This Week In My Classes: Vanity Fair

Vanity_Fair_D011_frontispieceTeaching Vanity Fair is always a morally significant experience: it prompts so much reflection on what really matters, both in the world you actually live in, and in the world you wish you lived in. One of the earliest essays I wrote for Open Letters Monthly was on this aspect of Vanity Fair — on the way that it pretends to be about its characters but turns out to be about us, and especially about what we want to see reflected back at us about our lives when it’s too late to change anything:

The doctor will come up to us too for the last time there, my friend in motley. The nurse will look in at the curtains, and you take no notice — and then she will fling open the windows for a little and let in the air. Then they will pull down all the front blinds of the house and live in the back rooms — then they will send for the lawyer and other men in black, &c. Your comedy and mine will have been played then, and we shall be removed, oh, how far, from the trumpets, and the shouting, and the posture-making.

Even if we do have what we wanted most, will it have brought us happiness? And even if it has brought us happiness in the here and now, will it have been worth what we did, or didn’t do, to get it? “Everyone is striving for what is not worth the having,” as Lord Steyne says. It’s a lesson adaptable to all of us, in our various circumstances: the thing we reach for, not to mention the thing we are rewarded for, may really be a worthless chimera.

And yet how hard it is to exempt ourselves from the vanity of it all — not least here in the academy, where it sometimes seems that the systems of value and reward are as perverse and foolish as anything Thackeray imagined. Reading Vanity Fair does put things in perspective though. For instance, one thing I feel morally certain about is that on my deathbed, I will have no regrets about not having published more peer-reviewed academic articles, even if that remains the primary currency by which my professional worth is measured. Thus I will always see tenure as one thing that was worth striving for! My regrets (like my pride and my joy) will lie elsewhere.

This Week in My Classes: WMT, AC, and EBB

It’s a short week, because of the Thanksgiving holiday on Monday. I think I saw the effects of the long weekend–not good ones–in my 19th-century novels class, where the limp response to questions about Vanity Fair (except from a couple of stalwart contributors) suggested people hadn’t exactly spent it keeping up with the reading. It has been three years since I taught Vanity Fair  (shocking!) and I’m not having as much fun with it as I’ve had before, and I also don’t get the impression that very many students are having fun with it. I feel as if I must be doing something wrong, though I’ve been too busy the past couple of weeks to get creative about possible fixes. The novel is massive as well as somewhat miscellaneous: I’ve been suggesting ways to manage the information overload by looking for parallels and patterns, themes and variations (on vanity, for instance) but maybe they are just feeling overwhelmed. Or maybe they are loving it and just not letting on. Will Vanity Fair join Waverley as a novel I just don’t want to teach because of the burden of resentment and disconnection it puts on the class? But what about the two or three students who do love it? And what about the fact that it is just one of the great Victorian novels? Why should I care if they don’t love it? I’m sure things will pick up when we get to Tenant of Wildfell Hall next week.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we have wrapped up our discussion of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and are heading into our first mid-term on Friday. Funny how the looming presence of an exam improves attendance and concentrates attention. I think the discussion of Ackroyd went well. I always try to provoke as much discussion as possible about the morality of a novel in which violent death is treated so casually. It’s almost comical, in fact, the way the characters mill around Ackroyd’s dead body checking whether windows are closed and so on, and then when Poirot blithely sits down in the very chair in which Ackroyd was killed. We spent some time on the issue of why the chair wasn’t too bloody for that to be a good idea sartorially, never mind morally, and that let us move into the issue of the detective’s necessary (or is it?) detachment, a scientific or clinical attitude we also saw in, for instance, our sample Dr Thorndyke story–and which is of course exemplified in Sherlock Holmes, who is described by Watson as a “thinking and reasoning machine.” We have also read “The Problem of Cell 13,” featuring The Thinking Machine himself. The value of detachment gets challenged by some of our later readings, including especially P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.

In the Victorian ‘Woman Question’ course, we are making our way through Aurora Leigh. It has been even longer than three years since I got to teach this strange, wonderful poem in its entirety. In our first session on it, I asked what background the students had in Victorian poetry, and the basic answer was none at all. That’s distressing! And it also means that some sections of the poem, like the central part in Book V about redefining the epic for modern times, lose a lot of their argumentative force. It would be nice to be able to refer to, say, Idylls of the King and know they have some idea what I’m talking about. Increasingly I regret that for various logistical reasons we simply can’t have specific prerequisites for what are supposed to be our most ‘advanced’ classes. It’s an issue that particularly irks me when I teach the seminar on sensation fiction: much of the interest of the genre and the course arises from the relationship of sensation novels to the Victorian ‘canon,’ but when Lady Audley’s Secret and East Lynne are the first Victorian novels someone is reading, it’s hard to have substantial discussion about why such novels were scandalous in their day and marginal in the field until very recently. On a still more basic level, my group was evasive about their background in scansion too, and we’re reading quite a bit of poetry this term–I can’t be expected to provide remedial instruction in poetic forms and versification for an honours seminar, surely! and yet how can we really talk about poetry without being able to talk about it as poetry? Aurora Leigh is particularly challenging in this regard because it is already a hybrid form, a verse-novel, so the temptation is strong to abstract the plot from the language and discuss characters, relationships, and social issues as if they don’t come to us in blank verse…but they do, and it matters that they do, not just because form always matters but because genre and poetic form are central issues of the poem itself and we can’t think well about how it reflects or advances its own aesthetic theories unless we care about it as poetry. Still, the discussion is going reasonably well, as far as it can go under the circumstances.

Kind Words: Thackeray Reviews A Christmas Carol

Here’s a bit of Thackeray’s review of A Christmas Carol from Fraser’s Magazine (1844):

Who can listen to objections regarding such a book as this? It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness. The last two people I heard speak of it were women; neither knew the other, or the author, and both said, by way of criticism, ‘God bless him!’ . . . As for Tiny Tim, there is a certain passage in the book regarding that young gentleman, about which a man should hardly venture to speak in print or in public, any more than he would of any other affections of his private heart. There is not a reader in England but that little creature will be a bond of union between the author and him; and he will say of Charles Dickens, as the woman just now, ‘GOD BLESS HIM!’ What a feeling is this for a writer to be able to inspire, and what a reward to reap!

Considering that Thackeray and Dickens were widely viewed as rivals for the public’s affection and admiration (“Dickens and Thackeray, Thackeray and Dickens!” David Masson begins a comparative essay on the two novelists  in 1851), and that they wrote (as Masson details) in completely different styles, these comments strike me as marvellously warm and generous. Would any ‘leading’ contemporary novelist rise to the occasion in this way if a rival, and one with wholly different aesthetic principles, wrote a smash hit, I wonder? (Is it possible, also, to conceive of any book being received today as a “national benefit”?)