So. It’s the 21st of December, which means I’ve been ‘doing this PhD thing’, as my housemates put it, for almost three months now.
I’ve just about pinned down my question into a neat sentence: ‘how do Anglo-Saxon things perform social, cultural, or political work today?’. I’ve scribbled that question on post it notes, each time with slightly different wording, and stuck them around my room, used them to save pages in my library books, and dreamt about them. I have the question, but what next? Continue reading →
Often, I think as serious students of English literature we are tempted to deny our most personal – frequently deeply emotional, sometimes frivolous, always totally nerdy – interests in our chosen topic, both amongst friends, and in our thesis-writing. As soon as I reveal my intention to study Anglo-Saxon poetry at PhD level to a new acquaintance, the most frequent courtesy follow-up question is ‘so what made you choose that?’ I feel like I should respond with some scholarly sound-bite, something along the lines of:
‘I’m simply fascinated by the philological implications of translation’
‘I’m concerned with exploring the linguistic word-hoard of a poetic idiom now lost.’
But I don’t want to start throwing academic jargon (that I’m not even sure I’m using correctly) around, even if it does give me a little thrill to say words like ‘philological’ or ‘idiom’ aloud. So I usually end up laughing away the bemused looks, murmuring something about how ‘someone has to do it’, before moving the conversation on. However, I’m always afraid that one day I’ll end up spilling my secrets and spout either something incredibly geeky and boring, or worse, I’ll reveal an innermost daydream that should never be said out loud:
“Actually, I am, like, totally in love with getting lost in a world of fearless seafarers and warriors, I mean, we’ve all seen Viggo Mortensen in Lord of the Rings right? I like to think of Beowulf having his face, I mean you definitely would, wouldn’t you…?”
Probably not something you should reveal on a Tinder first date. Alternatively, I’ll get political, and start bemoaning the fact that, in general, we as a nation know so little about our medieval past and I want to explore ways of changing this: isn’t it a shame that school children are more likely to think of Daenerys Targaryen than Queen Ælfgifu if asked to imagine a medieval woman? And by crowning Chaucer as the father of ‘English poetry’ aren’t we missing out on a rich treasure-trove of poems from the centuries before him? I could bang on about how outraged I am that the very words – ‘medieval’, ‘The Dark Ages’ – that we use to talk about the time period that spans 500-1400CE either get the bad rep of being associated with baddies from ISIS to FGM advocates, or are otherwise totally misunderstood as referring exclusively to Arthurian knights, damsels in distress, magical fairy kingdoms, and elves. So too ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is often appropriated now by the likes of the English Defence League or the Republican as a way of defining ethnicity, of othering and neatly excluding anyone they don’t like either because of the colour of their skin or their religion. Of course, I’ll conclude, my thesis will be part of an effort to reclaim and redefine all of these words, helping to liberate all things medieval from the clutches of fascists.
But again, this sort of conversation probably won’t make me many friends, or will at least have me sounding like a smug armchair activist with a grandiose delusion that anyone beyond my supervisors and my parents will read my thesis. Furthermore, it’s these sorts of conversations that I long to weave into my writing, but feel pressure to do so in a measured, academic way. Phrases like ‘I love’ or ‘I am outraged by’ feel too personal, too impassioned, and could never be part of a serious argument. But it is love, and outrage, a childish sense of adventuring and time-travelling, a complete fascination with playing with language, a desire to simply get lost in poems, reflect upon beautiful art, and immerse myself in the ideas of other people, whilst trying to come up with my own opinions, that are all driving me. So, over the next three years, I’ve just got to find a way of channelling all these drives that push against each other, compete for attention, and conflict with what I understand to be ‘scholarly’, into coming up with some serious, passable, research. If I can also find a way of making my PhD sound interesting to Tinder dates, that would be a bonus.
Fran Allfrey will begin her PhD in the English Department at King’s College London in October. Her research asks questions about what cultural work Old English poetry can do, or can be made to do, now, and what exactly medievalists might get out of this new work. Follow her @francheskyia.
The other week my flatmate stumbled into my bedroom and surveyed the chaos. “Your room is filled with so much paper” she said as she looked in wonder from the books arranged anarchically across the shelves and puzzled together on the desk, to the gatherings of bills and letters, the postcards pinned to the walls, the mind-maps and the folders of work popping with paper-weights. I feel like my life is an increasingly unruly paper trail: paper breeds paper it seems, every book ends with a Borgesian bibliography which propels you towards an infinite library of more books. But my relationship with texts and with stories began before collections of material papers, before bindings. It began with my mother’s voice.
When I was a baby my mother nicknamed me ‘Frantic Fran;’ I seemed to run on an endless supply of hyperactive energy. I didn’t want to sleep and neither did I want my parents to either, so my mother was required to tell me endless stories. Some of these came from books but the stories I remember best of all, the ones I must have requested a hundred times or more, were the autobiographical stories my mother told of her own life. The unrecorded fable and folklore of the anarchic childhood of her and her siblings, the love story of how she and my father came to meet, the adventure stories about her work in Hong Kong as a designer, and eventually, I suppose, her semi-fictionalised accounts of her first child, Frantic Fran. It is in tribute to my mother then that I’m returning to the oral, seeking out the poem as a work of voice and sound, for it is with voice that my love of literature began.
But my project isn’t just about the oral, it is also about the vernacular and a hunt for the peculiarly local and particular languages which help us to recall and preserve our past. This brings me to my own voice and the rootless limbo which my lack of a mappable accent seems to leave me in. I can’t help longing for a voice which might place me.
I grew up with my parents’ Black Country idioms. If the skies were dark and brooding then they’d say, ‘It’s a bit black over Bill’s Mother’s’, and if you’d taken the long way round to get somewhere, they’d say you’d ‘been all around the Wrekin.’ The Wrekin being a large hill with its own Midland’s folklore and oral history and with a name, as I’ve just discovered, which is first mentioned in an Anglo-Saxon charter in 885 (it turns out that my lost vernacular is Old English after all). It took me a long time to realise just how obsessively local these idioms were and that they had no meaning in the topography of my daily life in Hertfordshire, beyond my family. Like the inflections I gave to bath or laugh or grass or even basketball (which had the other children at school in giggles) I soon realised I had no local and linguistic claim to them. I became too self-conscious of my distance to keep them alive in my own speech.
Over the years my accent has erased all traces of geography, place, and locality, it has erased even its heritage. I have been influenced by my father’s own attempts to neutralise his accent for his work, by the accents of other children at school and the people I grew up with, and by the bland accent-less hinterland of my university days in Cambridge – where everyone’s accent has been provided by their education rather than their hometown. I have lost my vernacular identity.
There is a recording of my lost voice, a recording that is probably lost now too: a redundant cassette tape hidden away somewhere. I’m telling a story, one I had made up, about the rose princess – my accent is in flux, torn between the Black Country trill of my mother’s and the North-London spread of my Hertfordshire displacement. With the long, drawn-out vowels of my hybrid accent, the ‘Rose Princess’ could quite easily be mistaken for a ‘Rogue Princess’, a heroine fallen from grace. In my PhD I’m listening for the voices of irrecoverable recordings, I’m searching for voices from the past. It is with these buried memories and longings that I sit down to do my research and tune my ear to the sounds of Anglo-Saxon vernacular poetry and the resurrection of those sounds in the work of a modern poet – a poet who is also a displaced Welshman and a Celt living, uneasily, with the voice of an Edwardian Cockney.
Francesca Brooks, @frangipancesca
Francesca is in the first year of her PhD at King’s College London, her research looks at ideas of textuality, aurality and oral poetics in Old English manuscripts and the printed poetry of David Jones.
Our editor has been a little cheeky with her words here in order to give you an idea of the brief, but if you’d like to send us ‘The Secret Autobiography’ of your PhD please send 100 words to firstname.lastname@example.org along with a short sentence about your research.