[REVIEW] Why Women Read Fiction

I reviewed Helen Taylor’s marvellous new book, Why Women Read Fiction, for Literary Review this month (Feb 2020). The magazine is out now, and you can also read my review online here!

13 Things I Learned From Turning My Thesis Into A Book

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Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle is out in UK hardback from OUP on 1st December! I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from the process of revising your thesis into a book. If the title seems like clickbait, it’s certainly v. niche.

Some of what follows is general, some deliriously specific. But here’s What I Have Learned…

  1. In the beginning, you feel embarrassed

Returning to your thesis after a pause will reunite you with a species of embarrassment you haven’t known since reviewing your UCAS statement. Dear lord, weren’t you lofty in your disagreements with critics? Why have you never learned to spell ‘negotiate’? And, as your supervisor so frequently asked you, did you think you were being paid by the semicolon? Also, ctrl+find on the phrase ‘this thesis’. Rinse and repeat.

  1. Bad proposals sink good books

I’m lucky: OUP read your thesis alongside your proposal for the Oxford English Monographs list. My readers liked the thesis and hated what I’d said about it. Despite good advice and money spent on A Well-Known Book On The Subject, I’d made a mess of the proposal. Unsure what needed changing, and teaching full-time, I offered to butcher my dissertation, double-quick. I could as usefully have written “please publish me?” on a post-it. On my forehead. My editor and supervisors helped me parse the reports, which became my most-studied documents through the rewriting process. I wrote in response to their reports, they replied, and it became clear that they were very enthusiastic about the material and had offered me a far clearer path to revisions than I’d expected. I can’t believe how much trouble everyone took.

I’ve since gone through the proposal process far more successfully, and would advise:

  • Don’t claim you can rewrite the book too quickly. Ask your proposed editor/whoever is working with you at this stage (if there isn’t someone, ask for them – if you’re still in a university faculty, is there a Research or Publishing Facilitator who would help?) for a sensible timeline. Ask your supervisors too.
  • Tailor your proposal exactly to your publisher’s requirements. If your publisher gives minimal guidelines, look at other publishers’ websites to see what tips they give.
  • Write the proposal engagingly. If your 2,000 words are boring, your 80,000 words are likely to be more so.
  • ASK TO READ OTHER PEOPLE’S PROPOSALS. I have no idea why I didn’t do this. Pride? Fear? Stupidity. I have a bad proposal (Book 1) and a good proposal (Book 2) on my hard drive & they’ve circulated more times than a Mudie’s mystery novel (it’s that kind of 1895 wit that’s got me where I am today. As Ed Balls would say, BOOM).
  1. You don’t have to negotiate like a first-time author

Possibly you’re a lofty, confident, professionalised young ECR with a hard head, a ten-year plan and convictions about this monograph’s worth. Or possibly you are deeply relieved and grateful that your Publisher Of Dreams wants your book in the first place. I was the latter. On two separate occasions, there was something about the contract/process which I wanted to alter. I felt that raising the matter would make me seem uppity/entitled/would jeopardise the publishing process. I nervously constructed an email, then ripped out all the feminine apologetics (like any good Springboard graduate).

It was totally fine. Unwanted contractual detail expunged by return of post. Just do it: a) even if the answer’s no, nobody will mind you starting the debate, and b) for all you know, 9 out of 10 (straight white male) first-time authors historically make – and are granted – the same request.

  1. Thrills abound.

You know the contract will be exciting (FYI, so will saying ‘I’m under contract’ as if it’s with Warner Bros but you’re breezily calm). You’ve been planning your acknowledgments (monograph answer to an Oscar speech) and you’ve probably had some thoughts about the cover art. But there’s more. Your Amazon page! Your publisher page! The first time your book appears in a catalogue, convincing you – with a touching, residual faith in print – that your book will soon be real. All these are marvellous. Treasure them.

  1. You can get a contract for your second book before the first is published.

Again, this might have been obvious to lofty, hard-headed ECRs with a ten-year p. and a conviction about their scholarship’s w. (see above) but it was not obvious to self. Nevertheless, several things fell into place: having always been crap at condensing my doctorate into two sentences, I was determined to be able to pitch my second book. I honestly went along to the Routledge editorial speed-dating event to practice pitching. I’d assumed that nobody would take my second book seriously until the first one was a physical object. Stupidity, again. You know what’s great? Signing your first book contract (I instagrammed mine). You know what’s amazing? Signing your second. You feel like JK Rowling. And, yet:

  1. It might be bittersweet.

I have always dreamed of writing a novel. In my head, my first book was going to involve literary prizes and film rights, and although I suppose there is a chance that Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle MIGHT turn into a six-part BBC series starring Hattie Morahan as Ellen Terry, Keeley Hawes as Madge Kendal, and Michelle Dockery as Mrs Patrick Campbell (PLEASE NOTE: this would be the greatest BBC series of all time, I’ve done the work for you, we just need to find a Lillie Langtry as beautiful as Francesca Annis was in 1978), I have resigned myself to the truth. For the moment, I am very much of those academics with 1,000 novel ideas in their (twenty-first-century-Cloud-equivalent-of-) bottom drawer. I hope to one day graduate to being one of those academics with one novel idea realised on a Waterstones shelf.

  1. You will become obsessed with your readers’ identity.

The slightest expression of interest from a fellow conference-goer will seem like a veiled confession. I know one of my readers, because they introduced themselves to me. I was so delighted that I hugged them rapturously, and now beam like a fool whenever they’re mentioned in conversation. Rightly, much light is now being shone on the unpaid murkiness that dominates work for many ECRs – in the name of experience, our industry is building up an ‘internship culture’ to match any other sector, even if the reality is ‘can’t pay’ rather than ‘won’t’. But academic service makes heavy demands of scholars further along the line. I think anyone who reviews a book/thesis MS lucidly and generously (like my readers) is brilliant. Everything I’ve written in the book (and everything I’m writing in the next one) is better because of them.

  1. You will be obsessed with the last people to publish on your list.

How did they do the index? What’s the font like? Why is their name italicised on the cover? Which colour did they choose? Their index sub-headings don’t seem to be indented, why are their acknowledgments so well-written, gosh they’ve got an actual Amazon! Look Inside link, ugh their 3 to 5 marketing bulletpoints don’t sound like they were written in terror —

  1. You never really finish proofreading.

The only good things about reading your own proofs are 1) the talented patience of your professional proofreader, and 2) when you open the PDF and see your manuscript laid out like a proper book. Otherwise, the defining feature of Looking For Errors is that of stargazing or finding ants on the kitchen floor: every time you find one, you see six in its immediate vicinity. I am just about convinced, now, that there won’t be ten blank pages, five historical howlers, and three instances of ‘[EXPLAIN MORE HERE]’ in the published version. This will be entirely due to the professionals and not to my own checking. If you do find a blank page or historical howler etc., feel free not to tell me.

  1. Indexing is like having your brain removed by tweezers.

I had always vaguely planned to pay someone to do my indexing, but then two world-rocking things happened. 1) My colleague described to me, over lunch, how rigorously she’d compiled her own index, explaining eloquently how authorial knowledge of the manuscript was essential for an index that reflected and enhanced the text. I listened, reflected on all the crap indexes I’d encountered during my own DPhil, and light-up hipster letters flashed in my brain: SHE DID HER OWN INDEX. And, a nanosecond later, SHE IS A PROPER ACADEMIC. God damn those colleagues, modelling excellent scholarship at every turn. And then, 2) I found out how much paying an indexer would actually cost. I did my own bloody index. It was like proofreading my own psyche, one hideous preoccupation at a time. A mini-tip: index everything from page 1 onwards, because something you think wasn’t important at all will turn out to have occurred 50 times between pages 150-200 and you’ll be thinking nauseously of all those earlier references you overlooked. That sentence might not mean anything now, but it will. In the process, you’ll come to wonder why other people’s indexes have entries like ‘Regatta, Henley’ and yours has ‘rape, marital’. You’ll go from resenting how much professional indexers are paid to thinking it’s not enough. Also, you probably don’t have long to index, so don’t waste time on learning indexing software. You can’t afford it.

  1. You’ll remember how much you loved your doctorate.

And you can even sneak in some more research. I wallowed in ‘necessary’ extra visits to my favourite archives and read every scrap of writing from Henry Irving to Ellen Terry. This is my idea of a very good time. I revised my thesis into a book alongside the start of my postdoctoral project, and alongside the challenge of a new and less familiar subfield, returning to actresses, suffragettes, and Shakespeare was bliss.

  1. Supportive friends and family will plan to buy the book.

Then you’ll have to tell them how much it’ll cost.

  1. It takes a village.

Not a village. An extremely conscientious publishing company and its team across three continents. I am still floored by this. My editor is based in Oxford; my marketing contact is in New York; my production coordinator is in India, and my copyeditor lives in Lancaster! My proofreader is the only enigma. From her name, I imagine her as a 1950s bluestocking with a recent history in espionage.

I could link you to a million articles bemoaning the downturn, high cost, and jeopardised future of academic publishing. I’d rather tell you how great my team has been. I feel lucky to have had amazing women all around the world work on my book; appropriate for a book that’s about cooperation and mentoring between creative women (it’s also about Jack the Ripper, but that’s a less seamless segue).

What did you learn, or what are you learning, through writing your first book?

 

[CALL FOR PAPERS]: Victorian Bodies and Body Parts

Victorian Network is an MLA-indexed online journal devoted to publishing and promoting the best postgraduate work in Victorian Studies.

 The ninth issue of Victorian Network, guest edited by Professor Pamela K. Gilbert (University of Florida), is dedicated to a reassessment of the place of the human body in the Victorian literary and cultural imagination. Rapid medical and scientific advances, advancing industrialization and new forms of labour, legal reforms, the rise of comparative ethnology and anthropology, the growth of consumer culture, and the ever changing trends of Victorian fashion are just a few of the many forces that transformed how Victorians thought about the human body and about the relationship between the embodied, or disembodied, self and the object world.

 Nineteenth-century configurations of the body have long been of interest to Victorian scholars. However, recent years have seen the field reconfigured by the emergence of a range of exciting new and theoretically sophisticated approaches that harness the insights of the new materialism, thing theory, cultural phenomenology and actor-network theory to explorations of Victorian embodiment, bodies and body parts.

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:

·      embodied experience and the senses

·      the body in stillness and in motion: practices of confinement and mobility

·      consumerism, fashion and the stylized body

·      the body and technology

·      bodies of empire and colonialism

·      bodies and body parts on display: anatomical museums, ethnological shows, hospital ward tours

·      sciences of the body: medicine, biology, ethnology, statistics, etc.

·      bodies, sex and gender

·      health and illness

·      affective bodies and embodied emotions

·      labour power and the body as property

·      the poetics and aesthetics of the human body

·      human and animal bodies before and after Darwin

 All submissions should conform to MHRA style conventions and the in-house submission guidelines.
 Deadline for submissions: 30 November 2013.

Contact: victoriannetwork@gmail.com

— I am Submissions Editor for Victorian Network, so do feel free to get in touch with any questions. Needless to say I would particularly welcome articles on either Gwendolen Harcourt’s neck, OR David Threlfall’s performance as Smike in the RSC’s first production of Nicholas Nickleby, since I am obsessed with both those things. HOWEVER, there are other people on the VN editorial board.

We also have Twitter now, @Vic_Network. Follow us. Follow. Make merry on my twitter feed and break up the commentary on Celebrity Masterchef, which is in any case meaningless since Speech Debelle left.

(P.S. please conform to the submission guidelines. They’re not esoteric and it makes editors so happy.)

Life After Submission

I submitted my thesis last Thursday, on 1st August, on schedule, and while functioning the human embodiment of mixed feelings. Most immediately, submitting the thesis meant not having to spend another day worrying about my inability to use semicolons or the en dash correctly. Or whether I’d pitched my acknowledgments correctly.

Or whether I should cut those two paragraphs of megalols on the all-cursed eighteenth-century performance history of All’s Well, in a spirit of kill-your-darlings/academic maturity (answer: NEVER!!1). It also meant sticking to the date that, in a spirit of accountability, I’d given everyone for my submission, despite the fact that the precise date was something that only really mattered to me (and, okay, my university). People sent lovely messages, one of my viva examiners hugged me outside the exam schools, a friend was on hand to act as my administrator, I cried in Pret, and a dozen or so of my favourite people went out for cocktails and then on to Chiang Mai.

You probably noticed the bit where I cried in Pret. You are probably all bored of the posts where I swoon and wail about how much I love my research, so take that as read and skip to the bit where I’m sitting in Pret, having left my thesis in the superlatively capable but indomitably low-key hands of the Holywell Street print shop (to whom all praise), and Emily’s getting concerned because for the first time in three years (excluding the evening where my throat was so bad that I could only throw cushions and mime death to attract her attention), I’ve stopped talking.

OBVIOUSLY submitting is a good thing. I am delighted to have managed it. I had a perfectly splendid afternoon and evening, despite having submitted in the devil’s own weather and then, oh god, hugged my examiner while slimy and disgusting. It was all lovely. But in Pret, I felt so sad. And then, later on in Brasenose M/HCR, while I obsessively counted and re-counted all 425 pages of each of my triplicate theses to see whether the Holywell print shop had messed up the numbering (SPOILERS: they hadn’t), things became reminiscent of that scene in Friends where Phoebe’s left alone with the triplets. This isn’t new behaviour – I’ve cried after pretty much every play I’ve directed or been in. I well up when Michaelmas ends (but not Hilary. No-one loves Hilary). I can’t so much as look at the BBC Sherlock Reichenbach Fall and I turn off Four Weddings and a Funeral at the first glimpse of tartan. I didn’t cry after Finals because that would be certifiable, but the morning after the St John’s Commemoration Ball which followed Finals, I made all my graduating friends cry by bringing my hangover into their kitchen and reciting Larkin. To put it another, more obvious way: I loved being a DPhil student and I’m so sorry it’s (almost) over.

Submitting a DPhil isn’t the same as getting a DPhil. I’m technically (and in the eyes of the council tax people, thank god) still a student. My viva date is 27 September. I can cushion the psychological blow by reminding myself that there’s still a lot to do – and reminding myself, of course, that I have plans for this thesis. I hope it’ll one day be a book. I’m even luckier in that I have teaching jobs lined up for the next year, here in Oxford, across two wonderful colleges. One of them (say it quietly) even includes a book allowance.

And I do know that I’m meant to take time off (but if I choose to spend a sizeable chunk of it reading the reading list my Freshers should be receiving, who are you to judge me?!). So: I am doing downtime. I went to a village fete on Saturday (dog show = splendid. Lack of murders = not what ITV has led me to expect). I ate fajitas with E. I did a leaping shrieking dance at the announcement that P. Capaldi, god amongst cadaverous Scottish men, is going to play the next Doctor. My mum and I are planning a trip to London, not least to deal with the fact that a teaching wardrobe of Skinny Jeans And Tops With Leopard-Print is probably not acceptable for a proper job (except, talking of proper job and more specifically of grown up: on the way to submit my DPhil thesis, I got ID’d buying scissors. You have to be sixteen to buy scissors. I am twenty-six. This follows hot on the heels of The Time I Was Stopped As An Unaccompanied Minor By Border Control At Heathrow Airport). Later this summer, I am attending ANY NUMBER of weddings and going to the seaside. I am completely au fait with events on Coronation Street. I am doing downtime with a vengeance and if a small part of me still wants to buy a new A4 pad and get back to making myself to-do lists with two columns dividing tasks up as PRIORITIES or alternatively BONUS… then that’s sick and wrong and if you see me doing that you should buy me a cocktail. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to re-reading the entire nineteenth century relaxing.

I do have some posts coming up, though, along the lines of “The PhD Acknowledgments It Seemed Better Not To Include [With Especial Reference to Kentish B&Bs And/Or Sheenagh’s Stephen Fry Impression]”, “Since I Apparently Managed It, Here’s How To Survive Your DPhil” and “While I Was Writing Up, Misogyny Exploded, How About That”. Oh, and I’m on the radio again tomorrow. BBC Oxford! One-ish! Tune in!

As I said, there will be proper thank yous, but if it takes a village to raise a child (which surely depends on the village), it took an internet to submit my DPhil. If you answered a stupid question, or shared your thoughts/wordcount/CV, or send a kind email, or thought my tweets were funny, or wished me luck in the fortnight when all I seemed to do was go to job interviews, or followed the blog or commented, or wrote something witty and sane, or gave me a teaching tip, or put your teaching resources online and told me to download them (making you a pedagogical superstar and doubtless also sexy), thank you very much indeed.

Three Weeks

Three. Weeks.

This morning I discovered crows’ feet: definitely multiple crows, but only around one eye. What am I, Popeye? Have I been walking round with the lopsided squint of a spinach-eating cartoon? And why are the inside of my eye? Why? This post is brought to you by green tea, currently over-caffeinating me as I strive not to gain approx. 700% of my body weight (see: the run up to undergraduate finals).

Yesterday I bumped into a friend who’s submitting at the end of September. It made me wonder what on earth I am playing at. I don’t know what I’m playing at. Shouldn’t I have stopped leaving the house? Aren’t there more hours in which I could be working? Why have I told people I’m submitting on 1 August – isn’t that the perfect way to guarantee that I don’t? Wouldn’t it be helpful if I could stop feeling – every time I read a CFP or an advert or a tweet from someone not even in my field – that all this writing-up business is taking too much time and that the rest of my life-slash-career is just passing me by?

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon (or, indeed, someone with nearly three degrees in reading) to see that the above questions (turn the internet upside down for answers: no, no, poss, YES) probably fall well within the curve for Normal. Not that anything about DPhil-writing is Normal (certainly not the people who do it). This week I said on the radio that I was attempting to become Dr Duncan soon, which is the psychological equivalent of Oblivion at Alton Towers. Oblivion at Alton Towers would be an excellent pulp fiction novel.*

The main problem is that I’ll be really sad to submit. I love this thesis. That’s not an indication of its quality; it’s an indication of my continuing love for the mad denizens of Shakespearean theatre culture, and the fascination which the Victorians still hold for me. I have ideas for new projects which seem equally exciting, but… I love this project. I love it so much that the reason I’m even making this post is because I just traced the various cultural allegiances of a few aristos whom I mention briefly in chapter three, and discovering all their little socio-political, arts-patronising, club-belonging, doubtless-inbred late-Victorian interactions gave me a thrill of researcher happiness that just cannot be voiced on the first floor of the Cornmarket Starbucks (for one thing, it would frighten the Spanish teenagers).

Thank you so much to everyone who’s said kind words about the last few posts, here or on Facebook/Twitter. Some have suggested that this sort of rambling makes their own writing-up a bit easier. Blogging brings a little clarity to my endlessly-lengthening and occasionally horrific working days. And perhaps this’ll be a nice record to look back on, you know, after. Obviously I don’t actually believe that. Magical thinking says  I’m jinxing the whole venture with every blogpost, and denial can’t believe after will ever happen. But still, there it is on the calendar: three weeks. Wish me luck?

 

*No it wouldn’t, Sophie. You’ve had too much tea.

Weekend Miscellany

(This is a type of post stolen entirely from the lovely Simon at Stuck In A Book. Simon and I first met when we were the only two Masters students who wanted to do nineteenth- and twentieth-century drama. Simon now has a job that I don’t really understand, but which seems to involve him using MS Paint for money, at OUP. Over the years, Simon has introduced me to many things, including the Magdalen salad bar, Irene Vamburgh, and middlebrow interwar women’s fiction. Kirstie Allsopp once replied to him on Twitter).

  • This weekend, I have been reading How To Live Alone And Like It [1936] and Diary of a Provincial Lady for the first time. The first is a bible for the ‘extra woman’ and a fabulous guide to having a really nice life in one’s London flat. My flat is in Oxford, and I don’t have a maid, so by the book’s standards, I am already failing. I do wholeheartedly concur that one should have manicures and delicious food and splendid clothes whenever possible. I don’t think Margaret Hillis would approve of me eating yoghurt in my pyjamas while I proofread. I would like to read this book forty-five times and then travel back to 1936 and live the book while dressed entirely as Harriet Vane. Diary of a Provincial Lady is also wonderful. Mademoiselle and Vicky are my favourites. What I love most is how they all sit around fretting about pawning great-aunt’s diamond ring and/or the general proximity to penury, but never consider dismissing the servants.
  • I also reviewed Bitch Boxer, now playing at the Soho Theatre – read the review here.
  • An American photography and fashion blogger, Melissa Aquino, uploaded scans of the late-90s US catalogue dELiA*s, with its fashion for pre-teen girls. I have been howling in recognition. Whilst I always lived in & bought clothes in the UK, visceral memories of Tammy, Red Herring and the equivalent publications – Girl Talk, Shout, Mizz, Sugar, and the highly unsuitable More – came flooding back. I had Kangaroo platform trainers with a bit of a platform. And things with stripes down the side. What can I say? I was 11, it was 1998, and I think my parents were mostly relieved I’d come out of the Black Clothes Phase that had started when I was seven. In the spirit of the 90s, I’d like a Body Shop lip balm, some gel pens, a chain letter and a nice blue hair mascara.
  • I am currently designing my first ever term-length Shakespearean syllabus (I’ve taught Shakespeare quite a bit in the past, but not designed a course myself). This is hugely exciting. Those of you who’ve course-built yourselves, how do you prefer to structure it?
  • Other things I like: the University of Leicester and Dickens Journals‘ collaborative project to read Wilkie Collins’s No Name online; the utterly fabulous Spanish Les Mis rendition of One Day More, “Sal el Sol” (Geronimo Rauch is the current West End Valjean. The Spanish Enjolras is just pretty); and, crucially, this gin brooch (which was in the Modern Art Oxford shop for £5 more, chuh).

I will now carry on imbibing Radio 4 and trying to rewrite my latest chapter. I have pages and pages of proper theatrical history to get through before I’m allowed to talk about vampires.

[REVIEW] Bitch Boxer at the Soho Theatre

On Wednesday, I saw Bitch Boxer at the Soho Theatre; a one-hour, one-woman play written and performed by Charlotte Josephine. Having seen Josephine in Julius Caesar earlier this year, I was excited to see her own work – and, to be honest, I’m a bit in love with the Soho Theatre and their apparent directorial policy of ‘stage work that Sophie wants to see, and don’t charge her more than a tenner for doing so’. For me, Bitch Boxer was an incredibly inspiring, salutary and encouraging piece of theatre. Alongside my fascination with the play’s story and characters, I was delighted to see such a young writer and performer performing with such skill and immediacy – and being so warmly received.

Bitch Boxer is the story of Chloe, a young working-class boxer from Leytonstone, East London, who is gearing up for her final qualifying fight before the London Olympics; the first Olympics in which women could box. I am a bespectacled, myopic, borderline-dyspraxic, undersized and severely uncoordinated scrap of laziness, and I came out of Bitch Boxer wanting to box. The play’s exposition of the sport’s technical side is unexpectedly fascinating. I also found Bitch Boxer a more complex and nuanced exploration of boxing than On It, Tony Pitts’s recent Afternoon Play about the late Liam Jones, a young drug addict who attempted to conquer his addictions via boxing. Both plays tell powerful stories of pain and loss, but Bitch Boxer gets far further beyond the predictable narrative of boxing-as-emotional-salvation. Not only does Chloe use boxing to express and control her adolescent anger, but training and fighting give her an identity that reorders and reorients the rest of her life. Bitch Boxer‘s most emotionally articulate scene is Chloe’s recognition that her opponent in the ring is as determined, excited, frightened and committed as herself. This gives the boxer a compassion and respect for the process of fighting that makes the final confrontation moving, but not mawkish.

I said that Josephine was warmly received by her audience, and the vast majority of the reviews have also been excellent. However, one critic has objected in misogynist – and also misspelt – terms that Charlotte Josephine’s body is not plausibly that of a boxer, and that this physical dissonance damages the integrity and believability of the piece. That is an extremely polite paraphrase of what this lone lunatic actually came out with, and I’m not going to link to the review, because, well, don’t feed the trolls.

Firstly, Charlotte Josephine’s body is very plausibly that of a boxer. Secondly, and not to position myself as the tiny Cassandra of critical misogyny, but after watching Bitch Boxer, I was expecting to find that this kind of play would draw this kind of criticism. Women cannot put their bodies out in public looking like Charlotte Josephine looks, without attractive derisive male comment. Josephine looks fit and strong, in a way that’s toned but which connotes substance, strength and stamina, rather than the ultra-tiny LA yoga bod that’s the  mainstream default and pinnacle of the sporty female body. She looks admirably powerful. It’s not really surprising that a woman daring to be visibly sporty, healthy and herself causes controversy: for God’s sake, look at what happened to Rebecca Adlington and Jessica Ennis.

I sat there watching Josephine and I thought how brave she was not to be in Sweaty Betty pinkified sports gear, but instead to look like a boxer, in Lonsdale shorts, black ankle socks and an ordinary vest; all of them sweat-soaked, as the intensely physical piece progressed. And then I wondered what the hell had happened to society, and to my brain, that I found it brave for a young woman to dress as her character without concessions to sexiness, and that I couldn’t ever remember seeing an actress visibly sweat. In order to bring out the troll in one theatrical critic, all Charlotte Josephine had to do was be visible as a professional and as an artist. Quite often, that is all we have to do, as women, to infuriate misogynists: just show up. I encourage you to show up at Bitch Boxer, as soon as you can.

A Snuff Box Theatre production, Bitch Boxer runs at about 65 minutes, includes Eminem karaoke, bereavement, a confrontation with a savage dog, and a controversial pair of Nikes. With Julius Caesar only last month, I’m suddenly incredibly hopeful about the future of feminist theatre.

 

The dreaded rewrite

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…

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.

Advent Calendar Day 13: Austen!

Jane Austen, Watercolour and pencil portrait b...
Jane Austen, Watercolour and pencil portrait by her sister Cassandra, 1810 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Below is one of the happier Christmases in Austen‘s novels, and perhaps one of the happier moments in Persuasion. Whatever our feelings about the Musgroves, I love them here:

The Musgroves came back to receive their happy boys and girls from school, bringing with them Mrs. Harville’s little children, to improve the noise of Uppercross, and lessen that of Lyme. Henrietta remained with Louisa; but all the rest of the family were again in their usual quarters.

Lady Russell and Anne paid their compliments to them once, when Anne could not but feel that Uppercross was already quite alive again. Though neither Henrietta, nor Louisa, nor Charles Hayter, nor Captain Wentworth were there, the room presented as strong a contrast as could be wished to the last state she had seen it in.

Immediately surrounding Mrs. Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others. Charles and Mary also came in, of course, during their visit, and Mr. Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain. It was a fine family-piece.

Anne, judging from her own temperament, would have deemed such a domestic hurricane a bad restorative of the nerves, which Louisa’s illness must have so greatly shaken. But Mrs. Musgrove, who got Anne near her on purpose to thank her most cordially, again and again, for all her attentions to them, concluded a short recapitulation of what she had suffered herself by observing, with a happy glance round the room, that after all she had gone through, nothing was so likely to do her good as a little quiet cheerfulness at home.

— Jane Austen, Persuasion (1817), Chapter II, vol II.