This Week in My Classes (November 3, 2009)

In Nineteenth-Century Fiction this week, we get to look at two of my favorite chapters in Middlemarch. Our general theme is the importance of looking at things from different perspectives–a simply idea but one that gets refracted in a number of different ways in the novel. On Monday I brought up the problem of achieving solidity in narrative. As Carlyle pointed out, “narrative is linear, but action is solid”: in life, many things happen at once, and what happens means different things to everyone involved because each ‘event’ is in fact part of many different stories, all overlapping but which you can only coherently narrate one at a time. What’s a novelist to do? One of Eliot’s techniques is to revisit moments in time, presenting them and then circling around to come at them again and make us consider them as part of a different story than we were following the first time. A good example occurs, for the first time, at the very end of Chapter 27–appropriately enough, as this is the chapter that opens with the famous pier glass parable, making explicit that the ‘scratches’ (events) take on their meaning depending on where we place our ‘candle’ to cast its light. The story we are with in this chapter is the developing relationship between Lydgate and Rosamond (the latter, of course, believes it is a developing romance). Lydgate’s practice is picking up, and one day, “when he had happened to overtake Rosamond on the Lowick road,” he is

stopped by a servant on horseback with a message calling him in to a house of some importance where Peacock [his predecessor in the practice] had never attended; and it was the second instance of this kind. The servant was Sir James Chettam’s, and the house was Lowick Manor [Mr Casaubon’s home, and aptly named].

In the Oxford edition, this is on page 256. The next chapter begins immediately, but earlier in time and with another story, that of Dorothea and Casaubon’s return to Lowick from their honeymoon. We follow them until we learn why Casaubon needed medical attention,on page 267, when “Mr Lydgate was sent for and he came wonderfully soon, for the messenger, who was Sir James Chettam’s man and knew Mr Lydgate, met him leading his horse along the Lowick road and giving his arm to Miss Vincy.” It’s a nice exercise to work out what the fetching of Lydgate by Sir James’s servant means for a range of different characters involved, especially Rosamond and Lydgate (both of whom take it as evidence that Lydgate will prosper professionally), Dorothea (who is coming to realize that Casaubon’s demands on her, or his need for her, will not be of the kind she imagined before their wedding), and of course Casaubon himself, whose confrontation with his own mortality sets him up for Chapter 42, which may be the greatest in the book–next to Chapters 19-21, maybe, which we also looked at (here, we tried comparing the order of events as plotted in the novel to the order of events in the story, or chronologically)–or maybe Chapters 80-81…

Tomorrow I want to look first at another pattern of revisiting, this time not circling around in time but coming back to a familiar setting with new information. For this, I’ll focus on Dorothea’s blue-green boudoir, which changes dramatically (but, of course, not really at all) from when she first sees it and thinks it needs no alteration to her return from Rome, when “the very furniture in the room seemed to have shrunk since she saw it before.” Later still, “the bare room had gathered within it those memories of an inward life which fill the air as with a cloud of good or bad angels” and the portrait of Casaubon’s Aunt Julia has become yet more interesting because of its association with Will Ladislaw. If we have time, we’ll start looking at examples of people who look different as your experience changes, which will bring us to Dorothea’s mighty struggle with her lesser self at the end of Chapter 42. This is the culmination, or nearly so, of the struggle that begins in Rome and reaches a new stage in Chapter 28, when she “was no longer struggling against the perception of facts, but adjusting herself to their clearest perception.” This movement, of course, is the essential one towards realism, but the next great step must be towards sympathy. Can she take it? What will be the consequences? As the narrator says in Chapter 42, when Dorothea’s picture of Casaubon becomes nearly (but not yet quite) as clear as ours, “In such a crisis as this, some women begin to hate.”

In Victorian Sensations, we’re still working our way through East Lynne. The sheer improbability of the plot is such a delight in this half of the book that despite the mounting pathos of the plot, it’s hard not to find it comic. On Monday I had the students work in groups on some key passages looking at Lady Isabel’s condition after the train wreck that literalizes her symbolic death to the world (the price of her moral fall)–but then doesn’t, since she doesn’t actually die but returns like the ghost of her former self, unrecognizable because, well, here’s how she looks now:

Look at the governess, reader, and see whether you know her. You will say “No.” But you do, for it is Lady Isabel Vane. But how strangely she is altered! Yes, the railway accident did that for her, and what the accident left undone, grief and remorse accomplished. She limps as she walks, and slightly stoops, taken from her former height. A scar extends from her chin above her mouth, completely changing the character of the lower part of her face; some of her teeth are missing, so that she speaks with a lisp, and the sober bands of her gray hair–it is nearly silver–are confined under a large and close cap. She herself tries to make the change greater, so that all chance of being recognized may be at an end, and for that reason she wears disfiguring spectacles, and a broad band of gray velvet, coming down low upon her forehead. Her dress, too, is equally disfiguring. Never is she seen in one that fits her person, but in those frightful “loose jackets,” which must surely have been invented by somebody envious of a pretty shape. As to her bonnet, it would put to shame those masquerade things tilted on to the back of the head, for it actually shaded her face; and she was never seen out without a thick veil. She was pretty easy upon the score of being recognized now; for Mrs. Ducie and her daughters had been sojourning at Stalkenberg, and they did not know her in the least. Who could know her? What resemblance was there between that gray, broken-down woman, with her disfiguring marks, and the once loved Lady Isabel, with her bright color, her beauty, her dark flowing curls, and her agile figure? Mr. Carlyle himself could not have told her. But she was good-looking still, in spite of it all, gentle and interesting; and people wondered to see that gray hair in one yet young. (Ch. 39)

The brilliant part is that she goes back to her former home to serve as governess to the children she abandoned when she ran away with her lover (sorry for the spoilers, but really, none of you were ever going to read this novel, right?)–and nobody recognizes her as long as she has on those spectacles. I am fascinated by the comment that she is “good-looking still.” We discussed this for a while in class, and the students who very able worked up this passage made the point that it suggests beauty is a matter of character as well as appearance. It also seems to be a gesture towards keeping our sympathy for her alive: she’s not so hideous we look away. Tomorrow we’re going to try to figure out how the election that figures, quite suddenly, in the late part of the novel makes any sense–how is it connected, or how does it enhance, the other themes or conflicts we’ve been considering? My opening gambit is that it directs our attention away from the duelling female protagonists, Isabel and Barbara, and does something with our thinking about the male antagonists, Carlyle and Francis Levison. But what exactly? I think the students will enjoy the ducking scene.

The Wit–or Wisdom–of Ellen Wood

I’m pretty sure that this bit of East Lynne is meant as wisdom, though I find it amusing:

‘Let the offices properly belonging to a nurse, be performed by the nurse–of course taking care that she is thoroughly to be depended on. Let her have the trouble of the children, their noise, their romping; in short, let the nursery be her place and the children’s place. But I hope I shall never fail to gather my children round me daily, at stated periods, for higher purposes: to instil into them Christian and moral duties; to strive to teach them how best to fulfil life’s obligations. This is a mother’s task–as I understand the question; let her do this work well, and the nurse can attend to the rest. A child should never hear aught from its mother’s lips but winning gentleness; and this becomes impossible, if she is very much with her children.’

I appreciate the juxtaposition of high-minded spiritual (and maternal) pretension with the offhand confession that too much time with one’s children makes “winning gentleness” impossible.

This Week in My Classes (October 26, 2009)

In Nineteenth-Century Fiction it’s (finally) time for Middlemarch. I’ve posted pretty often about teaching Middlemarch (see, for instance, here, here, and here), and you can hear me talk (fast) about it here, too, in an interview with fellow blogger and bibliophile Nigel Beale. For something just a bit different this time, I thought I’d post the PowerPoint slides I used for my introductory lecture today. The file conversion seems to have affected the layout and font color for the worse, but the slides illustrate my initial approach, which is to woo students into being interested in the novel by way of, as I say, “The Interesting Life of Mary Ann Evans.” In the spirit of one of her contemporaries, who regretted the way her husband John Cross’s biography took the “salt and spice” out of her “entirely unconventional life,” I show them just what a remarkable (and spicy) person she was–so that they will read the novel with more appreciation for the ways in which it, too, is “entirely unconventional.”

GE Slides

In Victorian Sensations, we’re starting up with Ellen Wood’s East Lynne, the last in the sequence of four primary texts for our course before we turn our attention to critical work (both 19th-century and current) and then to Fingersmith. When I’ve taught East Lynne before, I’ve found myself preoccupied with questions of literary evaluation (see here, for instance). For whatever reason–perhaps because I’ve just been over similar ground in working my way through Aurora Floyd–I’m less interested in that question at this point than I am in just thinking about the book on its own terms. What is it interested in? What is it up to? (I realize that it can sound odd to attribute agency to a novel, so another way of asking these questions would be by way of the novel’s implied author.’ I think the result is the same, though: you are trying to figure out how literary strategies and devices, from plot and character through setting, imagery, metaphor, theme, and so on, are being used to achieve effects or communicate ideas–aesthetic, political, or other.)

On this reading so far, East Lynne strikes me forcibly for its interest in money. It is almost as specific as a Jane Austen novel about the financial situation of its characters, especially the spendthrift earl who has somehow managed to burn through enough capital to have underwritten an income of L60,000 / year–at a time when, as the footnotes to our edition tell us, a middle-class family needed something like L300 / year for a comfortable life. Even accounting for inflation, that makes Mr Darcy look shabby, and yet Lord Mount Severn has not only spent it all, but left absolutely nothing for his angelically beautiful, sweet-eyed, if brunette, daughter Isabel. So pinched for cash is Isabel that after his sudden death she doesn’t even have enough to move to her new home, where she will be living on the charity of the new earl and his wife. The smitten lawyer Archibald Carlyle tries to help by dropping a crumpled L100 note on her lap as she drives away. The ambiguity of this gesture (is it romantic? chivalric? forward, even vaguely compromising?) nicely represents the complex interrelationships in the novel between emotions and economics. When he eventually proposes, it’s as much to save her from physical as well as financial vulnerability as anything, and in fact what he offers her, explicitly, is the chance to return to her former home as its mistress–that is, he offers her security, as well as his love (which we are led to believe is really a kind of infatuation–“Beware your senses, Mr. Carlyle,” the narrator warns). She admits she does not love him (she too is infatuated, with the handsome ne’er-do-well Francis Levison, who fortunately, or not, is not the marrying kind, as he is quick to warn her–we know he would feel differently, of course, if she still had her fortune). So she trades her self for his money, a transaction that in some contexts, in some novels, is shown up as little better than prostitution. We might even think of Austen’s Charlotte Lucas in this way (how much money would you consider reasonable in return for sleeping with Mr Collins?)–but both Austen and Wood are clearly pragmatists, refusing the most stringent moral judgment because they, and their novels, are so aware that their women simply can’t afford (literally) to be squeamish.

Evaluating East Lynne

Working through Ellen Wood’s 1861 best-seller East Lynne with my sensation fiction seminar yesterday, I decided to come clean with my students: for all that I find many aspects of the novel interesting, even fascinating, and certainly worth our time in class, I also think that as a novel–that is, as an aesthetic artefact, an artistic production–East Lynne is second-rate at best. But, as I also told them, it’s challenging to justify this judgment. There’s no universal standard for greatness in novel-writing, after all, no ready measure of skill or accomplishment. G. H. Lewes praised Jane Austen for her perfect “mastery over the means to her end”; we need such a flexible notion of greatness in a genre that accommodates both Dickens and George Eliot, both Virginia Woolf and, say, George Orwell among its acknowledged geniuses. 200 years of novel criticism have taught us to be eclectic in our tastes and adaptable in our reading practices, to be wary of defining great traditions. And yet is it really so out of order to ask “but it is any good?” How could we answer this question, absent some template for first-rate fiction? (For the record, the class has been enjoying the novel, and it certainly has its defenders!) The only strategy I could think of was comparative. Since we obviously could not do point-by-point comparisons between entire novels, and because my primary interest was in the quality of the writing, rather than broader issues of theme, plot, or characterization, I put together some short passages for us to consider. Of course it’s an imperfect exercise, but I tried to be fair. The passage from Wood is both key to the novel and (I think) representative of her tone and style; the same (I think) is true of the other samples. All use intrusive (and moralistic) narration; all describe “fallen” women. Here they are:

How fared it with Lady Isabel? Just as it must be expected to fare, and does fare, when a high-principled gentlewoman falls from her pedestal. Never had she experienced a moment’s calm, or peace, or happiness, since the fatal night of quitting her home. She had taken a blind leap in a moment of wild passion, when, instead of the garden of roses it had been her persuader’s pleasure to promise her she would fall into, but which, in truth, she had barely glanced at, for that had not been her moving motive, she had found herself plunged into a yawning abyss of horror, from which there was never more any escape–never more, never more. The very instant–the very night of her departure, she awoke to what she had done. The guilt, whose aspect had been shunned in the prospective, assumed at once its true frightful color, the blackness of darkness; and a lively remorse, a never-dying anguish, took possession of her soul forever. Oh, reader, believe me! Lady–wife–mother! Should you ever be tempted to abandon your home, so will you awake. Whatever trials may be the lot of your married life, though they may magnify themselves to your crushed spirit as beyond the nature, the endurance of woman to bear, resolve to bear them; fall down upon your knees, and pray to be enabled to bear them–pray for patience–pray for strength to resist the demon that would tempt you to escape; bear unto death, rather than forfeit your fair name and your good conscience; for be assured that the alternative, if you do rush on to it, will be found worse than death. (Ellen Wood, East Lynne)

Poor wandering Hetty, with the rounded childish face and the hard, unloving, despairing soul looking out of it—with the narrow heart and narrow thoughts, no room in them for any sorrows but her own, and tasting that sorrow with the more intense bitterness! My heart bleeds for her as I see her toiling along on her weary feet, or seated in a cart, with her eyes fixed vacantly on the road before her, never thinking or caring whither it tends, till hunger comes and makes her desire that a village may be near.

What will be the end, the end of her objectless wandering, apart from all love, caring for human beings only through her pride, clinging to life only as the hunted wounded brute clings to it?
God preserve you and me from being the beginners of such misery! (George Eliot, Adam Bede)

What were her thoughts when he left her? She remained for hours after he was gone, the sunshine pouring into the room, and Rebecca sitting alone on the bed’s edge. The drawers were all opened and their contents scattered about—dresses and feathers, scarfs and trinkets, a heap of tumbled vanities lying in a wreck. Her hair was falling over her shoulders; her gown was torn where Rawdon had wrenched the brilliants out of it. She heard him go downstairs a few minutes after he left her, and the door slamming and closing on him. She knew he would never come back. He was gone forever. Would he kill himself?—she thought—not until after he had met Lord Steyne. She thought of her long past life, and all the dismal incidents of it. Ah, how dreary it seemed, how miserable, lonely and profitless! Should she take laudanum, and end it, to have done with all hopes, schemes, debts, and triumphs? The French maid found her in this position—sitting in the midst of her miserable ruins with clasped hands and dry eyes. The woman was her accomplice and in Steyne’s pay. “Mon Dieu, madame, what has happened?” she asked.
What had happened? Was she guilty or not? She said not, but who could tell what was truth which came from those lips, or if that corrupt heart was in this case pure? (Thackeray, Vanity Fair)

The discussion that followed was certainly lively. Perhaps rather than recapitulating it, I’ll stop this post here and see if anyone out there would like to comment on how the passages compare.