Spotlight on Talitha Ilacqua

Welcome to another edition of Historians Under the Spotlight  an occasional interview series that offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions. You can catch up with previous posts here.

This month, our spotlight is trained on Talitha Ilacqua (Yale University / University of Venice) whose book Inventing the Modern Region. Basque Identity and the French Nation-State has just been published in MUP’s Studies in French and Francophone History. You can find out more about Talitha’s book here.

In a nutshell, what is your research about?

I’m a historian of nineteenth-century France and Mediterranean Europe, working at the intersection of socio-cultural and intellectual history. My aim is to offer new perspectives on the rise of political ideologies such as nationalism, conservatism, and liberalism by analysing them from the continent’s southern peripheries and borderlands. My first book, Inventing the Modern Region, explores the symbiotic creation of national and regional identities in the French Basque country over the long nineteenth century. In fact, the rise of the nation did not destroy local identities, either in France or elsewhere in Europe. Instead, local notables and intellectuals, with the help of the population, reimagined local identities to make them compatible with the new (inter)national order. So regional identities were really a product of the ‘modern’ age of nationalism, which could validate national myths but also reveal the fragility of claims about national unity.

What was it that first got you interested in researching French history?

When I was sixteen years old, I took a joint French and History module in high school, where we studied France in the early modern period. Nothing had ever fascinated me as much before, and I spent the summer reading books about sixteenth-century Europe. That was when I decided to study History at university. At the time, I thought I would become an early modernist, but towards the end of my BA at King’s College London I discovered the nineteenth century and started researching nationalism, and that discovery has defined the course of my career ever since.

What advice would you give to early career scholars preparing their first monograph?

Don’t wait too long after your PhD to start working on your book! Some distance is required because the monograph will likely look very different from the thesis. But make your book your priority, because it’s your best chance to do justice to your research and to get a permanent job. Writing a book is not easy, but there are some steps that can ease the process: 1) find an editor quickly, because having a deadline will motivate you to work on the manuscript systematically; 2) ask for advice from senior colleagues, as well as your peers; 3) read widely, and don’t limit yourself academic writing — this will help you find the right style for the book (plus, reading novels is fun!); 4) have a social life and cultivate your hobbies outside academia, because no matter how much you enjoy your research, there is also more to life; and 5) never forget that writing a book is an incredible achievement. It’s hard work and you should be proud of yourself.

What one change would you most like to see in Academia in the next five years?

I wish academia would take better care of its early career scholars. Being a young academic today, and having to juggle research, teaching, job applications and publications in the slim hope of getting a permanent position is very challenging, both mentally and emotionally. A lucky few, like myself, find amazing colleagues and friends along the way to keep us going during the tough moments. But for those who are not so lucky, the life of a young scholar can feel terribly lonely. I have seen too many bright minds, including some of my friends, leave academia because they were overwhelmed or disillusioned with its prospects. They are the future of this profession, and it’s heart-breaking to see such potential going to waste.

What are you working on now/ next?

My next book project focuses on the transnational conceptualisation and diffusion of a moderate strand of liberalism in Mediterranean Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century. I’m interested in how moderate liberal thinkers explored a third political way for Europe, somewhere between revolution and reaction, in the aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789. I look at Spain, Portugal, Piedmont, the British-occupied Ionian Islands and Greece, and at the dialogue with the informal ‘liberal empires’ that France and Britain were trying to build in the Mediterranean. Moderation theory has been neglected for too long, often seen as an unoriginal and self-serving strand of liberal thought. My book aims to dispel this assumption. I see moderation theory as an original strand of liberalism, which southern Europeans, in dialogue with their northern neighbours, conceptualised and applied to their respective countries as a viable alternative to the challenges of the revolutionary age. I’m interested in exploring the nineteenth century not only as an age of Atlantic revolution but also as an age of southern European moderation. If we shift our historical perspective from the northern Atlantic to the Mediterranean, we can find important alternative visions for the future of Europe, as well as contrasting interpretations of nation-building, ‘modernisation’ and ‘modernity’.

Quick-fire questions

Which French place/space would you most like to be able to go right now?

A lavender field in Provence…

Favourite archive or library?

The Bodleian Library in Oxford is second to none, but if I had to choose a French one, I would say the Bibliothèque Victor Cousin on the top floor of the Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne, near the Panthéon in Paris. It is a quiet and inspiring room, and home to Victor Cousin’s archival correspondence, as well as to his original book collection.

Favourite century?

The nineteenth century, needless to say!

Éclair or saucisson?

Éclair for sure!

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