Weekend Miscellany: Good Reading and Common Pursuits

gaudyAlex in Leeds has started on a new relationship . . . with Peter Wimsey. We all know where this leads – to Gaudy Night, which means punting fantasies and a new appreciation for academic robes of the same size. It has actually been years since I’ve read any of the early Wimsey novels, because I like him so much better once Harriet gets involved. Steve wrote up The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club recently too, but despite these encouraging posts I’m still not very tempted. Maybe I will reread The Nine Tailors soon, if only to make up for having recently given Edmund Wilson the benefit of the doubt on the larger issues.

Tom has started on the Palliser series at Wuthering Expectations and as usual he’s mixing it up, including pressing on the popular idea that Trollope is a “comfort” read:

It has taken me a while, but I am beginning to think of Trollope as a great satirist, mild compared to Jonathan Swift or Evelyn Waugh, but at times as fierce as his mentor William Thackeray.  Or Jane Austen, another writer with fangs and claws who is most frequently read for comfort, available by means of ignoring substantial portions of her writing.

 At The Little Professor, Miriam Burstein reviews Derby Day, a neo-Victorian novel I’d never heard of which is not “Dickensian” (for once) but “Thackerayan,” quite literally in that it reworks Vanity Fair:

this is a novel in which there is room both for Amelia and for Becky Sharp, in which the way of duty yields its successes but so, too, does the way of pure self-interest.

 At Tales from the Reading Room, litlove offers a persuasively positive report on Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland:

In this brilliant portrait of uneasy motherhood, Sittenfeld never lets us forget that anxiety and vigilance go hand in hand, and that each magnifies and reinforces the other, a cultural curse on those who are responsible for the young.

 Sarah Emsley can’t wait any longer to get the anniversary celebrations for Mansfield Park underway:

I think the key to understanding Mansfield Park is that it’s a tragedy, rather than a comedy. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that not many people choose it as a favourite from among Austen’s novels. (Natasha Duquette, who’s writing a guest post on part of Chapter 27 – in which Fanny “had all the heroism of principle” – is an exception. Is there anyone else out there whose favourite Austen novel is Mansfield Park? I would love to hear from you!)

JamaicaInnAt Slaves of Golconda you can read the collected posts on Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, which inspired the most unanimity I’ve seen among readers for a while. I think the reason is the magical balance du Maurier finds between what we now often divide artificially into “literary” and “genre” fiction. The novel is a corker of a read (or at least I thought so – at least one GoodReads reviewer declared it “so so so so so boring,” and another called it a “rancid mess,” so really, what do I know?! YMMV!) but it has more than plot to offer. A lot of our interest went to the heroine, Mary Yellan, who is, as Teresa says in her post, “the kind of heroine many women want to see in novels.”

At A Commonplace Blog, D. G. Myers responds to comments on his earlier post “Academe Quits Me.” His key point there, which I think he’s right has been misinterpreted by some of his respondents, is that “where there is no common body of knowledge, no common disciplinary conceptions, there is nothing that is indispensable.” This is not a lament for the demise of a stable canon, as he explains more fully in the follow-up post, but an observation about one of the practical consequences of the way in which our ‘discipline’ has expanded and thus, inevitably, fragmented or dispersed. We do so many (interesting, worthwhile, intellectually challenging) things that it’s become nearly impossible to point to which ones are fundamental. In some ways this is very exciting (like our world, we are large and contain multitudes!), but in other ways, I think he’s right that (especially when resources are scarce) it has made us strangely vulnerable. As he says, “there is no shimmering and comprehensive surface of knowledge in which any gaps might appear” and as a result any particular area of expertise may be perceived as dispensable.

These comments resonated with me because in my own department, we have suffered (and seem poised to suffer further) losses to our full-time complement, and one of the grounds on which we can supposedly petition for replacements (if only there were some prospect of making any appointments) is ‘program integrity’ – but even internally we can’t agree on what that means any more. It may be that we are dealing with the messiness of a transition from one way of organizing our “common pursuit,” around ideas of coverage (literary historical, generic, regional), to another that thinks more about reading strategies, skills, and contexts — from what to read to how to read. We do a lot of both kinds of things in my department now, but the program (the requirements for the major, for instance) has for a long time been organized around the coverage model (ideas of what to cover have, of course, changed and expanded a great deal in recent decades). I’m not sure this is the right way to describe what’s going on, but I found his posts thought-provoking precisely because they articulated something of the confusion I’ve been feeling over our curriculum and have prompted me to keep thinking about how exactly we might — in principle or strategically — redefine that common pursuit.

Weekend Miscellany: Ethical Criticism, Long-Awaited Reads, Literary Lines, and #AcWriMo

It’s the third dark, rainy day in a row, just the kind of weather to inspire gloom and brooding! Even David Copperfield isn’t entirely working its magic, not only because I don’t feel as if my class sessions on it have been going very well (in response to which I opted to not even try to elicit discussion on Friday — about which I now feel kind of guilty), but because we are deep into the Dora phase of the novel and I hate, hate, hate, HATE Dora. It helps a bit that I know perfectly well we aren’t supposed to adore her the way David does, but she’s still insufferable company, and I don’t like Agnes all that much better: this is the point in the novel at which I can understand why someone might turn against Dickens.

However! Happily, there are people on the internet doing more interesting things than grumbling, so I thought I’d revive an old habit and link around to some of them. I haven’t been a very linky blogger lately, and I feel bad about that, as I have always believed that the connections are a large part of what makes blogging fun, and the generosity of spirit I’ve found among bloggers, too, has always been one of my favorite things about the blogosphere. So without further ado, here are some posts that I’ve enjoyed this weekend.

sophyAt Something More, Liz gives a great example of ethical criticism in practice, as she works through concerns about the Goldhanger scene in Heyer’s The Grand Sophy:

I think Sophy’s judgment of Goldhanger (she tells him exactly what she thinks of his character) is of a piece with the other character judgments she makes in the novel, and the narrative asks us to accede to her judgments–something I do willingly in the other cases. We’re meant to think she is right about people. And her judgments about the right partners for her cousins are partly about who is “the right sort” in a class-based sense. It’s hard to articulate this (and maybe, really, it’s nonsense to see this as at least akin to judging people based on their class), because all the novel’s candidates for marriage are from aristocratic families, but they don’t all share the right aristocratic values and the right type of “good breeding.” Miss Wraxton may be “very English,” as the Marquesa says, but she is also Not Our Kind in some ways.

What I especially appreciate about her thoughtful exploration (brought on by listening to the book and thus being made more self-conscious about “every ugly word”) is that she doesn’t shy away from the problems but she also doesn’t become what Wayne Booth talks about as a “hanging judge.” We have complex responses and responsibilities when it comes to our moral differences from the past. It’s not enough just to say “well, people had different values back then” (because for one thing, even “back then” people did not all think the same — which is one reason why that’s such an inadequate response to the racism in Gone with the Wind). But it’s also inappropriate to say “well, I don’t agree with this book / author in every way and therefore this work is worthless” — though you might well conclude, as Lee Edwards did about Middlemarch, that it can’t be “one of the books of my life.”

At Things Mean a Lot, Ana announces the return of Long-Awaited Reads Month. I love this idea! It’s just the kind of little spur that will be helpful to make me pick up one thing instead of another when I’m browsing my shelves for my next read. I’m actually thinking that since a lot of my non-work reading is 20th-century fiction these days, I might use this as a spur to read one of the Victorian novels I keep meaning to get around to – Collins’s No Name, or Dombey and Son, or perhaps (inspired by Colleen and Tom) something else by Margaret Oliphant.

At Shelf Love, Teresa shows off an elegant Jane Eyre-inscribed coffee mug and invites us to post our own favorite literary lines. This turned out to be surprisingly hard for me! As she notes with a very good example from Dorothy Dunnett’s Pawn in Frankincense, some memorable lines don’t work well out of context. Also, some of my favorite bits are too long to fit on a mug — though I’m inspired now to think about how I might incorporate something from Middlemarch into my next effort at Clay Cafe. I did make my mother a tile there once with a line from Mrs. Dalloway on it — and I made a Jane Austen tile for my sister, too, that I was quite proud of. Do you think a mug that said “Children may be strangled, but deeds never” would give the wrong impression? How about a line of Mr. Casaubon products — perhaps a wall plaque that says “I trust I may be excused for desiring an interval of complete freedom from guests whose desultory vivacity makes their presence a fatigue”?


Teresa also stepped up to provide a great list of choices for the Slaves of Golconda group to vote on. Participation has been a bit sparse recently, though the posts that do get shared are as interesting as ever. If you think you’d enjoy a group read and discussion, you’re welcome to participate.

And at Read React Review, Jessica outlines her admirable plans for #AcWriMo. I’ve never participated in anything like this myself, but her post made me think I should consider it: I have writing projects I want to get done, and it is sometimes difficult (practically and/or psychologically) to give them the time they need. I was also quite struck by her remark that the biggest obstacle to progress is not the internet, but the inner doubts about the value of the work that become “a recipe for staring at a blank screen until the urge to check Twitter takes over.” I’ve been contemplating a “proper” academic article on a book I’ve taught often but never written about. That seems to me a good concrete objective that would be well served by an #AcWriMo. But I am motivated less by a sense that writing and publishing in that way is the best way to share my ideas about it than by a nagging anxiety about the dearth of peer-reviewed publications at the top (i.e. ‘current’) part of my c.v. But the prospect makes me kind of claustrophobic. Shouldn’t the process be the other way around, anyway — shouldn’t I begin by believing that the conversation I want / need to join is going on in those pages (or among their readers)? A well-meaning colleague said to me a while back, after reading one of my Open Letters essays, that I should “really” publish it somewhere. Putting aside the casual ignorance about the way in which the piece was already published, it seems to me a genuine question why I would want it in a less accessible form. Confusions such as these about form and purpose do indeed become recipes for writer’s block and refuge on Twitter — so using Twitter for “social writing” and accountability might be a good thing.