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?

 

Elizabeth, Victoria, and Ellen

This evening, Elizabeth II becomes Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. This is interesting to me not merely because I have deeply conflicted feelings about royal babies and their great-grandmother vs. workshy princesses and the amount of social housing you could build at Highgrove.

Queen Victoria in 1897 (slightly after becoming our longest-reigning monarch, celebrating her Diamond Jubilee! …I say ‘celebrating’…).

Until 5.30 this evening, our longest-reigning monarch is still Queen Victoria, who reigned 1837–1901. Victoria became the longest-reigning monarch by outlasting poor old George III (1760–1820), exceeding the length of his reign on 23 September 1896. The morning papers were, as you’d expect, full of adulatory editorials on the Queen’s longevity and popularity.

But 23 September 1896, coincidentally, was also the day that the Victorians’ best-loved actress, Ellen Terry, woke up to hyperbolic reviews of her own British royal. The evening before, Terry had opened at London’s Lyceum Theatre as Imogen, the British princess who’s the heroine of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Victoria was queen of the British Empire, and Terry was the queen of British theatre.

Ellen Terry as Imogen, 1896 (Creative Commons).

Just after finishing my DPhil, I wrote about the 23 September coincidence for Platform‘s Spring 2014 issue, and this morning seemed quite a good time to revisit it! So, if you want to read about theatrical curation and memory with a royal twist, “Dynasty, memory, Terry: curating the 1896 Cymbeline” is now open-access via academia.edu and in its original home on Platform

Pride & Prejudice & Elderly Fin-de-Siècle Actresses

Currently finishing the book – Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle. Yes, that is exciting. Except when it looks an awful lot like a person with a laptop and 9,000 printouts, who has inexplicably taken to writing her most important notes-to-self on small white squares of paper. Which blow everywhere. Given that I really need to finish the book, I am of course LITERALLY BURSTING with ideas for other creative and academic things.

this picture epitomises elizabeth bennet’s family / drink whenever mrs bennet

Sometimes these are useful. Sometimes they are the outline for a BBC Pride and Prejudice drinking game (drink when anybody says “Make haste!” drink when Mr Darcy looks like he’s swallowed an ostrich!), because 1) it is the single perfect piece of television in our time and 2) although popularly remembered as a witty comedy of manners about two witty and intelligent people who wittily and sexily find each other, it is actually about a witty, intelligent woman who is continually embarrassed by her family, and a young man wearing forty-nine layers of clothing who behaves like her embarrassing stalker and is continually dismayed like unto man who has sat down on a weasel.

The drinking game would also include “drink whenever a woman of mature years sports headgear like unto large burgundy shower-cap” and “drink whenever people discuss how Jane Bennet needs to Do More to entice Charles Bingley into matrimony, conveniently overlooking that thanks to Regency necklines she is practically topless“. There would be special shot forfeits whenever Mr Collins is sweaty and whenever you need strong liquors to sustain you in the face of imdb’s depressing responses to the perennial “Where are they now?” (this outstanding piece of television was apparently career Kryptonite for most of the supporting cast).

#marybennet2k15

Special mentions on rewatching also go to the fact that a) Lucy Briers, as Mary, does truly outstanding background acting every time David Bamber’s Mr Collins approaches the frame, and b) by today’s repulsive and totalitarian body standards, literally every young woman in the Bennett household would be considered a heifer and not allowed on TV. Do buy the DVD. Everything’s been especially remastered and the Making-Of Feature includes Colin Firth going flump onto a crash-mat.

imagine these 5 women with these 5 bodies being allowed to be the sexy leads on 2015 television

Anyway, so that this post may run the gamut of my current niche interests, back to the book. One of the late-stage/late-onset tasks in monograph completion is thinking about the images you’d like. This involves much foraging into online image archives, a job that I last did professionally, as a freelance rights assistant, and which I greatly preferred when I was being paid for it.

But never fear. This is not a post about anything as useful as “the process by which I decided certain images would best support and illuminate my text”. This is “Sophie Duncan’s personal guide to what the actresses in her monograph looked like when they were really, really old”.

‘Dame Madge Kendal’ (1928), by Sir William Orpen. Kendal was then aged 80.

Luckily for theatre and for me, my women tended to live long past their long careers. Madge Kendal was churning out her particular blend of vicious Victoriana as late as the 1930s in autobiographies, while Mrs Patrick Campbell saw the start of the Second World War.

Ellen Terry died somewhat earlier in 1928 (Kendal was palpably delighted to have outlived her), but – like Campbell – made a handful of films. Lillie Langtry died in 1929, as the if anything more languorously named Lillie, Lady de Bathe.

Ellen Terry (1847–1928), pictured in 1925.

There is something pathetic and unnerving in these images, of course – Ellen Terry’s eyes, made bleak by macular degeneration, in this film from 1925, and the frankly spooky sight of the most famous Victorian beauty dolled up by Cecil Beaton. Stella Campbell swelled up.

But they’re still there: more there, somehow, in the new and steadily more unflinching technologies of twentieth-century photography. They are a little ghostly, long past the century in which they made their fortunes and enjoyed so much professional and social freedom, but still marvellous.

Lillie Langtry (1853–1929), pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1928, aged 75..

I could also have included Sybil Thorndike (1882–1974), not because she’s the group’s sole successor, but because I think she was one of the most beautiful old women I’ve ever seen. It’s a frequent boast today that Britain’s older actresses do better across the Atlantic than their American sisters, because our women have had less recourse to surgery and retain more expression, character and emotional articulation. I like this idea a lot, of course, but I’m suspicious of the idea that Western culture has a special cache of appreciation for women’s character at any age. I think it’s perhaps just that some women get more beautiful as they get older (Judi Dench and Harriet Walter are two obvious examples).

Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865–1940), pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1938, aged 73.

In any case, it’s lovely for me, at the end of long, long familiarity with a handful of key images (Ellen Terry by Sargent; Madge as Galatea; anorexic Stella Campbell and Lillie Langtry’s bare legs as Cleopatra) to discover these women anew, once old. I hope you enjoy them too. Or, at least, that you enjoy this latest manifestation of a phenomenon wearily familiar to everyone who knows me in real life: my endless Weird Victorian Facts!

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…

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.

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.