This Week in My Classes: Contact Hours

One of my goals for this term was to increase the amount of direct contact between me and my students. One step towards that goal was my (re)introduction of seminar groups into my 3rd-year “lecture” class on the Victorian novel. It’s not a straight lecture class: hostile media reports to the contrary, I know no professors who literally only lecture, and in English, some degree of back-and-forth with the class is, I’m confident, 100% the norm in every class. English is not a fact-finding discipline at heart, after all: though we need to teach vocabulary, provide contexts, and model interpretation, the overall goal is students who can think and write their own way through the course material. My Victorian novels classes are probably pretty typical, in that sometimes I do hold forth for most of the 50 minute session, especially when introducing new material, but most often I gather ideas from the class and return them reorganized, or challenge them, or complicate them, or offer illustrative examples for them. The classes are capped at 40 and are usually full (this term, Barchester Towers seems to have scared a few away during the last bit of the add-drop period, and we are down to 34, which is an atypically small group). In a class that size you can get quite a bit of student involvement, but it’s still not possible to hear from everyone or to give everyone’s ideas a lot of sustained attention. And the more I talk specifically to a student, the more I find that student engages and learns. So I’ve broken them up into two groups, one meeting basically every Friday while the other had a dedicated reading hour (Friday afternoons–yes, I’m positive they will all use that hour to go to the library, definitely!).

We had our first small group session last Friday, and I was extremely encouraged about the plan: it went great! Although it was clear that many of them were not falling in love with Barchester Towers (the word ‘dry’ was used!!), the discussion was very lively and did not require a lot of intervention from me to keep it going. It was great to hear what they were thinking about and responding to, and to have a chance to steer them from observation to analysis in a more immediate way. Some students were particularly keen on the Stanhopes–one said that they had “saved” the novel for her by livening it up just as she was worrying that it would be all dull clergymen all the time (I’m paraphrasing loosely, but that seemed to be the gist of it). I am so fond of Mr Harding and the Archdeacon that I admit I hadn’t been focusing that intently on the Stanhopes (except the Signora, of course) but it’s quite right that they bring a degree of informality into the book, as well as a careless cosmopolitanism that does break up the intense provincialism of the other characters. That very looseness of theirs enables some key developments in the plot (for instance, it’s the Signora’s interference, improper as it is from some perspectives, that finally gets Eleanor and Arabin together), so that was a great place to take the discussion. The general topic I had settled on as the focus of the session was the women of Barchester Towers, as in the first lecture meetings our focus was primarily on the men and their ‘parties.’ Eleanor was not a great favorite! I guess she is rather dull at first. I hope by the time she boxes Mr Slope’s ears, they were giving her more credit.

So that’s one way I am changing things up. I’m doing something quite different in my Close Reading class that turns out to be another way of increasing direct contact, although that isn’t exactly how I’d thought of it–and that’s regular homework. We have tutorial groups already in Close Reading, as it is a skills-oriented course and supposed to include plenty of hands-on, collaborative, and consultative time. Because of that hands-on emphasis and my previous experience when reading assignments are light that students rather blow off class preparation (sure, you can breeze through a sonnet while waiting for the classroom to open and be ready to go, right? wrong! especially, though not exclusively, when it’s a Donne sonnet!)–because of those features of the class, and because for the first time I’m using an actual textbook that includes question sets and practice exercises, I thought it made sense to assign specific things to get done before each class, usually fairly simple questions that apply the current topic (say, meter and scansion, or figurative language, or poetic structure) to select texts. I actually called it ‘homework’ in the syllabus and have been feeling kind of self-conscious about that; I even acknowledged to the class that I know that terminology sounds a bit high schoolish. But I also stressed that all the homework does is make tangible what would be my expectation anyway, namely that they would actually work on the material before class, and practice applying what they have learned.

The thing is, I have graded four sets now, and to my surprise (I expected to find it tedious) I quite like the experience of it, precisely because it does put me in contact with the students so often and in such a non-threatening way (well, non-threatening to me, at least). The homework sets are not “worth” a lot each (2%), and as long as they are responsibly completed, I’m giving them full marks: it’s not about deducting points for scanning it wrong or calling something “anaphora” when it’s not. The point is I can see their work, see how they are doing, what they get and what they don’t, and give them prompt feedback. I can also see who’s doing the work and who’s not, and as the evidence about this accumulates, I’ll use it to nudge the slackers, because I bet there will be a strong correlation between doing the weekly work for the class and doing well in the class! It’s not like I haven’t given regular small assignments of one kind or another in a lot of classes. Often they are in the form of discussion questions and reading responses, or in-class writing starts, or reading journals (which is what these homework assignments will become when we have finished our time with the textbook). It’s just that these exercises feel very straightforward, both in their relationship to the course objectives and in terms of my interaction with them: they are about practising, for them, and about coaching, for me. I hope that getting that kind of personal feedback, even on such a small scale, will help them feel connected to me and to the work we are doing: as they see that I do go over their homework and use it to prompt them towards better work, I hope they won’t see it as “busywork” but as a meaningful, if minute, interaction between us.

We Are All Mr. Harding

Substitute, say, “education or technology” for “politics or religion,” and doesn’t this sound familiar?

“New men are carrying out new measures and are carting away the useless rubbish of past centuries!” What cruel words these had been; and how often are they now used with all the heartless cruelty of a Slope! A man is sufficiently condemned if it can only be shown that either in politics or religion he does not belong to some new school established within the last score of years. He may then regard himself as rubbish and expect to be carted away. A man is nothing now unless he has within him a full appreciation of the new era, an era in which it would seem that neither honesty nor truth is very desirable, but in which success is the only touchstone of merit. We must laugh at everything that is established. Let the joke be ever so bad, ever so untrue to the real principles of joking; nevertheless we must laugh — or else beware the cart. We must talk, think, and live up to the spirit of the times, and write up to it too, if that cacoethes be upon us, or else we are nought. New men and new measures, long credit and few scruples, great success or wonderful ruin, such are now the tastes of Englishmen who know how to live. Alas, alas! Under such circumstances Mr. Harding could not but feel that he was an Englishman who did not know how to live. This new doctrine of Mr. Slope and the rubbish cart, new at least at Barchester, sadly disturbed his equanimity.

That’s a little snippet from Chapter XIII of Barchester Towers. Poor Mr. Harding: he just wants to be left alone to enjoy his quiet life and be a generally good person. Is that too much to ask? And yet in true Trollopian fashion, the answer is not as easy as we’d like, as Mr. Harding himself is sadly aware:

Had he in truth so lived as to be now in his old age justly reckoned as rubbish fit only to be hidden away in some huge dust-hole? The school of men to whom he professes to belong, the Grantlys, the Gwynnes, and the old high set of Oxford divines, are afflicted with no such self-accusations as these which troubled Mr. Harding. They, as a rule, are as satisfied with the wisdom and propriety of their own conduct as can be any Mr. Slope, or any Dr. Proudie, with his own. But unfortunately for himself Mr. Harding had little of this self-reliance. When he heard himself designated as rubbish by the Slopes of the world, he had no other resource than to make inquiry within his own bosom as to the truth of the designation. Alas, alas! The evidence seemed generally to go against him.

Just because the old ways are comfortable does not mean they are right–and worse yet, just because Mr. Slope is the agent of change does not mean change is altogether wrong. If only! When Barchester Towers is not being extremely funny, it’s often being surprisingly wise. Sometimes it’s both at once.

This Week in My Classes: Poems and Prelates

And we’re underway! It’s still a bit chaotic (cue rant about Pet Peeve #47, the long class add-drop period, which sends students the message that they can join a 12-week course 2 weeks in and expect not to be behind) but most of the students seem to have made it back from the break (PP #53, why don’t they just come back for the first day of term?) and even if they haven’t, it seems reasonable to start acting as if they have, including holding them accountable for catching up to us. Though this makes me sound cranky, I’m actually feeling pretty perky today, mostly because I enjoy being back in the classroom and I’m pretty keen about the material we’re working on in both of my classes.

In Close Reading, we’re working through some basic elements of poetic analysis: last week, we talked about diction; today, I reviewed major types of figurative language; and Wednesday and Friday we’ll focus on scansion. In theory, this is review for most students, but in practice, especially since we have muddied diluted diversified our core curriculum and program requirements so much, there’s no guarantee they will have spent time on it. And if they have, there’s no guarantee, of course, that they will have retained, much less mastered, it. So I really do focus on the basics. The immediate goal is to grasp what the elements are–to be able to recognize and name them. But this in itself is not much of an objective, and especially because this is an upper-level course, I try hard to emphasize that the real goal is to be able to talk better about poetry, to be able to recognize what’s going on in a poem when we read it, to be as precise as we can about its effects. In the handout I prepared for them, I quoted this excerpt from a good book called Poetic Designs:

No one reads the rules for the game of … hockey for pleasure; yet no one can possibly understand the game without knowing the meaning of ‘icing the puck’ or ‘offside.’  Without this understanding, the game is a meaningless blur.  Only with it does the game begin to ‘make sense.’  But prosody, like the rules of hockey, is not simply a body of information that one learns and then ‘applies.’  The truly informed fan sees the offside happen before the whistle blows, experiences it in the stir of action.  In poetry as in sport, the observer’s eyes—and ears—must be educated to this same point of instinctive understanding.

Yes, I had some hope that the hockey analogy would appeal to a room full of Canadian 20-somethings! But the same principle applies to, say, quilting: if you know what the norms and standards and challenges are, you can appreciate “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” when you see it, not just at an analytic level, but “in the stir of action.” If you don’t know much about it, you might like it just fine, and you might have a strong personal response to it, but you couldn’t appreciate it in the same way you could if you had that “instinctive understanding” that combines knowledge and excitement, insight and affect. One of our first readings was Frost’s “Design,” for instance. It’s a deceptively simple poem; it adds to my appreciation of its deceptive simplicity that I see how regular the first line is–that sing-song rhythm leads us along as if into a harmless nursery rhyme–and then find my poetic innocence betrayed by the irregularities that follow. I’m not a hard-core poetry expert, and I sometimes think that helps in this particular class: we’re not going after the most obscure or complex levels of analysis, just practicing how to develop and support our reading. We’re trying to understand how we know what we think we know about our readings, as well as why they have the effects and meanings they do.

In 19th-Century Fiction, today was our first day on Barchester Towers. I took pretty much the whole time myself, with some introductory framing comments about Trollope and his aesthetic, and then an explanation of the basic hierarchy and social significance of the Church of England in the mid-Victorian period. About Trollope, I noted the ways his rather literal novels resist ideas about what is literary, being neither difficult nor particularly poetic. He was never really the go-to novelist for the fancier kinds of literary theory, not yielding as well to symbolic, psychoanalytic, or deconstructive approaches. But he has proved amenable particularly to ethical criticism (as with Ruth ap Roberts’s nicely titled The Moral Trollope). I talked about his interest in institutions, not just the church in the Barsetshire novels but the law and government in the Palliser series, and about his exploration of the interaction between institutions–which have their own abstract logic and their larger missions and priorities–and the individuals who actually constitute those institutions. That’s the point at which some explanation of the Church of England becomes essential, from the general, such as the extent to which it is always already a political institution (not to mention a social and educational one), to the particular–such as what it means for the position of Warden to be ‘in the Bishop’s gift’ or why the impending change of government matters so much to the novel’s very opening question, who will be the new Bishop of Barchester? I always feel a bit bad when I talk so much, but then, it’s pretty hard to navigate intelligently in Barchester Towers without knowing something about these matters. Once you get the idea, you can be “in the stir of action” as you read it. Next time we will get into the novel itself, and into class discussion, starting (as you always must and should, in Trollope) with people: we’ll talk about Archdeacon Grantly, Mr Slope, and Mr Harding to start with, I think, sorting out what they stand for and what the larger implications are of the antagonisms among them.

I really hope that the students are finding Barchester Towers amusing. How could they not? There’s the brilliant comedy of Mrs Proudie’s reception, for instance, at which Signora Neroni’s sofa strips the Bishop’s haughtily arrogant wife of her finery, and there’s the constant entertainment of Trollope’s narrator, who really comes into his own here, after warming up so charmingly with The Warden: “And now, had I the pen of a mighty poet, would I sing in epic verse the noble wrath of the archdeacon.” Good heavens!

Trollope Time!

Not here at Novel Readings, unfortunately–indeed, I’ve been a pretty poor source of Victorian material lately. But two of my favourite bloggers have recent Trollope posts well worth reading–and every much in their own distinctive styles, which makes it particularly fun to juxtapose them. At stevereads, it’s The Duke’s Children:

when the first chapters of The Duke’s Children began appearing in 1879, readers were thunderstruck:

No one, probably, ever felt himself to be more alone in the world than our old friend the Duke of Omnium, when the Duchess died … It was not only that his heart was torn to pieces, but that he did not know how to look out into the world. It was as though a man should be suddenly called upon to live without hands or even arms. He was helpless, and knew himself to be helpless.

The Duchess … dead? It seemed inconceivable, and Trollope is entirely right to shock us so (in the realm of television much later, after “All in the Family” had ended, an oddly similar shock was delivered to viewing audiences when the show’s sequel, “Archie Bunker’s Place,” featured the funeral of Archie’s ‘dingbat’ wife Edith – as one stunned critic aptly put it, “Oh Edith, how could you up and die on us?”). The main action of the first half of The Duke’s Children, at least for those in the Duke’s personal orbit, is one of shocked spasm at the sudden vacuum where once so much life had been. The Duke is all but destroyed by the loss, as Trollope writes with exceptional sensitivity:

In spite of all her faults her name was so holy to him that it had never once passed his lips since her death, except in low whispers to himself, – low whispers made in the perfect, double-guarded seclusion of his own chamber. ‘Cora, Cora’ he had murmured, so that the sense of the sound and not the sound itself had come to him from his own lips.

And his troubles are only beginning. His eldest son and heir, Lord Silverbridge (at one point Trollope drolly remarks that everybody had been calling the young oaf ‘Silverbridge’ so long they’d almost forgotten his actual name), in addition to racking up astronomical racing debts, has also fallen under the amorous sway of Isabel Boncasson, a high-spirted and wealthy young American heiress. His younger son Gerald is in trouble with his school. And his daughter Mary is in love with a nearly penniless young man named Frank Tregear – and had been encouraged in the match by her mother before her death, much to the Duke’s confused mortification (readers of the earlier Palliser novels noted that the family appeared to have mislaid a daughter, since a second girl is mentioned in The Prime Minister; I have my theories as to what became of her). The workings of the novel center on these inroads being blasted into the Duke’s privileged world – he fights both encroachments with a desperate, incremental determination.Trollope’s audience can’t for an instant entertain any serious doubt as to how either plot will eventually resolve – times are changing, after all, and it would be merely perverse for a novelist like Trollope to stand in their way.

And at Wuthering Expectations, it’s a series (here, here, and here) on The Loves and Adventures of Francis Newbold Gresham the younger, better known as Doctor Thorne:

There’s also a romantic plot – will Frank be able to wed Mary?  The latter is the novel’s heroine, “a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to anyone” (Ch. 2).  Frank would be the hero:

had not that place been pre-occupied by the village doctor.  As it is, those who please may so regard him.  It is he who is to be our favourite young man, to do the love scenes, to have his trials and his difficulties, and to win through them or not, as the case may be.  I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart.

Trollope was forty-three, so judge “too old” accordingly.  I remind the reader that we are still in Chapter 1, on page 7 of 569 in my orange Penguin, where we have been told how the “story” “ends.”  Tony, of Tony’s Reading List reminds me that “Trollope never lets suspense build up when he can tell us in advance what is likely to occur.”  Why does Trollope do that?

Perhaps Trollope is incompetent.  Such is his own claim at the beginning of Chapter 2:

It can hardly be expected that any one will consent to go through with a fiction that offers so little of allurement in its first pages; but twist it as I will I cannot do otherwise.  I find that I cannot make poor Mr Gresham hem and haw and turn himself uneasily in his arm-chair in a natural manner till I have said why he is uneasy…  This is unartistic on my part, and shows want of imagination as well as want of skill.  Whether or not I can atone for these faults by straightforward, simple, plain story-telling–that, indeed, is very doubtful.

He is as bad as Thackeray or Fielding, isn’t he, a terrible liar.  I, as a reader, should be insulted.  As a quite different reader – instead, I am openly laughing at Trollope’s mockery of simple story-telling.

I’ve had a few things to say about Trollope over the years myself, and of course these posts make me feel it has been too long since I read him (especially the Palliser series, which I last read fully a decade ago).

Update: There’s more at Wuthering Expectations, here and here…and the promise (or is it a threat)? of a “ten part series on Orley Farm” in which “at least three of the posts will be on the fictional treatment and metaphorical meaning of 19th century manuring techniques.” I think he’s kidding. Actually, I’m not sure–and I don’t think I want him to be!

Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

From the Novel Readings Archive

One of the reasons I began blogging in the first place was to experiment with writing about books in a non-academic way. One of the first blogging projects I took up, therefore (because research is an academic habit that is hard to give up), was reviewing examples of non-academic writing about books–books about books, but written for actual readers. I read Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, for instance, which was the subject of one of my earliest blog posts, and Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel, among others. Unlike OLM’s Sam Sacks, who thought Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel was a “low point” in the genre of “books about the culture of reading” (to Sacks, Smiley comes across as “a supercilious book-club leader uttering inanities over a demitasse cup”–ouch!), I thought Smiley’s was one of the best of the bunch.* It seems apt, then, to continue my series of posts resurrected from the Novel Readings archives with my own review of this particular book about books.

*Continuing in a nostalgic vein, my comment politely disagreeing with him about Smiley (which seems to have been lost in the move to the new OLM layout)  was one of my earliest interactions with Open Letters. And I also read Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure, the main subject of his review, for my ‘books about books’ project but didn’t write it up because I thought Sam was completely right (and completely articulate, of course) about that one.

Of the array of ‘books about books’ aimed at general audiences that I’ve read in the last few months, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is by far the most intelligent and engaging. Smiley writes as a novelist primarily, reflecting often on her own experiences and motivation as an author, but she also writes as a scholar, a dedicated reader, and an insightful literary critic who can capture a significant idea about a writer or a text in a well-crafted sentence or two. Here, to give just one of many examples, is Smiley on Anthony Trollope:

Trollope was a great analyst of marriage as a series of decisions that turn into a relationship and then, as time goes by and the children grow up, into history and architecture; simultaneously, he was the great analyst of politics as it devolves into feelings and their effects on the nation. If we say that Trollope is the ultimate realist, we are recognizing that his work as well as his life recognized more points of view, more endeavors, more sensations, more things to think about and reasons to think about them than almost any other novelist; that the technique he developed for balancing the attractions of these sensations–in sentences, paragraphs, chapters, characters, and entire books–beautifully mimics the way many people construct their identities moment by moment. (133)

Not only is that analysis elegantly put–I love the description of marriage moving from something intangible and negotiable into something with the solidity of a building–but every reader of Trollope will appreciate how well Smiley has captured the distinctive qualities of Trollope’s accomplishment in something like the Palliser novels or the Barchester chronicles.

I was particularly impressed with Smiley’s engagement with the moral implications of some of the novels she considers. Her comparative discussion of Wuthering Heights and de Sade’s Justine (in which Bronte’s novel comes off much the worse) is an excellent example of ‘ethical criticism’: like Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, and others (though without explicit reference to any theoretical work in this area) Smiley illustrates that elements far more complex than a novel’s content need to be considered when evaluating its ethical import:

Justine shows that whatever an author’s motives for depicting horror, the form of the novel itself molds the depiction. Ostensibly shocking and immoral, Justine actually promotes a certain moral point of view–that integrity and virtue can be retained and recognized in the face of relentless suffering. In addition, to expose secret corruption is to challenge its existence because of the nature of the novel as a common and available commodity. (111)[F]ar more shockingly cruel, in its way, than Justine is that staple of middle school, Wuthering Heights. No one has ever considered Wuthering Heights to be unsuitable for young girls; most women read it for the first time when they are thirteen or fourteen. There are no sex scenes in Wuthering Heights. . . . At the same time, there are no beatings or shootings in Wuthering Heights. The only blood is shed by a ghost in a dream.

At the same time, the theme of Wuthering Heights is that any betrayal, any cruelty, any indifference to others, including spouses or children, is, if not justifiable, then understandable, in the context of sufficient passion. . . .

Do the characters of Wuthering Heights perpetrate even a grame of the harm that the characters of Justine do? No. Does Wuthering Heights seem in the end to be a nastier novel than Justine does? Yes. They are similar in that both are unrelieved and both have endings that are happy relative to the rest of the novel. But it is more disheartening to read about Heathcliff’s domestic sins than it is to see the crimes of the ruling class exposed, because the exposure of political crimes seems like a step towards ameliorating them, while Heathcliff’s cruelties are specifically directed at those he should be nurturing, and only chance intervenes between him and his victims . . . . The paradox is that novelists ended up exploring the rich subject of the morality of interpersonal relationships only to discover that while, on the one hand, this subject was safe from the danger of sex and violence, on the other hand, achieving in such plots the satisfying feeling of redress is difficult if not impossible. (114-5)

The specifics of her argument will no doubt strike other readers as debatable, but to me her analysis is an effective example of the Victorian critical premise that I have been exploring in my research: that it is not the subject but its treatment that determines a novel’s moral character. The conclusion to this particular section also, I think, effectively captures the problem of the unsatisfying endings that are so common in 19th-century marriage plots (Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for instance, or Middlemarch): the novels expose and critique systemic problems with marriage and the condition of women but struggle to resolve them–or (as with Jane Eyre or The Mill on the Floss) resolve them by abandoning realism. Continue reading

Trollope at Open Letters

I wrote a little piece on ‘reading Anthony Trollope’ for Open Letters Monthly which has now gone ‘live’ in their October issue. Come check it out (the folks at the New Yorker’s Book Bench did and liked it!)–and while you’re over there, read around in the rest of the issue, which, as usual, is full of lively and interesting material.

Summer Trollope

If Adam Bede isn’t enough Victorian reading for you for one summer, the Trollope discussion group is nearly finished Orley Farm. Next up, beginning July 7, is The Small House at Allington. From the back of my Oxford edition: “The Small House at Allington introduces Trollope’s most charming heroine, the bewitching Lily Dale . . . She so endeared herself to readers of the Cornhill Magazine, where A Small House was first published in serial form, that Trollope was bombarded by letters begging him to marry her to her lifelong adorer Johnny Eames.” I read it once when, as a sabbatical project, I undertook to go through the whole of the Barsetshire series in order (great idea, by the way). I remember enjoying it a lot, and I just might see if I can fit it in along with Adam Bede

Recent Reading (and a little Recent Watching, too)

Despite He Knew He Was Right (currently on the table in my Victorian ‘Woman Question’ seminar), graduate admissions, and the ordinary middle-of-term business (incoming assignments, class preparation, committee meetings, and so on), I have been able to do a little ‘pleasure’ reading lately. Here are some ‘thumbnail’ responses.

Reginald Hill, Death Comes for the Fat Man. I find this series reliable: literate, well plotted, with its main characters well enough developed that the prospect of Dalziel’s demise had some poignancy. This particular novel did not blow me away, though (for those who have read it, sorry for the pun). Although I appreciate Hill’s attempt to engage with big issues and international conflicts as they register on a local scale, his Knights Templar seemed like foolish medieval joust re-enactors rather than a genuine force of menace worthy of their intended opposition. On the other hand, I wondered as I was reading whether that was Hill’s point: that secret societies, blood vengeance, beheadings, and so forth are relics of medieval concepts of justice, religion, and warfare–that the Islamicist movements the Knights imitate represent anachronistic, regressive forces that are incongruous with contemporary mores.

Benjamin Black, Christine Falls. I expected more from this much-touted ‘crossover’ work by Booker-Prize winner John Banville. It is elegantly written, and some of the characters–especially his dour protagonist, the pathologist Quirke–are compellingly portrayed, but I didn’t find that was true of all of them (Rose and Josh Crawford, for instance, or even Phoebe, who seems to be supposed to carry a pretty heavy thematic burden). Quirke’s love for Sarah seemed based on nothing in particular (maybe I just miss fuller exposition?). The central ‘crime’ had few surprises for a novel set in 1950s Ireland (corruption in the Catholic church? unwanted babies? no kidding!). Atmospheric, I guess, but a thin atmosphere unless the people live in it intensely, and Banville’s spare style did not establish that kind of intensity for me. I suppose I would sum up the novel’s theme as ‘being orphaned’ (literally, but also emotionally and metaphysically). It did not bring home to me what the costs of such a condition are, maybe because on closer inspection pretty much all of the characters are in it together–which in itself is a potentially powerful (poignant, frightening) vision. I’ll probably re-read it, as I admit my immersion in baggy Victorian novels that tell me everything (sometimes over and over) does not always make me the best reader of novels that leave more out.

On Friday I rented The Jane Austen Book Club. I found the book OK, if a bit gimmicky, but I thought it would make a decent movie. It did, but also an odd one: I can’t imagine anyone getting much out of it, for instance, who doesn’t know all six of Austen’s novels pretty well–well enough to take an interest in watching other people debate, say, Fanny Price’s character, or Emma’s marriage to Mr Knightly. Superficial as the movie’s book club discussions are (in fact, maybe because they are so superficial and rapid), non-Janeites seem likely to tune out, and then the plot that surrounds these scenes is itself not particularly rich. It’s striking that only rarely did the book club scenes turn on issues of construction or literary technique: they were pretty much all about the characters all the time, generally in the spirit of “these people seem real to us, so let’s debate their motives and choices.” I have almost no personal experience of book clubs, but my sense is that this is indeed typical. Of course, this is also precisely the kind of conversation I think most English professors eventually shut down in class. And yet working my way through He Knew He Was Right with my students, I have been finding that it seems like the most natural and appropriate approach, because Trollope’s most notable literary technique is precisely characterization, and his primary concern is what his characters do, with what motives, to what ends, and with what consequences. Also, as my students have pointed out, in many crucial cases he does not take sides, or if so, only equivocally, so that we are poised ourselves on the cusp of decisions or moral judgements and prompted to keep weighing the pros and cons of actions, the honesty, self-knowledge, or self-deceptions of his people, and so on. Who is right, Emily or Louis? Is Priscilla right to want Emily and Nora to leave the Clock House? Should Dorothy accept Mr Gibson? We spend so much time thinking about these questions with the characters that backing off into other kinds of interpretive questions sometimes seems like missing the point. In Middlemarch we know Dorothea’s first marriage is an awful mistake. We are pressed to understand it, even to sympathize with it, nonetheless, and we may perhaps acknowledge the beauty of such an error: there’s plenty of room for nuance and ambivalence. But somehow in that case a spirited discussion on the relative merits of Sir James and Mr Casaubon seems out of place, because clearly there are larger philosophical and historical and moral issues being brought into focus by Dorothea’s choice. In Trollope, the choices seem more literal, more ordinary, and no less important–perhaps even more so in a way, because you have no confidence that the wise narrator will resolve or even analyze the full significance of the options for you. As many of the characters keep discovering, you may have to rely on your own judgment.

This Week in My Classes (February 12, 2008)

We wrapped up The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in Mystery and Detective Fiction yesterday. I enjoy going over the details of the text to demonstrate just how ingeniously Christie (by way of her narrator, of course) uses language to play the game in it, stating the truth but keeping, as Poirot points out, ‘becomingly reticent’ about Sheppard’s precise role in events. Of its kind, Ackroyd is no doubt close to perfect. If in the end I judge it an inferior book, which I do, that judgment rests on my sense that its kind is inferior: clever, amusing, entertaining, but also superficial, trivial–worst, trivializing, including of its central subject, murder. These are hardly new criticisms; they are made derisively and at length of the genre overall by Edmund Wilson in “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd,” and more constructively by Raymond Chandler in “The Simple Art of Murder.” I think Chandler is right that the degree of realism introduced into mystery fiction by, for instance, Dashiell Hammett (and there already, though Chandler does not say as much, in earlier examples such as The Moonstone) is necessary to make the genre substantially meaningful as well as literary. The scene in which various members of Ackroyd’s household carry on a perfectly cool and collected conversation in the presence of his corpse, complete with dagger sticking out of his neck, is entirely ludicrous and morally objectionable except that emotional detachment (by both characters and readers) is a prerequisite of this type of detective story. Harmless enough for diversion, I suppose, but perhaps Carlyle’s comments on Scott’s achievement have some application here:

But after all, in the loudest blaring and trumpeting of popularity, it is ever to be held in mind, as a truth remaining true forever, that Literature has other aims than that of harmlessly amusing indolent languid men: or if Literature have them not, then Literature is a very poor affair; and something else must have them, and must accomplish them, with thanks or without thanks; the thankful or thankless world were not long a world otherwise!

Once we admit that literature (including mystery fiction) can be much more than a harmless amusement, I think the ‘cozy’ necessarily sinks to a low rung on the merit ladder. Mind you, I have related reservations about hard-boiled fiction, with what one critic has called its ‘poetics of violence’; that’s where we’re headed next this week, with one of Hammett’s “Continental Op” stories and Chandler’s “No Crime in the Mountains.” It’s P.D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (of the novels on our reading list) that really takes up the ethical challenge of literary treatments of detection where the Victorians left off, in my opinion, and that’s no surprise given that James points to Trollope and George Eliot as her influences rather than her predecessors in detection. More on that when the time comes!

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ we’ve had our first session on He Knew He Was Right and I’m feeling good so far about the synergy between it and our previous novels. The thematic and plot links are obvious, but the structure of Trollope’s multiplot monster is also of interest; like its other loose baggy cousins, HKHWR works as a kind of theme and variations, so the juxtaposition of the various stories, especially those of unmarried women in different contexts confronting their options, or their lack of options, cumulatively creates a rich sense of the complexities of social and political life for women. While Helen’s disastrous marriage to Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall comes to seem exemplary, if in an extreme way, of the novel’s whole concept of the relations between the sexes, here every case has its clear individual features even as the laws and rules of propriety are fairly fixed structures within which everyone has to find a way forward. My students were also intrigued at, and pleased by, what they felt was his complex presentation of the male characters, particularly Louis but also Colonel Osborne. No simple polarization of right and wrong here–and so we were able also to give some time to critical views of Trollope as a practitioner of a form of ‘virtue ethics,’ developing morality through practice and particulars, rather than precepts and prescriptions. I took the unusual step (for me) of leading off also with a clip from the BBC adaptation. My thinking was that it’s a very long book that relies heavily on our forming relationships with the characters: Trollope writes about people more than themes, abstractions, or anything else (our next book is Middlemarch, which I think will make a fascinating comparison in this respect). Given all the things competing for my students’ attention, I thought it would help to bring the people to life dramatically, even at the risk of substituting Andrew Davies’s ideas of them for Trollope’s. As always, showing an adaptation also helps us see some things about how the material is managed in the original. In this case, for example, the adaptation seemed more melodramatic, the action more sensational–and, as one of my students pointed out, it seemed to make Emily more clearly sympathetic. So I think we managed to use our clip to further our thinking about the novel. We’ll be working on the book for almost a month, so we need to build up enough momentum that finishing it does not become a chore. I’m optimistic! But of course I am, or I would never have assigned it in the first place…

This Week in My Classes

Here’s what my students and I will be reading and talking about this week:

1. English 3032, 19th-Century Novel: We are finishing up Trollope’s The Warden, with a special focus on Trollope’s redefinition of heroism on a small scale and on his interest in the way public questions are always “a conglomeration of private interests.” We’ll also be looking at the role of his intrusive narrator, and at his parodies of Carlyle (as Dr. Pessimist Anticant) and Dickens (as Mr Popular Sentiment) as he works towards his own theory of fiction. “What story was ever written without a demon?” he asks in Chapter XV; “What novel, what history, what work of any sort, what world, would be perfect without existing principles both of good and evil?” As every reader of The Warden comes to see, this novel does not allow us to perceive the world as consisting of such extremes, despite John Bold’s frustrated exclamation, “If there be a devil, a real devil here on earth, it is Dr. Grantly.”

2. English 5465, Victorian Women Writers: This week it’s Margaret Oliphant’s Autobiography, which shifts us sharply away from last week’s more abstract discussion of Victorian arguments over femininity and women’s ‘mission’ into a life full of contradictions and compromises, struggle and suffering (economic and mental). While Oliphant’s consideration of her own fiction, and her comparisons (often rueful or resentful) between her own hard-earned modest success and her more triumphant literary ‘sisters’ (especially George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte) will be of much interest to us, I am sure we will also talk about the form, mode, and tone of the Autobiography itself, with its long passages of heartbreaking lamentation for lost children interwoven with (often, seeming to slice apart) its record of ordinary domestic life and travels. Here’s an excerpt from just after the death of Maggie, aged 10, after a sudden and very brief illness:

I ask myself why, why, and I cannot find any answer. I had but one woman-child and she was just beginning to sympathize with me, to comfort me, and at this dear moment, her little heart expanding, her little mind growing, her sweet life blossoming day by day, God has taken her away out of my arms and refuses to hear my cry and prayer. My heart feels dead. . . . Now I have to go limping and anxious through the world all the days of my life. . . . Oh God forgive me and help me. O God convey to me a sense of my darling’s happiness, a feeling that she will not forget me and that I shall find her again, and have pity upon a poor heartbroken creature who does not know what she is saying. . . .Those curls I was so proud of were never more beautiful than when they were all rippling back with the gold string through them from her dear head as she lay ill, and when they lay all peaceful and still with her white wreath of hyacinths and snowdrops, she as as lovely as the angel she is. Oh my child, my child.

She would lose all of her children before her own death, “writing steadily,” as she says, “all the time” to support the ne’er-do-well sons who survived into adulthood and the array of relatives who came to depend on her industry and charity. The poignant conclusion:

And now here I am all alone.
I cannot write anymore.