Celebrity Illness

[Before we start, I’m jubilant that the Equal Marriage Bill has been passed by the Commons. Obviously, I hope that the Lords don’t now mess this up, and that (Mostly)-Straight-People’s-Views-On-Gay-Marriage Day is followed by an equally successful (Mostly)-Straight-People-Views-On-Gay-Marriage Day, Now With Coronets. Anyway, enough. I opened the gin to watch the result, and I don’t like Bercow’s face.]

Mrs. Patrick Campbell, actress, full-length po...

A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to attend the first study day of Oxford’s new interdisciplinary discussion network, ‘Spotlight on Celebrity’. The study day, hosted in Oxford’s new Humanities Building, brought together researchers of all levels, from a wide range of disciplines including English, Theology, Music, Modern Languages, History, Classics and Medieval Studies. Some of my favourite papers dealt with such diverse topics as the Soviet media’s presentation of sports stars in the USSR (this was brilliant, and made me want to research sport), and the local celebrity of (frequently grotesque) ballad singers throughout nineteenth-century British cities. A large number of the participants worked on performance in one form or another, which was a joy for me. I was the first speaker of the day and talked about the relationship between performance and celebrity in my own work, and the various research methodologies which I’ve found particularly helpful. Discussion ranged everywhere imaginable, and it was actually a brief tangent about Club 27, Pete Doherty and The Indelicates which came into my mind today.

I’m currently rewriting the central chapter of my thesis. When I’ve cracked it, Thesis 2.0 will seem a far less Sisyphean task (forgive the hyperbole; I am mid-gin, we’re getting marriage equality, and my French tutor says my R sounds are now less rubbish). It is not a cheery chapter. It is about Mrs Patrick Campbell and her various Shakespearean exploits, and while Mrs P.C. herself is all that is lovely (just ask Shaw), much of the chapter seems to be about such ghastly topics as the sexualisation of children, the Victorian rape culture and, of course, death.

It is basically illegal to post on celebrity death without including this picture, you're lucky it's not Diana in a headscarf.
Chatterton (1856). Henry Wallis. Tate, London.

Celebrity death is a tabloid staple, since not merely the good but also the bad, and, crucially, the notorious regularly die young or just messily. I’ve mentioned Club 27 and stopped off at the shrine of Chatterton. What I’m really interested in is the idea of celebrity illness: the idea of a celebrity (above all an artist, writer or performer) whose health is sacrificed for their work, or whose creative output involves the self-destruction of their health. This seems to have been resonant for (some of) the women I write about (particularly Campbell and Bernhardt) and their publics, and I’d like to explore why. I’ve jotted down some thoughts on possible factors below, but this post really is a case of me thinking out loud and contributions (on any period, including contemporary celebrity culture) are hugely welcome!

Why have the illnesses and addictions of celebrities (particularly artists) fascinated the public, and resonated through culture?

Ideas:

  • Celebrity/artist illness can make their art seem more “authentic” when their illness indicates clear emotional and physical investment. In acting, the nervous breakdown or exhaustion of a performer seems to indicate that their performance involves “real” emotional and carries a “real” emotional cost. They can’t rely on “cold” technique.
  • Celebrity/artist illness seems to indicate an individual’s greater commitment to their work, since they are prepared to “suffer for their art”.
  • A visibly ill or suffering artist (or one presented as such by PR/the media) can play into narratives of the artist as a marginalised/persecuted figure (e.g. the “starving artist”). A comfortable or economically viable artist is perceived to have “sold out”.
  • Communities/cultures which believe in the Romantic figure of the  “tortured genius” or “tortured artist” privilege those over the alternative.
  • Celebrity/artist illness identifies the ill artist with respected or admired professional forbears who suffered similar illnesses or a celebrity death – this is particularly true of Campbell, who constantly self-fashions to be like Bernhardt. Bernhardt’s memoirs are FULL of descriptions of her mental health issues, physical illness, fragility etc. Links to tragedy brings a spurious glamour in some cultural settings.
  • Celebrity/artist illness can attract sympathy from fans, and boost press coverage. Narratives of illness or addiction can “humanise” the celebrity subject, making them seem less intimidating or career-driven, and creating admirable narratives of overcoming obstacles.
  • Conservatives opposed to certain kinds of artists can draw on evidence of celebrity illness to present certain public professions, activities, or lifestyles as innately dangerous, with the illness as evidence.
  • Some illnesses and their manifestations are of interest for different reasons; so the tabloid press might be more interested in the risky or embarrassing public behaviour of a celebrity addicted to alcohol or drugs, while images of a very thin female celebrity (e.g. one known or suspected to have an eating disorder) proliferate in women’s magazines and “thinspiration” blogs. The aestheticising and fetishising of illness happens in all sorts of ways.

Finally, if you’re interested in being part of the Spotlight on Celebrity network, which is run by Jess Goodman (Modern Languages) and David Kennerley (History), please do get involved – there will be further study days, seminars and hopefully a conference or symposium at some point! You can email spotlightoncelebrity [at] gmail [dot] com for more details, or just comment below.

Why writing from day one isn’t nuts

Coat of arms of the University of Oxford Locat...
Coat of arms of the University of Oxford Location : seen outside Rewley House of Kellogg College, Oxford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Hayton wrote a guest post at The Thesis Whisper, decrying the (very widespread) theory that to write a good PhD, you need to write as you go, or – as he puts it – write from “day one”.

I can only speak from my experience, as an English DPhil student at the University of Oxford, but I’ve found it essential to write as I go, for the following reasons:

1. Writing is rewriting.

The most valuable part of writing is rewriting. For me, rewriting is not always exciting – much of the material is already familiar to me, and I’m refining/redirecting/clarifying, not charting a course into the (thrilling) unknown. Nevertheless, it’s that critical eye which refines your thesis and makes the messy first draft (second draft, third draft…) better. I dread the thought of returning to my thesis between submission and viva (obviously praying I get that far! And not jinxing it! And knocking on wood and frothing with neurosis!) and realising that – although no thesis is ever perfect – just one more rewrite would have fixed things. If you don’t write from day one, you have much less time left to rewrite. Hayton says that it’s difficult to return to a chapter you wrote two years ago. This is COMPLETELY true because it is BILGE and you’re a MORON and why didn’t your supervisors stifle you at birth. On the other hand, realising something from two years ago looks like relative bilge is testament to your own progress since then; something I’ve found strangely affirming. Moreover, there will probably be something you can salvage. It’s easier to return to a chapter you wrote two years ago than to return to a chapter that doesn’t exist.

2. Writing is revealing.

Writing shows up the flaws in your argument; the paragraph that doesn’t fit; the stylistic tic that you need to spot; and, sometimes, the glorious link that couldn’t be made until ideas were made adjacent on paper. The more writing you’ve done, the more likely you are to see the strengths and weaknesses of your research. Writing from day one isn’t fun – not as much fun as a glorious library wallow without concept of producing results – but it does acquaint you with your research-self.

3. Writers have readers.

It is very, very hard for your supervisor to get a sense of where you’re heading and what your strengths actually are if you’re all talk and no hand-in. As ever, I’m very lucky in my supervisors, but in my 1st year a remark from the then Director of Graduate Studies (made at a general session for new research students) stuck with me: “A great way to get your supervisor’s attention is to hand something in“. If you’re only making notes and plans and following your own discursive research leads, it’s very hard to get the feedback which is so valuable early in your PhD, by averting disasters or pointing out obvious omissions. Sooner than you think, too, you’ll be wanting your fellow research students to look over your work, or you’ll need writing samples to win scholarships or even jobs…

4. Writers don’t just write theses.

Your thesis draft is the source of conference papers, podcasts, job applications; it’s a repository of fascinating miscellanea which frankly bear NO relation to your stated topic but which might turn into fascinating articles at some point. Writers are also teachers, and in a climate which seems to value research-led teaching, a clear research identity (and an idea about what constitutes good writing in your discipline) is much easier to model if you’re settled in your own written work.

And, finally, breaking my nice if semi-hypnotic/creepy structural streak:

5. There is no bloody time.

There isn’t time. There definitely isn’t time. Not in the UK. There’s time for reading and exploring and doing conferences and archive trips and all, I promise, all the attractions of graduate school life but there is not time for all these activities without any suggestion of written results. I teach and research-assist alongside my thesis, currently while applying for jobs and attempting to have a social life and see the people I love. Many doctoral students also have spouses, mortgages, children, and a pressing need to graduate before their funding expires (mine ends in Sept 2013) or before self-funding becomes still more untenable. You can’t be a seminar-going, committee-member, sociable, fulfilled, profile-building graduate student and then write your thesis. You have to do both at the same time, and make the best fist of it you can. There’s no blueprint for writing a thesis, but you’d have to be an extraordinary person (or just extraordinarily hurried) to sit down after thirty months’ research and write 100,000 words in the final six. More power to James Hayton, if he can manage it – but I can’t, and I’d advise any new researcher not to try.

[EVENT] The Hogge Hath Lost His Pearle, 22 September, Oxford.

Saturday, 22nd September 2012. 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

The Malone Society with the Oxford English Faculty, at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

A semi-staged reading and discussion of Robert Tailor’s The Hogge hath lost his Pearle.

Registration, to include sandwich lunch and a copy of the text (or alternative Malone soc publication): £35 full, £15 student/Malone Society members. You can register online here.

If you prefer, please send a cheque payable to the Oxford English Faculty to Emma Smith, Hertford College, Oxford OX1 3BW.

Corpus Christi College, Oxford. (c) college website, 2012.

Corpus, incidentally, is the prettiest of all Oxford’s smaller colleges excluding ORIEL and Brasenose.

I was there yesterday, showing E. the wonders of its Jesus-pelican, inexplicable greenhouse, stunning gardens and commitment to really beautiful planting. Also, there’s a sun terrace.

(Note to Oxonians: did we know about the sun terrace? Shall we all meet up there and share sundry ice-cold beverages? Is Corpus so cool that its possession of a sun terrace is, to the …corpuscules,  not even A Thing? In any case, here’s the view from said terrace).

So yes. £15; Hogges; Pearles; sun terrace. Please do propagate the link and forward it to anyone who might be interested!

g. b. shaw: the pillars of society are cracking and the ruin of the State at hand!

Lived to be approx. five hundred and four.
Lived to be approx five and hundred and four, good for him.

No author who has ever known the exultation of sending the Press into an hysterical tumult of protest, of moral panic, of involuntary and frantic confession of sin, of a horror of conscience in which the power of distinguishing between the work of art on the stage and the real life of the spectator is confused and overwhelmed, will ever care for the stereotyped compliments which every successful farce or melodrama elicits from the newspapers. Give me that critic who rushed from my play to declare furiously that Sir George Crofts ought to be kicked. What a triumph for the actor, thus to reduce a jaded London journalist to the condition of the simple sailor in the Wapping gallery, who shouts execrations at Iago and warnings to Othello not to believe him! But dearer still than such simplicity is that sense of the sudden earthquake shock to the foundations of morality which sends a pallid crowd of critics into the street shrieking that the pillars of society are cracking and the ruin of the State at hand.

George Bernard Shaw, ‘The Author’s Apology’, preface to 1902 edition of Mrs Warren’s Profession (1894), repr. in Works (London: Constable & Co., 1930, vol. 7, Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant 1, pp. 152-3.

This term is so much more fun than last. I love journalism.

(M’boy’s sister auditions for drama school today. So very excited.)