America had its fabled Algonquin Round Table of literary leading lights, England its renowned Bloomsbury Group. Now Charleston seeks a new legacy of its own.
The Bloomsbury set, which convened at a small farmhouse named “Charleston” in the East Sussex countryside during the first half of the last century, was legendary for the intellectuals whose interactions during the first half of the 20th century had as much to do with social experimentation as with their work. Writers such as Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, T.S. Eliot and Lytton Strachey at various times lived, worked or studied together with such painters as Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.
For the past 30 years, their legacy has been sustained at the same modest farmhouse, thanks to the Charleston Trust UK’s annual Charleston Festival, a literary and artistic gathering widely regarded as the best small festival in England.
On November 2 – 5, the Charleston Library Society, in concert with the Charleston Trust, will present the inaugural Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival here, featuring an appearance by British novelist, playwright and screenwriter William Nicholson. Joining him are such distinguished countrymen as novelists Jeanette Winterson and Bernard Cornwell (a part-time Lowcountry resident), journalist Miranda Sawyer, poet and novelist Ben Okri, writer-director and former Globe Theatre impresario Dominic Dromgoole, art historian Frances Spalding, Virginia Nicholson (granddaughter of Vanessa Bell), and Juliet Nicolson (granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West).
Joining them in the new festival’s programming are such respected local luminaries as historian and biographer Barbara Bellows Rockefeller, author and academic Dr. Nan Morrison, and Carter Hudgins, chief of the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust.
An august assembly, to say the least, and a feather in the cap for the Society. Founded in 1748, it is the South’s oldest cultural institution and the second oldest circulating library in the United States, with programs centering on literature, history and music. To begin, its festival focus will omit the latter.
The association between the two festivals is a natural, says Library Society executive director Anne Cleveland, given our city’s own history as the seat of the Charleston Renaissance (1915 – 1940), famous for its collection of innovative writers, artists and composers, which included DuBose Heyward, Josephine Pinckney, Alfred Hutty and George Gershwin.
“I can foresee us developing a partnering relationship, though somewhat smaller, like that of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston and Spoleto, Italy,” Cleveland says. “Even if we just break even financially, it’s an enhancement for the Library Society and for Charleston. The more ‘street cred’ we get by hosting internationally recognized authors, historians and screenwriters, the better chance the Library has of attracting other accomplished speakers. It also gives us a chance to show off our local talent.”
The festival was announced earlier this year by an event at the Dock Street Theatre featuring William Nicholson and Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. Highlighting November’s presentations is a premiere screening of two-time Oscar nominee Nicholson’s new film, Breathe, for which he will offer opening remarks and a Q&A.
Cleveland was approached three years ago by Anglo-American arts dealer Deborah Gage, founder of the Charleston Festival UK on her family’s estate, with the idea of collaborating. Cleveland was responsible for all organization facets of the festival until handing the reins to novelist Leah Rhyne as her associate and festival director.
“It’s been a journey, but a win-win proposition from my perspective,” Cleveland says. “I don’t believe today’s Charleston appreciates the literary arts as much as the performance and visual arts. So we are hoping that this will help us position November as Literary Month in the city.”
For a complete event description and schedule, visit charlestonlibrarysociety.org.
Bill Thompson is the author of Art and Craft: 30 Years on the Literary Beat.