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A Discovery of Insights: Best-selling author Deborah Harkness speaks at Oberlin

by Zach Terrillion

Staff Writer


Hallock Auditorium was abuzz as a renowned historian, a blockbusting TV producer, and a NY Times bestselling author came to speak. These were not three separate individuals but instead Deborah Harkness, a Renaissance woman ready to give a scholarly lecture on the Renaissance period. The event was organized by Professor Danielle Skeehan, chair of the English department, and English student representatives. It was part of the department’s ongoing Bongiorno Lecture series, and part of its push to invite more speakers that cater to the community at large.

A graduate of Mount Holyoke, Harkness is a scholar specializing in scientific and medical history, writing multiple volumes on the fascinating works of the Renaissance, including alchemy and bits of the occult. In 2011, after working in academia, Harkness decided to write her first novel, A Discovery of Witches. The historical fantasy is all about Harkness’ line of work, following a historian who is secretly a powerful witch that denies her powers. She eventually finds a magical manuscript in her libraries and sets off on escapades featuring vampires, demons, and more, traveling back into Renaissance England. This first book was a hit, becoming the first entry in her All Souls trilogy. In 2018, it was produced as a big-budget TV series by Sky One in the UK.

According to English department representative Josie Rosman, Harkness was chosen to visit because her books feature a historian’s point of view. “It is an interesting way of looking and talking about history in a way you usually don’t get in a fantasy novel. It is an interesting way of looking at fantasy in a way you usually don’t get in historical fiction.”

Harkness first came up to the podium beaming with energy as the lecture hall erupted with applause. The excitement partially came from that while many knew the guest, it was unclear what topic she’d discuss. She first praised the power of a liberal arts education, thanking it for her ability to transition from a historian to a novelist. “It told me that I could do anything. I could cross interdisciplinary boundaries and defy expectations,” She declared. What are you going to do with a liberal arts degree? According to Harkness, “Whatever you want.”

She next dived into her lecture, talking about the Renaissance concept of “memory palaces,” where one could store information. It is an internal, human equivalent of an iPhone; something made to store knowledge and understanding of the world. Renaissance thinkers envisioned two different types of images that could be stored in these mind palaces. The ideas of realism vs. the imagination. Harkness connected these two ideas to her own work, specifically how it is adapted. “Should a historical novel follow realistic or fantastic ideals?” “Should there be poetic license or verisimilitude in works?

Apparently, this centuries-old debate of imagination vs. realism is pretty relevant to modern consumers. Harkness transitioned from images of long-dead philosophers to Google search results for her favorite shows. Many fans of historical IPs, whether Bridgerton or The Crown, apparently care a lot about historical accuracy. One audience member shouted out when she mentioned The Crown. “I love it too,” she responded. It was fascinating that classical philosophical concepts of the real vs. imaginary still have relevance outside of academia and in the void of pop culture.

Harkness later talked about some of her scholarly interests after graduating college. She was drawn to folks who were both realistic and fantastical. Individuals who did not conform to the boxes of their era. She wanted to center “the margins of the Renaissance.” The neglected. The easily dismissed. She discussed Queen Elizabeth I, not one’s first idea of an outcast. However, she specifically researched the 16th-century monarch’s nerdiness. How she would lie in her nightgown translating classical texts as advisors tried to drag her out to meetings. She also brought up mathematician John Dee. She did not focus on his main theories, but rather on the little marks and annotations he left on the edges of his manuscripts. These margins revealed he was an even bigger eccentric than Elizabeth. Dee also produced plays and claimed to talk to angels through a crystal ball. Harkness generally loves to follow these margins and breadcrumbs and write scholarly books on them.

Ideas for her third book came at a strange cultural moment. She was researching Charles Darwin, arguing that his theories show that diversity is valuable, even essential, to human civilization. However, this argument for human diversity came alongside the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which prohibited same-sex marriage in the state. This was upsetting to her as a Queer woman. She was arguing for diversity while politicians were trying to take it away. Harkness was also inspired at that point by the phenomenon of Twilight and pop culture’s new obsession over the magical, occult topics she had been studying for so long. Darwin. Same-sex marriage bans. Sexy vampires. This unlikely trio formed a paradox for Harkness, but, in her own words, “It’s paradoxes where we get our best ideas.”

From said paradox, A Discovery of Witches was born. She wanted to take her academic interests and make them apply on a wide, cultural scale. Harkness wanted to see how much historical knowledge she could put into a text while it still entertains a reader. “I was being a historian when I wrote this book.” Her historical background continued to kick in as an executive producer for the TV adaptation.

She concluded her presentation with a deep dive into the show’s production process, showcasing images of massive sets bringing Renaissance London to life. Harkness discussed the effort made to cast actors that reflect the backgrounds of the characters and historical figures they portray, such as having a partially deaf actor play Henry Percy, an ally of Walter Raleigh and Christopher Marlowe with the same trait.

In general, diversity was an overarching theme for this event. Harkness acknowledged the whitewashing often dealt to historical periods like the Renaissance, even calling herself out by posting comments from individuals who critique her series for its limited racial representation. “We in the creative community need to do better and do more,” She said. “The key question is, how do we do it?” To her, reimagining the Renaissance through fiction is a vital project. To her, “Films and novels can go where the facts don’t go.”

The power of fiction in telling history plays out in Witch Lit Co, an exco studying fictional books centering around witches. It was founded by students Elena Rabin, Josie Rosman, and Elsa Friedmann to provide context for this big event. They wanted to ensure people were reading the books being discussed. Besides Harkness, they meet once a week to discuss diverse witchy texts like Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn, Mona Awad’s Bunny, and Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House. “We’ve been having such interesting conversations about fiction, genre, women, and sexuality!” according to Rosman. The space creates an incubator to discuss history by considering marginalized identities and themes, much like Harkness envisioned in her talk.

They all see it as a way to spotlight genre fiction in an academic setting. For Rabin, “The class has been so rewarding because it’s easy in an academic English department to lose track of the reason why people study English literature. Most of the things literature fans read are not taught in the canon. They’re usually reading historical or science fiction.” Friedmann states, “Historical fiction and Romance novels are the backbones of publishing houses. They’re two of the least valued genres, but it’s what most people read.”

Overall, there seemed to be a major populist approach to Harkness’ talk, inspiring Oberlin students like those in Witch Lit Co to study literature in more unconventional ways. During the event’s Q&A, a discussion occurred connecting the act of writing to magic. It is a form of creation in itself. Writers are casting a spell and making something appear. In this case, what appears is a text that puts a new spin on history by centering marginalized narratives. Harkness argued that there is an audience for the humanities on a large global scale. Literature and history are very much relevant. Echoing this sentiment, the author and historian concluded her lecture by saying, “The humanities are not dead. They’re not even napping.”

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