Dr Helen Thaventhiran, Robinson




Biographical Information

I'm an Associate Professor in Literature from 1830-present, with particular interests in twentieth-century literature, criticism, and the philosophy of language. After studying for a BA and PhD in Cambridge and for an MSt. in twentieth-century literature in Oxford, I held a Research Fellowship at Christ's College. From 2013, I have been a Fellow and Director of Studies in English at Robinson College. I'm Reviews Editor at the Cambridge Quarterly. 

For the English Tripos, I teach for Part 1 Paper 1 (Practical Criticism and Critical Practice) and Papers 7a/b (English Literature and its Contexts, 1830-1945 / 1870 to the present). For Part II, I teach Papers: 1 (Practical Criticism and Critical Practice), 2 (Tragedy), 11 (Prose Forms: 1936-56, 12 (Contemporary Writing), 15 (Ethical Imagination), 16 (History and Theory of Literary Criticism). 

Research Interests

Nineteenth-, twentieth- and twenty-first century literature, especially modernism. The history, theory, and practice of literary criticism. Intellectual history and history of philosophy. Dance, grace, gesture.

My current book project, Margins of Philosophy, offers an alternative history of twentieth-century philosophy of language as it encounters literature and literary criticism. Its central characters are Victoria Welby, C.S. Peirce, Vernon Lee, William James, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, Susan Stebbing, Margaret MacDonald, Max Black, Dorothy Emmet, Margaret Masterman, Thomas Kuhn, Iris Murdoch and J.L. Austin.

Areas of Graduate Supervision

I teach for the MPhil in English Studies. Projects by recent and current PhD students include: prose rhythms; classical meters in English verse (1860s-1930s); notation and choreography (1950s-80s), modernism, grace and dance; talk in modernist fiction; modernist poet-scholars and the university; A.N. Whitehead’s influence on modernism; narrative strategies of Amy Levy and Israel Zangwill.

Selected Publications


William Empson’s The Structure of Complex Words and Related Writings, edited by Helen Thaventhiran & Stefan Collini (OUP, 2020).

Radical Empiricists: meaning and modernist criticism (OUP, 2015). 


‘‘He was so poor that he did not even have a name’: fairy tales for Langer and Wittgenstein’, The Bloomsbury Handbook of Susanne K. Langer (forthcoming, 2022)

‘What’s the hook?’, LRB (January 2022)

'Passage Work', British Literature in Transition, 1900-1920 (CUP, 2021)

‘Feelings under the Microscope: new critical affect’, Cambridge Critical Concepts: Affect (CUP, 2018)

‘The Literary Criticism of T.S. Eliot’, chapter in The Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot (CUP, 2016).

‘Well-versed: Wittgenstein and Leavis read Empson’, chapter in Wittgenstein Reading (De Gruyter, 2014). 

‘War Lords in the Republic of Letters: Empson and Richards among the Mandarins’, Cambridge Quarterly, 41.1, March 2012

‘Empson and the Orthodoxy of Paraphrase’, Essays in Criticism, 61.4, October 2011

 [Helen Crawforth], ‘Phantom Pentameters’, Essays in Criticism, 60.3, July 2010