Five Questions: Sarah Burdett on the Arms-Bearing Woman

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Sarah Burdett is an Associate Lecturer in English Literature at University College London; she will be joining the English Faculty at the University of Cambridge at the beginning of the new academic year. Her research focuses on Romantic-period women – writers, actors, playwrights, sportspeople and inspirations – and on the British stage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her new book, The Arms-Bearing Woman and British Theatre in the Age of Revolution, 1789-1815, which we discuss below, was published in June by Palgrave.

1) How did you first become interested in the figure of the arms-bearing woman?

Funnily enough, my motivation to study the figure was two-fold: part scholarly, part personal. At a scholarly level, it was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) which first did it for me; specifically, her adamance that she aims not to encourage women to turn their ‘distaff into a musket’. This image of women over-stepping the bounds of Wollstonecraft’s feminist agenda by adopting military personas and thereby, emulating men both mentally and physically – sparked an eagerness in me to learn more about arguments for women’s martial rights and perceived corporeal capacities, at a time when women across the Channel were creating uproar in Britain by partaking in armed violence en masse as part of the French Revolution. Turning my attention to the theatre really brought this project to life: reading about a female soldier is one thing, but seeing a woman perform impressive martial feats on stage is quite another. Coming from a literature background, I was fascinated to discover the extent to which the process of embodiment allowed the eighteenth-century actress to challenge gendered mores in ways that textual representations could not; and it was eye-opening to learn just how transformative performance contexts could be in transforming the female warrior’s identity on stage. I began looking into reviews of actresses including Sarah Siddons, Julia Glover and Fanny Kelly performing armed heroines in London, and before I knew it, I was hooked!

At a personal level, I was intrigued to find how many of the oppositional comments aimed at arms-bearing women and female soldiers (both real and fictional) in eighteenth-century British newspapers, periodicals and theatrical reviews correlated with misogynistic attitudes that I myself have tolerated in the past! I spent a decade playing football at club and county level and was so often being told (by the ill-informed, of course!) that my actions were ‘unfeminine’, ‘unsuited to my sex’, and even ‘dangerous’ for me to pursue (I very occasionally receive not dissimilar comments now about my continued lifestyle as a long-distance runner!). It felt oddly cathartic to pick apart the overt biases and political / ideological agendas prompting comparable criticisms of the eighteenth-century female solider: in a strange way, defending and celebrating the physical and mental capabilities of the women warrior felt like an inclusive defence and celebration of any woman who has ever been told that her lifestyle choice ought to be reserved exclusively for men. I hope that some of that comes across in the book!

2) What are the main trends you trace in representations of armed female combatants on stage between 1789 and 1815?

One of the key aims of my book is to dispel the outmoded scholarly consensus that the female warrior falls exclusively into one of two general camps on the eighteenth-century British stage: romantic and rewarded; or political and punished. These are certainly pervasive trends in eighteenth-century comedy: much has been written of the loving heroine who disguises herself as a solider in a ploy to reunite herself with her serving spouse before returning safely to the domestic realms, and scholars have also highlighted the replication on stage of the Harriet Freke-esque armed heroine who is mocked before being exiled from the narrative. However, my study looks to complicate the idea that the female warrior’s identity follows any kind of straightforward or stable pattern by magnifying the complex threads that interweave to shape and reshape her identity from one performance to the next. While I show the female combatant as becoming ripe for allegorical reappropriation across the revolutionary and Napoleonic decades, the events and people to which she (often very surprisingly) alludes vary from play to play, and are unforeseeably directed, and redirected, by contextual specificities including scenography, the actress performing the role, the venue at which the play is being performed, and materials circulating outside of the theatre. Despite this, there are certain epochal trends in the female warrior’s development towards which my book gestures: most notably, the emergence in the 1810s of a heroine whose degree of agency, heroism and destructiveness vastly surpasses that of her 1790s forerunner. The importation of new dramatic genres from Europe; the development of new stage technologies; and the progress of Napoleon’s campaign (most pertinently, his exploits in Spain) are all shown to accelerate the birth of a transcendently deadly armed heroine, whose startlingly devastating warfare becomes integral – peculiarly enough – to the triumph of virtue over vice.

3) To what extent do British theatrical representations of armed women draw on European and global histories, artistic traditions and political events?

A very large one! My book shows political and artistic developments occurring at home and abroad pivotally to impact British configurations of the stage amazon. I outline emphatically the extent to which Anglo-French, Anglo-Irish, Anglo-German and Anglo-Spanish affairs bear upon the female warrior’s portrayal and reception, causing her theatrical reputation to fluctuate perpetually in accordance with shifting national and international relations. Artistic innovations imported from Europe are equally significant. My book juxtaposes representations of armed women offered in native sentimental dramas and tragedies of the early and mid-1790s with representations indebted to the German Sturm und Drang drama and the French-derived melodrama at the start of the 1800s: a period which saw plays styled on each of these continental models enjoying vast popularity in Britain. This comparison allows me to illustrate the crucial role played by European theatrical traditions in facilitating the emergence of a refashioned female warrior, whose ‘foreignness’ renders her a paradoxically dangerous and profitable intruder on Britain’s patent stage.

4) Which of the plays you examined for the project would you recommend most strongly to other scholars?

I’d recommend Samuel Arnold’s military melodrama Charles the Bold (1815). Not only does it feature a cannon-firing heroine (I mean, come on!) but it offers a great example, in my opinion, of melodrama’s complex interaction with revolutionary and Napoleonic activity, at both a literal and affective level. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, the licensing manuscript is the only surviving version of the play (available via the excellent Adam Matthew Eighteenth Century Drama database), so you do need to put up with the occasional difficult-to-decipher-word or two. But it’s well worth the effort.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m now working on my second monograph project, provisionally titled Staging Hibernia and Caledonia: Gender, Theatre, and National Identity, 1770-1832. Theoretically-informed by the work of Edward Said, the study strives to unpack historical negotiations of Celtic identity by grappling with the extent to which theatrical exhibition served to manipulate British conceptions of Ireland and Scotland as sites of cultural ‘Otherness’ across an epoch crucial to the formation of a stable British self. I’m also currently writing a journal article on sporting women in late eighteenth-century fashionable society, which homes in on the troubling (yet enticing!) figure of the female equestrian and huntress, by exploring her representation in 1790s stage comedy.   

CfP: The World Congress of Scottish Literatures: University of Nottingham

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The World Congress of Scottish Literatures: Call for Papers 

The fourth World Congress of Scottish Literatures will be held from the 3rd to the 7th July 2024 at the University of Nottingham in England. The Congress is a major international gathering of scholars with a research interest in the study of all Scottish literatures, across all of Scotland’s languages, with an emphasis on Scotland’s place in the world. 

While the fourth World Congress does not have a specific theme, our scope is transnational, and we would especially welcome papers on subjects that reflect the specific context of the Congress in Nottingham: the relationship between Scotland and England from earliest times to the present, a relationship which has had profound implications for the entire world, and which is a significant relationship in literatures in Scots, Gaelic, English, French and Latin from earliest evidence to contemporary production. Under this broad umbrella, we hope to address the following strands: 

• Scoto-English relationships: personal, inter-textual, political, cultural and historical

• Scotland in Empire and the Empire in Scotland 

• Outlaws, outliers and exiles 

• My enemy’s enemy is my friend: Gaelic literary relationships beyond Scotland – Shaped by Landscape: literary understandings of land, sea and the environment – Scottish writing and World Literature 

• Scottish medievalisms and the premodern use of the past 

• Ultima thule: early Scottish engagements with Europe 

• Outward-looking Romanticism 

• Post-Couthy: literature in Scots since the Unions 

• Drama, theatre and performance 

• Contemporary Gaelic literature and media 

• Diasporic writing: Scotland in a global world 

Proposals for papers, posters and presentations should include an abstract of c. 200 words, and your affiliation. Papers in English, Scots or Scottish Gaelic are welcomed; however, the conference is unable to provide simultaneous translation services for papers not delivered in English. 

The deadline for ALL proposal submissions is 31 October 2023. 

Please send submissions to the Congress Committee at Nottingham:  

Congress Website: 

Congress Social Media:  

On this Day: 16th July 1823 – Byron leaves Italy for Greece to take part in the Greek War of Independence

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It was on board the tantalisingly named Hercules that Byron left Italy and sailed for Greece to join the fight for independence. Britain had responded to the war back in the February of 1823 by creating the London Greek Committee in order to help the cause of Greek Independence from the Ottomans. However, Byron had been thinking about Greece not only since the war began in 1821, whilst writing the latest Cantos of Don Juan, but in the much earlier writings of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimages Cantos I-II published in 1812 which was to grant Byron fame and infamy.

Byron’s outspokenness against Britain is evident from his first speech in the House of Lords in December 1812 which described the Tory government as ‘full of ‘bankruptcy, convicted fraud, and imputed felony.’[1] Such less than subtle attacks are applied to Britain in order contrast with the idealised demi-paradise of Ancient Greece, especially Athens, in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimages Cantos I-II:

‘[s]on of the morning, rise! approach you here! / […] [l]ook on this spot-a nation’s sepulchre! [a]bode of gods, whose shrines no longer burn / Even gods must yield.’[2]

From the sunrise a new beginning for Greece and Europe is offered. However, the narrator reminds the reader of the Ottoman occupation of Greece through the description of the Parthenon where at its

‘proud pillars […] the Moslem sits’ (89-90).

Byron’s reimagination of ancient Greece invites the classically educated nineteenth-century reader to consider the immoral nature of such an ancient culture being occupied by non-Christians. But more than this, Byron creates parallels between the Imperialist tendencies of Britain and the ancient city state of Athens which would enforce its will over other Greek allies until the surrender of Athens to Sparta during the Peloponnesian Wars in 404 BC.[3]The classically educated reader identifies anxieties between Britain’s increasing domination of Europe, even before Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, and Athens’ domination of the other city states in Greece. This discomfort is amplified through an evocation of Britain’s removal of artefacts from the Parthenon that even the Ottoman Turks had saved:

‘modern Pict’s ignoble boast, / to rive what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spared’ (100-101).

The controversy surrounding Lord Elgin’s acquisition of the marbles from the Parthenon in Athens between 1803 and 1812, a highly publicised act, is discussed through the historical tribe of the Picts who were present in Scotland and Ireland during Roman occupation of Britain.[4]

History becomes a device through which the narrator creates parallels and criticism of British foreign policy. Byron’s abandoned home of Britain becomes the Imperialist dominator of Greece:

 ‘[w]hat! shall it e’er be said by British tongue, / Albion was happy in Athena’s tears? […] [t]he ocean queen, the free Britannia, bears / The last poor plunder from a bleeding land’ (109-114).

Britain becomes identified though its Imperialist acquisition of the marbles from the Parthenon. The passing on of Greek artefacts to Britain creates significant parallels between Imperialist Britain’s treatment of modern Greece through its acquisition of the marbles and ancient Athens’ treatment of its Greek allies. The Parthenon’s construction began in 447 BC, the same year that saw the transformation of the Delian league of Greek allies into the beginning of the Athenian Empire under the supervision of Pericles.[5] An educated reader would draw comparisons between the beginning of the Athenian empire and Britain’s potential for Imperialist domination in Europe. Out of this parallel, nineteenth-century Athens is only seen through

‘Athena’s poor remains’ (105)

This negative image of what little remains creates a theme of impermanence towards the Athenian empire which allows the reader to reflect on how early nineteenth-century empires, including the British, can be imagined to fall.

Byron himself would not live to see the independence of Greece in 1830, but his insight into the fall of Imperialism, whether Ancient Athens or Britain, is amongst his most brilliant observations. Such insights may have been overlooked in favour of the more flamboyant and intriguing dalliances of Byron’s life and writing, but the impermanence of empires seems all the more relevant in a post-Imperialist Britain inundated with the need for foodbanks.

Matt Jones

Matt Jones is an MA student at Cardiff University interested in the political radicalism of first and second-generation Romantic writers and their portrayals of Britain and Europe. On completion of his MA, Matt hopes to go on to a PhD that will explore these interests further.

[1] Lord Byron, ‘Frame Work Bill’, Hansard (1812) <> [accessed 28th March 2023].

[2] Lord Byron, ‘Canto II’ in Byron’s poetry and prose ed. by Alice Levine and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Byron’s poetry and prose (London: Norton, 2000), pp.55-83; further references to this poem are included in the body of the essay, giving the relevant line numbers in brackets.

[3]  Oxford University Press, ‘Athenian Empire’, A Dictionary of World History (2015) <> [accessed 16th March 2023].

[4] Lee Taylor, ‘Elgin Marbles’, An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age (2009)

ed. by Iain McCalman, Jon Mee, Gillian Russell, Clara Tuite, Kate Fullagar, and Patsy Hardy <> [accessed 14th March 2022].

[5] Russell Meiggs and Simon Hornblower, ‘Delian League’, The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization (2014) <> [accessed 14th April 2022].

CFP: The English Georgian North, 1714-1830: Rethinking Cultures and Connections 

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An in-person symposium hosted by Durham University’s Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS)  

15 September 2023 

There will be no registration fee for this event. Teas, coffees, and a light lunch will be provided. *** 

This symposium builds on conversations which have been taking place at Durham University over the last fifteen months as part of the IMEMS research strand ‘The Georgian North’, designed and led by Professor Fiona Robertson: studies/research-strands/the-georgian-north/. 

The symposium sets out to develop new approaches to the intellectual and creative  cultures of the northern counties of England in the Georgian period, 1714-1830. Important  contributions to knowledge, interpretation, creative practice, and scientific advance were  made in the north country during this still largely rural and early industrial period in its history. They took shape in social, professional, and discursive networks of considerable  complexity and reach, bringing together artists, abolitionists, antiquaries, architects, writers,  theologians, musicians, astronomers, philosophers, mathematicians, botanists, landscape  designers, linguists, clergy, social and political reformers, actors, and archaeologists. Yet there has been little connected cross-disciplinary exploration of these cultures, their  significance, and their legacies. 

We invite proposals for 15-minute papers or presentations to contribute to a day of informal  and investigative discussion. Topics of interest include, but are not restricted to:  

• Environment and conservation 

• Abolition, reform, and intervention 

• Originality and innovation 

• Scientific enquiry, speculation, and new worlds 

• Practices of collecting, curation, and display 

• Performance: players, theatres, audiences 

• Composition: music, painting, poetry, prose fiction, architecture, design • Ancient pasts: theories and artefacts 

• Cultures of belief 

• Depletion and rediscovery (buildings, communities, habitats, traditions) • International and intercultural connections; connections across languages and  traditions 

• Conversation and exchange (social, professional, and discursive networks,  philosophical and historical societies, bookshops, print cultures)

The region under discussion comprises the historic counties of northern England – County  Durham, the North Riding of Yorkshire, Northumberland, Cumberland, and Westmorland. Of  particular interest, because especially under-researched, is present-day County Durham  and the areas immediately bordering it, but we welcome work on all relevant locales and  communities. Of the many individuals active in the intellectual and creative cultures of the  period, some were permanently settled in the northern counties, while others were here for  shorter periods, often under-researched relative to the wider body of scholarship on their  work. They are all of significance to our discussion, as are, also equally, the natural and  constructed environments of the northern English counties – private and public buildings,  landscapes and treescapes, theatres and observatories. All these environments helped  shape the formation and development of ideas and many are now lost or under-regarded.  

This is an in-person symposium, open to researchers across disciplines, with papers and  roundtables and an emphasis on discussion and exchange. There will be at least one online only follow-up session later in 2023. 

We invite 300-word proposals for 15-minute papers or presentations. 

Please submit your proposal via this form by 14 July 2023: 

If you cannot attend but are interested in receiving information about the Research Strand and  follow-up sessions, you can use the above link to register your interest. 

We shall respond to all proposal submissions no later than 28 July, after which time further  details and the registration link will be made available.

Incoming BARS Communications Assistants 2023-24

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We received a number of very high quality applications for the BARS Communications Assistant 2023-24 position. The Executive Committee are delighted to announce that there will be two new Assistants working on the BARS Blog and social media in the next academic year:

Isabelle Murray is a Masters graduate from Cardiff University. Her thesis, ‘The Glory of the Flower: the Flora in William Wordsworth’s Ecopoetry’, focuses on the sociality of Wordsworth’s natural world, providing an original colour analysis of the use of yellow in his poetry. Her blog site, LetsTalkRomanticism, seeks to explore modern literature, art, music and film through the lens of British Romanticism. Her first post compares Bruce Springsteen’s discography with the poetry of Wordsworth, ‘I walk Streets of Fire… A few miles above Tintern Abbey’, underlining the potential of Romantic literature as an expansive genre. Follow Isabelle on Twitter here.

Statement: I am thrilled to be a part of the BARS community! I cannot wait to surround myself with others who have such a passion for Romanticism.

Dr Rosie Whitcombe is a writer and academic. She is currently an MHRA Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sheffield where she is helping to prepare The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ann Radcliffe for publication. She studied for her PhD at Birmingham City University. Her thesis, ‘John Keats and the Literary Letter’, provides a new historical and critical account of Keats as a letter writer, with a particular focus on self-fashioning, theories of the epistolary, and the text as artefact. Her essay, ‘Connection, Consolation, and the Power of Distance in the Letters of John Keats’, won the 2020 Keats-Shelley Essay Prize and was published in The Keats-Shelley Review. She co-runs an educational YouTube channel, ‘Books ‘n’ Cats’, that seeks to disseminate academic literary content to a wider audience. Follow Rosie on Twitter here.

Statement: I’m really pleased to be joining the BARS team! Very much looking forward to working with people dedicated to furthering the reach of Romantic studies.

More on our plans for this academic year very soon! Keep an eye on our Twitter page and Facebook group for how you can be involved and contribute to the BARS Blog.

With massive thanks to Francesca Killoran, our outstanding Communications Assistant for 2022-23.

Stephen Copley Research Awards 2023 (Round One): Awardees Announced

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The BARS Executive Committee established the Stephen Copley bursary scheme in order to support postgraduate and early-career research within the UK. The bursaries primarily fund expenses incurred through travel to libraries and archives necessary for the applicant’s research, alongside other research-focused costs, such as (but not limited to) photocopying, scanning, and childcare. Please do join us in congratulating the very worthy winners and their projects:

Elisa Cozzi (Oxford) – ‘Italy and the Irish Romantics: Networks, Nations, and Literary Encounters 1798– 1848’

Ella Morrish (York) – ‘Materiality and Mourning in British Women’s Poetry of the Romantic Period’

Serena Qihui Pei (UCL) – ‘Thomas Manning and his Chinese Book Collection: Rethinking Sinological Influence on the Romantic Circle’

Dr Honor Rieley (Edinburgh) – ‘Newspaper Literature and the Provincial Perspective in Scotland and the North of England, 1820–40’

Once they have completed their research projects, each winner will write a brief report. These reports will be published on the BARS Blog and circulated through our social media. For more information about the bursaries, including reports from past winners, please visit our website:

Dr Gerard McKeever
Bursaries Officer, BARS

Five Questions: Yin Yuan on Alimentary Orientalism

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Yin Yuan is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Saint Mary’s College of California. Her work focuses on British Orientalism, Anglophone literature and East Asian popular culture; she has published articles on these topics in Studies in Romanticism, the Keats-Shelley Journal and SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. Her first monograph, Alimentary Orientalism: Britain’s Literary Imagination and the Edible East, which we discuss below, was published this month by Bucknell University Press.

1) How did you first become interested in edible things in the long eighteenth century?

I remember being taken by eighteenth-century literature’s tendency to exhaustively detail every item on the menu when it comes to the depiction of Oriental banquets. The Greek dinner scene in Lord Byron’s Don Juan, with which my book begins, is one of the more famous instances, but examples like it abound in literature from the period and trace back to the Arabian Nights story cycle. There had been critical work on the function of the epic catalogue in British Orientalism, but not as much (with the exception of Timothy Morton’s The Poetics of Spice) on the particular significance of the cataloging of edible things. On the one hand, these culinary lists provided readers with a sensory experience of the Orient. On the other hand, the conventionality of the rhetorical gesture seemed to subvert the very materiality invoked by the listing of edible things. This tension between words and things that the literary text itself was foregrounding, even interrogating, was what drove my interest. I think there is a scholarly tendency to see imperial commodities in literature as opaque archives that must be illuminated by the present-day critic, whose job it is to investigate the histories of production, distribution, and consumption of such commodities. But I found the representation of edible things in long eighteenth-century literature a lot more self-reflexive than hitherto acknowledged, and I began to wonder why, and to what end.  

2) How did you come to select tea and opium as the major foci for your book?

In the British context, tea and opium are arguably the two ingestible foreign commodities that underwent the most dramatic cultural transformation, so they foreground the kind of tension between the symbolic and the material that I am particularly interested in. Tea was the “China liquor” whose cultural taint British commentators worried about during the eighteenth century, but by the nineteenth century, it had become an icon of English national identity. Opium exhibited an inverse trajectory: while it was never domesticated, Thomas De Quincey could in the 1820s still paint a conceivable portrait of an English opium-eater, but as the century wore on, the drug was increasingly marked “Chinese” even though large amounts were produced in British India. There have of course been major studies on the material and literary circulations of each of these two commodities, but my book focuses on their symbolic entanglement and argues that the two need to be considered as a dialectical pair. Understood in relation to each other, the symbolic fluidities of tea and opium provide a paradigmatic framework for understanding how the consumption and reception of exotic edibles more broadly nurtured a self-reflexive Orientalism that was central to the formation of British imperial identity. 

3) Which tropes are most common in self-reflexive literary engagements with exotic ingestants, and what’s your favourite atypical example from your book?

Many of the scenes of ingestion I examine in the book equate edible things with inscriptions, stories, dreams, spells, fantasies, and other forms of meaning making. Literary treatments of tea, for instance, frequently entail discussions of gossip around the tea-table. In Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World, “Bear’s claws” and “Birds nests” refer to specific dishes while also functioning as metaphors for exotic reading materials. In Walter Scott’s The Talisman, the eponymous “talisman” – defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as an occult object that derives magical power from the characters with which it is engraved – is used to name the opiate administered by Saladin. In each of these instances, the material effects of the edible thing are inseparable from the discursive apparatus that diagnoses or otherwise makes sense of those effects. One notable exception is Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, where Flora Finching’s imaginations of China are sharply contrasted with her hearty appetite. The novel makes a point of underscoring the gap between the material and the symbolic and suggests that imperial propaganda works by passing one off as the other. In my book, I explain what the atypical example of Little Dorrit tells us about the shift in British imaginations of the Orient (and of China more specifically). 

4) Your chapters trace a ‘historical narrative of Britain’s ongoing creation of imperial selfhood’.  What would you identify as the most crucial turning points in this narrative?

Historians have pointed to the crucial role that exotic commodities played in driving the eighteenth-century consumer revolution. My book argues that the intersection between literary Orientalism and exotic consumerism during this time created, among British writers, a self-reflexive engagement with the Orient that was central to the formation of Britain’s imperial identity. The two Opium Wars, beginning in 1839 and ending in 1860, marked a shift away from such self-reflexive engagements toward a more uncritical, xenophobic othering of the East that was further consolidated by mid-century exhibitions such as the 1851 Great Exhibition. Alongside the decline of such self-reflexivity, I noticed in British Orientalist texts a concomitant replacement of the ingestion trope with one of vision, which I connect to the emergence of the “Barbarian eye” as a salient figure in public discourse during the Opium Wars.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m continuing to think about the relationship between empire and culture, but have started developing these interests within the fields of media and contemporary popular culture. My current project focuses on South Korean popular culture, particularly what its global ascendency means for the creation of hybrid cultural identities. Recently, for Post45 Contemporaries, I edited a cluster of essays on the phenomenon of the Korean Wave and its implications for the development of a global cultural studies. I also have an article forthcoming with the International Journal of Communication that looks at Squid Game and Netflix in order to consider how alternative structures of feeling in South Korean television challenge American narrative ideologies. These inquiries form part of a broader book project on the cultural and transcultural logics of South Korean television and film genres. 

‘Am I a Woman or a Slave?’ A formidable event supported by BARS President’s Fellowship Scheme – Ifemu Omari 

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Two decades ago, I discussed the idea of doing a PhD on Mary Prince with a Senior Lecturer from a Russell Group university. “It’s already been done.” he retorted. And then, a little more spirited, he said, “There’s something I want to show you.” I swivelled in his direction on the chair in his small book-crammed office. He opened two large doors to reveal ceiling-to-floor of spine-bound brown books. “This is where PhDs end up”, the Doctor of Philosophy concluded glibly.  A few days later, he sent me an essay on Mary Prince written by one of his students, published on the University’s website. I was highly critical of the essay’s central argument but had neither the language nor the platform to challenge it.  

Fast forward to 2019 when my PhD supervisor at the University of Wolverhampton, Ben Colbert, drew my attention to the BARS Stephen Copley Award. I carefully read the brief and informed Ben that, “I can’t see myself in this.” Ben assured me that I would be fine and much to my surprise, I won the award which took me to the Mitchell Library in Glasgow to investigate the archives of the pro-slavery journalist, James MacQueen. Consequently, I presented a paper in the NASSR/BARS conference in August 2022 called ‘Antics and Theatrics: British and West Indian newspaper/periodical (Re)presentations of Mary Prince’. 

I often describe my PhD journey as a dense forest in which I have created a path but as I walk down the route I have carefully constructed, the path, almost of its own accord, branches out in different directions. This tests my discipline to stay on track. Occasionally, I find a tangential lane irresistible – I tell myself that I’m not changing directions, just modifying the shape of the path a little. Such was the case when I saw the invitation to apply for a new BARS award. Besides (I told myself) opportunities rarely appear in a timely fashion and the Mary Prince website – my main reason for applying for the BARS President’s Fellowship – had been at the back of my mind for some time. 

As an African Caribbean scholar, I am keenly aware that since Britain’s clumsy attempts to dismantle the infrastructural evidence of chattel slavery and colonisation, this sceptred isle has been uneasy with itself and its relationship with the Caribbean ‘other’. I am also acutely mindful of the fragmentation and the invisibilities of African Caribbean histories which lead me to continually examine my own role as a black scholar.  

Since beginning my PhD research, I have observed a number of historical milestones – the Windrush scandal (2018); the Covid pandemic (2020 onwards); the murder of George Floyd (May 2020) and the international protests which followed led by Black Lives Matter (BLM). These events have intensified my self-scrutiny as a black scholar in the academic spaces within which I interact. 

In addition to global protests from America to Japan and from Brazil to Israel, George Floyd’s murder sparked a spate of activity and conscientisation world-wide. For instance, in July 2020 all the top 10 books on the New York Times’s bestseller list were about racism. And closer to home, Bernardine Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race became the first books by British black women to top the UK’s fiction and non-fiction paperback charts, respectively. The businesses of many of my friends who worked in HR and Diversity thrived from a surge in soul-searching by institutions all over Britain. I was asked to run courses in Decolonising the Curriculum but like many of my HR consultant friends, my optimism was short-lived; complaints amounted to the same weary conclusion: “They’re still not listening”. My decolonisation courses were poorly attended – they had been quickly added to educational programmes with little thought about objectives, publicity and so on. But at least the establishments had put them on – Tick! 

Even before the public murder of George Floyd, this experience of institutional short-termism was all-too common amongst black professionals like me. I have concluded a long time ago that often white institutions do not listen with the intention of gaining new knowledge and to consider how they will adjust their central position in response. They, especially universities, owing to their long-established position of power through the dispensation and validation of knowledge, believe in their own superiority. Consequently, new knowledge serves to reinforce their elevated sense of selves and high positions in society and further entrenchment of their dominant culture. This is epitomised in the oft paraded statement that universities are ‘custodians of knowledge.’  

BARS has reawakened some kind of hope that all may not be lost with ‘the custodians of knowledge’. Having only attended one BARS conference and interacted with BARS members, I believe that the organisation’s soul-searching long pre-dated the events of May 2020. For me, BARS is a scholars’ community who is always asking questions. Not only did the BARS President’s Fellowship scheme appeal to people of colour but I was also attracted to the award’s openness; the elasticity of the remit evidenced that BARS want to listen, want to grow with its membership and because of its membership – in short, to be relevant. So, I had no hesitation in applying. 

Everything about my vision to create and launch a website during Women’s International week, aimed at local community access was realised on Monday March 6 at 2pm at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton. My event, ‘Am I a Woman or a Slave; the Formidable Layers of Mary Prince’, sold out twice on Eventbrite. The audience from the Windrush generation and younger, non-academics and scholars gathered in one space and discussed issues which arose from my presentation about Mary Prince’s narrative, The History of Mary Prince; A West Indian Slave Related by Herself. Choreographer Aderonke Fadare and her dance troupe performed an original piece interpreting the Mary Prince story. I also devised WomanChat – a panel of African Caribbean women who responded from their own perspectives to my presentation and Aderonke’s dance performance. These brilliant women chaired by Ruth Minott were as follows: Nicola Taylor Brown, a PhD researcher in Criminology and Women; Pat Clarke, chief executive of the Sandwell African Caribbean Mental Health Foundation; Kerensa Hodges, an MA student in Artificial Intelligence, Dr Nneoma Otuegbe, researcher in Black women’s fiction, and our choreographer, Aderonke Fadare. This was followed by a Q and A. 

Ruth and Ifemu

Mayor Sandra Samuels opened the event. She was the first black woman to have held the post in Wolverhampton. So, it was apposite that she delivered the keynote speech about Mary Prince, the first black woman to have had her slave narrative published. Mayor Samuel’s closing remarks in her warm speech, were simple and resonant – ‘Take care of yourselves’. 

Mayor Samuels and her husband with Ifemu

When I cast my mind back to 2004, I now imagine that my retort to the glib response “It’s already been done” should have been “Shakespeare’s works are four centuries old but he’s still being done”. And as a custodian of my own knowledge, I continue to tread gently through the dense forest which is my PhD, taking care to value, validate and valorise the scattered fragments of our diasporic African Caribbean literary histories. 

I would like to thank Dr Helen Davies, my supervisor who supported my application and Dr Nicola Allen; Professor Sebastian Groes who supported an additional application to the University of Wolverhampton’s Centre for Transcultural and Transnational Research (CTTR) – this grant paid for Aderonke and her dancers. I would like to thank BARS for making me feel that I belong with this thriving scholars’ community, and naturally, I am very grateful to have been made the first recipient of the President’s Fellowship. And of course, I am ever grateful to my supervisor Dr Ben Colbert who ‘saw me’ when I couldn’t see myself in this scholastic space. Nuff Respect, Ben! 

Aderonke Fadare, dancer and choreographer

Ifemu Omari is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Wolverhampton. Her research explores the paratextual apparatus around the slave narrative The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave (1831).  Ifemu is passionate about public engagement with diverse and non-academic communities. Examples of this are: ‘The Whip-In Conversation with Juliet Gilkes Romero’, (on-line interview, October 2020); ‘This Book Was Not Meant For Us – A Fresh Look at the History of Mary Prince’, (on-line presentation, November 2021); ‘From Struggle to Freedom’ – A series of weekly seminars at the Sandwell African Caribbean Mental Health Foundation (in person, Oct –  Dec, 2021); ‘The Uses of Literature: Arts, Culture and Wellbeing in Times of Crisis’ (in-person panellist, April 2022); ‘The Big Book Review: Reviewing Shakespeare’ (in-person presentation with Prof. Sebastian Groes, May 2022); ‘An Interactive Pictorial Seminar of Memories, Fun and a few explorations based on the Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon’ (in-person presentation, June 2022). She taught Literature for 14 years at Fircroft College, Birmingham and has also taught Literature at the Universities of Birmingham and Wolverhampton. She was shortlisted for the BBC Radio 3/AHRC New Generation Thinkers’ scheme (2021).

For more about the BARS President’s Fellowship, see the link below: