The accidental academic: Professor Abigail Williams on Dead Poets, dangerous novels and her love for literature
8 Sep 2021
Professors of English Literature spend their lives asking the right questions, reading between the lines and interpreting texts. It is the day job. This skill means they are not the easiest people to interview; they know what you are going to ask before you ask it and they are questioning your motivation before you have finished speaking. However, Professor Abigail Williams is anything but the traditional academic and talks enthusiastically about her many lives and interests.
Professor Williams almost became an academic by accident. She never imagined becoming a Professor of English and, she says, she would have liked to go into advertising, except ‘she hadn’t really seen any adverts on television’, so did rather poorly in the interview. In an eclectic aside, she reveals she would also have liked to be a florist or a radio presenter. Apparently by chance, though, she is an Oxford scholar. Much of her work as an academic has been, quite literally, on the margins of English, studying unfashionable texts and even what readers wrote on books.
She says she is not a ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ sort, contemplating Great Literature (capital G, capital L), but then she talks about holding classes in museums and sounds quite a lot like the unconventionally inspirational teacher of English (capital E).
Professor Williams is not a ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ sort, contemplating Great Literature (capital G, capital L)
It is hard to keep up with the Humanities academic lead for Innovation. Professor Williams talks excitedly about her lockdown project - an interactive ‘game’ for teenagers, where they have WhatsApp-style ‘conversations’ with characters from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Typically focusing on the language, she does not use the term ‘game’ since young gamers see her ‘game’ as a very poor substitute for Grand Theft Auto. But, call it a ‘learning resource’, she says, and they love it. It is all about words.
Professor Williams loves to take English out of context and clearly enjoys breaking a few moulds on the way. From games, (sorry, learning resources), to working with a perfumer, on a range of historically-inspired fragrances, to musing on ‘Between the Sheets’, as an appropriate title for a forthcoming book on reading in bed, Professor Williams confounds conventional stereotypes and seeks to reach wider audiences with her love of literature.
Born in London, but raised on a commune in Dorset, she did not have the most conventional start. It was not the sort of troubling 1970s communal experience, which features from time to time in the popular press, but a collection of professional people who gave up the professions they were good at, to do things they were not really good at, she laughs.
In an early example of her atypical journey, she went from her commune to a scholarship place at a prestigious local convent school.
‘I really liked English,’ she says. ‘We had some very impressive English teachers, I suppose, in a Dead Poets’ Society way...but that is not the sort of English I have ever done.’
She won a place from the convent to come to Oxford to study English, potentially the last conventional thing she has done.
‘It was amazing, eye opening,’ says Professor Williams. ‘When you arrive, you do a lot of comparing with other people and, suddenly, you may have been the best at school, but now you realise you’re just one fish in a big sea....It took a while before I found what I was good at.’
Leaving the university on graduation, she enjoyed exploring opportunities but was, as she cheerfully admits, woefully unprepared for her chosen career of advertising.
‘My interview was a disaster,’ she says with amusement. ‘How could I talk about something, when I knew nothing about it?’
So she returned to Oxford for postgraduate study and took an MPhil in 18th century literature, ‘It was a brilliant course, a really good grounding.’
It was then that Professor Williams’s journey took another sideways move - she began studying less well known 18th century poetry, not Pope or Swift or the other acclaimed Tory poets, but their forgotten Whig counterparts. Very popular in their day, but now virtually unknown, these poets were given to paeans of praise about William III and his bloody wars. To modern ears, they are ‘dreadful’, according to Professor Williams. But she is intrigued by the fact that they were so popular and praised when written.
‘They were thought terrific in their day but seem so recherché and unpalatable now,’ she says. ‘People say great art transcends time, but Whig poets wrote about things which no one would want to read about now. It is awful jingoistic dross and yet at the time was loved by the most successful people in the country.
‘I want to understand the head set of that; the psychology of that aesthetic change.’
People say great art transcends time, but Whig poets wrote about things which no one would want to read about now. It is awful jingoistic dross and yet at the time was loved...I want to understand the head set of that; the psychology of that aesthetic change
Another less popular area of research, which is a great interest of Professor Williams, is ‘marginalia’: what people wrote on their books, the underlinings, the notes, the words in the margins. She is interested in what people were saying about their books and, like the Whig poetry, how historical readers might be different from modern ones. In future, she predicts, scholars will look at social media to interpret the reception of literature, as well as the marginalia.
With growing debate about content warnings and offensive material in historical works,’ Professor Williams says it is important to recognise that novels in particular have always been controversial and ‘dangerous’.
‘Northanger Abbey was all about the dangers of novel reading,’ she says. ‘It has always been a matter of concern; the isolated reader, getting inside the consciousness of the writer. We worried in the 18th century about some kinds of novels and their content and we worry now about different ones. Students might register discomfort at some texts, but this is the reality of literature and what we are here to explore.'
And, she says enthusiastically, ‘English has become more global, we talk about Englishes and the range of writers has expanded, there is more diversity. We’re less hung up now on doing things the way they were when we were students.’
Northanger Abbey was all about the dangers of novel reading...It has always been a matter of concern; the isolated reader, getting inside the consciousness of the writer. We worried in the 18th century about some kinds of novels and their content and we worry now about different ones. Students might register discomfort at some texts, but this is the reality of literature and what we are here to explore
She adds, ‘It’s great to help students understand the world the works were written in, so how better to understand Georgian novels than to spend an afternoon looking at tea pots and snuff boxes at the museum...it’s a better way of teaching.’
Professor Williams is determined to see the enjoyment brought by literature spread, which is why she threw herself into developing Will Play, her Shakespearean learning resource, during the pandemic.
‘It was trialled at my children’s school...I wore a hoodie to disguise myself, because they were so embarrassed...it was great fun to see them use it. It became a gateway into reading.
‘English Literature teaching has always used different routes...you can empathise with the characters, engage with the texts...it was really exciting seeing how Shakespeare was embraced.
‘They really got into it, messaging the characters and even warning them about what was going to happen.’
There has developed a link between cleverness and obscurity, with almost a contempt for language that is understood. I would like to uncouple those things....You should be able to say something clearly
Professor Williams is almost evangelical in her wish to reach out to audiences, admitting that she would also have liked to be a radio presenter, underlining her emphasis on the importance of communication. She maintains, ‘There has developed a link between cleverness and obscurity, with almost a contempt for language that is understood. I would like to uncouple those things.’
Before disappearing into the Oxford street, the Professor of English Literature says thoughtfully, ‘You should be able to say something clearly.’