How do literary anniversaries work, exactly?

I know - it should be obvious how they work. This is the year of Charles Dickens' bicentennial - he was born in 1812, so here we are, 200 years later with a slew of biographies (Claire Tomalin, Simon Callow, Robert Garrett, to mention just a few), as well as films (yet another, new, Great Expectations is due out) and tributes (like Terry Pratchett's Dodger). Pretty simple - put a hugely famous writer with the anniversary of his birth or death and that's that.

Except it does still leave me wondering. I do feel rather sorry for any other writer with an anniversary this year, like Robert Browning who was also born in 1812, or Lawrence Durrell who was born in 1912. They've been slightly squeezed out by the relentless Dickens juggernaut, even if Virago very sensibly did time   Durrell's anniversary with the publication of a memoir by his wife's daughter, Joanna Hodgkin, Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage, Nancy and Lawrence Durrell. 

And it doesn't just have to be births, either - Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, died a hundred years ago, and 200 years ago, Byron published Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage, the poem that made him a star. I'm already, rather sadly of me, counting down to 2018, the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Must be a good blog post in that one....or a newspaper article at least! But will there be tributes on the day? Will there be new biographies and films?

Because none of this settles the question, who decides which writers we celebrate all these years after their births or deaths. Does it just come down to general popularity? Is that why Dickens, and not Browning? Or is there something else at work?

Two literary 'anniversaries' celebrated every year have a link to the countries of the authors' births: Burns' Night on January 25th, and 'Bloomsday' on June 16th celebrate Robert Burns and James Joyce respectively, somewhat troublesome representatives of their native lands, I always think. Burns is regularly castigated for his behaviour towards the women in his life (his romantic poems notwithstanding), and Joyce fled the country of his birth, 'flying by the nets' of 'nationality, language and religion'. Yet Burns Night is bigger in Scotland than St Andrews Day, and Bloomsday's a rival to St Patrick's. They're writers who are so identified with their native lands that they don't need an ordinary 'birthday' celebration, or a recall of the day they died. They're a national cultural event all of their own.

But that really does squeeze out everyone else. You can't have several writers' days, all identifying with their home countries, it wouldn't make sense. So far, England has made Shakespeare and Dickens its most memorable writers, but it still hasn't given them a day to themselves, hasn't claimed them as somehow essentially English.

And it also hasn't escaped my notice that so far, most of the names I've mentioned have been male. Whilst literary fans make trips to homes once occupied by Jane Austen or the Brontes, there's no Austen Day or Brontes Day. In the absence of mass identification on a national scale, or a regular occasion to remind future generations you existed (A Christmas Carol really was a marketing stroke of genius on Dickens' part!), writers must consign themselves to the fact that their birthday or death-day will probably be overshadowed by the anniversary of something - or someone - else.

So I'm going to suggest something different, or rather, a different sort of commemoration. A hundred years ago, this year was a rather momentous one for three extraordinary women writers. It was in 1912 that things really did change for Katherine Mansfield, Rebecca West and H.D. And here's how:




1912 was the year that Katherine Mansfield moved in with John Middleton Murry, the man who would be her champion after her death. It was also the year that Rebecca West met H. G. Wells, by whom she would have a son. And it was the year that H.D. took tea with Ezra Pound at the British Museum, where he anointed her, 'Imagiste', and suggested she drop her full name, Hilda Doolittle, in favour of the initials, H.D., her literary soubriquet.

But why celebrate these women's many literary achievements through their meetings with men, I hear you ask. Well - unpalatable it may be for some, but these were possibly the most crucial moments in these women's literary lives. After 1912, Mansfield would never be without Murry; West would write, according to many, her best work whilst in a relationship with Wells (her first novel, The Return of the Soldier), and H.D. might never have been published at all, if it wasn't for Pound (according to Shari Benstock, author of Women of the Left Bank). It was Pound who sent H. D's poems off to Poetry Review, after he typed them up for her.

It's a tricky anniversary then, because it's full of the good and the bad. Good in consolidating something for these women writers' lives; bad in that it aligns them for ever with male writers, rather than seeing them on their own. But I think it's key to any writer's life to look at their influences, at those catalysts in their lives (and it's what my book, Between the Sheets, which looks at these women's relationships, is about). Increasingly, biographers of male writers are seeing and registering the impact of the silent, unseen women in their subjects' lives and recognising their importance.

For women writers, too, it is no different. Which is why 1912 might have seen the publications of Death in Venice and The Lost World; it might well have been the birth date of John Cheever. But it was also the year that three women writers met their destinies. Now, how to celebrate that?     


Comments