For the 7th year in a row, St Hilda's is presenting its own dedicated day at the Oxford Literary Festival with all its own alumnae.

With Elizabeth Edmondson and Bettany HughesNicolette Jones, centre, with the late Elizabeth Edmondson, and historian Bettany Hughes at a previous St Hilda's Writers' Day

By Nicolette Jones
(English, St Hilda's)

On Saturday 9th April, St Hilda’s will host its seventh annual Writers’ Day as part of the Oxford Literary Festival, with four events featuring only its own alumnae. St Hilda’s is still the only college to do this, which surprises me, as instigator and organiser, along with my fellow committee members in the St Hilda’s Media Network.  

We thought that our initiative would instantly be imitated, from the very first year, since it offers so many obvious benefits. It showcases the organising college, and allows it to bask in the reflected glory of its distinguished graduates. It offers members of college a programme they can feel proud of and attend with old friends, and so becomes a networking opportunity (especially since St Hilda’s has always attached to the programme a dinner, or drinks, or at least a morning coffee).  All colleges are in the habit of inviting alumni back to speak, but appearing under the umbrella of the Festival offers them the chance to reach a wider general audience – and sell more books. Meanwhile the Festival is glad to consolidate its ties with the University, and to profit from a college’s own networks to publicise its events.With Elizabeth Edmondson and Bettany HughesHannah Rothschild will discuss her latest novel, The Improbability of Love 

The only reason, we assume, why this has not caught on, is that it takes some organisation, and everyone behind it is a volunteer. St Hilda’s is fortunate in having a vital Media Network, with a diligent and proactive committee. They were prepared to put in the effort. I already had work connections with the Literary Festival when I became Chair of the Network, and bringing the two together to the advantage of both was a logical step.

Because of the particular history of St Hilda’s, there is also another plus.  As the College only went mixed in 2008, most of our eminent ex-students and Fellows are still female.  It means that the St Hilda’s strand of programming has featured, uniquely, panels of three women chaired by a woman – including actors, poets, novelists, biographers, journalists, broadcasters, children’s writers, filmmakers, politicians, historians and academics - discussing subjects that were not in themselves gendered.  A panel that considered the state of education, for instance, involved former Education Minister Gillian Shephard, and newsreader Zeinab Badawi  (then trustee of the New College of the Humanities), with historian and campaigner for the classics in schools Bettany Hughes, chaired by Sunday Times Deputy Editor Sarah Baxter.  Or, this year, we have a quartet of alumnae discussing the art of the short story. They are Helen Simpson, Frances Leviston (shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award) and Kirsty Gunn, author of My Katherine Mansfield Project, chaired by the Guardian’s Literary Editor Claire Armitstead.  Since the College got involved, this has contributed significantly to the gender balance of the Festival as a whole.With Elizabeth Edmondson and Bettany HughesThe Guardian’s Literary Editor Claire Armitstead, who is participating this year

There have been 29 events over the years, in which St Hilda’s women have discussed, for example:  scriptwriting, how to make a living as an author, the ideas that make our society, the use of history in novels, the legacy of Mrs Thatcher, writing comedy, classical dance, the philosophy of Socrates, the poetry of place, the value of genre fiction and the relative merits of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie.

St Hilda’s is not unique in having an illustrious roster of writers to call upon (despite its pride in, say, former lecturer William Boyd, crime novelist Val McDermid, and such Fellows as Lyndall Gordon and Selina Todd). But it has also had other trumpets to blow: it is the headquarters of the Barbara Pym Society and the host of an annual Mystery and Crime Weekend.  Regulars at the Crime jamboree (including some men) have participated. And, memorably, alumna and actor Triona Adams as Barbara Pym read her correspondence with Philip Larkin, read by Oliver Ford Davies (who has played Larkin and happens to be the father of an alumna).the Guardian’s Literary Editor Claire ArmitsteadAlumna and actor Triona Adams as Barbara Pym read her correspondence with Oliver Ford Davies as Philip Larkin at a previous event

St Hilda’s Media Network, incidentally, agreed to pay all its participants a nominal fee this year, despite making no income from ticket sales, before Philip Pullman resigned over the issue of payment for writers.

This year’s four events – ranging from Chinese history to the life of Catullus – and taking place in the Jesus College Lecture Theatre in the Ship Street Centre, can be found on the www.oxfordliteraryfestival.org website by searching the word ‘Hilda’. All are welcome to watch how we do it, and then steal St Hilda’s’ pioneering idea. 

With Elizabeth Edmondson and Bettany Hughes

Oxford alumni can claim a 10 per cent discount on tickets to the 2016 FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival. Further details at: https://www.alumni.ox.ac.uk/events/ft-weekend-oxford-literary-festival-2016

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Images © Nicolette Jones, Oxford University Images, Hannah Rothschild, The Guardian

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