by Clare Pettitt, Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture, King’s College London
Domestic violence, alcoholism, child abuse, neglect, sexual obsession and torture: Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights is nothing if not graphic in its depiction of the messy, frightening and chaotic lives of unhappy families. No wonder critics at the time were repelled by its “shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity” and its “details of cruelty, inhumanity, and the most diabolical hate and vengeance.” But the women in the novel, trapped in these toxic, inter-generational cycles of abuse, are not passive but remain resolute and resistant.
“Whether it is right or advisable to create things like Heathcliff, I do not know,” wrote Charlotte Brontë in her apologetic preface to the 1850 posthumous edition of her sister’s novel. But despite her misgivings, Heathcliff remains one of the most memorable and enduring characters in Victorian literature.
On 21 March 2018, I gave a talk for the London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP) ‘Arts and Society’ series at Senate House. As I spoke, students in the building performed a banner drop in support of the lecturers’ strike over pensions, and had the fire exits drilled shut on them by those who did not support their protest. It was an odd moment in my career, to be speaking on Darwin while unaware of political events unfolding elsewhere in the building, and it caused me some reflections on my paper.
The work was drawn from an essay forthcoming in Philological Quarterly in a special issue on ‘earth writing’, the outcome of a symposium I attended in Düsseldorf in April 2016, when I was five weeks pregnant with my third daughter and unable to drink much of the wine (and unable to tell anybody why). The essay is also poignant for me because it marks (I hope) the culmination of what I guess might be called the ‘early career’ phase of my research, on Victorian literature and geology.
Reviews and citations of my book, Novel Science, have sometimes surprised me in coming from an ecological perspective: in all the years I worked on the book, I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms at all. Since then, I have often been asked questions about the new geological Epoch in which we are now said to be living, the Anthropocene, and its relationship to my historical research. I wasn’t happy with any of my answers.
In a time of Trump, Brexit and increasing separatist ideology, we three intrepid King’s travellers – Dr Emrys Jones, Charlotte and I -crossed the pond. And not without incident in the shape of an unexpected night stranded in NYC. Somewhat weary and dishevelled, we finally met with our partners from the University of North Carolina in a communal spirit of defiance. Our mission was twofold: firstly to foster collaboration between our two institutions strengthening a long tradition of friendship; secondly, to take part in a wide range of research activities, including a renowned conference run by the British Women Writers Association (BWWA), which UNC were hosting this year.
The conference theme of ‘Generations’ struck me as particularly apt for our trip. Not only did it reflect the historic and continued links between our two universities and nations, but also the sense of boundless generative creativity amongst different peoples across both time and place…
The conference saw a host of different cohorts of researchers coming together from various fields, and this same diversity was reflected in the historic lives of the many women writers under discussion. We heard some wonderful keynotes, including a talk from Andrew Stauffer on flowers and Victorian female reader reception as well as a fascinating joint speech from leading Elizabeth Barrett Browning scholars Marjorie Stone and Beverly Taylor on the “collaborative energies” of women writers.
There is a gravity to this situation. He has broken my heart. We are waging a war on cancer. Our closest neighbour is Andromeda. Synapses permit neurons to communicate with each other.
Warning: this post is ripe to bursting with metaphors.
Thomas Kuhn argued that you don’t see something until ‘you have the right metaphor to perceive it’ (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962). How then might we perceive the literary and scientific dimensions of the metaphor in itself?
Metaphor negotiates across the ‘two cultures’ of science and humanities at the university. Does the metaphor stay the same in its transmission/translation or does it transform, transgress, transcend? Are metaphors necessarily rooted within a particular historical context or can productive analogies between literary and scientific texts across disparate historical periods be discovered? Can we (should we?) read a neurological metaphor into a text which pre-dates neurology? Should we (can we?) read a scientific metaphor aimed at pedagogical elucidation like we might a poetical metaphor: an immanent stitch of image which nevertheless troubles and growths beyond itself (by our invention or its design)?
On Saturday 4th November 2017, the Centre for Humanities and Health and the English Department will host the British Society of Literature and Science’s (BSLS) annual winter symposium. The symposium will be an opportunity for many of us to try our hand at solving these questions, or asking even more.
Ordinarily September arrives like a high-speed gear change with the clutch still half engaged. The teeth-shearing rasp ratchets across British academe as we shift from August’s intensely imagined worlds of more-or-less cloistered research and writing into the induction circus of Welcome Week.
Most of us brush off last year’s complaints about teaching for threadbare repartee in student-filled hallways, while concealing the thrill of it all. Teaching is the lifeblood of most academics, after all; in reality it’s harder to stop us doing it, shut us up.
This year is a little different for me (re the gear-change, not the shutting up). The nature of my role in directing the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies means I was chipping away at College business throughout summer. That kept me in the habit of coming into King’s rather than going to the library or writing at home.
But more to the point, teaching itself came to occupy the place of a research-project ‘question’ during this summer’s ‘research period’: intensely scrutinised, carried about with me in myriad different places (half way around the world, as it turned out), looked at from many sides, held up as a lens and a foil for whatever print matter fell before my eyes.
The Dear Diaryexhibition is now open, until 7th July! Promotion got underway well before opening, with various radio features including Radio 2’s Jonathan Ross Show on 4th May, and BBC London, Monocle Radio, Radio Oxford and other outlets; on 3rd June, I take Dear Diary to Radio 4’s Saturday Live show (listen from 9:00 BST).
One publicity commission was for the Sunday Times series ‘6 of the Best’. I thought long and hard and put together a list only to discover that ‘Best’ is determined by what the picture editor thinks can be illustrated best. Several suggestions hit the cutting room floor. One was British artist Ian Breakwell’s visual diary – an idea I owe to Lucy Bayley, a PhD student at the ICA (thank you, Lucy). You can see a selection of Breakwell’s work at the Tate, including The Walking Man Diary (1975-1978).
A diary’s lure of intimacy…
Breakwell has made various experiments with the diary form. One of the most compelling is the photographic diary he made of an unknown man who regularly walked past Breakwell’s flat in Smithfield in the City of London, where from his third floor window the artist was often looking out. The images all have the same vantage point and the same mysterious subject; the passing of time is captured through the diary unevenly, so that some photographs are taken seconds apart while others are separated by months. The resulting pattern of similarity and difference, heightened by collage, plays with a diary’s lure of intimacy: by denying us even incremental knowledge, Breakwell makes his diary intriguingly baffling.
Another suggestion was W.P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919). This diary has an extraordinary story. The author’s real name was Bruce Cummings; he made his pseudonym from Wilhelm, Nero and Pilate as examples of the most wretched people to have lived.Continue reading Leaves of Silk→
by Clare Brant, Professor of Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture and Co-Director, Centre for Life-Writing Research
‘It’s in my diary’
is a phrase you still hear. The expression gives no clue as to whether the speaker uses a paper diary or an app, and not needing to make the distinction shows how old and new forms of diary co-exist happily. The paper appointment diary is still an everyday object – I have a Filofax I was given in the 1990s when they were fashionable and it’s still easy to buy an annual refill. Meanwhile an increasing number of apps make the diary mobile-friendly, multi-media, synchable – and, if you want to keep it private, encryptable.
Do you have a paper diary? Do you use a diary app? Do you contribute to an online diary platform? Do you do none of the above but are curious about diaries? Then put in your diary 26 May – 7 July, the dates for Dear Diary, a forthcoming exhibition at the Inigo Rooms, East Wing, Somerset House on diaries old and new. It’s a collaboration between the Centre for Life-Writing Research, which I co-direct, and the Great Diary Project, directed by Dr Polly North.
Diaries are among our most precious items of heritage… No other kind of document offers such a wealth of information about daily life and the ups and downs of human existence…
By Dr Alvin Eng Hui Lim, department alumnus and postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Singapore.
I’m on a British Airways flight from Changi airport, Singapore to Heathrow, London. The cabin crew, a mix of ethnicities, leaves me alone after the initial smiles and courtesies with the inflight entertainment, only punctuating my viewing experience a couple of times to serve me microwaved food – mostly chicken, or vaguely tasting like it.
I’m at Heathrow. A Chinese custom officer chides me in impeccable English for not completing the landing card before I join the queue. I do as told, and my voice struggles to complete a sentence when another custom officer addresses me and stamps my passport.
“What are you here for? What are you studying?”
“PhD. Theatre. At King’s College London.”
Maybe it is my face and how I sound. An inner joke seems to flash across his face as it changes. I am free to go.