This Week in My Classes (June 11, 2008)

Yes, I’m teaching again. And hooray for that, I say: it puts a lot of energy back into my days, plus it gives me people to talk to as my colleagues head off on research trips or out to their cottages. I’m about a week into Women and Detective Fiction, an upper-level seminar I’m offering in our spring session–which means we are meeting 10 hours a week to get in a term’s worth of material in less than a month. Although the pace of these courses can be somewhat frenzied, I like the concentration they create: for once, all of your students’ attention is on your class, for one thing, and when you refer to the last book you read, they can usually remember it, because you just wrapped up discussion on it yesterday.

So after doing some early classics and some Miss Marple last week, yesterday we finished up with Gaudy Night. As I told them, it is a novel I expect to become more important and resonant to them as we get further along in our readings. For me, it’s plenty resonant already–indeed, it’s one of my top 10 novels, period. But it has never been a popular success when I’ve taught it. Its preoccupations–with the life of the mind, with the relationship of intellectual integrity to other kinds of honesty and commitment, and with the challenges of balancing head and heart, work and life–are perhaps too abstract for many students, or too remote (so far) from their own experiences of either love or education. I admire the unity of the novel, in which the detective plot and the romance plot turn (as Sayers said she meant them to) on the same point. Reacting against the puzzle mysteries of the era, Sayers remarked that “the reader gets tired after a time of a literature without bowels,” and in Gaudy Night she set out to humanize the genre and restore it to what she saw as the higher standards of its 19th-century forebears, such as the works of Wilkie Collins and Sheridan LeFanu (on whom, one of many nice metafictional touches, Harriet Vane is doing a research project while at Oxford). Harriet’s own detective fiction undergoes a similar transformation over the course of the novel, too. But most of all I enjoy the relationship between Peter and Harriet, which I read as one of the most successful fictional attempts I know of to imagine both the challenge and the realization of an equal partnership between two equally independent and intellectually demanding characters. What more satisfying proposal–thematically, politically, romantically–is there in a novel than Peter’s to Harriet at the end? OK, maybe I exaggerate. Maybe.

Tomorrow we move to P.D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, then Death in a Tenured Position, so we go from Oxford to Cambridge and then to Harvard. Then we’re into the feminist revisions of hard-boiled private eyes, with Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, and then Prime Suspect, and then we’re done, all by June 27. I have been meaning to add an example of lesbian detective fiction into the reading list, and I should probably work to bring it more up to date–Prime Suspect (the one we’re doing) is from 1992, so that doesn’t seem so current anymore. Even the first time I worked on it with a class, one of the students laughed at the “dated” hair and fashions. I couldn’t see what she meant at all! That made me feel old, alright. Ruth Rendell and Elizabeth George are two likely candidates, I suppose, though I don’t see anything that interesting in terms of genre in George’s novels (though I think highly of most of them). Who’s out there doing something new with the form? Suggestions always welcome, especially as I’m not actually an avid mystery reader –I tend to stick with the authors I know I like, and to get irritated by gimmicky special interest ones (crossword puzzles, catering companies, bed and breakfasts, home repairs, quilting…you know the type).

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