French Historians under the spotlight: Prof. Margaret Atack

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.

May’s subject, Margaret Atack, is Professor of French at the University of Leeds. Prof. Atack is one of the invited speakers at the SSFH Annual Conference at Chichester in July, where she is taking part in the plenary on Cultural Histories. Registration and more details about the conference can be found here.

Margaret Atack 2
Margaret Atack: ‘You need someone who will give you good career advice at every stage’

In one sentence, what is your research about?

I work primarily on the analysis of fiction and film, particularly of and about the Second World War, roman noir and women’s writing; I am interested in the ways narratives construct knowledge of the world as they interact with and influence other kinds of discourse and representation.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

I was inspired by the cultural politics of existentialist philosophy and of structuralist theory; was very keen to work on literature, but not in a ‘life and works and times’ kind of way; read Les Forêts de la nuit by Jean-Louis Curtis and decided there and then that representation of the Occupation would be my topic.

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

26 August 1944, to be present at the famous walk down the Champs-Elysées of de Gaulle and internal Resistance leaders, which by all accounts had an intensity that had to be lived to be believed.

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

Simone de Beauvoir, Denis Diderot, Christiane Rochefort, Jean-Paul Sartre, Delphine Seyrig, Edith Thomas.

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

Rewarding: completing an article/chapter etc that works, that’s very satisfying when it happens; interesting, engaged seminars with students; the relationships one builds with students during their time in the department.

Frustrating:  I’ve been fortunate that my career has coincided with a strong and interesting time for French studies in the UK, but the lack of funding for postgraduate study has been a real pity. It is transformative in every way to have a good community of postgraduate students, and that’s been quite a struggle in modern languages.

What is on your desk at the moment?

Andrea Goulet, Legacies of the rue Morgue, for an H-France Forum; George Pelecanos, Hell to Pay and Leonardo Sciascia, Sicilian Uncles, for pleasure;  some mode rétro films – Lacombe Lucien, L’Affiche rouge, M. Klein, Le Dernier Métro ­– for an article;  Aimé Césaire, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, for a 1st year seminar. 

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

I have absolutely no idea. I still cringe at my naivety and arrogance, explaining to my head of department that I would like to be taken on for postgraduate study because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Could have been better phrased, but it’s still true.

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

You need someone who will give you good career advice at every stage.

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

Bibliothèque nationale; Bilipo (Bibliothèque des littératures policières).

Monograph or journal article?


Best conference you’ve ever been to?

The Literature Teaching Politics conferences of the 1980s were very exciting, as was the Southampton 1985 Sexual Difference conference, with its much appreciated Sexual Difference Minibus, but the best has to be the weeklong conference/workshop that Elizabeth Brunazzi invited me to speak at. La Vie quotidienne et la culture de Vichy was held at the Camargo foundation in 1998, and the organisers brought together an extraordinary group of historians and cultural analysts, mainly from France and the United States, including Stanley Hoffman, Jean-Pierre Rioux, Pierre Laborie, Susan Suleiman, Anne Simonin, Gisèle Sapiro, Robert Soucy, Mary Ann Caws, Michael Marrus – I could go on and on.  It was a great privilege to be part of it. Equally memorable was the location: hosted at the Camargo foundation, staying in a hotel room looking out over the port, and enjoying meals in the evening under huge pine trees looking out over the changing colours of the cliffs and the Mediterranean. Intellectually and culturally unforgettable.

Writing in silence or to music?


Pick a century?


Éclair or saucisson?



Many thanks to Margaret 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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