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?


  • 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.

[REVIEW] Shakespeare’s Shrine: The Bard’s Birthplace and the Invention of Stratford-upon-Avon 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.

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.

First Draft

I’ve got a draft. Not a military draft or its hononym (e.g. a draught of cooling beer). I’ve got a draft of my thesis.

I’ve actually had one for a while. I’ve enjoyed having it around: I’ve got a draft, you say, when allowed out in public, and people applaud or say urgh or yeech or gosh how clever or do shut up, Sophie, as the mood takes them, but what they never do is ask for any further statement on your progress. Confession of the draft is sufficient, and that suits me just fine. A draft is a useful thing. A settled thing, a clean and finite and accomplished thing, especially when viewed from a very long way in the distance.

I am familiar with the theory and practice of that which follows the creation/achievement of that first draft. I have read the war records of those who have gone before, or rather, back. They go back to their draft – their clean, their settled, their satisfying draft, the embodiment of accomplishment – and they discover that the earliest chapters of that draft might as well have been written by someone on crack. They discover that their arguments were parsed out in crayon, their structures tacked together with hairy wool and their paragraphs riddled with the shrapnel of a thousand square brackets reading [NEEDS MOAR] with reference to detail, evidence and, indeed, references.

It isn’t that I stopped working. Since having my draft (like some smug pregnant waddle-y lady, now post-partum) I’ve

  • written and delivered my first lecture at the English Faculty;
  • given two conference papers, one in Oxford and one in Newcastle;
  • chaired a panel at each (fun and also bizarre), and read.
  • Read all the things, in fact, where “all” involves tiny wartime print and/or endless blissful theatrical memoirs by previously unnoticed mad actresses (Ellaline Terriss, anyone? She didn’t try to tell me about spiritualism – hello Constance Benson – but she was, to put it mildly, weird). I think this photo says it all. Basically, I’ve been filling gaps in my knowledge and working through 2012 To Read.docx with all the insufferable righteousness of the smug/drafted/insane.
  • I’ve also started writing up a commission from OUP USA (which probably deserves its own post, but I’m too paranoid and shall wait til it’s over).
  • Meanwhile, I’m planning two research jaunts (one to the post-industrial north, and one to the inaccessible south) and I’ve also, er, moved house.

Somewhere in the midst of this, I have thought up ways to make two of my chapters (perhaps startlingly) better.

In theory.

I have been reluctant to start writing again, because I know that once you go back, and start writing again, you cease to be a person with a draft. You become a person with a version, a person entangled with a hideous embroiling mass of prose which can no longer be disguised as a draft, and, indeed, how did you think it ever could?

I’ve been reluctant to start writing because I know, deep down, I’ve been enjoying this moment as a rehearsal of that far-off moment when I can say not “I have a draft” but “I have a thesis”. Pretending has been great fun; far more fun, in fact, than facing the bone-deep crapness that I’ve feared was lurking beneath the surface of Chapter 2.

It’s not as if I want my thesis to end. I love my DPhil. Obviously, I want the achievements and the progression and the letters variously before or after my name; I want the possibility of jobs and books and post-docs and more teaching and everything else that comes with post-doctoral academia. Very prosaically, I want submission to coincide with the end of funding (who doesn’t?)!

But I love my DPhil. I still don’t understand why anyone would voluntarily sign up to spend three years studying something that on some level didn’t make them ludicrously happy or interested (this is different from signing up and then realising your thesis topic is dull/flawed/not the thesis you married). Of course, my thesis can also make me excruciatingly miserable. For example, when I’m teetering on the edge of rewrites.

Nevertheless, the fact that this post is being written indicates that I’ve managed it. Not the rewrites or – of course – the thesis in its entirety (yet), but looking the draft in its face and beginning the second draft.

I’ve written here before about tricking yourself into writing, and I’ve managed it. The experience (sustained by Marks & Spencer “reduced fat”, and yet suspiciously all-butter chocolate cookies) has (re)taught me several things:

  • It is never as bad as you think. This applies both to re-confronting your draft chapter and jumping very fast into a swimming pool of cold water. Both build character, and neither will actually kill you (pending bad luck).
  • Keep the faith regarding the two basic maxims of DPhil/PhD existence:
    1) don’t get it right, get it written, and
    2) there is no writing, only rewriting
  • The point about one’s earliest efforts lacking the wit and nuance of a photocopied bum is that it is fantastically easy to improve them (the writing, not the bum. Although SPANX FOR YOUR PHD would be an amazing slogan).
  • Because your first academic daubs were created at the moment of maximum ignorance and minimal scholarly presentation (all right, this might just be me, but apparently in Michaelmas 2010 I was using a referencing format known only to God), you are guaranteed to do better this time (if you detect in this a certain amount of fervent self-reassurance, I can only ask you to pay no attention to the flailing twit behind the curtain).
  • Stop eating the biscuits.

Unfortunately, though, not getting it right but getting it written must eventually evolve into actually getting it right, and it seems I’m at the moment where writing must start hitting rightness. I have been scribbling on paper, designing new templates, and scrolling [Ctrl+F] through hundreds of pages of notes.

My draft does sometimes make me want to shout. Bits of it are good. Bits of it are terrible. Bits of it are unexpected, and largely unexpurgated narratives of copy-cat Ripper killings committed in Yorkshire around Christmas, 1888. To the holding bay these sections must go (along with “Why I Hate Gordon Craig” and “Things Which Seemed Amusing To Me With Regards To Eighteenth-Century Performance History “. My DPhil would have a great blooper reel).

In any case, I’m writing again: slowly, and in a state of uncertainty as to whether the new direction(s) in which the chapter wants to go hold insight or procrastination. It’s been a shock to discover how much more I want to say and to have it confirmed that the chapter of my DPhil that I tried to write first may actually handle the most complex issues.

Thanks for indulging both this navel-gazing and the blog’s recent silence; people have been fantastically kind about the DPhil-based entries, and I hope this consideration of redrafting is useful to someone, too. Certainly, starting the second draft of a thesis is something for which I had no mental map or resources. Cold swimming pool/ripped bandage analogies aside, it’s going well and getting better.

I can’t promise radically more regular updates, however, since BT MESSED UP MY PHONE ORDER and now I shan’t have broadband at the flat until AUGUST 8TH (I have the deluded conviction that if I say this loudly enough, on enough forms of social media, corporate concern for bad publicity will mean everything is MAGICALLY FIXED. Feel free not to disillusion me).

In the meantime, I hope everyone’s having a good “summer” and that, wherever you are, the weather/Olympics/conference guests aren’t annoying you too much. Lots of love.

Laurie Maguire & Emma Smith – All’s Well That Ends Well

Buy the Times Literary Supplement! Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith have a new article out on All’s Well That Ends Well, with a revelatory theory about the play’s authorship. The Oxford Centre for Early Modern Studies blog is linking to a .pdf version, but I don’t know if that’s exactly the same as the TLS version (subscribers-only; here’s the contents page). In any case, it’s a bold and exciting argument, and a fascinating new collaboration. For the first time in my life, I’m wary of posting academic spoilers – but I’d love to know what other readers think.

(Disclaimer: Laurie is one of my supervisors and I’ve been excited about reading this article for months; I’m also working on a chapter on All’s Well, and I’m so glad I held off finishing until this article was published. I just made E. get off the phone so I could come and blog about it. I love All’s Well.)