English Literature Research Showcase

Current student Tom Young reports and reflects on the English Literature Research Showcase from early February.

It is easy to forget that lecturing is only half of our lecturers’ jobs. Earlier this month, Dr Anne-Marie Evans hosted a showcase evening as part of the YSJ Words Matter event series. Six of her English Literature faculty colleagues gave short presentations on their personal research areas. The event was attended by undergraduates, MA students, PhD students and other lecturers from a variety of schools at YSJ. Here are some brief accounts of their work.

Dr Kaley Kramer launched the evening by showcasing her research project Women and Print in Eighteenth-Century York. Kaley is particularly interested in the business of literature in this project: the labour involved in the production of the text as a material object. She explained that there is a tendency to overlook the importance of printing in the discussion of literature, particularly in an age when printing became free from license and therefore crucial to democratic processes. Kaley highlighted that two of York’s earliest printers, Grace White and Ann Ward, who produced The York Mercury and The York Courant respectively, were women. As an exciting development from the project, York Civic Trust will unveil blue plaques this year commemorating White and Ward’s achievements. Women have always been part of public life, and shedding light on women’s roles in the production of literature, can effectively debunk the myth of some aspects of culture as presumed to be “male”.

Dr Sarah Lawson Welsh talked about the various outlets for her research in Food, Text and Culture in the Caribbean. Sarah’s chapter titled ‘Caribbean Cravings: Literature and Food in the Caribbean’ will soon be released in The Routledge Companion to Literature and Food, and a text addressing the contrast of hunger and plenitude in plantations, titled Food, Text and Culture in the Caribbean, will be released in 2019. Sarah will also be embarking upon an oral history project in Barbados titled Kitchen Talk. Generally cookbooks are not used in Barbados; cuisines are passed to the next generation through oral tradition. Sarah will be meeting women of the Caribbean in their kitchens as they are, in the wonderful words of Austin Clarke, “performing feats of culinary magic”.

Dr Fraser Mann discussed his work on Music, Memory and Memoir, recounting a recent Kristen Hersh gig in York, at which he witnessed the musician examine her own role through the process of music and spoken word. Fraser encouraged a consideration of the fluid role of the creative practitioner in consciously creative spaces, and of the tidal wave of nostalgia prevalent in the age of the literary music memoir, in a market in which shared cultural memories are being reconfigured by innovative storytellers. Music produces alternative voices and alternative ways of remembering, and as memory proves an ideal starting point for analysis, analysis serves to galvanise memory. Fraser says that his research is the outcome of a fusion of scholarly rigour and personal fandom, and it developed with hard work, passion and collaboration with his project colleagues Dr Helen Pleasance and Dr Rob Edgar (once they stopped arguing over the best Joy Division track).

Julie Raby presented her research titled “Basquiat Cases”, “Kitsch”, and “Stoopid Shakespeare”, in which she explained that modern productions of Shakespeare plays are increasingly more concerned with exploring contemporary issues, rather than studying the texts within their historical contexts. Julie explained that contemporary productions, for instance those from the Royal Shakespeare Company, are adapting and adopting popular culture references, in an attempt to break down “high art”. Casting is also being reimagined and readdressed, and by transgressing the gender roles from the original texts, it is possible to weave contemporary narratives and issues into the classical tapestry. These methods of appropriation are employed as a means of essential progressive maintenance to ensure that the work that has been so well loved through the centuries and recognised as still necessary, will remain relevant.

If you follow Dr Jo Waugh on Twitter, it’ll probably not surprise you that her presentation was on Contagion and the Brontës: Brontë Myths of Unique Subjectivity. This was an address to the contagious nature of memes and tweets that perpetuate the myths of unique subjectivity and individual genius of the Brontës, and how writers are framed as characters that must have a meaningful death, according to their narratives. Jo seeks to problematise Romantic consumption, highlighting Elizabeth Gaskell’s savage shade directed at Charlotte Brontë’s TB symptoms, and Charlotte’s descriptions of her sisters’ loose bowels, rather than how pretty their faces where in illness. The Brontës are to be considered in the context of the social and political issues of their time, to which their literature interconnected, and it has to always be clear that these writers died because they were vulnerable to contagion, not because they were sad.

Dr Adam James Smith concluded the evening with his research on Reclaiming Whig Literary Culture. During the first half of the eighteenth century, with the explosion of cheap print, there was an exponential increase in the sharing of opinions. This meant that issues of government, which were previously confined to court, became an open discussion amongst the general public. People would align themselves with the policies of either the traditionalists Tories or the republicanism-sympathisers Whigs. Adam works to identify why, although the Whig writers were critically acclaimed and commercially successful, the Tory writers were the ones to be featured in anthologies, now and then. Adam suggests that the reasons for the historical cliché which saw the politically victorious Whigs as the literary losers are myriad and complex. However, one explanation is that satire – the Tory expression of choice – always works best in opposition. Also, The Kit-Cat Club (the Whig resistance to Tory literary attacks) adopted a ‘polite’ approach, which has fared less well in the test of time than Tory spleen and calumny. Perhaps one of the most intriguing, and frankly hilarious, reasons behind the success of the Tory writers is the ever so slightly biased nature of the definitions Samuel Johnson attached to each political party in his renowned dictionary:

Tory: One who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolical hierarchy of the church of England, opposed to a Whig.

Whig: The name of a faction.

Besides being fascinated, educated and awed by the hard work being showcased, what I enjoyed the most about this event was the abundance of laughter and conversation. The academic calibre of our faculty is astounding, but it is its fresh congeniality that makes our Words Matter events so memorable and entertaining. I already can’t wait for the next one.