Category: Research

A Long Absence

I have been absent from here far too long. Other things have been preoccupying me; teaching, research, family, health problems, etc. Since last I wrote I have of course taught a few courses and done some writing, and attended quite a few conferences. Some memorable conferences are: Visualising the North, in Orkney (what a lovely place Orkney is), April 2016; Adaptations and History, in Oxford, September 2016; Adapting Medieval and Early Modern Culture, in Leicester in March last year; and Captivating Criminality 4: Detection, Public and Private, Past and Present, close to Bath in late June/early July last summer. I wish I could write a bit about them all but let it suffice to say that I was talking about historical fiction at them all, for instance Hannah Kent's Burial Rites and the historical novels of Elizabeth Fremantle.

This term I am on sabbatical and now finally easing into proper writing gear. After teaching as much as I've been doing in the last couple of years, plus moving to a new office at work last summer, it has been necessary to stop a bit and ruminate on the next steps as far as research and research projects is concerned. I also went to Glasgow for almost two weeks at the end of January, to do some research there and to meet colleagues and attend a symposium on Muriel Spark, whose centenary it was on 1 February. After having thought things out a bit and talked to some people, I am now in the process of starting a project with some colleagues, and hope it will take off properly at some point in the latter half of this year. I have also started working on writing up some conference papers into articles/book chapters. That will be my focus as far as research goes this term.

I will let this suffice for today but want to post some nice photos from my conference trip to Orkney in 2016. I hope you enjoy.

The Orphir Round Kirk, Orkney

Information on the Brough of Birsay

View towards Birsay

Drystone dyke at Orphir

Skara Brae

Ring of Brodgar

Orkney poets and artists' names inside St Magnus Cathedral

Reading the Present through the Past

I've been silent for a while but thought I should post something here on a conference I went to recently in Amsterdam, Holland. This conference was entitled "Reading the Present through the Past: Forms and Trajectories of Neo-Historical Fiction" and was based upon the premise of a recent collection of academic essays on historical fiction, edited by Elodie Rousselot and entitled Exoticizing the Past in Contemporary Neo-Historical Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan 2014). In this book, Rousselot argues for a type of historical fiction she terms "neo-historical", derived from the term "Neo-Victorian" (see a useful discussion of Neo-Victorianism here). Neo-historical fiction, she argues, is a type of fiction that engages with a specific historical period and tries to reconstruct it faithfully while also being very conscious of its inability to do this, thus simultaneously attempting and refusing "to render the past accurately" (Exoticizing the Past p. 4). At the same time, neo-historical fiction is "very much aimed at answering the needs and preoccupations of the present" and is persistently fascinated with "visiting - and consuming - past historical periods as a way of dealing with modern-day concerns" (p. 5). Although I'm skeptical that "neo-historical" fiction is different in this respect from what has come before (Sir Walter Scott was engaging with the past as well as writing about present-day concerns in his Waverley), it is an interesting type of classification.

The conference in question was held at the University of Amsterdam on 4 March. Rousselot herself was the first keynote speaker, and the other one was Elizabeth Wesseling, who has published widely on the historical novel, Gothic fiction, and other subjects. Aside from the two keynotes, there were many papers presented in three parallel panels during the day. These were really wide-ranging and dealt with such things as historical novels by various authors (e.g. Hilary Mantel, Eleanor Catton, Sarah Waters, A.S. Byatt), factual narratives, historiographic metafictions in Eastern Europe, American TV series (e.g. Mad Men), mashup monsters (e.g. in Penny Dreadful), murder mysteries, computer games, Brontë rewrites and adaptations, etc. As ever, my list of TBR novels and texts expanded during the day, as did my list of interesting TV series. What I found most interesting was the variety of approaches to this question of "reading the present through the past", seen for instance in Rebekah Donovan's argument on how Catton's The Luminaries engages with modern digital culture through - for instance - narrative technique, and in Ruby de Vos's analysis of how Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries manages the representation of oppressive power structures and even rejects them from a more contemporary perspective on the level of plot and characterisation. As for myself, I gave a paper entitled "'What Gifts We Are Given': The Disruptive and Anti-Environmental Workings of Historical Violence as Presented in Susan Fletcher's Witch Light". Essentially, I argue that Fletcher portrays her central character Corrag (unjustly accused as a witch) as a child of nature, a symbol for the natural world, and that the historical event at the heart of Fletcher's novel (the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe) works to disrupt and violate the sense of natural harmony conveyed through Corrag's unique narrative perspective. As such, the message of Fletcher's novel is essentially "green"; the text is a lament for nature and how it has been exploited and destroyed by mankind, how the connection between man and nature has been severed and our life on this planet endangered as a result. These arguments on Witch Light do have to be developed further and theorized properly, and I'll continue working on it these coming months and possibly talk about it at other conferences this year.

It was overall a very rewarding conference and I'm glad I went, despite suffering from a sore and inflamed knee (which meant I couldn't very well walk much around lovely Amsterdam). On the day after the conference, I visited the Rijksmuseum with a good friend of mine and saw, for instance, some paintings by Rembrandt. Also, to my delight, I came across Petronella Oortman's absolutely exquisite cabinet house, which inspired Jessie Burton's historical novel The Miniaturist, a book I enjoyed very much. Here is a picture of the cabinet house:

To finish, something slightly off topic: I found out to my delight this morning that Jackie Kay has been appointed the next Scottish Makar. This is absolutely brilliant news - she is such a good writer, one of my favourites. See news on this here. It is also wonderful because I'm including Kay's novel Trumpet in the course on Scottish 20th century fiction I'm currently teaching.

Some updates

Quite a lot of things have happened since I wrote here last time. The article on the murder of Lord Darnley was published, among other things (see list of publications for details). In the summer I travelled to Wales, but I had been organising a conference there with two colleagues at the University of South Wales, Professor Diana Wallace and Dr Jane Finucane. This conference was Representing the Tudors, see more details here, and in addition to being one of the organisers I also gave a paper there on the reasons why novelists choose to write fiction about the Tudor period, entitled Why Write About the Tudors? The Writers' Perspective. I think overall that Representing the Tudors was a great success. Conference delegates seemed pleased and the feedback we got after the conference was really positive. I think it was a timely conference, even though our key speaker Jerome de Groot commented that the Tudors seem to be somewhat on the wane in terms of popularity, at least in historical fiction. There were many varying perspectives and illuminating papers presented.

In September I went to another conference, this time "only" to give a paper. This was a one-day symposium on 21st century Scottish women's fiction. Here I gave a paper on stories from Jackie Kay's short story collection Reality, Reality (2012), entitled: Reality, Memory and Loss in Jackie Kay's Reality, Reality. It was a greatly enjoyable conference, and one at which I met some good friends from my years as a Ph.D. student in Glasgow.

In the fall a collection of essays in honour of my former teacher and colleague Pétur Knútsson was published here at the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute. I'm proud to say I have an article in this book, on the historical novelist Philippa Gregory.

I taught a module on the Tudors in contemporary fiction and film last term (Autumn 2015), which was extremely enjoyable. One of the novels we read was Elizabeth Fremantle's Sisters of Treason. The author kindly allowed us to send a list of questions that my students compiled, which proved really interesting for us all. Keep your eyes peeled for this email interview, which I will publish here on this page very shortly, with Fremantle's kind permission.

The Mysterious Murder of Lord Darnley

Today I am happy to have finally got news of a forthcoming publication which has been long awaited by the contributors, one of whom is myself. This is a book named Crimelights: Scottish Crime Writing - Then and Now, a collection of articles that sprung from a conference on Scottish Crime that was held in Göttingen, Germany, in 2012. It includes articles on Ian Rankin, Sherlock Holmes, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louise Welsh, Denise Mina, Josephine Tey and others. My article in this collection focuses on Mary Queen of Scots and the murder of her husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, on 10 February 1567, and how this has been represented in fiction and film.

Above: Mary Queen of Scots with her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (on the left)

I have already published another article on Mary and how she is presented as a feminine and national icon in literature and film. My work on Mary is ongoing and placed alongside further work on representations of the Tudor family in fiction and film, within the greater context of historical fiction. Along with colleagues in Wales, I am co-organizing a conference on "Representing the Tudors", which takes place at the University of South Wales this summer, 10-11 July. We have a confirmed keynote speaker, Dr Jerome de Groot of Manchester University, and some exciting news regarding other keynote speakers will be released soon. The murder of Lord Darnley is one of history's great mysteries, as is the question of his wife's involvement in the crime. Interpretations of the crime and of Mary (and Bothwell's) guilt vary in fictional representations, and I discuss some of these in my article.
Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming article:

The murder of Lord Darnley is one of the most debated crimes in history, even though it is generally accepted by commentators that Bothwell was one of the chief perpetrators. This is because the events before and on the 10th of February 1567 are still shrouded in mystery, or as Mary’s biographer John Guy puts it: “In a debate lasting over four hundred years, no one has given a wholly satisfactory explanation of what happened on that night, or why” (281). Importantly, also, not all have been in agreement as to whether or not Mary was accessory to Darnley’s murder, while the issue of whether Mary and Bothwell had become lovers before Darnley’s death is also much debated, and is intrinsically linked to the mystery surrounding the assassination. This uncertainty has proved central to a fundamental split in representations of and opinion on Mary through the ages, which to a great extent originates from two very opposing sources, as outlined by Jayne Lewis: the Protestant George Buchanan’s damning Detection of the Douings of Marie (1571), which presented Mary as a “poisoning witch” who killed Darnley and even took pleasure in doing so (qtd. in Lewis, “Reputations”), and the Catholic Bishop John Leslie’s Defence of the Honour of . . . Marie (1569), which showed Mary as a “most careful, tender mother with all” whose “godly and virtuous life past” dispels all suspicion of her guilt (qtd. in Lewis, “Reputations” n. p.). The blatant opposition between these two accounts of Mary’s actions has set the tone for much of the critical debate on her story in the centuries to follow and has, understandably, also made its mark on representations of Mary in literature and the arts. For more than two centuries, these have varied from Mary as “heroine of sensibility to romantic guilty grande dame,” as outlined by Michael Dobson and Nicola J. Watson (100).