The Origins of the British Comparative Literature Association

Constitution of the British Comparative Literature Association

The BCLA came into being in 1975, at an international conference at the University of East Anglia, organised by Elinor Shaffer and James Macfarlane, who was the founding Dean of the School of European Studies. UEA was an ideal place to host such an event, having a thriving Arts Faculty with such well-known names as Malcolm Bradbury, Christopher Bigsby and Lorna Sage teaching English and American Studies. Also lecturing in European Literature at UEA was Max Sebald, who was later to found the British Centre for Literary Translation.

Plenary speakers at the inaugural conference included Rene Wellek and Jan Kott, and over 250 participants from across the world gathered for 5 days to offer a wide variety of perspectives on comparative literature. During the conference an ad hoc meeting was announced, chaired by Anthony Thorlby, Professor of European Literature at the University of Sussex, at which it was decided​ to found a British comparative literature association that would be affiliated to the International Comparative Literature Association.

Anthony Thorlby agreed to be the founding Chair of the new association, known as the BCLA, and a small committee was elected from among the people present in the room. Professor Siegbert Prawer became the first President of the new association.
The initial committee comprised  Susan Bassnett (Warwick), David Bellos (Edinburgh), Simon Curtis (Manchester) Eva Fox-Gal (York) Christopher Heywood (Sheffield ) James Macfarlane and Elinor Shaffer (UEA) and Siegbert Prawer (Oxford) and then gradually increased as interest in the subject and the field began to grow.

Meetings were held at the Institute of Germanic Studies in Russell Square, London, and it was agreed that there should be an annual conference on a three year cycle, with small-scale events for two years, then the third year being a large event along the lines of the initial UEA conference. In the early years conferences were held across England, at venues including Cambridge, Essex, Kent, Manchester, Reading, Warwick and York, also at the Burn in Scotland and Gregynog in Wales. The committee were keen to have representation of its members from across the UK and to ensure that conference venues reflected that policy. There was always a strong presence of colleagues from across Europe at all the conferences, and for a number of years those events took place in the second week of December to ensure the widest possible attendance​.

Anthony Thorlby, who died in 2016 aged 88, was an inspirational founding Chair and an ideal choice. Among his many publications are important books on Gustave Flaubert, Franz Kafka and Leo Tolstoy, and he was editor of both the Penguin Companion to European Literature and the Penguin Companion to World Literature. He was succeeded in 1986 by an equally erudite and gracious man, Professor Arthur Terry from the University of Essex, a well-known scholar of Spanish and Catalan. Subsequent​ Presidents include Professor Malcolm Bowie (1943-2004) Professor Dame Gillian Beer (2004—2010) and Professor Dame Marina Warner (2011-2016).

In addition to organising conferences, the BCLA promoted publishing. Comparative Criticism, the first major British journal of comparative literature, edited by Elinor Shaffer, first appeared with Cambridge University Press in 1979, while in 1986 the more modest, but also more experimental journal, New Comparison, was founded at the University of Warwick.

Read the minutes of the First and Inaugural BCLA General Meeting held on the 18th December at the University of Warwick.

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