This Week In My Classes: Team Brontë!

Tweet.jpgI got a bit snippy with the tweeters from Oxford World’s Classics a couple of days ago. Poor things: they were just doing their job, spreading some news about great books and trying to get people to click through and read it. How could they know that I was already feeling grumpy, for reasons quite beyond their control, and that this particular gimmick pushes my buttons on a good day?

Despite recent strident proclamations about the importance of critical partisanship, the wonder of literature is that we don’t have to take sides — except, at any rate, against the cheap or the shoddy. (And though I am as quick to attack these when I think I detect them as the next critic, I think Weseltier moves rather too quickly past the problem of the critic’s inevitable “fallibility” in his call for “mental self-esteem” — his complaint about A. O. Scott’s “epistemological humility” as a critic actually plays neatly into the topics of the talk I’ll be giving in Louisville next week.) It’s a good thing, too, because who would want to decide which of Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre should get voted off the literary island? To be forced into such a choice would be truly tragic, because it would be choosing not between the good and the bad, or the good and the better, but between two competing goods, each equally deserving of our passionate loyalty. We would become critical Antigones — and our literary lives would suffer accordingly.

oxford jane eyreBut (and you knew it was coming, right?) if for some absurd reason I absolutely had to choose, not which novelist is in any absolute sense “the greatest” but whose team to play on, it would be Brontë all the way — and I say that having only just enjoyed Pride and Prejudice entirely and absolutely for about the 50th time. We’ve just started working our way through Jane Eyre in the 19th-century fiction class and what a thrill it is. I know it’s a cliche to associate the Brontës with the moors, but it does feel as if a fresh, turbulent breeze is rushing through, stirring things up and bringing with it a longing for wide open spaces. The freedom and intensity of Jane’s voice, the urgency of her feelings, and of her demands — for love, for justice, for liberty — it’s exhilarating! I brought some excerpts from contemporary reviews to class today to demonstrate the shock and outrage with which some 19th-century critics received the novel: it’s striking how much the very qualities that enraged and terrified them are the same ones that make so many of us want to cheer Jane on. By the end we know that we should not have allied ourselves so readily with Jane’s violent rebellion, and we may even be equivocal about the conclusion to her story, but I think it’s impossible to read the novel and not be wholly caught up in her fight to define and then live on her own terms.

It’s not all about feeling, though: there is tremendous artistry in the telling as well, and of course the novel is endlessly provocative to interpret too, from its imagery and symbolism to its evocations of fairy tales, from its religious debates to its feminist declarations, from its colonial entanglements and psychological intimations to its re-imagining of the marriage plot and the novel of development. I think that in some ways it anticipates Gaudy Night in its exploration of the relationship between head and heart, and in the radicalism of its heroine’s (and its author’s) refusal to succumb to the fantasy that love alone is all we need.

pride-and-prejudice-penguinI started rereading Emma recently and had to put it aside. I appreciate that it is aesthetically and morally complex and infinitely nuanced, but I felt smothered by it: I found it claustrophobic. Brontë’s criticism of Austen is well known: she told G. H. Lewes that in Pride and Prejudice she found only “an accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen,” she went on, “in their elegant but confined houses.” I think she underestimated the novel — a lot of people do, still, who see just the delightful characters moving on the surface and not the currents of social and historical change carrying them along. I’m also sure that my trouble with Emma is about me, not Austen. But I understand Brontë’s reaction, and it is just the one you would expect, too, from the author of such an entirely different book, one that opposes itself in every way to both literal and mental confinement. I think that’s why Jane Eyre refreshes my soul: it rushes with us out into the hills. Jane is so defiant, so passionate, so forthright: she speaks  up so fearlessly, for herself and for the right! I wish I could always do the same: I admire her principles and envy her courage. So much as I would miss Elizabeth Bennet if for some reason I had to give her up, Jane’s the one I really couldn’t do without.

Still, I’m very glad I don’t actually have to choose, not least because without the the two of them together, surely Margaret Hale, and Maggie Tulliver, and Dorothea Brooke, and Gwendolen Harleth all become unthinkable — and that would be tragic indeed!

Reading, Writing, Watching: Villette, Ferrante, Downton Abbey

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artYou wouldn’t know it from the lull here at Novel Readings, but it has been a busy few days. (Actually, you should know it from the lull, which is always a sign that things are busy elsewhere!) I haven’t made much progress yet with the book I chose to follow A Morbid Taste for Bones, which is Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence, but I hope to get back to it soon, as I was very impressed by Restoration when I read it last summer. I have been reading, though: yesterday I finished Villette, which I’m teaching in the fall for the first time in many years. It is a splendid novel in many ways: dark and twisty and, especially in its narration, full of tricks and surprises. Is it a better novel than Jane Eyre? I often stumble on evaluative questions like this, which (at least when both books involved are strong of their kind) demand so much further specification before they make any real sense. Better at what? On this read-through, Villette struck me as more prolix than Jane Eyre, particularly the religious arguments and disquisitions. The language is also more florid, though this can often be attributed to Lucy’s character, which is more morbidly introspective than Jane’s, but also, paradoxically, more theatrical. The novel as a whole is also more elaborately metaphorical, and the story it tells is more psycho-drama than Bildungsroman. There’s a wonderful fierce energy to Jane’s progress through her life. Lucy shares Jane’s determined independence, but not her flair for action or confrontation. Lucy’s yearning for love, and her attempt to (sometimes literally) bury her feelings, is very poignant. I expect we will talk a lot in class about her various doubles or foils in the novel and how (or whether) she herself ends up embodying anything like an ideal, as well as whether her final affair de coeur — or any of the marriages in the novel — is a model. I’ve always had my doubts about that tiny house with its “small round table,” its “little couch,” its “little chiffonniere”: it’s a bit too much like a doll’s house for me. We did a group read of Villette at The Valve a few years ago that was a lot of fun; I’ll have to mine those discussions for ideas.

I’ve also been writing my piece for the September issue of Open Letters Monthly. I’ve only just submitted it for editing by my colleagues, so I’m not sure how close I am to being done with it. I won’t say much about it here so it will still be fresh when it comes out, but the basic idea is that we do a semi-regular feature at OLM called “Peer Review,” in which we review the reviewers, and as I got quite interested in how people were talking about Elena Ferrante, I decided to try my hand at one of these focusing on her reception. Those of you who hang out with me on Twitter will have seen some of the choicer morsels there. I’m doing the usual editing for the new issue too, including on a couple of pieces for which I’m the “commissioning editor” (which means overseeing and collating all the input and working out revisions with the authors): I enjoy this work a lot, though it sometimes surprises me how challenging it is.

DowntonAbbeyFinally, my husband and I have been catching up on Downton Abbey. I watched the first season not long after it came out and opted not to continue, as it sort of bored me: I felt that, having seen much of Upstairs, Downstairs in the olden days and then watched Gosford Park and The Remains of the Day in the meantime, Downton didn’t offer me anything particularly new. I still think that’s true as far as the type of show it is, but once we started working our way through it we did get caught up in the personal dramas, and especially following the UK House of Cards the production and the acting in Downton are so luxuriously splendid. By the end of Season 4, we were laughing ruefully at the plot twists, which start to seem quite random, as well as rather tortuous (must Thomas always be so conniving? did we really need such an elaborate scheme to work out whether Bates would or would not be accused of murder … again?). It’s not actually a good choice for binge-watching, I think: it doesn’t give you the satisfaction of feeling you’ve watched something significant build up, the way The Wire or Deadwood does. It’s very good for doing crochet to, though! (If you want smarter commentary on Downton Abbey, you should read Joana Scutts’s two essays on it in Open Letters Monthly.)

I wish someone would take the energy and talent that goes into Downton Abbey and make a show about Somerville College before, during, and after the war! Imagine a series that looked, not at aristocrats and their servants in their country houses, but at the circles people like Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby moved in: the writers and activists and reformers who were deliberately shaping the new England the Granthams are mostly just reacting passively to. You could have Bloomsbury subplots, since Woolf would be a good marketing tool, and tell stories based on people like Rebecca West and Dorothy L. Sayers, who were the real deal compared to Lady Edith and her magazine column and hidden shame. (Does anyone else think that Tom’s new friend Sarah Bunting is based on Sarah Burton from South Riding, by the way? An outspoken red-headed school teacher with progressive ideas, initials SB?)

This Week In My Classes: Hunkering Down!

Ah, the holiday weekend, with its leisure reading! It’s just a fond memory right now … Well, I exaggerate slightly, as I’ve certainly had more hectic terms than this one (this time last year, just for instance, I was teaching three courses, including one entirely new one), but I have been pretty busy with class preparation, grading, and meetings in the last couple of days, and so far I haven’t really focused on another fun book to read in the interstices.

The-Big-SleepToday I finished marking the 75 midterms for my Mystery & Detective Fiction course (which means, in case any students are reading this, that the grades should be checked and posted to Blackboard tomorrow afternoon). In class, we’ve just started working through The Big Sleep. It’s my first time teaching it, after going endless rounds with The Maltese Falcon. I’ve been thinking about making this switch for years but it took me a while to get over my initial aversion to The Big Sleep (soon after that 2009 post, however, I did add The Hound of the Baskervilles to the syllabus, where I have enjoyed it ever since). There are a few things I already miss about Hammett, but I think Chandler is going to give us plenty to talk about, and now that I have the plot more or less sorted out and some interpretive threads to follow, I am relaxing enough into the book that I almost like it a little bit! (Hard-boiled fiction is never going to be my favourite thing, but note to David Gilmour: teaching outside of your comfort zone is good for the brain as well as the character…) Yesterday was mostly warm-up stuff, with background on hard-boiled detection, Black Mask, “The Simple Art of Murder,” and so on. Then we started in with some consideration of the title: how does the gently euphemistic The Big Sleep suit the novel in a way that, say, Stone Cold Dead would not? (“Why this, not that?” is one of my favourite conversation starters for class discussion.) We had time for a few preliminary comments on Marlowe and that’s where we’ll pick up tomorrow: what kind of knight-errant is he, what kind of candidates for his version of chivalry are the Sternwoods, what’s the world like that he moves in, what hope does a lone hero — however untarnished and unafraid — have against the kinds of crime and corruption he’s up against? I would like to be able to talk about Spenser, but there’s just no room for Robert B. Parker on this syllabus: if I were ever to propose a 4th-year seminar on this subgenre, it would be to have an excuse to assign him. Actually, a course like that would be a great complement to the one I already offer on Women & Detective Fiction (coming up next term). Hmmm…something to think about. It wouldn’t play to my own tastes the way the other seminar does (oh, how I’m looking forward to reading Gaudy Night again) — but given how hard it sometimes is to be scholarly and objective about books I really love, that might not be a bad thing.

In 19thC Fiction we’re done with Waverley (to everyone’s relief, I think) and on to Jane Eyre, which is always a much easier sell. I’m not as passionate about Jane Eyre as I once was. It’s partly that I’ve gone through it so often (though reiteration doesn’t seem to diminish my enthusiasm for Middlemarch), but this time I’m also finding its relentlessly high emotional pitch tiring and somewhat artless (can I say that? is it heresy, for a Victorianist?). And yet I suppose that’s kind of the point (one point, anyway) of the novel itself — that our passions need to be checked by reason, that rage (however justified) quickly becomes self-destructive. I find myself coaching my students in quite the opposite way than I was doing with Waverley: instead of saying ‘try to throw yourself into it more,’ I’m saying ‘be careful about identifying with Jane too quickly or easily.’ She gives us lots of clues that she herself has grown up since she was thrown into the Red Room for fighting back against John Reed’s oppression. My favourite parts of the novel are the sparring matches she has with Rochester: so much of their dialogue is just so unexpected. By tomorrow everyone should have read through to Jane’s discovery of her inheritance and her relationship to St. John and his sisters: I want to start with some discussion about why she doesn’t marry Rochester (not the plot reasons, of course, but the reasons that marrying him at that point would be risky even if he weren’t already married) — that means looking at the shopping spree, probably, and talking more about Bertha and whether she’s a cautionary tale for Jane, an ally of some kind, or an antagonist. Then we can consider what Jane gains at Marsh End, as well as what risks she faces there, too, to her personal development.

oxford jane eyreI’m feeling a bit mad at myself for not learning the lessons of last term about the assignment sequence I’m using in 19th-Century Fiction. I’m doing reading journals again, and I’m also repeating the strategy of allowing students to choose which of our first novels to write their short essay on. Last time I worried that the journal entries were not well distributed across the term, and I’m seeing the exact same pattern this year — I didn’t change the instructions and rules because the degree of micromanagement required to key credit to specific stages of the reading seemed too much, but I’m not sure I can justify (to myself) doing the same thing again, given what actually happens (as opposed to what I’d like to happen). It’s a process-vs.-product problem again: mostly, they want credit for doing the journals, not the benefit the journals could be to their learning experience. (As always, there are exceptions who are absolutely making the most of the journals.) This term, I’m also seeing really uneven distribution in the essays: fully a third of the class wrote on Persuasion, nobody at all on Waverley, and it looks like the remaining two thirds are planning to write on Jane Eyre, which means nobody is writing on David Copperfield. (They all have to write ‘mini-midterms’ on each novel, though, and then a final exam with an essay question on our last book, North and South.) I want them to write on the books that interest and motivate them, but one effect of this uneven selection is to unbalance my workload. Before I design next year’s 19th-C novels class, I’ll revisit the great coercion conundrum. Maybe I’ll do a different assignment sequence altogether — though at this point I don’t think I can go back to the letter exchanges that I used to like so much. They had just become too much of a logistical nightmare!

But it’s too soon to fret about 2014-15 when 2013-14 isn’t even half over yet.

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

I am nearly as reluctant to write about Wide Sargasso Sea as I was to read it — and, yes, until last week, I had never read it, which in some circles (like, for instance, the circle of 99% of my professional colleagues) would surely have made me a winner at “Humiliation.” I knew about it, of course, but what people said to me about it never made me interested in it as a book in its own right. It was always held up, self-righteously, as a corrective to Jane Eyre: the story Charlotte Brontë didn’t tell but should have, the story that shows her and her heroine up for their racism and imperialism, that story that, as the back cover of my Penguin Modern Classics edition says, “rescues the madwoman in the attic … and brings her to life.” The pitch seemed to be that this novel was the post-colonial vitamin pill required to read Jane Eyre in good health. How delightful that sounded!

It’s not that I haven’t read my share of post-colonial responses to Jane Eyre. For some time post-colonial criticism of the novel was all the rage. Then out came an article calling for a “Post-Postcolonial Criticism,” and a bunch of scholars responded vigorously … and for all I know they’re still passing  arguments back and forth. I took a professionally responsible interest in the issues and stakes, and I do believe that it matters to explore what the novel’s emancipatory rhetoric  suppresses (or oppresses) in its turn.  In my graduate seminar on Victorian women writers I used to assemble a whole package of secondary readings just on post-colonial criticism of Jane Eyre. But after a while I kind of got tired of it all, because the arguments seemed to be missing what (thanks to my library-school trained brother) I now think of as the “aboutness” of the novel. Certainly none of them made me want to go read Wide Sargasso Sea. If anything, the scholarly infighting made me more weary of the whole concept.

So I came to Wide Sargasso Sea, after all these years, with some reluctance, but also with relief: since my book club had chosen it, I was finally compelled to put aside my petulant resistance and look at Jane Eyre from the other side. I wish I could say that actually reading Wide Sargasso Sea was in some way decisive for me: that it either confirmed all my worst fears by being ham-fistedly ideological and reductive, or won me over by being good enough on its own terms that I got excited about the dialogue it creates with its predecessor. Instead, I didn’t get worked up about it either way. It was more nuanced and oblique than I expected about its relationship to Jane Eyre. If anything, I expected more direct overlap, but not only is the story Rhys creates of the Bertha-Rochester marriage quite different in its specifics from Brontë’s, but the Thornfield section was surprisingly brief. I suppose the logic was that we know how Bertha ends up and so the interest lies in how she gets there — still, I thought there’d be more. Rhys doesn’t do anything with the parallels between Bertha and Jane, for instance, that give Bronte’s novel so much of its own revolutionary energy. Was it that she didn’t want to admit that Brontë had already made Bertha something more complicated than Rochester’s (and, by association, Jane’s) victim? The introduction to my edition is eloquent about Rhys’s mission to “make amends for the sins of omission committed by the Victorian writer, and by that era’s literature and history in general,” but Rhys keeps the Victorian novel peripheral and doesn’t seem to be engaging with it at a very profound level.

I found myself wondering, though, if that dissatisfaction wasn’t partly the result of all the propaganda about Wide Sargasso Sea as a revision of Jane Eyre and a corrective to it (the kind of thing I’ve already quoted from the cover and introduction to the novel). Rhys isn’t necessarily answerable for the reductive constructions put on her own book, after all. If you grant Wide Sargasso Sea more literary independence from the outset, looking at it as a response to Jane Eyre, yes, but still its own novel, freely inventive, then my objection that it leaves too much of its original reference out is beside the point. My biggest irritation has always been that there’s a tendency to talk about Rhys’s novel as if it tells the true story of Brontë’s character, when of course there is no such character outside Jane Eyre and there is no reason to doubt the facts about her as Rochester relays them to us. (There are other grounds to object to the story he tells, but I don’t think there’s any suggestion in the novel that he’s outright unreliable about the history of their marriage.) But Rhys makes enough changes to those facts that it seems as if she doesn’t intend to treat the same characters anyway: rather than telling the other side of the same story, she’s inspired by Jane Eyre to tell a different story, one that reflects on Jane Eyre but doesn’t correct it, doesn’t (as that ontologically odd locution of “rescues” implies) set the record straight, somehow, about  Bertha Mason.

If I push Wide Sargasso Sea further away from Jane Eyre in this way, then the question is less how it does or doesn’t engage with Brontë’s novel and more how good a novel it is on its own terms. I’m not sure I can answer that question very well, because while I was reading it I was so preoccupied with Jane Eyre. I’ve reread portions of it, but I have nothing like an intimate knowledge of it. My impressions at this point are not especially favorable. I didn’t find the prose compelling: it often seemed labored, portentous, too insistent on its own profundity. Rhys is fond of ending a paragraph or chapter or section with a heavily meaningful line: “I was young then. A short youth mine was.” “I felt bolder, happier, more free. But not so safe.”  “There was a full moon but I saw nobody, nothing but shadows.” “Once I would have gone back quietly to watch her asleep on the sofa . . . But not any longer. Not any more.” When we’re not getting ka-thumps like that, we’re getting overripe stuff like “She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.” There is a dream-like vagueness to a lot of the scenes, and perhaps that is deliberate, but in our discussion it seemed most of us were frustrated at gaps or confusions, and though most of us agreed that there are sections that are very evocative of the setting or that capture a moody restlessness well suited to the storyline, overall we didn’t — and, not to avoid speaking for myself, I didn’t — find the novel very good overall.

And now I’ll duck, in anticipation of the incoming corrections, if not to Jane Eyre, then to my own imperfect reading of this book which is, whatever I thought of it, now inextricably linked to Brontë’s. Have at!

Villette Chapters 1-35: “Oubliez les Professeurs!”

The thread is now open at The Valve for discussion of this week’s installment of Villette. In case you are wondering whether you should have joined us in this project, taste this:

What was become of that curious one-sided friendship which was half marble and half life; only on one hand truth, and on the other perhaps a jest?

Was this feeling dead? I do now know, but it was buried. Sometimes I thought the tomb unquiet, and dreamed strangely of disturbed earth, and of hair, still golden and living, obtruded through coffin-chinks.

Clearly the folks behind Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are behind the curve: the undead lurk already in Charlotte Bronte’s perverse imagination.

Updated Classics

At the TLS, Margaret Reynolds calls our attention to the relaunch of the Oxford World’s Classics editions. The article includes a survey of some available editions of Jane Eyre. A sample:

Oxford World’s Classics
Jacket Clean and striking but she’s too sulky.
Introduction By Oxford prof Sally Shuttleworth. Covers all bases and is excellent on the ending.
Text Based on first edition of 1847. Actual print a bit small.
Extra material Plenty on the text and publication of the novel.
Price £5.99. Good value.

Penguin Classics (Black)
Jacket A painting by Millais. Jane would never have worn this dress.
Introduction By novelist and critic Stevie Davies. Very good on the political context.
Text Revised edition of 1848, with some emendations. Clear print.
Extra material Chronology, notes and “Opinions of the Press”.
Price £5.99.

Vintage Classics
Jacket Clever, intriguing and spot on for the story.
Introduction No.
Text Based on the revised edition of 1848. Nice print.
Extra material Little life of Charlotte. Quote from Sarah Waters: “One of the most perfectly structured novels of all time”. Meaning?
Price £5.99. Hmm.

I’m not entirely sure that this is quite the information I need to make my selection. Let’s see: put me down for one copy of the sulky version with the introduction that “covers all bases” (I’m sure I usually miss one or two in my lectures) and one copy with the “clear print” for my aging eyes… Also, a testimonial about novel structure from the author of Fingersmith is good enough for me! The slide-show of the various covers is nice. I’d like to point out a good option that gets no mention at the TLS:

Broadview Edition
Jacket excellent– see illustration at right
Introduction by Richard Nemesvari (my near neighbour, at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish): thorough and interesting.
Extra material is Broadview’s specialty; in addition to the introduction and a chronology of Charlotte Bronte’s life and publications, this edition includes selected correspondence as well as contemporary pieces on governesses, girls’ education, race, and empire
Price Wow–only £4.99! ($12.95 US or Canadian)

Further information on the OUP relaunch is to be found at the OUP blog, where “Senior Commissioning Editor” (now that’s a title) Judith Luna explains,

We wanted a new look that would be fresh and contemporary and appeal to general readers and browsers who might previously have thought Oxford World’s Classics were a bit too academic for them. So we have a clean white title panel, and white back and spine, and we have chosen dramatic crops of appropriate illustrations to intrigue and entice the reader. We also wanted a sense of continuity with the old look, so we have retained a red strip at the top of the spine and back cover, and added a tantalizing detail from the cover image in a small thumbnail on the spine (older readers may remember that we used to have a similar feature on a previous incarnation of the series, but at the bottom of the spine, not the top). We also chose a new typeface for the cover, Capitolium, a modern take on classic lettering, based on classical Roman inscriptions and Renaissance calligraphy and designed by Gerard Unger. The insides of the books are unchanged, and we will continue to publish high-quality editions and translations with outstanding introductions and notes at truly affordable prices, editions that are designed to satisfy the needs not just of students, but of the lively general reader as well.

Since I’ve already ordered my fall term books, including many World’s Classics titles, I’m relieved to hear that the “insides are unchanged,” though it strikes me, given this, that they are rather encouraging (or expecting) people to judge a book by its cover. Still, I’ll be jealous if my students all have spiffy new covers on their books while I’m still wielding my battered old versions. (Hint to OUP reps: send Maitzen new desk copies…) (On the other hand, replacing all the post-its in my teaching copies would be a lot of work. There are a lot of them, because I consider it one of my primary obligations when teaching, say, Bleak House, to be able to find key passages quickly. Browsing through 900 pages muttering “I know it’s here somewhere” wastes a lot of class time.)

This Week in My Classes

1. 19th-Century Novel. We’re still on Great Expectations this week, moving through the phase that I lecture on as “Great Revelations.” While I tend to emphasize the moral pressures of the novel in class, while re-reading it this weekend I found myself pleasurably reminded of what an emotionally powerful and intensely literary book it is. Here’s Pip confronting Estella and, indirectly, Miss Havisham, after he has learned the truth about his benefactor and been forced to reconsider the kind of ‘gentleman’ he has become:

‘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 ecstasy of unhappiness I got those broken words out of myself, I don’t know. The rhapsody welled up within me, like blood from a 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. (Vol. 3 Chapter V)

Of the many things that could be said about this passage, I’ll just point to the way Pip’s impassioned speech associates Estella with the evocative landscape he describes to us much earlier in the novel, the horizontal lines broken only by the beacon and the gibbet–symbols that seemed to oppose hope and death, beauty and despair, love and crime, Estella and Magwitch–oppositions that by Volume 3 have proved not just illusory but dangerously so, as Pip now sees. Contemporary novelists are often described as “Dickensian,” usually for writing long, diffuse novels with lots of plots and characters and a bit more emotional exhibitionism than is the norm in ‘serious’ fiction. I rarely think they deserve the label, because to me it’s moments such as this one, combining dense symbolic allusiveness, rhythmic and evocative language, high sentiment, and urgent moral appeal–all bordering on the excessive, even ridiculous, but, at their best, not collapsing into it–that distinguish Dickens from other novelists. I’m not sure any modern novelist takes such risks.

2. Victorian Women Writers. Here it’s week 1 of Jane Eyre. Perhaps the greatest challenge here is trying to approach the novel in any fresh way, given not just how familiar it is to me after many readings, but also how dense is the accretion of criticism around it. Just selecting a handful of critical articles to assign was an incredibly fraught process: at this point, what are the most important things to be known or said about it? So much of the discussion, too, is ultimately all about us, the critics, and how what we have seen in this novel, how we have read it, reflects our own assumptions or desires about literature, feminism, romance, realism, narration. And how to find something new to say? Find something that others have neglected or misunderstood, point out what this tells us about those other readings, and posit your own, corrective analysis. You thought it was a happy ending? Think again! Rochester’s still a patriarch, Ferndean is unhealthy, Adele is exiled, it’s really a revenge story, Jane’s narrative strategies undermine what she appears to be saying about living ‘happily ever after.’ The key to the novel’s themes or politics is not Jane but Bertha, or Grace Poole, or Bessie. Miss Temple is barely an improvement on Brocklehurst. Bertha is Jane’s repressed double, or is she the oppressed Other? You thought the novel was a woman’s (or a woman writer’s) declaration of independence–look how you failed to see that version of feminism as complicit with racist exclusion, or reliant on imperialism. Or, look how you have subjugated the novel to your own theory about race or empire. And on and on it goes. It’s not that I don’t find some of these readings interest or compelling, but after a while, it starts to seem odd that one book should attract such a weight of other people’s ideas, should stand for so many things. While recognizing that there can be no such thing as “just” reading the novel (any more than what I’ve said above is “just” about Great Expectations “itself” in some transparent way), I do find myself thinking that, especially in some of the more ‘suspicious’ readings, those that go most determinedly against the grain, we have left the novel behind, refusing, as Denis Donoghue says about another text, to let it have its theme.

This Week in My Classes

The warm-up period is over: now we’re really getting down to work.

1. English 3032, 19thC Novel. This week, we start Great Expectations. In addition to placing the novel in the context of Dickens’s career and a range of social and intellectual issues (from the alienation induced by modern urban professional society, to anxieties about the moral implications of Darwinism), I like to focus on Pip’s retrospective narration and the ways his personal development prepares him, ultimately, to become the kind of man (especially the kind of “gentleman”) who is capable of telling us this story. Great Expectations is also good for shaking up casually-held stereotypes about Victorian ‘realism,’ as from Pip’s palindromic name to Miss Havisham’s wedding feast to Wemmick’s castle to Magwitch’s splendidly eerie reappearance, nearly every element in the novel pressures us to read it literarily rather than mimetically. Plus, there’s Joe’s hat falling off the mantel in Volume II Chapter 8…

2. English 5465, Victorian Women Writers. Here, we are taking one more look at the ‘real’ life of a Victorian woman novelist before turning our attention to the novels themselves. But with Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte, we have the added interest of one Victorian woman writer writing about another, and in the process exploring the ideas of femininity, authorship, vocation, and duty that preoccupied them both, though in different ways, throughout their writing careers. Last week we considered Margaret Oliphant’s writing her own story in response to a literary representation of George Eliot’s life (she points to Cross’s biography as having prompted her to begin the Autobiography). But Oliphant has been reading Gaskell’s Life of CB as well, so as we read on, we are accumulating a range of interrelated ideas about these women and their work–from them and from their respondents, interpreters, and critics–to carry forward with us into our analysis of the fiction they produced. In class we struggled somewhat with the idea of Oliphant’s Autobiography as a literary text because at times both its form and its content seem so unselfconscious, spontaneous, and diary-like that we weren’t confident attributing intent or design (though we also considered, of course, that it has literary qualities and other effects regardless of how deliberately they were developed). Gaskell’s biography of Bronte is much more conspicuously constructed with its own aims and purposes. Critics have disputed how far Gaskell’s stated goals–such as defending Bronte against her critics and presenting a sympathetic portrait of someone we are often reminded was Gaskell’s “dear friend”–are sincere or unproblematic and how much she is using Bronte as a prop to establish her own literary credentials or to resolve larger debates about the “vexed question of sex” in authorship, as she calls it (she is emphatic that whatever their domestic responsibilities, women also have a duty to use their God-given talents, even if that means stepping outside the ‘normal’ bounds of female propriety). I expect we will have some good discussion along these lines. Reading The Life of Charlotte Bronte right after Oliphant’s Autobiography should also prompt some conversation about their very different views and experiences of being women writers.