Felicity James is co-Investigator on the participation histories with Ele Belfiore
I work on late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature, with a particular interest in sociability, friendship, creative exchange and life-writing. I began working on the Romantic poets as a student and became fascinated by the way they created communities of readers and writers around themselves. This led to my first book Charles Lamb, Coleridge and Wordsworth: Reading Friendship in the 1790s (Palgrave Macmillan: 2008). I then started to look at the broader communities in which authors such as Lamb were involved, including religious Dissent, and this forms the basis of my current research on Unitarian writers in the Romantic and Victorian periods. I work on authors such as Mary Hays, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, the Aikin family, Harriet Martineau and Elizabeth Gaskell, and have co- edited a book on families and intellectual communities, Religious Dissent and the Aikin-Barbauld Circle, 1740 to 1860 (Cambridge: 2011).
This interest in forms of creative community, past and present, is what has led to my involvement with ‘Understanding Everyday Participation’ . I’m also a member of the AHRC funded network Creative Communities 1750-1830, and will give one of the plenary lectures at the 2015 conference, Community and its Limits, 1745-1832. I supervise a PhD under the AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award scheme, jointly with the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, investigating ‘Susanna Watts and Elizabeth Heyrick: Women’s Writing in the Midlands, 1750-1850’. This has led to several community events in Leicester, such as a walk recreating Watt’s 1805 city guidebook, talks and workshops.
I’m working on the ‘Histories’ strand of UEP, together with Dr Eleonora Belfiore. Looking at specific communities, such as the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, we are tracing the long history of cultural participation. We’re examining the ways in which ideas of civic engagement and cultural value are produced and debated by particular communities, and how these might have wider impact. How do particular types of cultural activity – for instance, specific forms of reading – become valued by groups, and does this have a link to wider practice and policy? What aspects of cultural participation get left out of history, and why? I’m particularly interested in how history can shape our understanding of community practice now. UEP has been really valuable in teaching me how to work with other disciplines, working out the ways in which literary history and close reading can be put into dialogue with other approaches.
Like other UEP members, most of my free time is spent persuading my toddler into everyday participation: here I am trying to inculcate love of camping/walking in someone who just wants to escape. When I can, I spend time reading and thinking about reading, a legacy of the unsociable teenage years I spent in Manchester Central Library. I’m interested in the ways in which we might find community and friendship in books, and also in the communities around books, past and present – readers, writers, and libraries. From a personal point of view, I’m thankful for my local Leicester library and its tolerance for readers who chew their books.