Meet the team!

It’s a fresh new year, the holidays are over and the moment I have been waiting for with some anticipation has now arrived: ‘my’ research team is complete, and managed to be not only in the same country, but even in the same room. Hurray!


Moving targets in January

(It’s a hard-won victory, this, and I was seriously contemplating chipping all team members with a GPS tracker. Between conferences, archival trips and family holidays in Qatar, France, the US, Finland etc etc, they are hard to keep in sight. I’ve settled on a more traditional ‘family calendar’ instead)


The question on everybody’s lips if you are lucky enough to have landed a research project is, apparently. ‘so how is the project progressing?’. I usually just answer with a vague ‘oh, it’s going well, everybody’s doing interesting stuff’ (which is true), but I thought that, since it is a new decade, I’d take a moment to take stock, and introduce the CALLIOPE-crew (consisting of Ludovic Marionneau, Esha Sil, Karen Lauwers and Taru Auranne)

Together we


  • can handle 7 languages
  • do our research on 4 continents
  • hail from 3 different disciplines
  • have lived in 8 different countries, but have presented the project in 13 (so far)
  • are currently working on 17 publications (in all possible stages of completion)
  • have been/are involved in the organization of 5 conferences
  • visit more libraries and archives than I could possibly keep track of

It’s the kind of activity that would make anybody’s head spin … and I am immensely proud of what we have accomplished so far, and the ease with which all of the brilliant researchers in this group have shifted gears, picked up new skills, mobilized their existing knowledge, and have generally put their considerable intelligence and energy into the project.


Ludovic Marionneau at the ISCH conference in Tallinn


What I am perhaps most pleased with, however, is what a joy it is to work with a group of joyfully innovative, and also generous and mutually supportive scholars. There are lots of reasons to be weary of academia’s move towards ideas of clusters of ‘excellence’, the selection of an elite group of research ‘leaders’ and the disappearance of what is now called ‘curiosity-driven’ research. But in the end, the strength of this particular team is not the (undeniable) excellence of its members, but their ability and willingness to understand each other and reach across linguistic, disciplinary, career-stage,…differences.

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Esha Sil at the MSA conference in Madrid


And so, whilst I was very happy (and relieved) to see, totting up the numbers, that we are a picture of productivity, I feel that what is most excellent about this ‘team’ will never be visible in any official reports: the beauty of freely sharing findings with colleagues without jealously having to guard them before publication; the sheer joy of having regular and thorough conversations about methodology with fantastic scholars who know exactly what you’re talking about; the presence of a supportive environment in which all academic triumphs and defeats can be shared and find a sympathetic audience … and, of course, the opportunity for me to feel a little bit like Shackleton, leading a team of intrepid explorers (potentially into the wilderness).


In praise of the parenthesis (and other pieces of punctuation)

Those who have been subjected to my writing will know that I am a Big Fan of parentheses – and dashes, for a bit of variation (see what I did there? Ha!). Considering I am otherwise conventional or indeed downright boring in my writing style, I have no idea where this particular idiosyncrasy comes from. It’s doubtful I’ve been taught to write like this and it seems to garner me equal amounts of exasperation and ridicule in any language I write in. But I loooove parentheses and so, rather than weaning myself off them (as I probably should), I’ve decided to become their more vocal champion. After all, if others can have big opinions about the Oxford comma, the semicolon (,) and other obscure issues of grammar; so can I, right?

It may be useful to make clear, at this point, that I am utterly clueless about any actual rules of punctuation in English (I somehow manage to devour whole books about language, style and editing without ever ingesting any of the information regarding punctuation). But then I’m hardly alone in using colons, full-stops etc as ‘rests’, breathing pauses to indicate the flow and melody of a sentence. And that’s how parentheses work as well, perhaps. For someone who perpetually interjects her utterances with quiet ironic asides, the parentheses do great work in translating my ‘big voice – bigger insecurities’ personality onto the page. They allow me to offer opinions in the way I tend to voice them: brazenly (and then immediately undercutting them with a hint of self-effacing attempts at humour).

And so, for now, the parenthesis is my authorial voice and my friend and will stay (…I think).

On wielding the master’s tools

Last week the University of Helsinki played host to a conference on (de)colonization, racialization and above all whiteness in the North. (You can have a look at the program here). It was, in many ways, a success: attracting a number of engaged, exciting scholars, bringing influential international voices to Helsinki to join in the debate, and leading to the kind of interdisciplinary cross-over that doesn’t always happen in academia – and there are many things I (as part of the organizing team) am very proud of.

At the same time, as these kinds of occasions necessarily will, the conference and its aftermath has also left me questioning the structure of academic discussion, and indeed my own role (as someone who, for better or for worse, is implicated in ‘academia’)  in discussions such as these.

At the start of the first day, I’d gestured to some hopes and goals for the conference – and I like to think that these are genuine ambitions I also bring to my own work, trying – borrowing a phrase from Audre Lorde- to ‘dismantle the master’s house‘ even as I increasingly seem to inhabit it, amplifying the work of ‘other’ academics rather than reiterating a canon of privilege. We would try

  • to not look at minorities as a set of problems to be overcome, but to see the space they occupy in- and sometimes outside- society as a fruitful opportunity that can be embraced as a scholarly perspective as well (in the spirit of bell hooks)
  • to not disenfranchise ’tradition’ by elevating history over it as a superior form of knowledge about cultures and their histories but to acknowledge the agency of carriers of tradition as participants in an ongoing cultural dialogue (as pointed out by Linda Tuhiwai Smith)
  • to go beyond questioning ’race’ as a category and start thinking about the ways in which colonization and segregation have shaped humanity itself as a category (taking inspiration from Achile Mbembe)
  • and to see how ‘we’ and our scholarly disciplines have shaped Europe as a place that imagines itself (wrongly) as simultaneously colourblind and white (as recently pointed out by, e.g., Olivette Otele)

Did we manage to do any of that? I’m not so sure. Despite the critical and deconstructive ambitions of both speakers and organizers (and, I must stress, a number of absolutely excellent contributions), our conference was far from perfect – and indeed far from radical. It featured an uncomfortable number of all-white panels (a situation that can be explained in some ways, but not really excused), it circled back to national and regional understandings of the white ‘self’ far more than it should have and it relied on conventional academic structures (the form of the scholarly paper;  understandings of hierarchy, seniority and the right to speak; forms of politeness that are comfortable mainly for the selected few).

It is the latter that probably bothers me the most, because they make it so acutely clear that, in helping to uphold these structures (all in the name of civil debate and smooth organization, of course) I am effectively wielding the master’s tools – and have become so accustomed to them, that I genuinely struggle to think of viable alternatives. 


Democratization and its (false) promises

I have spent the last week in the delightful company of two wonderful historians of modern politics, power and representation (if you haven’t come across Birte Förster’s and Hedwig Richter’s work yet, I can only urge you to check it out forthwith. You can start with their books on 1919 and electoral history, for example). Somewhere between thinking through the importance of the Weimar Republic, considering the absence of women’s experiences in historiographies of revolution, and discovering the many sunny terraces of Helsinki, we have also come to some insights about the nature of the practice of writing histories of democracy. And we’ve decided that it is a historiography that could to with a bit more inclusivity and democratization. (Shocking, I know).


Transnational discussions on suffrage and equality at the library

As it happens, Birte and Hedwig have already been democratizing a more inclusive history of democracy: earlier this year, they built a twitter-thread of biographies of the first female representatives in the Weimar National Assembly. An edited version, by Mareike König, is now available here – showing not only that relevant and important histories are to be written about these largely forgotten figures, but also that bringing such stories to a public platform is a welcome innovation to the ‘craft’ of the historian, as it allows and indeed encourages a large number of people to interact with the authors and the content they’ve produced.

Writing inclusion into the history of democracy, however, is not the only way to make its historiography more inclusive. Whilst heroic newcomers, such as these early female representatives, deserve to be remembered, studied and perhaps even celebrated, they represent only a small part of the process of ‘democratization’ – and can even obscure the circuitous path such ‘progress’ often takes. What is often missing from narratives of the progressive inclusivity of democracy, are the many failed projects, hopelessly counterproductive measures, anxious returns to tradition, and reactionary counter-revolutions that also play a role in the process of democratization.

My own research tends to stumble across such ambiguity and counter-movements with alarming regularity, and that has everything to do with the deeply meaningful (symbolic) role voices and speech play in the imagination of democracy and its inclusivity. The central role of voices and votes in democracy carry a promise of near-universality: anyone can participate, it seems, as long as they can speak. The dictum of ‘one man, one vote’ – seemingly implying that every ‘voice’ can be heard – conveniently obscures the fact that ‘the ability to speak’ is, firstly, not distributed evenly in cultures that value speech as a political act and, secondly, that speaking and being heard may be very different things indeed.

In fact, the very idea that the ability to speak would become the (only) qualification necessary for political and economic inclusion in the modern world, led to exactly the kind of reactionary response that is so often invisible in histories of the development of representative democracy. In 1880, a contributor to the Cambridge Review wrote, with barely concealed horror, that

“There can be no doubt whatever that with the continued expansion of our political system, and with the gradual opening to the many of professions which have hitherto been confined to the few, the value of trained skill in speech as an instrument for success must immeasurably increase”

His fear was not unfounded: research (such as that of Madeleine Hurd) has shown that for example the working class men who would increasingly gain access to this ‘expanded’ political system were very aware of the value of trained skill in speech, and went to significant lengths to acquire it. The same was true for ‘colonial’ subjects, as I am finding out in my research now. The reaction of those who, until then, had had privileged access to the political system (or at least the large proportion of them who were educated at Oxbridge) was a practical and effective one: debate, oratory and ‘impromptu speaking’ would increasingly become part of the University’s social fabric as well as its curriculum. A change in system that was designed to democratize (one man, one vote, one voice – encouraging equal access to representation for all adult men) effectively encouraged leisurely and educational practices that would ensure the (perceived) superiority of the existing elites. The ‘ability to speak’ was equated with the ability to produce a type or genre of speech that was typical of the debating clubs of Oxbridge, and thus exclusive to its members.

This increasingly dominant genre of speech was not necessarily seen as the most elegant or well-constructed (both Indian and French speakers were commonly thought to be naturally more gifted at oratory, for example). In fact, numerous commentators seem to have prided themselves on the fact that the English national character was ‘not loquacious’ and that

“every one has pitied the forlorn position of an ordinary Englishman addressing his fellow-creatures”.

The real Englishman – or, in fitting Victorian style, the real imperial ruler – therefore distinguished himself not by polished oratory, but by suggesting that he was the kind of man who, deep down and hidden rather than demonstrated by his speech, had some secret knowledge. The best speeches, apparently, suggested intelligence by carefully cloaking it in nonsense and ‘wit’. And so representation and political speech would be a matter of somehow managing to claim audibility and attention by seemingly helplessly bumbling about.

In a political system that rested on debate, on having a voice and being heard; clarity and good oratory could be learned in all kinds of working men’s clubs, societies, classrooms,  or even from a book – thus contributing to what seemed like a linear process of democratization and increased inclusivity. However, the skill to produce the particular genre of bamboozling speech that expressed imperial ‘Englishness’ and, indeed, political power, was so confusing and obscure, it could only be acquired at Oxbridge.


Boris Johnson, former president of the Oxford Union Society and owner of a “magniloquent tongue“, according to F. Hayward and G. Faulconbridge (Reuters).




Sinking my teeth into summer

I have spent most of last winter thinking that I had – as I inevitably would – reached a point in my academic ‘career’ for which I just was not cut out,  not smart/competent/fast enough. After a (ludicrously long) training, it seemed, I had picked the wrong job after all. Here’s the thing though…after two months of forcing myself to take more time (actual point on my to-do list: do not immediately respond to emails) it turns out that maybe I was … just tired?dav

I’ve been enjoying my visiting fellowship (and indeed the wonderful company of the researchers at the University of the Aegean) : it’s been fantastically productive, academically, in many ways. However, here are the ‘achievements’ of the past two months I want to remember:

-) for two months, I’ve eaten almost exclusively things grown, produced or caught in my immediate surroundings (with the exception, ironically, of water)

-) I’ve met fantastic people, colleagues and students alike, who do research on top of some exceptionally demanding (and often voluntary) work with the refugees arriving on Lesvos (check out the Refugee Observatory, it is amazing)

-) I’ve forced myself to think visually, for a change …this means I not only managed to rethink some of my research, but also that I now have a record of the writing I’ve done in these two months. It won’t win the Turner prize, but ‘things-I’ve-done’ lists are vastly more motivating than ‘to-do’ lists








-) I have walked a total of about 500 kilometres – leaving me with far more freckles, and far fewer worries to lay awake with at night


-) I’ve produced what may be the most frivolous piece of ‘outreach’ ever (admit it, though, you too crave the experience of being insulted by a 19th-century over-privileged selfdeclared ‘wit’. And now you can!)


(any volunteers for reading/commenting?)

-) I’ve written an article I’ve been wanting to write for about two years, not because I had to, not because others were counting on my contribution, not because the project lives or dies by it, but because I think it needed to be written (of course, now I’m terrified to send it to the journal, but at least it exists)




-) I have expressed myself by pointing and waving so often now that I’m almost fluent. English may be forcing its way into all kinds of interactions (‘international’ or otherwise) but it doesn’t have to. (Neither is there any need to be proficient in any language to procure delicious shrimps, I may add).


and most importantly:

-) I have consistently only worked for about eight hours a day!


(lesson learned? probably not…but it’s worth a try, right?)

Sounds that stretch time

There’s always something slightly unsettling about a new place to live (and sleep): the stairs creaking in a way you don’t recognize, the sound of traffic just a bit too close or too far, the neighbours still too unpredictable.

After three years in Helsinki, living in the center of a Greek city (albeit a tiny one) is above all very loud: in Mytilini, conflicts are addressed by passionate shouting in public, transport is mostly a case of revving motorbikes, and as insulation is rather inferior to that in Finland, I know far more about the tourists in the apartment next to mine than I strictly needed or wanted to.

The sounds that dominate my life here, though, are not human at all: at home, my life is punctuated by the church bells (of three different churches, although the one closest to the window certainly is the most impactful), and ‘outside’ I’m inevitably pulled to the sea. They’re very different sounds, but they’re both extremely repetitive – boringly so, often.

And yet, there’s something about having one’s life dictated by a communal bell. As Alain Corbin noted, for centuries, church bells could create ‘imagined’ communities on a far more visceral level than print paper later would on a much grander scale: those of us who rise at its sound, regardless of how new or otherwise ‘foreign’ we are to the city, know that we live here together. (It is no surprise that one of the current authorities on the anthropology of bells, my brilliant colleague Panayotis Panopoulos, is doing his work here on Lesvos)

All this is well-established (and boringly obvious to anyone with an interest in soundscapes or soundstudies), but it seems I had underestimated the effect of the cyclical nature of these sounds. As a historian, I am constantly looking for ‘change’: time appears, essentially (and somewhat stereotypically) as an arrow: not as a sign of constant progress of course, but nevertheless largely linear, moving ‘on’, wherever that may be. It has been pointed out that these images of ‘historical’ time are rooted in narrow notions of particular (mostly modern, mostly male, mostly able, mostly ‘individual’) experiences of one’s life and lifespan: ‘crip’ time does not pass so smoothly, women’s time has its cycles, African futures change when they are not imagined as ‘postcolonial’.

And so I listen to the sea, and to the bells … and I wonder what history without modern, linear, time would sound like.

Shrill and unrelatable

Of all contributions to the discussion, Lytton’s was admittedly the most interesting. Had the manner or even the pronunciation of the words been as good as the matter, it might have proved also the most effective…More than once his voice literally so ran away with him that, when calmness would have been far more effective, his tones rose to a high point of noisy declamation, as if he would arouse the flagging attention by a trumpet blast of vociferous sound. (Newcastle G&T Mercury, 1854)


Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Our wonderful CALLIOPE research assistant, Clarice Bland, is currently writing about one of my favourite Victorians, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. As you can see, contemporary observers were not quite so impressed with him as I am. I don’t want to give away too much of her research – you’ll just have to wait until it’s published and all will be revealed – but I was reminded of Bulwer-Lytton as I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful piece on ‘unconscious bias’ in politics on the Literary Hub earlier.

As Solnit notes, our experience of presidents (and of politicians more broadly) so far has been almost exclusively of white men “which makes ‘who seems presidential?’ a tautological ouroboros chomping hard on its tail”. Anybody who looks the slightest bit different is almost immediately disqualified: women don’t get to sound intelligent without raising suspicion, POC are ignored until a white hero picks up their ideas and makes them sound more palatable – neither, it seems, can be ‘relatable’.

A look at nineteenth-century politics quickly shows that, indeed “Unconscious Bias has always been in the race and Unconscious Bias’ best buddy, Institutional Discrimination, has always helped him along”: not quite sounding right to the ears of a (white, male) journalist had repercussions in 1854 as it has now, and style seems to have trumped substance for quite a while, too (it may also be noted that Bulwer-Lytton’s physical features were often described at length by journalists, who seemed more interested in his beard than his speeches.)


Sen. Kamala Harris questioning John Sessions in 2017 – a performance that was swiftly called ‘hysterical’ by Jason Miller

More optimistically, though, we can also note that while unconscious bias is always ‘there’, it is not beyond change. We’ve seen that, of course, in recent history, with the election of a Black president (albeit one who was then immediately questioned for being both not ‘American’ and not ‘Black’ enough. Nina Eidsheim has pointed to opinions that Obama ‘sounds white’ as yet another instance of bias).

Looking further back, though, we can also see how unconscious bias changes not only in content, but also in who gets to wield it. Bulwer-Lytton’s performances in parliament in the 1850’s were ludicrous to journalists’ ears not because he didn’t belong in politics (he very much did) but because he presented an elite identity and performances of privilege that were starting to become obsolete. His speaking style was one that belonged to the 18th century: aristocratic, full of artifice and heightened passion, almost musical in its exaggerated prosody. British politics may have looked back at the 18th century as the golden age of oratory, but their intuitive reaction to its actual sounds was laughter rather than admiration.


“Lagrange carried away by a sudden, unprepared impulse of eloquence”, H. Daumier ridiculing an overly impassioned speech (Daumier Register)

That is perhaps especially the case because the prime audience for political speeches would increasingly consist of reporters: not the speakers’ peers, but self-made men who made their living by being smart and doing long hours of clerical work, part of a new middle class that hadn’t been born into money but didn’t have to do hard physical labour either. It is no wonder that an eccentric baron living a life of leisure and inherited privilege was not ‘relatable’ to these men and their readers, who likely also belonged to a new class of ‘professionals’.

And whilst journalists were, and are, important players in deciding how politics is represented (and, consequently, how and which unconscious bias comes into play for different public figures), they do not get to decide what counts as a relatable style or as a charismatic performance on their own. Understandings of what constitutes convincing speech, or a good performance, is a culturally and collectively constructed matter – it is influenced by the styles that circulate elsewhere, in the streets, on stage, in fiction, in classrooms.

Nineteenth-century ideas on convincing political speech were partly dependent on the new norms of performance that were being established in the West-End, for example, where both politicians and journalists would together constitute the audience of a performance. If we want ‘who seems presidential?’ to become a more diverse field, maybe we should just put more intelligent female and Black characters on youtube (or judge politicians on what they do, rather than their ‘charisma’, but what are the chances?)

Zeg niet ‘Zwarte Piet’, maar zeg ‘hoera, het is weer bijna Sinterklaas!’

Naar goede (nu ja) jaarlijkse gewoonte, een Sinterklaaspost! (eerdere invullingen van deze oude, en dus nu onveranderlijke traditie: hier, hier, en hier).

Wie niet wil doorgaan voor een geitenwollen sok, zatte nonkel, zeur in de leraarskamer of (o horror) gast in een praatprogramma: een lijstje in heuse pedante-schoolmeester-stijl, inclusief nutteloze weetjes om de volgende ontsporende discussie te voeden vermijden

Zeg niet

‘Zwarte Piet was er altijd al. Ze moeten onze tradities niet zomaar komen afpakken!’

Maar zeg

‘Ik heb zelf alleen maar goede herinneringen aan Zwarte Piet, en ik zou graag hebben dat mijn (klein)kinderen ook zo’n fijne feesten kunnen beleven’


Alleen wie denkt dat de geschiedenis begint en eindigt bij zijn/haar eigen leven, kan denken dat Zwarte Piet voor eeuwig en altijd is. Dat het om een ‘eeuwenlange’ traditie gaat, klopt gewoon niet. Hoewel het moeilijk is de verschijning van Zwarte Piet exact te dateren, weten we wel dat het beeld van de ‘Moorse’ knecht in Nederland pas gangbaar werd in de negentiende eeuw, en in Vlaanderen zelfs pas in de twintigste.

Sint Nicolaas

Sint Nicolaas, rijdend op een ezel en bijgestaan door…de bakker!

Vindt u het toch belangrijk om alleen hele oude tradities te vieren? Dan moeten we misschien opnieuw meer naar heiligenverhalen luisteren (het verhaal van Nicolaas die zeelieden redt is erg spannend, en dat van de kleine baby-Nicolaas die moeders borst weigert om te vasten valt misschien ook wel te vieren). Stoute kinderen verlaten wellicht beter het land voor een uiterst traditioneel, eeuwenoud feest…die zouden dan immers met rammelende kettingen (en geweld) bang gemaakt moeten worden.





Zeg niet

‘Zwarte Piet is racisme!’

Maar zeg

‘Ik zou graag hebben dat alle kinderen kunnen deelnemen aan een fijn Sinterklaasfeest. Zwarte Piet reflecteert pijnlijke clichés van kolonialisme en racialisering, dat vind ik geen goed voorbeeld voor kinderen, en is kwetsend voor wie niet blank is’.


Belgen en Nederlanders met een (veelal) Congolese en Surinaamse achtergrond  wijzen al sinds de jaren ’60 beleefd op het kwetsende karakter van de vormgeving en praktijk van Zwarte Piet. Dat hun blanke medeburgers daar pas nu – nu de slogans simplistisch en luider worden –  op reageren, getuigt van weinig luisterbereidheid of empathie (en inderdaad ook van een latent racisme). Daarmee wordt de slogan desondanks niet zomaar correct.

Volgens Van Dale (en wie zijn wij om die in twijfel te trekken) is racisme

1.theorie die de superioriteit van een bep. ras verkondigt

2. discriminatie op grond van iemands rasZP

Nu hebben we Zwarte Piet natuurlijk ook met z’n allen uitgevonden (in tegenstelling tot Sinterklaas is Piet niet gebaseerd op een historische figuur), maar daarom moeten we hem ook niet meteen tot een theorie uitroepen. Piet belichaamt heel wat raciale stereotiepen, maar ‘verkondigt’ bijzonder weinig … behalve in de jaren ’90 dan. Toen werd hij blijkbaar bang van ‘de winter’.



Zeg niet

‘Je kan hier niets meer zeggen zonder voor racist uitgemaakt te worden!’

Maar zeg

‘Ik zie zelf niet wat er kwetsend is aan Zwarte Piet. Kan iemand me dat uitleggen?’


Hoe ongemakkelijk het ook is, het beeld van Zwarte Piet zoals we dat nu kennen, dankt zijn bestaan wel degelijk aan het koloniale verleden, en niet aan de schoorsteen. De eerste beelden van de ‘Moorse knecht’ waren gericht op kinderen die zelf waarschijnlijk nooit iemand met Afrikaanse trekken te zien kregen, en het is dus misschien niet zo verwonderlijk dat Zwarte Piet vooral een collectie van uitvergrote, stereotiepe trekken is geworden. Met andere woorden: Zwarte Piet was nooit ‘echt’ een verbeelding van een zwarte slaaf (daar konden die kindertjes zich weinig bij voorstellen), maar gebruikte wel exact dezelfde beeldtaal die gebruikt werd om echte Afrikanen te kleineren en ridiculiseren.

Of beter: Piet is niet echt gebaseerd op een historisch figuur, maar verschijnt wel in een periode waarin ‘Moorse’ jongetjes als een soort modieus accessoire van de hoge burgerij werden afgebeeld.


Zeg niet

‘Hoe moet ik dat nu weer aan mijn kinderen gaan uitleggen?!’

Maar zeg

‘Dat ga ik aan mijn kinderen uitleggen!’


Uw kinderen weten vast al allerlei dingen waar wij geen weet van hadden. Waarom dan ook niet een beetje correcte informatie over de Sint meegeven? Wie het gevoel heeft te weinig kennis (of te weinig leuke verhalen) over Sinterklaas te hebben, kan zijn licht opsteken bij het Meertensinstituut (waar al jaren onderzoek wordt gedaan naar de traditie van Sinterklaas). En wie wel eens een echt traditioneel oud Sinterklaaslied wil zingen, kan terecht bij de Liederenbank.

All the world’s a stage … except the kitchen

Why can’t cooks act? Or rather, as I have been wondering lately, why was the figure of the ‘cuisinière‘ used quite so often to denote a lack of suitability for the theatre? Having gone through thousands of pithy descriptions of young hopefuls presenting themselves for the cours de déclamation, it has become clear that the most scathing comment one could direct at a would-be ingenue would be to call her a cuisinière. One would think that, at a time when Escoffier was naming his dishes after operatic characters and diva’s, there would be more love to share between the stage and the kitchen.

Of course, the imaginary cuisinières who appear in my sources were not imagined as chefs, they are domestic staff – and to assert that a young woman appears as a “cuisinière qui joue la comédie” could just be a class-based insult. Others were dismissively referred to as “une bonne” or even a “pauvre ouvrière”.


Description of a young woman seeking admission to the declamation class – the (mis)spelling mimicks (and mocks) what was called ‘grasseyement’, a fairly common pronunciation fault among french speakers but often linked to regional or class-based ‘accents’

There’s more at play, though…the figure of the cuisinière also seems to have evoked a particular (and unflattering) image of certain physical characteristics. They remain sadly – or perhaps luckily – unnamed in my exambooks, but the young woman who was described as having ‘a good physique for a cook’ was unlikely to take it as a compliment.


The aspiring actress with a “jolie physique pour une cuisinière” may not have had much to be happy about, but was possibly still better off than her predecessors, who inspired the examiner to simply exclaim “why?” and “ox tail”. A certain obsession with food and recipes seems to suggest itself.

Perhaps it was just an association with the domestic sphere of the kitchen – and therefore the lack of glamour – that made the cuisinière such a stock image for what another examiner called a “physique anti-théatrale”. The better one appeared to be (or the better one fitted the stereotypical image of) one, the less likely one could become the other.



On the Parisian stage, one could either be domestic, or a goddess, but clearly not both.



Do you have what it took…

… to make it into the Conservatoire Nationale in the 1870’s?

Judging from the notes left in the archives, appearing in front of the jury must have been a harrowing experience. And whilst it cannot (and probably shouldn’t) be recreated, I wouldn’t want to deny anyone the joy of being cynically assigned a place. So I’ve created this handy flowchart: