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.