It seemed very likely that I would become an academic. As an undergraduate, I excelled at my subject, despite the interruptions of unplanned pregnancy, maternity leave, and then motherhood. My tutors mentored me, and instilled a substantial amount of self-confidence in me. I had qualms about the way my subject – English Literature – was studied and taught, but I knew more about university administration than any other undergraduate I knew, and believed that I could work within the existing structures to forge my own little reformed patch of the discipline along with the other good brains I knew. I got funding for my masters from the notoriously picky AHRB (now the AHRC) and I performed well on that as well. I loved being in seminars and attending papers. I made allies and fought vigorously over the points I believed in.
Belief was a very powerful part of it: I had (and partly retain) a Shelleyan fervour for good writing, the feeling that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and that literary criticism was vital to the understanding of culture. Literary criticism ought to stand alongside the other arts and sciences, firm in its own methods and aims – not borrowing undigested fistfuls of doctrine from other subjects, not treating “theory” as a set of truths (the literary misuse of theories by using them to shape readings of the subjects under study, rather than adapting the theory according to its performance when tested, is one of the hardest things to swallow about academic culture). I wanted to write beautifully about beautiful things. I wanted to teach. I wanted to be well known and respected in my field. I was very, very ambitious. I was also very hard on myself: I used to joke to my boyfriend (now my husband) that the only way I’d ever be completely happy with my work was if Vladimir Nabokov popped up to scribble “bonus, bonus” and a butterfly on the bottom of my essay. (Lectures On Literature represented the kind of attentive, exhaustive close reading that seemed to me the only true way of understanding what is written: the injunction to treat fiction as a new world and explore it according to its own rules still strikes me as the best advice a reader could take.)
I decided to move on from my beloved University of Sheffield and study for a doctorate at one of the big institutions. I was pregnant with my second child at this time. I knew that the employment market for new PhDs was hell of competitive, and I wanted the extra cachet of an old university – having seen the way my own department hired, this was a strictly pragmatic approach. I wanted access to the best resources, of course. And I wanted to show myself that I was good enough – in this sense, simply winning the place was the consummation of what I’d been working for. Exhausted by my bump, and tired by the solitary nature of dissertation writing, my zeal began to fade. Worldliness ticked over into cynicism. My supervisor here was of the traditional, distant sort. Although he was thoroughly nice, he was also frustratingly clueless and hard to get hold of. His supervision was sparse and vague, and I tolerated it because I didn’t know how to go about challenging it. I was privately irreverent about his work, but basically awed. Anyway, I was feeling only tenuously attached to academic life, and was often grateful not to be chased too hard.
When it unravelled, it did so very very fast (by academic standards of time, anyway). I rushed my upgrade. My supervisor seemed confident that it was only a formality. I failed my upgrade. My supervisor told me that I should mostly disregard the assessors’ comments, as I wouldn’t have them the second time round. He raised his eyebrows at my domestic situation, called me “the definition of a child bride”, and asked if “the happy journalist” was the father of both my chldren. I left, mortified, and revised my work according to his advice. I got the same assessors again: the secretary said, “yes, it’s standard practice, to allow you to respond to their criticisms.” I decided I would never speak to my supervisor again. I failed a second time and that, very roughly, is that for me and academia. I feel like Titus fleeing Gormeghast: depressed at the institution, but inextricably part of it. (I ought to note that, while I obviously didn’t get the best of the system, I had a lot to distract me from work, and the produce of my time on the doctorate is depressingly slim.) I still think that my academic friends are some of the brightest people I know, doing some of the best work that can be done. I really wish – sometimes – that I was still doing it with them.