French Historians under the spotlight: Prof. Dave Andress

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.

November’s interview is with Professor Dave Andress, Associate Dean and Professor of Modern History at the University of Portsmouth. He has recently published two edited volumes: Experiencing the French Revolution (Voltaire Foundation, 2013) and the Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution (OUP, 2015). Dave tweets via @ProfDaveAndress.

Andress Smile
Prof. Dave Andress: ‘I’d like to get Danton tipsy and find out what he really knew about everyone else and their shady dealings’

In one sentence, what is your research about?

Currently, trying to span the huge gap between some detailed work on the use of emotional vocabularies in revolutionary assemblies, and a commitment to producing a general text on France in the revolutionary era…

What was your motivation for researching French history?

A fruitful collision between the opportunity to study E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class and its contexts in detail as a first-year undergrad at York, and the subsequent excellent example of Norman Hampson, with whom I took several courses just before he retired. By the end of my second year, the French Revolution had become ‘my thing’, and Alan Forrest’s arrival channelled it towards a PhD application.

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

Not to the French Revolution – too dangerous by half! Ever since I did a little work on the parallel development of French and American events in the 1780s, I’ve found something very compelling about what Richard White called The Middle Ground – the spaces where European colonization met Algonquian cultures around the Great Lakes and the Ohio Valley before European settlement. I’d like a chance to move through that wilderness, as some Europeans did, as a guest rather than a conqueror. To stand on a hilltop and see primeval forest stretching to the horizon in every direction… This is possibly influenced by one too many viewings of The Last of the Mohicans, which ought also to remind me that it wasn’t peaceful all the time…

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

I’d like to get Danton tipsy and find out what he really knew about everyone else and their shady dealings, and I’d bring Norman Hampson back so he could find out that way about some things that puzzled him for a long time! I’m sure Marisa Linton and Mette Harder would enjoy being there for the inside track, and to broaden out the conversation I’d bring over a few more people from the other side of the Atlantic I don’t get to talk history with often enough: Denise Davidson, Julia Douthwaite, Rebecca Spang, Jill Walshaw.

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

I’ve been very fortunate to come up in the shadow of a whole generation of French revolutionary historians who made the study of the period a collegial affair, even as we all wrestled with ‘post-bicentennial angst’. Working in such a context, even if sometimes only touching base at conferences, has always been deeply rewarding, as has the more general sense of intellectual camaraderie that I’ve always found amongst historians. Other fields, I know, have their stars who are a bit closer to the Newman & Baddiel ‘History Today’ performance, but avoiding them has been one of life’s pleasures.

Frustrations are, of course, endless, especially when one is foolish enough to take on an administrative role when there is writing to be done. However, I always return to the words of an old friend from York: “It’s indoor work with no heavy lifting”. Sometimes that has to be enough.

What is on your desk at the moment?

Apart from piles of paperasserie, the two books I’m actually reading right now are E.C. Spary’s Eating the Enlightenment and Sarah Horowitz’s Friendship & Politics in Postrevolutionary France. Trying not to get the whole ‘friends for dinner’ concept mixed up in my mind, with gory consequences…

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

I have no idea; I’m not sure I’d be good for much else.

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

Don’t take advice from senior academics who are only where they are through blind luck.

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

I’d say the CARAN. If I can have Danton to my dinner-party, I’ll have the AN back in reach of a decent café.

Monograph or journal article?

I’d say mostly articles, for today’s busy reader… But last year I did get reminded by Jennifer Sessions’ By Sword & Plow, and Brett Rushforth’s Bonds of Alliance, just how much you can get into, and out of, a book-length text.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

It was very nice getting flown to Pretoria at someone else’s expense a couple of years ago for a ‘workshop’ on revolutions and democracy, but if I’m honest the conversation with David Anderson and some other Africanists was much more interesting than most of the papers. For a full-on good-craic experience that includes the actual panels, I must say, unbribed, that I have had at least half a dozen excellent SSFH annual conferences.

Writing in silence or to music?

I’ve always done most of my writing in my campus office, where there’s a certain level of faint exterior activity, so that’s my comfort-zone. Sometimes I put music on, but then I realise I’m not actually hearing it when I get into the work…

Pick a century?

The twentieth. I was young then…

Éclair or saucisson?

I reject the imposition of such tyrannical binary oppositions.


Many thanks to Dave 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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