This Week In My Classes: Novels and Novelty

SnowBirdLast week was our winter term study break, which is always a welcome interlude–more welcome even, I think, than the equivalent week off from classes in the fall because the winter term is grueling in ways the fall term is not, simply because it’s winter! Everything just takes more time and energy. We’ve been having a spell of unusually mild weather over the past few days and it has been so nice not to have any shoveling or scraping to do. There have even been days when it made perfect sense not to wear boots! Imagine that, in February. 🙂

But we’re back in class now, and from here to the end of term it will feel to all of as if we’re hurtling down hill. Why does the second half of term always seem to go by so much faster than the first? It’s not like we don’t still have a lot to get through! So: let’s take stock.

greatexpectationsIn British Literature After 1800 we have just finished a couple of weeks on Great Expectations. More than half the class chose to write their first paper on it, which may be a sign of engagement, though it might also be a sign that they don’t want to write on poetry, or that they realized they would like to get the paper out of the way before the later option. In terms of our class discussions, I think it was nice to park ourselves in one place for a while, as the course overall, just by its nature, moves quite briskly along through a range of quite different material. As I look ahead to the other long texts I chose for the course (Three Guineas and The Remains of the Day) I’m pleased at the thematic connections I can see opening up. From a pedagogical point of view, that means they pair up in interesting ways for the later assignments, which include a comparative essay. But they are also different enough in form and voice that our conversations won’t get repetitive.

three-guineasI’ve taught The Remains of the Day quite a few times, but before we get to it there’s quite a lot of material on the syllabus that I haven’t assigned often or at all before, starting on Friday with Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” (which is the first Kipling I’ve ever taught) and including Three Guineas. I have assigned A Room of One’s Own enough times to know some of the challenges of working through Woolf’s long winding arguments. With Room I have found it helpful to start by modeling very carefully how to follow her from one step to another, literally drawing a map of the associative connections from one idea to the next. Skimming is much more hazardous here than it is with Dickens, where you may well miss details or delights if you aren’t paying close attention but you are likely to catch on again eventually. With Room there are set pieces that are particularly good for close reading and discussion (the contrasting dinners in the opening, for instance, or the story of Shakespeare’s sister): I think there are similar exemplary moments in Three Guineas but I haven’t had a chance to test them out and see which ones catch on. Our sessions on it will thus be necessarily experimental, but I hope the students will find the book as brilliant and provocative as I do.

waverleyIn 19th-Century British Fiction from Austen to Dickens we have wrapped up our work on Waverley — and I have to say, it seemed to go pretty well! I allowed more class time for it than I have before, and I really dug in on the historical context early on, both of which I think helped, but credit definitely also goes to the students: they just didn’t seem to find it as difficult, or at least as off-putting, as the previous batch did, or if they did, they were more good-natured about it! There was not nearly the precipitous falling off in class discussion after Pride and Prejudice that I’d feared. Something else I’ve already noticed is Waverley (and Waverley) coming up in discussions of other readings (including of Great Expectations, as I have a number of students who are in both classes), which confirms my sense that whatever its challenges, it is a novel that sets the terms for a lot of what happens after it.

OUPTenantNext up in this class is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which we started on Monday. I have assigned this often in my seminar on the ‘woman question’ but I realized it has been nearly a decade since I worked through it in a lecture class instead. As always, I am enjoying rereading it. I think it is such a smart novel, especially in its complicated narrative and chronological structure. (Here’s my Open Letters Monthly essay laying out my ‘reading ‘ of it.) But it’s also very direct and emotionally engaging, making it a rather different experience than Waverley in ways that are both refreshing for us as a group and interesting for us as students of the 19th-century novel. One of the things I thought about a lot during my sabbatical last winter was whether it was time for me to slot Wuthering Heights into this course. I admit, I’m glad I didn’t. For one thing, I’ve got enough new stuff on my plate right at this moment in the term. But the key thing is that I can’t get past how unpleasant I find Wuthering Heights. If I had time to do two Brontë novels, I could do Tenant right after it, as a tonic and a corrective (which is, some critics think, something Anne herself intended it to be), but in a class with only 5 novels altogether, that’s not an option. Still, maybe next time. Or maybe not.

hardtimesAfter Tenant we will be doing Mary Barton and then wrapping up with Hard Times. We’ve already been asked to submit course descriptions and tentative reading lists for 2020-21, and one of the courses I’ll be doing is the Dickens to Hardy course. Dickens is the only novelist explicitly named in both course titles, and every so often I wish I didn’t feel obliged to include him on every reading list–or to include Hardy at all–so I asked this group if they’d feel cheated if they signed up for “The 19th-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy” and discovered they would not be reading either Dickens or Hardy. A bit to my surprise, most of them said an emphatic “Yes!” I guess those names have more traction than I realized. The problem for me is that I really (really) want to assign Middlemarch for the class, and I’m wary of including two monstrously long novels, which means once again I’d have to choose among the short(er) Dickens options, which are getting a bit stale for me. Or would I? Would it be so tough to read both Bleak House and Middlemarch in one term? What if I included two really short novels in between, to balance them out (The WardenCranford?) and then ended (as apparently I must) on Hardy? I have a couple of months to think about this before the actual book orders are due: I’ll run some scheduling scenarios and see what looks reasonable.

One thought on “This Week In My Classes: Novels and Novelty

  1. KeiraSoleore February 28, 2020 / 4:52 pm

    I would’ve loved to have listened in to your teaching of A Room. Its short form is deceptive–you think it’s a fast read but the complicated ideas she works through make it a tough read.

    I’m always a ‘yes’ vote for Cranford–it is sadly underrated. I really enjoyed The Warden, which I first listened to as an audiobook before I read it.

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