It’s been quiet around here on Clamorous Voice, as I’ve waded more securely into the chaos that is Not Waving, Not Drowning, But Trying To Finish My Thesis. I have a submission date of 1st August, which I’m inscribing on as many electronic surfaces possible in a bid for accountability/intellectual masochism. I passed my confirmation viva, which seems to be to the end of the DPhil process, that which transfer is to the beginning. In a total dereliction of my former principles, I have become one of those people who thinks that Oxford’s transfer of status process is a good thing – when seen retrospectively. I’m not yet bonkers enough to think it’s a good thing at the time.
I’m also still going on the radio. For those who missed the story of how this happened: a BBC researcher found my blog, or possibly my twitter, passed it on to their superiors and then apparently disappeared forever, leaving a confused but charming producer try to work out why she found herself on the phone to me. This Friday afternoon will be my third jaunt to BBC Oxford, and I love it. Given that I consume radio like oxygen, and have yet to listen to more than five seconds of myself on tape, this is not surprising. I am totally available for Woman’s Hour. I would just like to make this very clear.
I’m also giving three four papers this term, something which (in sharp contrast to transfer-of-status) looked like a good idea in advance. SO, if you’re in the vicinity and would like to hear me speak OR think any of my subjects sound innately interesting, please do come along! The list is below:
Friday 3 May, 12.45 – 1.45 p.m. “Ira Aldridge and Black Identity on the Victorian Stage.” Race and Resistance across borders in the Long Twentieth Century; interdisciplinary seminar sponsored by TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities). Radcliffe Humanities Building, Seminar Room, 3rd Floor, University of Oxford.
Friday 21 May, 5 p.m. “Women, Sex and Celebrity in the Victorian Theatre.” ‘Spotlight on Celebrity’ Research Network; Postgraduate / Early Career Researcher interdisciplinary network. Ryle Room, Radcliffe Humanities Building, University of Oxford.
Thursday 6 June, 11 a.m. “Manchester and the Forest of Arden: how one Victorian wedding became a global phenomenon.” The Global and the Local: North American Victorian Studies Association, British Association of Victorian Studies and Australasian Victorian Studies Association conference. San Servolo, Venice.
Monday 10 June, 5.15 p.m. “Shakespeare and the sleeping woman at the fin de siècle”. Victorian Literature Graduate Seminar. English Faculty, University of Oxford.
In other news, I am now twenty-six and one day. I am probably going to do something about the blog widget (to your right) which maintains the illusion of my youth and twenty-four-year-old promise. I am basically that blog widget’s portrait in the attic. I realise that, to anyone over twenty-six, twenty-six-year-olds who whine about their decrepit and withered proximity to calcification are appalling pubescents who deserved to be thwacked with a beehive. Believe me, that is how I feel about twenty-five-year-olds. Until I find how to change that widget, I crave your patience.
At some point I’ll be back, to express my rapturous love for Broadchurch and Endeavour, two programmes which took the distilled essence of my various enthusiasms and won me over completely despite containing ad breaks. Obviously, with Endeavour (doomed tragic policeman FIGHTS CRIME in Oxford) the bar for obtaining my love was always going to be set exceptionally low. I think that most programmes could be improved by being set in Oxford, and in Endeavour‘s case they threw in Roger Allam. Who walks around in a hat being splendid, and looking as if he confidently expects a forthcoming spinoff called Thursday (you could do worse, ITV, unless the Dowager Countess can somehow keep Downton going until the sixties).
I have not seen last night’s Endeavour, and I shan’t see Broadchurch until it hits ITVplayer tomorrow, so am anxiously avoiding spoilers. Re: Broadchurch, my money is on Elle’s Creepy Husband, although I’d be happier if we locked Nige up anyway. I’d be happier still if somebody tracked down that bloody postman and/or gave David Tennant a square meal. Anyway, yes, back sooner this time. Thanks, as ever, for reading.
I have just finished rewriting the third chapter of my thesis. There are no appropriate metaphors for how I really feel about this chapter. I’ll stick to claiming that I feel like a successful fisherman waving aloft a shiny prize carp. This is, of course, a lie. I feel more like I’ve been locked in a cellar with something saber-toothed and nasty, until we eventually emerged, dragging each other by the teeth and splattered with most of each other’s brains. On this occasion, the chapter lost, but not by much.
This is, of course, an entirely irrational and overblown reaction to the end of a process that occurs while sitting down, in a centrally-heated flat, with ample access to tea (but not biscuits. I hate Lent. I would sell my face for a Jaffa Cake) and Twitter. I like my thesis. I love my research. I don’t like footnotes, except when I can knock the “pp.” off forty or so notes at a time, and thus pretend I’m saving words. But, my god, I have hated the last bit of rewriting this.
Even deleting items from my three-column, word-documented, cloud-computering to do list (truly, I am the Hunter S. Thompson of doctoral research) hasn’t mitigated the pain. “Don’t get it right, get it written” is the golden rule of DPhil-writing, but in third year, you also have to get the damned thing formatted and polished and devoid of square-bracketed injunctions to [MORE] (also [QUOTE] and [EVIDENCE] and the stomach-churning [PUT CONCLUSION HERE]).
Perhaps the subject matter made this so tough. This chapter contains most of the really depressing stuff in my thesis; the sexualisation of children, child suicide, the anorexic aesthetic, and the fetishising of celebrity illness (especially female mental health). This has, in turn, led to much re-reading of Sarah Kane and looking at the growing cultural obsession with underweight female bodies in the late nineteenth century. It didn’t help that I’d written the first draft in an immensely slappable style, although lord knows I’d rather rewrite for style than because of terrible holes in the research.
Here’s a fun fact, though: rewriting makes me wish I were a man, because if I were, I would grow a big Periclean, Roger-Allam-as-Falstaff-style beard every time I had a major piece of work to complete. I would rejoice in it. It would be a totem of chapter-writing and people would bow before its length and unrepentance. Everyone, knowing I was writing, would close their eyes in silent respect. As totems of chapter-writing go, a majestic beard would be much better than the library mumble (when you go straight from studying to coffee with a friend, and can’t form coherent sentences until the caffeine kicks in), or just looking slightly rough after days at a laptop.
NB: I don’t think this is a case of misdirected penis envy, or even a desire to have Roger Allam as my spirit animal. ‘Spirit animal’ is my new phrase. In the last week, two people of whom I am fond have informed me that Enjolras from Les Mis is their spirit animal. One is a socialist writer on the working class, feminism and politics, and the other is my Christian, drama kid visiting student from California.
Anyway, the last few footnotes are underway, and although it’s a sunny day, I don’t want to go out in case the phone rings. #freelanceproblems.
Chapter-wise, next up is Ellen Terry in Cymbeline, or the chapter which is meant to be about a pretty Briton princess, but ended up involving vampires, somnophilia, and pseudo-medical fanfic…
The finishing line of my DPhil is apparently in sight. I’ve rewritten and deleted this paragraph a lot, obviously, but the gist is that I have to send my Faculty a schedule for completion, and my supervisors got quite excited. There is now a schedule. My mouth is quite dry.
Meanwhile, I am obviously researching and angsting over jobs. Again, can’t really talk about that without an oral desert and a twitching superstition gland, but I CAN talk about the other side to job-hunting.
Thus, putting the pro in procrastination, and making public a list I wrote last week:
8. Travelling tutor for children who live/perform in circuses.
10. Proprietor of year-round Christmas shop.
There, you see. If academia doesn’t work out, that’s at ten plausible career options…
That was quite a silly post. I am planning more sensible posts, regarding lecturing-from-iPads, Oxford’s new Interdisciplinary Network on Celebrity, and my thoughts on the RSC‘s #RSCWinter13 season (though that’s less a post, more feelings), but now I’m going to edit the draft I’ve been editing since the late Middle Ages, and then see Quartet. Have a lovely weekend.
My review of Jane Thomas’s Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon was published in the 18 November issue of the Oxonian Review. You can read it online here.
Apart from the legitimate book-reviewing part, there’s a healthy dollop about the time your own correspondent was a guide in the aforementioned Birthplace (2010). Let’s just say that my mother cannot recall the sight of me in costume without hysterical laughter. I talk about that too. I also go on a bit about Oscar Wilde and French nudity. As ever, any excuse.
Call for Papers: Sex, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian Literature and Culture
Victorian Network is an MLA-indexed (from 2012) online journal dedicated to publishing and promoting the best postgraduate work in Victorian Studies.
The sixth issue of Victorian Network, guest edited by Dr Greta Depledge (Royal Holloway), is dedicated to a reassessment of nineteenth-century constructions and understandings of sex, courtship and marriage.
Although the heteronormative and companionate marriage was vital for economic and reproductive reasons – as well as romantic impulses – recent scholarship has illuminated its status as but one of several diverse paradigms of marriage/sexual relationship accessible to the Victorians
Across the nineteenth century, profound crises of faith, extensive legal reforms and the new insights afforded by the emergent discipline of anthropology all contributed to a culture of introspection about the practice of marriage, at the same time as advances in science and medicine opened up new interpretations and definitions of sexual practices and preferences.
We are inviting submissions of no more than 7000 words, on any aspect of the theme. Possible topics include but are by no means limited to the following:
· Victorian narratives of queer desire: text and subtext
· Representations of women’s sexuality (angels, whores, spinsters and beyond)
· Prudishness and censorship: “deviant” novels and scandalous dramas
· Adultery, bigamy, divorce and other affronts to the ideal of companionate marriage
· Transgressive relationships
· Nineteenth-century marriage law, including prohibited degrees of affinity, property reform and breach of promise
· Representations of sexual innocence and experience (virginity, puberty and prostitution
· Subversion of traditional courtship narratives
· Sex and class: adventuresses, mistresses, sex workers and blackmail
· Customs of the country: courtship conventions, betrothals and bridal nights
(I remain Submissions Editor for Victorian Network. This means I am the over-excited loon who will answer your emails in the first instance. Should you have QUESTIONS about my role, the CFP, or any other aspect of submitting to VN, do get in touch, either by emailing or commenting below.)
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.
*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”.
I have promised myself I will NOT BLOG until this chapter plan is finished, but I did just want to share my – belated – glee at being published with the fabulous feminist website Bad Reputation. I was unable to make their anniversary party in Camden on Oct 7 (having, on Oct 6, hosted a certain amount of wassail myself) but am delighted to call myself a contributor, even on the strength of one article.
To read the article, click here, but in any case, I hope you enjoy this picture of the first big French gay rights protest, which might usefully be subtitled “dear god, French gays are so much cooler/more stylish and generally better than the rest of us”. There’s an intensity of leather and cheekbone to which one can only aspire.
Before I head back to Cymbeline and my dead Shakespearean girlfriends, however, here are three BadRep posts for your consideration:
Is ‘Chav’ A Feminist Issue? by Rhian Jones (clue: yes, and there’s some brilliant stuff on the intersections between feminism and class, aka the dynamic which it really pains many feminists of all colours, creeds, and variations of middle-class experience to acknowledge… /personal-rent-a-rant)