I want to make a difference in the world, and I should have liked (or rather, should have liked to have liked) to be a doctor – curing the sick, researching diseases, getting my hands dirty and making a quantifiable difference (hopefully positive) to people’s lives. How much of this is altruism, how much a pathetic philosophical desire to justify my own life and how much a sanitised version of my own desire for FAME, lots of FAME is yet to be determined but can probably be guessed.
I think I can make a difference by working in the theatre – a remark my parents greet with a certain amount of scepticism. My father says, well, look at what I do, does that make a difference? And of course, not in the great social reform / landslide victory / and her statue now stands in Parliament Square sense, but – instinctively, I want to say yes it does. Making very very popular and extremely good (well, sometimes they’re either ‘very very popular’ or ‘extremely good’ but frequently they’re both) television programmes does make a difference to the vast number of people employed by said programmes, enjoying said programmes, and experiencing / responding to the culture said programmes create – whether positive or negative. To me, my dad’s job seems very important. TV and theatre are important – they enrich lives, they provoke, they stimulate; they can change the direction in which a country is going. My mum’s job in the theatre made a difference; firstly because she was in a position of huge responsibility and creative skill (long-term over whole productions and short-term in what she did every night), secondly because almost anybody working shows in a theatre can muck up said show by failing to fulfil their responsibilities. Which, in turn, makes a difference (hopefully just in the short term) to a relatively big group of people. I have to say, whenever I’m around theatre or theatre companies, it seems to me like that work is the most important work in the world – rationally, I know it’s not, I know that, well, there’s the UN and NATO and MSF and from there it’s all downhill, but I’ve learned that if the work’s enjoyable and captivating enough, it always feels the most important.
In journalism, war correspondence seems far more ‘important’ and ‘noble’ than, say, reviews, but A. A. Gill pointed out in his introduction to a a gill is away that more people read him each Sunday than pick up a Booker prize novel in a year; ‘that’s not a judgment of quality, it’s a statement of impact’. I’d be a terrible war correspondent (blind without my glasses, five-foot-nothing, red-haired and fundamentally scared of death) but I’m a good critic & features writer; I’m taking baby steps to learn to be a good editor (practising mostly on hapless friends and enthusiastic Yanks). Someone like Gill could potentially influence far more people on far ‘smaller’ matters; a kind of inverse correlative to my mum’s main job over the last twenty years; bringing me up. Nobody has more influence over another human being than a stay-at-home mother with her child, and I couldn’t be more grateful to her for staying at home with me. The experience I had (though I don’t think it was the best thing for her, all the time, it was definitely the best thing for me, which I suppose is the point of motherhood) has made me, as well as a bleeding-heart liberal leftie (my mother and her Marxist cousins spent my childhood saying come the revolution to me in darkly cryptic tones – poor confused child that I was, I spent a lot of time wondering what revolution and when exactly it would arrive) determined to be a stay/work-at-home parent (or the wife of one) when I come to have kids, if I possibly can.
I think sometimes my fear that I couldn’t ‘make a difference’ as an academic has more to do with thinking I’d be bored teaching (I have no evidence for this, beyond a horror of classroom control), than with anything else. Also, it’s long struck me that the fields I’m currently interested in (Shakespeare in performance, Jane Austen, the Brontes,Victorian drama especially) are increasingly well-filled – even Victorian Drama, the red-headed stepchild of theatre studies (oh, everybody loves the Renaissance and the Restoration, and bring on the twentieth century, but can you name any Victorian playwrights who aren’t Oscar Wilde or G Bernard Shaw?) is growing more popular. Oxford has a handful of really great academics on the subject (one has taught me, two will be teaching me, one’s my supervisor…), and after choosing my MSt thesis topic I find that Gail Marshall (Head of English at Oxford Brookes, not a million miles away) is publishing a book on it next term. There’s still fascinating niche research (hello early film, acting manuals, Edward Gordon Craig’s CRAZY DADDY ISSUES re: H Irving), and the big academic careers centred especially on a single author (new seminar buddy Simon is being supervised on Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee. This is the Oxford equivalent of learning your catechism from the Pope), but, then again, there’s also the prospect that you could spend thirty years arguing or re-arguing over, say, Oscar Wilde (was I back in the Archives this afternoon? Can you tell?) and never, ever uncover anything new. I remember reading a book last year about Shakespeare – I think I got it for Christmas 2007. It was called The Lodger and it was a biographical narrative about a court case in which Shakespeare was called as a witness –he’d helped out a young woman by persuading her lover that marriage was financially viable, becoming involved in the first place because he’d been lodging with her family. Eight years later, the dowry that made the marriage attractive still hadn’t arrived, and the husband took his father-in-law to court.
The discovery of the trial documents was extremely significant, not merely as an insight into Shakespeare’s life and character (he claimed not to remember any such conversation with the lovers – though, of course, they could have been lying), but because the papers contained (I think) two examples of his signature, and a record of his speech in court. The papers were found by tireless and obviously fairly mad researchers in 1909: Charles and Hulda Wallace, an American couple, who, if I remember correctly, devoted their entire lives to going through every Elizabethan London document they could get their hands on on the basis that Shakespeare – tenant, writer, shareholder, poet, actor, correspondent, property-owner back in Stratford-on-Avon – had to turn up somewhere. But what if he hadn’t? He did, but what if he hadn’t. The Silver Street find (the Mountjoys, Shakespeare’s landlords, lived on Silver Street) was a near miss by default – sure, he turned up, but he only turned up once. Did that one find justify years and years of work? Maybe it did for them, but would it for me? I don’t know. I don’t think so. They must have read interesting things during that time, they must have had faith they’d find something in the end.
Maybe they were very happy in their marriage and friends, maybe they found other and more precious fulfilments outside their work (which is true of most people, of course, and probably healthiest). But that monomaniacal devotion to tracking one man – one word, really – through decades suggests otherwise. I’m glad I’m not applying for a DPhil right away, or even definitely. I’m finally equally glad, though, that I didn’t take a year out, that I went straight on. It seemed like a mistake next term, but I’m meeting wonderful people whom I otherwise would have missed; and this term looks to be, er, horrific but extremely enjoyable. Also I want to be Hermione Lee or Sos Eltis or Kirsten Shepherd-Barr or Tiffany Stern or Marion.
I got a letter last term from one of my friends and she talked about the pull to academia being a (good lord, I’m making it sound like some sort of horrific convent vocation – I blame my friend Chloe) desire to be in a ‘constant state of creation’ – teaching, writing, helping students, seeing their work, meeting interesting people, going places & having conversations. The longer explanation sounds (in part) attractive, but the phrase has really really stuck with me. I wouldn’t have missed reading that. And, possibly – I am jinxing this by even writing it – I have even made a proper academic discovery of my own, in a field where I never expected to. I mean, a tiny one, footnote-in-history-of-JSTOR-ten-years-hence, in all likelihood (and now I’m laughing at my own presumption), but it feels amazing. And nerve-wracking, actually, because I keep having to write emails and wave across the room at academics and say sorry, er, but, am I looking at this right? Have I gone crazy? Has [respected academic in this field] completely missed what I’m looking at? I don’t see how the answer can be yes (because how can he have done, this is obvious why wouldn’t you look) but after spending three hours CLOSE TO DEATH by coldness, I really don’t want it to be no.
Days and days of footnote-checking and MSS-reading to follow, and then, I fear, a jaunt to the British Library. Because of the rarity/value of the items I’m working with, they can’t be photocopied or taken from college archive to Special Collections Reading Room, so I’m having to do a lot of typing up, and – when autograph emendations become particularly hard to follow – some transcribing by hand. My nice new notebook (bought, like its nine hundred predecessors, some of whom had names, to contain the Great Oxonian Novel, or possibly my best-selling artwork or possibly a haiku) is full of tortuous pencil scrawls.
This is making a difference to me, at least, and it might prove interesting and useful to somebody else, and Harriet Vane did point out that while she’d scrub floors very badly, she wrote detective stories rather well. Finally: had first meeting for new special option today. Make of awesome, incredibly exciting, tiny spectacle-wearing butterflies in stomach at the thought. Meeting was at St Catz, which as ever looks like the setting for some sort of bunker drama covering the last days of the Cold War. Seminar buddy and I huddled under a staircase, hugging the breezeblocks, and watching the barely-existent daylight bounce off the dark parquet floor. Tutor’s room is blessedly light and sunny. I tried not to be offensively enthusiastic, or let on how many of her lectures I’d been to, and when asked ‘And you went to [awesome academic’s inevitably over-subscribed and clamorously popular lectures]’, I remembered that the appropriate answer is a smiling nod and not an overzealous TWICE. I want to borrow her books.
If you made it through all of that, you’re pretty awesome. Have some links. Palin As President is sick and satisfying; and this is just incredibly weird. Arachnophobics should steer clear of the spider game, while bibliography geeks (hi, Ben) will probably enjoy this article from Abebooks, on most unusual book bindings.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.