This Week in My Classes (October 15, 2007)

1. 19th-Century Fiction. This week is our second and last on Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. I closed out last week with an overview of Pre-Raphaelitism, to help us think about the significance of Lady Audley’s portrait, which we are told must have been painted by a member of that movement:

No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid lightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait. . . . my lady, in his portrait of her, had something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend. (Ch. VIII)

There are many PRB paintings that capture the quality Braddon evokes here; this is one of my favourites. This week we will focus on the cat-and-mouse game that unfolds between Lady Audley and Robert Audley, the investigator-hero of the novel (or is he?). Issues likely to come up include just what the stakes are for both of these characters in the batttle to reveal or conceal Lady Audley’s real identity and (presumed) crimes, and the displacement of Robert’s affection for his lost buddy George Talboys onto George’s eerily similar sister, Clara. When we get to the end of the novel, we will debate whether Lady Audley is ultimately offered to us as evidence of the danger dissatisfied women pose to social and sexual hierarchies or as a clever woman who uses her beauty as capital in a society that otherwise inhibits her access to capital and thus to social advancement. I’ve yet to be convinced that Braddon herself offers a coherent position on whether Lady Audley is more to be feared or pitied; the late chapter title “Buried Alive” seems to urge us towards the latter, but there’s only so much sympathy or feminist ire I can muster on behalf of a homicidal bigamist…. It is always a bit discouraging to me how popular this novel is with my students, full as it is of cheap tricks and thoughtless language. But I wouldn’t assign it if I didn’t think we would all learn from talking about it. The transition to Middlemarch next week may be hard on them, though: that is a novel that will ask them to think much harder about issues presented with much more complexity and subtlety.

2. Victorian Women Writers. My graduate seminar is taking up Gaskell’s North and South this week. It’s interesting coming to this novel right after two weeks on Jane Eyre: though both novels take up issues of rights, Gaskell places an equivalently high value on duties, including social duties, something Jane Eyre subordinates to a more individualistic standard of duty to self (equally principled, for sure, but different principles: “‘Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?’ Still indomitable came the reply–‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.'”) Also, though much criticism in the past 20 years has helped us understand Jane Eyre as a text inextricably part of its historical moment, there are still many elements in that novel that invite us to consider it in abstract or symbolic ways (the fairy-tale structure, the appeals to myth and legend, the gothic features, the allegorical character of sections such as Jane’s lonely wanderings, etc.). North and South does not seem to me to accomodate such interpretive moves. Even its preoccupation with right relations between master and men, though appealing to abstract concepts and theories, really makes sense only as an analysis of conditions at that particular time; the same seems to me true about its interest in “that most difficult problem for women, how much was to be utterly merged in obedience to authority, and how much might be set apart for freedom in working.” Formally, North and South seems to me as well structured and balanced as Jane Eyre, and as well suited to its themes–perhaps a little too pat in places, but also avoiding the sentimental and melodramatic extremes of Mary Barton. As we read several works focusing on the role and experience of women writers, I expect we will start with some questions about how Gaskell seems to be inhabiting that role in this case, but we’ll move on to the usual discussions of the relation between the novel’s industrial plot and its central courtship plot.

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