A Portrait Of The Thesis As A Young Scrawl

Once again, it’s been a ridiculous amount of time since my last post. Well over a month. As ever, I have big gropey handfuls of excuses. Been away. Been writing a play. Been exhausted. Been teaching. Been marking. Been applying for fellowships and funding. Been supporting friends going through difficult times. Been planning public engagement project. Been submitting papers for conferences and journals. Been drunk. Been reading Bring Up The Bodies. However, most of all been doing  something I haven’t blogged about that much so far – the bread and butter of PhD work – a Chapter.

The fact that the Chapter, and the associated re-working of my thesis that it occasioned, took up so much of my summer and autumn means that the academic side of stuff has been on my mind a lot recently. Given this, and the fact that I have recently been chatting to several friends who want to start a PhD / have just done so and are anxious about it, I thought it might be worth blogging a bit about the thesis in its own right – where it comes from, how it develops, why it takes as long as it does. Partly because my posts about academic work seem (somewhat to my surprise) to find the readiest audience and most enthusiastic reception to date, but also partly as a selfish exercise in reflectiveness. Doing a PhD in my subject, you’re so often bogged down in the most quotidian and minute of details – how can I go about dating this letter? where can I get access to this out-of-print book? – that I think it’s beneficial from time to time to squint broadly at the project as a whole as if taking in a view of a landscape. Ask where it came from, ask where it’s at, ask where it’s going.  Ask why you’re bothering and why it’s important.

I am now a bit over two years into my PhD, which is sort of only supposed to last for three years (that is, this is how long the AHRC pays my fees and gives me a stipend for) but really always lasts four (that is, I’ve only ever heard of one person doing my subject who finished in three, and a senior academic confided in me recently that “when someone’s finished in three years, you can usually tell by looking at their thesis”. The fourth year is a tricky prospect, which shall be blogged about hereafter. For now, any offers of lucrative work that can be combined with frenzied writing-up will be gratefully received). My project, as I think I’ve mentioned before in this blog post, examines how the relationship between personal proper naming and identity was conceptualized in Britain in the late eighteenth century (specifically 1779-1800). I do this through examining a large number of different kinds of text – novels, poetry, plays, pamphlets, diaries, philosophical and political treatises, dictionaries, prints and paintings, government records and correspondence – for manifestations of concern or preoccupation with this relationship. I then work from that evidence to ask how and why the act of proper naming was made, during this period, to stand as this kind of site where anxieties about kinship, belonging, social position, gender, race and nationality were worked out. What impact this process of working out has on literature and especially the development of the novel. And how it has impacted on notions of identity as they exist today.

At least, that is what my project is NOW about. It wasn’t always thus. It started off like this:


This is a page of notes I found the other day that tickled me pink, because it records the exact moment at which I hit on a PhD project. I was doing my Masters degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and I was sitting in a seminar on William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, which was taught by Professor Stuart Curran (a great man in the field of 18th century studies… it was actually the last seminar Stuart taught before he retired).  Stuart casually mentioned at one point that he wished someone would do a project on literary names, because the name ‘Tyrrel/l’ (as in, Godwin’s character Barnabas Tyrrel and Burney’s character Justice Tyrrell) has an interesting lineage and there are many others like it in literature of the era. My notes show my excitement. “Names! Names, names, names. Waverley / Willoughby. Anville / Lovell / Tyrrell” I scrawled. For that seminar, I wrote a paper about how the novelist Charlotte Smith engaged with Lockean philosophy around naming in her novel Desmond. Stuart was incredibly supportive of the essay, and encouraged me to send it off to a competition run by the journal Eighteenth Century Fiction. They turned it down for publication, but sent me a very nice letter saying I was ‘considered a runner-up’. Mildly gratified, I left Penn to start a job working for the government back in London, and forgot all about it.

But not for long. Civil service work did not agree with me, and I hankered after the books. So after a year or two, I got back in touch with Stuart, now retired, and asked him if he thought my project had legs as the focus for a doctorate. I got an incredibly encouraging email back, and the name of a potential supervisor at York with whom he strongly recommended I get in touch. She was no less supportive. I managed to slap together an application in my evenings after work; the rest is history.

But the project, the project. What even was the project? I remember well the feeling of utter disorientation I got from turning up at York with this vague idea, this inane-seeming suspicion that “there was something quite interesting about how people were talking about names” and little else. I knew I thought several writers were talking about names in particularly interesting ways – Burney, Godwin, Smith – but what they were really getting at or why they were doing it or what its importance was I had no idea. I felt guilty that someone had given me money, had placed their confidence in me to come up with something worth knowing, when I had so little solid certainty to offer in return. I spent my first year reading widely and erratically – about seventeenth-century memorial sculpture; twentieth century memorials for genocide victims; deed poll procedure today; eighteenth debating societies, charities and embryonic law enforcement agencies. I blundered down blind alleys that led nowhere (presenting papers about epitaphs and satire) and others that actually led somewhere fascinating, though not the place I’d imagined (surveillance theory, anyone?). I changed the focus of my prospective thesis a million times; in terms of chronology, generic focus, subject matter. I narrowed it to one author and widened it to include the world. I lay awake at night worrying that I would never settle, never get it sorted, that I would be kneading and poking a vast limitless expanse of playdough-like text, failing to mould it into any definitive shape, for time immemorial.

Eventually (and not before a few months ago) I settled on a compromise that just – and I really can’t put it any better than this – felt right. Twenty years, not fifty. Five or six major writers and a lot of ‘backup singers’ to boot, not just one. Proper personal naming only – the names that human beings call themselves and others – rather than all kinds of naming, which basically becomes a thesis on language itself. I defined roughly, clumsily, how the question I wanted to explore fitted in with criticism that already existed, on historical naming practices, on literary naming strategies, on existing theories about how the fluid notion of ‘identity’ came to exist in the form that we understand it today, on accounts of the novel’s importance in this process. I took the material I had written so far- one long chapter on Burney, about five conference papers and a lot of book reports and fragments of text – and parceled them out into five rough clusters of related material. I kept those pieces of paper on a notice board and wrote questions and ideas and re-shaping suggestions on post-its and stuck them up there. One of the chapters was bullying all the others in a most unseemly manner, so I broke it up and moved all its bits around. Another was clearly never going to thrive, so I brutally exterminated it. Eventually I was left with a workable plan. And a lot of things that I still had to do.

This was the work of a whole summer. And, really, of two years. Just to get an idea of the shape of it all.

And I’m not even finished yet. I’m so far from it.  Barely halfway there. I have a monstrous first chapter, a sort of engorged scene-setter, about the relationship between common naming philosophy and proper naming theory from 1700-1779. It needs fully rewriting and a lot more work on dictionaries. I have a reasonably polished second chapter on Frances Burney and the historical phenomenon of surname change, but this still needs to benefit from a two-week research trip I’m undertaking to the College of Arms in January. I have a conference paper and an abstract and a lot of notes that will become my third chapter on Godwin, Bentham, and disciplinary naming. I have that old paper that was rejected by Eighteenth Century Fiction, which should form the basis of Chapter Four on matrimonial naming (it looks crude and confused when I read it now, although there’s a kernel of sense at the heart of it. I can see why they said no). And I have a scattered multiplicity of book reports, anecdotes and general feschtenschrift that will become Chapter Five, which reflect on how all these different kinds of concern with naming interact when an author names a character, and what this can tell us.  That’s it. And I’m willing to bet that by this time next year, it’ll look different yet again. All the chapters will have grown, shrunk, swapped limbs, merged, dragged in their mates that I don’t even know exist yet. I will have many sleepless nights.

But the great thing? The great thing is that I’m starting, as the thing solidifies in my hands a bit, to stop feeling like a fraud. To start being able to say with a bit more confidence, “No, there is a need for this. This is a good project, and it’s important.” When I hear any discussion about civil liberties on the news, I start thinking about what I’m going to say about Godwin and Bentham, about how little work has been done about the origins of the census, and about how patchy work is on practices of documenting individual identity. When I hear someone talking about whether to change their name when they marry, I’m able to offer some kind of historical context for the way that the notion of changing this symbol of identity makes them feel; to surprise them with how many people laid out vast amounts of money on getting an Act of Parliament to change their surname in the eighteenth century and why; to interest them in Burney’s Cecilia and its pantheon of fans (Burke, Johnson, Gibbon, Napoleon, George Washington, John Quincy Adams…). When my undergrad students start chatting about J.K.Rowling’s (deft and intelligent) use of allusive names in the Harry Potter series, I’m able to enrich and contextualise their understanding a bit by talking about some of the traditions of literary naming of which she is a part. Recently I got an email from a TV production company who were potentially interested in making a programme about personal proper names and the role of eighteenth century fiction in popularising certain ones – clearly they think there might be some kind of appetite among the non-academic public to find out about this stuff.

I also had my first article accepted for an academic journal. It’s about Godwin’s Caleb Williams, the text that originally sparked my interest in this stuff, way back in 2008 in Philadelphia. My interest now comes from an entirely different angle, but it owes its existence to that early, formless instinct – “Yes, there’s something here, there’s something“. Difficult as it is at the start of the PhD, I think you have to trust that instinct. I’ve often been tempted to describe the thesis as like a jigsaw that you need to put together, fitting pieces in, taking them out, forming different clusters and then it all suddenly coming together. But in a way that’s a rubbish analogy, because it implies that there is an ur-thesis, an ideal thesis that just needs to be figured out and assembled. A friend of mine got much closer the truth, I think, when she said last night when we were discussing this, “When you get pregnant, how can you know what the baby’s going to turn out like? Even though it’s inside you.” Same with a thesis. You want it, you look forward to meeting it, you know the materials that go into it. But what will come out at the end is anyone’s guess. Hopefully you’ll love it no matter what.