This is actually the third week of my winter term sabbatical — which is why you haven’t seen any recent posts in my series on ‘This Week In My Classes‘! Classroom time is hands-down my favorite part of my job, and yet I look forward to and cherish this teaching-free time. Paradoxical? Not really, because classroom time is only part of what goes along with a teaching term, and that time, too, is prepared for and paid for by a lot of work only some of which is as fun as taking an hour to talk about Villette or The Big Sleep with a keen (and captive!) audience. Sabbaticals also mean a reprieve from administrative duties and meetings, and as this aspect of work was particularly stressful last term, I feel particularly relieved to detach myself from the attendant anxiety and fretfulness. Sure, the problems remain, but my colleagues will do fine working on them without me for a little while.
I wrote already about some of my plans and hopes for this term. What can I report, this short distance in? Well, for one thing, I got off to a slow start because I had a really bad cold the first week of January. If I’d been teaching, I wouldn’t have been sick enough to take any time off, so it felt nicely self-indulgent to let myself be unwell for a few days and treat my symptoms with rest, tea, and books.
However, because I had signed up for A Meeting With Your Writing, I did go in to work that Monday, because I was determined to at least get started on my main sabbatical project — and I did, enough that I felt a rush of enthusiasm for it and set myself up so that I could pick it up again pretty smoothly last Monday, which was the start of a much more productive writing week overall. Besides doing more of the start-up work for the George Eliot book, I actually finished a review I have been thinking about since I got the book back in October: I had promised the review for early January at the latest, and it felt good to get it done. The book in question was Detecting Canada: Essays on Canadian Crime Fiction, Television, and Film, and the review will appear at some point in Belphégor. I learned a lot from the book, and it yielded a long list of potential texts for my Detective Fiction class, where I have always been a bit shamefacedly aware that I include no CanCon beyond one Peter Robinson short story that was in an anthology I used for a couple of years — and as Detecting Canada made me almost too aware, Robinson may or may not count as CanCon since he’s not from Canada and doesn’t set his books in Canada. (You’ll have to wait for my review to find out what I think about parsing his or anyone’s literary identity in that way!)
My work on the book project has so far been mostly of the collecting and contemplating sort: after choosing which chapter topic I wanted to start with, I began clipping relevant excerpts and commenting on them in a more or less open-ended, open-minded fashion, letting patterns and connections and ideas for arguments emerge without trying too hard to shape them into anything. I love doing this, because it’s an excuse to revisit so many wonderful moments in the novels. (Rereading “Janet’s Repentance” was part of this preliminary work.) I have a lot of material gathered up now, though, and I think I’m at the point where I have to do some organizing and then some more focused writing. I’m working to hold at bay two sources of anxiety and thus writer’s block: first, that this larger project feels a lot messier (so far) and more amorphous than the nice discrete tasks I’ve been doing (book reviews and single-title essays), and second, that I know perfectly well it’s a kind of Quixotic project, neither academic nor popular, in a genre with no market potential unless you bring a certain degree of celebrity to it. I know the former anxiety will abate as I keep working, but right now I do get a bit mentally dizzy if I look up from the specific thing I’ve chosen to do. I’m lucky that I don’t have to care about the latter issue, and I don’t want to care, but I follow too many authors, publishers, and reviewers not to be a bit sensitive about doing so much “ardent labor all in vain.” But you have to write what you have in you and what you care about, and when I shut up that particular gremlin (as Jo is teaching me to think of him!), I feel pretty happy, actually, to be able to give it a try.
The absence of mandatory course reading has also helped me get some good reading and blogging done; I’ve been doing editing for Open Letters; and I’ve done some reference letters and some make-up work from last term as well. I’m meeting regularly with one of our Ph.D. students who is reading for her comprehensive exams — that makes up a bit for the lack of classroom time, since it’s a nice opportunity to talk over a whole range of great 19th-century material. Later this week I am participating in a Twitter chat with Karen Bourrier‘s graduate seminar, and a bit further into the term I’m holding another session on blogging and social media for our own graduate students. In other words, I may not be teaching but I’m definitely keeping busy, in ways that feel like a refreshing change from what was feeling last term like a pretty tired and unsatisfying routine. That kind of renewal is a big part of what sabbaticals are for, and I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity. I definitely want to make the most of it.
Hi Dr. Maitzen,
First, thanks for your work. I discovered it after reading GWTW, looking for reasons why that novel is still so popular. Reading Pat Conroy’s preface to the new edition made my hair stand on end. Books live, are the experience of living, and as such are great teachers. That people who don’t read other books (except the Bible) still embrace Scarlet’s tale is troubling. Reading your recent take on the novel echoed my deepest feelings.
Still– what is it that makes GWTW so “compulsively readable”? Google the term and you find some quarter million links attributing the novel with that quality. But, of course, it’s the question to ask about novels in general, isn’t it?
Enjoy your sabbatical. Upward and onward with (beloved) Middlemarch!
Thanks for your comment, Deborah! I still find GWTW “readable” in the “what’s happening next to these people?” way — and I already know! I think Mitchell is a good story teller, and her characters have a wonderful roundness and complexity. But good writing can be put to bad ends, and I guess you and I agree that the book is at the very least deeply compromised by its politics. That doesn’t mean it should be banned or censored, but I agree that it’s nerve-wracking that so many people still seem to read it so uncritically. If you read through the comments on my essay you’ll know that people sure get their backs up about it. I think it’s our responsibility as readers to be as fully aware as possible about what we are reading, and then to live with the results. I have ambivalent feelings about some aspects of a lot of books I get a lot of pleasure from — Dickens’s women drive me crazy, for instance, but I still love reading David Copperfield! There are even (heresy, I know) a few things about Middlemarch that give me pause (I look at them in the essay I wrote in Open Letters on that novel) — but there’s still no novel I admire more.
That responsibility of reading. I so often find myself running to look things up, the internet a gift and curse. Novels, good ones, keep you with them, become part of you. The artist really does live on in the work. All trite and obvious to say, but what is more uniquely human?
I keep thinking of the way GWTW speaks to the now, in the same way Middlemarch spoke to its own and intervening times. Both are commentaries of reactions to past civil wars, the way those events still shape the present. Equality, religion, gender. The very earth. All these dialogues we need to keep having, bubbles we need to break. I’d love an online group read of them, something like the “real time” reading of Clarissa. Readers from all regions all on the same page, looking back at the history, the shaping of law, attitudes, cognitive filters. Internet. The ultimate ethereal university. (I know, I know; so many books, so little time.)
Rohan, I wasn’t aware of your essay on Middlemarch before you mentioned it here, so I looked it up yesterday. It is a superb piece to read after a first reading of the novel. I was glad to have read Middlemarch a few years ago and felt that I got some rewards from it, but I wasn’t planning on ever re-reading it. After reading lots of Dickens, much Gissing, some Trollope and Stevenson, and other Victorian writers, I thought I had an idea of what to expect from Eliot, but her style was far thornier and less engaging than I expected. Your essay helped me to understand the reasons for that style and to get a lot more out of what I remember of the book. Now I am actually contemplating a second reading, looking to better integrate what seemed to me so many separate stories on my first reading. Is there anything you would recommend on the historical context of the period in which Eliot set her novel? I have to admit I never understood why she set the story at that time rather than making it more contemporary (as opposed to GWTW where the reason for the particular historical setting is all too obvious).
I’m so glad you found the essay so valuable, Bill. It’s one of the things I’ve written for OLM that I am most proud of! Her style is definitely a bit more distancing than Dickens or Trollope — but I have certainly come to love it. She can be much funnier, too, than is often immediately apparent; her wit is actually quite acerbic. I think you might really love it on a second reading. For one thing, you’d already know all the stories, so you’d be able to think about how they combine, instead of just trying to keep track of them (an effort that isn’t helped by the way she plays with chronology).
I think the historical setting really mattered to her because of her interest in political and social reform. She’s always thinking about whether or how things get better or worse, and how our actions and institutions help (or don’t). I wrote a very brief bit on the context of the Reform Bill at the Middlemarch for Book Clubs site I built, and in it I also recommend what I consider some really useful essays about her use of history and politics.
I would love to see what you teach in Detective Fiction. I’m doing French Detective Fiction this spring for the first time and am looking forward to it hugely.
Jenny, I’d be happy to email you my most recent syllabus if you want. It’s very Anglo-American (with one Swedish exception right now). I spend a lot of time at the beginning of the course talking about the boundaries (not just national but also genre) that govern it — and how they are arbitrary but necessary! Email me if you’d like it: rmaitzen at gmail dot com