PhD progress.

I have reached the beginning of easter term, though for postgraduates such terms (ha!) are pretty much meaningless. I know it’s something of a cliche, but the time really does fly, and I’m getting to the point where the hand in date, though 2.5 years away, doesn’t look half as remote as it did at the start. I hope my creative writing discipline for 1k words a day, every day, come rain or shine, kicks into action. Indeed, having written 3 full manuscripts already, an 80k thesis doesn’t seem quite so… daunting, if that’s the right word. Of course, everything about the PhD is daunting, but those things – archives, notes, general research – are mostly connected to meticulous note keeping rather than sitting down and writing the damned thing.

 

I have never blogged about what my PhD is about, exactly. But then ‘what a PhD is about’ is rather like asking a writer what their novel is ‘about.’ The short answer is ‘religious toleration and British national ident[y]ies in the 18th century’, if you’ve made the mistake of looking interested, I’d add ‘how Frances Burney’s novels reflected her inner struggle between her conservatism, anglicanism, French and Catholic sympathies.’ Most people, unless you’ve got a secret love for 18th century literature or have studied an English degree, won’t have heard of Burney, so to avoid peoples’ eyes glossing over I tend to eliminate that part and move the conversation swiftly on.

 

But since you’ve read this far: Frances Burney d’Arblay (1752 – 1840) wrote 4 novels (each declining in popularity), several dramas, and has only in the last 30 years grown out of being a footnote to Austen. Critics and biographers all argued that her love for her French Roman Catholic grandmother Francis Sleepe was formative in the development of her social criticism, a criticism which their work argued placed her as a great, socially astute, writer. Yet despite the critical attention given to this love, almost nothing has been said about religion in her novels or wider life. This is obviously a bit odd, especially when we consider not only the garish yet sympathetic franco-british character of Madame Duval in Evelina, the prominence of religion in the 18th century, but also how quietly yet persistently sympathetic she is to France and Catholics in her novels as a whole. Then there’s her life: her father (the musicologist Charles Burney) certainly feared her love for her grandmother was a potential source of conversion, and though she never did convert as far as we can tell, she did marry a Roman Catholic French emigre general in a Roman Catholic ceremony, and spent ten years in Paris amongst a group of Catholic friends at the height of the Napoleonic wars.

What I broadly argue is that her novels show her not only deeply sympathetic to the Britishness of Roman Catholics in the late eighteenth century, but also reveal how her own national identity was split between the need to conform to the sectarian protestantism of britishness, and an understanding of how this britishness was predicated on the misrepresentation of loyal English Catholics as ‘papists.’ British identity, she understood, was a voracious, colonising thing, kicking out Catholics from history and community, denying their local toleration, and seeking to assert the pure claims of Protestantism to British bodies, culture, history, and land.

It’s particularly interesting, then, that her long life involved correspondents and friendships with some of the highest cultural, political, and theological forces. She spent five years at court, sparking a loving correspondence with the princesses that lasted for decades. She knew Burke, Johnson, Thrale, and attended the trial of Warren Hastings. Her husband and his group of friends – the juniper hall set – were French constitutionalist emigres. Her own and her family’s correspondents reach to Pitt, to Shute Barrington, to the Plowdens. Her life was interwoven with an eighteenth-century society struggling with questions of emancipation and revolution. That’s what makes my project so interesting for historians – and partially why i’m in the history faculty – now that we’ve (well, me) noticed these connections, it gives us a new perspective on the formation on national identity, catholic emancipation, and the lived experience of ‘britishness.’

A lot of the historiography so far on British national identity has focussed on the big questions: i.e, whether it was anti-papist or not, to what extent the state was confessional – i.e sectarian – or not, the various theological and political wrangling that went on around the government, the extent to which it – and protestantism – was influenced by what went on in Europe, and more recently, how Britishness rubbed against other national identities in Britain. But very little has been said about how local identities rubbed against this, how a British subject weighed their own local identities against the overbearing legal force of the state (tentative answer: with a lot of angst and use of toleration-filled kinship networks to get around the worst of state repression). Burney gives us such a record.

Similarly, historians of Catholicism have spent a lot of time in the last 50 years dragging the discipline out of its recusant corner and into the wider historiography. Many of the early Catholic historians were Catholics themselves: either lay members or in Aveling’s case, a member of a religious community. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but a tendency to write insular histories seals off the discipline from wider historiographical currents and tends towards narratives of self-fashioning. (of course, all history and historians can be guilty of the charge, hence why it’s  important to be read and critiqued as widely as possible). Again, current trends have focussed on the big questions still to be answered in the wider period: what was Catholic life like in the first half of the 18th century, to what extent were Catholics integrated into society? (Answer: much more than we thought) and picking away at the wider issue of catholic involvement in public life in a deeply oppressive society. But again, little has been said about the actual day to day lives of English Catholics under Britishness.

To some extent this is the fault of what survives: little enough primary material of 18c lives survives, and criticising the government was risky business for anyone, let alone a Anglican Catholic sympathising woman.

This is why Burney’s lives and selves, hidden and whispered between the lines, is so exciting.

Cambridge offer.

Good news in my inbox the other day, I’m going to receive a Vice-Chancellor’s award from the University of Cambridge (fees + stipend) for a PhD in History at Queens, Cambridge from Michaelmas 2015. I may still receive an AHRC award from Cambridge on top of that, apparently.

Several days before that, I was put forward to the second round of the AHRC competition at York.

Yay!

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a day in the life.

This should give you some idea of what it’s like to ‘function’ with CFS, when I’m ‘at my best’. 

I went to York yesterday to look round the English department, and have a chat with a potential supervisor. That part of the trip went well,  and even though there was a 2hr 20min train trip there, I still didn’t garble my speech / forget how to talk /collapse in front of the building / pass out in front of said potential supervisor.

The problem started on the way back. I got out of the meeting at twenty past four. I had eaten lunch around one, a chocolate bar around three, and a cup of coffee around five.  My train left at 18:41, and was due in at Liverpool at 20:59. For normal people, that’d be fine, a little late, but fine. I told myself that if I felt faint, then there was a food trolley on the way there.   But there was a tree on the line in front of Manchester Picadilly. No problem, the announcer said, this will merely be a ten minute delay caused by our not being able to stop in the main Manchester stations. Thirty minutes later and we still had not left Huddersfield. No announcements from the driver, no food trolley, nothing.

With my CFS, talking is usually the first thing to go. I forget words, they scramble in the process of being transmitted from brain to mouth, other people’s speech becomes nonsense, that sort of thing. The second thing to go is ability to walk. I’d already had to walk from the train station to King’s Manor in York, and I wasn’t really having a fantastic day energy wise to begin with – having only had 8 hours sleep. But I managed. I was tired and in pain, but I managed. Now, however, not having eaten properly for hours and hours, I was having difficulty sitting up.

Twenty minutes later, the train was still on the outskirts of Manchester. It had stopped again. There were ten minutes before we were due into Liverpool Lime Street, and – still! – no word from the driver. To be fair to him, he was probably just as clueless as we were, but for the sake of reasons, he’s going to be a synecdoche for the train company / English weather.

One hour after the train was due, we finally crawled in to Liverpool Lime Street. As we had left Manchester, the driver – audibly confused and exhausted – read out the new arrival times listlessly, as if he didn’t quite believe them either.

So now I was at the station, one hour after I was due to get back to Liverpool, and not having eaten for nine hours. All the shops were shut. I could get a taxi home, but that would be £8, and I had a cripple card giving me free travel. Buses late at night, however, aren’t much fun. Especially in a student city. Especially when your brain has got to the point where it can’t remember which busses go from the city centre to your street. Especially when you still have to walk for 10 minutes (10 minutes!) from the station to the bus station, only to see it there, and stagger/jog/topple forward in horrible pain before finally, somehow, getting on the bus.

I made it home. The interview went well – I just have to see if AHRC will fund me.

White Van Man and working class representation.

As a former member of the Liberal Democrats, I should be used to disappointment. But the grim inevitability of the sequence of events following Emily Thornberry’s tweet rumbled on with such predictability that it was hard not to despair. From the reaction to the initial tweet it was obvious that Thornberry was going to be forced to resign. It was suspected that she had mocked the simple patriotism of our noble working classes, and so off with her head. Miliband’s outrage duly followed, and before you can say ‘sliding poll ratings’, Thornberry had gone and White Van Dan had published his “Danifesto”, all thanks to that shining beacon of working class debate, The Sun. It probably won’t be long before we see White Van Dan following the lead of that similar pillar of working class intellectualism, Joe The Plumber, and standing for public office on a conservative ticket.

The central problem here is not just that White Van Dan’s views are repellent, but that the people who should be his most vocal detractors are silent. After all, he wants to bring back corporal punishment, to close the borders, and holds other such beliefs that, were they to be held by an upper or middle class person, would rightly be examined, debated, and attacked. Instead, because he conforms to a rather crude stereotype of the working class, people feel a need to protect him, by letting him speak unopposed and even by attacking the snobbishness of people who dare oppose him. But this is not a man speaking for himself with the full attention of peers ready to engage in political debate. That would require an equal exchange of views.  He is not being listened to by Labour, only nervously humoured, as if he’s wandered in off the streets and joined a middle class dinner table.

This is astonishingly patronising, not just to White Van Dan himself, but also to working class people as a whole. The only reason Dan has been allowed to speak, let alone speak unchallenged, to a national audience is that there was the fear on Labour’s part that Thornberry had somehow maligned the entirety of the working classes.  Indeed, he’s not even been allowed to speak unaided. He’s been paraded by the tabloids, had his cause discussed by the conservative right, and even been driven to harass Emily Thornberry at her house.  It not only gives the impression that the wider press are using a working class person for their own political ends, but also that the majority of political types don’t have enough experience with working class people to feel confident enough to challenge his views. There is, in other words, the sneaking fear that we’d better not challenge him because the working classes might actually agree with him.

It was this fear that lead to what, even by Ed Miliband’s standards, was the frankly ludicrous position of Miliband being asked as the leader of the opposition what emotion he felt when he saw a white van, and his even more ridiculous answer.

If the political classes fear this is what the working classes are like, then they’re even less likely to challenge these voices in future. In fact, they’re likely to chase their votes with policies designed around this conception of what the working class wants. It’ll be the same populist and xenophobic stuff we’ve seen above and, when we criticise it, we’ll be depicted as out of touch, because this – don’t you know? – is what the working classes want. The current attitude to White Van Dan then is not only patronising in its collectivisation of the working classes, but intrinsically erasing of other voices. While white, brash, males are still the deferred-to voice of the working class, everything non-white and non-male in the working class experience will continue to be triply erased; by class, by gender, by race.

This will not do, but it is all but inevitable when the only working class people politicians meet are those who shout the loudest. But the solution is simple enough; we need more working class voices, we need them to be as ubiquitous as middle and upper class voices in the political sphere. Most importantly, we need as wide an array of experiences within those voices as possible.

Only when working class people are common in national matters will we find that they have a plurality of views and come from a variety of backgrounds. It is only then that we will always feel confident enough to speak up, without being afraid that we’re damning an entire class by dismissing the view of one man.

nb: this was originally due to be published elsewhere, but a mix up meant that this did not occur, hence the delay in appearing here.