This Week In My Classes: Subversive Women

The March madness continues – indeed, I’ve been wondering how I managed not just to read but also to blog about actual books more than once last week. I felt quite on top of things for a bit, but two sets of papers have just come in, more paper proposals are incoming even as I write, and by Friday I’ll have another set of tests to mark … whew! The trick is just to take it one item at a time, and to take regular breaks for tea and treats. 🙂

When I’m not marking, I’m still prepping and teaching, of course, which this week has meant finally beginning the unit on romance in Pulp Fiction. The assigned readings for Monday–Liz Fielding’s “Secret Wedding” and an excerpt from Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels giving Loretta Chase’s “rules” for the genre–were chosen to highlight expectations and conventions associated with romance novels; I also assigned Jennifer Crusie’s “Defeating the Critics” as a useful precis of some of the oft-heard criticisms of romance and how they might be responded to. We haven’t had a chance to discuss this material yet, as I typically start a new unit with an overview lecture to provide some historical background, critical contexts, and relevant vocabulary.

In this case that meant, among other things, talking about what historical or conceptual parameters we might use to define “romance fiction,” from its connections to the 19th-century marriage plot novel (with some discussion of whether Jane Austen is a romance novelist) to the genre requirements identified by the RWA. With an eye to complicating generalizations about the genre as a whole, I also outlined some of the various subgenres, from Regency to paranormal. While I emphasized the similarities between romance and the other genres we’ve studied–all popular forms not widely considered “literary,” all strongly governed by recognizable tropes and a relationship of reciprocal knowingness between authors and readers, etc.–I went on to talk about ways romance is different, in its extraordinary popularity and in both the degree and the kind of contempt it provokes. (I actually quoted a bit from William Giraldi’s screed, about how romance is “uniformly awful and awfully uniform,” to show them I wasn’t exaggerating.) Along with suggestions about the way the reception and perception of romance is gendered, I noted the powerful literary and cultural tradition of punishing women for their sexuality, against which recent romances in particular, with their emphasis on agency, consent, and mutual satisfaction, can be seen as empowering and subversive. That was a lot to cover even in a cursory way, and my hope is not that I gave anything like definitive accounts of or positions on these topics but that I laid out an array of ideas for us to draw on as we move into our specific readings, including Lord of Scoundrels.

In 19th-Century Fiction we’ve been finishing up Lady Audley’s Secret, which can of course be read as utterly hostile to sexually powerful women — or as a subversive challenge to a world that condemns them for using the only power patriarchy allows them. I can never decide which of the two I think it is, which I have come to consider a sign of Braddon’s (relative) weakness as a novelist: she is a great story-teller, but I’m never convinced, by the end of Lady Audley’s Secret, that she herself has completed sorted out the victim / villain alternatives for her heroine. Is Lucy’s fate well and truly justified (because she is both ruthless and shockingly free of remorse), or is she herself justified in the drastic steps she took, because she was fighting for her survival against an implacable man and a pitiless system? It’s possible that the very ambiguity of the ending is the point: it opens up disquieting possibilities in both directions, leaving us to puzzle out where our own politics or moral principles take us. It is certainly a very entertaining novel, and in that respect at least I think it is also well-timed for this class at this overloaded time of term: discussions have actually been livelier than usual! That said, we start on Tess of the d’Urbervilles next week, which is bound to bring us all down. It’s not my fault: the course is called “19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy.” If you know an uplifting Hardy novel I could sub in for Tess or Jude, do let me know.

“Multiplicity of the Self”: Kerry Clare, Mitzi Bytes

The problem with the multiplicity of the self — an idea that appealed to minds as wide-ranging as Virginia Woolf’s and Lolo’s, not to mention Cher’s — was that you never knew which part of you anybody was talking about. The problem with the multiplicity of the self was that there could be enough of you to get spread all over town.

I knew I wanted to read Mitzi Bytes as soon as I saw that it was being pitched as “a grown-up Harriet the Spy for the digital age.” Harriet the Spy was one of my favorite books as a child — though I discovered today that, to my dismay, I apparently no longer have my well-worn copy. I loved the premise of Mitzi Bytes: a pseudonymous blogger who gets “outed,” just as Harriet does, and then must disentangle herself from the consequences. And I knew I could trust Kerry Clare to tell a good story, one with wit and tenderness, but also with some bite, because these qualities are all on display at her excellent blog Pickle Me This, as well as in her conversations on Twitter, where we are what Sarah Lundy, the protagonist of Mitzi Bytes, might call “virtual friends.”

Mitzi Bytes did not disappoint: I enjoyed it from start to finish. Even better, I was interested in it, particularly in the questions it raises about voice, identity, and perception, and about how (or whether) we really know ourselves or each other. [Warning: though I’m not going to walk through the many entertaining twists of the plot, I’m also not going to avoid spoilers.] When the novel begins, Sarah believes that her identity is divided between the person she is “IRL” and the persona she inhabits on her blog:

Was Sarah Lundy Mitzi Bytes? She said she owned her words, but did she really? Once upon a time, Sarah had aspired to be Mitzi. She’d needed a life, so she’d invented one, and for a while, the two led the very same existence, one whose adventures she’d turned into stories because the stories were all that she had. But somewhere along the line, her two selves had diverged.

Sarah feels safe in her online anonymity because she assumes nobody she knows would recognize her in herself. But when her secret life is exposed, this comforting belief proves naive. Though some of the people in Sarah’s life have indeed been ‘Mitzi Bytes’ readers without identifying her, it turns out, for instance, that no pseudonym could hide her from her mother, and though her husband had no idea ‘Mitzi Bytes’ existed, Mitzi herself is perfectly familiar to him:

She said, “Do you hate me now?”

He said, “Because you’ve just revealed that you have a vicious streak, no compunction, are socially clumsy, and talk far too much about everybody else’s business?”

She said, “I guess so.” She got out from under his arm and moved away so she could see his face. . . .

“I didn’t know about the blog,” he said, “But I know you.”

And really, how could Sarah have so blithely imagined that her own voice would not speak for her, at least to those who knew what to listen for? What is a blog, after all, if not a kind of dramatic monologue in which, as always, character relentlessly reveals itself? “It was a world I recognized,” says one of Sarah’s friends after the story breaks and she reads the blog for the first time; “It was so totally you.”

Mitzi Bytes also highlights the impossibility of telling the story, rather than a story. Sarah believes that when writing as Mitzi she has only ever been honest, but as she hears from the people who became, unsuspectingly, her subjects, she is forced to acknowledge that being honest doesn’t preclude being partial. “I only ever said what I meant,” she writes in a belated apology, but the stories she told “only ever stood for a single side, a tiny sliver of a single side of that many-sided thing: The Entire Story. Life itself.” Her pseudonym freed her to describe “life the way I see it,” but it also shielded her from the obligation to consider how other people saw it, to weigh her own first-person narration against competing points of view. It is a narrative failure, in other words, with moral consequences, which the structure of Mitzi Bytes itself highlights as it alternates between Sarah’s plot (in 3rd person) and cleverly apposite samples from the ‘Mitzi Bytes’ archives. The blog posts are brisker and funnier than the ‘novel’ portions, but especially as we get to know the characters Mitzi blogs about, their skewering wit becomes increasingly uncomfortable, and it’s hard not to agree that Sarah’s angry friends have a point when they rail against her betrayal of their trust.

There’s a lot else that I appreciated about Mitzi Bytes, including its many deft literary allusions, from Harriet the Spy (the dumbwaiter!) to Unless (which I flatter myself I would have noticed even without a heads-up). I was also moved by its honest portrayal of Sarah’s struggle to retain her own sense of self after becoming a wife and mother. (For more about this topic, see the essay collection Kerry edited, The M Word.)

The aspect of Mitzi Bytes that I found most thought-provoking, though, was its treatment of blogging. “I just didn’t really see the point. Of blogs at all, basically,” Sarah’s husband Chris says to her as she’s making her confession to him about ‘Mitzi Bytes.’ Kerry wryly acknowledges that blogs are no longer the cutting edge medium they once were: “Blogs were for old people,” notes one of the teen-aged moms Sarah tutors, while her editor tells her bluntly that “Blogs aren’t big news anymore. Unless they’re dying.” Those of us who keep on blogging nonetheless do so for reasons that Kerry, via Sarah, does a good job explaining. Some of the anger directed at Sarah once she is outed as Mitzi comes from people not understanding the form or spirit of a blog and thus taking her posts as something more declarative than they are, or were ever intended to be. I think most bloggers would agree that a blog is always a work in progress, a place of intellectual exploration rather than definition. “To me,” Sarah-as-Mitzi writes,

this has always been the attraction of the blog, that it’s a place to record impressions of the innumerable atoms as they fall, to decipher the universe, assembling the chaos into a pattern of days, weeks, and years.

Blogging is open-ended in a way that allows for ongoing discovery: “the best posts,” as Sarah reflects,

began from a jumping-off point instead of with a careful route plotted on a map. Every time she posted, it was just a little bit an act of faith.

To me, that certainly sounds both familiar and true. I was thinking recently about why I’m not quite comfortable with calling my blog posts “reviews,” and that exploratory spirit is one reason. There are obligations in reviewing that, for me anyway, don’t exist for blogging, and while I craft and structure and revise reviews until they are just so, I usually start writing blog posts about books (including this one) with no specific plan except to reflect on my reading experience and see where it takes me. I relish that freedom, even though — or maybe because — it means the results are always a bit ragged or imperfect.

The division (however unstable) between Sarah’s “real” life and her blogged experiences also resonated with me, but in this case because my own experience of that split in identities is the reverse of Sarah’s. Because I blog under my own name, I have mostly avoided discussion of my personal life, for instance, including writing only occasionally and very selectively about my family and almost never about my friends. I think of ‘Novel Readings’ as a personal but also a public space, not a private one. Though I have certainly addressed some fraught issues (especially around my professional life) and some emotional ones, I think (though like Sarah, I may be deluding myself!) that by and large my online persona is better (more positive, more generous, more temperate) than I sometimes am offline. It’s not that my blog doesn’t represent who am I, but like ‘Mitzi Bytes,’ ‘Novel Readings’ represents only parts of who I am — the better parts, I usually think, though over the years there have certainly been slips. Though I can see the appeal of a blog where I could really let loose, as Sarah does when writing as Mitzi (and as some anonymous academic bloggers once did – remember “BitchPhD”?), I have come to appreciate the pressure to rise to my own standards here.

I think in a way that is the lesson of Mitzi Bytes— though I am reluctant to boil it down to anything that sounds so didactic: that you have to both own and live up to the person you are capable of being. By the end of the novel, the plot complications are mostly resolved but their emotional aftermath remains. Having to confront and then try, as best she can, to reconcile the different pieces of her life finally prompts Sarah to “show her face to the world” — her best face, if she can. It will be a work in progress, but this time an aspirational one, and of course, she’ll still “put it down in words,” because that remains the best way to find out what she means.

“Mourning in a Drawing Room”: Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War

This was the confusion of war, thought Beatrice. That some should sit mourning in a drawing room, or smoothing the brow of a dying boy, while in a cottage on a cobbled street, two young lovers could only choose to stand against the shocking burden of death and loss with their love and their passion.

Only the first part of Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War is actually about the summer before World War I. In fact, as Hugh Grange, one of the young men at the center of the novel, observes before Part One has even ended, “the gathering storm clouds” have been on the horizon for a while, but they seem peripheral, almost invisible, even with the warning embedded for us, in the novel’s title, even with the dread that is the burden of our historical knowledge.

The Summer Before the War doesn’t seem at all like a war novel at first. It begins as a sly, comic, and occasionally touching tale of village life deliberately reminiscent of E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia, with petty rivalries subtly indicating deeper forces of social change and resistance — and this is just one of many literary echoes. Simonson’s schoolteacher heroine Beatrice Nash, for instance, calls to mind Winifred Holtby’s Sarah Burton: though Beatrice is both an earlier and a less defiant figure of the independent spinster, her very presence in that role is similarly disruptive of expectations for a nice young woman. Mr. Tillingham, the grandiloquent celebrity novelist whose fiction is suffused with “piercing judgment” is very closely related to Henry James; Oscar Wilde’s name is invoked as a cautionary tale for a young man on the brink of potentially devastating scandal; and Hugh’s cousin Daniel eventually takes his place among the war poets who provide some of Simonson’s epigraphs.

This catalogue of self-conscious literary allusions might make The Summer Before the War sound precious or contrived, but Simonson’s characters are too much themselves to feel derivative, and the story she tells is rich in charm and humanity and, ultimately, pathos. Gradually the bright summer gives way, as we know it must, but Simonson unspools her story patiently. First we get to know Beatrice and Hugh and Daniel, and the young men’s dynamic aunt Agatha, and all the assorted characters in their community, with their foibles and attachments. There are many small satisfactions, including — to give just one example — Beatrice’s triumph (with significant assistance from Hugh and Daniel) over an attempt to oust her from her teaching position before it has even begun; and Beatrice’s discovery that at least one of the seemingly loutish boys she tutors in Latin during the summer has a real passion and aptitude for the work — including favorite passages of Virgil — is one of many specific details that will take on greater resonance later in the novel.

Only very gradually do the new realities of England at war make themselves felt. Food becomes scarcer, and extra preserves seem called for. Belgian refugees arrive, their suffering at first nearly overlooked in the villagers’ excitement at being part of “the great enterprise under way”:

To provide sanctuary was an ancient tradition, and as long as pride did not become hubris — she must not start talking of ‘my refugee,’ like Mrs. Fothergill — [Beatrice] acknowledged that it felt gratifying to have found some small connection to the war.

Inevitably, however, as the consequences and casualties mount, the pomp and pageantry yields to suffering. “At first it was just the King canceling the visit to Cowes,” muses Agatha;

“Then the cancellations . . . First just one or two amid the weddings, then more canceled than announced. And now the lists run with the names of all the finest young men of Britain, their deaths announced in place of their marriages, their lives ended before they can begin.”

As Hugh and Daniel both head for the front, it no longer seems “a grand adventure”:

Britain’s Expeditionary Force was being slowly decimated at Ypres as the opposing armies entrenched in a grim line across Flanders. The outcome of the war was no longer the rousing certainty so touted in the papers.

In this way The Summer Before the War follows the classic story of the “Great War” as a loss of innocence, a cataclysmic ending to a seemingly golden period of youth and hope and vigor. Though in many ways this is a myth (one initiated and perpetuated by some contemporary writers, including Vera Brittain), it still feels true, maybe because there really is a vast chasm between the heroic idea of war (and the glorifying paeans of nationalism) and the truth of fighting and dying, even (maybe especially) for “King and country.”

What interested and impressed me the most about The Summer Before the War as the inevitable catastrophe unleashes itself on our characters is that once the war is fully upon them, and us, it isn’t the contrast with the earlier, more innocent and bucolic, scenes that makes its horrors and losses so painful: rather, it’s the continuity. These are the same people, with the same dreams and values, the same attachments and affections — even the tone of the novel is very nearly the same in the trenches as it is when we’re in a sunny lane or a village shop. The Summer Before the War balances its attention between the battlefields and the home front, where loss leads too often to isolation. “On such a day as this,” thinks Beatrice, contemplating the bright morning of a planned festivity,

the widows and the grieving mothers were expected to keep their black weeds and pale faces in their shuttered homes. . . . No parade of victory or peace ever included the biers of the dead.

That has certainly not been true of the literature produced by the First World War, which includes some of the most potent anti-war poetry and prose ever written — and yet, as Beatrice reflects, watching one grieving mother kneel before the white stone that marks her son’s grave, no writer has ever conveyed the scene “well enough that men might cease to war.” Simonson certainly did her best, and to unexpectedly powerful effect, given the novel’s initial lightness. Unlike Simon Tolkien’s plodding No Man’s LandThe Summer Before the War seemed both fresh and original, and it also, appropriately, made me cry.

This Week In My Classes: March Madness and #IWD

I can’t believe Reading Week is already two weeks ago — but that’s what it’s always like when we come back. I don’t like to say that it’s all downhill from there, but it does always seem as if the term accelerates, even as the work accumulates. And there are just so many moving parts! All the routine business of class meetings continues, including doing the readings, preparing lecture notes or handouts or worksheets or slides, keeping attendance records, and just plain showing up and going through the whole song and dance number — which is the most fun part, but also the most tiring part. From now until after exams, there’s also a constant flow of assignments in and out, and that means getting topics and instructions up in plenty of time; there are tests to prepare — which has to be done earlier than it used to so copies can be dropped off for students with accommodations — and then to mark; there are forms for this and emails about that.

You’d think I’d be used to this, after almost 22 years, and really, I am. Academic work is very cyclical, and this is just, always, a particularly intense part of the cycle. Then suddenly, before it seems possible, classes will be over and there will be “just” exams and papers left, and then everything quiets right down for the summer, when both the work and the pace are different. I’m hanging in there reasonably well in the meantime, though every so often I feel a bit panicked. Clearly, though, one thing that has fallen by the wayside is blogging, partly because I haven’t been getting much interesting reading done outside of class. (I am now happily started on Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War, though, so there’s hope!)

One nice thing is that the readings for both classes provided rich fodder for discussion recently. In Pulp Fiction we’ve just wrapped up our time on The Maltese Falcon. For our last session we talked mostly about Sam’s choice between love and justice at the end of the novel. “If they hang you, I’ll always remember you” is hardly a conventionally romantic declaration, but coming from Sam, it seems like a lot! What I find so interesting is that it seems at least possible that he really does love Brigid (though he doesn’t seem quite sure, and neither were we, overall), but it just doesn’t matter to him that much: he’s not even torn over it. We’re so used to stories (and songs, and greeting cards) in which all you need is love, but Sam believes other things matter more (“when a man’s partner dies, he’s supposed to do something about it”), and why not, really? I’m reminded of the scene in The West Wing when Leo’s wife complains that to him, his job (as White House Chief of Staff) is more important than his marriage. “Right now, it is,” he says, and in context that doesn’t seem unreasonable. Sam is a pretty objectionable guy in other ways, so I would never hold him up as exemplary, but it’s refreshing to have someone take the position that “maybe I love you, and maybe you love me” might not be what matters the most. Plus, what a neat segue that sets up for our unit on romance fiction, which starts very soon.

In 19th-Century Fiction, we’ve just finished Adam Bede. I don’t know why I was worried about how it would go over with the students: compared to The Mill on the Floss or Middlemarch, it has been really easy going! Though it does start slowly, it develops in quite a clear and dramatic way, with main characters who provide strong contrasts to each other in ways that are easy enough to see but still really interesting to examine. I haven’t had any trouble generating discussion, especially once we’d followed Hetty on her journeys in hope and despair and then through her trial, her confession to Dinah, and her [spoiler alert!] dramatic rescue. Though I think the novel has some weaknesses that show Eliot’s inexperience as a novelist (the wooden-headed Adam, for one, and, arguably, the heavy-handed — if delightful — Chapter 17, “In Which the Story Pauses A Little,” for another), it is still astonishingly good, full of wisdom and beauty and humor and pathos. One of the best moments of my whole week — really, of my whole term — was walking back to my office from class on Friday behind a stream of students who were still talking with great animation about Seth, whose happy generosity in the face of [spoiler!]  Adam and Dinah’s marriage does, as the students noted, strain credulity. (I know, I know. Nobody reading here cares about spoilers. But you’d be surprised: I remember a graduate seminar being extremely annoyed with their assigned Broadview edition of Adam Bede because its footnotes gave key plot points away in advance.)

On a different note, I actually wrote most of an entirely different post on Wednesday in honor of International Women’s Day. I wanted to pay tribute in some way to the many women who have made a positive difference in my life: the women in my family, my dear friends, the women I work with, the women writers whose books enrich my life in so many ways, the amazing women characters they envisioned who have also served as my inspirations and role models. In the end, though, I decided not to post it, not because I didn’t mean it, but because I couldn’t seem to write it in a way that didn’t sound like vacuous gushing. Maybe that would have been fine, I don’t know, but it seemed shallow to me, when my intentions were just the opposite. Instead, then, you got this rather dull housekeeping post! I really do want to thank and celebrate these wonderful people: I’m just going to find a different way to do so.

Happy 10th Anniversary, Open Letters!

The March 2017 issue of Open Letters Monthly marks the magazine’s 10th anniversary. I’m pretty sure that means it is 247 in internet years! I haven’t been with OLM since the very beginning, but I published my first essay there in 2009 and joined the editorial team in 2010, which means I was part of our 5th anniversary celebration, the “Critical Issue.” Our 10th anniversary issue is not themed, but its diversity of both subjects and styles is unified by our ongoing commitment to fulfilling our mission statement:

Open Letters is dedicated to the proposition that no writing which reviews the arts should be boring, back-patting, soft-pedaling, or personally compromised. We’ve all had the experience of reading a review that sparkled—one that combined an informed, accessible examination of its quarry with gamesome, intelligent, and even funny commentary. These are the pieces we tell our friends about and then vigorously debate.

Our mission here is to provide you with a wide variety of such reviews every month.

This month, those reviews include Steve Donoghue on a new book about “ostentatious martyr” Lady Jane Grey (or, as he prefers to call her, “Jane the Pretender”); Sam Sacks on two books making the case for literature’s special relevance in turbulent times; Nick Holdstock on Russian fabulist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s The Return of Munchausen; Melissa Beck on the Indian classic of ill-fated lovers, Chemmeen; Kenyon Gradert on George Saunders’ historical (but very contemporary) Lincoln in Bardo; Jennifer Helinek on Elizabeth Kostova’s Shadow Land; Jessica Tvordi on Danielle Dutton’s captivating Margaret the First; me on a not-very-inspired (or inspiring) novel about WWI … and that’s not even all! As always, I hope you will head on over and read what interests you.

I think we are all feeling pretty proud of ourselves on this 10th anniversary. Enthusiasm is enough to get a project like Open Letters up and running, but to keep it going every month for a decade requires a lot of effort, a lot of trust, and also a certain kind of doggedness. Over the years the editors have had our share of disagreements, some of them vehement, but I think we would all agree that in spite of them — perhaps even, in a way, because of them — we have achieved something pretty remarkable. So here’s to us!

Sustaining Open Letters also depends on our contributors: one of the very best parts of this whole endeavor is working with so many smart, articulate, generous writers and having the privilege of showcasing the results. So here’s a heartfelt thanks to all of them — to all of you, since some of you are also readers of Novel Readings. What do you think: do we all have another 10 years in us?

Showing and Telling in Adam Bede

Tomorrow we start our work on Adam Bede in my 19th-Century Fiction class. As I was rereading the opening chapters last week, I tweeted, a bit facetiously, that you could probably “launch a successful attack on the whole foolish ‘show, don’t tell’ myth using excerpts from Adam Bede alone.” This was in part a delayed reaction to a comment on my post about Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk: “it didn’t work for me at all as fiction,” Irene said; “A lot of telling, not showing.” To which I replied, “I’m a fan of telling. How could I not be, as a Victorianist?” Because when people invoke this supposed rule, what they usually seem to mean is that good writing should be dramatic, not descriptive, and that, above all, it should avoid extended passages of exposition — and what would Victorian fiction be without description and exposition? Frankly, I’ve also read a few too many recent novels that leave empty space where telling might in fact be really valuable, and where its absence looked to me a bit like shirking the admittedly hard work of doing it well.

Obviously, the casual assumption that good writers show rather than tell is a pet peeve of mine, but it’s also not an assumption that I think is actually that widely or strongly held by avid readers, who in my experience tend to agree with Henry James that “the house of fiction has many windows.” (Not that we don’t have own own favorite styles, but confusing taste with objective evaluation is … well, OK, it’s inevitable, but it should at least be self-conscious!) The source of this “rule” seems to be creative writing classes, but I wonder how strong its hold is even there. The creative writers I know seem unlikely to be so narrow-minded, and here is an admirably nuanced ‘lesson’ on showing vs. telling from novelist Emma Darwin.* The right technique, surely, is the one that best achieves a writer’s goals, including not just formal, stylistic, and aesthetic ones but also substantial ones. There are things that exposition in particular can do that simply can’t be provided in any other way: historical or philosophical context for the novel’s action, for instance, or psychological insights unavailable to the characters themselves.

If your ideal fiction is not analytical in these ways, then showing might be enough for you. But that means your novels will never include anything like Chapter 15 of Middlemarch — in which almost nothing actually happens, but we, as readers, learn an enormous amount — or, to get back to Adam Bede, anything like its Chapter 15, “The Two Bed-Chambers,” which is a stunning set piece of characterization. It includes both showing and telling. The actions of both Hetty and Dinah, for instance, speak volumes about who they are: most obviously, Hetty stares into her mirror while Dinah gazes out the window. The  narrator layers meaning onto their actions with pointed descriptions — Hetty’s “pigeon-like stateliness” as she paces back and forth in her shabby faux-finery, for instance, and Dinah’s tranquility as she feels “the presence of a Love and Sympathy deeper and more tender than was breathed from the earth and sky.” We are brought close into each character’s consciousness, and then drawn out again to a broader perception, which is the characteristic pulse of George Eliot’s fiction, and running through it all is her perspicacious commentary:

Nature has her language, and she is not unveracious; but we don’t know all the intricacies of her syntax just yet, and in a hasty reading we may happen to extract the very opposite of her real meaning. Long dark eyelashes, now — what can be more exquisite? I find it impossible not to expect some depth of soul behind a deep grey eye with a long dark eyelash, in spite of an experience which has shown me that they may go along with deceit, peculation, and stupidity. But if, in the reaction of disgust, I have betaken myself to a fishy eye, there has been a surprising similarity of result. One begins to suspect at length that there is no direct correlation between eyelashes and morals; or else, that the eyelashes express the disposition of the fair one’s grandmother, which is on the whole less important to us.

“What a strange contrast the two figures made!” exclaims the narrator after Dinah, provoked by intuitive anxiety about where Hetty’s “blank” nature might lead her, interrupts Hetty’s dreams of becoming a “lady” by rapping on her door:

Hetty, her cheeks flushed and her eyes glistening from her imaginary drama, her beautiful neck and arms bare, her hair hanging in a curly tangle down her back, and the baubles in her ears. Dinah, covered with her long white dress, her pale face full of subdued emotion, almost like a lovely corpse into which the soul has returned charged with sublimer secrets and a sublimer love.

I’m pretty sure that’s telling — but how could you simply show that contrast, which lies less in the details visible in the “mingled twilight and moonlight” than in the difference they represent between the flesh and the spirit, or between egotism and altruism, which the whole previous sequence has prepared us to realize?

I know that what some readers object to in Eliot’s style of telling is that she doesn’t seem to leave us to draw our own conclusions about her characters: her commentary usually steers us firmly in a particular direction. Her narrator is much less forgiving than Dinah, for example, about Hetty’s vanity, and so too is Mrs. Poyser, who sees Hetty’s “moral deficiencies” quite clearly. It’s not that she doesn’t leave us plenty to think about, though. Adam Bede dedicates much more than this one chapter to analyzing Hetty’s character and motives, for example, as well as to exploring the effect on them of her specific circumstances. A great deal of effort, in other words, goes into understanding Hetty — including the unarguable fact of her vanity, which means not just her pleasure in her own beauty but her inability to tell any story without herself at the center of it. Also, we know that “Hetty could have cast all her past life behind her and never cared to be reminded of it again” — which, in Eliot’s world, means she is morally unmoored. (“If the past is not to bind us,” as Maggie Tulliver will say in Eliot’s next novel, “where shall duty lie?”) What, though, is the relationship between this deep understanding (the kind required by Eliot’s theory of determinism) and forgiveness? If we can explain so thoroughly what someone does so, and if we are under a moral obligation to sympathize with them, what happens to accountability, to blame, to justice? If you know where Hetty’s journey takes her, and why, then you know how painfully these questions arise in Adam Bede.

My point, I guess, is that this central problem of the novel is vivid to us — it matters to us — in part because of what we have been told. It is an intellectual problem, not (to borrow from Darwin’s post) a “scratch-and-sniff” one. Yet, having said that, it’s absolutely true that we feel its urgency in part because the narrator gets out of the way at crucial dramatic moments, such as during the novel’s second great set piece with Dinah and Hetty much, much later, in Hetty’s prison cell:

Slowly, while Dinah was speaking, Hetty rose, took a step forward, and was clasped in Dinah’s arms.

They stood so a long while, for neither of them felt the impulse to move apart again. Hetty, without any distinct thought of it, hung on this something that was come to clasp her now, while she was sinking helpless in a dark gulf; and Dinah felt a deep joy in the first sign that her love was welcomed by the wretched lost one. The light got fainter as they stood, and when at last they sat down on the straw pallet together, their faces had become indistinct.

What a great return this is to the earlier scene, with Dinah’s premonition of trouble: “Dear Hetty,” she says, “it has been borne in upon my mind to- night that you may some day be in trouble . . . I want to tell you that if ever you are in trouble, and need a friend that will always feel for you and love you, you have got that friend in Dinah Morris at Snowfield.” When her prediction comes true and Dinah comes to her in her time of trouble, almost all the telling in the chapter is Hetty’s own.

*Actually, after reading her post I am not so sure I really understand what people mean by “showing,” which going by her examples just means “doing description better.” That has never seemed to me to be the implication of “show, don’t tell.” If it is, I don’t think I disagree after all, and you can disregard this entire post! What do you think that rule means — or, perhaps a different question, what do you think people typically mean when they sling it around?

This Week In My Classes: Blizzards and Breaks

This week is Dalhousie’s Reading Week, so I’m enjoying a break from the routine of classes. Last week, though, was also sort of a break, or at least a broken up week, thanks to the massive blizzard that arrived late Sunday night and shut the city down almost completely until Wednesday. And then on Thursday another storm hit — meaning we had three full snow days last week on top of a partial closing the week before. That’s a lot of disruption in a hurry! It was also the first time I can remember Dalhousie announcing a closure the day before, instead of at 6 a.m. the day of (ah, the lovely treat of waking up early to find out if you need to wake up early).

I used to panic about snow days. Now I only panic if the snow isn’t quite bad enough to close things down outright but is still bad enough to trigger my significant anxiety about driving in it, or to make it really difficult for students to get safely to and from campus. A cancellation is at least logistically straightforward and it’s rare that the schedule in any of my classes can’t be tweaked a bit here and there to adjust: it’s not like we’re doing time-sensitive laboratory experiments, and there is no universally accepted “best practice” for exactly how many hours we should spend on Cranford. Having said that, it was particularly unfortunate that Cranford was our scheduled reading over those two weeks, as I had not planned very many hours on it to begin with, and so it actually was harder to re-organize than it would have been for Bleak House!

Anyway, one way and another we made our way through the week, and the snow, and now it’s Reading Week. Just because classes aren’t meeting doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to do, including prepping and grading for them. After the break, we’re starting Adam Bede in 19th-Century Fiction. As this is the first time I’ve assigned it in an undergraduate class, I have no pre-existing materials to draw on, so working some up has been a priority this week. I do know the novel pretty well from having taught it several times in graduate seminars, but that’s a pretty different kind of preparation. (Adam Bede was also the focus of a read-along at The Valve I organized a few years ago that I still look back on as one of the best online experiences I’ve had.) I’ve drawn up Monday’s lecture and sketched out roughly the topics I want to cover in the five other hours we’ve got for it: I’m really looking forward to the discussions. Several students in the class have already studied either The Mill on the Floss or Middlemarch (or both!) with me this year, so that gives them a head start on some of the issues we’ll address; I think they’ll be interested in how different Adam Bede is — but also, of course, in the continuities. Those coming to George Eliot for the first time will, I hope, find Adam Bede an inviting introduction. Rereading the first installment this week I was especially in love with the wonderful descriptions of the rural setting, which have a marvelous luxury of detail and a particularly rich warmth of light and tone. It is something of a “slow burn,” though readers’ patience is richly rewarded.

In Pulp Fiction we start The Maltese Falcon when we get back: this is fairly familiar territory for me, as I’ve assigned it many times in Mystery & Detective Fiction. That doesn’t mean I’m not rereading it, though, or that the change in context doesn’t require a different approach. Still, it’s something of a relief after the novelty of our Westerns — and a bit of a breather before I have to ready materials for our section on romance novels, another new teaching area for me.

Also on my to-do list this week was finishing a review of Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard for Canadian Notes & Queries, which looks like it will be ready to submit tomorrow, and finalizing my own and my contributors’ pieces for the March issue of Open Letters Monthly. This issue will mark OLM’s 10th anniversary! I didn’t join up as an editor until 2010; I was in time, then, to contribute to our 5th anniversary celebration, The Critical Issue — which I think probably still stands as our best individual issue ever, though we have certainly run outstanding pieces in every issue before and since. Though we aren’t doing a special topic for this 10th anniversary, it will definitely be another good one, so stay tuned!

These and other projects have kept me busy, but the nice thing about the break from classes is that I feel much freer to spend my evenings not working. Inspired by Hag-Seed, for instance, I am rewatching Slings & Arrows — and I think it’s time for another episode now.


Tempest of the Headspace”: Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed

“Also,” said Felix, “it’s on a universal theme.” What he had in mind was vengeance – that was certainly universal. He hoped she wouldn’t ask him about the theme: vengeance was so negative, was what she’d say. A bad example. Especially bad, considering the captive audience.

Hag-Seed is one of a series of novels commissioned for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, which is just the kind of hybrid literary-commercial venture that usually puts me off — and which, in its Austen incarnation, I have recently sworn off altogether. Too often, the intent is too clearly to cash in, or the results are too clearly inferior to the inspiration, and I am left wishing authors would just write their own d–n books. (I realize, of course, that many classics are themselves, in one way or another, indebted to or homages to other texts. But who says irritability has to be entirely consistent?)

I was fretful, therefore, when my book club settled on Hag-Seed for our next read. As my experience with Atwood’s fiction has also been mixed over the years, I would at least have been happier if we’d chosen Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl: one of Tyler’s main virtues is that she is dependable! But one of the reasons to belong to a book club is so that I read some things I wouldn’t necessarily pick for myself, so I dutifully ordered Hag-Seed, read it … and (surprise!) thoroughly enjoyed it.

Why does Hag-Seed succeed (for me, at least) where so many other derivative novels have failed? I think it’s because throughout, it communicates Atwood’s own gleeful enjoyment of the undertaking. I don’t think Hag-Seed is particularly profound, and it has little (though not none) of the poetry that decorates the original (what grace and beauty there is in the novel often comes by way of lines from The Tempest itself). But — at least for someone with only a passing acquaintance with Shakespeare’s play — Hag-Seed is a clever, as well as entertaining, recreation of The Tempest on Atood’s own chosen terms.

Hag-Seed particularly embraces the “play within a play” conceit of The Tempest, in which Prospero contrives and manipulates events for his own gratification. Atwood’s protagonist, Felix Phillips, is ousted from his position as Director of the Makeshiweg Festival just before he launches a spectacular new production of The Tempest. He had thrown himself into it to distract himself from his heartbreak over the death of his baby daughter Miranda:

What he couldn’t have in life he might still catch sight of through his art: just a glimpse, from the corner of his eye.

He would create a fit setting for this reborn Miranda he was willing into being. He would outdo himself as an actor-director. He would push every envelope, he would twist reality until it twangled. There was a feverish desperation in those long-ago efforts of his, but didn’t the best art have desperation at its core? Wasn’t it always a challenge to Death? A defiant middle finger on the edge of the abyss?

But the treachery of a colleague who then usurps his place ruins Felix’s plans and forces him into exile, where he broods for years over his lost daughter, his lost position, and his dreams of revenge. When he takes on a job promoting literacy in a local prison by producing Shakespeare plays, he unexpectedly discovers the perfect plan.

There’s lots of fun in the development of Felix’s elaborate plot, which both mimics and incorporates the multiple interconnected plots of The Tempest. Though Hag-Seed is ultimately more satirical than earnest, there’s also a more serious strand, woven through the novel’s comedy, about the role of literary programming in prisons, something Atwood addresses in her acknowledgments as well as through the actors’ discussions of real and metaphorical prisons in the play they are putting on. (I found the classroom sessions on The Tempest fascinating, even though — or maybe because — they were wholly unlike the kinds of classroom discussions I am used to.) Though Felix’s quest for vengeance is as absurd as it is diverting, his mourning for his own lost Miranda (whose spirit haunts him) is often very touching; it adds a human dimension to him that balances the novel’s arch tone.

Of course, I have to wonder if not knowing the ‘primary source’ is what freed me up to appreciate Hag-Seed. If The Tempest were dear to my heart the way Jane Eyre and Daniel Deronda are, would I have gone along less cheerfully? There’s a playful quality to Atwood’s interaction with The Tempest throughout that makes me think I would still have liked it: she’s not overriding it or imposing herself on it, or (worst of all) condescending to it or correcting it, but rather (like her actors) immersing herself in it and making it her own. Still, I’d be interested to hear from people who approach the novel from a more informed position.

“What a Smart Girl”: Kathleen Rooney, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Fifteen inquiries. Five favorable replies. Including one by telegraph from R. H. Macy’s. This was the one I chose: my first serous job in New York City. A job which in some ways saved my life, and in other ways ruined it. What a smart girl.

The premise of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is simple. It’s New Year’s Eve in 1984, and Lillian Boxfish, 84 (or is it 85? even she is no longer quite sure) – once celebrated for the sparkling ad copy she wrote for R. H. Macy’s, as well as for her books of witty light verse – heads out for her traditional dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. Lillian’s appetite has been spoiled, though, by a package of Oreos she has unthinkingly devoured while on the phone with her son. “I am, for the life of me,” she says testily,

unable to fathom why I even had the vile black sandwiches. Did I buy them while the grandchildren were here? I’m sure I did not. My week prior to their visit was a Tartarus of sheet pans, spent in the creation of a Christmas-cookie fantasia; had the little goblins at any point asked me for packaged cookies, I’m quite certain I would have shipped them back to Maine with stockings full of coal.

Her best guess is that, ironically enough, she herself has been taken in by advertising: “I don’t remember wandering the grocer’s aisles with the idiotic jingle playing in my head, but no doubt I did. I don’t remember lifting the cookies from their shelf . . . and dropping them in my basket, but nevertheless they infiltrated my pantry. A nutritionally nugatory Trojan horse.”

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk follows Lillian on what becomes a much longer and more meandering walk around Manhattan than she originally intended. As she travels, she reminisces — about her heyday at Macy’s, her marriage and the birth of her son, the eventual breakdown of her marriage, her treatment for depression and alcoholism. En route, she also has a series of encounters, some comic, some touching, that showcase the wit and fierce independence that make her such an an appealing character. Ending up, for instance, at a friend’s rather wild party in Chelsea, she’s confronted by a drunken guest who thinks she looks too old and too conservative to belong. “Who the fuck invited Nancy Reagan?” he says antagonistically. Lillian is undaunted:

“When you’re insulting someone,” I say, “the trick is to be fast, specific, and accurate. Two out of three won’t do. You fumbled the third. Please note that I am six inches taller, twenty years older, and more adventurously dressed than Nancy Reagan has ever been.”

Almost everyone she runs into on her walk tries to discourage her from continuing, but Lillian refuses to make any concessions to her age and the vulnerability they read into it — or to the actual threats she encounters. Walking has always renewed and refreshed her, and she’s not about to give it up. As a poet, she depended on her walks:

My funny old brain, like those of many poets, has always done its best work sideways, seeking out tricky enjambments and surprising slant rhymes to craft lines capable of pulling their own weight. Taking to the pavement always helps me find new routes around whatever problems I’m trying to solve: phrases on signs, overheard conversations, the interplay between the rhythms of my verse and the rhythm of my feet.

“A motto favored by the ancients,” she notes, “was solvitur ambulando: It is solved by walking.”

I enjoyed Lillian a lot. I particularly appreciated the pleasure she takes in words, which is both appropriate to her vocation and part of what she stands for in the face of a world that she thinks is giving up its commitment to civility and to cleverness in favor of appealing — like the insidious Oreo commercial — to our subconscious desires, rather than our reason and our imagination. She misses the clever “verbosity” she and her friends treasured in her youth. During her New Year’s Eve walk, she finds herself trying to walk to the beat of a rap song she heard from a car window as she set out and reflects that “this is where playful language is cherished now”:

Rap I like. That’s because of the words, of course, which instead of being chained to some inane melody are freed to lead the rappers where they will, by way of their own intrinsic music. So it seems, at least, to my untrained ear. Much of it is utter nonsense, to be sure. As with the best nonsense, some of it seems as if it were made up on the spot, and also as if it could be a thousand years old.

In this enthusiasm for language, Lillian reminded me a bit of my grandmother, who always called herself — and always embraced anyone else who was — a “word person.” Like Lillian, too, my grandmother always asserted her strong-minded, idiosyncratic self. She enjoyed dressing up and hated being looked down on for being an old woman. It wasn’t until after her death that I realized how much courage it took to live her life the way she did, including (again like Lillian) having a career when it wasn’t expected of her, and living on her own, and on her own terms, until the end.

Rooney’s author’s note explains that Lillian is based on Margaret Fishback, a copywriter and poet whose verses stand in for Lillian’s in the novel. I don’t know how closely Lillian’s character (as opposed to her life) is meant to resemble Fishback’s, but Rooney has given us a woman who is frank and tough enough that the novel is never twee or sentimental. It’s also very evocative of New York, a city where I too have always preferred to walk, so as not to miss anything. When I was a student at Cornell, I used to go there regularly, and I always loved the feeling of freedom it gave me, as if anything is possible on its hectic streets. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk doesn’t indulge this visitor’s fantasy — Lillian’s New York is gritty as well as iconic — but I ended the novel feeling renewed enthusiasm for going back and talking another walk around Manhattan myself.

Recent Reading Roundup: Reviews and Romances

You’d think from my recent blog posts that I wasn’t doing anything but teaching these days! That’s not quite true, but like a lot of people I know, I’m finding myself too distracted to get a lot of “quality” reading done in my leisure time – what ability I have to concentrate hard I’m expending on work, and on books I am reading for off-blog reviews that have deadlines. The rest of the time my reading alternates between anxiety-inducing news stories and pleasantly diverting romance novels.

The most recent book I finished for a review is Simon Tolkien’s No Man’s Land: my review will be up in the March issue of Open Letters. It has actually been a difficult review to write because I neither loved nor hated the book: I’m afraid that even with whatever revisions I come up with after my colleagues’ useful input, the piece is going to sound fairly perfunctory. Now I’m reading Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard, which I’m reviewing for Canadian Notes & Queries. So far, it seems pretty interesting, so I’m hopeful that it will be more fun to write about. And next up after that will be Sarah Moss’s Bodies of Light, which is backround reading for the review of Signs for Lost Children I’ve promised to Numero Cinq. Moss looks like a writer I should have been reading already, which is one reason I proposed this particular title — my ideal reviewing “assignment” converges with my existing reading intentions!

I have some completed reviews that should see the light of day in the near future. One of those is my TLS review of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First (which I loved); another is my Quill & Quire review of Jean McNeil’s The Dhow House (which is strange and uncomfortable and gripping); and the last is my review of Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer, which I wrote last summer and is expected to show up, at long last, in The Kenyon Review Online in early March. Though there are some down sides to all this reviewing, one definite up side is that it has made me a bit more sure-footed as a critic, including with books that are not obvious “fits.” I can’t really say if I am developing my critical voice or style: I’m not deliberately trying to do anything other than what I’ve always done here and at OLM, which is find the best way to express whatever I think about the book. I don’t focus on answering “should I buy this book or not?” — because that’s the kind of review I find the least interesting to read — but instead I try to figure out what kind of book it is and what’s the most interesting conversation for me to have with it or about it. Academics (myself included) often hesitate to get into conversations outside their official area of expertise: this is an anxiety I have largely overcome when it comes to fiction, partly because blogging loosened me up so much as a reader and a writer, and partly because the more I teach, the more I’m aware that my expertise is as a reader — it’s my skill and experience at reading, as much as or more than my body of scholarly knowledge, that equips me to do this kind of criticism.

As for my romance reading, I’ve been rereading some favorites, just for the good cheer (Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, for instance, and Tessa Dare’s Any Duchess Will Do), but I’ve also read a scattering of new ones. I have all of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister novels but hadn’t gotten to Talk Sweetly To Me before: it’s charming. (The Countess Conspiracy is still my favorite in this series, though.) I read Alyssa Cole’s Let It Shine and found the love story well done, but while I appreciated her evocation of the historical context, I thought the novella (sexy bits aside) read too much like YA fiction for me to find it really engaging: it seemed to assume readers who had very little idea about either the civil rights movement or the Holocaust. Everything about it was very pat and predictable. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t about important things, or that it didn’t include details that make very clear, how devastatingly this history affected people’s lives.

I read Eloisa James’s Seven Minutes in Heaven and thought it was fine — as I mentioned on Twitter, I especially appreciated the heroine’s competence, which is a quality not often portrayed as attractive, and I enjoyed following the character through to their HEA. I also read Fool for Love, which I chose somewhat at random from the ebooks the library had available: I liked the set up but was a bit let down by the conclusion, for reasons I won’t give in case they are spoilers! I have yet to really fall in love with one of James’s novels. They seem very competent and usually keep me interested to the end, but they don’t make me laugh the way Loretta Chase’s do, and I don’t find them as entertaining as Tessa Dare’s (which seem more sprightly, somehow) or as touching as my favorite among Mary Balogh’s. Maybe I haven’t found the right one for me (not all of Dare’s work well for me either, after all).

Now I’m rereading Ruthie Knox’s Truly: I liked it the first time, partly for the beekeeping ‘neepery,’ and it’s holding up well on a reread. I am starting to feel a bit restless, though, as if it’s almost time for me to read something  else again. I picked up Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk on a recent trip to the bookstore: it looks like it might be a good intermediate step between light and really serious reading.

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