This is my fifth term as a doctoral student, and a New Year to boot. Thinking about academic goals for the year, I’ve decided I want to spend more time thinking about, and practising public engagement.
Already, there’s a problem. I don’t like the phrase. It’s too jargony, redolent of patronising bussed-in audiences with why your research is a) brilliant and b) beneficial; particularly when the benefit is relevant only as a justification for ongoing funding.
I’m also anxious about the consequences of enforced public engagement for very arcane, specialised, or technical research whose benefits are not instantly explicable or financially clear. It’s important, and (in the Humanities) often difficult to strike a balance between celebrating research with clear “real-world” application, and reducing everything to pound signs or buzzwords. Kat Gupta‘s blogged about the latter issue and Alex Pryce has written several good posts about the kinds of public engagement she does as a poet. I want to keep both models in mind.
However, when it comes to public engagement, I think I’m quite lucky. I do the kinds of research which – for better or worse, mostly just for luck – are easy to discuss outside the academy.
My theme – Shakespeare performance history – is self-explanatory, and benefits from centering on the most famous playwright in the world. My actresses are often still well-known, especially Ellen Terry, Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt. Basically, I have the kind of topic that makes people look pleasantly surprised when I answer their enquiries about what, exactly, I am (still) studying at Oxford. Ironically, while Victorian performance remains quite a niche interest within the academy, in the wider world, I believe that female performance history is something with which most people can engage. In my totally unbiased opinion, of course.
Cultural events such as the National Portrait Gallery’s First Actresses exhibition, and Michael Holroyd’s prize-winning A Strange Eventful History keep the profession’s past in the public imagination. More broadly, Britain remains a nation obsessed with history. The last three big British films focused on, in succession, the outbreak of World War II, 1970s spy culture, and our first female Prime Minister (this last makes me feel quite ill). Meanwhile, as X Factor passes its expiry date, ITV’s current flagship drama (whether you love it or see it as the fourth opiate of the apocalypse, after Cameron, big jumpers and the Honourable Kirsty)* turned 1920 in the Christmas episode. Although essentially a frothy confection of frocks, plague-as-plot-twist, and some Very Special Trenches, Downton still tries to take its historical responsibilities seriously. This mostly takes the form of Goodness Me It’s 1912, I Bet That Boat Won’t Sink, but still.
Given this enthusiasm for (in roughly descending order) history, scandal and frocks, people can be as interested in nineteenth-century actresses as in their modern successors. I’ve been reading Sexualities In Victorian Britain, edited by Andrew H. Miller and James Eli Adams, a book which points out on the first page that Victorian views of sex (however we reconstruct them) are essential to our own understanding of modern sexuality. Oscar Wilde is practically a one-man creation myth for British male queerness.
Beyond sexuality, I’d argue that Victorianism is formative in almost every area of social life – the nineteenth century and the ideas with which it is associated. Everybody has their own concept of Victorianism, whether conservative (repression, doom, stiff collars, the Tories) or updated (Sherlock, jet jewellery, Matthew Sweet’s Inventing The Victorians). Dickens is never off our screens, a “new” Wilde play was “discovered” a few months ago, and this winter I watched four Jack The Ripper ghost-walks jostle for space in the square where a victim died.
Enter the actresses. Confections of beauty, multiplicity, celebrity and scandal, they fulfil our contemporary interest (however prurient) in the desirable, the taboo, and the popular all at once.
Today’s culture creates escapism from lavish displays of historical bling: it’s no coincidence that as the recession and cuts really bit, TV tastes switched from soberly-bonneted, sweetly curly Cranford to jet-beads-and-sex-bomb Lady Mary, an Edwardian Scarlett O’Hara in a frankly massive castle. Our fashionable passion has been labelled “retro porn“: with their Worth gowns, their fascinating lovelives, and their sometimes frenziedly emotional performances, Victorian actresses like Langtry, Terry and Bernhardt still satisfy those desires.
At the same time, theperformers I’ve mentioned were skilled businesswomen and consummate professionals. Victorian actresses constitute an essential part of women’s history. After all, in the nineteenth century , acting the only profession in which women could achieve public acclaim, independence and (eventual) respectability without being accused of stealing men’s work. They often earned more than their male counterparts, and were frequently more popular.
Actresses became politically active. In 1899, the International Women’s Congress (held in London) ran a committee on Women in Professions: the chair was the actress Madge Kendal. In 1911, the Actresses’ Franchise League was the most prominent contingent in the Women’s Coronation Procession: forty thousand women, marching through London to demand the vote. Their leader was a woman on horseback dressed as Hedda Gabler, Ibsen’s Victorian heroine who killed herself to escape pregnancy, marital and sexual subjugation.
The best-loved British actress of her day, Ellen Terry, lectured on Shakespeare’s characters to feminist groups including the Leeds suffrage society, modelling female public speaking to emerging feminist activists. Moreover, by focusing attention on Shakespeare’s heroines in her lectures and autobiography – as other actresses did in letters, memoranda and memoirs – Terry began to redress the balance that emphasised male characters, and male performance, in criticism. Above all, as female professionals, Victorian actresses’ negotiations of workplace harassment, misogynist smears, and the conflict between job and family make them relevant models for working women today.
Finally, a thesis is never just one thing. God knows I have even more problems with the phrase “transferrable skills” than I do with “public engagement” (see also “competencies”, “directional work”, “impact” and, recently, “bleeding the radiator” for Words I Don’t Like), but I’m realising that there are numerous aspects of my research with which I can engage people. Because I am a research student, I do genealogy; I work with databases; I source permissions for artwork; I balance freelance research commitments with my own thesis; I teach (with all the mentoring/interpersonal/professional development issues implied); I’m a member of an union; I’m self-employed and I know a lot of really odd facts about such fascinating topics as Dracula, circumcision, whether smoking gives women facial hair, Judy Garland’s coffin handles, fur, infanticide, tuberculosis, where to see a lot of pickled foetuses, and murder. Some of these are skills or experiences I could share [NB: I am not a murderer or a mohel]; the arcane topics are at least new points of contact between my weird interests and those of the outside world. I’ve got lots of starting points for public engagement – but it’s time to make more concrete plans. Hopefully, as I formulate and act on my ideas, I’ll be able to share them here.
I think I’m lucky to get to write & read & think about all of the above. At bottom, I also think that receiving public money gives me the obligation to try and share the benefits with the public. There you go – a moral imperative. How very Victorian.
Further reading (if you’re so inclined):
Susan Torrey Barstow, ‘”Hedda is All of Us”: Late-Victorian Women at the Matinee’, Victorian Studies 43:3 (2001), pp. 387-411.
Laura Beatty, Lillie Langtry: Manners, Masks and Morals (Chatto and Windus: 1999).
Barbara Ellen, “Downton Abbey’s just the opiate of the middle classes.” Observer (1 January 2012), — http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/01/barbara-ellen-downton-abbey-shopping
Stuart Jeffries, “From Downton Abbey to Kirstie’s crafts … the New Boring is everywhere.” Guardian online (17 November 2011) — http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/nov/17/downton-abbey-kirstie-new-boring
Andrew H. Miller and James Eli Adams (eds), Sexualities in Victorian Britain (Indiana University Press: 2006).
*I would like to make it clear that I am a big fan of the Hon. Kirsty (also the delectable Phil), am currently enjoying a box set of the 1980 Nancy Mitford mini-series, own a splendid tetris-like jumper and am, to quote Bloomfield (2011), “the sort of gel who likes the Pre-Raphaelites”.