French Historians under the spotlight: Prof. Debra Kelly

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.

Going under the spotlight this month is Professor Debra Kelly, Professor of French and Francophone Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Westminster. Her volume (co-edited with Martyn Cornick) A history of the French in London: Liberty, equality, opportunity was published by the IHR in 2013.

Prof. Debra Kelly: ‘follow your passions and gut-feelings. Always look into your heart to make sure you’re doing the right thing for you, for your (fellow) students, for your colleagues.’

In one sentence, what is your research about?

At the moment I’m mainly researching the place of French cuisine in London’s culinary and cultural landscape, using it as a lens through which to analyse the French, and Francophone, migrant experience, both historically and in the contemporary city.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

I didn’t set out to be an historian and come from a French literary studies background originally, moving towards French and Francophone cultural studies, and then to a more overtly historical approach for the first time with A History of the French in London. Liberty, Equality, Opportunity. I now tend to think of myself rather as a cultural historian. Some of this is due to changing times – few academics in Departments of Modern Languages now survive purely teaching literature – but, of course, you can’t study literature without its historical, social and cultural context and my research and teaching evolved as I acquired new methodologies and approaches. I still get upset, though, when I see non-literary specialists using a literary text as though it’s a social and historical document without understanding, or even considering, its construction as a work of art.

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

How wonderful. It may seem slightly perverse to want to spend time in a city at war, but I’d go to London during the Second World War, a day in 1942, and take Madeleine Henrey (French author of several novels in English including a trilogy based on her life and experiences in London during the war) and Lesley Gerrard (a lively, very sociable member of the women’s section of the Free French Army in London whose letters are in the Imperial War Museum archives) to lunch at Prunier’s restaurant in St. James’s Street, making sure that Madame Prunier herself had time at least to have a glass of champagne with us. We’d be celebrating the publication that year of the first of Madeleine’s trilogy, A Village in Piccadilly, and Lesley could tell us about her life as a member of the Corps des Volontaires Françaises which she much preferred to the British ATS. Simone Prunier’s history of Prunier’s, La Maison, is very well-written and, being a terrible name-dropper, a wonderful social history of the original restaurant in Paris, and then of the St. James’s venue which she opened in 1935. During the war many members of the various European resistance movements met and dined there. I’d pick the day in Autumn 1942 when Maurice Rossi, the former maître d’hôtel at Traktir, Prunier’s sister restaurant in Paris turned up – he had formed a group of some thirty or forty of his colleagues in the best restaurants in Paris with a plan to poison every German officer who came into their restaurants as soon as the Allied armies drew close to Paris, as he was sure they eventually would – and had now joined the Free French. I fell in love with all three of these women when researching the places frequented by the Free French in London, it would be wonderful to spend time with them.

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

Another wonderful treat. Eight is my perfect dinner party number, so seven guests: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of both France and England, and introduced to me by my first inspirational French teacher, hers is obviously a compelling story and the idea of England, Normandy and the West of France being united is very appealing to me; Michel de Montaigne, philosopher, essayist, ‘autobiographer’, lawyer, mayor of Bordeaux, owner of a wonderful library, born and lived in Aquitaine, a region of France I love, and something he has in common with Eleanor. I loved Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live. A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, having come to him indirectly as we’ll discover; Louise Michel, communard, anarchist, revolutionary, teacher, inspiring speaker, she spent five years in London from 1890 to 1895, set up her École Anarchiste Internationale in Fitzroy Square and entertained for some time the idea of setting up an ‘auberge des proscrits’ since London had become such an established destination for French exiles; Pierre Albert-Birot (PAB), sculptor, painter, poet and novelist on whom I wrote my PhD, he supplied me with the most brilliant, funny, varied, thoughtful material to work with, and lived the history of the later nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, being born in 1876 and dying in 1967; PAB admired Montaigne hugely, and inspired me to read him, and not being very sociable I think having Montaigne there would help to make him feel more comfortable; Simone Prunier, as above, to thank her for her hospitality at her restaurant, although the food would need to be excellent, maybe she could lend some kitchen staff for the evening and bring some of her renowned oysters; Marcel Boulestin could bring something too, Anglophile, an interpreter with the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War, owner of Boulestin, the restaurant in Covent Garden which opened in 1927 and closed in 1994 (it recently re-opened in St James’s Street, showing the permanence of the French culinary heritage in London), first TV chef, great influence on Elizabeth David; last not least, Albert Camus, principled, multi-talented, complex, intensely human, lover of all life has to offer, and still my working class hero despite some postcolonial backlash which I believe misplaced, and for other reasons which are best kept personal.

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

I’ll give two examples of each. The most rewarding part is obviously to work with, and to witness, the development of the types of students who come to an institution like the former Polytechnic of Central London and the now University of Westminster for so very many different reasons, and to play a small role in that, from undergraduate to doctoral levels. Founding The Journal of War and Culture Studies in 2008 continues to be a career highlight; the journal is going from strength to strength and as well as the many excellent articles we receive, we also take the time to work with those which are initially less successful and support their authors to realise their potential. On the other hand, the daily battle in the UK to engage school students, parents, schools, and universities themselves with the importance, with the intellectual, professional and personal rewards, and with the sheer pleasures of learning, living, loving in another language makes for a career experience that is very different to that of colleagues in most other disciplines, even though being London Co-Director of Routes into Languages is inspiring. The greatest frustration of all is the mediocre and cowardly managerialism that has gripped the sector, in thrall to ‘market forces’ and consultants, it promotes internal and external competition at the expense of genuine collaboration and of collegiality, it is lazy, self-serving and a disgrace to all intellectual endeavour, integrity and creativity. I could go on. Mind you, come the revolution Louise Michel and I will sort it out, we can talk about it over dinner; I think Montaigne and Camus will have views too.

What is on your desk at the moment?

Some books for current research; I’m very much enjoying Nicola Humble’s history of cookery books in England, Culinary Pleasures; also Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food. A Linguist Reads the Menu, and Bon Viveur in London, dating from 1950 and ‘anonymous’ but it’s actually Johnny and Fanny Craddock of TV cooking fame, and a gem recording their experiences of eating out all over London, with menus and recipes.

I also have Pierre Albert-Birot’s Les Poèmes à l’Autre moi there as I’m engaged in an article for a forthcoming special issue of the French journal Europe (founded by Romain Rolland, amongst others) dedicated to him about which I’m delighted, it’s a real treat to return to the discoveries with which my life as a researcher and scholar began; and Nos meilleurs ennemis. L’entente culturelle franco-britannique revisitée, edited by two fine French historians, Diana Cooper-Richet and Michel Rapoport with whom I’ve worked on the London French and the Parisian Brits, and for which I still need to do a review, now on the second deadline….

I still have Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête (translated as The Meursault Investigation) which I read on holiday; I’m thinking about how I’ll use in it class with L’Etranger, at some point in the future.

A vase of white roses, I always have flowers on my desk, lots of postcards, loads of pens and notebooks (I have a serious stationery habit), a sketch of a Shaman by the Paris-based artist and poet Cozette de Charmoy; he watches over me.

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

As a postgraduate and doctoral student, I worked in Covent Garden and Soho in restaurants and bars (all research is autobiographical in one way or another….) and left having been an assistant manager around 1989/90 as I started out on a (quite late) academic career. The restaurant business in London has changed radically since then, and I’ve often thought about what would have become of me if I’d stayed with it. The food scene in London and Paris is very exciting these days – but it’s still a hard, tiring, risky business, people underestimate it and think it’s like having friends to dinner all the time, it’s not.

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

I spend a lot of my time working with our doctoral researchers within the doctoral researcher development programme at Westminster, and being one of a small, inspirational and dedicated team which conceived and developed it is another career highlight. The programme is constantly growing and evolving, so I have a great deal of more formal advice for them in today’s academic climate which is so different to the one I entered in the very early 90s, but I can’t go into all of that here. On a personal level, though, despite all of those many demands and at the risk of cliché, do follow your passions and gut-feelings. Always look into your heart to make sure you’re doing the right thing for you, for your (fellow) students, for your colleagues.

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

At the moment it’s the wonderful London Guildhall Library as they have exceptional culinary-related collections and archives, including the personal archives of Elizabeth David and of André Simon, another key member of the London French community throughout the 20th century and founder of the International Wine and Food Society.

Monograph or journal article?

I fundamentally disagree with the way in which the REF has railroaded the Humanities down the ‘Science model’ in so many ways, so I’m going to say monograph.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

A Postcolonial Studies conference in Casablanca, sometime in the early 2000s, memorable for many things, not least the fine scholarship of a number of young Moroccan academics there; it was held in a very smart suburb of the city with carefully tended and very green gardens constantly being watered, at the Winston Churchill Club. A sign above the bar instructed customers: ‘Only English to be Spoken at the Bar’; we ordered large gins and tonic and pondered the ironies of the (post)colonial.

Writing in silence or to music?

To music: I like to listen to Bach especially, it helps with structure, focus, concentration. And it is beautiful. I am currently playing Paul Tortellier’s interpretation of the Six Cello Suites, although Yo-Yo Ma’s performance of the complete suites at this year’s Proms which I listened to on the radio was simply outstanding.

Pick a century?

I’d like to cheat slightly and straddle two, the late 19th to the 20th century, 1880 to 1980. It covers the period I’m currently researching, and is simply packed politically, socially and culturally. And I have my own first-hand experience as an adult from 1980 onwards to work with.

Éclair or saucisson?

I have a very savoury palate, so saucisson without hesitation, and a nice glass of red wine, of course, my house wine is a Côtes du Rhône.


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


2 Responses

  1. Debora was an inspiring teacher on my MA French language and literature course.
    I seem to remember her PhD work was on the Gurreleid is that correct?
    It’s good to meet again on the internet
    All the best for the new project Isa (failed BBK MA)

  2. I hold a Personal Chair in French Cultural History. My main research areas are h-century Cultural History (especially Jean Paulhan and the Nouvelle Revue fran aise), the life and work of Armand Petitjean, and Franco-British Inter-Cultural Studies, with a particular focus on the French presence in London.

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