Academic, writer – and French bon viveur!
I have a longstanding association with the University of Cambridge, where I studied and worked over many years. I matriculated (i.e. joined) in 2000 as an undergraduate studying English at Girton College; I obtained a First-class degree in 2003, went on to do an MPhil from 2003-2004 in Eighteenth-Century Literature as a member of Pembroke College, where I stayed to do my PhD in English, with a thesis entitled ‘Parody in Eighteenth-Century English Literature, in particular Laurence Sterne’. I completed my PhD in July 2007 and took the degree in November. Since then, I’ve continued to work on Sterne, and lots of other aspects of eighteenth-century literature and visual culture besides. But making it work hasn’t always been easy.
I started teaching English at Cambridge in 2004. I’ve taught countless students English literature of the long eighteenth century, literary criticism, and Shakespeare. I’ve had lecturing stints at King’s College London, and for the Faculty of Education at Cambridge, where I taught Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Gothic novel, and Romantic fiction.
For some years I also lectured for an international summer school run by Pembroke College, Cambridge, where the courses I designed and delivered – ‘Jane Austen: Life, Works, Times’ and ‘Splendour & Squalor: Eighteenth-Century British Culture’ – proved popular with students from the USA, China, and Europe.
I’ve held numerous positions at Cambridge over the years – as a Director of Studies in English at various colleges, responsible for guiding undergraduate students’ course of study; as an Affiliated Lecturer and a Senior Research Associate at the Faculty of English; as a Fellow and Tutor at Wolfson College; and as a Bye-Fellow at Newnham and then Pembroke Colleges.
I love teaching, and I love working on my special areas of research. But academia is a tough world in which to survive: moving between precarious contracts or no contracts at all, racking up as much hourly paid teaching as possible, and taking on other work to make ends meet.
In the end, it just became impossible to sustain enough income even to stay in Cambridge just to be able to teach there. So I did some serious thinking and soul-searching. Where did I want to be, and what did I want to do?
We often tend to think you have to be in a particular place to do a particular thing, and vice versa. But the COVID-19 pandemic changed a lot of those assumptions for many people. For me, it only accelerated a decision I’d already made in 2018, when I asked myself where, of all places in the world, I’d like to be most of the time, and what I’d like to do. I’m half French, and a French citizen; I bought a house in the city my mum was born in, and where I’d visited almost every year of my life, and which I’d come to love as an adult just as much as I’d cry when I left it as a child. It was the natural choice of a place to be.
My decision to buy a house in France was a personal choice to break a cycle of exploitative work and oppressive life-choices that had come to feel like they weren’t choices at all. It was just something I felt I had to carry on doing because I felt I had no other option. But we only have one go at life, and being about half-way through mine, I don’t want to waste the rest of it. I don’t want to lose all the things I’ve built up over the years, with my work, and my relationships (personal and professional). But at the same time, you can keep those good things but move them into a new context which removes some of those other things that had been weighing you down.
You don’t have to be rich to make a big life change. I’m not. I’ve managed to buy a house and to move thousands of miles away from somewhere I’d lived for over 20 years, and had come to call home, but without ever having had a regular income or salary. I don’t have a rich family. I don’t have the sorts of safety nets that make you feel you can take a plunge to somewhere and something better securely. But just because it feels difficult, or because there are risks, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
When I was 19 I worked for a few months in a shop before spending several more months travelling round Spain, on my own, with only a Lonely Planet guide and a small bag of clothes (and some hand-washing detergent). We didn’t have phones or the internet back then; I just had a desire to explore, a desire to take unforeseen opportunities the better to experience life, and to move out of a comfort-zone that risks being stifling if we don’t take the occasional risk. It didn’t feel reckless, it felt wise, and I don’t regret a single moment.
I’m 40 now, and haven’t lost that desire, though it’s become hampered with some of the sense of responsibility and obligation you accrue as you get older. I’d never want to be 19 again or pretend to be. But I also want to make the next 40 years ones I can look back on and say to myself, ‘no regrets’. Sometimes, you have to take a risk, take a plunge, take on with you the things that matter, and leave the things that drag you down behind. As I said, you only get one life.
As the French say, ‘sante, prosperite’, however you choose to prosper.