Claire Tomalin, A Life of My Own

tomalinI don’t read a lot of memoirs, or a lot of biographies. The autobiography of renowned biographer Claire Tomalin, however, was so interesting that it made me think I should read more widely in both genres–starting, perhaps, with some of Tomalin’s own biographies, none of which I have read. Recommendations, anyone? I’m thinking perhaps The Invisible Woman, her book about Dickens and Nelly Ternan.

I did not initially find A Life of My Own that engaging. Tomalin’s account of her parents and her childhood was fine, but it seemed somewhat perfunctory, and in fact throughout the book, with rare exceptions, I was frustrated at the “one thing after another” minimalism of it: events unspooled steadily and were recounted without much commentary and in a consistently even (I might even call it flat) tone. This coolness was particularly jarring to me when Tomalin got to the details of her marriage to journalist Nick Tomalin. Nick was not always faithful, but he expected Claire to behave otherwise and reacted badly when he learned she had “embark[ed] on an affair”:

I was standing alone in the kitchen one evening when he came in and advanced angrily with clenched fists raised to punch me in the face. I ducked. His blow broke the wooden bar that held the roller towel on the larder door, where I was standing–I have kept it ever since as a reminder.

“After this,” she remarks laconically, “I had to expect violence from Nick when he was angry,” and a few pages later she recalls an occasion on which “he hit me so hard across the face with the back of his hand…that I needed stitches in my lip for the cut made by his heavy wedding ring.” Perhaps it’s unreasonable for me to expect these shocking details to sound more shocking in the telling, rather than quite so matter of fact. Claire and Nick did separate, but they also got back together eventually, and when she talks about his death (he was killed by a Syrian missile while on assignment in the Golan Heights in 1973) the good memories certainly seem to outweigh the bad for her: “Whatever the failings of both of us in our marriage, it felt now as if the sun had been eclipsed.” Relationships are complicated, and people’s choices often reflect those complications. Maybe Tomalin downplayed the violence (though obviously she did not omit it) because she had, much earlier, made the choice not to let it define their marriage.

tomalin-2Tomalin’s personal life was complicated in other ways too. She and Nick had four children. The youngest, Tom, was born with spina bifida. One of their daughters, Susanna, fell into a deep depression during her first year at college. “The transformation in her was unfathomable,” Tomalin writes:

The child who had amazed and delighted me for twenty years seemed as though she had been wrung out until almost nothing was left but a small husk of herself. Nothing in her life had prepared us for the change. Susanna had always delighted in the world and expressed her joy in every discovery she made, whether it was a new landscape or a new food, a freshly encountered poem or a painting. Now she seemed almost to have forgotten who she was or how to be.

Susanna eventually succeeded in committing suicide. Tomalin’s heartbreak is clear and poignant here:

None of the warnings I had been given were enough. Clearly she needed much more care than we were able to give her, and to be watched over in a way that I had not done, nor perhaps would I have been able to. Now I know we should have protected her fiercely, and that had we been given more and better advice, we might have saved her.

She writes at length about Susanna’s strength and beauty and pleasures, as if to counter the tragedy of her daughter’s death with the many other facets of her life: “She lit up our lives with her intelligence and generosity.”

tomalin-3Tomalin’s personal life is only one aspect of A Life of My Own. Through it all she’s working, making her way through the literary world. Much of this material is, again, a somewhat perfunctory rehearsal of what happened when, with a lot of names dropped (which is totally fair, of course, since what’s she going to do, not mention the many famous writers who were in her orbit?). I was always glad when she let herself be a bit more expansive about her work as a writer and editor. About her aspirations as literary editor of the Sunday Times, for instance, she writes:

I knew that literary pages are supposed to make bestsellers, but I wanted mine to cut across the bestseller culture, to draw attention to the unexpectedly good, the unknown writer with something new to say, the odd, the difficult but worthwhile. And whatever passion was left in me, I was passionate about making our book pages the best in the business.

After she left the Sunday Times writing biographies became her main occupation. “Working on a biography,” she comments,

means you are obsessed with one person and one period for several years. Another life is bound up with yours and will remain so for the rest of your own life–that at least is my experience. You have gone in too deep to cast them aside. You will have looked into the context of their lives in every aspect, examined their family backgrounds, their beliefs, their tastes, their eccentricities, their friends and enemies, their ambitions, achievements and failures, their quirks and mysteries, their betrayals and unhappiness, their political allegiances, their medical histories, their finances, their children, their reputations both in life and posthumous. You will have been surprised by them, maybe disappointed, amused, amazed. Your interest is so strong it can be called a passion.

These were the parts of the book I liked the best: there is an energy to them that just seemed missing from the more straightforward autobiographical parts. I would have liked more sense of passion from her own story–I wonder if it comes through more strongly in her biographies of other people. It may also be that the book of hers I should actually follow up with is not The Invisible Woman or another biography but Several Strangers, which is a collection of her literary writing.

tomalin-invisibleFrom a more personal standpoint, what resonated most with me in A Life of My Own is Tomalin’s comment about how late she actually began focusing on the biographical work for which she is now best known. “My story should be cheering,” she says, “to anyone who is finding it hard to establish a career they find congenial. . . . I was in my mid-fifties before I could concentrate on full-time research and writing.” Obviously she had a very significant career up to that point, and the experience and perhaps especially the connections she made working at the heart of London’s literary scene not only counted for a lot in themselves but meant she was exceptionally well positioned for a next phase that would probably be much more difficult for someone else. Still, it is indeed cheering, as I look towards my own “mid-fifties,” to think that what feels like a plateau might in its own way, for my own life, actually be a launching pad for some new work I have yet to do.

“What was a girl to Dombey and Son!”

dombey-oupThey had been married ten years, and until this present day on which Mr. Dombey sat jingling and jingling his heavy gold watch-chain in the great arm-chair by the side of the bed, had had no issue.

–To speak of; none worth mentioning. There had been a girl some six years before, and the child, who had stolen into the chamber unobserved, was now crouching timidly, in a corner whence she could see her mother’s face. But what was a girl to Dombey and Son! In the capital of the House’s name and dignity, such a child was merely a piece of base coin that couldn’t be invested–a bad Boy–nothing more.

I have finished making my way through Dombey and Son. I admit, it was a bit of a struggle at times–not (or not just) because it is, indeed, very long, but because I read it cold, without critical preparation. This is my preference for most books on a first read, so that I avoid carrying someone else’s interpretation with me, but it is also a calculated risk because interpretive expectations provide guidance and filters. For Dombey and Son, which is diffuse and stuffed full of characters whose purpose or importance is often not clear at first meeting, I think a bit of preparation would have helped me, even if it might also have spoiled some of the effects. My experience with the novel actually reassured me, in fact, that my own pedagogical approach to door stoppers of this kind is probably about right: I do my best to set up patterns and themes for my students to follow, so that they can sort and focus, but I also try not to give the game away, so that they can still enjoy figuring things out and also being surprised by what happens next.

dombey-penguinThat said, I think that if Dombey and Son were a better novel, I might have been fine on my own and not fallen, as I sadly did, into occasional fits of boredom, impatience, or irritation. Though obviously a first read is almost by definition an imperfect one, some books nonetheless make their greatness clear pretty promptly, and I didn’t think Dombey and Son ever did. It lacks the joyousness of David Copperfield: its children have all the pathos and none of the fun, its villains are more cardboard, its eccentrics are less quirky and more repetitive, its heroes and especially its  heroine are much duller (imagine, a heroine who makes Agnes look subtle and complicated!). Though there is something impressive in the portrait of Mr. Dombey and the destructive vortex of his pride, Dickens does not take that critique and radiate it outward with anything like the breathtaking audacity of Bleak House, with its many variations on its central themes. The fairy tale quality of Florence’s story, with its long emotional exile as she is, so paradoxically, held captive by her father’s neglect, loses a lot of its impact as it drags on with its one repetitive idea: Louisa Gradgrind’s story has some of the same qualities but is so much more intense, and also so much more interesting because, unlike Florence, Louisa is capable of anger.

Edith, on the other hand, seemed to me a worthy cousin of both Louisa and Lady Dedlock: she sees who she has been made into and by what and for whom, and her furious rejection of it all gave the book some welcome drama. The high register of her part seemed almost incongruous, given how much of the rest of the novel consists of moping of one kind or another, but in her carefully cultivated value as a material acquisition she functions as a good foil to Florence, whose true value her father only very belatedly is able to acknowledge. Still, their actual relationship did not reverberate thematically the way Esther’s and Lady Dedlock’s does in their novel. Similarly, Walter and Florence’s romance was sweet, if painfully obvious, but didn’t seem to mean much. The business aspect and especially the recurrent emphasis on modernization was interesting, but Little Dorrit seems to me to do more thought-provoking things with commerce and innovation.

bleak-housseAnd so it went for me, really, throughout Dombey and Son: it kept reminding me of other Dickens novels but the comparison was never in its favor. I flagged a lot of bits I liked, and over its 900+ pages there were certainly moments I found sad or funny or even great in that way that only Dickens can be great. I was pretty fond of Captain Cuttle by the end! But at the same time, overall it felt cluttered and it took (yes) a bit too long to get us to the one result that really mattered, namely Mr. Dombey’s realization that his daughter was always already the child he needed. In Novels of the Eighteen-Forties Kathleen Tillotson notes that “Dombey and Son stands out from among Dickens’s novels as the earliest example of responsible and successful planning; it has unity not only of action, but of design and feeling.” I suppose, then, that you could consider it practice for the masterpieces that would follow, a lesser but valuable trial run. I can’t imagine choosing it as a teaching text over any of the ones I usually assign.

“We are the Fuckin West”: Guy Gunaratne, In Our Mad and Furious City


There is no one out here except you bro. You did this. You have to take it man. Take the responsibility, like, even though it’s hard.

He looked up at me then, his eyes terrified and entreating. I had to make sure he heard me.

It was you who did this bruv. No one else.

I felt his hands let go of my arms. I moved toward him. I tried to keep my tone gentle as I knew that my words could pierce him open. He backed off still, his face creasing up with confusion and pain. I wouldn’t let it go.

It weren’t the West bruv. We are the fuckin West, Irfan. It was you.

I am very glad that Liz pointed me towards Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City as a possible choice for my Brit Lit survey class next winter. I have been looking for a book that fits the unifying theme I have in mind, “belonging”–a broad concept I like because it can apply to the selection process for readings (which raises all the questions about canon formation that make a survey class so challenging in the first place) as well as to key topics we are likely to cover, including class, gender, race, and nation. Who belongs? What does it mean to belong, whether to a family, a community, or a country, or, for that matter, a literary movement or tradition? Who decides, who guards the gates, what might be the price of entry or the cost of exile?

I’m pretty happy at this point with Wuthering Heights as the representative 19th-century novel, and I’m fairly certain I’ll also include A Room Of One’s Own as another longer text. My top contender for a contemporary novel was originally Small Island, but although it does turn out to be one we could order, I’m anxious about its length, which is also among the reasons I’ve backed away from White Teeth. (I’m not, obviously, unwilling to assign long novels, but range and variety matter a lot for this particular kind of course, so I’m not sure I want to dedicate a lot of time to any single text.)

gunaratneI’m not yet 100% sure that In Our Mad and Furious City is the right book for my purposes, but it is definitely the front-runner now: Liz has good instincts! For one thing, it is relatively compact: the edition I read is 274 not particularly dense pages. I also found it really engrossing. It took me a dozen or so pages to adjust to the voices–it is told by five different first-person narrators–and especially to their language, as most of the speakers use a vernacular which is unfamiliar to me. The effort to learn it, to hear it, to feel it, is part of the novel’s point, I think, and while I did continue to stumble occasionally over idioms I didn’t understand, it got much easier as I went along. (If I do teach it, I think I might bring in the audio book, which Gunaratne notes is read by “a fellow NW native,” to clarify how this language really sounds: I listened to the Audible sample and it made sense of a lot of things.) I ended up reading the whole novel in one sitting: I was that involved in it. I think–I hope–that bodes well for how my students might respond to it.

In Our Mad and Furious City tells the story of each of the five narrators over the course of a 48 hour period fraught with tension because of the recent murder of a soldier by an Islamic extremist, an incident closely resembling the 2013 murder of Lee Rigby. Anger and suspicion flare; marches and riots ensue. Three of the narrators are teenagers who live in or near a housing project called the Stones Estate. Each of them is navigating his own complicated path out of adolescence, trying to define an identity that both is and isn’t defined by their family history. The other two characters, older, carry their own heavy baggage, one from the trauma of life in Belfast during the Troubles, the other as a part of the Windrush generation. Over the course of the novel we learn all the connections between the characters and come to see parallel themes in their stories, especially around ideas of national identity, political conflict, and religious extremism. (Here is a very interesting commentary by Gunaratne on what motivated him to explore these particular kinds of stories.)

gunaratne-3Although there are clearly big ideas at stake in the novel, Gunaratne does a good job making his characters’ lives seem intensely personal: they do not come across as devices serving only a didactic purpose. Perhaps oddly, the novel reminded me of S. E. Hinton’s classic teen novel The Outsiders: although almost everything about the context and action of In Our Mad and Furious City is different, I felt the same poignancy in it around the idea that youth is, or should be, a time of great but often thwarted possibility. Living on the margins as these young men do, pressed on every side by poverty and prejudice and impossible conflicts of loyalty, realizing even their modest dreams seems almost too much for them to hope for. While the novel is intimate in these ways, though, it is also about British history and politics, with the square at the Estate representing a microcosm of the larger society and its interconnected problems. The novel’s interwoven voices are at once a sign of its many divisions and (maybe) a formal reflection of how its complicated diversity could ultimately create a kind of unity.

On this first read a couple of things about In Our Mad and Furious City did strike me as weaknesses or imperfections. For one, all of the youthful narrators are male and there isn’t really any built-in resistance to the way they look at and talk about women. I didn’t find the Prologue and Epilogue very effective, and I also felt that the teens’ voices sometimes seemed improbably articulate and insightful for what was supposed to be “in the moment” narration. (If there’s any clear signal that any of it besides the framing bits is retrospective, I missed it.) But there’s a lot about the novel that already stands out as “teachable,” from the voices it includes and the stories they tell to specific questions such as how the actual cause of the mosque fire affects our interpretation of the novel’s concluding crisis. There’s a lot I would have to learn more about to do a good job working through the novel with students (the amount I currently know about grime, for instance, is, well, nothing at all!) but it would be interesting work, and challenging my own expertise is one of the reasons I am trying to refresh my reading lists in the first place. I can also already see some interesting points of connection with Wuthering Heights, especially Heathcliff’s “monstrosity” and that novel’s own exploration of alienation and extremism.

Dombey and Son Is Pretty Long

dombey-oupI’m 337 pages into my Oxford World’s Classics edition of Dombey and Son. It ends on page 925, which means I’ve read just over a third of the novel. Not all that much has actually happened–a birth, a few trips and some time at school, a misadventure or two, a death–but all of it has has happened at great length.

When people don’t like Dickens, a common complaint, in my experience, is the length of his novels. Just a few days ago–on Dickens’s birthday, in fact–someone I follow on Twitter said decisively that he thinks they are “too long.” I took a deep breath and obeyed Internet Rule #2 (You Don’t Have to Weigh In). I really wanted to, though, because like the question “but is it any good?” the assertion “it’s too long” seems to me to need a lot of unpacking before it means much. Just as “good at what” is the essential follow-up question to the former, surely “too long for what?” is the obvious follow-up question for the latter. Too long for our dwindling attention spans, perhaps? Too long to get through in the time we are able to allot to it? Too long to leave time for all the other books we want to get to? Too long to keep our interest? Aha: now we are moving away from things that might be wrong with us to things that might be wrong with the book itself!

The best kind of explanation for judging a book “too long” is that it is longer than it needed to be to accomplish its own purposes. This doesn’t end the matter, of course, since now we have to explain what we think those purposes are in a way that somehow disentangles them from the only form in which we have ever and will ever encounter them: the novel as is. Still, I think when most of us call a book “too long” (as I’ve certainly done myself) that is what we mean, or think we mean, or want to mean. We’d like to think we would never be negative about a long book just because we aren’t up to the job of reading all of it. No: if we’re finding it too long, if it feels too long to us, it’s the author who has come up short.

bleak-housseI actually don’t know yet if I think Dombey and Son is too long for its purposes. I hardly know what it’s about yet! Reading it, however, especially after seeing that emphatic criticism tossed out on Twitter with such confidence, I have felt very aware of its length. I’ve been thinking about the strategies I suggest to my students when we read Bleak House, which is even longer (976 pages), many of which have to do with managing the information overload that comes with a first exposure to so many characters before you know who really matters or how they are connected, and with multiple unfolding plots that don’t yet have a known shape. My first class or two for any long novel is usually spent providing what I hope will be useful and widely applicable guidelines: look for variations on this theme, think about these kinds of contrasts between characters, pay attention to who does this and who does that. Students need what one critic calls “rules of notice.”

OUP MiddlemarchWhen I taught David Copperfield in the fall, I addressed its length explicitly (the OUP edition is 944 pages). I always talk about length when teaching Middlemarch. “I don’t see how the sort of thing I want to do could have been done briefly,” Eliot wrote: that’s a good starting point for discussion about what exactly she is doing and how those purposes make the novel’s scale an important element of its form. (Interestingly, at least in the OUP edition Middlemarch, at 904 pages, is shorter than any of these Dickens novels, though I don’t know if the font size or page layout is standard. It reads longer, I think, perhaps because it demands scrupulous attention in a way that Dickens’s exuberant excesses may not appear to.) With Bleak House, we usually tie the novel’s multiplicities to the scale of its critique: it isn’t about one house or one family or one sad crossing sweeper but about a whole society.

coppefieldWith David Copperfield, though, I found myself wanting to add another consideration, which is the particular ways Dickens makes his novels so long–when he does, because of course he doesn’t always, which is another reason to think about their length as meaningful rather than haphazard or (as those who object to Dickens’s novels as “too long” seem to imply) artistically lazy or inept. A lot of the length in Dickens’s fiction comes from what we might call “riffing.” (Merriam-Webster defines “riff” as “a rapid energetic often improvised verbal outpouring.”) If you’re going to get impatient with Dickens, it is likely to be when he has clearly already made his point, or described his character, or played that particular rhetorical note, but he just keeps on going. And going. And going. “He just can’t stop himself!” expostulates the irritated reader; “I wish he’d just get on with it!”

But why should he stop himself? Dickens is not my favorite novelist, but my favorite thing about him is that it is everywhere obvious in his fiction that he is in love with words: he relishes them and their effects. He has so much fun with them! Think about his description of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner.” Any one (or maybe two) of these adjectives would have done the job, but all seven of them together make such an irresistible mouthful. In my classes on David Copperfield, we considered how his verbal excesses can be seen not just as pleasurable in this way but as representing an anti-Utilitarian aesthetic that values joy and abundance and inclusion over efficiency, that refuses to travel with the ruthless efficiency of a railway straight from Point A to Point B but revels in wandering byways and seeing the sights and having as much fun as possible along the way. It is a critical truth widely (though certainly not universally) acknowledged these days that less is more–but why? “Anyone and everyone taking a writing class,” Nick Hornby wrote (reflecting on his own experience of reading David Copperfield)

knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress. What’s that chinking noise? It’s the sound of the assiduous creative-writing student hitting bone. You can’t read a review of, say, a Coetzee book without coming across the word “spare,” used invariably with approval; I just Googled “J. M. Coetzee + spare” and got 907 hits, almost all of them different.

“Where,” he demands, “would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes? Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where.” What a shame that would be! That Dickens’s novels are too long is a feature, not a bug.dombey-penguin

I used a railway as my metaphor above because one of the most strikingly redundant but also most remarkable passages of Dombey and Son that I’ve read so far is set on a train. It is not a comic passage, and yet even here, where the subject is grief and selfishness and futility, there’s a quality of joyful exuberance in the writing that carries us–or me, at least–right along:

[Mr Dombey] found no pleasure or relief in the journey. Tortured by these thoughts he carried monotony with him, through the rushing landscape, and hurried headlong, not through a rich and varied country, but a wilderness of blighted plans and gnawing jealousies. The very speed at which the train was whirled along, mocked the swift course of the young life that had been borne away so steadily and so inexorably to its foredoomed end. The power that forced itself upon its iron way—its own—defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.

Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, from the town, burrowing among the dwellings of men and making the streets hum, flashing out into the meadows for a moment, mining in through the damp earth, booming on in darkness and heavy air, bursting out again into the sunny day so bright and wide; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, through the fields, through the woods, through the corn, through the hay, through the chalk, through the mould, through the clay, through the rock, among objects close at hand and almost in the grasp, ever flying from the traveller, and a deceitful distance ever moving slowly within him: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!

Through the hollow, on the height, by the heath, by the orchard, by the park, by the garden, over the canal, across the river, where the sheep are feeding, where the mill is going, where the barge is floating, where the dead are lying, where the factory is smoking, where the stream is running, where the village clusters, where the great cathedral rises, where the bleak moor lies, and the wild breeze smooths or ruffles it at its inconstant will; away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, and no trace to leave behind but dust and vapour: like as in the track of the remorseless monster, Death!

Breasting the wind and light, the shower and sunshine, away, and still away, it rolls and roars, fierce and rapid, smooth and certain, and great works and massive bridges crossing up above, fall like a beam of shadow an inch broad, upon the eye, and then are lost. Away, and still away, onward and onward ever: glimpses of cottage-homes, of houses, mansions, rich estates, of husbandry and handicraft, of people, of old roads and paths that look deserted, small, and insignificant as they are left behind: and so they do, and what else is there but such glimpses, in the track of the indomitable monster, Death!

Away, with a shriek, and a roar, and a rattle, plunging down into the earth again, and working on in such a storm of energy and perseverance, that amidst the darkness and whirlwind the motion seems reversed, and to tend furiously backward, until a ray of light upon the wet wall shows its surface flying past like a fierce stream. Away once more into the day, and through the day, with a shrill yell of exultation, roaring, rattling, tearing on, spurning everything with its dark breath, sometimes pausing for a minute where a crowd of faces are, that in a minute more are not; sometimes lapping water greedily, and before the spout at which it drinks has ceased to drip upon the ground, shrieking, roaring, rattling through the purple distance!

Louder and louder yet, it shrieks and cries as it comes tearing on resistless to the goal: and now its way, still like the way of Death, is strewn with ashes thickly. Everything around is blackened. There are dark pools of water, muddy lanes, and miserable habitations far below. There are jagged walls and falling houses close at hand, and through the battered roofs and broken windows, wretched rooms are seen, where want and fever hide themselves in many wretched shapes, while smoke and crowded gables, and distorted chimneys, and deformity of brick and mortar penning up deformity of mind and body, choke the murky distance. As Mr Dombey looks out of his carriage window, it is never in his thoughts that the monster who has brought him there has let the light of day in on these things: not made or caused them. It was the journey’s fitting end, and might have been the end of everything; it was so ruinous and dreary.

Is the passage too long? Absolutely, and it’s also extraordinary. There’s something breathtaking, audacious, exhilarating, about its resistance to any economy of words: if you removed “every superfluous word” from these pages, there would be nothing left at all.

February Already? A Sabbatical Update

wuthering-oupLast Friday was Munro Day and I almost didn’t notice: usually it’s a highlight of the winter term, a day off right when things are starting to get real and so everyone’s starting to get tired. It’s true that I’ve been tired lately myself, but at least I haven’t had to show up for class! I’m mostly on my usual schedule, because I’m still dropping Maddie off at school, but it has definitely been nice not having to be ready for the day in quite the same way: evenings and weekends aren’t haunted by what’s yet to be done or taken up with prep and grading.

I have been trying to be diligent about my sabbatical projects, however, and though it didn’t always feel that way, I think January ended up being pretty productive. I got right to work following up on ideas for refreshing my reading lists, for example. It really does take time: it’s inevitably kind of haphazard, as not every idea you come up with pans out but at the same time every book you look at or look up can send you off in new directions. Already at times I have felt the urge to never mind and just stick with the tried and true! But persisting has paid off: I’m reasonably certain that I’m going to assign Wuthering Heights as the one 19th-century novel for my Brit Lit survey, though I’m still not sure about whether I’ll put it on the roster for Austen to Dickens.

The_Lost_Child_resize3_USThe survey course isn’t until next winter term so I have plenty of time to keep considering options for which contemporary novel to use. I want something that will play along with the theme of ‘belonging’ and/or be an interesting complement to Wuthering Heights, and with that in mind I’m currently reading Caryl Phillips’s The Lost Child. I’m not liking it very much, though, and having decided (I think) against White Teeth and found Small Island to be unavailable in Canada, I’m feeling discouraged. Is it reasonable or lazy to be thinking that maybe everything doesn’t have to change at once in the course? I didn’t specifically pair up the novels I assigned the last time, so maybe as I’ll be shaking up the short readings as well, I can stick with a 20th-century novel I’m already comfortable with.

I have less time to make final decisions about Women & Detective Fiction, so I’m glad to say I think I am making good progress there. One helpful thing is that I’ve shifted the way I’m thinking about the readings: instead of focusing exclusively (as I have in the past) on a fairly narrow range of subgenres, and even more narrowly, on books with woman detectives. Instead I’m approaching it as if it were called “Women Write Crime” – which seems a fair way to interpret the title and makes room for books that, to put it mildly, go a different way with the genre, such as Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (which does some surprising things with women’s frequent roles as victims or femmes fatales) and Katherena Vermette’s The Break, which is (arguably) not a crime novel but a novel about crime, and especially about indigenous women’s experience of crime and (in)justice. I’m still not 100% sure about The Break (not because I don’t think it’s a very good novel, but because approaching it as crime fiction is not obviously the right thing to do), but I am pretty sure that we’ll read Blanche on the Lam, which will help us focus on both race and class–not just when discussing Neely’s book, but across our readings.

laura-feminist-pressFinally, after trying and not liking a few other hard-boiled / noir options for Pulp Fiction, I think I have settled on Vera Caspary’s Laura to replace The Maltese Falcon. If, as I currently plan to, I also replace Valdez Is Coming with True Grit, that course too will shift its conceptual focus, away from toxic masculinity (which was, I thought, a pretty good unifying theme across the three main texts, culminating in Lord of Scoundrels which both critiques it and offers a fix for it) to something like “women who disrupt expectations” — for which Lord of Scoundrels will also work well. Issues of masculine identity will still come up, of course!

I still have leads I’m following up, including a stack of 19th-century novels any one of which just might change everything! I actually just started Dombey and Son–but I have to say, it is really long and so it would have to be better (IMHO) than Bleak House to earn a spot on my syllabus. I’m not afraid of working through Really Long NovelsTM with my classes, but I have to believe myself that the effort is more than worth it, or I can hardly expect to carry any of them along with me! I’ve browsed Ivanhoe and The Heart of Midlothian and both made my heart sink at the prospect of convincing students to engage with them: yes, Waverley is a hard sell too, but it’s so influential and so funny (OK, not at first, but once you get it), and when it is good, it is so very, very good (the trial scene, just for example) that I’m willing to do the work. In fact, what looking at the other Scott novels has done for me so far is tempt me to put Waverley on the reading list for Austen to Dickens this time around!

Cover2Another sabbatical project of a different kind was to come to terms with the essays I’ve written over the past few years about George Eliot, mostly for Open Letters Monthly but also for the Los Angeles Review of Books and Berfrois. What I mean by “come to terms with” is really “decide what to do about,” but the first phrase captures a bit more of the emotional baggage the essays have come to carry. I loved writing them, and on my 2015 sabbatical I worked mostly on more writing of the same kind, some of which I ultimately pitched unsuccessfully to a couple of publications that run similar pieces, such as The Hudson Review. I naively thought this was the kind of cross-over writing that would bolster my application for promotion–distilling, as it did, decades of academic expertise into publicly accessible forms. But it actually made no positive difference to my case at all (not peer reviewed, you see), as it turns out. Since then, the idea of a revised and expanded collection has also proved completely umarketable: the essays themselves don’t do anything with mass appeal and also–and this is something I honestly hadn’t thought enough about–their standing as previously published material works against them. Yes, there are plenty of essay collections out there that are mostly or even wholly republished material (some of them with not much more popular appeal, in subject and approach, than mine) but in those cases the authors’ famous names make the sale.

Anyway, I have had multiple conversations with people in the publishing industry that all led me to the same conclusion: these essays (however transformed) aren’t going anywhere. Still, it made me sad to think that they would simply languish forever on the margins of the great wilderness of content that is the internet, so I decided I could at least give them a more organized form by collecting and publishing them myself, which I have now done. I edited them all one more time and expanded a couple of them, and I added an introduction. I didn’t add any wholly new essays, though I do have a couple more in the early stages, because the point was to free myself from this material–and, not incidentally, not to create yet more work that would be ineligible for publication elsewhere. I’m not sure if self-publishing this ebook really answers my ongoing question about book projects, but it should help me think about different book projects instead of what I once hoped this material would turn into. I won’t say that self-publishing doesn’t feel in some ways like a failure, and though publishing experts insist the stigma against it has lifted, perhaps it looks to some people like a vanity project. I have fretted over both of these things (I am still fretting!) but clearly I decided to press on, and the essays are now available at both Kobo and Amazon – or directly from me, if anyone asks. (It is not, apparently, possible to upload ePub files to WordPress, so at this point I can’t simply offer a download link here.)

Shawl-First-TrySo, six weeks into my sabbatical, that’s what I’ve done so far. Well, that and make most of a shawl that, over the past few days, I have had to completely unravel because I realized I had been doing one part of the pattern wrong almost since the beginning. As I ready myself to start re-doing it, it’s hard not to think of the process as a metaphor for my other work. Undoing crochet still leaves you with all the yarn, after all: you just have to make something else out of it. It’s very pretty yarn; that seems like grounds for optimism.

“Not This Time!”: Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lam


Men like Nate and women like her were the people, the folks, the mud from which the rest were made. It was their hands and blood and sweat that had built everything, from the North Carolina governor’s mansion to the first stoplight. They ought to have been appreciated for being the wattle that held the walls together. Instead, they were expendable, interchangeable, rarely missed, hardly regarded, easily forgotten. Not this time!

Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam (first published in 1992) is the first of four novels she wrote featuring Blanche White, professional cleaning woman and amateur detective. The series was out of print the last time I taught ‘Women and Detective Fiction’ so although I was aware of its significance in the history of African American crime writing, I didn’t pursue it very far. Now that the books are available again, I thought I should check it out, and I’m glad I did: I think (logistics permitting) I will put Blanche on the Lam on the syllabus. It’s a brisk, entertaining read that is also sharp and self-conscious about the difference race makes to all aspects of the mystery genre, from the literal risks to black Americans in any kind of encounter with the police, to more abstract thematic questions about authority, evidence, and justice.

Blanche begins the novel in trouble for passing bad checks; the judge doesn’t care that she would have been able to cover them if her (white) employers hadn’t gone out of town without paying her on time. Right away, then, both race and class are highlighted. Amidst a disruption at the courthouse, Blanche escapes from custody, and then she takes advantage of the fact that “women like her” are indistinguishable to the wealthy white families they work for to slip into a housekeeping job that takes her–safely, she thinks–out of town for a while. It turns out, however, that she’s traveling right into more trouble, and eventually into real danger. From the start she doesn’t trust her employers, Grace and Everett, especially Everett:

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He was a rich white male. Being in possession of that particular set of characteristics meant a person could do pretty much anything he wanted to do, to pretty much anybody he chose–like an untrained dog chewing and shitting all over the place. Blanche was sure having all that power made many men crazy.

As Blanche tries to figure out what is going on with these two, and with drunken Aunt Emmeline, who is confined to her upstairs bedroom, she learns more about the family from their long-time retainer Nate, who tells her stories about, among other things, how as a child Grace saved him from a roving band of KKK thugs. Although she’s upset at the first suspicious death in the novel, it’s Nate’s subsequent death that makes her particularly determined to bring the murderer to account.

Blanche also befriends and bonds with Grace’s cousin Mumsfield, a young man with Down Syndrome. I expect that his characterization and role will provoke some discussion. For Blanche, the key to their relationship is that neither of them is regarded as fully human by Grace and Everett–or, really, any of the white adults in the story. “She understood,” she thinks, that his condition

made him as recognizably different from the people who ran and owned the world as she. It was this similarity that made him visible to her inner eye and eligible for her concern.


Crucially, in terms of the unfolding mystery, nobody really listens to Mumsfield, and Blanche eventually realizes that she too has not really been paying attention to him even though he has been dropping clues for some time–without himself quite understanding what has actually happened. Blanche feels affection for him and protective of him, but she also wonders how far her identification with him can really go: “For all his specialness and their seeming connectedness, Mumsfield was still a white man.” She is wary of accepting a “mammy” role, serving as a caretaker for someone “whose ancestors had most likely bought and sold her ancestors as though they were shoes or machines.”

I already see a number of ways Blanche on the Lam will connect with–and make us look differently at–other books we’ll probably be reading. For instance, Blanche’s work as a detective has some interesting continuities with Miss Marple, who in her investigations relies on the ways people underestimate her, and on the invisibility that comes with her age. In a similar way, Blanche takes advantage of the access she gets to people’s private spaces and conversations because her race and role in the household make her unimportant to them. Being seen as “the help” is a specific kind of anonymity, insulting to her personally but also a tool she can use, as is the cheerful subservience she puts on as a mask when dealing with racism and snobbery. They both also know their way around a kitchen, and in both cases this “feminine” domesticity can be useful, though at the same time there are important differences in the ways that it defines their identities. The novel is told in close third person: I think it might have been even better in first person, but we get a lot of Blanche’s inner commentary on people and events and her voice still comes across very clearly. Although in this novel they are of necessity at a distance, because she’s in hiding, Blanche’s family and close friends are also important in establishing her character, and another point of connection to Miss Marple is the extent to which “gossip” or intimate storytelling among women is a vital element of the case.

Like other crime writers who emphasize social justice (such as, in this course, Sara Paretsky) Neely is also clear that the resolution of the specific case has done little if anything to fix the larger problems it has highlighted. At the end of the novel Blanche is moving from North Carolina to Boston, but not with any hope that it will be a safe space for her. “It seemed,” she reflects, “that enemy territory was all there was in this country for someone who looked like her.” The satisfaction she finds is individual, not systemic. “She would always be a woman who’d come too close to murder,” she thinks, but

she would also always be a woman who’d fought for her life and won. That woman, no matter how much she’d changed, was still capable of negotiating enemy territory–even without a reference from her most recent employer.

In Brief: Emma Healey, Elizabeth Is Missing

elizabeth-is-missing-1Elizabeth Is Missing gripped me from the first page. It is a poignant, sometimes funny, and often painfully suspenseful novel, not so much because of the mysteries it is structured around–the present puzzle about Maud’s missing friend Elizabeth and the question of what happened to Maud’s sister Sukey in the past–but because I was so anxious on Maud’s behalf. Maud is in her eighties and is just tipping over into senility, or perhaps dementia. Although her recollections of her childhood are vivid and detailed, she is losing her grip on her current everyday reality; everything from going to the store to making toast has become nearly impossible for her, but Maud doesn’t quite know that. So we follow along helplessly as she repeatedly wanders into trouble of one kind or another, in spite of the helpful notes she relies on as prompts and warnings (Coffee helps memoryDon’t cook anythingHaven’t heard from Elizabeth).

Healey does a superb job with Maud’s first-person narration. Her shifts in and out of clarity are subtle, and each time she loses the thread it’s a fresh little shock. She goes to Elizabeth’s house, for instance, looking for signs of her friend’s presence, and then decides to knock on the neighbor’s door to see what he knows. He’s a friendly young fellow with a friendly dog. “He’s just going for the sympathy vote,” says the young man;

“Hoping you’ve got a biscuit on you.”

I begin to look through my bag.

“Oh, no,” he says. “Don’t. We’ve got plenty, he’s just greedy. You’re not a friend of Mum’s, are you? Did you want something?”

“No,” I say. “No. Thank you.”

“Wasn’t it you who knocked?”

“I don’t think so,” I say, walking away.

Maud’s mental confusion is not just a gimmick: it is also integral to the unfolding mystery. Healey weaves the parts together effectively, bringing us closer and closer to understanding even as Maud struggles herself to see how the bits and pieces she is hanging on to and the seemingly random questions that, to everyone else’s annoyance, she just can’t let to of (Where is a good place to plant marrows?) belong together. 513shw2brvdl

The novel’s resolution is not, ultimately, much of a revelation, but it is still satisfying. What I appreciated most about it, and about the book overall, is that everything about it turns on love and loyalty. Elizabeth Is Missing is certainly a clever book, but it is never clever at Maud’s expense. Maud may forget why she went to the store, she may be baffled and annoyed by the interference of her long-suffering daughter Helen, but she knows that it matters what happens to the people we care about, and she knows that when we are worried about someone we should not stop trying to help them. The novel is suffused with tenderness, especially (though we see this only indirectly) Helen’s for her faltering mum. It’s the scenes between the two of them that will linger with me the longest. At one point Maud has wandered away from home and Helen, following, rests with her at a bus shelter. “How did you get this?” Maud asks, noticing a bruise on Helen’s wrist that she doesn’t remember was her own doing.

“It doesn’t matter,” she says.

“It matters to me. You’re my daughter. If you’re hurt, it matters to me. I love you very much.”

She stares at me for a moment and I worry I haven’t used the right words, and then I feel a sudden exhaustion.

Prompted by her companion, Maud sits down to rest and then turns “to say something to the woman who is sitting next to me, but tears are running down her cheeks. . . . I don’t know what to do to help her. I can’t work out who she is.” She struggles to figure out what’s wrong, and then the woman looks away and then looks back. “It’s Helen,” Maud realizes; “I’ve been sitting in a bus shelter with her, not knowing who she was.” There is relief in that recognition, in that restoration of identity, but there is also so much sorrow. The tragic story Maud recovers is better known–the truth itself matters, for love and for justice. There’s little comfort to be had, though, for Maud’s own encroaching tragedy with its inevitable end.