This Week in My Classes (October 26, 2009)

In Nineteenth-Century Fiction it’s (finally) time for Middlemarch. I’ve posted pretty often about teaching Middlemarch (see, for instance, here, here, and here), and you can hear me talk (fast) about it here, too, in an interview with fellow blogger and bibliophile Nigel Beale. For something just a bit different this time, I thought I’d post the PowerPoint slides I used for my introductory lecture today. The file conversion seems to have affected the layout and font color for the worse, but the slides illustrate my initial approach, which is to woo students into being interested in the novel by way of, as I say, “The Interesting Life of Mary Ann Evans.” In the spirit of one of her contemporaries, who regretted the way her husband John Cross’s biography took the “salt and spice” out of her “entirely unconventional life,” I show them just what a remarkable (and spicy) person she was–so that they will read the novel with more appreciation for the ways in which it, too, is “entirely unconventional.”

GE Slides

In Victorian Sensations, we’re starting up with Ellen Wood’s East Lynne, the last in the sequence of four primary texts for our course before we turn our attention to critical work (both 19th-century and current) and then to Fingersmith. When I’ve taught East Lynne before, I’ve found myself preoccupied with questions of literary evaluation (see here, for instance). For whatever reason–perhaps because I’ve just been over similar ground in working my way through Aurora Floyd–I’m less interested in that question at this point than I am in just thinking about the book on its own terms. What is it interested in? What is it up to? (I realize that it can sound odd to attribute agency to a novel, so another way of asking these questions would be by way of the novel’s implied author.’ I think the result is the same, though: you are trying to figure out how literary strategies and devices, from plot and character through setting, imagery, metaphor, theme, and so on, are being used to achieve effects or communicate ideas–aesthetic, political, or other.)

On this reading so far, East Lynne strikes me forcibly for its interest in money. It is almost as specific as a Jane Austen novel about the financial situation of its characters, especially the spendthrift earl who has somehow managed to burn through enough capital to have underwritten an income of L60,000 / year–at a time when, as the footnotes to our edition tell us, a middle-class family needed something like L300 / year for a comfortable life. Even accounting for inflation, that makes Mr Darcy look shabby, and yet Lord Mount Severn has not only spent it all, but left absolutely nothing for his angelically beautiful, sweet-eyed, if brunette, daughter Isabel. So pinched for cash is Isabel that after his sudden death she doesn’t even have enough to move to her new home, where she will be living on the charity of the new earl and his wife. The smitten lawyer Archibald Carlyle tries to help by dropping a crumpled L100 note on her lap as she drives away. The ambiguity of this gesture (is it romantic? chivalric? forward, even vaguely compromising?) nicely represents the complex interrelationships in the novel between emotions and economics. When he eventually proposes, it’s as much to save her from physical as well as financial vulnerability as anything, and in fact what he offers her, explicitly, is the chance to return to her former home as its mistress–that is, he offers her security, as well as his love (which we are led to believe is really a kind of infatuation–“Beware your senses, Mr. Carlyle,” the narrator warns). She admits she does not love him (she too is infatuated, with the handsome ne’er-do-well Francis Levison, who fortunately, or not, is not the marrying kind, as he is quick to warn her–we know he would feel differently, of course, if she still had her fortune). So she trades her self for his money, a transaction that in some contexts, in some novels, is shown up as little better than prostitution. We might even think of Austen’s Charlotte Lucas in this way (how much money would you consider reasonable in return for sleeping with Mr Collins?)–but both Austen and Wood are clearly pragmatists, refusing the most stringent moral judgment because they, and their novels, are so aware that their women simply can’t afford (literally) to be squeamish.

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