This Week In My Classes: The Dust Settles

I filed final grades for my winter term courses this week: apart from a couple of make-up tests that still need sorting out, my work for them is over. I have sorted and recycled or filed all my notes and paperwork, and put the books back where they belong — which for some of them means on the shelf where I will gather materials for next year’s courses, but for all of them means out of the way of the space I will use to stash everything for my summer projects. (These will get their own post, once I’ve sorted out better just what they are!)

Looking back over my 2016-17 teaching, a few things stand out.

First of all, while classroom teaching is always, for me, the best part of this job–the part that makes up for a lot of the nonsense and the stress and the long hours it entails–this year it mattered to more than ever, because I was doing it under the shadow of my promotion appeal, a process that significantly undermined my confidence, my self-esteem, and my collegiality. During the fall term especially, I often found it hard to concentrate, never mind to be my best self, but almost without fail, my time in the classroom was both intellectually stimulating and emotionally therapeutic.

Some of that was due to my specific teaching assignments this year. My fall term courses were both ones I have taught before and really enjoy. Since I first designed my version of Close Reading, I have tried to infuse its more technical aspects with both critical and moral purpose, and the result is that it generates some of the most interesting discussions and assignments I get. It was also balm to my soul to spend five weeks on Middlemarch for this class: that is not enough time, of course–what would be?–but still feels comparatively luxurious (when I teach Middlemarch in my standard 19th-century fiction class, we get three weeks). Finishing with The Remains of the Day is always marvelous, but Ishiguro’s novel felt particularly and painfully relevant right after the U.S. election.

My other fall term class was The Victorian ‘Woman Question.’ For this class we read works from a range of genres, including Mill’s The Subjection of Women, Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and EBB’s Aurora Leigh–another text that resonated powerfully with current events. I had a particularly keen and engaged group in this seminar: class discussions were exceptionally smart and lively, and the group presentations were among the best I’ve ever seen.

In the winter term, I taught 19th-Century Fiction from Dickens to Hardy, which is familiar territory in most respects as I teach either it or its Austen to Dickens version pretty much every year. (I’m fearful that might change when we revise our curriculum to cope with our shrinking faculty complement–that would be sad!) I do try to mix things up at least a little bit every time, and this year’s innovation was putting Adam Bede on the reading list. I thought it taught beautifully: it is more schematic than Middlemarch and more accessible than The Mill on the Floss (both of which I have taught in this class). I think some students found it a bit slow–but imagine, then, how they would have found either of the other two! It also stood as a wonderful contrast to Tess of the d’Urbervilles; a lot of students wrote on these novels for their essay question on the final exam, and the results were usually excellent.

The big teaching adventure for me this term was Pulp Fiction. I’m not really sure yet how it went: I’m still thinking about it! I found it much more difficult than I’d expected to get discussion going in class–both in the lectures and in the smaller tutorial sessions–and this made me worry that nobody was finding the readings or the class engaging, but based on some feedback I’ve had since, I think at least some of the students were enjoying themselves just fine, they just weren’t talking. This is not ideal, obviously, so as I prepare to teach the class again next winter I’ll be thinking about ways to liven things up.

One thing I realized as the term went by is that the big questions that, in my mind, really motivated the course–questions about the difference between “pulp” or “genre” fiction and “literary” fiction, for instance–were not of great interest (at least, as far as I could tell) to most of the students: they did not seem to be invested in either the distinction or arguments against it. My guess is that most of them had never thought much about genre categories or literary prestige before; certainly I got no sign that they believed themselves to be victims of or participants in any kind of “culture war” by virtue of having been assigned Elmore Leonard and Loretta Chase instead of Shakespeare and Jane Austen. It’s possible that some of them are now more interested in how and why we might draw these kinds of lines, but it was at once disorienting and refreshing to realize that they were not nearly as exercised about them as people often are in the media or in the world of literary criticism and book reviewing. In the end it was just another thing I was trying to teach them about.

I also found that the issue of how to deal with “inappropriate” or potentially offensive content in our readings–such as racist language or explicit sex scenes–which is something I fretted about a lot as I drew up the course materials and my early lecture notes–did not seem to be much of a problem either. It is possible that I successfully preempted some kinds of knee-jerk reactions: for the first time ever, for example, I included a kind of “content warning” statement in my syllabus, acknowledging the presence of elements that we would need to exercise care, precision, and maturity in addressing. One of the first technical things I talked about was the use/mention distinction, and I took care also to work on the difference between a character’s point of view and what we could discern to be the position the novel as a whole took on issues like race or gender. It’s also possible that I will learn more about students’ reactions to these issues when I read the course evaluations: it may be that students who did find some of the material uncomfortable also did not feel free to tell me so. In a way, that is fine, provided they were not unhappy with how we (or just I) dealt with the material in class discussion.

I know how fortunate I am that these four courses comprised my entire teaching load this year, especially as two of them were upper-level courses in my own field of specialization. When we adopted 2/2 as our standard teaching load a few years ago, we did have to raise class sizes, sometimes significantly,  which meant that though contact and preparation hours went down, the marking load stayed more or less the same. Larger classes also increase administrative time–everything from data entry to alphabetizing assignments to handling student appointments and emails takes longer the more people you are keeping track of. (This term, for instance I had about 130 students between my two classes: I’ve had more some terms, though I’ve also sometimes had fewer.) As we head into 2017-18 we are facing a significant reduction in the number of full-time faculty members in our department: inevitably, we are reconsidering how to allocate the resources that will remain. My teaching next year is going to be almost identical to this year’s, but after that, who knows?

You can read more about my classes going all the way back to 2007; posts about it are indexed on the Teaching page (so far I haven’t added links to this year’s entries), or you can click on the tag for ‘This Week In My Classes’ and work your way backwards.

“Modest Hope”: Rosy Thornton, Hearts and Minds

After that, there was a return to something of the camaraderie which had developed between them during these last two terms and he discovered himself nursing the more modest hope that her departure would not mean a cessation of their friendship.

The last time I wrote about Rosy Thornton here, in a post on her later novel The Tapestry of Love, I identified Hearts and Minds as a book that “now numbers among the little cluster of books I think of as my ‘comfort reading,’ books that I reread when I want to wander mentally away from home without feeling adrift, to be distracted without being distraught or dismayed.” That was in 2011, and to be honest I don’t think I have actually gone back to Hearts and Minds since then, not because I changed my mind about it but because — happily — the cluster of books I reread for amiable diversion is larger than it used to be. It now includes, for instance, a number of romance novels, which provide not so much comfort as cheer.

I wonder if it’s because in the interval I have read so many books with happy endings that on this reread, Hearts and Minds seemed more melancholy than I remembered it. Not that it’s a sad or pessimistic book — far from it. It’s a campus novel, and thus perhaps inevitably satirical — a much kinder, gentler satire than, say, David Lodge’s — but it’s also an intimately human story about well-meaning people trying to make their way forward, as best they can, in their intertwined professional and personal lives. It doesn’t offer either belly laughs or epiphanies, but it’s full of quiet insight and a kind of wry tenderness.

The novel’s paired protagonists are James Rycarte, the charismatic newly appointed Head of St. Radegund’s College, Cambridge who has landed in academia after a career at the BBC, and the college’s Head Tutor, Martha Pearce. Martha’s career as an academic economist has stalled because of her devoted attention to her administrative duties. She likes the work, but her term is nearly up and she’s facing an uncertain future worsened by her teenage daughter’s inertia and withdrawal (which she fears is depression) and her poet husband’s self-indulgent underemployment. Despite the value she places on her work, and the utter dependence of her family on her as the only real earner, Martha is plagued with guilt about her long hours and fragmented attention.

Much of the novel’s plot is devoted to maneuvers around a potential donation that would shore up St. Radegund’s literally sinking foundations but poses what some faculty see as an unacceptable conflict of interest. On this, and on the equally vexing issue of a student strike against rising college rents, James and Martha work together first as colleagues, then as allies, and finally as friends. If you think there’s some romantic potential there, you’re not wrong, but one of my favorite things about the novel is that it’s recognized in but does not become the story. In fact, it’s really only James who develops warmer feelings, but he is too good a man to make them Martha’s problem, even when she lets on that she and her husband may be separating. As for Martha, she may be fed up with her husband and desperate for a change, but that doesn’t mean she’s giving up on him or their life together. It’s all very mature — and that’s one of the other things that struck me about the novel this time, that it’s a realistic novel about the complexities of mid-life and mid-career.

Almost every crisis that looms in Hearts and Minds fizzles out by the end of the novel: as a result, there are neither catastrophes nor epiphanies. Maybe it doesn’t sound all that comforting, but that lack of drama, along with the gentle wit with which Thornton treats all of her well-imagined characters, is what I like about it. This time around it reminded me less of Anne Tyler and more of some Joanna Trollope’s earlier novels, especially A Village Affair or Marrying the MistressHearts and Minds is a little lighter than either of these, but they all have the same commitment to taking everyday life seriously, appreciating its bright spots without too much wishful thinking about how easily we can solve its inevitable problems.

This Week: All Exams All the Time

OK, I exaggerate slightly: I’ve also had some papers to grade. But the final exams for both of my winter term classes were this Tuesday. At 3 hours each, with set up and pack up time that meant over 7 hours straight in the dreary Dalplex fieldhouse, and I walked away with 120 exams which I will be working my way through until next Tuesday at least. Overall, it’s not exhilarating work: there are certainly bright spots (many of which so far have been in the essay answers from students in the 19th-century fiction class), but a lot of this marking is more or less drudgery. I do try to make the questions not just relevant but, where possible, interesting, for me as well as for the students, but as I’ve written about here before, the main value of exams for me is simply, and kind of sadly, coercive. So I approach this part of every term with resignation, and try to pace myself so that repetition and fatigue don’t make me mean.

The other typical feature of this time of year is an uptick in meetings. These too require some deliberate self-care for me these days, as I continue to struggle a bit with the emotional residue of my failed promotion application. Certain topics, and certain faces, can still trigger bursts of bitterness; one thing I’ve been thinking about, inspired in part by this excellent post from Timothy Burke, is how to orient myself towards the university for the remaining third of my career there. (I’ll probably write something more about this once this term is fully behind me.) At the department level, our meetings are particularly difficult right now as we are facing a decline of a third in our faculty complement (the number of full time faculty in the department) due to the non-replacement of retirees. As you can imagine, shrinkage on this scale has significant repercussions for everything from our ability to form supervisory committees for graduate students to the kind and range of undergraduate courses we can offer — and thus for how we structure our majors and honors programs. Let’s just say the term “death spiral” has come up more than once: it’s hard to sustain a program, much less expand or innovate it, under these conditions.

I have been managing to get some reading done: some serious reading, with an eye to reviewing deadlines coming up, and some light reading. I just finished Julie James’s newest, The Thing About Love — and did not love it. It was entertaining enough, and she’s good at both plot and banter, but the awkwardness I always notice in her prose seemed particularly conspicuous this time. I can’t believe better editing couldn’t smooth a lot of it out: she has tics like explaining new names by adding “referring to etc. etc.” after them. I was diverted by the book, but also disappointed in it, especially as I like her previous novel, Suddenly Last Summer, a lot. I am really looking forward to doing some immersive reading that’s not for work (or for formal reviews, for that matter). I have some birthday gift cards I’m going to use to treat myself to some new books as soon as I file final grades! It will probably be pretty quiet around here until then.

“Kiss Me, Katya”: Anne Tyler, Vinegar Girl

Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare project, is basically a romantic comedy — the “indie” version, a bit quirky, a bit acidic, a bit sweet. In fact, it is both sweeter and more romantic than I expected: it has been decades since I read or saw The Taming of the Shrew, but at least in my memory, Shakespeare’s play is much more rambunctious and much harder to swallow, though that may be because the version I remember best is the Taylor / Burton one. I’ve also seen 10 Things I Hate About You more than once, and it too is harder-hitting than Vinegar Girl, though it is also more joyful.

Whether or not Vinegar Girl is an especially clever or original reworking of The Taming of the Shrew, it is enjoyable enough on its own terms, which are fairly undemanding. It moves us briskly through the story of its Katherine, a cranky, repressed older daughter whose life is divided between caring for her father (a dedicated but not terribly successful scientist) and her younger sister Bunny, and her job as a preschool teacher — an uncomfortable fit for her because, as she tells her father’s lab assistant Pyotr, she hates children.

She tells him this in disavowal of her father’s claim that she is “very domestic,” an unexpected (and misleading) endorsement that turns out to be part of his scheme to marry her to Pyotr, whose visa is about to expire. Though Pyotr has some of Petruchio’s domineer instincts, and a bad temper to match Kate’s, he is also the only person Kate has ever met who sees her, and who likes what he sees. Though at first Kate is insulted by the whole plan, which reflects the general opinion of everyone around her, including her father, that she will never find love on her own, she starts to appreciate Pyotr, and to see marriage to him as an opportunity to get away from a life she finds wholly unrewarding. “He listens to people,” she tells Bunny, who tries to talk her out of the marriage:

he pays attention. And did you hear what he said the other night about how maybe I’d want to go back to school? I mean, who else has ever suggested that? Who else has even given me a thought? Here in this house I’m just part of the furniture, somebody going nowhere, and twenty years from now I’ll be the old-maid daughter still keeping house for her father.

Pyotr even likes that she’s … blunt? direct? tactless? rude? “In my country they have proverb,” he tells Kate,

“Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.”

This was intriguing. Kate said, “Well, in my country, they say that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“Yes, they would,” Pyotr said mysteriously. . . . “but why you would want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.”

As this line suggests, there’s not much taming in Tyler’s version, which I appreciated. Kate’s prickly personality instead is part of her appeal. Katherina’s famous closing speech becomes a rant from Katherine, not about how wives should lovingly obey their husband’s, but about how hard it is to be a man who always has to hide his feelings, while women “have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers.”  “It’s like men and women are in two different countries,” she explains to Bunny, who accuses her of subordinating herself to Pyotr;

“I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.”

I wasn’t actually convinced that she or Pyotr had earned quite that speech, but along with the epilogue that follows, it does show a happy ending that is based on mutual tolerance for both eccentricity and difficulty, which I liked. And the route there is strewn with funny moments, and the occasional touching one too. Maybe because I can be rather vinegary myself, I would have liked the novel better if it had made Kate harder to like, and admired it more if it had tried to go deeper than it does. Still, like Hag-SeedVinegar Girl gives the impression of an author enjoying the task she’s set herself, and that added to its charm.

Chilling, Twisted, Forensic: Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

The adjectives in my post’s title all come from the nearly four pages of blurbs at the front of my paperback edition of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories. Looking them over after finishing the book, I was struck by how consistent the clips are, and how accurate: “exhilarating if dark,” “brilliantly chilling,” “artfully controlled savagery,” “brutally dissecting,” “brusque and brutal,” “cruelty is made manifest,” “dark and judgmental,” “harsh and comic,” “satisfyingly chilling.” I agree that these are just the qualities of the stories in this collection. I’m just not as sure as either these reviewers or the publicity team at Harper Perennial seem to be that these are signs of its greatness — that they are, or should be, unqualified selling points.

I did admire the stories, which I found consistently interesting and intelligent, but I would have liked them much better if they showed some signs of warmth, humanity, or tenderness. Instead, they struck me as cold and sometimes mean, unforgiving. They reminded me of some of Ian McEwan’s fiction, or of Edward St. Aubyn, in the precision and taut control of the prose, but I’m starting to get tired of writing that deliberately avoids expressiveness or emotion: flat affect is not the only way to show you are serious, and (as I have argued about both St. Aubyn and, in my arrogance, Flaubert) grim horror is not the only truth to tell about the world.

I found myself thinking, as I worked through the volume, about why I enjoyed the stories in Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles and David Constantine’s In Another Country so much more. Johnson’s stories are as, or even more, grim than Mantel’s; they are also riskier, as well as more varied in tone and style, and so perhaps less consistently excellent in their execution. However much they are about horror, cruelty, or alienation, though, they seemed to me to also be about how fiction, or how we, can overcome them. In contrast, there’s something voyeuristic about Mantel’s glimpses of loneliness, pain, or cruelty: her stories give me the sense that she’s fascinated by these manifestations of our worse natures, but not moved by them to compassion or redress. Her stories also offer no epiphanies: just meticulous observation without revelation. This is a perfectly legitimate approach to fiction, of course: it’s just, cumulatively, chilling. Constantine sounds more like Mantel than Johnson does, at least at first read, but his stories are shot through with another quality hers lack: beauty — not necessarily as an aesthetic quality, though there is more of that in his writing than in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher too, but, again, as a feeling, a hope, a light you can sense around even the darkest moments in his stories.

Looking over the effusive blurbs again, I’m reminded of the critical enthusiasm for Elena Ferrante, with all her “anger” and “searing honesty.” It seems as if there are a lot of readers who are particularly impressed by writers (women writers especially?) who are both unsentimental and unmerciful. I can be impressed by fiction this ruthless, but I can’t be moved. For me, that puts a cap on the praise I can offer it.

This Week In My Classes: Just Keep Swimming!

This post really should be called “This week, last week, and next week in my classes” — partly because I didn’t manage to post last week at all, and partly because if I had, or if I manage to post again next week, the theme is likely to be the same: it’s Dory time!

My teaching posts around this time of year, like those in late November and into December, have a probably tedious sameness to them that reflects the cyclical nature of academic work. As the end of term approaches, it’s like a blizzard of different tasks, big and small, from getting the last few readings and lectures prepped to making up review handouts, and including marking the work that’s still coming in while bracing for the onslaught of final exams and term papers. As I’ve mentioned before, because I have one all-new class this term (Pulp Fiction), I’ve had to create basically every scrap–meaning everything from paper topics to editing worksheets to lecture notes to you name it –from scratch, so that has meant a lot of scrambling. I had been feeling kind of discouraged about this class, but in the last week or so I got a bit of positive feedback about it, which helped a lot, and also heard from a few students about how much they’d enjoyed Lord of Scoundrels. Score one for my team! I’m teaching it again next winter: it will be much easier, logistically anyway.

This has not been such a problem in 19th-Century Fiction, except that this is my first time including Adam Bede, so that meant both new materials and tweaks to existing ones to integrate it. Also, the additional students I blithely admitted (in a fit of altruism, I raised the cap on the class from our standard of 36 for upper-level classes to 50, so everyone on the waiting list could take it) meant at least 30 additional hours of work over the term — which was fine, really, as I was happy to have more interested students participate, but it has added up. As I said when I made the call, though, the more people who read Adam Bede the better! It’s my small way of contributing to the growing good of the world. I’m not so convinced reading Tess is a means to that end, but I have to give Hardy credit: for all his terrible sentences, he provokes more impassioned responses than almost any other author I teach.

Anyway, the unusual silence here mostly reflects just how busy I’ve been, along with how tired I’ve been feeling when the work is done — too tired to do much good reading, too tired to do much extra writing. The reading I’ve done outside of work has mostly been light: I just finished both of Lucy Parker’s contemporary romances set in the London theater scene, for instance, both of which I really enjoyed. As much as the stories, I liked the inside look at play production: I guess this continues my habit of enjoying both romance and mystery especially when there’s “neepery” involved.

Another reason for the lapse in my blogging is that we’ve been struggling with some technical problems at Open Letters (if you have visited the site recently, you may have noticed it either loading very slowly, or not loading at all). We are working away at fixing this — I say “we,” but I admit I’m not able to help much. In fact, all of the editors are a bit out of our depth when the problems are too far below the surface of our WordPress template, but we are making progress and, best of all, have a lead on someone trustworthy with more technical expertise than any of us, in whom we have now invested all our hopes and dreams! It is a particularly good issue of Open Letters this month, I think, so it is really frustrating knowing that has been less accessible. Happily, for me at least, Novel Readings does not seem to have been affected, or at least not in the same way.

So that’s what’s up! Not much, and I do wish I had more of interest to say, and especially more good reading to write about. That time is coming, though. I can see it, through the mists! Spring is coming too, I think, though it’s still a bit early to be too confident about that.

This Week In My Classes: A Study in Contrasts

I didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that teaching Lord of Scoundrels at the end of a term that has also included Bleak HouseAdam Bede, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a good way to bring home the truth of  Jennifer Crusie’s remark that a lot of great literature is really toxic to women. In romance fiction, as she points out, “you can have sex without dying horribly,” which is indeed, as she says, “a plus.”

Crusie isn’t the only person to emphasize this contrast between romance fiction and the parade of great novels in which women’s sexuality brings them shame, isolation, desperation, and even death, of course. In fact, the sex-positivity of romance is a recurrent theme in most of the books I’ve read about the genre, or at least in those that are as much (or more) about advocacy as about analysis. Here’s Sarah Wendell, for instance, in Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels:

One of the more empowering and, in my never-humble opinion, awesomely excellent things about sex in romance is that the woman is not punished or ultimately harmed for being curious or even assertive about her sexual needs. Even in the Old Skool days of forced seductions and other questionable scenes, the wages of sex were not death, ostracism, misery, poverty, and complete moral turpitude. Getting some didn’t mean giving yourself away — and it didn’t mean you were done for once you did the deed.

And here’s Maya Rodale in her Dangerous Books for Girls:

Romance novels came to provide a safe place for women to explore their desires, free from the risk of rape, guilt, judgment, slut-shaming, disease, unplanned pregnancy, or regret. In contrast to so many other depictions of sex, from literature to porn to movies, romance novels are completely and unabashedly focused on the woman’s feelings and pleasure. And, most revolutionarily of all, romance heroines can enjoy sex and still live happily ever after.

These generalizations certainly wouldn’t hold up for all examples of a genre that goes back as far and ranges as widely as romance, and I think there are also some problems with arguments about romance that focus too much on sex — as if there’s no HEA for people who are asexual, for instance, or no such thing as sexual trauma that might complicate that “unabashed” focus on pleasure. Still, after following the tribulations of yet another tragic woman who learns that “the serpent hisses where the sweet bird sings” — after Lady Dedlock’s forlorn fate, and Hetty’s wanderings, and now Tess’s catastrophes, it is a breath of fresh air to turn to Jessica and Dain. As Jess tells her appreciative grandmother after their first reckless, swoon-worthy kiss,

“If we had not been struck by lightning — or very nearly — I should be utterly ruined. Against a lamppost. On the Rue de Provence. And the horrible part is . . . I wish I had been.”

After Jessica and Dain are caught passionately embracing in the garden during Lady Wallingdon’s party, “though her face heated at the recollection, she refused to feel ashamed at what she’d done.” It’s not that Chase ignores the potential for scandal and worse from such a compromising event, but she writes her heroine out of the trap her desire has landed her in, and Jessica’s HEA builds on, rather than overcomes, her “unabashed” hunger for and pleasure in Dain’s “big and dark and beautiful body.”

And yet, while the overt and (ultimately) happy sexiness of Lord of Scoundrels is indeed “awesomely excellent,” it’s not entirely fair to set up modern romance fiction as the positive alternative to punishing Victorian fiction, which I think can actually be quite “sex positive,” albeit usually in a much more subtle, and sometimes perverse, way. For one thing, the women who pay such a high price for breaking society’s rules are very often portrayed as victims: the novelists direct our disapprobation not against them but against the world that treats them so cruelly for something so understandable or natural. Lady Dedlock should not have died cold and alone reaching for her lover’s grave: all the moral and emotional force of Bleak House is directed against that outcome. It’s true that the implication may still be that she has sinned, but she deserves to be forgiven and brought back into the loving embrace of her long-lost daughter, our moral exemplar. Eliot and Hardy make it particularly clear that their “erring” heroines are participating (more or less willingly, of course) in a natural process made shameful and dangerous by social codes, not because it is intrinsically wrong. If only some reconciliation could be made between flesh and spirit, between nature and law — so much shame and fear and violence could be avoided!

Still, these ruined women provide vivid and memorable (and sometimes uncomfortably aestheticized) spectacles of the price of unauthorized sexuality, so my case for the defense rests more on the importance placed on sexual attraction for the happy endings 19th-century novels do themselves provide. Over and over, after all, the unsexy match is rejected in favor of the one that promises that the heroine will “enjoy sex and still live happily ever after.” Think of Mr. Collins, Mr. Boarham, Mr. Casaubon, St. John Rivers, Seth Bede, Philip Wakem, Mr. Phillotson … there’s a long parade of obviously unsuitable suitors. Think, too, of the blushing (Dinah with Adam), the racing pulses (Anne Elliot with Captain Wentworth), the sweating horses (Stephen Guest visiting Maggie), the fixated gaze (Mr. Thornton and Margaret), the nearby lightning strike (Will and Dorothea) … so many signs in so many cases that the right match is the exciting one, that the happy ending (if it can be achieved) brings the promise of sexual satisfaction, if safely within the (constantly tested and expanded) boundaries of social acceptability.

I realize that these examples of HEAs based on sex that is socially safe could be seen as missing the point — outside that boundary, after all, is still all that same old “guilt, judgment, slut-shaming, disease, … [and] regret.” I guess I just want to complicate the implication of the romance advocates that we had to wait for romance fiction to open up a space for acknowledging, imagining, depicting, or even celebrating women’s sexuality. It’s not as if there aren’t bad examples in romance fiction too, after all, and even more to the point, it’s not as if it only counts as positive if the sexual aspect is made explicit. Romance heroines also still have to find a way, a place, to live in their world: it’s not as if the space they create for all that sexual assertion and exploration is outside society.

That doesn’t mean Lord of Scoundrels isn’t still refreshing, though, in both its frankness and its fun. “If you think I could not . . . make you eat out of my hand, if that’s what I wanted,” says Jessica to her obstreperous new husband, who so far has shied away from actually making love to her, “I recommend you think again, Beelzebub.” “I should like to see you try,” he responds — and by that point, so would we all.

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.

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