This Week in My Classes (November 20, 2007)

The great Middlemarch festival is, sadly, over for this year (well, for this term, at any rate–I get to go through it again in my winter seminar on the Victorian ‘woman question’). Here’s what’s up:

1. 19th-Century Novel. This course is in the Calendar as “The 19th-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy.” So we started with Great Expectations and now we’ve arrived at Jude the Obscure. Perhaps it’s not the kindest thing in the world to wrap up our term’s work with a novel that focuses on ruined hopes, blighted scholarly aspirations, failed love, and death. On the other hand, usually (to my dismay) my students love this stuff. Certainly we will find lots of continuities between Jude and our other readings, despite some dramatic differences in tone or attitude. We began with Trollope’s quizzical look at wordliness in the Church of England, for instance: though it’s hard to imagine two books that read more differently than Jude and The Warden, both urge us to consider the role of institutionalized religion in social as well as spiritual affairs. Great Expectations gives us another ambitious young man whose aspirations are complicated, if not wholly dashed–and Estella, as well as Lady Audley, provides intriguing points of comparison to both Arabella and Sue. Middlemarch sets us up to consider Hardy’s indictment of social mores, especially in relation to marriage; we’ll also talk about both novels’ inquiry into morality, especially in the absence of faith. I usually take as the epigraph for our class work on the novel the narrator’s remark, “nobody did come, because nobody does.” (There’s also a late Hardy poem called “Nobody Comes.”) I don’t usually find much to say about the form of the novel, though when we get to Father Time we’ll consider what this heavy-handed allegorical element is doing in what seemed, until then, like a realist novel, and we’ll talk about it a bit in terms of tragedy. I find Hardy a pretty clunky stylist; there’s not much aesthetic pleasure in his sentences for me.

2. Victorian Women Writers. Here we are taking up our last ‘lady novelist’ with Margaret Oliphant’s Hester. We began the course with Oliphant’s Autobiography, in which she famously remarks that nobody will ever speak of her in the same breath as George Eliot. While putting one of her novels up right after Middlemarch might seem a bit unfair, well, she asks for it. And Hester is reading well so far, on this time through. It’s particularly interesting to come at Hester herself after spending so much time with Margaret (in North and South) and Dorothea: all these energetic young women looking so hard for something useful to do! They make Jane Eyre seem quite self-centered…interesting how much more attractive she has been to feminist critics. The editors of our edition remark that Oliphant shares the “mysterious literalness” of Trollope. That seems right to me; as I’ve remarked before, both writers seem to have a kind of “a spade is just a spade” quality to their plots and prose, making symbolic readings seem perverse. At the same time, the social reach of the story is extensive. Oliphant’s characterizations, though they strike me as somewhat more haphazard than Eliot’s, are one of her strengths, I think. Along with the novel, we’re reading some critics who make various interesting and fairly plausible arguments for the subversive potential of Oliphant’s approach to literary conventions, or for the ways her pragmatic approach to novel-writing undercuts some kinds of claims about women’s relationship to literary authority or tradition. I think (I hope) the relative lack of criticism about Hester in particular will be liberating for our class discussion. Jane Eyre and Middlemarch are especially difficult to work with because it seems so difficult to find something fresh to say.

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