The Calm (?) Before the Term

Bluhm PergolaMy fall classes start exactly three weeks from today. I’m pretty well prepared already: both of them are repeat offerings, so although I have changed up the readings (quite significantly, in the case of Women and Detective Fiction, and just a bit in Pulp Fiction) I’m not starting from scratch in terms of either course concepts or course materials. I have been working on the syllabi, schedules, and Brightspace sites off and on for a while, because that’s the kind of task I don’t like to do in a rush and also because when other things I’m working on start to feel too amorphous, it is a relief to do a concrete task that can then be crossed off my to-do list. There’s only so much you can do in advance, though, I find, or you sap the first class meetings of the spontaneity that gives them energy.

I am well aware that I use class preparation as both procrastination and comfort in the summer. I’ve written before about the way my mood often slumps in this season, and though it has been better overall this year — thanks in part to the work but also fun of preparing for and then attending the George Eliot conference in July — I have still sometimes felt the same dreary listlessness coming over me. One factor this summer has been that I haven’t been able to settle into a writing project that excites me. I have nobody to blame for this but myself, which just makes me feel worse about it! I have been experiencing crippling indecision about what to write — a strange inability to commit to any project beyond the immediate demands of whatever book I’m currently reviewing. That I have not been finding reviewing very rewarding recently only compounds the problem. I have really enjoyed some of the books I’ve been assigned over the past couple of years, but this year, not so much; also, I have been finding the space constraints I’m typically working within frustrating, although of course if the book I’m writing about is not particularly exciting it is a relief not to have to spin 2000 or more words about it.

inlandI thought it might help to write for some places that do run longer pieces, so I wrote a review “on spec” for one such venue but they didn’t want it–in the end it maybe wasn’t a great fit with the place I sent it, although the book I chose (Téa Obreht’s Inlandis getting a lot of coverage, as I anticipated it would. I suppose I could (should?) keep trying to branch out. It’s a bit frustrating to feel I’m still relatively invisible as a critical presence, even after writing regularly for the TLS for 4 years, but then except for the piece I wrote on the Lymond Chronicles in 2017 I haven’t really had much room to stretch out there and show what I (think I) can do. I suppose here too I have only myself to blame, though it’s hard to think of what I could do in 600 words that would be particularly notable. There was recently a letter to the editor about one of my TLS reviews–a sort-of correction about an implication (not even a direct statement) in an “In Brief” review of a scholarly book about malaria and 19th-century fiction. That is its own kind of irksome, especially considering there’s basically never been any feedback or conversation around anything else I’ve published there.

Anyway, the question that has been much on my mind is, if not (only) reviews, then what? I am running out of time to answer that question this summer, never mind to have any significant result to show for it. The possibilities go round and round in my head (and in my notes). I can’t even decide whether it makes more sense to just work hard on something and then worry about where I might try to publish it or to focus on a particular publication, or type of publication, and then work up the kind of piece that seems likely to fit there. I am thin-skinned about rejections so it is hard to motivate myself to write towards uncertainty rather than a definite goal, but I’m also terrible at pitching. Further, my sense of pacing has been confused by the years I’ve spent doing writing that can be conceived of, executed, and published in a fairly short time; if I’m not working to a fairly immediate publication deadline I feel unproductive, but writing for and then submitting to the kinds of places I think I might like to appear in requires both confidence and patience.

Arcimbolo LibrarianThis is why I keep returning to class prep! It’s so straightforward, and after all, it does have to get done. Maybe I should think of it this way: the better prepared I am for the term, the more likely it is that I can keep working on some kind of writing project even after classes start. My colleagues and I often talk about the way teaching expands to fill however much time you can (or are willing to) give it: this is something we advise TAs and junior colleagues to guard against. Good, detailed course planning is part of a strategy for achieving better balance between my various professional obligations; it’s not just a diversionary tactic when your other commitments are getting you down. Right? RIGHT?!

I do have some time left, though, before the day-to-day demands of teaching become pressing, as they inevitably will, and I am determined not to spend it all fretting and second-guessing myself. I have one review underway (my mixed feelings about the book lie behind some of my current angst about the reviewing process) and a couple of other things I particularly want to wrestle into shape, not as finished pieces but as plans, before September. One of these is the work I was doing during my sabbatical on Woolf’s The Years and related questions about the “social” novel. I felt really good while I was reading and thinking about that material but so far I haven’t figured out what to do with it. Three weeks: that’s enough time, surely, to do at least that much, especially if I stop brooding and complaining. Here goes!

 

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:

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

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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:

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

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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.”

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

 

Back to Normal

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Our flurry of excitement is over: Jesus Christ Superstar had its brief but glorious run, and my parents are back in sunny Vancouver after 5 days of pretty relentless cloud, fog, drizzle, and just plain rain here on the other coast. Damp and chill notwithstanding, we had a lovely time visiting, eating, drinking, and of course applauding.

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Maddie as Mary Magdalene

And now it’s back to our regular dull routines, though with a welcome easing up of pressure now that they don’t include rehearsals. This is a big change and relief especially for Maddie, of course, but her schedule had lots of implications for us one way or another. It has been sinking in that as her school year draws to a close, so too do our years of parenting kids in school: as of September, both she and Owen will be at university and living in residence, which will change a lot of things about our day to day lives. For the first time since 1999, just for example, I won’t be dropping anyone off in the morning before heading to work–which among other things means I hope to walk in a lot more often. I definitely have some anxieties about the emotional repercussions of an empty nest; it helps to know they won’t be far away. I might even run into one or the other of them on campus sometimes–and if I’m very well behaved, they might even acknowledge me. 🙂

baggageThat’s all still in the future, though, and in the meantime Maddie has exams to get through and I have a bit more time on my sabbatical to make the best use of that I can. Now that everyone else is also done teaching, being on leave feels a bit less special, but I remind myself that May typically fills up with administrative commitments, so I can still enjoy not being part of that. I will write up a post soon reflecting on my sabbatical so far. Before too much longer, I may also actually finish reading a book, and then I can post about that too! I have three in progress: The Break, which I am rereading for my book club, Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage, which I am enjoying so far, and Lucy Parker’s The Austen Playbook which to be honest I am not really loving. I am not currently reading anything on assignment for a review: I’m not sure if that’s good or bad! (It does mean I’m available, if any editors are reading this…)

The other thing I’m doing is a bit of physiotherapy for a sore shoulder, which the PT said is suffering from something called “impingement.” It is likely related to strain from activities such as using my computer mouse and crochet, neither of which I would like to give up, so here’s hoping a proper regimen of stretches and strengthening exercises plus better attention to form will make it stop hurting and let me carry on.

Dull, as I said, but today the sun is finally shining and it seems plausible not just that spring will finally arrive but that summer will follow, with all its languorous pleasures, so I’m feeling pretty good, all things considered.

A Flurry of Excitement

jesus christ poster

I won’t be reading or posting much for the next little while. After much anticipation (by us) and a much greater amount of work (by the cast and crew), Citadel High School is presenting Jesus Christ Superstar, opening tonight and closing Saturday. Maddie is playing Mary Magdalene. Rehearsals have been intense the last few weeks! Everyone’s dedication is so impressive–not to mention their stamina.

We are very excited to see the show at last: we’re going tonight and again on Saturday. My lovely parents are flying in from Vancouver so that they can see it too. I’m always happy to see my parents, but this visit is particularly meaningful to me, as it has always made me sad not to be able to share these big events with my family. Since Maddie is graduating this year, this will be her last school musical, so I really appreciate that they are coming all this way for the occasion–leaving behind Vancouver’s beautiful spring for our barren mud and snow flurries! I’m sure we will all manage to have a good time despite the unpromising weather.

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Spring trying to arrive in Halifax.

Year-End Reflections: Plans and Plateaus

Tree 2018I’m not quite ready for my traditional posts about what I’ve read and written in the past year: for one thing, I often read at least one really great book between Christmas and New Year’s, when the holiday bustle has ended and the book-shaped packages under the tree have revealed their secrets! (In fact, I’m currently reading Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, which seems a likely contender for any “best of 2018” list.) That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m not looking back over 2018 and ahead to 2019, trying to figure out where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’d like to be going.

Taking stock in this way is particularly relevant for me this year because as of January 1, 2019 I will be on a half-year sabbatical, which means instead of being caught up in the routine busyness of the new teaching term I will have the luxury of time to think and write, to consider and then advance my own priorities as a scholar and a critic–and as a teacher, since one of the most valuable things about a term off from actually teaching is a chance to reconsider reading lists and pedagogical approaches without an imminent deadline for book orders making the usual into the inevitable. (In another post, in part with the goal of making myself accountable, I will be drawing up a reading list to help me refresh, rethink, or reinvent some of my standard course offerings.)

cassatI do have a sabbatical plan–you have to submit one as part of your application–and also some existing deadlines I need to meet, so I’m not heading into the new year entirely aimless. Still, the precise form my work on that plan will take is really up to me, and figuring that out will be my first and possibly hardest task. A crucial context for me is what I did on and then after my previous sabbatical, in Winter 2015. Over that winter I threw myself into writing what I hoped (and perhaps still do hope) would become a book of “crossover” essays about George Eliot. I wrote a lot of material, and then towards the end of the term I peeled off two parts that I eventually published as self-contained essays. (I did not really appreciate at that point how bad it might be for the book I was imagining to publish a lot of its intended content first.) By and large I enjoyed doing that writing: I felt very motivated and productive, and across my sabbatical my confidence in my overall portfolio grew–which is why I decided, at its end, that I was ready to apply for promotion. This administrative project, too, was initially exhilarating: I had done so much (I thought), in so many different forms, since my first promotion, and the result was (I thought) a body of work I was rightly proud of, some of it well within the usual academic boundaries, but a lot of the more recent work reaching across them or representing my principled resistance to them.

Well, we all know how that turned out…and since the 18-month saga of arguments and counterarguments, appeals and, ultimately, rejection ended, I have struggled to regain the buoyancy that had led me to what in retrospect seems like a terrible error in judgment. I have been gradually (if unevenly) reconciling myself to the change in my professional outlook and I have found renewed pride in what I have accomplished since the university handed down its verdict against me. Now that I’m not seeking institutional validation any more, though (which of course is wonderfully liberating in some ways), I face the rather more existential question of what it is that I really do want from my work–what am I writing for?

Dunnett-New-CoverIn the last couple of years the kind of writing I’ve been doing has, more and more, been book reviews. I like doing this: I enjoy the variety of books and the challenge of finding a way in, and while it can be frustrating trying to say something that I think is insightful and convincing in what is often a pretty tight word limit, that too has its gratifications. I am starting to feel, however, as if I am on kind of a plateau where this work is concerned. I could probably keep puttering along doing a regular string of reviews indefinitely now that I have proven myself reliable to a couple of editors at different places. Is this what I want? Is this enough? Looking over some of my old reviews for Open Letters Monthly, which were a minimum of 2000 words and often more, I envied their roominess, and even more, I envied the greater freedom I felt in the writing, which is partly from having the space but also from the confidence my co-editors gave me in my ideas. I would like the chance to stretch like that again–but who will give me that kind of room to play and both trust and help me to use it well? The closest I’ve come so far outside of OLM is my TLS piece on Dorothy Dunnett: I was and am so thrilled that the editor I proposed it to took me up on it. (I’m sorry that this, like most of my TLS reviews, is behind their paywall; if anyone ever really wants to read one of them but can’t subscribe, just let me know.) On my sabbatical, one thing I want to do is think about what other opportunities like that I might reach for.

escher12The other question is whether I want–or in some sense need–to stop working (only) in small increments and re-commit myself to a book project, and if so, of what kind? If an essay collection of the kind I have long been playing around with is a non-starter unless I self-publish it (which I might yet do), is there another kind of book I would feel was worth the long-term single-minded effort to produce? I have long objected to the academic fixation on “a book” as a necessary form. I suspect, now, that there is a similar bias in non-academic publishing, or at any rate that one way to get off the kind of plateau I am on is to publish a book of my own which might (at any rate, it seems to have, for others) give me increased visibility and credibility as a critic. I resist that implicit pressure too: I think it’s a good thing to have practising critics who are one step removed from the immediate business of publishing. How long, I wonder, or in what venues, do you have to write reviews before you are perceived as having any stature as a critic, though? How is that kind of professional credit or reputation earned? Do I care? I guess so, or I wouldn’t be wondering! But should I? Is it possible, even if it might in theory be desirable, not to eventually start thinking about going further, doing more, being more?

So: these are some of the things on my mind as 2018 yields to 2019! I’m not sure how I will answer these questions; indeed, one of my plans for January is precisely not to try to answer them but to reread my archive of essays and reviews (and blog posts) and try to understand and evaluate it–not with a judgmental eye on my past but with an eye out for what aspects of it I especially want to bring with me as I move ahead. I’m hoping I will learn something from that exercise, about both my writing and myself.

Summer Fog

Deck-SkyHere in Halifax we have been socked in with fog and cloud a lot lately, and the last two days in particular have been relentlessly overcast and muggy. The humidity alone is demoralizing, and the absence of sunlight just compounds the gloom. Happily we’re supposed to see at least some sun later today–but most of the rest of the week is forecast to be pretty grey. This kind of disappointing weather is typical of May and June here, but by July we’re usually enjoying a bit more brightness! As our long-awaited and always too-brief summer slips away, it’s hard not to feel a bit depressed, especially as constant construction noise in our usually tranquil neighborhood has made even the few really nice sunny days harder to enjoy. I have hardly spent any time reading on the deck, which is the one summer activity I really look forward to!

twitterlogoMy mopey mood has not been helped by the constant barrage of bad news, or by the ceaseless cascade of angry responses to one thing after another on social media. My twitter feed yesterday was heavily dominated, for example, by people being angry about a terrible “take” on libraries and an ill-conceived hit job on Wuthering Heights. I didn’t disagree with (most of) the complaints: I love libraries as much as the next person in my feed, and though Wuthering Heights is hardly my favorite novel either, if for some reason I felt like making a big public statement about that, I would at least try to explain myself without insulting either the book or those who admire it–and I would certainly make a good faith effort to know the novel better and acknowledge its strengths as part of the project. But eventually I had to wonder who these declarations were really aimed at, since the pieces’ authors are almost certainly not going to see or be persuaded by them. I know it feels good to vent, and we all (myself certainly included!) use Twitter for this some of the time, but after a while the anger seems largely performative, and I’m increasingly inclined to see the compulsion to join the chorus of outrage as a problem in itself, not any kind of solution–though, having said that, I do realize that there can be both comfort and political value in asserting solidarity with other like-minded people. My least favorite genre of tweet is “you’re doing Twitter wrong,” so what I need to do is keep working on managing my own experience of Twitter–which I still find a vital lifeline to relationships and conversations and ideas I value–so that it is on balance more engaging than stressful.

moss-namesOn the bright side, I just finished reading a pretty good book, Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea, which I will write a bit more about here soon. I also really liked Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn, which I just finished writing up for Quill & Quire, and now I’m focusing on a short essay on Carol Shields’ Unless, a novel that has come to be one of my very favorites. I also feel good about my piece on “Reading Trollope in the Age of Trump,” which ran last week on the TLS Online–it was a treat to be writing about a Victorian novel again, and it was an interesting challenge to see if I could highlight its contemporary relevance while still mostly focusing on its particulars, keeping it “more Trollope than Trump,” as my editor and I agreed. It was also nice not to be behind their paywall for once!

I’m sure I will perk up soon. The sun is already trying to burn its way through today’s fog, and in the meantime I have plenty to do. Days–and moods–like this, though, which are pretty common for me in the summer, are why I don’t 100% look forward to this season, and why I kind of hate the well-intentioned “how’s your summer going?” questions from the few people I run into, most of whom really only want or expect me to say “fine.”

Summer Vacation!

IMG-7983I’m just back from a great week visiting family and friends in Vancouver. It was mostly family this time, as Maddie came with me. She had not been to Vancouver since she was 7 and has not had very many opportunities to spend time with my parents or my brother and sister and their families–it seemed important to make them a priority, and I’m glad we did. The highest cost of my professional life has been the distance it put between me (and thus my children) and them.

It was a real treat for me having Maddie along: I loved showing her around the city as well as seeing her get to know everyone better. We walked a lot, ate a lot, and talked a lot! I did a better job than usual keeping work-related things at bay, and because we were out and about so much, I also wasn’t online enough to feel oppressed by the unceasing stream of bad news and petty conflicts. It was lovely, and I am not altogether happy to be back. #sigh

PainterFor once I didn’t buy any books (Maddie and I frugally shared a suitcase, which meant there wasn’t room for much besides the essentials), but I did make off with two books from my mother’s collection: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone and Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet. I didn’t steal them! My mother is trying to clear some space on her shelves, so really I was helping. My airplane reading was Nell Painter’s awkward but engaging memoir Old in Art School, which I have now finished and will write more about here soon–once my jet lag subsides and I can concentrate properly. In the meantime, here are a couple of pictures from the trip. Vancouver is such a breathtakingly beautiful place! The last photo is of my parents’ garden, a verdant oasis that always reminds me of Marvell’s nice line about “a green thought in a green shade.”

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