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Veterans: Soldiers Come Home in English Literature

Dr. Kate McLoughlin, Reader in Modern Literature

Funding: British Academy

From 1 January to 31 December 2013, Dr. McLoughlin was supported by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to research and write four chapters of a book about the war veteran in English literature from William Wordsworth to J. K. Rowling. Though the project began as a literary and cultural history of the veteran, it turned during the year into something much more exciting.  The veteran, McLoughlin discovered, is a key figure through which ideas about modernity are expressed and explored.

Works by Alfred Tennyson, Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy, for example, use the returned soldier – vastly changed from the person who went away to war – to consider what precisely we can recover from the past.  Novels by Helen Ashton, Jack Aistrop, Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Miller, Nigel Balchin, J. B. Priestley, Robert Henriques and Zadie Smith explore how the changes brought about in a person by combat experience question the nature of the self and the individual’s relationship to society. Jane Austen’s Persuasion and detective fiction by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers and J. K. Rowling use the veteran to represent knowledge based on experience. Veterans are, by definition, associated with suffering and knowledge gained over time, and Dr Watson, Lord Peter Wimsey and Cormoran Strike approach problem-solving by drawing on their understanding of the ways of the world rather than on forensic reasoning.  But the idea of experience accrued over time and communicable as wisdom to other people is undermined in works by William Wordsworth, Rebecca West and Virginia Woolf. Works by Coleridge, Henry Green and Rachel Seiffert use the veteran to explore the nature of creativity itself as they depict former combatants who speak eloquently – and sometimes too eloquently – about what they have endured.

During the year, Dr McLoughlin carried out research and archival work in the British Library, the National Army Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the National Archives and the Bodleian Library, Oxford. She completed a draft of her book which now has the working title Veteran Poetics: Soldiers Come Home in English Literature from Wordsworth to J. K. Rowling. The monograph repositions the veteran as a key figure in English literature and in the history of ideas since the late eighteenth century.

McLoughlin has given academic lectures about this research at the University of Leicester, Loughborough University, Wolfson College, Oxford, Oxford Brookes University, the Northern Modernism Seminar at the University of Warwick and the University of Hull.  She also has engagements to speak at the University of Geneva, the University of Le Havre, and the University of Paris-III and the British Association of Modernist Studies’ annual conference.

There is growing public interest in her work. In 2013, she gave public talks on the project at the National Memorial Arboretum, the National Army Museum. For the arts festival, Wirral Festival of Firsts, in July 2013, Dr McLoughlin created veteran ‘stories’ based on archive material.  With the Festival Director, John Gorman, and others, she read these stories to customers in the cafés, bars and restaurants of West Kirby. She is also giving a major public lecture at Birkbeck, and public talks during Birkbeck Arts Week 2014 and at a ‘City Reads’ event in Surbiton Public Library.

McLoughlin has aspirations to change the way veterans are perceived and treated at the highest levels by sharing her research with policymakers at the Ministry of Defence and Department of Work and Pensions.  A former lawyer in the Government Legal Service, she will present copies of her published monograph to ministerial libraries.

You can find more information about Dr McLoughlin’s research on her webpage.