Bound volume of seven tracts, various authors and publishers, 1820-26. Authors include Henri Malan, Mrs. Sherwood, and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna. The volume was owned by a young Georgiana Alice Brooke, who can be spotted on this page. (eBay)
Mick Jackson, Yuki Chan in Bronte Country (Faber & Faber, 2016). A Japanese visitor to the Haworth area tries to figure out what happened to her mother many years earlier. (Lift Bridge)
Patricia Murphy, The New Woman Gothic: Reconfigurations of Distress (Missouri, 2016). Argues that the late-Victorian New Woman was frequently imagined in terms appropriated from Gothic conventions, with variable political results. I'm reviewing this for Choice. (Review copy)
Frederick D. Aquino and Benjamin J. King, eds., Receptions of Newman (Oxford, 2015). What it says on the tin: how John Henry Newman has been understood and appropriated across a variety of theological traditions, from his time to the present. (Amazon)
I've said terribly unpleasant things over the course of the years about E. H. Dering, so I will concede upfront that his Sherborne (1875) is pretty inoffensive from an aesthetic POV. Granted, the novel has all of his usual problems: the characterization is nonsensical (in particular, the characters opining about the Catholic psyche after being converts for all of five seconds), the conversation bizarre (everyone delivers "home truths" all the time, even though in reality they would probably never be invited anywhere again after the first go), and the plot contorted (not to mention badly edited--Dering seems to have been worried that his readers would be unable to remember what was going on). Still, the prose, while occasionally resembling meat processed through a clogged grinder, was at least serviceable, and the main arguments, while not unfamiliar, reasonably interesting.
Sherborne's narrative combines a harsh critique of both post-Reformation and what one might call post-Catholic Europe, on the one hand, and a slightly more sensational plot about property gone awry, on the other. The last, however, is symbolically linked to the first. In the property plot, an old woman, Mrs. Atherstone, seeks to return a Catholic estate, confiscated after the '45, to its rightful nineteenth-century heir; the problem, of course, is that the estate, Protestant for over a century, is currently occupied by de Beaufoy, who has taken the old family name, Sherborne. As a young woman, Mrs. Atherstone had temporarily withheld her discovery of an heir's existence from her employer, Mrs. Sherborne, from whose brother the estate had been confiscated because he was illegally studying at Douai. Mrs. Sherborne had "apostasized from the faith" in order to marry a Protestant, who turns out to have been "an unkind and faithless husband" (I.164); in turn, Mrs. Atherstone thinks to conceal the heir in order that her own lover might inherit, only to discover that the will renders it impossible. Just as Mrs. Sherborne was punished for her betrayal, so too is Mrs. Atherstone, whose lover is promptly drowned. The network of refusals and betrayals that alienates the Sherborne property miniaturizes the larger Protestant project of stealing Catholic lands, keeping the rightful owners in perpetual exile either at "home" (a home itself rendered alien by the new religious settlement) or abroad. As Moreton, one of the novel's protagonists and its occasional narrator, says to the current Sherborne, a Catholic convert is now a "sort of spiritual ticket-of-leave man, who is allowed certain rights of citizenship under conditions not very clearly defined" (I.52)--a citizen and yet not a citizen, figuratively transported elsewhere yet at home, free yet circumscribed. But Mrs. Sherborne's return to the faith on her deathbed, as well as Mrs. Atherstone's conversion after a life of morbid despair, both signal Catholicism's irresistible appeal to the English mind, and thus the country's projected future return to Catholic health. "Sherborne," in fact, turns out to have a double meaning, as it indicates both the present holder of the title, one of the novel's protagonists, and Moreton, the actual heir (something revealed only at the very end of the novel). Although Moreton is a recent convert, the discovery that he is actually descended from an old Catholic family literally and symbolically restores a Catholic continuity within the context of violent Protestant disruption.
This alienated property plot sits side-by-side with a Risorgimento plot, which it both mirrors and, again, miniaturizes. Although Protestant novelists (and poets, for that matter) tended to look kindly on the Risorgimento, which they (mis)read as an example of burgeoning Protestant liberty abroad, Catholic novelists were, as one might expect, far less enthusiastic. The novel's primary Catholic priest, Don Pascolini, also links the Risorgimento to the Reformation, but not as the Protestants would have it: "They are doing by degrees in Italy what was done in England by Henry the Eighth" (I.38). Sherborne's interpretation of Protestant historical narrative (not that the Risorgimento was Protestant, but that many evangelicals in particular understood the movement that way) is in line with other Catholic texts of the period, which insist that, far from any sort of Whiggish progress, Protestantism is essentially non-linear. It disrupts, fragments, steals, corrupts, displaces, but shapes nothing. Moreover, this effect extends beyond the political into the moral and subjective. The English mind, says the narrator, has been "blinded by the wretched heresy which has so often warped the instincts of noble natures, and paralysed common sense" (II.191). English Protestants cannot properly make sense of events unfolding around them; they can neither offer true moral judgments nor decode the workings of divine grace. In this matter, though, they are joined by many Continental Catholics, whose governments applaud the Italian revolutionaries rather than taking the Pope's side. Sherborne thus diagnoses a larger religious malaise that goes well beyond Protestantism and into modern Catholicism itself, a destructive desire for power that upends older hierarchies and communities ordained by God. The only solution to this problem is a large-scale reversal of Protestantism's effects through the force of Grace, not of military power. Warns de Beaufoy at the end, if England does not return to its former Catholicism, "there will be an awful crash of everything some day" (III.321). For Englishness, he insists, is essentially Catholic, right down to its Constitution (III.322). Protestants may render Victorian Catholics alien in their own homeland, but understood rightly, it is Protestants themselves who are alien interlopers, performing a form of national identity that has no organic connection to its true origins.
Blogging has been a little difficult at this conference, as my iPad keyboard doesn't always cooperate when the hotel wifi gets sluggish, but I'm going to say nice things about the peer reviewers from one scholarly journal: they managed to a) be encouraging and b) identify the holes in the historical background that I knew were there, but as a non-historian, wasn't really able to identify for myself. So three cheers for professional peer reviewers. (Now I have more books to read, but that's the academic condition.)
I'm spending my spring break at Baylor University, conferencing, as one does when one is an academic. (The conferencing part. Not necessarily the conferencing at Baylor part.) The talk is about early nineteenth-century attempts to deal with this weird new genre, the religious novel, which (needless to say) almost nobody liked. But it's also about a "kids these days" problem. When academics grumble about "kids these days," it's easy enough to point out that, if one believes teachers, records demonstrate that the intellectual and applied capacities of the student population have been in decline since the time of ancient Greece. The "good" student population has always been located in the not-so-distant past, perhaps a generation or so earlier, frequently when the instructor was a student themselves (strange how that is...). As it happens, the "kids these days" narrative also informs even the nineteenth-century literary historiography of the religious novel: from the POV of late-Victorian observers, religious fiction didn't really get hot-and-bothered until the 1820s. Earlier novelists (e.g., Hannah More) were gentler, less impassioned in their approach. Now, from the POV of the late twenty-first century, this seems like a valid position, as the early nineteenth-century novels frequently adhere to the norms of post-Enlightenment sociability; Michael Ledger-Lomas rightly refers to the "polite evangelical fiction of the 1810s."1 For example, there's a great (I mean, great for my argument, not so great otherwise) moment in John Satchel's Thornton Abbey (1806) in which a controversial debate suddenly resolves into a charming afternoon tea. That sort of carefully convivial resolution just doesn't happen three decades on. But Thornton Abbey and its immediate contemporaries often struck contemporary critics as being the very opposite of sociable--they were too opinionated, too hung up on their theological hobbyhorses, too ready to represent the "wrong" (divisive) opinions, &c. In other words, depending on whom you're asking, the religious novel has always been offensive, even when it presented itself otherwise. Kids these days!
1 Michael Ledger-Lomas, "Evangelical Fiction," The Oxford History of the Novel in English: Volume 2, English and British Fiction 1750-1820, ed. Peter Garside and Karen O'Brien (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 261.
1) I begin from the assumption that I don't know anything about a topic. This is particularly important in interdisciplinary work, where one runs the risk of reinventing wheels and/or lecturing people who do, in fact, know better.
2) I try, as far as I can, to be challenged by the works I read.
3) I find it helpful to remember that the past is both messy and incredibly inconvenient.
4) I do not think that literary history can be rendered equivalent to "the canon," nor do I think that "lost" (bad, ephemeral, unjustly forgotten) works should be treated merely as context. Popular genres frequently have their own canons.
5) I think it important to remember that valuable knowledge (about the emergence of genres and forms, or cultural attitudes, or now-forgotten fears, or...) may emerge from the most unexpected research topics. Humility is in order.
Midway through reading Mark Oppenheimer's "There's nothing wrong with grade inflation," I came upon his list of teaching experiences--"Stanford, Wellesley, New York University, Boston College and Yale"--and I sighed, "Of course." At the risk of riding a well-worn hobbyhorse, it appears to be a prerequisite for this sort of essay that the author have spent their entire careers at elite institutions, the sort of institutions that come equipped with things like, oh, money, prestige, extensive support staff, and things of that nature. Oppenheimer, at least, intermittently acknowledges that all of the recommendations in his essay would be near-to-entirely impossible at a school like, say, a small SUNY, especially if that school had large numbers of adjuncts on staff who "can’t write substantial term-end comments, so grades are a necessity if they want to give any feedback at all." Well, yes (or y-e-e-e-s-s-s-s), to borrow from my repertoire of marginal comments. I am trying to be charitable--not least because I'm in the midst of grading, as it happens--but that one concession pretty much demolishes the rest of the essay. We, for example, would love to hire more people, but that would require that the state restore our funding; instead, we have to cut three million from next year's budget. Oppenheimer's experiences are not relevant to anyone who does not hail from his particular academic context, any more than my experiences are particularly relevant to someone from an R1. (I, for example, have seen an awful lot of D and F grades--or E grades, as we say here.) Given that most faculty in the United States teach at small SUNYs or even less-funded venues, and deal with students who come in with different issues related to preparation, finances, work, and the like, it would make sense to perhaps ask some of those faculty about alternatives to grading.
(I received two boxes of books as a gift, only some of which I've listed below.)
Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun: A Novel (Pantheon, 2014). The narrator, also named Jesse Ball, tries to unravel the mystery of a Japanese prisoner who refuses to say anything about his possible involvement in a rash of kidnappings. (Gift)
Nell Zink, Mislaid (Harper Collins, 2015). In the 1960s, a decidedly incompatible couple from the South separate, with the wife concealing herself and her daughter by pretending to be African-American. Consequences ensue. (Gift)
Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs (Knopf, 2013). A teacher becomes passionately invested in a new family, with ultimately painful results. (Gift)
Charles Portis, Masters of Atlantis (Overlook, 2000). Reprint of Portis' 1985 satirical novel about a man who becomes obsessed with a sort of neo-Gnostic society during WWI. (Gift)
Brian Fothergill, Nicholas Wiseman (Doubleday, 1963). Biography of the controversial cardinal (which, admittedly, I purchased because it reprints his famous "Out of the Flaminian Gate" pastoral, which is strangely absent from the 'net anywhere else than in anti-Catholic publications). (Amazon [secondhand])
Desmond Bowen, Paul Cardinal Cullen and the Shaping of Modern Irish Catholicism (Wilfrid Laurier, 1983). Important study of Cullen's influence in reforming and shaping the nineteenth-century Irish Church. (Amazon [secondhand])