Coronavirus and help for A Level/GCSE English students

Are you a GCSE or A Level English Literature student, teacher, or homeschooling parent? If so, please feel free to get in touch with me, either via this website or on my email (sophie dot duncan at chch dot ox dot ac dot uk). I’m very happy to help with resources/discussion for either Shakespeare, 19th century literature, or 20th century drama.

If you’re in need of help with other texts, don’t hesitate – if it’s not my area, I’ll find you someone who can. Similarly, if you’re preparing an Oxbridge English application, I’d be glad to talk about that! I should have been lecturing at the UNIQ Easter school – if you were meant to be coming to UNIQ for English, let me know! We can chat!

Meanwhile, I’m (as per) trying to write a book, work with a Mutual Aid group, and grow a lot of vegetables from scratch in our living room. At the last count, our flower pots included repurposed Pringles tubes (halved), a Lurpak pot, an apple juice carton, and a bottle. Our watering can is a former oil drizzler. I hope you’re all keeping well, and please, stay at home.

Equal As We Are

I’m on Radio 4 today! At 1.45 p.m. you can catch playwright Laura Wade and me discussing George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, as part of Equal As We Are, a 10-part series about gender relations in literature, from Morte D’Arthur to Sally Rooney’s Normal. Produced by Beaty Rubens, Equal As We Are was great fun to record back in October, and I hope you enjoy it today. I was delighted to take part. Accompanying our discussion will be an extract from the play, performed by Adrian Lester and Lolita Chakrabarti (who perform in every episode). You can listen live to BBC Radio 4 via the BBC Sounds App or catch the programme after broadcast here. Please do get in touch and tell me what you think. The omnibus for last week’s episodes is available here.

[REVIEW] Why Women Read Fiction

I reviewed Helen Taylor’s marvellous new book, Why Women Read Fiction, for Literary Review this month (Feb 2020). The magazine is out now, and you can also read my review online here!

Jack The Ripper, domestic abuse, and the amateur detective

My new article on Jack The Ripper, civilian performance, transvestite prostitution, domestic abuse, and amateur detectives in London and beyond is now published in Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film. I’ve been reading this journal since I was an undergraduate so it’s a great pleasure to be published there. You can read the article, Personating the Ripper: Civilian Performance and the Melodramatic Mode online via SAGE (for those with a subscription), or I’m able to share the final published version via email (for those without – so do get in touch). Reading both Claire Harman’s Murder By The Book and Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five helped shape the final version of this article, as did Isabel Stowell-Kaplan’s great piece on staging Victorian detectives. I also spent a lot of time looking at this map of 1880s Whitechapel.

10 tips for sitting Finals in English (good luck!)

Final Honour School exams for BA (Hons) English Language and Literature begin at Oxford on Monday. Grey-faced third-years wearing full sub fusc and white carnations will be at the Exam Schools sitting three-hour papers. Eleven of those English finalists are my students, and for the past few weeks we’ve been revising papers in English 1550–1660, 1660–1760 and 1760–1830. Said students are now experts in a hugely diverse range of literature, and I am rooting for each of them – and for everyone preparing for Monday! I hope you all have carnations and an abundance of clean white shirts. 

What follows isn’t a formula or a recipe. However, for anyone who’s an English student, the very best of luck and here are ten things which one tutor (and former Finalist) hopes you remember when you’re sitting in the Exam Schools:

  1. Think about the question as much as the answer. When you did your interview, you probably close-read something unseen. These are all little unseens. Pick them apart like they’re literature – most of them probably are! 
  2. It’s so, so much less about the quantity of your knowledge than the quality of the way in which you deploy it. Flexibility is key.
  3. Know some dates? You can make a point about chronology! Don’t finish the essay without doing so.
  4. You can always make a point about form. Don’t finish the essay without doing so. Think practically: what’s the effect of an idea being expressed in a sonnet vs a sermon? A prologue spoken by an actor out-of-character vs. an in-character soliloquy? 
  5. Frame your argument in such a way that it’s clearly generated by the question – signal this in the language that you use. 
  6. Keep the question in sight. Never miss an opportunity to return to its terms; create those opportunities. Your conclusion is the final way in which you answer the question. 
  7. A thematic structure serves you better than a text-by-text structure in terms of developing your argument and placing your texts in close conversation. 
  8. Be evaluative in your use of critics; make it clear what you think of their conclusions.
  9. Introductions: a statement of focus “This essay will look at/explore…” is not an argument. One of the main jobs of your pre-essay planning is to get you to a point where you have a clear thesis statement which you slap down as the centrepiece, starting point, or culmination of your introduction (whatever works for you), but which is unmistakeable as your argument, born in response to the question. What follows are your proofs of that argument. You analyse text and incorporate critics (to agree or disagree with) in the service of that argument. Also, write your introduction in the present tense. It sounds more authoritative (n.b. this is the most subjective thing on the list).
  10. You can do this. You absolutely can. Give yourself time to plan: 30 mins at the beginning, at which point you write all three essay plans, picking apart the questions. Write your essays strongest to weakest (creates a good first impression), 45 mins at a time, adding in things to your plans for later essays while writing the earlier ones. This helps stop you from thinking of the key bit for your third essay 10 mins after leaving the exam. 30 + 45 + 45 + 45 leaves you 15 minutes for contingency and checking. This isn’t my method – I think Sos Eltis first taught it me – but it honestly, honestly works to ensure well-planned essays, the best distribution of info, and to minimise late-exam panic.

And, because this is English not Maths, so counting need not matter:

tip 11. Or, you know, hall.

11. Bonus tip: eat breakfast before each exam, put a plastic grippy thing on your pen to save your poor claws, and write on alternate lines if your handwriting is atrocious (or even if you only suspect it might be). Avoid psychic vampire course mates who want unsettling postmortems (and also #never4give if someone tries it, signed, Sophie-From-2008).

12. The actual bonus tip: your life and your worth are not, contrary to appearances, defined by your degree results. You are going to be great whatever happens, and if you’re feeling like a disaster right now, or worried about being heartbroken later, please take it from me that these exams are not going to determine your future, and that all the right people will be massively proud of you. You are brilliant. My fingers are crossed for you all. Finals is, as a colleague reflected to me the other day, “an unenviable state of life”, but I promise that actually sitting Finals is so much better than preparing for them. 

Also, remember to talk about form. 

[CFP] Infinite Variety: The Older Actress On Stage 1660–Present

Dame Judi Dench as Titania (2014). Photo by Nobby Clark.

Infinite Variety: The Older Actress on Stage 1660–present

A two-day symposium on 18–19 October 2019, taking place at Christ Church, University of Oxford, UK. 

Symposium Directors are Dr Sophie Duncan and Professor Mary Luckhurst 

The event is jointly convened by the School of Arts, University of Bristol and Christ Church, University of Oxford, with support from The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH). 

Confirmed keynote speakers include Professor Gilli Bush-Bailey (Central School of Speech and Drama), Professor Jacky Bratton (Royal Holloway) and Dr Fiona Gregory (Monash University). 

We welcome proposals for 20-minute papers from scholars and practitioners in theatre and related disciplines. Suggestions for topics include, but are not limited to:

  • older actresses on and off stage: as performers, managers, stage-managers, playwrights, producers, directors, and teachers, 1660–present.
  • older actresses – their approaches to acting and their creative and career strategies
  • older actresses and the one woman show
  • older actresses – stage v. film and television
  • older actresses on ageism and the politics of transgression
  • writing by older actresses, e.g. memoirs
  • genealogies of female performance and concepts of female ‘succession’
  • retirement and its alternatives
  • ‘canonical’ roles for older women; repertoire and ageing
  • older actresses and non-traditional casting
  • the depiction of older actresses and/or fictional older actresses in criticism, journalism, literature, the visual arts, and film
  • ageism, ageing, and the body in casting, rehearsal, performance, and reception
  • older actresses with additional marginalised identities, including LBT older actresses, BAME actresses, and actresses with disabilities (including age-related disabilities); the intersection of age with other kinds of marginalisation
  • the older actress in theatre historiography and as theatre historian
  • retrospectives, gala performances, honours lists and becoming a ’national treasure’.

Proposals, which should be 300 words long and accompanied by a brief biography, should be sent to the symposium’s directors, Dr Sophie Duncan (sophie.duncan@chch.ox.ac.uk) and Professor Mary Luckhurst (mary.luckhurst@bristol.ac.uk) by May 31 2019. 

REVIEW: The Swell Mob, Flabbergast Theatre *****

I have bequeathed both my eyeballs to a redhead named Tabitha. Don’t blame me: it’s the fault of The Swell Mob, ninety minutes of supernatural skullduggery above and below ground in the COLAB factory, Borough. Such is the pull of this immersive piece, set in an 1840s hellmouth with an aesthetic resting heavily on bowler hats, moustachios, and dead girls with terrible backstories that there now exists a document entitling Tabby Skinner (taxidermist; bookmaker; menacing pair of scissors) to both my eyeballs in the event of my death. This was in exchange for a fairly savage tarot reading. 

The Swell Mob. All photos (c) Rob Penn.

If you like your fun frenetic, frightening, and with a strong flavour of Undead Bill Sykes, this is the show for you. You start off in a pub on surface-level, peopled by welcoming/vicious patrons and madmen, all eager to prise from you the five pound coins with which you’re issued on arrival. Whether you choose cards, bareknuckle boxing (observation only), or weaving into dark corners to open drawers and examine mirrors, what follows unites and divides the audience as you try to solve the mystery of the Swell Mob and their dastardly (and diminutive) Master. The pub setting initially feels quite Punchdrunk, reminiscent of the Manderley Bar in Sleep No More – however, your ticket includes two free drinks, making this the polar if not the global opposite of Punchdrunk and all their works. I advise you to get on with drinking those quite quickly, in order to disinhibit you during what follows. 

Try your luck at the card table…

There are different types of immersive theatregoer. I’m an explorer – I want the weird dark corners, secret passages and demonic contracts to be found inside The Swell Mob’s unlocked drawers, subterranean caves, and behind-the-bar lairs. Give me your bones, your suspended doll-limbs, and let me get my grubby hands on them. The Swell Mob does not disappoint. Despite the relatively small space, there’s ample opportunity to wander, and superb details that’ll leave you longing to return. The trip down to the cellar passes the building’s pigeonholes with plastic-wrapped post visible in the slots. Audience noises from COLAB’s other shows are intermittently audible. Unexpectedly, this really works – the fact that these underworld darklings unconcernedly pass circuitry and plumbing almost two centuries their juniors only reinforces the idea that the bloodshot, sweaty Swell Mob are the supernatural cellarage of redeveloped Bermondsey. Without giving too much away, the plot progresses quickly. On press night, the audience warmed up hugely in the last 30 minutes, as gin entered bloodstream and little teams of explorers tried to solve the mystery of the Master. Occasionally, you feel the pressure of time: I worry I derailed matters by being distracted by Tabitha and tarot moments after I was told to hand an important plot-point to the woman with white feather in her hair. Mid-way through the one-card character assassination, I looked up to find the woman with white feather standing beside me: had the poor girl been forced to seek me out, and was she now not waving so much as drowning? 

The Master (Henry Maynard) and Elizabeth (Jordan Cooper).

Probably not. The cast are made of sterner stuff. It’s not clear how deep the specific 1840s connection runs (I withheld comments about Jane Eyre and the possibility of European revolution), but the cast’s commitment is total. There are some electrifying performances; online details of the casting are deliberately sketchy, to preclude spoilers, but Louisa (Jordan Cooper), Elizabeth (Jordan Chandler) and Tabitha (Rosy Pendlebury) are outstanding. This is a vital show that proves that stories can be immersive and compelling without a vast budget. There are moments when you start to think and feel like a character in the story, genuinely scared and exhilarated. I’ll be returning on my own time and dime, and there’s no greater tribute. Whatever your inhibitions or misgivings – and this is not a show for the passive observer – The Swell Mob’s spell lingers. Returning to the surface, the streets outside seemed colder as I made my way to Borough Tube. Visible from the station is the spire of St George the Martyr: the church against which the Marshalsea prison once stood, where Dickens’s father was imprisoned, along with all the other victims and villains of the real Victorian era. When the church crypt became too crowded, the Victorians extracted nearly 1500 crumbling coffins and sent them off to Brookwood Cemetery, created by the London Necropolis Company to house the overcrowded, graveyard-bursting dead. Against that backdrop, The Swell Mob’s story seems only too plausible – and the London evening stayed just that little bit murkier.

THE SWELL MOB, Flabbergast Theatre, *****, COLAB Factory, London. 4 May–25 August, Thursday–Sunday, tickets £26. Book online or via 0333 666 33 66 (+£1.75 booking fee).