History of the Upper Wimpole Street Literary Salon
By Sarah Glazer
The idea of a Salon for women writers in London was originally the brainchild of Diane Middlebrook, (1939-2007), a literary critic, poet, and biographer, most well-known for her ground-breaking biography of Anne Sexton and a joint biography of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Her Husband.
When Diane retired as a professor of English from Stanford University in 2002 to become a full-time biographer, she was looking for an intellectual community that could replace her academic circle during the six months of each year that she spent in London. Diane often said that something interesting and unique, intellectually, happened in a roomful of women, and she was determined to recreate that atmosphere with a Salon. Writing in the Guardian, biographer and Salon member Carole Angier described the London Salon as “a who’s who of Anglo-American literary life that was both serious and great fun, a typical Middlebrook combination.”
The Salon started with a core group of biographers meeting in a writer’s home and soon provided an opportunity for Diane and other writers in her circle, including such distinguished authors as Eva Hoffman, to share a work in progress and get feedback from the group.
As an American journalist newly arrived in London from New York in the fall of 2006, what I found was a space where writers could test their work against sharply critical minds in a supportive atmosphere. In Diane’s living room, feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter shared with us a poem she had just discovered by the under-appreciated writer and American Civil War-era suffragette/abolitionist Julia Ward Howe. Elaine asked if those of us in the room were as impressed as she was by the quality of this little-known poem, found while researching her biography that would become The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe.
Tragically, after a long battle with cancer, Diane died on Dec. 15, 2007, in the midst of writing a biography of Ovid. Since Diane had been the driving force behind the Salon, it was not clear whether the group would survive. But it was missed.
The Upper Wimpole Street Literary Salon is Born
In 2009, two Salon members, myself (journalist Sarah Glazer) and novelist/translator Jenny McPhee, decided to revive the Salon, with help from biographer Miranda Seymour and screenwriter/director Erin Cramer. Urging us on was Kamy Wicoff, a former London Salon member who had co-founded with Nancy K. Miller a New York Salon modeled after Diane’s and had started an online forum for women writers to share work and tips, shewrites.com, which now boasts thousands of members.
Our first event, on Feb. 3, 2010, featured authors Carole Angier and Sally Cline discussing their just-published manual, The Arvon Book of Life Writing: Writing Biography, Autobiography and Memoir. It was held at my home on Upper Wimpole Street, lending a new name to the London Salon. That first discussion established the kind of informal and frank exchange that would characterize later Salon events, as writers shared their dilemmas over an ethical question that pursues biographers and memoirists: Is your loyalty to your reader or to your subject—especially when it involves family and friends?
Among our Salon speakers in the first two years were Hilary Spurling, discussing her biography Pearl Buck in China; Deborah Moggach on her scriptwriting for films including Pride and Prejudice; Ruth Padel on writing poetry; Lyndall Gordon on her biography of Emily Dickinson; Maggie Gee on her memoir My Animal Life; and Elaine Showalter and Miranda Seymour discussing “Women Writers and Self-Promotion—A Historical Perspective.”
On June 22, 2011, the Salon held a book launch for a collection of essays by Salon members Remembering Diane Middlebrook, edited by Hilary Spurling and Carole Angier. Contributors included Elaine Showalter, Sally Cline, Sarah Glazer, Margaret Drabble, Maggie Gee and Nancy Miller.
Through word of mouth, the membership of the Salon increased from about 50 women writers to over 200. But the format of the Salon remained the same—a few dozen of us gathering to socialize and discuss works by another writer or panel of writers in a give-and-take of peers engaged in the craft of writing. Our group expanded to include journalists, graphic novelists, historians, fiction writers, poets and memoirists, as well as editors. The Salon also branched out to offer workshops in memoir writing and scriptwriting, hosted at Persephone Books.
Salon Gets New Leadership: 2018
In the summer of 2018, I moved back to the United States and handed the leadership baton over to novelist/poet Catherine Davidson who had been co-organizing the Salon since Jenny McPhee returned to New York. Catherine assembled a diverse committee of Salon members to bring in future speakers, and the website was revamped. Two new event venues were established, one in North London, the other in South, to accomodate a growing number of members from all parts of the city. Yet the Salon retained its name and, more importantly, kept its core mission to serve as a meeting place, sounding board and community for women writers of all kinds.
And so the Salon continues, through changes of personnel and changes of location, drawing writers together to discuss the live issues of writing, just as it did in the beginning. What is the secret sauce that has made the Salon so successful? New members often tell us that it’s the inclusive atmosphere they find at their first Salon—an atmosphere welcoming to both well-known and novice writers. (Perhaps one of our secrets was making everyone wear a nametag to break the ice!) Through the Salon, women have found new friends, colleagues, mentors and professional associates. We’ve often been astounded that just a few minutes into the evening the room becomes a babble of engaged conversation among people who’ve never met before.
As so many of us know, writing can be a lonely profession. And women writers often lack the support of an old boys’ network—or any network at all. We hope that the Salon continues to be a welcoming home for women who commit words to paper and computer screens.