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Maria-Silvia Cohut

Studies and Research Interests

I am currently conducting my PhD research on a full-time basis in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies (full Chancellor's Scholarship). I previously completed a MA in Pan-Romanticisms (2011-2012: Distinction, Award for Best Performance) and a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing (2008-2011: First Class Honours), both at the University of Warwick. My main research interests are: eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature; the Gothic; doubles and tropes of reflection in literature; themes/ motifs of mourning, death and decay in literature and visual arts; semiotics and feminist theory.

My research interests stem from academic and non-academic preoccupations alike, mostly my long-time engagement with obscure, overlooked and misunderstood aesthetic forms, often finding their expression in the grotesque, the uncanny, the distorted and the decaying. These concerns can be traced in my Personal Writing Project for the completion of my BA degree, titled Feast of the Dead (2011, supervisor: Prof. Maureen Freely), a work in progress of 'modern Gothic' fiction, and in my MA dissertation, Illusive Bodies as Likenesses of Real Bodies: the Compulsion and Repulsion of Simulacra in Romantic Literature (2012, supervisors: Dr. Fabio Camilletti and Prof. Jacqueline Labbe), a comparative literature enquiry into the importance of anthropomorphic simulacra as instances of reflection in Romantic texts.


PhD Research

Before and Beyond the Glass: Women, 'Mirrored' in Nineteenth-century Literature and Visual Art (provisional title)

My thesis explores the interplay between reflective objects (mirrors, mirror-like surfaces, but also representational media such as portraits and miniatures) and female figures in nineteenth-century British literature and visual art. The trope of the woman at the mirror is a significant though overlooked presence in art and literature throughout the nineteenth-century (e.g. in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, Alfred Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’, Pre-Raphaelite and Neo-Pre-Raphaelite depictions of ‘woman with/at the mirror’). I argue that this interplay is a significant cultural phenomenon and that an engagement with its workings can help us understand the aesthetic and, by implication, social means of negotiating female identity in this period. Moreover, the significance of this trope for the history of art and of culture more generally lies in the simultaneous construction and problematisation of female identity that it facilitates.

In this period the mirror appears as a symbol of knowing and developing feminine identity, as it alternately reveals or conceals the self, and/or as it reflects the world to which the self is tied. Additionally, the mirror often creates an intimate space – virtual or otherwise – for femininity, opening up to the woman, but guarding against the intrusion of an external viewer by refracting his or her gaze (as in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith). These readings are made possible by considering the historical importance of the mirror as a household object, especially its role within the female sphere. Initially regarded as luxury items, mirrors become increasingly accessible in nineteenth-century Britain due to the development of cheaper, more efficient, and safer silvering techniques. On a personal scale, small mirrors incorporated into nécessaires are very popular with women, and ladies’ boudoirs are sometimes turned into veritable ‘mirror rooms’ (see Comtesse de Gencé, Le cabinet de toilette d’une honnête femme).

My thesis employs primarily post-structuralist and feminist approaches alongside histories of portraiture and mirrors, but also a number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theoretical and cultural works, for contextualisation. One key concept is Michel Foucault’s ‘heterotopia’ (‘Different Spaces’): the mirror, Foucault argues, can be conceptualised as an object-space with both a physical and a virtual dimension; since the reflection that permits identification is projected into the unreal space of the tain beyond the actual surface, the mirror allows a discovery and simultaneously a questioning of identity. This reading of Foucault will be further nuanced by reference to Victor Stoichiță’s analysis of the dichotomy between the ‘shadow as other’ and the ‘reflection as self’ (A Short History of the Shadow), and his distinction between portraits as ‘a sign’ and mirror reflections as ‘a natural sign’ (The Self-Aware Image). Another key concept will be that of surveillance, developed by Foucault in Discipline and Punish, which is here adapted to the idea of self-surveillance prompted by boudoir mirror(s): how women analyse and watch themselves through mirrors (and occasionally other reflective objects) in a context reminiscent of Bentham’s panopticism. However, this surveillance is not always suggestive of repression in the cases under scrutiny, but is sometimes a mark of female empowerment. Finally, the problematic of ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ will be addressed through Laura Mulvey’s concept of ‘male gaze’ (Visual and Other Pleasures), and Kamilla Elliott’s discussion of the symbolic social importance of portraiture in framing and defining female identities (Portraiture and British Gothic Fiction).

My research started under the supervision of Prof. Jacqueline Labbe (2012/13) and subsequently passed under the supervision of Prof. Emma Mason. I am also grateful to my mentor, Prof. John Fletcher, for his continued guidance and support.


Teaching


In 2013/14, I taught on the Romantic and Victorian Poetry module (EN227) and facilitated academic writing sessions (Languages sub-faculty) within the Writing Centre (Autumn Term 2013). In 2015/16, I taught on the Introduction to Pan-Romanticisms module (FR932), and will be facilitiating Global Connections (IL014) sessions.

Maria Cohut

Maria-Silvia Cohut

M-S dot Cohut at warwick dot ac dot uk

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All my walls are lost in mirrors, whereupon I trace
Self to right hand, self to left hand, self in every place,
Self-same solitary figure, self-same seeking face.

Christina Rossetti, 'A Royal Princess'