Alison Baxter

Alison Baxter



Thesis title: Debatable Lands: exploring the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction through family history

Start year: 2016


Research topic

My research aims to challenge Virginia Woolf’s assertion that ‘Truth of fact and truth of fiction are incompatible’. It has two parts:

  • a work of creative non-fiction that takes its inspiration from inherited objects. It tells the story of an obscure Victorian family set against a historical backdrop that situates the characters within a rapidly changing industrial society;
  • an accompanying critical commentary that examines where, how, and why the boundary between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ has been blurred in my narrative and relates these incursions into debatable land to current theories of history, biography, and the historical novel.

In my creative writing I intend to:

  • challenge the assumption that family history belongs solely to the domain of personal interest or celebrity television rather than to literature or history by using it as the foundation for a piece of creative historical writing;
  • use the lives of obscure individuals as the inspiration for a narrative that sheds light on the collective past of those Victorian men and women who lived precarious lives at the shifting boundary of the lower middle class. The men at the heart of my project were a product of the age of steam, engineers whose technical skills allowed them to travel the world, and entrepreneurs who exploited new forms of transport for commercial gain. Their sisters were schoolteachers whose lives challenge the stock image of the downtrodden governess. The backdrop to the story is the rise and fall of Hayle, a small town in Cornwall that was for a time the most important steam engine manufacturing centre in the world.

The dilemma for a life writer who claims to be composing a non-fiction narrative is remain faithful to what Woolf calls the ‘granite’ of the facts while allowing the ‘rainbow’ personality of the characters to shine through. In the critical commentary I intend to:

  • interrogate the claim that the presumed opposition between fiction and non-fiction disappears when historical novels and history writing are both viewed as literary narrative;
  • explore the hypothesis that the history-fiction difference is more one of purpose than of content by examining the role of the writer and the reader in deciding what is fictional.


Life writing, creative non-fiction, narrative non-fiction, historical fiction, Victorians, maritime history, steam engines, women’s education

Teaching experience

  • Diploma in the Teaching of English Overseas (PGCE), University of Manchester, 1979
  • Ten years teaching English as a foreign/second language overseas (Canada, Spain, Jordan, Vanuatu)
  • I now volunteer with FELLOW, a charity offering free English lessons to overseas workers in Oxford


Conference papers

  • UEA Creative Writing Anthology Non-Fiction 2015 Egg Box Publishing
  • I have also published graded readers for learners of English with Oxford University Press

Academic and professional training

  • MA in Creative Writing (Biography and Creative non-fiction), University of East Anglia, 2015
  • Maitrise és Arts, Etudes Québécoises, Université Laval Quebec, 1977
  • BA Comb Hons 1st class (French/Italian), University of Birmingham, 1973

Other experience and professional activities

After teaching overseas I became a publisher of textbooks for teaching English to speakers of other languages and worked for Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press. I was Director of Publishing and Communications at the national charity Directory of Social Change, and ended my career as Chief Executive of the charity Oxfordshire Community and Voluntary Action. I have been a trustee of national, regional and local charities, a volunteer mentor, and a school governor. I am still involved in voluntary work of various kinds.