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Dr Polly Dickson

Assistant Professor

Assistant Professor in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures+44 (0) 191 33 42457


I am Assistant Professor in German in the School of Modern Languages. My research interests lie primarily in German, French and English literature and visual culture of the nineteenth century. My work reflects upon unsanctioned and marginal forms of art and mark-making — sketches, squiggles, blots, graffiti, doodles — and their relationship to literary texts. I have a particular interest in the life and works of E. T. A. Hoffmann.

I came to Durham as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in 2019 and took up the position of Assistant Professor in 2023. Before arriving at Durham, I held an MHRA Scholarship at the University of Cambridge and a Hanseatic Scholarship from the Alfred Töpfer Stiftung at the Humboldt University, Berlin. I completed my PhD at the University of Cambridge, where I also did my MPhil and BA. 

My first monograph, forthcoming in 2024 with Edinburgh University Press, is a comparative study of mimesis and narrative lines in the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Honoré de Balzac. In reading Balzac as a reader of Hoffmann, my book centres on a set of lines found in their texts: lines which are written, drawn, or made as bodily gesture, and which occur in the form of arabesques, physiognomic outlines, scribbles, and crosses. Following the movement of these sensuous lines, which often function as allusions to the act of writing or drawing, allows me to unfold questions concerning both writers’ attitudes to mimetic representation, and thus to trace an account of Balzac’s adoptions of and references to Hoffmann and the ‘Hoffmannesque’ as a significant encounter within the broader history of the relationship between Romanticism and Realism. 

 My current research project looks at literary doodles made by German, French, and British authors in their manuscripts across the nineteenth century, to include E. T. A. Hoffmann, Stendhal, the Brontë siblings, Gottfried Keller, Wilhelm Raabe, and Oscar Wilde. I am interested in the dialogue that authors’ doodles strike up with literary texts — in whether such images might illustrate, complicate, or interfere with readings of the texts they accompany — as well as in literary representations of drawings and doodles within those texts. My project is thus concerned with a kind of tit-for-tat ekphrastic play I see to be specific to the doodling writer: with how writers write about drawing whilst drawing on or ‘about’ their own writing. It is my hunch that these marginal figures might have a role to play in our understanding of nineteenth-century literary realism — a mode which is deeply invested in visual forms. 

Esteem Indicators

  • 2018: MHRA Postdoctoral Research Scholarship: University of Cambridge
  • 2015: Katherine Mansfield Society Essay Prize: Competition Winner
  • 2014: Society of Dix-Neuviémistes Postgraduate Paper Prize: Competition Winner