Oxford is enjoying the long vac. This is the academic summer holiday; the period running from the end of 8th week Trinity (usually in late June), to October and Freshers’ Week. It is also the period to which proper academics refer as “time for getting some real work done”.
I’m doing my best. I’ve handed in a chapter draft & started work on another, only to discover that while reviews of Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s Shakespearean heroines (my last topic) were relatively few (journalists preferring to focus on Weird Saintly Johnstone F-R), every fin-de-siecle hack seems to have had at least 1,000 mind-numbing words to say about Ellen Terry in Cymbeline.
My DPhil project is (currently) entitled “Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle”, a title I love & cling to because
a) it’s short
b) it doesn’t have a colon in it (ergo no need to find Witty Quotation/make Unfortunate Pun), and
c) it lets my project do what it says on the tin. At present, though, it’s the Fin de Siècle, rather than Shakespeare’s Women, giving me a mild academic headache.
Oxford’s broadly/tacitly historicist approach to English (yes, all right, excluding Wadham, & NDKAlex) has always suited me perfectly. Unfortunately, while beginning my last chapter, I realised I had absolutely no idea what happened in theatre, literature or indeed British history, in the years immediately following 1895. Apart from Jude Law shouting “OSCAR!” across a Mediterranean courtyard, that shot of Lillie Langtry in The Degenerates, and Robbie Ross summoning a priest to Paris c. 1900, the end of the nineteenth century remained a blank.
Given that much of my last chapter took place in and around 1895-8, this necessitated serious remedial research; fortunately successful. My new chapter centres on 1896, and I fondly imagined that this date – falling as it does under the big neurasthenic umbrella spread by the antics of Mrs Patrick “Skinny, Mad” Campbell – might make things easier. Oh no.
My supervisor, having reminded me that one version of my project was originally called The Actress and the Academy (I wish it’d been “The Actress and the Evangelist”, because if you’re going to have a pun, it should involve an actress and a bishop), has prescribed lots of C19 non- (and sometimes anti-)theatrical Shakespeare criticism.
I have thus spent much of this weekend with Schlegel, Hazlitt, Coleridge, poor old Hartley Coleridge (no wonder he turned out so weird), Lamb, Ruskin and Pater. Simultaneously, I’m trying to pin down the theatrical marketplace c.1898-1901 beyond my memories of the Forsyte Saga and a Ladybird Book of Kings & Queens awareness that, in 1901, Queen Victoria Has To Die.
Fortunately, it’s brilliant. So far I’ve popped back to 1892 (Tennyson’s deathbed & the Shakespeare-hugging) and then jetted forward to 1904 (Vedrenne and Barker beginning to manage the Royal Court). In between are a series of pleasing symmetries: it gratifies me hugely that 1895 was both the year of Irving’s knighthood, and the year Shaw became critic of the Saturday Review (mostly to spend the next three years inveighing against Irving on a weekly, public basis). If you’re on Team Shaw (I’m mostly not), it’s also immensely satsifying that 1898, the year Shaw published Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, was the year Irving had to surrender the Lyceum Theatre to a syndicate.
Team Shaw and Team Henry were never actual Victorian entities (sad mistake), but today I discovered there was a Keen On Waller (Lewis Waller) Brigade, who wore K.O.W. badges, and doubtless bore resemblance to the madwomen we used to unpeel from David Tennant’s car during the RSC Hamlet.
In the midst of all this scattergun chronology, I cautiously feel I’m making progress and gaining, at the very least, some self-awareness about my research. Increasingly, I recognise a rhythm in the psychology involved in beginning a new chapter. Each time, it’s with scholarly-fingers-crossed that the distant instinct of x production potentially being useful or interesting to study (I found my first ever Thesis Outline last night. It made me laugh. And heave) will be justified by archival fulfilment of the Micawber principle that Something (Anything) Will Turn Up. So far, joyfully, it always has. But never the thing(s) I’ve expected.
Although it does nothing for my personal brand of Imposter Syndrome, I’ve learned that, in research, it’s rarely solely the Neat Planned Trajectory of Reading which delivers the goods. Obviously days-on-end of grunt work is essential (see my opening re: hacks/Shakespeare/Terry), but it’s often the chance remark made by your supervisor/panel chair/coffee buddy in the Bod/Costa/despair that sparks something new; or the book you pick up for £2 at a room-sale, or flick through in Blackwell’s. Or, it’s the “irrelevant” scrapbook you read for fun while in archives, or the weird small ads in the Post, or the lucky chronological coincidence you can’t control. The miraculous cannot, I’ve found, occur without the mundane: I usually find the Big Idea only when bored to tears by hours and hours of the Small. Perhaps there’s some weird scholarly symbiosis at work — actually, maybe this isn’t progress; on rereading, it sounds more like a retreat into archival mysticism. The Oxford Faculty of Magical Thinking. Damn.
Secondly, alongside this uncertainty principle (which COULD be interpreted as evidence of a rich field for research & hitherto unexplored complexities of fin-de-siecle theatre, thank you very much) there’s the sensation from which I’ve drawn the title of this post – the start of second-year research and an upgrade to Research 2.0.
Simply put, this is the unfolding student belief that, twelve months in and umpteen texts later, EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED. Suddenly, everything is linking up! Everything is helpful for everything! EVERYTHING must be written down, EVERYTHING speaks IN A VERY REAL SENSE to that other thing there, in that document, on that bit of paper, LOOK HOW IT ALL MAKES SENSE. ISN’T IT INTERESTING??? &c. Having drafted three chapters, I am suddenly transfixed: although nominally just researching Cymbeline, I start SEEING INSIGHTS EVERYWHERE re: Lady Macbeth, Marxism, big dead Tennyson, the Royal Court Theatre & other figures who belong elsewhere in my thesis… LOOK HOW IT ALL JOINS UP.
This is fun, but dangerous. A love of patterns, symmetries & the desire for a Grand Master Theory encourages me to see/overstate connections and conspiracies that might not exist. While a deepening sense of the period is crucial – definitions, relationships, geographies etc – I’m trying to balance this with caution about tying it all together in a quixotic version of the Victorian World Order (even if I really want to find that Big Idea and make it Unlock Everything Ever), and trying not to confuse INTERESTING with what’s actually important. Equally, to make progress on one chapter, I have to limit my exciting tangents re: others, at least temporarily.
Then again, I suppose that kind of tangential, experimental research is exactly what the vac is for! In the various begging letters written during my year out & time as a PRS (i.e. my Oxford, AHRC, STR, Helmore Award and other apps, thank god for imminent funding) I set out a schedule for completing the DPhil. This schedule made no mention of the Christmas, Easter or long vacs.
At the time, I had two reasons. Firstly, I knew the timetable was ambitious, and wanted to allow myself decent margins for expansion/alteration/disasters, should they occur (secretly, I was convinced I’d have to resit transfer). Secondly, at the start of my DPhil, I was unfunded, and expected to spend most or all of each holiday working (hence the stacks of A Level papers beneath which January was crushed).
Now funding approaches, but this vac time has been essential – both for finishing my third chapter, and starting teaching prep. Finishing Cymbeline by Christmas will mean I’m on track; sounds easy, no? But, again, teaching approaches. Not merely because of the volatile summer weather, I can’t help feeling I’m in the calm before the storm.
Not that I’m, you know, calm exactly. I’m moving house (yes, still), alongside one of the least calm people I know, viz. my namesake, who is taking Some Sort Of Exams on Tuesday. Most of them are about Death. Every time I bother her in the library, she’s reading books on What Happens When You Die (non-medics thinking of researching: oh my god, don’t), and her life at the moment seems to consist entirely of Palliative Care and salads from Alpha Bar. I am reassured that, after Tuesday, her eyes will return to their normal size. Her hair is going white.
Said medic has, however, been a star this week. Last Sunday, I was in Kent, where I not only attended The Most Beautiful (And Tasteful. And Moving. And Boozy) Wedding in-the-world-ever (it was here), but was bitten by some gladiatorial tropical deathfly that had visited England on summer exchange with the humble Kentish mosquito.
The lovely Emily, also bitten, had merely a slight itch in manner of a hardy German: I chose instead to stage my personal tribute to Cheryl Cole (except I bet she never had the left leg of an elephant with sunburn).
Sophie, my v. own doctor-in-the-house (who is doing far better at masking her native glint of clinical interest with the glow of human sympathy) has been sterling in pointing out the inadequacy of my home GP, and promising I won’t die. This is a vast step forward from The Time My New Bra Gave Me A Rash, when she poked said rash with one finger before saying “ooh, it doesn’t blanch”, and losing interest. I’m happy to live with her.
Meanwhile, I hope everyone on the East Coast or otherwise in the path of Hurricane Irene (why not Imogen, hmm?) is keeping safe. I go now to sort photo-frames into cardboard boxes.
ACADEMIA Uncategorized ACADEMIA books ellen terry evil mosquito george bernard shaw kent linkspam nineteenth century nineteenth century theatre oscar wilde oxford reading rsc shakespeare THEATRE work writing
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.