For years, Amy Watkin has been collecting biographical details about Constance Wilde, the wife of 19th-century playwright Oscar Wilde, with the idea of writing a historical novel.
But Watkin, an English professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., admits she was dragging her feet about writing the book — until this summer, when she got a grant to help finish the research.
The result: She hired two undergraduates, full time, to immerse themselves in the world of the famously mismatched British couple for two months. As summer jobs go, says senior James “JP” Hakala of St. Paul, “it was so much better than working at McDonald’s.”
Watkin was looking for help exploring the day-to-day life of Victorian England. She’d been fascinated for some time by Constance Wilde: an early feminist and writer who refused to divorce her scandalous husband, even after he was imprisoned for “gross indecency” — the crime of homosexuality. Biographies had left holes in her story; Watkin’s novel would pick up where they left off.
To bring the story to life, she needed details: What kind of food would they eat? Where would they go, what would they see?
Hakala, a 21-year-old English major, jumped at the chance to help out. “I was sort of looking for … something to write down on my résumé,” he said. He and Jacey Mitziga, a junior from Kennedy, Minn., combed through databases and century-old books, looking for nuggets Watkin could use.
“These students were phenomenal researchers,” said Watkin. “They found stuff I didn’t even ask them to find.” They were so enthusiastic they even tested recipes from an 1890s cookbook. The dessert was a disaster and the chicken a touch dry, Hakala said, but Watkin pronounced it “spot on.”
Watkin was able to finish a rough draft, while the students got a taste of academic research. “The biggest thing I learned is persistence,” Hakala said.
And someday, he hopes to see the final result in print.
“That will be really cool to see.”