This Week in My Classes: Worlds in Crisis–Mary Barton and P. D. James

After last week’s big effort towards launching the students in my survey class on their research assignments, we spent our first two classes this week with Mary Barton: no PowerPoint, no overheads, just me, them, and the novel. My impression (though it is necessarily impressionistic, since I can’t even really focus on most of their faces in our particular room) is that they are finding the reading a bit of a slog right now. This is not really surprising, since for many of them this is their first experience reading Victorian fiction (probably, any long fiction, though since many of them are English majors, I shouldn’t assume the worst, I suppose). And even those who have ventured into the nineteenth century before are more likely to have read Austen or the Brontes than any Gaskell, much less Gaskell at her most sentimental and didactic. Wait–that’s probably Ruth, so they should consider themselves lucky to be reading a novel in which there is a lot of action, including a fire (with a daring rescue), a murder, a boat chase, a trial scene, and a touching deathbed reconciliation. In Ruth, as I actually told them yesterday, the basic story is that Ruth is seduced and then spends 400 pages being very, very sorry. On Monday I focused on Gaskell’s strategies for softening her readers up to the working-class families who make up the large majority of the novel’s population, only, once she’s made us all cozy with them, to start bumping them off in large numbers. The string of deaths in the first 90 pages of the novel really is quite shocking, which of course is the point: we need to ask, as the characters themselves as, why their lives are so precarious. We looked also at John Barton and the process by which he becomes a radical, a Chartist, and eventually a [spoiler alert!] murderer. Gaskell is careful to show the social and economic causes of his alienation, hostility, and violence: his Chartism is not the result of any moral failing on his part, but of his desperate circumstances, and, most important to her analysis, of his perception (largely justified) that those around him with power and money do not listen or care. Communication between the classes: this is, essentially, Gaskell’s prescription for solving the ‘condition of England’ problem, and of course her novel is explicitly offered as an aid to that conciliatory process. Mary Barton is another example, that is, of a novel in which the characters have difficulties that would be solved if only they had the opportunity to read the novel they inhabit. (Vanity Fair is another one, or so I have argued.) Is there a name for this kind of self-referential intertextuality?

If Mary Barton were called John Barton, as Gaskell once planned, then it would be a more radical book than it is, but in Mary Barton John’s story is–not sidelined, exactly, but nearly overwhelmed by Mary’s story, which is in some ways a predictable love triangle. Yesterday we (well, I–Monday, I hope to really bring them into the discussion, since by then they should have read the whole book!) focused on how that story, and women more generally, fit into the novel’s larger interests. I looked especially at Mary’s Aunt Esther, who is lured by her experience of financial independence (she worked in a factory) to desire more social mobility than the novel sees fit: she eventually falls for a rich man and then becomes a fallen woman, and she wanders the margins of the town, and the novel, as a cautionary tale for Mary. Tomorrow we will spend our tutorials on the ever-exciting topic of proper MLA-style citations, then Monday we wrap up our class work on the novel with, I hope, some vigorous debate about the novel’s proposed solution to its problems.

In Women and Detective Fiction we’re reading P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. I very much admire this novel, which exemplifies James’s desire to use the structure of the mystery novel as a frame on which to hang (an unfortunate verb, in this particular case!) issues of character and theme. I was rereading its conclusion today soon after reading this eloquent and depressing post at Tales from the Reading Room about the recent catastrophic budget cuts being proposed for higher education in the UK, which include potentially reductions of as much as 100% for humanities education. This juxtaposition gave unusual resonance to the confrontation between Cordelia and Sir Ronald Callender, who has murdered his own son in order to protect the funding for his laboratory. In response to Cordelia’s appeal to love, Callender makes an overtly utilitarian argument for his crime:

[D]on’t say that what I’m doing here isn’t worth one single human life. . . The greatest good of the greatest number. Beside that fundamental declaration of common sense all other philosophies are metaphysical abstractions.

Callender is a ‘conservationist,’ that is, an environmentalist. So in some sense he is pursuing the ‘greatest good of the greatest number.’ But Cordelia confronts his narrow definition of ‘good’ with an appeal to humanity (‘what is the use of making the world more beautiful if the people who live in it can’t love one another?’), and it’s surely no accident that the individual victim here is a humanist and that one of the battlegrounds is Cambridge, which Cordelia idealizes as “ordered beauty for the service of learning” before she realizes that its scholarly pursuits have at least two faces: in Bunyan’s words, which she quotes, “then I saw that there was a way to hell even from the gates of heaven.” That James takes Cordelia’s side is suggested by Sir Ronald’s role as the villain of the piece. He has created his own Frankenstein’s monster in the person of his lab assistant, Lunn, whose subservience to his scientific master nearly leads to Cordelia’s death. In a genre that typically rewards objectivity and detachment, Cordelia (though just barely) survives and succeeds because of her attachments and loyalties, her refusal to allow love to be devalued, even after death. Though in the end she causes at least one, arguably two, deaths, and lies even to the point of becoming an accomplice to a murder, Dalgliesh concludes that “she’s absolutely without guilt.” Using the skeletal apparatus of a crime novel, then, James has in fact written a novel about values, and in particular about the conflict between two visions of learning, one coldly scientific and the other youthful, naive, idealistic, but ultimately worth fighting for–a novel, as it turns out, well suited for the current moment.

Gaskell, “The Old Nurse’s Story”

I’m in the thick of my summer course: it’s hard to believe that we’ve already covered Pride and Prejudice, “The Two Drovers,” and Jane Eyre. I have a great group of students–they seem very engaged and a significant proportion of them are contributing with gusto to class discussion. But the assignments are starting to come in, so it may be a bit quiet around here for a bit. In the meantime, let me recommend Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story,” one of our texts for tomorrow, for your reading pleasure. Here’s a teaser:

And the great frost never ceased all this time; and whenever it was a more stormy night than usual, between the gusts, and through the wind, we heard the old lord playing on the great organ. But, old lord, or not, wherever Miss Rosamond went, there I followed; for my love for her, pretty helpless orphan, was stronger than my fear for the grand and terrible sound. Besides, it rested with me to keep her cheerful and merry, as beseemed her age. So we played together, and wandered together, here and there, and everywhere; for I never dared to lose sight of her again in that large and rambling house. And so it happened, that one afternoon, not long before Christmas Day, we were playing together on the billiard-table in the great hall (not that we knew the way of playing, but she liked to roll the smooth ivory balls with her pretty hands, and I liked to do whatever she did); and, by-and-by, without our noticing it, it grew dusk indoors, though it was still light in the open air, and I was thinking of taking her back into the nursery, when, all of a sudden, she cried out:

‘Look, Hester! look! there is my poor little girl out in the snow!’

I turned towards the long narrow windows, and there, sure enough, I saw a little girl, less than my Miss Rosamond dressed all unfit to be out-of-doors such a bitter night, crying, and beating against the window-panes, as if she wanted to be let in. She seemed to sob and wail, till Miss Rosamond could bear it no longer, and was flying to the door to open it, when, all of a sudden, and close up upon us, the great organ pealed out so loud and thundering, it fairly made me tremble; and all the more, when I remembered me that, even in the stillness of that dead-cold weather, I had heard no sound of little battering hands upon the window-glass, although the Phantom Child had seemed to put forth all its force; and, although I had seen it wail and cry, no faintest touch of sound had fallen upon my ears. Whether I remembered all this at the very moment, I do not know; the great organ sound had so stunned me into terror. . .

The full text can be found here or here.

This Week in My Classes (September 22, 2009)

Nearly two weeks in, we’ve moved past the throat-clearing stage in both of my classes and are deep into our first novels.

In The Nineteenth-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy I’m leading off with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South this year. Last time I taught it I opened with Trollope’s The Warden, which I thoroughly enjoy, but I like to give Gaskell a turn too. Like her first novel, Mary Barton, North and South is a ‘condition of England’ novel, addressing the tensions between “masters and men” in the industrial north (yes, there are always a couple of students who are surprised that it is not a novel about the American civil war). Mary Barton is a passionate, sometimes gripping, deeply sincere but rather melodramatic novel. I quite enjoy it, especially the climactic boat chase (!), but I think North and South is both artistically and intellectually a better book. Its structure is more deliberate, its treatment of the central class conflicts more sophisticated, and its characters more complicated. Its protagonist, Margaret Hale, is a particularly interesting figure. Gaskell sets her up from the very first scenes as a woman not quite at home or at ease with the conventional feminine values of her time. It’s not until she is torn away from her idyllic country home to the rough environment of Milton-Northern (a.k.a. Manchester), however, that she begins to see what kind of work there is to be done in the world, and then to puzzle out her own role in it. The charismatic Milton mill owner John Thornton of course plays an important part in Margaret’s changing perspective, though in the tradition of Pride and Prejudice, it turns out that he has a lot to learn from her as well (ah, the courtship of the mind, truly the most seductive kind). Yesterday we wound up at the dramatic scene between Thornton and his striking workers. Goaded by Margaret into going down to speak with them “like a man,” Thornton confronts the mob:

Again she took her place by the farthest window. He was on the steps below; she saw that by the direction of a thousand angry eyes; but she could neither see nor hear any-thing save the savage satisfaction of the rolling angry murmur. She threw the window wide open. Many in the crowd were mere boys; cruel and thoughtless,–cruel because they were thoughtless; some were men, gaunt as wolves, and mad for prey. She knew how it was; they were like Boucher, with starving children at home–relying on ultimate success in their efforts to get higher wages, and enraged beyond measure at discovering that Irishmen were to be brought in to rob their little ones of bread. Margaret knew it all; she read it in Boucher’s face, forlornly desperate and livid with rage. If Mr. Thornton would but say something to them–let them hear his voice only–it seemed as if it would be better than this wild beating and raging against the stony silence that vouchsafed them. no word, even of anger or reproach. But perhaps he was speaking now; there was a momentary hush of their noise, inarticulate as that of a troop of animals. She tore her bonnet off; and bent forwards to hear. She could only see; for if Mr. Thornton had indeed made the attempt to speak, the momentary instinct to listen to him was past and gone, and the people were raging worse than ever. He stood with his arms folded; still as a statue; his face pale with repressed excitement. They were trying to intimidate him–to make him flinch; each was urging the other on to some immediate act of personal violence. Margaret felt intuitively, that in an instant all would be uproar; the first touch would cause an explosion, in which, among such hundreds of infuriated men and reckless boys, even Mr. Thornton’s life would be unsafe,–that in another instant the stormy passions would have passed their bounds, and swept away all barriers of reason, or apprehension of consequence. Even while she looked, she saw lads in the back-ground stooping to take off their heavy wooden clogs–the readiest missile they could find; she saw it was the spark to the gunpowder, and, with a cry, which no one heard, she rushed out of the room, down stairs,–she had lifted the great iron bar of the door with an imperious force–had thrown the door open wide–and was there, in face of that angry sea of men, her eyes smiting them with flaming arrows of reproach. The clogs were arrested in the hands that held them–the countenances, so fell not a moment before, now looked irresolute, and as if asking what this meant. For she stood between them and their enemy. She could not speak, but held out her arms towards them till she could recover breath.

‘Oh, do not use violence! He is one man, and you are many; but her words died away, for there was no tone in her voice; it was but a hoarse whisper. Mr. Thornton stood a little on one side; he had moved away from behind her, as if jealous of anything that should come between him and danger.

‘Go!’ said she, once more (and now her voice was like a cry). ‘The soldiers are sent for–are coming. Go peaceably. Go away. You shall have relief from your complaints, whatever they are.’

‘Shall them Irish blackguards be packed back again?’ asked one from out the crowd, with fierce threatening in his voice.

‘Never, for your bidding!’ exclaimed Mr. Thornton. And instantly the storm broke. The hootings rose and filled the air,–but Margaret did not hear them. Her eye was on the group of lads who had armed themselves with their clogs some time before. She saw their gesture–she knew its meaning,–she read their aim. Another moment, and Mr. Thornton might be smitten down,–he whom she had urged and goaded to come to this perilous place. She only thought how she could save him. She threw her arms around him; she made her body into a shield from the fierce people beyond. Still, with his arms folded, he shook her off.

‘Go away,’ said he, in his deep voice. ‘This is no place for you.’

‘It is!’ said she. ‘You did not see what I saw.’ If she thought her sex would be a protection,–if, with shrinking eyes she had turned away from the terrible anger of these men, in any hope that ere she looked again they would have paused and reflected, and slunk away, and vanished,–she was wrong. Their reckless passion had carried them too far to stop–at least had carried some of them too far; for it is always the savage lads, with their love of cruel excitement, who head the riot–reckless to what bloodshed it may lead. A clog whizzed through the air. Margaret’s fascinated eyes watched its progress; it missed its aim, and she turned sick with affright, but changed not her position, only hid her face on Mr. Thornton s arm. Then she turned and spoke again:’

‘For God’s sake! do not damage your cause by this violence. You do not know what you are doing.’ She strove to make her words distinct.

A sharp pebble flew by her, grazing forehead and cheek, and drawing a blinding sheet of light before her eyes. She lay like one dead on Mr. Thornton’s shoulder.

Exciting stuff! In the reiterated imagery of storms and surging seas, and also in the emphasis on men driven beyond reason by hunger, ignorance, and powerlessness, you can hear echoes of Carlyle’s French Revolution. Margaret’s passionate and breathtakingly public intervention is charged with political and erotic energy, much of which is beyond her control–it seems nearly impossible for her to express her individual agency, to control the meaning of her own actions, so entangled do they inevitably become in other people’s assumptions (or what we might, if you’ll forgive a little jargon, call systems of signification). Of course everyone watching, not to mention Thornton himself, assumes that she is in love with him. As Dorothea Brooke will say about her own efforts to change the world, “How can one ever do anything nobly Christian, living among people with such petty thoughts?” (We will be reading Middlemarch later this term, and I hope we will make many such connections between these two women intensely struggling to answer the ultimate question of vocation–“What could she do, what ought she to do?”–in terms beyond those usually set for their sex, but without denying their own sexuality.)

In Victorian Sensations, we have begun with Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. This novel is enormous fun: intricately plotted, with Collins’s special trick of multiple narrators stringing us along as we puzzle our way through its various mysteries. Each time I read it I am surprised all over again at how subversive it is: its noblemen are ignoble bastards (sometimes literally); its women have moustaches (OK, just one of them) and its men lounge around on sofas (again, just one of them, but another wears flowered waistcoats and embroidered trousers while fondling his pet mice); characters aren’t who they say they are, or who they look like, to the point that they aren’t always sure who they actually are. Dickens famously called the first encounter with the ‘woman in white’ one of the two best moments in 19th-century literature, and it is a great moment, but surely just as thrilling is the reappearance of **** (sorry, no spoilers allowed) from literally beyond the grave. Why just be suspenseful if you can be funny about it at the same time? For this course we are reading four of the most (in)famous examples of Victorian ‘sensation’ fiction and then considering a range of critical questions about them, from their contemporary reception to current critical approaches, to the meta-question of how far (and for what purposes) they can be distinguished from their canonical cousins. Inevitably, the question of their literary merit will come up, which will give us an opportunity to discuss how we measure “literary merit” anyway. I think The Woman in White is awesome by pretty much any standard except philosophical–but who says intellectual or theoretical substance is any kind of necessity in a novel? Henry James thought George Eliot’s philosophical tendencies interfered with the quality of her novels. East Lynne raises, well, different issues, about which, more when we get there!

Fiction and Development

Recently The Telegraph reported on the contribution fiction can make to international development, as examined by a study done by a team of scholars at Manchester University and the London School of Economics:

[Dr. Rodgers, of Manchester University’s Brooks World Poverty Institude] said: “Despite the regular flow of academic studies, expert reports, and policy position papers, it is arguably novelists who do as good a job – if not a better one – of representing and communicating the realities of international development.

“While fiction may not always show a set of presentable research findings, it does not compromise on complexity, politics or readability in the way that academic literature sometimes does.

“And fiction often reaches a much larger and diverse audience than academic work and may therefore be more influential in shaping public knowledge and understanding of development issues.”

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner “has arguably done more to educate Western readers about the realities of daily life in Afghanistan under the Taliban and thereafter than any government media campaign, advocacy organisation report, or social science research”, said the report. (read the rest here)

I actually supervised an honours thesis in Dalhousie’s International Development Studies program that examined Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South for its implicit and explicit contributions to theories of development. One source we found useful in setting up the project was Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice, which makes a related case for the potential value of literature and the “literary imagination” in developing public policy; another was an essay by Richard Horton in the TLS called “Mr. Thornton’s Experiments.” The risk of such analyses is that they risk reducing literary works to their social or historical content. What I’ve always liked about Nussbaum’s work in theory is that she aspires to consider literary form, rather than to abstract social or political messages from her texts. In practice, I don’t think she always manages to do this, but the idea that literary form is itself expressive of philosophical and other ideas seems to me a case she (and others including Wayne Booth) make quite convincingly. The IDS student I worked with did a good job at incorporating explicit consideration of genre and form into her analysis.


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.

Carlyle Letters Online

A fabulous new resource has just been opened up online by Duke University Press: the letters of Jane and Thomas Carlyle. I’ve only peered around briefly, but the site is very attractive and seems easy to use. More to the point, it gives us easy access to all kinds of gems, such as this one, from TC to Elizabeth Gaskell just after the publication of Mary Barton:

Dear Madam (for I catch the treble of that fine melodious voice very well),—We have read your Book here, my Wife first and then I; both of us with real pleasure. A beautiful, cheerfully pious, social, clear and observant character is everywhere recogniseable in the writer, which surely is the welcomest sight any writer can shew us in his books; your field moreover is new, important, full of rich materials (which, as is usual, required a soul of some opulence to recognise them as rich): the result is a Book seeming to take its place far above the ordinary garbage of Novels,—a Book which every intelligent person may read with entertainment, and which it will do every one some good to read. I gratefully accept it as a real contribution (almost the first real one) towards developing a huge subject, which has lain dumb too long, and really ought to speak for itself, and tell us its meaning a little, if there be any voice in it at all! Speech, or Literature (which is, or should be, Select-Speech) could hardly find a more rational function, I think, at present.

The letters are fully indexed and footnoted. Thanks to Jack Kolb on the Victoria listserv for making sure we found out about this right away! I can hardly wait to browse around some more.