There’s this common assumption that people who write a PhD are a) super smart and b) total nutjobs. Quite the paradox, right? Let me word this differently: while people suppose PhD candidates to be quite intelligent, they are not normal, they are nerds/geeks/freaks. Writing a PhD is something out of the ordinary, it’s a 200+ page monolouge with yourself and imagined other parties. (I’m talking about all the scholars who came before you.) Maybe it’s easier for people to accept this extraordinary mission if they believe the doctorates to be socially unintelligent, awkward at best. To be honest, when I decided to embark on this journey I had alredy been labelled as “the zealous one” by my peers, and even my professors. However, that label was and still is something I am not ashamed of. On the contrary, it’s something I’ve worked towards all of my (comparatively) short life and academic career. English literature has been my passion ever since I picked up my first English copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as a pre-teen. I didn’t understand every word on the page, but this foreign language felt like a puzzle to me, a puzzle that I wanted to solve. Since then the puzzle got more complex. It’s no longer just about understanding the words on the page but understanding what the language and words want to ask about life, can tell about issues and the time and context that the book was written in. These puzzles are challenges and in order to put the pieces together it needs a lot of background reading: about the political, socio-cultural, scientific, legal circumstances.
I am particularly interested in the question of gender equality. To be precise: feminism in novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and how women in fiction demonstrated their capacity to rely on their own mental and financial resources. It’s a question pretty close to my heart. I’m the first (woman) in my close family to have finished her studies and to embark on an even longer academic journey now. I grew up in a modest home, both my parents worked hard to provide for us. When they split up, it was my mum who mostly took care of us. I owe a lot to my mum for showing me that it’s worth fighting for the things and the people you love – even if it’s diffcult. I’ve had the pleasure to grow up with a remarkable and extraordinary great-grandmother who sadly passed away three years ago and is missed every day. She survived the first and second world war and had to take care of herself and her two children all by herself. I have an extremely smart and strong grandma who’s always been a rock for me and one of my role models ever since I was little.
I’m surrounded by all these strong (and sometimes stubborn) women, so naturally the question of how we got to this point of equal rights and presentation in society intrigued me when I learned that things actually still looked pretty bleak for women a hundred years ago. I wondered whether I could find women, just like my great-grandma, grandma, and mum in these narratives that I loved reading but whose characters were created in a different time, some of them more than 200 years ago. I’m interested in the ways that women in fiction showed that they were in fact able to think and live on their own but also how these ‘deviant’ women were legitimised – because being able to rely on yourself wasn’t something that the patriarchal society wanted and expected from women. The initial idea I got three years ago while writing my Bachelor’s thesis. I stumbled upon a book talking about self-improvement for the Victorian man, but it never mentioned women. And this puzzled me. Did it mean society ignored female self-improvement and growth or did they believe women incapable of evolving?
I perceive this puzzle to be more of a treasure hunt. I expect to get closer to finding the treasure, the answers to these questions, I might have a better understanding of the map and the obstacles surrounding it, but I don’t expect to find the treasure. Maybe we never will. But I hope to pave the way for the next generation of scholars to investigate further the ways women, human beings of one sex/gender, tried to fight for their voice, their role in society to be heard, seen, and appreciated.
I am not particularly smart nor am I a nutjob (at least I don’t think I am). I am simply curious and too stubborn to let go of this topic unless I can savely say that I tried my best to find an adequate, satisfying answer. I’m grateful for this opportunity, for the trust given to me by my supervisors but also my family and friends. I reckon there will be times when I doubt myself but knowing these people are in my life makes me less anxious when I think about it.
I’ve got three years to find answers and I want to make these years count. So this is my diary, my digital sanctum, where I will share my thoughts, problems, experience of this crazy ride with you to show you what it’s like and how not to make the mistakes I will surely make. And who knows, maybe you too want to become crazy academics.
Maria was listening to “…Ready for It?” by Taylor Swift while writing this piece.