This Week In My Classes: Fictions of Development – Brontë, Dickens, and P. D. James

oxford jane eyreWe had our last class on Jane Eyre in 19th-Century Fiction on Monday. Reflecting on my own diminishing enthusiasm for the novel, I’ve been thinking that one of my problems is not only over-familiarity but also difficulty seeing the novel anymore — it just doesn’t rise fresh from the page anymore but comes trailing clouds of interpretation. Why is this any different from any other novels I assign? I’m not sure! But somehow Jane Eyre just feels blurry to me now rather than sharp and exhilarating. I’m not saying I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for it, especially during class discussion or while talking through essay ideas with students. And I’m certainly not saying I don’t think it’s a great and important novel. I just think it’s time to put it on hiatus from my syllabus for a bit. Maybe next time around I should take the plunge and assign Wuthering Heights instead. I’ve subbed in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a few times, and it is one of my very favourites to read and to teach, but I’ve never actually taught Wuthering Heights, mostly because I have never liked it. And really, what kind of excuse is that?

Next up for us in this class is David Copperfield. This is all going to be quite fresh, as I come into it with no stash of pre-existing teaching materials or lecture notes. I’ve been mapping out a tentative set of topics for each of our eight (eight!) class meetings but I also want to defer some planning until I see how discussion goes. Also, given the luxury of so many sessions (it takes time, after all, to read 855 pages) I want to use more class time for group discussion and perhaps some collaborative exercises, in addition to the usual mix of call-and-response ‘lecture’ time. Today I did lecture for most of the time, setting up some context for Dickens himself and also some frameworks I hope will be helpful as they read on. One thing I wanted to address up front, for example, was the question of “excess.” I quoted that bit by Nick Hornby about the current preoccupation with “spare” writing and made some suggestions about what ethos is served by an aesthetic of abundance, from a principle of social inclusivity to an anti-utilitarian joy in the sheer possibilities of language and story-telling.* I also usually start a big novel like this with some suggestions about information management: the idea that Dickens’s novels are often structured as a ‘theme and variations,’ for instance. Motifs that get started right away in David Copperfield include bad husbands and child wives, education, parenting, and childhood: on Monday we’ll have a less structured discussion just collecting lots of examples under some of these headings to get a preliminary sense of what pattern emerges, and we’ll spend time, too, just getting to know the people. I’ll probably leave careful discussion of David’s narration until a bit later, but we’ve worked on retrospective narration as an important feature of Jane Eyre, so we should be ready to think about its effects here too. Oh, how I hope they get some pleasure out of the novel! I urged them today to let themselves have fun with it, which means, among other things, making sure to manage their time well enough that they aren’t reading it in such a rush that its length is just frustrating.

unsuitableIn Mystery and Detective Fiction we are also working on a story about growing up, P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. One of the things I usually emphasize when teaching this novel is the extent to which James is self-consciously working less in the tradition of the sensation or crime novel than of the domestic realists of the 19th-century. She cites Austen in particular as an influence, along with Trollope and George Eliot. Her interest in moral questions is really clear in this novel, which is one of the darkest in this course — not because the crime is necessarily the most violent (though I wonder how exactly we would measure that!) but because, as Cordelia reflects, it comes from something “stronger than wickedness, cruelty or expedience. Evil.” “Evil” is a strong word, and a powerfully moral one. It also has theological connotations, but it’s a strictly, and shockingly, human form of evil that plans and executes Mark Callender’s horrible death. Monday, when everyone should have read to the end, we’ll focus on the confrontation between Cordelia and the murderer, which continues a very Victorian theme of love countering calculation — the language of the killer is explicitly utilitarian, though in the narrowest sense of that philosophy. We’ve been talking about Cordelia’s youth and what will be required for her to grow up into a successful private investigator: will she have to outgrow things like compassion, give up getting personally involved, in order to become professional? Does a P.I. have to be tough? I find James’s exploration of this problem (an ongoing one for female private investigators especially) subtle and interesting. Unsuitable Job is one of my favourite books on the class list — but it is typically the least popular one (well, next to The Moonstone) on class evaluations. I might swap it out next year for something new, not because I don’t think it works well in the course but because of all the books assigned it’s probably the least integral to the overall history of the genre we trace out over the term. If I took it out, maybe I could also take out Knots and Crosses and then replace the two together with a longer, more complex Rebus novel. On the other hand, there is a strong preference among students in this class for shorter books, so that might be risky. (Why am I already thinking about next year? Because we’ve already had to work out our offerings, which means the call for class descriptions and at least tentative reading lists can’t be far away.)

*As an aside, I asked if they had heard of Nick Hornby and they didn’t recognize him at all until I linked his name to a couple of film adaptations of his books. I seem to draw blanks all the time now when I try to make connections from our readings to other books — in class but also one on one with students. This has me wondering, since a lot of my references are not (I don’t think) to particularly obscure writers: what are they reading? Perhaps (as they often say) they don’t have time to read outside of class, but I don’t get the impression that they are much engaged with books in kind of a general way, or with the ‘book world’ reflected through reviews or prizes — much less blogs. This is only a very cursory impression, of course, but it has me thinking about how we could do more as a department to connect what we do with what goes on with books elsewhere, which is of course the ongoing motivation of this blog!

8 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: Fictions of Development – Brontë, Dickens, and P. D. James

  1. Susan in TX October 25, 2013 / 6:57 pm

    Love David Copperfield! I hope that your students do as you suggested and manage their time well so that they can enjoy it. I haven’t read much PD James, but you have piqued my interest. Your very last thought is the one that got my attention the most, though. My oldest is in the process of applying to college and one of the emails she received was about a “meet the professors” program for incoming freshman. I saved the link because I thought it was such a cool idea (and for the book list!). This may be a common practice now around universities, but I hadn’t heard of it, and as a student I would have loved it. Of course something like an informal professor/student book club would be interesting to me, but I would think hard to pull off with both students and professors being so busy during the semester. Perhaps instead of having an assigned book, a meeting where people just gathered to talk about what they’d read in the last month or two would work better? It could fuel interest in reading, increase awareness of titles/authors students may not have heard about (whether old or current), and provide another outlet for communication between students/professors. Maybe gathering at a local bookstore, coffee shop, etc. (I just had an image of the Inklings of Oxford pass through my head. 🙂 ) Don’t know how appealing this would be to students, though? Might have to bribe them with some extra credit or something to get them started. Best to you in your pursuit! Have a great weekend. Here’s the link if you are interested:


    • Rohan Maitzen October 27, 2013 / 4:58 pm

      Susan, those are very interesting suggestions and programs. My university has done a “one book for everyone” program a couple of times — honestly, I can’t remember if it was run again this year, which shows how connected it was to the English Department. I think one problem is that those who choose the books for things like this often choose on the basis of “social relevance” — as if the only way to talk about a book is in those terms (witness the current incarnation of the program Canada Reads. I like the idea of something looser and more informal, just a kind of literary salon — but as you say, people are so busy, who would show up? Imagine a first-year English class with no assigned reading but people working on whatever they chose outside of class … but I don’t think I would like to give up that much control. Hmm. Much to think about.


  2. Amateur Reader (Tom) October 26, 2013 / 10:35 pm

    Now that you have read The Good Soldier, you are better prepared for Wuthering Heights.

    Your Nick Hornby poll result surprised me, but then it occurred to me that High Fidelity (the novel) is only a year or two younger than many of your students.


    • Rohan Maitzen October 27, 2013 / 5:03 pm

      Tom, are you trying to discourage me about Wuthering Heights?! But I do think it’s mentally and pedagogically good to work with books I instinctively dislike. Hey, maybe that means I should actually assign The Good Soldier. Oh wait: I don’t teach 20thC fiction — whew.

      As for Hornby, you’re right that he’s not exactly current, I suppose (though he’s not that old!). I often bring up different writers from different genres and different periods; what I may be missing is that this generation of students is (perhaps, generally, with exceptions, etc.) more likely to still be reading YA fiction than exploring the latest Booker Prize nominees, or even other less-hoity-toity ‘adult’ fiction. The whole idea of “New Adult” fiction suggests this is a direction that is going to be codified by marketers and publishers as adolescence stretches out longer and longer …


  3. Dorian Stuber October 28, 2013 / 10:32 pm

    The school where I teach is full of smart, engaging students. Our majors love to talk about the books they are reading for class. But they don’t read anything that’s not assigned to them, as best I can tell. It just doesn’t seem to register as something they might want to do.


    • Rohan Maitzen October 29, 2013 / 11:01 am

      I think it’s a lot to expect that students with a full slate of English courses be doing much extra-curricular reading, but I am curious what they read when they do have a chance. And I think it would be interesting to conceive of a course that deliberately tried to draw in material from the world of current book publishing and reviewing. It may well be that my colleagues who teach contemporary courses do this already, and I do a bit of it in the mystery class. I think the Canadianists probably attend closely to new publications in their area. It’s hard to do in Victorian because our priority has to be getting to know texts from the period — which takes plenty of time, as my students would attest.


  4. Ed October 29, 2013 / 11:48 pm

    I love David Copperfield and I do not love Wuthering Heights. It might be related to the fact that the latter was assigned reading at school and the former was not, but there are other books I read at school which I love. Wuthering Heights seems to be a hard book to be objective about, and I think Amateur Reader has mentioned that in his blog.


  5. Amateur Reader (Tom) October 30, 2013 / 10:41 am

    Wuthering Heights is for some reason the ideal reader response example. People respond to it not just differently but strongly and stubbornly.

    Actually, I know the reason. It has a very strong flavor and is unstable by design.


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