Five carefully selected events to listen to authors whose books I have read and loved, and as a consequence I've done three trips across Dartmoor, three hundred miles in a matter of days, and in some very unseasonal weather. Torrential rain on the seaward side of high Dartmoor is certainly not an unusual occurrence but it never ceases to amaze me how I often descend into brilliant sunshine on the other side.
But Dartington hasn't been spared the inclement weather this year and it creates an entirely different atmosphere at a festival that usually sees people basking in the sun on the courtyard green. I'm sure there's been plenty of that too but not on St Swithun's Day, so that's us done for now.
So off I pootled yesterday, with Woman's Hour on the radio, to hear Lyndall Gordon talking about her recent biography Lives Like Loaded Guns - Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds and I wasn't disappointed.
As a Fellow of St Hilda's College, Oxford there can be little doubt that Lyndall Gordon is one of our foremost literary biographers, she already has Charlotte Bronte, TS Eliot, Henry James, Virginia Woolf and Mary Wollstonecraft tucked under her belt, her work is as expected, impeccably researched and referenced to the highest scholarly standards, none of which guarantees success on the literary festival stage. There is a happy knack that sadly eludes many (and I've heard a good few in my time and I expect you have too), the ability to combine academic prowess with a stage presence and a warmth that will connect with an audience without making them feel like fools who should have tried harder at school. Actors who write books have an advantage, a stage presence and an audience eating out of their hand, much harder for scholars to achieve but accomplished with ease by Lyndall Gordon.
It was of course fascinating to hear her outline Emily Dickinson's life and the feuds that have spilled over into the very recent past, and the way that Emily devised her own blueprint for the retiring recluse that we think we know... not as a retreat, suggested Lyndall, but more as a form of control. But it was Lyndall's responses to a selection of well - thought through and intelligent questions from the audience, including one from a descendant of the Dickinson family, that just had us all picking our jaws up from the floor of the Great Hall in amazement and admiration.
Asked about the nature of the poetry itself and whether she agreed with Ted Hughes's assertion that Emily Dickinson was one of the greatest religious poets, Lyndall Gordon proceeded in quick and very unshowy order to offer a comparison of the great religious poets putting together an instant answer. Quoting the poetry of Dickinson, Herbert, Hopkins and Eliot at length and from memory, thus creating for us an audible comparison that proved beyond doubt that Emily Dickinson was far less affected by notions of abandonment than others, and finally quoting Josephine Hart who sees Emily Dickinson as a self-empowering ecstatic.
We were a bit ecstatic too, stunned in fact and a round of grateful and heartfelt applause followed that response and it was the subject of the buzz of chatter as the audience spilled out onto the courtyard afterwards. Personally I just hope that young students who may find themselves in attendance at any of Lyndall Gordon's lectures fully appreciate what they are in receipt of, I'd pay good money to go and sit in.
Lyndall's favourite poem by Emily Dickinson, again quoted by heart ... 443
I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life's little duties do—precisely—
As the very least
Were infinite—to me—
I put new Blossoms in the Glass—
And throw the old—away—
I push a petal from my gown
That anchored there—I weigh
The time 'twill be till six o'clock
I have so much to do—
And yet—Existence—some way back—
We cannot put Ourself away
As a completed Man
Or Woman—When the Errand's done
We came to Flesh—upon—
There may be—Miles on Miles of Nought—
Of Action—sicker far—
To simulate—is stinging work—
To cover what we are
From Science—and from Surgery—
Too Telescopic Eyes
To bear on us unshaded—
For their—sake—not for Ours—
Twould start them—
But since we got a Bomb—
And held it in our Bosom—
Nay—Hold it—it is calm—
Therefore—we do life's labor—
Though life's Reward—be done—
With scrupulous exactness—
To hold our Senses—on—
And I came away with a treasure too.
Authors do write the most thoughtful things in my books when they sign them, I'm getting quite an archive and all with my marginalia in too, including that first edition of Wolf Hall (now fetching £500) The inscription is personal and based on something I said about the book here, and to my delight I discover also quoted on Lyndall's website , but my copy of Lives Like Loaded Guns now as precious as the crown jewels.
Thank you Lyndall