French Historians under the spotlight: Dr Sarah Easterby-Smith

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.

As part of the focus on conference season, this month’s interview is with Dr Sarah Easterby-Smith, part of the team who organised this year’s excellent SSFH conference in St Andrews.

Sarah is lecturer in Modern History at St Andrews, where she is also Co-Director of the Centre for French History and Culture. When she is not organising conferences Sarah is working on her next book, Cultivating Commerce: Connoisseurship and Cultures of Botany in Britain and France, 1760-1815, forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.

Dr Sarah Easterby-Smith: ‘It’s a luxury to be able to live the life of the mind – but don’t forget to have other luxuries too’.

In one sentence, what is your research about?

I write about the cultural and social history of science in the eighteenth century, currently focusing on the links between botany, commerce and connoisseurship.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

I think a mixture of love of the language and culture, plus a good dose of serendipity. When I was growing up my family and I spent every single summer holiday in the Languedoc, so that part of France has always felt like a second home. But I’m actually a relatively late starter with regards to formally studying French history: I only took one course in the subject as an undergraduate, and came to it instead during my MA – I wanted to study history of science and medicine with Colin Jones, and was more than happy to pick up French again (and rapidly mug up on France’s history) in order to do so. I remember then getting completely caught up in the historiographical debates, and avidly reading everything I could about eighteenth-century France. Then I won an ‘Entente Cordiale’ scholarship and spent a year in Paris. From that moment on I haven’t looked back.

If you could travel back to any historical period or moment, when would it be?

I would like to be a (very healthy and well-fed) ship’s cat on one of the major eighteenth-century voyages of exploration. The frigate La Boudeuse would be my first choice. The ship, commanded by Bougainville, sailed on the first French circumnavigation of the globe (1766-1769) and ‘discovered’ a whole host of places and peoples never before seen by French eyes. It would have been amazing to be part of that expedition.

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

Partly continuing the theme above, I’d mostly like to invite eighteenth-century travellers and their patrons. Jeanne Baré was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe (she travelled aboard La Boudeuse disguised as a man). Bernardin de Saint-Pierre should also come, with his spaniel Fidèle, who apparently never left his side. As this is completely fictional, I’d also invite the comte de La Pérouse and I’d ask him to bring along some of the objects collected during his voyage but which, as his ships sunk near the Solomon Islands, have been lost. Some of the leading Enlightenment scientific patrons such as Lamoignon de Malesherbes and the comte de Buffon should definitely be there, but also a few people I’ve been researching but who have left such shadowy traces in the archives that we barely know anything about them. That particular list includes two young gardeners called Guillaume Luhrman and Pierre Mulot, who were sent to Seringapatam (India) in 1788 with a cargo of live plants for the Tipu Sultan, but whose letters to Paris petered out once they reached Pondicherry. I’d also like to invite Adélaïde d’Andrieux, who ran a commercial plant nursery in Paris but whose history has been obscured completely by that of her husband Philippe-Victoire Lévêque de Vilmorin.

Eighteenth-century France’s Mr Potato-Head, Antoine-Augustin de Parmentier, could come as long as he brought a nice potato-based main course with him, and I would also ask Elisabeth Vigée le Brun to join us and paint a group portrait of everyone afterwards.

Which French History monograph do you wish you had written?

Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre.

Which book(s) are currently by your bedside?

At the moment I mostly seem to alternate between French and Scottish literature. I’ve just finished Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le metro (it left me feeling completely baffled!) and am now reading Muriel Barbary, L’Élégance du hérisson. Next up is Cloud Howe, the second book in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy A Scots Quair. The first book, Sunset Song is amazing – a must-read for anyone who hasn’t done so already.

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

It’s a luxury to be able to live the life of the mind – but don’t forget to have other luxuries too.

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

I think my archival home is split between the Archives Nationales and the Bibliothèque Centrale at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. The latter is smaller and more relaxed. Plus, you can enter by walking first through the Jardin des Plantes, and then passing by sculptures of a yawning hippopotamus and a friendly polar bear. Guaranteed to put one into the right frame of mind for a day’s research.

Monograph or journal article?

Hmm … I think a good substantive journal article, that’s well written and gives one plenty to think about, would win out over a monograph.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

Well, I should say SSFH 2015 (St Andrews), but actually I think the best conferences I went to were the first ones that I ever attended – these helped me to develop many of the ideas that subsequently came to frame my research. It was also tremendously exciting to meet the people who had formerly existed only as names in my bibliography, though initially hard work plucking up the courage to actually speak to them! I went to a great conference at the Natural History Museum in London and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, at the end of my MA year in 2005, and the following year attended a really formative series of workshops on Science and Capital Cities at the Maison Française d’Oxford.

Pick a century?

The eighteenth. Obviously!

Éclair or saucisson?

What kind of question is this?! It depends where I am. In the UK I’d choose an éclair (but containing real cream rather than crême patissière). In France it’d be saucisson. Preferably accompanied with a large glass of Sancerre.


Many thanks to Sarah for taking the time to answer our questions.

If you’d like to take part, or suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Society for the Study of French History logo