Although a surprising number of people think I'm a historian, I'm in an English department. Really. (Dad the Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt: "Most of your book sounds like a historian wrote it." Me: "I'm a literary critic! A literary critic, I tell you! Aaarrggh!") And so I'm delighted to be a part of The Valve, which currently features an interesting manifesto on academic publishing by John Holbo.
(But, yes, I'll continue to confuse people about my professional identity by retaining my status as a Clio(m)atriarch.)
After I got over my "where is everybody?!" moment in today's second class* (literally half of the students were missing...), we buckled down to David Copperfield. For some reason, I took especial delight in this sentence: "I look at the sunlight coming in at the open door through the porch, and there I see a stray sheep--I don't mean a sinner, but mutton--half making up his mind to come into the church." We're willing to take the pompousness of "stray sheep" qua figure from the adult narrator, but the joke is on us--it is, after all, the animal, and not the sinner. Yet Dickens finishes out his sentence by personifying the sheep, thereby using our mistake to compound the image's silliness. Perhaps the sheep will gain as much edification from the sermon as young David.
For the first time, I'm teaching Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Since we've already read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I'm treating the novel as a dialogue with the two earlier works. We're spending a fair amount of time on The Tenant's obsession with gossip, which delineates the boundaries of Gilbert Markham's little community. One of Markham's (many) blind spots is his inability to recognize that he misunderstands Helen's relationship with Lawrence in much the same way as the gossipers do, even though--as a man--he sneers at the kind of "secret" (and usually inaccurate) knowledge disseminated by the community's women. But then, Markham is the love-child, as it were, of Wuthering Heights' supremely self-involved (and supremely thick-skulled) Mr. Lockwood--only rather smarter and far more dynamic.
I wasn't altogether pleased with how today's lecture on Matthew Arnold's "The Buried Life" and "Dover Beach" went. It's not as though I haven't taught those poems umpteen times. Still, the whole exercise felt too rushed, and I really should put Wordsworth's "Immortality" ode on the syllabus if I'm going to do "The Buried Life." When I teach poetry, I normally extemporize off my marginal notes instead of working from separate lecture notes, which makes it more comfortable for me to adjust my approach to the text "in process." This time, I decided to start off by talking about "The Buried Life's" intriguing rhyme scheme, which, appropriately enough for the poem, keeps trying for couplets and only partially succeeds. (Arnold gives us strings of couplets, then breaks them up or turns them into something else, like triplets.)
*--It looks like I'm about to have another such moment, if the string of excuses piling up in my mailbox/at my door is any indication.
While looking for something else--something quite different--I stumbled across Hay in Art, which features a massive collection of paintings, photography, and poetry devoted to (yes) images of hay. Pity about the cringe-inducing spammers in the comments, though.
If readers have additional time, they might wish to make a comment or two on the panel blog about the examples. The blog can be found here:
Readers might even wish to read the blog comments; some of them are very funny and insightful. Readers need not comment on all of them but, if they would write a sentence or two on the examples of their choosing, I would appreciate it. But they need not feel obliged to comment.
The folks at VICTORIA (scroll down) are grumbling, and rightly so, about Tanya Gold's "Reader, I Shagged Him," which somehow manages to exemplify just about everything that's wrong with ahistorical readings of Victorian sexuality. Gold, who seems to labor under the apprehension that, when it comes to Charlotte Brontë's biography, there's only Elizabeth Gaskell's way or the highway, trumpets that "It is time to exhume the real Charlotte - filthy bitch, grandmother of chick-lit, and friend." Filthy bitch?!
What's annoying about Gold's sensationalism is that it flattens out the nuances of the quite overt eroticism in Jane Eyre. As Rochester notes with some surprise, Jane quite cheerfully listens to his stories of mistress-keeping without the remotest twinge of anxiety; later, she grumbles about being treated like "a second Danae with the golden shower falling around me," and threatens to emancipate Rochester's imaginary "harem"; and she knows perfectly well what going abroad with Rochester entails. One does wonder how Jane managed to get so worldly at a school like Lowood. Of course Jane desires Mr. Rochester; but, also of course, she desires him within a Christian framework, one which (here, at least) enthusiastically endorses sexual passions within marriage while firmly punishing those same passions outside of it.*
Where Gold really goes wrong, however, is in her reading of Jane's attitude to St. John Rivers:
The St-John fantasies are filthier yet, as Charlotte's masochism oozes on to the page. "Know me to be what I am," he tells Jane. "A cold, hard man." Jane watches St-John admire a painting of a beautiful woman and the voyeurism excites her; "he breathed low and fast; I stood silent". I know Charlotte had an orgasm as she wiped the ink from her fingers and went to take her father his spectacles.
Leaving aside that last sentence--primarily notable as an unintentional parody of Camille Paglia at her absolute worst--Gold's reading badly mistakes Jane's attitude to St. John. The man may be, as I said in class the other night, "seriously hunky," but Jane finds him aesthetically pleasing--not sexually attractive. The two are not the same. It's not for nothing that Jane repeatedly compares him to stone ("colourless as ivory," "marble immobility of feature," "marble-seeming features," "chiselled marble"), which links him both to Rochester after the revelation of his perfidy ("his whole face was colourless rock") and to Mr. Brocklehurst ("stony stranger"). Even as Jane associates St. John with cold stone, her dreams of Mr. Rochester are "many-coloured, agitated, full of the ideal, the stirring, the stormy..." And when St. John proposes to her, she finds the thought of sleeping with him not appealing, but repulsive: "Can I receive from him the bridal ring, endure all the forms of love (which I doubt not he would scrupulously observe) and know that the spirit was quite absent?" Jane loves and desires Mr. Rochester, but will not be his mistress; Jane neither loves nor desires St. John Rivers, just as he neither loves nor desires her, and finds the prospect of marrying him to be no improvement, morally speaking, over a life as Rochester's live-in.
Speaking of that latter point, it's not at all clear how Gold arrived at this claim: "In Jane Eyre she created the men she could not have in the sack: rude, rich, besotted Edward Rochester and beautiful, sadistic St-John Rivers. Both, naturally, beg to marry Jane and Charlotte draws every sigh and blush and wince exquisitely." St. John Rivers isn't sighing, blushing, or wincing; he thinks that Jane is physically unattractive and bluntly informs her of that fact during his proposal ("It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love"). All of St. John Rivers' lust is reserved for the beautiful Rosamond Oliver. One of the (many!) problems with St. John's proposal, in other words, is that it rules eroticism out of the picture entirely. Rochester, at one extreme, offers passion without the legal and religious form; Rivers, at the opposite extreme, offers the legal and religious form without the passion. Brontë represents both of these as perversions, but only Rochester's position can be transformed into what we now blandly call "a relationship."
*--Obviously, there's no such thing as a generic Christian attitude on this matter, but, as Marianne Thormahlen has shown, the Brontës developed their own idiosyncratic take on "Bible Christianity."
Ah, academic real estate. No, not the campus plant: our offices, or dream versions thereof. During my first year job-hunting, I had a flyout at a Catholic college where the English department was stowed away in what were formerly the servants' quarters. For some reason, I found this information vaguely distressing (not to mention potentially prophetic of how English faculty might expect to be treated there). On my campus, we t-t folks are lucky enough to have our own, more-than-decent offices--something which cannot be taken for granted at a comprehensive of this type. For some reason, when our building was renovated, the architect decided to cut the offices into vaguely triangular wedges. The inner wedges don't have windows onto the outside world; instead, they have windows onto the outer offices, which have the aforementioned windows onto the outside world. This arrangement causes some bemusement, to say the least. It also has a certain panoptical effect. In any event, I'm quite pleased with my own outer office, which has room for seven bookcases, a filing cabinet, a desk, and a reading chair. But I must say that the best office I've ever had was in Wieboldt Hall at the University of Chicago, when I was working for Modern Philology. Massive! Built-in wood bookcases with glass doors! Incredibly high ceilings! The only downside: no air conditioning, which made it completely unusable during the summer. I had to conduct business from the English department's graduate student lounge, or risk dying of heat stroke.
Occasionally, graduate students will ask me if it's "OK" if they develop an idea from a previous paper into a new research project. Their tentativeness on this issue suggests that, perhaps, they've been somehow trained to think that their graduate program consists of a series of unrelated papers, with no organizing principle (personally chosen) allowed to interfere. On one level, the historical distribution requirements in an M.A. program like ours do seem, at first glance, to rule out any "continuity" between individual projects--but, of course, it's easily possible for a student to pursue a particular set of interests across even the most disparate of courses. The most successful M.A. students I've seen so far have been able to transform their Plans of Study from plug-n'-play requirements into a means to a larger end. It isn't necessary for them to bring the "end" with them into the program; rather, the "end" emerges as the students think about the relationships between courses, skills, theoretical approaches, and so forth. Our responsibility as instructors, then, includes encouraging students to see courses not as self-enclosed boxes, but, instead, as potentially open-ended.
More to the point, most of us develop projects out of questions raised, but unanswered, by yet other projects. My interest in didactic historical fiction grew out of my work on 18th- and 19th-c. histories of women. Similarly, the article I've just started researching----representations of Anne Boleyn in 20th-c. historical fiction--which has apparently no relationship at all to my usual output, emerges from the article on "Royal Lives" I wrote for this Companion. In other words, it's not just "OK" to see our individual projects as links in a larger chain--it's the way most of us go about our work.
Technological. Muttered under my breath, as I searched three different computers for my lecture on John Stuart Mill: "Must. Get. USB. Drive."
Froms. I'm currently in a nonfiction prose phase in the Brit Lit survey, and I remain frustrated by the Norton Anthology's "froms." The excerpts from Carlyle'sPast and Present are entirely from the "present," even though the Jocelin of Brakelond sections are absolutely crucial to understanding both the book's formal structure and its argument. (It's like teaching A. W. N. Pugin'sContrasts with only one set of images!) It would also be nice if someone would follow Mill's advice and dissent from custom when it comes to anthologizing the Autobiography: yes, the mental breakdown is crucial, but there are many other things for students to chew on. I really need to get more creative in my textbook selections for this course--which means, perhaps, jettisoning the big Norton/Longman/Oxford anthologies altogether.
Proofing. Ack! I hate it when I catch errors after it's too late to correct them. In this instance, the error doesn't originate with me, and it has nothing to do with the argument, but I'm still annoyed.
Good heavens. A former fellow graduate student has made it to the finals of my college's presidential search. I'm not sure if I should feel old, young, or under-achieving...
Minor. Is there anything more frustrating than discovering that a Very Important Article (for you, anyway) was published decades ago in a Very Small Journal? The kind of journal owned by fewer than fifty libraries in the US? The kind of journal that never gets indexed anywhere? Still, as I explain to my graduate students, this is why one needs to read other scholars' footnotes.