My post today has to do with a direct question asked by one of my MA students (to what extent is gender natural?) and with issues raised in the paper proposals of my Victorian Literature students, all about Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. So, here we go.

As you will recall, if you’re familiar with Dickens’ novel, the blacksmith Joe Gargery is constantly abused by his wife, Mrs. Joe, who is also psychologically and physically abusive towards her own youngest brother, Pip, whom she has raised in the absence of their dead parents. In relation to this, one of my students quotes a passage from an article by Judith Johnston which reads: “Mrs. Joe’s given name is never revealed in the text, significantly she takes the patronymic, Mrs. Joe, rather than any female name, because Mrs. Joe is a violent woman, possessing a violence more usually male than female” (1992: 97). So, violent women are not really feminine but masculine, hence her name. To begin with, we learn eventually that this woman is called Georgiana Maria like her mother and I have still known in my time women identified by their husband’s names, for instance in the name cards on mailboxes (Sr. Juan García and Sra. de García).

I would say that ‘Mrs. Joe’ is either old 19th century low-class usage or this woman’s way of showing that she owns her husband and not the other way round. I see however no sense in the description of her violence as “more usually male than female” because it sounds like an attempt at exonerating all women from the charge of being violent: Mrs Joe feels masculine, therefore she is violent; if she were really feminine she would not be violent. Sorry but violence is violence and if it is committed more often by men in couples this is because usually the balance of power falls on the husband’s side. In Mrs Joe’s case she has claimed all the power over her abused husband Joe, who not only does not resist the situation but seems, like many other victims, even complicit with it (he does try to excuse Mrs Joe on the same grounds battered wives excuse their husbands). If, as Johnston does, you claim that a woman who abuses her partner is being masculine, then you are saying that victims are always feminine or feminized, thus associating femininity with victimhood. You are also denying women’s capacity to inflict violence on others while being no doubt feminine women. And their victims manly, as Joe is.

Let me give you a chilling example of violence committed by women, which left me reeling with shock this week. In Málaga they have judged a young single mother in her early twenties who abandoned her seventeen-month-old baby girl to die of starvation while she lead what has been described as a frantic night life. Obviously, baby Camelia is not only the direct victim of her mother but also of the social values by which this young woman convinced herself that her right to have fun every night went beyond her duty to take care of her daughter. The mother had been offered help by the local authorities but she neglected to claim it. Instead, she got into this routine of abandoning her daughter every day for long hours, until she locked her in a filthy room for good, to die alone.

There is no way this type of violence can be coded masculine yet if we code it feminine, which it appears to be in view of the mother’s gender, we are emphasizing that caring for children is a typically feminine ability which this woman is somehow lacking. In fact, the readers’ comments in the newspapers where I have read about this crime always emphasize that poor Camelia’s death is doubly heinous because her mother, who should have cared for her, abandoned her to die. The father, a violent guy banned from seeing his daughter under a restraining order, is never mentioned, though presumably he also had the duty of taking care of the baby. My point is that if caring for others were truly natural in biological women, as growing breasts is, this young mother would have naturally taken care of her baby. Her disinterest, and cruelty, show that there is nothing natural in mothers’ caring for babies, but plenty of socializing since childhood, when we girls are all given dolls to learn the ropes. By the way, the young mother appears to be mentally healthy, she is no psychopath, though we no doubt find her behaviour monstrous.

Were am I going with all this? I’m expressing my tiredness with the way we attribute human behaviour (not only violence) to supposedly gendered traits. If a woman in assertive, then she is masculine. If a man is caring, then he is feminine. This persistent binarism is an obstacle for progress because for as long as individuals identify with a gender and that gender is identified with a set of traits there is no way gender can be reconfigured for good. I am beginning to think that Judith Butler’s notion of performativity works fine in theory but very poorly in practice.

On a more positive note let me tell you about men and skirts. A few weeks ago a boy somewhere in Northern Spain, the equivalent of a high school senior, decided to wear a skirt to class, just to give it a try. He was taken to the school psychologist who, it can be surmised from the questions, treated him as a possible case of transgenderism, which he is not. Mikel, as the boy is called, was later punished by his parents, which led him to publish a TikTok video narrating that strange day in his life. The reaction was a collective protest by male students like him all over Spain who turned up the following day in school wearing skirts. The idea they supported, by the way, was not that each gender had the right to use other genders’ clothing but that clothing should be genderless. I still think we’re far from seeing young Spanish boys wearing dresses but, since girls wear trousers and nobody thinks today of them as men’s wear that might happen. We need time, and not only here. Look at the hullaballoo caused by ex-One Direction’s Harry Styles and his recent Vogue interview, in which he appears modelling dresses. “Anytime you’re putting barriers up in your life, you’re limiting yourself,” the cover blurb reads. And he’s right.

So, why do we limit individuals, telling them that what they do is ‘too feminine’ or ‘too masculine’ if they feel that is part of who they are? And the other way round, why do we limit persons telling them that they must be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ for that is in their nature? I’ll insist again that though bodies are a biological fact (though much more open to interpretation than we assume), our gendered behaviour is a social construction, still too depending on stereotypes attached to gender roles that should have been discarded long ago.

At this point, then, perhaps I need to mention Minister Irene Montero’s new law to regulate official gender identity in Spain, also known as the Ley Trans. I must say that this is very similar to the Scottish law that caused J.K. Rowling to make a series of concerned comments after which she was accused of being transphobic. Basically, the two laws grant transgender persons the right to identify themselves in official documentation as individuals of a specific gender regardless of their biological bodies. As you can see, the intention is to make it easier for trans persons to be officially men or women just by stating their preference and without having to completely transform their bodies, if they choose so. Thus, a teen starting transition might immediately choose their new official identity rather than wait for years for a judge to grant that right on an individual basis, as it is done now.

The problem is that in areas in which biological sex is still determinant, such as sports, this may have negative effects for a biological male might apply to compete as a woman (by gender, not by sex). Leaving Rowling aside, I must notice that a group of what the press has dubbed as ‘historic Spanish feminists’ (Amelia Valcárcel Bernaldo de Quirós, Ángeles Álvarez Álvarez, Laura Freixas Revuelta, Marina Gilabert Aguilar, Alicia Miyares Fernández, Rosa María Rodríguez Magda, Victoria Sendón de León and Juana Serna Masiá) sent the Minister an open letter opposing the law (see https://blogs.elconfidencial.com/espana/tribuna/2020-11-05/carta-abierta-gobierno-ley-trans-igualdad_2820287/). They worry about the confusion between sex and gender in Montero’s projected legislation and about the new vocabulary erasing the materiality of women’s bodies, which “makes women invisible and erases us with the excuse of inclusivity.” In fact, what I find most interesting about the letter is the call to erase gender rather than to make it even more visible by law. Why not have official documents suppress all reference to gender? Having said that, it would be interesting to see what would happen if suddenly millions of women in Spain declared they want to be men officially, a point my feminist colleagues have not contemplated in their writing but that in principle the new law might sanction.

My rambling post, in short, wants to remind you of the fact that the more we think about gender, the less we seem to agree or even understand what is going on. I am currently working on quite a complex novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312, in which most human beings are free to choose how to modify their bodies and in which the protagonists are a female-identifying gynandromorph and a male-identifying androgyn. This is 300 years in the future but to be honest I can’t even imagine how people will feel about gender in 3 years’ time. When this novel was published, in 2012, less than ten years ago, talk of non-binary persons was non-existent, whereas now it is all the rage (leaving by the way, Montero’s binary law quite obsolete). What is natural and what is biological in gender matter is harder and harder to decide. My hope is that one day we will stop being masculine or feminine in binary fashion, and even non-binary, to be just persons. That sex and gender, in short, could be factors as small in our lives as whether we like apples or pears. That would be a relief.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


Like half the planet, I’ve been watching these days Netflix’s mini-series The Queen’s Gambit (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt10048342) and enjoying it very much despite my total lack of interest in chess. Written and directed by Scott Frank, the mini-series adapts a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, a truly interesting American author. Some of his titles may ring a bell, for they have been adapted for the cinema screen: The Hustler (1959) and its sequel The Color of Money (1984) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963). I strongly recommend Mockingbird (1980), on which I wrote here a few years ago (https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2015/10/18/walter-tevis-sf-masterpiece-mockingbird-the-end-of-literacy/). I have not read The Queen’s Gambit, but it seems to have been inspired by Tevis’s own passion for chess (he was an advanced amateur player). Apparently, Tevis wrote in his author’s note that “The superb chess of Grandmasters Robert Fischer, Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov has been a source of delight to players like myself for years. Since The Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction, however, it seemed prudent to omit them from the cast of characters, if only to prevent contradiction of the record.”

The problem with the novel, however, is not so much that it is a work of fiction about a female chess player, Beth Harmon, who never existed but that it is set in a parallel world in which women (or at least one woman) can aspire to be the best world player. In The Calculating Stars (2018) by Mary Robinette Kowal women are part of NASA’s first missions already because a meteorite strikes the USA in 1952 and colonizing the Moon and next Mars becomes urgent. That, of course, is a science fiction novel. Tevis’s novel and the Netflix mini-series are presented, in contrast, as mimetic fiction but we are never told about the reality of women’s chess players in the 1950s-1970s period that the plot covers. Beth Harmon, in short, is as fantastic a creation as any of Kowal’s lady astronauts but, somehow, we are made to believe that she is more real, which she is not. Beth appears to be a peculiar case of what I will call ‘retrospective feminism,’ that is to say, a female character who achieves something of historical relevance for women at a time when no woman could aspire to the same feat. I’ll argue that this is both positive and negative: positive because it attempts to rewrite history, negative because it is an impossible rewriting and seems to highlight women’s shortcomings instead of our achievements.

As I have noted, I’m not interested in chess because, generally speaking, I’m not attracted to games and much less to those that involve any type of earnest competition. I had to learn from scratch then the basics about how the chess world works by watching the series and doing some quick research online. So, for you to know the current world champion is Magnus Carlsen, a 30-year-old Norwegian, and the current woman world champion is Ju Wenjun, a 28-year-old Chinese citizen. Yes, there are separate championships for men and women, though the men’s makes no reference to gender because, in principle, it is open to women. Chinese player Yifan Hou, 24, the youngest woman to earn the Grandmaster title (aged 14) is the top-ranking female chess player in the world and the only woman in the World Chess Federation’s Top 100 players (currently in position 88). So you see how fantastic Beth Harmon is.

An article in The Conversation by Alex B. Root called “Why there’s a separate World Chess Championship for women” (https://theconversation.com/why-theres-a-separate-world-chess-championship-for-women-129293) manages to be confusing rather than convincing as regards this matter. Root writes that “segregated tournaments allow those playing to get media attention, benefit financially, and make friends with people with whom they share some similar characteristics. Separate tournaments don’t speak to whether there are advantages or disadvantages”. Not convincing… Then, he notes that with about 15% of young players being female in the world, this means that because of the “smaller base of females” there are “fewer women than men at the top of the chess rating list,” which is even more unconvincing. If things were fair, there should be 15% of women players in the top 100, not just one. Only-women tournaments, Root suggests, “may make chess more attractive to girls and women.” Do they…?

The world’s top female player ever, Hungarian Grandmaster Judith Polgár (retired since 2014), totally disagrees with gender-segregated chess. She was at her peak the eighth best world player and famously defeated among others, Magnus Carlsen, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Boris Spassky. In an article published last year, Polgár expressed very vocally her opinion that women’s chess limits the chances of women players to do their best. “I always knew,” she declares, “that in order to become the strongest player I could, I had to play against the strongest possible opposition. Playing only among women would not have helped my development, as since I was 13 I was the clear number one among them. I needed to compete with the other leading (male) grandmasters of my time” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/30/chess-grandmaster-women-only-tournament-play-men.) In the school and the children’s tournaments she runs there is for these reasons no gender segregation.

Reading, however, about why women lose at chess in non-segregated competitions I came across two very interesting pieces. One is an article by Omkar Khandekar about India, the nation were chess was born. He quotes Koneru Humpy, a top female Indian chess player, who simply thinks that men are better at chess. She and other players Khandekar interviewed “pointed to a combination of systemic and societal factors, and a dollop of sexism, that hold back women from realizing their potential in chess. Lack of role models, lack of financial security, male gatekeepers in chess bodies and an overwhelming pay gap in the sport were further deterrents”. Yet, many added that “the game needed some innate traits, and that crucial ‘killer instinct,’ which most women ‘lacked’.” The author of the article believes that it is rather a matter of being historically disadvantaged and thinks that women have progressed spectacularly in recent years, and will eventually catch up with the boys. But not yet. Kruttika Nadig, a top female Indian player, notes that “Fortunately I didn’t experience sexism in the chess world. But for some reason, I found women are a lot more cagey. It was hard for me to find female practice partners. (I would find) guys working with each other, playing with each other… but not that much camaraderie among women.” In her world, Beth Harmon is totally alone, the one woman among men (both allies and rivals) but it must be said that she does nothing to connect with other women; and there is one at least asking to be her chess friend.

This leads me to the other article, which deals directly with The Queen’s Gambit and can be found on Vanity Fair (https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/11/queens-gambit-a-real-life-chess-champion-on-netflixs-new-hit). Jennifer Shahade, a two-time U.S. women’s chess champion and author of Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport and Play Like a Girl!, explains that there are many female child players of chess until around the age of 12, when they start quitting. Chess, she says, is social, “So if you’re a girl and you don’t have other girls who are playing at your same age range and level and city, it can start to be less interesting. You might just gravitate toward another sport where you have 10 friends.” This is still a partial explanation: for whatever reason, and unless they are committed, girls seem to start identifying chess as a boy’s game in their teens, possibly when they realize that if they want to go further they need to play in earnest and face the boys’ pressure. “I think”, Shahade claims, “there are two parts to the world. [One] part is very excited to see girls and women play. And then there’s also some undercurrents of resentment. Especially as chess moves online, there are a lot of nasty comments written about girls and women.” The Netflix series, with its insistence on the importance of having a team of friendly, supportive players helping you, may certainly encourage girls, and boys, to see matters very differently. But like any other area formerly dominated by men, it’ll take time to make things more equal.

It is certainly gratifying to see Beth receive lessons and support from men who do care about her but several matters are less gratifying. To begin with, Beth is dependent since childhood on a sedative similar to Librium which, quite incongruously, is linked to her ability to visualize chess matches in her head. The series corrects the representation of this and other addictions eventually to end up claiming that Beth’s talent is not their product. Yet, I worry very much that a young girl, as orphan Beth is when her story begins, possibly around 8 or 10, might believe that there is a link between being a talented player and being an addict. Another complicated matter is Beth’s relationship with her adoptive mother Alma (she’s adopted in her early teens), herself an alcoholic. Alma supports Beth eventually but only because this brings in substantial earnings from the tournaments that the girl plays. Alma and Beth bond in unexpected, interesting ways but the mercenary nature of Alma’s investment in her daughter’s success is not too positive.

Finally, there is the matter of clothes… You may visit now the virtual exhibition ‘The Queen and the Crown’ (https://www.thequeenandthecrown.com/) at the Brooklyn Museum and marvel at the costumes designed for both Netflix series: The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit. The progress of young Beth Harmon in the world of chess is marked by her gradual physical transformation, not only from child to woman in her twenties but also from terribly dressed ragamuffin to sophisticated 1970s fashion victim. She seems to invest, indeed, most of her earnings in designer clothes. This metamorphosis is a pleasure to watch but it is also a painful reminder that intelligent women characters need to look good to be accepted by TV audiences. The actress who plays Beth, Anya Taylor-Joy, is not an average beauty but she is attractive enough to have worked as a model. Ironically, Beth’s French model friend Cleo tells her that she could never be a model because she looks too clever… It’s a no-win situation.

Going back to the initial question of retrospective feminism, I’m pleased that Netflix has made The Queen’s Gambit and young girls may see in Beth interesting possibilities. I cannot call her a role model because of her many addictions but she’s an amazingly interesting character. I’m just sorry that the chance has been missed to tell Judit Polgár’s real-life story, or the story of the other women trying to compete with the men in the world of chess at the highest possible level. All my encouragement to them.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


I’ve been teaching from home for the last three and a half weeks after teaching face-to-face for about four and a half weeks and this seems a good moment to send a second dispatch from the front lines. We have been told to stay home until the end of November, three more weeks then, and with the current very high figures for contagions and deaths by Covid-19 in Catalonia it seems unlikely that we may return to face-to-face teaching this semester. Particularly if, as it seems, a total lockdown might happen next week and because there is a general assumption that we all need to make some sacrifices if Christmas is to be enjoyed with family and friends. Of course, implicit in this is the risk that if we manage to reach Christmas within more or less acceptable levels of contagion, the celebrations may bring yet another new wave. It’s a roller-coaster.

So, how are things working? I believe this is a matter of the half-empty, half-full glass or bottle. If you consider that all educational activity could have been stopped at all levels, then we’re not doing so poorly, since all universities in Spain are open and working mostly online. If you compare the current situation to how we used to work before the onset of the Covid-19 plague, then there is a general impression of tiredness and a more or less open acknowledgement that online teaching is not replacing adequately face-to-face teaching. This past week, for instance, our degree Coordinator had to send a reminder to our undergraduate students, indicating that their cameras should be on during lectures. Many, it turns out, simply don’t connect to their Teams classroom or keep their cameras off, which means a distressing lack of feedback for teachers. I don’t know what students have replied to this message but I hope their engagement improves.

I do agree that face-to-face teaching must occupy an important place in higher education but it is my impression that now, when we cannot meet together in the classroom, we are generating a false impression of what actually happens in that situation. To begin with, attendance is not regular. I usually ask students to sign up because I award a grade for class participation and I need to keep track of who is actually there. Students misunderstand my reasons and assume that attendance is compulsory (it is not) and, so, some come to my lectures simply to sign up. The result last year was that a had a small group who spent each whole session discussing whatever they saw in their laptops screens, which had nothing to do with what I was teaching. I have, therefore, stopped checking attendance for I certainly do not need that kind of distraction in class. Better stay away than be in the classroom but mentally elsewhere.

The other matter is participation. As we all know, some students will interact with the teachers every single session while others are perfectly capable of not expressing a single opinion or idea in the whole semester. This is why most of us regularly implement some kind of compulsory classroom activity, otherwise we would have no grades for class participation. What I must say of the students who would never participate in class without this type of grade is that some are shy but have thoughts to share while some simply are there to obtain the credits, particularly in the compulsory courses, doing as little as they can manage. Let’s be honest, for once. This is the equivalent of keeping the camera off, then: not attending classes or being there with no intention to participate. It is simply not true that in face-to-face teaching we have totally participative students constantly providing feedback and interacting with us. There is, therefore, little sense in expecting 100% interest in the far more boring (excuse me) online teaching.

A major problem of synchronous online teaching, that is to say, in streaming sessions, whether they are lectures or seminars, is that technology does not allow teachers to look at students in the eye. In order to produce that illusion we teachers need to look at the camera but, logically, if you look at the camera you cannot simultaneously see the eyes of the person you’re addressing. I find this unnerving. In face-to-face teaching you engage students’ attention by looking into their eyes (fortunately even facemasks allow us to do that) and, depending on what you see there, you see that you’re doing well, or boring people to death. In online teaching, you don’t have that kind of contact, not even with the camera on. It is quite possible that this is the reason why so many students switch off their cameras, apart from their preference for being in their pyjamas or the need to conceal untidy rooms. There should be, logically, an etiquette and everyone should be online as formally dressed and positioned as we are in the classroom. But I insist that the lack of direct eye contact is a key factor in how tired we all are of online teaching. I don’t doubt that some colleagues know very well how to use streaming to their advantage but there is an evident discomfort in the practice, necessary as it may be now.

On the whole, however, the rush to move from face-to-face teaching to online teaching practically from one day to the next is preventing us from discussing what we do in the classroom and why it should have an equivalent as close as possible online. There are major questions that haven’t been asked for a long time, such as what is the purpose of interacting with students, why it is adequate to do that a particular number of hours a week, and what is the place of teacher-centred activities in higher education. The last time these questions were asked was during the process to sign the Dublin agreements that resulted in the new degrees launched around 2008-9, but I believe that the answers obtained were erratic to say the least and ineffective. We were told that we should teach skills rather than content and that assessment should be continuous rather than based on final exams. However, many university teachers still teach by offering lectures without students’ intervention and assess by means of final exams, disguised as part of continuous assessment. There is, in my view, an exaggerated reliance on the exam as an adequate tool of assessment, particularly now when, as we are learning, exams are open to all kinds of cheating in an online environment.

The point I’m trying to make, in short, is that teaching remains mostly static despite the changes introduced by the new degrees and will remain mostly static despite the Covid-19 crisis. We are not reinventing teaching but using digital classrooms to do what we did face-to-face, which was mostly what has been done since the Middle Ages: transmit information and then use exams to check that students have acquired it. I know that I am exaggerating but I hope you can see my point.

Proof of this inertia is that the online universities specializing in distance learning are not now the authorities they should be. Each face-to-face university has chosen the software better suited to its needs but none has asked these other universities what they do. I assume that this is because everyone believes that the situation is temporary and sooner or later we will all return to the classrooms. Yet, if you think about it, with only 50 hours out of 150 hours in each 6ECTS course happening there, this means that two thirds of all university teaching are already distance teaching, that is to say, activities happening elsewhere. One place where they happen is the Virtual Campus (whatever this is called in your universities), which I suspect is mostly used as a noticeboard and not used at all by the older staff (as many desperate Deans are now discovering). If we had been making a better use of the asynchronous possibilities of Virtual Campus, then the transition to online teaching would not have been so uncomfortable. Actually, part of the discomfort also has to do with the fact that, at least as happens in my university, we use two different platforms: Teams for online synchronous teaching and Moodle for asynchronous Virtual Campus interaction. I don’t know whether this is because Moodle lacks the feature to offer streaming or because Teams is integrated in Outlook, which we use for webmail, but having two platforms does not help at all.

What happens in distance learning and we are failing to understand, is that asynchronous teaching has much more weight. In my own experience of sixteen years at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya all teaching was asynchronous, which means that students used the resources as they wanted, not within a rigid schedule. During my time at UOC I was never asked to produce narrated PowerPoints, or podcasts, or video and, as far as I’m concerned, I never missed them there. My students learned mainly by reading the materials and the books, and by interacting with me through their exercises, which included forums. I know that some might believe that their learning must have been limited but that was not the case. I asked a friend at UNED how things work there and he told me that tutors, that is to say, the teachers that solve doubts, provide feedback and occasional lectures, work both synchronously and asynchronously. The teachers’ working hours are not counted on the base of the time spent in direct contact with students but on the basis of how many are enrolled in class and other factors which are not connected with synchronous teaching. This is, of course, very different from traditional universities in which (at least at UAB) our workload is counted on the basis of classroom teaching and the number of students in the group.

I would, in short, recommend using other strategies than just streaming sessions to interact with students. I find forums a great tool for they can remain open beyond the time limits of the classroom and engage all students, including the shy ones, in conversation. Thus, for instance, my MA students (13 in total) were doing between two and four 10-minute oral presentations in each session followed by debate and complemented by my own introductions (20’-30’). In practice this meant that their presentations were rushed, students lacked the time to react and prepare questions, and my own interaction with them was limited. What we do now is use the same schedule to watch their presentations (narrated PowerPoints) and start interacting in the corresponding forum. The forum remains open for one week and in this way they have more time to send contributions, see my PowerPoint notes, etc. In practice they spend (and I spend) more than our three hours a week interacting but, well, the conversation is far richer. I think that if we go back to the classroom we’ll adapt poorly to the time constrains and I’ll use anyway the forums.

It’s not a matter of always doing the same, then, but of alternating diverse activities. Teach online using streaming if you want, but don’t forget forum activities that can be done together, or narrated PowerPoints, or podcasts, or whatever imagination dictates. I wish we were exploring right now new ways of working in virtual environments instead of using the same old way of teaching but online, so that when the Covid-19 pandemic is over our return to the classroom offers richer possibilities than ever.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


Looking for a Victorian Literature topic suitable for an MA dissertation I came across very enthusiastic reviews in GoodReads for the novel John Halifax, Gentleman (1856) by Dinah Maria Craik (née Mulock, 1826-1887). I’m sorry to say that though I have come across occasional references to this once popular author, I had never heard about this novel. I asked my colleagues but none had read it, though one remembered having seen the 1974 BBC adaptation (the other two were made in 1915 and 1938). I downloaded the novel anyway (https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2351) and it turned out to be a totally engrossing rags-to-riches story about the titular character, John Halifax, narrated by his best friend, Phineas Fletcher (yes, like his ancestor, the real-life Jacobean poet). Craik made a most peculiar choice of narrator for Phineas is not only clearly in love with his friend John but also, once he marries, the third adult in his household, together with his wife Ursula. These Victorians never cease surprising me!

Phineas, 16 and the son of a Quaker tannery owner, meets orphaned working-lad John, 14, when the younger boy volunteers to take the older disabled boy home. The name of Phineas’ debilitating disease is not mentioned but it is understood that is has a debilitating effect and causes regular episodes of deep pain. Later in the novel Phineas overcomes it enough to walk for himself but here he still moves about in a singular hand carriage (the novel is set between 1784 and 1825, for you to understand the medical context). During this episode Phineas is fascinated by John, whose “face had come like a flash of sunshine” because he is “a reflection of the merry boyhood, the youth and strength that never were, never could be, mine”. He himself makes the connection between his sudden interest in John with the Biblical story of Jonathan and David, whom the former loved “as his own soul”. Indeed, once they become close friends, Phineas often uses the name of David for his friend, though towards the end of the novel he calls that impulse just a youthful folly.

In view of this candid Biblical declaration and of the many passages in which Phineas reports how pleasurable it is to be carried in John’s powerful arms and how fulfilling their conversations are, I expected that there would be plenty of academic work on Craik’s novel as a homoerotic text. This is not the case. I came across a very juice post by Clare Walker Gore, signing as silverforketiquette, “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name?: Queer Desire in The Mid-Victorian Novel” (2016) https://victorianist.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/the-love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name-queer-desire-in-the-mid-victorian-novel/ but, as happens, most articles and book chapters dealing with John Halifax, Gentleman focus on Phineas’ disability and have been written from a Disabilities Studies point of view. They do focus, as Gore does, on the matter of whether Phineas’ disability places him in a ‘feminine’ position, which defuses any implicit homoerotic association with John but not his interpretation as an openly queer character. It appears that one of the original reviewers, R.H. Hutton, observed in his review “Novels by the Authoress of John Halifax” (North British Review 29, 1858, 253-262) that “it is hard to suppress the fear that Phineas Fletcher will fall hopelessly in love with John Halifax, so hard is it to remember that Phineas is of the male sex”. But this is disingenuous for despite his disability and his assumption of a necessary celibacy because no woman would marry him (he thinks) Phineas is not feminine or asexual but a queer man. The original Victorian readers seems to have been satisfied that as long as there is no chance of sex between the two men, their friendship is perfectly acceptable and so are Phineas’ frequent references to their mutual love and, above all, their mutual caring for each other.

Craik’s novel has often been read as a paean to the ‘captains of industry’ in Carlyle’s famous phrase but, actually, John just gets lucky several times in this tale of social mobility. First, he just happens to be near Phineas when his services are needed and, most crucially, his wife Ursula is a gentlewoman and an heiress (though not without difficulties). Once Halifax gets his foot into the tannery that Phineas’ father runs he does his best to prove his mettle, that is true, but John has his friend constantly scheming to his advantage and even giving him an education. In fact, those who expect a spectacular story about John’s social rise will not find it, for the scale of the novel is far more local and personal than I expected. In any case, Craik emphasises above all an ethos of mutual care and this is what binds John and Phineas. When, as Craik has it, the Fletcher tannery fails and Phineas finds himself an adult orphan with no working skills, John returns the favour received by inviting his friend to be a permanent member of his household, thus creating quite an interesting triangle.

Phineas’ most frank acknowledgment of how he loves John comes in the passage when, remembering the last day he spend alone with his friend before his courtship of Ursula started he writes that “that Sunday was the last I ever had David altogether for my own—my very own”. Phineas, however, finds that “It was natural, it was just, it was right” that John wished to marry: “God forbid that in any way I should have murmured”. To his wife-to-be Phineas declares that “John is a brother, friend, everything in the world to me” and from that she deduces not that there is something improper going on between the men but that her future husband “must be very good”, hence a good choice for her because “good men are rare”. There is no question of jealousy between friend and wife at all, quite the opposite: they soon find themselves comfortable in each other’s company. Once John is married, Phineas tells his readers that now “others had a right—the first, best, holiest right—to the love that used to be all mine”; seeing his David happy, Phineas writes, “I rejoiced both with and for my brother” though he does miss him from their common house. He is welcome into the newlyweds’ home in his first visit as a ‘brother’ as this is what he becomes to both for more than thirty years.

I believe that what makes John Halifax, Gentleman even more interesting as a text, then, is not only that Phineas and John’s first youthful friendship becomes brotherhood but that this is sanctioned by Ursula and so becomes the pillar of their triangular association. By sheltering Phineas, John saves him from poverty (his only income comes from some houses rented by working-class families) without making him feel dependent. Phineas claims that he “resisted long” the invitation to join John and Ursula’s household, for “it is one of my decided opinions that married people ought to have no one, be the tie ever so close and dear, living permanently with them, to break the sacred duality—no, let me say the unity of their home”. Yet, his presence, far from breaking this unity turns him into Uncle Phineas, a sort of third parent, in quite a singular way; after all, he is no blood relative of the married couple and the three are more or less the same age. I cannot think of any arrangement like this in current times (though it is true that in Great Expectations Pip lives for more than a decade with his close friend Herbert Pocket and his wife Clara, and their children). Apart from being the reporter for the reader’s benefit of his friend’s life, Phineas becomes an essential part of the family when he is given an important task: “the children’s education was chiefly left to me; other tutors succeeding as was necessary” and a governess for the younger girl. Do let me know where else, in fiction or in real life, you have seen something similar.

The last part of the novel, once the three protagonists are in their fifties and John has become “the patriarch of the valley”, as Phineas calls him, is not totally voided of the queer discourse of the first part, with some peculiar interventions from Ursula. When she catches Phineas looking at John during a party and considering how great his ‘brother’ looks for his age, Ursula knowingly voices aloud this very same impression. And when she falls seriously ill, she implores “Phineas, if anything happens to me, you will comfort John!” In a contemporary novel, the words would carry an unmistakable message but coming from an 1850s novel, they can only mean ‘be my husband’s support’. I imagine that Craik may have realized that she had a problem at the end of the novel for, if John died first, Ursula and Phineas would be forced to either go on living together (hardly conceivable) or separate with much sorrow to avoid an awkward situation. If she died first, then could John and Phineas go on living as brothers in the former’s mansion? I’m not telling you, of course, what solution Craik found, only that it does reveal the fragility of this unique triangular couple.

Of course, for this arrangement to work John can be the object but not the subject of a queer love, and this love must be disconnected from any kind of possessiveness. On John’s side there is no doubt that what he feels is a very deep affection for Phineas that not even the label brotherhood explains well; in fact, two of John’s sons quarrel and fail to speak for each other for years, a situation that is simply unthinkable in John and Phineas’ case. Phineas says that John’s main quality in tenderness and if we were not so obsessed with sexuality we would see that this is the foundation in this novel of a type of love between men that we understand very poorly. I believe that Phineas’ love for John is closer to homosexuality but though subtly erotic it is not sexual, which puts the novel in the territory of the homoerotic. I have no idea whether Craik was aware of what she was doing in having her two male character bond so intimately but, looking at things from another perspective, perhaps the novel and the triangular arrangement works so well because sex is not part of the equation. This may sound absurd to 21st century readers and proof incontrovertible of Victorian prudishness but it can be enriching now and then to explore human affection beyond sexuality. I am aware that by using the word queer I am sexualizing Phineas’ love in many ways but perhaps this is so because we lack a nuanced vocabulary to discuss friendship apart from sexuality. Don’t we?

Craik could have narrated her novel in many ways and, obviously, using a third person omniscient narrator was one. Her choice of Phineas as a first person narrator certainly complicated very much her approach to her main character, for Phineas had to be given necessarily a place as close to John as possible. He could still have played the role of Uncle Phineas and continue living in his own home but Craik possibly decided that this would limit her access to the dynamics of John and Ursula’s domestic life. It is true that at moments Phineas plays the role of fly-on-the-wall (he often sits in his corner by the chimney in the family’s drawing room with none noticing him there) and that his feelings are no doubt subordinated to those of his ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ but I believe that without Phineas John’s story would by no means be as interesting. If he manages to be a gentleman fully accepted in society, this is because Phineas imagines him as such carried by his affection for the ‘homeless lad’ he first meets. In fact, though John is himself a very generous man, nothing compares to Phineas’ generosity towards his friend, in terms of how little he gets personally out of their living together for, logically, Ursula and the children come first. Judging by our own criteria, Phineas’ life is a sad case of unrequited homosexual love, and it can be certainly read like this, but seen from another point of view, and considering that he lives in the early 19th century, he makes the most emotionally of his bond with the otherwise classically patriarchal John.

If you’re into Victorian fiction, please do not miss John Halifax, Gentleman, and see how you would feel in Phineas’ shoes. Fascinating…

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