Meet Dr Natalie Mears, Associate Professor in Early Modern British History, who describes her current project as 'Elizabeth I meets #MeToo and #BLM'
Where did it all start?
I'm the first and possibly still the only person in my entire family to go to university. I didn't have any particular plans to do so until I was in the sixth-form and I then got it into my head that I would like to go to Cambridge! I was at a good all-girls' school which, perhaps, might have one girl a year apply to Oxbridge. My year was unusual as there were about eight or so of us, but I was deemed a bit of an also-ran so didn't get huge amounts of support, and that seemed justified when I didn't get a place.
In fact, I ended up without a university place at all as I didn't quite make my offer for Nottingham (my first and only choice) so I took a year off, reapplied and got into what was then New Hall (now Murray Edwards College) Cambridge. That turned out to be quite a significant experience in my career. It taught me (rightly or wrongly) that if you work at things, you might get them, and it turned me into an early modernist. I did voluntary work in the archives of Hatfield House, the most important private archive of 16th century material in the country, and loved it so much I kept on going back and ended up doing my dissertation on its builder, Robert Cecil, marquis of Salisbury.
Tell us about your career to date
I had a couple of fixed-term contracts (Swansea, Manchester) after completing my PhD at St Andrews and worked freelance (at Cambridge and on an AHRC research project), until I got a permanent post here in Durham in about 2003.
Since then, I've been a co-investigator on the AHRC-funded project ('British state prayers'), won an Excellence in Teaching Award, and have taken on multiple administration responsibilities at departmental, faculty and university level. I've appeared on Royal History's Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley, I was historical consultant for the TV drama series, Becoming Elizabeth, and, last year, I was appointed an external expert to the Arts Council's Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest to advise the Secretary of State on granting a licence to export a presentation manuscript to Elizabeth I.
Tell us about your current research
I have just started a new project which I describe as 'Queen Elizabeth I meets #MeToo and #BLM'. It explores accounts of Elizabeth and her reign from her death in 1603 to the present day that were 'written' (broadly defined) by those outside the dominant circle of elite, educated, white, protestant, heterosexual men, i.e. Catholics, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, the working class, and people of colour. It also reflects on how their contribution has often been ignored, neglected or surreptitiously incorporated into mainstream accounts and considers where Elizabethan history has been resistant to more diverse approaches (particularly race). The material I work on is incredibly varied, from conventional sources (printed histories, novels, plays and film) to opera, video games, science fiction, graphic novels, Japanese manga and animé.
The project had a rather odd genesis. I was already working on a more conventional approach to Elizabeth's posthumous representation when two things happened. First, I noticed that all the innovations attributed to the 'great' Elizabethan historian of the 19th century, J.A. Froude, appeared to have been made by Agnes and Elizabeth Strickland years before but went unrecognised because they were just women writing 'biography'. Second, I watched the documentary Allen v. Farrow, which really opened my eyes to how power and gender really shaped which accounts were believed and why. Having lost my confidence and enthusiasm after a period of illness a few years ago, I am so excited by this new project.
Do you have any advice for women looking to succeed in your field?
Though a lot has changed and improved, women still face an uphill battle, including those who are single and/or don't have children. Indeed, single/childless women often seem to be ignored, forgotten or seen as fair game for extra duties. It is worse for first generation women like myself who have little sense of how graduate employment works, let alone academia, and fewer/no contacts to provide guidance.
My advice is not specific to history. Seek advice and guidance from multiple sources and evaluate it critically: what experience does that person have? Where are they coming from? What's their agenda? Get comfortable with saying no. Make use of female networks.
When I started out, I was often the only woman being interviewed, I was surrounded by men, and some of the women I met were just not very friendly! More recently, I've seen how women, especially senior women, go out of their way to support fellow female academics. Be part of that!
What are your interests outside of your work?
Particularly since I had long period of illness a few years ago, I have tried to forge a much better work/life balance. This has included taking up horse riding after a 20+ year break and volunteering for British Eventing at regional, national and international level. I've made lots of new friends (human and equine), it keeps me active, and, thanks to the kindness of a friend who lets me ride her horse, I have even realised a childhood dream of competing in horse shows!