GOTH Awayday 2023: Cambridge Exhibitions

On Thursday 20th April 2023, a group of GOTH members travelled to Cambridge for the annual GOTH awayday. This year, GOTH decided to visit a series of exhibitions at the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Whipple Museum.

Outside the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Outside the Fitzwilliam Museum.

We began the day at the Fitzwilliam Museum to view the ‘Women: Makers and Muses’ temporary display, where curator Rebecca Birrell talked us through the artworks exhibited. One side of the room shows works by women artists, while the other shows representations of women by contemporary male artists to give a sense of the milieu in which the women artists were working. A highlight of this room for GOTH was Vanessa Bell’s Portrait of Mrs M. (1919), a depiction of the doctor Marie Moralt who saved Bell’s baby daughter’s life. Dr Moralt is depicted as a commanding presence in rich furs, her large hands suggesting her ability as a physician. Our attention was also drawn by Marie Louise von Motesiczky’s At the Dressmaker’s (1930), a self-portrait of the artist in a white gown, which is being worked on by another woman. Once again, Rebecca noted the oversized hands of the dressmaker, drawing attention to her skilled profession. We were particularly struck by the framing of the portrait with an alcove, curtain rod and curtain behind the subject, almost reminiscent of a funeral portrait. Across the room, we were intrigued by La zarzarrosa (The Dog-Rose) by Glyn Warren Philpot (1910-11), a group portrait of three Spanish dancers composed similarly to a traditional family portrait of the time. We discussed the ambiguous gender presentations of the three figures, ostensibly a man and two women, whose lavish clothing, playful expressions, and easy physicality were reminiscent of a sense of queer ‘found family’.

Paintings by Vanessa Bell and Louise von Motesiczky.

After lunch in the Courtyard Café, we moved onto the major exhibition ‘Islanders: The Making of the Mediterranean’. This exhibition draws together archaeological finds dating from the Bronze Age to the Roman period from Crete, Cyprus, and Sardinia to explore life on the large islands of the Mediterranean. Connected to the ‘Being an Islander: Art and Identity of the Large Mediterranean Islands’ research project, the exhibition explores religion, society, trade and other elements of life on the islands, displaying a range of objects including several never before seen in the UK. GOTH member and archaeologist Maria Relaki talked us through many aspects of the exhibition, including pottery that may have been designed to imitate more valuable metal vessels, and clay representations of humans, animals, chariots, and shrines.

Votive hands in the ‘Islanders’ exhibition.

Our final visit for the day was to the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. After perusing the permanent collection, curator Joshua Nall talked us through the ‘Craftswomen’ exhibition, which aims to uncover the hidden role of women in the history of manufacturing scientific instruments. We learned that many instrument businesses were registered in a man’s name but were taken over by that man’s wife when he died, suggesting the women in question had a good knowledge of how the business was run. These women even sometimes took on apprentices, proving that their knowledge extended to the actual making of instruments. Although these women did not sign their work with their own names, researchers have been able to uncover the crucial role that they played in the trade.

A catalogue of maps produced by John Senex; the business was run by his wife Mary.

We all had a great day in Cambridge, and were grateful to the curators for their insights!

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Programme – The 3rd GOTH Symposium: 18-19 May 2023

Location: The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

Please register for online attendance via Eventbrite.

Symposium organizers – GOTH Committee:

  • Dr M A Katritzky – Director, GOTH & Barbara Wilkes Research Fellow in Theatre Studies
  • Dr Christine Plastow – GOTH Web and Media Manager & Lecturer in Classical Studies
  • Dr Molly Ziegler – Lecturer in Drama and Performance Studies, Department of English & Creative Writing
  • Dr Emilia Wilton-Godberfforde – Lecturer and Head of French, WELS
  • Guest Co-Organizer: Prof. Dr. Birgit Ulrike Münch, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
  • Event Support: Dr Sally Blackburn-Daniels, The Open University & University of Teeside (


Day 1  Thursday 18 May 2023

9:30-10:00       Registration & coffee

10:00-10:30     Welcome and Introduction to the 3rd GOTH Symposium: M.A. Katritzky (Director, GOTH & Barbara Wilkes Research Fellow in Theatre Studies, OU) & Birgit Münch (Professor of Art History, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn)

Panel 1: 10:30-12:00     POSTGRADUATE LIGHTNING PANEL (Chair: Christine Plastow)

10:30-10:45       Chair’s Introduction; Report of the convenors of the OU’s monthly GOTH PG Forum (Kim Pratt & Antonia Saunders) on the Forum’s activities and their doctoral research.

10.45-11.45       5-minute PGR lightning presentations:

Members of the OU GOTH PG Forum:

  • Kim Pratt, When is the Self not the Self?: When it’s the Other.
  • Antonia Saunders, Jewish Women and English Women in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda
  • Rochelle Mallet, Gender in early childhood education.
  • Lucy Morgan, Single men and manhood in early modern England
  • Sarah Bower, The Family: The Nuclear Option? Daughters in the 1780s and the 1960s
  • Gwyneth Jones, 1816, Fanny Imlay travels to Swansea

External guest speakers:

  • Deirdre Parkes, Mothers and Others: Intersecting identities and otherness in a modern performance reception of the Medea myth.
  • Johanna Johnen, Female ‘otherness’ in depictions of Illness in the 17th and 18th century

11.45-12.00       Q&A

12:00-13:00     Lunch (provided)

13:00-14:00       Committee & Board Meeting (Board, Committee & PG convenors only) Chair: M A Katritzky

Panel 2: 14:00-15:30    Performed otherness I (Chairs: Christine Plastow & Molly Ziegler)

  • Tobias Kämpf, Queer Pictures in a Straight Frame: The Ovidian Narrative of Jupiter and Calisto in Early Modern Art
  • Kathrin Wagner, (Homo)eroticism in visual translations of Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (1593)
  • Hannah Brumby, ‘Faints Aeneas to remember Troy, in whose defence he fought so valiantly?’: Aeneas’s Diminishing Masculinity in Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage.

15:30-16:00     Tea & coffee

16:00-17:30    Performed otherness II (Chairs: Christine Plastow & Molly Ziegler)

  • Cat Stiles, Queer Creatures: The Sexual Embodiment of Monstrosity in Early Modern Literature
  • Irini Picolou, Gender and Exceptionality in Early Modern Spain: La barbuda de Peñaranda by Juan Sánchez Cotán and La mujer barbuda by Jusepe de Ribera

18:30     Conference dinner (cost & details TBC to delegates)


Day 2  Friday 19 May 2023

Panel 3: 10:00-11:15       Collectible otherness, 1500-1800, I (Chairs: M A Katritzky & Birgit Münch)

  • Charlotte Colding Smith, Giants’ Teeth, Dwarf Embroidery, and Saints’ Ribs: Collectable ‘Otherness’ in Churches and Wunderkammern between 1500 and 1800
  • Marina Vidas, Otherness, Gender, and Race: Portraits of African Children at the Danish Court, 1550-1700

11:15-11:45     Tea & coffee

11:45-13:00       Collectible otherness, 1500-1800, II (Chairs: M A Katritzky & Birgit Münch)

  • Hannah-Louisa Hochbaum, The domesticated monster: the early modern perception of (court) ’dwarfs’ in context of European exoticism
  • Michelle Moseley, Visualizing Large Primates as “Other” in Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century Curiosity Culture

13:00-14:30       Lunch (provided)

Panel 4: 14:30-16:00       Closing discussion: panels & publication (Chairs: M A Katritzky, Birgit Münch, Emilia Wilton-Godberfforde, Molly Ziegler)

16:00-16:15       Closing Remarks (Christine Plastow & Molly Ziegler)

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GOTH Symposium 2023: Gender and otherness in drama, literature and visual culture – Call for Papers

CFP DEADLINE: 30 November 2022
EVENT: 3rd Annual GOTH Symposium
DATE: Thursday 18 to Saturday 20 May 2023
HOST: The GOTH Research Centre, OU
LOCATION: The Open University, Milton Keynes (live, on campus event)
THEME: Gender and otherness in drama, literature and visual culture.

The Annual GOTH Symposium welcomes scholars from within and outside The Open University for three days of productive interdisciplinary discussion and debate. The Program Committee invites proposals for 20-minute papers focusing on the following aspects of gender and otherness in drama, literature and visual culture:

1. Gender and/or otherness in pre-1800 images of drama and literature, with topics including but not limited to:
• images by or relating to William Hogarth, and especially to his early career and book illustrations
• the anti-hero: Don Quixote and Hudibras illustrations at Littlecote House and elsewhere
• any aspect of the Littlecote House murals
(On the Littlecote House murals, click here.)

2. Gender and/or otherness in modern performance receptions of ancient Greek drama, possibly addressing topics including (but not limited to):
• new versions of rarely staged or fragmentary texts
• innovative or non-traditional modes of performance
• productions engaging with intersecting identities

3. Race, disability and/or otherness in early modern theatre, with topics including but not limited to:
• depictions of otherness in dramatic writing and staging practices
• historical receptions of race and disability
• the significance of gender in representations of race and disability

4. “Collectible Otherness” 1500-1800, with topics including but not limited to:
• Dwarfs; conjoined twins; the abnormally hirsute
• Genre: visual culture, drama and literature
• Contextualizing agency and Intersectionality of otherness: court, theatre, fairground, curiosity cabinet (Wunderkammer)

Please submit your proposal (300 words max) and academic bio (150 words max) on or before 30 November 2022, to & All presenters will be provided with accommodation (1 night). A limited number of travel bursaries will be awarded; if you wish to be considered please include a brief statement explaining what sum is required and why.
Inquiries on any aspect of the symposium can be emailed to

Further information on the event and registration is being posted on the GOTH website as it becomes available:

On behalf of the Symposium organizers:
GOTH Committee:
• Dr M A Katritzky – Director, GOTH & Barbara Wilkes Research Fellow in Theatre Studies
• Dr Christine Plastow – GOTH Web and Media Manager & Lecturer in Classical Studies
• Dr Molly Ziegler – Lecturer in Drama and Performance Studies, Department of English & Creative Writing.
And Guest Co-Organizer:
• Prof. Dr. Birgit Ulrike Münch, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

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Upcoming seminar series: Classical Reception Studies Network & Queer and the Classical

GOTH members may be interested in the announcement of the annual Classical Reception Seminar Series in collaboration with the Institute of Classical Studies, London. This year the Queer and the Classical collective are convening a series entitled…

‘Back To a Time Before I Had Form’: Ancient Origin Myth(s) of Queerness.

Classics as a discipline has historically positioned itself as a search for origins, drawing tenuous and often fictional connections between ancient cultures and modern ‘Western civilisation’. Origin stories of gender and sexuality have also contributed to this narrative: the classical past has played an integral part in forming categories and images of sexual difference and desire. Scholars and activists have then often turned to Graeco-Roman antiquity in order to advocate for the legal rights and social legitimation for LGBTQ+ identities. While ancient evidence of queer desire has been an important tool for combatting queerphobia, this attempt at legitimizing contemporary queerness through ‘the classical’ has also reinforced dangerous and exclusionary ideologies, facilitating strategies of pinkwashing, homonationalism, and the erasure of intersectional identities. What does it mean to look for the origin of queerness in the ancient world? Which forms of gender expressions, sexuality, and desire become excluded in doing so? What are the dangers of supporting such origin myths.

By probing at these and more questions, this seminar series will investigate the supposed utility of a straightforward search for origins, teasing out new connections from hostile sources through a fantastic line-up of speakers.

The full programme and links to registration for individual seminars can be found on the Queer and the Classical website.


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Lovers and Wrestlers, from ancient Greece to Francis Bacon

By Christine Plastow

Francis Bacon, Two Figures, 1953

In 1953 and 1954, the painter Francis Bacon created two paintings of a pair of men closely entwined. Two Figures (1953) shows one nude man apparently pinning down another on   the messy white sheets of a bed, in a dark space broken by white framing lines. In Two Figures in the Grass (1954), the men embrace and tangle their legs together on the grassy floor, surrounded by dark walls and more vertical lines. The spaces in both paintings feel oppressive and enclosed, with Bacon’s characteristic frames offering depth and perspective. To the modern eye—and indeed, to the eyes of Bacon’s contemporaries—both pairs are clearly lovers, locked in the throes of (perhaps violent) passion. Bacon was an out gay man in the fifties, over a decade before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act would decriminalise private homosexual sex acts in England—this being only a first step on the long road to ending the UK’s laws against gay sex (the last law against sodomy in Scotland was only repealed in 2009, with the repeal not coming into effect until 2013). Two Figures was painted at the house of Peter Lacy, Bacon’s partner of 10 years with whom he had a sadomasochistic, deeply loving, though at times tempestuous and violent relationship.

Bacon was known for drawing shapes and compositions for his paintings from a variety of reference material, mostly photographs and magazine clippings. Thousands of such images covered the floor of his studio in a mixture he called ‘compost’. The Two Figures paintings were no different, with the poses of the men taken from a series of photographs of wrestlers taken by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), the pioneering photographer of animals and people in motion. These photographs show nude or nearly-nude men in various stages of combat; one series shows a pair of fighters collapsing to the floor in a series of poses closely reminiscent of Bacon’s figures.

Photographs of wrestlers by Eadweard Muybridge, c.1887

Bacon’s use of the wrestlers as reference material for his paintings of male lovers may have simply been an extension of his usual practice, or it may have been intended as a (albeit rather flimsy) defence against the potentially controversial subject matter of the paintings. In either case, in doing so Bacon became another entry in a history of artists using wrestling imagery to explore homoerotic themes that stretches back to Greek antiquity. The Greek term symplegma, meaning ‘entanglement’ and now most commonly used for artistic renderings of sexual intercourse, seems to have originally been used to describe sculptures of wrestlers. It is used in this way several times by Pliny the Elder during his lengthy discussion of marble sculpture in his Natural History, including one instance explicitly with the Latin term for wrestling:

…Pana et Olympum luctantes eodem loco Heliodorus, quod est alterum in terris symplegma nobile… [Pliny Natural History 36.4]

…in the same place the Pan and Olympus Wrestling, which is the second most famous grappling group in the world, was the work of Heliodorus… [tr. D. E. Eichholz]

The Wrestlers

The most famous surviving ancient sculpture of this type is usually known simply as The Wrestlers, a Roman marble based on a 3rd century BCE Greek original, possibly in bronze. It was discovered in 1583 and is now in the Uffizi in Florence. The sculpture depicts two nude men engaged in the sport of pankration, which combined elements of boxing and wrestling; one wrestler leans over the back of the other, holding his opponent’s arm behind him and wrapping his left leg around that of the lower wrestler. The sculpture depicts actual wrestling technique, but also offers an opportunity to display the two men’s athletic bodies in their prime, with muscles showing under the skin. This admiration of athletic nudity was a feature of both the sculpture and the sport: as Nick Fisher writes, ‘men believed that nakedness… should reveal the perfection of the trained body and that an erotic response to muscular, bronzed bodies gleaming with olive oil, like statues, was a natural part of the admiration elicited by divinely gifted beauty and skills’ (Fisher, 2014, p.250, my emphasis). Fisher’s comparison of the bodies of athletes to statues is apt here: both offered an opportunity to gaze at and celebrate beautiful male bodies in a socially acceptable, indeed appropriate, way.

Francis Bacon, Two Figures in the Grass, 1954

For Francis Bacon in 1950s England, any culture of admiration of athletic eroticised male bodies was necessarily hidden from public view, so Muybridge’s photographs both provided a crucial compositional reference and allowed Bacon to make his images of lovers visible, couched in more socially acceptable terms where necessitated by the criticisms of conservative viewers. Both Peter Lacy and Bacon’s other great love, George Dyer, would appear regularly in his paintings throughout his career, putting his sexuality at the heart of his artistic output. And while some of the original viewers of Two Figures and Two Figures in the Grass may have been scandalised when the paintings were first displayed, we may imagine that other appreciated them much as The Wrestlers and other symplegmata were appreciated in ancient Greece and Rome.

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast is showing at the Royal Academy of Arts until 17 April 2022.


Nick Fisher, 2014, ‘Athletics and Sexuality’ in Thomas K. Hubbard (ed.) A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities. Oxford: Blackwell. 248-268.

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Laura Knight: A Panoramic View

Clare Taylor on the exhibition of Laura Knight‘s work at MK Gallery, showing until 20th February 2022.

Circus, 1935 – ceramic dinner service

This show at the MK Gallery injects bold colours and equally bold subjects into the urban landscape of Milton Keynes. It brings together an astonishing range of Laura Knight’s work in oils, watercolour, charcoal and pencil as well as her designs for ceramics, costume and the poster to explore what the exhibition catalogue calls ‘the gaze that she cast over her surroundings and the assorted characters that entered her orbit’. Visitors might recognise her subjects drawn from the circus, but the wartime subjects and her portraits of the disenfranchised are much less well known. The show also illustrates her long and varied career, from early drawings made when she was still studying at Nottingham Art School in the 1890s, to her election as Royal Academician and author of two autobiographies, the second published to coincide with her retrospective exhibition at the R.A. in 1965. The fact that this is the first major show since makes this re-examination long overdue, also charting the fall from favour of Knight’s form of modernism to the present-day revival of interest in twentieth-century British portraiture and its subjects.

Lamorna Birch and His Daughters, 1916-1934

The show also reveals wider issues around the place of women (and a few men) in twentieth-century Britain. Knight overcame restrictions on women students painting from the nude when she was still in her teens by hiring her own model, and her ethereal portrait of the model Lily Poyser (‘The Yellow Lady’) hangs in the opening room. This is counterpointed by images of women at work, a theme she was to return to throughout her career and one where Knight often inverts viewpoints. An oil of the fishing fleet leaving Staithes in Northumberland focuses not on the ships themselves, or the men who sailed them, but on the single figure of a woman walking towards the viewer, away from the sea and the group watching the ships’ departure. The same room contains a very different kind of portrait, heroic in scale. Here, however, the focus is not on classical imagery or the female nude but rather on domestic life, taking as its subject her fellow artist Lamorna Birch and his two daughters who are depicted in a brilliantly impressionistic setting of dappled shade. Significantly, motherhood is often absent from these canvases: the next room includes more plein-air Cornish works where Knight reclaims the right of women artists to paint the female nude, posing bodies against turquoise-blue waters, while modern women with bobbed hair and loose clothing in saturated colours poised on cliff tops. Here, the panoramic viewpoints into water are often unsettling and the models’ faces again turned away from the viewer.

The Rehearsal, 1948

The central room displays Knight’s love of spectacle to great effect, rooted in both populist and more established art forms. Straightforward portraits of performers, particularly women, are less frequent than glimpses of moments of transformation. Dancers tie shoes, circus performers are seen just off stage and actors wait around in rehearsal, their identities in turn hidden and revealed by costume and make-up. This interest in performance continued throughout Knight’s career. The show also includes examples of her post-war works painted at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and in London theatres. Here, she not only portrayed the actors, such as Paul Scofield, but also members of the wardrobe and dressers. A portrait of Gwen Ffangcon-Davies preparing for the role of Juliet contrasts the actor’s auburn wig and gold gown against a white wardrobe and the black and white uniform of the dresser handing her hair pins.

Depictions of female members of historically marginalised groups also throw up a disjunct between Knight’s portrayals and the privileges of the successful artist. Portraits of women from Traveller and Roma communities with titles such as ‘Gypsies at Epsom’ are one example of this. Knight’s studio was in a converted Rolls Royce, the payments she made to sitters an alternative to prosecution for practicing their main source of work at the races, telling fortunes. These works concentrate on colour, pattern and line, often pairing women of different generations in double portraits out of doors- there is little hint of hardship here, rather clothing and setting contribute to what Sophie Hatchwell (in her thought-provoking catalogue essay) identifies as stereotypes of Roma and Traveller appearance and culture. The same room is hung with a series of portraits of African-American communities painted on segregated wards in Baltimore, a commission obtained through her husband and fellow painter Harold Harvey. Here, further contradictions are clear; Knight might avoid caricatures in her portraits but the words she used to describe her sitters (‘fine types’) were deeply racist.

Take Off, 1943

Knight was, however, ahead of her time in securing not only full election to the R.A, but also a retrospective in her own lifetime, the first woman to do so. She was also active in promoting both herself and her profession. Interestingly, it was her wartime works that she singled out as her greatest achievement and, for me, these were the most powerful. The deeply-lined faces of the all-male crew of the Stirling bomber convey concentration and tiredness are captured in ‘Take off’, hung next to another wartime portrait, of an all-female team raising a barrage balloon. This told its own story of female empowerment: although it was thought double the number of women would be needed to replace a male team, in fact it was less than half.

Frequently criticised by contemporaries for her ‘strong, masculine style’, the exhibition might have gained from showing just how her work stands up to that of her male (and female) contemporaries as portraitists. However, it brings to the fore an artist who fought for equality in pay as well as status and engaged with curating her own reputation decades before the term became fashionable. It also allows the visitor to engage with a very British version of social realism, and with how artists such as Knight sought to capture men and women at work in both urban and rural settings across the early twentieth-century.

Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring, 1943

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Upcoming symposium: Trans/Queer Gender and Narrative Form

GOTH is pleased to share details of an upcoming online conference that may be of interest to members. More information, including abstracts for all papers, can be found at the conference website.

15TH, 22ND AND 29TH APRIL 2021


Since the first interventions in feminist narratology in the 1980s, the importance of gender as a contextual aspect of cultural productions has been firmly established in the study of narrative form. The interpretation of formal features such as narrative voice, poetic structure, temporality, genre and medium is inevitably influenced by the gender of those who produce, experience or are represented by texts. At the same time, queer and trans studies have established methodologies for approaching embodiment, ethics, social structures and cultural politics. This symposium brings together scholars working at the intersection of form and queer/trans gender in order to foster new approaches to the relationship between embodied identities and texts.

@fqtnarratives |
Conference Organiser: Chiara Pellegrini
@chiarapg4 |


Thursday, 15th April 2021, 3pm-5pm BST (GMT+1)

Writing/Reading/Playing Narratives of Trans Embodiment
Cody Mejeur, University at Buffalo

Tristessa de St Ange: A Character Study in TERF Light
Nemo Gorecki, Université de Lille SHS

Mad about the “Boys”? Passing and (Mis)recognition in Varro’s Eumenides
Chris Mowat, Sheffield University/Newcastle University

‘The Monopoliser of Her Own Sex’: Queering Methodism in The Female Husband
Grainne O’Hare, Newcastle University

Narrating Trans Genres: Ordinary Time Travel and Autobiographical Science Fictions
Trish Salah, Queen’s University (CA)

Thursday, 22nd April 2021, 3pm-5pm BST (GMT+1)

Trans Touches Across Time and Text: Confessions of the Fox
Gil Mozer, Mesa Community College

Trans Forms: Gender-variant Subjectivity and First-person Narration
Chiara Pellegrini, Newcastle University

From Male Impersonator to Drag King Performer: A Palimpsestuous Reading of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet
Elsa Adán Hernández, University of Zaragoza

Asking Queer Questions about Narrative Coherence and Identity: How to Read ‘What She Knew’?
Joonas Säntti, University of Jyväskylä

Trans-forming Narratology
Susan Lanser, Brandeis University

Thursday, 29th April 2021, 3pm-5pm BST (GMT+1)

Narrating Queer Subjectivity in 1830s Russia: Nadezhda Durova’s A Year in St Petersburg (1838)
Margarita Vaysman, University of St Andrews

Duchess Achilles: Trans Narratives in James Thornhill’s Achilles on Scyros
Aimee Hinds, University of Roehampton

When Literary Studies meet Trans/Gender Studies: Working with German Autobiographies Written by Trans People using Queer Theory and Narratology
Sandy Kathy Artuso, LEQGF – Laboratoire d’Études Queer, sur le Genre et les Féminismes

Untimely Subjectivities: Queer/Diasporic Temporality in Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other
Carolina Sánchez-Palencia, University of Seville (Spain)

‘My Male Skin’: (Self-)Narratives of Transmasculinities in Fanfiction
Jonathan A. Rose, University of Passau

Conclusion of Symposium:
Breakout Rooms Discussion

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The (No Longer) Forgotten Women of Art and Literature

by Chris Dobson, GOTH PhD Student

From left to right: Saffron Coomber, Clare Perkins and Adelle Leonce in the Vaudeville Theatre production of the play in 2019.

Earlier this year, I wrote about how reading helped to get me through the first national lockdown caused by the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK and around the world. Since then, I have started my PhD in English Literature at the Open University (OU), generously funded by the Gender and Otherness in the Humanities (GOTH) research centre. It’s been a strange time to embark on a research project in a new city: The pandemic has necessitated that all my interactions with OU staff and students have so far been conducted remotely over Microsoft Teams which, although convenient for a late riser such as myself, is not quite the same as the real thing. (The absence of the free drinks and snacks that are usually the staple of academic conferences is particularly lamentable!)

The introduction of a second English lockdown in November meant that the bookshops, museums and theatres that cultureholics like me depend on were closed. Still, this being the 21st century, I was able to enjoy a virtual trip to the West End – from the comfort of my home – to see the Olivier Award-winning play Emilia, written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and directed by Nicole Charles. The production inverts the male-only tradition of early modern English theatre by employing an all-female cast to tell the life story of Emilia Lanyer (née Bassano), who is portrayed by three actresses: Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins, each depicting the ground-breaking English poet at a different point in her life.

Some believe that Lanyer (whose first name was alternately spelled as ‘Aemilia’) was the lover of William Shakespeare, and the play supports this theory, but really what matters is not the men in her life, but rather the fact that Lanyer succeeded in publishing a volume of poetry at a time when the sexist gatekeepers of culture thought that ‘female poet’ was an oxymoron. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum – meaning ‘Hail, God, King of the Jews’ – was first published in 1611 and there is no doubt that, had Lanyer been a man, her work would not have fallen into its current state of obscurity. The purpose of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s play is to shine a spotlight on the achievements of this incredible woman and indirectly celebrate all the (hitherto) forgotten women of history. Although its online run has now come to an end, it is to be hoped that Emilia will one day grace the stage again, so that more people can learn about this trailblazer of English literature.

‘Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1654 or later).

In that brief, blissful interlude between the end of the second lockdown and the imposition of tier 4 restrictions on much of the south-east of England, I was able to sneak a trip to London’s National Gallery to see its exhibition of paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi (pictured). It is the first time that a solo exhibition of the Italian artist has been put on in the UK and it almost didn’t happen, thanks to the first lockdown. Postponed until October, the exhibition has now tragically had its run cut short again. But don’t despair if you missed it: A virtual tour of the highlights is available for a couple more weeks on BBC iPlayer, so do check it out whilst you can!

Like Emilia Lanyer, Artemisia Gentileschi suffered many hardships in her life; as just a teenager, she was raped by an older male artist and in the ensuing trial had to endure torture to prove the validity of her evidence. Nevertheless, Gentileschi persisted with her artistic career, soon outshining her father Orazio with her intense, beautiful and sometimes furious paintings, such as Susanna and the Elders and Judith Beheading Holofernes. The exhibition includes some of Gentileschi’s letters to her lover, providing an intimate insight into the passion that characterised her life.

The National Gallery, by its own admission, contains a paucity of works by female artists. Hopefully this exhibition will be the first of many to redress this imbalance. In the meantime, let me know what you’ve been doing to cope with life in the pandemic. If you’re a postgraduate researcher and would like to know more about GOTH’s monthly postgraduate forums, you can email me at

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Roundup of recent blog posts by GOTH members

Here is a selection of blog posts written in the last few months by GOTH members for other blogs, which may be of interest to readers of the GOTH blog.

From the English and Creative Writing blog:

Gender and Otherness in the Humanities by Peg Katritzky

From the Arts & Humanities in the time of COVID-19 blog:

Doomscrolling: COVID-19 and Crisis Reading during lockdown by Edmund King

Bibliotherapy Lessons from Lockdown by Sally Blackburn-Daniels

Reading and Wellbeing revisited: surviving the pandemic by Shaf Towheed

Social Analysis and the COVID-19 Crisis by Suman Gupta

Italian Literature and Pandemics part 1 and part 2 by Francesca Benatti

Pevsner and Lockdown by Clare Taylor

Greek Tragedy in Lockdown by Christine Plastow

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Reading in the Age of Coronavirus: A Personal Account

by Chris Dobson, GOTH PhD Student

2020 started well for me. In January, I travelled down to Milton Keynes for an interview, and I was fortunate enough to be offered a PhD studentship at the Open University, which I eagerly accepted. Then, in February, I was offered a summer job at my local independent cinema in Edinburgh, where I was then living. I was so happy, I danced a little down Lothian Road – and I never dance.

At the same time, I started hearing more and more about a virus in China, but China felt so far away, so it didn’t trouble me much. Then the problem came closer to home, and I was horrified as the situation in Italy worsened. But, up until March, coronavirus still felt distant. Then, in the days following my 24th birthday, everything changed and the UK went into lockdown. With my summer job out of the window, I left Edinburgh and moved back home. There were still many months to go until the start of my doctoral research, so the big question was: How can I keep my mind occupied over the course of the long months ahead? The seemingly endless televised press conferences were driving me to despair, so I turned to literature for solace. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; I am, after all, a literature student.

But where to start? My home is crammed with books I’ve been meaning to read but never had time for. Well, now I had all the time in the world. Perhaps inevitably, I was drawn towards Shakespeare. I had studied several of his plays and seen many more of them performed. Yet his poetry – in its raw, non-theatrical form – remained somewhat of a mystery to me. I was familiar with his most famous sonnets, but I’d never before dared tackle all 154 of them. It was now or never, I decided. But because I had all the time in the world, I would take it slowly: One poem a day, every day, until I’d read them all.

Why is it important to read Shakespeare’s sonnets as a whole, not just as individual works of literature? In my eyes, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle: Sure, each piece might tell a beautiful story, but it’s only once you put them all together that you see the full picture. These poems are significant because they provide a possible glimpse into the Bard’s own love life – with both men and women, it seems. The first 126 are addressed to the ‘fair youth’, whose beauty, according to Sonnet 101, ‘needs no praise’. The remaining 28 are dedicated to the mysterious ‘dark lady’ whose ‘eyes are nothing like the sun’, as Shakespeare famously put it in Sonnet 130. My favourite poem in the collection is an early one, Sonnet 29, in which Shakespeare declares that he would rather be poor and in love than ‘change my state with kings.’ Given Will’s own relatively humble origins, it’s a wonderful challenge to the snobbery of his more elitist contemporary writers, who in the case of Robert Greene looked down on the ‘upstart crow’ who would go on to become the greatest poet in the English language.

Much as I love English literature, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Shakespeare, for instance, drew on the works of many European writers for inspiration. You will have heard of Geoffrey Chaucer, no doubt, but what about Giovanni Boccaccio, who influenced both Shakespeare and Chaucer? Born in the Republic of Florence in 1313, Boccaccio is best known for his Decameron, a collection of 100 short stories with ten narrators: Seven women and three men. They have fled their native Florence because of the plague and, in the absence of Netflix, must recount their own stories to entertain themselves over the course of ten days. I studied a handful of these tales during my undergraduate degree and I’d always meant to read the whole thing, but at nearly nine hundred pages, it felt dauntingly long. During lockdown, I took the same approach as I had with the sonnets: One story a day, every day, until I finished.

Unsurprisingly, given that they were written in the 14th century, a good number of these tales are problematic, particularly in their representation of gender and race. But Boccaccio also feels ahead of his time, with several strong female characters who, like in the plays of Shakespeare, cross-dress when necessary. There is Day 2 Story 3, for example, which features an abbot who is really the daughter of the king of England. Some tales are outrightly farcical (the opening and closing stories of Day 3, in particular), whilst others – especially those of Day 4 – are tragic in tone. All of the stories are standalone, with the exception of five (from the eighth and ninth days) which depict the exploits of Bruno and Buffalmacco, who enjoy playing pranks on their unwitting friends Calandrino and Master Simone.

Since all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and most of Boccaccio’s tales are quite short, they weren’t enough to keep me occupied during the long months of lockdown. I wanted to read something big, but with the pandemic still raging, it was hard to concentrate on a conventional novel. As a result, I ended up turning to The Walking Dead, the comic book (or, if you prefer, graphic novel) series that inspired the TV show of the same name. I’d watched the first few series of the show and enjoyed them, but I’d grown bored as the characters wandered aimlessly from episode to episode. I had known for a while about the comic series, but with over thirty volumes (consisting of nearly 200 issues in total!), I’d been wary of starting, in part because I knew it would be very expensive to buy them all in print. This summer, however, I was able to buy digital versions of the whole set relatively cheaply, and I quickly found myself addicted.

The Walking Dead centres on Rick Grimes, an American police officer who wakes up from a coma to discover that a zombie apocalypse has turned the world he knew upside down. Miraculously, he succeeds in finding his wife Lori and their son Carl in a camp outside Atlanta. Whilst at the beginning, the undead are the main threat to Rick and co’s survival, as the series (which ran from 2003 to 2019) develops, the focus shifts from the ‘walkers’ (that’s zombies to you and me) to the surviving humans in this part of the world. A zombie apocalypse might sound outlandish, and yet, reading this series in the time of COVID-19, I could empathise with the survivors’ attempts to adapt to a radically altered world. It was comforting, in a way, to tell myself: Well, at least things aren’t this bad in the real world. (Yet?)

I’m not a big fan of horror and occasionally the writer Robert Kirkman and the artists overdo the gore and violence for shock value, but the fact that the series is in black and white (in contrast to its TV show adaptation) helped to create a degree of distance, reminding me that it is just fiction. Like The Decameron, The Walking Dead is at times problematic, particularly in its early volumes: Most of the men take charge in defending the passive female characters, and non-white characters are few and far between. But over the course of the series, we get more diverse characters, including numerous gay or bisexual individuals. In addition, I was pleasantly surprised by how deep the series could be. Unlike the action-centred TV version, Kirkman’s The Walking Dead explores complex sociological and philosophical questions about society and human nature: Given the opportunity to completely remake society, where would we begin? And is there a limit to how much one person can endure?

It might not qualify as ‘high literature’, but I have no doubt that Kirkman’s magnum opus, like Shakespeare’s sonnets and Boccaccio’s Decameron, will be read for many years to come, especially in times of adversity like now.

Let me know what you’ve been reading or watching in the comments below, or tweet me @EngLitScholar.

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