French Historians under the spotlight: PhD takeover

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 tie in with the Annual Postgraduate Study Day, this month’s interview is a Postgraduate takeover! We hear from the four reps to the two societies organising the event, which took place last weekend (catch up on twitter via #FrenchPG17):

Will Clement (SSFH), History DPhil candidate at St John’s College, Oxford

Anais Pedron (SSFH), PhD candidate at QMUL

Sam Wilkinson (SSFH), PhD student in French, Nottingham

James Illingworth (ASMCF), PhD student in School of Modern Languages, Queen’s University Belfast

PG reps
(l-r): Sam Wilkinson, Will Clement, James Illingworth and Anais Pedron

In the length of a tweet, what is your research about?

Will: The ways that the middle-classes interacted with the housing problem in three French towns, 1850-80, and how their own identities were shaped by these interactions.

Anais: I’m looking at women of theatre (actresses and managers) who became writers, and the extent to which they wrote about personal rights in eighteenth-century Paris.

Sam: Currently, political leadership and political cartoons in contemporary France.

James: The representation of the body in the works of novelist, George Sand.


What was your motivation for researching French history?

Will: I first got into History as a subject through historical fiction, with a Year 7 teacher recommending the Bernard Cornwell Sharpe novels. But it was only after taking a particularly excellent second-year course at Durham on the French Revolution that I narrowed my interests down to French history.

Anais: French eighteenth century is unique because of the Revolution, which led to some drastic changes in society. And I find this absolutely fascinating!

Sam: My first degree was in French studies, but I also took some ancient history modules alongside those. I found that I enjoyed the history side of things a lot, so by my second year I decided to combine them. I took a module called ‘Huit Tableaux’, which explored the history of France in the long nineteenth century through 8 paintings. This sparked my interest in history and visual culture – hence the political cartoons now, I suppose!

James: I must confess to being something of an imposter: my research is quite definitely literary. But Sand’s novels (indeed all novels) are so closely tied to the events of their time that my research interests are as much cultural historical as they are literary, and my interest in French culture was nurtured largely by four excellent teachers way back in high school. As the only person studying French beyond GCSE they were able to go way beyond the confines of the curriculum, and I owe them a real debt of gratitude.


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

Will: I try to structure my thesis around a number of key vignettes in my towns (Roubaix, Mulhouse, Lyon), so I would probably go back to one of those – either to Mulhouse in October 1870, where I could be an onlooker as proud industrialist Jean Dollfus threw his Order of the Crown in a Prussian commander’s face when he saw his precious cités ouvrières threatened with bombardment, or to Roubaix in April 1874, where I could join César Joseph Lausent and his other textile workers on a scandalous bar crawl through the town’s cabarets, with a life-size crucifix in tow.

Anais: I first studied medieval history, so I am split in two: eleventh century Anjou or the eve of the French Revolution. Both would be motivated by the possibility to meet some of the amazing people I studied. I would also love to go to the Comédie-Française, to the most famous salons and attend any sort of ceremony at Versailles.

Sam: 14 November 1831: the trial of Charles Philipon for lèse-majesté for his caricatures of the King. He argues that everything can be made to look like the King, so he draws the metamorphosis of the Louis-Philippe, transforming him into a pear. Verbal metaphor transcribed into visual metaphor – so effective!

James: Paris in the 1660s. Although a bona fide dix-neuviémiste, I have an enduring affection for French classical theatre, so would love to spend my time swanning from theatre to theatre at the time when Racine was in the ascendant and Molière was at the height of his comic genius.


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

Will: Although I know they could put on very grand balls, I’m not sure how much fun my very serious industrialists such as Dollfus or Louis Motte-Bossut would be at a dinner party. So if I were hosting, I would probably just cop out and stack the invite list with the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists.

Anais: The four women I’m studying: Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni, Mademoiselle Clairon, Marie-Madeleine Jodin and Olympe de Gouges. I would also love to have philosophers like Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau, whom would ensure some interesting conversations, especially about women’s rights. I’m sure there would be some broken plates!

Sam: Jacques-Louis David, Honoré Daumier, and Jean Effel from the art world. Lynn Hunt, Marlène Coulomb-Gully, and Ernst Gombrich from the academic world.

James: I should probably say Sand, but I suspect she wasn’t famous for sparkling dinner conversation. I’d love to have met Stendhal, and I imagine I’d get on well with bibliophiles Paul Lacroix, Paul de Saint-Victor, and Lorédan Larchey. I’m also a great admirer of Nélie Jacquemart.


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

Will: I have enjoyed spending a long amount of time out in the three towns during research trips, which has seen my French improve drastically over the past three years. From my limited experience, I’ve found more patience outside of Paris for faltering French, which was really helpful in my first couple of trips.
I find it frustrating to have to cast aside interesting archival nuggets that just won’t fit into the current thesis/I don’t have the time to spend working on at the moment.

Anais: I have found some unpublished letters. It took me time, but when I finally found them, I was so excited! That’s a great feeling! I also really like to communicate about my research in conferences, and to hear different and inspiring views.
As a foreigner, it is challenging to write and edit my thesis in English. That’s probably the most frustrating part!

Sam: Rewarding: Teaching. I love discussing French politics and history with my students. Frustrating: Writing. Getting it right is a real struggle for me.

James: A major advantage to the PhD is having the space to devote my time to thinking and writing about something I love. It’s frustrating that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to read everything!


What one change would you like to see in Academia during the next 5 years?

Will: I would love to see an end to zero-hour contracts

Anais: More funding available for students and institutions.

Sam: An increase in full-time, permanent, research posts and a serious decrease of casual, part-time, fixed-term posts.

James: An end to zero-hours contracts.


If you weren’t doing a PhD, what would you be doing?

Will: Drinking less coffee. Probably working in the housing sector in some way.

Anais: I used to work as journalist in France, so maybe that. My friends say that I should have been a lawyer as I always argue with them!

Sam: I’d probably be a teacher.

James: Most likely either teaching, or working as a librarian.

What key piece of advice would you offer anyone considering doing a PhD?

Will: Find the right supervisors (ideally two) who are not only fantastic academics, but also supportive and encouraging individuals. I have been very lucky with my two supervisors, and I have been able to work through several periods of writers’ block or research frustration with their experienced suggestions and feedback.

Anais: Be passionate by your subject, be patient and ready to handle disappointment and frustration!

Sam: You’ll get asked ‘what’s the point?’ all the time. You’ll probably even ask yourself at times. Make sure you know the answer before you start a PhD. Make a note of why you’re doing it, and keep it safe. Look at it in those moments of doubt. I know it sounds incredibly tacky, but it will help.

James: Slow and steady wins the race. It’s a long slog, and no matter how much you love the subject there are dark days, but the satisfaction once you’ve produced a piece of writing is awesome. Also be selective about the opportunities you take up; it can be tempting to fill your time with other tangential projects, but the thesis really is the most important thing.


A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

Will: Archives municipales. The smaller and pokier the better.

Anais: I work on texts, so I found most of my sources on Gallica.

Sam: AN.

James: The Bowes Museum archive is a hive of unmined French material on the nineteenth century (and beyond!), and set in a French-style château in rural Teesdale to boot!


Writing in silence or to music?

Will: Always to music. Something fairly ambient/without distracting lyrics to write to (The Cinematic Orchestra, Sigur Ros, Explosions in the Sky), then something a bit heavier for edits (Queens of the Stone Age, Killswitch Engage, etc.)

Anais: Both. It depends where I am and if I feel like listening music, and what!

Sam: Music.

James: I’m hopelessly unproductive without a constant wall of sound. I’m fond of Coffitivity, a website that endlessly streams the white noise of coffee shop hubbub without the distraction of people watching


Best conference you’ve ever been to?

Will: I went to a great interdisciplinary conference at Sussex in 2015, “Making A Home: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Domestic Interior”. I wasn’t presenting, but the range and breadth of contributions really helped me to rethink parts of my own research.

Anais: I really liked the BSECS annual conference in Oxford. I went for the first time last month and it was great to see that many people working on eighteenth century – even though most of them focus on the British eighteenth century. I met really nice people and had great feedback.

Sam: My first, I think. University of Bristol in 2013 on ‘Press, propaganda, and politics’. The papers were great, the discussion was lively, and I met some wonderful people.

James: Probably ‘The Domestic Interior in France and Belgium ca. 1850-1920’, held at Queen’s Belfast in 2016. It brought together scholars from a real variety of backgrounds and disciplines and posed some really provocative questions.



Will: … REF if I must.

Anais: REF I guess.

Sam: Probably REF. Through gritted teeth.

James: REF, if I really must choose.


Typed or handwritten?

Will: Typed for my own work, handwritten for things you find in the archives

Anais: All of them typed.

Sam: Typed.

James: I’d love to dispense with a laptop, if only I could decipher my own handwriting….


Éclair or saucisson?

Will: Éclair.

Anais: Definitively éclair, but only au chocolat !

Sam: Éclair.

James: Saucisson.


Many thanks to Will, Anais, Sam and James 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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