“I will go”: Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet and Judith

hamnetHe breathes in. He breathes out. He turns his head and breathes into the whorls of her ear; he breathes in his strength, his health, his all. You will stay, is what he whispers, and I will go. He sends these words into her: I want you to take my life. It shall be yours. I give it to you.

They cannot both live: he sees this and she sees this. There is not enough life, enough air, enough blood for both of them. Perhaps there never was. And if either of them is to live, it must be her. He wills it. He grips the sheet, tight, in both hands. He, Hamnet, decrees it. It shall be.

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and Judith began with a fragment, a scrap, of knowledge, about “a boy who died in Stratford, Warwickshire, in the summer of 1596,” a boy named Hamnet whose father, just a few years later, wrote a play called Hamlet. The names are the same, “entirely interchangeable,” according to Stephen Greenblatt, whose essay “The death of Hamnet and the making of Hamlet” provides one of O’Farrell’s epigraphs. In her author’s note, O’Farrell explains just how little we know about the real Hamnet, and also tells us that the central event of her novel, Hamnet’s sudden death from the bubonic plague, is a fiction: “it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died.” From this slight material O’Farrell develops a novel that is a delicate combination of historical recreation and literary excavation, of intimately portrayed human lives and undercurrents of meaning that flow almost unnoticed towards Shakespeare’s tragic drama.

hamnet3It is impossible not to have Hamlet in mind while reading Hamnet (as it is more simply and, I think, more aptly titled in its UK release), and I imagine that someone who knows the play better than I do (so, a lot of people!) would find many echoes and resonances that deepen O’Farrell’s effects. But she resists, rightly I think, making either Shakespeare or Hamlet the most important thing about Hamnet–she avoids holding out their future fame (unknown and unforeseeable to her characters, after all) as what matters most about the lives her people are living in the moment. Instead, she focuses our attention and ties our emotions to their small family circle, and especially to the story of Hamnet’s mother Agnes (better known to us as Anne). The novel’s themes of love and loss, grief and guilt, parents and children, are (some of) Hamlet‘s themes as well, and by the end O’Farrell has convinced me of their connection, but in her telling Hamnet’s death does not matter because it inspired Hamlet, but rather Hamlet matters because it is an offering to Hamnet:

Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. . . . He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place.

That seems, perhaps, like a subtle difference, but it is an inversion of priorities that I think reflects O’Farrell’s determination to subvert expectations for a novel “about” Shakespeare, to refuse the “great man” model of history and literature that made Sandra Newman’s The Heavens dissatisfying. (I think Newman too aimed to reject or ironize this model, but I found O’Farrell’s approach, though superficially more conventional, ultimately more effective at unsettling it.)

agnesShakespeare’s greatness, as Agnes understands it, is as a father, not as a playwright. In fact, Shakespeare (who is never directly named–he is always “the glover’s son” or “the Latin tutor” or just the husband or the father) is just barely a main character in O’Farrell’s novel. Hamnet is really Agnes’s book, and O’Farrell portrays her with wonderful specificity, from her knowledge of medicinal herbs to her uncanny ability to read a person’s character and future from pinching the bit of flesh between thumb and forefinger:

A person’s ability, their reach, their essence can be gleaned. All that they have held, kept, and all they long to grip is there in that place. It is possible, she realises, to find out everything you need to know about a person just by pressing it.

When she first takes the Latin tutor’s hand, she feels something different, “something she would never have expected to find in the hand of a clean-booted grammar-school boy from town”:

It was far-reaching: this much she knew. It had layers and strata, like a landscape. There were spaces and vacancies, dense patches, underground caves, rises and descents. There wasn’t enough time for her to get a sense of it all — it was too big, too complex. It eluded her, mostly. She knew there was more of it than she could grasp, that it was bigger than both of them.

Her understanding that there is more to this young man than his current circumstances can accommodate becomes part of the story of their married life, as she prompts him to leave their household in Stratford and make his way to London.

Shakespeare-ChandosIt’s there, of course, that he finds his vocation and begins the work that will lead him to Hamlet and beyond. But that richer life keeps him apart from Agnes and his children: his older daughter Susanna and the twins, Hamnet and Judith. He is away on the day Judith becomes ill, which turns into the day Hamnet dies. Agnes too is away, though not as distant, and O’Farrell writes with devastating clarity about what it means to her when she discovers that her harmless expedition to gather honey meant that her son faced catastrophe alone:

Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother’s: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry. Him standing there, at the back of the house, calling for the people who had fed him, swaddled him, rocked him to sleep, held his hand as he took his first steps, taught him to use a spoon, to blow on broth before he ate it, to take care crossing the street, to let sleeping dogs lie, to swill out of a cup before drinking, to stay away from deep water.

It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.

Though this incident is also the hub of the novel, Hamnet is composed of multiple strands woven around it: Shakespeare’s fraught life with his parents, Agnes’s unhappy relationship with her stepmother and then with her mother-in-law, the children’s games and loyalties and fears. O’Farrell is good with tactile details, so that it is easy to picture the small apartment Agnes and her husband share, the apple shed where they make love for the first time, the woods where she goes seeking privacy for the birth of her first daughter. There’s no weighty exposition but the book feels full of historical life.

hamnet2What O’Farrell does best, though–and this is no surprise, given her previous books–is to evoke emotions. Hamnet’s death is the novel’s entire premise, so grief is built into our expectations, but it was still harrowing reading her account of the illness that overcomes first his sister and then Hamnet himself, and then following Agnes through the nightmare experience of trying and failing to save him:

Inside Agnes’s head, her thoughts are widening out, then narrowing down, widening, narrowing, over and over again. She thinks, This cannot happen, it cannot, how will we live, what will we do, how can Judith bear it, what will I tell people, how can we continue, what should I have done, where is my husband, what will he say, how could I have saved him, why didn’t I save him, why didn’t I realize it was he who was in danger? And then, the focus narrows, and she thinks: He is dead, he is dead, he is dead.

The three words contain no sense for her. She cannot bend her mind to their meaning. It is an impossible idea that her son, her child, her boy, the healthiest and most robust of her children, should, within days, sicken and die.

She describes so well that constant restless exercise of a mother’s thoughts about her children, always checking where and how they are, “what they are doing, how they fare”:

And Hamnet? Her unconscious mind casts, again and again, puzzled by the lack of bit, by the answer she keeps giving it: he is dead, he is gone. And Hamnet? The mind will ask again. At school, at play, out at the river? And Hamnet? And Hamnet? Where is he?

Even though I knew the novel was leading me towards Hamlet, and even when I know that one answer the novel gives is that he is there, in Hamlet (“The ghost turns his head towards her, as he prepares to exit the scene. He is looking straight at her, meeting her gaze, as he speaks his final words: ‘Remember me'”) this despairingly simple but unanswerable question by a mother about her son seemed, as I was reading, much more important than any art that could be made from such a loss.

hamlet-folioBut of course Hamnet itself is built, artfully, on just that moment, and art’s ability not just to convey pain but also to console is one of the reasons we value and need it, though artists are often ambivalent or uneasy about that. “I sometimes hold it half a sin,” writes Tennyson in In Memoriam A.H.H.,

To put in words the grief I feel,
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold;
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

Hamlet does not compensate Agnes for Hamnet’s death, and nothing about Hamnet suggests that it should. That way lies Bardolatry, for one thing, something Hamnet scrupulously avoids. The novel is instead a form of ‘herstory.’ Inevitably, the name of Hamnet’s twin reminded me of Woolf’s imaginary Judith Shakespeare–“who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” But O’Farrell rejects that model too. Instead of setting her Shakespearean woman’s life up against Shakespeare’s and lamenting her failure to thrive on his terms, she gives us a life rich on its own terms and insists–and more importantly, makes us feel, through her engrossing story-telling–that it matters as much as, and also shares much more with, her husband’s life than we can understand if we focus on Hamlet at the expense of Hamnet.

“These Moments”: William Trevor, Love and Summer

love-summerThey sat for longer at the table, the cigarette Florian had put out to smoke unsmoked, the tea he’d made gone cold. This was what he would take with him, he thought. This was what he would leave behind. These moments now would haunt whole days.

Love and Summer: what a beguiling title, full of sunshine and promise! But this quiet little novel turns out instead to be full of heartbreak, of lives that have lost the bright sheen of hope and settled into melancholy that is all the sadder for being somehow, thanks to Trevor’s delicate treatment, quite beautiful.

lucy-gaultIt has this quality in common with The Story of Lucy Gault, which I read last summer and loved. The earlier novel, however, is fast-paced and action-packed compared to Love and Summer, which drifts along so gently you almost don’t notice how much pain many of its characters are living with, or discover along the way. It starts with the funeral of Mrs. Connulty, for example, whose life “had been one of good works and resolution, with a degree of severity in domestic and family matters.” Her daughter–now known only as “Miss Connulty,” because “twenty years ago, her mother ceased to address her by either of the saints’ names she had been given at birth”–hardly mourns, and we gradually realize that’s because of how she suffered from Mrs. Connulty’s “severity.” She carries with her the memory of a trip with her father to a chemist’s shop in Dublin; “her mother said that he was a murderer when they got back,” and ever after he slept in the attic. Miss Connulty’s past has made her severe as well, not because she is harsh by nature but because she remembers what love was, or could have been–and this, in turn, makes her fierce in its defense. “If Dillahan turns her out she’ll come here,” she says of the young woman whose illicit summer love is the crux of the novel’s plot; “Ellie Dillahan will live in this house and hold her head up.”

trevorAs for Ellie, her expectations of happiness in her life are low enough to content her with her marriage to a man burdened by guilt and grief for his part in the accidental death of his first wife and their baby. It isn’t until she glimpses Florian Kilderry passing through her small community that she is awakened to the possibility of something more. Theirs is a sweet friendship but not a great mutual passion, and by the end of the summer Florian himself regrets the part he has played in it and the price Ellie pays in dashed dreams:

He had pitied the infant left in the corner of some yard or on a convent step, had pitied the child given a place among the unwanted, the girl who had become a servant. Her loneliness had been his when they were friends — before, too greedily, he asked too much of friendship, and carelessly allowed a treacherous love to flourish. She had come to him, and pity now was nourished by his greater guilt, and guilt was lent some part of pity’s dignity.

Their romance–such as it is–cannot survive, but there is no great cataclysm, no confrontation, no epiphany, just confusion and disappointment and recognition that they each belong, in fact, to a different story, a different life. Ellie must stay, and Florian must go:

He cycled slowly, the air raw on his face. The signpost to Crilly was lit up by his lamp as he went by. The road straightened, became a hill to freewheel down, and then the twists and turns began again. How useless being sorry was, and yet that, most of all, was what he felt, a soreness in him somewhere. Her grey-blue eyes had been no more than smudges in the dark.

Miss Connulty sees him go, and alone in her own darkness she imagines a future in which she and Ellie are close, bound by their secret pasts, “both of them knowing it could be, neither of them saying what should not be said and never would be.”

sumer-loveIt’s an intensely small-scale and personal novel, but I thought Trevor was also drawing out a particularly Irish tragedy through Miss Connulty’s suffering for her “craven appetites” and the story of Ellie’s stern convent upbringing:

You were punished if you repeated bad words. You were punished if you talked to the delivery men, or whispered ‘You Are My Sunshine’ or “Besame Mucho’. You were punished if you danced in the ballroom. You accepted what there was. You were fortunate.

Dillahan too struggles under the weight of what he fears are the community’s judgments (“Is it put about I could see her behind the trailer? . . . Sometimes at Mass I’d know people would be looking at me”). It felt somehow flighty, careless almost, of Florian to be so set on leaving–so ready to leave Ellie behind–but his departure also brings a sense of welcome escape, of the past letting go of him, so that he at least can be free and happy in the sunshine:

The last of Ireland is taken from him, its rocks, its gorse, its little harbours, the distant lighthouse. He watches until there is no land left, only the sunlight dancing over the sea.

“Holes in the Fabric”: Sandra Newman, The Heavens


Because Kate’s anomalies had now spawned enigmas, discrepancies, holes in the fabric of Kate. It wasn’t that she was crazy, or not like any crazy girls he’d known before. She didn’t weep; she didn’t scream. She wasn’t hyperemotional. If anything, she was all too sanguine–wore the same clothes for days on end and forgot to brush her hair and was perfectly content. . . . But there was also the incident where Kate told Ben a story about an ex-Green Beret who had climbed the White House fence and broken into the White House and bearded the president and the First Lady in bed, and instead of calling for the Secret Service, the president called downstairs for tea, and they sat drinking tea in the president’s bedroom and discussing the treatment of veterans, and the man became the president’s personal friend. She couldn’t remember which president. It had happened sometime in the nineties.

I found Sandra Newman’s The Heavens really engaging until I started getting confused about how exactly it worked, about what the essential conceptual links were between its variable pasts and presents. It is, definitely, a high-concept novel, one that invites that kind of probing: it’s clear that Newman is using the elements of her genre-bending time-traveling speculative historical dystopian romantic novel to say something–lots of things, probably–rather than simply as plot devices. If I understand her at all, some of these things are about the better alternatives we can imagine to the world we actually live in. Some of them are about how to get to that world we would have to, or have had to, make different choices, including about what, or who, or whose stories, we value most.

What I couldn’t ultimately hang on to, though, was why exactly Shakespeare is somehow placed at the center of this project. Is the novel a critique of something exemplified, maybe, by what is sometimes called ‘Bardolotry,’ so that Sad Will (as Kate, or, rather, Emilia, knows him) is present more as a symbol than a character? Is the notion that our fixation on individual accomplishment and fame–what we routinely but perhaps sloppily, think of as ‘genius’–crowds out other kinds of achievement that might lead to better communal futures? If that’s the idea, I feel as if I should be more certain of it, as well as clearer about why Emilia Lanier is the specific device Newman chooses to set up that implicit argument.

heavens2I also didn’t understand the relationship between Kate’s specific choices in the past and the outcome she hopes for from them. She believes (or Emilia believes) that she has some kind of mission to save the world, but as the novel wound on I got more confused about the nature of that mission and the metaphysics that presumably make sense of it, never mind how she and we are supposed to get from what she does then to what happens now. (It probably didn’t help my attempts to never mind all that and just go along with Newman’s unexplained model of time travel that I’ve been proofreading my husband’s book on determinism, which includes compelling arguments about the logical consequences of any speculative ‘what if’ re-imaginings of the past.) Newman is writing fiction, so she doesn’t necessarily have to meet a stringent philosophical standard, but there wasn’t even enough narrative coherence to her version to hold doubts at bay. As far as I can remember it, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (to which The Heavens has inevitably been compared) is every bit as metaphysically confusing and implausible but was at least an intensely gripping story.

By the end, then, my appreciation had become quite fragmented. Newman does some things really well, and I was able to sustain an interest in the love story that threads through the novel as well as in the various versions of their ‘now,’ each of them a bit worse than the last but all vividly recognizable. The 9/11 section in particular had a grim emotional intensity without sentimentality or sensationalism. The historical novel that is Kate’s dream life (or whatever it is rightly called) as Emilia is also really well done–again, vivid, specific, and tense. The question of whether Kate is mad or actually somehow having experiences outside of linear time is well handled, often painfully as those around her try to secure her in what they believe to be the only reality. I just couldn’t sort out my thematic and conceptual confusions well enough to feel satisfied with the novel as a whole. That said, I’m not at my most patient and attentive right now as a reader, and it is quite possible that the fault lies not with The Heavens but with me.newman2

Matt Keeley’s review of The Heavens is worth checking out: he is much less equivocal about it than I am, and I think he is right about all the strengths of the novel. As always, if you read this novel too I’d love to know what you thought.

Brainstorming and Binge-Reading


Well, my idea to keep up some blogging momentum by going back to the model of a commonplace book for a while worked … for a while! But even that kind of posting requires a different kind of reading than I’ve been doing, it turns out, at least if there’s going to be any variety in the experience. And as you can see from this photo, my recent reading has been vast but also, in many respects narrow — certainly narrower than I expected when I proposed a project that required rereading all of the Dalgliesh novels. (The realization that James’s oeuvre is, paradoxically, both remarkably capacious and extremely limited is one of the things the essay will be about, most likely.)

Dunnett-New-CoverGood as she is, James turns out to be a poor choice for binge-reading, and yet a plan is a plan and a deadline is a deadline, so I have been persisting. The endeavor is not without its rewards: again, she’s good– very good, even! It’s just that she’s  always good in exactly the same way, sometimes even in the exact same words. I was trying to think of other authors who have stood up better to this kind of determined march through their works. I remember really enjoying myself when I read all of Trollope’s Palliser novels straight through many years ago, and I have always loved rereading the Lymond Chronicles start to finish–but stories accumulate in a different way in those than in most detective series. While we are interested in and generally grow attached to the investigators in a long-running series, if the novels become more about them than about detecting, we’ve probably shifted genres–though having said that, counter-examples immediately occur to me, including Elizabeth George and Tana French, and of course there’s Gaudy Night, which perfectly balances case and character. In James’s novels, in any case, the personal arcs of her recurring cast are always peripheral to the main action, and while that strikes me as a principled decision, formally, it also has constricting effects. By the end of The Lighthouse I was far more interested in Dalgliesh’s relationship with Emma Lavenham than in whodunit–and that too is something my essay will most likely take up.

A-Time-of-Giftshave been trying to read other things when I’ve had the energy, which hasn’t been often. I gave up on A Time of Gifts, though, which shames me somewhat to admit but there it is. There was a lot of fine writing but I couldn’t catch any momentum from it, and it turns out not to be as diverting as I’d hoped to read about someone else’s travels while unable to go anywhere myself. I’ve read a handful of romance novels–Christina Lauren’s The Unhoneymooners, Talia Hibbert’s Take a Hint, Dani Brown, and (most of) Jasmine Guillory’s Party of Two–just meh, all of them. I’m a hundred pages or so into Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian and it seems promising; once I finish The Private Patient, I want to settle in and really give it a chance. I’ve also just read Sarah Moss’s forthcoming Summerwater — but I have to save up what I think about that for the review I’ll be writing for the Dublin Review of Books.

conciseBILOtherwise, I’ve continued puttering away at ideas for my fall classes. I was feeling overwhelmed by attempting to shape my traditional MWF schedule for 19th-Century Fiction into modules (though it was a boost to remind myself, by doing that work, that the end result will eventually be talking about 19th-century novels again, which I miss!). So for the last few days I’ve gone back to working through ideas for a new grading scheme for my first-year class. I’ve moved away from ‘contract grading’ towards ‘specifications grading,’ and I’ve been trying to map out bundles of activities that would work well with the options we’ll have in the online environment. (If you are wondering what specifications grading is, here’s a general overview and here’s someone talking about how he has used it in his class.) As I do this I have also been trying to imagine modules for the first-year class, which is not driven by specific texts the way the 19th-century fiction class is. I usually organize it by genre and then use specific examples within each genre to highlight specific topics like point of view, figurative language, irony, etc. For the online version I think I’m going to start from those topics and pick the readings from different genres–but I really don’t know yet.

hardtimesOne thing that has started weighing on my  mind is that all this planning isn’t the same as actually creating content for the fall. I don’t have much more time, really, before I have to commit to a basic outline of elements for both classes and begin to script presentations, videos, writing prompts, and so forth. The whole specifications grading thing is going to require very careful explanations and instructions. But I remind myself: I’m not starting from scratch, even though the apparatus and presentation will be different. I have oodles of notes and materials, including slides, that can be adapted–and I don’t have to have everything ready to go at once. In some ways I can see that would be desirable, but on the other hand, it seems key, especially when this is all so new to me, that I be ready and able to change things up based on how things go with the first few modules. I hope students will recognize that for me too, this term will involve some trial and error!

And that’s where I am now, almost four months into this strange new locked down world–at least in the parts of my life that I write about here. I continue to take comfort and courage from the virtual communities that mean more to me now than ever, as we support and distract and teach and challenge and console each other as best we can.

This Week Module In My Classes

Working from home.

I am starting to draft some concrete plans for my fall courses that combine what I’ve been learning about best practices in online teaching with the goals and priorities that have always motivated my pedagogy. One of the hardest parts of this for me turns out to be rethinking the rhythm of my courses now that they will be almost entirely asynchronous.

The key shift seems to be moving away from thinking in terms of days per week, with each class meeting a discrete opportunity to introduce new content, focus on a new (part of a) reading, raise a different set of questions, or practice a specific skill. Instead, we are supposed to think in terms of modules. These may also be weekly–and in fact I do expect each larger unit in my classes to be parceled out across weekly modules to create and sustain a pattern that sets expectations, provides some structure, and keeps us all moving through the term, if not in sync, then in concert. But the modules will not be (should not be, if I understand the guidance correctly) understood as virtual versions of the thrice-weekly meetings but rather as bundles of activities that help students work towards the same goals in a more self-directed way.

I think (though I’m still figuring this out) that this means sorting my typical course activities so that instead of going through them, as I usually do, once each class meeting, we move through them once each module. A typical class meeting in 19thC-Fiction, for example, would be a bit of logistical stuff to start (reminders, announcements, clarifications); then a lecture segment in which I first briefly review what we’ve talked about so far and then introduce some new contexts or questions (historical, theoretical, formal, interpretive); then discussion in which we take that new material and the new section of the novel we’ve read for the day into account. This discussion might just be me doing my best to engage the whole class in talking about the day’s key topics, or it might involve break-out groups looking at specific passages or taking up particular questions and then reporting back to the group and moving on from there. Occasionally (often on the first day of a new novel, for instance) the lecture part is longer and a bit more formal; sometimes, especially towards the end of our work on a novel, we might move almost immediately into class discussion.

I miss my office!

It’s a simple pattern but, in my now fairly long experience, it works well. The opening remarks catch us all up on where we are in the course; the lecture material gives everyone some common ground for discussion; the discussion models the fundamental process of literary criticism, which is to try out your ideas on other attentive readers, see what they say, and refine, correct, or elaborate as needed. (Hello coduction, my old friend!) The three weekly meetings let me dole out the reading assignments so students aren’t overwhelmed (they “just” have to read X amount of, say, Bleak House by our next meeting), a process which also disciplines me and them into paying attention as we go along. Students who fall behind in the reading at least get regular updates on what’s going to matter when they do catch up. And everyone gets a constant dose of enthusiasm for the work–from me, reliably, and, most of the time, from other students.

In a way it is obvious how to manage a similar structure in a weekly module. Every one will open with some kind of greeting and set of announcements and reminders–maybe, if I can face it (pun intended!), by way of a short video. Then there would be one or two elements that do the job of the lecture portions–probably slide shows with voice-overs, probably keyed to reading installments as usual. But here one of my first puzzles arises: do I still break the reading up across the week the way I usually do? or do I just say that for the first Hard Times module, they have to read the whole first half of the novel? The net result would be the same, but the immediate “ask” seems like a lot more if you put it that way. Maybe I could compromise and give them a “suggested reading schedule.” One plan I have is for them to maintain online reading journals, something I’ve done before as part of face-to-face versions of 19thC Fiction: if I tied the requirements for journal entries to specific parts of the novels (the first entry must address an example from Book I, the second an example from Book II, etc.), that might be a useful way to create and sustain some momentum in their reading.

the_new_novelThen, instead of having three distinct conversations about the reading on three separate days (which, again, has always allowed me to pace us, and to model sorting out specific interpretive elements rather than facing everything that’s going on in the novel all at once), we’ll have discussion boards. Presumably, the topics will reflect the same questions I usually set in class, but I’m not sure if I should try to move us through these topics in some kind of sequence across the week, as I would in person, or think of the module as weighted towards reading at the beginning of the week and discussion at the end of the week. Probably the latter–though they might miss getting input and ideas from each other (and from me) earlier in their reading. I don’t want to be micromanaging participation on the discussion boards too much: I’m imagining how strange this all might feel to them, and ideally I’d like it to feel both easy and sort of natural to contribute. Super-rigid requirements (post once by Wednesday, reply once on Thursday, post again on Friday–whatever) really work against that and give me a lot to keep track of.

OUP MiddlemarchI think the next step for me is actually to back away from the overwhelming amount of information and advice I’ve been contemplating about online teaching and go back to my actual teaching notes. Looking at the topics I usually cover with a modular redesign in mind will probably help me realize ways in which these bundles would actually work and think in more concrete ways about just how different the online experience needs or doesn’t need to be. Precisely because I’ve been teaching 19th-century fiction in such a similar way for so long, it is the one that feels the strangest to mess with, but it’s also the one where I have the simplest overall goal–to have the best conversations we can about our readings–and the most faith in the books themselves to get us talking, one way or another. Even if I don’t get everything right on my first attempt to do all this online, at least we’ll still be working our way through Middlemarch!

I would love to hear from anyone with online teaching experience about this weeks-vs-modules question, especially if they have found good ways to make it work with the inevitably heavy reading load for a class on the Victorian novel. I have already cut one novel (we’ll be doing four instead of my usual five) on the expectation that everything is going to take us longer. If there are any students out there who have taken online classes that really worked (or, I guess, didn’t work), I’d also love to know if there was a rhythm to the course that played a part and what level of structure you think would help you stay engaged without making you feel micromanaged.

“A Ghostly Message of Comfort”


Another nice bit from A Time of Gifts:

“In cold weather like this,” said the innkeeper of a Gastwirtschaft further down, “I recommend Himbeergeist.” I obeyed and it was a lightning conversion. Spirit of raspberries, or their ghost–this crystalline  distillation, twinkling and ice-cold in its misty goblet, looked as though it were homeopathically in league with the weather. Sipped or swallowed, it went shuddering through its new home and branched out in patterns–or so it seemed after a second glass–like the ice-ferns that covered the window panes, but radiating warmth and happiness instead of cold, and carrying a ghostly message of comfort to the uttermost fimbria. Fierce winters give birth to their antidotes: Kümmel, Vodka, Aquavit, Danziger Goldwasser. Oh for a thimble full of the cold north! Fiery-frosty potions, sequin-flashers, rife with spangles to spark fuses in the bloodstream, revive fainting limbs, and send travellers rocketing on through snow and ice. White fire, red cheek, heat me and speed me. This discovery cast a glow over the approach of Linz.

I’m not enthralled by A Time of Gifts overall: maybe I was wrong that vicarious voyages are the right antidote for this strange immobile moment, or maybe it’s just that right now, stalled as I otherwise am, I need the forward momentum of plot to keep my attention reliably engaged. He’s also traveling through landscapes that have never been part of my own imaginative life the way other places (England or Greece or Egypt, for instance) have been: I’ve never had any urge to go to Germany myself, never dreamed of wandering the streets of its cities the way I dreamed of visiting London or York and still dream of one day seeing the Valley of the Kings. Even so, there are many passages that I’m pausing over with pleasure and admiration at Fermor’s descriptions. There are so many odd and striking details here, including his reference to fimbria, which I had to look up and which still seem an odd choice in context. I’m not much of a drinker but I think if I ever saw a bottle of Himbeergeist at the NSLC I might now be tempted by the thought of those “ice ferns” doing their comforting work.

There’s also an underlying story that (so far) lurks mostly in the margins: it’s the 1930s, after all, and he’s traveling through Germany:  he sees plenty of swastikas and Nazi salutes and bars full of SS men happily quaffing beer and singing. A Time of Gifts feels strikingly apolitical compared to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (no, I’ve never finished it!), which of course is a very different kind of book in purpose as well as in style. I don’t know if Fermor stays focused primarily on his personal experiences (including his reflections on landscape, art, and literature) or if the building political pressures of the time make that boundary between private and public life impossible for him to sustain.

“All These Things Tell You Something”

devices2From P. D. James’s Devices and Desires:

He followed her down the hall to the kitchen at the back of the house. It was, he judged, almost twenty feet long and obviously served the triple purpose of sitting room, working place and office. The right-hand half of the room was a well-equipped kitchen with a large gas stove and an Aga, a butcher’s chopping block, a dresser to the right of the door holding an assortment of gleaming pots, and a long working surface with a wooden triangle sheathing her assortment of knives. In the centre of the room was a large wooden table holding a stoneware jar of dried flowers. On the left-hand wall was a working fireplace, the two recesses fitted with wall-to-ceiling bookshelves. To each side of the hearth was a high-backed wicker armchair in an intricate closely woven design fitted with patchwork cushions. There was an open roll-top desk facing one of the wide windows and, to its right, a stable door, the top half open, gave a view of the paved courtyard. Dalgliesh could glimpse what was obviously her herb garden planted in elegant terracotta pots carefully disposed to catch the sun. The room, which contained nothing superfluous, nothing pretentious, was both pleasing and extraordinarily comforting and, for a moment, he wondered why. Was it the faint smell of herbs and newly baked dough, the soft ticking of the wall-mounted clock which seemed both to mark the passing seconds and yet to hold time in thrall, the rhythmic moaning of the sea through the half-open door, the sense of well-fed ease conveyed by the two cushioned armchairs, the open hearth? Or was it that the kitchen reminded Dalgliesh of that rectory kitchen where the lonely only child had found warmth and undemanding, uncensorious companionship, been given hot dripping toast and small forbidden treats?

In interviews and in her own writing about her crime novels, P. D. James often remarks on the importance of setting, especially interiors. In an 1986 New York Times Magazine story, Julian Symons quotes her as saying “I believe you can describe people, and understand them, through the houses or apartments they live in,”

the furniture they choose to buy, the way they decorate the rooms. However humble or ordinary the place may be, there are still distinctions between what people do. Do they put wallpaper or emulsion paint on the walls? What’s the design on the paper or the color of the paint? What sort of pictures are on the walls? All these things tell you something.

devicesThis excerpt from Devices and Desires is characteristic of what this conviction looks like in practice. I suppose it could be argued that such long descriptive passages are not strictly necessary, that they are a form of padding in novels otherwise structured very tightly, as all of hers are, around the intricacies of a murder investigation. She treats every room this way, not just ones that clearly lead us towards revelations about the crime: readers who like their mysteries leaner and faster and more plot-driven might feel that the story gets bogged down. I don’t see it (or experience it) that way. For one thing, I enjoy James’s writing–I like the rhythm of her sentences, the meticulous care she takes to create a vivid, tactile sense of place, and the way her catalogs of specifics so often lead, as here, from exterior to interior, from setting to psychology. For another, because James’s crimes are always intensely personal, character is plot for her: thus her attention to setting as a device for exploring character serves the key purpose of her fiction. Finally, here we are seeing through Dalgliesh’s eyes: what this passage tells us is not just how the room’s inhabitant lives (and thus what she is like) but how observant he is, and how his scrupulous detachment as a professional investigator is combined with the self-awareness and sensitivity that make him not just a skilled detective but also a poet.

Imaginary Interiors

A-Time-of-GiftsFrom Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts:

There were farm-buildings which elms and chestnut trees and birches snugly encompassed and Hobbema-like avenues of wintry trees which ended at the gates of seemly manor-houses–the abodes, I hoped, of mild jonkheers. They were gabled in semi-circles and broken right-angles of weathered brick bordered with white stone. Pigeon-lofts saddled the scales of the roofs and the breeze kept the gilded weather-vanes spinning; and when the leaded windows kindled at lighting-up time, I explored the interiors in my imagination. A deft chiaroscuro illuminated the black and white flagstones; there were massive tables with bulbous legs and Turkey carpets flung over them; convex mirrors distorted the reflections; faded wall-charts hung on the walls; globes and harpsichords and inlaid lutes were elegantly scattered; and Guelderland squires with pale whiskers–or their wives in tight bonnets and goffered ruffs–lifted needle-thin wine-glasses to judge the colour by the light of the branching and globular brass candelabra which were secured on chains to the beams and the coffered ceilings.

Imaginary interiors . . . No wonder they took shape in painting terms! . . . For if there is a foreign landscape familiar to English eyes by proxy, it is this one; by the time they see the original, a hundred mornings and afternoons in museums and picture galleries and country houses have done their work. Those confrontations and recognition scenes filled the journey with excitement and delight. The nature of the landscape itself, the colour, the light, the sky, the openness, the expanse and the details of the towns and the villages are leagued together in the weaving of a miraculously consoling and healing spell. Melancholy is exorcised, chaos chased away and wellbeing, alacrity of spirit and a thoughtful calm take their place.


Like many readers I know, I have been struggling with my concentration in these pandemic days. This has happened in other, less extraordinary circumstances as well, of course, and usually the cure is as much about finding the right book to break the slump as it is about anything else. With that in mind, I have been casting about for the right book for this moment, and it occurred to me that I should re-start A Time of Gifts, which I had begun long ago and, for no particular reason, put aside. This passage on the happy congruity between the art and the reality of the Dutch landscape was one of the ones I had earmarked before, and I loved it just as much when I came across it this time. It is bound to remind any reader of George Eliot of her wonderful tribute to Dutch paintings in Adam Bede:

It is for this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in many Dutch paintings, which lofty-minded people despise. I find a source of delicious sympathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous homely existence, which has been the fate of so many more among my fellow-mortals than a life of pomp or of absolute indigence, of tragic suffering or of world-stirring actions . . .

All honour and reverence to the divine beauty of form! Let us cultivate it to the utmost in men, women, and children—in our gardens and in our houses. But let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy. Paint us an angel, if you can, with a floating violet robe, and a face paled by the celestial light; paint us yet oftener a Madonna, turning her mild face upward and opening her arms to welcome the divine glory; but do not impose on us any aesthetic rules which shall banish from the region of Art those old women scraping carrots with their work-worn hands, those heavy clowns taking holiday in a dingy pot-house, those rounded backs and stupid weather-beaten faces that have bent over the spade and done the rough work of the world—those homes with their tin pans, their brown pitchers, their rough curs, and their clusters of onions. In this world there are so many of these common coarse people, who have no picturesque sentimental wretchedness! It is so needful we should remember their existence, else we may happen to leave them quite out of our religion and philosophy and frame lofty theories which only fit a world of extremes. Therefore, let Art always remind us of them; therefore let us always have men ready to give the loving pains of a life to the faithful representing of commonplace things.

Woman Scraping Carrots

I was thinking that another way to break up the inertia I’ve been experiencing in my reading and writing would be to approach my blog at least some of the time as more of a commonplace book, to take the pressure off having to say something organized about my reading every time. So there may be more posts coming like this one: just an excerpt or two from whatever I’m reading, maybe with a bit of commentary, maybe without. It’s nice just to share the good bits, I figure–and A Time of Gifts is sure to have many of them.

That Was the Week That Was

Latour reading womanI’m having a hard time keeping track of what day it is, mostly because under the new work-from-home protocol–and the more general stay-at-home order–there’s not much difference between one day and the next. I’ve also stopped doing grocery shopping on Saturday mornings (which had been my routine for more than two decades): now I go mid-week, usually Wednesday, as early as I’m allowed in the store, which means I’m home by 9 a.m. and so, aside from the gradually receding adrenaline from the stress of the outing, it too then becomes a day like every other day.

As these days become weeks and months, I am trying to find a rhythm that brings a bit of order to the passing hours without adding unnecessary pressure, something in between just drifting and trying to enforce a fixed schedule when really there’s no need as long as, bit by bit, the things that need doing get done. Most mornings I spend puttering way on online teaching: reading, experimenting with tools in Brightspace, trying to imagine how else to do what I’ve always done, working through the modules for the online course I signed up for on online course design. Being a student in this course is probably as valuable as anything they are directly teaching me about online learning: I feel first-hand, for example, the importance of engagement, or the discouragement of its lack–so many people enrolled, so few people contributing to any of the discussion boards! I’m trying hard to sustain my positive attitude, or at least to stay practical about what lies ahead even if sometimes my heart just sinks when I think about it or I get swamped with doubt about my ability to do a good job, to make the experience anything like what I think it should be and hope, on my better days, that it can be.

shroudAfternoons are (more or less) for reading. I haven’t posted about any books since The Glass Hotel but that isn’t because I haven’t read any. In fact, I have read four (almost five) books since then, all by P. D. James, because I am rereading her complete works (or all of her mysteries, at any rate) in preparation for writing a piece for the TLS in honor of her centenary. I was really glad that the editors liked this idea: it’s a perfect project for this haphazard summer. I have a lot of ideas about James from having read (and taught) her for years, but I have not had a reason to put those ideas in good order before, and it has also been a long time since I read most of her back catalog. It’s very interesting reading through the books all at once and in order: you quickly notice recurring themes and habits, strengths and weaknesses, and also the way her scope and themes expand. I think (I hope!) that this is a kind of essay I’m reasonably good at, collating and synthesizing across a range of examples; this is also an approach that I think works well for crime series, which are interesting both in their individual parts and as enduring creations that are more than the sum of those parts, often (as in this case) through the story they tell about the central detective  that unifies them. My previous essays on Dick Francis and the Martin Beck books were in a similar vein. I won’t want to anticipate too much of the final product here, but I will probably report back occasionally, partly to keep holding myself accountable! Maybe when I’ve finished my reread I should do another ranked list. My post on the top 10 Dick Francis novels has been my most-read post of all time! 🙂

the-crossingI do have some other books on the go or in the queue. I am about 100 pages into Andrew Miller’s The Crossing, which is the last of the random pile of library books I brought home shortly before the lockdown. It’s good so far in the way his other books were good: meticulous, quietly and a bit ominously atmospheric. I ordered Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian from Bookmark, and it looks very tempting; I pulled Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts from the shelf because I’ve never read it and if there was ever a time to travel vicariously in excellent literary company, this is surely it. My book club “met” on Thursday to discuss Detective Inspector Huss (mixed feelings all round) and there too the idea of being mentally somewhere else appeals: Turkey somehow came up as a preferred destination, so we may do something by Elif Shafak next. I am still struggling a bit with concentration, so although I have John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy still to read from my Christmas stash, I think now may not be the time for something intricately plotted. On the other hand, maybe now is exactly the time for a book that will insist I really pay attention!

ozark3We have certainly been watching a lot of TV: the new season of Better Call SaulThe End of the F***ing WorldLittle Fires EverywhereThe Stranger, Ozark … If we’d known what lay ahead, we might have rationed some of the other shows we watched over the winter–season 5 of Line of Duty, the latest season of Shetland–that we knew to be engrossing. It is a good time to be watching Parks and Recreation for the first time: its gentle, goodhearted humor is a tonic. Sadly, the channel that carried the Great British Sewing Bee and various other painting and craft shows has dropped suddenly from our cable package, just when such low-key distractions would be more welcome than ever, and a lot of the videos on the Youtube channel where I had found the Great Pottery Throwdown are now blocked, which I guess is legitimate but it’s still sad. It was March 8 that I wrote about how “gripped and soothed” I was by shows highlighting creativity and making things: little did I know that would be the last blog post of the Before Times.

So that’s how my week is going–how my weeks are going, as they blur together, weirdly ephemeral and indistinct but also somehow relentless, a foggy procession through time. I continue to be really grateful for Twitter and blogs: reading and talking about reading and knowing that the rest of you are out there too, all of us getting by as best we can and hanging on to the things we care about, including books and ideas and each other.

This Week In My (Fall 2020) Classes: Coming to Terms

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYWell, it’s official: Dalhousie’s Fall 2020 classes will be “predominantly online,” the only planned exceptions being specialized programs that rely on “experiential learning” — “medicine, dentistry, select health professions, agriculture.” In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, we were told some time ago to begin planning for an online term: if some miracle occurred and suddenly it was safe to resume business as (formerly) usual, after all, it would have been easier to revert to face-to-face teaching than it would have been to have to pivot the other way. It is definitely helpful to have more certainty, though, especially for our students.

Because planning ahead suits me much better than waiting and wondering, I had already begun trying to come to grips with what it would (now, will) mean to teach my classes online. The first stage was wrestling with my emotions about this. I love teaching–it is my favourite part of my job, sometimes the only part of it that really makes sense to me and certainly the part of it that I am most motivated about. I have always accepted that there are people who do a good job of online teaching and that there are ways to make it a good experience. Still, I have always resisted doing it myself, because I enjoy being in the live classroom so much and because I spend a lot of time online for other reasons and didn’t want to lose one of my main sources of in-person human contact.

Dal_MarionMcCain_BuildingHaving the decision made for me by circumstances hasn’t changed everything about how I feel about teaching online, but it has made a lot of those feelings irrelevant. Also, countering my wistfulness about what we’ll be missing are other, stronger feelings about what we will, happily, be avoiding by staying behind our screens. Every description I’ve seen of ways to make face-to-face teaching more or less safe for everyone involved has involved a level of surveillance, anxiety, and uncertainty that I think would make it nearly impossible to teach or learn with confidence: a lot of what is good about meeting in person would be distorted by the necessary health and safety measures, and even without taking into account the accessibility issues for staff, students, and faculty who would be at higher risk, being in a constant state of vigilance would be exhausting for everyone. Frankly, I’m relieved and grateful that Dalhousie has finally made a clear call that (arguably) errs on the side of caution. Now we can get on with planning for it.

The Student (Dixon)As my regret about the shift to online has been replaced by determination to make the best of it, I’ve also noticed something I’ve seen experienced online teachers point out before, which is a tendency to idealize face-to-face teaching, as if just being there in person guarantees good pedagogy. It doesn’t, of course. In my own case, I know that what I’ll miss the most is lively in-class discussions. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that even the liveliest discussion rarely involves everyone in the room. Of course I try hard to engage as many people as possible, using a range of different strategies depending on the class size and purpose and layout: break-out groups, think-pair-share exercises, free writing from discussion prompts, discussion questions circulated ahead of time, handouts with passages to annotate and share, or just the good old-fashioned technique “ask a provocative question and see where it gets us.” Even what feels to me like a very good result, though, might actually involve 10 people out of, say, 40 — or 90, or 120 — speaking up. Others are (hopefully!) engaged in different ways, and there are different ways, too, to ask for and measure participation than counting who speaks up in class. Still, I’d be fooling myself if I pretended that there wasn’t any room for improvement–and what I want to think about as I make plans for the fall is therefore not how to try to duplicate that in-class experience online (ugh, Zoom!), partly because we are supposed to focus on asynchronous methods but also because maybe I can use online tools to get a higher contribution rate, which in turn might make more students feel a part of our collective enterprise. And, not incidentally, if all contributions are written, they will also get more (low-stakes) writing practice, which is always a good thing, and they will be able to think first, and more slowly (if that suits them), and look things up in the text, before having to weigh in.

Bookworm's Table (Hirst)There are other ways in which (and we all know this to be true) face-to-face teaching isn’t perfect, and there are also teachers whose face-to-face teaching does not reflect best practices for that medium. Given these obvious truths, and especially since the shift to online teaching is driven by factors that themselves have nothing to do with pedagogical preferences, I have been getting pretty irritable about professors publicly lamenting these decisions, especially when it’s obvious that they haven’t made the slightest effort to learn anything about online teaching, or to reflect on the limitations of their own usual pedagogy. One prominent academic just published an op-ed in a national paper declaring that online teaching can only ever be a faint shadow of “the real thing”; others have been making snide remarks on Twitter about the obvious worthlessness of a term of “crap zoom lectures” (that’s verbatim) or questioning why students should pay tuition for the equivalent of podcasts. Besides the obvious PR downside of making these sweepingly negative and ill-informed statements when your institutions are turning themselves upside down to find sustainable ways forward, what kind of attitude does that model for our students? The situation is hard, I agree, and sad, and disappointing. But at the end of the day we are professionals and this, right now, is what our job requires. If we value that job–and I don’t mean that in the reductive “it’s what we get paid for” way (though for those of us with tenured positions, that professional obligation is important to acknowledge and live up to) but our commitment to teaching and training and nurturing our students–then, if we can*, I think we need to do our best to get on with it.

Arcimbolo LibrarianAnd happily, though most of us are not trained as online teachers, we do have a superpower that should help us out: we are trained researchers! We can look things up, consult experts, examine models, and figure out how to apply what we learn to our own situations, contexts, pedagogical goals, and values. At this point, that’s what I’m working on: learning about online learning. Yes, I had other projects I was interested in pursuing this summer. In fact, I still do, but I have scaled back my expectations for them, because I can’t think of anything that’s more important right now than doing everything I can to make my fall classes good experiences, for my students and also for me. I have the privilege of a full-time continuing position, after all, and my university is making experts and resources available to me–plus there are all kinds of people generously offering guidance and encouragement through Twitter and I have been following up their leads and bookmarking sites and articles and YouTube videos.

I still feel a lot of generalized anxiety about the pandemic–both its immediate risks and its broader implications–but I can’t influence those outcomes, except by following expert advice and “staying the blazes home” (to quote our premier!), doing my part to slow the spread of the virus by doing as little as possible. It’s hard! I am still really struggling with my own feelings of fear and helplessness and uncertainty. But that’s why it actually feels good to focus on this pedagogical work: there is so much about the wider situation that I can’t control, but this effort is up to me. It is genuinely challenging, and I also genuinely like learning how to do new things. Sometimes now I even feel excited about what my classes might be like. After all, I have years of experience forming important relationships and experiencing real community online, through blogs and Twitter and the collaborative work of editing Open Letters Monthly, for example. I believe it can be done! Now, if I can just convince more of my colleagues–and reassure my students–about that …

*I realize not everyone is equally able to do this–those in precarious positions, those with young children who are no longer in daycare or school and who may not have summer camps; those with limited access to technology and other resources. As many people have been discussing, this crisis is highlighting and exacerbating inequities of many kinds, both in and out of the academy. Institutions should be asked over and over what they are doing to address them, and then held to account. For instance, it has always been wrong to assign courses to contingent faculty at the last minute: now it would be simply impossible for them to prepare their materials in a matter of days or even weeks. It’s already clear to me that three months isn’t really enough time!