After working full-time as a novelist for seven years, in 2017 I decided to follow another long-held ambition by venturing back into academia. I’m currently studying for my PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, having been awarded a fully funded AHRC studentship by the Midlands3Cities partnership.
Read on for a glimpse of what my research is about and where I hope it’ll lead me over the next few years.
Writing the Middle Ages: a re-evaluation of the fantastical in historical fiction
What’s it about?
I’ve long been fascinated by the various ways in which the Middle Ages are represented in the modern world, especially in my area of specialist knowledge: historical fiction. During my PhD research I’ll be focussing on concepts of the fantastical and the supernatural – that is to say, spirits, monsters, elves, visions, apparitions and the various other marvels that formed an intrinsic part of medieval life – and how they are represented (or not) in novels.
I’ll be comparing and contrasting recent works that deal with these themes by authors including Umberto Eco, Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Terry and Kevin Crossley-Holland, with primary sources from the Middle Ages that delve into the otherworldly, the magical and the monstrous. Among the latter are famous texts such as the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf as well as others little-known outside of academia, including Marvels of the East, a compendium from pre-Conquest England that describes the weird and wonderful creatures thought to exist beyond the fringes of Christendom, and Icelandic texts such as Eyrbyggja saga, whose pages include encounters with ghosts and the undead.
You can find out more about my research as it develops by following my blog.
What form will it take?
For the PhD in Creative Writing, the main part of the thesis is a work of fiction. In my case, this will be a historical novel set during the Middle Ages – specifically, in early Norman England, using fantastical or magical themes to explore the long-term social as trauma of life under colonial rule.
My main influences are drawn from the sources and novels mentioned above, but I’ll also take inspiration from works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which explore traumatic periods of more recent history through magic realism and diversions into otherworlds.
A few years ago, while I was in the final stages of writing my third novel, Knights of the Hawk, I presented a paper at my first major academic conference. The Middle Ages in the Modern World, which took place at the University of St Andrews in 2013, was a gathering of some 175 scholars from across the globe, exploring how our medieval past has been remembered, depicted, referenced, re-created and reconstructed in more recent times. Drawing upon my own experiences, my paper discussed how novelists might go about presenting their subjects in a historically responsible way.
Since then, I’ve gone on to become even more involved in the academic world, attending several editions of the Midlands Viking Symposium and the London Anglo-Saxon Symposium, and participating as a speaker in roundtable discussions on historical fiction at the Viking World conference in Nottingham in 2016 and the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in 2017.
During all of this, I gradually began to build up an appetite for further research, and it seemed to me that a PhD was the natural next step. I’m pleased to have found a project that allows me to combine both my interests – creative writing and medieval history – and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of it!
How can I find out more?
To find out more about my research you can: