This Week in My Classes (November 25, 2009)

In Nineteenth-Century Fiction it’s time for Jude the Obscure. It always strikes me as a fairly gloomy way to wrap up the term, but there’s not much I can do in a course that’s supposed to cover “Dickens to Hardy”! Maybe because of the time I’ve been spending this week thinking about the “impact of the humanities,” I have more sympathy for Jude on this re-read than I sometimes do: the folly (Fawley!) and the collapse of his dream of scholarship and learning has poignancy precisely because (despite his later conclusions) there is value in that ideal, however imperfectly it is realized within the walls of the colleges that shut Jude out so pitilessly. Where would be the tragedy, after all, if it were otherwise? In the context of our readings this term, Jude fits easily into a long line of foolish dreamers, especially Pip (though his dream of becoming a “gentleman” is as foolish but less ennobling) and Dorothea. But he seems also to have something in common with both Casaubon and Lydgate, whose failures are touched with pathos because they, like Jude, can perceive the worth of what lies outside their grasp. This is my first time through the novel since actually being in Oxford this summer; not least because of the novel’s own attentiveness to the physicality of the city–its stones and walls and cobbles and spires and arches–I appreciate being able to picture it more fully in my own mind as I read. Jude is a novel that would lend itself well to a hypertext edition that would somehow activate both its literary and its visual references.

We’re discussing Fingersmith in Victorian Sensations. It really is the perfect book for this course, not only because its details hum with significance thanks to all the reading we’ve done in and about sensation fiction, but because Waters plays with the tropes and conventions of her Victorian predecessors in ways that involve us also with questions about how we (and our own critical and reading predecessors) have worked with that material. For instance, the biggest twist in the novel works–surprises us–partly because up until that moment we have seen just what we expected to see (notice how carefully I’m avoiding spoiling just what that twist is!). In fact, several features of the novel strike me as deliberately using our expectations of Victorian fiction as well as of Victorian characters against us. The most obvious thing Waters does is break apart the line between proper and improper fiction–a line already blurred or crossed, as we’ve discussed all term, by the sensation novels we’ve read, but trampled in her version. Not only does she include Victorian pornography (and the active trade in it) as a plot element, which could (but doesn’t) read as an almost patronizing move to expose the repressed other side of Victorianism, but she studies the (often unexpected, always disruptive) effects of desire on her characters in ways that make you reflect on the more oblique representations of similarly disruptive forces in mainstream Victorian novels. Desire is everywhere in Victorian novels: why is it so easy to mistake and condemn these novels as somehow repressed, and what advantage do we imagine is gained by being more explicit–particularly for women? Maud envies Sue her illiteracy; through her reading, she has become, perversely, disembodied, unsexed. The challenge, of course, is to write desire differently, and thus Fingersmith itself ultimately stands as a kind of counter-example to, say, The Lustful Turk and the rest of Mr. Lilly’s collection.

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