This Week in My Classes: Nancy Drew and Tennyson

That’s perhaps the oddest couple I’ve ever put together in the title of a post! Yet both in their own wildly disparate ways provided plenty of material for my Monday classes.

I was nervous heading into our first session on Nancy Drew in Women and Detective Fiction that The Secret of the Old Clock would not bear up well under close examination. Luckily, we didn’t head into it cold but have spent a couple of weeks already setting up some of the major themes and tropes we’ll be following as we move along through the course, from the relationship of women to the law and authority to ways women detectives and their creators manipulate conventional expectations about gender to set up their cases and provide ingenious solutions–Miss Marple, for instance, sometimes finds it advantageous to be underestimated, while her expertise in domestic ‘trivia’ repeatedly turns out to be as useful as her insights into human nature.

We started off our discussion today by reading the first two pages of Chapter 1 aloud and then going over all the information we get about Nancy from them. This exercise, which I settled on as my opening gambit partly to be sure we did focus on details and not skip too merrily along, proved more fruitful than I’d hoped, actually. We talked about her appearance, her mobility (specifically her car), her relationship to her “Dad” (who relies on her “intuition”), her quick response to a crisis, her apparent expertise as a paramedic (is there any situation she can’t handle?), her rapid adoption into the homes of strangers who immediately become her intimate friends and confidantes. We moved on to discuss the case: I usually suggest looking at the central case in a detective novel as symptomatic of what needs to be fixed in the imagined world we’re in, and then the investigation helps us see what qualities or elements are needed to resolve it. In this case, right away we are focused on problems of inheritance and the damage done by depriving good people (in this novel, particularly nice women) of the resources they need to sustain their homes and families. We talked about Nancy’s strengths–her father’s good connections, her own unexplained freedom from other duties or obligations (in the first version of the novel, she was only sixteen, so at least at her revised age of eighteen there’s no expectation that she’d be in school), her resolute niceness.

In preparation for this part of the course I read around in some of the critical literature on the Nancy Drew series; among the most interesting explanations I read of her strong and lasting appeal is that she exists in a paradoxical place, in between childhood and adulthood, enjoying the perks of both but not the drawbacks, just as she both is and is not a rebel against conventional expectations. To me she seems like a child’s idea of what it is like to be grown up, something I see in my daughter’s pretend play in which she mimics things like going to work or having children. In the imagined version, it’s all about being the one who is in control, who copes, who solves problems–with no suggestion that the control may be hard won, or temporary, that the coping sometimes takes more effort than collapsing would, that some problems are not, after all, within our power to fix. Having begun thinking through the ways in which Nancy is exemplary and inspiring, we also considered the limits on her “universal” appeal. She’s not necessarily someone every girl can “relate” to, representing as she does quite a particular ideal of the All-American girl. I think it was a good discussion overall. One additional benefit of bringing Nancy Drew into the syllabus seems to have been that she has tempted a few students to speak up who have been pretty quiet so far! I hope they keep up this momentum.

In British Literature Since 1800 it was time for an introduction to the Victorian age (yes, we’re done with the Romantics already–shocking! but in about 10 weeks we have to have made it to Ian McEwan, so onward we go, relentlessly). Just as Wordsworth does nicely for setting up Romanticism, so Tennyson–who takes up his mantle as Poet Laureate, after all–does fine as our lead-in to Victorianism. I proferred some generalizations about things like an Age of Transition, faith and doubt, science and nature, the importance of the novel, and the role of sage writing. That was fine, I think, but what really got me worked up today was trying to sell them on the importance of prosody. There’s the sort of technical issue that they are being trained to write analytically about literature and that’s a hard thing to do about poetry without the vocabulary and a sense of what form is and how meter works. But more important, because it motivates that kind of analysis, is just grasping how fundamental rhythm is to our experience of poetry–to the sound and feeling of it. We spent last Friday’s tutorial on this and it turned out (again!) that almost none of them had any idea how to scan a line, or even that there was such an exercise as scanning a line. Then, in my group at least (and yes, NYT, there are ‘actual’ professors who lead tutorials–and mark papers, too!) they tried to get the hang of it and mostly got confused–so much so that I overhead one group arguing strenuously about how to pronounce ‘hamburger’ (I start them out with ordinary words and just ask them to mark in the stressed and unstressed syllables). I’m pretty sure not one of them would go into Wendy’s and ask for a hamBURger, or a hamburGER. Anyway, I knew they were (are) going to need more than that one session, but I also can’t take a great deal of lecture time on it, and besides, it’s the sort of thing you have to learn by actually doing. So today was all about dramatizing the sound and rhythm and demonstrating how great poets work with and against their basic meter to make things exciting. I had collected a bunch of good examples but it occured to me as I reviewed ‘The Passing of Arthur’ that I might be able to make them hear what I meant if I read this passage with all the feeling I could muster, and so that’s what I did:

Nor ever yet had Arthur fought a fight
Like this last, dim, weird battle of the west.
A deathwhite mist slept over sand and sea:
Whereof the chill, to him who breathed it, drew
Down with his blood, till all his heart was cold
With formless fear; and even on Arthur fell
Confusion, since he saw not whom he fought.
For friend and foe were shadows in the mist,
And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew;
And some had visions out of golden youth,
And some beheld the faces of old ghosts
Look in upon the battle; and in the mist
Was many a noble deed, many a base,
And chance and craft and strength in single fights,
And ever and anon with host to host
Shocks, and the splintering spear, the hard mail hewn,
Shield-breakings, and the clash of brands, the crash
Of battleaxes on shattered helms, and shrieks
After the Christ, of those who falling down
Looked up for heaven, and only saw the mist;
And shouts of heathen and the traitor knights,
Oaths, insult, filth, and monstrous blasphemies,
Sweat, writhings, anguish, labouring of the lungs
In that close mist, and cryings for the light,
Moans of the dying, and voices of the dead.

Try reading it for yourself, as if you really, really mean it. Tennyson may be a better poet than he is a thinker, but OMG, when he’s a good poet, he’s very, very good, and I think these lines are just marvellous. There’s hardly a line in there, either, that scans as ‘straight’ iambic pentameter. Then after going over a few more simple examples, I went through a few lines of Donne’s Holy Sonnet ‘Death, be not proud’:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

and
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
I’m not a wildly outgoing person by nature, so my willingness to make a fool of myself in class amazes and amuses me sometimes. There I was striding around declaiming “For THOU ART NOT SO! Death! Thou! Shalt! Die!” and asking them “So? Who’s the boss of Death here? Who’s the boss of the meter? Who’s the boss of the sonnet form?” I’m sure they were mostly wondering “Who’s the crazy lady at the front of the room?” but if just a couple of them were thinking “OK, wow, poetry really is amazing,” then it was worth it. And really, if you can’t get excited about “Death, be not proud,” you shouldn’t be an English major in the first place.
As for the rest of the week, it’s Nancy Drew again on Wednesday in Women and Detective Fiction, with a student presentation on Friday, and in the survey class it’s Browning and then Arnold.

Tracy Chevalier, Remarkable Creatures

In a word, unremarkable.

I suppose it should be no surprise that the majority of books I read are not that good. If writing a great book were easy or common, we wouldn’t have the concept of a masterpiece–or of ‘the canon,’ for that matter. Still, it’s always a disappointment when a book seems really promising, and comes trailing clouds of good reviews (“a stunning story, compassionately reimagined,” says the back jacket of this one, and “thoroughly absorbing … a moving story”). I’m left wondering if the reviewers read the same book, or if, perhaps, they haven’t really read very many books–or very many really good books. At least this one hasn’t won any prizes–yet.

Like The Mistress of Nothing (speaking of mediocre but prize-winning books), Remarkable Creatures is a good idea poorly realized. In fact, I put off reviewing it for a week or so after finishing it because I felt so weary at the thought of saying pretty much the same kinds of things. So, I’ll say them more briefly. This novel too is based on a real-life relationship, and one that has every ingredient you need for a compelling and evocative story, including unusual characters participating in one of the great intellectual and spiritual shifts of recent centuries. It’s about fossil hunters Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot (the former, of course, much better known). So we have women engaged in hands-on scientific inquiry at a time when such conduct is hardly ladylike, and we have the unfolding crisis of faith by way of the ancient specimens they collect. But too much is insisted on that ought to emerge from the situation and characters, too much is wooden that ought to be natural and thrilling, too much–and yet too little–is said. Chevalier tries to evoke the trauma and exhilaration of discovery, of the vast expansion of the historical horizon and the destabilizing of comforting certainties about the world and our place in it, that was part of the intellectual life of the nineteenth century, but the result is endlessly unconvincing and mechanical, to my ear at least. Here’s Philpot, for instance, contemplating a fossil find:

If it was not a crocodile, what was it? I did not share my concern about the animal with Mary, however, as I had begun to on the beach, before thinking the better of it. She was too young for such uneasy questions. I had discovered from conversations I had about fossils with the people of Lyme that few wanted to delve into unknown territory, preferring to hold on to their superstitions and leave unanswerable questions to God’s will rather than find a reasonable explanation that might challenge previous thinking. Hence they would rather call this animal a crocodile than consider the alternative: that it was the body of a creature that no longer existed in the world.

This idea was too radical for most to contemplate. Even I, who considered myself open-minded, was a little shocked to be thinking it, for it implied that God did not plan out what He would do with all of the animals He created. If He was willing to sit back and let creatures die out, what did that mean for us? Were we going to die out too? Looking at that skull with its huge, ringed eyes, I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff. It was not fair to bring Mary to the edge with me.

It’s not terrible, but it’s also not either moving or evocative. The language (again, as in Mistress of Nothing) is flat and stilted., with that odd uncomfortable formality that (second-rate) historical novelists seem to believe will convince us that they are bringing us back in time. The subject of the book is intrinsically interesting, but if a novelist can’t do any better than this, we might as well read non-fiction, or, better yet, poetry:

“So careful of the type?” but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, “A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

“Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.” And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law–
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed–

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

That’s how you bring us to the edge of that cliff with you.