‘Your New Hospital for the Intellectuals’: The Literary Salon as an Alternative Space for War (Public lecture, 30th September)


Detail from Cafe Wepler by Edouard Vuillard

Detail from Café Wepler, oil painting by Édouard Vuillard, 1908-10 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The seventh talk in our Late Summer Lecture series will take you inside the drawing and dining rooms of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. According to Katherine Cooper (Newcastle University), literary dining clubs provided a space where writers, especially those in exile, could celebrate their country’s culture or criticise fascist regimes back home. The lecture starts at 17.30 in Alington House, with free refreshments from 17.00; there is no need to book and all are welcome.

This lecture will look at how the long-standing tradition of the literary salon took on a new guise in the inter-war period as a branch of Europe’s cultural armoury. The French poet Paul Valéry wrote in 1919 that ‘thousands of young writers and artists have died; the illusion of a European culture has been lost, and knowledge has been proved impotent to save anything whatsoever’ (22), voicing for the first time the increasingly popular opinion that culture, particularly literary culture, in Europe was being destroyed by a growing wave of inhumanity or anti-intellectualism. I discuss how in the 1920s and 1930s, as this point of view grew in popularity, the living rooms and drawing rooms of London and other cities were mobilised by British writers as meeting spaces and spaces of cultural resistance and renewal. These evening drinks receptions and literary dining clubs became spaces where writers-in-exile could celebrate their country’s culture or criticise fascist regimes in ways in which they could not at home.

Katherine will look at how these salons are depicted in both fiction and autobiographical writing of the time and discuss how British writers such as H.G. Wells, Graham Greene, Storm Jameson, Phyllis Bottome used these spaces to meet with and encourage other writers exiled to Britain from across Europe during the interwar years. She argues that important networks were forged in these domestic spaces which functioned to aid the escape of writers facing persecution across Europe and to give practical support with producing and publishing work in the UK.

Late Summer Lectures runs every Wednesday at 17.30 at Alington House, Durham, from 19th August to 7th October. All are warmly welcome to attend; see the full programme here. You can also download podcasts of lectures from previous series.

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