[REVIEW] – In Love With Hell

My review of William Palmer’s In Love With Hell: Drink in the Lives and Work of Eleven Writers (Robinson, 262pp, £20) is out now in May’s issue of Literary Review. Subscribers can also read the review via the Literary Review website. To my mind, the best aspects of the book are the passages describing postwar backstreet & provincial pub culture. Parts chimed sometimes of the work of C.P. Snow (early Strangers and Brothers), Colin Dexter, Stan Barstow, and Keith Waterhouse. Elsewhere in In Love With Hell, I had reservations about the author’s depiction of non-consensual sex, as I discuss in the review.

Race and the history of theatre criticism

I’m quoted in playwright Naomi Obeng’s lengthy article for The Stage‘s special issue on theatre and race this week, guest edited by Naomi with actor Emmanuel Kojo.

You can read the article here – although The Stage is usually subscription-only, a free registration will let you read all the new articles on race. It was great to talk to Naomi about Ira Aldridge, nineteenth-century women theatregoers, and the astonishing contradictions of some people’s make-believe: Oberon has just made himself invisible yes, King Duncan has a black son no. You can find Naomi on Twitter here.

I’d love to hear what you think about the article, and the special issue in general – do let me know!

On Playreadings

I am wearing a jumper with Rock & Roll written on it, and to honour that garment I have spent the past hour finalising the cast list for Monday’s online Christ Church playreading, which will be Romeo and Juliet. I was surprised to realise it will be the fourteenth playreading I’ve run since taking up my Christ Church Fellowship in October 2018 – and the fourth I’ve run online. I’m sharing the list below in case it’s of interest, and also to note that our last in-person playreading was on 2 March 2020 – almost exactly a year before we’ll read Romeo and Juliet. I tracked down an email to make sure (I have been… variable at archiving the readings) and detected no hint of concern; we did then cram about 25 people into my office. 

I began the play readings because (as a graduate student and ECR) I’d really loved the Liripoop playreadings run by Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith. I thought that a version for undergraduates could build community and introduce sixteenth-to-eighteenth-century plays to students in a low-stakes, enjoyable way. Those who know the Oxford BA syllabus will see that I followed it very closely pre-pandemic. This means reading Early Modern drama in Michaelmas (Autumn) Term; Restoration/eighteenth-century drama in Hilary (Spring) Term; and Shakespeare in Trinity (Summer). That’s been helpful, and I scheduled plays to complement my classes; during the pandemic, I also moved to a very deliberate pedagogy of Bangers Only. Where possible, I choose short plays with (in pre-pandemic times) a lot of hard copies available in Oxford’s lending libraries and (very cheaply) online.

Almost fourteen playreadings in, the regular cast includes undergraduates, postgraduates and recent students from across the university – not just English and not just Christ Church. During lockdown we’ve had people from all over the UK, and also from France, come together to read. I look forward to seeing all the participants again in person, but online playreadings have also been absolutely lovely: The Winter’s Tale, before Christmas, was one of my favourites. There were two reasons: first, several Freshers genuinely didn’t know what was coming when the royal family assembled to see Dead Hermione’s Statue; second, people wore costumes. Another joy is seeing students who initially attended as an “audience member” start to request small parts of their own, and then bigger, and then bigger. That’s another big thing: you don’t need to read to attend. Nor do you need any acting experience or ability. The only real rule is not to bring dark-coloured drinks into a study with pale grey carpet.

Reading the plays of course throws up new textual insights and delights; preparing the cast lists and doubling charts has been illuminating (it’s also given me some good research ideas). But that’s not really been the point. It’s taught me more about how plays sound, and how people read, and about the merits and demerits of snack foods sold in the vicinity of St Aldate’s. This blog post is to mark the fourteenth playreading of its kind, and to say thank you to everyone who’s attended over the past two-and-a-half years. It’s also to challenge me to create an archive of the readings in a much more deliberate way.

nb food is key

If you have questions, or run a similar series of your own, I’d love to hear from you. These are the plays we’ve read together – now I’ll get thinking about where we’ll go next! 

  1. Autumn 2018: The Massacre at Paris (Christopher Marlowe)
  2. Autumn 2018: Arden of Faversham (Anon.)
  3. Spring 2019: The Country Wife (William Wycherley)
  4. Spring 2019: The Beaux Stratagem (George Farquhar)
  5. Summer 2019: The Merry Wives of Windsor (W. Shakespeare)
  6. Summer 2019: Pericles (W. Shakespeare)
  7. Autumn 2019: The Witch (Thomas Middleton)
  8. Autumn 2019: The Changeling (Thomas Middleton and William Rowley)
  9. Spring 2020: Venice Preserv’d (Thomas Otway)
  10. Spring 2020: The Enchanted Island (John Dryden and William Davenant)
  11. Summer 2020: Twelfth Night (W. Shakespeare)
  12. Autumn 2020: Edward II (Christopher Marlowe)
  13. Autumn 2020: The Winter’s Tale  (W. Shakespeare)
  14. Spring 2021: Romeo and Juliet (see above)
  15. ?????

Searching for Juliet

I should have posted this sooner, but I’m so pleased to share that my book, Searching for Juliet, will be published by Sceptre in April 2023. They have worldwide rights and there will be an announcement about the US publication very soon! Here’s the Bookseller blurb for those who don’t subscribe (I do now subscribe – you can probably guess when I narcissistically started! – and really recommend it. I’m gradually building a list of 2021 reads):

Sceptre has acquired a cultural, historical and literary exploration of the birth, death and legacy of Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet.

Searching for Juliet is authored by Dr Sophie Duncan, a fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford, and expert on Shakespeare in performance and in the broader fields of theatre history.

In the book, according to Sceptre, she takes readers from the Renaissance origin story behind Shakespeare’s 13-year-old child bride, to the sexual revolutionary of ’60s film and theatre, fromthe African slave girls named after a fictional teenager to the legacy of the beautiful dead girl trope in everything from Shakespeare to contemporary TV series such as “13 Reasons Why”.

Associate publisher Juliet Brooke bought world rights from Georgina Capel, commenting: “I obviously have a certain bias with this subject that proves to me quite how much Juliet’s legacy reaches beyond literature into our social mores. What makes Sophie’s proposal so exceptional is the incredible range and depth of her exploration: the legacy of a heroine such as Juliet encompasses everything from feminism to scholarly insight on Shakespeare’s text, from a portrait of the Shakespeare industry in Stratford to questioning gender norms. It’s also fantastically sharp and witty and a total joy to read.”

Duncan said she was bowled over by the enthusiasm and vision of the team at Sceptre and remarked her new editor’s name was “a great omen”

read the full article here

[Review] The Lying Life of Adults – Elena Ferrante

I’m in the September issue of the Literary Review, with my review of Ferrante’s latest novel, (out now in translation in Europa Editions). I do get further than “dun like”, promise. I love the headline, too (not my choice) – “In All Honesty”. My other Literary Review pieces can be found here.

Hope you enjoy!

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.