Photo of Dr Ellen  McWilliams

Dr Ellen McWilliams

Senior Lecturer


01392 724021

Ellen’s research interests are in the fields of women's writing, Irish, American, and Canadian literature, and writing and diasporic identity. 

She is the author of Margaret Atwood and the Female Bildungsroman (2009) and Women and Exile in Contemporary Irish Fiction (2013). She is working on her third book, Irishness in North American Women's Writing: Transatlantic Affinities, and a new project, Work and Writing in Post-1950s Women's Fiction. She has a special interest in New York magazine culture and recently completed a series of articles on Maeve Brennan's writing for The New Yorker, including an essay for Women: A Cultural Review: '"A Sort of Rathmines Version of a Dior Design": Maeve Brennan, Self-Fashioning, and the Uses of Style'.

Ellen has received a number of awards for research, including an AHRC Fellowship, a Fulbright Scholar Award, and a British Library-Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship in North American Studies.

She featured as a panellist on an RTE Radio 1 Book Show programme dedicated to the life and work of Maeve Brennan and coordinated a series on Women Writers and Irish America for The Irish Times to celebrate the centenary of Brennan's birth. She also appeared in the BBC1 documentary 'Imagine... Margaret Atwood' (directed by Katy Homan and presented by Alan Yentob).

Research interests

Ellen has research interests in twentieth-century women's writing, Irish, American, and Canadian literature, writing and diasporic identity, and transatlantic literary relations. She has also published on life writing, self-fashioning and dandyism, New York magazine culture, and James Joyce and influence. Her work has appeared in Women: A Cultural Review, Journal of Gender Studies, Irish Studies Review, The Irish Review, and Éire-Ireland.

Her first book, Margaret Atwood and the Female Bildungsroman, was published in 2009. It received the Margaret Atwood Society Award for Best Book in that year and was reviewed in The European Journal of American CultureThe Review of English StudiesThe Journal of American Studies, Contemporary Women’s WritingThe European LegacyThe Routledge Bibliography of English StudiesThe Year's Work in English StudiesZeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, and Études Anglaises.

Her second book, Women and Exile in Contemporary Irish Fiction, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013. An early review of the book concluded: ‘McWilliams makes a major contribution to the study of contemporary Irish fiction as well as to the study of the Irish diaspora. Although this is certainly a scholarly book and McWilliams shows a broad and deep understanding of an enormous range of scholarly and theoretical texts, her writing is so direct and clear and her arguments so carefully made that this work will be of interest to and readable by many people outside of the field of literary study… In short, McWilliams gave me a new way of thinking about this fiction, which is exactly what we hope for when we begin reading a scholarly work but all too seldom find’ (Professor Maureen Reddy, Journal of Interdisciplinary Feminist Thought).

Her third monograph, Irishness in North American Women’s Writing: Transatlantic Affinities, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan. 

She is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Margaret Atwood Studies and Irish Studies Review and is a reader and reviewer for Women: A Cultural Review, Contemporary Women’s Writing, Journal of Gender Studies, Irish Studies Review, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, and Canadian Literature


Awards for Research

Fulbright Scholar Award in the Humanities; AHRC Fellowship; John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies Visiting Fellowship - Free University of Berlin; University of Notre Dame Cushwa Centre for Irish-American Studies Research Award; Fulbright Occasional Lecturer Bursary; Boston College Institute for the Liberal Arts Bursary; Institute of English Studies Visiting Fellowship, School of Advanced Studies, University of London; Clinton Institute for American Studies Visiting Fellowship, University College Dublin; Moore Institute Visiting Fellowship, NUI Galway (2012 & 2015); Margaret Atwood Society Award for Margaret Atwood and the Female Bildungsroman; British Library-Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship in North American Studies; Canadian High Commission Faculty Research Award; International Council for Canadian Studies Fellowship; Bath Spa University Research Fellowship – Promising Researcher Award. 

Recent and Forthcoming Invited Lectures 

May 2018 'Reading Contemporary Irish Women's Fiction', Kellogg College, University of Oxford. 

November 2017 'Style and Self-Invention in the Writing of Maeve Brennan', Maeve Brennan Centenary Symposium, University College Dublin. 

April 2016 'Mary McCarthy, Irish America, and the Making of an Original Vassar Girl', Department of English, Vassar College. 

March 2016 'Frank O'Connor and Alice Munro', Frank O'Connor Symposium, School of English, University College Cork. 

January 2016 'Looking for Irish America in the Writing of Mary McCarthy', School of English, Trinity College Dublin. 

November 2015 ‘Maeve Brennan and Irish Modernist Legacies’, Marginal Irish Modernisms - AHRC Network Symposium, St Mary's University, London. 

March 2015  'The Art of Fashion in the Short Fiction of Maeve Brennan', Centre for Irish Studies, National University of Ireland, Galway.

October 2014 'Transatlantic Affinities: Maeve Brennan and James Joyce', Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen.

August 2014 'Emotion in the Writing of Edna O'Brien', 'Emotional Life in Ireland', Merriman Summer School, Co. Clare. 

May 2014 'Celebrity, Harper's Bazaar, and the Writing of Maeve Brennan', 'Gender, Sexuality, and Culture: A Symposium in Honour of Professor Patricia Coughlan', University College Cork.

April 2014 ‘Women and Exile in Contemporary Irish Fiction’, Irish Literary Society, London.

April 2014 'Migrant Histories in the Contemporary Irish Novel', Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool.

March 2014 ‘James Joyce and the Lives of Edna O’Brien’, ‘Afterlives of Modernism in Irish Literature',  Boston College – Ireland. 

October 2013 Invited Panellist, Inaugural Meeting of the Fulbright Commission of Ireland Research Mentoring Network, Trinity College Dublin.

February 2013 ‘Reading the Irish Diaspora: London to New York’, ‘Cultural Intersections: Ireland/London, Writing and the Arts’, Hammersmith Irish Cultural Centre, London.  

December 2012 ‘Ideas of Exile in the Writing of Maeve Brennan’, Diaspora Research Seminar, Boston College.

December 2012 ‘Women and Migration in the Contemporary Irish Novel’, Institute of Irish Studies, Fordham University, New York.

May 2012 ‘The “Creative Migrant” in Colm Tóibín’s The South’, Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

May 2012 ‘John McGahern and Edna O’Brien’s Irish Women Migrants’, The Irish in Britain Seminar Series, Institute for the Study of European Transformations, London Metropolitan University.

March 2012 ‘Women, Exile, and Censorship in John McGahern’s The Leavetaking’, ECHO Humanities Seminar Series, Moore Institute, NUI Galway.

Research collaborations

Ellen has participated in a number of programmes funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, including the AHRC Engaging with Government Programme (Institute of Government, 2013) and the AHRC Leadership Programme (Clore Duffield Foundation, 2012). She is a member of the Fulbright Ireland Research Mentoring Network.

Research students

Lead Supervisor - Kate Limond, '"Mocked with Art": Strategies of Representation in A.S. Byatt’s Fiction'

External impact and engagement

Ellen has been active in widening participation and lifelong learning since the beginning of her academic career. As a PhD student and Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at the University of Bristol, she developed a number of lifelong learning programmes on nineteenth- and twentieth-century women’s writing to coincide with BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Watershed Fiction project.

More recently, she developed a series of outreach and community projects that involved working with community groups, agencies, and research initiatives concerned with the welfare of Irish elders in Britain and the U.S., including: the Federation of Irish Societies, the London Irish Women’s Centre, the Aisling Irish Community Centre in New York, and the Gallagher Initiative (Coordinators: Professor Elaine Walsh, Hunter College, CUNY, and Professor Brenda McGowan, Fordham University). 

In addition to funding research towards the monograph Women and Exile in Contemporary Irish Fiction, her AHRC Fellowship (2011-2012) supported a conference on 'New Perspectives on Women and the Irish Diaspora' (March 2012), which included a roundtable discussion with charity-based organisations that work closely with the Irish community in Britain. Proceedings of the conference were published as a special issue of Irish Studies Review in 2013 (co-edited with Professor Bronwen Walter, Anglia Ruskin University).

The AHRC also provided funding for a seminar series on 'Women and Exile in Irish Literature and Culture' that she developed in collaboration with the London Irish Women’s Centre in autumn-winter 2011. The seminar series led to the Rian Art Project coordinated by artist Sarah Strong in 2012 and was one of the subjects of Sarah's short film 'I Hear Fish Drowning' (2014).

While on a Fulbright Scholarship to Fordham University in New York in 2012, Ellen ran a lifelong learning reading group in collaboration with the Institute of Irish Studies at Fordham and the Aisling Irish Community Centre in Woodlawn. She gave a number of talks on the writing of Edna O'Brien at the Merriman Summer School dedicated to Emotional Life in Ireland in Co. Clare in 2014.

She has written for The Irish Post and served as an academic consultant for the Federation of Irish Societies, as well as contributing to research for the documentary Breaking Ground: The Story of the London Irish Women’s Centre (Toy Factory Films, 2013). In 2013 she featured as a panellist on an RTE Radio 1 Book Show programme dedicated to the life and work of New York writer Maeve Brennan and in 2017 coordinated a series on Women Writers and Irish America for The Irish Times to celebrate the centenary of Brennan's birth (fellow contributors included Angela Bourke, Claire Bracken, Patricia Coughlan, and Sinéad Moynihan). 

She appeared in the 2017 BBC1 documentary 'Imagine... Margaret Atwood' (directed by Katy Homan and presented by Alan Yentob). 



Ellen has received three awards for teaching: a Faculty of Arts Teaching Prize from the University of Bristol, a Bath Spa University Teaching Fellowship, and a University of Exeter Teaching Fellowship.

Modules taught


Ellen studied at University College Cork and the University of Constance and was awarded a National University of Ireland Travelling Prize in English before completing her PhD at the University of Bristol. Prior to being appointed at Exeter, she held posts at Bath Spa University and the University of Bristol and spent time as a Fulbright Scholar at Fordham University in New York.