Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina
Professor of English, former dean of the Commonwealth Honors College, and Paul Murray Kendall Chair in Biography at UMass Amherst, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina is a prolific author and media host. She has written or edited nine books. From 1997 to 2012 she hosted the nationally-syndicated public radio program "The Book Show," and interviewed guests like Toni Morrison, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, A.S. Byatt, Salman Rushdie, Tracy Chevalier, Maya Angelou, and Philip Roth. In 2020, she has experienced heightened interest in her work as writer specializing in Black British Studies.
As a writer, you’ve described yourself as, “drawn to biographies and lives of those who cross boundaries of history, time, place or race…” Why are you pulled to these subjects? Does your personal experience inform the topics you approach as a writer?
Because I am biracial, I’ve always been intrigued by lives of border crossers. My first book, a biography of the painter Dora Carrington, aligned with the Bloomsbury Group in England, was about the life of a bisexual woman whose life began in the Victorian period and ended in the Jazz Age. Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote The Secret Garden and 52 other books, mostly for adults, lived her fifteen years in northern England before her mother moved the family to Tennessee in the last months of the Civil War. Both England and America claim her. I’ve done three books on early Black Britain, and many of the people in them began as enslaved and moved into freedom. And when I was writing Mr. and Mrs. Prince, I made the astonishing discovery that my white ancestral family had owned Abijah Prince. So all these lines cross and converge in surprising ways. In fact, people rarely realize that I’m the same person who wrote the books they’ve read about white people and the books I’ve written about black people.
In 2016, your ten-part radio series “Britain’s Black Past” aired on BBC’s Radio 4. You’ve also written and edited many books on Black British Studies, including Black London: Life Before Emancipation, Black Victorians/Black Victoriana, and your latest book, published in April, and also named Britain’s Black Past. This has positioned you as an expert on the historical experiences and stories of Black peoples in the UK. How has this played out recently, in light of the global upsurge in the Black Lives Matter movement? Have you been contacted to provide your insight and add historical context to the movement?
It’s amazing to me how sometimes you’re toiling away in a particular area, when suddenly your work becomes newly relevant. Hardly a week goes by now without my being asked to deliver a keynote (in either the UK or the US), give a lecture, appear on the radio or on a podcast, write an article, or edit a book. It could be a full-time job. BLM has caused a resurgence of interest in history and reading, and it’s gratifying to see the British, in particular, so involved. Of course Black British people have written and read about this for a long time, but now other organizations and publishers have taken this on as well. I’ve even been approached by three different filmmakers about using my work. I’m part of a wonderful group of mainly British art curators and historians who are collecting information about Blacks in British paintings, with an eye to identifying the sitters into a database and hopefully organizing a future exhibition and getting materials to students and educators.
What is the focus of your book Britain’s Black Past and how did you approach it?
The book was published in April, and it has chapters by eighteen different contributors. After I did the BBC Radio 4 series of the same name, it occurred to me that there were so many people doing wonderful new research on Black British history that it would be great to get them into one book. They came from all different backgrounds and perspectives. A museum curator in Wales wrote about a very wealthy mixed-race man who was the first British sheriff, but also the inheritor of a slave plantation. The actor Paterson Joseph wrote about developing his one-man play on Ignatius Sancho, the eighteen-century shop owner, composer, and writer who was the first Black man in Britain to cast a vote. I wrote about new discoveries researchers are making about Dido Elizabeth Belle, about whom the film Belle was based. Editing a book and getting all the contributors in line and on time is harder than writing a book of one’s own.
You’ve also written about the experiences of Black Americans, including in your book Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Eighteenth-Century Family Moved out of Slavery and into Legend. How do the stories of Black and African peoples in British and American histories overlap? How do they diverge?
Many enslaved and free Black people made their way to Britain before and during the eighteenth century, some of them, like Olaudah Equiano, who became quite well known. Many were brought there from West Indian plantations by slaveowners. Many were sailors. Others were from America who went in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, having been offered freedom and a pension for serving on the British side. Not all those promises were kept. For a long time there were more men than women, so many of the black men married working class white women; there were never laws against interracial marriages in Britain. Without slavery on its own soil, there were great differences between the British as colonizers, especially in the West Indies, and Americans. In the nineteenth century American activists like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells spent a lot of time in Britain, fighting for abolitionist and anti-lynching causes. But we should remember that the British, at least initially, supported the South in the Civil War, because our cotton fueled their industrial economy through their textile mills. When I discovered a forgotten novel from 1893 by an African American woman, one of the things that most struck me was that her book took place in an England she’d never seen, but that she was entirely influenced by white authors like Dickens and Thackeray. So the influence went both ways.
What keynote speeches have you been asked to deliver recently?
I’ve recently given, or have been invited to give, talks at MIT, the University of Exeter, Oxford, the Dickens Universe conference, the British Association for Victorian Studies, and nearer home, the Authors and Artists festival. Upcoming talks will be for the Five College Faculty Seminar on Book History, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and a short talk at the “What’s Happening in Black British History” conference, and some others. That’s in addition to being asked to write five or six articles and edit a book or two.
You’ve also been involved with “The BP2 Podcast,” a series from the Black Presence in British Portraiture network of scholars, museum professionals, and collectors. What is the focus of the podcast?
The podcast grew out of the enthusiasm of Michael Ohajuru, who gives museum talks in London, along with some of the members of the group. When they realized that I have an extensive radio hosting background, I was suddenly made the presenter. The first episode is up now, as they say, “wherever you get your podcasts.” It featured the actor Paterson Joseph talking about the Gainsborough portrait of Ignatius Sancho. We just recorded with second episode with the art historian Leslie Primo, who was talking about the Jan Gossaert painting “The Adoration of the Magi,” which has two black figures in it. The group “The Black Presence in British Portraiture” group was organized by Miranda Kaufmann, whose book Black Tudors is getting a lot of attention in the UK.
What can you tell us about “Private Passions,” the BBC radio series on which you’ve appeared as a guest?
Oh, that was such fun! The program is a weekly show similar to the “Desert Island Discs,” if you’re familiar with that, except that “Private Passions” guests select classical music that is important to them. The guest gets the whole hour. The host interviews you about your life and your musical selections, and play clips of the pieces you chose. I’ve never been interviewed by someone with such a mellifluous voice before. The best part was spending weeks trying to figure out what songs to choose. I ended up with a few songs by early Black composers, and pieces by Purcell, Corelli, Beethoven, and others, including “Blackbird” by the Beatles since they give you one popular selection.
A feature film adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden was recently released. You've written Burnett's biography as well as edited editions of The Secret Garden. What drew you to Burnett as a writer?
When I was first asked to write about Burnett, I said ‘yes’ immediately because of my fond memories of reading The Secret Garden as a child. What I didn’t realize at the time was that she was a prolific writer, beginning with Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1886. Although we know her today for those books and A Little Princess, she was mainly a writer for adults, and the highest paid woman writer of her time. She traveled back and forth between the UK and US, and when her ships landed there was always horde of reporters waiting for her. By the time I’d done all the research for that article I thought I might as well keep going, so I wrote her biography. I’ve since done three editions of The Secret Garden; the latest came out a year ago with Library of America, and included all three of those well-known children’s books [The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and The Little Princess]. I haven’t seen the new film yet, but have been following the reviews.
Are there any other new projects on the horizon?
I’ve just signed a contract to write a book on early Black British women for Columbia University Press. It’s about pre-twentieth century Black women who married Englishmen; the first one I found was in the 16th century. Then I put those real women with real lives alongside the way that Black women were represented on stage, in art, and in literature. To look at those representations you’d think that the British never laid eyes on actual women of color, even though there were those living among them. I’m really looking forward to finishing this.
And I’m also trying to finish my memoir about growing up biracial in Springfield—at a time when my sister and I only knew two other mixed families. Look around today, it’s hard for people to imagine such a different time.