This Week in My Classes (November 17, 2009)

This is the point in the term when I look up from my daily class prep and the endless line-up of papers to mark and realize that (holy cow!) the end is in sight. Though there is always a bit of relief in the mix, the chief emotion this elicits is panic: so much left to do, so little time! And if I feel this way, imagine how the poor students feel, as they contemplate the term papers and exams they have to begin planning for even as we continue to expect them to show up keen and well-prepared for class. No wonder they look a bit worn. But we all have to press on: we are in books stepped in so far that to return (if we even could) would be, not just tedious, but regrettable…

In 19th-Century Fiction, we’ve pretty much run out of time for Middlemarch: I have one more lecture, in which I have all kinds of work to do concluding the particular web of connections I’ve been following–leaving all kinds of other tempting relevancies untouched. Having worked up a lecture on politics in the novel, now I’m regretting not having addressed religion directly, especially because a bright, curious student was in my office talking to me about plans for her assignment and returned to this a couple of times as something she’d like to spend more time on. It is certainly something I consider important in the novel, and I’ve written a bit about how I think the novel works to move us towards Eliot’s commitment to a secular morality (e.g. here and here). Next time perhaps I’ll spend less time on narrative strategies (but they are so interesting!) and conflicts between egotism and altruism (but they are so important!) and use a class to consider, not just the general idea that religion can be understood as a wholly human phenomenon, but also the specific examples of different religious attitudes we get, by way of Tyke, Farebrother, and Bulstrode, for instance. I also, as usual, feel that in focusing primarily on Dorothea and Casaubon, and Lydgate and Rosamond, I neglected Fred and Mary–especially Mary. By way of compensation, here’s a bit of the narrator’s description of her from Chapter 12:

Only a few children in Middlemarch looked blond by the side of Rosamond, and the slim figure displayed by her riding-habit had delicate undulations. In fact, most men in Middlemarch, eexcept her brothers, held that Miss Vincy was the best girl in the world, and some called her an angel. Mary Garth, on the contrary, had the aspect of an ordinary sinner: she was brown; her curly dark hair was rough and stubborn; her stature was low; and it would not be true to declare, in satisfactory antithesis, that she had all the virtues. Plainness has its peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability, or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase. At the age of two-and-twenty Mary had certainly not attained that perfect good sense and good principle which are usually recommended to the less fortunate girl, as if they were to be obtained in quantities ready mixed, with a flavor of resignation as required. Her shrewdness had a streak of satiric bitterness continually renewed and never carried utterly out of sight, except by a-strong current of gratitude towards those who, instead of telling her that she ought to be contented, did something to make-her so. Advancing womanhood had tempered her plainness, which was of a good human sort, such as the mothers of our race have very commonly worn in all latitudes under a more or less becoming headgear. Rembrandt would have painted her with pleasure, and would have made her broad features look out of the canvas with intelligent honesty. For honesty, truth-telling fairness, was Mary’s reigning virtue: she neither tried to create illusions, nor indulged in them for her own behoof, and when she was in a good mood she had humor enough in her to laugh at herself.

It’s a characteristically rich passage, bringing out not just Mary’s gift for looking realistically at herself and the world (a great moral advantage), but the portentous contrast between her and Rosamond, whose ability to indulge in illusions sets up one of the novel’s saddest failures. In the “intelligent honesty” with which Mary looks out of her canvas, we might see a truer reflection of George Eliot than in the well-known identification the novelist made of herself with the tiresomely pedantic Mr Casaubon.

In Victorian Sensations, we have begun our series of workshops intended to build on our experience of reading four key examples of sensation fiction by putting them into some specific contexts. On Friday we considered questions of genre and canonicity by grappling with comparisons between our novels and some specific novels more firmly situated in the list of ‘great books’ but which were in their day, and might still be now, seen as more alike than distinct from sensation fiction. In particular, I asked the students to think about Jane Eyre and Great Expectations and about the technique of intrusive narration (which, we have speculated a couple of times this term, is used by our sensation novelists with the aim of elevating their work by adding philosophical perspective). I was interested in how far we were prepared to say that there is, indeed, something different about the novels that carry the ‘sensation’ label. As might be expected, we didn’t settle the question, but I think it is valuable to consider why people care(d) about drawing distinctions of this kind. We did (partly at my prompting) spend time on the idea of literary merit as well. Yesterday we moved on to a selection of 19th-century critical responses; tomorrow and Friday we will be discussing a range of contemporary critical articles and books. The discussion yesterday seemed pretty stilted to me, and perhaps it was my fault for not structuring it more carefully or for allowing (even encouraging) it to range over a fairly wide range of issues. My feeling was that the students were not really accustomed to metacritical questions, such as what assumptions underly a particular approach to fiction or particular judgments. I think some things will come into better focus, though, as we compare what critics do today with what the Victorian reviewers did. A key distinction that always strikes me is how closely the 19th-century critics assume we are affected, personally, by what we read–no academic critic today is worried (at least, not overtly) about whether readers will be corrupted or learn bad moral lessons from sympathizing too closely with Fosco or Isabel Vane. As we began to discuss yesterday, there are some moralizing assumptions in some contemporary criticism when the focus is on class relations, for example, or gender politics, but I don’t think anyone is debating whether Lady Audley is a subversive or a misogynistic characterization because they think it will make a difference to how we actually live. Historical distance is part of this, but so too is an assumption about our relationship to the book–although, as we also touched on, perhaps audience matters a lot here. Academics aren’t worried on behalf of other academics, as there is a tacit assumption of our independence in the face of a novel’s blandishments or appeals to our senses or prejudices. There’s a bit of a different attitude, I think, when it comes to the ‘mass reading audience’–today, as in the 19th-century, there is an implicit (occasionally, perhaps, even today, an explicit one) that there are good readers and bad readers, and the bad readers are the ones vulnerable to false consciousness, bad ideology, etc. (I have noticed this attitude in relation to women’s reading especially, as if women will simply fall for the worst possible invitations to materialism or fairy-tale fantasies of romance etc. I’ve been thinking about this and related issues because of the recent Guardian post in defense of “chick-lit” and the subsequent thread at Bookninja…but more about that later, I hope, in a separate post.)

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