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The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

The First Cloud 1887 by Sir William Quiller Orchardson 1832-1910

I think Anthony Trollope might be my new favourite novelist. His books might be ridiculously long, but they’re so much fun that the pages whip by in an ecstasy of stifled giggling, and leave you bereft when you emerge from the world he has created, desperate for more of his wonderfully drawn characters. I had only read one Trollope, some years ago now, when I decided, when stuck on a train with only what I had downloaded on my Kindle to read, to give The Way We Live Now a go. I know many people say it’s their favourite, and having watched the TV series (back in 2001, apparently – that makes me feel old!), I was keen to see what I would make of it. As I am currently completely submerged in the nineteenth century thanks to all the reading and research I’m doing for my MA, I have been avoiding Victorian fiction when I read for pleasure, but this was such a perfect blend of literary entertainment that I couldn’t put it down. Trollope is, in my opinion, far superior to Dickens in that he doesn’t preach and he doesn’t caricature; he presents life as it is and leaves the reader to make the judgements, and he does it all in a refreshingly pared-back prose that has none of the fuss of Dickens’ lavishly trimmed sentences. If you think Victorian fiction is too heavy going for you, then Trollope, I can promise you, will be a pleasant surprise. And The Way We Live Now is an excellent example of how atypically Victorian he is, as the world of selfish, materialistic characters being held to ransom by the machinations of the corrupt financier Melmotte feels disturbingly contemporary!

The multi stranded plot revolves around the central character of Sir Felix Carbury, a young, indulged and perpetually hard up aristocrat whose doting mother, Lady Carbury, is determined to secure him a financially stable future. Struggling to make ends meet, she is pursuing a literary career with little success, and is in despair at her daughter Hetta’s refusal to marry her irritatingly nice, sensible and wealthy cousin, Roger, who lives at the family estate in Suffolk. As Hetta won’t marry for money, and her embarrassingly terrible literary efforts aren’t filling the coffers as quickly as she would like, Lady Carbury sets her sights on the only daughter of mysterious financier Mr Melmotte, who is newly arrived in London and causing quite the stir. Marie Melmotte is hardly pretty, but she is rumoured to be the richest young woman in Europe, and isn’t averse to finding a husband. Thankfully for Felix, who has no inclination to marry, but is so desperate for cash to pay off his gambling, drinking and horse riding debts that he’ll do anything to get some money, is criminally handsome. As such, Lady Carbury’s plan to push the two young people together works like a charm; Marie is smitten at first sight with the gorgeous young baronet, and Felix is prepared to marry her if he can guarantee she’ll prop up his idle lifestyle.

Meanwhile, Sir Felix has embroiled himself in Mr Melmotte’s latest financial scheme; the Central Pacific and Mexico railway, which is promising riches to everyone who invests in it. Melmotte secures the backing of a number of aristocrats, and the talk in town is that he is sitting on a fortune, but soon the inexperienced and rather dense Lords who have been corralled into the scheme thinking it will save them from financial ruin become suspicious at both the lack of ready money and information about what exactly Melmotte is doing with the shares. Most concerned is Paul Montague, whose firm are behind the railway scheme; he doesn’t trust Melmotte, and is worried that his money has been sunk into a black hole. He also happens to be in love with Hetta Carbury, and she in love with him, but being penniless – especially as he has seen no return as of yet from his shares in the railway – he has no chance of winning Lady Carbury’s consent.

As Sir Felix, Lady Carbury and Marie plot a marriage behind Melmotte’s back, rumours, fuelled by an aristocrat who thinks he has been cheated, begin to circulate that Melmotte is not an honourable man. Stories surface about midnight flights from various European cities, broken promises, and bankruptcies. Questions are asked about whether Melmotte’s fortune actually exists, and investors in the railway begin to become nervous. Felix starts to wonder whether Marie Melmotte is really such a catch after all, and as all of London gossips and chooses sides, those who are reliant on Melmotte for their financial security are forced into nailing their colours to the mast. Will they stay loyal to Melmotte in the hope of a return, or will they withdraw, choosing the dignity of their names over the means to live up to them? And will Melmotte manage to weather the growing storm of doubt and disapproval before it brings his empire to its knees?

This is such a fabulous book, and there are plenty more characters and sub plots than I have been able to detail here. Trollope creates a wonderfully rich, vibrant world that takes us from impoverished country estates to city board rooms, London salons to boarding houses, all filled with lively, colourful and utterly real characters, all striving to make a life for themselves in a capitalist world. Sir Felix is a magnificent piece of characterisation, perfectly exemplifying the results of indulgent parenting, a poor education and the sense of entitlement that comes from unearned status, who still just about manages to be sympathetic despite being an utter waste of space. Melmotte is enigmatic, complex and not the villain you would expect, and the female characters are well drawn, with subtlety and realism in the dilemmas and strictures they face. Trollope is a refreshingly human novelist, with no axe to grind or agenda to peddle; he invites us to take a look at the corruption of society at all levels, and decide for ourselves who is at fault. There is no heavy handed narration, no clumsy moralising; instead, there is merely honesty, and an honesty that is hilarious as it is depressing. I couldn’t put it down, and I already can’t wait to read more. This is classic fiction at its finest; I’d challenge anyone not to love every minute of it!

A Pin to See the Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse

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I read A Pin to See the Peepshow as part of a podcast over at Tea or Books?, when Simon and I decided to read and compare two books based on the same real life murder trial; that of lovers Edith Thompson and Freddy Bywaters, convicted and hanged for murdering Edith’s husband Percy in 1922. (The other book is Messalina of the Suburbs by E M Delafield, which you can hear all about on the podcast!) F Tennyson Jesse, who spent much of her career writing about true crime, found this trial fascinating, being as it was that many considered it to be a miscarriage of justice, with Edith Thompson always pledging her innocence. As such, her novelised version, with a pretty, intelligent and ambitious heroine, Julia, being cast as the unfortunate Edith, is a very interesting, sympathetic account of how thoughtless actions can lead perfectly ordinary people into a nightmare from which there can be no escape. It was certainly enough to send shivers down my spine!

The novel opens with Julia Almond’s schooldays, where she is the pet of her teachers in their small, suburban school filled with middle class girls. Julia is bored of her drab surroundings, and her painfully boring, unaffectionate parents. She longs to make something of herself, and have beautiful things, and fall in love. Passionate and more than a little selfish, she feels life and its injustices incredibly deeply, and struggles to control the emotions that tussle within her chest. Her lively imagination, ambition and keen sense of aesthetic beauty elevate her above her contemporaries, and soon she finds herself in the enviable position of being a shopgirl at L’Étrangère, a smart West End boutique run by a society lady as a bit of a hobby. Julia becomes utterly absorbed in the shop, revelling in making herself invaluable, and soon she is responsible for buying, even being sent to Paris to do so. Successful and attractive, Julia believes herself capable of anything, but when her father dies and she and her mother begin to struggle financially, Julia’s harmonious life is shattered by the reality that she will soon have to share her bedroom with her younger cousin when her mother’s relatives move in to share the housekeeping costs. Relishing the sanctity of her own space, the thought of sharing with someone else, of losing her freedom to come and go and do as she pleases, is enough to throw her into the arms of her father’s newly widowed friend Herbert Starling, whose freshly acquired military uniform and status, as well as his smart flat, suddenly make him a most attractive prospect.

Hastily married and installed in her smart, clean flat, away from the press of relatives who she hated seeing after her busy days working in the shop, Julia is content. She is talented at her work, enjoys the social whirl of wartime London, and the problem of not really loving her husband is something she can at least, for now, put on the back burner. However, when Herbert returns from the front, unscathed, he expects to find Julia ready to play the role of a traditional wife, and Julia’s disgust for the man she is now trapped with leads to a nightmare of evasion and recriminations. Neither able to understand or accommodate the needs of the other, their marriage is a disaster, made even more so when Julia meets Leonard Carr, and falls madly in love. Longing to be with him, but unable to leave Herbert, she snatches any time she can find with him, in the meantime writing obsessive, lavish letters detailing her love and all the things she would do to be with him. She fantasises about Herbert’s death, never dreaming of doing him harm, but wishing one of his many hypochondriac ailments will kill him for her, especially after he forces her into sex with him. However, she doesn’t anticipate that Leonard will eventually have enough of the situation, and take matters into his own hands, dragging her down into the depths of hell with him as she finds herself suddenly on trial for her life….

This a brilliantly written, wonderfully psychologically complex look at women’s lives in the early 20th century, and Tennyson Jesse’s skill at making Julia’s actions so utterly comprehensible and sympathetic is extraordinary. Where the book really comes into its own is in the final chapters, when Julia reflects on her life while waiting to be condemned in her prison cell, and her realisation of the completely unrealised joy of freedom, and the fact that she will never have it again, is heartbreaking. Her life, once so busy, so purposeful, has been destroyed by an emotion that she is not even sure is real, and the way in which Tennyson Jesse subtly questions the true depth of her and Leo’s relationship is very skilful. I also loved the glimpses into the working world of women in the Edwardian period, the flashes of London street life from the tops of omnibuses, and the domestic details of everyday Edwardian homes. Overall, however, I loved Tennyson Jesse’s beautiful writing, and her ability to create a world so convincing, and a character so sympathetic, that I was almost in tears at the end. This is a remarkable book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s currently out of print, but is widely available used. I’m now looking forward to reading more of Tennyson Jesse’s work. Any recommendations would be welcome!

Lost Sites of Victorian London

While doing research for various topics during my MA degree, I’ve come across a number of interesting London sites of former Victorian curiosities that I never knew were there. Here are a few of my favourites:

The site of the London Necropolis Railway

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This railway line was opened in 1854 by the London Necropolis Company to transport the dead and mourners between London and the newly opened Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, still the largest in the UK. Unfortunately the cemetery never proved as popular as was hoped, perhaps in part thanks to the Magnificent Seven cemeteries built in a ring around London during the nineteenth century (of which Highgate is the most famous) proving much more convenient for Londoners, and after severe bomb damage during WWII, the station and railway were closed in the 1940s. The mourning culture of the nineteenth century is fascinating, particularly after the death of Prince Albert sent Queen Victoria into a deep mourning that set the trend for wider society’s excessively ritualistic approach to death. The fact that there was an entire railway line just to service the funeral industry is very telling of how important it was to Victorians to do death properly, and the vogue for cemeteries as places of leisure combined with memorial speaks to a sense of ease with and reverence of death that has long gone from our cultural norms. Nowadays the London Necropolis Company’s office building is still just about recognisable, near to Waterloo station on Waterloo Bridge Road, and is well worth a passing look.

Jay’s London General Mourning Warehouse

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Further to the topic of mourning, one had to have a place to go to buy the myriad of clothing, accessories and paraphernalia required when a relative, friend, or even public figure, died, and Jay’s was, from the 1840s, the watchword in mourning for the fashionable. Jay’s provided everything that could possibly be needed inside its lavish warehouse that would eventually grow so large as to take up a whole block of Regent Street, then the most elegant and fashionable shopping street in London (which it largely still is today, though there are fancier enclaves – for those who aren’t natives, Oxford Street might be better known, but is much seedier, and has no high end shops). Jay’s had an army of staff on hand to travel to your home with a range of products to demonstrate and measure you for, as well as providing a very smart shop floor where the latest fashions in appropriate colours could be viewed, alongside jewellery, accessories and even mourning decorations for the home. Jay’s very much set the trend for mourning, and their fortunes flourished as the importance of maintaining the right appearance in the wake of a death became ever magnified in nineteenth century society. It is strange today to think that a mourning shop could take up such a prominent position in a street known for its fashion; nowadays the site – from what I can make out – is occupied by H&M and Banana Republic. How times change!

The Site of the First Ladies’ Public Toilet

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The very first public toilets in London were created for the 1851 Great Exhibition. The Royal Society of Arts, who were responsible for the project, realised that this was a service London had been missing, and so set out to provide more toilets around the city that would function as places where people could both use the toilet and clean themselves up – tidy their hair, brush their clothes, clean their shoes, etc. These were in practice large rooms with attendants, similar to something you might find in a high end hotel nowadays. The first of these public conveniences was opened to women at 51 Bedford Street, just off the Strand, in 1852. This was – and still is – pretty much opposite the Royal Society of Arts,which was obviously a factor in the choice of location. The Strand, which Bedford Street comes off, was also a very busy street in the 1850s, as it is now. Though Charing Cross Station, the main hub of the Strand today, did not yet exist, Trafalgar Square, a big public draw, did, and the Strand was a main route through the city, merging into Pall Mall and Whitehall at one end, and Fleet Street at the other. What sorts of women would have used this facility? As it wasn’t free, it was unlikely to be working class women. Middle class women, going about their daily business, perhaps would have used it, especially as many had to take lengthy omnibus trips between their suburban homes and the city centre, though I also wonder whether it would have been frequented by prostitutes, who are known to have operated heavily in the area. I need to do some more research on the topic, but the consensus is that public toilet provision in the city went a long way towards opening up the city to women, who were barred from the pubs and clubs where most men would have been able to use the toilet, and so were restricted in their movements by the lack of provision for their biological needs. Many of us would argue the same today  – there are never enough public toilets available for women! I have not managed to find an image of this toilet, and the building on the site now is later, but above is an image of what the public convenience may have looked like, from an image published in the 1880s.

Broadstreet Turkish Bath

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This has to be one of the most incredible survivals of Victorian London; sandwiched between high rise glass office blocks in the City, sits this beautiful Turkish Bathhouse. A reminder of the vogue for such luxurious bathing facilities in the latter half of the century, its Moorish design speaks to the taste for all things Oriental and decadent during the fin de siècle. Much of the interior still survives, apparently, but the building is, as far as I can tell, currently closed, after having been converted into a nightclub in its most recent incarnation. I’d love to get a look inside – if anyone knows anything more about it, please do let me know!

Dickens and the railway

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My course for my MA in Victorian Studies this term is on Nineteenth Century London, and it’s proving fascinating so far. However, when I initially got the reading list, my heart sank when I saw the first novel I would have to read: Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens. Unusually for a Victorianist, I am not a fan of Dickens. I hoped when I did my English degree that I would develop a love for his flowery prose, colourful sidekicks and insipid women, but I didn’t, and I struggled my way through the inadvisedly chosen course on Dickens I studied in my third year. Wading for what feels like years in sentences weighted down with illegal quantities of adjectives and treacle thick sentiment is not my idea of reading pleasure, no matter how good the essential story might be. I can think of dozens of nineteenth century authors I’d rather read, and having slogged my way through the 900-odd pages of Dombey and Son over Christmas, I’m not about to change my mind on that score. Having said that, I did quite enjoy the story, and found myself wrapped up in the events, though the heavy handed ‘plot twists’ were noticeable from a mile off and there were more unnecessary periphery characters to keep track of than you could shake a stick at. It is a piece of Victorian melodrama at its finest, containing creepy preternaturally wise children, an innocent, lovely maiden, a selfish father, an evil villain, fallen women, scheming mothers, a shipwreck and a spectacularly violent death. Somehow all of these random people and events manage to converge into a faintly believable plot, and though I wouldn’t have read it out of choice, it was laughable enough to keep me interested despite being under duress.

As much as I have damned Dombey and Son with very faint praise, there was an aspect of the novel that really piqued my interest, and is an area of history I am currently researching with the idea of potentially doing my dissertation on it next year. The history of the railway and London is a fascinating one, and Dombey and Son is Dickens’ railway novel, in which he shows the impact of the railway on London’s topography as well as on the mindset of its people. There is a wonderful passage where he shows us the building of a new railway line in the neighbourhood of one of the characters, bringing the atmosphere completely to life: ‘The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre.  Traces of its course were visible on every side.  Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood.  Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill.  … Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable. … In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.’ This is an image of almost Biblical destruction; the railway is depicted as a force of nature, unstoppable, elemental, destroying all it comes into contact with. The neighbourhood of Stagg’s Gardens, which was in the area of Camden Town in North London, is all but obliterated, the cottages and market gardens that once made up its streets sacrificed to the onwards march of the railway. It’s an incredibly powerful image, and one that represents the conflicting views of the railway and what it represented by Victorians themselves. Some saw it as a great civiliser, drawing together the different ends of the country and enabling freer and faster movement of people, labour, industry and ideas. Others saw it is a destroyer, both of the natural environment and of community life. With everyone rushing about from place to place, life was going to change inordinately, for everyone. After all, it was the railway that instigated the need for standardised time, thanks to the use of timetables, and it has been noted that after the advent of the railway, deaths due to heart attacks rose, perhaps suggestive of some people’s inability to adjust to a more frenetic, stressful pace of life.

In the late 1840s, when Dickens was writing the novel, there was a great surge of railway building in England, and almost a mania amongst railway companies in wanting to be the first to lay a line in as-yet unreached areas. As the railway companies were all private entities, there was no overall plan, no strategy, for covering the metropolitan area, and so London became served by several terminal stations operated separately by each company. Passengers needing to switch to a service operated by a different railway company had to join the throngs of traffic on the heaving streets of London to make their way to another station across town; rather than easing congestion, the railway actually made it worse, by throwing yet more people out into the streets of the metropolis. Dombey and Son is wonderful at showing those crowds, those jostling mixtures of sex and class and purpose, moving in constant motion through the ever changing streets of the city. For the railway radically altered the geography of London, destroying old neighbourhoods and creating new ones, as Dickens shows us when he revisits Stagg’s Gardens when the railway is completed: ‘there was no such place as Staggs’s Gardens.  It had vanished from the earth.  Where the old rotten summer-houses once had stood, palaces now reared their heads, and granite columns of gigantic girth opened a vista to the railway world beyond.  The miserable waste ground, where the refuse-matter had been heaped of yore, was swallowed up and gone.  The old by-streets now swarmed with passengers and vehicles of every kind; the new streets that had stopped disheartened in the mud and waggon-ruts, formed towns within themselves.  …  Bridges that had led to nothing, led to villas, gardens, churches, healthy public walks.’ Here the vocabulary is undoubtedly positive. What once was a slum has become a sort of paradise. In its destruction, the railway has brought about a new utopia. But Dickens is certainly not consistent in this attitude throughout the novel; his use of the railway as a symbol of death and destruction, even personifying a train as death at one point, clearly evidences his own deep distrust and fear of the railway, as much as he could see the benefits of it. This is especially interesting when considering that Dickens was involved in a fatal rail crash in Kent a decade or so after finishing Dombey and Son. His fear of trains afterwards is of course very understandable, and this was a fear shared by many Victorians, who, despite the fairly low statistics, terrified themselves with thoughts of fiery crashes after reading the sensational reportage of any accidents in the newspapers. In fact, considering that the railways were run entirely by manual rather than technological processes, and safety was reliant on good old fashioned observation and timetabling, it really is testament to Victorian railway workers that there weren’t more accidents.

So, to finish, Dombey and Son might not be the best written book in the world, or the best story ever told, or the best Dickens, but it’s a fascinating insight into the contemporary concerns of Victorian society, and offers an intriguing glimpse of London at a time when it was being transformed by the criss-crossing of several competing railway lines through its core. The railway changed London forever, and it continues to do so; those of us living with the headache of Crossrail can certainly sympathise with the residents of Stagg’s Gardens, who are forced to go and live elsewhere, with no promise of compensation – a standard practice in the nineteenth century, when no one batted an eyelid at forcing poor people out of their homes in the name of progress (plus ça change!).

If you’re interested in reading more about the railway in Victorian Britain, I can recommend these books:

Michael Freeman, Railways and the Victorian Imagination

Wolfgang Shivelbusch, The Railway Journey

David Turner, Victorian and Edwardian Railway Travel

On Studying

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I signed up for my MA degree last year on a bit of a whim. I’d been thinking about doing an MA for years, but circumstances always got in the way of me being able to make the commitment. Last year, however, I finally felt in the right place at the right time, and thought, why not just do it now? So, without giving myself time to doubt the decision, I filled in the form and sent it that very same day. Within just a couple of weeks, I’d attended an interview and accepted my place. It all felt very sudden, and when the idea actually became reality, I panicked. What if I wouldn’t manage to fit all the work in? What if I would be the idiot at the back of the room, with everyone else already being experts? What if I couldn’t write MA level essays and ended up failing the course? What if I didn’t enjoy it and found the research I would have to do completely boring? What if this was all just a terrible mistake?! After a night of crippling self-doubt, I pulled myself together, pushed the nagging fear of not being clever enough to the back of my mind, enthusiastically bought all of the books on the reading list, and embraced the idea of becoming a mature student, going to the pub after lectures with my fellow students and spending my weekends in the library. This was going to be an adventure. And just like a rollercoaster, even if parts of it were going to be terrifying, and a little bit unpleasant, I knew, deep down, that I would love the experience. I’d already done the hardest part by getting on the ride in the first place.

One term in, and I can report that I have absolutely loved every second so far. I chose my course carefully, and it has exceeded all of my expectations. The difference between my MA and BA is enormous; my BA course was large and many of the texts we studied were not my cup of tea. I often felt disinterested and demotivated by having to study periods or genres of literature I found boring or impenetrable, and it was frustrating to have to skate over the surface of the things that really interested me because we had to gain a broad knowledge of a huge subject area in a relatively short amount of time. Doing an MA gives you the luxury of specialism, and I have found every week fascinating, as I am learning about the precise period I am interested in: the nineteenth century. I am having my eyes opened to so much, and the more I learn, the more I want to learn, and each seminar leads me down so many paths of interest that I take such pleasure in pursuing in my own time. Having very small seminar groups is also a considerable change from my BA, where groups were often pushing 20 students. Now there are less than 10 of us in each group, giving everyone plenty of opportunity to share their ideas and for us to bounce theories and interpretations off each other, creating fascinating and enlightening discussions. As all of us are mature students and have made the decision to pursue this qualification at no small sacrifice to our finances and leisure time, everyone is committed and engaged, and there are not the silences I experienced so often in my undergraduate seminars, when it became very obvious that all of us had been far too busy partying that week to read the assigned text! What’s more, we get to choose our own essay topics, and I’ve had such fun picking my topics and hanging out in the gorgeous University of London library, Senate House, which has an amazing rare book collection and incredible art deco architecture. Getting lost in books, finding undiscovered gems and spending evenings doing research has been brilliant. I love the experience of finding something that then leads to something else and then something else, sending me deep into a labyrinth of Victoriana that I could happily wander in forever.

When I started telling people about my decision to sign up for the MA, a lot of people asked me why I was doing it. The assumption from most was that I was doing it for a promotion, to improve my qualifications so that I could get a job in a more prestigious school. When I said no, I was doing it purely for pleasure, I received some interesting reactions. The concept that education was something to be pursued purely for pleasure, rather than for some sort of economic or practical advantage, seemed to be a novel idea. Why on earth would I spend so much time and money on something that offered me nothing of tangible benefit in return? This was something I thought about before I began the course; unlike my BA degree, an MA is not a requirement for me to be able to pursue my chosen career path. The teaching profession doesn’t really reward higher education beyond BA level, largely because the subject knowledge you gain doesn’t really get used on a day to day basis, unless you happen to be able to teach the texts you have studied. Having an MA in Victorian Studies wasn’t going to propel me up the career ladder. It wasn’t going to get me a promotion, a pay rise or any kudos from the kids I teach, who already roll their eyes and sigh the minute I begin the sentence ‘actually, I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here, but did you know that in the nineteenth century….’ In a world where so much value is placed on what we can measure economically, the concept of investing a lot of time and money in something that has no intrinsic value beyond enjoyment, is, for a lot of people, a waste. But for me, this MA course has been the best value for money I have ever received. It has given me so much more than I have paid out. It has revealed whole swathes of subjects I had not known about before, and that have inspired, excited and given me enormous pleasure in the pursuit of their discovery. It has set my brain on fire, reigniting the embers of interests I have had to dampen over the years thanks to not having enough time to look into them properly. It has opened my eyes more fully to the rich layers of history around me, and made me stop and think and question and not take things at face value. It has also surprised me by how much it has taught me about myself. With every passing week, I have grown a little more confident, a little more bold, a little more self assured. I have come to believe in the value of my own voice, and to trust in the value of my opinions. As someone who is constantly telling their students to believe in themselves, to trust in themselves, to have confidence in themselves, I was surprised by how little confidence I had in myself at the start of the course. I was convinced I would find it too hard, and that I would have nothing insightful to say, and that everyone else would find me stupid. Going back to an academic environment after so long sent me right back to my unconfident eighteen year old self, convinced that I wasn’t clever because I didn’t get into the university of my choice. Though I have no problem standing in front of a class of children and talking about my subject, being with an audience of my peers terrified me. But from the very first seminar, I found that my passion for my subject overrode my lack of confidence; to my surprise, I found myself initiating discussions effortlessly, so keen was I to share my interpretations, or to point out particular lines I had found interesting. As each week went by, I spoke up more and more, enjoying the experience of talking and debating and developing other people’s ideas. I was so focused on the subjects we were discussing, I forgot to think about what I thought about myself. And that has probably been the greatest gift this course has given me so far: freedom from the limitations I had placed upon myself.

For anyone thinking about studying as a mature student, I would say, go for it. Don’t overthink it, and don’t focus on the logistics, because you’ll be surprised by how much time you can find to do something you love, even if your schedule seems overloaded as it is. As long as you prepare in advance, use your time wisely and don’t set yourself unrealistic expectations, you’ll be absolutely fine. It’s the best decision I’ve made in a long time, and I love that I still have over a year and a half of it left to enjoy!