I grew up in West Sussex, and though I moved away many years ago I still think of the stretch of the South Downs between Pulborough and Chichester as home. I went to St Joseph’s Convent in Storrington and then to Farlington School near Horsham.
I read English at Christ Church, Oxford, and then moved to London where I worked in the Department of British Drawings and Watercolours at Christie’s King Street. I went on to do an MA at the Courtauld Institute, specialising in modern European Art. At the time it felt rebellious to choose a British subject for my dissertation, but I wrote about the revival of the landscape watercolour in the 1930s. The project made me want to explore the relationship between the Romantic English art I discovered on the MA, and the modernist fiction (especially by Virginia Woolf) that was my first big literary passion. This became the subject of the doctoral thesis I wrote over the next three years in Oxford, and eventually - much revised - it turned into Romantic Moderns.
I started my career as a lecturer at the University of Liverpool in 2007. I worked in the English Department there for ten years, becoming a Senior Lecturer and then a Professor. It was a privilege to talk about literature with eight or nine students at a time in my office on Chatham Street and later on Abercromby Square. I ran an MA in Contemporary Literature from 2008 to 2013, and convened ‘Modernism’ for second-year undergraduates from 2008 to 2016. I taught nineteenth- and twentieth-century American fiction, and particularly enjoyed the first-year survey courses which offer students a glimpse of the great panorama of literary history and a sense of how we might make connections across time.
Liverpool staff and students on a reading weekend at Gurney Manor, Somerset, part of a Landmark Trust pilot project.
In 2017 I took up a Professorial Fellowship at the University of Birmingham. I'm lucky to be part of a large and vibrant community of researchers in the College of Arts and Law. There's an excellent Centre for Modernist Cultures, many outward-looking initiatives such as the Hay Speaker Series, and I'm glad to be involved in planning public engagement programmes at the University's new city-centre home in Centenary Square.
I am writing about Virginia Woolf’s ways of reading, and about the cultural history of the year as it is expressed in calendars, almanacs, liturgical art and the literature of the seasons. My current focus is a book about the history of landscape and local feeling, explored through responses to a particualar place: I am returning to Sussex and writing about people, buildings and places in the Arun Valley.
I am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a showcased author in the International Literature Showcase. I have been a judge of the Wollaston Award at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Observer / Burgess Foundation Prize for Arts Journalism, and I am an assessor for the Authors’ Foundation and K Blundell Trust Awards. With Henry Hitchings and Mimi Khalvati I judged the 2017 RSL Ondaatje Prize for work evoking ‘the spirit of place’. The Prize went to Francis Spufford’s superlative novel of eighteenth-century New York, Golden Hill.
With Ondaatje Prize authors and judges, Royal Society of Literature, 2017.
I live and write in Oxford.