‘The Secret Fortresses of Her Mind’: Winifred Holtby, The Land of Green Ginger

Once again, I’ve finished a book from my Somerville cluster feeling, paradoxically, both engaged and adrift: it’s as if these novels have their own idiolect, their own set of terms and meanings and tropes that are related to the ones I know from my other reading, or from the general ideas I’ve picked up from reading literary history, but are somehow not quite of them. This one, The Land of Green Ginger, is Holtby’s third novel, published in 1927, after Anderby Wold (1923) and The Crowded Street (1924). It centers on Joanna Burton, a young woman full of a kind of coltish ungainly enthusiasm and romantic dreams of foreign lands and fairy tales. She’s an unlikely heroine: she’s foolish, impulsive, naive, socially awkward. But she’s also loving, with an unquenchable thirst for life and hope for better things. It takes all the dreary events of the novel (and they do rather pile up) to crush her spirit.

Joanna’s fantasies of travel and adventure come to nothing when she falls for Teddy Leigh, a handsome young man who seems as fanciful as she. Teddy comes back from the trenches of the First World War flattened by tuberculosis, a medical history he had suppressed well enough to pass as fit and be accepted into the army but which now returns with a vengeance. He and Joanna take up farming but are spectacularly unsuccessful: the work is relentless, the money is poor, and Teddy’s health gets worse and worse. They have two children, one of whom is sickly. Joanna can barely manage: she was never particularly competent before, and now all she has going for her is dogged persistence.

Like Anderby Wold and South RidingThe Land of Green Ginger offers no pastoral idyll: it shows us country life full of grime, blood, and sweat. Joanna tries to compensate for her real life by sustaining her fantasy life, but I think the novel shows this as ultimately disabling: until she faces up to the life she’s actually living, she can never be in control of it. Her tendency to live in her own head also makes her oblivious to the interpretations of her life that are made by those around her, a problem that becomes a crisis when rumours begin to circulate that she is having an affair with a Hungarian laborer, a dispossessed nobleman named Paul Szermai, who rooms with the Leighs. It’s true that she sees him as the embodiment of one of her fairy tales: in her eyes he’s “Young Tam Lin,” and he brings not only welcome help and money to the household but a different and disruptive energy. She feels only kindness for him, though, and it’s her interference with his mental life that causes a crisis between them: her sympathy inspires him to tell her the story of his suffering and loss at the hands of the Bolsheviks, culminating in the death of his fiancée. Paul becomes obsessed with Joanna, despite (as he tells her with painful bluntness) her lack of beauty, grace, or wit: in his mind, she has come between him and his beloved, and he feels that only by possessing Joanna can he recover that lost intimacy. In the meantime, Teddy is miserably aware of his own decrepitude: his doctor has ordered him to avoid exertion or excitement, so he and Joanna are no longer sleeping together, and he’s sure she and Paul are lovers.

Of course things come to a crisis, but the oddity of the novel seems to me to be Joanna’s role in all of this. She is not attracted by Paul, not tempted to infidelity, annoyingly tolerant and forgiving of Teddy’s bellicosity and paranoia. She’s too awkward and confused herself to drive the plot forward, even though she’s at its center: for her, what that means is being beset on all sides by demands and expectations. After Paul tells her his horrific tale, she can’t even lose herself in dreams any more:

Always she saw that horror. Whenever she dared to dream and to seek her kingdom, she found Paul Szermai waiting there, bearing with him his unbearable memories.

They pressed about her. They besieged her, the miseries of these men, they entered with their incessant demands the secret fortresses of her mind. She had no place of refuge from their clamorous sorrows.

‘Oh, must I bear it all for you? I have made your beds and cooked your meals for you. I have born your children and nursed your bodies in sickness. Is there no end, no end? Must you take my dreams? Will you leave me nothing, not even the untouched privacy of my imagination?’

If there is a common thread among the Holtby novels I’ve read, I think it’s visible here in that plea by a woman for room to create her own story, especially without deference to, or even reference to, the imperatives of men. For most of the novel, Joanna is hardly conscious of this longing, or at least can hardly articulate it. She seems to be blundering around, intellectually and ideologically, wanting to experience something good and beautiful more than she wants to achieve anything in particular or stand up for anything at all. She just keeps trying to do the right thing–and, as she finally realizes, she just keeps failing, over and over, at least by any external measures.

Towards the end of the novel she finally realizes that her life is in complete chaos. The precipitating events are closely connected: Teddy, enraged beyond reason by his suspicions and his hatred of his own weakness, rapes her, and she can only protest but not fight back, afraid “of his treacherous heart.” For her this is a moment of belated revelation: “She had thought her mind free to create its own enchanting world. . . . And all the time reality had imprisoned her.” She cannot escape the life of the flesh for the life of the mind. But even as she comes at last to “face the facts” of her captivity, Teddy dies of a hemorrhage brought on by his violent exertion.

Freed of Teddy, Joanna still cannot create a good life for herself: pregnant from the rape, she learns that everyone in the village assumes the child is Paul’s, and that because of her reputation nobody will work for her in the house or on the farm. At this point the distinction between reality and fantasy is irrelevant, she thinks: “It was not the truth but people’s idea of the truth which made it possible for one to live in society.” Having faced up to the real world with innocent courage, she finds that it offers her “no safety”:

She had lost hold on its essential code of manners. She did not know how to behave. She did not feel that she was the right person to be live here. . . . She had known pain before, the enriching pain of love, the futile pain of anxiety, the dragging pain of impotence before the suffering of others. But this knowledge of desolation which made her feel that the ground upon which she trod was hollow, that the world she saw was only a phantasm, that she was lost in an alien place where neither her courage nor her love could guide her, this brought the horror of defeat.

Bereft of fantasy, defeated by reality, Joanna somehow finds the strength to start all over, taking the children and returning to South Africa, where she was born but has never lived. The novel ends with her on the voyage, poised on the brink of a future that just might be better than the past. It seems a fragile, lonely hope, but there’s something unexpectedly inspiring about it. “It is true, you know,” she says to her daughter about their dreams of their new life. “If nothing nice ever happens again, this is true”–that is, as I read it, truth lies, paradoxically, in that unrealized moment of expectation.It lies in the moment of discovering a street named “The Land of Green Ginger” when you’re looking for “Commercial Lane,” as little Joanna does early in the novel when out walking with her aunts in prosaic Kingsport. The aunts won’t turn down that street, but in that moment, at least you can be sure it’s there, and who knows where it might lead: “to Heaven, to Fairy Land, to anywhere, anywhere, even to South Africa.”

South Riding: They like it! They really, really like it!

I’ve just finished rereading South Riding, ready for our final discussion of the novel in the Somerville seminar tomorrow. I was caught up in it both intellectually and emotionally, more than I was when I first read it last spring. Rereading made the subtleties of the novel’s construction more apparent: the sophisticated way Holtby weaves together the stories of her vast array of characters, the tensions between their disparate visions for their own lives and the life of their community, the ironies of unintended consequences, the conflicts between political commitments and personal affections, the books each named for a council committee. More apparent also this time was the role of the communal events (concerts, festivals)  in returning us over and over to the intermingling of these lives and values. Though there are strong personalities that dominate the novel, it is, ultimately, a social novel, and our realization that even the strongest individuals cannot really shape their own destiny–cannot control either the forces of history or the forces of their own nature–is shared, in the end, by Sarah Burton, who in a different novel would be the heroine but here learns to subordinate her ego to a communal story.

I think she also learns to accept that there are currents in life outside her control. I wrote before of my dissatisfaction with Sarah’s discovery of her love for Carne. I still find it melodramatic in its presentation, but on this reading I had more ideas about how it belonged, thematically, to this novel. Sarah arrives in South Riding keen to bring reason to bear in the service of progress and reform. In a pivotal exchange with Mrs. Beddows, she asserts,

I think we have to play our own Providence – for ourselves and for future generations. If the growth of civilisation means anything, it means the gradual reduction of the areas ruled by chance – Providence, if you like.

Mrs. Beddows feels “sorry for the wilful unbroken girl before her.” South Riding is partly the story of how Sarah’s will is broken, and I’ve been thinking that her love for Carne is one of the ways that happens. Love – passion – desire – is not reasonable; it cannot be brought neatly under our control. It is, I think, shown as part of the natural world, in which raw forces like sex and death wreak havoc on well-laid plans. Many of the novel’s subplots, in fact, show people’s lives similarly wrought upon by their intractably physical elements: people get sick, they get pregnant, they inherit ‘tainted blood,’ they die. Sarah knows that Carne represents, politically, everything she opposes, and yet she loves him. Her feelings are characterized, in one of Holtby’s characteristically dry chapter titles, as a form of temporary insanity. In her conversation with Sarah after Carne’s death, Mrs. Beddows helps her to see that love carried her past their ideological differences: it was a response to Carne’s full presence and complexity as a human being. “He was everything I dislike most,” exclaims Sarah, ” – reactionary, unimaginative, selfish, arrogant, prejudiced.” “He may have been all that you say he was,” responds Mrs. Beddows,

but he was much more. He was courageous and kind and honest. He was, in dealing with people, the gentlest man I ever knew. He knew all about loving. . . . He never ran away from failure; he never whined, never deceived himself, never blamed other people when things went wrong. In the end – it’s not politics nor opinions – it’s those fundamental things that count – the things of the spirit.

Without suggesting that specific policies don’t matter, Holtby advocates the primacy of humanity over ideology. That’s an ideal, she suggests, for how we live our individual lives, but it’s also the model she endorses for civic government, because, in the novel’s simplest and most compelling idea of all, we’re all in it together. Thus Sarah’s conclusion:

She was one with the people around her, who had suffered shame, illness, bereavement, grief and fear. She belonged to them. Those things which were done for them – that battle against poverty, madness, sickness and old age – was fought for her as well. She was not outside it.

We end not with Sarah’s love for Carne, but with her love for the South Riding.

South Riding has been a hit with the class. Frankly, I’ve been both pleased and a little bit puzzled by their outspoken enthusiasm. It’s buoying, for sure, not just for me, but especially for them, given that before long they are going to be deep into their independent reading projects, and I think their expectations are now higher about what they might find as they explore other books that they hadn’t heard of before. The things they like about the book include its range of characters, its political and social engagement, and its dry humor. I was worried that they would find the novel too diffuse, but they’ve talked a lot, with enthusiasm, about the frequent changes in perspective and how Holtby keeps shifting and complicating how we see people and situations. We can’t ever rest in simple judgments, seems to be the message they are taking away from that. The introduction of the love plot provoked a lot of discussion, but mostly they had accepted Sarah’s declaration less skeptically than I had. To be fair, it’s prepared for by a broad hint on the back cover blurb, as one student pointed out with justifiable annoyance. But they liked the frankness of Sarah’s confrontation with her feelings and the way her love contradicts her political principles. I’m curious to find out how they react when they see how things turn out! It is certainly not a conventional romance plot.

It’s great that they like it and are really energized to talk about it. I know I won’t have to carry the discussion tomorrow! But at the same time, I am reminded why I usually try to set the terms of my classes to rule out a lot of talk about ‘liking’ or ‘not liking.’ I have allowed, even encouraged, them to explain why they like South Riding, partly because it’s so clear that they do and it’s interesting to know why. And their positive response to the book is clearly motivating them to think about it and ask questions about it and make connections and generally be good readers of it. Yet there’s also a temptation for them to use the book they do like as a stick to beat the books they didn’t like as much or didn’t find as easy to appreciate–that is, both of the other books we’ve read for the course.* There’s a risk in setting up South Riding as a standard for success, as if other books that have very different aims and methods are not as good in some absolute way: for our purposes, that’s not a very productive way to proceed. It encourages complacency about their own preferences and interpretations and reading habits, which is just the kind of thing I’m guarding against when I worry that I’m not challenging my own reading of Gaudy Night. I’m certainly not sorry that so many of them seem so fired up about South Riding. I’m just going to do my best to channel the resulting energy back into ideas about why Holtby’s form and style serves her ideas so well, while Brittain and Sayers are doing other kinds of things.

*I can’t help but reflect that this is how I sometimes use Middlemarch. Ahem. But my purposes here are not the same as my purposes in the classroom. If I were teaching Madame Bovary I would save the possibility of a comparative critique of that kind for the very last day. The rest of the time would be all about appreciating Flaubert for being Flaubert. Honest!

This Week In My Classes: Love Poems and Social Novels

In English 1000, we’ve started our first poetry unit. We’ll be doing more poetry after Christmas, organized into what I hope will be provocative thematic clusters, but for now we’re just working through the basics of reading and analyzing poetry — meter and scansion, figurative language, poetic forms and modes. We haven’t really talked much about specific poems yet, since I’ve been using the assigned ones mostly to teach vocabulary for poetic devices, but on Wednesday we’re reading a little group of love poems and I hope to open things up a bit more than I have been doing so far. I haven’t quite decided how, though. The poems are Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” EBB’s “How do I love thee,” and Shakespeare’s “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds.” I guess some talk about sonnet form is probably appropriate, and about EBB’s appropriation of the conventions of love sonnets for a woman’s voice. Maybe we’ll get a bit silly and play Poetry Survivor: set up some standards for a great love poem and then vote one off the island out of the anthology as the weakest of the three. All this talk about metrical variation and synecdoche has probably made them afraid to react viscerally to a poem! The challenge, an exercise like that might show them, is to channel that gut reaction into an energetic analysis of the actual poetry.

In English 2040, it’s hard-boiled detective fiction time. Every year I swear I’ll dump The Maltese Falcon for The Big Sleep and I never do. But the thing is, first of all, that I really do think The Maltese Falcon is brilliant, and it teaches so well, by which I mean it brings up so many of the themes we’re interested in across all of our readings. Also, and this is not incidental, I have been working with it for a while and feel pretty confident talking about it. Even just considering how convoluted the plots of these novels are, that’s no small thing! Still, I’m sure The Big Sleep is just as brilliant in its own style. Maybe next year, since it looks like I’ll be teaching this class yet again…which is fine, as I really do enjoy it. I just find it kind of funny that the class I have offered most often in the last decade is this one, because it gets bums in seats (83 bums this year, to be precise).

Most fun this week is working on South Riding in the Somerville seminar. The students are very engaged, especially now that we’re past the initially disorienting ‘getting to know all the characters’ phase. We had a lively discussion today about the variable points of view in the novel and how they affect our understanding of the community and also our sympathies. One idea we considered is that the constantly shifting perspective makes it hard for us to arrive at moral judgments about the characters: just when we think we condemn their choices or actions, we are brought to see them in a different context. And yet there seem to be exceptions to this, people whose points of view show off their faults or limits. Alderman Snaith attracted the most attention. He seems clearly set up to be the bad guy, but it was pointed out that he isn’t really after anything so different from what everyone else wants (money, power, success)–he’s just smarmier about it. Also, he is indifferent to suffering caused by his pursuit of his own interests. Holtby has given him a back story that seems calculated to awaken our sympathy: it seems that he was abused or raped as a child by “evil men” and he’s been left “a psychological cripple for life,”  feeling only horror at “all thoughts of mating and procreation.” We haven’t really worked out how this particular trauma fits into the larger themes of the novel, or even into the overall portrayal of his character, but we were noticing other scenes or intimations of sexual violence and the destructive potential of sexual desire, from the death of Mrs. Holly in childbirth to the suggestion that Robert Carne raped his wife (the word he uses is “forced”). It’s a novel full of the rhythms and forces of the natural world, but it’s hardly a pastoral idyll: perhaps this is a way of showing that human life, despite the best efforts of civilization, is driven by the same powerful urges. One implication would be that reform (social, political, educational) is both urgently needed and inevitably futile. Sarah Burton’s idealism can make us want to stand up and cheer. “We’ve got to have courage, to take our future into our own hands,” she declaims to Mrs. Beddows. “If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system.” But Mrs. Beddowss has “seen compassion impotent and effort wasted”; she reflects on the parade of miseries she has seen, on illness and suffering and injustice all brought on “by circumstances which neither courage nor intelligence could have altered.” Sarah dreams of “the gradual reduction of the areas ruled by chance,” but so far the novel has not filled its readers with optimism that such transformation is possible. Perhaps the novel is a lesson in lowering expectations. As Alderman Astell, the once-idealistic socialist, remarks to Sarah, “You begin by thinking in terms of world-revolution and end by learning to be pleased with a sewage farm.”

“She is in love with life”: Winifred Holtby’s Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir

holtby-woolfIn my post on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship, I quoted a passage Brittain includes from Holtby’s letters, addressing her decision to write a critical biography of Virginia Woolf:

I took my courage and curiosity in both hands and chose the writer whose art seemed most of all removed from anything I could ever attempt, and whose experience was most alien to my own. . . . I found it the most enthralling adventure–to enter, even at second-hand, that world of purely aesthetic and intellectual interests, was to me as strange an exploration as it would have been for Virginia Woolf to sit beside my mother’s pie and hear my uncles talk fat-stock prices and cub-hunting. I felt that I was learning and learning with every fibre of such brain as I have.

The result of this open-minded effort, Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir (1932,) is as generous as I’m coming to expect from Holtby. Though at times it’s clear she has reservations about the potential limits of Woolf’s emphasis on art as “an end in itself,” or Woolf’s opposition to “materialism” in the novel (Holtby cites, for instance, “Modern Fiction,” with its critique of Bennett and Wells and Galsworthy for being “concerned not with the spirit but with the body”), and sharp as Holtby is, too, about “the advantages of being Virginia Stephen” (the title of a chapter in which, among other things, she lightly mocks Woolf for concluding “Every second Englishman reads French” — “that particular hyperbole was only possible to a woman brought up as Leslie Stephen’s daughter had been brought up”)–despite all this and the differences in her own life and aims, Holtby writes with energetic appreciation, sometimes even rapture, about Woolf’s development from a writer with an abstract and difficult idea about the novel to a novelist who has found the freedom and technique to realize her vision.

Holtby finds broad continuities of theme across Woolf’s oeuvre: an interest in life and death (especially death), in women and men (especially women), in the meaning of life, in the possibilities of art. She also finds a continuity of aesthetic effort, a movement towards a different kind of fiction. She sees it taking Woolf a while to figure it all out, to achieve unity of form and concept in a single work. So The Voyage Out shows signs of what will come, especially in its characters and thematic interests, but “here she has curbed her fancy, and accepted the traditional novel form.” Holtby’s chapter on Night and Day is called “Virginia Woolf is not Jane Austen”: she reads this novel as Woolf’s experiment in writing “a domestic story on the Jane Austen model.” She quotes a passage from Woolf’s essay “On Not Knowing Greek” (a passage I quoted too, in my piece on Woolf’s essays for Open Letters), about Austen choosing “the dangerous art where one slip means death”: “Mrs. Woolf, in Night and Day, chose it and failed.” It’s not, Holtby is quick to say, that the novel itself is dead, not altogether: “It has beauty and gravity, nobility of theme and high distinction.” But in it, Holtby believes, Woolf followed the wrong master for her own gifts and for her own time:

Her technique is the technique of experiment, not of tradition. Her hunting-ground lies among the subtle gradations of sentiment, memory and association to which less delicate sight is blind. She was, in Night and Day, playing a game which was a good game, which had been played almost perfectly, which she could play better than most; but it was not her game. She was a disciple here, not a master; a follower, not a maker of the law.

More specifically, she thinks “a comedy of restrictions” (such as she believes Austen writes) does not suit a writer who is “a rebel against restrictions.” Austen had the “peculiar fortune to live at a time and in circumstances ideally suited to her talent.” Woolf, in contrast, stood in a critical a relation to her age, and “it is this implied criticism, this straining towards some larger life, some more liberal standard of values, which disturbs the quiet and enclosed perfection of the comedy.” So for all its virtues, Night and Day is a failure–but “the measure of its failure was, perhaps, a mercy,” Holtby concludes, as “it drove Mrs. Woolf to seen new forms of expression. It marked the end of her apprenticeship to tradition.” (Another exhibit for our case that failure is necessary to greatness?)

Holtby finds in Woolf’s essays experiments in the fictional techniques that will finally free her: the “cinematic,” in which the “perspective shifts from high to low, from huge to microscopic, to let figures of people, insects, aeroplanes, flowers pass across the vision and melt away” (Holtby sees this as the aesthetic style of “Kew Gardens,” for instance, or “The Mark on the Wall”) and the “orchestral,” in which “senses, thoughts, emotions, will, memory, fancies, the impact of the outside world, action and conversation each play a different instrument.” The result of this freedom to create in new forms, when Woolf finally achieved it, was to be superb:

If her knowledge of life was narrow, it was profound. There was no fear, no sorrow, no ecstasy, and no limitation that she could not penetrate. And now she had an entirely new technique. She could compensate herself for all the things she did not know by arranging in a thousand new patterns the things she did.

Once free, she learns “an entirely new note”: gaiety. “She did not use it for long; her sense of life is tragic rather than comic,” Holtby says; “But having discovered it, she never lost it again. Perhaps laughter is the first gift of freedom.”

Though her discussions of Woolf’s later books is extraordinarily sensitive to the tragedy in them, the remaining chapters echo with Holtby’s appreciation of Woolf’s delight in both the world and her own expanding art. There’s an inevitable poignancy in that, not just because when we reach the last chapter, “The Waves–and after?” we know, as Holtby could not, that there was to be only one more major novel, and that published posthumously after Woolf’s suicide, but because we also know that Holtby herself did not live to read it (she died in 1935, leaving her own last novel, South Riding, also to be published posthumously). But there’s also something exhilarating in reading about Woolf from someone who can focus on what is life-affirming in her work without any sense of impending doom. Holtby’s focus is deliberately on the novels, not the life, and that design plus her ignorance of Woolf’s illness and death  lets us too revel in what is triumphant and joyful about the writing.

Holtby’s commentaries are persistently articulate and interesting. Like Woolf’s own critical essays, they are more impressionistic than analytical, though I was struck by how attentive Holtby is to technique, and particularly to the congruencies between the forms and the ideas of the novels. Holtby’s own fiction is so formally straightforward it could give the impression of a certain artistic naivete, but reading this book confirmed for me what Marion Shaw argues (in the essay I quoted from in my post on Brittain’s Honourable Estate)–that documentary realism was a deliberate option, not a default for writers who could not conceive of alternatives. Jacob’s Room was, Holtby observes, “a triumphant experiment in a new technique”;

But now that we can set it beside Mrs. Woolf’s later work, beside Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and The Waves, we know that it was not the best that she could do. The cinematographic style was brilliantly effective, but it was not as subtle as the orchestral effect which she was to use in To the Lighthouse; she was to obtain a surer control over her material in Mrs. Dalloway. She was to adventure further into obscure realms of human consciousness in The Waves. The contrasts, perhaps, in Jacob’s Room are too violent. There are obscurities which even the most diligent study cannot penetrate. The effect created is very largely visual. Later she would plunge into the nerves, the brains, the senses of her characters, exploring further, yet binding the whole more closely into a unity of mood.

So Jacob’s Room too is seen as a step towards Woolf’s greatest work:

She had thrown overboard much that had been commonly considered indispensable to the novel: descriptions of places and families, explanations of environment, a plot of external action, dramatic scenes, climaxes, conclusions, and almost all those link-sentences which bind one episode to the next. But much remained to her. She had retained her preoccupation with life and death, with character, and with the effect of characters grouped and inter-acting. She had kept her consciousness of time and movement. She knew how present and past are interwoven, and how to-day depends so much upon knowledge and memory of yesterday, and fear for or confidence in to-morrow. She was still preoccupied with moral values; she was immensely excited about form and the way in which the patterns of life grow more and more complex as one regards them. And she was more sure now both of herself and of her public. She dared take greater risks with them, confident that they would not let her down.

The chapter on To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway is called “The Adventure Justified,” and it treats the novels as the culmination of a dangerous but ultimately triumphant experiment. In them Holtby finds a unity “far more profound than anything that can be obtained by a trick of reference. . . . It is a metaphysical unity, the unity which the old scholastic philosophers saw binding creature to creature and all created things to God. It was also a psychological unity, such as the most modern Viennese psychologists see binding infancy to age.” In these novels “her characters play now a double purpose”:

They are themselves and they are symbols. They are part of the visible universe and they are its interpretation. Her metaphors have grown more fluid, and they have overflowed into the action of the novel. The motion of time, light, change, the passage of wind through a house, have all assumed a spiritual quality.

About To the Lighthouse Holtby is ecstatic, almost as if caught up herself in the final vision of the novel:

Its characters move in a radiant, half-transparent atmosphere, as though already suffused into the spiritual world. The action takes place out at sea, on an island; because it is there, away from the land, on a ship, out at sea, on an island, that Mrs. Woolf sees humanity with detachment. From that vantage point she can look back on life, look back on death, and write her parable. Its quality is poetic; its form and substance are perfectly fused, incandescent, disciplined into unity. It is a parable of life, of art, of experience; it is a parable of immortality. It is one of the most beautiful novels written in the English language.

Orlando and A Room of One’s Own do not move her to such raptures, though she seems them as complementary completions of long-running preoccupations of Woolf’s. Reading her discussion of Room I was expecting more polemical engagement, but I think in the end it’s to Holtby’s credit that she keeps her focus on Woolf’s theories, particularly on sorting out Woolf’s arguments about man-womanly and woman-manly collaboration as part of her overall vision for art and creative freedom.

I wish Holtby had lived to write about Three Guineas. But her last section is about The Waves, and again, her appreciation for Woolf’s experimental form–her interest in what it reaches and enables–is strikingly open-minded and generous, as well as attentive to its place in contemporary literature:

We know, externally, very little about [the characters]. They are the cultured, well-to-do characters common to most of Mrs. Woolf’s novels, but their external lives, their relations to each other, are barely indicated. Yet we know almost everything about them. For the drama takes place not in the external world of speech and action, but in the subconscious world, below the articulate thoughts and spoken words with which most novels are concerned. Down there, in the submarine cave of which Mrs. Woolf’s characters are always dreaming, moves the strange, subtle confusion of memory, experience, contact and imagination which forms the running stream below our surface thoughts. It is a world hitherto largely neglected by the English novelist. James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, and D. H. Lawrence have adventured there; but their voyages of discovery have not been followed by a general conquest. The territory is uncharted and extremely hazardous, for only the most intent and penetrating observation of human behaviour can make a writer free of the unformed thoughts and impulses of his characters. Yet these are as much a part of “character” as their external acts . . . .They inhabit a land where the law of reason does not run; and Mrs. Woolf acknowledges allegiance to the law of reason. Yet in spite of these difficulties she has essayed the task, crossed the borders, and, finding the new land still sunk beneath a tossing sea, plunged bravely down to discover and reclaim.

If you find that extended metaphor a little florid, note that Holtby turns neatly to technical specifics: “The method that she has used to re-create this world is not entirely strange to her. Each character speaks in a kind of recitative, recording an individual current of subjective thought . . . . personality, drama and development emerging slowly from the sequence of conscious and unconscious thought and memory.” In The Waves, she concludes, Woolf has achieved “the music and subtlety of poetry.” The Waves, she believes, has not just its own internal unity but “is bound in that strange unity which is the artist’s mind, to Mrs. Woolf’s other novels.” And in it, too, she finds “an affirmation of life”: “Death is the enemy; death, not only of the body, but of the mind, the perceptive spirit, the faculty by which man recognises truth.”

Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir ends by wondering where Woolf will go next: “We cannot predict what problem will attract, what beauty entrance her next”–though Holtby anticipates continued growth “in breadth and power.” But Holtby speculates that Woolf “is unlikely ever to command the allegiance of a wide contemporary public”: “at present there is still only a minority which prefers To the Lighthouse with its demands upon the reader’s intelligence and imagination, to a novel such as [J. B. Priestley’s] The Good Companions, which tells a pleasant, full and easy tale.” That’s ironic in a way, of course, because Woolf’s name is well known to a wide public today, while Holtby’s much more accessible novels are largely unread–though it remains true, surely, that To the Lighthouse is a minority taste. In fact, I have never read it myself, though I have started it several times. I have always found Woolf’s fiction much more elusive than her non-fiction; until a couple of years ago I hadn’t read Mrs. Dalloway either. I felt I didn’t know how to read the novels (and frankly, reading Orlando didn’t help much with that!), and the academic criticism I read about them was typically intimidating rather than encouraging. Holtby’s book, on the other hand, has an infectious enthusiasm along with a lot of smart and useful discussions of what Woolf is doing and why. Now I feel that I too should take my “courage and curiosity in both hands” and “learn and learn with every fibre of such brain as I have.”

Holtby’s final passages stand as both a celebration and, unintentionally, a worthy epitaph, generously offered from one artist and woman to another:

For all her lightness of touch, her moth-wing humour, her capricious irrelevance, she writes as one who has looked upon the worst that life can do to man and woman, upon every sensation of loss, bewilderment and humiliation; and yet the corroding acid of disgust has not defiled her. She is in love with life. It is this quality which lifts her beyond the despairs and fashions of her age, which gives to her vision of reality a radiance, a wonder, unshared by any other living writer. . . . It is this which places her work, meagre though its amount may hitherto have been, slight in texture and limited in scope, beside the work of the great masters.

Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

It’s hard to spot similarities between Virginia Woolf and the Somerville novelists I’ve been looking at if you focus on Woolf’s fiction. Winifred Holtby wrote a book about Woolf, and as I noted in my post about Testament of Friendship, she did so deliberately because she knew Woolf was such a different novelist: “I took my courage and curiosity in both hands and chose the writer whose art seemed most of all removed from anything I could ever attempt, and whose experience was most alien to my own.”

A Room of One’s Own, with its framing focus on women’s education and particularly on the material differences between women’s colleges and their male counterparts, brings out an important point of convergence, if also another distinction, as unlike Holtby and Brittain and Kennedy and Sayers, Woolf did not go to university herself. It’s in Three Guineas, though, as I have just (belatedly, I know) discovered, that Woolf really shows herself their contemporary, as the issues she focuses on are very much those that dominate their non-fiction as well. Woolf’s arguments offer nothing like the sharp direct hits of Holtby and Brittain’s social and political journalism: as in A Room of One’s Own, she is indirect, circuitous, ironic; she ventriloquizes both questioners and audiences, sets up targets only to slyly destroy them, hypothesizes, imagines, projects. Her conclusions are not single and direct but layered and proliferating. I have taught A Room of One’s Own several times. Once, in a course evaluation, a student raged that it made her “want to gouge [her] eyes out with an ice pick.” Ridiculous! A Room of One’s Own  is a (arguably, the) great work of non-fiction prose. But at the same time, if you go to books like these expecting the orderly presentation of an argument that proposes and then supports a straightforward thesis, well, I can see how you  might end up a little frustrated. But what a trip it is when you follow her along those byways of her thought–not as exhilarating, perhaps, as her literary essays, but with the same effect of provoking surprise and argument and active thought as you go.

In this case what I tripped across most often was her careful restriction of her arguments to “the daughters of educated men,” a class specificity for which she makes some careful arguments (mostly in the notes) but which I think raises a lot of questions about the economics of the ideals she holds out in the book. She is ruthless about the moral corruption of writing for money, for instance (poor Mrs. Oliphant, who “sold her brain, her very admirable brain, prostituted her culture and enslaved her intellectual liberty in order that she might earn her living and educate her children” – the underlying point is that she ought not to have to sell herself in this way, but isn’t there another version of this story by which writing is a good enough way to make a living? and in Mrs. Oliphant’s case at least, do we really imagine that freed of the need to make money she would have turned her “intellectual liberty” in some particularly brilliant direction?). By and large Woolf seems to characterize money as weakening to the moral fiber–though at the same time she is passionate about the need, the right, to be economically independent. You should want enough to sustain yourself, I think is the idea, but not otherwise pursue financial reward, as all too quickly then you will interest yourself in what pays best rather than what is best.

There’s lot more to be considered about the economics of Three Guineas (its whole conceit, after all, is “where shall I bestow these three precious coins?”). Given that I’m reading it as part of my “Summer of Sommerville,” though, I am particularly interested in ways it resonates with the other things I’ve been reading. On women’s education, she offers a curt history but also a trenchant commentary on the investment women across the centuries have made in the education of their brothers:

For have not the daughters of educated men paid into Arthur’s Education Fund* from the year 1262 to the year 1870 all the money that was needed to educate themselves…? Have they not paid with their own education for Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, and all the great schools and universities on the continenent…? Have they not paid so generously and lavishly if so indirectly, that when at last, in the nineteenth century, they won the right to some paid-for education for themselves, there was not a single woman who had received enough  paid-for education to be able to teach them?

She is similarly pointed on women’s enthusiasm for the first World War:

So profound was her unconscious loathing for the education of the private house with its cruelty, its poverty, its hypocrisy, its immorality, its inanity that she would undertake any task however menial, exercise any fascination however fatal that enabled her to escape. Thus consciously she desired ‘our splendid Empire’; unconsciously she desired our splendid war.

The support rests, then, not on patriotism, but on rebellion, and in fact a continuing theme of the book is women’s very different relationship to the country that expects their loyalty and service:

She will find that she has no good reason to ask her brother to fight on her behalf to protect ‘our’ country. ‘ “Our country,” ‘ she will say, ‘throughout the greater part of its history has treated me as a slave; it has denied me education or any share in its possessions. “Our” country still ceases to be mine if I marry a foreigner. “Our” country denies me the means of protecting myself, forces me to pay others a very large sum annually to protect me, and is so little able, even so, to protect me that Air Raid precautions are written on the wall. Therefore if you [men] insist on fighting to protect me, or “our” country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect either myself of my country. For,’ the outsider will say, ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.’

For Woolf, as for Holtby, it’s not so much the military-industrial complex that is a threat to her freedom as the military-patriarchy complex: both writers make a strenuous case for recognizing the links between the masculine will to power (which Woolf analyzes in one section of Three Guineas, with stinging condescension, as “infantile fixation”) with Fascism. In Holtby’s 1934 essay “Black Words for Women Only” she observes that Nazism has rolled back all the progress made by women between 1918 and 1933:

There is little hope for ambitious young women in Nazi Germany, where the brightest contribution of constructive economic thought towards the solution of the unemployment problem appears to have been the expulsion of large sections of the community from paid work, as a penalty for being women, Socialists or Jews, and their replacement by unobjectionable loyal male Aryans. Individual women have protested against this mass campaign to restore their economic dependence and drive them back to the kitchen. . . .

Throughout history, whenever society has tried to curtail the opportunities, interests and powers of women, it has done so in the sacred names of marriage and maternity. Exalting women’s sex until it dominated her whole life, the State then used it as an excuse for political or economic disability. . . . Today, whenever women hear political leaders call their sex important, they grow suspicious. In the importance of the sex too often has lain the unimportance of the citizen, the worker and the human being. The ‘normal’ woman knows that, given freedom and equality before the law, she can be trusted to safeguard her own interests as wife, mother, daughter, or what you will.

Pondering the contaminated “atmosphere” created by the unwanted intrusion of women into professional life (“it is likely that a name to which ‘Miss’ is attached will, because of this odour, circle in the lower spheres where the salaries are small rather than mount to the higher spheres where the salaries are substantial”) Woolf demands, in her turn, “is not the woman who has to breathe that poison and to fight that insect, secretly and without arms, in her office, fighting the Fascist or the Nazi as surely as those who fight him with arms in the limelight of publicity?” The Fascist dictator is simply the oppressive patriarch gone national:

He has widened his scope. He is interfering now with your liberty; he is dictating how you shall live; he is making distinctions not merely between the sexes but between the races. You are feeling in your own persons what your mothers felt when they were shut out, when they were shut up, because they were women. Now you are being shut out, you are being shut up, because you are Jews, because you are democrats, because of race, because of religion. It is not a photograph that you look upon any longer; there you go, trapesing along in the procession yourself. And that makes a difference. The whole iniquity of dictatorship, whether in Oxford or Cambridge, in Whitehall or Downing Street, against Jews or against women, in England, or in Germany, in Italy or in Spain is now apparent to you.

The dictator is only the extreme version of “Man himself, the quintessence of virility, the perfect type of which all the others are imperfect adumbrations”: “He is called in German and Italian Führer or Duce; in our own language Tyrant or Dictator. And behind him lie ruined houses and dead bodies – men, women, and children.”

The key lesson of Three Guineas is “that the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected; that the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.” But from this connection Woolf draws hope, and a recipe for social and political transformation:

It suggests that we cannot dissociate ourselves from that figure but are ourselves that figure. It suggests that we are not passive spectators doomed to unresisting obedience but by our thoughts and actions can ourselves change that figure. A common interest unites us; it is one world, one life. How essential it is that we should realize that unity the dead bodies, the ruined houses prove. For such will be our ruin if you, in the immensity of your public abstrations forget the private figure, or if we in the intensity of our private emotions forget the public world. Both houses will be ruined, the public and the private, the material and the spiritual world, for they are inseparably connected.

I think that this desire for men and women to recognize and stand together in a united front (“now we are fighting together. The daughters and sons of educated men are fighting side by side”) lies behind her rejection of the word “feminism” (“a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete”), though this was another of the things I stumbled against, reading along. Given her insistence precisely on women’s “outsider” status, and on the particularities of their experiences and perspectives, why oppose language that identifies their cause as sex-specific? “They [those called ‘feminists’] were fighting the same enemy that you are fighting and for the same reasons,” she says; “They were fighting the tyranny of the Fascist state.” But that rather erases that until the rise of the Fascist state, and indeed for those not living in a Fascist state, different groups in fact have different antagonists. She wants to make a distinction between men as private people (she is eloquent, for instance, about the excellent relationships of brothers and sisters in private life) and men as social beings: “we look upon societies as conspiracies that sink the private brother, whom many of us have reason to respect, and inflate in his stead a monstrous male, loud of voice, hard of fist . . . [who] enjoys the dubious pleasures of powers and dominion.” But men and brothers, and societies, do not exist in the abstract, and as her own examples of the ‘infantile fixation” of fathers with controlling their daughters show, the tyranny actual individual women fought was very much the tyranny of their own families, a fact that no analogy or extension to Hitler and Mussolini should erase.

But that’s what Woolf does: she provokes argument even as she compells you with the intelligence and elegance of her writing. I know she met Holtby but did not warm to her (actually, she was quite snooty about her in her letters), but I don’t know if she met Brittain (she read Testament of Youth “with extreme greed”). Do you remember the old TV show “Meeting of Minds,” hosted by Steve Allen? An episode featuring these three would absolutely bristle with intellectual excitement, political commitment, and aesthetic contrasts.

*The explanation for this is in my favorite line of the book: “You, who have read Pendennis, will remember how the mysterious letters A.E.F. figured in the household ledger.” OK, fine, Virginia, I will read Pendennis this summer!

The Summer of Somerville

Now that the dust has mostly settled from the teaching term, I’ve begun organizing my plans for the summer. One of my top priorities is preparing for my new seminar on ‘The Somerville Novelists,’ which is the first official academic manifestation of the reading I’ve been doing about Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, and Margaret Kennedy. Oh, and Dorothy Sayers, except that my interest in her goes back longer and I’ve taught Gaudy Night several times before, so there I don’t feel I am starting so much from scratch.

As I wrote in a previous post about the way reading changes when it becomes research, I am having to think now not just about what I’m interested in but also about what I need to know to do the job. But since there’s no pre-existing definition of “the job,” this early phase has to be both open-ended and creative: ‘there’s the whole “tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” and then there’s your part of it, but where that begins and ends, and why, is something that, in literary research at least, is rarely self-evident.’

I’ve actually been thinking that I’d like to preserve that lack of definition going into the course, rather than trying to get everything under control according to a template of my own. I’m enjoying the sense of discovery as I read in this new (to me) material, and ideally that’s something the students will feel too: that together we are finding things out, rather than that they are trying to catch up with my expertise. I don’t think my seminars are usually stifling, but they do often focus on material I know very well and have gone through often with students. This has the advantage that I can steer our discussions in what I know will be significant directions and give guidance on research and assignments that I feel confident about, but it has disadvantages too, not least of which is that there aren’t a lot of surprises, and the level of personal commitment from students isn’t that high. I don’t mean that students don’t work hard and aren’t often very engaged, because I’ve had some great seminar groups and usually the students are enthusiastic about them (at least judging from their course evaluations). But I’d like to see them working together on something they think is important–on something they feel collectively responsible for, rather than accountable to me for.

I’m going to be thinking through the summer about how to organize the course to create this kind of atmosphere, and especially about what kinds of assignments and course requirements to include. I’ve been thinking in terms of class projects – a wiki, perhaps, to go public at the end of term, or a collaborative Prezi (I’ve seen some that cover an enormous amount of content in really interesting ways). I’m also thinking less about critical essays or research papers of the conventional academic kind and more about writing projects that show off the class material for a general audience. If anyone has suggestions, especially of assignment sequences that have worked well when exploring non-canonical material for which there simply aren’t a lot of academic resources, I’d be very interested!

In the meantime, I’m brainstorming lists of things I need to know about that will probably become part of our class discussion, including historical, biographical, and literary contexts and connections. Here’s the list so far, in all its unpolished open-endedness:

  • Individual writers from our list (Brittain, Holtby, Sayers, Kennedy)
  • Core readings (Testament of Youth, South Riding, Gaudy Night, The Constant Nymph)
  • Other books by them not officially assigned to class (perhaps for student projects or presentations)
  • critical / theoretical approaches and contexts
  • History of Somerville / women at Oxford (perhaps women in Canadian universities?)
  • Boer War
  • WWI, especially women in the war (nursing)
  • Suffragist movement
  • Women’s / feminist press, e.g. Time and Tide
  • Other contemporary writers–Olive Schreiner, Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf, Robert Graves, maybe D H Lawrence?
  • Genres, e.g. autobiography
  • Literary movements, e.g. modernism, in relation to our writers
  • Virago Press

I’m thinking in terms of a giant Venn diagram, with all these topics overlapping in different ways. The central artifice of the course is that there’s something coherent about our group of four, but part of what’s so interesting is that there isn’t, really, except that they all went to Somerville at roughly the same time and all became novelists. I’m used to organizing courses that are much more strongly unified by some kind of internal logic, usually thematic (the one I’ve offered most often is ‘The Victorian “Woman Question,”” for instance). Probably (though it’s too early to be sure) we will return regularly to the question of whether we’re doing something that makes any sense, and whether that matters. The diffusion of topics could lead to confusion in the course, so one of my jobs this summer is to bring it under control without spoiling the fun. You can expect lots of updates as I explore.

I’ve started, because it seemed pretty fundamental, with the history of women at Oxford, which has been really interesting to learn about. One of the first things I realized was that this aspect of the new class actually follows much more closely than I had realized from my usual teaching, including the  ‘Woman Question’ seminar, because an instigating factor in the movement of women into Oxford was the pressure to educational reform stimulated by the difficult situation of governesses in the mid-Victorian period (Jane Eyre!) and the statistical imbalance between men and women highlighted in the 1851 census and of increasing concern towards the end of the century (The Odd Women!). Many of the names of early advocates for women’s education are moderately familiar to me from my 19th-century studies: Emily Davis, Barbara Leigh Smith (later Bodichon), Matthew and Thomas Arnold, Mary (Mrs. Humphrey Humphry) Ward. George Eliot donated to the founding of Girton College, Cambridge — a modest £50 only, but evidence of the precedence she gave to education over political rights.

And on that note, it’s back to the Oxford History of Oxford!

“The Awfulness of a Life Where Nothing Ever Happens”: Winifred Holtby, The Crowded Street:

Only the last section of The Crowded Street – a mere 16.5 pages – is named for the novel’s protagonist, Muriel Hammond. Each of the other sections is named for another woman whose life preoccupies and dominates Muriel’s: first her schoolmate Clare, then Muriel’s mother, then her sister Connie, then her friend Delia. Structurally, then, The Crowded Street reflects the central problem of Muriel’s life: that she has never been its main character, never lived according to her own values, never pursued-much less fulfilled-her own dreams, never known-much less got-what she wanted.

It’s a risky premise and a risky structure. It’s not, in practice, very interesting to read about someone whose life is so lacking in individual motivation and agency. “All books are the same,” Muriel reflects bitterly, late in the novel; “In books things always happen to people. Why doesn’t somebody write a book about someone to whom nothing ever happens–like me?” If we hadn’t already seen it, this assures us that Holtby has made a deliberate choice to write just such a book. She has risked boring us, alienating us, in order to drive home the point, not that there is something redemptive about a life in which nothing of note happens, but that young women should be liberated from the conventions and expectations that trap them in such a meaningless existence.

The Crowded Street is relentlessly, satirically critical about the stultifying provincial society in which Muriel is raised. Though as a young girl she dreams of studying “Higher Mathematics and the Stars,” such radical ideas are promptly crushed:

Mrs Hancock [her teacher] explained how there were some things that it was not suitable for girls to learn. Astronomy, the science of the stars, was a very instructive pursuit for astronomers [I love the circular logic!], and professors (these latter evidently being a race apart), but it was not one of those things necessary for a girl to learn. ‘How will it help you, dear, when you, in your future life, have, as I hope, a house to look after?’

“Her initial failure sapped her courage,” and Muriel never really tries again. Her passivity in the face of discouragement is frustrating (if, as seems plausible, Holtby had The Mill on the Floss in mind, we get none of Maggie’s rebellion against these gender-specific barriers to knowledge). But Muriel’s passivity is part of her character and stems, sadly, from her better qualities, including a strong sense of duty and loyalty to her family and a desire to help others. Though her grown-up life offers her no personal fulfillment, as long as she feels useful she can at least accept it.

In Muriel’s home community of Marshington, the only recognized option for women is marriage (or “sex success,” as the vicar’s outspoken daughter Delia calls it). Holtby chronicles with painful acuteness the maneuverings of Muriel’s mother (who herself made a questionable marriage) to get her girls accepted into the highest levels of Marshington society and land suitable husbands. Holtby balances satire with poignancy in some of the scenes of Mrs Hammond’s disappointments: the trick, when hearing another girl has caught the young man she thought might choose Connie or Muriel, is to rejoice in her good fortune and wish the new couple every happiness, to regroup, and to try, try again. But as the years go by her desperation increases.

Her daughters react somewhat differently to the pressure. Connie, the wild one, goes off to work as a “land girl” during the war, takes the risk (fairly calculated, it seems) of getting pregnant, and ends up in a loveless marriage when her parents coerce the child’s presumed father into agreeing. Muriel goes to live with her and tries to help her improve her situation a bit, but Muriel is ineffectual and Connie’s story ends miserably. It’s hard not to think that at least Connie screams and fights and runs, but there’s really nothing admirable about her except that emotional rebellion, and that’s not much, especially when she pays for it with her life. This is the price, we see, of respectability, which is the only value recognized by Marshington society.

The price Muriel pays is almost as high, though less literal. As the years go on, it starts to seem inevitable to her that she will never achieve that “sex success” but dwindle into the life of an unappreciated spinster. Her aunt gives her a chilling picture of what lies ahead:

‘Marriage is the–the crown and joy of woman’s life–what we were born for–to have a husband and children, and a little home of her own. Of course there are some of us to whom the Lord has not pleased to give this. I’m sure I’m not complaining. There may be many compensations, and of course He knows best. But–it’s all right when you’re young, Muriel, and there’s always a chance–and when my dear mother was alive and I had someone to look after I am sure no girl could have been happier. It’s when you grow older and the people who needed you are dead. And you haven’t a home nor anyone who wants you–and you hate to stay too long in a house in case someone else should want to come–and of course it’s quite right. Somebody had to look after Mother. Everybody can’t marry. I’m not complaining. I’m sure they’re very kind to me, but I sometimes pray that the good Lord won’t make me wait here very long–that I can die before everyone gets tired of me, and of having me stay around–‘

Now that’s a fate worse than death, isn’t it? And it’s hard to see any alternative, in Marshington. Muriel thought she might have a way out, once: for years she has loved (or at least admired and yearned after) Godfrey Neale, handsome, popular, endearingly stuttering, and once, in the dark, under the impetus of a war-time crisis, Godfrey kissed her. Does the kiss mean nothing or everything? Her answer finally comes with the news of his engagement to the flamboyant Clare. No other prospective suitor appears, and Muriel’s resignation becomes bitter passivity.

But marriage is not the only alternative; other people are not the only means to the end of self-actualization and worth. Muriel finally learns this lesson from Delia, who has left Marshington for London where she work for the Twentieth Century Reform League. “Things happen against our will,” Muriel says to her morosely, when Delia is back visiting Marshington.

We listen, we think, that we are moving on towards some strange, rich carnival, and follow, follow, follow. Then suddenly we find ourselves left alone in a dull crowded street with no one caring and our lives unneeded, and all the fine things that we meant to do, like toys that a child has laid aside.

Delia is impatient with this renunciation of agency. “You can’t wriggle out of responsibility with a metaphor,” she tells Muriel; “Your life is your own, Muriel, nobody can take it from you.” She insists that Muriel recognize that she has been making choices, that society and other people’s expectations are not, in themselves, determining factors. She invites Muriel to move with her to London–which, somewhat unexpectedly, Muriel finds the courage to do. In her new independent life, she begins to discover and use her own strengths and to define her self-worth on her own terms.

Muriel flourishes, but the portion of the novel dedicated to that flourishing is tiny. Did we need to see so clearly, in so much detail, how dull and destructive the world of Marshington (and everything it stands for) is, in order to welcome the alternative? Does that world really need such a long exposé? Not now, but maybe in 1924, when The Crowded Street was first published, it was harder to explain what was wrong with it, or harder to justify  Delia and Muriel’s new life (which was very close to Brittain and Holtby’s, of course). Maybe, too, it was important to thoroughly defamiliarize that world, to take its perfectly ordinary tennis parties and dances and committee meetings and visits for tea and wear us out with them so that we would end up unable to accept them as ordinary, unable to stand it for one more minute. “If ever I had a child,” Muriel tells Delia before her rescue, “and it was born a girl and not beautiful, I believe I’d strangle it rather than think  that it should suffer as I’ve suffered!” To understand that shocking statement as anything but hyperbole, we have to have felt the weight and especially the duration of Muriel’s suffering through “the awfulness of a life where nothing ever happens.”

The first graphic is the elegant endpaper from the handsome Persephone edition of The Crowded Street.

Reading and Research Redux: The Somerville Novelists Project

I admit, my earlier question “When is reading research?” was a bit disingenuous: obviously, research is purposeful reading. Of course, this definition can get batted around a bit too, depending on how you define your purpose: the pursuit of pleasure? aesthetic enrichment? familiarity with current best-sellers? Perhaps it’s better to say that, at least in a university context, research is reading in pursuit of knowledge, or reading directed towards solving a problem or answering a question or accomplishing a task. As Jo VanEvery also points out in her recent post on this topic, though, we have become preoccupied with the results of that reading, so that oddly, the process of exploration fundamental to defining a question in the first place has become devalued. And in universities we have also become preoccupied with research funding as a measure of productivity and success. If you don’t have a grant, you aren’t doing it right. Here, for instance, (with specifics expunged) is what the Assistant Dean of Research for my Faculty reported at the last Faculty meeting:

X has been awarded a —- Grant; X and Y have received a —- Grant for a conference… —- Grant applications this year are numerous and promising; X’s project on Y received a very positive mid-term review [from its funding agency].

At a recent presentation from one of our VP’s for research, at which he tracked our “success” and goals exclusively in terms of granting dollars, he made the point that money is measurable and thus is the easiest aspect of research to track and evaluate. The same is true, of course, of publications. But (as I and others pointed out to him emphatically in the Q&A that followed) that’s only true if the rubric you want to use is a pie chart or bar graph. If you really understand (as he claimed to) that research funding does not tell the whole story about research productivity, much less about the value of any given research project (especially in the arts and humanities), why continue using such inadequate tools? Perhaps there are fields of research in which research is better explained in a narrative, rather than a PowerPoint slide. Would it be too much, I wonder, to try to change our habits so that we acknowledge other dimensions of research activity–and stopped sending the incessant message that the best research is the most expensive? What about research that culminates in new classes, also? Isn’t that work valuable to the university? Isn’t that a purpose to which universities are fundamentally committed? You wouldn’t think so, by the way the term “research” is typically used on campus.

In any case, I can tell when my own reading has crossed into research of that more recognizable kind because I start to think about it in terms of obligations–things I should look up, things I need to know in order to achieve my purpose. I start to think in terms of depth and definition: more about this and this and this, but not that. Still, it’s always hard to draw the lines: there are no external rules about relevance, so you have to keep reading somewhat open-endedly as you figure out just how it is that you are going to define your project. There’s not a question “out there” waiting for me to turn my attention (and my students’ attention) to it: I have to mess around in all kinds of material until I see what I could do with it that is interesting and new. This conceptual work is, for me, among the most interesting and creative phase: there’s the whole “tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” and then there’s your part of it, but where that begins and ends, and why, is something that, in literary research at least, is rarely self-evident.

I’m in that happy stage right now with my Somerville novelists reading. I have defined a purpose for it–my fall seminar–and the reading I had been doing out of personal interest, which had included all of Brittain’s Testament volumes as well as the volume of Brittain and Holtby’s journalism, some of their fiction (as well as Margaret Kennedy’s), and some biographical materials, is now the first phase of a more deliberate investigation. I think this phase is happy for me because it involves focus but not the kind of micro-specialization that would be required to say or do anything research-like on Middlemarch now. Instead of having to read abstruse ruminations on theoretical or other kinds of topics that have less and less to do with the things that excite me about Middlemarch, reading I would be doing only out of a weary sense of professional duty (must keep up with the latest!), I’m doing reading I’m genuinely interested in–maybe because this material has simply not attracted the degree of scholarly attention Middlemarch has, it’s still possible to talk about it quite directly and with a real sense of discovery.

Here are some of the books I’ve collected so far for this research:

Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends. Ed. Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge (I’ll be posting a bit about this soon, as I’m over half way through – the stories are familiar from Testament of Youth but the letters in full have a remarkable immediacy and personality)

Winifred Holtby, Women and A Changing Civilization (I have a sad feeling that this 1934 book may have more relevance today than we’d like – “Wherever a civilisation deliberately courts its old memories, its secret fears and revulsions and unacknowledged magic, it destroys that candour of co-operation upon which real equality only can be based,” Holtby observes near the end – and flipping another page, I find “we must have effective and accessible knowledge of birth control.” Yes, I thought we’d had some of these fights before!)

Vera Brittain, The Women at Oxford

Vera Brittain, Lady into Woman: A History of Women from Victoria to Elizabeth II (I’m curious to see what this reads like in comparison to the many volumes of women’s historical biography I worked with for my Ph.D. thesis, later my book)

Susan Leonardi, Dangerous By Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists (as far as I know, this is the only critical work specifically dedicated to my seminar topic, and so far it is my main source for other relevant titles)

Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. (This collection includes an essay Lynne Layton specifically on “Vera Brittain’s Testament(s)” as well as some useful-looking contextual ones.)

Jane Roland Martin, Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman.

This list shows the some of the frameworks that I expect will be important to talking about the core readings for the seminar in a rich and informed way: the stories of the writers; their works (our “primary” sources); the history of women at Oxford and in WWI (which means making sure I am reasonably well-prepared about general contexts); and theories and contexts on women and education, particularly university education. Each of the writers we’ll look at in detail will also raise more particular questions: with Sayers, for instance, the history of detective fiction will be of some relevance.

Doesn’t this sound like fun? That I’m excited about it makes me think it isn’t really research after all: research is work, right? Reading for pleasure isn’t work. And yet it can be, of course, and that’s the ideal of this kind of career–that it lets you do what you love, as well as you can, to make your living. That love itself can’t be the sole purpose of your reading makes sense in a professional context, but I’ve read an awful lot of scholarly writing that seems motivated by nothing more than the need to make certain moves in order to pass professional hurdles. In a previous post I quoted C. Q. Drummond saying “policies of forced publication never brought into being–nor could ever have brought into being–those critical books that have been to me most valuable.” Too much of the apparatus and discourse of research in the university seems to me to emphasize and reward everything but love of learning: it favors, as I said in that earlier post, “a narrow model of  output, a cloistered, specialized, self-referential kind of publishing supported, ideally, by as large an external grant as possible.” This project so far has been supported only by me, with some help from my university library. So it won’t ever get me mentioned in the Assistant Dean’s report (just as my publications in Open Letters had no place, literally, at the display of recent books and articles put on in my Faculty)–especially if its only output is a class, not an academic article or book. I haven’t ruled out that kind of result down the road, but I haven’t defined it as a plan yet either. In the meantime, I’m going to keep calling what I’m doing “research.”

Winifred Holtby, Anderby Wold

Writing about Vera Brittain’s The Dark Tide, I suggested that “there are books that are bad in uninteresting ways and books that are bad and yet somehow still interesting.” I thought The Dark Tide was in the bad but interesting category. I think Anderby Wold may require me to add a third category: something like “books that are better than they seem” or “books that are interesting because of what they try to do, rather than what they actually do.” (That last description would fit The Dark Tide pretty well too, actually.) Anderby Wold seemed like a pretty awkward novel at first–artless, effortful. Its pieces are pretty clearly pieces: that is, I could feel them being assembled as I went along. But the overall construction of the novel turns out to be somehow shapely and even, by the end, engaging: once the pieces are assembled, Holtby knows what to do with them. The prose often has the quality I’ve been describing as a “flat affect” in Margaret Kennedy’s novels–but at times it rose into a more intense aesthetic and emotional register. It’s another book I don’t know quite what to say or do about, and that’s part of what I’m finding so interesting about my reading of these writers. How do you approach a novel in which this line seems perfectly normal: “Mary was turning linen sheets ‘sides to middles’ and arguing with David about the nationalization of land”?

Anderby Wold focuses on Mary Robson, a woman of 28 who seems much older: she has aged prematurely because of her dedication to maintaining her family farm. Along with the farm itself she inherited the mortgage on it which haunted her father’s conscience as well as his finances; when the novel opens she and her husband have just managed, after years of scrimping and struggling, to pay it off. Mary has sacrificed a lot to bring this about–even her marriage was made with an eye to practicalities, rather than to love. She isn’t altogether happy with her choices, but she does her best to drown out her doubts by inhabiting to the fullest degree possible the role of ‘lady of the manor’ for her rural community. It’s a sign of the changing times that her patronage makes many of the villagers uncomfortable, even resentful. Her identity and self-esteem are almost completely bound up, that is, in a way of life that is rapidly becoming outdated, and the novel’s central conflicts arise from her inability to concede defeat–but also from her restless wish that somehow she could be or do something different. Holtby embodies the alternatives in David Rossitur, an idealistic young reformer and agitator who, despite having met and become unlikely friends with Mary, urges the local farm workers to form a union and demand higher wages. Mary’s repressed emotions are awakened by David, who is everything her husband John isn’t. (In one sad but funny scene, she buys poor John a book — David’s, as it happens — about agricultural reform, reads it and gets all fired up herself, and waits impatiently for John to be roused from his habitual torpor to talk to her about it. “Well, John,” she finally asks, “what do you think of it? How far did you get?” “Page 121,” says John, and goes to bed. Probably every couple can find a template in this for some failed attempt at meaningful communication in their own marriage.) She doesn’t agree at all with David’s politics and thinks he’s a fool about farming, but he is young and passionate and brings into her life all the excitement she has never had. Her feelings for him only make it more painful for her when he turns “her” villagers against her, and Holtby does a good job at evoking Mary’s complicated and inconsistent emotions as the strike arrives, literally, on her doorstep.

So it’s a novel about conflicts between an old way of life (which is shown to have its own kind of honor and integrity but also to be old-fashioned in not entirely good way), and new social and political forces that also are morally equivocal. David’s idealism is undermined by his naïveté, for instance, and also by the ease with which people with personal grudges find unionizing a useful method of payback–every cause can be coopted for selfish purposes, after all. Mary’s determination to stand up to the union is also as much about personal pride as it is about farming, and it’s also very much about her clinging to her own rationalization for the life she has lived. The confused eroticism of her relationship with David is yet another complication. If Holtby were Elizabeth Gaskell, we know how this would all turn out (well, something would have to be done about John, but he’s older than Mary and in fact does suffer a stroke towards the end of the novel, so that’s not so difficult). But she’s not, and vexed as Mary’s situation is–ambivalent as Mary is (when she admits it) about holding out for Anderby Wold to go on as it always has–it seems like Holtby is mostly mournful about the inexorable pressure of modernization. It’s an act of sabotage, ultimately, that forces Mary to give up Anderby Wold, but the violence seems tied to the way David’s activism consolidates class hostility in the village, as if without his interference people might have muddled along OK. On the other hand, it is a personal vendetta that motivates the attack, one caused by Mary’s exercise of her patronage, so maybe that’s the point: one way or another, her ways aren’t good anymore. That’s pretty much where Mary ends up, anyway thinking that all the problems that came upon her were “connected with things she had done or left undone,” pondering sadly the possibility that (as David has said to her) “Her work at Anderby might be the best thing of which she was capable, but it was a false good.” It’s a melancholy ending, whatever its thematic implications.

It’s not a bad novel. I think it’s a mediocre novel, qua novel. As I said, it’s pretty well constructed. Mary’s character seemed a bit insubstantial, maybe because I’m also reading Middlemarch right now and there’s nothing like the rich contextualization and analysis of character you get there. Holtby took pains to fill in a range of distinct peripheral characters (schoolmaster, vicar, difficult sister-in-law, loyal worker who will defend Mrs Robson to the death–and does so, in a perverse way). There’s a conflict that feels like it matters, though it also feels a bit too neat, as if the concept came first and the human drama was layered on top of it. Of course, that’s probably often the case with novels (I’m sure it was the case with Middlemarch!) but it shouldn’t feel as if that’s the case when you’re reading the novel, right? At that point, the art should prevail and make the ideas seem inevitable. What I really appreciated about Anderby Wold, though–the reason I’d rather read it than many slicker contemporary novels (*cough cough* The Marriage Plot *cough cough*)–is its sincerity. That’s the quality the novel radiates, and I respect it: Holtby was trying to understand, and to help us understand, forces at work in the world around her. She wanted her art to participate in problems she thought mattered. That’s not enough to make a good, much less a great, novel, but she has enough skill to make it a decent novel, and if you add in that it’s a thoughtful novel, that’s not too bad. Maybe that’s what it is: a novel that’s not too bad. And after all, it’s her first novel.

Testament of a Generation: The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby

The more time I spend in the company of these two extraordinary women, the more I appreciate their energy and commitment, as well as the clarity and force of their prose. All of these qualities are on full display in this collection of their journalism. The editors, Paul Berry and Alan Bishop, have organized the contents thematically, a decision which makes sense on many levels, though the chronological leaps backwards as a new section begins are occasionally disconcerting. There is also an element of arbitrariness in the divisions, particularly, I found, between what was filed under “A Writer’s Life” and what under “Politics”–for such intensely political writers, always aware that the personal is also political, there’s not really much difference. In fact, the most striking thing for me across the collection was the consistency of tone, regardless of subject: straightforward, direct, assertive, drily humorous. To some extent, in their fearless confrontations with prejudice, folly, and hidebound tradition, they remind me of Victorian writers like Frances Power Cobbe (some of whose outstanding essays can be found in the excellent Broadview anthology Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors). But both Brittain and Holtby seem to me less artful than Cobbe, which I don’t mean as a criticism but as recognition that Cobbe and her contemporaries had worked hard enough for women’s causes that by the time these two are writing, there is less need (not no need, mind you) to dance around the issues, to pander strategically to masculine egos or social norms, or to adopt disingenuous poses.

A straightforward recapitulation of just how much progress  had been made comes from Holtby in an essay she wrote for Time and Tide about King George V’s Jubilee. She refused the invitation to join a resolution protesting against the celebrations on the grounds that the previous twenty-five years “were, on the whole, the most propitious that women in this country had ever known”:

Twenty-five years ago forty thousand women marched through the streets of London in what was known as the Women’s Coronation Procession. It was a protest against desires unfulfilled. It represented arts, sciences, authorities, powers; lawyers and doctors walked there, the prototypes of peeresses and abbesses; and they were led by women carrying banners who had been imprisoned for insisting on women’s right to use their abilities in such service. ‘It will not come in my time, ‘ Mrs Pankhurst said. But do I not remember the extraordinary service at which Mr Baldwin unveiled Mrs Pankhurst’s statue under the shadow of Parliament, in which he, the constitutionalist, honoured her, the rebel, for having ‘set the heather on fire,’ at which Dame Ethel Smythe in the robes of a doctor of music led the police band playing The March of the Women, which she had once conducted with a tooth-brush through the bars of a window in Holloway Gaol to a chorus of exercising prisoners? I have seen a woman cabinet minister walking through the lobby of the House of Commons; I have seen a woman architect chosen to design the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre; I have seen my own mother applauded by a county council when she was elected as its first woman alderman; I have myself been heckled as an agitator at Marble Arch, demanding the vote in the equal franchise campaign of 1927 and 1928; and I have been enfranchised. I have voted. And I know that those people who say that the world is no better off since ‘women have been let loose in it’ simply do not know what they are talking about.

She goes on to detail the “revolution in social and moral values” which is “a direct result of that challenge to opinion which we call the Women’s Movement.” But for all her appreciation of these positive developments, she is clear about “the imperfections of the movement,” about which she is equally clear and specific. Though these great gains have been made, the challenge going forward (which may sound all too familiar, depressingly, to feminists in the present moment) is to maintain momentum, build on successes, and extend the principles underlying it beyond those who have so far benefited–including looking beyond gender to consider inequalities of race and class. “I am constantly reprimanded for ‘flogging the dead horse of Feminism,'” Holtby observes; “I do not think the horse is dead.”

The articles, then, carry on the work of social analysis and criticism, sometimes at the micro level (as in the nice little piece “Should a Woman Pay,” about the explicit assumptions and implications of men’s picking up the tab–“the ethics of social encounter reflect the economics of an earlier epoch,” Holtby observes), sometimes at the level of state or even international politics. Holtby writes stringently, for instance, about South African leader Jan Christiaan Smuts, “an indefatigable general in the nationalist Boer War; an architect of empire in the years succeeding it.” Smuts “has achieved superb feats of generalship, statesmanship, and intellectual synthesis,” Holtby acknowledges; he has unified “the Dutch and British sections of the white community” of South Africa; and he has recently given a “speech upon liberty” at St. Andrew’s University “which has won the acclamation of the English-speaking world.” Holtby’s critique is relentless. Having conceded his skill, renown, and accomplishments, she takes him apart for presuming to speak as a champion of freedom and equality:

‘Popular self-government and parliaments are disappearing,‘ he said. ‘The guarantees for private rights and civil liberties are going.‘ Quite. Smuts should know. In Cape Province, until 1931, there was no constitutional distinction between European and non-European citizens in the matter of franchise and property. True, the educational tests and property qualifications for voting were so arranged that only a minority of black men were enfranchised . . . Still, liberty broadens down from precedent to precedent, we are told. . . . All change, we thought, would be an extension of freedom, at least under men like general Smuts. In 1931 European women were admitted to parliamentary franchise; non-European women were excluded. Today before the country is a Bill, almost certain … to be passed, disenfranchising non-European males as well as females. The Native Conference, supposed to serve as a substitute for other constitutional powers, criticized this and other Government proposals in 1926 and 1927, so has not subsequently been summoned . . . .

‘Dissident views are not tolerated and are forcibly suppressed.’ Smuts should know. He himself encouraged the South African Government to pass the Riotous Assemblies Act – an Act which makes ‘incitement to ill-feeling between black and white’ an offense punishable by banishment. Now where conditions in a country as as they are in South Africa . . . merely to speak aloud of the laws and administrations precisely as they exist is adequate to ‘incite ill-feeling.’ The Act has been used to prevent the development of trade unionism, to prohibit political protest, to render inarticulate any form of native criticism; it has been used to enable politicians to say – ‘But the natives themselves do not protest.’

Smut should know: the refrain is initially, disarmingly, innocent-sounding, but ultimately damning. Holtby’s conclusion goes beyond South Africa to a wider indictment of the consequences of failing, as Smuts fails, to imagine other people, different people, as fully human:

These abrupt failures of the imagination are among the most fruitful sources of injustice in the world. They are more common than deliberate sadism, more insidious than fear. Indeed, they breed fear. . . . The Jews to Nazi Germany, the Catholics to the Ku Klux Klan, Negroes to a southern states lynching party, women to eighteenth-century liberals – they are not human; they need not be accorded human privileges. The mind closes against any conception of their own point of view.

This is only one of many references to Nazi Germany, which is not surprising if you consider the general historical context (the piece on General Smuts is from Time and Tide in 1934), but it did surprise me a little because the majority of them are specifically feminist critiques, which is not the most familiar argument against Nazism today. In the piece on the Jubilee, Holtby makes a passing reference to “what has happened in Germany, where the pendulum of reaction has swung back so violently that all that had been gained seems lost again.” In “Black Words for Women Only” (1934) she considers Sir Oswald Mosley’s assertions about the importance of women to the Fascist movement–which would, he declared, “treat the normal wife and mother as one of the main pillars of the state.” “It is not irrelevant,” Holtby proposes, “to compare what Sir Oswald promises with what Herr Hitler has performed”:

The German Constitution of 1918 granted equality before the law to all citizens. Women entered politics, the professions, the civil services. Between thirty and forty-two sat in each of the various Reichstags as deputies between 1919 and 1933 – a higher proportion than in any other country. They held high executive and municipal offices.

But the Nazi movement has reversed all that. Women may vote, but none stand on the lists as candidates. Their associations are all now directed by men; since July, 1933, all the girls’ high schools have been controlled by men. Professional women are finding themselves compelled for one reason or another to resign from work. Married women are persuaded to leave their employment, and unmarried workers are often asked to surrender their jobs to men, as in one Hamburg tobacco factory, where 600 girls were asked to hand over their work to fathers, brothers or husbands, or to retire, marry, and claim the State marriage loan.

There is little hope for ambitious young women in Nazi Germany, where the brightest contribution of constructive economic thought towards the solution of the unemployment problem appears to have been the expulsion of large sections of the community from paid work, as a penalty for being women, Socialists or Jews, and their replacement by unobjectionable loyal male Aryans. Individual women have protested against this mass campaign to restore their economic dependence and drive them back to the kitchen. But their protests are penalized; public influence is strong, and there are women who have been temporarily persuaded to believe that Hitler’s policy really serves their interests.

Quoting one such woman, who wrote to the Manchester Guardian declaring that “Woman has again been recognized as the centre of family life, and today it has again become a pleasure and an honour to be a mother,” Holtby acerbically observes, “No explanation is offered of why or when motherhood ceased to be a pleasure and an honour – perhaps when children were driven to concentration camps?” “Throughout history,” she concludes,

whenever society has tried to curtail the opportunities, interests and powers of women, it has done so in the sacred names of marriage and maternity. Exalting women’s sex until it dominated her whole life, the State then used it as an excuse for political or economic disability. . . . Today, whenever women hear political leaders call their sex important, they grow suspicious. In the importance of the sex too often has lain the unimportance of the citizen, the worker and the human being. The ‘normal’ woman knows that, given freedom and equality before the law, she can be trusted to safeguard her own interests as wife, mother, daughter, or what you will.

I was reminded in these articles of Gaudy Night, which also ties together Nazism and the gathering clouds of war in Europe with hostility to women’s rights at home: the strongest clues to the perpetrator’s identity turn out to be her strong view that women’s place is in the home, her most important identity that of wife and mother, not citizen, worker, or human being.

Brittain’s political writing focuses more on her pacificism, which leads her to support, provisionally, Chamberlain’s deal with Hitler at Munich in 1938–“a policy beset with problems and fraught with peril,” she acknowledges, but an alternative to “an ever-darkening night of hatred, suspicion, and fear.” Once that dark night has arrived, she continues to write about the horror of war and the need to act with what compassion and justice are possible under its terrible pressure. About “massacre bombing,” such as that of Dresden, she is eloquent: “It made no undeniable contribution to military victory,” she says (having cited a number of military experts on this controversial question), “and it relegated men, for whose salvation Christ died, to the level of hunted and outraged beasts”; “the ruthless mass bombing of congested cities is as great a threat to the integrity of the human spirit as anything which has yet occurred on this planet.”

The section on “A Writer’s Life” (though overlapping in some of its concerns with the sections on feminism and politics) takes us in some more personal directions, as with Holtby’s account of her development as a writer–complete with quotations from a book of her juvenile poetry published, at her mother’s instigation, when she was thirteen. “I was,” she says, and it is borne out by the verses she quotes, “a creature of completely uncritical piety and sentimental convention.” (I too endured the complex blend of satisfaction and utter humiliation of having my  private poetic scribblings taken up and prepared for public viewing, though in my case the little volume was not released to the genuine public, only to a select group of family and friends–this at my grandmother’s instigation. All I can say in defense of the poems in it is that they are not conspicuously worse than Holtby’s, except in formal specificity.) Holtby’s review of Woolf’s The Waves was of particular interest: it shows the same generous reaching towards understanding of an aesthetics wholly unlike her own that she shows when explaining her decision to write her volume on Woolf’s life. And Brittain’s essay on “The Somerville Novelists” would probably be the kicking off point for the  seminar I imagine offering on that subject.