French Historians under the spotlight: Jessica Wardhaugh

Welcome to ‘under the spotlight’, a monthly interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions – all summarised in less than ten minutes. You can catch up with previous posts here.

To kick off 2017 we hear from Dr Jessica Wardhaugh, Associate Professor in French History at the University of Warwick. Jessica has published books on street politics in the 1930s, Paris and the right, and the relationship between politics and the individual in mid twentieth-century France. She is currently completing a history of popular theatre in the Third Republic for Palgrave Macmillan.

Jessica Wardhaugh: “What fascinates me is stepping inside other people’s worlds: their minds, their lives, and their dreams, especially when these are far distant from my own”

In one sentence, what is your research about?

Communities, real and imagined: as a déracinée, I’m fascinated by patterns of belonging.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

I come from a Francophile family. My grandmother was an au pair in 1930s Rouen, and our visits to France drew me closer to the decade and country that most fired my imagination. But she wasn’t interested in politics. ‘A Popular Front, was there?’ she mused when I told her about my PhD research. ‘Completely passed me by.’

So there are two quite different reasons why I came to study political ideas and communities. One was a stay with a French family when I was 17. The father was the village postman, the mother an avid fan of Salut les musclés. They had almost no books in the house, as I remember, except a play by Molière. Yet every evening they sat outside, drank wine, and philosophized. Who are these people, I wondered, who want to re-imagine the world?

Four years later I was on my year abroad in Montpellier, struggling to understand the French Revolution and the fact that nearly all students went home at the weekends. (In fact my neighbour stayed on campus only on Tuesday nights, and the rest of the time I had to look after her goldfish). One week we were given a commentary to write on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789. The next week a ‘model’ commentary was written up on the board, and we were expected to mark our own accordingly. Who are these people, I wondered, who not only re-imagine the world but are also convinced that they have the right answer?

To be honest, I don’t think I can ever fully answer this question. But I’ve nonetheless tried in my research to trace the mental and physical paths of some of France’s many political communities, seeking to understand those who do not always understand each other. I’ve followed republicans and anti-republicans, nationalists and regionalists, communists, anarchists, socialists, and royalists. Where they did meet? What did they fight about? What did they believe in? Did their desires and visions ever converge?

What fascinates me is stepping inside other people’s worlds: their minds, their lives, and their dreams, especially when these are far distant from my own. As Atticus Finch says in To Kill a Mockingbird, you can’t really make sense of someone until you ‘climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ Often, drama is where these worlds come most powerfully to life: street politics or political theatre. So this has been a particular focus for my research.

You’re given a time machine for one day. Where would you go? What would you do?

Paris on the eve of the First World War. I’d walk the length and breadth of the city, seeing, smelling, hearing, and tasting what it had to offer. The rush of passengers through the smoky Gare Saint-Lazare. The fantastical curl of an art nouveau staircase. The sound of a concert, with singers from the Paris Opera performing airs from Mozart’s Magic Flute, and amateur royalist musicians enjoying the mordant political songs they’ve written themselves. A gang of anarchists laughing because they’ve just hatched the cunning plan of officially registering themselves as ‘lovers of the picturesque’ so as to qualify for group discounts on railway excursions.

But I don’t think I would want to be seen. So maybe the time machine could be one of those quirky creations of the early filmmaker Georges Méliès and could make me invisible.

Who would you invite to your French History fantasy dinner party?

That’s a tricky one. I think I’d ask the Duchesse d’Uzès to be the hostess. She was a powerful personality (the first woman in France to get a driving licence and a fine for speeding), and she’d be spirited and hospitable. Then Alexis de Tocqueville to choose the wine: I owe him a dinner since his L’Ancien Régime et la révolution was on the first course I taught. The raging monarchist and gourmet Léon Daudet (‘so reactionary that I can hardly breathe’) would plan the menu, with his connoisseur’s knowledge of Parisian food. But I’d also invite the Communarde Louise Michel to keep him in check. In any case, I think they would both relish a bit of rhetorical swordplay.

Then — for the pure pleasure of conversation — I’d invite some of the interwar writers and militants whose writings have left me eager for more. Jean-Richard Bloch for his imagined fraternity with political opponents; Simone Weil for her sensitive observation; Gabriel Boissy for his futuristic writings on mass media as editor of Comœdia; and Georges Duhamel for his reflections on war, culture, consumerism, and true liberty. Mind you, with such violently opposing views they might well come to blows (Daudet and Michel at least), like the guests in that famous before and after sketch about the Dreyfus Affair as a devastating topic of dinner-party conversation. So I’d conclude the evening with the delightfully satirical Actualités burlesques of 1948. Guaranteed to bring a smile to any spectator, whichever side of the barricade.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

It’s a great freedom to be able to pursue one’s own research interests, and this is something I deeply appreciate. I also love the balance and interplay between research and teaching, and the chance to accompany students on their own intellectual journeys. It’s refreshing when a student suddenly makes me see a familiar source in a new light. But I do get frustrated when administrative tasks push both research and teaching to the sidelines.

What is on your desk at the moment?

A book that I am taking an embarrassingly long time to review, several yellowing copies of works by French writers who travelled to the USSR in the 1920s, a comic play from 1935 that I bought on Ebay, and far too many piles of paper.

If you weren’t in your current role, what would you be doing?

May I take a flight of fancy at this point? I think it would be painting in oil or watercolour to explore the ways in which time has a sedimentary as well as a metamorphic character. I had a sudden inspiration in the conservation gallery at the Ashmolean Museum, which showcases the beauty of change and deterioration — the kind of thing French artists and writers of the fin-de-siècle would have loved.

What key piece of advice would you offer postgraduates/early career academics?

Just before I finished my MA, I bumped into a professor from the History Department by the post box on Palace Green in Durham. ‘Probably no one will tell you this if I don’t’, he confided. ‘Go to conferences, organize something, teach, publish.’ It’s still excellent advice, although graduates now have new agendas to engage with as well.

My second tip would be to spend as long a period of research in France as you possibly can (and by the way, the SSFH is generously supportive of postgraduate research trips). It can be a long time before the opportunity comes round again!

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives nationales or archives départementales?

Archives nationales. And the smaller archives, such as the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, where I once discovered that my student foyer was built on the site of the Maison du Bourreau, opposite the guillotine.

Monograph or journal article?

Monograph. It gives the mental time and space to immerse oneself in another world.

Writing in silence or to music?

Silence. Actually I have three small boys, so I sometimes end up writing against a soundscape of steam trains, space rockets and secret agents (you’d be surprised how noisy a secret agent can be).

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

It was at the EUI in Fiesole. I was trying to figure out what Europe meant to some well-meaning interwar intellectuals while a thunderstorm rained down on Florence. And there was a sumptuous dinner at a local restaurant, with a quite improbable number of courses.

Pick a century?

Seventh-century Northumbria — for something completely different. Although I chose to start my MA research with late nineteenth-century France, it was with a reluctant farewell to the age of Bede (a great model as a historian). I remember writing a Finals gobbet commentary worthy of Sellars and Yeatman on the ‘wave of beards’ in early medieval images of St Peter, and I’m still enthralled by the art of the Lindisfarne Gospels. And this was a century in which in which a wronged cleric would journey to Rome and back — several times — just to prove his case. Now there’s determination for you.

Éclair or saucisson?

Saucisson on weekdays and éclairs dimanche et jours fériés.

Many thanks to Jessica for taking part. If you’d like to suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know via @FrHistNwk.


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