Professor Clare Pettitt
Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature & Culture
Faculty Lead for Postgraduate Taught Research
Date started at King’s
Challenges and achievements
When and what was responsible for you becoming interested in your academic discipline?
I don’t really know. I think I just always needed stories. I liked writing and reading them from a very young age. I remember reading Jane Eyre hidden under a bush at the bottom of the garden before we moved from our first house, so I must have been younger than 11, but I don’t remember why I was hiding. I don’t know when I began to see English as an ‘academic discipline’ but I know I never wavered in knowing I would apply to read English at university. Now I look back and wonder what made me so sure. I tortured boyfriends by making them read James Joyce’s Ulysses. I am glad that I was so decisive though – you need to have a clear aim in view if you are going to be able to give something your all. But my mum died when I was in my second year at college and my world kind of fell apart. I could not face going straight into a PhD then, as I knew it would be lonely and hard, so I went to London to share a flat with my friends and worked instead in all kinds of interesting jobs. But I knew none of them were really quite me and I wanted to get back to reading and writing. It took an enormous effort to go back to college to do the PhD – I was older than most PhD students and I had lost a lot of academic confidence, not having written an essay for six years. And I was right: it was lonely and hard. But I am so glad that I made myself keep with it, because it turned out just fine.
What are your research interests, and what drew you to this area?
I grew up in Manchester in the 1970s and 1980s. I think being surrounded by the remains of a once-great nineteenth-century city had a profound effect on me. After I finished my first degree in English I went and worked in London in non-academic jobs for about six years: I worked on the Architect’s Journal, for a media consultancy, and for a women’s theatre group called Trouble and Strife. It was all fun, but I felt drawn back to academic study and it seemed obvious to me that I would work on the nineteenth century. I was attracted by the enormous social upheavals in that period, the seismic shocks to people’s identities. I think we are still living in the nineteenth century in some ways, with its institutions and assumptions, for better and for worse. It is still transacting all around us.
Tell us about a couple of your achievements that have been particularly rewarding.
While I went through cancer treatment I was finishing my second book, Dr. Livingstone, I Presume? Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers and Empire about the clash of African and European modernities in the nineteenth century, and I wondered if I would live to see it finished. So the day that I held the first proof copy in my hand was pretty special. I dedicated the book to my oncologist, Dr Luke Hughes-Davies at Addenbrookes Hospital Cambridge, who not only saved my life but also taught me a great deal about how to love your job and inspire others around you. My Dr. Livingstone book won a King’s Award in 2007.
I think most of my professional achievements have been about getting things done with others. I don’t see my career as a series of lone achievements, but rather as a series of opportunities, some of which I and my colleagues and my students have managed to grab and make into something really worthwhile. I have run two big research projects, one with Cambridge University Classics, History, and History and Philosophy of Science Faculties on Victorian ideas of the past; and another which is still running with the Courtauld Institute for Art and UCL Engineering Department which is called ‘Scrambled Messages: The Telegraphic Imaginary 1857-1900’. I find these kind of cross-disciplinary research projects extremely rewarding because they take my research in such unexpected and exciting new directions.
Do you have professional role models? Who are they and what do you find inspiring about them and their accomplishments?
Not really, because I think you have to plough your own furrow. I love reading about successful women, and I always cheer them along, but I don’t think of them as role models exactly. But I have friends. I have women friends in all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, journalists, curators and professors, and some of them are just starting out on careers, and some are mums at home with kids and some of them are long-retired. They all help me do things better.
There is also something comforting about reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s letters. She was living in Manchester in the mid-nineteenth century writing extraordinarily powerful and compassionate novels about what she saw around her, while dealing with the duties of a minister’s wife, organizing and looking after her children, planting in the garden, sorting out the family’s clothes, ordering the dinners, planning holidays, welcoming endless house-guests, and always staying more-or-less cheerful. That she was so busy and so careful of others and yet so creative reminds me that it is possible.
What if any support has most benefited you in your career?
AI have to say my husband’s. Commuting with children at school is only possible if you have a partner who is prepared genuinely to share the heavy-lifting, and who doesn’t resent your successes. I am astonished at how rare this still seems to be for women. I have watched too many of my talented women friends give up their careers because it is just not possible to do it all on your own. Of course it isn’t – men have never done it all on their own.
What do you feel is the most enjoyable/rewarding aspect of your job at King’s?
It has to be the teaching. There is such a buzz when a seminar goes well, or I manage to help a group see a text completely differently, or get excited about something that they all thought was boring and difficult to start with. And of course often they make me see a text completely differently too. And I have really enjoyed the opportunities at King’s to make intellectual connections with the wider cultural community in London– this semester, for example, I am involved in setting up an exhibition on Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London, teaching my MA students at the Science Museum with the museum curators there, and taking part in a cross-disciplinary research project on Constable’s painting at Tate Britain.
How do you balance the various demands of a career in academia: research, teaching/learning, administration?
This can be difficult and the balance changes all the time. The truth is rather hand-to-mouth, but I do try and plan out blocks of time to do essential things each week, otherwise there is a risk that nothing will get done, especially the – um– let’s say, less stimulating administrative tasks. But they need to get done too. I think everyone in academia knows the problem of ‘just not enough time in the week.’ One of the wonderful things about this job is that you can have new ideas and start new projects whenever you like, but that can also turn into quite a challenge and I have to try to stop myself from taking on too much sometimes. And of course the best-laid plans…children can de-rail you if they suddenly get sick, individual students can need more time than you thought they would, research projects throw up problems you didn’t see coming, and so on – you have to stay flexible.
How do you balance an academic career with life outside the workplace?
I don’t really think of the university as a ‘workplace’ – it has always had pretty invisible walls for me and I am happiest when my life is sort of joined-up. I mean, I like to talk and think about books and ideas with my friends as well as my students and colleagues, and some of my students and colleagues have become my friends over the years. I do have a lot of life outside of King’s –although my children’s social lives now seem to take priority over mine, so I spend a lot of time driving them around. I think it is essential to have as rich and as broad a life as you possibly can if you are going to be any kind of intellectual. You need to know as much as you can about the world you live in. And that means the workplace is everywhere and everything. I have quite an appetite for new experiences, and I think that is essential if you are going to keep finding new ways to think. And on a less pompous note, I really enjoy the banality of domestic life. I actually like cooking for my family and hanging out the washing and putting out new loo paper. When I was staring death in the face these were the things that seemed so precious I couldn’t bear the thought of not being there to do them. It is therapeutic to work on your environment and surely good for the soul.
What have you learnt from your experiences that you would like to share with others?
I am a feminist and one of the things I like about my Department at King’s is that I never have to feel like I am marked out or punished for being a ‘woman’ there. I think that – shockingly- this is still a remarkable privilege, and one that very few working women enjoy and I remind myself often of how lucky I am. I suppose I would say it is important to hold your nerve even when things feel really hairy. For example, if you are breastfeeding and sleep-deprived or just frazzled by some other kind of crisis, don’t be tempted into thinking you are not up to the job and you should probably give up. Don’t let anyone tell you that either, because sometimes they will try. Keep remembering just how good at it you really are. And stuff them.