Saved by the Inimitable!

Judging from a few recent blog posts and twitter updates I’ve seen, a lot of us have fallen into reading slumps lately. I blame my own partly on a phase of duty reading: I was sampling books with an eye to assigning them for a course, which means a lot of them were books I would probably not have picked up otherwise, and while that can lead to some exciting discoveries, it can also just be frustrating, which is what I was finding. As a result I was putting down a lot of books unfinished, which always makes me feel a bit shabby. I have had some fun with a couple of lighter books, including Cotillion, but I’ve been hoping for a book to exhilarate and challenge me the way, say, The Once and Future KingThe Paper Garden, or the Patrick Melrose novels did last summer, and this summer seems to have been light on that kind of reading. I thought May Sarton’s The Magnificent Spinster might be the magic bullet, but I’m about half way through and frankly, it’s kind of dull and prosy so far.

copperfieldWhat a fool I’ve been. It turns out that the solution was right there next to my reading chair all this time: the handsome Oxford World’s Classics edition of David Copperfield I’ve ordered for my fall class on the 19th-century novel. This too is duty reading — or, properly, rereading, as of course I haven’t made it this far without having read it before (including out loud to my husband, years ago when this was the kind of thing we did). But I haven’t read it in a long time, and I’ve also never actually assigned it for a course. My go-to teaching Dickens has been Great Expectations (it’s very good, after all, plus it’s short, for Dickens), with Hard Times a frequent alternate and Bleak House a favorite in terms when I’m not also assigning Middlemarch. Oh, and once or twice, A Tale of Two Cities. But I finally felt kind of tired of Great Expectations, and I did Bleak House last term, and it seemed like a good time to mix things up a little, so I put David Copperfield on the book list for next term and on my summer reading list so I could get started on my class prep. It’s been sitting there looking reproachfully at me for weeks (I mean, look at that cover — it practically screams “you’re not doing your duty!”) and I’ve puttered away at it a little, but only yesterday did I put everything else aside and just read it for a few hours — and I feel all my reading mojo coming back.

I’ve never been personally passionate about Dickens the way I am about George Eliot. If for some strange reason I had to choose between them, no question: she gets my vote. But happily, as I’ve said before, literary greatness is not a zero-sum game, and it’s also not something for which there are or need to be common measures or standards. (There are also people who don’t think either of these writers is great — and while I feel kind of sorry for those people, I’m sure they are perfectly happy with their Proust or their Henry James or their Virginia Woolf or their precious Jane Austen, and we’ll just leave them be.) For me personally, Dickens is fabulous precisely for all the things he does that aren’t what Eliot does, and that’s the magic of it all. Dickens is fantastic at being Dickens, and if you get caught up in that Dickensian spirit (which, I know, not everybody does) it’s sheer delight. And sheer horror. And sheer pathos. And … well, you get the point — his is not a particularly subtle world, but gosh, it’s such a lot of fun.

That’s what I’m recovering with the help of David Copperfield: the sense that reading is about how fun it all can be. Even if you aren’t a Dickens-lover, I think you have to admit that his books radiate delight in words and stories and imagination. Their excess is not a mistake: it’s the point. As Nick Hornby says, these days we seem to take it as given that “spare is good,” but why?

Where would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes? Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where.

What a loss that would be! Not a loss to the tautness of the storyline or the unity of the themes, but if that’s what you’re reading Dickens for, you need a little re-education. (OK, yes, I don’t want to underestimate the unity of his themes, but brilliantly coherent as they can be, both conceptually and aesthetically, still, I think we all get the point long before we’re done with the novels.) Hornby’s example is a great one: “Dickens being Dickens, he finds a bit part for a real rogue of a secondhand clothes merchant, a really scary guy who smells of rum and who shouts things like ‘Oh, my lungs and liver’ and ‘Goroo!’ a lot.”

One thing I’d forgotten is just how laugh-out-loud funny David Copperfield is. I cherish Eliot’s humor, but my marginalia in Middlemarch, though it frequently includes little smiley faces, rarely says “LOL.” There are a few really funny bits in Great Expectations (Joe’s hat on the chimney piece  being one) — none, though, in Hard Times. Aunt Betsy and the donkeys, though? Hilarious! Barkis’s courtship of Peggotty? Spit-take warning: not safe for e-readers! Mr. Dick and Charles the First — irresistible.


(illustration by ‘Phiz,’ scanned by Philip Allingham)

And in contrast, while I hadn’t forgotten how pathetic David’s early childhood is, I hadn’t read about it since I had children of my own, and his loneliness and abandonment and desperate yearning for love hit me really hard this time:

I was not actively ill-used. I was not beaten, or starved; but the wrong that was done to me had no intervals of relenting, and was done in a systematic, passionless manner. Day after day, week after week, month after month, I was coldly neglected. I wonder sometimes, when I think of it, what they would have done if I had been taken with an illness; whether I should have lain down in my lonely room, and languished through it in my usual solitary way, or whether anybody would have helped me out.

And the suspense! Dickens loves his foreshadowing, and it’s pretty heavy-handed, but the mounting sense of dread is still wonderfully effective:

 ‘I’m not afraid in this way,’ said little Em’ly. ‘But I wake when it blows, and tremble to think of Uncle Dan and Ham and believe I hear ’em crying out for help. That’s why I should like so much to be a lady. But I’m not afraid in this way. Not a bit. Look here!’

    She started from my side, and ran along a jagged timber which protruded from the place we stood upon, and overhung the deep water at some height, without the least defence. The incident is so impressed on my remembrance, that if I were a draughtsman I could draw its form here, I dare say, accurately as it was that day, and little Em’ly springing forward to her destruction (as it appeared to me), with a look that I have never forgotten, directed far out to sea.

    The light, bold, fluttering little figure turned and came back safe to me, and I soon laughed at my fears, and at the cry I had uttered; fruitlessly in any case, for there was no one near. But there have been times since, in my manhood, many times there have been, when I have thought, Is it possible, among the possibilities of hidden things, that in the sudden rashness of the child and her wild look so far off, there was any merciful attraction of her into danger, any tempting her towards him permitted on the part of her dead father, that her life might have a chance of ending that day? There has been a time since when I have wondered whether, if the life before her could have been revealed to me at a glance, and so revealed as that a child could fully comprehend it, and if her preservation could have depended on a motion of my hand, I ought to have held it up to save her. There has been a time since-I do not say it lasted long, but it has been-when I have asked myself the question, would it have been better for little Em’ly to have had the waters close above her head that morning in my sight; and when I have answered Yes, it would have been.

    This may be premature. I have set it down too soon, perhaps. But let it stand.

And the betrayal, all the more devastating because we, like David, have been warned:

I was up with the dull dawn, and, having dressed as quietly as I could, looked into his room. He was fast asleep; lying, easily, with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school.

 The time came in its season, and that was very soon, when I almost wondered that nothing troubled his repose, as I looked at him. But he slept-let me think of him so again-as I had often seen him sleep at school; and thus, in this silent hour, I left him.

 -Never more, oh God forgive you, Steerforth! to touch that passive hand in love and friendship. Never, never more!

Looking at these excerpts, I can readily see why (to paraphrase Miss Jean Brodie) people who don’t like this sort of thing don’t like this sort of thing. It’s too much! It’s sentimental, and manipulative, and he uses exclamation points! But I’m loving it. What a relief! Like David, I am once again “reading as if for life.”

From the Archives: The Last Time I Taught Bleak House…

bleakhouseoupFor some reason this phrase has been running through my head to the tune of “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” I don’t know why I would be feeling nostalgic about teaching Bleak House, though it was rather a while ago–it was Fall 2008, to be precise. Because we’ve started work on it in my 19th-century fiction class this week, I’ve been reviewing old notes and also old blog posts, which prove (among other things) to be a valuable archive. Because (so far at least) my ideas about the novel haven’t really changed in the meantime, and because a lot of people who might stop by and read this post almost certainly never read my earlier ones, I thought I’d repost a couple of them, starting with this one about the beginning of the novel and the beginning of my class discussions of it.

From the Novel Readings Archives: Fog. Mud. Smoke. Soot. Gas. Fog.

Bleak House Shadows (Phiz)

No, that’s not today’s prediction from Environment Canada (though there is something implacable about today’s weather, even if it’s not yet November). This week in one of my classes, it’s time for Bleak House–by comparison with which, nothing else I’m doing at work really matters. The introduction to our Oxford World’s Classics edition remarks that the opening ‘set piece’ is ‘too famous to need quotation.’ Well, I don’t know about that, especially because I consider it an aesthetic accomplishment self-sufficient enough to render critical commentary not just redundant, but irritating. Here are the first four paragraphs, then (three of them composed entirely, it’s worth noting, of sentence fragments).

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time–as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Sure, there’s plenty to be remarked about this passage, beginning with its literary virtuosity and metaphoric ingenuity. Dinosaurs and compound interest? Snowflakes in mourning? ‘Fog’ used 13 times in one paragraph? Gas that’s ‘haggard and unwilling’? I’m reduced to the exclamatory mode some critics objected to in James Wood’s How Fiction Works: “What a piece of writing that is!” It puts to shame other writers called ‘Dickensian’ for no apparent reason except that they write multiplot novels with quirky characters and lots of emotion. There’s also its extraordinary efficiency at launching both governing ideas and dominant images of the vast novel it introduces; fog, mud, and infection order the thinking of Bleak House as much as webs do the same for Middlemarch. But really, the point of this passage is just to read it, to experience it, and then to carry the impression of it with you as you read on. (Is this response ‘aesthetic’? I’m not sure, or at least I’m not sure I could separate my admiration for the literary features of this passage from my sense of its ethics–or, better, its ethos.)

Today I’ll give a brief introduction to Dickens and some context for the first publication of Bleak House. Then my chief concern is to help my students find some reading (and note-taking) strategies to make their experience of the novel rewarding, which means helping them organize the mass of material (and the array of characters) they will be rapidly confronted with. We’ll do some ‘getting to know you’ work first of all: who do we meet in each of the first few chapters, and how are they connected? I’ll encourage them to keep a list of characters in each plot or location and to draw lines between them as relationships are discovered. They will have a chaotic criss-cross of lines before too long, which of course is the point–everything and everyone is connected, as Dickens challenges us to realize with his disingenous questions in Chapter 16:

What connexion can there be, between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of sunshine on him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!

My other main strategy is to get them thinking in terms of themes and variations. Today, for instance, we’ll look at how many ways the idea of housekeeping is refracted across the different story lines. Finally (though this is certainly not my last priority) I will try to convey, and make contagious, my enthusiasm for Dickens’s language in the novel, and to get them thinking about how his literary strategies (including the kinds of wild metaphors we get in the first few paragraphs) are important to his conception of the ‘condition of England question,’ and to his answer to it.

[originally posted October 27, 2008]

This Week in My Classes: Fun with Fiction

In Close Reading we have finished our poetry unit (yay, say the students–no more scansion!) and been working on short stories. The basic idea is the same: our focus is on paying attention to the various ‘technical’ elements in them, to see how they work to support the effects and ideas of the stories overall. The process of picking out individual elements often feels somewhat artificial, but there’s also a useful discipline in it. Often, we work backwards from a general impression, of a character or scene, for instance, to figuring out how we got that impression. So far we’ve talked about point of view, narration, characterization, and setting. Because one of the guiding principles of the course is that it provides portable knowledge and skills, I’m having some fun bringing in illustrative examples from all kinds of books in addition to our officially ‘assigned’ reading. Here are some of the excerpts we considered as examples of different approaches to characterization:

Dorothea knew many passages of Pascal’s Pensées and of Jeremy Taylor by heart; and to her the destinies of mankind, seen by the light of Christianity, made the solicitudes of feminine fashion appear an occupation for Bedlam. She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life involving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in gimp and artificial protrusions of drapery. Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there; she was enamoured of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it.

He belonged to that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue. But the Michael Beard of this time was a man of narrowed mental condition, anhedonic, monothematic, stricken.

Macon wore a formal summer suit, his traveling suit—much more logical for traveling than jeans, he always said. Jeans had those hard, stiff seams and those rivets. Sarah wore a strapless terry beach dress. They might have been returning from two entirely different trips. Sarah had a tan but Macon didn’t. He was a tall, pale, gray-eyed man, with straight fair hair cut close to his head, and his skin was that thin kind that easily burns. He’d kept away from the sun during the middle part of every day.

 He had a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analyzing it; and as regards this young lady’s face he made several observations. It was not at all insipid, but it was not exactly expressive; and though it was eminently delicate, Winterbourne mentally accused it – very forgivingly – of a want of finish. He thought it very possible that Master Randolph’s sister was a coquette; he was sure she had a spirit of her own; but in her bright, sweet, superficial little visage there was no mockery, no irony.

Dear Joan,

 I do hope I know you well enough to say this.

 I think you ought to forget about your leg. I believe that it is something psychological, psychosomatic, and it is very hard on Charles. It is bringing both him and you into ridicule and spoiling your lives.

 Do make a big try. Won’t you! Forget about your bodily aches and pains. Life is a wonderful thing, Joan. I have discovered this great fact in my work with the Dying.

 Your sincere friend,

   Eliza (Peabody)

We were talking about the role of description or exposition, speech (including thought) and action, external points of view, and what I called ‘accessories’–all the things on or around a character that help communicate who they are, from literal accessories to homes or occupations or hobbies or what books they are reading in a scene. I quoted David Lodge’s remark, from The Art of Fiction, that “all description in fiction is highly selective; its basic rhetorical technique is synecdoche, the part standing in for the whole”: that seems to me a helpful principle to keep in mind. It was interesting how much information we could glean from these small pieces, especially as nobody in the class had actually read any of the novels I took them from. I think (I hope!) they could see the point of the exercise, which was to help us realize how we know what we (think we) know when we’re reading along. Working on fiction in this way you always have to resist their tendency to get caught up in the plot, so using examples out of context, which might seem perverse in other contexts, is actually helpful in this particular course.

In Victorian Fiction we are nearly done with Great Expectations–already! One of the things I like to think about with this novel is the development of young Pip into the Pip who is morally capable of narrating the novel. One of the most moving chapters in the novel for me is Chapter 44, in which Pip first confronts Miss Havisham and Estella with his new knowledge of the real identity of his benefactor. He hasn’t yet moved all the way from confusion to compassion, but already he is working to make something right out of the wrongs he–and they–have done in pursuing their false ideas, and to restore some sense of love and forgiveness to their devastated lives. “You will get me out of your thoughts in a week,” says Estella as Pip, overcome with grief and horror, begs her not to throw herself away on the malignant Bentley Drummle. Pip’s response moves not only us, but also, against all expectation, Miss Havisham:

`Out of my thoughts! You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since — on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!’

In what of unhappiness I got these broken words out of myself, I don’t know. The rhapsody welled up within me, like blood from an inward wound, and gushed out. I held her hand to my lips some lingering moments, and so I left her. But ever afterwards, I remembered — and soon afterwards with stronger reason — that while Estella looked at me merely with incredulous wonder, the spectral figure of Miss Havisham, her hand still covering her heart, seemed all resolved into a ghastly stare of pity and remorse.

That ability to touch someone’s heart is fundamental to Dickens’s fiction, isn’t it? This moment makes an interesting comparison to the climactic encounter between Dorothea and Rosamond in Middlemarch, which also turns on an encounter with someone else’s ‘center of self’ and on the morally inspirational effect of generosity…and yet the scenes are arrived at so differently and belong in other ways to such different worlds.

This Week in My Classes: The Morals and the Stories

Though everyone is looking a bit peaked around the department these days–students and faculty alike–and I’m certainly feeling the usual pressures as we move into the term’s final phase, I am also finding myself intellectually invigorated by the novels we’re working through in all of my classes. It is just such a pleasure to be spending time reading and thinking about them, even under less than optimal conditions.

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ we are finishing up The Mill on the Floss. Although I love the early volumes of this novel, with their evocative (if also rather vexed) representation of childhood, and their wonderful blend of sly humor and philosophical reflection (not to mention, of course, the brilliant characterizations of Tom and Maggie and their whole mish-mash of a family life), Books VI and VII really get me excited. I know they are disproportionately short, and who wouldn’t love it if Eliot had written out the great conflict between duty and desire more fully–but then, there’s something apt, too, about the headlong rush to the ending. Though we had read only to the kiss on the arm for today, it was clear from our discussion that the students both grasp the complexity of Maggie’s situation and are interested in it: there aren’t easy answers, the way there are in Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for instance. Brontë’s narrative is complex in other ways, but that there is a right way out of Helen’s difficulties is far less difficult to grasp, just as it is easier to see where she went wrong in the first place. Her attraction to Arthur Huntingdon, while understandable, is a sign of her moral immaturity. Maggie’s attraction to Stephen Guest, on the other hand, while equally misguided in its own way, is a symptom of something much deeper and much further from her control. I was struck on this reading with how much Eliot emphasizes that Maggie and Stephen are initially motivated by unconscious forces, feeling as if “in a dream,” unable to recognize or articulate the “laws of attraction” that compel them. Their drifting down the river is hardly a deliberate act, or at least its impelling motives are hardly clear to them–which of course is much of the use Eliot is making of the metaphorical pattern of rivers and water and currents and drifting right to the end of the book. Once Maggie wakes up, though, into full consciousness, then sexual attraction ceases to be an accidental cause and becomes a force to be reckoned with, and that reckoning is the process of morality–the engagement of human reason in “the labor of choice.” Though it’s possible (I reluctantly suppose!) to find something mechanical in Maggie and Stephen’s impassioned debate, I find it very moving precisely because it represents that struggle to think through feeling to right action:

Maggie trembled. She felt that the parting could not be effected suddenly. She must rely on a slower appeal to Stephen’s better self – she must be prepared for a harder task than that of rushing away while resolution was fresh. She sat down. Stephen, watching her with that look of desperation which had come over him like a lurid light, approached slowly from the door, seated himself close beside her and grasped her hand. Her heart beat like the heart of a frightened bird; but this direct opposition helped her – she felt her determination growing stronger.

‘Remember what you felt weeks ago,’ she began, with beseeching earnestness – ‘remember what we both felt – that we owed ourselves to others, and must conquer every inclination which could make us false to that debt. We have failed to keep our resolutions – but the wrong remains the same.’

‘No, it does not remain the same,’ said Stephen. ‘We have proved that it was impossible to keep our resolutions. We have proved that the feeling which draws us towards each other is too strong to be overcome. That natural law surmounts every other, – we can’t help what it clashes with.’

‘It is not so, Stephen – I’m quite sure that is wrong. I have tried to think it again and again – but I see, if we judged in that way, there would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be formed on earth. If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment.’

‘But there are ties that can’t be kept by mere resolution,’ said Stephen, starting up and walking about again. ‘What is outward faithfulness? Would they have thanked us for anything so hollow as constancy without love?’

Maggie did not answer immediately. She was undergoing an inward as well as an outward contest. At last she said, with a passionate assertion of her conviction as much against herself as against him,

‘That seems right – at first – but when I look further, I’m sure it is not right. Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us. If we – if I had been better, nobler – those claims would have been so strongly present with me, I should have felt them pressing on my heart so continually, just as they do now in the moments when my conscience is awake – that the opposite feeling would never have grown in me, as it has done – it would have been quenched at once – I should have prayed for help so earnestly – I should have rushed away, as we rush from hideous danger. I feel no excuse for myself – none – I should never have failed towards Lucy and Philip as I have done, if I had not been weak and selfish and hard – able to think of their pain without a pain to myself that would have destroyed all temptation. O, what is Lucy feeling now? – She believed in me – she loved me – she was so good to me – think of her….’

One of my students remarked that when she studied The Mill on the Floss in another class, they discussed Maggie and Stephen’s relationship as a great romantic love story–thwarted, I suppose, by “society,” though she didn’t go into detail about their interpretation. I admit, I find that a puzzling take on these two, who seem so ill-suited to each other in character and taste, and also, as we see here, in values. That their passion cuts across these factors is precisely what makes it so surprising and dangerous. If only there were a great romantic option for Maggie in the novel! Instead, she’s torn between three loves (Tom, Philip, and Stephen), each with his own demand on her feelings and loyalties. Where is she to go–what is she to do? Short of leaving them all behind and starting over, there is no way forward for her, and she can’t cut them off because as she tells Philip (become, poor fellow, her “external conscience” rather than her beloved), she “desires no future that will break the ties of the past.” Given that, her final choice is as inevitable as its result.

In 19th-Century Fiction we are nearly finished with Hard Times. I was wondering about my decision to rotate it into the reading list again after a few years of Great Expectations and a special turn for Bleak House, but I’m actually finding it really compelling. The structure is taut (if every so often the sentiment is a bit flabby) and it’s such a very dark novel. We were discussing Louisa today and her descent down Mrs Sparsit’s staircase. I don’t know another novelist who could (or would!) stretch out a conceit like that across not just paragraphs but whole chapters. And throughout the novel there is such a tight integration between Dickens’s prose and his thinking, every thought infused with fancy so that as we read we live the novel’s principles. It’s not his most subtle novel, but subtlety will get you only so far, as Trollope conceded when he wrote about “Mr Popular Sentiment” in The Warden: the artist who paints for the millions must use glaring colours, and might make more difference than all his own fine shades of gray. And what subtle novelist could make me cry the way Dickens does every time I read the chapter called “The Starlight”? Before the week is out I want to bring in some excerpts from Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice: it occurred to me during today’s discussion that we could think in more contemporary terms about the social effects of his literary strategies.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction it’s a Victorian kind of week too, because we’ve moved on to P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. James has always been explicit about her interest in 19th-century fiction, especially Austen, Eliot, and Trollope, and I think in many ways Unsuitable Job is very much in their tradition. It is a kind of Bildungsroman, or so I will propose in Wednesday’s class, and the central conflict is between a calculating kind of utilitarianism (on the villain’s part, of course!) and Cordelia’s passionate humanitarianism: “what use is it to make the world more beautiful if the people in it can’t love one another?” she exclaims, and in that moment she is close kin to Louisa as she falls on the floor before her father, Mr. Gradgrind, proclaiming “your philosophy and your teaching will not save me.” Both make the case for the wisdom of the heart over the wisdom of the head.

Reading Around: Spinoza, Dickens, and … Ruxton?

Apparently Spinoza’s philosophical “stock” is rising:

Another scientist who was passionately Spinozist (going so far as to write him a gushing poem) was Albert Einstein. In Spinoza’s conception of nature, he recognised intuitions matching his own, concerning the elusive unified field theory. Einstein also relied on Spinoza to get him out of trouble when queried by a rabbi as to whether or not he believed in God, averring that he believed in “Spinoza’s God.”

This introduces yet another reason to consider shares in Spinoza: the heightened public interest in the raucous debates between science and religion. Spinoza’s identification of God with nature, though as subtle as that Lord whom Einstein once invoked, makes an invaluable contribution to this issue—precisely because it’s subtle. As does his attempt to establish morality on the purely secular grounds of the scientific study of human nature.

Any other tips? The rising value of Spinozas indicates that postmodernism, which plays fast and loose with rationality, might be heading for a bear market. I’d advise short-selling Heideggers.

This is good news for  my Ph.D. student writing on George Eliot and philosophy, who, on hearing the news, observed that she has been betting on Spinoza for years and is looking forward to the pay-off in the new “post-post-modern world.”

Colleen at Bookphilia has been reading and writing about Martin Chuzzlewit, one of the array of Dickens novels I have yet to read. In her final post she comes at the novel by way of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky

But, Dickens, what are you doing!? You set Tom up as the novel’s moral centre and align him as closely as possible with a literary mode of living and literary typology, but then destabilize such associations via Tom’s declaration that “There is a higher justice than poetical justice” (see previous post). But then, Chaz, you make the novel’s conclusion as literary and meta-literary as can be, not only by revealing old Martin to have been actively attempting to author the paths and outcomes of almost every other character’s actions, but also by making it very difficult for readers familiar with Measure for Measure to not make comparisons between the novel and the play. Given how frequently, in every novel of his I’ve read, Dickens references Shakespeare either directly or obliquely, I can’t believe that 1) Dickens didn’t know precisely what he was doing with Martin Chuzzlewit, and 2) that he trusted his contemporary audience to be as familiar with the Bard as he was. (I had considered offering to write a book on Shakespeare and Dickens but, alas, it’s already been done. Of course it has.) . . .

Martin Chuzzlewit seems to be a novel about the fiction we all indulge in about being able to completely control our own lives, as well as the lives of others when we see fit – when, in the long run, it’s in the hands of something higher that necessarily remains mysterious. That Dickens is careful not to spend much time implying that this higher thing is God (for godliness in his novels seems always to manifest only through one’s actions on earth, especially in The Old Curiosity Shop, but here as well) suggests to me a strangely quiet and gently resigned existential angst. Having read a number of Dickens novels in the past couple of years, and having noticed how much Shakespearean Comedy seems to influence him, I’m pleased to note that overall, even as he pays homage to the Bard, Dickens never completely succumbs to the very tidy conclusions the form allows. The discomfort Shakespeare reveals in the Duke’s surveillance and absolute control is redistributed into something more human and humane in Dickens – the discomfort that comes with acknowledging the essential incompleteness of all happy endings.

I am properly humbled: Colleen, you see, is ‘by training’ an Early Modernist, and here she’s not only reading more Victorian literature than I am (I haven’t read a 19th-century novel in nearly 6 months, unless you count La Vendee, which I am reluctant to) but rocking it completely. But I have begun Our Mutual Friend, so I may make up some ground eventually.

And speaking of 19th-century novels, Amateur Reader has a new favorite–well, as he qualifies himself, “a favorite in a quite narrow sense”:

Life in the Far West is a postmodern* Western first published as a serial in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1848.  The novel describes the life of an American fur trapper La Bonté, his partner Killbuck, and a number of other real and unreal mountain men and Western adventurers.  Ruxton, himself an English mountain man with literary pretensions, in a classic postmodern gesture declared that the book was “no fiction,” italics his, I guess, which is correct if I add one little amending phrase, “except for the parts that are fictional.” . . .

What is a current equivalent to Blackwood’s Magazine?  The New Yorker, perhaps.  I don’t want to say that everyone read Ruxton, but that would not be so far from the truth.  Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, and so on would all have at least looked at Ruxton’s pieces, and the subject matter is so exotic and interesting that I do not doubt many of these writers read some or all Ruxton.   I find this amusing.

You would!

Read Better!

I admit, I have some sympathy with Hillary Kelly’s lament about the whole Oprah Does Dickens thing. I don’t share, or like, Kelly’s condescending assumption that Oprah’s readers are incapable of appreciating the novels, that they will have to “scramble about to decipher Dickens’s obscure dialectical styling and his long-lost euphemisms” or that “with no real guidance: they will only “mimic their high-school selves with calls of, ‘It’s too hard!'” People have been reading Dickens “with no real guidance” for a pretty long time and lots of them have had great fun with his language, his stories, and, yes, his ideas. Of course, I wouldn’t be in the profession I’m in if I didn’t think “real guidance” could enhance people’s reading experience, especially (though not exclusively) for books that don’t yield as easily as others to the kind of self-revelatory or just lazy reading-for-what’s-relatable that Kelly rightly proposes is one of the main purposes of Oprah’s book club. A case in point actually comes from the putatively ‘high culture’ end of the media spectrum, the New Yorker‘s Book Bench, which this week included in their Year in Reading series the following commentary on George Eliot’s Romola:

Absolutely no one reads “Romola” these days, at least not for fun, and I hate to admit that I can see why: it’s desperately wearying. The heroine is a hopeless prig, unredeemed by anything even slightly compromising in her character, and the villain’s villainy isn’t very interesting: he’s uniformly awful to his father, his wife, and his mistress. Eliot was utterly diligent about ensuring the book was historically accurate: her diaries report that, in preparation for writing, she gathered “particulars, first, about Lorenzo de’Medici’s death; secondly, about the possible retardation of Easter; third, about Corpus Christi Day; fourthly, about Savonarola’s preaching in the Quaresima of 1492.” But as one of Eliot’s early critics, Leslie Stephen, put it: “The question will intrude, What would have become of ‘Ivanhoe’ if Scott had bothered himself about the possible retardation of Easter?”

Actually, this complacently closed-minded and anti-intellectual reading is much more annoying to me than Oprah’s Dickens fest because of its pretense of erudition. Dickens was a great populist, after all; he wrote to reach the hearts of the masses, and there’s a certain logic in an alliance between him and the forces of O. The really annoying thing about Oprah’s announcement, to me, was her gleeful admission that she’d never read any Dickens before  and the sheep-like enthusiasm with which her millions of viewers will now rush out and do what the diva says. (But hey, what corner of the book world is free from fads? It seems just a short while ago nearly every bluidy reviewer and blogger and tweeter I follow was talking about the same book … and wait, so was Oprah!)  The hot cocoa stuff is silly, too, as if every Dickens novel is a cozy holiday classic. Oprah ought to put on a better display of informed reading. It’s not hard to do–and she could just staff it out without losing a day of her royal tour of Australia. But with her resources, she may in fact bring in some really interesting people to talk about Dickens. Maybe, just maybe, some of the issues raised in this old debate about Dickens’s racism will even come up, though I sort of doubt it, since it would undermine the feel-good ethos of both the show and the book choice. For me, the bottom line is, Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities (though, as Kelly and others have rightly noted, oddly mismatched) are books that are worth reading, whether it’s your mom, your grade 10 teacher, me, or Oprah who motivates you to read them. (I did do a double-take when I got my first look at the Penguin cover, though; I was relieved to learn that the back cover reverses the disproportion. Also, I hope Oprah’s web editors will stop putting a random apostrophe after Dickens; I already get endless assignments in about “Dicken’s” and I don’t need any more confusions introduced…)

But, to come back to Romola, if you’re going to set yourself the excellent project of reading through all of George Eliot’s fiction, and learn enough about Romola to know that it was extensively researched, you might also work on the assumption that novels that don’t immediately gratify your taste may be revealing some of your own limits, not just theirs. Sometimes, you’re asking the wrong questions, for instance. Here’s where ‘real guidance’ might come in handy, at least in training you as a reader to stop and think about why the book is as it is, what purposes its aesthetic and formal choices serve, what ideas shape it. You might not like it any better, but you would understand a lot more about it. These comments give the impression of a reader who really didn’t try very hard–in fact, who did just what Kelly worries Oprah’s readers will do. And seriously: any novel with the line in it “children may be strangled, but deeds never” surely deserves our close attention. Some of my ideas about Romola are here, from when we covered it in my recent graduate seminar; these excellent posts from Bookphilia also show how very far from “desperately wearying” the novel can be to a good reader.

Reading David Copperfield

‘Amateur Reader’ is doing a lovely series of posts on his reading of David Copperfield over at Wuthering Expectations. Up so far:

I had seen it somewhere. But I could not remember where. – In David Copperfield, Dickens tames his prose.

Dickens had reached a dead end, and he knew it.  Many of his most rhetorically complex passages only barely serve the story of which they were nominally a part.  The Haunted Man, is, at times, barely comprehensible.  Dombey and Son is never that bad, but is still extraordinarily thick in places.

I had not read David Copperfield (1849-50) when I wondered if its switch to the first person was partly an attempt by Dickens to tame his own prose.  It was!

What ravages I committed on my favourite authors in the course of my interpretation of them – David Copperfield, Author.

Charles Dickens switched to a first person narrator in David Copperfield.  Once, influenced by baleful Modernists, I would have found myself surprised that Dickens was interested in, and wanted to answer, the usual first person questions.  No more, though.  Nineteenth century writers were no fools.

The sensation of the very airs that blew on me. – Proustian Dickens.

The whiff of Proust is in that air, with the smell of earth and leaves.  Standing at the window (a real action) evokes a more or less conscious memory, the visual image of the tramps, which reminds Copperfield of his own journey as a tramp (ending, more or less, at this window), accompanied, involuntarily, by some associated (non-visual) memories.