This Week In My Classes: Crime & Copperfield

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYWe’re barely a week into the term but already the sultry summer weather has mostly given way to the cooler crispness of fall. There will still be plenty of warm days well into October, but we won’t be able to take them for granted: they will have the golden haze of precious time stolen from looming winter. I am grateful, this year, for the change in seasons; the heat and humidity were oppressive this summer and the sense of being stifled and confined by the weather made my usual difficulties getting through the summer doldrums that much harder to deal with.

I’m happy, too, to be back in the classroom, partly just to have people around and things to talk about but also because both of this term’s courses begin with books I love. In Mystery and Detective Fiction, after quick stops on Thurber’s “The Macbeth Murder Mystery” (which is a great way to foreground some of the questions about genre expectations and reading strategies that we will address throughout the course) and Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” it is time for The Moonstone, which is one of my favourite novels to teach. It isn’t always universally popular, but over the years it has turned more than a few unsuspecting students on to Victorian fiction!


I’ll lead off the discussion tomorrow with some questions about the implications of the Prologue–among other things I like to make sure we notice, its juxtaposition with Betteredge’s self-satisfied view of England’s moral superiority helps us recognize the limits of his point of view, while its account of the theft of the diamond during the siege sets up key questions about eye-witness testimony, evidence, and interpretation. Then we’ll spend some time on Betteredge himself, the world and the family he represents and cherishes, and what he perceives as threats and intrusions. For Friday, when we’ve read further, we will turn our attention to the crime and the first phases of the investigation, with a lot of focus on who becomes a suspect, to whom, and why.

copperfieldIn 19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy we’ve had a couple of classes on David Copperfield already. I used the first session to give some general introductory remarks on Dickens and then on Copperfield–comments on the exuberant excesses of Dickens’s style, for instance, and how we might think of it as a deliberate or strategic response to the kinds of problems his fiction is typically about. What could be less utilitarian than the joyful abundance of character and incident in a novel like David Copperfield? And what could be better nourishment for our hearts and imaginations than its sentimentality, its humor, its pathos, and its metaphorical and symbolic richness?

There are a few things about the new term that are more depressing than exhilarating — the growing number of my colleagues who are retiring without being replaced, for instance, some of whom I will miss very much personally and all of whom represent significant losses to the depth of expertise and experience in the department. There are larger trends–in enrollment and in institutional and departmental priorities–that I find disheartening too. It is no doubt true that disciplines change for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons, but that is not really much consolation if the changes mean less and less attention and value to the things that drew me to this profession in the first place. Though of course I know how lucky I was to get a tenure-track position when they were already scarce (though not as vanishingly rare as they have become), I find these days that I am particularly conscious of its costs, which that very rarity makes difficult to calculate or admit to earlier on. Still, as long as one regular part of the job is showing up to have the best conversations I can with students about great Victorian novels, I will still have a reason to look forward to coming to work.

One thought on “This Week In My Classes: Crime & Copperfield

  1. The Novel Librarian September 12, 2018 / 8:54 am

    One of my favourite university memories will always be sitting in your Mystery & Detective Fiction class and as the weeks progressed, watch the ivy turn from a beautiful emerald green to vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges.


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