delegates for making it from all points of the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States. There were three who sadly fell foul of modern travel, facing cancelled flights from Spain and illness picked up on the plane journey from New Zealand. It is sad that they missed it and we missed their papers. But of those who arrived finally in sunny Hull (yes we arranged a sunny day to be cooped up in a darkened room!), they all took part in a great event.
A really pleasing feature was the range of people who signed up to attend, including five professors, several eminent academics, early career researchers, and PhD candidates. A welcome presence was a contingent from the Hull Women’s Literary Club, which fulfilled very admirably the wider public engagement criteria so much sought in Universities. I know they contributed freely to the day and took much away from it. What is more, we welcomed alumnae including a former member of the Hull band Red Guitars (bass player Lou Duffy-Howard), wearing a very different hat!
The tone of the day was set by the Keynote speakers, Mary Joannou and Gill Plain, whose work in the period has been groundbreaking and wide-reaching. They began and ended the day with fine talks, giving a personal take on the significance of this often under represented period of women’s writing.
The quality and range of the papers was remarkable, but with the usual frustration at conferences of having to make a choice between panels. The day began with an unashamedly Hull re-connection, however ‘tenuous and frivolous’, with fascinating aspects of the work of Stevie Smith and Winifred Holtby.
From here on the papers took off in diverse directions, each panel designated its own “Re” word headings, and all contributing to a re-reading and re-interpretation of women’s writing of the mid-twentieth century. A number of writers, unknown even to this special gathering, were highlighted and shown to be deserving of broader recognition. Not unexpectedly, writing before, from and about Second World War featured strongly, with little-known names like Edith Pargeter, Nancy Spain, Eileen Bigland. There was a focus on the queer writing of Katharine Burdekin, Dorothy Strachey, and lesser-known aspects of Vita Sackville-West’s career were showcased.
A more familiar name whose writing represents the broader geographical and personal experiences of the war was Olivia Manning, whose televised trilogies finally brought her more popular acclaim in 1987.
The postwar period also had its place and delegates were intrigued to discover Barbara Comyns’ idiosyncratic style in tandem with the much better known work of Iris Murdoch. Importantly in a women’s writing forum, an examination of the domestic and how it impinges on not only feminine but masculine anxieties found an interesting place.
The question of whether we can still call Elizabeth Taylor ‘undervalued’ was raised in a panel dedicated to her. A range of approaches and expanding potential for study was revealed as testimony to the growing appreciation of her fiction.
No assembly of mid-century women’s writing would be complete without Virginia Woolf, but the papers in this panel approached her reputation and interpreted her work from different critical angles. The absence of women authors other than Woolf from the canon, and hence from widespread academic study was explored in a panel that also suggested innovative ways of interpreting her work.
There was room, too, for the historical fiction of Mary Stewart, and the sadly little known political activist, campaigner and poet, Claudia Jones in a broadly based selection which furthermore explored the difficulties of the creative re-imagining of what might be called ‘neo-interwar’ writing for the twenty-first century.
A welcome addition to the scrutiny of fiction came with the examination of new manifestations of femininity and the domestic in women’s magazines, in autobiographies and in ‘fashion writing’.
The keynotes bookending the day admirably anticipated and re-iterated much of this diversity and left everyone wanting more!
Such a range of presentations surely does deserve some permanent inscription and maybe there will have to be a publication to record the work of the participants…
One question RE-mains: Who will put on a RE-peat conference next year?