Have you ever gotten a patronising comment about the subject of your research? English Literature PhD student Deborah talks about some of the reactions she has encountered when telling friends and colleagues about her topic – female nineteenth century authors – and why she thinks that is and why it should not happen.
‘Please don’t tell me you are going to research Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte for you PhD, surely there can be nothing new to say about them!’, says the colleague who does research on Shakespeare.
This is one of the many comments I was subjected to when I decided to pursue a PhD on some to the most important writes in the English language. It might sound surprising to some, but academics can be quite prejudiced when your topic of choice does not fulfil their requirements. Not using someone’s theory of choice? Your work is irrelevant! Analysing fantasy or science fiction novels? Hang on, are they even literature? Not researching the western canon of white male writers? Be prepared NEVER to be taken completely seriously.
Though much has changed in terms of how we look at literature and those producing it, some of the old prejudices still remain, and researching about female writers, especially those who decided to apply their pen to happy subjects – even if imbibed in social criticism –, can still be seen as less important. Yet, another work about Hamlet or Ulysses is certain to be praised to no end regardless of its uniqueness. Surely there is room for both, and both are worthy of respect?
Somehow, we are meant to believe that Tom Sawyer speaks to all of us, while Mrs Dalloway strictly portrays the female experience. These two characters, and many others, are so iconic because they speak of what it means to be human, their sex and gender having little to do with the scope of their emotions and the grandiosity of their creators. So why is it that studying Lord Byron is more worthy of awe than studying Emily Bronte? Why is Charles Dickens’ London more real than Mrs Gaskell’s Manchester? Is it because the latter in these examples are stories told and lead by women?
I guess for me, a more crucial question would be why are we, as women, prepared to delve into novels written by men so readily, while men have to be convinced to read even renowned works produced by women? Don’t get me wrong, I like being open to reading about different experiences, and would not change that for the world, but should we approach male narratives the only universal ones? Aren’t all human experiences universal in their uniqueness? And aren’t we all human? Honestly, if I have to hear ‘oh, I don’t like Jane Austen… no, I never read it because it’s for women, right?’, I might be forced to throw Pride & Prejudice at my interlocutor’s face.
Austen has been a passion of mine for many years. I love her novels as a reader and I love them as a researcher, for they are rich in social criticism and irony, as well as being a window into the early decades of the XIX century. Are they love stories? Sure, they absolutely can be read as such, and there is no problem in that. But they are not only that: though her novels end (SPOILER ALERT) with the protagonist’s wedding and promise of a fulfilling future, the happy ending is a reward for the growth the main character has done throughout the story. Since marriage was the best option for women at the time when the novels were written, Elizabeth Bennet weds a worthy partner, but only because she has bettered themselves, learned from her mistakes. Isn’t one’s journey towards psychological growth universal at the same time that it is unique? Don’t we all want to improve? Don’t we all make mistakes, struggle with decisions, and learn from it all? So how are these novels ‘women’s literature’? Not only that, but why are happy endings so undermined? Does it have to be bleak and full of suffering to be worthy? If that’s the case, maybe we all need extensive psychotherapy.
I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for those who research authors of colour or other minorities who have not been included in the canon. If looking into Austen and Bronte, two renowned authors, can be so undermined, what must the experience for those who are brave enough to study unrecognised groups? All of you out there researching new writers, writers of colour, queer writers, genre writers: I salute you.
Maybe next time you ask someone what they are studying and their answer is an author who has not been included in the canon, ask them more about it before dismissing their work altogether. There is as much room as there are different human experiences.
Have you ever encountered prejudice of any type regarding your subject of study? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Deborah Simionato has just submitted her PhD dissertation in English Literature for Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, in Brazil. Her research looks at the works of female writers in the long nineteenth century and the process of coming of age during that period, relating it to the search for home and a sense of belonging. You can follow her progress and occasional rants – both in English and Portuguese – on twitter @debsbed and on instagram @dehsimionato.