Crying Over Bleak House: My Sentimental Journey

RichardIIITomb.jpgThe George Eliot Bicentenary Conference was the main reason for my recent trip to England, but of course I took advantage of having crossed the pond to do a bit of sightseeing. I spent a couple of days in London on either side of the conference, and I also traveled to Leicester a day ahead of time so I could visit the Richard III Visitor Center and Richard’s new tomb in Leicester Cathedral.

My 2012essay “All the World to Nothing” in Open Letters Monthly explains my longstanding fascination with Richard III and includes a delightfully (or mortifyingly) geeky photograph of a much younger me beside his statue in 1986. I could not quite recreate that picture on this trip, but I did take a selfie next to the model of his head made by experts in facial reconstruction after his skeleton was discovered under a parking lot and then confirmed as his. (It’s a remarkable story; the documentary about it is available here if you’re interested.) The excavation site was protected when the parking lot was repaved and you can see where he was actually found, under the floor of the long-gone Grey Friars Church. Even the intrusively chatty volunteer stationed by it could not completely dispel the haunting feeling of actually standing where his ruined body had lain for 500 years. (Bless her heart, she was just enthusiastic, but she would keep telling me things I already knew!)Burial-Site

I expected to be moved by seeing Richard’s grave, and I was. It has been a long time since I felt the warm partisanship on his behalf that Tey’s The Daughter of Time once sparked: it wasn’t fervent Ricardianism in real time that made this visit emotional so much as being reminded of how ardently I was once involved in it all and feeling connected, through these remarkably concrete (no pun intended!) links between past and present, to my own history. Walking through the exhibit, viewing the burial site, visiting the Cathedral–I was paying my respects to Richard’s memory but also to the person I used to be. It renewed a kind of personal continuity that can seem, living as I do far from my family, away from the sites and landmarks of my own past, disconcertingly fractured. “Where did she go, that girl?” I sometimes wonder; perhaps oddly, there among the stones and relics of a place even further from my old home, I felt sure she was still there.

WindsorThat sense of reconnecting with my former self is part of what always makes time in London feel so special to me. After my trip there in 2009, I also remarked that I felt “renewed” by the experience. This time too I was, as I wrote then,

most moved by those [sights] that most vividly reminded me of Carlyle’s words about Scott, that he had “taught all men this truth … that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies and abstractions of men.”

On this visit I returned to some of the same places I went to in 2009 and also in 2011, when I was in England for a conference in Birmingham–including (of course!) most of the same bookstores. I especially enjoy wandering the streets and squares of Bloomsbury, which in their shabby elegance feel strangely homey to me: it’s easy to imagine not just Woolf and her cohort but Brittain and Holtby striding along or settling on a shady bench deep in conversation. I visited Windsor Castle for the first time on this trip, and it is grandiose and impressive; it was thrilling to walk between the towering walls that housed so many historical icons and breathtaking to look down in St. George’s Chapel and see that Henry VIII was buried below my feet. But it felt more personally meaningful just to sit in Gordon Square and be myself for a while, temporarily unencumbered by external obligations or expectations about who I am or what I should be doing, now or next. That freedom is one of the great luxuries of any holiday, of course, and it’s as risky as it is easy to fall into the fantasy that if you could only stay somewhere else, you could magically be someone else, someone you might like a little better, someone who lives (and writes) better than the person you are when you’re at home.

Gordon Square

One of the repeat visits I made on this trip was to the Dickens Museum, which I had visited with my mother in 2009 but not since. I wanted to go back because in the intervening decade I have spent so much more time reading and thinking about Dickens’s novels. In the meantime, too, the museum has acquired the writing desk Dickens used in his house at Gad’s Hill Place:

Dickens-Desk

To many of us, this desk and chair are familiar from Luke Fildes’ “The Empty Chair,” painted in 1870 after Dickens’s death:

empty-chair

Seeing this desk was the first of what turned out to be several occasions when I found myself unexpectedly tearing up. Another was when I stumbled across some original monthly issues of Bleak House at the V&A:

Bleak-House-Originals

Another was as I strolled the lovely grounds of Arbury Hall, the manor house on the estate George Eliot’s father Robert Evans managed:

Arbury-Hall

We visited other places on our George Eliot tour–a highlight of my trip overall–but for some reason this was the one I responded to most emotionally.

GE-PlaqueBut why? Not just why did seeing Arbury Hall move me so much but why was I so emotionally susceptible to seeing those bits of Bleak House or standing next to Dickens’s desk? I am used to feeling excited when I see things or visit places that are real parts of the historical stories I have known for so long, but I have not previously been startled into poignancy in quite the same way. Is it just age? I do seem, now that I’m into my fifties, to be more readily tearful, which is no doubt partly hormones but which I think is also because of the keen awareness of time passing that has come with other changes in my life, such as my children both graduating from high school and moving out of the house–an ongoing process at this point but still a significant transition for all of us. Also, as I approach twenty-five years of working at Dalhousie, and as so many of my senior colleagues retire and disappear from my day-to-day life, I have had to acknowledge that I am now “senior” here, and that my own next big professional milestone will also be retirement–it’s not imminent, but it’s certainly visible on the horizon.

Silas-First-EdPerhaps it’s these contexts that gave greater resonance to seeing these tangible pieces of other people’s lives, especially people who have made such a mark on mine. Though I have usually considered writers’ biographies of secondary interest to their work, there was something powerful for me this time in being reminded that Dickens and Eliot were both very real people who had, and whose books had, a real physical presence in the world. People sometimes talk dismissively about fiction as if it is insubstantial, inessential, peripheral to to the “real world” (a term often deployed to mean utilitarian business of some kind). But words and ideas and books are very real things, and they make a very real difference in the world: they make us think and feel differently about it and thus act differently in it. Another of my London stops this time was at The Second Shelf , where I held first editions of Silas Marner and North and South in my hands (very carefully!). I described this on Twitter only slightly hyperbolically as the closest thing I could have to a religious experience. In the presentation I gave at the conference, I quoted from George Eliot’s poem “O, may I join the choir invisible”:

O, may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence …

There’s no question that she lived up to this wish. It’s hard for me not to feel a bit as Dorothea does, though with a more deserving object: “what a work to be in any way present at, to assist in, though only as a lamp-holder!”

Even so, I’m still not entirely sure why it kept making me cry to be in proximity to what one person I spoke with about it aptly called the “materiality” of these writers’ lives. But it seems right to give Dickens the last word on this: “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”

South-Farm
South Farm, Arbury Estate.
George Eliot was born in the upstairs room
November 22 1819

 

Notes from the Field: #GE2019conf

ge02019-logoIn retrospect, I’m glad my pitch for a article reporting back on the George Eliot Bicentenary Conference was rejected: the cognitive dissonance I struggled with during the conference was strong enough that I have been puzzling over how or whether to write about it even here, in relative obscurity and without being answerable to anyone else for whatever it is that I come up with to say.

It’s not that I have bad things to report. In many ways, it was a wonderful and invigorating experience. I spent time with a lot of lovely people, including some I have known for ages on Twitter and finally got to meet face to face but also new acquaintances met at the breakfast table or in the courtyard or at sessions. At all-purpose conferences like ACCUTE it can be hard to find a critical mass of people who share your interests, or even to see the same people at two different panels; I have typically found such events deadening rather than enlivening. This group, in contrast, was unified by a common commitment to understanding George Eliot and her work better; though there were multiple sessions in each time slot, a sense of community emerged pretty quickly as faces and names became familiar. I enjoyed many good informal conversations about George Eliot, about 19th-century literature more generally, about teaching, about academia, and about our lives. Then there was the stimulating if slightly surreal experience of seeing in person scholars who work has been familiar to me for as many years as I have been doing scholarly work on Victorian literature–most notably  George Levine, Gillian Beer, Isobel Armstrong, and Rosemary Ashton (whose biography of George Eliot I have often recommended). All of the plenary addresses were conference highlights (as they should be), but especially the moderated discussion between Levine and Beer about George Eliot studies then and now (and in the future).

Conference-Court

Of particular importance to me was finally meeting Philip Davis. I have been interested in his work with The Reader Organisation for nearly as long as I have been blogging; their journal The Reader was one of the first non-academic venues for thoughtful writing about literature that I became aware of. He first became aware of me (as far as I know) when I reviewed his fascinating book The Transferred Life of George Eliot for the TLS a couple of years ago. He wrote to me about my review and we struck up a correspondence that led to my writing an essay for The Reader on Carol Shields’ Unless (which readers of this blog will recognize as an old favourite of mine). When I saw the announcement for the bicentenary conference the first thing I thought of was that he and I should put together a panel on bringing George Eliot to broader audiences. Happily, he liked the idea too, and that’s what we did; we called it “George Eliot in the Wider World.”

strangled-tote.pngEach of the presenters on our panel addressed quite a different “application” for George Eliot. I spoke about what I see as reasons for but also the difficulties with “pitching” her work to the kind of bookish public I have been trying to write for–at left is my design for a George Eliot tote bag meant to illustrate the case I made that her books are not, as too often assumed, too long and dull for the “common reader” but too fierce. Phil spoke about the often profound impact Eliot’s work has on participants in the groups run by the Reader Organisation; his University of Liverpool colleague Josie Billington discussed the therapeutic value of particular elements of George Eliot’s writing, especially her use of free indirect discourse; and Alison Liebling from Cambridge University talked about the relevance of George Eliot’s ideas to her work on the ethics of prison culture. I admit, hearing the other speakers made me fret for a while that my contribution was on the frivolous side: it seemed to matter much more to help people change their lives or feel more human than to compete for the attention of editors and magazine readers. But then I thought about the essays I have in fact written and I felt OK, both about them and about the people I have actually reached with them. If one thing unified our slightly disparate presentations it was a shared conviction that the more people who read George Eliot the better, in however many different ways and for whatever different purposes.

GE-Plaque-Griff-House

So far so good! I would also add a couple of other sessions to the unequivocal plus column. One was on teaching George Eliot, which of course is something I work on and worry about a lot; I particularly appreciated the presentations by Jennifer Holberg and Steven Venturino (both Twitter friends I was so happy to hang out with in person!), which made me think a lot about ways to slow down by, for instance, letting go a bit of the coverage model and allowing more time for things like reading passages aloud and really lingering on them. I have always done some of this, of course, but there’s no question that for many students keeping up with reading long books is a challenge these days. Jennifer offered some really useful data related to that, partly to make the point that we need to focus on teaching the students we actually have, not the ones we might wish we have or–a common problem, I think–the ones we were ourselves, or at least think we were. Steven spoke convincingly about the value of “serial reading.” The other panel I would single out was on George Eliot and the modern reader; in particular, Valerie Sanders’s paper about how George Eliot is discussed or drawn on in contemporary literary culture had strong resonances with my own.

Book Club Cover

What distinguished these three panels from the others I attended is that they were outward-facing: they were all organized around ideas for talking about George Eliot and her fiction to people besides other scholars and academics. They focused on and generated discussions about mobilizing what we know about her work, about turning our informed enthusiasm into something for other people to use or share or benefit from. I want to make sure I am very clear about this next point (because the opposite case is made too often by people with very different aims than mine): I have no objection to discourse that is exclusively for and between experts. Not every conversation has to be for everybody, and literary scholarship is a specialized field of inquiry like any other: those who pursue it need opportunities to share and test their ideas with other specialists. Although I have written many times on this site about my own vexed relationship with academic literary criticism, I have consistently explained that I don’t think nobody should do it–I just no longer believe that it’s the only (or, sometimes, the most valuable) kind of work for people in my profession to pursue. Crucially, I no longer think it is the kind of work I want to do. (I haven’t written as much about these issues lately; if you want to review what I have said about them you can browse the academia or criticism indexes and read as much or as little as you like!)

What I’m going to say next follows predictably both from what I just said and from what I’ve been saying here for over a decade. The part of the conference I (mostly) did not enjoy or find rewarding was what some people might consider the actual conference, that is, the panels of finely wrought, scrupulously argued, and (by and large) highly abstract and specialized academic papers. I really tried–to listen closely, to engage with the ideas and arguments, to think my way into the conversations they were having. Mostly, I failed. I found this genuinely disheartening, though really I should not have been surprised. I am not criticizing the presenters. They were doing what they came to do, what their profession requires of them, what–presumably–they find interesting and intellectually stimulating, and they were doing it well. Some good evidence for that is that at every panel I attended, there were questions from the audience that showed a high level of attention and engagement. As the conference wound up, there were many expressions of excitement about how stimulating and transformative and generative it had been. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity. For people who like this kind of thing, there was a lot of it to like at this conference!

Books

But I don’t like it–not much, or not usually, and, mostly, not this time either. I thought I might do better when all the papers were on George Eliot, but that just made me more frustrated–at myself, mostly, for not getting it. I have previously described my experience of attending academic talks (#NotAllAcademicTalks) as making me feel like a non-believer in church, and for all my belief–for all our shared belief–in the interest and value of paying close attention to George Eliot, that’s how I felt at a lot of the sessions I attended. I wondered beforehand if the conference would inspire me to return to more conventional academic scholarship, if not as a producer, at least as a reader. I even hoped, a little, that it would. I did hear about some projects and lines of inquiry that seemed genuinely interesting, and there was something generally encouraging about the evident energy around the scholarly enterprise as a whole (as I have said here before, whatever my feelings about individual trees, I am a committed supporter of the academic forest).  Overall, however, my conference experience reminded me of the reasons why I have been doing something else for so long. This is where the cognitive dissonance comes in, though: how can I think it’s a good thing and yet want no part of it myself?

Cover2It isn’t exactly that I want no part of it, though. As I hope I have also made clear here over the years, my own intellectual life has been shaped and enriched by many kinds of academic scholarship (though not always the most currently trendy kinds). I have contributed to that specialized work and remain proud of those contributions. Who knows: I may make more! Probably not about George Eliot, though–the conference confirmed for me that I want to keep moving in a different direction with my research. I’m not ruling out doing any more writing about George Eliot. I already have one piece in the works for the fall (I hope) and she will always have my heart. But after three immersive days listening in on what academics talk about when they talk about George Eliot now, I am more convinced than ever, not that I don’t need them, but that they don’t need me. I have nothing to add to the work they are doing, and (as I have long argued) there are enough people engaged in it that the field can spare a few of us to go and do otherwise–indeed, it not just can, but almost certainly should.

The Years: Woolf’s Interesting Failure

oup-the-yearsI’m about three quarters of the way through my second reading of Woolf’s The Years. It is still pretty slow going for me, slower than before even because instead of wondering what the heck is happening (or, as more often seems to be the case in the novel, not happening) I am trying to figure it out with the help of the various sources I’ve been reading around in and also the amply introduced and copiously annotated Cambridge edition–of its 870 pages, only 388 are actually The Years. That’s not really a sufficient excuse for my not having read once more to the end, though: the truth is that The Years engages me much more in theory than in practice. I quite like reading about it, but I (still) don’t much like reading it.

I don’t think The Years is a failure because I don’t enjoy it, however. I am pretty careful about not assuming my own taste is a reliable measure of literary quality! (Just what is a reliable measure of literary quality I’m not sure anyone knows, but that’s another matter. Or maybe not, as the rest of this post may show.) I think it’s a failure partly because Woolf herself thought so: “Its going to be pretty bad, I’m certain,” she wrote in her diary about the book’s impending publication; ” … but at the same time I myself know why its a failure, & that its failure is deliberate.” But I don’t think we know exactly what she meant by calling it a “deliberate” failure. In her biography of Woolf, Hermione Lee offers a plausible explanation:

Because of her horror of propaganda, her feeling that art should subsume politics, and her fear of being laughed at, a good deal of the book’s explicit argument is buried. And so The Years is a kind of crippled text, which disables itself while writing about a disabled society.

Notice, though, that Lee doesn’t quite allow the novel to be a straight-up failure: instead, she ends up proposing a neat fit between form and theme that actually makes it sound like The Years is kind of a success–a successfully imperfect artistic representation of a broken society.

Penguin YearsI would explain the novel’s failure on similar terms as Lee but with less subtlety: The Years is a failure because (deliberately or not) Woolf’s theory of the novel (including “her feeling that art should subsume politics”) was genuinely incompatible with her aims for this particular novel. She wanted (and this is pretty clear from what I’ve read of her diaries around this period) to write a “novel of purpose” (defined by Amanda Claybaugh in The Novel of Purpose as a novel “that sought to intervene  in the contemporary world”). It seems plausible, and some scholars make this connection explicitly, that she was motivated to breach the wall between art and politics because of Winifred Holtby’s analysis of her fiction, as well as because of her own ongoing anger about social and political circumstances. She wanted to make a decisive move into the world of facts: “what has happened of course,” she writes in her diary in 1932, “is that after abstaining from the novel of fact all these years … I find myself infinitely delighting in facts for a change, and in possession of quantities beyond counting: though I feel now and then the tug to vision, but resist it.” Unable, quite, to abandon her conviction that fact and fiction are not truly compatible, she began her new novel as a hybrid form, a “novel-essay” called The Pargiters, but over the course of the next few years she excised (or, as she put it, “submerged”) the explanatory portions: “What I want to do is reduce it all so that each sentence, though perfectly natural dialogue, has a great pressure of meaning behind it.” The essay impulse was redirected into Three Guineas, and the novel portion became The Years.

claybaughI’m not saying anything original about that process, which is well known. I’m just trying to clarify why I think (and why I think Woolf thinks) the result is a failure. “How to do that will be one of the problems,” she comments in her diary early in the writing process; “I mean the intellectual argument in the form of art: I mean how give ordinary waking Arnold Bennett life the form of art? These are rich hard problems for my four months ahead.” My take is simply that she did not solve these problems, or she refused to solve them, because she could not reconcile her means with her end. To put it bluntly, she could not bring herself to write the kind of fiction that would get the job done. Fiction can’t intervene effectively in contemporary life if nobody knows what you mean by it. Burying the meaning, as she did (“the rest under water”), however artistically consistent, is polemically (politically) stifling, or at least muffling. Obscurity is incompatible with activism.

I’m not saying The Years is not an intervention in contemporary life; I’m saying it is a failed intervention. There’s plenty of critical commentary now explaining (or purporting to) the political implications of the ellipses and gaps and silences and lies in The Years; there are critical editions that fill in the explanations Woolf did not (would not) provide for her many brief and often oblique references to historical and current events and controversies. The novel itself, however, utterly fails to convey the relevance (and sometimes barely even registers the presence) of this material. Though The Years actually sold reasonably well (apparently because people mistook it for a “family saga,” which it kind of is and really isn’t), there’s no evidence that it was hailed on publication as a radical critique of patriarchal norms, militarism, or anything else. “No one,” Woolf wrote, as the (generally positive) reviews began to appear, “has yet seen the point–my point.”

honourable-estate.jpgThough  Holtby may be the pivot on which Woolf’s failure turns, it’s Vera Brittain’s Honourable Estate, not Holtby’s South Riding, that provides the most illuminating comparison to The Years, because it illustrates the perils of doing just what Woolf wouldn’t do: explaining everything. Where The Years (as many critics have noted) takes but subverts the form of the family saga, Honourable Estate embraces it. It covers nearly the same span of time as The Years and many of the same issues (the suffrage movement, the war, challenges to patriarchal dominance in the family, the hazards of sexuality, especially for young women, etc.). I wrote about Honourable Estate here before (here and here). If anything, my estimation of it as a work of art has gone down since that initial assessment, which is saying something considering I described it then as “effortful and long-winded.” Everything Woolf wanted to lurk below the surface of the action is in plain sight in Honourable Estate. It is the fictional equivalent of an earnest and well-researched but badly acted docudrama with mediocre production values. It is fairly interesting as a dramatization of social movements, with characters designed to exemplify its conflicts; there is some effective scene setting and some good description. But its purpose is so clear and its movement so plodding that it has almost no life as a novel.

The_YearsHere’s just one of many potential examples showing how differently these novels approach the same material. Both include sections that take place in 1908, the year of the great “Women’s Sunday” demonstration for women’s suffrage. In its explanatory note for the 1908 chapter of The Years, the Cambridge edition tells us that “the WSPU adopted purple, green and white as its official colours in this year, and in June held a 300,000-strong ‘Women’s Sunday’ rally in Hyde Park.” In the novel itself, Rose Pargiter arrives to visit her sister Eleanor with “a scratch on her chin”; “she had been holding meetings in the North,” we’re told, and a bit later,

They began to discuss politics. She had been speaking at a by-election. A stone had been thrown at her; she put her hand to her chin. But she had enjoyed it.

“I think we gave ’em something to think about,” she said, breaking off another piece of cake.

She ought to have been the soldier, Eleanor thought.

The Cambridge edition offers nearly two full pages of notes explicating this short scene, including information about Ethel Smyth, the model for Rose; details of the WSPU’s political activities; and details about the influence of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene on Woolf’s “thinking on women, militarism and suffrage activism.” (Of course, The Faerie Queene! What, that isn’t what came immediately to mind for you when you read that passage?) There is no mention at all in the novel of the Hyde Park rally.

womens-sunday

Nearly four full pages of Honourable Estate, in contrast, are taken up with Janet Rutherford’s attendance, first at the march (“walking, in her capacity as unrepresented taxpayer, just behind the Fulham Prize Band”) and then at the demonstration:

Standing stiffly to attention with her banner, Janet felt deliriously dizzy as her senses absorbed the compelling animation of that vital stream. Looking at the throng surging back and forth to the boundaries of the Park, she shared the exhilarating consciousness of the individual lost in the mass, the glory of anonymous effort and sacrifice.

“This,” she reflected excitedly, “is the invincible force which is going to count! The contemptuous smiles that greeted us from windows and balconies represented a traditional, unreasoning antagonism which cannot stand for ever against this united determination!”

“We are out to win the vote!” exclaims one of the speakers; “We are effecting a complete revolution in the whole conception and attitude of men to women and of women to their own womanhood!” “The attitude of men to women! Yes,” thinks Janet, eagerly listening, “it will be harder to change that than to get the vote. Will it ever alter widely, and if so, how soon?” The final part of the novel, as I described in my earlier post, gives a moderately positive answer: “‘To-day men and women, but especially women, live in a very different world from that of 1870, or 1900, or 1910.”

pride-and-prejudice-penguinIn that earlier post on Honourable Estate I discussed Marion Shaw’s essay “Feminism and Fiction between the Wars: Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf,” saying that it “cautions us (me!) against underestimating the art of a novel like Honourable Estate.” Throwing that caution to the wind, I will say frankly that I think Honourable Estate is not a good novel (see, I knew we’d work our way back to the problem of measuring literary quality). It just seems so painfully obvious from start to finish! On its own terms, though, I’m not sure it is actually a failure. Unlike Woolf, Brittain had an uncompromised mission as a novelist. In her own foreword to Honourable Estate, Brittain explains,

I have tried to leave a truthful impression of certain changes and movements–and especially of the social revolution that has so deeply affected the position of women and their status in marriage and other human relationships … I have not sought to draw conclusions so much as to give imaginative life to the struggles, doubts, fears, misgivings and experiments of men and women passing through a period of rapid and momentous transition in manners and morals.

George Henry Lewes said Jane Austen was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end.” Given that description of Brittain’s goals–which conspicuously do not include beauty of language, formal innovation, or other qualities we might simply call “aesthetic” ones–it is possible that she too qualifies as a great artist. (The argument pro or con would presumably stand or fall on that phrase “imaginative life.”)

Penguin-RomolaWhat an uncomfortable conclusion, though: even if I’m reluctant to let Woolf (or Austen) set the evaluative terms, I find it hard to concede that literary merit consists solely of doing  whatever it is that you set out to do. I have argued (at some length!) about Romola that its failure was a sign of George Eliot’s ambition and thus ought to be cherished: “If consistent “mastery” requires playing it safe, perhaps we should actually consider failure part of, rather than a problem for, our standard of artistic greatness.” I’m not sure I feel the same way about The Years, but I do find its failure more intellectually interesting than Brittain’s (arguable) success.

As for which book I’d rather reread, well, at this point it’s a tie: I still haven’t finished reading either of them for a second time.

Showing and Telling in Adam Bede

Tomorrow we start our work on Adam Bede in my 19th-Century Fiction class. As I was rereading the opening chapters last week, I tweeted, a bit facetiously, that you could probably “launch a successful attack on the whole foolish ‘show, don’t tell’ myth using excerpts from Adam Bede alone.” This was in part a delayed reaction to a comment on my post about Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk: “it didn’t work for me at all as fiction,” Irene said; “A lot of telling, not showing.” To which I replied, “I’m a fan of telling. How could I not be, as a Victorianist?” Because when people invoke this supposed rule, what they usually seem to mean is that good writing should be dramatic, not descriptive, and that, above all, it should avoid extended passages of exposition — and what would Victorian fiction be without description and exposition? Frankly, I’ve also read a few too many recent novels that leave empty space where telling might in fact be really valuable, and where its absence looked to me a bit like shirking the admittedly hard work of doing it well.

Obviously, the casual assumption that good writers show rather than tell is a pet peeve of mine, but it’s also not an assumption that I think is actually that widely or strongly held by avid readers, who in my experience tend to agree with Henry James that “the house of fiction has many windows.” (Not that we don’t have own own favorite styles, but confusing taste with objective evaluation is … well, OK, it’s inevitable, but it should at least be self-conscious!) The source of this “rule” seems to be creative writing classes, but I wonder how strong its hold is even there. The creative writers I know seem unlikely to be so narrow-minded, and here is an admirably nuanced ‘lesson’ on showing vs. telling from novelist Emma Darwin.* The right technique, surely, is the one that best achieves a writer’s goals, including not just formal, stylistic, and aesthetic ones but also substantial ones. There are things that exposition in particular can do that simply can’t be provided in any other way: historical or philosophical context for the novel’s action, for instance, or psychological insights unavailable to the characters themselves.

If your ideal fiction is not analytical in these ways, then showing might be enough for you. But that means your novels will never include anything like Chapter 15 of Middlemarch — in which almost nothing actually happens, but we, as readers, learn an enormous amount — or, to get back to Adam Bede, anything like its Chapter 15, “The Two Bed-Chambers,” which is a stunning set piece of characterization. It includes both showing and telling. The actions of both Hetty and Dinah, for instance, speak volumes about who they are: most obviously, Hetty stares into her mirror while Dinah gazes out the window. The  narrator layers meaning onto their actions with pointed descriptions — Hetty’s “pigeon-like stateliness” as she paces back and forth in her shabby faux-finery, for instance, and Dinah’s tranquility as she feels “the presence of a Love and Sympathy deeper and more tender than was breathed from the earth and sky.” We are brought close into each character’s consciousness, and then drawn out again to a broader perception, which is the characteristic pulse of George Eliot’s fiction, and running through it all is her perspicacious commentary:

Nature has her language, and she is not unveracious; but we don’t know all the intricacies of her syntax just yet, and in a hasty reading we may happen to extract the very opposite of her real meaning. Long dark eyelashes, now — what can be more exquisite? I find it impossible not to expect some depth of soul behind a deep grey eye with a long dark eyelash, in spite of an experience which has shown me that they may go along with deceit, peculation, and stupidity. But if, in the reaction of disgust, I have betaken myself to a fishy eye, there has been a surprising similarity of result. One begins to suspect at length that there is no direct correlation between eyelashes and morals; or else, that the eyelashes express the disposition of the fair one’s grandmother, which is on the whole less important to us.

“What a strange contrast the two figures made!” exclaims the narrator after Dinah, provoked by intuitive anxiety about where Hetty’s “blank” nature might lead her, interrupts Hetty’s dreams of becoming a “lady” by rapping on her door:

Hetty, her cheeks flushed and her eyes glistening from her imaginary drama, her beautiful neck and arms bare, her hair hanging in a curly tangle down her back, and the baubles in her ears. Dinah, covered with her long white dress, her pale face full of subdued emotion, almost like a lovely corpse into which the soul has returned charged with sublimer secrets and a sublimer love.

I’m pretty sure that’s telling — but how could you simply show that contrast, which lies less in the details visible in the “mingled twilight and moonlight” than in the difference they represent between the flesh and the spirit, or between egotism and altruism, which the whole previous sequence has prepared us to realize?

I know that what some readers object to in Eliot’s style of telling is that she doesn’t seem to leave us to draw our own conclusions about her characters: her commentary usually steers us firmly in a particular direction. Her narrator is much less forgiving than Dinah, for example, about Hetty’s vanity, and so too is Mrs. Poyser, who sees Hetty’s “moral deficiencies” quite clearly. It’s not that she doesn’t leave us plenty to think about, though. Adam Bede dedicates much more than this one chapter to analyzing Hetty’s character and motives, for example, as well as to exploring the effect on them of her specific circumstances. A great deal of effort, in other words, goes into understanding Hetty — including the unarguable fact of her vanity, which means not just her pleasure in her own beauty but her inability to tell any story without herself at the center of it. Also, we know that “Hetty could have cast all her past life behind her and never cared to be reminded of it again” — which, in Eliot’s world, means she is morally unmoored. (“If the past is not to bind us,” as Maggie Tulliver will say in Eliot’s next novel, “where shall duty lie?”) What, though, is the relationship between this deep understanding (the kind required by Eliot’s theory of determinism) and forgiveness? If we can explain so thoroughly what someone does so, and if we are under a moral obligation to sympathize with them, what happens to accountability, to blame, to justice? If you know where Hetty’s journey takes her, and why, then you know how painfully these questions arise in Adam Bede.

My point, I guess, is that this central problem of the novel is vivid to us — it matters to us — in part because of what we have been told. It is an intellectual problem, not (to borrow from Darwin’s post) a “scratch-and-sniff” one. Yet, having said that, it’s absolutely true that we feel its urgency in part because the narrator gets out of the way at crucial dramatic moments, such as during the novel’s second great set piece with Dinah and Hetty much, much later, in Hetty’s prison cell:

Slowly, while Dinah was speaking, Hetty rose, took a step forward, and was clasped in Dinah’s arms.

They stood so a long while, for neither of them felt the impulse to move apart again. Hetty, without any distinct thought of it, hung on this something that was come to clasp her now, while she was sinking helpless in a dark gulf; and Dinah felt a deep joy in the first sign that her love was welcomed by the wretched lost one. The light got fainter as they stood, and when at last they sat down on the straw pallet together, their faces had become indistinct.

What a great return this is to the earlier scene, with Dinah’s premonition of trouble: “Dear Hetty,” she says, “it has been borne in upon my mind to- night that you may some day be in trouble . . . I want to tell you that if ever you are in trouble, and need a friend that will always feel for you and love you, you have got that friend in Dinah Morris at Snowfield.” When her prediction comes true and Dinah comes to her in her time of trouble, almost all the telling in the chapter is Hetty’s own.

*Actually, after reading her post I am not so sure I really understand what people mean by “showing,” which going by her examples just means “doing description better.” That has never seemed to me to be the implication of “show, don’t tell.” If it is, I don’t think I disagree after all, and you can disregard this entire post! What do you think that rule means — or, perhaps a different question, what do you think people typically mean when they sling it around?

This Week In My Classes: Mercy and Tenderness in “Lizzie Leigh”

gif-eg-lizzieOur reading for today in The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ was Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1850 short story “Lizzie Leigh.” We’re reading it at the end of a cluster of other works that deal with ‘fallen women,’ including Aurora Leigh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny,” Augusta Webster’s “A Castaway,” and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” (which, we agreed, is certainly about women and sexual temptation in some way, even though it is as frustrating as it is fun to try to figure out exactly which way).

“Lizzie Leigh” is certainly the most heavy-handed of these texts. Gaskell wants you to forgive poor Lizzie, who was “led astray” then dismissed by her hard-hearted employer “as soon as he had heard of her condition — and she not seventeen!” as her grieving mother Anne laments. Driven to the streets (“whatten kind o’ work would be open to her … and her baby to keep?”), Lizzie has abandoned her child, dropping her into the arms of kind, virtuous young Susan, who raises her with all the loving tenderness her mother could wish for. Despite her own desperate straits, Lizzie still provides what she can for her daughter: “Every now and then,” Susan tells Anne, “a little packet is thrust in under our door . . . I’ve often thought the poor mother feels near to God when she brings this money.” The story is built around Anne’s search for her lost daughter, but her courage and love is not enough to save Lizzie from one final tragedy.

marybartonGaskell’s most obvious literary device in the story is pathos. Oscar Wilde not withstanding, the Victorians knew the potential social and political power of a tearjerker, and Gaskell had already used heartfelt emotion and personal tragedy to effect reconciliation across the classes in her first novel, Mary Barton:

He was my sunshine, and now it is night! Oh, my God! comfort me, comfort me!” cried the old man aloud.

The eyes of John Barton grew dim with tears.

Rich and poor, masters and men, were then brothers in the deep suffering of the heart; for was not this the very anguish he had felt for little Tom, in years so long gone by, that they seemed like another life!

The mourner before him was no longer the employer; a being of another race, eternally placed in antagonistic attitude; going through the world glittering like gold, with a stony heart within, which knew no sorrow but through the accidents of Trade; no longer the enemy, the oppressor, but a very poor and desolate old man.

I understand why a jaded modern reader (never mind a superior Modernist one) might snicker at a moment like this — and there’s no doubt, either, that Gaskell’s analysis of class conflict, not to mention her solution to it, could be accused of a certain naivete. There’s still something very humanly touching, though, about this picture of two old men brought low by loss and then brought together by hard-won mutual recognition and sympathy. There are moments in “Lizzie Leigh” that work this way too, particularly when Lizzie is once more in her mother’s arms, finding long-denied comfort:

“Oh woe! Oh woe!” She shook with exceeding sorrow.

In her earnestness of speech she had uncovered her face, and tried to read Mrs Leigh’s thoughts through her looks. And when she saw those aged eyes brimming full of tears, and marked the quivering lips, she threw her arms round the faithful mother’s neck, and wept there as she had done in many a childish sorrow; but with a deeper, a more wretched grief.

Her mother hushed her on her breast; and lulled her as if she were a baby; and she grew still and quiet.

Their embrace reminds me of the reflections on mortality in Chapter 42 of Middlemarch:

When the commonplace ‘We must die’ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness ‘I must die–and soon,’ then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first.

Lizzie does not die (one way in which Gaskell breaks with the literary rules for fallen women), but she has been “as one dead” to her family, and now her mother’s tenderness restores her to life once again.

gaskellGaskell was a minister’s wife and “Lizzie Leigh” casts its story of forgiveness in explicitly Christian terms. Susan “is not one to judge and scorn the sinner,” Anne insists to her son Will, for instance (soothing his horror that she has shared Lizzie’s story with one he sees as “downright holy”); “She’s too deep read in her New Testament for that.” What I think is so powerful about the story is the way Gaskell pits Anne’s (and Susan’s) definition of Christian virtue against the “hard, stern, and inflexible” judgments, first of Anne’s husband James (who had forbidden her to seek out “her poor, sinning child”) and then of Will, who has inherited his father’s patriarchal role and with it his rigid righteousness. Anne grows into her own authority as the story progresses, eventually confronting Will directly:

“I’m not afeard of you now, and I must speak, and you must listen. I am your mother, and I dare to command you, because I know I am in the right, and that God is on my side. . . .

She stood, no longer, as the meek, imploring, gentle mother, but firm and dignified, as if the interpreter of God’s will.

Susan, in turn, criticizes Will for saying that Lizzie “deserved” her sufferings, “every jot”:

Will Leigh! I have thought so well of you; don’t go and make me think you cruel and hard. Goodness is not goodness unless there is mercy and tenderness with it.

Between them, Anne and Susan (and, eventually, Lizzie) create a community of women united in their service to others, whose definition of virtue does not depend on righteous indignation or stern judgment but on the practice of that “mercy and tenderness.” Their power arises, as Gaskell tells it, not so much in defiance of masculine authority (not at first, anyway) but through the gradual assertion of their female authority — through their maternal roles and the moral authority this brings — as well as through their independent claim to interpret God’s laws.

wivesanddaughtersoxfordThere are definitely things about “Lizzie Leigh” that are hard to take, including the fate of “the little, unconscious sacrifice, whose early calling-home had reclaimed her poor, wandering mother” as well as the extreme seclusion that is Lizzie’s fate after her reclamation. She’s not (like Hetty, or Little Emily) sent entirely out of her world, but Gaskell can’t quite imagine a place for her fully in it either. What I love about “Lizzie Leigh,” though, is the same thing I love about Mary BartonNorth and South, and Wives and Daughters: there’s just something so humane about Gaskell’s vision of the good. She wants us all to be kinder to each other, to understand each other better, to define virtue as something we have to practice, not just a quality we can passively exhibit. For her, these are religious imperatives, but they needn’t be; George Eliot’s Silas Marner urges us to much the same conclusions, as does Middlemarch. I think for both writers, it matters much less why you make sympathy a guiding principle than that you do it: ultimately, for both of them, it’s small human acts of grace that give us all a chance at redemption.

Happy New Year! and New Books! and New OLM!

Books2016

2016 is getting off to a good start in my corner of the world. For one thing, I have a lovely array of new books, thanks to the kind people who basically ran my entire Chapters wish list. Isn’t that an enticing stack? My problem now is that I can’t decide where to start: rereading Mr. Impossible, because I know how fun that will be? rereading Little Women, because I finally have my own elegant edition? embarking on Jane Smiley’s ‘100 Years’ trilogy? plunging into Fates and Furies? wandering New York with Vivian Gornick? I suppose I could postpone the decision by settling down to finish The Portrait of a Lady — not least because I don’t want to read The House of Mirth until I’ve done that.

It’s not just the beginning of a new year, of course: it’s also the beginning of the month, and that means, as always, that a new issue of Open Letters Monthly has just gone live. I’m in it a couple of times: in brief in our feature of most-anticipated books of 2016,and at greater length in an essay about different editions of Middlemarch that is also a review of the elegant new Penguin Classics Deluxe edition. I’m always wary of writing autobiographically, but I couldn’t think how else to approach this review, and I enjoyed reflecting on the versions of the novel I’ve accumulated over the years as well as on how the editions we read of a book affect the relationship we develop with it.

oxfordlawrenceAs usual, the issue includes a wide range of other interesting pieces. One of my favorites this time is Dorian’s essay on D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. My own experience with Lawrence so far is limited and ambivalent — but it has certainly made me curious, and Dorian writes so eloquently about both the language and the ideas of Women in Love that I’m feeling emboldened to read more Lawrence before too long. My co-editor Robert Minto offers a fascinating essay on Nietzsche’s Anti-Education, recently reissued by NYRB Classics, finding in it strains that might serve as cautionary to today’s “anxious citizens of academia”; Steve Donoghue reviews (as only he can) a new book on Sigismondo Malatesta, the only man ever to be reverse-canonized; Barrett Hathcock explores the hall-of-mirrors sensation of finding himself fictionalized by a student in his own creative writing class; and that’s just the top half of the Table of Contents. I hope you’ll check it out, and if you like anything about what we produce every month at Open Letters, I also hope you’ll consider supporting our efforts — we are entirely sincere when we say that a comment or a link is as welcome as a donation.

Very soon, I will also be launched on the new term. My classes this time are familiar ones in my teaching rotation: Mystery and Detective Fiction and 19th-Century British Fiction (Austen to Dickens edition). As usual, I’m feeling equal parts anticipation and dread at the prospect of starting it all up again. (I have already had one very typical anxiety dream in which I was unable to print notes or handouts because my files had disappeared, and the computer kept auto-updating as I desperately tried to find them, and the start time for class came and went … you’d think after all these years I would not need my subconscious warning me to prepare for class, but this did prompt me to go to campus early and print all my notes and handouts for Monday, so that’s good, I guess!) I’m also feeling very aware that this time last year my sabbatical term was just beginning: inevitably, I guess, that is provoking some reflection on how I used that time and what has become of the projects I worked on since it ended — more about that eventually, along with more of my regular posts on how things go in my classes.

But I still have one more full day, and since I did print my materials early (and have also built my Blackboard sites and labelled my folders and made my Powerpoint slides for opening day), I will spend it reading — if I can just settle on which book. Happy New Year!

Happy Birthday, Marian Evans!

Durade GEThe woman we now refer to almost exclusively as ‘George Eliot’ was born on this day in 1819. Imagine the bicentennial celebrations we’ll be having in a few years! I hope so, anyway. Remember all the hoopla for the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice? Surely the author of Middlemarch deserves at least as much fanfare — even if her books almost never leave us feeling altogether like celebrating.

I’ve written so much about George Eliot here over the years (and here — more than once — and here, and here) that it almost feels redundant to say anything more. And yet there always turns out to be more I want to say, which is one of the reasons I admire and appreciate her novels so much. Little did I know when I plucked a random edition of Middlemarch off the bookstore shelf for reading on the train during a youthful odyssey across Europe that the book would end up making more difference to my life than anything else I read or saw or did during those eventful six months. “Destiny stands by sarcastic,” as she said herself, “with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.” (Whatever your experience, she always turns out to have anticipated it in a wise, witty, or tender saying.)

I don’t know a more apt or moving tribute to George Eliot than Virginia Woolf’s:

Triumphant was the issue for her, whatever it may have been for her creations, and as we recollect all that she dared and achieved, how with every obstacle against her – sex and health and convention – she sought more knowledge and more freedom till the body, weighted with its double burden, sank worn out, we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose.

I’ve never had the opportunity to lay a literal bouquet on her grave. The next time I travel to England, I hope finally to make it to Highgate Cemetery — my own modest pilgrimage in honor of a brave and brilliant woman whose work has been an inspiration, a provocation, and a comfort to me for almost three decades. Until then, my own writing — thin and inadequate as it inevitably is by comparison — is the best tribute I can offer.