Prof Clare Pettitt, Emmanuel



Biographical Information

I grew up in Manchester and studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.  After six years in London working in journalism and theatre, I did a D.Phil. at Linacre College, Oxford, transferring to Pembroke College when I was awarded the Robert Browning Research Studentship. My first academic job was at Leeds University, and in 1998 I returned to Cambridge as a College Teaching Officer and Director of Studies in English at Newnham College, where I worked for seven years.  During this time, I became a Research Director on the Leverhulme Research Programme Grant, ‘Past- vs.-Present: Abandoning the Past in an Age of Progress’: a Cambridge-based interdisciplinary project with Classics, History and History and Philosophy of Science.

I moved to a lectureship at King’s College London in 2005, where I was promoted to Professor in 2008.  While at KCL, I ran a four-year collaborative and interdisciplinary AHRC research project with KCL, University College London, and the Courtauld Institute of Art called ‘Scrambled Messages: The Telegraphic Imaginary 1857-1900.’   Between 2016 and 2018, I was seconded for two years to be Director of the London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP), the Doctoral Consortium for London universities, where I was responsible for writing a successful bid for an expanded LAHP2 consortium.

I have been a Visiting Scholar at The Heyman Center, Columbia University, New York; at the Visual Studies Research Institute at the University of Southern California; and at the University of Uppsala. In 2022, I was a Mercator Fellow at Humboldt University, Berlin and the Robert Lehman Visiting Professor at Villa I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Florence.

I am the UK General Editor of the Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture monograph series at Cambridge University Press, and an editor of the journal, Cambridge Quarterly.  I review regularly for the Times Literary Supplement.

In January 2023 I returned to Cambridge as Grace 2 Professor.  I am a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

Research Interests

My research is focused on the long nineteenth century.  I consider the nineteenth century to be still with us and around us and my current work investigates the origins of the linked phenomena of structural racism, climate change, and nationalism. I am currently finishing a trilogy which spans the period 1815-1914 and is an investigation of the concept of ‘seriality’ and its importance to the emergence of a particular version of Western modernity.  

The first book focuses on print and show culture in Britain in the Regency and early Victorian period to argue for a newly serializing culture and a corresponding shift in concepts of historical and social time. Serial Forms: The Unfinished Project of Modernity, 1815-1848 (Oxford University Press, 2020) won the British Academy’s Rose Mary Crawshay Prize; the NAVSA [North American Victorian Studies Association] Book Prize 2022 and was a co-winner of the ESPRit Prize 2022 [European Society for Periodical Studies]. The political implications of this change are the subject of the second book in the trilogy, 1848 Serial Revolutions: Writing, Politics, Form (Oxford University Press, 2022). This book uses not just English, but American and European language texts to focus on the literary, historical, political and serial event that was ‘1848.’

I am currently working on the final book, Serial Transmissions. This will ask what happens to the nationalisms of 1848 after mid-century and the inauguration of electronic digital communication. The new global regimes of control were communication-based and it is no coincidence that telegraphy and the new so-called ‘racial science’ emerged together as hegemonic in the 1860s: both were technologies of white supremacy. Serial Transmissions will argue that literature and the visual arts in the second half of the nineteenth century are not just reflecting or representing the new digital media but also creating the cultural conditions for their uptake and application, and so therefore also ‘making’ them.

I have always been interested in the history of the material book and in the historical production of ideas of authorship, ownership, originality and authority. My first monograph, published by Oxford University Press in 2004, Patent Inventions: Intellectual Property and the Victorian Novel, explored the shifting values of originality and imitation in the nineteenth century under the pressure of rapid industrialization. Both print history and the history of technology have remained important strands of my research. I am CI on a Leverhulme Project Grant, The Society of Authors, 1884-1914: Professional Association and Literary Property based at Leeds University and the British Library, a project which returns me to the subject of copyright in a transatlantic context. And with colleagues I am devising an AHRC grant proposal on ‘Compression’ as a key technique of both nineteenth-century print and twentieth-century digital culture.

A related strand of my research concerns the media, technology and what the Victorians liked to call “the annihilation of space and time’. My second book, ‘Dr Livingstone, I Presume?’: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers and Empire (London: Profile Press and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007) used the famous 1871 meeting of the explorer and missionary, David Livingstone, with the adventurer and journalist, Henry Morton Stanley to investigate how modern print and the Western media in the 1870s constructed the empire while abusing the history and ignoring the modernity of Africa. I spend a chapter reconstructing Livingstone’s African servants’ encounter with Britain and the British when they visited the country after his death in 1874. This book won the King’s College London Young Academic Writer of the Year Award 2007.

I am also currently co-writing a book with art historian, Professor Caroline Arscott, tentatively entitled, Germinal Matter: Idylls and Ecospheres in the Art and Literature of the 1860s.  This project focuses on the transformative decade of the 1860s when ideas of biological growth, reproduction, and racial ‘science’ are being coded into the aesthetic practices of idyllism. In this book we are suggesting that the Victorian idyll, so often dismissed as sugary, second-order, and commercial, rewards closer attention as an emergent form with a complicated politics of its own.

Areas of Graduate Supervision

I teach on the M.Phil. course in Cambridge, and I have supervised more than thirty PhD students over my career so far.  Most recently my students have written on transatlantic telegraphic literature; George Eliot and mapping; the discovery of the deep sea in the nineteenth century; Antarctic exploration; the child in the writing of the Brontës; women’s penny weeklies in the 1890s; the significance of fabrics in Elizabeth Gaskell’s work; and the terminus in nineteenth-century culture.    

I am always very happy to hear from potential graduate students, and I encourage anybody who might be interested in working with me to get in touch early in the application process.

Selected Publications


Serial Revolutions 1848: Literature, Politics, Form  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).

Serial Forms: The Unfinished Project of Modernity, 1815-1848 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020)

Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy, eds. Caroline Arscott and Clare Pettitt  (London: The Courtauld Institute of Art and King’s College London, 2016)

‘Dr Livingstone, I Presume?’: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers and Empire (London: Profile Books and Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007)

Patent Inventions:  Intellectual Property and the Victorian Novel  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Publications: Articles and Chapters

‘Signal Markings in Victorian Miscellanies’. Chapter jointly authored with Professor Caroline Arscott in Coding and Representation from the Nineteenth Century to the Present: Scrambled Messages, eds, Anne Chapman, Natalie Hume (London: Routledge, 2021), pp.137-160.

‘At Sea’ in Time Travellers: Victorian Perspectives on the Past, eds. Adelene Buckland and Sadiah  Qureshi. Chapter in the group-produced book of the Cambridge Victorian Studies Project. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), pp.196-219.

‘Mermaids amongst the Cables: The Abstracted Body and the Telegraphic Touch’ in Nineteenth-Century Literature in Transition: The 1880s, eds. Penny Fielding and Andrew Taylor. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), pp.15-34.

‘In Between Times: Trollope’s Ordinal Numbers’, The Edinburgh Companion to Anthony Trollope eds. Frederik Van Dam, Ortwin de Graef and David Skilton. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), pp.228-241.

‘By the Herald’s Special Wire!: Technology and Speed in Transnational News’, a case-study essay for the International Herald Tribune Historical Archive 1887-2013, a digital archive from Gale-Cengage. Live online from May 2018:

‘Ordinary People’, Public Books (12 April 2017) Essay Review of Jill Lepore, Joe Gould’s Teeth (New York: Alfred A, Knopf, 2016) and Alexander Masters, A Life Discarded; 148 Diaries Found in the Trash (London: Fourth Estate, 2016) for Public Books (12 April 2017):

‘Topos, Taxonomy and Travel in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Scrapbooks’ in eds. Brian Murray and Mary Henes, Modes of Transport: Travel Writing and Form, 1780-1914. (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2016), pp. 21-41.

‘Henry James tethered and stretched: The Materiality of Metaphor’, Henry James Review 37.2 (Spring 2016): 139-153.

‘Sherlock Holmes the Throwaway Detective’ in Sherlock Holmes ed. Alex Werner. London: Museum of London and Ebury Press, 2014, pp.174-197. Exhibition October 2014-January 2015.

‘One-Man Multidisciplinarian: Clare Pettitt reassesses the legacy of Victorian polymath Richard Francis Burton’, Nature (Vol. 525, Issue 7569) (17 September 2015), pp.319-320.

‘Livingstone: From Fame to Celebrity’ in David Livingstone: the Man, the Myth and the Legacy, ed. Sarah Worden. Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2012, pp.83-99. Exhibition November 2012 to April 2013.

‘Dickens and the Historic Present’ in Dickens’s Style ed. Daniel Tyler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp.110-136.

‘Dickens, Invention and Literary Property in the 1850s’, reprinted from Patent Inventions in Robert Patten, ed., Dickens and Victorian Print Cultures. Surrey: Ashgate, 2012, pp.433-460.

‘The New Transatlanticism’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, ed. Deirdre David. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp.231-250.

‘The Press, Print Culture and Exploration’ in ed. Dane Kennedy, Exploration: Reassessing the West’s Encounter with the Rest. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp.80-108.

‘Time Lag and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Transatlantic Imagination’. Victorian Studies, 54:4 (Summer 2012): 599-623.