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Looking Left, Looking Right: Encountering London July 8, 2010

Posted by Laura Winnick in England, Individual Fellowship, Undergraduate.
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Cheers from London! I arrived here on July 1 and have spent the last few days wandering around the city, drooling over the trousers at Topshop (UK’s outstanding department store), asking people to repeat themselves, and quizzing some feisty young Brits about their lingo (did you know wombly means uneven?). Oh, and I’ve made a trip to the British Library (BL) and to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), where I’ll be doing research for the next two months. I was slightly worried it would be difficult to settle down and read in a city so bustling and alive—so anxious to be walked, to be learned. Since visiting the library and the museum, I realized that my research has taken me to the two most stimulating places in the entire city to study—all thanks to the International Institute and numerous other departments at U of M. Their generous funding has made possible my trip overseas to study British women’s texts and textiles in a place where history is woven into these streets, these landmarks.

The BL is a monolithic, ancient building with floors and floors of reading rooms and books—oh, the books! In the spirit of the twelve-year-old who taught me how to talk like the English, I muttered “crikey” as I wandered up and down staircases and into room after room of bookcases. The library is not really a place to wander, though—it is a lesson in self-discipline, a regimented study space for directed academics. Littered across the courtyard, the floors of personal desks, the small nooks and spaces, are professors and students bent over Macs in deep concentration, glasses slipping dangerously down their noses—on the brink of something—discovery, perhaps.

It might take me awhile before I feel on the brink of something—archival work moves slowly, ponderously. I had to register as an official reader before being admitted to the Manuscript reading room, where I will be spending most of my time these next two months. In this room, I will have access to women’s diaries from the eighteenth century, which is the reading material that lies at the heart of my research project this summer. As a senior English major, I am writing my Honors thesis about women’s writing, self-representation, and sewing, focusing on four specific women from different time periods in America and England. Along with that, I am working in conjunction with Tina Lupton, a professor in the English department, to co-author an article about how people in the eighteenth-century read on Sundays after religious ceremonies. With the British Library’s vast collection of both unpublished and published manuscripts, I now have access to eighteenth-century diaries of women from different backgrounds and classes.

Where I will have free reign to wander is at the V&A: the world’s greatest museum of art and design. In my thesis, I hope to discover a connection between text and textile—to read textiles as autobiographical forms and relate them to narration. It is in this enormous and exquisite building that I will encounter quilts, samplers, needlework, and items of clothing from different centuries. Though it too has silent study rooms similar to the BL, the V&A allows for more creative and imaginative space. Here, I will loiter and muse, drawing and writing in a building that showcases art in the heart of London. Hopefully, by the end of the next two months, I will be able to stitch together my explorations at the BL and at the V&A. Stay tuned to see whether I can master British slang, avoid shopping at Topshop every day, and remember which way to look when crossing the street.



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