Past Study Days and Writers’ Talks at Stapleford Granary

  • 28 April 2019. Jill Dawson and Gillian Beer in Conversation

  • 16 March 2019. Understanding Macbeth

  • 13 February 2019. An Evening with Preti Taneja

  • 9 February 2019. Nature Poetry: An Introduction

  • 24 January 2019. An Evening with Sophie Hannah

  • 3 November 2018. Remembering the First World War

  • 20 October 2018. Understanding King Lear

  • 15 September 2018. Reading A Room of One’s Own

  • 17 March 2018. E. M. Forster: For Love of Italy

  • 18 February 2018. Reading Tennyson

  • 28 January 2018. Reading Great Expectations

  • 12 November 2017. Ali Smith and Gillian Beer: Reading and Conversation

  • 16 September 2017. Reading Mrs Dalloway

  • 11 June 2017. Reading The Waste Land

  • 13 May 2017. Creative Writing

  • 29 April 2017. Reading Pride and Prejudice

  • 25 February 2017. Alice in Space

  • 17 September 2016. Reading To the Lighthouse


Jill Dawson and Gillian Beer in Conversation


28 April 2019

We enjoyed a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation between two brilliant writers: novelist and poet Jill Dawson and Dame Gillian Beer, who was Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, and President of Clare Hall.

Jill Dawson’s novels are: Trick of the LightMagpieFred & EdieWild BoyWatch Me DisappearThe Great LoverLucky Bunny and The Tell-Tale Heart, The Crime Writer and The Language of Birds, all published by Sceptre.  She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Anglia Ruskin University in 2006. Jill – known to her friends as Ruby Dawson – has been the Chair of the Advisory Fellows for the Royal Literary Fund for twelve years, and runs the mentoring scheme for new writers she founded, Gold Dust.

The discussion focused on her most recent book, The Language of Birds (2019). Inspired by one of the most sensational unsolved case in British criminal history, that of 'Lucky' Lord Lucan, The Language of Birds is a fictional account of the lives of two young nannies in London in the 1970s. As Mandy edges towards the tragic fate that awaits her, her dear friend Rosemary watches in the wings. Rosemary is an odd girl and has a gift that very few have. But after all, what could anyone have done to save Mandy? 


An Evening with Preti Taneja

13 February 2019

Preti Taneja is the author of We That Are Young, a powerful retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, set in modern India. Winner of the prestigious Desmond Elliot Prize 2018, the book explores power, money and social injustice in the corporate world of New Delhi and the painful legacies of partition in Kashmir. Preti gave a fascinating talk about her research and ideas for the book, and a wonderful reading.

Nature Poetry: An Introduction

9 February 2019

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Poets throughout history have been interested in nature. After 1750, the natural world was subject to dramatic changes. Agricultural landscapes were transformed by the process of enclosure. Technological innovations spurred the rise of cities and caused massive shifts in the nature of work. The Industrial Revolution was born. How did poetry engage with these changes taking place in the natural world? And how does that poetry speak to us now?

Introduction: Nature Under Pressure

Oliver Goldstein, Trinity Hall, Cambridge

One of William Blake's most famous poems from Songs of Experience begins with the line: ‘O Rose thou art sick.’ This lecture explored the ways poets such as Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Tennyson and Christina Rossetti engaged with a ‘sick’ natural world under the conditions of industrial modernity. How did their nature poetry contemplate questions of beauty and waste? And how might their verse help us to think about climate change and environmental crisis today?

John Clare: Poet of Nature

Paul Chirico, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge 

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John Clare (1793-1864) grew up in a labouring family in the village of Helpston on the edge of the Fens. Both his early working life and his social and cultural outlook were shaped by the enormous changes brought about by the local Enclosure Act in 1809.

Clare’s intimate love for his natural world underpinned an extraordinary and enduring body of poetry. Paul Chirico’s lecture explored – and enjoyed – that poetry in all its breadth, from minute observations of birds and plants, to narrative accounts of self-discovery in woodland or open landscape, to impassioned, finely-crafted declarations of resistance to environmental degradation.

We finished the day with a round-table seminar, looking closely at some poems and enjoying some wonderful readings.

Remembering the First World War

3 November 2018

It is 100 years since the First World War ended. Its bitter legacy was felt long into the twentieth century and beyond. Two leading scholars explored some of the beautiful and disturbing writings of the war. How does that literature speak to us now? 

Ivor Gurney and Wilfred Owen: War Poetry, War Music

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Kate Kennedy, Oxford

The First World War, more than any other conflict, is viewed through the literature it inspired. Wilfred Owen is one of the most influential of the war poets. How strongly has Owen’s verse shaped our sense of what war poetry should be? How has he influenced our understanding of the war itself?

We also looked at Ivor Gurney, war poet and composer. When all the other war poets were saying ‘Goodbye to All That’ after the Armistice, Gurney, abandoned and alone in a mental asylum remained a war poet well into the 1920s. Gurney wrote his trench experiences into his music as well as his poetry. Kate Kennedy explore Gurney's poetry and song to understand his unique sense of war and mental illness.

The Shock and Sadness of War

Trudi Tate, Cambridge

How did civilians bear witness to the trauma of the First World War? Did civilians suffer from shell shock? After the war, both civilians and veterans felt disappointed and disillusioned by the peace. What had the war achieved? This lecture explored First World War writings of Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, and others. Trudi Tate also looked briefly at the history of Tank Banks in 1917-18, and reflected upon the political implications of war propaganda.


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Kate Kennedy is Associate Director of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, and author of a forthcoming biography of Ivor Gurney.

Trudi Tate is Fellow of Clare Hall, Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of English, Cambridge, and Director of Literature Cambridge. Her books include Modernism, History and the First World War (rev. edn 2013), Women's Fiction and the Great War, and Women, Men and the Great War. Website.

Both lecturers have published widely on the First World War. Their joint publications include The Silent Morning: Culture and Memory After the Armistice (2013) and special issues of the journals First World War Studies (2011) and the Ivor Gurney Journal (2007).

Link: some First World War poems.

Understanding King Lear

20 October 2018

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King Lear is one of Shakespeare's greatest plays. Two leading Cambridge scholars led us through some of its powerful ideas. Probably written in 1604, King Lear tells the story of an ageing king who divides his kingdom unequally between his daughters. In the conflicts which follow, Lear gradually descends into madness. One injustice leads to another. He understands his own folly, too late. For a detailed summary of the plot, see the Royal Shakespeare Society website.

Fred Parker lectured on King Lear and 'the thing itself'.

Thus Lear hails Poor Tom, with a dreadful exhilaration at having got beyond all 'sophistication', all the ceremonial trappings of civilisation and culture, to arrive at last at the core, the bedrock, the naked truth of life. Or has he? For Poor Tom is not Poor Tom, but Edgar in disguise. His madness is a lie as well as a kind of truth. Where has King Lear arrived? Where is he going? 

Here are the two conflicting impulses that shape King Lear: (1) the desire to get down to the hard, bare reality of things, set against (2) the convulsive insistence that there is more to life than this.


• Cordelia's 'Nothing' against the desire for the demonstration of love. •The realism of Goneril and Regan against Lear's 'Reason not the need'. • The Fool against the King.
• Foolish old men against emblems of significance.
• A necessary patience against 'the great rage'.
• The staging against the poetry, sometimes, or sometimes the poetry against itself.    

This immense play cannot, of course, be contained within this dichotomy, but in this lecture Fred Parker explored how far it takes us before it breaks down.

Adrian Poole lectured on King Lear and the 'extreme verge'. This play has often been thought to extend traditional ideas of tragedy as far as they can go. His lecture started from the scene on Dover Cliff, and explored what it means – for the play, for its characters, for readers and audiences – to be ‘stretched out’.

Reading A Room of One’s Own

15 September 2018.
A Room of One's Own (1929) is regarded as Virginia Woolf's most influential book. What are her main ideas in the book, and how do they speak to us today? Three leading Cambridge lecturers led us through different approaches to the book, looking at the rich historical context in which Woolf was writing. We finished a round-table seminar.

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Alison Hennegan, Women and Education
In A Room of One's Own, Woolf describes visiting a men's college and a women's college in 'Oxbridge', based quite closely on the Cambridge colleges which she knew well. Alison Hennegan discussed the importance of women's education in the book. What were the aims of the women's colleges established in the 19th century? Girton College was founded in 1869; Newnham College in 1871. What were their different views of women and education, and how does this context inform Woolf's ideas?

Trudi Tate, After the First World War
Trudi Tate explored what Woolf has to say about the First World War in A Room of One's Own. For Woolf, as for many intellectuals of the period, the war changed things very profoundly. How had European civilisation come to destroy itself this devastating conflict? Indeed, did the war throw the very idea of civilisation into question? The need to rebuild fractured societies and to secure a just peace were surely the most pressing issues for Britain and for all of Europe in the 1920s. Women must be part of that process. How did the war alter our perception of the world, and where would we go next? What part might literature play in this process?

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Susan Sellers, Woolf as Essayist
This lecture focused on Woolf as an essayist, looking at how her essay-writing developed in tandem with her highly experimental fiction-writing. It explored Woolf’s influences as an essayist, indicate the very wide range of subjects she wrote on, and outline how her essay-writing changed over time. In particular, it examined the highly fruitful cross-fertilisation that took place between Woolf’s fiction and non-fiction throughout her career. A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929, was considered in light of the famous fictional ‘discovery’ Woolf made while working on her novel Mrs Dalloway (published in 1925), her sophisticated understanding of comedy, and her other major work of essay-writing, Three Guineas (1938).

E. M. Forster: For Love of Italy

17 March 2018.
Italy is the setting for some of Forster's best-loved works: Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), A Room with a View (1908), ‘The Story of a Panic’ (1904). What does Italy mean to Forster? What do his characters find in Italy, and in themselves, when they go there?

Forster Study Day

Forster Study Day

Alison Hennegan explored how Italy helped Forster to understand repression, and to find ways out of it. Why did Italy appeal to gay English writers of the early twentieth century? Part of Alison's lecture can be read on our Blog page, March 2018. 

Jeremy Thurlow discussed why music is important in Forster's Italy novels, especially for the women characters. Music can express ambitions and passions which women in the early twentieth century were not usually allowed to explore. Jeremy is a wonderful pianist and played examples on the piano to illustrate his lecture. We finished with a round-table discussion. Warm thanks to our students and lecturers for a fantastic day.  


Reading Tennyson

On 18 February 2018 we studied the great Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92). Ewan Jones lectured on Maud and gave a marvellous reading of the entire poem, which took about an hour. Oliver Goldstein read and lectured on some beautiful short lyric poems. Participants included members of the Tennyson Society as well as readers new to Tennyson. We finished the day with a fascinating round-table discussion. 



Reading Great Expectations

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28 January 2018.
Great Expectations was published 1860-61, and is set earlier, between 1812 and 1840. For useful historical background to the novel, see Stanford University's webpages, Discovering Dickens.

Corinna Russell, Great Expectations and the Story of Economic Man

Dickens is famous for his brilliant understanding of money and its effect on people. In Great Expectations, we see Pip learning about himself, coming to understand who he is. One thing he discovers is that he is part of an economic system over which he has no control. His life is shaped by the economic machinery of bank notes, credit, promises, oaths and fraudulent practices. Adults treat him as an object, a toy, something they think they can buy, sell, and control. 

What does this mean? How does Pip survive the brutal economy into which he is born; how does he negotiate its transactions?

Jan-Melissa Schramm, Mercy for Magwitch? Dickens and the problems of poetic justice in Great Expectations

In Great Expectations, Magwitch is transported as a convict to New South Wales. Convicts are represented as a form of portable property, ‘carted here and carted there … as much as a silver tea-kettle’, with lives ransomed to the state for the most trivial of reasons. What does the novel say about Magwitch’s experiences, and what does this tell us about Dickens’s views of mercy, guilt, innocence and human freedom? The lecture also looked at some contemporary novels which retell Magwitch’s story.

Ali Smith and Gillian Beer in Conversation

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12 November 2017.
We had a full house for a fascinating hour of reading and conversation between author Ali Smith, whose novel Winter had just been published, and scholar Dame Gillian Beer, whose most recent book Alice in Space won the Truman Capote Award. After the event the audience stayed for a cup of tea and talked informally with the speakers. 

Dan Baski reviewed the conversation in Darrow magazine.

Reading Mrs Dalloway

16 September 2017.
Mrs Dalloway (1925) is one of Woolf’s best-known novels. But how well do we understand it today? What is the novel really saying about the First World War, about shell shock, about love, gender and family relations? This study day explored the historical context of this intriguing, lyrical novel about two inhabitants of London – a society hostess and a shell-shocked soldier – whose lives overlap but who never meet.

Set on a single day in 1923, Mrs Dalloway has a very sharp eye for the issues of its day, and has things to say to us in our time. Three leading Woolf scholars gave lectures which are both informed and accessible to a wide audience. We finished with a round-table seminar.

Lecture topics
Susan Sellers, Writing Mrs Dalloway
Trudi Tate, Mrs Dalloway: Peace and Betrayal, 1923
Claire Nicholson, Mrs Dalloway's Dresses

Extracts from the lectures can be found on our Blog pages, 20 September 2017 and 13 January 2018.

Reading The Waste Land

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11 June 2017.
T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922) is one of the monuments of modern English literature. But how do we make sense of this strange, fragmented piece of writing? How do we begin to read it – what were Eliot’s concerns when he was writing, just after the First World War ­– and how does the poem speak to us now? Expert lecturers Michael Hrebeniak and Sarah Cain opened our eyes to this poem, helping us to understand some of its interests and its literary techniques, and showing us why The Waste Land can be so rewarding to read. We also enjoyed the amazing experience of hearing the poem read aloud in full by Cambridge scholar Robin Kirkpatrick. A superb experience.

Creative Writing Workshop

13 May 2017
This exciting workshop was led by acclaimed author and scholar Susan Sellers from the University of St Andrews. Susan explored ideas about how to get started, what to write about, and how to engage readers, and finished with a discussion of online and commercial publishing. She offered tips and useful exercises on voice and point of view, character and world-building, dialogue, plot, and the crucial role of self-editing. Participants found the day really rewarding.

Reading Pride and Prejudice

29 April 2017
We enjoyed two stunning lectures by leading Austen scholars Fred Parker and Anne Toner.

Fred Parker, Disclosing and declaring love in Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice is a novel about love and about marriage proposals; about how one speaks, and speaks out, in the early nineteenth century. Fred Parker explore the difficulty of communicating one’s feelings in a culture where all exchanges in public – especially between men and women – are understood to be coded and convention-based. Is it possible to be polite and sincere? It’s a question that also bears on the playful indirectness of Austen’s own narrative voice.

Anne Toner, Jane Austen's dialogues: drama and innovation.
Anne Toner discussed Jane Austen’s celebrated dialogue. She examined what is innovative about Austen’s dialogue and what readers have loved about it. She explored its relation to drama, and how Austen’s innovations in dialogue relate to her developments in depicting consciousness.

Tragedy: Past and Present

18 March 2017.
An inspirational day of lectures by leading Cambridge scholars, Jennifer Wallace, Adrian Poole and Alison Hennegan. The day gave us a glimpse of the monumental Tragedy paper taught to undergraduates in the English Faculty, Cambridge. For some extracts from the lectures plus a list of further reading, see our Blog page, 19-23 March 2017. 

What is tragedy; how have its literary and theatrical traditions changed (or not) over the centuries? What can we learn from it now? Where does tragedy go, once the word ceases to be defined as a type of drama? Do novels, operas, lyric poetry, or paintings have the capacity to be tragic? We might think of Goya, Verdi, Dosoyevsky, Hardy, or Wilfred Owen.

The study day introduced participants to Greek, Shakespearean, and modern tragedy, with each lecture followed by questions and discussion. It was a unique opportunity to learn something of the history and power of tragedy, as it is taught to Cambridge undergraduates, and to think about how tragedy speaks to us today.

Jennifer Wallace, Greek Tragic Performance
Adrian Poole, Shakespeare, Tragedy and Rome
Alison Hennegan, Modern Tragedy: A Contradiction in Terms?

Greek Tragedy:  Sophocles, Antigone; Sophocles, Electra; Euripides, Bacchae
Shakespeare:  Julius CaesarAntony and CleopatraCoriolanus
Modern Tragedy: O'Neill, Mourning Becomes Electra (1931); Orton, What the Butler Saw (first performed posthumously 1969); Kane, Phaedra's Love (1996)








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Alice in Space

25 February 2017.
A fascinating afternoon of lectures on the rich intellectual world of Lewis Carroll. Dame Gillian Beer discussed some of the ideas in her recent book, Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll (Chicago UP, 2016). Zoe Jaques explored the ways in which Carroll wrote about animals. To read some extracts from the lectures, see our Blog page, 1 March 2017.

Reading To the Lighthouse

Our first Study Day took place on 17 September 2016 with a day on Virginia Woolf's much-loved novel of yearning, loss, love, and mourning, To the Lighthouse (1927). Three Woolf scholars reflected upon the novel from different angles. Dame Gillian Beer explored the wealth of story-telling within To the Lighthouse. Trudi Tate discussed mourning the Victorian mother. Frances Spalding talked about Cézanne, Roger Fry, and visual art in To the Lighthouse.

For a report on the lectures, please see our Blog page for 19 September 2016.