Discover Our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Dr Heike Bauer of the Department of English and Humanities writes about her current research activity.

Dr Heike Bauer

Dr Heike Bauer

What is your current topic of research?

I’m working on an AHRC-funded book, The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture. It examines how attack and persecution shaped the development of a collective sense of same-sex identity in the first half of the twentieth-century

Why did you choose this topic?

The book addresses a gap in the scholarship: the realization that, while we know of many lives which have ended tragically as a result of legal persecution, violent attack or the inability to cope with heteronormative social and emotional pressures, we know surprisingly little about the traumatic impact of these deaths on the shaping of modern queer culture.

I have come to this realization via a chance encounter in the archive. In my previous book, English Literary Sexology, I explored the emergence a modern vocabulary of sex – words such as homosexuality and heterosexuality – and how the new ideas were transmitted from German science into English literary culture.

It was during the completion of this project that I first came across the work of Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), a hugely influential Jewish doctor and reformer. He is best known today for his homosexual rights activism, foundational studies of transvestism and opening of the world’s first Institute of Sexual Sciences in Berlin in 1919. I found, however, that Hirschfeld was also a chronicler of hate and violence against people who were figured to be, in his words, ‘different from the others’ because of their gender or sexual desire.

He wrote, for instance, about the trial and death of Oscar Wilde, and how it affected the men who identified with Wilde; and he collected the first statistical figures on female and male homosexual suicide, arguing that persecution and social denial played a significant role in why (some of these) people felt their lives were unliveable. The realisation that these writings have yet to be explored was the starting point for The Hirschfeld Archives.

What excites you about this topic?

This is the first study to examine narratives about queer death, suicide and injury for the insights they provide into how such suffering was understood at the time. There is a thrill – as well as a sense of responsibility – in working with texts and images that have been overlooked or forgotten.

What is challenging about the research?

Arguing that negative experiences, as much as affirmative politics and subculture formation, shaped modern queer culture, the book addresses a critical paradox: that despite political gains and related social transformations, queer lives all too often remain precarious, subject to attack and rejection, because they do not fit real and imagined norms about what it means to live in a certain time and place, and in a body whose gender and desires challenge powerful but often difficult-to-bring-into-view social norms. The challenge in presenting this research is to make sure that it cannot be misconstrued: just because there is violence in queer history does not mean that queerness equates misery. You might be surprised about how important it is even today to be clear about this point.

What is your favourite thing about your work?

The history of sexuality is today a thriving academic field. I come to it from a feminist perspective and a background in literary and culture studies. I enjoy being able to test and develop my ideas in dialogue with colleagues from other disciplines. My most recent book, for example, a collection of essays entitled Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters Across the Modern World, brings together literary scholars, historians, translation scholars and experts in gender studies who work on sexual cultures in Europe, Peru, Asia, and the Middle East. It is a real privilege to be part of such collaborations. I similarly enjoy working with my PhD students, and supporting the development of projects that can make a real intervention in existing scholarship.

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

The humanities are vital to making sense of the world, laying bare the often hidden norms that govern society, and critically and creatively expanding not only what (we think) we know, but also how we know it, and to what the effect. In terms of my own project, there are obvious benefits to developing a better understanding of LGBTIQ history. As part of the AHRC Fellowship, for instance, I discussed my research with health professionals in a workshop on violence in queer and trans lives. But as the research comes to a close, I think it’s fitting to turn around the question and also consider the impact of everyday life on my research. Discussing work-in-progress with non-academic audiences has been a vital part of the development of this project, challenging me to be clearer about the claims I made, and reminding me that the sorrows and joys of queer history are very much alive today.

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Katherine Mansfield and food

This post was contributed by Aimee Gasston, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, whose research focuses on modernist short fiction, the everyday and the act of reading.Student Profile: Aimee Gasston

My project looks specifically at Katherine Mansfield and food, Virginia Woolf and furniture and Elizabeth Bowen and clothes, and considers everyday practices in relation to reading. I am interested in the ways that short fiction simultaneously fits around and encompasses everyday life – both its ergonomics and elasticity.

In January 2013, I travelled to Wellington to visit the Alexander Turnbull Library and attend a Mansfield conference being organised at Victoria University of Wellington. The Alexander Turnbull Library had recently acquired boxes of new material from the family of Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry. On reading that the new material included recipes, I was eager to go and look for myself and extraordinary research and conference funding from Birkbeck helped me to do this.

Photo1Tea

Jottings amid account books. The poem reads:
Tea, the chemist & marmalade
Far indeed today I’ve strayed
Through paths untrodden, shops unbeaten
And now the bloody stuff is eaten
The chemist the marmalade & tea
Lord how nice & cheap they be!

This was my first experience in any archive and it was overwhelming holding papers in my own hands which Mansfield herself had lived with, touched and written upon.

For my stay, I rented a bach in Wadestown that dated from the 1920s, when Mansfield was creating her strongest work. Each morning I wandered to the library down a steep, winding hill that afforded startling views of the ocean, and down past Tinakori Road where Mansfield was born.

Photo2orangesouffle

Mansfield’s recipe for orange soufflé

I got to see such a diverse range of materials – from postcards to friends, to notebooks, drafts of stories, as well as shopping lists and accounts with poems about food written in the margins. The material also included recipes handwritten by Mansfield, one for orange soufflé and another for coldwater scones, which, she instructs, must be eaten with ‘plenty of butter’. (For a modern interpretation of Mansfield’s orange soufflé, please see Nicole Villeneuve’s excellent Paper and Salt blog about literary recipes.) I had seen some of the material reproduced in publications but you don’t always get the full sense by reading transcriptions, so even seeing things I already knew about was fascinating.

I also came across a 1923 article in New Zealand’s Evening Post about depictions of meals in literature. This was an exciting find because it uses Mansfield as an example of ‘the inferior sex’ being unable to successfully write about food because they have acquired the ‘snack habit’. The argument of this surprising piece chimed so well with my developing thesis, which considered the short story itself as a type of snack – something you can pick up when you need it, something private, rebellious, sumptuous and (often) decadent.

Mansfield was a plump child and later, when she had contracted TB as an adult, increasingly emaciated. Her letters are full of comments about the food she ate as she travelled Europe in search of healthier climates, as well as comments about her weight. But this interest extends beyond that of an anxious patient – in Mansfield’s writing, food is everywhere. It punctuates both her fiction and her biographical writings, and often she conceives of literature in gustatory terms. This fascination is not only intrinsic to Mansfield’s ambition to relay her experience of the world using each one of her senses, but also evidence of her ravenousness for life. In her first collection of stories, In A German Pension (about which she came to be slightly embarrassed), there are pages and pages devoted to gluttonous eating – but the tone is satirical and there’s distance between Mansfield and her subject matter. So while there’s food everywhere, you don’t quite get the sense of tucking in and enjoying it yourself.

In the later, more mature works, food begins to appear at moments when individuals are negotiating for their own personal freedom and engagement with the world. So you find many more instances of eating alone and snacking in outdoor settings or outside of prescribed norms. Snack food was really beginning to come into its own at the beginning of the twentieth century, with fast food becoming readily available, and the modern short story as we know it came into existence at the same time. My research thinks about the way the instances of snacking in the stories parallel Mansfield’s own coming to terms with the short story as a fictional form (rather than something inferior to the novel or poetry) as well as her success in it. Seeing material relics from Mansfield’s own life has provided me with vital insights, which have shaped and informed this consideration of materiality in her fiction.

[Photographs by author reproduce material available in the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Wellington.]

Further references

  •  ‘Katherine Mansfield, Cannibal’, Katherine Mansfield Studies, Vol. 5, (Edinburgh University Press), Autumn 2013.
  • ‘Consuming art: Katherine Mansfield’s literary snack’, Journal of New Zealand Literature 31:2 Special Issue: New Zealand Cultures, October 2013.
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