Through the (neo)picaresca looking glass

I’m Sarah Ellis, a full-time PhD Student in Hispanic Studies who is sponsored by the University of Liverpool’s Newton Bequest Scholarship. Originally from Chester, I moved away to carry out my undergraduate and Master’s studies in Exeter and Leeds respectively - with three years living in Spain teaching English sandwiched in the middle! Aside from carrying out my research here at the University of Liverpool, I am also a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of Languages, Cultures and Film, Co-lead for the School of Humanities, Languages and Cultures on the newly-established Postgraduate Researcher’s Development Network (PGRDevNet) and part of the University’s Strength and Conditioning (UoLSC) powerlifting team; competing regionally, nationally and soon… at World’s!

My research

The origins of my interest in my research topic of Spanish (neo-)picaresque literature can be traced back as far as when I took my Spanish A-Level, and read Lazarillo de Tormes for the very first time. Centred around the self-tituled pícaro or rogue, this literary text which dates all back to the sixteenth century, masks hypocrisy and contempt over the ongoing economic and political crisis and decline through humorous events and satirical narration. It became hailed as the precursor of the “picaresque” genre and even the first true Spanish novel, and inspired a whole line of works in its path, which similarly unearth such scathing truths about life in Spain at the time by employing the same literary devices whilst recounting the life of a picaro. This particular genre of literature always fascinated me, and it became the topic of my final-year undergraduate dissertation and eventually, my Master’s thesis too.

My current doctoral research calls for a re-investigation into this mechanism of literary frameworking, given that the picaresque has begun reappearing in the 20th century and beyond amidst a new wave of crises in Spain. By coining the term “neopicaresque” I hope to bring this literature and the significance behind its existence into modernity, identifying a pattern of events – be it political, domestic, socio-economic, cultural or a culmination of the above – which call for its specific and somewhat subjective re-emergence at particular times in Spanish history.

Moreover, through this consideration of how and why the picaresque emerged and continues to re-emerge, I seek to uncover its ties with the notion of Spanishness – namely “Castilianism”, using the picaresque and its categorical qualities as a literary lens or looking glass that can aid our understanding of the Castilian national identity complex.

There are many elements to my research that I enjoy, including its interdisciplinary approach which although maintains literature and literary studies at its crux, ventures into terrain pertaining to historical, political, socio-economical, nationalistic and even linguistic realms of study and thought. I feel as though by pinning my research on a literary genre-cum-notion so imperative to Spanish history and culture, I will be able to transcend outdated ideas on national identity and of literature as “belonging in the past” and will succeed in bringing it to modernity where it rightfully deserves to be.

My next steps and beyond

As I’m going into my second year of study, I will turn my focus onto finetuning my avenues of research, with the aim of constructing a solid literature review along with writing at least one substantial chapter of my thesis this year. I will also seek to attend and present at a number of conferences throughout the year, to continue talking about my research to both specialist and non-specialist audiences, and present a paper to an academic journal in due course. Outside of my studies, I will compete at WPC World Powerlifting Championships 2023 and continue with my powerlifting career in my free time, a sport I am avidly passionate about, which is reflected by my decision to become the Charity Secretary of the Strength and Conditioning Society for the upcoming academic year. I will continue my role both as Co-lead on the PGRDevNet and as a departmental Graduate Teaching Assistant.

My three-minute thesis

Above all, the 3MT experience has taught me that I really do have the courage, perseverance and drive to get through this whole PhD process! By applying to, and going on to make the first-ever University of Liverpool 3MT final during the very first year of my doctoral studies, despite knowing that my research was (and is) still very much a work in progress, it has given me a huge boost. The whole experience has also encouraged me to put myself forward for more roles and commitments that require a sense of leadership, level-headedness and the ability to show professionalism when public speaking. I know these are invaluable skills that will remain with me for the rest of my academic year and beyond, as well as in my teaching role here within the university.

I think a lot of researchers can quickly fall into the trap of becoming too comfortable only talking about their research with like-minded PGRs, supervisors, peers etc. and can be too technical or specific when they go about explaining what they do. Engaging with different audiences not only unlocks your research and its potential to a vast array of different people from all walks of life, but also helps you as a PGR to prepare more generally for public speaking opportunities, and to build your confidence and self-awareness on a deeper level – not least in time for the Viva Voce exam!

Watch my 3MT presentation

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