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The Spider’s Web

11 October 2023 - 1 November 2023

10.45–12.45 Wednesdays

£73.00 – £244.00

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“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners” Virginia Woolf

All the writers in this short series draw inspiration and support from those closest to them. Where would Jane Austen have been without the support of her sister Cassandra, or Virginia Woolf without the stimulus of Vanessa Bell? Burney, Austen and Woolf are fortunate in their sisters. With no close siblings, for a good twenty years Johnson and Thrale find reliable inspiration and entertainment in each other. For each of these writers it is true that, in the famous words of John Donne, no man is an island.

“Delightful course”

Course Outline

11 October 2023 “I Cannot Help Scribbling” Frances (Fanny) Burney, later Madame D’Arblay (1752-1840)
Fanny Burney, shy second daughter of music historian Dr Charles Burney, didn’t learn to read till she was 9 but then compulsively scribbled away during her long, active and adventurous life. Fanny’s younger sister Susan, herself a diarist, was a tremendous support and confidante. Fanny was also assisted by a phenomenal memory for conversations, which bring late l8th century London to vivid life in her novels and her famous journals.


18 October 2023
“The Rattlesnake and The Elephant” The story of the friendship between Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84) and Hester Thrale, (1741-1820) author, blue stocking and wit
Dr Samuel Johnson’s long companionship with the brewer’s wife Hester Thrale, bluestocking and later herself a published author, soothed “twenty years of a life radically wretched”. This he would later acknowledge, after their estrangement on account of her second marriage. Inspired by the Thrales’ family life, Johnson composed light-hearted extempore verses. To their eldest daughter he wrote “Wear the gown and wear the hat, Snatch thy pleasures while they last; hadst thou nine lives like a cat, Soon those nine lives would be past”. He would support Hester after the tragic death of her son Harry; she would support him in daily life. They would compete in writing verses for mutual entertainment.


25 October 2023
“She was the Sun of my Life” (Cassandra Austen on her sister) Jane Austen: life, letters, early works
It was not until the last years of her life that Jane Austen won fame. Much of her adult life was spent “no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire-screen” (Mary Mitford). Many pleasures sustained her; a real love of country life, strong family affections, a love of reading and, not least, her older sister Cassandra, whom Jane once described as “the finest letter-writer of the age”. And we will never know the extent to which Cassandra Austen may have edited, and even contributed to her sister’s novels…


01 November 2023
“The Trees Wave, The Clouds Pass” Virginia Woolf on life and art
Virginia Woolf never painted or drew. But she is hugely influenced by her older sister, ambitious and dedicated artist Vanessa Bell (“Do you think we have the same pair of eyes, only different spectacles?”) and by art critic Roger Fry. These friendships, and others, would stimulate her passionate visual curiosity. “Both writer and artist want to make us see” she writes to the painter Walter Sickert. “The writer is always asking himself “how can I get the sun onto my page?” And she feels that what she does best as a writer is to recreate visual scenes.


11 October 2023
1 November 2023
£73.00 – £244.00
Course Category:


Karen Fernald


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