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Researcher Spotlight: Louise Powell

16 Nov, 2015

Lousie powellLouise Powell is doing an MA in Medieval and Renaissance Literary Studies with a focus on the way twins are represented 17th century literature. She recently got a Wellcome Trust bursary for postgraduate/early-career researchers, which enabled her to present this work at the ‘Dissecting the Page: Medical Paratext’ conference in Glasgow, and we wanted to find out more…

What are you working on?

Although my background is in literature, I’m most fascinated by how the medical works of the 17th century represented twins. My work is looking at these to see what we can learn from them about the way twins were understood back then.

At the moment I’m examining the illustrations of twins in two 17th-century midwifery books, James Guillemeau’s Childbirth or, the Happie Deliuerie of Women (1612) and Thomas Chamberlayne’s The Compleat Midwives Practice (1656).

I’m thinking about what the illustrations imply about twins, compared to what the texts say and I’m particularly interested in the quality of touch. Though the twins in the illustrations constantly touch, they never do in the texts unless they’re conjoined.

L0000533 Birth Figures, 17thC Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Birth Figures 17thC The birth of mankinde, otherwise named the womans booke Eucharius Roesslin, the Elder Published: 1604 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

17th century illustration from The birth of mankinde, otherwise named the womans booke. Eucharius Roesslin, the Elder. Credit: Wellcome Library, CC-BY

What does your average day involve?

It depends where I am in my research. In the early stage, when I’m looking for seventeenth-century midwifery books, I’ll scour the database Early English Books Online (EEBO), which contains digital facsimiles of thousands of printed texts from that time.

I’ll find the midwifery books, check their contents to see whether they contain any chapters on twins, and then if they do, I’ll make a note of them. Once I have a list of works, I return to them in detail. I read what the chapters have to say about twins, then examine their illustrations, considering where they’re located, what their purpose is, and any particular details they represent. I’ll make a note of all of these, ready for when I eventually write them up.

 Why is your work important?

I particularly like what Dr Will Viney of Durham University, who is producing a monograph on twins, said to me once: ‘research into twins justifies itself.’ There are over 9,000 sets of twins born in the UK each year, and the percentage of twins born is rising.

You might not be a twin, but the chances are that you know someone who is, or you’ve read about or watched twin characters. They’re a very big part of our existence and culture.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

I hope that it will offer a point of reference for the way in which we understand twins now. When we see people who act or look alike, we might jokingly call them ‘twins’ even though they’re not related – so twin-ship here is being used as shorthand for similar characteristics. Then there are other ideas associated with twins – the notion that each can sense when the other is ill, for example.

I hope to go back to the seventeenth century and see if those ideas were circulating then, or if there were different associations – and if there were, what were they?

Louise Powell presenting her work in Glasgow

Louise Powell presenting her work in Glasgow

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

It’s largely thanks to Dr Amritesh Singh, now of the University of South Africa, who taught my second-year ‘Renaissance Literature’ module at Teesside University.

Dr Singh asked my cohort to consider how important it was that the Duchess and Ferdinand of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1614), were twins. I went away thinking that it would be easy to find out how twins were understood during the Renaissance – and was proved completely wrong!

I searched every database I knew of, paced up and down the library, and read as many articles as I could – but I could find no answer to this. I was very frustrated until I realised that I could potentially answer that question by researching it myself – and then I was excited. I still am!

I spoke to Dr Singh about twins at this time and he suggested that midwifery books would be a good place to start. I took it from there.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

I received a bursary of £150 which allowed me to present at the ‘Dissecting the Page: Medical Paratexts’ conference at the University of Glasgow.  Without that funding, I would never have presented there, or be writing on this blog!

Receiving that funding has also helped me to broaden the scope of my intended doctoral research. I’ve always known that I was most interested by the medical ideas surrounding twins during the Renaissance, but I didn’t realise that this was a topic in itself until I started researching for the paper.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

“Are you a twin then?”

Definitely that one! Then accompanied by a double take, as if the person asking it expects someone identical to me to step out and reveal themselves!

I don’t mind explaining time and again that I’m not a twin, because I think the question itself suggests something interesting about them – as though the relationship between twins is so personal that you need to be one to comment upon it with any authority.

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

“So what did they think about twins during the Renaissance?”

I don’t so much dread this question as wish that I could give a comprehensive answer!

It’s the question which motivates me and my research, but I’m at such an early point that I can only give a brief outline of what I’ve discovered so far. Still, people always seem to find what I do have to say interesting, so perhaps I should take it as a good sign for the future!

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I’ve always been very interested in horse racing. I don’t gamble, but I love the spectacle of Flat racing on a sunny summer’s day or evening, and I’m fascinated by the breeding side of it. My favourite racehorse of all time is Frankel, trained by the late and great Sir Henry Cecil (who was also, incidentally, a twin). I went to watch Frankel run in the Juddmonte International at York in August 2012, and the memory of his instant, devastating acceleration still sends shivers down my spine.

What keeps you awake at night?

Worrying about whether I’ll secure funding for any of my upcoming PhD applications. I try not to think about it if I want a good night’s sleep!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

My parents have always said “never forget where you’ve come from”. It’s excellent advice because it’s a constant reminder of how lucky I am to have the chance to build a career around research I’m passionate about.

The chain reaction question set by our previous spotlit researcher Dr Thuy Le is this: “What is your best career advice to your children?”

I don’t actually have children (I have a pet budgie, who is as demanding as a child, but he can’t take career advice!). It is an excellent question, so I’ve tried to think about the advice I could give to my younger cousins who are reaching the age when they start to think about their future careers.

It would probably be this: your own sense of fulfilment is worth more than material possessions. Choose a career that you think is right for you, not a career which other people think is right for you. Be motivated by your own values and interests, rather than money – as long as you make enough to support yourself (and anyone else important in your life) then you will be fine.

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