Professor Robert Morrison on retracing the footsteps of English essayist Thomas De Quincey and why Edinburgh Airport features in his favourite student memories.
PhD English Literature
|Year of graduation||1991|
Your time at the University
My Edinburgh PhD thesis was on the nineteenth-century English essayist Thomas De Quincey, who is best known for ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ (1821), which is widely considered to be the first modern drug memoir. Edinburgh was home to De Quincey for much of his adult life, and he wrote many of his finest works there, including parts of ‘Confessions’. De Quincey died in Edinburgh in 1859, and is buried in St Cuthbert’s Churchyard. Many of his papers are in either the Edinburgh University Library or the National Library of Scotland (NLS).
During my years at Edinburgh I was privileged to be surrounded by an intimidatingly bright group of graduate students who taught me a great deal about English literature. I also had the privilege of working with the late Geoffrey Carnall, who supervised my doctoral thesis, and whose knowledge of English literature was an inspiration.
My favourite memories of Edinburgh include working on the De Quincey papers in the NLS, eating fish and chips in Bristo Square, visiting the Edinburgh bookshops, and debating and laughing in Greyfriars Bobby and The Pear Tree. My happiest memory is greeting my wife at the Edinburgh airport. We got engaged just before I started at Edinburgh, and when I flew home to Canada for Christmas three months later, we got married. I flew back to Edinburgh in January and she joined me in February.
During my years at Edinburgh I was privileged to be surrounded by an intimidatingly bright group of graduate students who taught me a great deal about English literature.
Your experiences since leaving the University
After I received my doctorate from Edinburgh, I became in 1992 an Assistant Professor at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. Six years later, I returned to Edinburgh as a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. In 2003, I was appointed Queen’s National Scholar at Queen’s University in Ontario. Two years ago, I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. At present, I am British Academy Global Professor at Bath Spa University, where I will teach and carry out various research projects over the next four years.
My first book, ‘The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey’ (2009) involved several trips back to Edinburgh to re-read De Quincey’s papers and retrace his footsteps. The biography was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize, which is of course based at the University of Edinburgh. My most recent book, ‘The Regency Revolution: Jane Austen, Napoleon, Lord Byron, and the Making of the Modern World’, was published in July 2019. Both books are rooted in my Edinburgh graduate experience, which continues to have an immensely positive impact on my professional and personal life.
In a beautifully melancholic poem called ‘Afternoons’, Philip Larkin watches young mothers and fathers standing in a new recreation ground, and observes that ‘Something is pushing them / To the side of their own lives’. My one piece of advice to current students is ‘Don’t let something push you to the side of your own life’. Work hard. Don’t sell yourself short. Make sure that you cultivate the things that bring you joy. Above all, try to ensure that at some level you are engaged in improving the lives of others.