This Week In My Classes: Wrapping Up

The last ten days or so have been all about evaluating the final assignments for my two fall-term classes, Mystery and Detective Fiction and The Somerville Novelists. The students in my Intro to Literature class wrote a last essay for the term too, but that came in earlier and so I was able to turn it around before the final exams and essays and projects came in from the other groups. That means, though, that basically, for about two weeks, I’ve been in what we refer to on Twitter with the hashtag “#gradingjail.”

I went to a teaching workshop a few years ago where the very helpful advice offered was not to assign any writing you won’t want to read when students turn it in. That’s a good idea, but it’s also a ridiculous idea, as any writing instructor knows: there is no assignment so meticulously conceived, there are no instructions so compellingly worded, that every student will be motivated to, much less able to, do a wonderful job. And it’s not the well-intentioned imperfections in assignments by motivated students that drag us down at this time of year: it’s the lame-ass ‘I’m only doing this because you’re making me’ ones, or the ‘everything else was a higher priority so I threw this together at the last minute’ ones, or the ‘I really have no idea how to do this but even though I never came class or to your office hours, I’m still turning something in to see if I can pass’ ones. It’s the ones in which even the authors’ names are misspelled, despite being right there on the book cover for easy reference, or the advice on three previous assignments was ignored, or that show beyond a reasonable doubt that the student never finished the book they are writing about. Though it would be fun (and fast!) to grade a batch of final essays or exams all of which deserved A+ grades, we don’t expect perfect work: these are students, after all, and they’re learning — that’s the point of their being in our classrooms in the first place. But learning really is a two-way street. Exciting as a truly great assignment by an already flourishing student can be, often it’s the students who have, by effort and persistence and caring, and also by consultation, just made their work better who give me the best feeling when I’m marking.

mosley

Happily, I did see some examples of that this term, and overall my sense of all three classes was that most students were doing their level best. One of the biggest surprises of my recent marking was that a significant majority of the answers to the essay question on the Mystery and Detective Fiction exam (on social justice in Devil in a Blue Dress and Indemnity Only, in case you wondered) were very good: smart, articulate, and supported with detailed discussion of examples. It was hard work going through the entire stack of exams, and it took a long time (between students who did the optional final paper and students who mysteriously vanished from the course over time, there were 74 exams in the end, which certainly felt like plenty) but it was a familiar experience, and I think it gave me a good sense of who was really on top of the course material and who really wasn’t, which after all is the point of the exercise.

south riding

Evaluating the wiki projects for the Somerville Seminar, on the other hand, was a new kind of effort. As my Twitter friends know, I felt a lot of stress about these projects while they were still in progress, mostly because despite my urging, not a lot of students put even draft material up early, thus making ‘gardening’ as well as some aspects of collaborating and conceptualizing difficult. But it was also stressful because of the difficulties I knew some groups were having organizing meetings and getting everyone to participate. As I said, rather defensively, to people who responded to my stress by wondering why I assigned group projects in the first place, I have included a group project of some kind in nearly every 4th-year seminar I’ve taught in my 17 years at Dalhousie, and they have always seemed to go very well! So what was different this time? A couple of things, I think. First of all, this time I had a backstage pass: the projects were going up on a shared PBWorks site, so not only could I see posted content, but I got daily reports of which users had been doing what – including, sometimes, discussions among group members about logistics and frustrations. If I had seen only the finished product, as in the past (not counting the mandatory ‘confer with me at least once about your plans’ sessions that are always part of the process), I might never have known it wasn’t a seamless, harmonious process.

Would it have been better for me to hide my eyes? More important, would it have been better for them? In both cases, I think the answer is no. Because the assignment was experimental, for one thing, I needed to know if clarification or intervention was required, which sometimes it was. Also, because one aspect of the assignment was precisely ‘good collaboration among group members,’ I needed to see if this was going on. Without watching the sausage get made, too, there would be no way for me to learn if I had done my part well, in terms of designing the assignment, laying out the instructions, and supporting the class in meeting the requirements. From their point of view, I think my surveillance, though no doubt occasionally felt as intrusive, was mostly a good thing: I did step in with suggestions when I felt they were heading in unhelpful directions, and when I realized how imbalanced the (visible) contributions were getting, I did some covert, as well as some overt, er, motivating.

All in all, then, I think it was not just useful but responsible of me to pay attention to how things were unfolding. Looking over the final projects, which range from good to outstanding, I’m not sorry, either, to have put everyone (myself included) through this difficult process. But I have certainly been thinking about whether I could have made it any less stressful, and this leads me to another way in which these projects differed from previous group assignments: instead of being staggered across the term, they all came due at once; and though there were multiple components, there was really only one explicit deadline. I thought that it would suffice to address the various components through in-class workshops aimed at developing concepts and getting people started, but clearly, though that was not wasted time, people didn’t (mostly) get started. Probably 75% of the final content on the wikis went up in the 2-3 days before the final deadline, and as far as I could tell, a pretty significant amount of the research was done during those days as well. I talked and talked about the importance of doing the projects in stages, and especially about putting content up early so that others could ‘garden’ it, but I think this advice was just too abstract, the required work too amorphous or theoretical. Also, I think most of them wildly underestimated how much work would actually be involved in building the different components (something earlier attempts would, of course, have alerted them to). As a result, these projects lost out in the day-to-day triage, as they did other work that felt more urgent because it had concrete deadlines coming right up. Lesson learned: when (indeed, if) I do anything similar again, I’ll build in more staged deadlines. To me that goes against the atmosphere of open creativity I was trying to foster: setting deadlines means spelling out exactly what has to be done by then, and that’s tricky if you want them to make decisions about what needs to be done in the first place. That’s why I didn’t have more interim deadlines this time–that, and because I thought they would be better at managing their own time. Some of them were, amazingly so, but that didn’t help them too much when they were dependent on others to do their parts. I’m of two minds, really, about how much responsibility to take for some students’ work habits, which is really what we’re talking about here. But ultimately what I want (what I wanted) is to see everyone involved and successful and excited: it made me sad to see, instead, people feeling frustrated, stymied, and harried. If there’s a next time, I’ll see what I can do to structure their time better for them.

Evaluating these projects was challenging for me. There was a lot of content (eventually!) and there were a lot of different aspects to take into account, from layout to research to clarity and focus to effective linking between sections: it made reading a traditional essay seem like a reductively linear process! But in many ways it was a much more interesting task than reading a stack of critical analyses. One reason is that a lot of students wrote about quite obscure books, so I learned a lot myself from the work they had done. Another is that several of the components were more reportage than literary criticism, which meant that the prose was crisper and more straightforward and didn’t need to be read with a painstaking eye to argument or interpretation. One of the hardest parts of commenting on literary essays is trying to grasp what thesis would have worked to unify the examples, or even just to understand what a conceptually garbled sentence or paragraph might have been intended to mean, in order to propose a better version of it. There wasn’t much of that involved here, and that was great! Freed from the obligation to write academic-ese, they proved perfectly capable of saying very insightful things and making all kinds of good connections between texts and contexts and concepts we worked on in the course. That was very satisfying to see, and it encourages me to keep looking for different kinds of writing to assign. Hardly anybody in my classes is going to become an academic critic, after all, so teaching them to write like one seems less and less like it should be my priority. As far as that goes, in fact, everything about these assignments still, in spite of everything, seems like a good idea.

And now my final grades are filed for the two courses that ended, and I’m going to take a break from fretting about teaching for a few days before I turn my attention to the final planning for the winter term. My Introduction to Literature class continues, and I start another round of The 19th-Century British Novel From Dickens to Hardy. As usual, I’ve tweaked the reading list by a book or two, and I have ideas for yet another twist on course requirements … but first, I’m looking forward to returning to Anna Karenina.

“Why did not anything do?” Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

Crewe Train is the first novel by Rose Macaulay I’ve read. I can’t decide if it makes me want to read another! It was easy to read: the prose is brisk, the tone is lightly satirical, the characters and incidents are quirky but mostly engaging. It has something of the flat quality I’ve noticed in other non-modernist novels I’ve read from the twenties and thirties: everything’s just narrated in order, one thing after another, artlessly. Yet of course there is an art to this too: it’s just not an art that makes itself felt.

Crewe Train tells the story of Denham Dobie, the daughter of a widowed English clergyman who can’t stand chatter and sociability and so tries to find a place to live where he can avoid people who “insist on conversing with you.” Unfortunately for him, the English “cannot stay at home” and his quest for perfect peace is ruined by cheerful, well-meaning, annoying people who “insisted on making friends with him and his grave, square-faced, brown-legged girl.” They end up in Andorra: “enquiring about it, he ascertained that it was very difficult of access, being snowbound from November to May, and mountainous all the year round, and that the approach to it was by mule.” Promising as that sounds, Mr. Dobie nonetheless is still unable to cut himself off from life, and ends up remarried and drawn back into society in spite of himself. The irresistible pull of relationships with other people turns out to be a central idea of the novel.

Denham takes after her father in her dislike of “that strange love of human intercourse, of making talk.” She finds other people mostly just puzzling and troublesome in their demands and expectations: “when she saw anyone whom she knew approaching, she plunged aside off the path and lurked hidden until they were passed by.”

Mr. Dobie dies and Denham is taken back to London by her mother’s family, the Greshams. And so the stage is set for the fish-out-of-water comedy that makes up the bulk of the novel. Denham is a perfect device for Macaulay to poke fun at the conventions and morés of high society. She can’t see the point of all the rules–what to wear, what to say, where to sit, when to stand, how to pass one’s time. Since, of course, most of these really are perfectly arbitrary rules, it’s not that hard to satirize the mindless compliance of the Greshams and their friends–but once you get the idea, it’s also not really that interesting or sophisticated a critique. Here’s Denham newly arrived in London, for instance:

London. The problem was, why did so many people live in it? Millions and millions of people, swarming all over the streets, as thick as flies over a dead goat, as buzzing and as busy. Why? Did they all agree with Uncle Peter that nothing was like London and that they must, therefore, be in London, this unique spot? Did they all have to be here? Had they been adopted by relations and brought here, or did they do something here which they couldn’t do elsewhere? . . .

And then the streets. Thousands and thousands of omnibuses, taxis, vans and cars, all roaring down the streets together, like an army going into battle, mowing down with angry trumpetings all human life that crossed their path. Were they all necessary? Was human life in London so cheap? Denham, after the first, had no personal anxieties on this head, for she felt competent to evade the assaults of these monsters; neither had she much pity for the victims, for they could probably well be spared, and certainly the population needed thinning; but it seemed a curious way of doing it.

Funny, right, especially that deft little jab at the end? And the theme is funny in all of its variations, even as its underlying point is serious and well-taken:

With these Greshams life was like walking on a tight-rope. The things you mustn’t do, mustn’t wear. You must, for instance, spend a great deal of money on silk stockings, when, for much less, you could have got artificial silk or Lisle thread. Why?  Did not these meaner fabrics equally clothe the leg? Why had people agreed that one material was the right wear and that others did not do? Why did not anything do?

The same with gloves, with shoes, with frocks, with garments underneath frocks. In all these things people had set up a standard, and if you did not conform to it you were not right, you were left. . . You had, somehow or other, to conform to a ritual, to be like the people you knew.

It’s not only expensive living up to these standards, but it is also a lot of trouble, and if there’s one thing Denham hates, it’s going to any trouble. She dreams “of a life in which one took practically no trouble at all. One would be alone; one would have no standards; there would be a warm climate and few clothes, and all food off the same plate, if a plate at all. And no conversation.” Awash  in the trivial chatter and clutter of London society, Denham goes along to get along, but it’s all folly, as far as she’s concerned.

The novel follows Denham to marriage (to Arnold Chapel, a writer) and then a pregnancy that (happily, from her perspective) ends in a miscarriage — imagine how much trouble motherhood would be! Despite these gestures towards normalcy, she still craves escape, and she finds what she thinks is the perfect alternative to the Greshams’ lifestyle in an ill-kept Cornish cottage complete with a smuggler’s passage to the sea and a cave she sets up as her parlor. Then, when her privacy in this not-so-bucolic retreat is destroyed by a news story about her eccentric choices, she heads off on a bicycle tour, believing that in constant motion she can free herself from the constraints of society.

No such luck, however. Just as her father was drawn into a second marriage by “madness of the blood” and Denham herself also into marriage by her own passionate response to Arnold’s kisses, so once again it’s passion that thwarts Denham’s plans as she has an affair with a fisherman and becomes pregnant again. Her return home feels something like a failure, as she’s clearly capitulating, of necessity, to the trivialities and domesticities she has always hated. For all that human relationships are troublesome and social conventions pointless, life outside them is an impossibility, a fantasy. “Love,” reflects Denham, “was the great taming emotion”:

Oh, life itself was the trap, and love the piece of toasted cheese that baited it, and, the bait once taken, there was no escape.

It’s a potentially poignant moment, but I felt disoriented at the end of the novel about how Macaulay really meant to steer us. So society is silly and superficial–but Denham’s life and thoughts hardly offer us an exhilarating alternative. She’s no untamed genius, no blooming wildflower ruined by her new unnatural environment, no free spirit caught and tragically tamed. She’s dull, sluggish, literal, unimaginative, anti-intellectual, and, in her own dogged way, entirely selfish. She can’t see any motive for doing anything other than for personal pleasure or satisfaction. She holds up no positive value except individual freedom–and not freedom of a high order (political freedom, freedom of the mind, freedom from oppression, freedom to create or worship or love) but just freedom to do what you feel like doing and nothing else. She thinks books are pointless, plays are “tedious stuff,” children are a nuisance. At times I thought perhaps it was Denham who was being satirized (“What a trade it was, increasing the number of books in a world already stocked with them! As bad as parents, who increased the number of people”). I suppose there’s no reason why the scoffing couldn’t go in both directions. Society: can’t live with it, can’t live without it! But the novel would have been more compelling to me–it would have seemed like more than an eccentrically amusing story–if there had been a clearer sense of what the costs are of the two options. I guess I like my social comedy to have a stronger undercurrent of moral seriousness. Vanity Fair, this isn’t.

Crewe Train is this moth’s reading for the Slaves of Golconda reading group. I’m posting here a bit early because I have another big deadline at the end of the week; I’ll cross-post it over there on November 17th. I’m looking forward to seeing what the other readers thought of the book!

Margaret Kennedy, The Outlaws on Parnassus

Preparing for reading The Constant Nymph in my Somerville Novelists seminar, I was intrigued to learn that in her Times obituary Margaret Kennedy was accorded little significance as a novelist while her book on the novel, The Outlaws on Parnassus, was considered her greatest literary contribution. I promptly ordered it from interlibrary loan, and it arrived just in time for me to take a look at it before we wrap up our discussions on Friday.

First published in 1958, The Outlaws on Parnassus harks back to works like E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel rather than anticipating the more theoretical wave of criticism to come. It’s an idiosyncratic book, including  taxonomies of forms and styles along with reflections on the role of the novel and of the critic. Kennedy begins from the point that the novel is a “late arrival” and thus does not have a clear, established place among the other older arts. The relatively low and ill-defined status of the novel is one factor, she proposes, for the dearth of serious criticism of the novel; the other is the perceived redundancy of such criticism given the apparent ease of both reading and writing novels: “The other arts strike the average man as being much more mysterious and as making more strenuous demands upon him.” Novelists, too, she thinks, are uneasy about where they fit and what their work is worth.

I enjoyed her analysis of the fundamental problem confronting the would-be critic:

It is a great misfortune for any human activity if the Greeks, as was seldom the case, had no word for it. The chances are that it will stagger through the ages shackled by ambiguities, since it never got itself thoroughly defined at the start. The most useful words in which to discuss it are missing, and there is no original debate to which any dispute can be referred.

In a discussion of the drama, for instance, it is always possible to ask what Aristotle meant by irony, pathos, the unities, and the protagonists. Since he never deliberated upon the novel we do not know what meaning he would have attached to a plot or a story save in relation to tragic drama. If he did not define these things, who can? Who should?

Who should, indeed? The Outlaws of Parnassus is, of course, Kennedy’s own contribution to defining “these things” plot, story, narrative voice all get some attention, with examples drawn from Homer to Austen to Scott to Tolstoy to Joyce. Kennedy’s approach is pluralistic: she focuses on what different strategies enable, or on when and why various trends emerged, rather than declaring any of them preferable. A sample from her chapter “The Language of Thought”:

Scott, when he wrote this passage [from Waverley], would not have maintained that it was an accurate transcription of thought. He had taken some trouble to convey the state of mind. The soliloquy is addressed to the victim, which is obviously right. We are told that the dying man’s whisper rang continually, like a knell: “Ah, Squire! Why did you leave us?” The paternal fields have been identified as a boyhood memory for both of them, and a picture conjured up of a cottage and bereaved friends: “old Job Houghton and his dame” to whom the penitent has promised to be kind if he ever gets home. In 1814 no novelist would have thought it necessary or possible to do more. Few would have done as much.

By 1914 it was felt to be necessary, and possibilities were therefore explored. Writers using an orchestra of minds to tell their story for them were obliged to consider, not only the exact language of the mind, but the variety of language, as used by different minds. A technical device developed which has sometimes been called “interior monologue.” It is a soliloquy purporting to be bounded entirely by the thinker’s character, idiom, vocabulary and range of expression.

As a device it bristles with problems. . . .

After discussion of, among other things, Molly Bloom’s “reverie at the end of Ulysses,” Kennedy returns to Scott to note that when most fully possessed with a character, as she thinks he was with Jeanie Deans, exceeds “the conventions of his age” and “indicates those small, subtle changes of style and vocabulary,dictated by mood, which are the essence of the whole business; he indicates them with a certainty for which many a writer in this century, grinding out interior monologue, might envy him.” That’s the kind of moment that made The Outlaws on Parnassus winning for me–it’s not that Scott is good only insofar as he anticipates later fictional priorities, but that he’s not to be underestimated because these were not routinely his priorities.

Kennedy gets kind of snarky when she gets to the more self-conscious era of the modern novel, especially when talking about novelists who focused making the novel “professional” or “serious.” About James, Moore, and Conrad, she notes,

All three were tremendously interested in the theory of the novel; they believed that a writer ought to be able to determine in advance what a good novel should be, instead of writing one, as their forbears had done, in the hope that it would turn out to be good.

Things only got worse as novelists decided that their watchword, their measure of good, serious art, should be “integrity”: “The fact that bad artists can have it too was not so generally recognized.” Shes impatient with attempts to distinguish on this basis between potboilers and real novels, or between art and non-art, an effort she sees as a diversion from the critic’s real task, which is “to distinguish between bad art and good art, and, above all, to help us to understand why good art is good.” Attempts to delimit the field of art a priori, on the basis of intentions, are fundamentally mistaken; as she says with admirable understatement, “It is not by a yard-stick of intentions that we can measure the distance between East Lynne and Middlemarch.”

However, the twentieth century saw the rise of “dogma” about “the only possible and permissible way” of writing novels. She looks at “naturalism,” for instance, which she sees as having given novelists new tools and ways “to say some things which had not been said before” (a good thing) but which, taken as dogma, could also lead novelists into error: “at length it became clear that there is no intrinsic magic in the formula . . . a formula can beget nothing on the imagination.” The alternative to the dogma of naturalism or realism is what she calls “the novel of egocentric perception.” Here her touchstone text is Woolf’s essay “Modern Fiction,” which she quotes at length, including the “gig lamps symmetrically arranged” bit. Rather than insisting on scrupulous fidelity to external details, the novelist wedded to this dogma “bases all on the writer’s own feeling . . . [and] shuns the external.” This too is an enabling dogma in the right hands (“by its first advocates [the Bloomsbury Group] it was regarded as a formula for the rare, the gifted, the chosen few”). But as with realism, egocentrism — however excellent in theory –could be only as good  in practice as the individual novelist:

Amongst novelists the good news spread that they need no longer provide plot, comedy, tragedy, love interest, nor catastrophe in order to get top marks. Many adopted the new method who had never got nearer to Bloomsbury than Clapham Junction. They did not see why they should not be as rare and gifted and chosen as anybody else.

The failures of “writers who should never have attempted the method” incited a backlash and “the dogma collapsed so suddenly that those who had put their shirts on it had no resource save to declare furiously that the whole art of the novel must be, in such cases, defunct.” Yet Kennedy believes that “frontier land between the novel and poetry” which “the novel of egocentric perception” had explored was worth the risks and rejoices that such experimentation had made it possible for novelists such as Elizabeth Bowen and Eudora Welty to have “a large public.” Pluralistic, as I said, a point that is reinforced by her chapter “The Choice” which surveys formal options available to novelists (with examples from Richardson, Fielding, Homer, Bennett, and Bowen) and concludes:

In making a possible list for the attic these questions can be put: Why was the form chosen? Did it suit the material? Did the author appear to understand it? Had he the gifts required by those who use it? Is any departure from it deliberate, an experiment, or merely an indication that he did not perceive its limitations? Upon the answers will depend the sheer readability of the book in thirty years’ time. Whether, even it is readable, it will be read, is another matter. That depends upon content. He need not sign his own death-warrant in advance. If he does so sign it, however striking the content, to the attic he will go.

One way this commentary seems relevant to the reading I’ve been doing for my Somerville seminar is precisely that point about choosing the form to suit the material: one of the most useful critical pieces I’ve read is an essay on Winifred Holtby and Woolf (previously discussed here) that points out that by the time Holtby wrote her novels, there were clear stylistic and formal alternatives to the social realism she chose.

There’s much more of interest in this little volume, including a chapter on didacticism in fiction (charmingly titled, “Anyway, I think so!”), another on ethics, another  on “Faking” (including a bit on famous writers who produce a “Reputational Novel,” one written only “because he thinks that his reputation demands another addition to literature”). But I’ll take my last excerpts here from her concluding chapter on “The Goosefeather Bed,” in which Kennedy takes up arms against “the appearance of a new critical term: the serious novelist.” In this chapter she laments the tendency of critics to set aside “the labour of identifying and defining the good” in favour of guaranteeing a writer’s seriousness, defined largely in opposition to his commercialism. “Seriousness” used to be a meaningful term, she says, but now is little more than a good conduct prize, indicating “a miserable decline in critical standards.” In fact, Kennedy argues, there ought to be no such distinction between types of novels, all of whom “share the great goosefeather bed of General Fiction.” What seems to bother her most, again, seems to be the idea that you can or should discriminate between kinds of novels or novelists, rather than between good and bad novels. She urges as broadminded a concept of fiction as possible, on the grounds that it is ultimately the freedom from rules, constraints, and categories that

enabled novelists in the past to write as they pleased, under a label which might be inadequate but which never quenched those who had no mind to be quenched. It never fettered or silenced the giants who won for the novel a whom on Parnassus, and to whom it owes liberty and dignity.

‘The Secret Fortresses of Her Mind’: Winifred Holtby, The Land of Green Ginger

Once again, I’ve finished a book from my Somerville cluster feeling, paradoxically, both engaged and adrift: it’s as if these novels have their own idiolect, their own set of terms and meanings and tropes that are related to the ones I know from my other reading, or from the general ideas I’ve picked up from reading literary history, but are somehow not quite of them. This one, The Land of Green Ginger, is Holtby’s third novel, published in 1927, after Anderby Wold (1923) and The Crowded Street (1924). It centers on Joanna Burton, a young woman full of a kind of coltish ungainly enthusiasm and romantic dreams of foreign lands and fairy tales. She’s an unlikely heroine: she’s foolish, impulsive, naive, socially awkward. But she’s also loving, with an unquenchable thirst for life and hope for better things. It takes all the dreary events of the novel (and they do rather pile up) to crush her spirit.

Joanna’s fantasies of travel and adventure come to nothing when she falls for Teddy Leigh, a handsome young man who seems as fanciful as she. Teddy comes back from the trenches of the First World War flattened by tuberculosis, a medical history he had suppressed well enough to pass as fit and be accepted into the army but which now returns with a vengeance. He and Joanna take up farming but are spectacularly unsuccessful: the work is relentless, the money is poor, and Teddy’s health gets worse and worse. They have two children, one of whom is sickly. Joanna can barely manage: she was never particularly competent before, and now all she has going for her is dogged persistence.

Like Anderby Wold and South RidingThe Land of Green Ginger offers no pastoral idyll: it shows us country life full of grime, blood, and sweat. Joanna tries to compensate for her real life by sustaining her fantasy life, but I think the novel shows this as ultimately disabling: until she faces up to the life she’s actually living, she can never be in control of it. Her tendency to live in her own head also makes her oblivious to the interpretations of her life that are made by those around her, a problem that becomes a crisis when rumours begin to circulate that she is having an affair with a Hungarian laborer, a dispossessed nobleman named Paul Szermai, who rooms with the Leighs. It’s true that she sees him as the embodiment of one of her fairy tales: in her eyes he’s “Young Tam Lin,” and he brings not only welcome help and money to the household but a different and disruptive energy. She feels only kindness for him, though, and it’s her interference with his mental life that causes a crisis between them: her sympathy inspires him to tell her the story of his suffering and loss at the hands of the Bolsheviks, culminating in the death of his fiancée. Paul becomes obsessed with Joanna, despite (as he tells her with painful bluntness) her lack of beauty, grace, or wit: in his mind, she has come between him and his beloved, and he feels that only by possessing Joanna can he recover that lost intimacy. In the meantime, Teddy is miserably aware of his own decrepitude: his doctor has ordered him to avoid exertion or excitement, so he and Joanna are no longer sleeping together, and he’s sure she and Paul are lovers.

Of course things come to a crisis, but the oddity of the novel seems to me to be Joanna’s role in all of this. She is not attracted by Paul, not tempted to infidelity, annoyingly tolerant and forgiving of Teddy’s bellicosity and paranoia. She’s too awkward and confused herself to drive the plot forward, even though she’s at its center: for her, what that means is being beset on all sides by demands and expectations. After Paul tells her his horrific tale, she can’t even lose herself in dreams any more:

Always she saw that horror. Whenever she dared to dream and to seek her kingdom, she found Paul Szermai waiting there, bearing with him his unbearable memories.

They pressed about her. They besieged her, the miseries of these men, they entered with their incessant demands the secret fortresses of her mind. She had no place of refuge from their clamorous sorrows.

‘Oh, must I bear it all for you? I have made your beds and cooked your meals for you. I have born your children and nursed your bodies in sickness. Is there no end, no end? Must you take my dreams? Will you leave me nothing, not even the untouched privacy of my imagination?’

If there is a common thread among the Holtby novels I’ve read, I think it’s visible here in that plea by a woman for room to create her own story, especially without deference to, or even reference to, the imperatives of men. For most of the novel, Joanna is hardly conscious of this longing, or at least can hardly articulate it. She seems to be blundering around, intellectually and ideologically, wanting to experience something good and beautiful more than she wants to achieve anything in particular or stand up for anything at all. She just keeps trying to do the right thing–and, as she finally realizes, she just keeps failing, over and over, at least by any external measures.

Towards the end of the novel she finally realizes that her life is in complete chaos. The precipitating events are closely connected: Teddy, enraged beyond reason by his suspicions and his hatred of his own weakness, rapes her, and she can only protest but not fight back, afraid “of his treacherous heart.” For her this is a moment of belated revelation: “She had thought her mind free to create its own enchanting world. . . . And all the time reality had imprisoned her.” She cannot escape the life of the flesh for the life of the mind. But even as she comes at last to “face the facts” of her captivity, Teddy dies of a hemorrhage brought on by his violent exertion.

Freed of Teddy, Joanna still cannot create a good life for herself: pregnant from the rape, she learns that everyone in the village assumes the child is Paul’s, and that because of her reputation nobody will work for her in the house or on the farm. At this point the distinction between reality and fantasy is irrelevant, she thinks: “It was not the truth but people’s idea of the truth which made it possible for one to live in society.” Having faced up to the real world with innocent courage, she finds that it offers her “no safety”:

She had lost hold on its essential code of manners. She did not know how to behave. She did not feel that she was the right person to be live here. . . . She had known pain before, the enriching pain of love, the futile pain of anxiety, the dragging pain of impotence before the suffering of others. But this knowledge of desolation which made her feel that the ground upon which she trod was hollow, that the world she saw was only a phantasm, that she was lost in an alien place where neither her courage nor her love could guide her, this brought the horror of defeat.

Bereft of fantasy, defeated by reality, Joanna somehow finds the strength to start all over, taking the children and returning to South Africa, where she was born but has never lived. The novel ends with her on the voyage, poised on the brink of a future that just might be better than the past. It seems a fragile, lonely hope, but there’s something unexpectedly inspiring about it. “It is true, you know,” she says to her daughter about their dreams of their new life. “If nothing nice ever happens again, this is true”–that is, as I read it, truth lies, paradoxically, in that unrealized moment of expectation.It lies in the moment of discovering a street named “The Land of Green Ginger” when you’re looking for “Commercial Lane,” as little Joanna does early in the novel when out walking with her aunts in prosaic Kingsport. The aunts won’t turn down that street, but in that moment, at least you can be sure it’s there, and who knows where it might lead: “to Heaven, to Fairy Land, to anywhere, anywhere, even to South Africa.”

South Riding: They like it! They really, really like it!

I’ve just finished rereading South Riding, ready for our final discussion of the novel in the Somerville seminar tomorrow. I was caught up in it both intellectually and emotionally, more than I was when I first read it last spring. Rereading made the subtleties of the novel’s construction more apparent: the sophisticated way Holtby weaves together the stories of her vast array of characters, the tensions between their disparate visions for their own lives and the life of their community, the ironies of unintended consequences, the conflicts between political commitments and personal affections, the books each named for a council committee. More apparent also this time was the role of the communal events (concerts, festivals)  in returning us over and over to the intermingling of these lives and values. Though there are strong personalities that dominate the novel, it is, ultimately, a social novel, and our realization that even the strongest individuals cannot really shape their own destiny–cannot control either the forces of history or the forces of their own nature–is shared, in the end, by Sarah Burton, who in a different novel would be the heroine but here learns to subordinate her ego to a communal story.

I think she also learns to accept that there are currents in life outside her control. I wrote before of my dissatisfaction with Sarah’s discovery of her love for Carne. I still find it melodramatic in its presentation, but on this reading I had more ideas about how it belonged, thematically, to this novel. Sarah arrives in South Riding keen to bring reason to bear in the service of progress and reform. In a pivotal exchange with Mrs. Beddows, she asserts,

I think we have to play our own Providence – for ourselves and for future generations. If the growth of civilisation means anything, it means the gradual reduction of the areas ruled by chance – Providence, if you like.

Mrs. Beddows feels “sorry for the wilful unbroken girl before her.” South Riding is partly the story of how Sarah’s will is broken, and I’ve been thinking that her love for Carne is one of the ways that happens. Love – passion – desire – is not reasonable; it cannot be brought neatly under our control. It is, I think, shown as part of the natural world, in which raw forces like sex and death wreak havoc on well-laid plans. Many of the novel’s subplots, in fact, show people’s lives similarly wrought upon by their intractably physical elements: people get sick, they get pregnant, they inherit ‘tainted blood,’ they die. Sarah knows that Carne represents, politically, everything she opposes, and yet she loves him. Her feelings are characterized, in one of Holtby’s characteristically dry chapter titles, as a form of temporary insanity. In her conversation with Sarah after Carne’s death, Mrs. Beddows helps her to see that love carried her past their ideological differences: it was a response to Carne’s full presence and complexity as a human being. “He was everything I dislike most,” exclaims Sarah, ” – reactionary, unimaginative, selfish, arrogant, prejudiced.” “He may have been all that you say he was,” responds Mrs. Beddows,

but he was much more. He was courageous and kind and honest. He was, in dealing with people, the gentlest man I ever knew. He knew all about loving. . . . He never ran away from failure; he never whined, never deceived himself, never blamed other people when things went wrong. In the end – it’s not politics nor opinions – it’s those fundamental things that count – the things of the spirit.

Without suggesting that specific policies don’t matter, Holtby advocates the primacy of humanity over ideology. That’s an ideal, she suggests, for how we live our individual lives, but it’s also the model she endorses for civic government, because, in the novel’s simplest and most compelling idea of all, we’re all in it together. Thus Sarah’s conclusion:

She was one with the people around her, who had suffered shame, illness, bereavement, grief and fear. She belonged to them. Those things which were done for them – that battle against poverty, madness, sickness and old age – was fought for her as well. She was not outside it.

We end not with Sarah’s love for Carne, but with her love for the South Riding.

South Riding has been a hit with the class. Frankly, I’ve been both pleased and a little bit puzzled by their outspoken enthusiasm. It’s buoying, for sure, not just for me, but especially for them, given that before long they are going to be deep into their independent reading projects, and I think their expectations are now higher about what they might find as they explore other books that they hadn’t heard of before. The things they like about the book include its range of characters, its political and social engagement, and its dry humor. I was worried that they would find the novel too diffuse, but they’ve talked a lot, with enthusiasm, about the frequent changes in perspective and how Holtby keeps shifting and complicating how we see people and situations. We can’t ever rest in simple judgments, seems to be the message they are taking away from that. The introduction of the love plot provoked a lot of discussion, but mostly they had accepted Sarah’s declaration less skeptically than I had. To be fair, it’s prepared for by a broad hint on the back cover blurb, as one student pointed out with justifiable annoyance. But they liked the frankness of Sarah’s confrontation with her feelings and the way her love contradicts her political principles. I’m curious to find out how they react when they see how things turn out! It is certainly not a conventional romance plot.

It’s great that they like it and are really energized to talk about it. I know I won’t have to carry the discussion tomorrow! But at the same time, I am reminded why I usually try to set the terms of my classes to rule out a lot of talk about ‘liking’ or ‘not liking.’ I have allowed, even encouraged, them to explain why they like South Riding, partly because it’s so clear that they do and it’s interesting to know why. And their positive response to the book is clearly motivating them to think about it and ask questions about it and make connections and generally be good readers of it. Yet there’s also a temptation for them to use the book they do like as a stick to beat the books they didn’t like as much or didn’t find as easy to appreciate–that is, both of the other books we’ve read for the course.* There’s a risk in setting up South Riding as a standard for success, as if other books that have very different aims and methods are not as good in some absolute way: for our purposes, that’s not a very productive way to proceed. It encourages complacency about their own preferences and interpretations and reading habits, which is just the kind of thing I’m guarding against when I worry that I’m not challenging my own reading of Gaudy Night. I’m certainly not sorry that so many of them seem so fired up about South Riding. I’m just going to do my best to channel the resulting energy back into ideas about why Holtby’s form and style serves her ideas so well, while Brittain and Sayers are doing other kinds of things.

*I can’t help but reflect that this is how I sometimes use Middlemarch. Ahem. But my purposes here are not the same as my purposes in the classroom. If I were teaching Madame Bovary I would save the possibility of a comparative critique of that kind for the very last day. The rest of the time would be all about appreciating Flaubert for being Flaubert. Honest!

Reading and Research Redux: The Somerville Novelists Project

I admit, my earlier question “When is reading research?” was a bit disingenuous: obviously, research is purposeful reading. Of course, this definition can get batted around a bit too, depending on how you define your purpose: the pursuit of pleasure? aesthetic enrichment? familiarity with current best-sellers? Perhaps it’s better to say that, at least in a university context, research is reading in pursuit of knowledge, or reading directed towards solving a problem or answering a question or accomplishing a task. As Jo VanEvery also points out in her recent post on this topic, though, we have become preoccupied with the results of that reading, so that oddly, the process of exploration fundamental to defining a question in the first place has become devalued. And in universities we have also become preoccupied with research funding as a measure of productivity and success. If you don’t have a grant, you aren’t doing it right. Here, for instance, (with specifics expunged) is what the Assistant Dean of Research for my Faculty reported at the last Faculty meeting:

X has been awarded a —- Grant; X and Y have received a —- Grant for a conference… —- Grant applications this year are numerous and promising; X’s project on Y received a very positive mid-term review [from its funding agency].

At a recent presentation from one of our VP’s for research, at which he tracked our “success” and goals exclusively in terms of granting dollars, he made the point that money is measurable and thus is the easiest aspect of research to track and evaluate. The same is true, of course, of publications. But (as I and others pointed out to him emphatically in the Q&A that followed) that’s only true if the rubric you want to use is a pie chart or bar graph. If you really understand (as he claimed to) that research funding does not tell the whole story about research productivity, much less about the value of any given research project (especially in the arts and humanities), why continue using such inadequate tools? Perhaps there are fields of research in which research is better explained in a narrative, rather than a PowerPoint slide. Would it be too much, I wonder, to try to change our habits so that we acknowledge other dimensions of research activity–and stopped sending the incessant message that the best research is the most expensive? What about research that culminates in new classes, also? Isn’t that work valuable to the university? Isn’t that a purpose to which universities are fundamentally committed? You wouldn’t think so, by the way the term “research” is typically used on campus.

In any case, I can tell when my own reading has crossed into research of that more recognizable kind because I start to think about it in terms of obligations–things I should look up, things I need to know in order to achieve my purpose. I start to think in terms of depth and definition: more about this and this and this, but not that. Still, it’s always hard to draw the lines: there are no external rules about relevance, so you have to keep reading somewhat open-endedly as you figure out just how it is that you are going to define your project. There’s not a question “out there” waiting for me to turn my attention (and my students’ attention) to it: I have to mess around in all kinds of material until I see what I could do with it that is interesting and new. This conceptual work is, for me, among the most interesting and creative phase: there’s the whole “tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” and then there’s your part of it, but where that begins and ends, and why, is something that, in literary research at least, is rarely self-evident.

I’m in that happy stage right now with my Somerville novelists reading. I have defined a purpose for it–my fall seminar–and the reading I had been doing out of personal interest, which had included all of Brittain’s Testament volumes as well as the volume of Brittain and Holtby’s journalism, some of their fiction (as well as Margaret Kennedy’s), and some biographical materials, is now the first phase of a more deliberate investigation. I think this phase is happy for me because it involves focus but not the kind of micro-specialization that would be required to say or do anything research-like on Middlemarch now. Instead of having to read abstruse ruminations on theoretical or other kinds of topics that have less and less to do with the things that excite me about Middlemarch, reading I would be doing only out of a weary sense of professional duty (must keep up with the latest!), I’m doing reading I’m genuinely interested in–maybe because this material has simply not attracted the degree of scholarly attention Middlemarch has, it’s still possible to talk about it quite directly and with a real sense of discovery.

Here are some of the books I’ve collected so far for this research:

Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends. Ed. Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge (I’ll be posting a bit about this soon, as I’m over half way through – the stories are familiar from Testament of Youth but the letters in full have a remarkable immediacy and personality)

Winifred Holtby, Women and A Changing Civilization (I have a sad feeling that this 1934 book may have more relevance today than we’d like – “Wherever a civilisation deliberately courts its old memories, its secret fears and revulsions and unacknowledged magic, it destroys that candour of co-operation upon which real equality only can be based,” Holtby observes near the end – and flipping another page, I find “we must have effective and accessible knowledge of birth control.” Yes, I thought we’d had some of these fights before!)

Vera Brittain, The Women at Oxford

Vera Brittain, Lady into Woman: A History of Women from Victoria to Elizabeth II (I’m curious to see what this reads like in comparison to the many volumes of women’s historical biography I worked with for my Ph.D. thesis, later my book)

Susan Leonardi, Dangerous By Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists (as far as I know, this is the only critical work specifically dedicated to my seminar topic, and so far it is my main source for other relevant titles)

Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. (This collection includes an essay Lynne Layton specifically on “Vera Brittain’s Testament(s)” as well as some useful-looking contextual ones.)

Jane Roland Martin, Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman.

This list shows the some of the frameworks that I expect will be important to talking about the core readings for the seminar in a rich and informed way: the stories of the writers; their works (our “primary” sources); the history of women at Oxford and in WWI (which means making sure I am reasonably well-prepared about general contexts); and theories and contexts on women and education, particularly university education. Each of the writers we’ll look at in detail will also raise more particular questions: with Sayers, for instance, the history of detective fiction will be of some relevance.

Doesn’t this sound like fun? That I’m excited about it makes me think it isn’t really research after all: research is work, right? Reading for pleasure isn’t work. And yet it can be, of course, and that’s the ideal of this kind of career–that it lets you do what you love, as well as you can, to make your living. That love itself can’t be the sole purpose of your reading makes sense in a professional context, but I’ve read an awful lot of scholarly writing that seems motivated by nothing more than the need to make certain moves in order to pass professional hurdles. In a previous post I quoted C. Q. Drummond saying “policies of forced publication never brought into being–nor could ever have brought into being–those critical books that have been to me most valuable.” Too much of the apparatus and discourse of research in the university seems to me to emphasize and reward everything but love of learning: it favors, as I said in that earlier post, “a narrow model of  output, a cloistered, specialized, self-referential kind of publishing supported, ideally, by as large an external grant as possible.” This project so far has been supported only by me, with some help from my university library. So it won’t ever get me mentioned in the Assistant Dean’s report (just as my publications in Open Letters had no place, literally, at the display of recent books and articles put on in my Faculty)–especially if its only output is a class, not an academic article or book. I haven’t ruled out that kind of result down the road, but I haven’t defined it as a plan yet either. In the meantime, I’m going to keep calling what I’m doing “research.”