Q. Where were you born, and how did you come to academia?
ED. I was born in Roehampton and grew up in East Molesey, near to Hampton Court. My mother was a science teacher, and taught me to read before I went to school. I credit my lifelong love of reading to her, as well as the time I spent reading with both of my parents when I was young. If we went on holiday it was with a suitcase of books in tow. I was a keen student, though I was often told off for reading under my desk, and at home was regularly caught up past my bedtime with a book. It was when I first arrived at university that I knew I wanted to be an academic, and in many ways the path to my career has been a remarkably fluid one: I moved straight from BA to MA to PhD.
Q. When you began working with us on Working Papers in the Humanities, you were a hopeful grad student, but now that you're handing over to your successor, you do so as a Lecturer in Nineteenth Century Literature at Birmingham. Has that felt like a big change of life?
ED. I submitted my application for the job on the day of my viva (after the requisite handful of unsuccessful tries elsewhere), was invited to interview, and took up post in September 2017. The biggest change I've found, moving into a permanent position, is the amount of time spent answering emails and on admin tasks. There's less freedom and less time for research, and it takes a while to adapt to an increased need to juggle. That said, it's wonderful work for the most part, and I feel very lucky to have found something stable in this precarious job market.
Q. Were any particular books a strong influence on you?
ED. At university I read as much Bram Stoker as I could get my hands on in my first year, then in my second year I read H. Rider Haggard's She as part of a module on late nineteenth century literature. I found Haggard's immortal Arab queen captivating. While She is often discussed as an adventure tale written to appeal to young men, I have found that a lot of women respond to this novel on quite a deep level (especially if they read it — as I did — in their teenage years). My other passion as an undergraduate was medieval literature: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Chaucer's Parlement of Foules were particular favourites. But I opted to pursue intersections between ancient Egypt, science and magic in literature of the late nineteenth century in my MA thesis, and have not yet found my way out of that rabbit hole.
Q. So you now work on the reception into English literature of a potent mixture of the Gothic, the Oriental and the supernatural. That doesn't have to mean you're an uncritical fan, of course — one of the world's leading Jane Austen scholars once told me that she didn't really like Austen much as a writer. Still, I think I'll ask: are tales of tombs, and curses, and mummies, fun for you?
ED. One of my colleagues at the MHRA described me as 'a cultural historian of the exotic', which I think sums up my research interests well. This sometimes means that I'm looking at writing without much literary merit; at other times I consider some of this material a guilty pleasure.
Q. Today we reach straight for labels like "genre literature" — indeed, Amazon's book categories include Romance — Paranormal Werewolves & Shifters. (It's pretty fun to search for, actually, and brings up such titles as Mated by Midsummer by Mina Carter - presumably a pseudonym for an author who has read her Dracula. And there are a bunch of these where the werewolf is also a billionaire.) In the age of plenty, genres are necessary things if you're going to sell fiction, but they also maybe put a cultural fence up between mummies (say) and the literary canon?
ED. The universality of cultural interest in ancient Egypt is what fascinates me most about it, I think. I take a fairly critical stance when it comes to notions of 'highbrow' or 'middlebrow', and find a lot of value in popular cultural forms that appeal to a wide audience. I've encountered unexpected tales of tombs, curses and mummies written by Louisa May Alcott and Tennessee Williams, so mummies are very much a part of the American literary canon (by author if not by title), even aside from better-known examples by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and H.D. On this side of the Atlantic, ancient Egyptian iconography and mythology infiltrates the work of Oscar Wilde and D. H. Lawrence as well as giants of popular literature such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.
During my PhD and while not working on Working Papers, I pitched a book of classic werewolf stories, Silver Bullets, to the British Library. This was my first experience in commercial publishing, and a really enjoyable one. There are certainly benefits to looking at this earlier material, besides most of these works being out of copyright. As you say, categories of 'genre fiction' nowadays are useful given the sheer quantity of literature published, but I think that some people approach these categories with a degree of snobbery.
The idea of 'classics' helps to break this down: these are stories that have stood the test of time, sometimes in the very fact that they have been deemed worthy of being anthologised. In Silver Bullets, I included short stories by such renowned authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, Rudyard Kipling and W. B. Yeats alongside less familiar figures such as the Suffragette Clemence Housman.
It's certainly gratifying to bring lesser-known individuals to new audiences, especially someone like Housman whose work was produced by the Bodley Head (itself a mark of esteem), and who was so politically significant in the fight for women's rights.
Q. Some time during your PhD, you got involved in MHRA, as an editor of Working Papers in the Humanities — how did that come about? What was it like being on the other side of the editorial table, so to speak?
ED. I got involved in the MHRA after one of my doctoral supervisors sent me the advertisement for the position. I had had some editorial experience before Working Papers, having proposed a special issue of Victoriographies (entitled Strata: Geology, Archaeology, and Psychology in Victorian and Edwardian Literature) which was published in November 2017. The early stages of this project - scouring abstracts and aiding authors in developing and polishing their essays - certainly helped when it came to working on the journal. I've had a wonderful time with my co-editors Lucy Russell and Daisy Gudmunsen, both inspiring scholars bringing enthusiasm, dedication and discipline to the role.
Editing Working Papers comes with its own challenges. Most issues are diverse in terms of subject matter, and as such editors are required to critically engage with material out of their comfort zones (sometimes separated from their own specialisms by centuries and oceans). As such, it's an interesting process developing a germ from which a journal issue might spring: for Scrutinizing Beauty, Daisy and I started with potential points of overlap between our doctoral theses. But the resultant call for papers garnered responses on material as diverse as nineteenth-century Russian fashion magazines and the cannibal in twenty-first-century television — a far cry from our own research into fin-de-siècle Egyptological culture and contemporary French poetry.
Q. Outside of your academic life, what do you read for pleasure?
ED. Until after my PhD was finished I found it quite difficult to read for pleasure, but since taking up my lectureship, I've begun to really appreciate the need for therapeutic reading detached from work. I loved reading Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale recently (something I'd included on various 'to read' lists ever since I was an undergraduate), and swiftly followed this up with Alias Grace. I have an unfortunate habit of reading ghost stories before bed; I finished Shirley Jacksons's The Haunting of Hill House a few weeks ago, and am currently working my way through Stephen King's The Shining (as fast as fear will allow me!). My dad and I share book recommendations; I've lent him Roald Dahl's collected stories (for adults), so we've come full circle since Fantastic Mr Fox...
Eleanor Dobson's two edited volumes of Working Papers in the Humanities are Rewriting(s), edited by Lucy Russell, and Scrutinizing Beauty, edited with Daisy Gudmunsen. For those who dare, her anthology Silver Bullets is available from the British Library.