“The Doctor Drinks His Tea”: Taking a Time Out with Trollope

doctor-thorne-adaptation2When I visited my parents in Vancouver last May, one of the many nice things we did was watch the recent adaptation of Doctor Thorne. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Trollope (like Austen) adapts very well–much better, in my opinion, than Dickens or George Eliot, the brilliance of whose fiction lies so much in the narrator’s voice and in the other very written qualities of their novels that (for me) adaptations almost always seem inadequate.

It has been many years since I read Doctor Thorne: I think it was in 2002 or thereabouts that I read straight through both the complete Barsetshire series and all of the Palliser novels. What I remember most about that experience is how after a while you just accept the pace of Trollope’s fiction, and how complete and engrossing his world becomes–as Nathaniel Hawthorne said, it  seems “as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting they were made a show of.”

the-wardenThe very qualities that make Trollope such a pleasure to read, though, also make him a bit challenging to teach. The thing about people just “going about their daily business” is that often not much is really happening–there’s not much action, or at least not much dramatic action. To put it another way, the action and the drama in Trollope are often internal, and usually subtle: the characters puzzle through personal and moral problems in infinite shades of grey, rather than the more “glaring colours” of a writer like Dickens (that’s Trollope’s own characterization of Dickens’s method, from the parody of him as “Mr. Popular Sentiment” in The Warden). Given that Trollope’s novels are mostly also quite long, there’s a significant risk that students’ reaction will be boredom: pressed for time as they are, and unaccustomed to fiction that rolls out quite so slowly, they can struggle to find pleasure or interest in the process.

barchester-towersThat, at least, has been my experience with Barchester Towers, which I have tried in my standard 19th-century fiction class a couple of times. I’ve had somewhat better reactions to The Warden, which is delightful (if odd) and also short. He Knew He Was Right was a surprise hit in my undergraduate seminar on the ‘Woman Question,’ though I’ve never dared try to replicate that success; The Eustace Diamonds went just okay (as I recall) when I assigned it in a graduate seminar.

I bring up teaching because by and large I only reread 19th-century fiction these days for work. Much as I liked the Doctor Thorne adaptation, I didn’t rush back to that or any other Trollope novel. One reason is that my non-work reading is a zero sum game and when there are so many other novels (including other classic novels) I want to read for the first time, rereading seems (perhaps oddly) kind of wasteful. Another is that when I’m reading “just” for pleasure there’s always, in the back of my mind, the distracting hum of other things I need to get to, and so I too can get restless taking a leisurely stroll in Trollope’s world: I start looking around and lose the rhythm.

new-oxford-doctor-thorneIt was the longing to get away from just those humming distractions that sent me back to Doctor Thorne last week: not just my own to-do list, but the overwhelming clatter and clutter of the rest of the world. Especially on the news and on social media, what a constant clamor of catastrophes there is, big and small, near and far away, with everything from Can Lit to the CDC in crisis, all demanding attention, all generating takes and counter-takes in an unceasing cascade of anger, fear, and weaponized self-righteousness–much of it wholly justified, but all of it eventually exhausting. It’s all very well to advise simply “unplugging,” but even setting aside the obligation we might have to be informed citizens of both our personal and our political worlds, for me there’s a lot of good mixed in with the bad–a lot of people and issues I don’t want to lose contact with or miss insight into.

What I needed was an alternative reality to visit for a while, a place where there’s room for nuance and indecision and confusion over competing and seemingly incompatible goods; where not knowing exactly what to do is a strength, not a weakness; where, above all, there’s time to spend thinking things through. Trollope’s Barsetshire is just such a place. Most of its people are decent, kind, and loving, but they’re often imperfect, as are their circumstances. There are villains in Barsetshire, but usually they aren’t so bad; even when they do irreparable harm, it’s more often out of flawed humanity than real malevolence.


There’s a chapter in Doctor Thorne called “The Doctor Drinks His Tea.” The chapter title alone epitomizes the small scale of Trollopian drama! But of course it’s not just about the doctor’s tea, though he does knock back a fair amount of it (six “jorums” by the end). It’s actually about his struggle to decide what to do about the possibility that his beloved niece will inherit a fortune. How could that be a bad thing? Well, for lots of reasons, from Doctor Thorne’s uneasy knowledge that the relevant will was made without knowing Mary’s true identity to his longstanding view “that of all the vile objects of a man’s ambition, wealth, wealth merely for its own sake, was the vilest.” But what about wealth for Mary’s sake? Would he be right to “fling away the golden chance which might accrue to his niece”? “After all,” he remarks to Mary, apropos (as far as she knows) of nothing in particular,

“money is a fine thing.”

“Very fine, when it is well come by,” she answered; “that is, without detriment to the heart or soul.”

Mary, it seems, is immune to the lure of “wealth merely for its own sake,” but what else might be the consequences of such an upset to her life, and their life together, the doctor can hardly imagine. And so for the moment he does nothing in particular, not because he doesn’t care but because he cares too much to risk doing the wrong thing. Virtue, in Trollope’s world, is a process as  much as a product; what makes Doctor Thorne the hero of his novel is less any specific action that he takes than his determination to act with integrity. Then there’s Mary herself–smart, proud, and loving–and Frank Gresham, who grows from being “an arrant puppy, and an egregious ass” (“but then, it must be remembered in his favour that he was only twenty-one”) into a resolute, principled man who not only loves her but deserves her. There is not a moment of doubt from the beginning to the end of the novel about how things will turn out–but that certainty makes the twists and turns of the journey all the more enjoyable.

I’ve been thinking since I finished rereading Doctor Thorne that right now the real world seems to be dominated by those “glaring” and surreal Dickensian colors–certainly by a glaringly Dickensian villain. I think that’s one reason it gets so exhausting. Of course, Dickens offers us salvation, too, or rather he reminds us that it lies within our own hearts (“Dear readers,” he concludes Hard Times, “it rests with you and me…”). Trollope’s world offers some welcome respite from the noise and the glare, but in his quiet way he makes the same point: the real world is what we make it. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make it a little more like Barsetshire! In the meantime, at least we can take a time out there and come back soothed by its charm, moderation, and fundamental optimism.

Posted in Personal, Trollope, Anthony | 5 Comments

This Week In My Classes: Men, Mopes, and Munro Day

valdezBoth of my classes are focusing a lot on masculinity right now, particularly on representations of or challenges to ideas of masculine heroism.

In Pulp Fiction, we’re working our way through Valdez Is Coming. Valdez epitomizes a certain kind of Western hero: he is a man of few words, a man whose actions speak for him, whose principles are hard for him to articulate but are nonetheless non-negotiable for him. Leonard really emphasizes, though, that living up to his principles is not a no-brainer for Valdez, who often seems a bit frustrated with his own compulsion to do what he thinks is right. “What do you need besides this?”he wonders, sitting with the horse-breaker Diego Luz listening to Diego’s children play around the house:

To have a place, a family. Very quiet except for the children sometimes, and no trouble. No Apaches. No bandits raiding from across the border. Trees and water and a good house.

But he doesn’t stay put: he goes back again to Mr. Tanner, the man who instigated the situation that led to Valdez shooting an innocent man, the man Valdez needs to persuade to go along with his plan to provide restitution to the dead man’s wife. “I’m talking about what’s fair,” he tells Mr. Tanner, a seemingly simple statement that says everything about the difference between them.

Valdez doesn’t particularly want to be a tough guy: he doesn’t go to Tanner’s seeking a confrontation, though it’s clear to him by this point that he’s going to get one. He is resolute, and once the conflict begins he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to win it, but I find it interesting that Leonard makes it seem like an act of will, not an inevitability, as if to say that being such a man is a difficult but necessary choice. That puts the novel’s less principled characters (like the miserable mope R. L. Davis) in a worse light, because they aren’t just weak (Valdez too has weaknesses) but choose their weaknesses (including moral weakness) over real strength, including moral strength.

Valdez is a somewhat reluctant hero. He doesn’t ride into the novel like a man on a mission–at first, he’s just a man doing his job, and he’s not even that committed to his job:

He didn’t have to say here. He didn’t have to be a town constable. He didn’t have to work for the stage company. He didn’t have to listen to Mr. Beaudry and Mr. Malson and smile when they said those things. He didn’t have a wife or kids. He didn’t have land that he owned. He could go anywhere he wanted.

ladyaudleyOnce he faces injustice, though, and especially once he’s felt the full force of Tanner’s malicious bullying, he becomes the unrelenting agent of retribution he needs to be. In that sense he’s an interesting parallel to Robert Audley, whom we are currently discussing in Victorian Sensations. When his novel begins, he just wants to laze around Fig Tree Court and read French novels and not be bothered; like Valdez, he’s forced out of his relative placidity by an injustice he can’t leave unaddressed. The morality of Robert’s mission is murkier, though: what exactly the stakes are in his pursuit of the truth about Lady Audley is something we’re discussing a lot at the moment. It’s true he believes she has murdered his best friend, but he often seems more concerned about the pain her presumed duplicity will cause his uncle than anything else.

Also like Valdez, Robert Audley is not 100% committed to his quest for justice–again, at least at first. We talked this week about his initial lack of interest in “being a man,” from his general indolence to his indifference to his besotted cousin, who keeps throwing herself at him. Robert Audley starts the novel as a mope, albeit a charming and good-hearted one, and only his strong bond with the mysteriously vanished George Talboys eventually stimulates him to principled action and self-assertion. It’s a bit hard to tell if the newly amped-up Robert is supposed to be truly heroic or whether Braddon is poking fun at him, especially when he starts ranting about how much he hates women for always causing so much trouble:ingres-joan-of-arc

They don’t know what it is to be quiet. They are Semiramides, and Cleopatras, and Joan of Arcs, Queen Elizabeths and Catherine the Seconds, and they riot in battle, and murder, and clamour, and desperation. If they can’t agitate the universe and play at ball with hemispheres, they’ll make mountains of warfare and vexation out of domestic molehills; and social storms in household teacups. . . . They’re bold, brazen, abominable creatures, invented for the annoyance and destruction of their superiors. Look at this business of poor George’s! It’s all woman’s work from one end to the other.

Robert’s maturation into a responsible adult is certainly the result of women’s interference with his privileged do-nothing existence. They may end up making a man of him, but he clearly resents it, and one way of reading the ending of the novel is that he gets his revenge–which may or may not be heroic, depending on how you read the rest of the novel, especially Lady Audley herself.

My personal hero this week is George Munro, patron saint of Dalhousie’s much-appreciated February long weekend. It has been a tough couple of weeks of bad weather and frayed nerves, so I am happy to have no classes tomorrow. I have tests to mark and reading to do, but neither of these tasks requires me to venture out in the snow.

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In the Gallery: A Study in Contrasts

Maud Lewis WindowWe are enjoying a nice snow-free interlude in Halifax this weekend so I thought I should make the most of it and actually go do something today (besides the grocery shopping, which is my standard Saturday chore). I settled on a trip to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, where I haven’t been in many years.

The AGNS is probably best known (especially since the release of Maudie) for its Maud Lewis collection, which includes her improbably tiny and delightfully colorful house–yes, the entire house:

Charming and joyful as the house is, with all its vibrant colours and free-spirited florals, it is hard to imagine two people actually living in it: it looks like a playhouse when you first see it, and at about 12′ x 12′ it is about the size of a single room in most contemporary homes.

Lewis was a folk artist and her work is bright and simple and unsophisticated. I find it cheering but also fairly uninteresting:

It has a childlike quality to it that is particularly endearing, for me anyway, in her cartoon-like animals:

While these creatures amuse me and the landscapes charm me, nothing about Lewis’s work engages me deeply: I have no urge to linger over it. I suppose that’s consistent with its naive or primitive style–it’s not supposed to be layered or sophisticated. Still, just as a matter of personal taste, I prefer art that’s more complex and less cute. The Maud Lewis gallery has a lot of personality, but its interest for me is not really aesthetic.

Also in the AGNS (but only until January 28, so I am very glad I went when I did) is an exhibit called “Centuries of Silence: the Discovery of the Salzinnes Antiphonal.” This is a completely different experience: intellectually and historically fascinating, and aesthetically thrilling.

The Salzinnes Antiphonal is a 16th-century manuscript that was discovered in the library of Saint Mary’s University here in Halifax. It has been painstakingly restored and is displayed along with a fine and thoughtful collection of related materials, including portraits of some of the abbesses who presided over the Abbey of Salzinnes in Belgium at the time of its creation:

The volume itself has stunning full-page illustrations:

The music has been recreated in modern notation and recorded; as you explore the exhibit its ethereal, otherworldly beauty surrounds, calms, and inspires you.

The exhibit includes other works of art collected by the Archbishop who was most likely responsible for bringing the Antiphonal to Halifax; paintings of and records from the Abbey that was its source and original home (including three 16th-century papal bulls); a video demonstrating the process of creating an object so beautiful and lasting, from preparing the vellum to layering in the gold leaf; and these hand-sewn recreations of the nuns’ habits, a project by a student in Dalhousie’s Costume Studies program:

I found it all fascinating, as you can probably tell! Though the Antiphonal is in some ways quite an imposing object, and though of course the original volume, though on display, is inaccessible behind its protective glass, still in its own way it felt every bit as intimate as Maud Lewis’s house. The illustrations, reproductions of which are displayed on the walls, have many details that personalize them, reminding us that this work too was done by very human hands.

It was a nice afternoon, especially rounded off with tea and a browse at the Halifax Central Library. I should get out more–and weather permitting, I will!

Posted in Halifax, Personal | 4 Comments

“Things That Happen In the World”: Ali Smith, Autumn


What pictures? Pictures of what? her mother said.

Things. Things that happen in the world, Elizabeth said. A sunflower. A man with a machine gun like out of a gangster film. A factory. A Russian-looking politician. An owl, an exploding airship —

Ali Smith’s Autumn seemed incoherent to me, though artfully so. It is composed of many pieces, some of which fit together in the orderly way we expect of a novel, with interconnected characters moving forwards (and sometimes backwards) through a shared plot, but other sections don’t belong to that plot, or they are related to it tangentially or associatively; instead of completing the picture, they add color or shape or contrast or interest of their own.

There’s a lot of attention to collages within the more conventional narrative parts of the novel, and it occurred to me after a while that Autumn was designed to be collage-like itself. After hearing her friend Daniel describe a work that we later learn is by the British Pop artist Pauline Boty, the novel’s main character Elisabeth, then a child, comments, “I like the idea of the blue and pink together”:

Pink lace. Deep blue pigment, Daniel said.

I like that maybe you could touch the pink, if it was made of lace, I mean, and it would feel different from the blue.

Oh, that’s good, Daniel said. That’s very good.

“Today I myself particularly like the ship,” Daniel adds; “The galleon with the sails up.” Juxtaposition brings out texture; our own interest and attention vary and need different provocations at different times. These both seem like ideas that illuminate the process of Autumn itself.

autumn-2-coverWhat did “I myself particularly like” in Autumn? I liked the meticulous descriptions of the landscape as it changes with the season:

October’s a blink of the eye. The apples weighing down the tree a minute ago are gone and the tree’s leaves are yellow and thinning. A frost has snapped millions of trees all across the country into brightness. The ones that aren’t evergreen are a combination of beautiful and tawdry, red orange gold the leaves, then brown, and down.

I liked Elisabeth’s unruly mother, especially her timely and heartfelt outburst:

I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. . . . I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to or not.

I liked the riff on “things from the past” accumulating and spilling out across the nation. I liked learning about Pauline Boty. I liked Elisabeth and Daniel a lot. I liked the nods to Dickens, beginning with the opening line (“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times”). I liked reading the more fantastical, dream-like bits–but those are also the parts that most frustrated my desire to make collective sense of what I was reading.

offillI liked all of these parts and more about the novel, and yet while I could find a lot more examples to quote with pleasure or admiration, I don’t know quite how to talk about or conceptualize the novel as a whole, and that leaves me somewhat frustrated with it overall. I trusted Smith’s bricolage more than that of some other more fragmented novels I’ve read in recent years (Jenny Offil’s Department of Speculation, for instance, or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, neither of which I actually enjoyed much at all). I think that’s because there’s a stronger narrative thread running through Autumn, and it gives a deeper grounding in its central characters while still (especially in Daniel’s case) leaving them somewhat opaque or enigmatic. There was enough in Autumn for a reader like me to enjoy in my usual way, though Smith clearly wants to do something more, or something other, than that.

I’ve been thinking lately (not without some anxiety, to be honest) that my reading taste and habits are hopelessly conventional, mainstream, middlebrow–choose your poisonous label! I don’t seek out experimental fiction or make my critical home in some interesting and underpopulated niche, whether literature in translation or obscure mid-century novelists of the NYRB Classics kind. This is a disadvantage for someone trying to define a critical voice or personality: what (I wonder in my bleaker moments) if I don’t really have such a thing? But then I remind myself that it’s OK just to read as well as you can, and that besides, I can’t become a reader I’m not (though of course it’s good to question and challenge my own taste). It’s a bit disconcerting to think that Autumn, which is hardly a fringe work, is very nearly outside my comfort zone. For all the things I liked about it, I admit I do not feel inspired to follow up with Winter.

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This Week In My Classes: Counts, Cowboys, and Critics

I have to stop putting pressure on myself to make these update posts more than they have to be. When I started doing this, all I had in mind was opening up my classroom to anyone curious to know more about what English professors actually get up to–rather than fulminating against what they imagine we’re doing. The reality is both more mundane and (I think, anyway) more inspirational than people who think we should “ALL be flushed down the toilet” believe. I thought I could at least illustrate this widely misrepresented aspect of my professional life–the day to day (or at least week by week) effort I make to guide students towards being better (more thoughtful, more experienced, better informed) readers and writers–while also giving a sense of the kinds of books we read in my own classes and the kinds of discussions we have about them.

A lot of what I’ve written in this series is more or less straight reportage along those lines but then I began writing posts with more of a conceptual angle, and that seemed to raise the stakes. I still hope to do that, and often that’s actually what generates the teaching posts I look back on with the most satisfaction–but sometimes I just don’t have anything that profound to say! Lately that has made me hesitate about posting at all, and then I end up missing it. I like the process of it: as usual, I need to stop fretting so much about the product and just get on with it.

So, without more ado, here are some updates on my classes this week!

In Pulp Fiction we have just begun our discussions of Elmore Leonard’s Valdez Is Coming. I still feel as if I’m doing a lot of preparatory work in this class–maybe too much, I thought today, as I went on and on about issues of terminology and then the methods of close reading until by the time I actually tried to get the students involved in doing some close reading, they didn’t have much energy. That’s my fault: lesson learned! I also felt off my game the whole class: I was well prepared, in theory anyway, but the things I had planned to say didn’t come out that coherently, and once I started worrying about that and second-guessing myself, of course it just got harder to keep my focus! Self-consciousness is indeed, as Carlyle said, the beginning of disease: when things are going well I’m just absorbed in the discussion, with none of this meta-level anxiety. Of course, who really knows if that means I’m doing a better job then–or that today’s class really was in some way worse than usual! It was probably fine, and there are lots more chances to make up for it if it wasn’t.

I thought the discussion was a bit stuttering in Victorian Sensations this morning too–maybe that’s what set me up for my unease in the afternoon! We’ve been having very lively discussions of The Woman in White, but today was the first of our sessions focused on ‘critical approaches’: we read a selection of contemporary reviews, then a couple of modern critical essays, one from 1977 and one from 2006. My idea is that over the term these classes will add up to a mini-seminar in critical trends, though I haven’t chosen the readings that systematically–I just want us to engage with a range of different kinds of critical approaches and see how the conversation about these books has changed over time. That kind of meta-critical conversation is not as easy or familiar as talking directly about Marian’s subversion of gender norms or Count Fosco and the mysterious Brotherhood–and students understandably seemed less certain where or how to jump in. As always, a couple of students brought in discussion prompts for us, and these were very good. Next time I’m going to prepare a bit differently myself–particularly for the 19th-century material, which is (as we discussed) more diffuse and–to students more accustomed to working with very focused and analytical modern scholarship–more difficult to recognize or engage with as criticism, because the apparatus is much less explicit.

Friday is a very student-centered day: in Victorian Sensations we have our first group presentation, and I’m looking forward to that, as there’s usually so much intelligence and creativity on display, and then in Pulp Fiction it’s tutorials, which this week will be focused on a close reading activity.

I haven’t had much marking yet, beyond the reading journals I collect in random clusters in Pulp Fiction. That will change soon, though, and more generally I can already feel the term picking up speed. Next week we have Friday off for Munro Day, then it’s not long until Reading Week–and then it will feel like a mad rush to April and exams. But for now, it’s just one foot in front of the other. And that’s what’s up this week in my classes!

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This Week In My Classes: Winter, Westerns, and The Woman in White

It’s week 2 of the winter term and things haven’t quite settled into a routine yet. One cause is my pet peeve, the too-long add-drop period: students are still joining my classes (which they can do online without so much as checking in with me first) even though they’ve already met four times each. The ripple effects of this are pretty significant for both instructors and students–but clearly we are never going to persuade the administrative Powers That Be (who are quite as inscrutable as their namesakes in Angel) that this system is pedagogically unsound, so I should probably stop complaining about it.

The other unsettling factor is winter, which has taken on its more accustomed form this week: after several spells of either fiercely cold (but dry) days and unseasonably warm (but very rainy) days, last night we had our first real dump of snow, and there’s more in the forecast for tomorrow. I am so happy that next winter term I’ll be on sabbatical! And the winter term after that (amazingly enough) I will no longer be chauffeuring Maddie to high school, so I will have much more flexibility about exactly when I venture out in the morning.

However! These various sources of stress aside, the business of the term is underway and really, as far as I can tell, it’s actually going pretty smoothly so far. In Pulp Fiction I’m done with warm-up material and we’ve started our unit on Westerns. Yesterday was mostly about context–the history and myth of the American West and the origins and conventions of the Western. The reading I assigned was Sherman Alexie’s “My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys”: from the discussion we had, and from the reading journals the students submitted, most of them seem to have found his critique and subversion of Western tropes engaging and thought-provoking. It’s also a good text for introducing the importance of point of view, which we’ll want to be self-conscious about throughout the term. Tomorrow we’ll be talking about Dorothy Johnson’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” which has many elements of a classic western but takes some unexpected turns. We’ll work through two more short stories before starting our main text, Valdez Is Coming, next week. So far the energy seems good in the classroom: I really hope that persists, as last year I really struggled to get much participation. It’s a lot more fun for everyone when the discussion is lively, and as I’ve been really emphasizing in my own comments so far, English is a discussion-based discipline (yes, I’m going to bring up “coduction” eventually), so talking and listening are also key ways to hone the relevant skills.

In Victorian Sensations we are also done with our warm-up material, though there was less of it there as it’s a 4th-year class. I set things up for the term with one lecture on “the rise of the novel” and some specific features of sensation fiction. This year there are a lot of students in the seminar who have taken at least one of my 19th-century fiction courses, which means some of this was review for them, but a little reinforcement never hurts, and this brings those without that previous experience in the genre up to speed. With that preliminary work out of the way, we’ve begun our discussions of The Woman in White. What a lot of fun the novel is! I haven’t taught it (and thus haven’t reread it) since 2012, and I am reveling in its twists and turns and excesses and absurdities, from Walter’s pathetic pining after Laura–the perfect and, as students quickly concluded, perfectly dull representative of ideal Victorian womanhood–to her indomitable half-sister Marian–Magnificant Marian, as the effusively charming and sinister Count Fosco calls her. Here too the energy seems good so far, with plenty of people already chiming in: this is not just desirable but essential in a seminar, of course, so I’m glad to see it. I really enjoy the more open-ended style of a seminar class–although I find it takes every bit as much concentration, and is every bit as tiring, as a lecture class precisely because I’m not as much in control of where the discussion goes but I have to be very responsive to it.

So here we are: well launched on another season. There are administrative wheels turning as well, which means meetings and paperwork, and I hope to get some writing done in the interstices, but even more, right now, I hope to get some better reading done–besides the reading I’m doing for class, of course. I’ve just started Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, which looks just about perfect for this time of term.

Posted in This Week In My Classes | 2 Comments

Reading and “Spots of Commonness”

Among our valued friends is there not some one or other who is a little too self-confident and disdainful; whose distinguished mind is a little spotted with commonness; who is a little pinched here and protuberant there with native prejudices; or whose better energies are liable to lapse down the wrong channel under the influence of transient solicitations? (George Eliot, Middlemarch)

My book club met on Sunday to discuss Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. We all basically really enjoyed it: we found it funny and sharp and yet also just serious and touching enough to be anchored in believably human feelings about the kind of deception and betrayal that not only ends a marriage but taints its happiest memories. Towards the end of the novel its narrator Rachel recalls being asked why she turns everything into a story:

So I told her why:

Because if I tell the story, I control the version.

Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.

Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.

What a lot of truth about stories, about laughter, and about life is packed into those few lines!

I liked a lot of things about Heartburn: the laugh-out-loud comedy, the book’s clever plotting, the ring Mark gives Rachel that comes to symbolize her stolen and then freely relinquished relationship with him. “I love the ring,” Rachel says to the jeweler she sells it back to, “but it really doesn’t go with my life.” I especially liked the cooking. I too consider potatoes a comfort food–though I had never thought to connect potatoes with love quite the way Rachel does. (Her recipe for Potatoes Anna sounds particularly delicious, but it also sounds like more trouble than I’m ever likely to go to.)

There was one thing in the novel that I didn’t like. When Rachel’s friend Richard tells her that his wife Helen has fallen in love with another woman, Rachel figures it would be a mistake “for me to have introduced the word ‘dyke’ into the conversation,” but then Richard introduces it himself and they go back and forth about how you can “tell if someone’s a dyke” or whether “all women have tendencies of that sort.” It seemed to me as I read this section that it was a mistake for Ephron to have “introduced the word ‘dyke,'” and then to have kept on using it. I blame Ephron (not Rachel or Richard) for it because I don’t see any reason to read it as a “tell” of some kind about the characters: there’s no sense that this is a moment in which (as in one of Browning’s dramatic monologues, for instance) they give away more than they mean to about themselves; there’s no implicit narrative judgment, no distancing irony, no self-conscious scare-quotes, nothing that would make this other than what it sounds like, that is, the casual deployment of a homophobic slur by two characters we’re supposed to like.

Some members of my book club wondered if “dyke” would have been meant or heard as derogatory in 1983: if not, my negative reaction would be anachronistic. I was pretty sure it wasn’t, but I did poke around in a few sources that confirmed “dyke” was basically always an insult, though the term has of course also been reclaimed as a positive one–as in the “dykes vs. divas” softball game that is a well-known feature of Halifax’s annual Pride Festival. I don’t think Rachel and Richard are engaging in any such subversive recalibration of the word (and it wouldn’t be their business to do so in any case), and I don’t think Ephron is either. She just strikes a wrong note here–she betrays what George Eliot calls in Lydgate a “spot of commonness.”

This exchange takes up less than half a page in a scene that is fairly incidental to the novel as a whole. The insignificance of it by that measure got me thinking about cut-off points for my tolerance of this kind of–what should I call it? a failure? a blot? a slip? When or why do we shrug off something that we recognize as a lapse, something that signals a gap between our own values or standards and those on display in a book–and when or why do we find it too much to take? It sometimes feels as if we are in a particularly absolute phase right now in this respect. I’ve seen some recent books written off entirely by some readers for their insensitivity on a particular point–one example that comes to mind is Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game, which was roundly criticized for its characters’ fat-shaming. I’m not in any way suggesting the fat-shaming is OK; I’m wondering about how we decide the extent to which such a “spot of commonness” affects our judgment of the book as a whole. When do we say “it’s a good book except for X ” and when do we say “it just isn’t a good book because of X”?

The extremes are easy. Gone with the Wind, for instance, doesn’t just include a couple of incidentally offensive bits: as I wrote in my 2010 essay about it, the novel “endorses racism and romanticizes slavery.”  But so many books include but (arguably, at least) aren’t actually built on problematic views or attitudes: some examples in books or authors I generally like a lot include the anti-Catholicism in Villette, for example, or the occasional anti-Semitism in Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L. Sayers, or Dickens’s annoying tendency to either vilify or idealize women, or the racist caricature of Miss Swartz in Vanity Fair (here’s a thoughtful little piece by John Sutherland on Thackeray’s racism). One approach is to read every such “small” example as indicative of wider and cumulatively unforgivable systems of prejudice and oppression and condemn the books accordingly as complicit. I think that is true about the big picture but not very helpful about specific cases: symptoms of even the worst diseases can range from mild to severe, after all, and sometimes a book’s own moral energy can be part of what makes its moral failings stand out so urgently.

I expect we all handle moments of disappointment with a book in our own way: we all probably have our own particular issues on which we allow no compromise, as well as our own degrees of tolerance for “spots of commonness” in cases where (as Eliot intends with Lydgate) the good, in our estimation, outweighs the bad.  This means being clear-eyed about faults, not excusing or ignoring them, but also not letting them set the entire terms of our engagement. For me, the more I otherwise admire a book–the more I think it deserves and repays a thoughtful response–the more effort I’m willing to put into weighing the implications of its flaws. The risk, of course, is that I might end up making excuses for them, but we all also probably have books for which we are willing to take that risk because they mean so much to us and we want to do our best by them. I’m certainly not going to go to that kind of trouble with Heartburn: I mostly enjoyed it, I almost certainly won’t reread it, and that’s an end of it.

Posted in Ethical criticism, Nora Ephron | 10 Comments