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Alison Baxter is from Oxford and joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in September 2016. Her thesis title is ‘Debatable Lands: exploring the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction through family history’.
My garden backs onto a Brookes’ hall of residence so the university has been a constant presence (and good neighbour!) for many years. In my previous role, as head of a local charity, my organisation did useful work with Brookes’ students and staff to promote volunteering and community engagement.
I attended a stimulating one-day workshop on Creative Writing and History in July 2015 and felt that Brookes was a sympathetic environment for the kind of writing and research that I am interested in. I also liked the idea of being so close to home after a year spent commuting to Norwich.
I completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 2015 after giving up full-time work in December 2013. I had been a teacher of English overseas, a publisher of textbooks for teaching English as second or foreign language, and for the final ten years of my working life I was the Chief Executive of a local charity, Oxfordshire Community and Voluntary Action.
It has been quite easy to settle in. I have been impressed by the amount of support available, ranging from networking opportunities with fellow research students to input from my supervisors, subject librarians and members of staff from other departments. I feel less isolated than I expected and I know where to go if I need help. In terms of resources the library is not comprehensive enough for my particular needs but we are fortunate in Oxford to have not only the Bodleian but an excellent public library service so most of what I require is on the doorstep.
My research project has two distinct parts. The first makes up 80% of the whole and is a work of historical non-fiction that tells the story of an obscure Victorian family and their experience of living through the changes brought about by the age of steam. The other 20% is a critical commentary that examines aspects of the blurred boundary between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ in literary writing.
In my creative writing I aim to challenge the assumption that family history belongs solely to the domain of personal interest or celebrity television. As a genre it overlaps with history, biography and memoir but is rarely taken seriously by critics. Yet genealogical research is now one of the most popular online pastimes. My writing addresses a shared preoccupation that I hope will allow my personal story to resonate with others.
I define myself as a life writer rather than biographer or memoirist, although I write about other people (biography) and about my own family (memoir). My starting point is a set of characters who are unsuitable subjects for a traditional biography; they led unexciting lives and left behind no diaries or letters to illuminate their thoughts and feelings. They are part of my extended family but they cannot be the subject of a true memoir because they are beyond the reach of living memory. I believe the lives that I have rescued from obscurity can act as a window on the Victorian age. I aim to shape my historical research into a compelling story, create characters that engage the reader by appealing to universal emotions and experience, and thereby shed light on what it felt like to be a Victorian, and in particular an ambitious, socially and geographically mobile Victorian. To quote historian Alison Light, private history becomes in this context public history.
In the critical analysis that accompanies my story I intend to examine the role of invention and imagination in literary writing. Virginia Woolf claimed that ‘Truth of fact and truth of fiction are incompatible’. Biographers and historians tend to be scrupulous about factual evidence while novelists and to an extent memoirists are prepared to blur boundaries. Yet there is never just one version of a story. Interpretations are multiple and change over time. We may view both fiction and non-fiction as literary narrative, using the same kind of structures and devices to engage the reader, but there remains an essential difference. Novelists are free to invent but what should a life writer do when faced with gaps in the evidence and the mysterious interior life of another human being?
I am interested in how family history fits into this discussion of fact, fiction and truth. It presents a particular characteristic, which is that it is driven by inheritance. Our objects, photographs, and family myths carry their own reality within them, a reality that straddles past and present. They transport us back to a time beyond personal recollection and create a web of associations that is not available in curated museum collections. I intend to explore how the relationship between fact and fiction can be illuminated by considering the truth of objects.
I enjoy the intellectual stimulus and the fact that there is always something new to learn. I love the fact that I can sit and read historical novels and call it work! One of my biggest challenges is conducting two kinds of research in parallel. On the one hand I need to do historical research for my creative writing project and on the other I have to be up-to-date with relevant literary theory in order to write my critical commentary. I have found it best to focus on one for a while and then switch rather than doing both at the same time. My other big challenge is knowing where to stop. The research could potentially just keep expanding as I find interesting avenues to pursue. Writing helps. The process of getting it down on paper helps me decide where my focus should be. I have to be very disciplined about what makes it into the final draft.
It has been helpful to feel part of a community with shared challenges and although some of the training offered is less relevant to someone at my stage in life, I have appreciated the specific sessions on for example, Endnote (for referencing), the requirements for registration and transfer, and the relationship between research student and supervisor.
I would like to be a full-time writer and hope eventually to be published!