Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It: A Depiction of Trans-Queer Feminism Through the Casting of Rosalind, by Blythe Roberts

In March this year, students on the Shakespeare: Perspectives module went to see The Northern Broadsides production of As You Like It, directed by Laurie Sansom.  Second year student Blythe Roberts reflects on how this production speaks to 21st century ideas of gender and sexuality.

York Theatre Royal, 24th March 2022, Main Stage.

Two women embrace, one dressed in a feminine fasion, one in a masculine fashion
Image 1: Rosalind’s enforced female identity as a form of oppression (Billington, “Rosalind and Celia”)

Through casting a non-binary actor, E M Williams, to play Rosalind, Laurie Sansom’s As You Like It rejects patriarchal constructions of gender and sexuality. A trans-queer interpretation of the play is depicted through Rosalind’s journey of self-discovery, exploring possibilities beyond the female identity enforced upon them, concluding the play with Rosalind’s identification as non-binary. This interpretation creates a radical opposition to the patriarchy, as Rosalind’s rejection of gender constructs creates a liberating queer space where they are no longer confined within patriarchal structures.

Sansom, together with trans-disciplinary artist and designer E M Parry, conveys this trans-queer interpretation through costumes and performance of gender, depicting Rosalind’s trans-journey. In the rigid patriarchal structures of the court, Rosalind’s identity as a woman is presented as a form of oppression (see Image 1). Once Rosalind is alone with Celia, they abruptly conclude their performance of ‘femininity’, using the act of disrobing as a rejection of the identity of an oppressed woman. Sansom uses this refusal to become oppressed within a patriarchal society as the incentive behind Rosalind’s fleeing into the woods and disguising as a man. Continue reading “Northern Broadsides’ As You Like It: A Depiction of Trans-Queer Feminism Through the Casting of Rosalind, by Blythe Roberts”

Top Ten Books Read at YSJU – by Charlotte Crawshaw, Class of 2020

I completed my BA in English Literature last year. I was one of the sub-editors for Words Matter during my time at the university, with my undergraduate graduation just around the corner (finally!), it feels like a great time to reflect on my time studying at York St John.

Since finishing my BA at York St John University I have completed an MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of York and I now work as a Research Intern with Elizabeth Montagu Correspondence Online. The texts that I studied during my three years of studying at YSJ had so much influence over the course I have taken after completing my degree, including my current job.

One of my favourite things about the texts that I studied during my degree was their diversity; I had the freedom to write about texts that interested me, as well as read texts I would have never even thought about before. I studied authors I’d never heard of before,  and forms of texts I’d never even imagined.

These top ten were so difficult to choose – over my three years at YSJ I studied so many different texts –  but I decided to go for those that left a lasting impact on my view of English Literature.

10. Charlotte Brontë, Shirley (1849)       

 I had always been a fan of Charlotte Brontë,  and growing up not far from her hometown I read a lot of the classic Brontë novels. I read Shirley as part of the “Sick Novels: Literature and Disease” module in my second year. It is a beautifully written novel with classic Brontë twists. It’s a great intersection between romance and something new; Brontë delves into the issues of women’s health and illness whilst drawing on many cultural anxieties about ‘punishment ‘ for certain behaviour choices. Brontë’s inclusion of these anxieties is what intrigued me the most in this novel.

9.  William Wordsworth, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge (1802)

 “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” was a poem we studied in second year, in the “Revolution and Response: British Literature 1740-1840”. The speaker of the poem is pondering on the views of London from Westminster Bridge, considering both its beauty and its power. Wordsworth’s vivid and detailed exploration of the city below is beautiful.  He draws upon ideas of community versus individuality, as well as nature versus industrialisation, and it is a poem which really stayed with me after reading it. Wordsworth also explores the impermanence of things – the city that the speaker is looking down upon in particular – creating a sense of reassurance for the reader.

8. Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1772)

 A Journal of the Plague Year was one of my first encounters with a piece of fiction that was presented as non-fiction. Of course, the events which unfold in this text are the events which occurred in 1665 during the plague. Defoe’s text tells the story with the voice of a man surviving through the bubonic plague outbreak in London, told in loosely chronological order, with incredibly specific details of neighbourhoods and individual houses. The legitimacy of Defoe’s account was speculated about for some time, until it was accepted in 1780 as a piece of fiction. This text stuck with me after studying it as it opened up a whole new genre of literature. It played quite a large role in my desire to study eighteenth-century literature.

7. Stephen King, Cujo (1981)

One of the more contemporary novels on this list, Stephen King’s Cujo is a classic thriller / psychological horror. Similar any Stephen King novel, it is a slow burner to begin with, with the threat looming in the background for a while before it strikes. I’d always been a huge King fan before beginning my degree, so I was thrilled to be studying this in the second year module “Sick Novels: Literature and Disease”. Cujo differs from other novels by King, as rather than a supernatural threat, such as Carrie’s telekinesis or Pennywise, the threat here (a rabid dog) is real, although exaggerated.

6. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892)

This short story was a key text for the study and understanding of feminism and attitudes towards female mental health in the late nineteenth century. The short story follows an unnamed woman and her inner narrative as she describes the room her husband has locked her in, in order to aid her nervous disposition and “temporary nervous depression”. Gilman draws on the discourse of women’s subordination to their husbands, as well as the ignorance of the struggles of mental illness in women, often dismissed as hysteria. This is another text I think about often:  Gilman’s writing style is beautiful, in stark contrast to the content. 

5. John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

I’ll be perfectly honest, when I first read Paradise Lost I did not quite get it. It seemed convoluted, unnecessarily long and generally confusing. It was one of the first texts we studied, alongside texts such as The Metamorphoses and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I remember going home after my seminar on Paradise Lost and rereading it again. It was after this that I realised how much I enjoyed it. This epic poem concerns the Fall of Man, and conjures images of Satan, Beelzebub and Hell. The character of Satan is charming and charismatic, rather than evil and aggressive as he is usually portrayed in popular culture. The reason this text is in my top ten is because of how it turns a traditional story on its head, but also for the controversy it caused after its publication.

4. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1995)

Another contemporary novel, Lolita follows the narrative story of a middle-aged literature professor “Humbert Humbert” and his gradually increasing sexual obsession with a twelve-year-old girl. Being narrated by the aggressor of the novel himself creates an unreliability to the story itself. The reader has to work out what is true and what is not, between Humbert’s manipulation of the young girl. Although difficult to read in many ways, Nabokov’s narrative style is unlike other authors’, and this was truly a great text to really read between the lines.

3. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)

The Bell Jar quickly became one of my favourite texts – ever. Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel follows the narration of Esther Greenwood and her descent into mental illness, along with her attempts of recovery which ultimately reflect Plath’s own struggles. Through this narrative Plath was able to express and explore her own struggles, as well as bring issues of women’s mental health to light. The Bell Jar is an incredibly emotional, thought-provoking novel which is why it’s so high on my list.

2. Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl (2012)

Gone Girl was a text we studied on the “Gender & Sexualities” module in third year. It was a popular choice due to the film adaptation in 2014 and is the most contemporary of my entire list. The unreliable narration from both Nick and Amy creates an immense amount of suspense and really makes the reader question who is telling the truth (most likely, neither). Neither Amy nor Nick is the ‘perfect’ protagonist:  both are flawed and even borderline psychopathic at points, Flynn creates a great chemistry between the two whilst also setting out a new concept – the “Cool Girl” in contemporary feminism.

1. Jonathan Swift, “A Beautiful Nymph Going to Bed” (1731)

If someone were to ask me what satire was in the eighteenth century, I would direct them towards this poem. Swift is unrelenting, brutal, and savagely satirical in this poem – and many other poems which follow later. The poem follows Corinna as she undresses in her dressing room and transforms from a beautiful young woman to an old worn-down shell of a woman. It has been argued that Swift is simply admiring the strength and determination of the woman to continue working despite her declining health, however it is more commonly accepted to be a scathing criticism of the deceptive nature of this woman – and perhaps all woman who engage in cosmetics to alter their appearance. This poem makes its mark on a reader, which earns it the top spot in my list since it began an interest in the study of the eighteenth century and satire which influenced much of my academic career from there on.

 

Hidden Figures Screening: March 28th

By Charlotte Stevenson

On Thursday 28th March 2019 at 17:00, FT/002, York St. John Feminist Society will be hosting a free screening of Oscar nominated motion picture, Hidden Figures. The movie tells the story of mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who produced defining work which made possible numerous NASA successes during the U.S. Space Race and beyond.

Continue reading “Hidden Figures Screening: March 28th”

‘Et in Arcadia ego’ – Reflections on Visiting Castle Howard

By Charlotte Stevenson

Each year, to accompany reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, third year students studying our Twentieth-Century Writing module visit the Brideshead of the screen, Castle Howard. Here Charlotte Stevenson reflects on her thoughts of the 2018 trip and her experience of reading Waugh’s novel.

Continue reading “‘Et in Arcadia ego’ – Reflections on Visiting Castle Howard”

Creature Feature: Monstrous Mothers, Talking Animals And The Beldam In Neil Gaiman’s Coraline

By Charlotte Stevenson

As Halloween falls across the land, now more than ever monsters leap to life from the pages of books around the world. In the first post of our Creature Feature series, Charlotte Stevenson discusses the concept of monstrous humans with a focus on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline

Continue reading “Creature Feature: Monstrous Mothers, Talking Animals And The Beldam In Neil Gaiman’s Coraline”

exciting news for the class of 2017

Liesl King has been organising an extra special event for the graduating class of 2017. As a farewell and celebration of a new chapter, we would like to invite you and your family members to drop in and say hello to your tutors over a glass of fizz or a cup of tea on the afternoon of your upcoming Graduation, 16th November, in De Grey foyer from 2:00pm-4:00pm.

Continue reading “exciting news for the class of 2017”

First Year: Literature and Life

Every day when I walk to class, I go past the old quad and remember walking there this time last year when I first attended an open day for the English Literature course here at York St. John. At that time the snow drops were only just shoots. But now the snow drops are giving way to the crocuses, and the many other flowers that spring welcomes in. It is this sight on a day-to-day basis which means the most to me when it comes to thinking about how far I have come this past year. Because back in March of 2016 I could never have imagined the events of the following year, or that I would end up getting to see those flowers in full bloom. As a fan of metaphors, this feels like a positive omen in relation to the success of my studies.

My first week at York St. John only managed to prove further to me that I had made the right choice on where to study. Settling in was such an easy thing because the city isn’t too difficult to navigate and the campus is friendly enough that, should you get lost, you are easily able to find a fellow student to help you get back on track. As soon as fresher’s week began, I was meeting students who had the same motivation as me to go out and learn new things. In the welcome lectures for the course, we weren’t only greeted with the hello of our teachers and peers but by the poet in residence Jack Mapanje. Along with the head of subject Dr Anne-Marie Evans, there was a conversation led about the power of poetry and writing as an act of changing the world. Those lectures encouraged me right from the start to see writing as not just an academic or class led routine, but as something far more liberating than I had ever previously realised. Immediately this act of learning felt more like a discovery opposed to something just being told to me. When we heard Mapanje read his poems, it made me want to go out and read more of his work without being told to. That was the first step towards making progress with my own education by beginning to read actively, making mental notes as I went.

Untitled1

Realising how important and relevant the arts are in the modern world has been a big part of my studies thus far. It began with seeing how the world around me is represented within the texts I study every day. Such as how the familiar places I frequently see in York are represented in Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. Studying this book was also the first opportunity we had as students to attempt our own creative work as well as literary criticism in essay format. Getting to go to the places we had read about and use it as a means of inspiring our own work was an intriguing experience. It made me feel like Sylvia Plath when she visited the moors Emily Brontë wandered and wrote about her thoughts on Wuthering Heights. 

At the beginning of the year, essays seemed a lot more complex than they do now. That is largely because we spent so much time in class going over how to build a strong thesis statement, structure and argument. Going over those different elements meant that when it came to writing my first assessed pieces nerves weren’t all-consuming, but instead just a part of producing something I had worked hard on and wanted to gain positive feedback from. Forgetting about the mark scheme and focusing on the content has been the biggest achievement for me so far as an individual. And that wouldn’t have been possible to achieve without staying motivated or open to the constructive criticism of those around me. It might sound obvious, but when you really internally register that the best way to make your essay have a convincing flow and tone is to focus on how passionate you are about your topic, it is much easier to succeed. That is largely because you learn to care less about grade barriers. Of course, they matter, but if you let the shadow hang over the content you are producing it will never truly reach its full potential. 

The most challenging pieces I have written as part of my undergraduate degree so far were the ones which have shaped my development the most. Because they required research and commitment that doesn’t just happen overnight, it required me to put in the time and effort to make those ideas a reality. Those would probably be the very early pieces of semester one previously mentioned, and my most recent essays this second semester. I’ve really enjoyed writing on Kazou Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues as these were both texts which opened new branches of interest for me which went beyond the class room (those are the best kind of texts) They shared the common theme of space and place, which is fascinating due to how it is represented in largely any text you can think of. Due to my love of travelling, it was not difficult to quickly focus in on researching how New York or Britain are represented as places. And also, the element of dystopia or speculative science fiction has been something I have explored alongside (as well as in relation to) space and place. These areas of research have been the areas where my voice as an individual have really taken root, which has aided my confidence when writing in regards to newer ideas which I might not possess too much knowledge on. 

In addition to challenging and enlightening me, the literature course here has also really enabled me to take the things I enjoy and integrate them within my research and writing. For instance, a big part of my life is music. Currently I sing with the Halle Youth Choir and play around 13 instruments. When working on Sonny’s Blues I got to research the history of jazz as the main protagonist is a jazz pianist. Which meant my habit of Glenn Miller Friday’s had more purpose than just me wishing I was Glenn Miller! 

I’ve also been doing a lot of external writing and reading outside of class which has improved a great deal due to all my academic work. For instance, I currently write for UCAS as a student blogger as well as a digital ambassador for York St. John. This means should I ever come up with ideas that need cutting from essays due to time or relevance, I can develop these ideas in my own time. It also means getting to write about books which I’ve really enjoyed but aren’t necessarily on the modules. These include newly published texts such as Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. This is based on the true stories of the women who worked at NASA at a time when the civil rights movement was at its peak, and women were still struggling to gain a more equal footing in the work force. It is a magnificent and moving account, which is why it was so important to me that I take the skills I had used to write on similar themes and issues within Sonny’s Blues and my musical interests to create something new in relation to that particular literary discussion. For that project, I began transcribing the entire Hidden Figures movie soundtrack. 

charlotte stevenson pic2

Becoming more confident in voicing my ideas and opinions in seminar discussions has also made it much easier for me to connect with others and to feel at home in my surroundings. As someone who is quite introverted, it has been an interesting transformation process to go through as now I feel happy contributing to practically any conversation or discussion in or out of class. This has meant I have met a lot of wonderful people and been a part of many projects and societies. Such as forming my own essay club to assist myself and fellow students in shaping our work through peer review, discussion and debate. Through this I have also made some of my best friends. That confidence has impacted on some major decisions in my university experience. Such as my successful application to study for a semester in Amsterdam at the beginning of my second year. Dutch literature has so much to offer and I’m really looking forward to learning more about it. Especially as I am keen to encourage further literary translations of all texts published in another language. The statistic of translated books published each month is still relatively low, which is something I believe needs support and research in order to broaden. It is definitely something I am considering into looking at career wise for the future.

Whilst I still have a long way to go and much to learn, this past year has been a real turning point for me. The people, places, artwork and ideas I have come across have been life changing. 2016 was one of the best years, and 2017 is so far shaping out to be even better. It has been the beginning of something exciting, and it is odd that so soon I will be a second-year student. But I am looking forward to seeing what new challenges and opportunities this will bring. I have every faith that with concentration, motivation and focus it will lead to something wonderful.

Graham Rawle – Unconventional Appearences

By George Alexander Moss
@MossRamblings95

Excitement once again swept through York St John University, as famed author, artist, designer and illustrator Graham Rawle stopped by to deliver an enthralling lecture.

Rawle opened up the talk by confessing that his “background is as an illustrator and designer” and that he “doesn’t have a literary background.” This does not at all infringe on his capability as a writer, however. He has developed regular series for major broadsheets: The Observer, The Times and The Sunday Telegraph Magazine. For The Guardian he concocted the famed ‘Lost Consonants’, collections of panel artistry that depict comedic outcomes when a sentence loses a crucial consonant. Beyond this, Rawle has written several well received novels, such as The Card, Lying Doggo, The Wonder Book of Fun and the core text of his talk: Woman’s World. In addition to all of this, he is a tutor for the University of Brighton’s MA in Arts and Design by Independent Project, and seems to be admirably living several lives simultaneously.

Lost Consonants by Graham Rawle 96 dog baking.jpg
Grahamrawle - collage artwork
 Previously published in The Guardian, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Rawle’s talk focused first on story structure. He explained that a story can be found anywhere so long as it accords with specific sets of rules, giving varied examples such as, “comedians, how they construct a joke, how they can construct a whole act around a joke or series of jokes. I might be looking at exhibition design, and how you navigate a crowd through a space. How to make that feel like a journey, feel like a story. Or the beginning and middle and end of a magic act […]

For Rawle, behind every solid story is strong structure. His claim is that all of these examples, “have a strong three act structure to them […] This patterned three act structure is detectable in lots of areas”.  The basic sequence of the Three Act Structure (exposition, climax, and resolution) determines “How people orchestrate things like a firework display […] It’s the sequence in the way you put these things that deliver the most effective show you can”.

 

“I write fiction, but the books I write have a visual element to them that hopes to carry an additional narrative layer”

 

Rawle suggested that he approached storytelling as someone with a design background, explaining that designers study the fundamentals of something, respecting existing approaches, and then afterward craft something new. This mindset can be seen in his 2005 novel Woman’s World, in which Rawle to put his own spin on the literary. Spelling out his aims in writing such novels he stated, “I write fiction, but the books I write have a visual element to them that hopes to carry an additional narrative layer”. In keeping with the theme of ‘stories to be found everywhere’, Rawle crafted the critically acclaimed Woman’s World (2005), as a bombastic collage novel. Constructed solely by reassembling text snippets from 1960’s women magazines, the novel has been appropriately described by The Times as, “a work of genius […] the most wildly original novel produced in this country in the past decade”.

The unconventional collage construction of Woman’s World complements the journey of its protagonist, cross-dressing man Norma Fontaine. The women’s magazines of the 1960’s translated the ‘woman’s world’ to him, informing Norma how he can best become a woman. Using the collage, Rawle aimed to convey a sense of desperation: “The desperation was about becoming this ‘ideal woman’ […] the idea of a cross-dressing man in 1962, trying to be a woman, to learn how to be a woman, with only his mother who he can’t ask and not being able to go out anywhere, you look back at the magazines through that viewpoint, and it tells you everything you need to do”. The magazines offered a unique window into gender performance, and Woman’s World achieves part of that effect not just through narrative, but through the collage. Powerful and moving, it is a text that transcends time.

The innovation doesn’t stop in his books either. Rawle is taking Woman’s World to film, and stated that “I’m going to collage the whole film, exactly as I collaged the book. So replacing the story with fan clips to try and retell the story of Norma Fontaine.” Of course, the danger with adapting a collage is the danger of not being able to recapture the magic the collage effect had. No matter how well the story itself is adapted, part of the magic comes through the specific mode of imagery. Nonetheless, at the prospect of a film, movie stars came sniffing, such as Tom Hardy and James Franco. Though the two are no longer involved, one thing is clear: that Woman’s World is as adaptable as any of Graham Rawle’s many talents.

The unconventional appearance of Woman’s World, whether on page or screen, is a step toward true originality. To piece together a story through another’s words, to read what the characters themselves could have read, or to even hold a book similar to what the character could have owned, is an enchanting feeling. Ultimately, Graham Rawle pondered that, “the design of a book has been around for such a long time […] It is really interesting that nobody said to Mary Shelley then ‘what do you think a books going to look like in 200 years?’ It’s unlikely she would have said, ‘I expect it will look exactly the same’. It’s really odd!”

In retrospect, we should have asked Mr. Rawle the very same thing.