8 September 2012

Victoria Whitworth...

Today's Conference Guest
V.M. Whitworth is an academic and historian. After reading English at Oxford, an MA and DPhil from the Centre for Medieval Studies in York, V.M. published Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England. 
Her first novel, The Bone Thief, is a historical thriller set in 900 AD, in the immediate aftermath of the death of King Alfred the Great, featuring Wulfgar of Winchester.

Welcome to my Guest Page Victoria...

Writing a thousand words about oneself is very hard. Having to choose nine dinner guests is very hard also. Looking at the list of names I’ve chosen, I seem to have come up with a kind of proxy autobiography, so I shall poke about in that list a bit and see what emerges, in a somewhat random way.

 Victoria's Banquet Guests

1. Catherine Sedley (1657–1717), Countess of Dorchester, Restoration Wit. Daughter of a libertine and a lunatic, she was notorious for her plain face and her sharp tongue. She became James VII and II’s mistress, and the ancestor of the Mitford sisters. I think she’d keep the conversation moving.

2. Elizabeth Elstob (1683–1756). The first woman to study Old English to a scholarly level, and a great advocate of female education. Her Anglo-Saxon Grammar was written in English rather than Latin, to make it more accessible to women. She had a tough life, and I’d like the chance to tell her how much she means to me.

3. Joy Adamson (1910-1980), author of Born Free. I met her when I was eight and got her autograph but was too star-struck to ask any proper questions.

4. Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992). My favourite historical novelist – in fact one of my favourite writers. Severely disabled, she overcame such huge obstacles to become a writer and artist. A testimony to the liberating power of the imagination.  I dream of having that kind of ruthless integrity.

5. Wulfstan, Archbishop of York (d.1023). Author and politician, who argued against the death penalty. A great preacher: the Martin Luther King of his day. What was it like, working first for Æthelræd Unræd and then Knut?

6. Richard Feynman (1918-1988), Physicist and Musician.

7. William Gershon Collingwood (1854-1932). Another great historical novelist. Traveller, sportsman and all-round good egg.

8. Gautr. 10th century Manx sculptor.

9. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973). I just want him to talk to me about Beowulf.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth was one of the formative books of my childhood. I grew up in Kenya, and while we did go back to the UK occasionally Britain was largely a mythological space for me. (I see I’ve managed a tangential Swallows and Amazon reference too, with W.G.Collingwood: he was a close friend of Arthur Ransome and the Collingwoods’ grandchildren were the original Swallows). Marcus and Esca rampaging around Hadrian’s Wall in Eagle of the Ninth felt just as relevant as the Walker and Blackett families’ Lake District holidays: much more so than the stories of bullying, divorce and drugs which were thought to be suitable for children (until the Harry Potter phenomenon, at least). So I grew up with a head full of fictional British landscapes, and little opportunity, until my mid-to-late teens, to measure them against the reality of late-twentieth-century Britain. My real landscape was that celebrated by Joy Adamson, Karen Blixen, Louis and Richard Leakey, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.  I have vivid memories of reading about the death of Elsa the lioness: I was about eight and eating a biscuit at the time, and I started howling mid-biscuit, ending up smeared with tears and soggy crumbs.
I was still at school when I came across Catherine Sedley, a much less well-known character than Nell Gwynne or Louise de Keroualle, but irresistible. She fascinated me because she was plain and clever, fabulously extravagant and amazingly rude; and I wanted to write a biography of her. Somewhere I still have a yellow exercise book full of notes that I made when I was about fifteen, and at boarding-school in Hertfordshire.
I turned on the television one day when I was still an impressionable young thing, and there was this funny, beautiful man with an amazing voice. I fell passionately in love at first sight. Only gradually did I realise I was listening to his obituary. Richard Feynman can talk to me about the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, or about Mongolian throat singing, I don’t care. I just want the privilege of meeting him.
I nearly went to SOASE to read Swahili Studies, but chose the road more travelled, and went to Oxford to read English. Horrors. An author a week. After a term of galloping through George Eliot, Dickens, the Bronte Sisters, Mrs Gaskell at warp-speed, I had painful mental indigestion, and felt I would never be able to look my favourite novelists in the eye again. It was with joy that I realised there was an option to spend the rest of the degree specialising in medieval languages and literatures, with a dollop of archaeology thrown in. Even as an undergraduate, my sense of real – as opposed to fictional – British geography was still so poor that I remember writing an essay on the Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery of Spong Hill, and having no idea where it was, only that it began with L. Leicestershire? Lancashire? My tutor’s eyebrows rose higher and higher. Lincolnshire? Yes, that sounds more likely… She told me to buy a map, and I did. I was at Oxford far too late to benefit from the teaching of J.R.R.Tolkien, but according to my mother I hadn’t missed much. He used to lecture facing the blackboard from a distance of about six inches, in an inaudible mutter. Perhaps at a dinner party Tolkien might feel more relaxed and expansive? One can hope. Apparently C.S.Lewis was much better entertainment value. But I didn’t want to invite C.S.Lewis to my dinner party instead, because already, at eighteen or nineteen, I had a good idea that an Anglo-Saxonist was what I wanted to be. Even before arriving for my first term, I had been sent a courteous letter asking me to buy Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer, and to translate Ælfric’s Passion of St Edmund.
Sum swyðe gelæred munuc com suþan ofer sæ…
My first taste of Old English, that most potent of drugs, and I was hooked. I could have invited Ælfric, abbot of Eynsham, to the party, I suppose, but I’d much rather have his colleague and contemporary, Wulfstan of York, whose Sermon of the Wolf I also had to translate. While Ælfric was a tremendously learned man, one gets the impression that his world-view was rather hide-bound and orthodox. Wulfstan was a judge and lawmaker, a politician and a courtier, simultaneously Bishop of comfortable Worcester and Archbishop of Anglo-Danish York, right in the heart of the dirty politics of the late tenth and early eleventh centuries.
I went on to do some work on Elizabeth Elstob as part of my MA. She would be a good subject for a novel, though it’s a sad story. She struggled all her life, first for education, then for recognition; she spent decades in poverty, and finally aged fifty-five when she was given a post as a governess in a noble household she found her horizons had narrowed and her time was not her own. There but for the Grace of God…
Gautr. We don’t know much about him, but there is a cross at Kirk Michael on the Isle of Man, inscribed in runes: Gautr made this and all on Man. Great promotional advertising, Gautr! Tell me your story.
And W.G. Collingwood. Well, he is my hero. He wrote in numerous genres, he painted, he travelled, he had a large, happy family. He laid the foundations for the study of my present field of research, Anglo-Saxon – and particularly viking-age – sculpture. He wrote Thorstein of the Mere, which is a superb historical novel. He has been dead for eighty years but even now so much of what I do is ‘footnotes to Collingwood’.
Would this disparate bunch get on? What would I feed them? How would I arrange them around the table? I have no idea. I just hope I would be able to do more than blush and stutter and say Thank you.


  1. Oooh, fascinating list, and equally fascinating bio! I'd love to be a fly on the wall for this dinner!

  2. me too Julie .... bzzzzzzz...


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