All entries for February 2021

February 20, 2021

A Conversation with Dr Kate Smith

As the day of the conference draws near, we are delighted to introduce our keynote speaker Dr Kate Smith and hear more about her work and thoughts on the themes of the conference. Kate Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century History at the University of Birmingham. She completed her PhD at the University of Warwick in 2010, followed by a fellowship at the University of Milwaukee. She was a Research Fellow on the Leverhulme Trust-funded East India Company at Home 1757-1857 project before joining the University of Birmingham in 2014.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your research interests and how they developed?

I have long been interested in material cultures and the material world. With my first book, I was interested in questions of consumption and production and how consumers understood the objects that they were buying during the eighteenth century. How were they able to decipher questions of skill and value? How did their relationship to production change? I think that early work was informed by thinking about the production of these objects in a global context. I was interested in how these processes of production were informed by global interactions and trade, and how consumers were interested in those influences. In some ways these questions also informed on my second project, the East India Company at Home, led by Margot Finn.

EIC at Home

Q: The East India Company at Home is a really significant project, can you tell us a little bit more about your involvement and the themes you were exploring?

My interest initially was about the material culture coming from the Indian subcontinent and from East Asia and how it was shaping the country house in Britain. I had done some earlier work thinking about women and how they used material culture as a means of trying to create and express identity. As I got further into the project, I was attentive to how gender was at stake in the movement of these objects into country houses and how objects were used in these spaces.

With the East India Company project, we were considering not only this shifting material culture and the kind of influence it was having, but how that material culture was also moving because of people’s relationships to each other. It was not just about trade and processes of private trade, but things moving because people wanted them to. People used objects for multiple different purposes, including building affective relationships with others. They also used them to produce identities at particular points. In the project, we also became really interested in the idea of return and what happened when people who had been out in the empire returned and had to reconfigure themselves in Britain. One of the ways they did this was through material culture and houses.

British Women and Cultural Practices of Empire

Q: How does your current research build and develop some of these themes?

The East India Company at Home project brought up questions of longing and loss. There seemed to be so much about people longing for a space they were not in and longing for family members. There was anxiety about letters not arriving, gifts not getting through, missing things. This led on to the project I am doing now which is thinking about lost property and what happens when people lost things, particularly in the long eighteenth century. Moments of loss are important for understanding what possession might have meant in the first place. It is only when you lose things that you have to think about maintaining possession and what it might mean to own something.

I am thinking about not just objects that go missing but also people who go missing by comparing lost property notices with runaway notices. I’m interested in the ambiguities of people as property in eighteenth-century Britain and particularly how such ambiguities impacted women and enslaved people. To lose things is to lose part of oneself or lose possession of oneself. The fragility of identity and a sense of self is exposed in these moments of losing things. Similarly, part of the move to runaway is to assert self-possession. When we see these lost property notices alongside runaway notices, are we seeing similar processes at stake? How do you maintain possession of oneself? I think that this project relates back to these bigger questions of empire which are about trying to navigate identity and power.

Englefield House

Englefield House by John Constable, c.1832

Q: What role does “home” play in your work?

One of the things I found with country house research, was a wealth of interesting research exploring how these sites were built and maintained. Within this though, I became interesting in the idea of home-building (as opposed to house building). I was interested in the emotional labour at stake in the creation of these sites as meaningful spaces. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, imperial families worked hard to try and ensure that a particular site remained ‘home’. Other members of the family were often out in the empire, setting up their own homes and involved in their own home-building projects. Letter writing was crucial and was used to keep people involved and updated with any changes to the home so that it remained a recognisable site to these family members in distant places: a recognisable and known place to return to.

Such home-building also played into the idea of metropole. There was an idea of ‘here’ and ‘there’, but such distinctions needed to be established and were often fragile. It took work on the part of different people to evoke an idea of Britain as the centre of empire, that that’s where home is and everywhere else is ‘elsewhere’. We think about these histories of home and histories of family as mundane and not part of these grander narratives but of course they are. These histories are important for lots of different reasons, but they were central to the idea of Britain as an imperial state.

Our thanks to Dr Kate Smith for a wonderful initial conversation and thoughts on the topics of home, empire, mobility, and intimacy. We look forward to hearing more about her research and discussing these questions with all our panellists at the conference on 13 March 132021.

Registration has now reopened with a very limited number of spaces available. Once full, please contact us on to be added to the waiting list should anyone not be able to attend.

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