Book Two (officially known as Victorian Reformations: Historical Fiction and Religious Controversy, 1820-1900) is now available for preorder on Amazon. It's scheduled for release on Nov. 30, 2013. You know you want it, right? It's even affordable!
It's been a while since I've discussed Jewish conversion novels. Charlotte Elizabeth Stern's Esther: A Tale of Modern Jewish Burgher Life (1880), while mostly adhering to the genre's conventions, still has some points of interest. Although Stern was not herself a convert from Judaism--her father was the psalmodist Charles Henry Purday--her husband, Henry Aaron Stern, was a converted German Jew and active overseas missionary, best known at the time for his work among the Beta Israel (or "Falashas," a slur). Although Charlotte died in 1874, it appears that her family must have arranged for her two books, Eliezer (1877) and Esther, to be published posthumously.
Unusually for a conversion novel, Esther is not just philosemitic, but Hebrew Christian, with the main character proudly retaining her Jewish identity even after she becomes a Protestant (a Lutheran, to be precise). Although the seeds of such an approach lie in Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's Judah's Lion, in which the protagonist continues to understand himself as "Jewish," most conversion novels require their characters to fully embed themselves within their new Christian community, casting off their residual allegiance to Judaism as either a faith community or an ethnic group. Moreover, nearly half the novel is given over to mostly non-judgmental accounts of Jewish holidays, prayers, and ritual observances, suggesting that Stern understood the novel as a kind of introduction to Orthodox Judaism for Christian readers--although disapproval does eventually creep in, especially when it comes to gender and legalism. And, intriguingly, while Stern does trot out the requisite Biblical quotations, the novel relies heavily on epigraphs from and allusions to such good evangelicals (ahem) as Lord Byron and George Eliot; in effect, the novel both insists that evangelicals can read and appreciate authors conventionally deemed problematic (that they have "taste," in other words), and that secular literature can be successfully appropriated for traditional Christian ends.
When the novel isn't explaining Judaism, it does manage to have a plot. The action mostly takes place in Germany against the background of the Franco-Prussian War; its Jewish characters, despite comprising a distinct community, nevertheless associate regularly with their Christian neighbors, assert their "patriotism," and refer to Germany as "the Fatherland" (116). Stern thus plays down accusations of eternal Jewish strangeness or otherness: these Jews serve as army officers and see no conflicts between Jewish and German identities. Esther, our heroine, is a beautiful blonde Jew whose "ideal of life is an intellectual one" (43)--aspirations that signal her coming dissatisfaction with Jewish ritual. Although Esther disdains the growing professionalism of Anglo-American women (42), she also manifests some impatience with her sister Thekla's belief that women should confine themselves to "needlework and pretty nick-nacks" (42). This discrepancy between the two ultimately leads into a standard Christian critique of Judaism and female subjectivity: the female Jew, not required to engage in most formal religious observances, is mentally and spiritually subjugated by a patriarchy run rampant. The more thoughtful Esther, despite her "good works," soon becomes "dissatisfied" (139) with Judaism, which the novel more and more explicitly aligns with a formalism disconnected from the heart. (As is so often the case, anti-Jewish rhetoric overlaps with anti-Catholic rhetoric here.) To make matters worse, her aristocratic lover, Colonel Rudolph von Girsperg (product of a mixed marriage), eventually declares that rabbinical Judaism is nothing more than "meaningless ritualistic forms" and "senseless fables and traditions" (118)--thereby heralding his incipient conversion, thanks to the efforts of his English friend, Col. Fraser.
The narrative thus resorts to the evangelical conversion genre's regular standbys: the critique of ritual as antithetical to heartfelt faith or love, and the equally common critique of traditions interposing between the believer and the Bible. "I am unhappy," Esther tells a Lutheran pastor (166): ritual repetition, far from being a mode of spiritual discipline and meditation, merely leaves the practitioner without any authentic outlet for emotion.1 Faced with a series of increasingly painful hardships, beginning with Rudolph's apparent death in battle (spoiler: no), Esther undergoes a regular Pilgrim's Progress (highlighted by, well, an allusion to the Pilgrim's Progress) that tests her allegiance to her newfound faith. Here, Stern trots out a number of the major Jewish conversion novel tropes, most importantly the abusive family: her parents conceal the converted Rudolph's letters from here, attempt to arrange a marriage for her with a man she barely knows, and then subject her to emotional abuse and, ultimately, rejection once her conversion becomes clear. The novel thus equates Jewish ritual practice with the emptiness of Jewish family feeling, which makes itself painfully clear at any sign of deviation from the norm; apparently loving families morph into psychologically (and, in other novels, physically) brutal enclaves. Of course, as one might expect, when Esther reaches her lowest point, so starved and demoralized to be unrecognizable, she is found again in an English church by the undead (OK, not dead) Rudolph, who promptly marries her. Happily ever after!
Interestingly enough, it is in England that the novel locates outright antisemitism. (Col. Fraser's victim-blaming for Jewish persecution does not, one must note, apparently count as antisemitism in the novel's estimation.) After Esther's family rejects her, the narrative suddenly detours into a governess novel, complete with shallow and materialistic parents--parents who also sneer at the Jews who have insinuated themselves into all the walks of genteel and professional life. "A Jew Prime Minister, and a Jew Master of the Rolls!" (191) complains the master of the house. The apparently unremarkable acculturation (albeit not outright assimilation) of German Jews stands in stark contrast to this overt prejudice; it is such bigotry, the novel hints, that produces Jewish "otherness," not Jewish clannishness or tribalism. In context, this attack on English prejudice (and, elsewhere, how the English treat the poor in general) up-ends more cheery Protestant and even Jewish assessments of England as a safe haven for oppressed Jews. A German Jew travels to England, only to find that "Jew" erases all other potential forms of identification, and that to be a Jew is, by definition, to be permanently strange. One wonders if Stern's German-born husband had had something to say.
1 For more on the role of "form" in Victorian spirituality, see Kirstie Blair's recent Form and Faith in Victorian Poetry and Poetics (OUP, 2012).
There was radio silence this week because of the Midwest Victorian Studies Association conference, from which I have just returned. It's one of those lovely small conferences where people are friendly and you can rely on having an audience for your talk (as opposed to three people and/or the rest of the panel). There were a number of stimulating papers; I particularly appreciated some new ideas for teaching from the digital humanities panel. My own contribution developed from my own baby white whale, Robert Elsmere, and its habit of doing strange things with quotations (Biblical prooftexting, in particular). As is so often the case, I wound up becoming more sympathetic to Mrs. Ward's habit of mangling quotations every which way once I started writing about the practice, in part because the deliberate misquotations (e.g., the "quotation" from Obermann that is actually from two paragraphs fifty pages apart...) look, on closer examination, like they're making a statement about the rightful liberties an author can take with a text. That being said, with my editor's hat on, the misquotations still make me want to go all Captain Ahab.
Strictly speaking, I was lucky to get to the conference, as many other attendees had positively Gothic accounts of being trapped for hours (or days) in gloomy airports. Ah, midwestern weather, how we all love you. (Er, no.) I was less impressed by winding up with a cab back to the airport that smelled like it had been drenched in urine; I tried to distract myself from the olfactory situation by imagining all the ways that the car could have acquired that aroma without, well, having been literally drenched in the substance in question.
Speaking of Gothic, I used my travel time to catch up on some horror anthologies. I don't know if it's age, temperament, taste, or a combination of the two, but even though the stories I was reading were all technically quite fine, I didn't find any of them...horrific. Not a chill was to be had. And yet, there are a number of Victorian/Edwardian tales that still spook me: The Turn of the Screw, for example, or "The Room in the Tower." Perhaps because these stories focus on the tension, the waiting, more than explicit gore?
I also finally (finally!) managed to finish Anthony Burgess' Earthly Powers. I'm not sure of the novel's place in the historical subgenre of "fictional biographies/autobiographies of mediocrities whose lives embody the era's major cultural and political transformations" (that's a rather clunky name for the subgenre, I must say)--think Any Human Heart, or Liza's Century, or The Stone Diaries, or My Heart Laid Bare. At the end of the novel, the sentimental novelist's sister, Hortense, a nearly-forgotten sculptor, contemplates her work and that of her siblings (a third, long dead, was a successful comic), and concludes, "'I don't suppose any of us was really bad. We meant well, anyway'" (653). Meant as self-exculpation, this assessment also damns what the family represents for the twentieth century--one long aesthetic lapse, momentarily celebrated but then thrown aside as rubbish. Their success was the temporary triumph of the disposable, of the world as celebrated by Hollywood (for which Hortense's ex-husband wrote musical scores). They're popular. There's not much left in the way of transcendence in this novel, as the parallel rise to success of the also popular Carlo Campanati, eventually Pope Gregory, implies: his rise to ecclesiastical power is one long theological error, the "miraculous cure" that promises his sainthood in fact enabling a much greater horror.
The new iPad keyboard held up for note-taking. Besides needing to use the function key to enable punctuation marks like the colon and semi-colon, I'm also still irritated by the ease with which one is likely to hit "enter" instead of the apostrophe. Overall, though, the keyboard works well enough that I'd be happy to tote the iPad around for conferences or for light note-taking in libraries; I don't think I'd enjoy using it to do lengthy transcriptions.
Speaking as someone "on the ground," as it were, I found myself vaguely bemused by this tumblr quarrel. As an example of "Christian privilege," "[y]ou don’t have to be familiar with another faith’s scripture in order to 'get' the allusions and references in the literature taught in high
school English classes" sounds good, I suppose, were it not that one's Christian students (even at the college level) are very likely incapable of recognizing most allusions to the N.T. Aside from a very tiny minority, most of my Christian students have the same grasp of N.T. narratives/concepts/quotations as do my non-practicing and non-Christian students--that is, they know what's accessible via popular media. (I've yet to have a student who couldn't recognize a Christ allegory at twenty paces.) And they are also unlikely to recognize anything beyond the basics, if that, in terms of liturgy (in whatever denomination), iconography, etc. From shop talk I've heard over the years, this is as much an issue at Christian colleges, whether Catholic or Protestant, as it is at secular institutions. In other words, the instructor has to go into the room assuming that the Scriptural references will be "unfamiliar" to everybody; it's why I have the "you know, if you're an English major, you're going to have to read the Bible [insert discussion of different relevant translations here]" lecture in my regular repertoire, right alongside "seriously, there's no escaping Paradise Lost," "you'll have to reconcile yourself to reading Shakespeare," and "yup, get yourself a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress."
Which is another way of saying that there's no necessary contradiction between emerging from a culture and being, in many ways, foreign to it. It's why I argued many years ago that one of the common objections to such-and-such "studies" programs--the argument from narcissism--didn't make much sense.
I did this kind of assignment once as an option (which few students took), and haven't repeated it, in large part because I'm dubious about the ethics of siccing random students on Wikipedia. Granted, the results might not be any worse than the current Victorian literature page, but still. I think asking students to investigate and write about Wikipedia is valuable, but having them mess about with the site unsupervised is problematic (shouldn't students be comfortable citing sources before they contribute to a site which demands citations at the drop of a hat?).
I don't usually have to "guess" if my students have done the reading or not. It's apparent within the first five seconds of asking a question. Even in an online setting, surely dead air on the discussion boards would make this clear? More to the point: college students are usually adults. It's up to them if they want to do the reading, because that's the freedom of choice (and the choice of consequences) that goes along with being an adult. At a certain point, students have to motivate themselves to do the work, just as they may have to actively decide to be interested in a subject that doesn't grab them from the get-go. (And as the article goes on to point out, the system can be fiddled with mind-blowing ease.)
On a lighter note, I've been experimenting with this new iPad keyboard case (which I managed to snag at half price on Amazon). So far, pretty good: the keys are comfortably spaced; the feel is comparable to a decent netbook; and the construction is solid. The only thing I dislike right now is that some of the common punctuation marks are controlled by function keys (perhaps this is designed to drive the semi-colon to extinction?).
This past week or so, I've been teaching poems like Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" and E. B. Browning's "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point," where the apparent lockstep regularity of the poem's form gives way once you start analyzing the meter. (Or, as I said, "the meter is banging against the frame of the rhyme scheme.") At times like this, I always find myself dreaming of that nice utopian day in which all of our students knew something about scansion--which, after all, not everyone teaches in our intro to lit analysis course. Wouldn't it be nice if you could just walk into the room and say, "Everyone, what did you think of all those anapests?" Ah, the joys of predictability, in which all students learn the same skills at the beginning of their academic careers!
Of course, the dream falls apart just as quickly. Our 200-level courses are enrolling more and more non-majors, and it's a bit much to expect physicists and sociologists to walk into the room prepared to recognize an iamb. More to the point, the ability to scan a poem is, as a professor of mine once said about cricket, "use it or lose it" knowledge. Even students who I know have been exposed to the basics don't necessarily remember them a year on, not unless they've taken other poetry-heavy courses (e.g., Shakespeare or Milton). It's rather like the fantasy/fallacy of freshman composition: you cannot "teach students to write" in a single semester; you can only give them the basic toolkit, and the spiffier tools must be acquired elsewhere. Nothing sticks unless it's consistently reinforced in the department and, sometimes, across the campus.
This semester, I belatedly discovered that a book I thought I owned was not the book I actually owned--which, since I needed to teach from it the next day, was a trifle disconcerting. Ergo, in a burst of inspiration and/or desperation, I fired up my trusty iPad and downloaded the book on Kindle. Hooray, problem solved. Right?
Well, no. So far, although I enjoy the convenience of etexts for doing things like keyword searching and the like, I can't say that my enthusiasm extends to trying to teach with one. Page references may or may not square with the student's hardcopies, depending on the reader's orientation (landscape? portrait?). It's difficult to "skim" the text quickly without a material book; the percentage bar doesn't have the same effectiveness as actually looking at the text block to estimate where the desired quotation might be. And then there are the times when the e-reader decides to behave badly (touch screen doesn't respond, accidentally hitting buttons that lead to undesired results, etc.). I feel a bit like a Luddite, but in the rough-and-tumble of a classroom setting, I don't find Kindle editions to be all that user-friendly.