Alexandra Harris

Professor Alexandra Harris

Alexandra Harris

 

Professorial Fellow in English at the University of Birmingham.

I remember feeling very eccentric in GCSE English lessons when friends complained about all the descriptions in Far From the Madding Crowd and wanted to skip ahead to the plot. The descriptions were the plot I thought. I was hazy about the order of human events, but the fern-grown hollow, the dangerous clover field, the ridge against the sky on which an occasional small figure would appear moving steadily on an unknown journey – all this was more real to me than the room I sat in. I was learning to read rooms as well though, and not only those ancient and easily romanticised ones I already cared about but bungalow paradises, city hotels, and the portacabin next to the astro-turf where those first encounters with life-changing literature unfolded. Twenty-five years later I’m very glad to help bring together, in the Arts of Place network, a wealth of people who are thinking in careful, imaginative, informed and questioning ways about our surroundings.

Much of my research over the years has been concerned with the presence of the past, and especially the past as it appears in landscapes and buildings. I’m interested in reading as a form of conversation across time and space, and in the capacity of art to establish complex relationships with history’s voices, variously reviving and revising them. My first book Romantic Moderns (Thames & Hudson 2010; Guardian First Book Award, Somerset Maugham Award) argued that some of the most original work of the modernist period emerged not from wholesale rejection of inherited ideas and places, but in finding new forms that might stretch to include valued histories and new possibilities.

In Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies (Thames & Hudson 2015; shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize and adapted in 10 parts for Radio 4), I wrote a version of English literary history told in terms of the different weathers that have preoccupied writers and indeed whole cultural milieus at certain times. The book is in part an elegy for a climate we won’t know again, but more than that, and more importantly at the present time, it addresses the power and complexity of weather as it is experienced, as it is imagined, and as it is shaped by the arts.

For the past several years I’ve been working on a different kind of place-related project, one which has propelled me into a great deal of new thinking and learning. In The Rising Down, to be published by Faber, I concentrate on a few square miles of West Sussex, and investigate what this place has looked like to people over time. The method of close geographical focus has meant that, as I think my way through history, I don’t reach for the famed and canonical but try to work from the ground up: who was here? It’s made me appreciate the extraordinary and sometimes underestimated research done by local historians, and the new perspectives that emerge when we forge connections between international and local thinking.

Many of my essays and reviews can be accessed from links on my website: www.alexandraharris.co.uk

Examples of my work on place

Romantic Moderns, Thames & Hudson, 2010

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“Above all this is a book about art and place. Its protagonists are always out looking at England and they invite us to follow in their tracks … They were taking possession of the particular and local. And, like Chaucer, they were collecting stories along the way.” 

Weatherland, Thames & Hudson, 2015

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“So, by reading, I have tried to watch people watching the sky – and people feeling the cold and getting wet, and shielding their eyes from the sun. Virginia Woolf talked about biographers hanging up mirrors in odd corners to reflect their subjects in unexpected ways. I have tried to hang a mirror in the sky, and to watch the writers and artists who appear in it.

Time and Place, Little Toller, 2019

“I’m still imagining calendars: figures of the modern ‘labours of the months’ painted in blue on delft tiles, marks on a bedroom wall that tell the date from the moving square of light coming in at the window…”

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I worked with the arts and environment charity Common Ground, the publisher Little Toller, and contemporary artists to make a small book called Time and Place, published by Little Toller in 2019. This connects with a longer-term project of mine on the culture of the calendar, the seasons and the marking of time. I’m interested in all kinds of art that has played a role in creating days and months with character and association, making comprehensible shapes within the stream of time. Time and Place asks how time moves in particular localities. My text looks back at the history of local or site-specific calendars, and considers the many material forms they have taken.

Together, the University of Birmingham and Common Ground commissioned new calendrical work. Among the artists is the photographer Jem Southam. He traces intersections of cosmic, human, and bird time as he watches, night after night, year after year at a bend of the River Exe, becoming so deeply part of the place and its ecology that he can see patterns that might be invisible to others.

Ground Work: Writing on People and Places, ed. Tim Dee, Jonathan Cape, 2018

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My essay ‘The Marsh and the Visitor’ is about going home to the area of Sussex in which I grew up and realising how little I knew about it. It’s about the common quandary of being deeply attached to rural places while not belonging in them. It was the starting point for a concerted and sometimes overwhelming effort to learn some of the languages of the place and to bring to it something of my own.

The Feel of Things, Caught by the River, 2020

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“Item four pigs, item fourteen quarters of barley, item one dozen of napkins, item goods in the milkhouse: outside and inside, room by room, the items of lives are spelled out. In a great many cases this is the fullest account to survive of an individual’s existence. An account, literally: added up at the end.”

A commission from the superb Museum of English Rural Life in Reading prompted me to think about the objects listed in rural inventories. My response was published on the Caught by the River website, where you can also read poems by Melissa Harrison, commissioned for the same project.

 

Jessica Fay

Jessica Fay

 

Teaching Fellow in Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-Century Literature, University of Birmingham

 

As a Wordsworthian, I am interested in the feelings and memories that become attached to specific places and how they are captured and communicated through literature. My first book,

Wordsworth’s Monastic Inheritance: Poetry, Place, and the Sense of Community (Oxford English Monographs; OUP, 2018), explores the poet’s extensive knowledge of the monastic history of the north of England which he imbibed from a series of eighteenth-century topographical studies and from numerous visits to the sites of ruins. Wordsworth’s interest in monastic history is not, therefore, strictly a matter of religious belief and practice; rather, it encompasses an appreciation for how the landscape was inhabited and shaped by his medieval forebears. Through his own intimate connection with that landscape, Wordsworth became part of a transhistorical community and shared in the quietude that had been observed at monastic sites for centuries. The book explores how this sense of place inflected the tone and style of the poetry Wordsworth produced between 1807 and 1822.

My second major project (funded by a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship) considered the collaborative exchange between Wordsworth and his friend, the amateur landscape artist, patron, and co-founder of the National Gallery, Sir George Beaumont.

My edition of The Collected Letters of Sir George and Lady Beaumont to the Wordsworth Family, 1803-1829 (Romantic Reconfigurations; LUP, 2021), reveals ways in which Beaumont’s neoclassical responses to landscape, on the one hand, and Wordsworth’s more local outlook, on the other, shaped one another as their friendship developed.

 

Fariha Shaikh

Fariha Shaikh

Fariha Shaikh

Lecturer in Victorian Literature, University of Birmingham

I specialise in empire and literary studies in the nineteenth century, and the idea of ‘place’ is crucial to my monograph Nineteenth-Century Settler Emigration in British Literature and Art (Edinburgh University Press, 2018). In it, I examine the relationship between place and mobility: as an increasing number of people moved away from Britain to the colonies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, literature became one of the ways through which they sought to articulate a sense of place or home. Yet, the diaries, letters and novels that they wrote, and the periodicals they produced were not tethered to any one place, but instead circulated through the empire, gaining wide readerships not only in Britain, but in the colonies too. Nineteenth-Century Settler Emigration seeks to understand the ways in which these different genres construct an affect of place and a sense of belonging, but also the ways in which place travels through these mobile texts. The interconnected questions of texts, mobility and place, of course, play out in a number of different ways across the nineteenth-century British empire, and I am also interested in the ways in which imperial environments are variously constructed in genres as diverse as autobiography and memoir, travel writing, and adventure fiction.

Isabel Galleymore

Isabel Galleymore

Isabel Galleymore

Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of Birmingham

My research focuses on contemporary literature and ecocriticism and the recent popularity in ‘place writing’ forms a crucial chapter in my monograph Teaching Environmental Writing: Ecocritical Pedagogy and Poetics (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020). Here, I explore the recent phenomenon of the environmental writing course (a specialized form of the creative writing course) offered at UK and US universities, which, in many, if not all, cases, includes an element of place-based pedagogy. Indeed, it is now possible for students to undertake an MA dedicated to ‘Place Writing’ at several institutions including Manchester Metropolitan University. My research investigates the influences behind this pedagogy: the canon of environmental literature, which includes David Henry Thoreau’s Walden; the recent boom of British ‘new nature writing’ first articulated by Jason Cowley; and the history of place-based education that arose with the environmental movement in the 1960s. My investigation looks at how university courses today frequently aim to foster in their students’ writing a reverent approach to local place, and I compare this to contemporary ecocritical perspectives that often critique such an approach. Ursula Heise’s influential argument in Sense of Place, Sense of Planet (2008) articulates the necessary challenge of engaging globally. Drawing on her theory of ‘eco-cosmopolitanism’ and Juliana Spahr’s poetics of communality, I suggest ways of developing current pedagogical emphasis on intimate connections with local environments by cultivating awareness of place in the context of global ecological relations.

 

Thomas Kaye

Thomas Kaye

PhD Student (Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar), Department of English and Forest Edge, BIFoR.
txk006@student.bham.ac.uk

My research delves into the woodlands and forests of contemporary fiction where these ancient biotic spaces radiate with warping pressure. I am especially interested in how modern authors reimagine mythic and folkloric roots, twisting them into contemporary tales that lead to the blending of the human and the more-than-human through contact with trees. I am developing a thesis that examines the affect of trees, how they metamorphose both the human and the text – I am exploring this symbiosis as an imaginative rewilding.

Currently I am researching our often imperceptible, yet ever present, reciprocal respiration with trees. The dual meaning of respire – to breathe and to recover – lends itself to a discussion of texts that confound vegetal and bodily processes all the while engaging in a recovery. To select texts that are themselves a form of renewal makes them analogous to the woodland space they engage with and create – for woods are self-renewing. I hypothesise that forests and woodlands respire in our art. They aid the recovery and retelling of tales that in return provide a respite for our rapidly depleted woodlands.

My research covers the writings of Richard Powers, Annie Proulx, Daisy Johnson, and Sarah Hall. I also hope to engage with sculpture, particularly the work of David Nash.  

Hattie Walters

Hattie Walters

PhD Candidate, Department of English Literature, University of Birmingham

hxw368@student.bham.ac.uk

My work discusses interactions between the garden and literary and visual cultures in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, with an emphasis on the materialisation of lived and local histories through garden work.

From Gertrude Jekyll, Mary Watts, and Ford Madox Ford, to the Sitwells, Dora Carrington, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Vita Sackville-West, I am fascinated by how an individual’s gardening influences (and interferes) with their artistic practices—and how they engage with an artistically mediated understanding of rural countryside.

I look to unpick how gardens, broadly defined, can be exploited not just as an inseparable stimulus for a figure’s art but molded to provide a personal interrogation into history, frequently one localised and set on invigorating an ideal of the rural working class. The study of modern garden cultures enables the isolation and examination of the material interventions of artistic cultures into rural life, from the reclamation of historic houses, to the beautification of derelict cottages, and the cultivation of horticultural “quaintness”, or a pre-existing sense of “charm”.

I am particularly interested in tracking a personal kind of garden history: revelations amongst runner beans, for instance, or biographically endowed potato plants; the design of terracotta pots in a declaration of family heritage; formative readings in orchards; or queer country cottage retreats.

Bethan Roberts

Bethan Roberts

Bethan Roberts

William Noble Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Liverpool

My first book: Charlotte Smith and the Sonnet: Place, Form and Tradition in the Late Eighteenth Century (Liverpool University Press, 2019) offers the first full-length study of Smith’s influential Elegiac Sonnets and clarifies its ‘place’ – in multiple ways – in literary history as a work celebrated for ‘making it new’, yet deeply engaged with the literary past. It argues that Smith’s sense of literary tradition is inscribed in the subjects of her poems, and that the literary associations of the places, settings, flora and fauna of her sonnets – across the River Arun, the sea, plants and flowers – are a constitutive aspect of them. It is interested in and reveals the complex processes underpinning Smith’s reception and paradoxical position from the late eighteenth century to the present day, and shows that the appropriation of place itself was an important way in which aspects of literary tradition have been negotiated and understood by Smith, her predecessors, contemporaries and successors. My second book is Nightingale for the Reaktion Press Animal series (forthcoming, 2021) and my current research is on Romantic ornithology; and on the literary and natural history of the River Mersey.

Catriona Paton

Catriona Paton

Catriona Paton

Doctoral researcher in English Literature, University of Birmingham

CXP311@student.bham.ac.uk

My PhD project, funded by the AHRC Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, examines how nineteenth-century poets and essayists linked social equality and the countryside, exploring the relevance for today’s socioenvironmental concerns. The modern political, economic landscape and the Anthropocene (era defined by humanity’s impact on nature) was largely forged in the period from about 1750 to 1914: open fields were enclosed by hedges, rural labourers migrated to cities, and ideologies of individualism and progress replaced communal rights. From the poetry of John Clare to the campaign articles of Octavia Hill (co-founder of the National Trust), nineteenth-century writing provides unique access into human reactions towards rapidly changing social and human-nature relations with industrialisation.

My interdisciplinary work explores how parks, commons, gardens and countryside footpaths are vitally important now as in the nineteenth century because of their potential to connect people with each other and the environment. More broadly, I am interested in the public value of the humanities, the way human culture and community is bound up with the environment, and the importance of sociocultural history in environmental education and conversations on human-nature relations.

Jimmy Packham

Jimmy Packham

Jimmy Packham

Lecturer in North American Literature, University of Birmingham

My interests in landscape and environment flow in two (occasionally overlapping) directions: the literature of the sea and the blue humanities, on the one hand, and the gothic and the nonhuman, on the other. What unites these topics is how literature can speak to us on an ethical level – not how it can dictate certain morals to us, not how it might tell us how we can or how we should behave; but rather, how careful and considered engagement with a piece of writing, how listening to the voices and representational work within that piece of writing, provides the building blocks for understanding our own ethical relationship with others, and with the world we inhabit. By inflecting this process by the seascapes and environments, and nonhuman creatures (and monsters) of maritime and gothic fiction, we are challenged to engage with ideas, worlds, behaviours, forms of being that are at times wholly unfamiliar, alien to, hostile to, our usual terrestrial world and the modes of being and behaviour we are used to engaging in.

My recent research follows several trajectories with this literature: the cultural history of the deep sea, exploring how the deep and its ecosystems are often portrayed as being somehow “beyond” our limited human knowledge and asking what it means to cast a natural environment in these terms; the representation of human-animal relationships in recent gothic fiction about vegetarianism or meat production; and the role of the coast in gothic fiction from the eighteenth-century to the present, exploring the intersection of human culture and an environmental ecotone traditionally seen as “in-between”, neither sea nor land proper, neither here nor there.

Matthew Ward

Matthew Ward

Matthew Ward

Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature, University of Birmingham

Matthew is interested in the art of place specifically from the perspective of soundscapes and listening to (primarily natural) environments. His background is in the history of emotions of the long eighteenth century and Romantic-period writing, and his fascination with our relation to, and feelings for, the natural world stems in part from the emergence during this time of what we might call an ecological way of thinking. Specifically, then, what we might say is a certain Romantic hope (perhaps most clearly articulated in the writing of the Wordsworths) that sympathy with nature leads also to greater understanding of ourselves and others.

Matthew’s next project will hopefully explore the sorts of thinking and feeling produced by listening to the sounds of the natural world, and how particular places (for instance riverbanks, seashores, forests, mountain-tops, open fields) might speak with distinctive resonance. He hopes that a consideration of listening in literature (and especially the response and attitude of Romantic and post-Romantic poets) to landscape, location, place, and space, will encourage us to be more attentive and attuned to the natural world. Listening in literature is also an invitation to become better listeners – both to literature and its sounds, rhymes and rhythms, its sonic effects and in our lives and how we listen to the environment and its ever-changing soundscape. During a time of ecological and environmental crisis, such possibilities lead to opportunities to better process how we listen to nature and what it is telling us about our fragile planet. Matthew is keen to explore how this project might have educational value as well – not only to inspire greater environmentalism but also to encourage children to spend more time outside as a way of helping them reflect on their place in the world, and how environments provide imaginative space as well.