In June this year, I completed overseas research in the United Kingdom with the support of the SEI Honours Fellowship. My honours project explores the relationship between literature and colonial natural history networks during the British Romantic era (approx. 1780s-1830s).
I’m using a multidisciplinary approach that combines literary, historical, and philosophical analysis. Researching in the United Kingdom enabled me to access rare books and archival materials that were not available online or in Australia.
I visited several institutions over three weeks but spent most of my time at the British Library. I pieced together biographies of female authors, reading letters, receipts, and financial applications that fleshed out details absent from the historical record. I read first editions of books that had only later editions scanned online or were otherwise inaccessible from Australia. I also visited the Wellcome Collection, University of Birmingham Library, Cambridge University Library, British Museum, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and its Archives.
Travelling gave me space, time, and resources to extend my research. I read 20 books that were similar or connected to my core text, allowing me to place it within the context of other literature of the time. Reading archival materials connected to the authors and historical figures in my thesis gave me greater perspective on their lives and intentions. I have a more detailed and comprehensive understanding of my topic now.
Kew Gardens was the highlight of the trip for me. I’ve spent months researching how specimens were brought from across the globe to Kew Gardens during the eighteenth century. I found ‘the oldest pot plant in the world’ inside Kew’s Palm House, an Eastern Cape giant cycad that arrived from South Africa in 1775 courtesy of botanist Francis Masson (described by Kew as their first ‘plant hunter’).
“Reading archival materials connected to the authors and historical figures in my thesis gave me greater perspective on their lives and intentions. I have a more detailed and comprehensive understanding of my topic now.”
Seeing the Australian plants was surreal. It was somewhat unnerving to find kangaroo paws, banksias, and eucalypts in the middle of London. At the same time, the smell was familiar, comforting, and made me feel momentarily at home.
Wandering through the gardens allowed for a moment of self-reflection. In trying to understand how Enlightenment science shaped the way people thought about nature, I’ve found I can get caught up in theory. Being there in person gave life and vibrancy to this history. It was the same with reading first editions of books: touching the pages and finding pencil notes in the margins brought tangibility that can’t be transmitted through Google Books.
“In trying to understand how Enlightenment science shaped the way people thought about nature, I’ve found I can get caught up in theory. Being there in person gave life and vibrancy to this history.”
The opportunity to gain this research experience was invaluable for my Honours year. On a practical level, I learned new research skills from adapting to the rules of using archives at different institutions. Throughout my undergraduate studies I read several essays arguing that researchers should be reflexive. Now I have some experience of what reflexivity feels like.
Honours is a time when students are still figuring out what their career could look like (at least, I am still figuring this out!). As well as developing my archival skills and adding depth to my thesis, the challenge of travelling alone brought real personal growth. I want to thank SEI so much for supporting my research trip.
Vivienne Goodes is a 2022 Honours Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute. She completed her Bachelor of Arts majoring in Politics, International Relations and European Studies in 2021, and is now undertaking Honours with the School of Languages and Cultures.
Vivienne’s Honours research is on the connections between colonial environmental destruction and British Romantic literature. Her research interests also include contemporary environmental justice issues such as mining, pollution and climate change.