Holiday Reading

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! It is a beautifully crisp sunny fall weekend here: I treated myself to an amble through the Public Gardens on Saturday, where the gold-tinged foliage provided a lovely backdrop for the remaining bright flowers. The Gardens are my favourite spot in the city, a perfect place for “a green thought in a green shade.”



For one reason or another, I was feeling pretty grim by the end of last week, so I decided to treat the holiday weekend like actual time off from my day job. This means that although today I have had to turn my attention back to reading for work (The Big Sleep and Jane Eyre are up next week), I managed to get through two books just for fun. They are polar opposites, too, which made it just that much more entertaining to read them one after another.

venetiaThe first was Georgette Heyer’s Venetia, which a number of Heyer fans I know have identified as one of their favorites. It also came up in a discussion here in the summer about whether Heyer’s books ever get sexy, as opposed to romantic. I thoroughly enjoyed Venetia: it is brisk and witty, which is typical, but also full of lines of poetry (which is not quite so typical). It also has a more adult heroine,  and it does have more of that frisson that I was wondering about: “She had not enjoyed being so ruthlessly handled,” Venetia reflects after the first, quite improper, kiss,

but for one crazy instant she had known an impulse to respond, and through the haze of her own wrath she had caught a glimpse of what life might be. . . . if Edward [her dull suitor!] had ever kissed her thus! The thought drew a smile from her, for the vision of Edward swept out of his rigid propriety was improbable to the point of absurdity. Edward was sternly master of his passions; she wondered, for the first time, if these were very strong, or whether he was, in fact, rather cold-blooded.

Meeting her morally problematic mother, Venetia is struck by her lacy lingerie:

It was not at all the sort of garment one would have expected one’s mama to wear, for it was as improper as it was pretty. Venetia wondered whether Damerel would like the sight of his bride in just such a transparent cloud of gauze, and was strongly of the opinion that he would like it very much.

Well! Hardly the ruminations I’m used to from a Heyer heroine! And much later, when the usual convolutions of the plot have been managed, she “melts” into her rakish lover’s arms:

He held her in a crushing embrace, fiercely kissing her, uttering disjointedly: ‘My love — my heart — oh, my dear delight! It is you!’

It was a bit of a relief to be able to enjoy the courtship plot without any shadow of concern that the heroine seemed just a bit too young and naive to play her part in it. But it was Venetia’s smart independence that made the book particularly delightful for me: she doesn’t appreciate anyone making decisions or speaking for her, and she doesn’t hesitate to do what she thinks is best to orchestrate the outcome she desires.

brokenMy other book was Tana French’s Broken Harbour. It seems odd to call it ‘fun,’ as it is just as dark and intense and frightening as the other books in her Dublin Murder Squad series. It’s also just as well and artfully written, with just as convincing and distinct a narrator and just as complex and psychologically fraught a plot. By the end, though, I found I was actually a little weary of the melodrama and the self-consciously brooding interiority, the heavy-handed revelations and insistent reminders of just how much the case resonated with (and screwed up) the detective. Rattling off my first impressions on GoodReads, I found myself wondering if my problem is related to the subgenre of crime fiction French is working in: I don’t usually read suspense novels or psychological thrillers, and Broken Harbour is as much of that kind as it is a detective  novel or police procedural. I found myself eventually skimming a bit through the confessions and backstories just to find out what had actually happened and what would come of it. This is my way of saying “it’s not you, it’s me,” I suppose! But the novel did seem too long (not unlike some of Elizabeth George’s more recent ones). There is an awful lot French does brilliantly though: setting, in particular, and the theme of people becoming desperate as they try to hang on to their dreams, or to reach the futures they yearn for — at whatever cost, it often turns out. French is definitely the best new crime writer I’ve tried in a long time — so thanks especially to Dorian for bringing her to my attention!

And now it’s back to work, though I will pick out something to read in the interstices. My book club has chosen The Talented Mr. Ripley for our next meeting, so it might be that, though I also recently picked up Beautiful Ruins (which looked like it might be refreshingly different).

What P. D. James Talks About When She Talks About Detective Fiction*

pdjamestalkingaboutI finally picked up P. D. James’s Talking About Detective Fiction, which I’ve been mildly interested in reading ever since it came out in 2009. I say ‘mildly’ because I’ve read all of James’s novels (some of them multiple times) as well as her autobiography and numerous interviews with her, not to mention essays, critical articles, and reviews about her work. I’ve also read quite a bit of historical and critical material on detective fiction more generally. So I didn’t expect any revelations from this little volume.

And there really aren’t any, although (because after all, James is both sharp and experienced!) her potted history of the genre is enriched by some interesting digressions on issues or writers of particular interest to her. She opens with a disclaimer — that she has “no wish to add to, and less to emulate, the many distinguished studies of the last two centuries,” aiming only at a “short personal account.” I actually wished her account had been more personal, as the survey material was so very familiar to me, whereas her commentary on, say, Ngaio Marsh, was more idiosyncratic and thus more thought-provoking:

Reading the best of Ngaio Marsh, I feel that there was always a dichotomy between her talent and the genre she chose. So why did she pursue it with such regularity, producing thirty-two novels in forty-eight years? . . . Marsh was a deeply reserved, indeed in some respects a private person, and she may well have felt that to extend the scope of her talent would be to betray aspects of her personality which she profoundly wished to remain secret.

 Her chapter on “four formidable women” of the Golden Age was in fact one of the most interesting parts of the book for me, along with her remark – made quite in passing – that if she’d begun her own series today “it is likely that I would choose a woman [detective]” as the main character. I find James somewhat evasive (here and elsewhere) on the gender politics of crime fiction. She says very little here about the woman detective she did create, Cordelia Gray (I think the only explicit reference to An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is in her discussion of setting), but I think it is widely agreed that in the second Cordelia Gray book she backed away from the feminist potential of the first, making Cordelia a much more conventional character and also much less effectual as an investigator. In the context of Kate Miskin, James has talked about the Met being a “very masculine organization,” though, and about the different experience women have of policing than men. In her chapter on the “four formidable women,” she emphasizes their work as “social history,” but also what they tell us of “the status of women in the years between the wars.” Then about Sara Paretsky (whom she calls “the most remarkable of the moderns”) she says,

No other female crime writer has so powerfully and effectively combined a well-crafted detective story with the novel of social realism and protest.

To me, James seems tempted towards a more explicitly feminist approach, but her Dalgleish novels, rich as they are as examples of social (and especially moral) exploration, have no air of “social protest.” It’s fun to imagine what kind of books — what kind of female protagonist — she would have given us if she had, as she imagines, started writing today!

But Talking About Detective Fiction is not the place to look for sustained analysis of either feminism and detection in general or of gender issues in James’s novels — or, indeed, of any aspect of detective fiction. Overall, the book is just an amiably brisk tour of the genre, and not even a very thorough one, as it spends a lot of its time on Golden Age figures, a bit on the hard-boiled turn, but none explicitly on, say, the police procedural (the subgenre to which most of James’s own novels belong). The discussion of recent developments in the genre has a haphazard quality because James draws her examples only from the writers she happens to have read –she makes the disarmingly honest comment that “new novels are being reviewed with respect, many of them by names unfamiliar to me.”

Still, if you didn’t know anything about detective fiction beyond the examples you yourself happened to have read, this would be a fine place to start, and it would give you lots of leads to follow up for further reading. (She completely convinced me that one Father Brown story is not enough.) And I admit that the absence of surprises or revelations was actually reassuring for me: it means I’m probably doing a decent job sorting things out for my Mystery & Detective Fiction class. As it happens, it turns out I’ve actually been using an excerpt from the book as the epigraph for my syllabus for many years — because I transcribed it from a lecture James gave in 1995 at the Smithsonian (once available online):

In his book Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster writes,

‘The king died, and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. . . . ‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development.

To that I would add, ‘Everyone thought that the queen had died of grief until they discovered the puncture mark in her throat.’ That is a murder mystery, and it too is capable of high development.

*I feel as if I should apologize for reworking this tired titling trope. That the book really is called Talking About Detective Fiction made the temptation irresistible, but I promise not to do it again. Twice is enough! And, as my penance for being so unimaginative, I also promise never to title a post with any variation on the “Keep Calm and Carry On” meme either — fair enough?

Binge Reading vs. Close Reading

dickfrancisI’ve undertaken to write an essay on Dick Francis this summer, in preparation for which I am reading through all of his 40+ novels. His first, Dead Cert, was published in 1962, and he basically published one a year until his death in 2010 (the last few in partnership with his son Felix, who has now taken over the franchise). That’s a lot! I’ve been reading them off and on at least since the 1980s; I own about a dozen (which used to seem like quite a few, until I really took stock) and when things are busy at work I often pick a favorite to reread, as they are both brisk and smart enough to be a nice diversion without requiring a lot of attention.

It’s always interesting approaching as critical projects books or authors I have previously taken for granted or read “just” for pleasure. When I started teaching the Mystery & Detective Fiction course, I went through that with P. D. James, Ian Rankin, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky (many of the other authors on the reading list are not ones I had read before, including Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett, so the effort there was always more academic). But what’s really different about this particular project is that I don’t typically read in bulk this way. Sure, when I find an author I like, I tend to follow up, but outside of genre fiction authors with 40 or more titles to their credit are rare, and I usually get restless after reading a few books in a genre series in a row. A good example would be Mary Balogh: when I discovered I could enjoy her books, I got a whole bunch from the library, but after racing through several, I just really wanted to read something different, and now I think of her as I had Francis, that is, as a safe option when I need some filler in my reading life. (A notable exception would be the Martin Beck novels: once I got hooked on them, I pretty much just kept reading. But there are only 10 of them anyway!)

What strikes me about binge reading is the different kind of attention it requires compared to the intense close reading I’ve done for most of my recent writing — any of my George Eliot essays, for instance, or for reviews including my most recent one of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life — or, for that matter, the reading I do for my teaching. For all of these purposes, poring over details is the essence. It’s not that I’m not reading each of these novels  carefully and trying to hang on to the key details that differentiate one from another. There are plenty of these, and they matter, often substantially. But the novels do have a lot in common, and inevitably they blur together or form, in my mind, one larger whole. Since the essay I’m working on is intended as a kind of overview (though with a particular angle on women and gender roles), that’s appropriate: I’m reading all of them at once because I want to be able to generalize about them, to discuss patterns, or themes and variations, connecting threads, tropes, motifs, whatever. The individual novel is less important than the collection of novels. The more I read, the more each one I pick up reads like part of that collection, if that makes sense: the deeper into the catalog I go, the more rapidly I subordinate the particular to the general. My major challenge is not so much interpreting as keeping track: this is the first time I’ve ever used a spreadsheet as a writing tool!

And yet every novel is different. (I joked on Twitter that so far my lede is “The novels of Dick Francis are both alike and different” –ah, the bane of the undergraduate compare-and-contrast essay!) You could say that this oscillation between similarity and difference is the essence of genre fiction: its predictability is as much the appeal as the ability of a talented practitioner to surprise. I’m reminded of Josephine Tey’s sly, self-reflexive jab at formula fiction in The Daughter of Time:

Even in that, you knew what to expect on the next page. Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then? Was everyone nowadays thirled to a formula? Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that their public expected it. The public talked about “a new Silas Weekly” or “a new Lavinia Finch” exactly as they talked about “a new brick” or “a new hairbrush.” They never said “a new book by” whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like.

I do notice that interchangeable widget quality as I read these books in relentless succession — and yet I always welcomed the appearance of “a new Dick Francis” precisely because I knew what it would be like but also knew that he was smart enough to mix it up, to really make it new.

Rebus is Back: Ian Rankin, Standing in Another Man’s Grave

rankingraveYes, Rebus is back, and it’s good to see him again, the sodden old crank. The Malcolm Fox novels have been fine, but I don’t find Fox as interesting a character as Rebus–though that could be because I’ve known Rebus for so long. Also, I had hoped that Rankin would take up Siobhan Clarke as his protagonist when Rebus retired. She has quite a prominent role in Standing in Another Man’s Grave, so my hope of that is renewed!

Rebus is back — and that seemed to me the major feature of this new novel. It’s a solid, well-constructed procedural on its own merits — Rankin is an experienced pro at this, after all — but it’s as a novel of character that Standing in Another Man’s Grave is most interesting. It doesn’t have the ambitious scale or political reach of the late books in the initial Rebus series, particularly Fleshmarket Close (which is described on the cover as a “state of the nation novel”–surely a variation on what I talk about in the 19thC context as a “condition of England novel”) or The Naming of the Dead. Both of these work their particular crimes up as symptoms of much wider social evils. By contrast, the case in Standing in Another Man’s Grave is mostly an occasion for Rebus to revisit and rethink his identity as a detective as he contemplates a move from the cold case unit he moved to on retirement back into active service (something made possible as a plot twist by changes in regulations). The case itself seemed a little perfunctory, except that in linking together old cases with new, it continues the preoccupation of all of the Rebus novels with the complex relationship between past and present.

Here, it’s Rebus himself who often seems like a relic of the past, something Rankin can make the most of because this novel is itself a kind of throwback. While Rebus was out of our sight, our world and his was changing, and his ways of doing things — always borderline inappropriate — are now conspicuously “old-school,” as Malcolm Fox’s colleague Tony Kaye points out. Rankin set Fox up to be in many ways Rebus’s antithesis, and here we see Fox determined to put an end to Rebus’s tainted career. “I know a cop gone bad when I see one,” he tells Siobhan, warning her to cut ties if she values her own career advancement:

Rebus has spent so many years crossing the line, he’s managed to rub it out altogether. As far as he’s concerned, his way’s the right way, no matter how wrong the rest of us might know it to be.

“You don’t know him,” Siobhan replies, and that’s what long-time Rebus readers would say as well: Fox’s summary is pretty accurate, except for his conclusion that Rebus’s disregard for rules, protocols, and lines proves him to have “gone bad.” Rebus’s methods may be unorthodox, but the law and the right do not always completely coincide, and Fox’s determination to put Rebus on one side or the other of that line shows his own moral limitations, or at least his own moral rigidity.

Standing in Another Man’s Grave is in some ways an affirmation of Rebus’s approach. As Kaye tells Fox,

Rebus got results the old way, without seeming to earn them. He did that because he got close to some nasty people in a way that you couldn’t. . . . Rebus specialises in something a bit different — doesn’t necessarily make him the enemy.

Rebus gets results here too, through “old-school” contacts, hunches, and the weary, dogged persistence that has seen him through so many cases before.

Standing in Another Man’s Grave is not quite a triumphant return to form for Rebus, though. Rebus proves himself still up to the job, but just barely — not so much because he’s bemused by new methods and new media, such as Twitter (a bit of an inside joke from Rankin, who is a frequent and adept user of social media — you can follow him at @beathhigh if you’re interested) but because he’s just barely hanging in there physically, and no wonder, considering he smokes and drinks incessantly. Even if his application to be reinstated is accepted, how long before he’s in his own grave? His ancient Saab, also on its last legs (wheels?), becomes a metaphor for his debilitated condition. “And the Saab didn’t break down?” asks Siobhan after one of Rebus’s long trips to check out leads. “Not ready for the knacker’s yard just yet,” replies Rebus, and the same seems to be true of him. Maybe there’s one more Rebus novel left in him before Siobhan gets her chance at the lead role.

This Week in My Classes: Amidst the Mess, Three Mysterious Morsels

The past week or so has just felt crazy with tasks and details to keep on top of. When we’re planning courses, we (or maybe it’s just me?) tend to focus on big picture issues, like which books to assign and which assignment sequences to use. Once that’s all decided, there’s filling in the syllabus, usually a happy task full of dreams of lively discussion prompted by clever juxtapositions (like this week’s cluster of ‘poems by women poets about women poets’ right before we start Aurora Leigh!) and supported or solidified by informal and formal writing. What we (or maybe just I) tend not to prepare so well in advance are things like spreadsheets for record-keeping or evaluation forms for seminars, or attendance sheets–which it is nearly pointless to get to organized about anyway, at least until the add-drop period ends and the list has some stability! I’ve reached the point in all of my classes where I needed all these things firmly in place, as assignments have been coming in, quizzes have been written, students have given seminar presentations, and so on.  Luckily I do have templates for all these kinds of things, or at least a set of best (or usual) practices, so I’m not dreaming them up from nothing, but I am drawing them up or finessing them to suit this year’s particularities. And of course this administrative stuff (plus the marking of quizzes and evaluation of assignments and so on) has to happen in addition to the other aspects of class prep, so just when you are starting to think “see, the teaching term isn’t that busy after all–I’m getting all my readings and class notes ready in plenty of time!” you are reminded why the teaching term actually is quite intense.

Then as if this year’s classes aren’t enough to be worrying about, the deadlines for course proposals and timetabling for next year have been moved way up, and in fact we were asked to submit our teaching preferences for 2012-13 by last Friday. I’m reasonably certain that this deadline has nothing to do with program planning or pedagogy (heaven forbid we should think about next year once we have some kind of idea how this year is going) and everything to do with recruiting: Dal’s big fall Open House is October 14, and it probably helps to be able to point prospective students to at least tentative course listings. This process was further complicated for us this year by bad budget news in the faculty that had repercussions for our TA allocation and thus, potentially, for our graduate student funding–which meant rejigging much of our curriculum on the fly to ward off various worst-case scenarios. Once again, program planning and pedagogy were given short shrift because of external imperatives! This is not to trivialize the budget difficulties, but it’s a real shame the timetable for figuring out how to deal with them was not different. Book orders for the winter term also came due, though luckily I had made most of my decisions about that already. Still, I’ve been stymied by discovering, to my great surprise, that a book I had counted on assigning (Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day) appears not to have a Canadian edition available at the moment. Seriously? The bookstore and I are working on this, but if we can’t find a workaround, I’m going to have to decide on something else in something of a hurry.

Add in the three tenure and promotion cases I’m involved in, the three Ph.D. students I’m supervising who persist (darn them!) in being industrious and thus giving me work to do, the two Honours students I’m now mentoring in preparation for our year-end Honours “conference,” the reference letters I’m already assembling documents for (and then writing, collating, addressing, and mailing), and the two other committees I’m on that persist in holding meetings or circulating materials for us to read (darn them too!)–and whew! My head has been buzzing, and my stress levels nasty, by the end of most days. The student union president who blithely commented in a recent Maclean’s story that “Professors have a pretty good gig . . . You put in some office hours, you teach for a few hours and then you end up with a decent paycheque” should maybe job-shadow a professor or two before concluding that it’s only reasonable for us to return all student emails within 12 hours. (Yes, that’s right: we were born knowing even the most recent developments in our field–amazing, eh?–and basically just sit around until it’s time to go pontificate. Assignments appear from nowhere, and magically reappear with comments and grades! Hmm: I just might contribute a little to that Facebook group mentioned in the article…)

Happily, at the center of all this you still do have those “few” hours in the classroom, and even more happily, it is often a treat getting ready for them because you are working on something you find genuinely interesting and exercising not just your expertise but your creativity in figuring out how to get your students equally involved in it. I’ve been teaching a lot of quite familiar material so far this term, but as always I’ve tweaked my syllabi here and there for variety and to keep me alert. One regular source for new material is whatever reader I’ve chosen for Mystery and Detective Fiction: it’s easier to change up smaller readings, and I’m often dissatisfied with an anthology for one reason or another so I have used quite a few over the years. This year, after much (much!) exploring, I settled on the inexpensive and perfectly suitable Dover collection Classic Crime Stories, and this week, much welcome relief from the other dull or worrisome things I’m taking care of comes from the three short stories we’re reading about “Great Detectives”: Jacques Futrelle’s “The Problem of Cell 13,” G. K. Chesterton’s “The Blue Cross,” and R. Austin Freeman’s “The Case of Oscar Brodski.” All of them are models of ingenuity in both the construction and the telling of the plot. All of them feature detectives who reason their way to solutions beyond the reach of us ordinary people, but each detective has a unique character and very particular gifts–and one of them, Father Brown, of course also has enormous endearing charm. Futrelle’s Thinking Machine is the least appealing of them, I think: his sheer arrogance is interestingly offset by the way his promise to think his way out of his solitary cell turns out to be, let’s say, misleading (of the three, he’s the one whose solution to his problem is ultimately most un-astonishing–though certainly surprising until explained–and relies the most on quite ordinary kinds of help from other people). The fellow-convict who believes his guilty conscience is driving him to confess provides another example of the Holmes-like trope of the seemingly unnatural element that has a perfectly natural explanation. Father Brown brings a new dimension to the uncomfortable proximity between the criminal and the crime-solver that we have been discussing from the beginning of the course: unlike many famous detectives, he manages to retain his innocence despite his deep understanding of guilt.  “The Case of Oscar Brodski” is the most formally interesting, with its first part (“The Mechanism of Crime”) telling us the crime going forwards, and its second part (“The Mechanism of Detection”) taking us backwards as each bit of evidence is traced to its source and the events are reconstructed. It is also the one with the most violent crime, and thus the one that most emphasizes another uncomfortable aspect of this kind of detective fiction, namely, the lack of human feeling so often displayed as the intellectual problem is given priority. Nobody is particularly upset by the decapitated corpse of poor Brodski! We’ll be spending a lot more time on this problem (if it is one) when we discuss The Murder of Roger Ackroyd starting Friday. Today, I have planned an in-class exercise designed to prompt the students to generate their own commentary on the stories: I asked them to read with an eye to “teachable” moments, explaining (as per my previous post) that they are supposed to be reading actively enough to get what’s interesting and relevant on their own. I’m going to put them in pairs and then larger groups and circulate transparencies for them to write up ‘lecture notes’ on, and then put them up on the overhead projector and see what they’ve come up with.


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…