Romantic Circles Features and Events
Chamber Music Features


Chamber Music: Mise-en-scène

Gina Luria Walker, Curator

Pamela Clemit and I were in the final stages of editing the first modern critical edition of William Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) for Broadview Press, when Robert Polito, Director of The Writing Program at The New School, and I began to plan a conference on life-writing. Our goal was to bring together a diversity of people for whom the difficulties and nuances of documenting, recreating, and dramatizing lives are paramount to their own life's work: biographers, novelists, poets, memoirists, anthropologists, scholars, documentary photographers, and filmmakers. It seemed appropriate that the "Writing Lives Conference" coincide with publication of the Broadview Memoirs (initially scheduled for Fall 2001, but, as it happened, out ahead of time in February 2001).

I undertook to curate a panel on the Memoirs, considering how best to communicate the intriguing issues raised by Godwin's melding of memoir, biography, and autobiography in his controversial account of Mary Wollstonecraft. In discussions with Pamela and other scholar colleagues—Nora Crook, Jeanne Moskal, Michael Rossington—the idea emerged for a panel about the interplay between the lives and texts of members of the Wollstonecraft-Hays-Godwin-Shelley Circle as they represented themselves and each other in their public and private texts. Nora was to moderate, locating the cast of characters; I would consider actual and textual interchanges between the two feminists, Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays; Jeanne would treat Wollstonecraft's own life-writing; Pamela would discuss Godwin's representation of Wollstonecraft as his revolutionary associate and wife; and Michael would conclude by addressing Mary Shelley's life-writing of her parents, Wollstonecraft and Godwin. We anticipated that the cumulative effect would be an innovative group biography, with attention to the ways that each figure's representations of the others reflected the writer's approach to life-writing. "Chamber music" would emerge from the collaborative sound of the four figures' writing lives of shared values and experiences.

Our enterprises moved ahead. Major support for the conference came from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council of the Humanities, and New School University. Pamela, Nora, and Michael planned to come to New York from England from October 18-20 to join Jeanne and me on the Chamber Music panel. We expected to rehearse the evening before the panel, scheduled for October 19th.
4. The events of September 11th, of course, profoundly altered many people's lives and plans, and, in a lesser way, modified ours. As we exchanged drafts of our papers by e-mail in the aftermath of the disaster, we also assessed the unprecedented international situation. The weekend before the conference tension ran especially high following the FBI's warning that more attacks on America were almost inevitable. The three British scholars made the decision not to travel across the Atlantic under these circumstances. We would not perform our chamber music live, but the panel and the conference would go on. I read Pamela's paper; John Christian Laursen (UC-Riverside), a participant in another panel, read Michael's; and with gracious generosity, Ann-Louise Shapiro, Dean of The New School, read Nora's, also serving as moderator in Nora's stead. Afterwards, we were eager to play our small part in mitigating the violence of the historical moment by carrying our collective work forward. In the spirit of the radical reformers represented in the panel, we determined to seek alternative means to allow their chamber music to be "heard" as an ensemble, as we had intended. Jeanne suggested that I contact Steven Jones about the possibility of publishing our texts electronically as a quintet in the Praxis section of Romantic Circles. Steven responded quickly and enthusiastically and the peer-review process was begun. The final "suite" appears here.
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