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English the Obscure

By Samuel King

‘What was your word?’ I asked. ‘Conformity, I think.’

Out of this single word, Emma Smith was expected to forge writing of breath-taking academic brilliance. Forming one segment of the All Souls Prize Fellowship examination paper, simply called ‘Essay’, this task proved so indicative of Oxford’s esotericism that it has since been scratched. Smith, currently Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford, prevailed over the word ‘conformity’ and successfully completed what centuries of academic interrogation has mythologised as the world’s hardest exam. In doing so, she was initiated as a lifelong member to an intellectual coterie which includes TE Lawrence (of Arabia), Katherine Rundell and Amia Srinivasan.

When we spoke, Smith was swift to declare that had it not been for the seven-year stipend and generous perks of this Fellowship, she would not now be an academic and one of the world’s most lauded Shakespeare critics: ‘I’m sure of that’. Her undergraduate self ‘certainly didn’t think [she] would stay in Oxford.’

When asked about her experience of the ritual she spoke about the viva. Of the dons questions, she remembered them asking about on As You Like It, Richardson and Fielding. This final hurdle in the process unsettled Smith’s relationship with exams. For her they have always been ‘liberating’. Rarely is one made ‘to look at what you did’ after the fact or answer direct inquiries into their relative cogency, originality or cleverness. ‘They’re just done.’ ‘I don’t mind risking things or pretending I know things I don’t really know, all those things which closed book exams tend to reward.’ This self-professed ‘arrogance’ takes on a slightly dangerous hue when Sir Isaiah Berlin is asking the questions. Nevertheless, the prize dropped into Smith’s lap.

Though ‘enormously grateful’ to be elected a Prize Fellow, Smith ‘did not know enough [about the institution] to be particularly overwhelmed by it’. ‘There are still some subjects possibly History and Law, where All Souls and the history of the academics there have a really high status in those disciplines.’ English scholars have comparatively less of a legacy. Smith summarised her time there as ‘isolating’. ‘I felt the miss of having a graduate cohort, I didn’t find it very easy to make friends in All Souls because there seemed a very big differential in the career structure, and I found it very male dominated’. ‘I think a lot has changed there since and my experience thirty years ago was in a transitional time for the college from an older model to a more modern one.’

Her time as an undergraduate at Somerville, which was then an all-female college, ‘was different in every single way’. Studying there was ‘not part of some long educational plan’; ‘I didn’t go to a school or come from a family where people did particularly go to Oxford’. ‘Nor did I come from a terribly deprived background at all, but I didn’t know anybody who’d been or anybody here’. For Smith, ‘that always seems quite a big difference among people: whether they know lots of people who are already here or whether they are starting out alone in a way’. As she explained ‘I think there are a group of people who come to Oxford still, who feel they have been picked out from their sixth form and everybody is very proud of them, but they are a sort of one off ’. Alan Bennett’s depiction of an interview weekend at Cambridge resonated with her: ‘[it] was the first time I had ever come across public schoolboys in the mass, and I was appalled… they all seemed to know one another, shouting down the table to prove it’.

Smith herself became known rapidly by a mass audience when This is Shakespeare was drowned by praise as ‘the best book on Shakespeare, full stop’. She remarks it was both ‘exciting and also unexpected.’ Shakespeare’s First Folio, published in 2016 and rooted in research she conducted for her DPhil, was highly acclaimed. But This is Shakespeare constituted a major shift in her career. Following the cloistered existence during her Prize Fellowship and the obscurity of Oxford undergraduate life, the work catapulted her name into literary renown.

'I didn't go to a school or come from a family where people did particularly go to Oxford'

With each chapter exploring a specific play, the book is unified by ‘gappiness’ – a word coined through conversations with her editor at Penguin. There is, she contests, a certain permissiveness about the Bard’s canon. Exposure to a multiplicity of meaning helps students think through various ways of approaching Shakespeare, Smith told me. We should, she said, think of him as a verb rather than a noun, ‘to Shakespeare’ so to speak – an activity which rewards and legitimises an individual’s response to the plays, no matter how idiosyncratic it may seem. A little later in our conversation, Smith explained that, in the university sphere ‘a very powerful art for art’s sake Walter Pater vision lies at the heart of literary and aesthetic studies’. In ground-breaking fashion, her work was the first to integrate Shakespeare Studies into a different agenda and, by extension, a particularly new vision of the discipline. Readers are anointed as the ultimate critical arbiter. Smith’s book pivots focus on Shakespeare away from origin and towards reception.

Consequently, This is Shakespeare has illuminated the reader’s own reaction to the texts and deconstructs any sense of didacticism. However, literary scholars harbour a queasiness about channelling their writing towards the public. Smith reflected that ‘research whose audience is the wider community of academics [is] the most highly valued form of writing by peers’. In truth, the discipline’s restlessness stems deeper. The subject is uncertain about its identity, always held at a slight distance from neighbouring humanities. Throughout the ‘120 years of English Studies,’ Smith says, it has been ‘haunted by the idea that maybe English is just what everybody does: reading books’. The subject does ‘not require you to learn a load of stuff before you can even start’.

Taking that context into account, literary theory can be seen as one campaign in what seems to be a constant war English wages against itself in the hope of enhancing its rigour. Smith remarks that it ‘tried to make a more intellectually philosophical framework around the literary and the interpretation of literature’. ‘But that has become itself a discrete phase.’ These existential fears are only entrenched by public perceptions of the subject. Observers of the country’s Education Secretaries could be forgiven for thinking that the beleaguered status of the humanities is fuelled by the appearance of sanctimonious verve and a supposed lack of utility. Four months ago, Sheffield Hallam became the second UK university to suspend its English Literature course, following the University of Cumbria’s 2021 decision, because of poor job returns for graduates.

To combat both the external scrutiny and internal fear about being out of place, English should avoid ‘walking alone so resolutely,’ Smith says. ‘I don’t think the humanities as university subjects will just last forever as we are going at the moment, I think they look distinctly at risk, and one of the things we need to do is regather a more public sense of engagement’ Communication and explanation are required. She compared her work with that of her scientist colleagues. ‘We know what you do if you have a vaccine or cure cancer’ at the end of your research; ‘they seem concrete in particular ways’. English needs to explain ‘a bit more what we do, within the university’ and be more ‘legible in those conversations’.

'Maybe English is just what everybody does: reading books'

But rather than market English to those beyond an academic sphere, the field continues to look inwards, mounting further existential enquiries which reaffirm its own instability. This year, Austen and Chaucer were withdrawn from English syllabi at Stirling and Leicester universities, respectively. Since, as Smith says, English studies ‘doesn’t necessarily have a canon of thinkers but instead a canon of writers’, these decisions confront the core of the discipline in a threatening fashion. ‘Unlike what you might get in a political theory class where everybody must read a set list of thinkers, we don’t tend to have that.’ The canon holds an unflinching monopoly of authority and critics are ‘always held at a distance’. Waves of self-doubt which cyclically afflict the subject cannot be passed off as methodological fads. Rather, English boasts a unique capacity for introspection from which its body of primary work appears the only saviour.

Presciently, Smith’s latest study anticipates a world where the content of this canonised material is ethically scrutinised, even redacted. Portable Magic, published in 2022, is ‘a book about books, rather than words. Words can be reissued in numerous forms and are subject to redefinition by those forms; books are stubbornly, irreducibly present’. She makes the case that ‘literary works don’t exist in some ideal and immaterial state: they are made of paper and leather and labour and handling’. The tenet of her argument orbits the word ‘bookhood’ a ‘nineteenth-century coinage due for revival [which] suggests the book’s physical autonomy and life-ishness: "the state or condition of being a book" as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it’.

Although the study is grounded in a materialist approach to English, it reaches beyond mere questions of academic method and shines a critical spotlight onto this permanent aspect of the discipline. Books are themselves often obscure, remarkable for their ability to survive as one of the most successful technologies in history. Their death is constantly being prophesied and yet, they persist.

SAMUEL KING reads English at Lincoln College. Born and raised in Oxford, he never intends to leave.

Art by Izzy Ferguson.


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