|Thomas Wyatt, by Hans Holbein the Younger|
One of the most interesting events I attended last term was a slightly belated book launch (viewable here) for the Wolfson Prize-winning Thomas Wyatt: The Heart’s Forest, by my former undergraduate tutor Susan Brigden. It was organised by a new institution which has rather burst upon the scene here – TORCH, or The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities, an interdisciplinary enterprise based in the refurbished 18C Radcliffe Infirmary.
Events relating to new books normally take one of two forms in Oxford – seminar or party. At a seminar, the author presents a précis of the work in a formal academic setting in the form of a paper, and is then politely grilled by an audience of peers and students. At a party, plenty of wine and nibbles are served in some smart college room, discounted copies of the book made available, and brief speeches made by a bashful author and an eager publisher.
TORCH has however been pioneering a new kind of book event, which steers a middle way between these two models. At the Heart’s Forest evening, in a rare assembly of historical talent, a panel consisting of Diarmaid MacCulloch, Chris Stamatakis, David Starkey and Susan Brigden herself sat on the stage in St. Anne’s auditorium. The panellists each gave a speech – something in between an encomium and a personal reflection on the nature of 16C England. Susan, in her response, talked frankly about the intimacy with which a biographer lives with their subject (his loves, spiritual crises and felonies), and reflected on what she might change in the book, having finally achieved ‘closure’ on Wyatt. The panel – three of them once fellow doctoral students under the legendary G.R. Elton – then launched into an informal but eye-opening discussion about why Tudor England mattered, and how strong our grasp of that period is. Starkey saw in Henry’s court the heroic origins of a modern English identity; McCullough insisted that Tudor England was still entirely on the margins of Europe; they argued about the role of Reformation theology and of loyalty to the Tudor dynasty. And then we all had a glass of wine.
It is hard to entice academics into a space where they can address the big questions in their field, speak about the personalities who have moulded their own careers, articulate something of the emotional rollercoaster of writing a big book, and reflect on cutting-edge interdisciplinary methodology – let alone all at once. Perhaps by innovating with the form and shape of academic meetings, organisations like TORCH can also encourage new patterns of thought, and provide new templates for scholarly conversations… without losing the celebratory conviviality of the traditional launch party.