Playing on Words. A History of French Literary Play, 1635–1789

My second book project explores the early modern history of literary play in France and its colonies, from the creation of the Académie française in 1635, to the Revolution of 1789. This work is funded by a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship (January 2022-December 2024), based at Queen Mary, University of London, in the School of Languages, Linguistics and Film.

Interdisciplinary in scope, the project examines an interrelated set of key words and key objects, to show how word play and other literary games manifest themselves across a range of literary and material culture: from the ‘high brow’ to the ‘low brow’, and everywhere in between. Rébus, bagatelle, badinage, caricature, calembour, énigme… punning tavern signs, board games, literacy-teaching toys, decks of cards, caricatures, and automata… These are some of the words and objects this project explores, as it asks what play looked like in this period, who engaged with it, and to what ends. Was it a trivial matter, or a serious business? And crucially, how did a diverse range of actors engage with literary play: from elite, white hommes de lettres, to marginalised groups such as children, women, and people of colour?

Ultimately, this project asks whether homing in on practices of literary play brings into view an early modern French literary world that is more diverse, and more playful, than scholars have previously imagined. And perhaps, along the way, it will result in some digital games, based on the games in the study…

You can listen to me talk briefly about three playful (and sometimes very serious) objects I’ve worked on in this project, in this BBC Radio 3 programme introducing the 2023 BBC-AHRC New Generation Thinkers. Go to 13:40 to hear my two pennies’ worth.