This Week in My Classes

The warm-up period is over: now we’re really getting down to work.

1. English 3032, 19thC Novel. This week, we start Great Expectations. In addition to placing the novel in the context of Dickens’s career and a range of social and intellectual issues (from the alienation induced by modern urban professional society, to anxieties about the moral implications of Darwinism), I like to focus on Pip’s retrospective narration and the ways his personal development prepares him, ultimately, to become the kind of man (especially the kind of “gentleman”) who is capable of telling us this story. Great Expectations is also good for shaking up casually-held stereotypes about Victorian ‘realism,’ as from Pip’s palindromic name to Miss Havisham’s wedding feast to Wemmick’s castle to Magwitch’s splendidly eerie reappearance, nearly every element in the novel pressures us to read it literarily rather than mimetically. Plus, there’s Joe’s hat falling off the mantel in Volume II Chapter 8…

2. English 5465, Victorian Women Writers. Here, we are taking one more look at the ‘real’ life of a Victorian woman novelist before turning our attention to the novels themselves. But with Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte, we have the added interest of one Victorian woman writer writing about another, and in the process exploring the ideas of femininity, authorship, vocation, and duty that preoccupied them both, though in different ways, throughout their writing careers. Last week we considered Margaret Oliphant’s writing her own story in response to a literary representation of George Eliot’s life (she points to Cross’s biography as having prompted her to begin the Autobiography). But Oliphant has been reading Gaskell’s Life of CB as well, so as we read on, we are accumulating a range of interrelated ideas about these women and their work–from them and from their respondents, interpreters, and critics–to carry forward with us into our analysis of the fiction they produced. In class we struggled somewhat with the idea of Oliphant’s Autobiography as a literary text because at times both its form and its content seem so unselfconscious, spontaneous, and diary-like that we weren’t confident attributing intent or design (though we also considered, of course, that it has literary qualities and other effects regardless of how deliberately they were developed). Gaskell’s biography of Bronte is much more conspicuously constructed with its own aims and purposes. Critics have disputed how far Gaskell’s stated goals–such as defending Bronte against her critics and presenting a sympathetic portrait of someone we are often reminded was Gaskell’s “dear friend”–are sincere or unproblematic and how much she is using Bronte as a prop to establish her own literary credentials or to resolve larger debates about the “vexed question of sex” in authorship, as she calls it (she is emphatic that whatever their domestic responsibilities, women also have a duty to use their God-given talents, even if that means stepping outside the ‘normal’ bounds of female propriety). I expect we will have some good discussion along these lines. Reading The Life of Charlotte Bronte right after Oliphant’s Autobiography should also prompt some conversation about their very different views and experiences of being women writers.

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