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  • Katie Paterson

Falling down rabbit holes

A truism I keep returning to is that you really need to have already completed the research before you can write a decent research proposal. There are so many factors to consider - the core questions (what am I trying to find out), the rationale (why), the context (everything ever written or made on the subject), and most terrifyingly, the methodology (exactly how am I going to do every single thing over the next three years), and the outcomes (what is it all going to mean and how am I going to tell people).


Grappling with how to offer a reasonable stab at all of the above has occupied most of my time. How do you know when you've read enough to start writing? When everything you read, watch or listen to sets off a chain reaction of ten more things to look into, how can you ever feel confident in starting to offer a perspective on it? Why is the statue naked?


Wait...


I'm assured that it's normal, even valuable, to fall down a few rabbit holes at this point. Well, this week's rabbit hole was the unveiled statue of Mary Wollstonecraft - sorry, the sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft - on Newington Green, not far from where I live. The culmination of more than a decade of fundraising and campaigning by a brilliant and dedicated group, Mary on the Green, Maggi Hambling's artwork features a naked 'everywoman' emerging from 'a mass of female forms', on a plinth bearing Wollstonecraft's words;


I do not wish women to have power over men, but rather over themselves.


Criticism of the statue has focused on the nudity (a slim, sexy, hard-bodied young woman) and the choice not to present a likeness of Wollstonecraft (as is usually implied by a commemorative statue). I have to say that my first reaction to seeing it, in pictures and in real life, was a real sadness. The work doesn't speak to me, it doesn't feel challenging or triumphant or empowering, but above all it doesn't feel as if the artist has channelled any of her subject. Where we might have hoped for a tribute to courage and intellectual originality, a memorial to a woman who died young, like so many of her contemporaries, due to complications of childbirth, we have what feels like an empty fallback to the 'nudity is empowering' trope, leaving us, as Nancy Durrant said, with 'just another naked woman in art'. It feels like a waste, not only of an extraordinary fundraising effort, but of the opportunity to commemorate Mary Wollstonecraft - the specific, unique woman, of her time and the more extraordinary for it.


There was, however, a silver lining. (Pun, groan, yes, this is going to happen a lot.) I wandered over to Newington Green to see for myself, hoping to find that in the flesh, the work spoke volumes I had missed in the photographs. While that didn't happen for me, I was struck by the pull it had exerted, as a small (socially distanced) crowd had gathered, also to see for themselves. Someone had left a little knitted vest for her to wear, others left signs; Where are my books? Where are my clothes?


As we stood, and stared, we asked one another - What do you think of it? Do you mind she's naked? When did she die? What was she famous for? I think Frankenstein is a rubbish book, actually.


It's the nearest thing I've ever experienced to an impromptu feminist forum - and I was so pleased, in that moment, for Mary and for the campaigners who've worked so hard to commemorate her. That misfire of a statue brought out at least momentarily her real legacy, which is the freedom to discuss, dissent and to think for yourself.


On which topic - after running myself a bit ragged with a strict schedule of reading that produced beautiful notes and almost no retention, I'm starting to accept that I have to trust myself a bit more, and follow my instincts about when and what to read, and when to process, synthesise and reach out for more.


Part of that process has been the (for me) thrilling rediscovery of a whiteboard and chalkboard, which are my new best friends. So at the moment, my literature review looks like this:



And my practice review looks like this:



The challenge now is to turn these (beautiful, I'm sure you'll agree) brain splatters into a coherent piece of text, that not only explains what I'm trying to do but demonstrates a comprehensive and critical understanding of all the work that's been done before me. Simple!


To that end - I'd love to hear from you if you've seen anything in the theatre, or read anything, about other people's experiences with hormones, for contraception or for managing the menopause. At the moment I'm only looking for existing work, not personal experience - but stay tuned, because that request is coming soon! (Subject to the three ethics forms I'm currently writing).


Thanks for reading, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on Mary Wollstonecraft, research or any questions you have about my work.


Back to the drawing boards I go...







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