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In Remembrance: Dr. Julia Swindells (13 August 1951 – 29 October 2011)

From: Biography
Volume 35, Number 4, Fall 2012
pp. 587-589 | 10.1353/bio.2012.0049

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Julia Swindells was a pioneering theorist of life writing in Britain, known for Victorian Writing and Working Women: The Other Side of Silence, published in 1985. In this, her first book, she argued that autobiographers like domestic worker Elizabeth Ham or governess Ellen Weeton constructed discursive life narratives out of the rigid class discourses of Victorian romantic fiction. Challenging the feminists of the 1970s and ’80s (not to mention George Eliot) to become more sophisticated about the terms under which we hear the voices “on the other side of silence,” this set the tone for Julia’s career in combining post-structural with materialist reading strategies. Julia’s piece “Liberating the Subject: Autobiography and ‘Women’s History’: A Reading of the Diaries of Hannah Cullwick” published in Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives by The Personal Narratives Group (1989) again doubted any easy route to the working class voice. She addressed as well the politics of literary editing, which was interesting since another important British theorist of life writing, Liz Stanley, was the editor in question. Julia always sought the collective, and effective, voice, again evident in The Uses of Autobiography (1995), which she introduced with a precocious analysis of then very popular anthologies of feminist lives. In “First Person Suspect, or the Enemy Within,” published in Representing Lives: Women and Auto/Biography (eds. Alison Donnell and Pauline Polkey, 2000), she analyzed Margaret Thatcher’s The Downing Street Years to conclude that perhaps auto/biography, in Britain at least, is “too hopelessly compromised to service the politics of oppression.”

Although many of her arguments parallel the evolution of thinking by American life writing critics, for example that of Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Julia was very much the product of theory and politics as it developed in Britain. Born in Macclesfield, her first degree was in literature at the University of Leeds, where she refused the lingering influences of F. R. Leavis and I. A. Richards in favor of Lukacs and Barthes. This was followed by teacher training at Goldsmiths, University of London, and teaching at the secondary school level at Itchen Sixth Form College in Southampton. By 1979, she was working at the University of Southampton as a research assistant and part-time tutor for adult education. There, with Jane Thompson, she invented Second Chance For Women, a program of free courses in working class communities with crèches onsite. Using feminist teaching methods which derived theoretical understandings out of personal and shared experience, they re-wrote the curriculum to focus on women’s lives, history, and creativity. Leaving Southampton for the University of Cambridge in 1982 to write her doctorate, she was in turn deeply influenced by her PhD supervisor Raymond Williams, the Welsh father of cultural studies. She was a member of the Marxist network Literature, Teaching, Politics, and later co-wrote with Professor Lisa Jardine, What’s Left? (1990) about the uncertain position of women within the British Labour Movement, though she was a lifelong Labour Party member and activist. She saw no contradiction as a socialist with co-founding the radical feminist magazine Trouble and Strife, working also in the Cambridge Women’s Resources Centre. (She notably contributed an early analysis of hoax black feminist life writing in this, with Joan Scanlon, as “Bad Apple” in 1994.) She shared her passionate politics with her husband Ben Bradnack, a Labour Party councillor.

It was in part this political mix, and without question Julia’s personal charisma, which made her my own founding mentor in the field of life writing, even as I often felt a little weakly humanist in comparison. I was not alone in considering myself blessed to have been her student and colleague. Many spoke at the memorial celebration in February 2012 of the impact of her tiny frame, twinkling eyes, and fierce, lucid conversation. Colleagues at the University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University, where she moved in 2007, paid tribute to her unpompous, ironic teaching style, her collaborative ways of writing, including subsequent work in eighteenth and nineteenth century radical theatre and Women’s Theatrical Memoirs (2008), and her own autobiographical poetry. Jane Thompson remembered...



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