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Hilary Fraser


Hilary Fraser is a published author and has written monographs on the Victorians and Renaissance Italy, aesthetics and religion in Victorian writing, nineteenth-century non-fiction prose, and gender and the Victorian periodical. She came to Birkbeck in 2002 to take up the Geoffrey Tillotson Chair of Nineteenth-Century Studies, and has been President of the British Association for Victorian Studies since 2015. As Director of the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies, Hilary was the founding editor of its online journal, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century.   


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Professor Hilary Fraser to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Hilary Fraser is one of the UK’s most distinguished writers on the Victorians and Renaissance Italy, aesthetics and religion in Victorian writing, nineteenth-century non-fiction prose, and the Victorian periodical.

Her early career was forged at the University of Western Australia in Perth then at Canterbury Christ Church College (UK). She arrived at Birkbeck in 2002 as the Geoffrey Tillotson Chair of Nineteenth-Century Studies. It was an ideal university for someone with Fraser’s unique talents – that is, interdisciplinary approaches to Victorian society and culture. She threw her intellectual energies into directing the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies and founded its groundbreaking e-journal journal 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. She also took on the job of serving as president of the British Association for Victorian Studies.

But Fraser was never someone to immerse herself in her own research, leaving the hard administrative slog that keeps the academy alive to others. She accepted to be Head of the Department of English and the Humanities. This was followed, in 2009, by becoming the founding Dean of the newly formed School of Art. In that post, she not only attracted external funding (including the Boston Fund for Victorian Studies) but, more importantly, she created a strong sense of community. As colleague informed me, she was ‘a brilliant, nurturing presence – incredibly dedicated, supportive, generous, and good-humored…. a role model for a management style that is without ego’. In addition to these jobs, she served on the REF Panel for English Language and Literature in 2014, took Birkbeck into the AHRC CHASE consortium for doctoral students, and established the Foundation Year provision in the college.

Her research is nuanced and eloquently composed. Some of her early work focused on aesthetics and religion, specifically the responses of Coleridge and Wordsworth to German Idealism and Kant’s epistemology. Coleridge’s view of the creative imagination as a divine faculty and Wordsworth’s notions of natural sacramentalism proved central to the thought of writers such as Keble, Newman, Hopkins, Ruskin, Arnold, Pater, and Wilde. Fraser engaged with the tensions between poetry and religion as well as the big debates about authority in an increasingly secular society.

Fraser is known for her keen historical eye, which makes her focus on Victorian society so important since it was a period where people were especially attuned to history. The elites were steeped in the classics, with a profound empathy for connections between classical civilisations and the Renaissance, especially Renaissance Italy. Centrally, she shows that ‘the Renaissance’ was a construct of Victorians. Her research delves into literary and visual representations of the Italian renaissance, exposing its impact on Victorian sensibilities. She urges her readers to think more seriously about the works of people like Vernon Lee and Anna Jameson.

She is a bold scholar. Fraser is as comfortable with literature as she is with art. She pushes the boundaries between literature, history, science, and technology and embraces both posthuman and new media studies. She interrogates the relation between mind and body, and, indeed, the meaning of humanness itself. She was never content to simply show how women contributed to literary genres in the nineteenth century (a valuable task in its own right), but how ideas about gender were at the heart of aesthetic debates and periodical literature (which was the ‘most characteristic genre of the nineteenth century’), as readers, writers, editors, proprietors, advertisers, and publishers.

Close readings of literature and art are her forte. As one of her reviewers concluded, Fraser’s work is ‘an example of first-rate tactile cultural history’. It is exciting and accessible, but, at the same time, not shy about exposing contradictions, ambiguities, and slippages in gender ideology. She is widely acknowledged to possess an ‘arresting gift of exploring and examining materials that on one level are familiar but familiar only because we have rushed by them on our way to another subject’. She excels in exploring the ‘unexplored presuppositions of Victorian intellectual and cultural life’.

If I was to draw attention to just one of her books as a ‘must read’, it would have to be Women Writing Art History in the Nineteenth Century: Looking like a Woman. In it, she dismantles the belief that art criticism was ‘a masculine intellectual field in which a handful of women played a merely secondary role’. Fraser explores the stories that Victorian women told about themselves, and how they negotiated the numerous barriers that were put in their way when they attempted to become professional writers. How did nineteenth century women – situated on the margins of artistic institutions – look at art? What visual agency could they claim to be their own? Is aesthetic gendered? It is a brilliant book, changing the way we think about the past.

What about ‘the person’? As a teenager, she was a table tennis protégé, who won tournaments. National experts claimed she lacked only the ‘killer instinct’. As a student at Oxford, she was a ‘good time girl’.

Her friends are breathless with praise. She is energetic, witty, ‘great fun to be with’, empathetic, ‘resolutely modest’, open to the world, ‘sunny’, ‘warm’, gracious, ‘deft’, ‘engaging’, resilient, patient, and calm during crises. She takes great pleasure in her three children (Matthew, Clair, and Adam), who have fond memories of being read poetry – they grew up on Gerard Manley Hopkins. She now has two grandchildren, Holly and Henry. Holly, the 18th month-old one, recently took great pleasure pulling all of her Nanna’s books off the bookshelf; putting them back again with her Nana’s help (sorting by things such as colour and size rather than intellectual content), then pulling them off a second time, to laughter all around. Hilary Fraser is married to literary scholar Rick Rylance, the former Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Institute of English Studies, and the School of Advanced Studies. She is an extraordinary host, infamous among friends for her luscious platters of food which, I am reliably informed, ‘would have put Ottolenghi to shame’. And her birthday cakes – clowns, animals, and stockades – are to die for. And while she is a consummate home decorator, she is utterly useless with gadgets – the word ‘upgrade’ is not only forbidden but alien to her. She has been known to telephone her children for instructions in order to watch the news. All her friends tell me that she has ‘a gift for friendship, and is loyal and tenacious’. She makes everyone feel special. She is passionate about art, theatre, music, nice clothes, and beautiful homes. When she stopped being Dean, her department bought her a Vivienne Westwood handbag. In Rick Rylance’s words, ‘Hilary is graceful: in appearance, manner, and nature’.

Fraser’s career at our College has changed us. She writes of Birkbeck as a ‘generous and generative and humane place’, as well as being ‘the most intellectually exciting and sustaining environment imaginable’. By accepting this College Fellowship, Hilary Fraser signals her support of our educational mission to do just that: make a difference. We are thrilled that she has agreed to become a Fellow of Birkbeck.