From Professor Emma Smith’s study window, it is possible to see one of the great Oxford views, beloved of crime and costume dramas. Sure enough, outside are the tell-tale film production vehicles, signalling yet another literary work may be about to be reinterpreted.
Despite being an Oxford professor of English Literature and a fellow librarian and archivist for Hertford college, Professor Smith glances outside and laughs. Her love of literature sees her engage with just about every avenue, even film – although she has reservations.
‘Even the best film versions of Shakespeare tend to have 60-70% of the lines missing,’ she says, with slight amazement, having been involved with script work. But, nothing daunted, she continues, ‘It’s interesting to see how they do it, though.’
Professor Smith is an enthusiastic tutor and lecturer, to such an extent, she gives dozens of lectures a year to the interested public. This could earn her the much-touted title of Public Professor (if she wanted it)
Professor Smith’s interest and enthusiasm for English started young. She admits [to no surprise] to having been a bookish girl, spending a great deal of time in the local library as a child. She consumed works of literature from an early age – before there was such a thing as young adult fiction. There were children’s books and there were books, she observes, and she progressed to serious fiction around the time she went to senior school.
She came to Oxford from Leeds back in the 1980s to study English, having passed the exam – and, as was the custom – she was given a 2 Es offer. If you passed the exam, that was enough.
You came from Leeds, like Liz Truss? The third Conservative woman prime minister [albeit very short-lived], frequently boasted of her implied humble Leeds background.
‘No, not like Liz Truss,’ says Professor Smith quickly. ‘She went to the super posh school.’
Professor Smith does not want to give a humbler-than-thou impression, though, and emphasises. ‘I went to a very good state school, Abbey Grange. It’s still there and did really well by me…About half the sixth form went to university and every other year someone went to Oxford or Cambridge.’
After Somerville...Someone suggested Professor Smith might take the All-Souls exam [described sometimes as the hardest exam in the world].
‘I thought, I haven’t got anything else to do and to my complete bewilderment, I got it.'
Professor Smith says it never occurred to her to think the university was just for ‘posh people’. She sent off for a brochure from the university, as aspiring students did, in those pre-internet days, when they wanted to learn about colleges and courses.
‘I wanted to do a traditional course, like the one at Oxford, and I applied to Somerville,’ she says. ‘Somerville seemed to be one of the few places where women could succeed.’
She explains, ‘I didn’t realise many other colleges had only recently started taking women.’
It was also the college where another Conservative woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, had studied…Is this more than a coincidence?
Professor Smith laughs at the very idea, saying with amusement, ‘She visited while I was there. We were trying to unfurl a banner about her, but we were thwarted.’
Professor Smith seems interested in everything and points out the windows are set high in the wall, designed so you have to stand up to look out. Perhaps, the builders intended occupants should stand with due deference at the sight of the Sheldonian and the Bodleian – in a similar style to those visiting Napoleon’s tomb, where you must look up at his majesty, or respectfully bend your head.
But she clearly does not spend much time contemplating the view. As well as being a leading scholar of Shakespeare and early modern drama – Professor Smith is an enthusiastic tutor and lecturer, to such an extent, she gives dozens of lectures a year to the interested public. This could earn her the much-touted title of Public Professor (if she wanted it). She also works with theatre companies. And she writes books, which people read. Plus, she has an impressive catalogue of podcasts and broadcasts about literature, in general, and Shakespeare, in particular. So, staring at the goings-on in the street below is not high on her agenda.
Did Professor Smith ever think of writing a novel herself? She quickly bats away the suggestion
‘I would write a mediocre novel – the world doesn’t need my mediocre novel.’
The view, however, is not entirely lost on Professor Smith, who has barely left Oxford since she arrived in the city as an undergraduate in the 1980s. There was one year in Cambridge, but it was just one year.
The young Emma arrived as a teenager, around the time another couple of former prime ministers were in the city. She was aware some of her contemporaries came from very different backgrounds, she says. But she did not feel it was a place where she could not be herself, although, as Professor Smith remarks ruefully, ‘It’s not easy being 18 to 21 and it’s hard work being an undergraduate here.’
After Somerville, the young graduate was not sure what to do next. Someone suggested she might take the All-Souls exam [described sometimes as the hardest exam in the world]. If she passed, she would get a funded doctorate and a fellowship. She remembers, ‘I didn’t think it was not for me. But I thought, I haven’t got anything else to do and to my complete bewilderment, I got it.’
For the next six years, the postgrad studied Elizabethan drama (everything except Shakespeare). And, at the end of that time, the new Dr Smith got a job as a lecturer at New Hall, Cambridge. It was a fixed term job and, she thought she had better apply for something else, so the young academic applied to Hertford – and has been there ever since.
You came from Leeds, like Liz Truss?...No, not like Liz Truss, she says
‘It wasn’t my plan to stay in Oxford. I didn’t really have a plan. I don’t think it’s the only place to be, but it is a very good place to be,’ she says. ‘I never really thought about doing anything else. As a child, I was interested in writing and journalism and I have ended up writing about writing – and I’ve had the privilege of reading.’
As part of her podcast series, Professor Smith talks to writers about their work. As a very good interviewer, she anticipates the next question. Did Professor Smith ever think of writing a novel herself? She quickly bats away the suggestion, ‘I would write a mediocre novel – the world doesn’t need my mediocre novel.’
It is a difficult time for the Humanities everywhere....We should be more bullish about the benefits of studying Humanities. It’s not just training for a job – it is amazingly rich
It is not that she does not enjoy modern works, as her podcasts make clear. But she clearly does not see writing literature as part of her purview. She is a firm advocate, however, as you would expect, of studying fiction and drama and she talks about developments seen since the pandemic. Lectures went online and exams were open book and remote. The concept of recording was not new to Professor Smith, who has an extensive catalogue of recorded lectures – some more than 10 years’ old, which she recorded as part of an attempt at outreach.
As this is 6 January, this is Professor Smith's Twelfth Night podcast https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/twelfth-night
Talking about her recorded lectures, she explains, ‘I was a bit of an outlier on this in the 2010s. I just recorded the lectures and you can tell because you can hear people coughing. It was good and very helpful in terms of outreach.’
But the pandemic changed everything and forced departments into mass experiments in digital education. They learned a lot, she says.
‘Students actually attend lectures very diligently now. I never went to lectures, but neither did anyone else,’ she says. ‘But they like lectures to be recorded, so they can listen again and in their own time.’
She continues absently, ‘We’re probably not explicit enough about why people should attend lectures in person…it changes lectures in style.’
English remains one of the most popular undergraduate courses in the university. In the three years to 2021, more than 600 undergraduates were admitted and nearly 2,500 students applied for places - although a jobs website, Adzuna, reported last summer that English Literature graduates receive among the lowest average salaries after five years.
Interest in English Literature has never been greater...And Professor Smith is taking the opportunity to lecture and meet enthusiastic groups outside the university
She responds thoughtfully, ‘It's awful seeing salary and benefits affect degree choice, but there are not many people who don’t need to think about money. Students have to think about debts and getting a job. If you’re worrying about future salary, it’s not easy to be high-minded. If you don’t have family in London, careers can be closed to you if careers are London focused.’
But Professor Smith maintains, ‘It is a difficult time for the Humanities everywhere. But most people do not use the subject matter of their degree. We should be more bullish about the benefits of studying Humanities. It’s not just training for a job – it is amazingly rich.’
Has English lost confidence? She laughs, ‘English never had that much confidence – people have always thought it’s just reading books. How hard can it be?’
The concentration on STEM subjects at school seems to leave little room for the Humanities, when people are taking three sciences. And, Professor Smith is concerned about the way English Literature is being examined – focusing on an almost scientific template set of answers.
‘It’s very boring and it doesn’t encourage students to develop,’ she says plainly. And Shakespeare is ‘the only pre-20th century writer many people study at A level now. Everything else has pretty much gone’.
Of course, Shakespeare should be taught…It speaks to the global literary world in a way that nothing else has
But, she says, interest in English Literature has never been greater – perhaps reflecting the power of film and television adaptations, or, more likely, the power of literature? And Professor Smith is taking the opportunity to lecture and meet enthusiastic groups outside the university.
‘I’ve begun speaking all over the place. I probably do about 30-40 a year – lectures to schools, book clubs and literary societies. It’s become a significant part of the job. I’m trying to connect with all that interest,’ she says.
But will Shakespeare, of which she is a professor, still be read and performed? Will students in the global future still want to study Shakespeare?
‘Of course, Shakespeare should be taught…It speaks to the global literary world in a way that nothing else has.’
By Sarah Whitebloom