Co-Director of British Studies, Mary Helen Thompson Centennial Professorship in the Humanities, University of Texas at Austin
1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?
I went to university with the intention of training as a lawyer. In my native Britain, law is an undergraduate degree. I was lucky enough, however, to attend a college whose faculty felt that an undergraduate law degree should be only part of your work, so prospective lawyers were required to begin in another academic discipline and move over to law as they advanced through the system. By the time I was permitted to make that change, history had me in its grip. It was the questions historians asked that proved the most alluring; it wasn’t a matter of providing a winning answer which appeared to me to be the central thematic of a legal education. And within history two areas drew me in particular: one was the history of political philosophy at which Cambridge excelled. The other was Victorian Britain which even as a school kid had intrigued me. I loved (and still love) the way Victorian Britain embodied the human contradictions we can never tidy away, the tension between modernising and maintaining tradition, the slow and uneven ebbing away of Christian certainty, the insistent voices of the marginal demanding recognition. I was seriously hooked!
2. Who most influenced your academic development?
There were very few women in the profession when I started out, and most of my mentors and influences were thus men. As an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to count among my teachers two brilliant and incredibly generous scholars who encouraged me wholeheartedly — Roy Porter and Richard Tuck. Both pushed me to think about how ideas come into the world and the work they do. As a post-graduate I had the good fortune to work with Asa Briggs, to whose deep understanding of the Victorians I owe so very much. Working with Asa was a real treat; he was funny, he was generous, he was a brilliant critic. It was only when, post-PhD, I discovered women’s history that I began to meet women in the profession. Angela John and Leonore Davidoff in particular influenced my thinking about the agency of Victorian women, insisting I dig beyond the stereotypes to the ‘big’ questions of process shaping gender roles.
3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?
It’s a question I try to avoid! I don’t think I would have lasted in the legal world. One teacher who I signally failed to impress as an undergraduate suggested rather haughtily that I consider journalism. But that never appealed. In my dreams (and only there), I’d like to be a biologist. In the real world I would probably cook for a living.
4. What project are you currently working on?
Project singular? Are you joking? Would that life were so simple! My research focus at present is on the cultural manifestations of evolutionary science in the nineteenth century, and most especially in revealing its links with that most Victorian of phenomena, the civilising mission of empire. That theme has three main outlets right now: a book tentatively titled Naked Colonialism which looks at how nakedness figured in art, science and pornography as a metaphor for the savage colonial; a longer-term book on the relationship between evolution, eugenics and empire; and a world history of eugenics, co-edited with Alison Bashford of the University of Sydney, due out at the end of 2009 with Oxford University Press. I’m also co-editing a history of modern empires (with John Marriott of the University of East London) which Ashgate will bring out in 2010. As will be clear from this list, I’m getting very keen on collaborative projects, and hope to continue work of that kind.
5. What projects do you see yourself working on in the near future?
Almost as hard as question 3! As someone whose career has been virtually defined by about-turns, I’m really wary of predicting the future. I’ve never got it right in the past, and see no evidence that that will change. I moved from the social history of ideas to gender history, from Britain to its empire as well as to the history of medicine and am now trying on a history of science hat, so who knows what comes next? The one thing I will say with confidence is that it’s no longer possible for me to conceive of a ‘British’ history devoid of the empire, so any future work will encompass questions around colonialism since these seem to me integral to the study of modern Britain.
6. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?
I’ve loved every project I’ve undertaken (and feel unbelievably lucky in that) but it was perhaps the ‘discovery’ of empire which, for me, was the most fulfilling as well as the most daunting research agenda I’ve ever tackled. Prostitution, Race and Politics, my first ’empire’ book, took me thirteen years to write, and while I might have chosen another arena if that had been clear to me when I began the research, the experience of thinking through the issues demanded by those topics was exhilarating. The breadth of the canvas, the richness of the archives, the need to think about areas I never thought would appeal to me made the work on this book an incredible experience. I’m not sure I want to take on a decade-plus project again, but I can honestly say I loved every minute of the challenge. I discovered new dimensions of my own discipline, and I came away with a deepened respect for those who trod these paths before me.
7. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?
The re-emergence of empire as part of a more integrated approach to British history would be at the top of my agenda for modern and even early modern British history. I think that’s happening, and I think it’s a good thing because it lessens the artificial division that for many years divided the historian of the British Empire from the historian of domestic Britain. We will produce the best history if we see these elements as always interacting. I’d also like to see a revival of interest in matters mediaeval. That’s a field that has shrunk a little in recent years in the British context. But I’m also heartened by the increase in positions for British historians, certainly in the North American academy. My own institution has been a leader in this respect: we now boast five British historians, two mediaeval (Judith Bennett and Lisa Bitel), two early modern (Deborah Harkness and Cynthia Herrup), and one modernist (me). The existence of British studies and British history societies in English-speaking countries (two in North America with the creation of British Scholar) is surely a sign of vigorous health. I’d like to see more conversations across the disciplines that constitute British studies — history, literature, and art history are only the most obvious. We can learn from our colleagues in other fields, and I, for one, always find my conversations with British specialists from other disciplines to be incredibly productive.
9. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?
Above all, be sure you love what you do. Don’t pick a topic because “it hasn’t been done,” or because someone else thinks it might be a “good idea.” If it doesn’t grab you, if it doesn’t become an obsession, find the topic that does. Without that excitement, that obsession, you will surely tire.
Finding a topic often involves an element of serendipity. Follow leads how ever un-likely they may seem. Be alert to signs of healthy obsession, and encourage them. At the same time don’t try to do too much in your first project. Be realistic about your time frame: how many years funding do you have for your PhD? When is your probationary period as a junior academic coming to an end? Bear those in mind; a judicious mix of passion and pragmatism will ensure that you can really spread your wings next time around. Good luck!