PhD student Liz Chappell explores Catherine Spence’s life through Creative Practice

Posted by | May 18, 2021 | Arts, Humanities, Research | One Comment

Ardent interest and passion can occur at any time in our lives. PhD student Liz Chappell shows this to be true through her enthusiasm for her craft and the story behind her study journey at UNE.

Liz originally studied an undergrad degree in Journalism at UTS, followed by a number of years working in women’s magazines and in trade press. However, as Liz puts it, “life takes you on funny paths” and she moved back to north of Glen Innes, where she lived and worked on a family sheep and cattle farm. During this time she wrote and published a gardening book, which reaffirmed her love for writing and drew her interest to further writing pursuits.

“At that time I started coming along to the New England Writer’s Centre and I was working on a bio-fiction manuscript. I had one of those Road to Damascus moments when a much younger woman was talking about coming back to do her Masters. I thought ‘I’d love to be at that stage of life’ and I thought ‘Well actually nothing is stopping me.”

When Liz returned to university study she undertook a Master’s degree at UNE, followed closely by her current PhD studies, which she is completing through Creative Practice – the creation of an independent creative work that incorporates research and an exegesis.

“I am doing an imaginative biography of Catherine Helen Spence, who was on our five dollar note a few years ago. She was the first Australian woman novelist to be published. She left a very rich archive of material, but I am telling her life story through multiple narrators because of the contradictions that I have found in my early research on her. The end product will be a lengthy biography with quite a bit of imagination in it and a reflection of how it relates to other life-writing work.”

“I am at the very beginning, I am quite overwhelmed with material. I had the opportunity to go to Sydney and read a lot of her letters that are in the Mitchell Library there, and later on I will be going to Adelaide where she lived where there is a lot more material. The Sydney trip gave me the chance to make sure there was going to be enough material to sustain the project. You’d hate to be six months in and think ‘What else is there?’”

Discussing what drew Liz to Catherine Spence as a research subject, she notes that it was the diversity of pursuits that Catherine undertook that appealed to her.

“First of all I knew about her as one of the leaders of the suffrage movement. Then I came across her novels, particularly her utopian novels – she published eight in all. One of the most interesting things was how these novels looked from 1888 towards 1988, she got some things right and some things wrong.”

“Catherine Spence continues to surprise me! This is something that her early biographers said that people were daunted from taking on a biography because she did so many different fields of work, and having done so many U-turns in life myself, that appealed to me.”

Returning to study after so much time and diving into a Masters, Liz decided to take it on as part time study – however her PhD studies are full time.

“This is the first opportunity I have had to be a full time student, all of my study to date has been part time, and of course the RTP from the government covers the fees so I am not accruing any debts and I have the opportunity to not be working. It means that you can put your project to the forefront, rather than trying to balance it in-between the other aspects of your life.”

Although she is still in the early days of her PhD, Liz reflected on what she will aim for following these studies.

“I hope that I will finish my PhD with a biography of Catherine Spence which will put new light on her life and also show the perennial nature of a lot of these women’s issues and as such it will be a publishable manuscript. She dealt with a lot of things, like domestic violence, no fault divorce, issues of trial marriage and illegitimacy, which were pretty out there in the mid-19th century and she managed to get them published in daily newspapers – so she was a pretty forceful lady.”

Having worked as a journalist for various publications over many years, Liz is no stranger to research and the writing process, although there are subtle differences between her previous experiences and her current studies.

“What I am enjoying here is the freedom if you like to range a bit further, to go down a few rabbit holes because they seem interesting to find out more about; it is not so time and deadline driven. Also it is not as pragmatic as being in the publishing world, I worked for one stage for Reader’s Digest where you would have a week to do everything you knew about sales tax, for instance. I know I still have time constraints but they are of my own making.”

Liz had this parting advice for any students who might be considering the following a similar study journey as she has – “you’ve got to know deep down that you are going to be enthuastic enough about your topic to stay with it for three years, because you really do live with it. If you fortunate enough to take it on at a time in your life when you can foreground it, rather than have too many strong competing influences.”

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