Curtis Sittenfeld, Ineligible

eligible

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” –  Fitzwilliam Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice

“I’m in love with you. It’s probably an illusion caused by the release of oxytocin during sex, but I feel as if I’m in love with you.” Fitzwilliam Darcy, in Eligible

Just to be clear, I know that Curtis Sittenfeld’s “modern retelling” of Pride and Prejudice isn’t actually called Ineligible. It’s called Eligible, which is also the name of the reality TV show (closely modeled on The Bachelor) on which her updated Mr. Bingley has recently been a contestant.

I read Eligible with the sincere intention of reviewing it for the June issue of Open Letters. It turns out, however, that I have reached my limit for the number of mediocre-to-terrible novels based on, inspired by, or in any way re-imagining great 19th-century fiction that I can stand to write about in thoughtful detail. There may yet be exceptions, books that promise the rare kind of brilliance shown in, say, Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, books that just look so inviting that after swearing I’m out, they pull me back in. But for now, I’m done. I don’t set out to dislike these books, honest! It’s just that over and over they disappoint me at best (as you’ll see in my forthcoming review of Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon) and at worst they infuriate me (remember Gwendolen?). And at least Eliot (and Brontë) spin-offs, which are uninspiring enough, are happily relatively infrequent. The endless, unstoppable, unbearable parade of zombie versions (literal and figurative) of Austen’s novels, however, shows no sign of ever, ever, ever ending, and at this point it all just seems crass — an embarrassing reflection on both the publishing industry and the readers who keep buying such derivative, second-rate, opportunistic substitutions for authentic creativity and genuine insight.

Harumph.

OK, now that I’ve got that rant out of my system, let me be more temperate. I’ve enjoyed some Austen pastiches in my time: Jane Austen in Boca is fun enough, for instance, and so is Bridget Jones’s Diary (though Mad About the Boy was just awful). Clueless is both smart and entertaining. And other people can of course read as much sub-Austen fiction as they want, and if they enjoy it, more power to them and they can rest easy knowing they will apparently never (ever!) run out of options. But as far as I’m concerned, the two best rewritings of Pride and Prejudice are North and South and Daniel Deronda (I have an essay about Deronda as a response to Austen’s happy endings, in fact, that I hope to place somewhere eventually), and Eligible is not in their class at all — or even in Fielding’s. It’s not a horrible novel — in its own way, it’s even diverting. It just doesn’t rethink Pride and Prejudice in any interesting way: it’s like a weirdly literal attempt at translation in which every element of the original novel has been replaced with what Sittenfeld came up with as its modern equivalent (Mr. Darcy is a brain surgeon! Bingley is a reality TV heart throb! Lydia destroys her mother’s peace of mind by marrying someone who’s transgender! Lady Catherine de Bourgh is Kathy de Bourgh, feminist icon — wait, what?!) — and in the conversion process, the magic is utterly lost.

There are some clever things about Eligible, and some funny bits in it. That’s as much as I can really say in its favor, though — which isn’t much, but is just enough to make it not deserving of a hatchet job. So what could a longer review really say about it? My overwhelming feeling, reading it, was indifference: why write it? why read it? when you could write — or read — something else? It offers so very little, not just but especially in comparison to Pride and Prejudice itself. Beneath Austen’s deft social comedy we feel the earth moving — emotionally and politically. There are elements of social change in Eligible too, but the novel reads as if Sittenfeld had a checklist of ways to demonstrate that the times are a’changing. Austen’s prose may seem old-fashioned to some readers today, but its subtlety and wit make it well worth attuning our ear to its cadences. Sittenfeld’s prose is serviceable, but so what? And sometimes it isn’t even that — but since I’m not writing that hatchet job, I’ll stop there.

The thing is, I know that having some expertise in the original 19th-century materials in a way makes me perfectly suited to examine contemporary reworkings of them, which is one reason I have stepped up to do it so often. At the same time, that’s exactly what turns out to make the process so tedious: ironically, my “qualifications” make this exactly the wrong niche for me as a reviewer — they make me ineligible for it. I don’t shy away from writing negative reviews: I hope I always have the courage to say quite honestly what I think about what I’ve read, as well as the integrity to give as full an explanation as I can of why I think it. Dwelling in negativity isn’t the most rewarding kind of reviewing, though — and specializing in books that get our attention by being parasitic on greatness isn’t a niche anybody really wants to inhabit, is it? It’s one I want to move out of, at any rate.

And when the inevitable film adaptation of Eligible is released, I won’t go see it, either. Enough! I’ve had enough.

Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Hate sex, she thought gleefully. Hate sex! Except without the hate! — Curtis Sittenfeld, Eligible

Is Jane Austen a “Romance Novelist”?

oxford-pride-and-prejudiceI feel as if I should begin with a disclaimer: this post is just a preliminary attempt to sort something out for myself that I am sure has been discussed a lot already! I know it’s not a new question, but it is a new one for me to be thinking carefully about — and that’s what my blog is for, not for presenting absolutely finished position papers but for exploration. So don’t jump on me if, for you, this is old news or already a settled question! Instead, tell me what you think, since one thing I’m hoping will come from writing a little about this question here is that I’ll get some leads and ideas for how to think about it better, or where to read more about it.

I’m puzzling over whether Austen is a “romance novelist” (and I’m going to keep the scare quotes, for reasons that I’ll get to in a bit) because I’ve begun doing research in preparation for the romance unit in next year’s Pulp Fiction class (another disclaimer: it’s just a first-year writing class organized around a fairly imprecise definition of “pulp,” so I’m not going to get very ambitious about the theoretical or critical grounding — I just need to sort out some terms and frameworks for talking about our one or two readings in the genre).*

One much-cited scholarly work in this field is Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003), so that’s one of the first ones I took out of the library to read. It’s generally very helpful, and it’s also thought-provoking, for its tone as much as its argument. It is certainly less rah-rah than some of the more fannish books I’ve peered at about the genre (such as Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels (very ably reviewed at Open Letters by Jessica Miller). It still differs from most academic criticism I’ve read, though, in being very openly a work of advocacy: it includes a chapter called “In Defense of the Romance Novel,” for instance; it declares that its purpose is not just to historicize or analyze the genre but to “refute” negative critical perspectives on it; and it includes many celebratory claims on behalf of romance fiction — just for example, “the romance novel is … about women’s freedom. The genre is popular because it conveys the pain, uplift, and joy that freedom brings.”

RegisNot that there’s anything wrong with that! Lots of (maybe even most) critical work is at least implicitly advocating on behalf of its specific topic — whether for its underestimated importance to literary history or for its political efficacy or for a right understanding of its aesthetic properties. Romance is a special case, too: as pretty much everyone I’ve read who writes about romance says at some point, it seems to call for overt special pleading simply because it is so routinely dismissed and its readers and writers so routinely shamed. If Regis seems at times to protest too much, it’s probably just that she knew her choice of subject would be met with skepticism, if not derision, and not just by her academic colleagues. (I expect that more recent scholarship is less defensive, as genre fiction and popular culture more generally have become increasingly familiar parts of the academic landscape. Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz’s collection New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, which came out in 2012, is also on my reading list; I’ll be curious to see if I’m right that the tone has changed.)

Regis’s book is built on a particular (but also very general) definition of romance novels: “a romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines.” She expands on that definition by offering a specific list of structural features — “the eight essential elements of the romance novel” — including “the meeting between heroine and hero,” “the barrier to the union of heroine and hero,” and “the betrothal.” Then, using this definition, she tells a history of the romance novel (as she has defined it) through exemplary texts, starting with Pamela then going through Pride and PrejudiceJane EyreFramley Parsonage, and A Room with a View. It’s not until Chapter 12 that she turns to what she calls “the popular romance novel” — to, that is, all of the books I think most people actually mean when they use the term “romance novel.”

At the end of her discussion of A Room with a View, Regis comments that “it would be [Forster’s] only romance novel.” In a way, then, I could just well have called this post “Is E. M. Forster a ‘Romance Novelist?'” (or Bronte or Trollope or Richardson). As far as I’ve seen, though, it’s really just Austen among these canonical authors who comes up repeatedly in the romance context, and it’s Pride and Prejudice that Regis uses to illustrate her outline of the “eight essential elements.” So I’ll stick with her as a test case for how or whether we want to define “romance novel” as broadly as Regis does.

pride-and-prejudice-penguinRegis is completely right that by her definition, Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel. But here’s the thing: to me, that suggests she’s using the wrong definition. First of all, it’s too broad to be interesting (even her list of canonical “romances” hardly seems to hang together in a meaningful way, outside a very bare skeletal similarity). It also seems anachronistic, in the same way that calling The Moonstone a “mystery” does: there wasn’t really such a category at the time (that’s not really the kind of book Collins himself thought he was writing), and applying our current terms so absolutely means losing sight of the genealogy of our modern genres. Books can be closely related in kind (or, as Regis sets it up, in structure) with being the same kind exactly.

These are already debatable objections, of course: labels are always more or less arbitrary, and we redefine and recategorize things all the time based on new theories and approaches. So here’s another reason I don’t think I like Regis’s approach: I think that insisting that Austen writes “romance novels” indistinguishable in kind from today’s “popular” examples has inapt and potentially unwelcome consequences. For one thing, if this means that Austen and, say, Mary Balogh and Loretta Chase are doing the same thing, it seems to me to follow that Austen is doing it better (because much as I like Lord of Scoundrels, if it’s really an apples to apples comparison, I’d certainly consider Pride and Prejudice the better novel). Georgette Heyer? Fun, but not as artful or incisive or thematically rich as Austen. Balogh? Don’t even try. Lump them all in together, that is, and a hierarchy emerges that’s almost inevitably to the disadvantage of all the not-Austens.

Regis herself would disagree, I think — and others no doubt would too — that we can or should differentiate on the basis of literary merit in quite this way. Some would disavow the whole notion of literary merit, in fact, but Regis seems happy enough making evaluative claims. In her chapter on defining the romance novel, she uses Katherine Gilles Seidel’s Again as an exemplary case alongside Pride and Prejudice, claiming that it is a “complex, formally accomplished, vital romance novel” that makes nonsense of the idea that popular romances are just “hack work”:

Seidel incorporates the eight essential elements of romance, and two of the three incidental ones, in a manner so masterful that it leaves no doubt as to the vitality of the form in contemporary hands.

“Masterful,” no less! I’m only a couple of chapters into Again (which I dutifully rushed out to get), so I can’t be sure, but if it’s anywhere near as good a novel (qua novel) as Pride and Prejudice, I haven’t seen the signs, even though I’m enjoying it fine so far — which is exactly why my intuition is that Regis is coming at this question in the wrong way. We have to be able to acknowledge the differences on terms that don’t set contemporary romance novels up for failure.

scoundrelsAlternatively, you could argue (as I have seen done) that romance, like all genres, comes in both “high” and “low” — or literary and popular — versions.** There’s still a kind of hierarchy, but now you’re separating out those who “transcend the genre” (to use the phrase Ian Rankin hates when applied to crime fiction) from those who happily take their place within it. No direct comparisons are called for, then, and Heyer or Chase (or choose your preferred exemplars) get considered more or less on their own terms. I still think the larger category (the one being subdivided into high and low forms) conflates too many different kinds of things, and the end result can be condescending — it implies, or could, that the serious stuff is going on in some sense over the heads of both readers and writers of the popular incarnations of the genre, or that those who really take themselves and their work seriously will aim at that transcendent kind. But at least this approach doesn’t pretend all novels organized around love and marriage are the same kind of books.

I can see that, strategically, it serves Regis well to define the “romance novel” so that she can include Austen. That way the aura of Austen’s literary prestige can be shared with the popular writers who are the ones who actually need defending. (There may be some circles in which Austen is still shrugged off as a trivial miniaturist, but her iconic cultural status is surely beyond doubt.) But it could just as well backfire if it sets up the wrong expectations: yes, the plot structure of a contemporary popular romance is likely to resemble that of Pride and Prejudice, but if you expect to be reading the next Jane Austen, aren’t you almost certain to be disappointed? Maybe another way to think about it is that Austen is not celebrated because of how she incorporates the eight essential elements of romance (never mind the many “incidental” ones) but for other reasons, and so what Regis is doing is not thoroughly defining a category but encouraging a vast category error. Instead, wouldn’t her defense be more convincing if her definition were narrower — if it were based, not on 18th- or 19th-century marriage plot novels but on, well, actual “romance novels”?

Ay, there’s the rub, though, right? Because how do you define them? Where do you draw the lines? I sometimes say to students in my mystery class that genres and subgenres are themselves fictions, but useful ones, and that while it’s true you can’t perfectly define them, often enough you know them when you’re reading them. I think, too, that with the popular genres we’re familiar with today, while it may be difficult to pinpoint their exact beginnings, eventually the time comes when it is possible for someone to say “I’m going to write a detective novel” (or, even more specifically, a police procedural, or a feminist revision of hard-boiled detective fiction) because that is now a recognizable literary form, with a tradition and conventions of its own. Similarly, just because the margins around a genre are fuzzy doesn’t mean there’s no center. As Regis points out, “formulaic” is usually a pejorative term but all fiction is in fact driven to some extent by formulas; works that clearly belong to a particular genre just embrace and employ them in a more conspicuous way. Though intention is a tricky business, I might go so far as to say that what we now call “genre fiction” is defined by precisely that kind of knowingness on the author’s part (which is also an invitation to the knowing reader): this is the game I’m playing, I know the rules, I use or subvert them at my will, this game board is where I feel at home, my teachers and role models are the ones who showed me how it’s done so that now I can do it my way.

So by my definition, Jane Austen is not a “romance novelist.” Pride and Prejudice definitely has a crucial place in the history of the romance novel (as The Moonstone does in the history of the detective novel), but it’s part of the genre’s origin story, and that’s not what we’re talking about today when we talk about “romance novels.”

Or at least, that’s what I think so far! Now I feel that I may have taken a long time to say something nobody else will find surprising or controversial at all — but we all have to work through things on our own when we’re learning, right?

*Can you tell from these disclaimers that I have learned just how engaged, informed, and opinionated many romance readers and writers are?

**A belated additional point: Also, one era’s “popular” version may well become a later era’s “classic” or literary version (cue obligatory Shakespeare reference).

This Week In My Classes: Team Brontë!

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week In My Classes: The Pride and Prejudice Paradox

I don’t teach it very often anymore: it’s too popular.

This is my version, I guess, of Yogi Berra’s line “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

oxford-pride-and-prejudicePride and Prejudice is the only work I ever teach (in any genre) that has routinely been read already, often multiple times, by many of the students in the class. You’d think that would be a great thing — and actually, in some ways it is. Students who know the novel really well bring their own expertise to our discussions; their enthusiasm, also, enlivens it. Both of these things are freeing for me: I can count on informed participation and turn much more than usual to other people in the room to help me out with details, and I can also play devil’s advocate more, with less risk of sowing confusion and more chance of just stimulating debate.

I have been reminded this week, though, returning to Pride and Prejudice in the 19th-century fiction class after many years of assigning Persuasion instead, that the novel’s familiarity has its drawbacks as well. Over the years I have found that those who know it very well may be quite entrenched in their readings of it, for example, particularly about how they interpret or judge specific characters. Students who are strongly attached to particular adaptations may also be particularly prone to reading characters or scenes in particular ways. If they’ve always read the novel for pleasure before, they may not be accustomed to paying much attention to how it is written or structured, or to questioning its premises. Their love and knowledge of it may also intimidate their classmates who are reading it for the first time: too many remarks prefaced by “I’ve read this novel multiple times” would certainly have shut me up, when I was an undergraduate, because I would have been afraid my own preliminary observations wouldn’t hold up.

Obviously, these are all ultimately pedagogical issues: it’s up to me to try to make the novel fresh again, if I can — to introduce new questions or contexts, to posit alternative interpretations, to move us from character analysis to thematic or formal issues, to do my best to bring everyone into the discussion, to make the most of the wonderful fact that so many people read and reread Pride and Prejudice just because they want to. Wouldn’t it be great of that were true of more of the novels I assign, after all! And yet it’s not. Jane Eyre probably comes the closest, but even the Brontë enthusiasts are few and far between compared to the Austen lovers.

pride-and-prejudice-penguinI wonder, actually, if part of the difficulty I have knowing quite what to do with the gift (and I do mean that!) of a room heavily populated with Janeites is that I’m not one myself. It’s impossible not to love Pride and Prejudice, of course. Though Persuasion is my personal favorite among Austen’s novels, I am on record exclaiming over the treat P&P always is to read. But Austen is not the novelist that thrills or interests me the most — she never has been, or my own research and teaching career would look much different! It’s that whole ineffable affinity thing: as Henry James said in that line from “The Art of Fiction” that I seem to quote more than anything else of his, “nothing will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it.” For me, the result of “that primitive, that ultimate, test” was someone else — and not just one someone either, really, as I get more excited about a lot of other authors I read and teach than I do about Austen. I’m not trying to be contrarian or some kind of “hipster” Victorianist — my preferences are frightfully canonical, but they really are Victorian, which Austen, after all, is not.

In any case, while I do think Austen is great, she’s just one kind of great, not the only kind. Her unstoppable popularity sometimes seems like such a self-fulfilling prophecy. I can’t and don’t doubt the sincerity of her admirers, though, including those in my class. I really do welcome the energy, expertise, and keen attention they bring to discussion. I just hope I can keep them half as engaged when we move on to Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre, because I believe those novels are every bit as brilliant in their own (wildly different) ways as Pride and Prejudice is in its.

And maybe next time around I’ll try something else altogether — Emma, for instance, which would be a stretch for me and probably for more of my students, too, than is the case with Pride and Prejudice. Familiarity needn’t breed contempt, but I wonder if unfamiliarity isn’t a pedagogical advantage. This would be one way to find out!

This Week In My Reading: Scale and Significance

unlessIn a way, this post is also about “this week in my classes,” as it is prompted by the serendipitous convergence of my current reading around questions we’ve been discussing since we started working on Carol Shields’ Unless in my section of Intro to Lit. In our first session on the novel, I give some introductory remarks about Shields — a life and times overview, and then some suggestions about themes that interested her, especially in relation to Unless. One of the things I pointed out is that she also wrote a biography of Jane Austen; in an interview, Shields said “Jane Austen is important to me because she demonstrates how large narratives can occupy small spaces.” We come to Shields right after working through Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, so I also bring up Woolf’s pointed remark: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room.” Both Shields and Woolf are thinking about the relationship between scale and significance, and both of them are drawing our attention to the ways assumptions about what matters — in literature, particularly, since that’s their primary context — have historically been gendered.

Unless itself explores the relationship between scale and significance on several levels. Its protagonist, Reta Winters, is a writer whose first novel, My Thyme Is Up, is light and romantic, a “sunny” book that has won a prize for books that combine “literary quality and accessibility.” Reta has been working on a sequel (with the equally charming title Thyme in Bloom), but over the course of Unless she becomes discontented with it, especially with the happy ending she had blithely anticipated for it. For much of the novel, she is puzzling over what else to do — what other kind of book to write. She grows to dislike her characters as originally conceived: she sees her heroine Alicia as “vapid” and Alicia’s impending marriage as a mistake:

Suddenly it was clear to me. Alicia’s marriage to Roman must be postponed. Now I understood where the novel is headed. She is not meant to be partnered. Her singleness in the world is her paradise, it has been all along, and she came close to sacrificing it, or rather, I, as novelist, had been about to snatch it away from her. The wedding guests will have to be alerted and the gifts returned. All of them, Alicia, Roman, their families, their friends — stupid, stupid. The novel, if it is to survive, must be redrafted.

But how? All we really know is that instead of submitting Alicia to the conventional marriage plot, Reta now wants her to “advance in her self-understanding.”

carol-shieldsReta’s redrafting is disrupted by her editor, an officious American (of course! Unless is a Canadian novel, after all) named Arthur Springer who has even bigger plans for Thyme in Bloom, which (significantly) he proposes she retitle simply Bloom. His idea is that Alicia should fade into the background while Roman emerges as the “moral center” of the novel. This, he insists, is necessary for the novel to graduate from “popular fiction” to “quality fiction.” He also proposes that Reta retreat behind her initials: she will become R. R. Summers (“Winters” is her husband’s surname). This way her new (“quality”) book can’t possibly be associated with her, or with her earlier (“popular”) novel.

Reta sees exactly what’s up, of course: Springer believes that a book’s literary significance depends on its masculinity — that its standing as great literature will increase as it moves away from the world of women. When Reta presses him about what’s wrong with Alicia, his answer is comically symptomatic of the problems much of the novel is about. “I am talking,” he says, “about Roman being the moral center of this book,”

“and Alicia, for all her charms, is not capable of that role, surely you can see that. She writes fashion articles. She talks to her cat. She does yoga. She makes rice casseroles.”

“It’s because she’s a woman.”

“That’s not an issue at all. Surely you —”

“But it is the issue.”

“She is unable to make a claim to — She is undisciplined in her — She can’t focus the way Roman — She changes her mind about — She lacks — A reader, the serious reader that I have in mind, would never accept her as the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art that acts as a critique of our society while at the same time, unrolling itself like a carpet of inevitability, narrativistically speaking.”

“Because she’s a woman.”

Reta ultimately resists both Springer’s exhortations and the “critical voice in [her] head that weighs serious literature against what is merely entertainment.” We are never told exactly how Thyme in Bloom ends, only that “Alicia triumphs, but in her own slightly capricious way.” What we do know is that having discovered her dissatisfaction with a particular kind of conventional woman’s fiction, what Reta imagines doing next is not something on a larger scale or a more overtly grandiose style but something even smaller: “I want it to be a book that’s willing to live in one room if necessary,” she says; “I want it to hold still like an oil painting, a painting titled: Seated Woman.”

One of the questions I asked my class to think about is whether Unless is itself a model for a different kind of fiction, maybe even an example of the kind of book Reta imagines writing — one that insists we find, or at least look for, significance in small things. Reta is “just” a fairly ordinary woman but the things that happen in the novel certainly mean a lot to her, and as she connects the incidents in her life to other events, both personal and historical, private and public, significant patterns emerge. Unless initially seems like a really unassuming book, but by the end that feels like part of the plan: Shields’ novel itself asks us to accept an ordinary woman as “the decisive fulcrum of a serious work of art.”

What has been so interesting over the past couple of weeks is how many of the other  books I happen to be reading also either explicitly turn on or implicitly raise questions about the relationship between women and scale and significance, in life and in literature.

derondaOne of them is Daniel Deronda, which I’ve just finished reading with my graduate students. This novel is famously bifurcated between Gwendolen’s story (a highly personal, small-scale drama) — and Daniel’s (which starts out on a similarly domestic scale but opens out into a potentially epic, world-historical story). Is Gwendolen condemned to insignificance when she is left behind to suffer at home while Daniel goes off to (perhaps) found a nation? The literal scale of Eliot’s treatment of Gwendolen is not belittling: she gets at least half the huge novel to herself, after all. Perhaps this novel insists, formally, on an equivalence between two kinds of significance, one of which occupies a small space. Or perhaps what’s significant is Gwendolen’s discovery of her own insignificance. “Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history,” asks the narrator,

than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant?—in a time, too, when ideas were with fresh vigor making armies of themselves, and the universal kinship was declaring itself fiercely; when women on the other side of the world would not mourn for the husbands and sons who died bravely in a common cause, and men stinted of bread on our side of the world heard of that willing loss and were patient: a time when the soul of man was walking to pulses which had for centuries been beating in him unfelt, until their full sum made a new life of terror or of joy.

But then Eliot seems to reject that premise:

What in the midst of that mighty drama are girls and their blind visions? They are the Yea or Nay of that good for which men are enduring and fighting. In these delicate vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affections.

Isn’t that belittling in its own way, though? It certainly doesn’t allow “girls” much historical agency.

Then, I’m about half way through The Portrait of a Lady, which picks up on exactly this question of how much that girlish presence matters (James even quotes Eliot’s “delicate vessels” line in his 1908 Preface to the novel). Can so small a thing as the consciousness of a young girl support the whole weight of a novel, James wonders?

“Place the centre of the subject in the young woman’s consciousness,” I said to myself, “and you get as interesting and as beautiful a difficulty as you could wish. Stick to that — for the centre; put the heaviest weight into that scale, which will be so largely the scale of her relation to herself. . . . See, at all events, what can be done in this way. What better field could there be for a due ingenuity? The girl hovers, inextinguishable, as a charming creature, and the job will be to translate her into the highest terms of that formula, and as nearly as possible moreover into all of them. To depend upon her and her little concerns wholly to see you through will necessitate, remember, your really ‘doing’ her.”

Is James issuing a corrective to Eliot’s approach, calling her out, as it were, for lacking the courage or “ingenuity” to let Gwendolen carry her whole novel? But notice that his terms are, in their own way, belittling: “the girl” needs to be “translated” into something higher; she needs the novelist to infuse her with importance. Reading The Portrait of a Lady, I feel conscious of the weight of his novel bearing down on Isabel in a way I don’t feel Daniel Deronda weighing down Gwendolen (and certainly don’t feel Unless impressing itself on Reta). Is it possible that, more than James, Eliot does believe in the significance of her heroine’s “little concerns”?

portraitOUPNeither of these novels, however, whatever their differences, feels in any way light, despite the intimacy of their core casts of characters. It’s the treatment, not the subject, that gives literary significance, isn’t it? Austen’s novels don’t feel trite even though viewed narrowly they are “just” about a handful of “ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses” (in Charlotte Bronte’s words) — because her love stories are also stories about values and class structures and social changes with far-reaching effects. When Isabel Archer accepts Gilbert Osmond’s proposal, it feels large because James has imbued Isabel’s choices with philosophical consequence: her decision isn’t just to marry or not to marry, but about how to use her freedom, and about what to value and how to value herself. These are personal questions but also abstract ones, and so the small space of her individual life occupies a large narrative (by which I don’t mean, though I could, just a long book).

But I’m also reading Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness, and so far it seems to me a small space filled by a small narrative. Its plot and cast of characters are intimate, domestic, insignificant on anything but a personal scale. It reminds me very much of Anne Tyler’s novels, though (so far, at least) it lacks Tyler’s habit of whimsy. I’m enjoying it, and I’m interested in how things will go for its protagonist, but nice as it is, it feels trivial. I think it shows that you can’t just reverse expectations and insist that the ordinary is always resonant with significance. You have to really ‘do’ it, as James says: you have to go all in. You can enlarge the narrative in a lot of different ways: morally, aesthetically, historically, philosophically — but literary greatness still requires some kind of expansiveness, some reaching beyond the particular. Or does it? (If Austen’s own description of her work as “the little bit . . . of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush” really did, unironically, sum up the scale of her novels, would we admire them as much as we do?)

family happinessI have been thinking that this constellation of questions (not really any answers) is relevant to the discussions about why, say, Jonathan Franzen’s novels about family and private life get treated as more significant than some other books that are about similar topics. Gender may well be part of the explanation, but it would be disingenuous to pretend we don’t know that some books by both men and women simply do more with their material than others, and that that scale — the scale of meaning, of treatment — is ultimately where literary significance lies. But this post has gone on long enough without really arriving anywhere in particular, so that’s probably as good a place to stop as any.

Emsley, The Jane Austen Playgroup

I’m deep into a rather quixotic essay project and thus stalled in my other reading and writing, including blogging. But this is no loss to you, as I’m going to fill in the gap with a lovely little piece of writing by someone else. Here’s an excerpt from a charming children’s story called The Jane Austen Playgroup.

In February Laura and her mom invite us to their house for a Valentine’s party. We watch Mr. Darcy propose to Elizabeth in the Pride and Prejudice movie. Then we make valentines to give each other. My Mom says we’re wasting gold paper, the way the rich sisters Maria and Julia do in Mansfield Park. She likes it, though, when I give her a big valentine and a kiss. Zachary’s mom gives Sophie’s mom a pretty card that says, “I admire and love you, love, Mr. Darcy.” Sophie’s mom laughs and says “Thank you,” but she looks kind of sad.

Pending appropriate interest from a publisher, the story is available in full on the author’s website. The photos are placeholders until there’s a full set of artist’s illustrations, but I think they work very well.

Full disclosure: the author, Sarah Emsley, is a friend and former Ph.D. student of mine. I’d like to take some credit for this particular project but all I’ve contributed is my enthusiasm. Sarah has also written about Jane Austen for grownups, and she edited the Broadview edition of Edith Wharton’s  The Custom of the Country.

50 Greatest Books: Pride and Prejudice

From the Novel Readings archives: In 2008, the Globe and Mail ran a series on the “50 Greatest Books.” Though, quite mysteriously, they never asked me, a complete nobody, to weigh in (no, not even on Middlemarch!), I couldn’t resist opining occasionally off in my own corner of the internet. As I’m hard at work right now on a review of Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World for my hosts at Open Letters Monthly, I’ve been thinking a lot about Jane Austen, and since I don’t dare undertake a wholly new post here until I’ve met my deadline, I thought I’d dust this little piece off and put it on display in the meantime.


This week in the Globe and Mail‘s “50 Greatest Books” series, Joan Thomas weighs in on Pride and Prejudice. While I heartily endorse the choice, I felt Thomas sold Austen short in her essay, accepting as wholly unironic Austen’s famous remark about her “little bit of ivory (two inches wide)” and claiming that Austen “shoved aside” broader social and political contexts in order to focus on personal experience:

We tend to say that Jane Austen wrote about lives lived in drawing rooms because that’s all she knew. And yet … Austen’s family offered all sorts of other material: two brothers fighting in the Napoleonic wars, an aunt thrown into prison for stealing a piece of lace from a shop, a cousin’s husband guillotined in the French Revolution….Austen separated out the most poignant strand of her experience–the fact that a woman’s station in the world, her independence, her very survival, depended on the uncertain and often demeaning enterprise of attracting a man who could accept the size of her dowry. (read the rest here)

I agree entirely that “Elizabeth Bennet is a terrific heroine for any age” and that winning Mr. Darcy is, indeed, a great vindication for her insistence on acting “in that manner, which will, in [her] own opinion, constitute [her] happiness” (V. 3 Ch. 14) . I too love the “talky, civilized celebration of minds” that constitutes the Elizabeth-Darcy romance: it is, on both sides, an intellectual as well as a sensual seduction, which is no doubt the reason “this novel resonate[s] so powerfully with women who have so many other options in life.” But to describe Elizabeth’s achievement strictly in terms of “her fidelity to herself” is to forget how modern a value that is, and thus to lose much of the novel’s revolutionary charge. The line I quote above about seeking her “happiness,” for instance, is part of Elizabeth’s great confrontation with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who represents the powerful forces arrayed against “the upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune.” Class and gender politics permeate the novel, and Elizabeth’s ringing declaration that she owes no “reference” to Lady Catherine but only to her own happiness is, indeed, radical. Lady Catherine’s appalled demand “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” is comic in its extravagance, but especially so because behind it is a shade of truth. In a novel painted in more sombre tones, Elizabeth’s reward for so defying the class barrier might be far different: think Rose Crawley, for instance, in Vanity Fair:

Sir Pitt Crawley was a philosopher with a taste for what is called low life. His first marriage with the daughter of the noble Binkie had been made under the auspices of his parents; and as he often told Lady Crawley in her lifetime she was such a confounded quarrelsome high-bred jade that when she died he was hanged if he would ever take another of her sort, at her ladyship’s demise he kept his promise, and selected for a second wife Miss Rose Dawson, daughter of Mr. John Thomas Dawson, ironmonger, of Mudbury. What a happy woman was Rose to be my Lady Crawley!

Let us set down the items of her happiness. In the first place, she gave up Peter Butt, a young man who kept company with her, and in consequence of his disappointment in love, took to smuggling, poaching, and a thousand other bad courses. Then she quarrelled, as in duty bound, with all the friends and intimates of her youth, who, of course, could not be received by my Lady at Queen’s Crawley—nor did she find in her new rank and abode any persons who were willing to welcome her. Who ever did? Sir Huddleston Fuddleston had three daughters who all hoped to be Lady Crawley. Sir Giles Wapshot’s family were insulted that one of the Wapshot girls had not the preference in the marriage, and the remaining baronets of the county were indignant at their comrade’s misalliance. Never mind the commoners, whom we will leave to grumble anonymously.

Sir Pitt did not care, as he said, a brass farden for any one of them. He had his pretty Rose, and what more need a man require than to please himself? So he used to get drunk every night: to beat his pretty Rose sometimes: to leave her in Hampshire when he went to London for the parliamentary session, without a single friend in the wide world. Even Mrs. Bute Crawley, the Rector’s wife, refused to visit her, as she said she would never give the pass to a tradesman’s daughter.

(interest caught? read the rest here–you won’t regret it, all 90o pages of it…)

Austen’s delicious irony never conceals, though it treats lightly, the economic and moral precipice on which Elizabeth teeters. Consider, for instance the fearful compromise made by her friend Charlotte Lucas, whose pragmatic acceptance of the appalling Mr. Collins shows the proximity of respectable marriage (under the conditions Thomas alludes to) to prostitution. And only Darcy’s benevolent intervention saves Lydia from the price of her far more overt form of sexual fallenness. Is Lizzie perhaps more serious than Jane allows when she suggests her love for Darcy dates “from [her] first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (Vol. 3 Ch. 17)? How could she not be moved by such a prospect? Even if you are inwardly persuaded (as I am) that she loves him, not because he owns Pemberley, but because he deserves Pemberley, Austen never allows you to forget that money as much as love (or, as Thomas emphasizes, talk) is an inextricable part of marriage in her heroine’s world.

“How much more interesting their life together promises to be,” Thomas says of Elizabeth and Darcy, “than the lives of lovers on those turgid 19th-century novels, where passion and mystery (i.e. sex) rise like mist off the moors.” Ah, those novels, or rather, that novel, as what novel besides Wuthering Heights fits that description? And the genius of Austen is not to leave passion out of her books but to show that desire need not be “turgid”: it can be evoked and aroused by a glance, a word, a dance. Elizabeth and Darcy’s romance is not as manifestly erotic as that of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth (or is it?), but it shows that intelligence can be sexy–again, surely much of the appeal of this novel to generations of book-loving young women hoping wit, spirit, and good conversation will bring them what Thomas aptly calls “payback.”