The Auto / Bio / Fiction Series: Laura Cernat and Varsha Panjwani

For the last event of 2022, we continue our Auto / Bio / Fiction series of talks and seminars with Laura Cernat and Varsha Panjwani.

15 December 2022, 5.30pm UTC (online)

Varsha Panjwani, The Many Lives of Judith Shakespeare: Feminist Life-Writings

In her widely-read feminist essay, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf famously conjures a sister for William Shakespeare: ‘Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say’. Woolf then proceeds to write a biography of Judith, Shakespeare’s imagined sister, who follows him to London but is denied the same opportunities as her brother and, in frustration, kills herself.

However, this imaginary sister is far from dead. In Virginia Woolf Icon, Brenda R. Silver famously writes that ‘Virginia Woolf is everywhere’. In my paper, I will demonstrate that Judith Shakespeare is everywhere from Marilyn French’s novel, The Women’s Room, to Emma Whipday’s play, Shakespeare’s Sister; from Suzanne Belamy’s collage to a song by The Smiths; from Lesli Linka Glatter’s movie, The Proposition, to Nickelodeon’s animated television series, Doug. What is also interesting is that as Judith Shakespeare reincarnates, writers variously add historical detail to the fictional biography, fictionalize their own struggles against patriarchy through her, or even imagine Virginia Woolf herself as Shakespeare’s sister.

Thus, Judith Shakespeare has become the site of multiple fictional biographies, biographical fictions, and autobiographical fictions. I contend that this is the case because, in writing Judith Shakespeare, Woolf has created a malleable hybrid form of life-writing that resists neat categories and thus becomes a template for the feminist project of writing and articulating the historically ignored facets of women’s lives.

Laura Cernat, Portraits of the Artist’s Wife in a Slanted Mirror: Reader, Mother, Lover, Sorceress

In Jay Parini’s The Last Station (1990), Sophia Tolstaya bitterly reflects about her world-famous husband: “Lyovochka wanted a reader, not a wife. […] And now he wants other readers […] So I am useless.” (122) Taking its cue from this apparent tension between intellectual companionship and emotional and domestic support, this talk uses four examples from contemporary biofiction to call into question received ideas about writers’ wives.

First, building on fragments from Tolstaya’s diaries, memoir, and biography, I argue that even a well written and mostly factually accurate biofiction like Parini’s can perpetuate some misogynistic biases, as it brushes aside Tolstoy’s wife’s roles as reader, editor, and copyist to paint her in the hues of possessiveness and hysteria. Second, I address a novel that separates the wife from the reader, favouring the former: by opposing Frederick Douglass’s alleged lover, Ottilie Assing, who considers herself “the wife of his spirit” (229), to Anna, Douglass’s wife and the mother of his children, who despite being illiterate becomes the voice of morality, honesty, and dedication, Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Douglass’ Women (2002) casts doubt upon romanticized notions about the loves of writers. In a similar vein, my third case study, Nuala O’Connor’s Nora (2021), glorifies Nora Barnacle’s down-to-earth, no-nonsense attitude, and uses her perspective to bring the monumental James Joyce down to human scale.

If these examples undermine the idea of a “marriage of true minds”, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (2020) restores it, fictionalizing Shakespeare’s wife as a healer with an acute sense for the otherworldly and a keen appreciation for her husband’s art. One cannot help but wonder, though, why this harmonic vision is also, inevitably, the most speculative one. Is the ideal only visible in a slanted mirror?


Attendance is free but booking is required to receive a link to attend. (The Zoom link will be sent shortly before the event itself: check the email with which you registered!) BOOKING IS NOW CLOSED

Watch the video of the seminar:


The speakers

Dr Varsha Panjwani is the host and creator of the award-winning ‘Women & Shakespeare’ podcast and the author of Podcasts and Feminist Shakespeare Pedagogy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022). Her teaching and research focus on the way in which Shakespeare is deployed in the service of feminism and how that, in turn, invigorates Shakespeare. She has published on these topics in international journals including Shakespeare Survey and Shakespeare Studies, and in edited collections such as Shakespeare, Race and Performance, Shakespeare and Indian Cinema, Eating Shakespeare: Cultural Anthropophagy as Global Methodology, and The Arden Research Handbook to Shakespeare and Adaptation. She is the co-editor of Re-contextualizing Indian Shakespeare Cinema in the West: Familiar Strangers (London: Arden, forthcoming 2023) and a special issue of Multicultural Shakespeare. She was one of the four principal organizers of the multi-grant-winning conference and film festival, ‘Indian Shakespeares on Screen’ in collaboration with the BFI Southbank and Asia House (UK), and the National Film Archives of India and INOX Movies (India). She has won grants from the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Society of Theatre Research, and the Society of Renaissance Studies and prizes for digital innovation in Shakespeare teaching. She has been invited for public and research lectures by numerous institutions such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe, The Shakespeare Institute, the Jaipur Literary Festival at the British Library, the London School of Economics, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Oxford. She is currently writing the Introduction for the Oxford World Classics edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and working on a book provisionally titled, The Many Lives of Judith Shakespeare, which examines the vigorous afterlife of the imaginary sister that Virginia Woolf created for Shakespeare.

Laura Cernat is an FWO (Flemish Research Foundation) postdoctoral researcher at KU Leuven, Belgium, who obtained her PhD in 2022 with a thesis on the portrayal of canonical authors in biofiction. She has contributed to the volumes Virginia Woolf and Heritage (2017), Theory in the “Post” Era (2021), and Imagining Gender in Biographical Fiction (2022), has published in the journals Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly and Partial Answers, and has guest-edited a forthcoming issue of American Book Review on autofiction and autotheory. In September 2021 she organized the hybrid bilingual conference Biofiction as World Literature.