Commenter CJ Colucci has inquired more than once about how, exactly, I came to specialize in nineteenth-century religious fiction of, ah, less than stellar aesthetic quality. Here is how it happened:
1. Phase one: I am an English major at UC Irvine. Let's just say that in the late 80s, the tiny handful of Jews at UC Irvine were, if not showered with open antisemitism, nevertheless made to feel very Other. After a while, I became interested in religious issues because, well, they were being brought to my attention on a more frequent basis than I would have otherwise preferred.
2. Phase two: I become a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where there are fellow Jews all over the place. My personal reason for being interested in literature and religion goes by the wayside.
3. Phase three: Dissertating. By this stage in my career, I have discovered two things: one, I'm primarily interested in literary and intellectual history (I can close-read until the proverbial bovines return to their domicile, but I enjoy seeing how genres and concepts emerge and change over time); two, hey, religion seems pretty central to the texts I'm working on (early histories of women, the eventual subject of the diss and Book One), so I should think about it more closely.
4. Phase four: Professional life. Thanks to being at a non-R1, I can pretty much publish on whatever I feel like (this is an advantage of not being at an R1). Now, I've realized that a) I rather get a kick out of reading all this long-lost fiction, albeit with necessary detours into snark, and some of it turns out to have been quite influential; b) not very many other people are willing to put up with this material, and yet there's a lot of scholarship going on in religion & literature for which it's actually relevant; so c) let's say I put a + b together, do something I find interesting, and produce scholarship that might be helpful to other people? And thus, I started reading these things so you don't have to. (Although I'm afraid that I'm leaning more and more towards the position that you should read them anyway.)
1. My implicitly snarky list of quotations from yesterday aside, I think Naomi S. Baron's essay conflates two very different issues: the potential decline-and-fall of "serious" reading habits; and actual student displeasure with using etexts in the classroom. I have no doubt at all that the latter is correct: my students who use etexts also find them irritating for a number of reasons, especially their clumsiness during actual classroom use. We've also had a number of problems that go beyond "nobody is on the same page," like the electronic edition of Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho that eliminated all the poems. (You...you can't do that. Really. You can't.) The difficulty with the decline-and-fall narrative, though, is that there's no evidence that a majority of the population has ever had any enthusiasm for reading really long books, or done it easily. The classroom environment, in which one, say, reads Bleak House in three weeks, has nothing to do with any of the ways in which one of Dickens' original readers would have encountered the book. (Serial? One volume at a time? Read aloud in the family circle or in a workshop? Read alone for recreation?) As Dad the Emeritus Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt pointed out, reading long books in a college environment is a learned skill. In addition, it's hard not to notice the proliferation of bestsellers that are, whatever else they are, of a non-short nature.
2. Although Rebecca Schuman's suggestion for fixing peer review--"what if in order to be eligible to submitan academic article to a journal, a scholar had first to volunteer to review someone else’s article for that same journal?"--sounds interesting, there may be a logistical problem. Namely, that there are many fewer people writing and submitting articles than we think there are. Much as we tend to over-exaggerate the number of people on the job market with two books and twelve articles, we also tend to over-estimate how many people are desperately attempting to beef up their CVs. It's hard to tell if the submissions numbers in the MLA Directory of Periodicals bear any resemblance to reality. Who audits these numbers? Academic scuttle-butt suggests that many journal editors are, if not starving for material, not overwhelmed by what they're receiving, either. Modern Philology receives "100-120"submissions annually, according to the Directory, but when I worked for Modern Philology in the late 90s, we had so few articles in the hopper that things were getting rather nerve-wracking by the end of my tenure. Moreover, as a generalist journal, despite its early-modern focus, it would have been impossible for us to insist that an eighteenth-century specialist wait around to submit until something on Alexander Pope appeared (five years from now...) for them to review. And many journals do peer review in-house, via the editorial/advisory board (this is how Neo-Victorian Studies works, for example). Moreover, there's the question of alternative publishing outlets. Some day, somebody will do a serious assessment of how the explosion of edited collections (especially those put out by commercial academic publishers like Routledge) has affected submission patterns to peer-reviewed journals, especially by authors in the UK. Dr. Schuman's suggestion might work for those journals genuinely under siege--PMLA, which claims "200-320" submissions annually, comes to mind here--but most journals would be unable to support this model, I suspect. Now, that being said, demanding that peer reviewers review on time is an entirely different matter, and I don't see why banning someone who abuses another author (by writing a frankly abusive review or by not writing the review in, say, six weeks) should be off the table.
"Readings in the humanities tend to be lengthy, intellectually weighty, or both. The challenge of digital reading for the humanities is that screens—particularly those on devices with Internet connections—undermine our encounters with meaty texts. These devices weren’t designed for focused concentration, reading slowly, pausing to argue virtually with the author, or rereading. Rather, they are information and communication machines, best used for searching and skimming—not scrutinizing."--Naomi S. Baron (2014)
"No species of publication tends so much as the general class of novels to vitiate that proper taste for reading which we wish every young person to acquire and to retain. The reading of novels perverts the judgment, and alienates the mind from those occupations to which females would do well to attend, and renders every instructive book dull and heavy, when compared with the romantic love-tales which they are in the habit of gorging with such avidity."--Rev. of Dangers through Life, The Critical Review 19 n.s. 3 (1810): 377.
"But, there is one respect, in which the exclusive reading of religious newspapers, and other kindred publications, has nearly the same effect upon the mind, as a passionate fondness for plays and romances:—I mean an increasing disrelish for every thing, requiring deep thought and patient investigation. As those who inquire daily after the mere trash of the bookseller's shelves, grow more and more disinclined to look into standard works of literature and science, so the natural and necessary tendency of too much missionary reading is, to beget a distaste for many of the most valuable theological works in our language, (or indeed any other,) and to throw them aside, as altogether too dry and abstruse for ordinary readers. This certainly is not visionary speculation. It is not raising a warning voice where there is no danger, for even the great majority of good people find it so much pleasanter to feel strongly than to think closely; to skim the surface than to dive in deep water; that where the means of gratification are always at hand, a pleasing self-indulgence will too often triumph over the higher considerations of duty and advantage."--"On the Prevailing Taste, and Increasing Demand of the Christian Public for Religious Intelligence," The Christian Spectator 2 (Nov. 1820): 583.
"Nothing can he more obvious than that this thirst for mental excitement presents to sober reflection the closest analogy to the habit of dram-drinking; the former produces on the mind effects precisely similar to those produced by the latter on the hody; an hankering after renewed stimulus is excited and kept burning, which can be allayed by no sober means; and literary works founded on truth, hecome insipid and wearisome, to such as have been long accustomed to the spiritstirring pages of the novelist. Now this evil is one of lamentanle activity; for not only does it indispose the mind for the acquisition of the knowledge that might be obtained ny study,but it produces a decided distaste for the simple beauties and awful truths of the Bible. The very amusements of a Christian should have a Christian tendency: but I would boldly appeal to the mind of every novel reader, and ask whether he finds himself disposed, on laying down a deeply moving tale of fiction, to take up his new testament, and fix his attention on its solemn and eternal truths?"--"On Novel Reading," Friends' Monthly Magazine 2 (1831): 59.
"My second objection is, that they are the most difficult books to read profitably. I have pointed out what I conceive to be the most profitable way of reading, that is, to read slowly and pause often, and reflect long upon what you read. And now, I appeal to those of you who are familiar with novel reading, and ask if your own experience does not testify that novels are the most difficult of all books to be read in this way? Does not your highly excited interest in the plot, your anxiety to know the issue—do not these, I ask, carry you forward with great rapidity? Is it not often the case, that your reading is only skipping along from place to place, reading just enough to catch the story? And, when you have closed the book, what is fixed in your memory, the simple outlines of the story merely, or the peculiarities and principles of character? Do these books excite and aid you to form habits of reflection? I am well satisfied that any young lady who really wishes to read, in the way which I have pointed out, with much thought and reflection will find it more difficult to effect this, in reading novels than in reading any other books."--Jason Whitman, The Young Lady's Aid, to Usefulness and Happiness (1839), 153-54.
But there is great reason to fear that, what with the newspapers, and the magazines, and the art galleries, and the museums, and the theatres, and facility with which we can get other people to gossip with us when we are both idle and lazy, the number of those who can or ever do read a book—even a novel, even a poor novel—is rapidly declining. In fact, we fear that any one who inquired among his friends, outside the professors and professional literary men, would find that the number of those who now ever read a serious book of any kind is exceedingly small, and that those who read even novels is growing smaller. Most men who have not kept up the habit of reading, in fact, go to sleep over a serious book almost immediately, and throw down a novel after a few pages if the plot does not thicken rapidly, or the incidents are few. The thoughtful novel, such as George Eliot’s, filled with reflection and speculation, would fare much worse now, even coming from an author of her powers, than it did thirty years ago. The newspaper is fast forming the mental habits of this generation, and, in truth, even this is getting to be too heavy, unless the articles or extracts are very short. The reader begins more and more to resent being asked to keep his attention fixed on any one subject for more than five minutes. In short, any one who fiatters himself during the busy years of an active career, when he does no reading but newspaper reading, that he is going to become a reader of books at a later period when he gets more leisure, may rest assured that he is greatly mistaken. When leisure comes he will find that a serious book will tire him or send him asleep in ten minutes, just as a dumbbell would tire a long unused arm.--"The Reading Habit," The Nation 43.1100 (July 29, 1886): 92.
OK, everyone, brace yourselves. Here we have what is quite possibly the worst religous novel I am going to read this year. Now, I grant that it's still only early July, and there are plenty of opportunities yet remaining to find something even more incompetently written than this monstrosity, but...really, I doubt it. Who Will Win? is that bad.
Isn't it awesome?
Anyway, before I completely fall down the well of snark, a few Serious and Scholarly observations. "Zuinglius" appears to be someone from the anti-Ritualist John Kensit circle--in fact, given the novel's stylistic ("stylistic") and propagandistic resemblance to "Frank Briton's" By and By, likely Kensit's own work, it may well be by Kensit himself. (Kensit actually makes a cameo appearance in Who Will Win? as "John Kentis.") Moreover, there's some interesting overlap between Kensit's own (failed) attempt at obtaining a Parliamentary seat in early 1899 and the novel's narrative of a Stalwart Protestant successfully winning a seat on an anti-Ritualist ticket. Who Will Win? appeared in Hodder and Stoughton's December 1899 list, which suggests (unless the author a) wrote very quickly or b) had his work sent through the press very quickly) that it probably isn't a direct fictionalization of Kensit's run, but may well be connected to it. In any event, the choice of pseudonym suggests both the book's intention as the harbinger of a new Protestant Reformation to overturn the Anglo-Catholic tendencies in the Church of England (again, Kensit's big bugbear), and its frequent assaults on transubstantiation. The novel further examines Protestantism's relationship to a number of ongoing transformations in fin-de-siecle British and European culture, including feminism (there's a suffrage campaigner and it's taken for granted that women can attend university), Socialism (there are hints of working-class unrest), and, interestingly enough, antisemitism (the novel is pro-Dreyfus). The book is, however, single-target in its argumentation: it holds that to solve any and all ills, evangelical Protestantism must be reestablished as the core of British identity, and both Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism expelled, repressed, and otherwise erased. When the Protestant campaigner, Frederic Wykeham, wins his election, he promises the people that "the Protestant cause should have his first attention in Parliament, and that he would leave no stone unturned to banish the evil from our midst" (244). The conclusion, in which Parliament bonds together over the question of Protestantism in the CofE, is set in 1900, so that the novel casts the new century as the positive turning point of Britain's once-inexorable slide towards Romanism.
I'm going to discuss the novel's plot, which I fear may bring on another attack of the snarks. I will try to remain strong in the face of temptation.
We have three main couples: Philip Vavasour and Millicent Greville; Bertrand D'Auvergne and Philip's sister, Helen; and Frederic Wykeham and Nervula Lauriston. Of this crop, Philip and Fred are staunch Protestants throughout; Millicent is an Evangelical, but "prone to look at men apart from what they teach" (363); Bertrand and Helen are deeply attracted to Anglo- and Roman Catholicism, with frightening results in Helen's case; and Nervula is a feminist disinclined to marriage. (Let me eliminate any suspense you may be feeling: they all wind up strong evangelicals at the end.) All of them must deal with the unholy trio of the Anglo- (later Roman) Catholic Orbillieres, brother and sister, and the suave Roman Catholic Father Montmorency. Most of the plot twists depend on the unholy trio being Mighty Morphin Power Rangers of sorts: all of them adopt multiple names and disguises, passing themselves off as members of different denominations in order to effect stealth conversions among the Protestant populace. Montmorency, for example, shows up as himself, as a stone worker, as a mysterious dude with a moustache... This plasticity clearly suggests something demonic at work. Characters who have no truck with this shape-shifting, like Philip, are in the spiritual clear, while characters willing to tolerate it, like Bertrand, are hovering outside the bounds of faith. And then there's Millicent:
"Oh, Mr. Montmorency," she exclaimed, "I never expected to see you here, much less employed in this way."
"What be you a-talkin' of, miss?" he replied. "I don't understand them big words. My name is Ben Jones."
"Well, you certainly remind me very much of a gentleman I have seen elsewhere."
"I have ne'er a-been in these parts afore, but I heard there was a job to be had here, so I came to get a bite and a sup." (54)
That sound you hear reverberating around the planet is that of a thousand facepalms. But yes, there's a symbolic reason for Millicent's inability to grasp that, gasp shock horror, she's looking at the Catholic priest: her willingness to take his speech at face value, so to speak, reflects her deeper incapacity to distinguish spiritual truth from moral error. Indeed, this encounter merely reinforces another Deep Symbolic Moment when she is trapped in the Roman catacombs, "left absolutely in the dark" (41); she wanders within a space consecrated to Christian suffering, yet cannot negotiate it herself or properly view her surroundings. The moral, as Philip explains to her, is that "Rome is a very dangerous place; you may be lost in it in more ways than one" (42). The novel enjoys racking up these Deep Symbolic Moments, as when Bertrand becomes so wrapped up in theological speculation that he promptly falls and breaks a bone (hey, it's a fall! The fall! Get it?) or when, after taking a walking tour that involves climbing a lot of mountains, the characters wind up in Deinseidel, which Helen dubs "a regular Vanity Fair" (118) (hey, mountains and Vanity Fair! It's just like The Pilgrim's Progress! Get it?) However, the characters like Millicent, Helen, and Bertrand frequently show themselves to be bad readers, and their inability to decode the religious symbolism of their own lives manifests itself in their susceptibility to Catholicism's myriad attractions.
This question of reading is frequently at the heart of the novel--what characters read and how they do it. Bertrand complains at one point that Philip is too "painfully literal and logical" (104), as part of their debate over transubstantiation--a debate that unfolds, as it normally does, around the question of figures of speech. What is "literal"? What is the status of metaphor? Is the metaphor the literal meaning? Philip and Fred, both literalists, are the plot's best readers, capable of leaping tall prooftexts at a single bound--I mean, capable of bruising other characters by whacking them over the head really hard with prooftexts--I mean, capable of identifying, deploying, and properly assessing the value of prooftexts in any given situation. (Whew. The urge to snark was getting a little overwhelming there.) At a rought estimate, 99% of the novel consists of nothing but characters playing prooftext tennis--a game that the Protestants always win, of course. The Catholics get ahead by recommending that people keep calm and smell the incense, or something, but since the novel consistently outs them as lying liars who lie (wait...I feel snark returning), they don't succeed for very long. (This is the kind of novel in which Jesuits actually boast about secretly running the world's governments, because when you're in charge of a massive evil conspiracy, boasting about it is exactly the sort of thing you do.) By the end of the novel, the characters have prooftexted their way through transubstantiation, the eastward position, vestments, apostolic descent, clerical authority, confession, obedience to parents, celibacy, Bible reading, lying, and just about anything else that can have a relevant (or not so relevant) prooftext attached to it. In fact, the characters are prooftexting even before the excuse for a plot hoves into view. However, and returning to reading, one of the things about the book that is legitimately interesting is tracking its references to contemporary controversial texts--that is, its attempt to construct a library of good Protestant reading, and to warn readers away from dangerous materials. Thus, we have references to the Methodist pop novelist Joseph Hocking's The Scarlet Woman (being serialized almost contemporaneously with this book), Nunnery Life in the Church of England, and so forth. Most of the novel's references are relatively recent, suggesting less a "canon" of controversial texts and more a play-by-play of what the up-to-date evangelical will have on his or her library shelves.
1. Oh joy, oh rapture! I have empty bookshelves! I must fill them.
2. Wait, that means I must remove books from boxes. How many boxes did I have, again?
3. These are some of my boxes. They have been exiled to the hall outside my office, because my new office is half the size of my old one, and the floor space is occupied by all the other boxes. These boxes look melancholy, somehow.
Clearly, I must cheer them up.
4. Incidentally, I need to find my OUP editions of the Brontes. They are in a box.
I have not the slightest clue which box, in case you're wondering. Luckily, there are only thirty-two boxes.
5. *censored cursing from dropping box on toe*
6. Large boxes full of books are heavy, possibly because there are no strange quantum effects altering their weight. Fortunately, I am a woman of incredible strength! The boxes are no match for me! I can--
*female custodians approach*
"Dear, don't move those by yourself. You're so little."
7. *open box*
*break down box*
*toss box into hall*
8. In case unboxing books becomes too strenuous, I can cool down using this method located right outside our office suite.
Yes, we have a shower, due to the dangerous chemical experiments performed by all humanities professors during their lectures on Wordsworth. It's a stealth method of pedagogical disruption: just combine organic chemistry with British Romanticism, and you can fulfill two gen ed requirements for the price of one! And with only one instructor!
9. *censored cursing from breaking fingernail on box*
10. Still no sign of the Brontes.
11. I go in desperate search through the building for vending machines containing choc--I mean, heart-healthy snacks. No, I mean chocolate. There are no vending machines. I feel a panic coming on, which I quickly assuage by leaving the building, walking to the Student Union, and acquiring heart-healthy--no, chocolate.
12.I have found enlightenment, thanks to all the philosophy books I've unpacked, but the Brontes continue to elude me.
13. When we chose our office furniture, we had the option of either lots of drawers or lots of bookshelves. As a result, I now have lots of student-generated paper and no place to put it.
Except, of course, in one of these boxes.
14. I have found the Brontes! And I've also found that I have OUP editions of Emily and Anne, but not Charlotte. You may insert censored cursing here.
15. Not only do I have papers from my undergraduates, I have my undergraduate papers. Anyone up for a Chaucer midterm?
16. The internet's siren call beckons me away from unpacking boxes. Is this yet another sign of the degeneracy of the Internet Age? One more example of the inability to concentrate brought on by twenty-four hour access to social media? I ask you.
17. Wow! They're almost entirely unpacked!
Except for that part where I haven't actually shelved them, just sorted them onto shelves. But...but...they're out of boxes, right? Baby steps!
I have an article in the hopper for next year, and the publisher recently inquired if I wanted to release it as Gold Open Access...for the low, low price of $2950. (The free default is a somewhat less accessible variant of OA.) Somewhere out there, I'm sure there are universities willing to provide subventions for that kind of investment. Mine, however, shows no signs of being one of them, and I somehow doubt that most academics in the humanities are wallowing in this type of dough. (Let's not even get started on adjuncts, many of whom are earning less than this per class.) The class ramifications here strike me as fascinating, in a grim sort of way: only elite universities can afford to provide subventions to cover gold OA publications for all of their professors, let alone some of them; in all likelihood, only tenured or tt faculty at elite universities can scrape up the cash out of their own pockets (and, given that many of those folks now carry significant student loan burdens, not even them); and 99% of adjuncts, meanwhile, are shut out entirely. Obviously, publishing this way is currently an option, not a requirement, but one does wonder.
I'm all for survey courses, not least because that's pretty much most of what I teach. ("Our students don't go for single author courses," advised a former chair during my first year of teaching. "They're pragmatic.") However, there are times when survey courses meet, not the road, but the program requirements. In days of yore, students could use multiple 200-level courses to meet distribution reqs. In days more recent, students are limited to using two 200-level courses toward the major. And when it comes to British vs. American literature, the cries of USA! USA! USA! are louder than they are at the World Cup. (That is, I assume that they're loud at the World Cup. My television pulls in exactly one channel.) Once the program change-over happened, suddenly--as in fall-off-a-cliff, wait-there's-a-hole-in-front-of-me suddenly--enrollments in British Literature II plummeted from the 40s to the single digits. In the space of one year. It would appear that whatever we may feel about the survey, our undergraduates would prefer to hone their literary skills in other courses. And yet, surveys are essential, not just because they ought to enroll in the 40s (many students, so FTE, much wow), but also because...they're introductory surveys. They're intended to give students a grasp of basic material that they can build on over the course of the program. Victorian Gothic, which students like a lot, is not so helpful for introducing British Romantic poetry.
In comments, Roger asked an interesting question: given all these books I keep acquiring (and, therefore, have to shelve somewhere), how do I figure out when to put items from my collection out to pasture? (Or, at least, out to the free books table.)
1. As you might expect, we begin with denial, as I hear my books sobbing at the very thought that I might no longer want them. How could I be so heartless? So cruel?
"Because there are books stacked on top of books here," I tell them, firmly.
OK, I tell myself firmly.
2. Moving on past the Agony of the Books. Some books I never intend to keep. As it happens, these are the books I now buy in electronic format--SF or mystery anthologies, for example. I generally discard mysteries unless they're Victorian (I have a use for those), although I did hang on to all of my Dalziel and Pascoe novels. I also quickly discarded all those Anne Boleyn romances, and the Dracula knockoffs I currently have stacked up every which way will also decamp whenever that article finally puts in an appearance.
3. As an academic, I get free copies of teaching editions. There are times when one contemplates seven different copies of Jane Eyre and decides that there are other things that could be on one's shelves.
Now we're into the tougher decisions.
4. Question #1: Will I ever read this? For some reason, I built up a rather large stack of postapocalyptic novels. And yet, despite my naturally pessimistic nature, I then found myself deeply unmotivated to read any of them. Out they went.
5. Question #2: Will I ever read this again? At the risk of forever destroying what exists of my geek/nerd cred, I found that the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Silmarillion fell before this question like orcs in sunlight. (Let's just say that I think you need to have "caught" Tolkien, like Lovecraft, at a certain age; as it happens, my own immune system proved too strong for Tolkien's prose when I finally sat down to read it.)
6. Question #3: Will I ever write about this? Given my line of work, historical novels tend to survive this question, but a lot of contemporary fiction (especially contemporary fiction that didn't grab me the first time around) disappears into the ether.
7. Question #4: Will I ever teach this? Since I do teach the second half of the British novel survey, contemporary British fiction has a good chance of coming out alive. Literature in translation, which comes in handy for some lower division courses that fulfill GE requirements, also has an edge. And I generally hang on to novels that rewrite other novels and/or Shakespeare, as they're helpful for intro to literary analysis.
8. Question #5: Will I ever cite this? Culling monographs is a bit dicey--I just wound up rebuying (for less than a dollar, thank goodness) a book I discarded about a decade ago because I'd never used it, only to discover now that I need it for more than one project. Because interests are not predictable. (...Dracula knockoffs? Really?) These decisions were easier when I was a graduate student, and bought a lot of books that looked interesting without considering whether or not they were actually useful for my scholarship. A random interesting book should be checked out of the library; a useful book should be on one's own shelf.
In the fall, I'm teaching a new course on (mostly) Victorian fictions of childhood (and what we would now call young adulthood, for that matter). It's not a children's literature course, although there are certainly plenty of examples of Victorian children's literature on the list. I'm still playing around with the various electronic readings, although some of the books are set (thanks to the rule that we need to order books months in advance...). The syllabus is more thematic than chronological. I suspect that I'll move Little Henry and His Bearer down to the end with Kim.
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Frances Trollope, The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong
Mary Martha Sherwood, Little Henry and His Bearer
Mrs. Molesworth, Ministering Children (excerpts)
Hesba Stretton, Jessica's First Prayer
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
Mary Martha Sherwood, The History of the Fairchild Family (excerpts)
Frederic W. Farrar, Eric; Or, Little by Little (excerpts)
Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown's School Days
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Selections from Auerbach and Knoepflmacher, Forbidden Journeys