It’s a short week, because of the Thanksgiving holiday on Monday. I think I saw the effects of the long weekend–not good ones–in my 19th-century novels class, where the limp response to questions about Vanity Fair (except from a couple of stalwart contributors) suggested people hadn’t exactly spent it keeping up with the reading. It has been three years since I taught Vanity Fair (shocking!) and I’m not having as much fun with it as I’ve had before, and I also don’t get the impression that very many students are having fun with it. I feel as if I must be doing something wrong, though I’ve been too busy the past couple of weeks to get creative about possible fixes. The novel is massive as well as somewhat miscellaneous: I’ve been suggesting ways to manage the information overload by looking for parallels and patterns, themes and variations (on vanity, for instance) but maybe they are just feeling overwhelmed. Or maybe they are loving it and just not letting on. Will Vanity Fair join Waverley as a novel I just don’t want to teach because of the burden of resentment and disconnection it puts on the class? But what about the two or three students who do love it? And what about the fact that it is just one of the great Victorian novels? Why should I care if they don’t love it? I’m sure things will pick up when we get to Tenant of Wildfell Hall next week.
In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we have wrapped up our discussion of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and are heading into our first mid-term on Friday. Funny how the looming presence of an exam improves attendance and concentrates attention. I think the discussion of Ackroyd went well. I always try to provoke as much discussion as possible about the morality of a novel in which violent death is treated so casually. It’s almost comical, in fact, the way the characters mill around Ackroyd’s dead body checking whether windows are closed and so on, and then when Poirot blithely sits down in the very chair in which Ackroyd was killed. We spent some time on the issue of why the chair wasn’t too bloody for that to be a good idea sartorially, never mind morally, and that let us move into the issue of the detective’s necessary (or is it?) detachment, a scientific or clinical attitude we also saw in, for instance, our sample Dr Thorndyke story–and which is of course exemplified in Sherlock Holmes, who is described by Watson as a “thinking and reasoning machine.” We have also read “The Problem of Cell 13,” featuring The Thinking Machine himself. The value of detachment gets challenged by some of our later readings, including especially P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.
In the Victorian ‘Woman Question’ course, we are making our way through Aurora Leigh. It has been even longer than three years since I got to teach this strange, wonderful poem in its entirety. In our first session on it, I asked what background the students had in Victorian poetry, and the basic answer was none at all. That’s distressing! And it also means that some sections of the poem, like the central part in Book V about redefining the epic for modern times, lose a lot of their argumentative force. It would be nice to be able to refer to, say, Idylls of the King and know they have some idea what I’m talking about. Increasingly I regret that for various logistical reasons we simply can’t have specific prerequisites for what are supposed to be our most ‘advanced’ classes. It’s an issue that particularly irks me when I teach the seminar on sensation fiction: much of the interest of the genre and the course arises from the relationship of sensation novels to the Victorian ‘canon,’ but when Lady Audley’s Secret and East Lynne are the first Victorian novels someone is reading, it’s hard to have substantial discussion about why such novels were scandalous in their day and marginal in the field until very recently. On a still more basic level, my group was evasive about their background in scansion too, and we’re reading quite a bit of poetry this term–I can’t be expected to provide remedial instruction in poetic forms and versification for an honours seminar, surely! and yet how can we really talk about poetry without being able to talk about it as poetry? Aurora Leigh is particularly challenging in this regard because it is already a hybrid form, a verse-novel, so the temptation is strong to abstract the plot from the language and discuss characters, relationships, and social issues as if they don’t come to us in blank verse…but they do, and it matters that they do, not just because form always matters but because genre and poetic form are central issues of the poem itself and we can’t think well about how it reflects or advances its own aesthetic theories unless we care about it as poetry. Still, the discussion is going reasonably well, as far as it can go under the circumstances.
I could be one of your Woman Question students. I got all the way through my PhD without ever taking a class from someone who paid a lot of attention to the formal aspects of poetry. I picked up most of what I know from studying Latin (where scansion/meter matters a lot) and reading the back of the Norton Anthology. So when I teach Aurora Leigh (anthology excerpts in a survey course, often preceeded by a cluster of poems by women poets about women poets) I do exactly as you say: focus mostly on thematic issues. I really need to do more to rectify this deficiency in my education, because I know I’m just perpetuating it for my students. I guess what I’m saying is, your students are lucky to have you; I wish I’d had a prof interested in doing a little remediation in the upper levels.
We did a little “fun with scansion” work this morning–and working through some passages from Aurora Leigh it was really striking, first, how complicated and irregular her lines are, and second, how integrated scansion and interpretation really are, as you simply can’t decide where to put the emphasis in some lines without thinking about just what you think they mean (in a dramatic monologue, that means what they mean to the person speaking them, in particular). I think it was time well spent. It’s not always necessary to attend to the poetic details, but it’s good to be ready to notice them and talk about them when they are interesting.