This Week in My Classes (September 22, 2009)

Nearly two weeks in, we’ve moved past the throat-clearing stage in both of my classes and are deep into our first novels.

In The Nineteenth-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy I’m leading off with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South this year. Last time I taught it I opened with Trollope’s The Warden, which I thoroughly enjoy, but I like to give Gaskell a turn too. Like her first novel, Mary Barton, North and South is a ‘condition of England’ novel, addressing the tensions between “masters and men” in the industrial north (yes, there are always a couple of students who are surprised that it is not a novel about the American civil war). Mary Barton is a passionate, sometimes gripping, deeply sincere but rather melodramatic novel. I quite enjoy it, especially the climactic boat chase (!), but I think North and South is both artistically and intellectually a better book. Its structure is more deliberate, its treatment of the central class conflicts more sophisticated, and its characters more complicated. Its protagonist, Margaret Hale, is a particularly interesting figure. Gaskell sets her up from the very first scenes as a woman not quite at home or at ease with the conventional feminine values of her time. It’s not until she is torn away from her idyllic country home to the rough environment of Milton-Northern (a.k.a. Manchester), however, that she begins to see what kind of work there is to be done in the world, and then to puzzle out her own role in it. The charismatic Milton mill owner John Thornton of course plays an important part in Margaret’s changing perspective, though in the tradition of Pride and Prejudice, it turns out that he has a lot to learn from her as well (ah, the courtship of the mind, truly the most seductive kind). Yesterday we wound up at the dramatic scene between Thornton and his striking workers. Goaded by Margaret into going down to speak with them “like a man,” Thornton confronts the mob:

Again she took her place by the farthest window. He was on the steps below; she saw that by the direction of a thousand angry eyes; but she could neither see nor hear any-thing save the savage satisfaction of the rolling angry murmur. She threw the window wide open. Many in the crowd were mere boys; cruel and thoughtless,–cruel because they were thoughtless; some were men, gaunt as wolves, and mad for prey. She knew how it was; they were like Boucher, with starving children at home–relying on ultimate success in their efforts to get higher wages, and enraged beyond measure at discovering that Irishmen were to be brought in to rob their little ones of bread. Margaret knew it all; she read it in Boucher’s face, forlornly desperate and livid with rage. If Mr. Thornton would but say something to them–let them hear his voice only–it seemed as if it would be better than this wild beating and raging against the stony silence that vouchsafed them. no word, even of anger or reproach. But perhaps he was speaking now; there was a momentary hush of their noise, inarticulate as that of a troop of animals. She tore her bonnet off; and bent forwards to hear. She could only see; for if Mr. Thornton had indeed made the attempt to speak, the momentary instinct to listen to him was past and gone, and the people were raging worse than ever. He stood with his arms folded; still as a statue; his face pale with repressed excitement. They were trying to intimidate him–to make him flinch; each was urging the other on to some immediate act of personal violence. Margaret felt intuitively, that in an instant all would be uproar; the first touch would cause an explosion, in which, among such hundreds of infuriated men and reckless boys, even Mr. Thornton’s life would be unsafe,–that in another instant the stormy passions would have passed their bounds, and swept away all barriers of reason, or apprehension of consequence. Even while she looked, she saw lads in the back-ground stooping to take off their heavy wooden clogs–the readiest missile they could find; she saw it was the spark to the gunpowder, and, with a cry, which no one heard, she rushed out of the room, down stairs,–she had lifted the great iron bar of the door with an imperious force–had thrown the door open wide–and was there, in face of that angry sea of men, her eyes smiting them with flaming arrows of reproach. The clogs were arrested in the hands that held them–the countenances, so fell not a moment before, now looked irresolute, and as if asking what this meant. For she stood between them and their enemy. She could not speak, but held out her arms towards them till she could recover breath.

‘Oh, do not use violence! He is one man, and you are many; but her words died away, for there was no tone in her voice; it was but a hoarse whisper. Mr. Thornton stood a little on one side; he had moved away from behind her, as if jealous of anything that should come between him and danger.

‘Go!’ said she, once more (and now her voice was like a cry). ‘The soldiers are sent for–are coming. Go peaceably. Go away. You shall have relief from your complaints, whatever they are.’

‘Shall them Irish blackguards be packed back again?’ asked one from out the crowd, with fierce threatening in his voice.

‘Never, for your bidding!’ exclaimed Mr. Thornton. And instantly the storm broke. The hootings rose and filled the air,–but Margaret did not hear them. Her eye was on the group of lads who had armed themselves with their clogs some time before. She saw their gesture–she knew its meaning,–she read their aim. Another moment, and Mr. Thornton might be smitten down,–he whom she had urged and goaded to come to this perilous place. She only thought how she could save him. She threw her arms around him; she made her body into a shield from the fierce people beyond. Still, with his arms folded, he shook her off.

‘Go away,’ said he, in his deep voice. ‘This is no place for you.’

‘It is!’ said she. ‘You did not see what I saw.’ If she thought her sex would be a protection,–if, with shrinking eyes she had turned away from the terrible anger of these men, in any hope that ere she looked again they would have paused and reflected, and slunk away, and vanished,–she was wrong. Their reckless passion had carried them too far to stop–at least had carried some of them too far; for it is always the savage lads, with their love of cruel excitement, who head the riot–reckless to what bloodshed it may lead. A clog whizzed through the air. Margaret’s fascinated eyes watched its progress; it missed its aim, and she turned sick with affright, but changed not her position, only hid her face on Mr. Thornton s arm. Then she turned and spoke again:’

‘For God’s sake! do not damage your cause by this violence. You do not know what you are doing.’ She strove to make her words distinct.

A sharp pebble flew by her, grazing forehead and cheek, and drawing a blinding sheet of light before her eyes. She lay like one dead on Mr. Thornton’s shoulder.

Exciting stuff! In the reiterated imagery of storms and surging seas, and also in the emphasis on men driven beyond reason by hunger, ignorance, and powerlessness, you can hear echoes of Carlyle’s French Revolution. Margaret’s passionate and breathtakingly public intervention is charged with political and erotic energy, much of which is beyond her control–it seems nearly impossible for her to express her individual agency, to control the meaning of her own actions, so entangled do they inevitably become in other people’s assumptions (or what we might, if you’ll forgive a little jargon, call systems of signification). Of course everyone watching, not to mention Thornton himself, assumes that she is in love with him. As Dorothea Brooke will say about her own efforts to change the world, “How can one ever do anything nobly Christian, living among people with such petty thoughts?” (We will be reading Middlemarch later this term, and I hope we will make many such connections between these two women intensely struggling to answer the ultimate question of vocation–“What could she do, what ought she to do?”–in terms beyond those usually set for their sex, but without denying their own sexuality.)

In Victorian Sensations, we have begun with Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. This novel is enormous fun: intricately plotted, with Collins’s special trick of multiple narrators stringing us along as we puzzle our way through its various mysteries. Each time I read it I am surprised all over again at how subversive it is: its noblemen are ignoble bastards (sometimes literally); its women have moustaches (OK, just one of them) and its men lounge around on sofas (again, just one of them, but another wears flowered waistcoats and embroidered trousers while fondling his pet mice); characters aren’t who they say they are, or who they look like, to the point that they aren’t always sure who they actually are. Dickens famously called the first encounter with the ‘woman in white’ one of the two best moments in 19th-century literature, and it is a great moment, but surely just as thrilling is the reappearance of **** (sorry, no spoilers allowed) from literally beyond the grave. Why just be suspenseful if you can be funny about it at the same time? For this course we are reading four of the most (in)famous examples of Victorian ‘sensation’ fiction and then considering a range of critical questions about them, from their contemporary reception to current critical approaches, to the meta-question of how far (and for what purposes) they can be distinguished from their canonical cousins. Inevitably, the question of their literary merit will come up, which will give us an opportunity to discuss how we measure “literary merit” anyway. I think The Woman in White is awesome by pretty much any standard except philosophical–but who says intellectual or theoretical substance is any kind of necessity in a novel? Henry James thought George Eliot’s philosophical tendencies interfered with the quality of her novels. East Lynne raises, well, different issues, about which, more when we get there!

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