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.

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] This Is Shakespeare & What Blest Genius

my Met Gala moment

I am very over-excited to have my first Literary Review byline this month, reviewing two brilliant books: Emma Smith’s This Is Shakespeare (calmly revolutionary take on 20 of the plays) and Andrew McConnell Stott’s What Blest Genius? The Jubilee That Made Shakespeare (Blackadder Goes Stratford; blissful).

You can read my review here, or – even better – pick it up in hard copy from W.H. Smith etc, while issues still remain unpurchased by my delighted extended family. Best of all, buy the books: This Is Shakespeare (Pelican, £14.79) and What Blest Genius? (W.W. Norton & Company, £14.43).

PODCAST: Women and Power

Whether or not you’re joining us in Oxford for the Women & Power conference next week, I hope you’ll check out the National Trust’s Women & Power podcast series. The five-episode series is presented by Kirsty Wark, and features a whole host of great stories from across the Trust, and contributions from lots of different historians. I pop up in all five episodes, talking about Victorian Manchester and the Contagious Diseases Acts (Episode 1), force-feeding (Episode 2), Octavia Hill, violence in Oxford, and the NUWSS pilgrimage (Episode 3, with genuine piano underscoring), the suffragettes as terrorists and the myth of why women really got the vote (Episode 4), and the Six Point Group (Episode 5).

(c) Bodleian

The series is ace, with brilliant on-location sequences at beautiful Wightwick, Killerton, and Osterley (plus some very energetic Incidental Radio Acting), and I haven’t given it the blog love it deserves.  It’s been a lovely soundtrack to writing my keynote for next week’s conference at St Hugh’s, here in Oxford. I look forward to seeing some of you soon. 

P.S. the book of the Women & Power project, with all the info from the series and more, plus pictures, is still available online. You can also check out my episode of Radio 3’s The Essay on Shakespeare and suffrage, and my 2018 podcast episode on suffragette Emily Wilding Davidson and Oxford’s suffrage histories for Women In Oxford’s History. There’s yet more about Shakespeare and the suffragettes in my first book, Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siecle. A trove.