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The doctor who created Frankenstein’s monster has been played on stage by a woman, for what is believed to be the first time.

A new play at the Northern Stage in Newcastle, features one Dr Victoria Frankenstein as the lead role in Selma Dimitrijevic's adaptation of Mary Shelley's iconic novel.

It's a fascinating idea, according to two of Oxford University’s experts on Mary Shelley.

‘The original novel is about a perverse, lone, male scientific kind of creativity, embodied in the character of Victor Frankenstein,’ says Professor Karen O’Brien, an expert in eighteenth-century literature and Head of Oxford’s Humanities Division

‘Victor's creativity cuts him off from the normal, domestic world of women and female fertility. He gives life to the monster, not coincidentally, shortly after the death of his own mother.

‘So a female Frankenstein is a fascinating idea. How might the female fertility and genius be linked? In the novel, the Creature, or Monster, actually resembles the female heroines in Mary Shelley's mother's novels - isolated, sensitive, forever excluded from mainstream society by their inability to find happiness on the unequal terms offered by men.

A female Frankenstein is a fascinating idea

Professor Karen O'Brien

‘This adaptation transfers that outsider role to the scientist character. So how are we to interpret the Creature?’

Fiona Stafford, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, was interviewed about the casting on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

She says: ‘Mary Shelley would have been aware growing up in an unusual, avant garde household that, although she was a very intelligent woman, there was no opportunity for her to train as a doctor or to go to university.

‘In many ways you can read Frankenstein as a critique of male obsessive pursuit and of not thinking through the consequences of his actions, so it is interesting to see how that translates into Victoria Frankenstein.’

‘You can read the book in many different ways and I think that is part of the secret of its enduring success, it is extraordinary that a novel that was published in a fairly modest form in 1818 should still have this afterlife.

'In a way that is something that Mary Shelley’s myth is visiting, the idea that you can create something and then you don’t actually have control of it, it has a life of its own.

‘In some ways you can see a parallel between Mary Shelley the novelist and Frankenstein. Although we tend to think of him as a scientist, she too is bringing together something and bringing it to life, and then it has taken on a life of its own to the extent that the Creature is often thought of as Frankenstein.’

Professor Stafford's interview can be heard here.

Professor O'Brien will also be interviewed by BBC World Service's The Forum on Saturday 18 February. The recording will be found here.


Oxford University's Voltaire Foundation has formed a new and surprising partnership.

Their ambitious project to publish the Complete Works of Voltaire is now being supported by LVMH Moët Hennessy, Louis Vuitton and Bernard Arnault, its Chairman and CEO.

The global luxury goods brand will donate a substantial amount over the next three years to support the Voltaire Foundation as it researches and publishes the final volumes in the Complete Works of Voltaire.

The 18th-century French writer Voltaire is an iconic figure in European culture, and his thinking about freedom of expression and religious tolerance lies at the heart of Western liberal democracy.

The Complete Works is the most ambitious project in French literature currently being undertaken outside France. It aims to publish all of Voltaire’s writings with expert commentary alongside the texts. When the project is completed in 2019, it will amount to more than 200 volumes.

The next edition to be published includes key Voltaire texts such as Micromegas, a science-fiction tale about a planet-hopping giant’s visit to our world which Voltaire uses as a commentary on the society in which he lived, and man’s place in the universe.

Professor Nicholas Cronk, Director of the Voltaire Foundation at Oxford University, said: 'We are very appreciative of this supportive endorsement from such a well-known French company whose high-profile, iconic brands match the world-class cultural aspirations of our ambitious project.

'When the Complete Works of Voltaire is published in its entirety, it will change fundamentally the way we think about the Enlightenment and the importance of the Enlightenment in the modern world.'

Bernard Arnault, Chairman & CEO of the LVMH Group, said: 'The driving force for the LVMH Group’s success is based on extracting value from a unique heritage and stimulating modern day creativity and excellence.

'The unprecedented project carried out by the Voltaire Foundation to publish the complete works of Voltaire follows a similar path as it aims to make available and to promote one of the most outstanding thinkers of the 18th century, to enlighten our times. It is with pride and gratitude to the Oxford University that we embark on this adventure.'


The cultural significance of hip hop

Matt Pickles | 1 Feb 2017

Academics in The Oxford Research Centre  in the Humanities’ (TORCH) Race and Resistance Programme will host a discussion about the cultural value of hip hop this month.

On Friday 17th February, TORCH will host a lecture by Marcyliena Morgan, who is a professor from Harvard University’s Hiphop Archive and Research Institute.

‘The Hiphop Archive’s focus, which includes projects like analysing the poetic quality of 2Pac’s lyrics to understanding the post-civil rights dimension of Outkast’s Southern rap, demonstrates that hip hop is a source of artistic innovation and enjoyment on its own terms, while also providing us with insight into the cultural, social, and political conditions that have shaped recent times,’ says Louisa Olufsen Layne, a DPhil student in English at Oxford University.

‘Hip hop as a musical and global cultural form forces us to think critically about what we define as valuable knowledge, who we recognise as knowledge producers, and how knowledge can be created and shared. The study and archiving of hip hop encourages us to recognise how contemporary forms influence our view of the present as well as our understanding of the past.’

Harvard’s Hiphop Archive was established in 2002, and its mission is to facilitate and encourage the pursuit of knowledge, art, culture, and responsible leadership through hip hop.

Some of the questions that might be covered during the talk include: Why do universities need to archive and research contemporary popular culture? How can the study of hip hop foster new understandings of cultural value and knowledge in academia?

What kind of knowledge can be exchanged between researchers of hip hop in the US and institutions in the UK working with hip hop, British rap and grime? How can we think comparatively about similar projects and initiatives in the UK?

Hip hop is not a new subject of study in Oxford. Jason Stanyek, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology in the Faculty of Music, has taught a course on global hip hop to first-year undergraduates since 2012, reaching almost 400 students.

The TORCH event takes place at 2.30pm on Friday 17 February at St Luke’s Chapel on Oxford University’s Radcliffe Observatory Quarter. Anyone can attend, but prior booking is required.

In the meantime, here is Hey Ya! by Outkast...


A poem for Burns Night

Matt Pickles | 25 Jan 2017

If you don't have the energy to mark Burns Night by going to a ceilidh or cooking haggis, neeps and tatties, Arts Blog has a suggestion for how to mark the day.

We asked Fiona Stafford, Professor of English Language at Literature at Oxford University, to suggest a Robert Burns poem to share with our readers.

She picked ‘To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church’ - and here it is.

'Burns speaks to modern readers very directly because his observations of humanity still ring true, while at the same time a relatively simple poem often turns out to have numerous layers and hidden jokes,’ she says.

‘In 'To a Louse', the speaker is riveted by the steady progress of the louse he spots in the very elaborate and highly fashionable bonnet of a young lady who is evidently hoping to make an impression. 

‘As the poem continues, it becomes clear that the joke is not just on the young lady, who is unaware of her little visitor, but also on the speaker, who is much more interested in the young lady (and, indeed, where the louse may be heading) than in the service, not to mention the minister, who doesn't even merit a mention and thus seems to be commanding the attention of no one. 

‘The famous concluding prayer - 'To see oursels as others see us' - arises naturally from the situation, and reads as a common-sense reflection, but there is a further joke in that it's adapted from the contemporary moral philosophy of Adam Smith. 

‘The speaker who has been addressing the louse in broad Scots turns out to be very well read and up to date in his thinking.'

Professor Stafford is currently interested in Burns and the natural world. Her latest book, ‘The Long, Long Life of Trees’, was published by Yale University Press last year. She has found that Burns has a real affinity to nature.

‘As a farmer, we might expect Burns to have had a fairly practical attitude to the land, but many of his poems reveal a sensitivity to the beauty of the local landscape and wildlife, as well as a rare ability to sympathise with non-human perspectives on the planet,’ says Professor Stafford.

‘Burns is one of the first poets to show concern over the clearance of woodlands by contemporary landowners and to influence attitudes by speaking up in verse for the plantation of indigenous trees.  He was, in this way, an early voice for the environment and his enormous popularity and stature as Caledonia's Bard meant that his views carried weight.’

Writing Arabic

Oxford students have helped to put on a multi-lingual poetry writing workshop at Oxford Spires Academy.

Pupils at the state secondary school in East Oxford were encouraged to express themselves through poetry in different languages.

The workshop was a collaboration between Oxford University’s Creative Multilingualism research project and Oxford Spires Academy’s poetry hub. It was led by award-winning Iraqi poet, Adnan Al-Sayegh, who has lived in exile since 1996 and been based in the UK since 2004.

‘One of the main aims of the Creative Multilingualism project is to show that the linguistic diversity in UK schools, and the UK in general, has tremendous potential both in terms of fostering productive communication across cultural groups, and in terms of creative thinking and writing,’ says Professor Katrin Kohl, director of the project.

‘These workshops encourage students to be creative in their own language and across languages.’

32 languages are spoken by children at Oxford Spires Academy, and the majority do not have English as their first language.

Students from Syria, Algeria, Tanzania, Pakistan and Sudan heard Mr Al-Sayegh speak about the importance of poetry, which he considers to be a basic human need.

He described how poetry is not restricted to the written word but is found in music and on the street, with the power to build bridges between people, as having a poetic heritage is something shared by all cultures.

A more detailed summary can be found here.

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