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Fellows Find: The Christine Brooke-Rose archive

By Stephanie Jones

Stephanie Jones is a Ph.D. candidate in the English and Creative Writing Department at Aberystwyth University. At the Ransom Center, she analyzed the Christine Brooke-Rose papers for her dissertation, which is a single-author study on the writer, looking at the neglect of her work as a British author by the industry. Jones’s research was supported by a 2014–2015 Dissertation Fellowship from the Harry Ransom Center, jointly funded by the Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.

 

The subject of neglected British experimental authors has emerged as a poignant topic of critical discussion over the last few years. Writers of the 1960s and 1970s who had been influenced by the Second World War, as well as the highly reflexive, avant-garde literature produced bysuch modernist heavyweights as James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett, are beginning to be reassessed as having something useful to offer to the current critical climate. The work of Christine Brooke-Rose is no exception to this, and recently has become fairly well recognized as being critically significant by a number of seriousliterary academics.

Christine Brooke-Rose in her WAAF uniform before she went to Bletchley Park. She is on the right, shown with three other women.
Christine Brooke-Rose in her WAAF uniform before she went to Bletchley Park. She is on the right, shown with three other women.

Having been awarded a Dissertation Fellowship by the Harry Ransom Center in 2013, I was able to study Brooke-Rose’s archive for a two-week period as part of the research for my doctoral thesis. While Brooke-Rose’s critical publications had always received much respect from the academic community, her novels had been less successful with the general British readership. This had been largely to do with the perceived “difficulty” of her writing, which far from challenging readers had often seemed to alienate them from her work. I was keen to read the contemporary reviews of Brooke-Rose’s work (both creative and critical) in the collection at the Ransom Center, in order to assess the public response to her experiment.

 

In a review of perhaps her most “difficult” novel Thru (1975), the reviewer Peter Ackroyd had said that “Thru is too little, and it’s also too late,” claiming that Brooke-Rose had “missed” the modernist “boat.” It is true that Brooke-Rose had been influenced by a number of modernist writers including Pound and Beckett. This influence, along with the work of the French nouveau roman (particularly that of Alain Robbe-Grillet), in some respects accounts for her preoccupation with self-reflection, word play, repetition, and the dispensing of free-indirect discourse, replacing it with a continued narrator-less present tense. However, her experience as a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force Officer at Bletchley Park during World War II has generally been glossed over in critical responses to her work. I had identified this experience as significant early on in my studies, but the information gleaned from letters, interviews, and pictures stored in the archive has allowed me to connect her experiment with more sophisticated, scientific methods of language coding of which Brooke-Rose had been made aware during her time at Bletchley. The duplicitous and multi-layered nature of language had become apparent to her there, and in the interviews housed at the Ransom Center, Brooke-Rose described it as her “first University,” claiming that it was here that she truly learned to read.

 

On my return from my fellowship at the Ransom Center, I contacted my friend and fellow Brooke-Rose enthusiast Natalie Ferris from Queen’s College, Oxford with regard to setting up a Christine Brooke-Rose society. With the support of Brooke-Rose’s friend and literary executor Jean-Michel Rabaté, the Ransom Center, and Michael Schmidt at Carcanet Publishing, the Christine Brooke-Rose Society will be launched with an event at Somerville College Oxford, on June 26, 2015.

 

Related content:

Christine Brooke-Rose, experimental fiction writer

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Christine Brooke-Rose in her WAAF uniform before she went to Bletchley Park. She is on the right, shown with three other women. This photo was taken in the spring of 1941 by an unidentified photographer.
Christine Brooke-Rose in her WAAF uniform before she went to Bletchley Park. She is on the right, shown with three other women. This photo was taken in the spring of 1941 by an unidentified photographer.

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