Tag Archives: writing

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

https://i0.wp.com/www.oxonianreview.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/shakespeareshrine-e1353084043362.jpgMy 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.

CFP: Victorian Network

Call for Papers: Sex, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian Literature and Culture

Nothing will ever be funnier than this image, and if you think otherwise, you are wrong.

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

Why be happy when you could be normal?

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

·     Performance, stylization and parody: gender scripts, consumer culture, theatrical subversion

All submissions should conform to MHRA style conventions and the in-house submission guidelines. The deadline for submissions is 30 May 2012.

Contact: victoriannetwork@gmail.com

Website: http://www.victoriannetwork.org/index.php/vn

(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.)

Victorian Network: Theatricality and Performance

Vol 3, Issue 2 of Victorian Network is now live and available for download here.

This edition, entitled Theatricality and Performance in Victorian Literature and Culture is guest-edited by Dr. Beth Palmer of the University of Surrey. Areas of inquiry range from Dracula to clowning; from palm trees to sensation novels.

Contributors include Jonathan Buckmaster (Royal Holloway); Anjna Chouhan (Leicester); Alice Crossley (Leeds); Elizabeth Steere (University of Georgia), and Leanne Page (University of Alberta).

This was also my first issue as Submissions Editor (the second is well on the way), so I’m very proud. Read Victorian Network (Winter 2011) here.

(I wrote a chapter; that’s where I’ve been. Well, there and in Italy, i.e. swings and roundabouts…)

Research 2.0

Oxford is enjoying the long vac. This is the academic summer holiday; the period running from the end of 8th week Trinity (usually in late June), to October and Freshers’ Week. It is also the period to which proper academics refer as “time for getting some real work done”.

i've got 99 problems but mrs patrick campbell ain't one (sorry)

Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Doing ACTING. She's not trying very hard.

I’m doing my best. I’ve handed in a chapter draft & started work on another, only to discover that while reviews of Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s Shakespearean heroines (my last topic) were relatively few (journalists preferring to focus on Weird Saintly Johnstone F-R), every fin-de-siecle hack seems to have had at least 1,000 mind-numbing words to say about Ellen Terry in Cymbeline.

My DPhil project is (currently) entitled “Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle”, a title I love & cling to because

a) it’s short

b) it doesn’t have a colon in it (ergo no need to find Witty Quotation/make Unfortunate Pun), and

c) it lets my project do what it says on the tin. At present, though, it’s  the Fin de Siècle, rather than Shakespeare’s Women, giving me a mild academic headache.

Ellen Terry: The Psychedelic Years.

Oxford’s broadly/tacitly historicist approach to English (yes, all right, excluding Wadham, & NDKAlex) has always suited me perfectly. Unfortunately, while beginning my last chapter, I realised I had absolutely no idea what happened in theatre, literature or indeed British history, in the years immediately following 1895. Apart from Jude Law shouting “OSCAR!” across a Mediterranean courtyard, that shot of Lillie Langtry in The Degenerates, and Robbie Ross summoning a priest to Paris c. 1900, the end of the nineteenth century remained a blank.

Being gay for Sarah Bernhardt. That's my girl (Pelleas et Melisande, since you ask).

Given that much of my last chapter took place in and around 1895-8, this necessitated serious remedial research; fortunately successful. My new chapter centres on 1896, and I fondly imagined that this date – falling as it does under the big neurasthenic umbrella spread by the antics of Mrs Patrick “Skinny, Mad” Campbell – might make things easier. Oh no.

My supervisor, having reminded me that one version of my project was originally called The Actress and the Academy (I wish it’d been “The Actress and the Evangelist”, because if you’re going to have a pun, it should involve an actress and a bishop), has prescribed lots of C19 non- (and sometimes anti-)theatrical Shakespeare criticism.

Hartley Coleridge. The poster child for not-being-the-son-of-a-Romantic-Poet.

I have thus spent much of this weekend with Schlegel, Hazlitt, Coleridge, poor old Hartley Coleridge (no wonder he turned out so weird), Lamb, Ruskin and Pater. Simultaneously, I’m trying to pin down the theatrical marketplace c.1898-1901 beyond my memories of the Forsyte Saga and a Ladybird Book of Kings & Queens awareness that, in 1901, Queen Victoria Has To Die.

Fortunately, it’s brilliant. So far I’ve popped back to 1892 (Tennyson’s deathbed & the Shakespeare-hugging) and then jetted forward to 1904 (Vedrenne and Barker beginning to manage the Royal Court). In between are a series of pleasing symmetries: it gratifies me hugely that 1895 was both the year of Irving’s knighthood, and the year Shaw became critic of the Saturday Review (mostly to spend the next three years inveighing against Irving on a weekly, public basis). If you’re on Team Shaw (I’m mostly not), it’s also immensely satsifying that 1898, the year Shaw published Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, was the year Irving had to surrender the Lyceum Theatre to a syndicate.

L. Waller. REALLY, ladies?

Team Shaw and Team Henry were never actual Victorian entities (sad mistake), but today I discovered there was a Keen On Waller (Lewis Waller) Brigade, who wore K.O.W. badges, and doubtless bore resemblance to the madwomen we used to unpeel from David Tennant’s car during the RSC Hamlet.

In the midst of all this scattergun chronology, I cautiously feel I’m making progress and gaining, at the very least, some self-awareness about my research. Increasingly, I recognise a rhythm in the psychology involved in beginning a new chapter. Each time, it’s with scholarly-fingers-crossed that the distant instinct of x production potentially being useful or interesting to study (I found my first ever Thesis Outline last night. It made me laugh. And heave) will be justified by archival fulfilment of the Micawber principle that Something (Anything) Will Turn Up. So far, joyfully, it always has. But never the thing(s) I’ve expected.

Although it does nothing for my personal brand of Imposter Syndrome, I’ve learned that, in research, it’s rarely solely the Neat Planned Trajectory of Reading which delivers the goods. Obviously days-on-end of grunt work is essential (see my opening re: hacks/Shakespeare/Terry), but it’s often the chance remark made by your supervisor/panel chair/coffee buddy in the Bod/Costa/despair that sparks something new; or the book you pick up for £2 at a room-sale, or flick through in Blackwell’s. Or, it’s the “irrelevant” scrapbook you read for fun while in archives, or the weird small ads in the Post, or the lucky chronological coincidence you can’t control. The miraculous cannot, I’ve found, occur without the mundane: I usually find the Big Idea only when bored to tears by hours and hours of the Small. Perhaps there’s some weird scholarly symbiosis at work — actually, maybe this isn’t progress; on rereading, it sounds more like a retreat into archival mysticism. The Oxford Faculty of Magical Thinking. Damn.

Secondly, alongside this uncertainty principle (which COULD be interpreted as evidence of a rich field for research & hitherto unexplored complexities of fin-de-siecle theatre, thank you very much) there’s the sensation from which I’ve drawn the title of this post – the start of second-year research and an upgrade to Research 2.0.

I like pictures. Only God can judge me.

Poor old Tennyson.

Simply put, this is the unfolding student belief that, twelve months in and umpteen texts later, EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED. Suddenly, everything is linking up! Everything is helpful for everything! EVERYTHING must be written down, EVERYTHING speaks IN A VERY REAL SENSE to that other thing there, in that document, on that bit of paper, LOOK HOW IT ALL MAKES SENSE. ISN’T IT INTERESTING??? &c. Having drafted three chapters, I am suddenly transfixed: although nominally just researching Cymbeline, I start SEEING INSIGHTS EVERYWHERE re: Lady Macbeth, Marxism, big dead Tennyson, the Royal Court Theatre & other figures who belong elsewhere in my thesis… LOOK HOW IT ALL JOINS UP.

This is fun, but dangerous. A love of patterns, symmetries & the desire for a Grand Master Theory encourages me to see/overstate connections and conspiracies that might not exist. While a deepening sense of the period is crucial – definitions, relationships, geographies etc – I’m trying to balance this with caution about tying it all together in a quixotic version of the Victorian World Order (even if I really want to find that Big Idea and make it Unlock Everything Ever), and trying not to confuse INTERESTING with what’s actually important. Equally, to make progress on one chapter, I have to limit my exciting tangents re: others, at least temporarily.

Then again, I suppose that kind of tangential, experimental research is exactly what the vac is for! In the various begging letters written during my year out & time as a PRS (i.e. my Oxford, AHRC, STR, Helmore Award and other apps, thank god for imminent funding) I set out a schedule for  completing the DPhil. This schedule made no mention of the Christmas, Easter or long vacs.

At the time, I had two reasons. Firstly, I knew the timetable was ambitious, and wanted to allow myself decent margins for expansion/alteration/disasters, should they occur (secretly, I was convinced I’d have to resit transfer). Secondly, at the start of my DPhil, I was unfunded, and expected to spend most or all of each holiday working (hence the stacks of A Level papers beneath which January was crushed).

Now funding approaches, but this vac time has been essential – both for finishing my third chapter, and starting teaching prep. Finishing Cymbeline by Christmas will mean I’m on track; sounds easy, no? But, again, teaching approaches. Not merely because of the volatile summer weather, I can’t help feeling I’m in the calm before the storm.

Sophie's spiritual home. Well, 50% of it. The other half doesn't have a nice picture.

Not that I’m, you know, calm exactly. I’m moving house (yes, still), alongside one of the least calm people I know, viz. my namesake, who is taking Some Sort Of Exams on Tuesday. Most of them are about Death. Every time I bother her in the library, she’s reading books on What Happens When You Die (non-medics thinking of researching: oh my god, don’t), and her life at the moment seems to consist entirely of Palliative Care and salads from Alpha Bar. I am reassured that, after Tuesday, her eyes will return to their normal size. Her hair is going white.

Probably what stung me.

Said medic has, however, been a star this week. Last Sunday, I was in Kent, where I not only attended The Most Beautiful (And Tasteful. And Moving. And Boozy) Wedding in-the-world-ever (it was here), but was bitten by some gladiatorial tropical deathfly that had visited England on summer exchange with the humble Kentish mosquito.

The lovely Emily, also bitten, had merely a slight itch in manner of a hardy German: I chose instead to stage my personal tribute to Cheryl Cole (except I bet she never had the left leg of an elephant with sunburn).

Sophie, my v. own doctor-in-the-house (who is doing far better at masking her native glint of clinical interest with the glow of human sympathy) has been sterling in pointing out the inadequacy of my home GP, and promising I won’t die. This is a vast step forward from The Time My New Bra Gave Me A Rash, when she poked said rash with one finger before saying “ooh, it doesn’t blanch”, and losing interest. I’m happy to live with her.

Meanwhile, I hope everyone on the East Coast or otherwise in the path of Hurricane Irene (why not Imogen, hmm?) is keeping safe. I go now to sort photo-frames into cardboard boxes.

CfP: Production and Consumption 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 fifth issue of Victorian Network, guest edited by Dr Ella Dzelzainis (Newcastle University), is dedicated to a reassessment of nineteenth-century investments in concepts of productivity and consumption. Accelerating industrialisation, the growth of consumer culture, economic debates about the perils of overconsumption as well as emerging cultural discourses about industriousness, work ethic and the uses of free time radically altered the ways in which Victorians thought about practices of production and consumption. Literary authors intervened directly in these economic and social debates while also negotiating analogous developments within a literary marketplace transformed by new forms of writing, distributing and consuming literature. We are inviting submissions of no more than 7000 words. Possible topics include but are by no means limited to the following:

•   Literature of industrialisation
•   Victorian (global) spaces of production, forms and practices of consumption
•   Images of the industrial city, the factory, factory workers, and machines
•   Consumption as spectacle, the rise of the department store and the advertising industries
•   Changing concepts of literary production and new agents in the literary marketplace: publishers, editors, book sellers
•   Celebrity authors, audiences, and self-marketing in the literary sphere
•   Economic theory, finance, and nineteenth-century literature
•   Leisure, spare time and other modes of ‘unproductiveness’
•   Productivist and consumerist ideologies and the politics of social class
•   Reassessing Marxist perspectives on Victorian literature and culture

All submissions should conform to MHRA style conventions and the in-house submission guidelines.

The deadline for submissions to our next issue is 30 September, 2011.

Contact: victoriannetwork@gmail.com

Thesis Wordles

Inspired by a conversation I had with Alex, when handing in our writing samples last Thursday, here are the results of some playing around with Wordle.

My latest submission:My latest thesis outline:

And, finally, that AHRC proposal!

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Liz Woledge of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust invited me to be involved with this project.Liz Woledge of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust contacted me, asking me to participate in Happy Birthday, Shakespeare: the SBT’s 2011 project inviting bloggers to write about Shakespeare’s impact on their life and work. I was delighted to get involved. #hbws 1564-2011.

I exist because of Shakespeare. Hyperbolic though that may sound, it’s less an assertion of Shakespeare-as-self-help (although, if you’re in the market…) than a statement of historical fact.

Ben Kingsley and Niamh Cusack, 1985.

My parents worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company; my mother was a Senior Wig and Make-Up Artist, my father a Deputy Stage Manager. They met during the RSC’s production of Othello in 1985, started dating in previews, were living together by press night, and got engaged five months later. They’ll celebrate their silver wedding in July.

Although Stratford babies have yet to start gurgling in iambic pentameter, my experience of Shakespeare has always been inseparable from my experience of Stratford. This sense of ownership has, quite naturally, engendered a sense of belligerent, smug parochialism that would put the inhabitants of Royston Vasey to shame. Although wildly partisan about the glories of Stratford, from the Singing Man Of Henley Street to the architecture of the new theatre (which still looks quite a lot like a 1930s power station, but, good, I like it that way), I can, for the sake of argument, admit there might be an objectively equal town somewhere on planet Earth. The great thing about Shakespeare is that I have never needed to recalibrate my smugness. Shakespeare is the best, and the glorious thing is that the rest of the world seems to agree.

Growing up in Stratford, with theatre-loving parents and the RSC on my doorstep, I was guarded from the horrific slow death that can be a first encounter with Shakespeare at school. Instead, I saw my first production aged eight (Josie Lawrence in The Taming of the Shrew ) and benefitted from a drama teacher, Ali Troughton, who made Shakespeare’s language the birthright of seven-year-olds. The first speech I ever learned was the seven ages of man, and the first scene was the Witches in Macbeth. We were never taught that Shakespeare was difficult, boring or remote on some plain of exaltation; instead, he was immediate, exciting and ours.

I went on to take a degree in English, write a Masters thesis on Shakespeare performance history, and am now writing a doctorate on Shakespeare’s heroines at the Victorian fin de siècle. I’ve also directed and acted in Shakespeare productions, playing my way through his illustrious back catalogue of Women Who Are Short and Boys Whose Voices Haven’t Broken.

(c) Alastair Muir, 2003

Alexandra Gilbreath and Jasper Britton, 2003.

If Shakespeare has led me to some strange places, I can only apologise to my fellow-travellers. Special and fervent self-recrimination should be laid at the feet of one Jasper Britton, who had the misfortune to become the object of my schoolgirl adoration when I was fifteen, and he was in The Taming of the Shrew. Everything in my feminist, liberal, pinko-Pankhurst heart quite rightly rebels against Petruchio and all he stands for. Nothing can excuse the day I chased Mr Britton across the Bancroft Gardens to the cackling approval of a dozen other fifteen-year-old girls. Somehow, I went on to be the sort of Front of House staff member who could safely usher the Patrick Stewart/David Tennant Hamlet season. I also apologise to the student actress whom I forced to climb furniture around the edges of my college room, refusing to let her touch the floor in a “freeing” exercise to “help her find” Puck.

I, too, have suffered for Shakespeare. Part of my summer job with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (who bravely commissioned this blog post) involved me dressing as the first act of The Crucible in tropical temperatures while 3,000 visitors poured through the Birthplace each day. The upside is that I can now can now say “glovemaker” in Korean. Aged twelve, I wore a purple, gold and sky-blue blazer (I want you to take a moment to imagine that. Use this bracketed space to fully contemplate sixty eleven-year-old girls in purple, gold and sky-blue blazers. With shoulder pads) to represent my school in the Birthday Celebrations and lay flowers on Shakespeare’s tomb.

Christopher "Kit" "too cool for school but got stabbed in the eye" Marlowe. Not quite as good as Shakespeare.

As an undergraduate, my Oxford tutors tried their best to vary my literary diet of Women, Gayness, Shakespeare and Death. I studied conceptions of masculinity, attended with joy to the thrusting passion of Heathcliff and Cathy, acknowledged Middleton and swapped John Donne’s self-burying sermon for… no, I still read about Death. For a term, I even followed the cool kids by pretending I preferred Marlowe to Mr W. S.

However, while a BA is a time for experimenting with bad haircuts and all kinds of textual identities, grad school is different (for one thing, you no longer have money for a hairdresser). Critics in feminism, from Sandra M. Gilbert to Anette Federico, have described how academic research increasingly becomes “a kind of re-search into our own lives”. This is true for me: my own experience of Shakespeare is equally inseparable from my experience of theatre, and of my hometown.

Today, my academic research explores performances of Shakespeare’s heroines at the end of the nineteenth century, a time when Shakespeare was simultaneously the planet’s most idolized and most contested playwright.

Reading the writings of our most famous Shakespearean performers – then and now – convinces me that however we encounter Shakespeare, whether as readers, scholars or performers, we have always used his plays to help us understand ourselves, and to articulate our own experiences.

Responding to the Arts Council England cuts, I wrote a polemic on the value of theatre, trying to express the ways in which theatre teaches confidence, creativity, self-belief and, above all, communities in which diversity, trust and risk-taking can flourish together. Everything that is true of theatre is especially true of Shakespeare. No other writer that I’ve found so consistently challenges and empowers all those who encounter him.

(c) www.bustledress.com

Lillie Langtry, c. 1880.

Back in 1882, Lillie Langtry, by then a sidelined Royal mistress with a bankrupt husband and illegitimate baby, turned to acting largely out of financial necessity. The result was artistic liberation. Staging Shakespeare she was, for the first time “my own master, my own mistress, and freed from unaccustomed control”. Generations of performers have felt the same freedom.

If this sounds too much like Bardolatry, I should say there are some plays I absolutely hate – King Lear is always about seven hours too long, and as one very famous Shakespeare scholar noted in my hearing, consists chiefly of “all those men going mad”.

This August, I’m thrilled to be seeing Catherine Tate and David Tennant in Much Ado About Nothing. I hope the combination of superstar actors and one of the world’s most-visited cities brings a new generation of theatregoers to one of Shakespeare’s best-loved, sharpest comedies. I hope seeing their first play encourages them to track down a second – and a third, and a fourth. Happy Birthday, Shakespeare.

In Memoriam: Postman’s Park and George Frederic Watts

(c) Ingrid Newton, 2011.

Fellow dead Victorian things enthusiasts may well enjoy photographer Ingrid Newton’s latest, absolutely beautiful post on London memorials. I am a big fan of Ingrid’s work, but particularly enjoyed this photograph. Ingrid describes the Postman’s Park memorial to those who have died via acts of self-sacrifice. The designer, as the above image shows, was George Frederic Watts (1817-1904), the first husband of Ellen Terry (who, of course, is a major subject of my thesis – though Madge Kendal may usurp the no. 1 spot). Watts had proposed a national monument to unsung heroes to coincide with Queen Victoria’s 1887 jubilee; when he received no response, he decided to go ahead with the idea himself. I suppose the online memorial sites, newspapers, and things like the Pride of Britain awards fulfil a similar function today, but there’s something infinitely more poignant about the little ceramic tributes. They remind me of the tablets offering thanks for answered prayers you find around shrines in French churches.

Notre Dame, 2009. In a shock twist of fate this was taken by my amateur self, notice how the most interesting tablet's in the bottom-right corner and I have OMITTED it.

The emotional impetus in Postman’s Park seems far sadder – but, then again, Watts’s memorial is still about thanksgiving. Several of the tiles commemorate children.

As Ingrid’s post reminds us, the length of time for which someone is remembered is a fraught issue. Who is remembered, how, and by whom? It’s an issue I’ve been grappling with thanks to an unexpected and exciting development in my research. When I started investigating the writings by these actresses, I automatically discounted the possibility of contact with anyone who knew them. Even “discounted” is too strong a word: it didn’t enter my head. And yet, I am now in correspondence with one of my subjects’ granddaughter and great-granddaughter, and hope soon to read some of their family manuscripts. The granddaughter is now 91; the link is there (there are other issues, about biographical vs academic remembrance, and whether some people should be remembered at all, but that’s a different post).

My next London research trip will probably constitute a return to the Garrick Club Library, but one of the many tangential/side project/should-never-see-daylight .docs attached to my DPhil describes an alternate tour. Without particularly knowing why, I started listing places where Victorian actors are buried. My supervisor’s built a fantastic SAA paper out of recording examples of the Early Modern &c, but somehow I doubt my tramp round Brompton Cemetery will have the same result…

These thoughts are rather disconnected, but then I am mid-chapter-edit. Alex is between drafts, in that glorious limbo of “free”/anxiety “time”. I am not. So type type type.