Modernist Profiles: Elizabeth O'Connor

Modernist Profiles meets the members of the Centre for Modernist Cultures to explore their research interests, the work they are doing, and exciting developments in the field of modernist studies. This month we spoke to one of our doctoral researchers, Elizabeth O’ Connor. 

To get us started, let me congratulate you, for having submitted your thesis. What have you been working on for the last few years?

Thank you! Life feels very strange without a thesis to keep me occupied.

My research looked at littoral imagery in the work of H.D., so anything to do with coasts, shores, riverbanks. My work argues that the shore and its ecology is a central, unexplored aspect of her work; H.D. is not really thought of as a writer interested in the natural world, so I hope to challenge that assumption by revealing the ways her littoral imagery is grounded in the ecology of the shore. I was also looking at how she engaged with cultural ideas of the shore, particularly with ideas of the shore as a place of liminality, fluidity, and national demarcation, her work therefore feeding into a larger narrative about the ways we engage and interact with shoreline landscapes.

Collage with statue and drawingH.D. scrapbook from the Beinecke Library

So what now? Tell us about your plans!

I wish I had a good answer for this, but like most people at this stage everything is currently a bit of a mystery. It’s exciting or terrifying depending on what day you ask me! I’m hoping to continue writing and research, whether that’s in an academic post or on the side of a non-academic job in higher education.

What are your other research interests?

I am very easily distracted by other, exciting avenues of research when I’m working on something! I’m currently writing a couple of articles, one on ecofeminism in H.D.’s war poetry, and one on jellyfish and the en dehors garde in H.D.’s work.

Distracting me from that is an interest in the shore in contemporary fiction. I read a lot of contemporary novels in my spare time and have noticed coasts and other land/water boundaries coming up a lot. I’d like to think about this a bit more, but my instinct is that the shore is taking on a more significant role in our culture now, especially with narratives around Brexit and immigration, and obviously with a collective growing urgency in climate change.

Novels like John Lanchester’s The Wall and Wyl Menmuir’s The Many deal with this quite explicitly, but I was also struck how shores and rockpools cropped up in the Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, where they form part of the novel’s challenge to and rewriting of particular colonial narratives.

Then, the shore also seems to be used in a lot of current fiction about gender and gender fluidity: Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Awkaeke Emezi’s Freshwater use land/water boundaries to explore gender and consciousness in really unusual ways. I’m not sure if any of this will grow into a full research project but it’s fascinating to trace the similarities to, and development from, modernist writing. 

Fascinating! Do you have other activities which are central to your approach and research?

Reading nature writing and popular science books is something that feeds both directly and indirectly into my research. I don’t have much of a science background, so those genres really help me to connect the dots between real-world ecology and how it is expressed and transmuted in poetry and fiction.

Working with ideas around landscape and nature, I also like to have a practical dimension to my research, spending time thinking and writing outdoors when I can. It is great to have an excuse to get away from my desk, of course, and to take trips to the coast in the name of ‘research’! I took a few trips to North Wales last year; the coastal landscapes there reminded me a lot of the shores H.D. writes about, and visiting them was really useful for understanding the kind of sensory experiences H.D. tries to convey in her work, and how those bodily experiences might build into cultural mythology.

Thanks a lot, Elizabeth. And all the very best with your future work!