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Jenny Uglow is to be the next Chair of the RSL

Sue Gaisford

Filed under: Biography

The first thing you do when you step into the Uglows’ hall is to fall over a baby-buggy. Jenny and her husband Steve, recently retired Professor of Criminal Justice, have lived in this large Victorian house on the edge of Canterbury for more than 30 years, and have just had their sixth grandchild. In a large, serene study on the first floor, Jenny does all her writing, but her welcoming kitchen is full of the intriguing clutter of a large family.  Every object tells a long and  unexpected story, from an old Chinese tea-caddy to a photograph of two solemn boys wearing identical, heavy-framed glasses. She is a woman of immediate, attractive warmth, and she makes the strongest coffee in Kent. She may not be certain what her passport declares to be her profession, but there are a good half-dozen contenders. Perhaps it should simply say ‘Renaissance woman’.

Few would have a more convincing claim. Until recently she was editorial director at Chatto & Windus, and still looks after some of their best writers, including A.S. Byatt, Stella Tillyard and Hermione Lee. She has written award-winning biographies, of Hogarth Mrs. Gaskell and Charles II, to name but a few.She compiled the first Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Women’s Biography. She is an honorary visiting professor at Warwick University, and a trustee of the Wordsworth Trust.  She has run courses for the WEA; she has written about gardening, architecture and music; she reviews for all the best broadsheets; she helps to run a refuge for women; she sings in a choir – and the list could go on. She has clearly mastered the notorious work/life balance. And now she is to be Chair of the Royal Society of Literature. What an excellent appointment.

She is, she says, ‘bubbling with ideas’ about what she hopes to achieve in this latest role, though she is quick to add that many of her plans have already been set in motion, by a very good team.  She is impressed by the Society’s website, and wants to expand its accessibility: ‘When you look at it, it’s amazing the resources we have, and I’d love to develop this.’ She hopes to widen the programme of events, inviting writers from Africa, South America and China to come and give talks, and she’d like to increase audiences. She also wants to encourage more meetings and the chance of an exchange of ideas between members.

At the other end of the scale, she is very interested in the programme for sending Fellows into schools. ‘We can’t, of course, cover every single school, but it’s a way of alleviating, adjusting, or somehow tempering the curriculum.’ She’d like to expand this endeavour to other parts of the country, outside London and the southeast. ‘It’s a parallel movement. I’d very much like – not to take the RSL out of London – but to really extend its reach to different parts of Britain. It might be through forging partnerships with local bodies, and universities, or literary festivals – but also by encouraging members to form their own local groups.’

It’s already happening in Cumbria, as a result of her work with the Wordsworth Trust.  And, as she says, this is partly because of where she comes from. She is the daughter of a teacher at St Bees School, near Whitehaven on the Cumbrian coast, and she retains a great affection for that part of the world. She was educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and later at Oxford, where she gained a First in English and later a BLitt: her first book, on the essays of Walter Pater, drew on her research for that degree.

Her whole outlook, however, was to change when she began working for the WEA. ‘I was so-called “teaching” an amazingly daunting group of adults.  It was a real eye-opener: I learned so much more from them than they did from me, and I realised how really vital literature was to people in all walks of life, from pensioners to prisoners.  It was a real leap from the kind of academic work I’d been doing.’ Two other major influences on her writing, to whom she remains very grateful, were the publisher Carmen Callil and the late Deborah Rogers, her agent.  Callil, she says, recognised that she was not an office person: ‘She fitted this square peg into a square hole’. And Rogers – ‘passionate, interested, funny and irreverent’ – was endlessly encouraging. ‘She made me laugh, and I miss her every day’

Her most recent book, The Pinecone, takes her back to her birthplace.  It celebrates the work of Sarah Losh, a Cumbrian heiress and friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, who built and decorated a lovely little Italianate church, in the village of Wreay, near Carlisle. Given that there is little documentary evidence of Sarah Losh’s life, Uglow employs her particular talent of recreating, in detail, the milieu and the circumstances of those who surrounded her, and presenting her in a richly accessible context.

It’s a skill she offers all her subjects. As seems to be her habit, she is reluctant to take any credit for her own work, insisting that it should go instead to the people she writes about: ‘The pleasure comes from knowing that their work is so much better than anything I can say…They’ve always been people I admire, and was completely intrigued by.’ I wondered if she had ever fallen out of love with any of them in the course of research. She emphatically refuted the suggestion, though she did concede that they weren’t all angels: ‘Sometimes they could be completely impossible. Hogarth, for instance, was always putting his foot in it, and Bewick had a tendency to get cross and thump his tankard on the table and rant. But they are like cousins, or old friends, so you might think, “Oh, give it a break.” But you are still deeply fond of them.’

And sometimes there is a danger of getting too close.  ‘I realised that, with Mrs. Gaskell.  I found a letter from the daughter of Fanny Wedgwood, Gaskell’s great friend, saying that Gaskell was coming to stay and said that it was awful, for her mother couldn’t stand her. I really was terribly upset.’

Most of these people were the kind of  ‘stroppy, bourgeois rebels’, with whom she happily identifies, but an exception was Charles II.  She was persuaded by her publisher to write about him, though ‘he was alien from me in almost every way.  But I was interested in the effect of the Restoration, and I could see that he had an extraordinary charisma. When he went into a room, the atmosphere began to fizz, and he had that gift of making a person feel that he was the only one he wanted to talk to.’

Her career began, and still continues, in publishing. Long ago, in the days when the women’s movement was at its zenith, when Virago was just starting up and people were looking for heroines, she had the idea for the Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Women’s Biography. It sprang from her work compiling a list of reference books.  She had wondered aloud why so few included women, and a dismissive fellow-editor challenged her to write one.  Piqued, she did just that. Surprisingly, perhaps, the book is still in print, in its fourth edition: ‘These days, we are much more aware of the role of women.  There still need to be more women in publishing, and reviewing, but I had hoped, even then, that it would soon be unnecessary.’

There have been occasions when publishers refused to commission the books she wanted to write, but as her reputation grew she began to be allowed to do what she wanted. Her latest book, to be published in November, is about the lives of ordinary people during the Napoleonic Wars. It is to be called In These Times. Uglow is certainly is a woman of her times: lively, endearingly modest and interested in everything around her.  She bats away praise, insisting, again and again: ‘I’ve been so lucky.’ Her friend Hermione Lee has called her ‘the person on whom nothing is wasted’, and she is touched to hear that. ‘How sweet,’ she says, ‘…but I haven’t a clue what it means.’

Sue Gaisford is the former literary editor of ‘The Tablet’.


Related RSL Fellows

Jenny Uglow 1998