We welcome aboard Kelsey Power, who is joining the British Naval History editorial team. Kelsey is a PhD student at King’s College London, where she is studying ‘Parole’ and prisoners of war. She brings a very different theoretical background and perspective to the other members of the BNH team, and we look forward to her future writing on her work, and her experiences as an American student in the United Kingdom. In this blog, she explains how she came to be interested in her research topic.
Choosing a topic for my PhD was probably the most important decision I made and will likely have the greatest influence on my chance to be successful (I’m less than three months in, but I’m calling it early). Unfortunately, framing a research question will also probably be one of the more difficult steps in the PhD. So, I wanted to talk, in this my first blog post, about how I came to find my ‘perfect’ project.
For better or for worse my window into history has always primarily been through film and books. I grew up with the classics, my parents introducing me at an early age to gems like Rogers and Hammerstein, Powell and Pressburger, David Lean, John Ford. My family converses in quotations and inside jokes based on film references, so it’s no surprise that this is how history comes alive for me. But, it wasn’t until my first year in University that I began picking out movies for myself, and it was at this time that I first stumbled on the A&E Horatio Hornblower series. ‘Cliché for a maritime historian’, you say? Certainly, but watching the episode ‘The Duchess and the Devil’, where Horatio is held a prisoner, made me terribly curious.
Parole is such a strange concept to the modern sensibility and I couldn’t quite believe that the Spanish would trust an enemy sailor’s word (gentleman officer or otherwise) that he would return to captivity when given the perfect opportunity to escape. That single spark of curiosity has led me to a PhD project investigating the manner in which concepts of honour shaped perceptions of acceptable behaviour for British naval officers captured by the French in the Napoleonic period. It is truly fascinating to me, and I delight in sharing my findings, particularly with people who have never thought about the topic before. Horatio Hornblower has been a boon for helping to put a frame of reference on things. Being able to talk about my project with people outside my field in a way that allows them to immediately grasp the context has meant that I have benefited immensely from the pop-culture image of Nelson’s Navy and the Age of Sail. I still have much work to do in refining my project and fitting my research into current discussions, but I know that when discouraged, perhaps a re-watch or reread may do the trick in rekindling that curiosity.
I’m planning on writing several blogs on how pop-culture contributes to the making of historical narratives with discussions on different approaches academic historians may take to engaging with that narrative; to advertise their work, overcome popular misconceptions when communicating with the public, and the ways in which pop-culture can inspire and influence our own approach to history.