Phd & Me (Tuesday 9th March 2022)

Here we are now in March, already. January seemed to drag on for about three years, February passed as one long, cold, dark never-ending (and very wet) blur. But now the daffodils are out and the sun is beginning to shine; spring is on the way. Sadly, the bees from the hive upturned in Storm Eunice did not survive – I tried my best to save them, but the queen had gone and so many had died, there was never any chance of their recovery. So I now have an empty hive awaiting preparation for the coming season, and – thanks to all who’ve so very kindly donated to my Crowdfunder campaign – I’ll be able to start over, in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, my time and attention are very much focused on academics, settling gradually into life as a post-graduate research student. It’s been four month since I enrolled as PhD candidate with the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, and while I’ve known all along what my research subject would be, it’s taken until now to feel comfortable – and confident – enough to share it here.

Firstly, I really like old books. For me, an old book (musty pages, hand-scrawled notes, old library date-stamps and bus-ticket bookmarks) is a window through time, connecting ‘us’ in the here and now with ‘them’ back then and there. A time machine, allowing the reader to travel back through history, to a different time and place. And I have a real thing for history – not that I knew this all those years back at school, when ‘history’ consisted mainly of the names of ‘important’ men and the timelines of war. Give me social history, the history of real people living real lives. This is my kind of history. The history of food, houses, lifestyles – and literature. Of course, living in west Cornwall, this kind of history is all around. Dripping from every street corner, every farm field, clifftop and hillfort, abandoned mine and crumbling ruin, all those prehistoric stone circles, burial chambers, and standing stones. Even the house that I live in, built over a century ago, is a bricks-&-mortar documentary charting one hundred years of social change. For my PhD research I get to channel all of these interests, exploring the lives of Victorian folklorists William Bottrell and Robert Hunt as the primary collectors of Cornish folklore.

The term ‘folklore’ means, at its simplest, the beliefs, traditions and customs of ordinary people – the ‘folk’ – and was coined back in 1846 by English academic William J. Thoms, categorising the rural mass population as subject for study via the lens of colonial middle-class prejudice. Ordinary working people as curious ‘other’. I prefer to think of it as literary acheaology; retrieving the clues buried beneath words on a page. The Victorian era was a time of huge change, socially, economically, politically, and culturally, as religious ideologies crumbled beneath the revelations of Darwinian theory, and the technological advances of science fueled the Industrial Revolution – upturning all that had been before. All across Britain, a multitude of writers (mainly men) rallied into action, intent on ‘capturing’ the disappearing ‘old ways’. William Bottrell and Robert Hunt were two such men. Their combined works became founding texts in the study of Cornish folklore; Hunt’s two-volume Popular Romances of the West of England (1865) with Bottrell’s two-volume Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall (1870 & 1873) and single-volume Stories and Folklore of West Cornwall (1880). In the century and half since intial publication, their collective tales have been reworked for retelling, in a myriad different ways. I too will be doing this. My main focus, however, will be these two men themselves; I’ll be looking in more detail at their lives, exploring their motivation and methods for producing these seminal works. I’ll be blog-posting here as I go, sharing my findings and plotting my progress, as I venture back in time via the folklore of west Cornwall, preserved by these two Victorian writers, a century and half ago.