The Strange World of Literary Societies and Dead Authors

I've just come back from a few very enjoyable days discussing the life and work of Katherine Mansfield at London University, a conference organised by the Katherine Mansfield Society.

The one thing you don't think about when you're a writer, is the possibility that someone might want to set up a literary society to remember you when you're dead!

The Australian poet Dorothy Porter (who died prematurely in 2008) once wrote that 'the book of the dead author is a haunted house'.  The house contains forgotten conversations, scraps of clothing, a few letters, undecipherable notes, the flawed memories of friends (who are possibly other dead authors), a flock of biographies, academic papers and a lot of divergent opinions.  It's a strange place to be.

Most famous authors have one - there's a Coleridge Society, a Hardy Society, Virginia Woolf has one, and so do Philip Larkin, Norman Nicholson, and Sylvia Plath - there's even an Association of Literary Societies so that you can all meet up and talk about your dead author's literary society!

10 years ago the Katherine Mansfield Society was formed - (roughly 90 years after her death from TB at Fontainebleau in 1923) - after the very first conference at London university.  I remember because I was one of the speakers and we all had dinner afterwards in the Ambassador's penthouse at New Zealand House.  The view across London was spectacular and the wine was pretty good too - but luckily the railings were high enough to prevent accidents!

The Life Writing Panel, novelist Kirsten Ellis, poet Anna Jackson and myself
The society is still going strong and some of the meetings have been very exotic - there have been conferences in Slovakia, Menton and Bandol in the south of France, Melbourne Oz, Chicago USA, Montana Switzerland, Wellington NZ and now back to London again.  All these places had some link to KM.  It has been a journey through her life and the archives of material she left behind.

A writer's reputation is often 'owned' by the society, which in some cases can become a kind of mafia protecting the writer's reputation at the risk of extinguishing it.  Fortunately that's not the case with Katherine Mansfield - it's more like a family and part of the joy of attending is meeting friends one has made through it.  There are always more - this time Holly, who invited me to a dinner at Christchurch University in NZ, and Huang Qiang, who I met when he was a PhD candidate at Lancaster University where I was the RLF Fellow. Qiang is now a lecturer at the University of Beijing - Holly is just about to graduate. What we all share is a passion for Katherine Mansfield.
Huang Qiang and me!

Ali Smith gave the first keynote speech and is as wonderful in person as she is on the page;  Kirsty Gunn was there and is now the new Patron of the Society, Dame Jacqueline Wilson having retired.  London shimmered with heat while we lurked in the air conditioned basement, emerging only in the evening to more conversations over wine and food in the bars and restaurants around Bloomsbury.
It isn't all work! (Photo Gerri Kimber)

 If you don't think we have a good time, this is us having a sing song in several languages in the Antalya off Russell Square.  (thanks to Lei Yuemei!)  I've come home exhausted, but full of ideas!

If you love Katherine Mansfield, why not like her Facebook Page?  
Or buy some books?

Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller by Kathleen Jones (paperback £12.15, e-book £3.32)

Katherine Mansfield:  The Early Years by Gerri Kimber 

A Strange, Beautiful Excitement by Redmer Yska


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