Thursday, 27 October 2011

A Lull

I'm in a bit of a lull now, having yesterday sent off a piece of writing to my supervisor.  Now I'm recovering from the burst of writing, reading, and thinking and being slightly lazier than I ought to be.

I had put aside my novel revision last week to focus on academic stuff, but I got back into it with a vengeance today.  I'm almost half done with the long-hand version of this draft; I will, of course, still need to type everything up when I'm done.

About to head back to the Bodleian for the afternoon, take in a seminar on Scott around dinner, and then I'll be working on a scholarship application and/or doing my reading in the evening.

We are tentatively planning a day-trip to Cambridge (gasp!) for Saturday and have a friend coming for a visit from London on Sunday, so there's lots to look forward to.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

First and Second Weeks

Term is officially a quarter done (as the terms are only eight weeks long here).  So far, my goal has been to create a relatively regular work routine.  This has worked, more or less, I would say. 

I've discovered that I like working from home in the morning, because then I can really enjoy my morning coffee(s).  The only place at school I've found where one could work and eat/drink is the graduate common room in the English Faculty, but that wasn't really designed as work space, so I haven't used it.  Otherwise, there are the fantastic libraries, which do not allow for the consumption of food.  This is sad because I've realized that I get very hungry while sitting and doing research.

I've also discovered that I don't mind working evenings and weekends, but I suppose this is what I always did during my undergraduate and Master's degrees, so I guess that makes sense.  Also, so far, I'm quite enjoying my research, which helps a lot, since it's kind of my life now.

Rowing, alas, did not work out for me this year, as I could not pass my swim test.  You had to do two lengths of the swimming pool, 5 m of underwater swimming, and then tread water for 2 minutes.  My problem was that, even through three tries, I could only force myself to stay underwater for about half the necessary distance.  I was saddened by this fact, but I'm kind of happy I don't have any 6:50 am practices to worry about anymore.

I've found other things to get involved with, like being library rep and being on the conference organizing committee.  Both committees met for the first time this week.

Last night, Tim and I donned our "smart" clothes and headed over to Mansfield's chapel for a jazz, chocolate, and champagne night, which was great fun.  No room to dance, however.  Also, they ran out of champagne about an hour and twenty minutes in, which was very distressing for all involved.  The chapel became suspiciously emptier after the champagne ran dry.

I've also taken in a meeting of the Interdisciplinary 19th Century Culture Forum, which is a gathering of student from English, History, and other subjects who discuss the 19th century (and go on field trips - next week to the Museum of the History of Science!).  I also attended a fantastic seminar on bigamy in sensation plays and novels this week, which I loved.  Also, it reminded me that I really need to read more sensation fiction.  I've got Wilkie Collins' No Name sitting on my bookshelf...  (Currently reading Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray for the first time - took me long enough!)

And now I'm in lockdown mode because I have my very first deadline coming up on a piece of writing I need to get in to my supervisor next week.  I'll be happier once I'm on the other side of that, but I am happy to be forced to start writing out my ideas early in the dissertation process, even if they don't necessarily make it into the completed work.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Waiting on Wednesday: Liar's Moon by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Liar's Moon by Elizabeth C. Bunce is being released on November 1st (not that far away anymore!) and is the second book in Bunce's Thief Errant trilogy.  What this means is that you should run out and read the first book in the series, StarCrossed before November 1st.

In StarCrossed, the reader is introduced to a sneak thief named Digger, who takes up with a group of nobles to escape capture for theft by the secret police when a job goes awry and her lover is killed.  Little does she know that this particular group of nobles, hidden away in their wintry fortress, where Digger is posing as a lady's maid, are involved in an incipient religious civil war.  All this is related to magic, which Digger can see but not practice.  Digger is a fascinating narrator, used to hiding in the shadows, witty, but also damaged.

Digger is back in her natural habitat of backstreets and thievery in Liar's Moon and meets up with one of the noblemen from the previous book, who has been put in prison for murder.  Digger vows to clear his name and is drawn into "fantasy noir" adventures in order to do so.  If this book is anything like the first in the series, I'm sure it will be splendid.

Also, both books are set in a high fantasy setting that reads like the Renaissance in terms of clothing, book-making, etc.  Bunce is working within a world she's been building since she was a teenager, so the religious systems and history are well thought out, without threatening the integrity of the story.

Elizabeth C. Bunce's first novel, A Curse Dark as Gold, which won the Morris Award for best first YA novel, is also worth reading, though quite different in tone and subject matter.  It is a retelling of "Rumpelstiltskin", set during the beginnings of the industrial revolution in a British mill town.  Instead of turning corn into gold, the protagonist must turn thread into gold.  She must also make increasingly fraught sacrifices to stay in the Rumpelstiltskin figure's good graces, while managing the mill her dead father has left behind.  This novel is really well-written, with great characterization, and dark, folkloric atmosphere.

In short, I highly recommend reading Elizabeth C. Bunce's novels and I anxiously look forward to another volume of the Thief Errant series and anything else she may choose to publish.

Sunday, 16 October 2011


Tim and I have BritRail passes that allow us to travel on any eight days in a two-month period.  I believe we have until November 18th to use up all our days.  On the first day, we travelled to Bath, and on the second, we went to Portsmouth.  Neither of us had been before and it is an easy 2.5 hour (approximately) train ride down.  Also, we both have a liking for British naval history, so it was time to go.

On the way down, we had to change trains at Reading and Southampton and got some good book-reading in.

Once we arrived in Portsmouth, our first stop was the Historic Dockyard, which has many attractions.  We saw two.  First, we toured HMS Warrior 1860.  This was the very first iron-hulled warship and it was powered by sail and steam.  It never saw action, because its creation rendered all other warships of the era obsolete overnight.

I wasn't expecting to see Britain's first iron-hulled warship when I arrived in Portsmouth, but I was mightily impressed but it.  Very big and grand, with the added distinction of being the only Victorian warship still around today, and that only because it was twice rejected when offered for scrap.  Thank goodness!

Next, we wandered further down the dockyard to the main attraction.  The Victory, Admiral Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar against Napoleon's navy, at dry dock in all its glory.  Well, mostly - you see, it's topmasts are being restored.  But it was still an impressive sight.

A section of damaged mast from the Battle of Trafalgar.

Admiral Nelson's very fine cabin.  Nelson got around all right on the ship, being only 5' 6".  The captain, who was 6' 4", and the ship's carpenter (6' 7") had more trouble.
The plaque marking the spot where Nelson was shot and fell during the battle.

 From there, we went to the City Museum of Portsmouth to see their collection of Arthur Conan Doyle memorabilia, which was quite neat.

As a last stop, we went to Portsmouth's Church of England cathedral.  Outside was a sobering reminder of the effects of war on civilians.

The newer section of the cathedral, very bright and open, and almost Roman or Greek in feeling.
We headed home, with a change at Basingstoke.  That train was incredibly crowded!  We spent the first part of the journey at the back of a car, crowded in with passengers and baggage.  After the first stop, I managed to get a seat, but Tim had to stand for almost all the journey back to Oxford.  But we heartily enjoyed our afternoon in Portsmouth.

Thursday, 13 October 2011


I'm not a very good "joiner", as the Brits would say.  I like to have time to myself.  On the other hand, my doctoral course is so self-directed, that I've been keen to join up in a few things, in part because it's excellent training for life as an academic, and also because I like having something productive to do th at isn't my research, but really, I also like to inject some structure into my life.  So, here's what I've comitted myself to thus far.

Rowing for Mansfield College, as a total novice.  Again, I still need to pass my swim test (on Sunday) but I don't forsee any difficulties there.  I think this will be great exercise and a good chance to meet people at my college - including undergraduates!

I'm going to be part of an organizing committee for the 2012 Oxford English graduate conference.  More on that in due course (really excited to be involved, though!)

And, finally, today I stood for and was elected to the position of Library Representative for the English graduate students at Oxford (the committee has a very unfortunate acronmy - EGO).  I'm really looking forward to putting to use the skills and knowledge I gained working at the library at the U of S this past year in this liaison role.

As for coming events, I've got a place at a talk A.S. Byatt is giving in November (hosted by the research centre for the Study of Childhood) and, that same day, Tim and I are going to hear psychology professor Steven Pinker talk about his new book "The Better Angels of Our Nature" at the Sheldonian Theatre.  What are the odds two super cool authors would be speaking in town on the same day?  This would, unfortunately, never happen in Saskatoon.  Also, I think I'm heading up to London that following weekend for a one-day Bronte conference.  I shall be busy, busy, busy.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Freshers'/Noughth Week

Well, Michaelmas Term officially started on Sunday.  We went to Portsmouth for the afternoon and had a lovely time.  Pictures to follow.  So far, this term, I've gotten a fair bit of reading done, including a novelette Charlotte wrote when she was 18 called "The Spell" and its much better than what she was writing at 13 or 14, let me tell you that.  However, that's not much of a surprise.  When I think of how my own writing improved between 13 and 18...

So, last week was 0th Week, as in, the first week before term starts.  I believe undergradutes need to write practice exams in 0th Week, so it's not exactly part of the vacation.  For new students, it involves many, many orientations (or inductions, as they seem to call them here) and social events.  I will try to recap.

Last Sunday, I started meeting some of my fellow graduate students at Mansfield College at a Welcome Tea.  There was also a welcome tea at our university housing complex, so we finally got to meet some of the neighbours.  Then it was back to Mansfield in the evening for a drinks night in the MCR (Middle Commmon Room, or graduate common room), which is quite lovely.  It's two rooms (with red and green walls respectively) in the upper tower room at the college.  I got to meet yet more people, which was lovely.

Next day, I had to sign the college register and hand over my passport for scanning, as per visa regulations.  I was also given the gigantic Examination Regulations books printed each year by the OUP which outlines everything official about every course.  Yikes.  There was also a college induction in the Mansfield Chapel, which is lovely by the way.  Instead of saints, it has carvings of prominent dissenters (Mansfield was the first college at Oxford non Church of England people could attend, by the bye).  Between events, I visited the lovely, bright and airy Upper Reading Room at the Old Bodleian Library for the first time.  I'm sure I will become quite well-acquainted with that venerable reading room before long.

Tuesday.  There was a graduate student induction from the English Faculty in the morning, which had really useful session on library and IT training opportunitites.  I also found out that about 70% of English doctoral students pass the official transfer for DPhil (aka PhD) on their first try (technically I'm in a probationary period for my first two terms here).  This is good to know.  In the evening, Mansfield had a graduate freshers' dinner, at which I got to meet my lovely college advisor and drink claret while everyone else at the tasty-looking meal in the dining hall (which is also a beautiful room - it all felt very Harry Potter!).  Then there was coffee and drinks in the MCR again and I got to meet more people and renew acquaintances made in the last couple days.

Wednesday, I signed up for Mansfield rowing...

Thursday, I had a second meeting with my supervisor.  I feel like I have a pretty good sense of the direction my work should be tending at this stage, which is really wonderful.  I also got to meet my English graduate student mentor, who knows people who live in Saskatoon - what are the odds?

On Friday, a friend from back home who is starting her DPhil in History at Wolfson and I went gown shopping.  We're both matriculating on Saturday - that is, formally becoming members of the university.  In order to do this, we must wear sub fusc, which means white collared shirt with velvet ribbon, black pants or skirt, black stockings, and black shoes, as well as mortarboard and the graduate gown.  Unlike the undergraduate gown, which only goes down the waist and frankly looks silly, the graduate gown goes down to the knee.  Gown-shopping felt very much like Harry Potter, again, going off to Madame Malkin's to be fitted for robes.  I'll tell you all about matriculation next week and perhaps provide photographic evidence.

Saturday was the rowing induction for Mansfielders (and apparently many other colleges - the Cherwell was crowded!).  I've decided I will continue on with rowing.  I quite like it, when I'm stroking correctly and at the same time as the others in the boat.  It's very disappointing to make a wrong move, however, because it is glaringly obvious to yourself and everyone else in the boat.  This week, I need to pass a swim test in order to become part of the team.  There was also a cocktail night at the Mansfield MCR that evening, plus a Junior Common Room (undergraduate) "bop" (a dance party, usually with a dress-up theme).  The theme this time was the London Underground, which proved interesting in practice.

And then Sunday, we went to Portsmouth, as mentioned above.  Again, more later, with pictures.  We took lots.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Fruits of Revision

Before we moved, I finally finished going through the entire manuscript of my work in progress and doing a complete revision.  I've never been a good reviser, though I trust I'm getting better with age.

Once here and mostly settled, I finished typing up that new draft and then went through the end product, making notes, correcting typos, and outlining, chapter by chapter, to see if there were any structural problems.  And all in all, I'm really pleased with what the second draft (that took about four years to complete - ouch!).  I made some major changes in the middle - changed up characters, delved further into backstory, restructured three chapters - and they've worked a great improvement on the novel as a whole.  Of course, now all the new material needs a layer of polish, which is partly what Draft #3, which I began two days ago, will hopefully accomplish.

But I was also really pleased to see that chapters where I thought I'd made very few changes - pruning here, making description a bit more original there - were actually much stronger than they had been before.

All those small changes (and big ones), I think, have added up to a much stronger book, one that I really enjoyed reading again.  So, once Draft #3 is done (and I do have a couple ideas for some more substantive changes there too), perhaps I will have to begin researching literary agents and such.  I guess we'll see.