I grew up in West Sussex, and though I moved away many years ago I still think of the stretch of the South Downs between Pulborough and Chichester as home. I went to St Joseph’s Convent in Storrington and then to Farlington School near Horsham. I'm profoundly grateful to all those who helped me become the first in the family to go to university.
I read English at Christ Church, Oxford, and then moved to London where I worked in the Department of British Drawings and Watercolours at Christie’s King Street. I went on to do an MA at the Courtauld Institute, specialising in modern European Art. I wrote about the revival of the landscape watercolour in the 1930s Britain, though at the time it felt rebellious to choose a British subject for my dissertation. The project made me want to explore the relationship between the Romantic English art I discovered on the MA, and the modernist fiction (especially by Virginia Woolf) that was my first big literary passion. This became the subject of the doctoral thesis I wrote over the next three years in Oxford, and eventually - much revised - it turned into Romantic Moderns.
I started my career as a lecturer at the University of Liverpool in 2007. I worked in the English Department there for ten years, becoming a Senior Lecturer and then a Professor. It was a privilege to talk about literature with eight or nine students at a time in my office on Chatham Street and later on Abercromby Square. I ran an MA in Contemporary Literature from 2008 to 2013, and convened ‘Modernism’ for second-year undergraduates from 2008 to 2016. I taught nineteenth- and twentieth-century American fiction, and particularly enjoyed the first-year survey courses which offer students a glimpse of the great panorama of literary history and a sense of how we might make connections across time.
Liverpool staff and students on a reading weekend at Gurney Manor, Somerset, part of a Landmark Trust pilot project.
In 2017 I took up a Professorial Fellowship at the University of Birmingham. I'm lucky to be part of a large and vibrant community of thinkers in the College of Arts and Law. Among the excellent research groups is the Centre for Modernist Cultures and also the Centre for Literary Editing and Material Texts with its focus on histories of publishing and the life of physical books out and about among readers.
With Ondaatje Prize authors and judges, Royal Society of Literature, 2017.
My current focus is a book about the history of landscape and local feeling, explored through responses to a particualar place: I am returning to Sussex and writing about people, buildings and places in the Arun Valley. I also have work in progress on Virginia Woolf’s reading, and the cultural history of the year as it is expressed in calendars, almanacs, liturgical art and the literature of the seasons.
I live and write in Oxford. After two decades it's still thrilling to turn into Radcliffe Square and see the lights of the Bodleian. Among many other things, Oxford is a great city for gardens and there are remarkable plants to visit at every time of year. My small garden is one of my main research projects, however mixed the results may be. I'm interested in forms of home-making and especially in what they might mean in modern lives spent largely on the move.