“That Silent Creature”: Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Beautiful Visit

howardcoverLike a lot of other early – to mid- 20th-century women’s fiction I’ve read (Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek comes to mind, or Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, or most of Winifred Holtby’s novels, or Margaret Kennedy’s) Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Beautiful Visit was a disorienting reading experience: I finished it feeling I did not have the right critical apparatus to make interpretive sense of it. Although my interest never flagged, I could not see where it was going or what it was meant to be about: though the experiences related are often emotionally intense, the tone is generally flat, almost affect-less, while the plot is not really a plot so much as a series of random incidents connected only by a general pattern of faint hopes raised and then dashed. Though it tells the story of a young girl’s maturation, it lacks the momentum of a bildungsroman; though it turns out to be a story of artistic development, or at least emergence, it lacks the inspiration of a kunstlerroman. What is its point? Where is it meant to take us, intellectually and imaginatively?

howardI ended up thinking that its lack of direction and energy was its governing idea. The narrator is stifled by her family life and by the social constraints on her behavior as well as her options: she would like to have a vocation, but she can’t really imagine what it might be. The visit that changes everything by showing her how other people live actually changes very little, at least about how she can live: its effects arise only through the new connections she makes, most of which turn out to be far less consequential than she expects. Even when they do lead to something significant (like a marriage proposal), the promised transformation ultimately has no appeal. The one big change that finally occurs at the novel’s end is so artificial, so unanticipated, that it doesn’t seem to solve or promise anything either, except perhaps that it is the beginning of the real bildungsroman, the real story of her life, which we don’t get because our novel is the story of the stuttering, inchoherent, mostly pathetic existence that preceded it. (Is it also factitious? There’s an odd moment when she frankly remarks her difficulty in figuring out how to end the autobiographical novel she’s writing / we’re reading.)

I can see that the novel is in part a critique of women’s stifled lives, and of the marriage plot they are so relentlessly expected to embrace. The narrator’s mother is a sad example of the error of living for someone else: “Your father believed in music,” she tells her daughter,

and I believed in your father. By the time he died, I don’t think he believed in anything, and now I find it very difficult to believe in him.

The story of beautiful Deb and her disappointments is another striking case in point: “life stops when one is married,” she says as she urges the narrator towards her own engagement, “and one ought to take care that it stops in a very good place.” The narrator (nameless, as befits her unformed identity) doesn’t want to marry, at least not just for the sake of marrying. “What will happen to you, if you don’t marry him?” demands Deb; “You surely do not intend spending the rest of your life doing those dreary jobs, do you?”

This seems a fair enough question, in the circumstances, so there’s something at least potentially heroic about our protagonist’s determination to resist her seemingly inevitable fate. She’s hardly rewarded for choosing independence, though, until she’s rescued improbably with a scheme to travel the world and determine its shape — a symbolic quest, I assume, meant to invoke visions of exploration and discovery, of new horizons both literal and metaphorical. Her previous inability to make any real changes is not really her fault, though it is her tragedy (more even than her sad but almost accidental wartime love affair). Her unexpected savior rightly observes that for all her attempts to escape, she has carried her “family atmosphere” along with her. I wonder why it doesn’t feel more triumphant, then, when she seizes opportunity to do, and be, something else: “On board a great deal of unpacking was necessary,” she reports without excitement; “I was given a cabin to myself with a good small table for writing.”

visitcoverThat she is well-suited to be a writer is often asserted by people she meets, mostly because she is so observant. I suppose The Beautiful Visit does give us some evidence of that: mostly silent herself, the narrator watches those around her with a sharp, if often somewhat puzzled, eye. Her lack of experience limits her insights into others as well as herself, but what she sees, she describes. That her account is so episodic suggests her own lack of direction. Other people find her more interesting than I did: when the young man she met on the initial visit reappears and declares his passionate love for her, I wondered if he had mistaken her for someone else because she seemed such a shadow of an actual person. Is that the necessary quality of a writer, to be self-effacing enough that they elude our attention even as they claim it?

My book club chose The Beautiful Visit in December, as a follow-up to Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up. Not for the first time, we accidentally coincided with the zeitgeist, as just last week a piece by Hilary Mantel championing Howard ran in The Guardian. Mantel skips quickly past The Beautiful Visit (though she notes it was a prize winner) and focuses primarily on the Cazalet Chronicles:

The novels are panoramic, expansive, intriguing as social history and generous in their storytelling. They are the product of a lifetime’s experience, and come from a writer who knew her aim and had the stamina and technical skill to achieve it.

longviewMantel makes the Cazalet Chronicles sound well worth reading. I’m not sure how convinced I am, however, by her broader argument that Howard is relatively unknown “because she’s a woman” writing what were perceived of as “woman’s books.” “Good books by women,” Mantel rightly  notes, “fell out of print and vanished into obscurity: not just because, as in the case of male writers, fashion might turn, but because they had never been properly valued in the first place.” But I’d have to read more of Howard’s novels to see if I think they are as good as Mantel does. “Her virtues are immaculate construction,” she asserts, “impeccable observation, persuasive but inexorable technique.” I didn’t discern these qualities in The Beautiful Visit: nothing about it seems to justify falling into critical rhapsodies. I’m quite prepared to believe I am missing something about it, though — that I could learn to read it better. I’m looking forward to our discussion on the weekend.

This (Short) Week In My Classes: Canons and Catastrophes

houndThanks to Dalhousie benefactor George Munro, we have Friday off, which means that I’ve already wrapped up my teaching week. Hooray! Because although we are in the midst of some great books in both classes, I am feeling both tired and distracted, and an extra day or two to get my brain caught up with my schedule is very welcome.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we wrapped up The Hound of the Baskervilles on Monday and started on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd today. I’m not a Sherlockian at all — for me, a little bit of Holmes goes a pretty long way — but I like Hound a lot. There are always students in the class who are very keen on Sherlock Holmes (and, often, on his many reincarnations), so I count on them to fill in extra details about his history and character that aren’t directly presented in our readings. I, on the other hand, can point out the dangling modifiers in Doyle’s otherwise gripping prose: I figure that’s a fair trade. :-) More seriously, our discussion tends to focus on the tension between natural and supernatural explanations, which follows nicely on our earlier discussions of the emergence of detective fiction from the gothic tradition and leads nicely into our work on Golden Age mysteries, in which supernatural elements are strictly ruled out by documents like The Detective Decalogue.

I always particularly enjoy the first class on Agatha Christie: I have some fun setting her up as a victim of the modernist preoccupation with difficulty and the related elitism about work that is really popular. It’s not that I actually claim The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a better novel than Ulysses, or even its equal — not in so many words, anyway! But I do try to stir up questions about the idea of “literary merit,” and to historicize some of the presuppositions that often work against genre fiction. I also bring up related points about the literary curriculum (I’m reasonably certain, for instance, that Agatha Christie is never taught in classes on “20th-Century British Literature”) as another way of getting everyone thinking about what books we pay attention to or take seriously, and in what contexts.

vanityfaircoverIn 19th-Century Fiction, we focused today on Chapter 53, “A Rescue and a Catastrophe.” This is such an exciting moment in the novel, not just because it is full of dramatic action, but because it brings so many aspects of the novel into focus, from the real costs and risks of Becky’s climb up the social ladder to the narrator’s role as guide and moralist. “Was she guilty or not?” he asks at the end — and refuses to tell us, an evasion which I think is central to his insistence that the novel is not ultimately about Becky but about us. Chapter 53 also includes this memorable tableau of Becky after her great catastrophe:

She remained for hours after he was gone, the sunshine pouring into the room, and Rebecca sitting alone on the bed’s edge. The drawers were all opened and their contents scattered about — dresses and feathers, scarfs and trinkets, a heap of tumbled vanities lying in a wreck. Her hair was falling over her shoulders; her gown was torn where Rawdon had wrenched the brilliants out of it. She heard him go downstairs a few minutes after he left her, and the door slamming and closing on him. She knew he would never come back. He was gone forever. Would he kill himself? — she thought — not until after he had met Lord Steyne. She thought of her long past life, and all the dismal incidents of it. Ah, how dreary it seemed, how miserable, lonely and profitless! Should she take laudanum, and end it, to have done with all hopes, schemes, debts, and triumphs?

What a moment to incite us to pity! But this too seems to me strategically essential: like all of us, she’s really just another player, after all — just another fool “striving for what is not worth the having.”

saturday-canadianI got to do an extra class this morning, making a guest appearance in a colleague’s first-year seminar. I say “got to” because although it was extra work, it was of a particularly pleasing kind, as she asked me in to speak on the role of “Dover Beach” in Ian McEwan’s Saturday. I taught the novel myself an astonishing (to me) nearly 10 years ago, so I had some notes to draw on but, oddly, none specifically on the scene with “Dover Beach,” so that left me some work to do! I am a big admirer of McEwan in general, or at least of his later novels (I have not has as much success with his pre-Atonement works). Atonement remains my favorite, but reviewing Saturday I was impressed by it all over again. In this morning’s class I gave some context for “Dover Beach” then we talked a bit about the poem itself before turning to why it has the effect it does on the various characters, and whether McEwan is using its presence in the novel to assert the value of art against his protagonist’s resolute scientism. Perhaps he’s suggesting that we still need the consolations of poetry, despite our progress in other realms, especially if we (like Arnold’s speaker) don’t have the comforting “girdle” of faith. Rereading the poem in preparation for class, I admit that I felt consoled by it — it made me feel that I need to get more poetry into my own life.

For a short week, it has still been a busy one, then, and next week will be even more so, with paper proposals and midterms coming in on top of the usual class preparation. I also need to finish up the paper I’m writing for the Louisville Conference: I hope to make real progress on that on my day “off” this week. I’m kind of excited about the trip to Louisville, though I dread the travel days, especially with the risk that somewhere along the way everything will get screwed up by winter. Because our panel is on the first day, I’ve allowed a whole extra day so if things go awry with my flight schedules I still have a fighting chance of arriving in time. And if things go smoothly, I can play tourist for a day! Maybe it will even be above freezing there. Any suggestions for things to do in Louisville? I’m thinking about a visit to the Frazier History Museum.

Watching Testament of Youth

testamentposterVera Brittain’s Testament of Youth made a great impression on me when I finally read it several years ago. My interest in it led me to read more by and about Brittain, as well as more by and about her close friend Winifred Holtby, and then to research and eventually offer a seminar on a cluster of the “Somerville Novelists,” including Brittain, Holtby, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margaret Kennedy. In addition to the many blog posts I wrote on this material, I published an essay on Holtby in 3:AM Magazine and a short piece on “10 Reasons to Love Vera Brittain” at For Books’ Sake. I find the intellectual vitality and political passion of these women inspiring, and I have both reveled in and puzzled over their writing, which is not always aesthetically satisfying but never fails to be interesting. So naturally I have been waiting eagerly to see the 2014 adaptation of Testament of Youth — and last night I finally got the chance. (Hooray for Video Difference: may it never close down!)

Overall, I was pretty impressed. The acting (and the casting) is excellent, especially Alicia Vikander as Vera; the productions values are very high; and I thought it made a good effort to cover the central aspects of Brittain’s story. It didn’t include quite everything: in it, she doesn’t go to Malta, for example (which, just cinematically, seems like a lost opportunity). But it does incorporate both some of the poetry that was so important to Brittain and her four young men and some of their letters, including the very poignant one from Geoffrey in which he observes the unexpected beauty of the setting sun reflected in the shell craters at the front.

Still, the film wasn’t quite my version of Testament of Youth. It was a bit too slow-paced, and the artsy nature shots and pensive stares the director favored didn’t seem true to Brittain’s tough-mindedness. Though it is an emotional book, I found it particularly significant as an intellectual Bildungsroman, and though the plot of the film did follow this progression, the mood of the film turned it into more of a sentimental journey. Perhaps the concern was that Brittain herself might not be a very sympathetic heroine if this “bluestocking” aspect were emphasized any more than it was. I did find when I taught Testament that the students did not warm to her. She certainly is no Bridget Jones: hers is a life defined by competence, ambition, and self-assertion, and we do still seem to have trouble embracing these as heroic female qualities.

I would also have liked more emphasis on the context that led these young men to their doom: the ebullient nationalism and glorification of war are touched on only a couple of times and so the theme of disillusionment that’s so important to Brittain’s account is not as evident or painful. There’s plenty of contrast in the film between the golden pre-war days and the horrors of the battlefield, but the ideology of it all seemed muffled by the personal story in a way that Brittain never allows. I did appreciate that the film ended with the emergence of her as a public speaker and a pacifist.

I assume they didn’t film at the actual Somerville College because it doesn’t look enough like people’s dreams of Oxford. And yet its novelty among the other colleges is part of the point!

This Week In My Classes: Vanity Fair

frontispiece-1848aTeaching Vanity Fair is always a morally significant experience: it prompts so much reflection on what really matters, both in the world you actually live in, and in the world you wish you lived in. One of the earliest essays I wrote for Open Letters Monthly was on this aspect of Vanity Fair — on the way that it pretends to be about its characters but turns out to be about us, and especially about what we want to see reflected back at us about our lives when it’s too late to change anything:

The doctor will come up to us too for the last time there, my friend in motley. The nurse will look in at the curtains, and you take no notice — and then she will fling open the windows for a little and let in the air. Then they will pull down all the front blinds of the house and live in the back rooms — then they will send for the lawyer and other men in black, &c. Your comedy and mine will have been played then, and we shall be removed, oh, how far, from the trumpets, and the shouting, and the posture-making.

Even if we do have what we wanted most, will it have brought us happiness? And even if it has brought us happiness in the here and now, will it have been worth what we did, or didn’t do, to get it? “Everyone is striving for what is not worth the having,” as Lord Steyne says. It’s a lesson adaptable to all of us, in our various circumstances: the thing we reach for, not to mention the thing we are rewarded for, may really be a worthless chimera.

And yet how hard it is to exempt ourselves from the vanity of it all — not least here in the academy, where it sometimes seems that the systems of value and reward are as perverse and foolish as anything Thackeray imagined. Reading Vanity Fair does put things in perspective though. For instance, one thing I feel morally certain about is that on my deathbed, I will have no regrets about not having published more peer-reviewed academic articles, even if that remains the primary currency by which my professional worth is measured. Thus I will always see tenure as one thing that was worth striving for! My regrets (like my pride and my joy) will lie elsewhere.

“A Question of Vision”: Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies


He offered not only his whole laughing self . . . but also the torch he carried before him in the dark, his understanding, dazzling, instant, that there was goodness at her core. With the gift came the bitter seed of regret, the unbridgeable gap between the Mathilde she was and the Mathilde he had seen her to be. A question, in the end, of vision.

Fates and Furies ends with a paean to the unheralded rituals a long marriage, and a long life, is made of:

Because it’s true: more than the highlights, the bright events, it was in the small and the daily where she’d found life. The hundreds of times she’d dug in the soil of her garden . . . Or this: every day they woke in the same place, her husband waking her with a cup of coffee, the cream still swirling into the black. Almost unremarked upon, this kindness. he would kiss her on the crown of her head before leaving, and she’d feel something in her rising through her body to meet him. These silent intimacies made their marriage, not the ceremonies or parties or opening nights or occasions or spectacular fucks.

If the rest of the novel, leading up to this passage, were about those things, and written in that same pensive, tender register, I would have liked it a lot — loved it, maybe. But instead it’s a novel of extremes. It’s a theatrical book — not just literally, as is appropriate to its playwright hero and his milieu, including his artfully role-playing wife, but also in its big gestures and its melodramatic flourishes and its poses, its self-consciously uttered lines. It’s not a novel about “silent intimacies” between ordinary people: it’s about extraordinary people with implausibly twisted backstories, whose presents are haunted by their pasts, and whose gifts are underwritten by their secrets.

The result is an intriguing spectacle but not, for me, an engaging human story. I realize that the title is a clue that it is not (or, not just) a human story but a story that aspires to something larger, grander, more mythical. I don’t think I really got what that other thing was: the intricate details of Groff’s people and their lives, together and apart, perhaps distracted me from ways she has woven something else out of them. But at any rate for me, that element of grandiosity, whatever its intent, came at a cost: it kept me apart from the novel, so that I felt the whole time that I was watching it, rather than reading it. It’s an operatic novel, full of people driven by passion, structured around a convoluted revenge tragedy. I couldn’t reconcile that hyperbolic dimension of the novel with its more earthbound attention to the strange dynamics of marriage. It turned marriage itself into a kind of opera — but then it all seemed so exaggerated. Who actually lives at such a pitch of intensity? Who hides so much, or needs so much, or plots so much? And you certainly wouldn’t know from the bulk of the novel that “spectacular fucks” weren’t the most important part of Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage.

Aspects of Groff’s prose contributed to my alienation. A lot of it is very written. I don’t necessarily mind that, and I didn’t always here, where I was frequently impressed by her phrasing, with its unexpected diction and interesting rhythms:

Look at them together. The height of them, the shine on them. Her pale and wounded face, a face that had watched and never smiled now never stopped smiling. It was as if she’d lived all her life in the chilly shadows and someone had led her out into the sun. And look at him. All his restless energy focused tightly on her. She sharpened something that threatened to go diffuse in him.

But I hated the bracketed interruptions: I couldn’t understand their purpose, which did not seem consistent. Sometimes they offered choric commentary, as if from outside the story, but at other times they simply seemed like an awkward device to shift the point of view or the time frame. Here, for instance: “Chollie saw the man whispering in her ear, saw his hand disappear in the darkness between her legs. She let it, passive. [On the surface; beneath, the controlled burn.]” Why not integrate that observation? Whose is it, anyway? Not Chollie’s, presumably, but if it’s the narrator’s, why set it off? To me, many of these interjections felt like notes left over from a draft stage of the novel. If you need it, if it’s important, incorporate it. Do you want an intrusive narrator or don’t you? These comments felt like afterthoughts, like a tic or a mannerism rather than a style.

groff2I can tell I sound peevish, and I suspect, too, that I’m not doing the novel justice — that I was reading it wrong, that I am hung up (as we can all get) in wondering why it isn’t a different kind of book, my kind of book, instead of the book it is. But I am also trying to put my finger on what about it turned me off, especially because it took a while for me to start chafing against it. Perhaps it is telling that my irritation began more or less when it switched from his story to hers, and she’s the one with the malignant capacity for deceit, she’s the angry one, she’s the one who may not, in spite of what Lotto thought, have “goodness at her core.” We’re supposed to be uncomfortable with her, I’m sure — but in her beautiful duplicity does she turn out to be just a sexist cliché, a kind of modern-day Duessa? Or is my vision of her as wrong as Lotto’s?

Don’t get me wrong: I read Fates and Furies with unflagging attention and much admiration. In the end it left me cold, though: it had me thinking back on, say, Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which, for all its narrative trickery, is rich with appreciation and sympathy for “the small and the daily,” as well as for their vexed place in a world full of events that are anything but quotidian. If I said the quality I felt was missing from Groff’s novel was heart, would that sound too earnest or sentimental? Would it be fair?

“I am not paying for talk”: Charles Portis, True Grit


I said, “I have left off crying, and giggling as well. Now make up your mind. I don’t care anything for all this talk. You told me what your price for the job was and I have come up with it. Here is the money. I aim to get Tom Chaney and if you are not game I will find somebody who is game. All I have heard out of you so far is talk. I know you can drink whiskey and I have seen you kill a gray rat. All the rest has been talk. They told me you had grit and that is why I came to you. I am not paying for talk. I can get all the talk I need and more at the Monarch boarding house.”

When I tell you that the closest thing to a Western I’d read before True Grit was No Country for Old Men, you’ll understand how unprepared I was for Portis’s strange, surprising, action-packed yet character-driven novel. I don’t know the tropes it relies on, or revises; I don’t know the history it incorporates, or appropriates; I don’t know the landscape its story moves across; I don’t know what other literary characters, if any, keep company with Mattie Ross or Rooster Cogburn or Lucky Ned Pepper. I have thought a little about Westerns in the context of American crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction, which is often linked to a “frontier mentality” and the appeal of vigilante justice, and which is often written in a terse, demotic style appropriate for tough guys and cowboys with no words to waste. But True Grit is the first novel I’ve read that definitely qualifies as a classic of the genre.

I was interested in reading True Grit because I’m thinking about what to assign for Pulp Fiction next year. The calendar description for this course says that it “provides an entry point to the discussion of literature through ‘pulp’ genres such as romance, mystery/crime, the Western, sci-fi/fantasy, horror, sports literature, and comic books.” I can’t remember when we approved this description, but it strikes me now as an odd and somewhat elitist conflation of “pulp fiction” with genre fiction. While they certainly overlap, they aren’t necessarily the same, are they? Dictionary.com defines “pulp fiction” as “fiction dealing with lurid or sensational subjects, often printed on rough, low-quality paper manufactured from wood pulp,” which I think better reflects the connotations of the term, along with its historical origins. (Louis Menand’s New Yorker article on “The Birth of Pulp Fiction” gives a nice overview of that history in the context of reviewing Paula Rabinowitz’s American Pulp, which I’ve just taken out from the library.)

rabinowitzDefining my terms, which in turn will define my boundaries, is clearly one of the first thing I have to do. It’s inevitably going to be a somewhat arbitrary exercise, and the stakes aren’t that high given that the course is one of our first-year writing requirement classes and, as the calendar description implies, its main purpose is just to begin students’ training in literary studies. It doesn’t have to be an in-depth, theoretically complex, or even particularly thorough exploration of pulp fiction, whatever that is. It differs from the first-year class I usually teach (Introduction to Prose and Fiction) only in having what we hope is a sexier hook — it promises readings that at least sound more fun than what you might get in a standard literature class. Students in recent incarnations of the course, then, might have been surprised to find themselves reading Pride & PrejudiceJane Eyre, or Much Ado About Nothing, all of which I have seen in recent Pulp Fiction syllabi!

These versions of the course seem to have emphasized things like the way our current classics were the popular entertainment of their day, or differences and continuities between “high” and “low” forms of genre fiction. These are smart things to do, and they allow for a really broad historical range in the readings, but I’m leaning more towards a course that embraces the “lurid or sensational,” or that focuses on unapologetic examples of the different genres rather than on their most deliberately literary (or “literary”) versions. This is more or less the approach I’ve taken to the Mystery & Detective Fiction class: though I’ve occasionally included something like Paul Auster’s City of Glass, I have mostly tried to avoid the kind of crime fiction that overtly aims to “transcend the genre.” (How Ian Rankin hates that phrase! Cue up to 7:20 to get to that particular point.) So, no Austen in my Pulp Fiction class, and no Cormac McCarthy either!

I have plenty of ideas about romance and mystery novels that might work well for this course, but the other genres on the list in the official description are not at all my bailiwick. Luckily I don’t have to cover them all, and in a one-term writing requirement course I can only assign a few full-length novels anyway (three, maybe four, depending on their length) along with some short stories, so the question is: what else? And that brings me back (at last – sorry!) to True Grit. I put out a Twitter call for suggestions about classic Westerns to sample, and the ones that came up the most often were Elmore Leonard’s Valdez is Coming (and his story “3:10 to Yuma”), Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, Louis L’Amour’s Hondo, and True Grit. A helpful colleague dropped True Grit off at my office shortly after — and after puttering along with Emma for a while first, I burned through it in just a couple of hours last night.

True_Grit_(Charles_Portis_novel)-first-editionI’m not actually 100% sure True Grit is “pulpy”: does it transcend its genre? I think maybe it is to the general run of Westerns what Hammett or Chandler might be to crime fiction: still definitely of its kind, but the best, or most intense, version of it. Its story is simple and its pacing is relentless, but it’s the narrator that makes it particularly interesting. Mattie bristles with paradoxical qualities: she’s prim, abstemious, and insistently righteous, even as she’s razor-sharp and ruthless. She won’t touch a drop of whisky (“I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains”) but she doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger when she finally comes face to face with her father’s killer (“I pointed the revolver at his belly and shot him down”). She doesn’t much like the sight of hangings, but when she has to, she pulls the arm off a corpse and uses the long bone to save herself from falling into a pit of rattlesnakes (“I was grateful to the poor man for being tall”). Is she hilarious or heroic? Both and more, I think, and it’s her combination of naiveté and grit that wins over her jaded allies, who don’t want her along but then won’t leave her to die. And we hear all about it in the voice of aged Mattie, who still has no patience for people who waste time on pointless talk:

I never had the time to get married but it is nobody’s business if I am married or not married. I care nothing for what they say. I would marry an ugly baboon if I wanted to and make him cashier. I never had the time to fool with it. A woman with brains and a frank tongue and one sleeve pinned up and an invalid mother to care for is at some disadvantage, although I will say I could have had two or three old untidy men around here who had their eyes fastened on my bank. No, thank you!

True Grit recounts Mattie’s quest for justice, but she seeks it in a world where right and wrong overlap, where justice and the law often don’t coincide, and where, as Mattie often remarks, if you want a thing done, you’d best do it yourself, no matter the cost.

I liked True Grit a lot, especially but not just Mattie. I’d have a lot to learn before I could teach it, but I think I’d enjoy the process. Where my relationship with Westerns is concerned, this is significant — not to mention rapid — progress. It took me much longer to get the hang of reading romance novels! I think I’m going to hunt down Valdez is Coming next. It certainly sounds lurid and sensational: “They were still laughing when Valdez came back. And then they began to die.”

This Week In My Classes: Back to Busy-ness

januaryIt always takes a couple of weeks for a term to rev up and really get going: we have to get through a certain amount of reading, for example, before much writing can be done and thus for much marking to be needed. We are passing that point now, though, and this week I have already returned some paper proposals, there’s a batch of tests waiting for my red pen, the pace of submissions has picked up on reading journals, and that won’t be the end of it — not just this week but really for the whole term, since I have built in so many ‘small’ assignments (as part of my attempt to emphasize the process over the product) that from now on there will almost always be something coming in and something going back.

That’s OK, though, because that also means we’re past the start-of-term annoyances (more or less) — things like having to constantly update the class list as students add and drop classes (for two whole weeks! I’m sure I’ve mentioned that this drawn-out period of indecision is one of my pet peeves. I have tried but so far failed to convince administrators that while it may be a convenience for ‘customers,’ it is a pedagogical nightmare for both students and teachers.). And it also means we are getting used to each other so class discussion keeps getting better, and that we all more or less know what’s going on in terms of course requirements and policies and all the rest of the logistical stuff.

vanityfairoupI should say that I think our final sessions on Pride & Prejudice went well in the 19th-Century Fiction class last week: whatever my misgivings about the novel’s intransigent popularity, that does mean a generally positive attitude in the classroom and a high percentage of people who are well (really well) caught up on the readings. We’ll see how their spirits hold up as we move into Vanity Fair, which we start on Friday. I am pretty excited about that, actually: I haven’t assigned Vanity Fair since 2010, so it will feel relatively fresh to me, and a quick poll showed that it’s completely new to all of the students. The actual OUP volume looks so vast and dour that I think they can’t help but be pleasantly surprised when they start reading. But before we get there I’m taking one class to do a workshop on how to write a good essay for the course — this has become a regular feature of my upper-level classes and reflects my ongoing efforts to make my expectations as clear and transparent as possible and to demystify, as far as possible, the concept of a “good essay.”

In Mystery & Detective Fiction, we are finishing up The Moonstone. I enjoy it so much that I’m almost sorry I’m taking a break from this class next year. It occurs to me that I could assign it in the 19th-Century Fiction class next year instead, since I’m doing the Dickens-to-Hardy version — but that’s my best chance to do The Woman in White, so I probably won’t.

As that comment shows, one of the things I’m busy with, if so far still haphazardly, is planning next year’s classes. We’ve got our course assignments and it won’t be long before we need to turn in preliminary course descriptions and reading lists, as registration begins in March and the whole course selection apparatus needs to be ready. The one I’m thinking about the most is Pulp Fiction, which I’ll be teaching for the first time next winter. I’ll save my many but currently quite inchoate ideas about that class for another post! But I will say that it’s a good example of why it’s hard to draw firm lines between work and not-work for people in my profession, or at least for me: many things I’ve read “for fun” in the past are now possible candidates for its reading list, and many things I’ll read in the next few months in case they’re perfect for it won’t be strictly work-related at first, and maybe never will be!

saturday-canadianI’ve also got a guest lecture on Ian McEwan’s Saturday coming up for a colleague’s class that seemed remote when I agreed to it but is now (eek) just over two weeks away. Wouldn’t you know it: I have a whole folder of materials on Saturday from when I taught it myself in 2006, but somehow I have no lecture notes specifically on the significance of “Dover Beach” in the novel, which is what I proposed talking to her class about (what with my being a Victorianist and all). Since I haven’t actually read Saturday since 2006, I should probably add rereading it to my to-do list…

Also looming uncomfortably close on the horizon is the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, which I am attending (weather permitting!) as a participant on a panel about criticism in the internet age, along with Dan Green and David Winters. I have an abstract of my paper and a mess of notes: now it’s time to get serious about shaping something presentable out of them! Aside from the work that will require and the stress of having travel plans for mid-February, I’m looking forward to the conference: the program is full of interesting things, and it will be great to meet Dan and David in person. I’ve known Dan virtually since I started blogging in 2007! (Maybe one day I’ll also meet the elusive Amateur Reader face to face. I would promise never to reveal his super-top-secret-real-life-identity!)

I’ve been busy with some writing, also, and with the usual editorial things for Open Letters Monthly. And as if all this isn’t enough, it’s also winter and we have had three storms in the past week, which means we’ve also been busy shoveling. So far it has not been that bad — the roads and sidewalks are getting decently cleared in pretty good time — but I was recently reminded that at this time last winter, Halifax hadn’t turned into Hoth yet either, and we’ve got nearly three months to go before we’re really out of danger.

I am managing a bit of non-required reading in the interstices of my days. I finished Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City but haven’t decided whether or how to blog about it. Now I’m about half way through my reread of Emma and it’s not going very well. I will persist, however — and then choose something a little less stuffy with a little more action in it. True Grit, maybe, which is on my list of Pulp Fiction possibilities and which by all appearances is pretty much the anti-Emma.

And that brings us pretty much up to date! I look forward to doing some more bookish blogging soon.

This Week In My Classes: The Pride and Prejudice Paradox

I don’t teach it very often anymore: it’s too popular.

This is my version, I guess, of Yogi Berra’s line “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

oxford-pride-and-prejudicePride and Prejudice is the only work I ever teach (in any genre) that has routinely been read already, often multiple times, by many of the students in the class. You’d think that would be a great thing — and actually, in some ways it is. Students who know the novel really well bring their own expertise to our discussions; their enthusiasm, also, enlivens it. Both of these things are freeing for me: I can count on informed participation and turn much more than usual to other people in the room to help me out with details, and I can also play devil’s advocate more, with less risk of sowing confusion and more chance of just stimulating debate.

I have been reminded this week, though, returning to Pride and Prejudice in the 19th-century fiction class after many years of assigning Persuasion instead, that the novel’s familiarity has its drawbacks as well. Over the years I have found that those who know it very well may be quite entrenched in their readings of it, for example, particularly about how they interpret or judge specific characters. Students who are strongly attached to particular adaptations may also be particularly prone to reading characters or scenes in particular ways. If they’ve always read the novel for pleasure before, they may not be accustomed to paying much attention to how it is written or structured, or to questioning its premises. Their love and knowledge of it may also intimidate their classmates who are reading it for the first time: too many remarks prefaced by “I’ve read this novel multiple times” would certainly have shut me up, when I was an undergraduate, because I would have been afraid my own preliminary observations wouldn’t hold up.

Obviously, these are all ultimately pedagogical issues: it’s up to me to try to make the novel fresh again, if I can — to introduce new questions or contexts, to posit alternative interpretations, to move us from character analysis to thematic or formal issues, to do my best to bring everyone into the discussion, to make the most of the wonderful fact that so many people read and reread Pride and Prejudice just because they want to. Wouldn’t it be great of that were true of more of the novels I assign, after all! And yet it’s not. Jane Eyre probably comes the closest, but even the Brontë enthusiasts are few and far between compared to the Austen lovers.

pride-and-prejudice-penguinI wonder, actually, if part of the difficulty I have knowing quite what to do with the gift (and I do mean that!) of a room heavily populated with Janeites is that I’m not one myself. It’s impossible not to love Pride and Prejudice, of course. Though Persuasion is my personal favorite among Austen’s novels, I am on record exclaiming over the treat P&P always is to read. But Austen is not the novelist that thrills or interests me the most — she never has been, or my own research and teaching career would look much different! It’s that whole ineffable affinity thing: as Henry James said in that line from “The Art of Fiction” that I seem to quote more than anything else of his, “nothing will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it.” For me, the result of “that primitive, that ultimate, test” was someone else — and not just one someone either, really, as I get more excited about a lot of other authors I read and teach than I do about Austen. I’m not trying to be contrarian or some kind of “hipster” Victorianist — my preferences are frightfully canonical, but they really are Victorian, which Austen, after all, is not.

In any case, while I do think Austen is great, she’s just one kind of great, not the only kind. Her unstoppable popularity sometimes seems like such a self-fulfilling prophecy. I can’t and don’t doubt the sincerity of her admirers, though, including those in my class. I really do welcome the energy, expertise, and keen attention they bring to discussion. I just hope I can keep them half as engaged when we move on to Vanity Fair and Jane Eyre, because I believe those novels are every bit as brilliant in their own (wildly different) ways as Pride and Prejudice is in its.

And maybe next time around I’ll try something else altogether — Emma, for instance, which would be a stretch for me and probably for more of my students, too, than is the case with Pride and Prejudice. Familiarity needn’t breed contempt, but I wonder if unfamiliarity isn’t a pedagogical advantage. This would be one way to find out!

This Week In My Classes: Orientation

You-Are-HereThe new term is underway, as you might guess from the sudden dearth of new blog posts. After all this time I am much better at the start-up logistics; what gets harder is adjusting to the sudden dramatic increase in demands on my energy. I was exhausted after every class meeting this week! But as we get deeper into our course material, more energy flows back towards me, and then the process feels less draining — on a good day, it’s even exhilarating!

One thing I found myself thinking a lot about as my classes got underway is the importance but also the difficulty of bringing us all together intellectually as well as physically. I always feel that before we can delve into the details of our particular readings, we need to establish some common ground. Because both the canon and our curriculum have diversified so much in the last few decades, there’s very little that I can expect everyone to know or to have read. Even with our most “advanced” seminar classes, I can’t expect students to have studied any of the material before, or even any material from the same genre or period. (This is increasingly true of students in graduate seminars as well.) While the range of knowledge and perspectives everyone brings can have some great results for our discussions, it can also mean things get a bit random and scattered, or that it’s hard to make connections meaningful enough to draw everybody in. So one thing I try to do at the beginning is sketch out some of the general territory in which our particular class is situated. This usually means providing historical and/or literary historical contexts, but it can also mean setting up some conceptual frameworks.

crimedaleyFor Mystery & Detective Fiction, for instance, I start with some comments about the (vexed, contested, elusive, perhaps nonexistent) difference between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction,” and some thoughts about how our ideas and expectations about these kinds of fiction affect our reading strategies. I also give an overview of the development of mystery fiction as a genre, from Newgate and gothic fiction through sensation fiction and Sherlock Holmes and on to the present day, with attention to the emergence of a wide range of subgenres; and I talk a bit about the history of policing, from thief-takers to Scotland Yard. For courses on Victorian fiction, I often lead off with some discussion about the contemporary connotations of “Victorian,” then talk about the historical and literary-historical reasons for those stereotypes; then I go over some generalizations about the “rise of the novel,” with some attention to social contexts and some to formal or thematic trends.

I’m always very aware when I put these introductory lessons together that they are, inevitably, in some ways artificial and inadequate. I usually say so eventually, too, noting that every generalization I offer, every master-narrative I string together, could itself be the starting point for a complex and nuanced exploration of details. But I still believe that we need some sense of a (not the) big picture, just to get oriented. I also think good reading does rely to some extent on having the relevant knowledge: to give another example from my own recent teaching, I don’t think it’s possible to read A Room of One’s Own really well if you don’t know anything about the history of women’s education and where to place A Room of One’s Own in that story. It’s not that you wouldn’t get anything out of your reading without knowing these things, but aspects of your understanding would necessarily be superficial. So that’s a context I make sure we address in class.woolf

I doubt there was ever a time when every student arrived in any given class with all the “right” equipment: setting things up, or filling them in, has always been one of a teacher’s jobs, along with drawing semi-arbitrary lines around what’s relevant and what’s not. It’s a good thing that we’ve gotten more self-conscious about how and why we do this and why it is also a way of making things up, but I expect most of us still do some version of it, laying the groundwork we want everyone to have for our purposes. In my department, we used to do more of this structurally, through course requirements and prerequisites. This has become less and less possible, however, both because of the way our mandate has grown (despite what some conservative bobble-heads might think, the expansion of literary studies has been additive — it’s not that we teach comic books instead of Shakespeare or vampire movies instead of Beowulf but that, resources permitting, we do it all!) and because students seem to like requirements less and less. (I think the two developments are related, actually: the more it’s clear they could reasonably study, the less reasonable it seems for us to require them to study anything in particular.)

nortonIf our curriculum currently has an organizing principle or direction, it’s more skills-oriented rather than content-oriented: first-year classes emphasize reading strategies and writing skills, then for majors and Honors students we have kinds of required classes (literature surveys and theory / methods) that they choose among. There are some breadth requirements, for historical range, but because they can take classes in pretty much any order they want, none of this provides any predictability or consistency. And so I try to build it in myself.

I’m curious what other people’s experiences have been with this sort of problem — or whether it even seems to you like a problem! Maybe other teachers just show up and jump right in, or maybe students would rather learn as they go, or make do with what they already know, and never mind the Grand Unifying Theory of Everything, even as a provisional framework. If you’re a professor, how does your department deal with the question of “coverage,” or of sequencing, or have you done more or less what we’ve done, that is, let the diversity of material become a smorgasbord of options for students? Viewed that way, I think our offerings are pretty tempting — they are both nutritious and delicious! And mostly I am glad about that, about their variety and inclusiveness and even idiosyncrasy, because that’s the reality of our field. We contain multitudes! For the first week or so of every term, though, I struggle with the pedagogical implications of what we have become.

“Not Simple Enough”: Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady


“You seem to have so many scruples, so many reasons, so many ties. When I discovered, ten years ago, that my husband’s dearest wish was to make me miserable — of late he has simply let me alone — ah, it was a wonderful simplification! My poor Isabel, you’re not simple enough.”

I had barely finished reading The Portrait of a Lady when I learned that I had read the wrong book — the wrong version of this book, that is. Immediately following the novel’s last page in my Norton Critical Edition is a “Textual Appendix” itemizing all of James’s revisions between the first edition (1880-81) and the 1908 edition used as the main text for the Norton edition. “Even though more recent critics have acknowledged the revisions to be an improvement,” says my editor, “and numerous editors have tacitly concurred by reprinting the later version, dissenting voices have been raised.” The extensive catalog of textual variants is, in turn, followed by three critical commentaries on the issue of James’s revisions. Here are some excerpts from Nina Baym’s “Revision and Thematic Change in The Portrait of a Lady,” which is the essay that made me wish I’d read the original 1881 version of Portrait instead of the “improved” New York edition:

The revised version is stylistically and thematically closer to his later interests than the early one had been. Its writing is more complex, mannered, and metaphorical. It is thematically less timely and realistic, for its main concern is the private consciousness. In the 19o8 version, Isabel Archer’s inner life is the center of the character and of the novel’s reality. In the early version the inner life is only one aspect of character, which is defined by behavior in a social context. . . .

The 1881 novel was one of an increasing number of works about “the woman question.” The heroine, an appealing young American, wants to live an independent and meaningful life; but she is thwarted. Unlike many works of the period on this theme, The Portrait did not depict Isabel’s desire as unnatural and misguidedly unfeminine, nor did it employ the standard formula of saving her from this delusion by love and marriage. On the contrary, the novel sympathized with her aim to the point of calling both love and marriage into question. . . . The changes of 1908, transforming the story into a drama of consciousness, overlaid and in places obliterated the coherence of the 1881 versions.

Now, I admit I did not patiently follow all of Baym’s specific arguments about particular revisions, or work through the 80 (yes, 80) pages of them for myself — I’m trusting Baym’s overall claim, which suggests (though she doesn’t quite put it this way) that James’s revisions transformed The Portrait of a Lady from a Victorian novel to a modern(ist) one. It’s not that I actively disliked the novel I read, but the 1881 novel she describes is one that I would be eager to put in conversation with other novels I know about “the woman question,” most of which are not quite as formulaic as she suggests — Gissing’s The Odd Women, for instance (1893) certainly calls both love and marriage into question, and even much earlier novels from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall through Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda offer little hope that marriage is a simple solution to women’s thwarted desires for meaningful lives.

oxfordportraitReading the 1908 Portrait, though, I had found myself wondering where we were supposed to be looking for the causes of Isabel’s catastrophe — besides, of course, to Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle. I think we are implicitly directed to Isabel’s social context by her overpowering sense of what is expected, of what convention demands. But given the greater freedom experienced — socially and emotionally — by so many of those around her, I think we have to conclude that it’s her own sense of duty, her own insistence on what she believes to be honor, that ultimately condemns her. There is something Eliot-like in this, to be sure: what is Dorothea’s obligation to Casaubon, after all, if not an expression of her strong sense of duty and her individual principles, which make betrayal of trust an abomination to her? But James’s attention to the external conditions of Isabel’s life is much less detailed and explicit, and he tells us next to nothing about its historical antecedents: Isabel’s moral dilemma seems much more abstract than any moral crisis Eliot confronts us with. Further, it is difficult  (or was for me, anyway) to discern any principle which James thinks ought to guide Isabel: that inhibition about moving from is to ought (as I think Martha Nussbaum would agree) is characteristic of James, and for some that is part of his appeal, but for me it feels like a loss — or, more accurately, like an artful reticence, as all the emotional weight of the novel’s final chapters surely presses us to feel Isabel’s return to Osmond as a fatal error. Her horror at openly breaking a vow she has made is not supported by anything else in the novel — another way in which the novel’s moral operations differ from Eliot’s, as the true crises in her work usually turn on competing goods, not unmoored error.

In any case, this version of Portrait seemed to me very much a psychological rather than a social novel, a “drama of consciousness,” as Baym says, and while I was often impressed, even overwhelmed, at the subtlety of James’s analysis of motive and perspective, I also found it frequently oppressive: I missed the balance Eliot gives us between the individual and the community, the particular and the general, the instance and the abstraction. Though I hesitate to align myself with the Countess, when I came to her wry comment to Isabel that she wasn’t “simple enough,” I thought: that’s it! that’s the problem with the whole book! It is so subtle — and is life (life as lived, that is, rather than life imagined) anything like that? If we thought that scrupulously about every little thing — if we strove to be, as James  urges in “The Art of Fiction,” “one of the people on whom nothing is lost” — not a nuance, not even a shade of a nuance — we’d never be able to get out of bed in the morning. As I argued in much more painstaking detail in my essay on “Martha Nussbaum and the Moral Life of Middlemarch,” “the reason James’s psychological realism should not satisfy us in our efforts to decide how we should live is that ultimately morality lies in action.” To which, of course, a reasonable response is not only that we are under no obligation to read in the service of morality but that James has no obligation to help us be moral…but the more general point remains: that at many points while reading Portrait I wished for a “wonderful simplification.”

And yet perhaps the earlier version would have given me hardly more satisfaction. Here’s Horace Scudder writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1882 (and thus, obviously, about the 1881 text):

penguinportraitWhat renders [James’s method] distinct from, say, Thackeray’s method, with which it has been compared, or from George Eliot’s, is the limitation of the favorite generalizations and analyses. If the reader will attend, he will see that these take place quite exclusively within the boundaries of the story and characters. That is to say, when the people in the book stop acting or speaking, it is to give the novelist an opportunity, not to indulge in general reflections, having applications to all sorts and conditions of men, of whom his dramatis personae are but a part, — he has no desire to share humanity with them, — but to make acute reflections upon these particular people, and to explain more thoroughly than their words and acts can the motives which lie behind. . . .

[His work] is consistent, but the consistency is with itself. . . . This self-consistency is a separate thing from any consistency with the world of reality. . . . In Andersen’s quaint story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, a little child discovers the unreality of the gossamer dress, and his voice breaks in upon the illusion from the outer world. Something of the same separation from the story, of the same unconscious naturalness of feeling, prompts the criticism that, though these people walk, and sit, and talk, and behave, they are yet in an illusionary world of their own.

I’m sure nice Mr. Scudder doesn’t mean that when you break the illusion, James’s work is exposed as naked pretension rather than art! Indeed, he’s quite admiring about what it’s like to be inside James’s world. I admire it too: the scene in which the Countess tells Isabel the truth is thrilling, for instance, both because of its psychological acuity and because we’ve waited so long for the dramatic irony to reach its climax, for the gap between our knowledge (and suspicions) and Isabel’s to close. The farewell with Ralph, too, has all the emotional intensity of Dorothea’s climactic visit to Rosamond at the end of Middlemarch, though its revelations and effects could hardly be more different. It may be that we feel moments like this — which are the closest the novel comes to dramatic action — particularly deeply because we have spent so long dissecting and analyzing: at last, there is blood.

In the end (though as always it’s a conclusion that reveals as much about me as about either James or his novel) I sympathize most with Margaret Oliphant’s verdict on The Portrait of a Lady:

It is far too long, infinitely ponderous, and pulled out of all proportion by the elaboration of every detail; but there is scarcely a page in it that is not worked out with the utmost skill and refinement, or which the reader will pass over without leaving something to regret — that is, if he has leisure for the kind of reading which is delightful for its own sake in complete independence of its subject. . . . But nothing so elaborate ever could be real, and the dazzle sometimes fatigues, though the effect is one which cannot be contemplated without admiration.

As she too was contemplating the 1881 version, that probably sets me straight about whether I did in fact read the wrong version: it would not have made a difference, or at any rate not much difference, if I hadn’t read the “more complex, mannered, and metaphorical” 1908 version. The difference is a matter of degree, not of kind. Where does that leave me? Stumped, as usual, I think, by James’s own point (again, in “The Art of Fiction”) that “there are all sorts of tastes,” and mine aren’t altogether Jamesian.

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