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Thesis of the month! Madeleine Brook, University of Oxford

The process of thinking up a viable PhD project has a tendency to start as one idea and end up, after considerable lopping, pruning, and repotting, as something else. What was left over after an early search for source material on an entirely different proposed project was an eighteenth century text purporting to tell the (really quite extensive) sexual exploits of Friedrich August I, Elector of Saxony, popularly known by his name as King of Poland: August the Strong (1670-1733). I quickly discovered that this text was still being used as an historical source for August, who has a reputation in popular history as a man of extraordinary sexual prowess and the ruler over a magnificent, but frivolous, court in Dresden. So that is how I ended up with a case study on the function of fiction in the creation of an historical myth and the uses to which the myth is put over time. In August’s case, the origins of the myth lie in the art and literature that he cultivated at his own court and the reception of that image in the literature of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. There is also the issue of the long-lasting effects of the cultural dominance of Prussia on Saxon historiography in the nineteenth century, which feeds into the continued privileging of particular historical sources. An additional question that arose over the course of my research was how both modern popular history and authors of fiction make use of re-enactment strategies to draw their respective audiences in and, consequently, what potential problems, but also opportunities, this opens up.

Getting the thesis idea was one thing. Getting the funds together to make it possible was quite another. In the end, I was fortunate enough to get partial funding from the AHRC and when that ran out, I also managed to get a small bursary from Funds for Women Graduates.

However, that still meant there were gaps to fill along the way. It’s a perennial concern for postgraduate students – and for postdoctoral graduates on the job market – and it requires creativity, flexibility, support, and not a little determination. The obvious route is to try to get some teaching experience, but this might not pay all the bills. At one particularly stressful, but mercifully short-lived, point, I was juggling five mini-jobs and the thesis.

Not all of the work I did to fund myself was directly relevant to me as a researcher at the time (the regular babysitting does not appear on my CV!), but much of it required me to think hard about my skills as a linguist – translation, proofreading, project assistant work. I also had to take stock of my personal networks and think about where I could go to give myself opportunities, armed with my language and research skills. Having a very supportive doctoral supervisor helped, but I took the initiative to go beyond the university and went to temping agencies, signed up for mailing lists, put myself on databases – joined WIGS! But I also decided that word of mouth was not to be underestimated, so whenever I was asked what I did, I made sure I talked about both the research and the non-research sides of my life. So far, it seems to be working.


We are delighted to add the following information to Madeleine’s post:

Popular History and Fiction: The Myth of August the Strong in German Literature, Art and Media will be published by Peter Lang in their Cultural Identity Studies series, edited by Helen Chambers. It is due to appear later this year.

Madeleine will also be Departmental Lecturer for Early Modern German at the University of Oxford for the academic year 2013/14.



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