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 2012 essay “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:


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


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:


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


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


“Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing?”: On Audiences and Serendipity

Bonnard The Letter

Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing? (Middlemarch, Ch. XLI)

One of the things I always emphasize to my students is the importance of considering your audience when you are writing. Knowing your intended audience settles a lot of questions about tone as well as style and content: formal or informal, colloquial or specialized, anecdotal or analytical. I usually recommend that they not think of me as their primary audience but aim their writing at another member of the class — a really top-notch, well-informed one who knows the readings and has followed our discussions closely.  You know you don’t have to summarize the plot for this reader. What you can do that such a reader will appreciate is draw attention to a pattern or idea or formal issue that deserves more sustained attention. And so on.

One of the unsettling things about writing a blog is that you can’t be certain who your audience is or will be. Given the competition for readers’ attention, you can’t be sure you even have an audience, much of the time, and most of us will never have a big one. And one of the questions every blogger surely confronts at some point is: how much should I care about this?

I think it’s disingenuous to pretend the question is “do I care?” Of course we care. If we really didn’t care about anyone ever reading what we write, we’d use old-fashioned notebooks — the kind you write in with pens! Writing in public is a symptom of a desire for readers, not because we’re egomaniacs or narcissists (though all writers, no matter their platform, surely need to have a bit of the egomaniac in them, enough to make them believe they have something worth writing down) but because we want to be part of the larger conversation about whatever it is that we are passionate about.

But the fact remains that readers are scarce, and attention (the currency of the internet) is hard to get. If you feel, as you are bound to sometimes, that the big conversation is going on somewhere else, without you, you can start thinking that you should do something, change something, write something, to get attention. You should write deliberately for an audience, and not the audience you actually do have of people who care about you and the writing you’re actually doing, but some imagined audience that would care if only you did something different. And yet, as Kerry  Clare eloquently explains in her recent post “Blogging Like No One Is Reading,” this is a bad idea:

To do the opposite of blogging like no one is reading is terrible advice for a variety of reasons. First, because most of the time, no one is going to be reading, and so there has to be something more than feedback from the outside world to push a novice blogger on. Second, because you’re never going to be able to predict what readers will respond to and what they won’t. It’s the strangest serendipity, and attempts to orchestrate this will absolutely drive you crazy. It will also result in the naked tap-dancing that just looks ridiculous, and never more so than when it doesn’t work and still, no one is reading. And there you are in your feather boa and your silly top hat, when dancing wasn’t even what you planned to be doing in the first place.

You need to write as who you really are, so that you will want to do the writing, and so that you will be pleased about the conversations you do get into, whether with your readers or just with yourself in a follow-up post. As Kerry says, there’s a strange serendipity to it all, and not only would you go crazy trying to orchestrate it, but you can go kind of nuts trying to figure it out when it does happen. Why my most-read post of all time is “How to Read a Victorian Novel” is puzzling to me; that it is my most-read post of all time is, if I think too hard about it, kind of annoying, considering it’s not by any means the best writing I’ve ever done here…but I had a great time writing it, so if it had stayed in peaceful obscurity, I would have had no regrets, and since I believe every word of it, I can only find its popularity cheering.

anthologyI mostly don’t fret too much about the audience for this blog: it’s my space, and I just do my thing, at my own pace. But when I write for Open Letters Monthly, I often struggle more with how to write or who to write for — or just what to write, since there are no limits and no imperatives, thanks to the deliberate breadth of the journal itself and the latitude my colleagues allow their co-editors. Though there have certainly been pieces I have been invited or urged or even pressured to write, I can’t imagine the topic I could propose that they would actively discourage! In puzzling out what project to take on next for Open Letters, I sometimes get caught up in questions about who would want to read what I have to say on a particular book or subject. What audience would I be writing for? Is there an audience I should be deliberately aiming for? Because of my own training and pedagogy, these have always seemed reasonable questions. But to my surprise, the most vehement advice I got from my most ruthless and motivating mentor was: never, ever, think about your audience! That’s the one thing you must put entirely out of your mind!

But how could this be? why is this wrong? I have always wondered. I’m coming to realize that the reason it’s wrong in that case is the same as the reason it’s wrong in blogging: if you’re hoping to second-guess the erratic interests of an amorphous online readership, you’ll end up endlessly second-guessing yourself, and you won’t write well (or, at least, you won’t write your best) or write things you believe in absolutely. Forget the timely hook, the link-bait trend, the ambulance-chasing review. If you have the luxury I have of not having to write anything in particular, then write what you know, write what you care about, write what you’d love to talk about if you got the chance, and write as well as you possibly can. That way if you do get the chance to join in a bigger conversation, it will be one you’re excited to be in. And in the meantime, you’re being your best, and also your unique, writing self — who else would you want to be, and who else, really, would anyone want to read?

I’m feeling buoyed about this perspective on writing because I’ve been caught up in a bit of that strange serendipity Kerry talks about as a result of the essay about Richard III mentioned in this recent post. It’s an essay that had no extrinsic reason at all to get written. My only justification for writing it was that the topic has been dear to my heart since childhood and then turned out to be intertwined with many intellectual strands from my later life as a scholar. It had its roots in a blog post prompted by one of my very earliest encounters with Open Letters. I began working up notes for an essay on this material in the summer of 2011 and got all excited about it (and wrote about it here and here) and then, as I later explained to Steve, “lost faith in the project: it seemed too esoteric to be of general interest.” Obviously, he talked me back into it, and it was great fun (if also a fair amount of work!) getting it into shape and finally published in May 2012. After all that time I had made something I was proud of from an unlikely but, to me, fascinating combination of elements.  That was that, and that was enough! Nobody commented on it, it didn’t get any external links, I doubt it reached a very wide audience — but there it was.

AlltheworldThen last fall they started digging up the skeleton that turns out almost certainly to be Richard III’s. Suddenly there’s a surge of interest in his story, and when people go looking for something to read about it, one of the pieces they find is mine. It hasn’t gone viral or anything, but it has found a new audience, including the author of this Globe and Mail story, and also a producer for CBC who contacted me to confer about ways I might contribute to a potential documentary about the discovery of his remains. I don’t know yet what, if anything, will come of the proposal, but no matter what, that’s twice in a week I’ve had a chance to talk with curious people about one of my pet subjects, and, through them, to share my enthusiasm and my ideas with others. Once again, I’m immensely cheered by the whole process, even as I’m amused at its unpredictability. Fond as I am of the Richard III essay, I don’t consider it the best writing I’ve done for Open Letters. It is among the more personal pieces I’ve done. If I’d really thought about who might read it, maybe I would not have included the hopelessly nerdy picture of my younger self beside Richard’s statue in Leicester! I’m glad I didn’t worry about that, though. Another piece of advice I often give my students is that your writing represents you. It might as well represent the whole you, warts (or 80’s glasses) and all.

One final thought about audiences. Academic prestige (not to mention professional advancement)  is strongly tied to writing for academic audiences. Sure, there’s rhetoric about outreach and “knowledge dissemination” and so on, but my experience is that most academics don’t take writing and publishing outside conventional academic channels very seriously: it doesn’t really count. Just recently a colleague praised my Open Letters essay on Anne Brontë for its interest and originality, then spoiled the nice moment by adding “You should really publish it sometime.” I was genuinely pleased that a specialist found the essay valuable, but I did already “really” publish it. I just placed it — and wrote it — so that it would be accessible to non-specialists as well. I have persisted with this kind of writing and publishing, despite the likely professional disadvantages, because I believe  in it: I believe that one thing (not the only thing) we should do with our expertise is share it widely and show people why we’re excited about it. The CBC producer was explicit that her interest in contacting me came from her reading of the essay, which she described as “fun academic writing” — not, that is, the kind of academic writing she usually runs into, but nonetheless writing she recognized as expert. As I told her, that was music to my ears! The specific attention to Richard III that drew her to this piece was certainly serendipitous, but the existence of the piece in the first place, and its presence out in the open where she could find it, was not, and it’s not just cheering but gratifying to have the value of writing for a different audience affirmed in this way.

Richard III Redux


Anybody who has known me for more than, oh, twenty minutes has probably learned about my long-time fascination with Richard III. I wrote all about it for Open Letters last year. Little did I know that if I’d only held back my piece for a few months, I could have ridden the wave of Richard III-mania stimulated by the amazing archaeological project undertaken by the University of Leicester. As everybody knows by now, their work culminated in the announcement, just yesterday, that the skeleton in the car park is almost certainly Richard’s. The University has put together a fascinating, comprehensive site about the whole thing.

I know there are those who find this all distasteful: sensational, pandering to the media (and to the forces pressuring academics into proving their public “impact”), making a circus out of research … or just unfortunate because of the emphasis on a famous figure, as if archaeology and history are less interesting and important if they focus on ordinary people and ordinary lives. I have some sympathy for that last concern: there are many who “rest in unvisited tombs,” and there are lots of reasons to value and tell their stories: in the last century or so there’s been a transformation in historical priorities precisely in this direction, away from a focus on great men (and the occasional great woman).

Still, I can’t see raining on this parade. Aside from the intrinsic excitement of discovery, of adding some certainties to a centuries-old mystery (here’s a piece of the puzzle that has been missing for over five centuries, after all!), isn’t there something exhilarating about seeing a wider public get excited about something like this? Who knows what might be the wider effects–benefits, even–of sparking people’s imaginations in this way. Individual stories bring history into focus: they help us think about it as something that happens to real people. And this truly is a sensational story.


There’s something both thrilling and poignant about the spectacle of this broken body. It’s one thing to debate the theoretical value or responsibilities of historical fiction to the past. It’s another thing to see that past resurrected in all its tangible but enduring fragility. Difficult as our access to it may be, and impossible as it may be to reduce it to a single story, there is something that really happened. Now, here in front of our eyes, is, quite literally, the skeleton which has been fleshed out in so many memorable ways. I find it stunning: it gives me goose-bumps.

From the Richard III Society site, the facial reconstruction based on the discovered skull.


Updated: Thanks to my Open Letters essay on Richard III (linked above), I was contacted by Kate Taylor of the Globe and Mail to chat as part of her research for this piece on the continuing appeal and controversy of his story.

Catching Up: Bookish Miscellany, with a Special Note on Loins

I haven’t done a lot of focused reading in the past week or so–I blame (but very much welcomed!) my visiting parents, for diverting me with conversation. I also blame my daughter, who celebrated her 10th birthday on the weekend–an occasion involving much festivity but also, in advance, much planning, bustling, and shopping. Not that we did anything particularly fancy for it (not like last year’s bouncy castle, which really was quite a big deal). This year we had a “pajama day” party, with pillows and “stuffies” and movies, all very cozy. Of course, it would turn out to be the one beautiful sunny day in about a month! But everyone seemed to enjoy curling up to watch, and then we had games (‘freeze dance’ is a ritual favorite with this crowd) and pizza and ice cream sundaes with all the peanut-free toppings I could think of (Maddie’s very allergic).

I have been gathering books to read, though, and puttering through some of them, especially various books (fiction and non-fiction) about Richard III, as I think through what my essay will be about. I haven’t kept up with Ricardian novels since about 1985, and it turns out there have been quite a few, so I’ve been searching them out at the library and taking a look. At this point I’m not inclined to pay much attention to these “new” ones in my essay because they seem, well, awful. I suppose they aren’t, really. What they are is pedestrian and unconvincing. That said, I’ve been wondering: are the old books I cherish, including the two I just reread (The Broken Sword and The White Boar) really any better, or do I just read them through sentimental eyes? I think they are better. For one thing, by and large they avoid tedious attempts to make the characters sound medieval by having them speak in stilted, artificially antique dialogue–like this, from the page that happens to be open in front of me: “Ay, young Richard has proved a good student of arms. I do hear he wields a fierce sword.” You do hear that, do you? 15th-century speakers would have sounded perfectly idiomatic to themselves: I think that (for any but the most ingenious and talented writers) the smartest choice is to make them sound perfectly idiomatic to us, and to let the strangeness of their world-view come through in some other way. An old-fashioned oath or two is fine, and certainly allusions to period details of clothing, food, ritual, whatever. But stay away from ” ‘Tis unnatural in the eyes of God what they are doing” or “Certes, ’tis hard to explain.” Rather than creating an air of authenticity, this kind of labored stuff distances us–or me, at least–from the characters whose immediacy is crucial to our imaginative engagement with the novel. And for crying out loud, leave their loins out of it: across just a few pages of my current example, Anne Easter Smith’s A Rose for the Crown, we get “his exposed loins telling the tale,” “Kate’s loins all but melted into her shaky knees,” and “she experienced the familiar flutter in her heart and stomach that affected her loins.” Our heroine Kate has yet to get passionate with Richard of Gloucester, but I have a familiar flutter of my own that says loins will once more be involved, though maybe this time they’ll keep quiet and stay above the knees. I am hopeful that Jean Plaidy’s The Reluctant Queen will be better. I read and reread Plaidy’s novels as a teenager and have often regretted having discarded most of my collection over the course of many moves. This particular one is unknown to me, though: it is a late one, early 1990s, I think. (One of the unexpected convergences of my thesis research was discovering that the reason Agnes Strickland’s 1840s series Lives of the Queens of England seemed so familiar to me was that Strickland was one of Plaidy’s main sources.) I also dug up Sandra Worth’s The King’s Daughter and took Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen as I roamed the library, as both are at least peripherally about Richard and the Princes in the Tower.

One book I did get through, because I was writing it up for the summer reading feature we’re preparing at Open Letters and I couldn’t resist refreshing my memory, is Pauline Gedge’s The Eagle and the Raven. This is another old favorite, and again it raises the question of how far sentiment affects my judgment. I think I could find passages in The Eagle and the Raven that are as banal and cliched as any in A Rose for the Crown–but overall, I really do think it is fiction of a different order, richer, more challenging, more imaginatively rich. I can’t be quite sure, though, because about half way through it I developed an unnerving tendency to start weeping over every loss or betrayal in the plot, which means over most of the second part of the book. I can certainly be this kind of emotional reader (I’m a Victorianist, remember–I always cry at the end of A Tale of Two Cities too), but I wondered if it was really the tragic failures of the ancient Britons in their struggle against the Roman Empire that made me cry this time: I was full of memories, because of my parents’ visit, and emotionally stirred from reflecting on Maddie’s first completed decade, and The Eagle and the Raven is one of the books that made a great impression on me in my younger years, so that reading it was never just about the book but always about some volatile combination of who I was, who I am now, where I am now (literally and figuratively), and so on. How could I possibly assess its literary quality in these circumstances? And, I suppose, why would I really want to? I loved rereading it, so much that I think I may soon reread Gedge’s first novel, Child of the Morning, about Hatshepsut, Egypt’s only woman pharaoh–another old-time favorite.

Among the other books I have collected for my TBR pile recently is Testament of a Generation, the collected journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby: I ordered “a lovely copy” through Abebooks (actually, from Silver Tree Books in Malvern, in the UK), and it finally arrived once the postal dispute was concluded (I won’t say “settled,” since it wasn’t, not properly). I’m more interested in reading this than in reading any more about Brittain and Holtby just yet, but I’ve also got Testament of Experience waiting. My mother and I had a nice browse at the Jade *W* downtown, too, and while she took home about 5 more books about Virginia Woolf to add to her impressive collection as well as their copy of Ursula Nordstrom’s Dear Genius (which I really hope she enjoys–I rather urged it on her!), I took Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows and This Real Night from their well-hidden Virago section.

First up for some sustained attention, though–which will have to be tomorrow–is Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale for the Slaves of Golconda. It is worrisome to me that I read this barely a month ago (mistakenly thinking that was our deadline) and can barely recall it now!  But I’m sure it will all come back to me, especially since I see I made some helpful little notes in the back of my copy.

And that’s a start on getting back to blogging. I was actually starting to feel quite fretful about not having written anything here for so long, not because I felt guilty but because I felt sort of pent up, even with nothing in particular to write about.



Youthful Obsessions: Ricardian Edition

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve begun an essay project that involves, among other things, looking back at some of my old Ricardian novels. I wrote another post about them once before, mostly wondering what they would be like to revisit after all these years (more years, now, since it has been nearly three years already since that post–egad!). So far, in addition to reading around in a fair number of relevant non-fiction works, I’ve also reread The Daughter of Time and Marian Palmer’s The White Boar, and now I’m about half way through Rhoda Edwards’s The Broken Sword (which was published as Some Touch of Pity in the UK).  I admit, I was braced for the worst, but really, neither of these old favourites strikes me as embarrassing (unlike Gone with the Wind). Both resolutely avoid any of that annoying “Olde Englishe” stuff that inevitably makes historical fiction seem less, rather than more, authentic–there are traces of faux-medieval idiom in The White Boar, though only in the dialogue, but in general both books are written in very straightforward, literate prose. The characterization in The White Boar is particularly good, with Richard himself important primarily insofar as he inspires the loyalty of the co-protagonists. Neither novel has any strong historical theory behind it (I find this is true of almost all mainstream [if that’s the right word] historical fiction–it’s the rare novelist, like, say, A. S. Byatt or Hilary Mantel, who conjures up a past age as part of a novel of ideas) but both tell a good human story. Both also (like all the others, as I recall) have to touch on key moments that are part of the scanty and very problematic historical record of this period. One of the more interesting things about all this is to watch the novelists work to devise a narrative that makes sense of, say, the various surviving documents, as well as the episodes such as Hastings’s precipitous execution or Richard’s claiming of the crown for himself. Precisely because the record is not complete, there’s lots of room for creative elaboration, and even where the facts are quite specifically known, actions are not self-explanatory–and here, at the level of motive and character, is where the novelists all go to work.

Naturally, I’m rereading these novels with that line about “women writers, for whom the rehabilitation of the reputation of a long-dead king holds a strange and unexplained fascination” echoing in my head: the original sentence is from Charles Ross’s biography, which appears to be the ‘standard’ one at this point, but I’ve found it quoted twice already by other (male) historians–once, oddly, without attribution. I expect to have a thing or two to say about that ‘inexplicable fascination’ in my essay. From a strictly personal point of view, of course, there’s nothing inexplicable at all about it to me, as I shared it! I’ve been wondering why, though. I suppose for any adolescent there’s something appealing about taking up a cause and perceiving yourself to be part of some kind of fight against injustice. But historical injustice? That’s pretty nerdy, I know. My trajectory is logical enough, though: I was a bookworm and a history buff, and before I discovered the Ricardian cause I had already thrown myself into the sad story of the wrongfully imprisoned and executed Mary, Queen of Scots–another fixation that is half intellectual, half visceral or sentimental. I had also been preoccupied with Lady Jane Grey, going so far as to write a play (in 4th grade) about her pathetic (and undeserved!) fate. These cases lacked the contentiousness of the debates over Richard’s guilt or innocence, though–and though both Mary and Jane have been the subjects of novels, they don’t come trailing quite the clouds of exculpatory fiction that Richard enjoys (that I’m aware of, anyway). Novels like The White Boar filled me with passionate advocacy, quite taking over my imagination and convincing me beyond any reasonable doubt that this was a man who needed both love and saving. I’ve been thinking that this is the point at which historiography and eroticism meet, and even merge, in pretty much all of the Ricardian novels:  is that (admittedly odd) combination what makes the male historians so uncomfortable, do you suppose? As you can imagine, this is one of the strands I think my essay will explore.

Did you have youthful reading obsessions? Have you kept them up or gone back to them? What do you think drew you to them?

Gender, Genre, and Victorian Historical Writing

That’s the title of my book. Catchy, isn’t it? But the reason it’s the title of a post here is that I have been revving up another essay project and realizing that many of the same issues I address in the book are going to be central. I’ve been looking back at some of my old historical fiction about Richard III (long story short: read The Daughter of Time in 6th grade, became dedicated Ricardian, joined Richard III Society, did several school projects on the topic, and collected quite an array of Ricardian fiction–which, just by the way, is still a flourishing genre). I didn’t really know what I would find when I went back to this material, which was part of the appeal: as I learned from working on my Gone with the Wind essay, rereading after many years means you bring a lot of different ideas to things. In this case what is immediately standing out for me is how embroiled the materials are in issues of genre, and how much those issues are (as they pretty much always are) gendered. Here’s just one example, from a fairly well respected late 20th-century biography of Richard (by Charles Ross, a real historian, which as you’ll see, is important):

There developed about this time [late 19thC] an unfortunate divide between the specialist and the popular views of Richard, which is almost the same as saying between the amateur and the professional. Markham was the philosophical progenitive ancestor of Richard’s modern defenders. His offspring have included an Oxford professor of English law, a headmaster of Eton, several peers of the realm and a number of historical novelists and writers of detective stories. Apart from some with serous pretensions to be writing history, notably the late Paul Murray Kendall (himself an American professor of English literature), the writers of fiction are the most prominent, among them Philip Lindsay, whose zeal for Richard matched that of Markham himself, Josephine Tey, whose best-selling Daughter of Time (1951) concerning the fate of the princes was described by that fount of historical authority, the Daily Mail, as ‘a serious contribution to historical knowledge,’ Rosemary Hawley Jarman, author of Speak No Treason [it’s actually We Speak No Treason–I have it], and a number of others, nearly all women writers, for whom the rehabilitation of the reputation of a long-dead king holds a strange and unexplained fascination. . .

It’s true that every one of the many Ricardian novels I have is by a woman writer, but the sheer gratuitousness of that line about their “strange and unexplained fascination”with their subject is perversely delightful–it sets my critical faculties humming. I also love the way that dig at the Daily Mail is also a swipe at Tey’s claim to have contributed anything of historiographical significance.

One of the early pro-Richard sources often cited is Caroline Halsted’s 1844 work Richard III as Duke of Gloucester and King of England. Here’s Ross’s comment:

As a child of the Romantic age she wrote in affecting, indeed melting prose. But there was also some whalebone behind the outer garment of sensibility. Her work contains 82 appendices covering 128 pages drawn from record sources, including the important manuscript known as Harleian 433.

Biography Paul Murray Kendall (himself, as Ross notes, a mere English professor) is not particular impressed by this archival work, however:

Though Miss Halsted did some valuable digging in Harleian MS. 433, the registry of King Richard’s grants and writs, and printed a number of the principal entries as well as other important source materials, her work is conceived rather in the vein of the Victorian gift-book, and to this rude age is almost unreadable.

That’s OK. “Miss Halsted” knew she wasn’t really invited to the party anyway, so like so many of her female contemporaries, she set her work apart from that of the “general” historians, deftly turning their research failures into her apologia:

After many and lengthened discussions from writers of acknowledged ability, the boundaries of the historical and the poetical in the received popular version of the history of Richard the Third remains as indefinite as ever. If the author of the present work had imagined that the course pursued by the zealous inquirers to whom she has alluded was that by which the truth might be discovered, she would have deemed her interference to be in the highest degree presumptuous. If the questions in dispute were to be determined, or could possibly be determined, by acute reasoning or profound philosophical inquiry, she would have shrunk from attempting to exhibit powers to the possession of which she is well aware she cannot pretend; but, it appearing to her that mere argument and discussion were unsatisfactory modes of attempting to determine a doubtful question in history, and that the humble seeker of authorities might in a case like this do better service than the most brilliant or philosophical of speculators, she resolved on collecting from every available source all existing authentic notices, however trivial, of the defamed prince and monarch. Many of them were found in MSS., many were gathered from recent publications bearing on the events of this period, … and many were so widely scattered, or were deposited in places so unlikely to afford materials for such a purpose, that it is by no means astonishing that they have occasionally escaped the notice of general historians.

. . . [S]trong in the power of the evidences she has analysed, and in the belief that no prejudice can withstand the truth when fairly and simply displayed, she indulges the hope that, her unwearied research having fortified her with facts, and her own views being supported by those who rank high in literary fame, she may be shielded from the charge either of defective judgment or of presumption in her bold undertaking.

As I observed in my earlier work, 19th-century women historians “faced, even more than other nineteenth-century women writers, problems of self-presentation and self-authorization:”

How should they write? What voice should they use? What relationship to their readers should they cultivate? What kinds of stories should they tell? Could they fulfill their obligations as historians without violating expectations of them as women? And what exactly were their obligations as (women) historians anyway?

One of the first enabling strategies I identify is a “rhetoric of differentiation and subordination,” a kind of “don’t bother about little me, I’m just puttering away here in your shadow, not trying to encroach on your territory” attitude–even as, of course, just as Halsted does, they proceed quite merrily to encroach: “These gestures allow the women writers at once to distance themselves from ‘historians’ and to appropriate their authority.” Acknowledging that her work might be seen as presumptious, Halsted preemptively, and surely disingenuously, defends herself while pressing on with her scholarly project just the same.

This is going to be fun.


Ricardian Fiction: A (Reading) Trip Down Memory Lane

I’ve been reading Steve Donoghue’s series on Tudor fiction at Open Letters with pleasure and nostalgia. I haven’t read a lot of historical fiction in recent years, but there was a time when I read and reread everything by Jean Plaidy, especially the Tudor and Mary, Queen of Scots ones, as well as everything by Margaret Campbell Barnes. I purged most of these books from my collection at some point in my evolution into a professional critic–no doubt in a fit of pseudo-sophistication. I have often regretted it since, a little because I have occasionally thought of rereading them, and a lot because much of the history they represent is actually my own. Imagine my surprise and delight when I found out recently that some of their titles are back in print–in fact, my very favourite, My Lady of Cleves, is just coming out this September. I’d guess that Philippa Gregory‘s success with similar material must be part of the impetus for these reissues. If nothing else, my youthful devotion to these books made me quite an expert on the British royal succession (very useful, it turns out, when explaining the back story for a novel such as Waverley.)

Anyway, reading about all this Tudor fiction also brought to mind my collection of novels about Richard III, most of which I have kept. These too are historical not just in their subjects but as objects, relics of my personal history, which involves a stint as a member of the Richard III Society of Canada (they still exist and they have a website!). Yes, it started because I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time; I was in 6th grade. It ended up launching my career as a teacher, as my Richard III obsession got me an invitation to do a guest lecture in my older sister’s History 12 class a few years later (she must have loved that). Some years after that, I won a prize at UBC for the best first-year history essay with an analysis of Richard III’s reign from a Machiavellian perspective. Also, I still choose Richard III whenever I have an opportunity to teach a Shakespeare play. That way all the time I spent studying that genealogy (in which nearly everyone is named Edward or Henry) doesn’t go to waste. The reproduction of his portrait that my grandmother had framed for me long ago now hangs in my office. Anyone who has seen it there and thought “what on earth?” now has an explanation, if not an excuse.

Here’s the list of other Ricardian fiction I’ve got, only lightly annotated because it has been, well, decades since I read most of these.

Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time (1951). Of course. In case anyone who is still reading at this point doesn’t know about this novel, it’s a mystery novel of sorts: Tey’s detective, hospitalized and bored, is presented with a selection of portraits of famous criminals, including Richard III. Convinced that the face does not match the story, he begins a research project that leads him to the conclusion that Richard has been misunderstood and misrepresented. Obviously, in 6th grade I found it thoroughly compelling. My judgment was not singular; right there on the cover, the New York Times is quoted calling it “one of the best mysteries of all time.”

Barbara Willard, The Sprig of Broom (1971). This is what today would be called a Young Adult book, part of Willard’s great Mantlemass series that begins with The Lark and the Laurel.

Marian Palmer, The White Boar (1968). I remember finding this novel, which focuses on two of Richard’s men, Philip and Francis Lovell, wholly engrossing and believable. I think it would bear up well in a rereading because it avoids some of the pitfalls of the genre, namely excessive sentimentality and intrusively artificial archaic language. In about 1983, during a brief fling with journalism, I was taking a night school course on interviewing and in need of a subject. Noticing that the author bio on the book jacket said that Marian Palmer lived in “Vancouver, Canada” (the phrasing proves the book was published in the U.S.), I tracked her down and interviewed her. She was extremely gracious and seemed genuinely pleased that I liked her novel so much.

Rosemary Hawley Jarman, We Speak No Treason (1971). Another great favourite during my youthful obsession. This novel would, I’m sure, have been one of my earliest experiences with multiple narrators: the maiden, the fool, the man of keen sight. Each of its parts has an epigraph from a contemporary ballad–I still like that touch. Like much historical fiction today, its closest cousin is the romance novel, not the realist novel, which differentiates it from its major 19th-century predecessors. I don’t think there’s anything in Scott like this, for instance:

Next to the Earl of Warwick he stood, but apart from him. He was solitary, young, and slender, of less than medium stature. His face had the fragile pallor of one who has fought sickness for a long time, yet in its high fine bones there was strength , and in the thin lips, resolution. His hair was dark, which made him paler still. He was alone with his thoughts. Ceaselessly he toyed with the hilt of his dagger, or twisted the ring on one finger as if he wearied of indolence and longed for action. Then he turned; I saw his eyes. Dark depths of eyes, which in one moment of changing light carried the gleam of something dangerous, and in the next, utter melancholy. And kindness too . . . compassion. They were like no other eyes in the world. Like stone I stood, and loved.

It’s interesting how Jarman, like Tey, starts with a close reading of the portrait, trying to motivate its details.
Rhoda Edwards, Fortune’s Wheel and The Broken Sword. The first one I never thought that much of, but I was very fond of The Broken Sword and excited when I found a copy at a library discard sale (obviously it wasn’t popular with many besides me). It’s another multiple narrator one, but this time it presumes to go right inside the experience of the central historical personages; much of it is from the perspective of Richard’s queen, Anne Neville.

Sharon Kay Penman, The Sunne in Splendour (1982). Penman has gone on from this blockbuster success (one of the few on my list that is still in print) to write a number of other historical novels, also apparently very popular, but I never cherished this as much as some of my others. The “Sunne” in the title is indicative of a much more laboured style that tries too hard to feel or sound like the olden days, especially in the dialogue: “‘Well, you’re bedraggled enough, in truth! But be you hurt?'” Well, even the greats falter when trying to capture the idiom of a previous time–though George Eliot’s worst moments in Romola (in many ways a marvellous novel) are also the result of trying to translate Italian idiom into English.

Juliet Dymoke, The Sun in Splendour (1980); Valerie Annand, Crown of Roses (1989). The thing about collecting things is you can’t be choosy. But neither of these seems worth special remark, at least in my recollection of them. I also used to have Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Dynasty I: The Founding but I can’t seem to find it. And finally, I have one more mystery, Elizabeth Peters’s The Murders of Richard III (1974).

Now, that might seem like quite enough, but the fascinating thing about historical fiction is that those of us who read it apparently don’t tire of variations on a theme. (Surely this illustrates the historiographical principle that the ‘facts’ don’t really tell us anything until shaped into a narrative, and there is never just one narrative to be told. Readers of genre fiction never needed Hayden White to point this out to them.) Peering around on Amazon I see that my collection is missing at least these more recent contributions (and no doubt more that have already lapsed into oblivion): Anne Easter Smith, A Rose for the Crown (2006) and Sandra Worth, The Rose of York (2003, just one in a whole War of the Roses trilogy). Do you know of others I have missed? If I read them, I promise to write them up! All I really need is an excuse and I can reread the whole batch. Is there an article in here somewhere?