Humanities Research Fair for Postgraduates

The Humanities Research Fair for Postgraduates is now open for booking. On Monday 27th January 2020, in the Examination Schools, you can discover the wealth and riches of research and library resources available in Oxford, as well as exploring new materials at your own pace. The fair will give postgraduates the opportunity to network, and make connections with experts and peers.

There will also be opportunities to learn about creative use of sources in Digital Humanities.

More details on the fair can be found at

Online booking is now available at: 

Flèche by Mary Jean Chan

This is a guest review by Natalie Perman

Mary Jean Chan’s 2019 poetry collection Flèche is a cross-linguistic love poem to the queer body. A “book of love poems”, as declared in ‘Prologue’, Chan’s collection is defined by sparkling, crystallised images, often pulled from memory; such as how her mother, coming to see her fencing match, “gripped the railing until her marriage ring was folded into flesh”.

The focus on the physical is titular- ‘Fléche’ alludes phonetically to ‘flesh’ as well as denoting the technical offensive fencing move from the French word for ‘arrow’. As body and mind spar, the physical and metaphysical join unexpectedly; in ‘Flèche’ amidst the poem’s episodic jousting a blur of “entangled blades” focuses into “gleaming, smiling lips”. Within the physical fight rendered in the poem, and the physical and tactile in the collection, the potency of sexual desire brims beneath the surface.

These unique love poems- love poems to queerness, sexual and platonic love, family- are above all love poems to those who inhabit conflicting identities. Chan’s debut collection is defined by this intersection of contradictions: the sharp divide between her “mother’s Cantonese rage” versus “your soothing English”, the claim that to be queer “would be ‘ci sin’” and her own “blooms of ache”. The acceptance of the non-white queer body is a constant conflict, as Chan writes “a genuine acceptance of the self/continues to elude me”. However, the search for a space to home conflicting identities forges a beautiful exploration of past and present with the “mothers of history and/mothers of our present”. In this search for union in contradiction, Chan interweaves Confucian tales in “versions from the twenty-four filial exemplars”, her mother’s trauma and memories of political turmoil in poems such as “what my mother (a poet) might say” and the status of women, such as the ‘comfort women’ honoured in her poem “Dragon Hill Spa”.

Flèche’s power lies in its deceptive simplicity- the reader is effortlessly moved across linguistic and cultural boundaries towards the collection’s climactic act of self-awareness. This reaches its zenith in the “roots” and “blood song of your bones” which signal the realisation that “I’ve been looking everywhere / for forgiveness”. Each poem is exacting, its images unforgiving; in “an ode to boundaries” each line contains no more than 5 words, in another poem Chan recalls how “Once, during a bedtime storytelling, she sobbed until I cried for help, but father was asleep”. Only a few of Flèche’s poems seem to not realise their own emotional profundity as their language slips into the recognisable jargon of the love poem with its amorous tropes, such as of heartache, as one poem ends “that ache right there”. Despite this, these poems are still striking in their careful, precise verse.

This debut collection is striking, and Chen’s poems are urgent, armed and bared at the same time, and demand to be heard. Flèche is the highlight of what Mary Jean Chan can deftly achieve: to slip in and out of different tongues, confuse and enrich language, bare the vulnerable whilst charging it to be en garde.

Natalie Perman is an undergraduate at St John’s studying English and German. She is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2017, commended in 2018, and winner of the Forward Student Critics’ Competition in 2017. Contact her on Twitter with any burning poetry questions, passions or inquiries.

Toni Morrison: Radical Genius

Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019), author of eleven acclaimed novels (including The Bluest Eye (1970), Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987) and Jazz (1992)), and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, was among many other things an honorary fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She received an honorary D. Litt from this university in 2005.

In celebration of her life, the English Faculty Library is now hosting an exhibition, curated by Tessa Roynon. This exhibition pays tribute to her radical genius in two ways. First, it focuses on the materials that shaped and inspired her fiction, on the sources that she transformed into art.

Second, this exhibition illuminates the very many genres through which – in works much less well-known than her novels – Morrison expressed her revolutionary perspectives on the past, the present and the future.

Throughout her life, Morrison was both a voracious reader and an astute cultural curator. She spoke often, when describing her creative process, of encountering a crucial ‘seed’ or ‘spark’ which, with great labour and over considerable lengths of time, she nurtured and shaped, and interwove with her own and her family’s personal experiences,  until each of her novels was finished.

Book cover - Contemporary African LiteratureFor The Bluest Eye, a crucial catalyst was the ‘doll tests’ carried out by Kenneth and Mamie Clark in 1947.  Sula testifies to the influence of the African cultures and literatures that the author became familiar with while working (at Random House, in the early 1970s) as project editor on the ground-breaking anthology Contemporary African Literature.

Song of Solomon was the first of Morrison’s novels to bear clear witness to the modernist writers such as Woolf and Faulkner whom she encountered and wrestled with as a student.

Both Beloved and Paradise were inspired by newspaper clippings that the author encountered in compiling material for The Black Book.

Newspaper article that inspired Toni Morrison

And in Jazz, Morrison’s starting point was a photo by renowned Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van der Zee: a picture of a young woman ‘shot by her sweetheart at a party …’.

Besides writing the novels for which she is justifiably best known, Morrison was also a brilliant essayist, an unparalleled cultural critic and a public intellectual of extraordinary prescience and integrity. While working as an editor for Random House in the 1970s she not only ensured that the work of numerous African American novelists saw publication. 

She also edited the autobiographies of civil rights activists such as Angela Davis, Huey Newton and Muhamad Ali.






Over the course of her life, Morrison edited essay collections on the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas controversy and on the O.J. Simpson case; wrote song lyrics, a libretto for the opera

Margaret Garner, and the text for a collaborative performance piece based on Othello, entitled Desdemona. She created numerous books for children (see 5 and 6), changed the field of American literary studies with her own work of criticism, Playing in the Dark (1992), and served as Guest Curator at the Musée du Louvre in 2006-07.

If you read (or listen to!) one new thing by Morrison after seeing this exhibition, let it be the lecture she delivered, in 1993, on accepting her Nobel Prize. Its emphasis on our responsibilities as readers – told through the age-old parable of the bird that is in our hands – is not easily forgotten.

The full implications of Morrison’s intellectual legacy – her insistence that the transatlantic slave trade was the critical factor in the transition to modernity, for example, and hence that modernism derives primarily from the black experience – have yet fully to be reckoned with.


Toni Morrison: Radical Genius is an exhibition at the English Faculty Library, curated by Tessa Roynon.

The exhibition can be viewed in the library, during opening hours, from 1st October to 20th December 2019. For members of the public without a university card, please email in advance to arrange a visit:

Read More:

Toni Morrison: American literary giant made it her life’s work to ensure that black lives (and voices) matter

In search of home: How Toni Morrison transformed American literature

Banned and Challenged Books

“The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, cancelled films – that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink,“ – Toni Morrison. Burn This Book (2009)

To celebrate Banned Books Week you can now view an exhibition in the EFL of novels which have been frequently challenged and banned by governments, schools and libraries. The books on display have been banned for a variety of reasons, including (but not limited to); sex, racism, explicit content, vulgar language, violence, the occult, LGBTQ+ themes and ‘troubling’ ideas.

The American Library Association (ALA) began Banned Books Week in 1982 due to increasing recorded challenges to books in public spaces. The aim of the event is to celebrate the freedom to read, and to promote silenced voices. The importance of Banned Books Week is constantly being demonstrated. Early in September 2019 a pastor at St Edward junior school in Nashville banned J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007) from the new library, he justified this by writing:

The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.

Harry Potter

 The novels have been frequently challenged for the depiction of the occult, magic and death. Harry Potter has topped ALA’s most banned and challenged books in America from 2000-2009, and still continues to be challenged across the world, including being burned by priests in Poland on account of the evil subject matter. Read at your own risk.

Novels which are now frequently considered classics such as Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) were deemed obscene on account of explicit content, and were banned in the United Kingdom. In addition to Joyce’s original novel being banned, Strick’s film adaptation of Ulysses was also banned in Ireland from its release in 1967 until 2000. Often deemed the Great American Novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) has frequently disturbed readers for the use of racial slurs and racial stereotypes. In 1885 Twain’s novel was banned from Concord Public Library where it was described as trash. It remains essential reading however for exploring depictions of race in the nineteenth century.

Also on display is Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), which placed seventeenth on ALA’s list of most challenged books from 1990-2009. The narrative explores the life of black American women in the south, and has frequently ‘troubled’ readers with its ideas. The novel depicts violence and uses explicit language which has often led to it being taken off school reading lists. The silencing of BAME voices and experiences remains a key issue which Banned Books Week hopes to highlight and challenge.

The ALA has also recognised that books with LGBTQ+ narratives are more frequently being challenged within public spaces. Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928) and Alex Gino’s George (2015), both have been banned on account of their engagement with LGBTQ+ narratives. Hall’s novel is a landmark in lesbian fiction but at its release James Douglas editor of the Sunday Express deemed it not fit ‘to be borrowed from any library’. The novel was banned from 1928-1958 in England following an obscenity trial which saw various authors support Hall including Wells, Woolf and Eliot. It would not be until after Hall’s death that the ban would be lifted on the novel.

George explores the challenges of coming out as transgender through centring on Melissa and her gaining acceptance from friends and family. Out of the 483 recorded challenges by the ALA, it was the most banned and challenged book of 2018. It also placed on the top ten list in 2016 and 2017. Gino wrote the novel as it was what they wanted to read growing up. The novel has been criticised for ‘creating gender confusion’, as well as mentioning dirty magazines and male anatomy. In 2016 the novel won the Stonewall Book Award.

Toni Morrison described the thought of censorship as a ‘nightmare’ in her edition of Burn This Book (2009). This idea has also inspired writers, such Bradbury whose Fahrenheit 451 (1953) depicts a world were books are banned and burned.

Banned Books Poster
Banned Books Week
is an important event which encourages readers to challenge attempts to censor literature and unheard voices with the support of librarians, bookshops and schools. The event takes place annually, and this year the week will be held from the 22-28th of September. Please visit for more information about events taking place and further lists of books which have been banned which can be inspiration for your next book to read.


The Banned and Challenged Books exhibition has been curated by Emma Jambor

Further Reading:

Ladenson, E. 2007. Dirt for art’s sake: books on trial from Madame Bovary to Lolita, Ithaca; London.

Morrison, T. 2009. Burn this book: PEN writers speak out on the power of the word (1st ed.). New York, NY.

New E-resources: Eighteenth Century Drama and Shakespeare in Performance

Bodleian Libraries has recently made a significant purchase of e-resources.

The Libraries have committed substantial external funding to a one-off set of purchases of electronic research resources deemed to be important to researchers in the University.  This follows a project to identify desiderata across all subjects and to list suggestions from readers. The recent purchase was a group of resources from Adam Matthew Digital, including Eighteenth Century Drama and Shakespeare in Performance, among others.

Eighteenth-Century Drama

18th Century Drama

Eighteenth Century Drama features the John Larpent Collection from the Huntingdon Library – a unique archive of almost every play submitted for licence between 1737 and 1824. Larpent was the Lord Chamberlain’s ‘Inspector of Plays’ and responsible for executing the Lisensing Act of 1737, which required the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to approve any play before it was staged. Larpent preserved the original submissions, over 2,500 of which are presented in this resource.

Also included are the diaries of Larpent’s wife and professional collaborator Anna, recording her criticism of plays, as well as insights into theatrical culture and English society. Hundreds of further documents including playbills, theatre records and correspondence also feature, including papers and correspondence of David Garrick, Edmund Kean, Sarah Siddons, among others.

The primary source content is supported by two key reference works for theatre history: The London Stage 1660-1800 and A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800.


 Shakespeare in Performance

Shakespeare in PerformanceThis resource features the world-famous prompt book collection at the Folger Shakespeare Library, with prompt books for over 90% of Shakespeare’s plays, covering the period from the 1670s to 1970s (the majority are nineteenth century). These include editions owned by notable actors and directors such as Charles and John Philip Kemble, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Laurence Olivier. Performances of particular cultural importance have been selected as case studies, including David Garrick’s revised 1772 production of Hamlet, Henry Irving’s famous 1879 production of The Merchant of Venice, and Laurence Olivier’s Academy Award-winning cinema release of Hamlet in 1948.

Features of the resources include:

  • Ability to compare prompt books alongside each other;
    • Documents are indexed by play, country of performance, theatre, associated names, and other key search terms;
    • Full-text searchability.


In addition, the following resources were also purchased:

East India Company archives, modules 1-3;

Foreign Office Files for China, 1919-1980;

Foreign Office Files for the Middle East, 1971-81;

Women in the National Archives – an online finding aid for women’s studies resources in The National Archives, Kew, covering 1559-1995. It also gives access to early 20th century original documents on the Suffrage Question in Britain, the Empire and Colonial Territories.

You can find all of these resources via SOLO and the Databases A-Z platform, as well via the direct links above.


Shakespeare has a new home

The EFL’s reclassification project began in 2009, and since then all new books in the library have been added to the LCC sequence. We are reclassifying existing library collections and, as a result, approximately 63% of the EFL’s collections are now in the LCC sequence.

During the Easter vacation the project continued and you will now be able to find all Shakespeare books in one place rather than having to look in two locations.

Shakespeare can be found from PR2750 to PR3195 in the corner of the main library by the Computer Room.


The Shakespeare DVD Collection can still be found on the shelves underneath the new journals display by the Quick Search machines.


Newly discovered Du Maurier poems shed light on a talented writer honing her craft


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For decades, Du Maurier poems were hidden behind this picture.
Image courtesy of Deep South Media

by Laura Varnam, University of Oxford

Daphne du Maurier remains one of the 20th century’s most popular and enigmatic writers, her life captivating readers as much as her works, as the most recent biography, Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay, has shown. Her literary reputation is also finally on the rise and, although her most popular novel Rebecca has often overshadowed her wide-ranging achievements as a writer, the celebration of its 80th anniversary last year reinforced Du Maurier’s place in the canon of English Literature as a serious and influential author.

This will be aided by the recent discovery of unknown poems, written early in her writing career, hidden behind a stunning photograph of the young Du Maurier in a bathing costume on the rocks, poised to take flight into the sea that was such an inspiration to her work.

The poems were discovered by auctioneer Roddy Lloyd of Rowley’s auction house, Ely, as he prepared the archive of Du Maurier materials belonging to the late Maureen Baker-Munton for auction on April 27. Baker-Munton was PA to Daphne’s husband, Lt Gen Sir Frederick “Boy” Browning and she became a close and important friend to the Du Maurier Browning family, as expert Ann Willmore explains on the Du Maurier website.

Du Maurier with her husband Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning in 1956.
Image courtesy of Deep South Media

Du Maurier is still primarily known as a novelist – as well as the bestseller Rebecca she is also rightly revered for the great Cornish novels, Jamaica Inn (1936), Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and My Cousin Rachel (1951). But, as I argue in the book I am writing on Du Maurier, she was a far more versatile, wide-ranging, and experimental writer than is currently recognised. Du Maurier wrote plays, short stories and biographies throughout her career but she was also a poet, as her son Kits Browning explained to me when we spoke over the telephone recently.

Read more:
Du Maurier’s Rebecca at 80: why we will always return to Manderley

Honing her craft

The newly discovered poems were written when Du Maurier was honing her craft as a writer in the late 1920s. At that stage she was primarily writing short stories but, as Browning told me: “My mother wrote poetry throughout her life and career.” Indeed Du Maurier often used poetry as a way of exploring an experience or emotion or testing out a character before then expanding on her ideas in a short story or novel. One of the newly discovered poems focuses on loneliness:

When I was ten, I thought the greatest bliss,
would be to rest all day upon hot sand under a burning sun…
time has slipped by, and finally I’ve known,
The lure of beaches under exotic skies,
and find my dreams to be misguided lies,
For God! How dull it is to rest alone.

Du Maurier’s work is preoccupied by the difference between fantasy and reality – and the dangers of dreaming – and her work repeatedly returns to the tension between the desire for independence and the need for companionship and human contact.

Gender and sexuality

Another poem: Song of the Happy Prostitute, portrays a woman who is frustrated with the way her profession is represented.

Why do they picture me as tired and old…
selling myself with sorrow,
just to gain a few dull pence to shield me from the rain.

Song of the Happy Prostitute.
Image courtesy of Deep South Media

What on first sight might seem an unusual, even controversial, topic for the young writer in fact reflects the dominant themes of her early work, as Ann Willmore, of Bookends of Fowey, explained to me recently. Willmore discovered the unpublished Du Maurier short story The Doll in which a young woman, suggestively named Rebecca, protects her personal independence by keeping a sex doll. “The Happy Prostitute poem fits in with Daphne’s interests in gender and sexuality, especially in her early work, and she did seem to want to shock her readers”, Willmore told me.

The poem also, in my view, relates to two early short stories from the same period of Du Maurier’s life in which she created the character of a prostitute called Mazie who boldly claimed that her work enabled her to be independent. “I’m free, I don’t owe anything to no one, I belong to myself”, Mazie declares in the short story Piccadilly. Growing up in the 1920s, when the freedom and autonomy of women was increasingly a topic for public debate, Du Maurier’s choice of subject matter reflects the concerns of her day.

Du Maurier and her children at Menabilly, the house near Fowey in Cornwall in which she and her family lived for many years. The house was the inspiration for the novel Rebecca.
Image courtesy of Deep South Media

Du Maurier was a very privileged young woman, growing up in the grandeur of Cannon Hall in Hampstead – but her background was theatrical and Bohemian, as the daughter of celebrated actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier and stage actress Muriel Beaumont. And, as her son Kits Browning stressed, she was an avid reader and gained much imaginative experience of the world from the books she devoured as a teenager.

As to why the poems were hidden behind the photograph – either by Du Maurier herself or someone else – we are unlikely ever to find out. Browning told the Daily Telegraph that perhaps she did not want her parents to read them. Perhaps the Happy Prostitute found fuller expression in the Mazie short stories.

These newly discovered poems shed important light on Du Maurier’s early work and writing practice. Still often dogged by the incorrect label of “romantic novelist”, these poems highlight the important themes of independence, gender, and sexuality that were to fascinate Du Maurier throughout her career, in both prose and poetry. They show her boldness, spirit, and strength, just like the photograph behind which they were concealed for all these years.The Conversation

Laura Varnam, Lecturer in English Literature, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Chaucer was more than English: he was a great European poet

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

by. Dr Marion Turner

In 2013, a Prospect magazine profile of the UKIP leader Nigel Farage described the Brexiteer’s party in Chaucerian terms:

UKIP is indeed a rag-tag bag … of cussed, contrary, wilful, protesting, obstreperous, bantering Englishmen and women, the like of which have been with us all the way back to The Canterbury Tales … the descendants of the brazen and garrulous Wife of Bath and the boisterous but genial Harry Bailey, Chaucer’s Inn Keeper. These are very English archetypes …

This notion of the quintessential ‘Englishness’ of The Canterbury Tales (1387), authored by the ‘Father of English Literature’, has a long history. In 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey simply because he lived in its precincts; but 150 years later, he was reburied in a grand new tomb as the founder member of Poets’ Corner, becoming, almost literally, the cornerstone of English literature. Poets such as John Dryden claimed him as the ‘father of English poetry’, adding that his most famous poem, The Canterbury Tales, represented ‘the whole English nation’.

Victorian writers, wedded to the essential Englishness of Chaucer, asked: ‘Who is an Englishman more English than Chaucer?’ His genius, they agreed, was ‘English to the core.’ In the 20th century, G K Chesterton took Chaucer’s vaunted Englishness to new levels, claiming that: ‘Chaucer was the Father of his Country, rather in the style of George Washington.’ More recently, the blurb of Peter Ackroyd’s Chaucer: Brief Lives (2004) describes The Canterbury Tales as ‘an epic of Englishness’, while Ackroyd calls Chaucer ‘the genial and smiling emblem of Englishness’.

This mantle of patriarchal Englishness would have seemed distinctly odd to Chaucer himself. Chaucer was able to transform English poetry the way he did precisely because of his internationalism, not his nationalism. Like all educated men of his day, he was multilingual. He devoured late-antique philosophy, Latin translations of Arabic scientific treatises, and French love poems. His unusually good knowledge of Italian – and his travels to Italy – allowed him to access the latest poetry of Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch. Indeed, Chaucer’s very fascination with vernacularity was a European phenomenon: Dante and Boccaccio’s championing of Tuscan vernacular inspired Chaucer to see what he could do with his own.

The influence of these Italian poets changed what English poetry could do. Chaucer’s development of the pentameter, for instance, the 10-syllable, five-stress line that became the building block of English poetry, was inspired by an Italian poetic line (the endecasillabo). And it was Chaucer who first translated a Petrarchan sonnet into English.

This internationalism belies the idea of the ‘English archetypes’ of the Canterbury pilgrims that has seeped into the popular imagination. Far from being a UKIP-member prototype, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is based mainly on a figure called La Vieille from the French Roman de la Rose, and on stereotypes from Jerome’s Latin Adversus Jovinian. And the idea of a group of people telling stories has multiple sources, notably Boccaccio’s Decameron. Most of The Canterbury Tales doesn’t even take place in England: the settings range from central Asia to Syria to northern Italy to Flanders. And very few have any English sources.

Chaucer’s earliest trip to mainland Europe was in 1359, when, as a teenager, he fought in the Hundred Years’ War and was taken prisoner near Reims. In later years, he visited Navarre, now in northern Spain but an independent country in the 14th century – a multicultural community where Jews, Christians and Muslims co-existed relatively peacefully. He made two trips to Italy on diplomatic missions, visiting Lombardy, Florence and Genoa. And he frequently went to France, negotiating treaties and marriage alliances. Indeed, parts of modern-day France – including Calais and Aquitaine – were under English rule at this time, and the borders between the countries were constantly changing.

But Chaucer did not need to go abroad to have an international outlook, since English mercantile and aristocratic culture was profoundly European. Chaucer came from a wine-merchant family whose wealth was dependent on the traffic between France and England. Born in Vintry Ward, London – the area of the city with more immigrants than any other – the young Chaucer was brought up seeing the ships come and go on the Thames. Spices from Indonesia, furs from Russia, glass and paper from Italy, timber, grain and metal from Baltic lands, were all available in the markets and shops of late-14th-century London. The world trade system was advanced and complex, and land and sea traders crisscrossed Asia, Africa and Europe. As a child, Chaucer would have been aware of a vast global economy.

When Chaucer worked for the king’s sons and later the king, he slid easily into the internationalism of court life. Queen Philippa of Hainault and Queen Anne of Bohemia had extensive retinues from their homelands in tow, including poets who mainly wrote in French, and Chaucer himself married a woman whose family came from Hainault (a country now subsumed into France and Belgium): Philippa de Roet.

In political life, whenever issues of English national identity flared, filtered through monopolist ambition and xenophobia, Chaucer was always on the side of internationalism – we might even say globalisation. In the 1370s, London merchants, outraged that Italian merchants were gaining advantages in the lucrative wool trade, sought an English monopoly. In the so-called Good Parliament of 1376, MPs denounced these Italians as sodomites, secret Jews and Saracens, as they attempted to push them out of the wool trade. Earlier in the decade, Chaucer had travelled in company with Italians to Genoa, precisely to try to negotiate a trade deal that would have allowed the Genoans to circumvent the monopoly and have their own trading base on the south coast. He was working for John of Gaunt, a firm opponent of the London monopolists.

Chaucer’s own version of Englishness certainly did not mean driving out or excluding other Europeans: he spent his life negotiating and working with them. From 1374, Chaucer served as comptroller for the wool custom, at the heart of England’s international trading system. He regularly associated with men such as Matthew Janyn, an Italian who gave huge loans to the king; Richard Lyons, the part Fleming controller of the petty custom and an old friend of his father’s; and Jacobi Provan and John de Mari, Genoans in whose company Chaucer rode to Italy. Appropriately, from 1374 until 1385-6, he lived and worked on physical thresholds – his home above a gate on the city walls, his office on the riverbank – looking into London and then out to the rest of the world.

Chaucer bore very little resemblance to the dull patriarch depicted on the covers of so many books about him. He was a child in the seething streets of London, a young man crossing the mountain passes of the Pyrenees, a maturing diplomat avid for Italian poetry in Pavia and Giotto’s frescoes in Florence, a courtier to a Bohemian queen, a husband going home to his Hainuyer wife. He was also a poet who wrote about the markets of Paris and Bruges, the tyrants of Lombardy and the court of Chinggis Khan, even the dream of travelling to outer space. Nurtured by the writings of Ovid, Boethius, Dante, Machaut and Boccaccio, his imagination soared beyond borders. To call Chaucer the father of English literature not only misrepresents him, but also sells him short. He should be celebrated as one of the great European poets.



New Corpora available from BYU

Two new corpora are now available via the Brigham Young University collection.

The TV Corpus and The Movie Corpus together contain over 525 million words of data, and are a vital resource for looking at informal language.

Here’s more information from BYU:

The TV Corpus contains 325 million words of data in 75,000 TV episodes from the 1950s to the current time.

The Movies Corpus contains 200 million words of data in more than 25,000 movies from the 1930s to the current time.

All of the 75,000 TV episodes, and 25,000+ movies, are tied in to their IMDB entry, which means that you can create Virtual Corpora using extensive metadata — year, country, series, rating, genre, plot summary, etc.

Both Corpora allow you to look at variation over time (1950s-1970s to 1990s-2010s) and variation between dialects (e.g. American and British English). In this sense, the corpus is related to many other corpora of English that we have created, which offer unparalleled insight into variation in English.

You can find the corpora at and to use it you will need to register using your university email account

Gods in exile: resurrecting Dionysus

by Alexandra Turney

Apollo as a shepherd in Austria; Dionysus as a priest in medieval France; Aphrodite as a child washed up on the coast of Italy. While the Ancient Greeks and Romans wrote of the glory of their gods, some 19th century writers were more inspired by the idea of their fall from glory, and descent into obscurity. What kind of life would a pagan god live in modern, Christian Europe? How would they cope with their anonymous existence? And there’s another question, which I’ve recently been asking myself – why are so we fascinated by the idea of the gods in exile?

The German poet Heinrich Heine was one of the first to imagine the reincarnated gods, writing about them with mingled emotions of awe and pity (and a touch of irony) in his essay ‘Gods in Exile’:

The [Church] by no means declared the ancient gods to be myths, inventions of falsehood and error, as did the philosophers, but held them to be evil spirits, who, through the victory of Christ, had been hurled from the summit of their power, and now dragged along their miserable existences in the obscurity of dismantled temples or in enchanted groves, and by their diabolic arts, through lust and beauty, particularly through dancing and singing, lured to apostasy unsteadfast Christians who had lost their way in the forest….

Heine recounts various medieval legends about the gods, from Hermes living as a humble tradesman to an elderly Zeus weeping and shivering on a frozen island. “Decay is secretly undermining all that is great in the universe”, writes Heine, and rather than enjoying the spectacle, he advises that we should have some compassion for the fallen gods.

The idea of exiled gods was not a new one, but for some reason it captured the imagination of 19th century writers. In Swinburne’s poem ‘Hymn to Proserpine’ the speaker mourns his “Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day”, while Walter Pater and Vernon Lee used short stories to explore the ideas from Heine’s essay in greater depth and psychological complexity.


Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, 1866, from the EFL Rare Books Room

Walter Pater has been remembered primarily for his art criticism – his meditations on the Mona Lisa and his famous line “To burn always with this hard gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” His fiction, which includes the short stories of Imaginary Portraits, has been almost forgotten, but it contains some evocative contributions to the ‘gods in exile’ genre. ‘Apollo in Picardy’ and ‘Denys L’Auxerrois’ imagine Apollo and Dionysus in a medieval French context. In both stories, the gods are out of place in their Christian communities, and their conflict with their surroundings leads to tragedy.

Vernon Lee, whom Pater acknowledged as his “disciple”, saw connections between gods in exile and ghosts. In her essay ‘Dionysus in the Euganean Hills’ she suggests that the exile of the gods is “a kind of haunting; the gods who had it partaking of the nature of ghosts even more than all gods do, revenants as they are from other ages.” Her interest in the gods in exile was therefore an extension not only of her Hellenism and love of Italy, but also of her fascination with all things supernatural.

One of Lee’s best known short stories from Hauntings, ‘Dionea’, took direct inspiration from Heine. Venus (Aphrodite) is re-born in late 19th century Italy as a young girl of mysterious origins, who has an increasingly malignant influence on her surroundings. Male attempts to portray her or understand her are futile, leading only to disappointment, or even madness and death. Dionea may not be evil, but her influence is, and Lee suggests that this is a result of her alienation, and her incompatibility with the modern Christian world. The story ends with Dionea sailing away, “singing words in an unknown tongue”, unknowable to the last.

Just as the gods fell from glory, so the ‘gods in exile’ genre has faded into obscurity. I doubt I would have ever discovered these fascinating texts if I had not studied English Literature at Oxford, and attended lectures by Dr Stefano Evangelista in my first year as an undergraduate. I fell in love with the language of Swinburne, the ideas of Pater, the atmosphere of Lee.

Despite its strange, detached tone, one of the texts that made the greatest impression on me was Pater’s story ‘Denys L’Auxerrois’, a macabre tale about Dionysus’s unlikely career as a village priest in medieval France; it ends with ‘Denys’ being torn apart by the villagers in an act of sparagmos (ritual dismemberment). Ever since I studied The Bacchae at school I’d been fascinated by the figure of Dionysus – god of wine, divine ecstasy and ritual madness – and Pater’s tale of resurrection/destruction added an intriguing new chapter to the god’s mythology.

Several years later, living in Rome and daydreaming on the metro on the way to work, I found myself thinking of ‘Denys L’Auxerrois’ and Dionysus. What would happen if the god were re-born in modern Rome, a city where he has no believers? I imagined him waking up in the Protestant Cemetery and gazing uncomprehendingly at the Pyramid of Cestius. As he slowly comes to consciousness he realises, to his disappointment, that he is alive again.

My metro daydream eventually became my debut novel, In Exile. I like to think of it as a resurrection not only of Dionysus, but also of the ‘gods in exile’ genre. While I’m aware that other writers have imagined the Greek gods in modern settings (such as Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson novels or Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips), I was interested in exploring the melancholy, malevolent side of the gods, and the idea of exile. It seems to me such a fascinating concept, and a rich source of inspiration.

Aside from the glamour of the gods – centuries of art and literature are a testament to their continual fascination – I think there are two main explanations for the allure of the gods in exile. Pater and Lee are just two of many writers (and readers) who are obsessed with the past. It’s not so much a disdain for modernity as a fascination with the imaginative potential of the past, and the awareness that the past is at once unknowable and unavoidable. For Lee it is a continual, physical presence, a “borderland” that overlaps with the present. When we imagine a pagan god walking among us, we have the tantalising illusion of being able to understand these “revenants” from the ancient world.

But I think the ‘gods in exile’ genre has even wider appeal. Even more common and relatable than the obsession with the past is the interest in isolation and alienation. It’s a theme that can be found in practically every text ever written, from Beowulf to Twilight. Writers love to write stories about characters who feel out of place in their surroundings, and readers love to read about them.

At a glance, the ‘gods in exile’ genre might seem obscure and inaccessible. Why would the average modern reader, with only the vaguest notions of ancient religion and mythology, care about Dionysus’s reluctant resurrection? By writing In Exile, I hope I’ve answered the question. On some level Dionysus is not just a pagan god, but also Heathcliff or Holden Caulfield, or even the reader. In other words, god or human, author or reader, we have all felt like outsiders at some point in our lives. Exile can be a place or a time, but it’s also a state of mind.

Alexandra Turney is a graduate of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, and her novel In Exile was published in January 2019.