SRI Talks To: Professor Diane Watt
As part of the “Surrey Research Insight talks to” series we caught up with Professor Diane Watt. Diane is a Professor of English Literature and Head of the School of English and Languages. Diane came to the University of Surrey in 2011. She was previously Head of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. Diane works on medieval literature, women’s writing, gender and sexuality. Her books include Medieval Women’s Writing (2007), Amoral Gower (2004) and Secretaries of God (1997). In this interview we asked Diane about her Medieval research, the book “The History of British Women’s Writing, 700-1500” which Diane co-edited as well as how she makes sure historical examples of women’s writing is given publicity in mainstream media.
1: You are a member of the International Medieval Congress, what drew you to research the Medieval period?
I have always been interested in the Medieval period. As an undergraduate I studied Archaeology and Medieval History alongside English Literature and Language. I really enjoyed reading Medieval texts: not just the work of Chaucer, but poetry by anonymous writers. One such work was ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’, poem attributed to someone called Nicholas of Guildford, but no one is really sure who he was or if he really existed. As an undergraduate I was astonished to learn that there are also some books by Medieval women, and I was curious to learn more.
2: As mentioned before your work delves into the Medieval era but also examines many other historical time frames including Early Modern Literature. How important is it to establish a historical context for your work?
Traditionally, within universities, Literature is classified in terms of historical periodization as well as by form or genre. So, in other words, we might look at Early Modern theatre (the plays of Shakespeare or Marlow, for example), or at the Victorian novel (such as the work of the Bronte sisters). Different forms and genres emerge or become dominant in different centuries or periods. Readers are often concerned with what an author meant, but how can we ever be sure what an author’s intention was? Establishing a historical context helps us understand the broader social, political and religious dimensions of a text. However, if we focus exclusively on a single historical period, we miss connections across time. The divide between the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period is a very real one—major religious and intellectual changes took place with the Reformation—but there are important continuities as well, and it is vital that we do not overlook these.
3: In the book “The History of British Women’s Writing, 700-1500” which you edited you look at the literary history of women’s writing in this period. How much did you learn about the lives of women during this period when looking at their writing?
I co-edited this with a colleague, Dr Liz Herbert-McAvoy, and we worked with a large team of international researchers on the book, which is itself only part of a much larger international project looking at the History of British Women’s Writing from the Middle Ages to the present day. Our team uncovered a wealth of interesting material. For example, one of the more well-known Medieval Welsh women poets, Gwerful Mechain, wrote an erotic poem in celebration of women’s genitals that in many respects anticipates The Vagina Monologues, a play which continues to shock people today. My own essay in this book looks at the Medieval English mystic and pilgrim, Margery Kempe, and explores her difficult relationships with other women, such as her maid and her daughter-in-law. We just don’t get insight into these sorts of relationships between women if we only look at texts by men.
4: Women’s writing in the historical context that you research has the potential to not be given a large amount of publicity in the mainstream media. As an academic do you work to engage the public so they are more aware of women authors in these periods of history?
One of my books, The Paston Women: Selected Letters, provides modernized versions of letters written by women from a fifteenth-century Norfolk family. This book makes the original letters far more accessible to the general public. Occasionally I am contacted by media companies, including the BBC, to give advice on radio and television productions. Increasingly I use social media (twitter, facebook, and blogs) to engage the public and raise awareness. I have written some online articles on the importance of studying women’s writing, such as this recent piece in The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/women-will-be-left-out-of-review-sections-as-long-as-theyre-left-out-of-the-classroom-24001. I also experiment with more innovative forms of public engagement, such as stand-up comedy! Last year, I took part in one of Bright Club Guildford’s live shows. My set is on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOSdWihRlHM. I will stop at nothing to get the message out there that everyone needs to read the work of women writers.