On the NYR Daily this week
Today, Jenny Uglow reviews “Oceania,” an exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts celebrating the diverse art of the islands covering over a third of the earth’s surface, including Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, from the historic to the contemporary.
Something I’ve always found striking about editing Uglow is that her prose is so easy and elegantly conversational. One gets the impression, reading even her first drafts, that her thoughts come fully formed as eloquent sentences. Because it always feels a pleasure to read her, I asked Uglow if she enjoys writing—if what can be a torturous process for many is a walk in the park for her?
“The structure is the difficult bit,” she told me. “After that I don’t think about how I write—perhaps more about how I read. If I imagine my best friend beside me, equally curious, puzzled or amused, then writing becomes sharing, not informing. Two things have helped me. In my twenties, I taught evening classes for the Workers Educational Association to groups that responded very directly and personally to books in a way that was quite different to my academic training, and I thought, ‘Yes, this is how most people read. These are the people I want to write for.’
“The second,” she went on, “was Elizabeth Gaskell’s advice to a young novelist, not to intrude your ideas but to see events in front of you, like an accident in the street: ‘If you but think eagerly of your story till you see it in action, words, good simple strong words, will come.’ At least one hopes so.”
Uglow has covered a wide range of arts for the NYR Daily, from Rembrandt to Modigliani to Grayson Perry to a collection of artful rubber stamps, and much more. I asked what struck her most about “Oceania,” and what background work she did for a review like this. “I was stunned by this powerful exhibition, with its sense of the waves of time and overlapping beliefs,” she said. “I was particularly moved by the canoes and the sense of the endlessly rolling sea, and the solid, sturdy gods. I researched places, history, and stories behind the objects, but I also wanted to find out what it felt like for Picasso to see these Polynesian figures in 1907. It was like being in a tradition of amazed—and humbled—Western viewers.”
For many years, Uglow worked as editorial director of Chatto & Windus. “I absolutely loved working in publishing, especially watching young authors blossom into impressive, independent writers,” she said. “Again, it’s about reading. Editors are simply the first readers, appreciative but not afraid to point out where things are confused, or where the pace sags, or the structure is awkward. It’s like being in the wings, preparing your star to go out into the limelight. And I feel just the same about my books—I want to keep behind the scenes and let the subject strut out and take a bow.”
Her own books have included biographies of George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Hogarth, and most recently, Edward Lear. I wondered how she chose her subjects, and how she found the process of writing another’s life. “My subjects look different,” she explained, “but with hindsight I see that that they are all radical, stroppy characters, prepared to challenge authority, like the wilful creatures of Edward Lear’s limericks confronting the conventional, oppressive ‘They.’ They amaze me, and often make me laugh, and they move me by their personal struggles and the way they fight to change attitudes.
“When I wrote about eighteenth-century scientists in The Lunar Men I was astonished that they weren’t as famous as the Romantic poets. And in In These Times, I wanted to try and see what it was like for ‘ordinary’ people to live through the long, twenty years of the Napoleonic Wars—there were so many untold stories.”
“There’s no real process of ‘choosing’ my subjects,” she explained. “They just swim up out of my curiosity, and I know I want to write about them. And you are right, there are problems in inhabiting these lives, as you can become too close and partisan. I try to be wary of this, but it is a real trap.”
Perhaps it’s something about the sense of closeness to the material—a kind of bemused appreciation for life’s inexhaustible wonders—that makes reading Uglow so enjoyable. And when she’s not writing, how does she spend her time? “I have a large family, with grandchildren nearby, wonderfully time-absorbing. And I spend a lot of time gardening, which is totally mind-clearing. My husband and I also escape to our small house in the Lake District, where my family come from—I love the mountains and walking the fells. And, of course, I read…”
What is she working on now? “I’m fascinated by the relation between words and images, hence Hogarth, Bewick, and Lear. I’ve just written a short book on Walter Crane, the father of children’s book illustration and also a pioneering socialist, for a series on great illustrators. Now I’m embarking on the story of two avant-garde lino-cut artists of the 1930s, Cyril Power and Sybil Andrews—it’s about unconventional lives, the love of speed and the modern, and the growing shadow of war… at least I think it is, but let’s see!”
With such an enthusiastic output, it’s no surprise her sentences are so fluent. I know I’ll look forward to reading more.