RAMBLING THOUGHTS ON GENDER: A FEW NOTES ON RECENT MATTERS

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 https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE VICTORIAN PATRIARCH AND HIS QUEER FRIEND: JOHN HALIFAX, GENTLEMAN

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…

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

TEACHING LITERATURE AS IMMERSIVE HISTORY: A LOOK AT THE 19TH CENTURY PAST

I have been reading this weekend Ruth Goodman’s fascinating volume How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Life (2014) in preparation for the new course I start tomorrow. Goodman is a rather well-known freelance British historian who makes a living as a consultor to museums, theatre, television, and schools of all types. She is known not only for her books–who wouldn’t want to read How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts (2018)?–but also for the TV series she has hosted, which include the six-part BBC series Victorian Farm (2009). In it Goodman and others recreate everyday life on a farm in Shropshire in the mid-19th century, as it supposedly was. In fact, much to my surprise, there is quite a remarkable number of TV programmes of this type, based on the idea of the immersive historical experience, on both sides of the Atlantic and other countries like Germany.

Goodman peppers How to Be a Victorian with comments on her personal experience of cooking Victorian food or using Victorian clothes and cosmetics. Her case is a very extreme form of immersive experience in the past (she also specializes in Tudor times) but it is also closely connected with the passion for historical re-enactment that drives so many amateur clubs and that is almost indispensable in today’s museums. Beyond this, a quick internet search beginning with Goodman’s Wikipedia page soon takes me from the TV series she has participated in to the debates on how Virtual Reality technology will alter the understanding of the past in educational contexts. The debate has been going on for more than a decade now, triggered by the commercialisation of the first VR headgear sets, though I must say that VR cannot give the bodily experience Goodman aims at. One thing is walking a Victorian street in a VR environment (with no smells…) and quite another wearing a Victorian corset or, as Goodman did, keeping your hair clean Victorian-style with no shampoo for four months.

On the other hand, as Patrick T. Allen argues in an article published in The Conversation, “A Brief History of Immersion, Centuries before VR” https://theconversation.com/a-brief-history-of-immersion-centuries-before-vr-94835, “immersion is a technique much older than technology. It is the key to storytelling, in literature, film, videogames, even in the spoken stories told by our ancestors around the campfire”. He makes, of course, a very good point but even so what I learn from Goodman, and from so many years teaching Victorian Literature, is that our immersion in a text of the past is woefully superficial in many senses. Goodman’s detailed description of everyday life makes me see the characters in Victorian fiction with an unexpected fullness. I can now imagine the underwear of the richer ones and what they had for breakfast, but also notice the absence of the poorest ones, except marginally in Dickens, Gaskell, and a few others. Indeed, preparing these days a PowerPoint presentation on Victorian fashions for my students I couldn’t help noticing once again how classist our approach to teaching 19th century Literature is. I don’t think that the 20th and the 21st century have done much better in representing the working classes but one might say that working-class life is conspicuously missing in the fiction of the century in which the Industrial Revolution changed everything.

Other type of volumes aim at enhancing the immersive historical experience that reading the Literature of the past always is. I started reading What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England (1994) by Daniel Pool but I soon stopped, frankly overwhelmed. Unlike Goodman, who mentions Victorian fiction only occasionally, Pool has paid attention to all the details that may baffle any contemporary reader and written a prodigious volume which is partly a collection of brief essays and partly an extensive glossary. Unfortunately he begins with a description of 19th century currency, in the section he calls ‘The Basics’, which made me throw up my hands in despair. I have never found the energy to understand guineas, sovereigns, and crowns and the question is whether I should find it. It’s the same with the types of carriages or other abstruse matters such as the difference between a baron and a baronet (the former is a peer, the latter is top of the gentry but plain Sir, not Lord).

This means that, unless we are scholars preparing a critical edition, no matter how many times we have read a text many small details will escape our notice. In part because there is always a limit to the energy we are willing to invest on reading a text and in part because we miss much information implicitly available to the original readers or that needn’t be included for their sake. Even so, they must also have missed much context for many Victorian novels were set decades before their date of publication. Just to give an example, imagine a twenty-year-old reader of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, published in 1848. The heroine, Helen Graham, refers in her diary to events that happen around 1827, when my imaginary reader hadn’t even been born (and incidentally, not Victoria but her uncle George IV was king). How was this young reader supposed to reconstruct that past? Did s/he bother to ask about life twenty years before? Where could s/he have found the relevant information? I am just a few clicks away from images of the 1820s on the internet but what could my imaginary reader check back in the 1840s? Remember that public libraries as we know them today were established later, from the 1850s onward.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”, L.P. Hartley famously wrote as the first line of his novel The Go-Between (1953), and he is absolutely right. What is refreshing in Goodman’s perspective is how she takes this ‘differently’ to celebrate it. Take the matter of personal hygiene, which always baffles and disgusts any person thinking of a past when the daily shower routine was missing. Goodman gently reminds us that a daily shower is a luxury we enjoy, precisely, thanks to Victorian advances in indoors plumbing and electricity (imagine washing your hair daily with no hair dryer!). The flushing toilet may not have been generalized in Victorian times but Victorian entrepreneurs made it a desirable domestic fixture. Goodman makes this point but at the same time she praises to the sky the sensible management of human waste, above all in the countryside where contraptions such as the earth toilet resulted in abundant compost.

What she is saying, then, but we tend to forget is that people living in the past were not barbarians who didn’t know better as we often assume but persons making the most of their circumstances. Goodman comments, for instance, that corsets were not really less comfortable than underwired bras or shapewear (of the kind Kim Kardashian uses and sells) but we tend of think just of the questionable practice of extreme tight lacing, which is what caused the bodily deformities so often criticized. In a similar vein, we know that high-heeled shoes are absurd but this doesn’t stop many women from wearing them and even claiming they feel comfortable. Goodman also makes a point of constantly stressing that many basic ingredients in Victorian cosmetics and prepared foodstuffs are still present in current products. There are elements of the Victorian past that scare her–she basically says that babies were routinely poisoned by concerned parents who fed them dangerous medicine–but she makes on the whole a very good defense of Victorian ingenuity and capacity to correct the worst situations. Life in 1890s Britain, thus, does not appear to be substantially worse than life in the post-WWII 1950s.

So, does it help to know about flushing toilets or about the difference between a crinoline and a bustle to understand Victorian fiction? I think it does, and very much. Some authors may not care very much to describe the background of their fiction but look at what Bram Stoker does in Dracula (1897). We miss the horror of his tale if we miss that Count Dracula comes from a medieval land to terrorize ultra-modern Britain. Stoker’s characters put together a record of the vampire chase using all kind of modern devices (a typewriter, a phonograph… both 1870s inventions) and they follow him back to his lair thanks to perfectly reliable train schedules. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation was the first to understand Stoker’s ultra-modernity. It even has a beautiful scene in which Dracula follows Mina into a cinema, which is not anachronistic as it might seem: “The first public film shows in the UK to a paying audience took place in London in 1896. On 21 February that year, the Polytechnic Institute on Regent Street hosted a display of the Lumière brothers’ new moving-picture device, the Cinématographe” (https://www.londonssilentcinemas.com/history/).

Reading Goodman’s volume and other excellent books such as Judith Flanders’s The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2003) I cannot help being impressed by the massive effort Victorians made to improve matters. “The greatest invention of the nineteenth century”, Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “was the invention of the method of invention”, as he is right indeed. It can be argued that many of these inventions resulted in the hell that factory life was for many 19th century children, women, and men. Also that others were delayed for suspicious sexist reasons: the washing machine was invented by one Jacob Christian Schäffer (in 1767!) but not commercialized. American inventor Nathaniel Briggs was granted the first patent for a hand-operated washing machine in 1797, and others followed in his steps, but only the introduction of Alva J. Fisher’s electric Thor washer in 1908 started changing domestic life for women. As Goodman claims, doing the laundry was the worst chore Victorian women had to face, particularly those in the working classes and in service to the middle- and upper-classes. One never reads about these matters in Victorian Literature, in which clothes are worn and soiled with little mention of who makes and cleans them.

To sum up, then, yes indeed reading the fiction of the past is an immersive historical experience but a limited one–as limited as reading the fiction of the present, which can hardly make sense of the widespread use of the smartphone and the impact of the social media (can it??). I am not sure how far deep into the past we need to understand what we read or if we have simply to handle the background as well we can, which is possibly the only practical option. Let’s be at least aware that in the past things were done differently, and enjoy the difference.

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

SCARLETT AND THE STATUE: WHY SUPPRESSION IS NOT EDUCATION

[This one is for Felicity, Esther, and Lola]

The brutal murder of African-American George Floyd by an overzealous, racist white cop, who thought that kneeling on the detainee’s neck for nine minutes was adequate police practice, has resulted in massive social unrest in the USA and other countries. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has taken to the streets in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic to demand an end to racism, while white individuals and white-dominated corporations apologize for having disregarded blacks in a variety of ways, from personal interaction to fictional representation.

As part of this trend, earlier this week streaming giant HBO announced the removal from its Max platform of Gone with the Wind, on the grounds that the film’s racism is no longer acceptable, though recent news updates indicate that the movie will be returned to the platform with an accompanying statement on race. Scarlett O’Hara might then go not with the wind but with the statue of former slave trader Edward Colston, which was tipped into Bristol harbour a few days ago by a crowd of angry protesters. The local City Council has now retrieved it, with the intention of exhibiting it in a museum, complete with the graffiti and ropes the protestors used to deface and topple it down, as a History lesson.

There have been countless articles, blog posts, and tweets about Scarlett and the statue this last week all over the world, but the best I have read is by the geniuses that write satirical newspaper El Mundo Today. Their piece announces that after erasing all racist movies the only one that remains on HBO is Spiderman 2 but since that one has not passed the anti-sexist Bechdel test, the platform will only stream its own menu (https://www.elmundotoday.com/2020/06/spiderman-2-sera-la-unica-pelicula-de-hollywood-disponible-en-las-plataformas-de-streaming-despues-de-que-borren-todas-las-peliculas-racistas/). What else can one add?

The past (and the present) is full of texts of all types that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, ageist, speciesist, chauvinistic as regards nationality, and a long etcetera in the long list of human prejudice. We have no excuse now to produce offensive texts (I’m using ‘text’ here in the Cultural Studies sense of the words, which encompasses anything that can be subjected to interpretation), though political correctness is now a minefield almost impossible to navigate (see the J.K. Rowling tweetstorm this week on transphobic issues). What we cannot do is start erasing the texts of the past for we will be left with practically nothing.

Some will say that this is fine, and that the only way that a prejudice-free new textuality can emerge is by applying a sharp cultural rebooting, and starting all over again, from a completely different stance. Seeing this week how many comedians have apologised for having used blackface in their shows, there might be a point in asking for a radical revamping of culture. Still, it seems to me that retrospective apology and textual erasure misses the point without a deeper conversation.

Look at country band Lady Antebellum, now renamed Lady A: why did they think that was a good name? Why hadn’t anybody pointed out that the use of the word Antebellum has certain racist connotations in the fourteen years since the band’s foundation? And when comedians, singers, or even Vogue’s editor Anna Wintour apologize (in her case for not hiring black staff), to whom are they apologizing? It seems to me that there is a strange kind of ghostly tribunal out there deciding who is absolved and what penance must be done, and I wonder why a white policeman had to act like a beast for so many people to suddenly realize that they were being racist but should not be. How come they didn’t know before? It is not as if race is not discussed all the time.

I’ll leave for the time being the discussion of what kind of new textuality can emerge in a fully politically correct atmosphere to focus on why suppression is not education. To begin with, I believe that HBO Max’s decision may have had the opposite effect: attracting many new admirers to Gone with the Wind, a 1939 film which is hardly the type of fare that attracts young compulsive series watchers. I have fond personal memories of watching this film with my mother in its Spanish re-release, at some point in the 1980s, on the huge screen that Cinema Bosque used to flaunt before it was transformed into a multiplex. Any spectators could and can see, I think, that the original novel by Margaret Mitchell and its film adaptation are focused on white people of the American South in ways that are racist because that was a racist society. And least that was my impression: one thing is the racism of what is portrayed, the other is the film’s racism. The film does not defend that the South was right and slavery should have been maintained; in fact, it portrays what was wrong with the white society that Scarlett embodies, if you want to see it that way, and why they lost the Civil War.

Let’s not forget, besides, that actor Hattie McDaniel won the first Oscar ever awarded to an African-American for her role as Mammy (the second win went to Sidney Poitier in 1963!) and that Scarlett O’Hara’s spunkiness (courtesy of English actor Vivien Leigh) was a refreshing innovation especially in comparison to the likes of bland, passive Melania (Olivia de Havilland) in the same film. With this I mean that context matters as much as text. We now read the scene in which Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) drags Scarlett into their bedroom as marital rape and are outraged that next we see her blissful face the morning after. At the time what outraged the censors in Spain was Scarlett’s expression of sexual satisfaction. Times change and we cannot live in a constant presentism, measuring everything by our rod.

If, in any case, the values of a text are so deeply at odds with our values, what happens is that it is eventually abandoned. We show little or no interest in medieval texts that caused major rifts and much personal damage depending on which quirky religious tenet they supported. The ones we attempt to suppress still bother us, but it is much more productive to try to understand why they bother us than simply avoid them. The same applies to statues, a type of art that completely baffles me. I don’t understand what is the point of putting a reproduction of a person on a pedestal to be admired. Public spaces should be filled with art, but not of this kind. The same applies to calling institutions by person’s names. A dear friends who works at Universidad Juan Carlos I has started a campaign to have the name changed, which is the equivalent, I think of toppling down a statue. And with good reason.

I teach Victorian Literature, as I have often noted here, and there is no way that I can do that using texts which offend nobody. Even the texts by women carry a good measure of prejudice, often class-related, and on occasion notably androphobic. I believe that I did explain here that we chose to replace Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines because even though some comments by Conrad’s narrator Marlowe are clearly anti-racist the novella is not on the whole overtly so. It has generated too much admiration by snobbish literary people for its racial politics to be obvious (at least until Chinua Achebe protested in 1970 that for all its elegant prose this is a barbaric text). Haggard is so blatantly racist that, paradoxically, racism is easier to explain and to expose using his text: we do not teach King Solomon’s Mines as a text that needs to be admired but as a text that was extremely popular for a very long time for reasons that need to be looked into. Following the same engaged pedagogy we teach Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a deeply sexist text which is nonetheless extremely useful to understand the patriarchal concerns about women’s liberation.

I think that the crux of all this problematic situation is our personal and collective admiration for certain texts and persons. This is a tricky concept. In Carme Torras’s science fiction novel La mutació sentimental (2008), the future society she depicts has forgotten what admiration is about because individuals live in a totally egalitarian world. This is something she implicitly criticises. Admiration, of course, depends on acknowledging that something or someone is extraordinary and, so, worth our affection and respect. Thus, if a text or a person we admire is negatively valued, we feel an intimate hurt: don’t touch my Gone with the Wind, don’t touch my Edward Colston. I don’t care, for instance, for D.W. Griffith’s appallingly racist Birth of a Nation (1915) or for Alfred Hitchcock’s appallingly sexist Psycho (1960) and feel offended whenever they are discussed as great examples of artistic innovation in cinema. I wish they could disappear from collective memory because they offend me deeply, and if they do I’ll be happy (here contradicting my own argument that nothing should be suppressed). Now, try to suppress Blade Runner for being sexist, as I very well know it is since I am a feminist woman, and you will hear me scream, for I admire it. The same goes for Dracula, which is a superb novel.

The process of education, then, should consist of curbing down the admiration for questionable texts and persons and redirecting that feeling towards what truly deserves it (but according to whom?). The problem, as I am trying to argue, is that the process is more complex than it sounds because admiration has irrational, sentimental roots that have to do with personal experience. At the stage we are, most of us are fast re-educating ourselves but hardly willing to let go of certain texts: as a woman I am offended that men fully aware of sexism still admire sexist texts, but then I do the same if the sexist texts elicit my admiration in any way as I have noted. And nothing is ever one-sided. I admire Charles Dickens very much for certain qualities of his writing and deplore him for others of his personality. It would be very hard for me not to teach him in Victorian Literature but I have no problem not teaching Walter Scott in Romantic Literature because I do not admire him (of course, by not teaching him I am preventing my own students from admiring Scott, which might be very pig-headed of me).

The best I can do, in any case, is ask you do watch Gone with the Wind, even read Margaret Mitchell’s novel, and learn who Edward Colston was, and then decide what you find there to admire or deplore. Just don’t tip both into History’s trashcan (why have I instantly thought of Donald Trump…?) for they are what History is about.

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SUPPOSING REASEARCH MATTERS: A BAD AND A GOOD EXAMPLE OF LITERARY INVESTIGATION

The mood has changed so much this weekend that I must think somebody is crazy: either the scientists asking for as much prudence as possible until the Covid-19 vaccine arrives (most likely 2022), or my fellow citizens who have taken to the streets disregarding all precautions as if this nightmare were already over. The latter, I should think. My crystal balls tells me that in two or three weeks we’ll be back in square one, with panicky calls to the emergency services and overcrowded hospitals again. If I were a doctor or a nurse I would be seething with frustration, anger, and disappointment and would scream during the daily 20:00 celebration of their heroism. What a mockery!

I’m writing this preliminary note because I no longer know which direction to take: are we still fighting for the survival of the species and nothing else matters?, or are we already on the road towards business as usual to save the economy? I’ll let my reader take their pick. For those of pessimistic inclinations, I strongly recommend the devastating article by Antonio Turiel “La tormenta negra”, which describes all you fear to know about the next oil crisis (https://ctxt.es/es/20200401/Politica/32045/Antonio-Turiel-petroleo-tormenta-negra-crisis-energetica.htm). For the rest, go on reading…

Supposing research still matters in this world, I’d like to discuss an example of bad literary criticism and an instance of great literary investigation. In a world now gone if somebody published a controversial article a polemic would follow with replies and counter-replies ad nauseam. Today, this is not worth the effort because so much is published and because, let’s be honest, you never know who you might offend. I have, therefore, decided not to name the author or the title of the bad article to which I’ll refer (though, of course, nothing is hard to find anymore). In contrast, I’m very pleased to reference the good article on which I’ll comment next: “‘I’ve learned I need to treat my characters like people’: Varieties of Agency and Interaction in Writers’ Experiences of their Characters”, by John Foxwell, Ben Alderson-Day, Charles Fernyhough, and Angela Woods, Consciousness and Cognition 79 (March 2020): 1-14, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2020.102901.

The bad article analyses Hareton in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, defending the thesis that he is an idiot in the clinical sense of the term. To begin with, I was mightily surprised to see the word used formally but Wikipedia teaches me that even though ‘idiot’ is not used in British psychology, in the United States it is still used in legislation, with amendments in diverse state legislations as recent as 2007 or 2008. The author of the article on Hareton uses ‘idiot’ in the sense of someone with an intellectual disability even though Merriam-Webster, an American source, claims that “The clinical applications” of idiot, imbecile, and moron “is now a thing of the past, and we hope no one reading this would be so callous as to try to resurrect their use” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/moron-idiot-imbecile-offensive-history).

The article I am discussing, published by an outstanding A-list American journal of literary criticism, uses a nice trick to avoid political incorrectness: it reads Hareton by measuring his characterization against 19th century conceptions of idiocy. The author is not simply calling Hareton an idiot, then, but suggesting that this is how the original readers would have understood his ungainly appearance and brutish behaviour. In fact, the author uses a Disability Studies perspective so that they can also criticize how persons with an intellectual impairment were callously classified as idiots in the not too distant past. I have nothing against this line of argumentation, for prejudice needs to be exposed and the appalling wrongness of earlier psychology also denounced. The problem is that Hareton is not at all an idiot, nor would original readers have mistaken him for one. The Literature of the past surely has other examples of persons with an intellectual disability worth exploring.

That Hareton is not mentally impaired in any way is very easy to establish: he responds quickly to the young Catherine’s literacy programme, which the lad himself suggests (once he returns the books he has stolen from her). When Catherine understands that he wants to be educated she proceeds, and this is the first step in their joint undermining of Heathcliff’s patriarchal rule. In the process, Hareton’s good looks and warm feelings resurface, having been buried under the thick layer of illiteracy that Heathcliff imposes on his foster son. If you recall, basically he wants to avenge himself by humiliating the son of his main enemy, his foster brother Hindley. When this man dies, Hareton becomes Heathcliff’s adoptive son. The author of the article, thus, misses what any Victorian reader would understand: Hareton looks and acts like any other person of the time who had received no education whatsoever and was subjected to much abuse from harsh parents. In fact, if one pays attention, there are frequent comments about how handsome the lad is despite Heathcliff’s efforts to destroy him physically and psychologically. No reader who reaches the end of the novel should doubt that Catherine has fallen in love with an attractive, warm-hearted, loyal man who is, besides, willing to learn from her (and teach her in return about nature).

What, then, is the cause of the misreading in the article I have mentioned? Two causes: one is the misguided desire to expand the field of Disability Studies to works which have no disabled character; the other is that we are scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to producing new readings of the classics, as my friend Esther Pujolràs tells me. The author of the article knows that the happy ending disproves the thesis, and even acknowledges that there might be no evidence of idiocy in the text, but the article has been accepted by peer reviewers who have seen no problem in publishing a piece which is plainly wrong. I am 100% sure that this has to do with the use of Disability Studies as the theoretical frame, though I must add that I have seen other articles cheekily warning that there is no evidence for the thesis presented. I was taught that this is mere speculation but it seems that the rules have changed. The other question, the depletion of new things to say about the classics, is visible in the thick stream of research that deals with minor aspects. It is, logically, hard to approach a classic like Wuthering Heights from a truly new perspective and so attention is paid to smaller elements missed by previous research. A result of this is that 21st century bibliography looks like an analysis of single leaves on trees rather than of the forest. Another problem is that there is so much bibliography that any new author has hardly room to develop a thesis among so many obligatory references to predecessors. I am not saying that no new work about the classics should be published; what I am saying is that many other authors, works, and aspects of literary criticism are waiting for someone to pay attention to them.

The article by Foxwell et al. is a very good example of this. Finally someone has thought of asking authors how they imagine their characters and here are the first results. The authors present evidence collected with a questionnaire sent to the authors who presented work at the Edinburgh Literature Festival (in 2014 and 2018). 181 replied (mostly women, mostly British) and from their replies the first tentative sketch of the imaginative process behind writing characters has emerged. Foxwell and his colleagues wanted to investigate a phenomenon which I have often mentioned here: writers claim that characters take decisions in the process of building a piece of fiction, often taking it in directions unanticipated by the author. The questionnaire was designed to have writers be more specific about their relationship with their own characters: are they like the imaginary friends of childhood?, is hearing their voices a sort of hallucinatory experience?, are characters’ voices different from the author’s own inner speech?

Although the results are not homogeneous, a general conclusion is that writers imagine characters and then they give them a voice in ways that recall how we suppose a person we know would react in certain circumstances. Of course, this is a very superficial summary of the many aspects concerning the topic which the article analyses. Read it and you will see how amazing the statements from the writers are. Here is an example: initially, the characters “feel under my control and then at that certain point when they feel completely real, it’s becomes a matter of me following them, hoping to steer” (10). The bibliography, full of articles on diverse forms of hallucinatory madness, indirectly hints that somehow the researchers were worried to discover that the authors of fiction actually suffer from some kind of mental disorder. They very carefully point out throughout the discussion of results that all authors know that their characters are mental constructions and that the voices they hear and the conversations they have are perfectly normal manifestations. Normal for a fiction author, I should add. I remain mystified by how it feels to have your imagination colonized by the presence of other people. The article describes quite well what happens in the mind of a fiction writer at work but it cannot say why it happens.

I am not a big fan of the strict, formalist language in which Foxwell and his colleagues write, and which is habitual in cognitive and linguistic analysis. Here is an example: “Those writers whose characters were fully distinct from their inner speech were significantly likely to report dialoguing as themselves with the character (χ2 = 22.19, df = 6, p < 0.001), to feel like they were observing their characters (χ2 = 32.15, df = 2, p < 0.001), and to experience their characters as possessing full agency (χ2 = 28.29, df = 6, p < 0.001)” (9). In fact, I’m quite sorry that there is no room for discussing how the imagination works in literary criticism, from which living writers are mostly absent. There should be, I think, a middle point between the interview and the statistical analysis, but it seems nobody is really interested, perhaps even few authors (see my post of 13 January, “The Elusive Matter of the Imagination: Too Frail to Touch?”). Tellingly, many writers declined the invitation to participate in the survey, refusing to explore in detail mental processes that are personal and delicate. As the researches stress, imagining characters is “a specific aspect of inner experience for which no established vocabulary exists” (13).

I’ll end by suggesting that perhaps that vocabulary does not exist because writing fiction is play and connecting adults with play is always complicated. I do not mean by this that the task carried out by fiction writers is easy child’s play but that dreaming up characters has a playful aspect. We take fiction too seriously to accept that it is a complex game and in the end we have no idea about how it works. If we could resurrect Emily Brontë, everyone would want to know how she imagined and spoke to her characters, so why not ask the living authors surrounding us? Obviously, they have plenty to say.

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BACK TO BASICS: SCARED BY THE VAMPIRE IN DRACULA

[This is long and contains many spoilers, be warned!]

Reading Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula with fresh eyes is practically impossible. Even new readers carry with them countless images of the vampire in fiction and film (and in many other media, even toys and food). Those of us who return to this bizarre text now and then do so with our vision also colonized by the ubiquitous media vampire, regardless of our previous readings of the text. I’ve tried to become, nonetheless, a reader as inexperienced as possible in my recent re-reading of this atmospheric novel, carried out in preparation of lectures beginning next week. And, to my surprise, I have found Stoker’s masterpiece scarier than ever.

In the introduction to my oldish 1983 edition of Dracula (Oxford’s World Classics), A.N. Wilson gently mocks Stoker’s efforts, sentencing that while “[t]he writing is of a powerful, workaday sensionalistic kind”, in his view “No one in their right mind would think of Stoker as a ‘great writer’”. I agree that Dracula is not in the same league as “Middlemarch or Madame Bovary or War and Peace” but, then, we’re comparing here different kinds of talent. Eliot, Flaubert and Tolstoy could never have written Dracula, for good or bad. And it does take a still poorly understood type of talent to make this weird vampire tale survive since its inception in 1897, after spawning so many other creatures of the night. Also, if you check as I have done, how many ‘original texts’ Stoker uses in each of his chapters to maintain the illusion that his gothic yarn is ‘real’, you’ll see that he did make a remarkable effort to compose his novel. This apparently extends even to his having produced a quite accurate version of how Dutchmen speak English in Van Helsing’s singular idiolect.

Unfortunately, the plethora of ridiculous American-style vampires plaguing us since Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire in 1976, presenting one of the creatures as a Romantic hero, has done much harm to the vampire myth–I forgot to say that Wilson calls Stoker a myth-maker. In the original novel, as some commentators have noticed, Count Dracula is actually a secondary, even minor, character. His actions are narrated by others–his actual or prospective victims–and they always see him as a menacing, predatory monster; this is how vampires should be portrayed. Edward Cullen and his kind are, excuse me, idiotic embodiments of the still more idiotic idea that a woman might find satisfaction in loving a monster. Victorian Mina does find satisfaction in her Christian conviction that by staking and beheading her harasser the gentlemen in her circle may be saving the Count’s soul, but she is never in love with Dracula. To my dismay (and disappointment), when I explained in a recent seminar that there is no romantic plot in Stoker’s novel, a young girl announced that this is why she will never read the book.

Stephanie Meyer’s already démodé Twilight saga borrows its romantic plot from James V. Hart’s absurd screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola’s so-called Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). This well-received adaptation significantly deviates from the original by supposing that Mina is a reincarnation of Dracula’s long-lost lover Elisabetta, who committed suicide centuries before when both were ruthlessly persecuted by their Ottoman enemies. The Count embraced vampirism in despair but seeing her lover reborn in the portrait of Mina that Jonathan carries with him, he determines to win her back. What is baffling about Hart and Coppola’s work is that theirs is certainly the most accomplished rendering of Stoker’s novel ever seen on the screen. As I re-read the book, I marvelled at how exact some of the filmed scenes were, even despite the bizarre outfits (Lucy’s burial/bridal dress) and the strange tone used by some performers. Anthony Hopkins played Van Helsing right after playing Hannibal Lecter and something of this vampiric character is visible in his Dutch vampire hunter.

I’m going to list next some of the moments that make Stoker’s Dracula so scary (most of them well known) and try to figure out what factors are usually overlooked. Perhaps this is obvious to any reader but I’ll claim that the three strongest points of this novel are: Stoker’s grounding of his paranormal tale on the technoscience of his ultra-modern late 19th century Victorian England, the urgency in the swift race against time in the last third of the novel to save Mina’s soul by killing Dracula and, above all, a very deft use of the hypnagogic state of consciousness, that is to say, of the phase between wakefulness and sleep. The most terrifying moments happen when characters cannot tell whether they are dreaming or being actually attacked. I’m not sure whether Stoker wrote in this way thinking that his readers would read his novel in bed, but the scenes can easily generate nightmares if read before falling asleep. Give it a try… if you dare.

Here are the most horrific touches. In Chapter 2, Harker describes the Count who, incidentally, begins the novel as an old man and progressively ages back towards youth as blood nourishes him. Dracula’s “cruel-looking” mouth with its “peculiarly sharp white teeth” and his “extraordinary pallor” warn us that he’s no ordinary man; but what really scares us is that his hands sport “hairs in the centre of the palm”. When Harker feels their touch he cannot “repress a shudder”–could you? During his imprisonment in Dracula’s castle, Jonathan is shocked by how his jailer pretends that he’s staying as a free guest–when told that he can leave, Harker finds a pack of wolves at the door.

There are a few even more hair-raising moments. One is the sight of the Count creeping down the wall, “using every projection and inequality to move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall”. Another one is Dracula’s offering to his brides of a bag with something squirming inside which, when opened, releases “a gasp and a low wail, as of a half-smothered child”. And, of course, the death of the poor baby’s mother, attacked by the Count’s feral minions: “There was no cry from the woman, and the howling of the wolves was but short. Before long they streamed away singly, licking their lips”. Notice the concise phrasing.

The horrific events on board the Demeter, the Russian ship carrying Dracula to Whitby (Chapter 7), appear to be the earliest predecessor of the film Alien. If, as its slogan went, ‘in space none can hear you scream’, the same happens at sea during the Demeter’s doomed voyage as Dracula decimates the crew. I must also highlight, obviously, Lucy’s rape in the graveyard, witnessed by Mina (Chapter 8). Rape? Yes, indeed. Mina does not know about Dracula but we do and, so, her inability to clearly see what is going on is totally unnerving. Lucy is here sleepwalking at night in Whitby’s graveyard: “There was undoubtedly something, long and black, bending over the half-reclining white figure. I called in fright, ‘Lucy! Lucy!’ and something raised a head, and from where I was I could see a white face and red, gleaming eyes”. Mina boldly rushes to her friend’s aid but, by then, the phallic ‘something’ is gone. Not from our minds.

Other dreadful moments colour the failed attempts to protect poor Lucy. Her mother dies of a heart attack when a wolf crashes into their bedroom window. As she dies, Mrs. Westenra tears the garlic flowers off Lucy’s neck, leaving her vulnerable again to Dracula’s bite-raping procedure. Lucy writes that “I tried to stir, but there was some spell upon me”; her mother’s dead body also weighs her down. Later, once Lucy dies, a victim of this paralysing dread, we find the most stunning passage in the whole book: Van Helsing’s stark declaration to Dr. Seward that, since Lucy is actually un-dead, he “shall cut off her head and fill her mouth with garlic, and I shall drive a stake through her body” (Chapter 13). Appallingly, Seward says: “It made me shudder to think of so mutilating the body of the woman whom I had loved. And yet the feeling was not so strong as I had expected”. How callous and… chilling.

Lucy’s fiancé Arthur is initially dismayed but he soon proceeds gleefully to do the deed, with hands that “never trembled nor even quivered”. Instead of the shortish stake used in films, Arthur impales Lucy with a 90 cm (three-feet) monster weapon as “a hideous, blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips”. Once the terrible deflowering concludes she looks her old pre-vampire virginal self, seemingly satisfied that her soul has been saved. Please recall that Stoker imagined this sensational assault as a straightforward horror scene, and not as a scene to show the men’s misogyny. This is doubly terrifying for us.

Van Helsing’s list of the vampire’s powers in Chapter 18 is far more daunting than any similar list of features in other versions. Here Dracula is “strong in person as twenty men”, extremely cunning, a powerful necromancer, and capable of appearing “within limitations” whenever and wherever he wants. Most vampires are burnt by daylight but the Count can walk in the sun though only as a vulnerable mortal. The film Nosferatu (1922), an illegal adaptation, introduced (I think) the trope of the lethal sun-rays (or was it the serial Varney the Vampire?). Proof that Dracula can appear as he wishes is how, once invited in by madman Renfield into Dr. Seward’s home, the Count attacks Mina after reaching her bedroom as a mysterious mist. “I thought that I was asleep” she records in her journal, and our horror is amplified because rational Mina cannot tell that this was no dream. The same happened to her husband, remember, in his ordeal with Dracula’s voluptuous brides.

Nothing, however, is as strikingly pornographic and violent as the scene in Chapter 21 when Arthur, Morris, Seward and Van Helsing catch Dracula in Mina and Jonathan’s bed. Harker is “breathing heavily as though in a stupor” and this is the revolting sight the men face: “With his left hand [Dracula] held both Mrs. Harker’s hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare breast which was shown by his torn-open dress”. This oral rape and/or bloody fellatio, however, is infantilized by Seward who reports to us that “The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink”. Some kitten, some milk… This is, excuse me, the climax of the whole story.

It is, in any case, Stoker’s merit as a superbly good story-teller that the anti-climax is also full of suspense. In their thrilling chase of the Count back to his Transylvanian lair (he needs to be killed or Mina will become a vampire when she dies, even if never bitten again), our heroes even take the Orient Express!! For, as we are told again and again, this is the 19th century with a vengeance and the vampire cannot compete with the rush of the modern world. And rush the gang of heroes do, all the way to Dracula’s crumbling castle, where Van Helsing indulges in more female decapitation (of the brides), and Morris finally shows that he is not a superfluous addition: the Bowie knife of the American hunter is the tool that stakes Dracula’s heart. Thus is his soul saved, as Mina wishes, although, perplexingly, Morris is also killed (by a gypsy henchman of the Count).

In case you’re interested, the word ‘blood’ appears in the text 115 times (‘vampire’, just 28). ‘Soul’ is mentioned 65 times, and the verb ‘save’ 34. Now here’s the surprise: ‘sleep’ appears 193 times (‘asleep’, 47) but ‘dream’ only 18, and ‘nightmare’ just 6. The biggest surprise of all is that the real keyword of Dracula is ‘time’, with 386 appearances; ‘late’ is used 60 times (‘rush’ 10, ‘hurry’ 10). And ‘train’, 36… they didn’t have modern cars back then. Characters rush here and there in mortal fear that time is running out and that they are too late to save those who risk losing blood and soul while they’re apparently asleep, unaware that they are actually under attack by a monstrous vampire. This gives Dracula its amazing tension, its terse suspense, and its huge capacity to scare.

Step aside, Cullen and company.

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SECONDARY CHARACTERS: TIME TO END OUR NEGLECT

These days my students smile the moment the phrase ‘secondary character’ comes our of my lips, as they have heard me say already many times that we have neglected them woefully. They smile as a polite way to tell me that I need to be more persuasive, for everyone knows that the main characters are the ones that carry the weight of the fictional text, hence the only ones that deserve being the object of literary analysis.

I have, however, already showed to my two classes that a) in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games a great deal of the plot depends on decisions made extradiagetically (um, secretly!) by secondary characters (the scheming President Alma Coin but also, intriguingly, fashion designer Cinna); b) in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the real plot mover may be the wicked Arthur Huntingdon and not the protagonist, his saintly wife Helen, but the greatly neglected plot shaker is his sexy mistress, Annabella Wilmot. Likewise, in Dickens’ Great Expectations, which I am about to start teaching again, although Miss Havisham and Abel Magwitch are impressive secondary characters, it is actually the far more secondary Compeyson who sets the plot in motion. Literally, for he is bound by a (criminal) plot to both.

Literary Studies has paid very scant attention to the secondary character. To begin with, there is doubt about when a character is a protagonist or just a supporting actor (I’m thinking here of Iago in Othello). In, for instance, Wuthering Heights, the elder Catherine is universally regarded to be a main character. Her daughter, also named Catherine, plays in the second part of Emily Brontë’s novel a similarly important role; nonetheless, she has hardly received any critical attention. There may be, then, plenty of analyses of particular secondary characters, as I have found in a quick search, but there is not a sustained theoretical approach to how they are built and how/why they matter.

In this quick search, combining the MLA database and WorldCat, I have found, as I should expect, more articles and dissertations than books about the secondary character–all in all, less than 60 documents since the 1970s, and only if we combine in this list four different major languages. The books are actually just two: Peter Bly’s The Wisdom of Eccentric Old Men: A Study of Type and Secondary Character in Galdós’s Social Novels, 1870-1897 (2004) and Jennifer Camden’s Secondary Heroines in Nineteenth-Century British and American Novels (2010), both originating in doctoral dissertations. Also committed to making the most of the secondary character is the monographic issue published by the French and English-language journal Belphégor in November 2006 (https://dalspace.library.dal.ca/handle/10222/31210). The issue, nonetheless, is focused on the flexibility of secondary characters in their diverse media adaptations, rather than to an in-depth consideration of their role in print fiction.

Fictional characters, generally speaking, are underanalysed as literary constructions. This is why what Lennard J. Davis had to say about them 30 years ago in his singular 1987 volume Resisting Novels: Ideology & Fiction is still relevant (the book was reissued recently, in 2014). In a fascinating chapter called “Characters, narrators, and readers: Making friends with signs”, Davis explains that characters “are designed to elicit maximum identification with the observer” and that “their existence is part of a monolithic structure created by an author”; that is to say, they are a function of the text.

Characters, Davis adds, do not have a personality: they have characteristics, although the main trick that novelists play upon us, readers, is making us believe that a limited set of features constitutes a human-like personality. “In essence,” Davis argues “the feeling that we get that we are watching a complex character is largely an illusion created by the opposite–the relatively small number of traits that make up a character”. Oddly, Davis focuses on how attractive protagonists are created to be desired “in some non-specific but erotic way” because “part of novel reading is the process of falling in love with characters or making friends with signs”. Yet, he misses the chance to consider, first, what minimum number of traits gives secondary characters a distinct personality; second, in how many tiers are they organized (from your basic ‘spear carrier’ with no lines to almost-protagonist) and, third, how much of any novel’s appeal depends on them.

In cinema things are slightly different, if only because the Oscars (and the Emmys for TV) acknowledge actors’ merits in two categories: leading and supporting. This is not without controversy for, often, production companies try to have co-protagonists nominated in both categories so as to increase the chances of a particular film to win an Oscar (or two). Other strange things often happen in connection to the Oscars. This year Viola Davis won as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Fences, even though she is the female lead in that film. I don’t believe that she has less screen time than Ruth Negga, nominated as Best Actress in a Leading Role for Loving–but of course, how could Davis compete with Emma Stone, everyone’s favourite for La La Land?

‘Screen time’ is, of course, also a very tricky concept to measure the ‘secondariness’ of a role: Judith Dench got a very well-deserved Oscar for playing Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love (1998), a performance lasting all of… eight minutes. It turns out that the record is in the hands of Beatrice Straight for a six-minute role as a spurned wife in Network (1976). This is fine as, precisely, Straight’s win shows that what matters in a secondary character is not the extent of their presence but of their impact.

Whereas screenwriters can congratulate themselves for having written secondary characters that, in the right hands, become Oscar-worthy, (print) fiction writers are not granted any special merit for creating great supporting roles. Praise usually goes in the direction of number, rather than specific successful characterization. There are exceptions, of course. Dickens’ disciple J.K. Rowling gave us in Harry Potter a marvellous secondary character list that kept the best British actors happy for years, whether they had been chosen to play minor roles (Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart) or fundamental ones (Alan Rickman as Severus Snape). Fans claim that Rowling came up with 772 characters, though apparently ‘only’ 136 receive enough attention to qualify as main or secondary (with lines), the rest are just names dropped in passing into the text.

The list of Dickensian characters runs to many more hundreds, among which the secondary roles come in all sizes and types, from the cheeky Artful Dodger, to the ill-treated Bob Cratchit, or the brutal Bentley Drummle. And the inevitable ‘spear carriers’. Dickens, indeed, seems to be the only writer in English always drawing praise for his secondary roles, even far above Shakespeare, who could do Mercutio brilliantly but somehow fell short with the likes of Count Paris. In a 2012 article, Paul Bailey enthuses about Dickens’ “ability to catch life on the hop” and chronicle life through his myriad minor people. There is, however, still that elephant in the room as beyond creative writing courses (I assume), nobody is trying to analyze secondary characters in fiction. How do writers ‘do’ them?

Perhaps this academic feet-dragging should be blamed onto genius playwright Tom Stoppard, who had the last word (and the last laugh?) with his 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead. In it Prince Hamlet’s hapless university classmates, called by King Claudius and commissioned to help do away with the obnoxious heir to the Danish throne, meet a sad end, as happens in Shakespeare’s play, of course. What changes in Stoppard’s witty version is the focalization: whereas the hesitant blonde prince is our delegate in the original text, in this other play the pair of minor characters are the protagonists. That they have no idea of what is going on and that their lives only appear to make sense (if any) when Hamlet is on stage is a wonderful comment on the role of secondary characters. Also, a sort of self-defeating strategy, since few authors can pull the trick of using secondary characters as narrators and focalisers without promoting them to the main role–the exception being, of course, Nelly in Wuthering Heights, who remains elusively secondary.

In The Hunger Games there is a secondary character called Johanna Mason, a former victor in the 71st edition of the Games. Ostensibly introduced as a lesser rival to Katniss Everdeen, Johanna turns out to be her reluctant secret ally. Spunky, forthright, angry and resilient, Mason is so well-drawn despite her very limited presence that many fans wish Collins should have chosen her to play hero. You should have seen the smiles in my students’ faces when we briefly discussed her. Briefly because, of course, being a secondary character Johanna only got whatever little time was left after we finished discussing Katniss. Now I know those few minutes was far less than her contribution to the success of the trilogy deserved. Next time I teach The Hunger Games I’ll do it the other way round: beginning with the secondary characters.

One day I should teach a course called ‘Great Secondary Characters of English Literature’… Let’s start a list!

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REVIEWING THE VAMPIRE: WHAT SEEMS TO BE AT STAKE

This is an anecdote I have often told in class and to my tutorees. I was in a tutorial with my PhD supervisor in Scotland, Prof. David Punter. My topic was monstrosity in 1980s and 1990s fiction. I had reached that low point which all doctoral students hit when you realize that nobody cares about your mighty efforts… I was working on my chapter on the vampire, and, sick and tired, I blurted out, “but who cares?, vampires don’t even exist!” Prof. Punter went gnomic–as if he was onto something I could never guess–and replied in a style that Oscar Wilde would have loved, “Oh, but they do exist! At least, they take a great deal of our imagination”. Or similar words. That taught me a most valuable lesson (also about vampires): just as we spend much of our life dreaming, we spend many hours daydreaming, and both our dreams and our imagination are as important as our waking hours. A truth that readers who limits themselves to realist fiction can never suffer. Poor things.

We have included again Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) in our syllabus for Victorian Literature–or rather, like the repressed, the uncanny Count has returned to haunt us. I have not re-read Stoker’s novel yet, a text which I admire very much because of its singular mixture of fake documents and its sense of modernity scandalized by the intrusion of the atavistic. I have, however, spent a great deal of the past week thinking hard about vampires for a seminar I am to teach soon. You might think that a specialist in Gothic Studies like myself already knows everything about vampires but a) even specialists forget details as juicy as the fact that Stoker wrote theatrical reviews for a Dublin newspaper that Le Fanu, author of Carmilla, owned, and b) there is nothing like having to teach a subject to learn a few new lessons.

For instance, I believed that the famous image of Count Dracula in modern evening dress complete with a red-lined black satin cape comes from the 1931 film with Bela Lugosi. It actually comes, though, from the 1924 play by Irish actor and playwright Hamilton Deane (he played Van Helsing; Dracula was first played by Edmund Blake). I can’t tell, however, whose idea the cape was. This may seem trivial but then other people employ their energies in recording how many goals Leo Messi has scored this past season (54…). Forgetting myself for a second on the track of the vampire, yesterday I even considered whether I should finally read Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight saga; yet, seeing how fast and how far Kirsten Stewart has distanced herself from her on-screen Bella, I thought perhaps not. I’ll read instead a similarly long book which promises to be far more thrilling, and sexy, and which will fill in a more glaring gap in my (Victorian) reading list: the serial Varney, the Vampire (1845-7). Good company for Dracula.

Generally speaking, I find vampires very boring creatures, though I must grant that the 19th century variety is far more exciting than the 20th and 21st century breed. The Romantic and Victorian vampires are in-your-face predators pretty much comfortable with their animal nature. In the late hippie times of 1976, Anne Rice had the very questionable idea of letting the vampiric creatures in her novel Interview with the Vampire, particularly silly Louis de Pointe du Lac, brood and mope about their sad fate. Fancy lions bemoaning being carnivores… Even worse, Rice revealed through reporter Daniel Molloy that secretly we all want to be vampires because they are immortal, a hidden truth that should have stayed hidden because it has led to endless horrors–implants of artificial long fangs and also the idiotic consumption of actual human blood by those who ignore the meaning of the word ‘metaphor’. Insert a shudder here.

I should leave all discussion of the vampire to more learned scholars, like my dear friend Antonio Ballesteros (read his volume Vampire Chronicle: Una historia natural del vampiro en la literatura anglosajona, 2000). But, still, I have re-discovered a few issues about the 19th century vampire that I’d like to share here. Actually, this re-discovery begins with the 18th century for this is the real turning point in the history of the vampire.

We fail to understand how it felt to live before the first serious, rational attempts to dispel the fog of superstition. The vampire emerges, precisely, from this fog with the strange cases of two Serbian peasants, Petar Blagojevich (1725) and Arnold Paole (1726), ‘executed’ for crimes committed once dead. The real novelty here is that the cases were documented by officers of the Austrian Empire using a pioneering rational perspective, later also employed by Dom Augustine Calmet. This abbot penned an indispensable essay with a wonderfully mixed title, Traité sur les apparitions des anges, des démons & des esprits et sur les revenans et vampires de Hongrie, de Boheme, de Moravie & de Silesie (1746, vol. II 1751), from which my own dissertation on the monster descends. The difference is that Calmet was not sure whether angels and ‘revenants’ (i.e. vampires) could exist whereas I, a belated child of the Enlightenment, know that they don’t (pace Prof. Punter). A pity, in the case of the angels. Extraterrestrials I still swear by, though.

The second point of re-discovery has to do with the fact that before the vampire reached prose fiction with John Polidori’s Gothic tale “The Vampyre” (1819), it had already colonized 18th century German poetry and, a bit later, the English Romantic variety. Of course, I knew about Coleridge’s transgender “Christabel” (1816), a tantalizingly unfinished text which leads to Carmilla (1871-2) but I had forgotten that sex and vampirism had come together much earlier in “Der vampir” (1748) by Heinrich August Ossenfelder–a poet who had possibly read Calmet and who actually anticipates Gothic fiction tropes, rather than copy from them.

Another crucial element that we fail to grasp is seduction, which is integral to the vampire. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as countless stories narrate, seduction was not at all sexy foreplay but a form of psychological violence which today we consider plain rape. From Richardson’s Lovelace to Lord Byron’s Don Juan, the seducer is a man who subdues the will of his female victims, and, so, it took only a tiny step for Polidori to turn him into a vampire, as Ossenfelder had already suggested. That “The Vampyre” is also a personal comment on how doctor Polidori saw his patient Lord Byron (possibly more sinned against than a sinner…) is incidental. And though “Christabel” is an early announcement of the misogynistic transformation later in the 19th century of the seducer’s victim into a victimizer (in Carmilla), it is worth remembering that during the last quarter of the 19th century and in the early 20th until Bela Lugosi, women were the vampire. Tellingly, the first film ‘vamp’, Theda Bara, was also the first great female film star.

Another surprising re-discovery is that once it colonizes poetry and prose fiction, the vampire tends to spread to other media and keep a good hold onto them: the stage (plays, melodrama, opera) and, we tend to forget this, painting and illustration. In our time when novels lack any ornaments, we have serious problems to understand how interconnected literature and painting were in the 19th century (the whole Pre-Raphaelite movement seems to be about that); particularly, how the iconography of even the cheapest penny dreadful conditioned the later iconography of stage and film adaptations. I’m thinking of the crude woodcuts that accompany Varney, the Vampire and of the higher quality images for Carmilla. Also of Füssli’s pseudo-vampiric painting ‘The Nightmare’ (1781) and misogynist Edvard Munch’s endless variations on the theme of the female vampire (1895-1902). As for Polidori’s “The Vampyre”, this tale inspired an astonishingly long chain of texts for the stage in French and German, and then back to English, which is certainly mindboggling.

And, then, there’s a mystery which I cannot solve satisfactorily, mainly because I’d rather it remains a mystery. It is clear as daylight that Bram Stoker took his inspiration for Dracula from Carmilla; plainly, he read Le Fanu’s novella and he thought that he would like to write an equally brilliant vampire tale. But when? The question is that there is a long lapse of 28 years between Carmilla (1871-2) and Dracula (1897) in which Stoker passed from Irish civil servant who wrote theatrical reviews in his free time to experienced manager of Henry Irving’s Lyceum theatre. A long, long lapse. Perhaps suffering what Harold Bloom famously called the ‘anxiety of influence’, Stoker felt that he could never do better, which is why he poured so much energy and spent so many hours at the British Museum library doing research.

Beautifully, the Lyceum, formerly the English Opera House, had welcomed the vampire onto the English stage with James Robinson Planché’s The Vampire; or, the Bride of the Isles (1820), a translation of the eponymous pioneering melodrama by Charles Nodier, who had taken his inspiration from Polidori. Was, then, Planché’s vampire waiting in the wings of Irving’s Lyceum to bite Stoker? Just a thought… As happens with the other two masterpieces of 19th Gothic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and R.L. Stevenson The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Bram Stoker’s Dracula seems to arise from something beyond the author which transmits itself to the public through his imagination, as if he were only a medium. Also, as happens with Shelley and Stevenson, the creature that sprang from Stoker’s pen is not at all the caricature we got from the 20th century stage and film adaptations but the real thing–a scary monster. Not the ridiculously handsome Edward Cullen of Twilight, but an inhuman, undead, abject thing that you don’t want to touch (much less be touched by). Today we have zombies playing that role but unlike Dracula they are mindless creatures–perhaps what we deserve (and how we all feel) in our mindless times.

Thank you, Prof. Punter, for that nugget of deep, wide wisdom. I have never forgotten that vampires do exist and do matter, though I may have forgotten some details. Never again, and I promise to read Varney

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

BLURRED LINES: TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE WRITERS OF THE PAST

No, sorry, this is not a post about Robin Thicke’s catchy, appallingly sexist 2013 hit, which, by the way, turned out to be plagiarised (from a Marvin Gaye song). No: today I’m dealing with our difficulties to produce a clearly defined portrait of the writers of the pre-media past. By pre-media I mean the historical period before the invention of the recording (and broadcasting) of sound and of the moving image, even tough the press and photography may have been already available. And I’m using the Brontës as an example.

It has taken me a long twelve-step Google search to finally find out thanks to The Penguin Book of Interviews (edited by Christopher Silvester in 1993), that the first text of this kind to be published (in an American newspaper) dates back to 1859. The person interviewed was Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon Church, and the conversation appeared in the New York Herald. Silvester’s volume includes interviews with writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Emile Zola, Oscar Wilde and Henrik Ibsen, just to name a few authors who started writing in the 19th century. As an undergrad, I remember reading with immense pleasure a couple of anthologies gathering together the excellent interviews with writers published by The Paris Review, funded in 1953 by Peter Matthiessen, Harold L. Humes and George Plimpton.

So here is the first point: before 1859, the tools available to build the portrait of the writer, beyond the texts they chose to publish, are tangential. We have pictorial portraits, photos (from the 1830s onwards), impressions written by others, biographies and, here’s a vexing question, private letters. And the memorabilia. But not their voices in answer to our questions.

In the case of the Brontës, poor things, we have the dismal portrait of the three sisters painted by their adored but untalented brother Branwell. The photo believed to depict Charlotte has been revealed to be of someone else. Charlotte was the subject of a pioneering writer’s biography, written by fellow-author Elizabeth Gaskell. This volume, however, is now regarded as a manipulative instrument to present a more palatable image of the author to Victorian readers (even against Charlotte’s own wishes). And then there is the Brontë Parsonage Museum, where you can touch Emily’s bed, among other personal objects.

Obviously, even when portraits of the writer from the past exist, these are confusing objects. The slow speed of pre-20th century cameras required subjects to sit still for a long time, which is why all Victorians look so stern and unsmiling. Victorian photography was a new art and, above all, a new social habit; 150 years before the invention of the selfie, people simply lacked the know-how of self-presentation. See the ridiculous photos of Charles Dickens–a writer very careful of his public image and the first one to market himself as a brand–to understand how far he was from mastering this specific aspect.

In the absence of reliable elements for a clearly focused portrait, then, we use whatever we have at hand, and this is mainly letters, or diaries. Leaving aside the problems attached to the use of private documents which may have nothing to do with the literary craft to study how writers do write, it might well be the case that none have survived. Here’s an example of our difficulties, found in Josephine McDonagh’s 2008 introduction to Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848): “The absence of an autobiographical record makes it difficult to be sure of Anne’s motivations in writing The Tenant, but episodes of her life have led commentators to suppose that not only were some of the characters and events based on her own acquaintance and experiences, but that the novel itself was conceived as a response to troubling family circumstances” (xvii). This exemplifies the biographical phallacy that still dominates research (surprisingly): if you could map the writer’s life down to the most private detail, you would be able to explain his/her writing.

Interviews with living authors, however, reveal that this is not the case, as they have a mysterious something called ‘imagination’ that seems to lead a life of its own. A typical academic reply to writers’ strenuously denying that the biographical approach is correct is that writers themselves do not understand the process of writing. Or, as my PhD supervisor would remind me: “Writers lie all the time”. If, in short, we could interview Anne or her sisters, I’m sure they would be flabbergasted by the amount of speculation poured onto their lives… but they would not necessarily tell us the truth. What a vicious circle.

Here’s an alternative, coming from the same introduction by McDonagh: “Anne Brontë’s immersion in the print culture of her time, and specially her acquaintance with these more ephemeral forms of magazines and albums, may account for some of the stylistic features of the text” (xxxii). Observe the hesitation implicit in ‘may’ and ‘some’… This is the classic philological approach: if we could have access to the complete list of all a writer has read from infancy, then we would eventually be able to explain how his/her style works.

This stance led, as we know, to two apparently incompatible approaches: the intense Russian formalism later borrowed by American New Criticism (from which our close reading practices derive) and Harold Bloom’s idea of the ‘anxiety of influence’, which still respects the presence of the writer but tries to exclude the gossipy biographical approach and focus on authorship. Julia Kristeva cut an important Gordian knot by proposing that since influence cannot be really proven we should speak of intertextuality. This is both an extremely productive idea and a surrender, for it tells us that writers remain impenetrable fortresses better left alone. Just connect the texts with each other.

Let me recap: despite the immense energy poured by countless researchers, the portrait of the Brontë sisters we have today is a poorly assembled collection of blurred lines. Perhaps this is part of their myth and if we had them on television and on YouTube as much as we wished, they would not be the object of so much veneration. Or would they? I’m thinking of how contemporary writers market themselves and beginning to realize that fans would never tire if J.K. Rowling gave daily speeches and interviews.

In neo-Victorian conference I recently attended, there was someone very earnestly speculating whether Charlotte Brontë was actually pretty or not. A letter by her publisher George Smith was quoted, in which he offered a very unflattering description (later partially corrected by his daughter). We may disagree whether we find Rowling pretty or not, but in the age of the selfie it is absolutely frustrating that we cannot even be sure what Charlotte looked like, much less Emily or Anne. You may be thinking that, despite the countless interviews, press articles, documentaries, photos, etc., we’re not really closer to knowing who Rowling is. Our exploration of her work is not closer, either, to revealing how she managed to imagine the world of Harry Potter. Of course, but at least we can ask her whereas in the case of the writers from the past, unless new evidence appears, we are constantly stuck with the same limited, tangential material.

So what should be, as researchers specializing in Literature, do? I don’t know myself and I am beginning to be increasingly perplexed. It is clear to me that our central mission–the faith we profess as professors–is the survival of the texts from one generation to the next. Also, the correction of false impressions: Wuthering Heights used to be considered trash, and now it’s part of the canon. I am personally doing all I can in my classes to vindicate Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Every teacher of the Brontës fiction knows that biographical gossip helps to fix an idea of who these women were in the students’ minds. Yet, I certainly don’t want to discuss with them in class whether Charlotte was pretty; and the realization that Jane Eyre is the expression of sexual frustration regarding her unrequited passion for a married man has very much damaged my pleasure in this novel. Meaning that the more I know about Charlotte, the less I like Jane Eyre

Perhaps, and here’s the rub, the problem is that as teachers and researchers we are bound to fail: even if the best Brontë researcher devoted all his/her energies for the next fifteen years to Tenant and to Anne, this person would still be far from disclosing the mystery of her literary creativity. It’s back to the blurred lines. I don’t like speaking of ‘mystery’, as this makes literary research sound subjective and romantic in the worst possible way. But scientifically speaking, a mystery is that which cannot be explained with the current tools for research. And the ones we have are extremely limited. Even in the case of contemporary writers for, unless we sit by them as they write, we cannot really get a true insight into how writing works. And I see no author tolerating that kind of academic intrusion, not even for the sake of literary glory. For many, interviews even appear to be something they put up with and not something they truly relish…

Having just re-read Anne’s Tenant, with great pleasure, just after reading H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, I am wondering whether we should produce more criticism. We often teach texts or write about them taking for granted that they are good and this is why they are canonical. My fellow teachers and I decided, precisely, to include Tenant in our course on Victorian fiction because it has excellent features but also some problems, deeper than the faults to be found in Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Rather than teach, then, that Anne’s Arthur Huntingdon is based on her brother Branwell’s, we focus on why the friendship between Gilbert and Lawrence is not convincingly narrated. And the challenge of explaining why King Solomon’s Mines is so inferior to Heart of Darkness and, at the same time, so indispensable to understand Conrad appears to be now very exciting. I’m glad we have chosen to teach Haggard.

So, yes: let’s apply a better focus on the texts, let the authors remain blurred, ghostly presences. And enjoy the mystery.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

CULTURAL APPROPRIATION (AND THE MATTER OF SPANISH NEO-VICTORIAN FICTION)

I’m just back from the “I International Seminar on (Neo-)Victorian Studies in Spain”, held in Málaga and organized by Prof. Rosario Arias, leader of the ‘(Neo-)Victorian Studies in Spain Network (VINS)’, of which I am currently a member. I have learned these days that many more Spanish scholars than I assumed are bridging the gaps between Spanish and Anglophone cultures. This is very refreshing and I stand corrected in my pessimistic assessment of the exchange with great pleasure. I have also learned, however, that bridging gaps often reveals other problems that widen the cultural split which I discussed in my previous post. Problems that seem very hard to solve despite the apparent increase in intercultural communication, as they have to do with cultural appropriation.

Although others dealt with this issue, I’ll refer here to two papers and a writer’s presentation. The first paper even carries the word ‘appropriation’ in its title: Begoña Lasa Álvarez, of the Universidade A Coruña, offered a presentation called “From Agustina de Aragón to The Maid of Saragossa: Cultural Appropriation of a Heroine”. Sonia Villegas (Universidad de Huelva) did not directly discuss ‘appropriation’ in her paper “Espido Freire Visits the House of Writing: The Role of Material Traces in Querida Jane, Querida Charlotte (2004)”. Yet, I find this was implicit in Freire’s positioning. Finally, the writer invited to the seminar is young Victoria Álvarez (Salamanca, 1985). She is currently specializing in Neo-Edwardian mystery fiction, which we might call a sub-set of the Neo-Victorian, of which she has published five novels already (see www.victoriaalvarez.es).

Begoña Lasa’s argument was straightforward: a series of British writers borrowed the heroic figure of Agustina de Aragón; using stereotypes connected with the representation of Spanish women (think Mérimée’s Carmen, 1845) and of a variety of female heroes, they progressively transformed her into a heroic fantasy. Furthermore, these British authors made the point of stressing that they had honoured Agustina in a way that was much above what Spaniards could do. In the process, the real Agustina became yet another loss to the truth of History.

As Begoña explained, unfortunately Agustina was connected by Franco’s regime with Spanish fascist patriotism in a way that had little to do with the original Agustina’s efforts to stop the French troops from storming Zaragoza. This is why so many of us have paid so little attention to her figure; I was very much surprised to learn that she was actually Catalan. No matter. While in her thirties (not her twenties) this woman, who may or may not have been pretty (probably not), and who was married to an artillery officer (and had seen what needed to be done), decided to fire a canon against the enemy. This common enough action for a man was magnified into a colossal feat for a woman, which had the downside of obscuring the participation of many other women in battle and in the diverse sieges. Typical patriarchal thinking: choose a woman, claim she is exceptional and pretend no other women are capable of doing like her. Then turn her into myth.

Agustina is only mentioned in passing in Benito Pérez Galdós’s novel Zaragoza, part of the first series of the Episodios Nacionales. Tired of the ‘Artillera’ legend, a character quickly dismisses it as he seeks information about someone else: “Ya, ya tenemos noticia del heroísmo de esa insigne mujer–manifestó D. Roque”. ‘Agustina’ is finally mentioned by name when a shy woman, Manuelilla, is offered a gun, which she does fire, “radiante de satisfacción”. The man who tempts her simply declares, echoing the author: “Si a estas cosas no hay más que tomarlas el gusto. Lo mismo debieran hacer todas las zaragozanas, y de ese modo la Agustina y Casta Álvarez no serían una gloriosa excepción entre las de su sexo”. In short: by the time major Spanish novelist Pérez Galdós undermined (in the 1870s) the heroic exception that Agustina embodied in order to show that many other women had fought the Napoleonic troops, a series of British writers had already taken her from Spanish hands to turn her into a folk hero which only represented their own fantasies of Spanish womanhood. When asked whether these fantasies of exalted passion, dark beauty and rash actions had been finally lost in our global age, Begoña politely answered that she was not sure. I thought of Penelope Cruz–playing Agustina in some silly English-language epic…

Sonia Villegas analyzed in her paper the singular volume by Spanish writer (Laura) Espido Freire, Querida Jane, querida Charlotte: Por la ruta de Jane Austen y las hermanas Brontë (2004). This is partly travel book and partly writers’ biography, and has been advertised as the volume that solves the mystery of why these women authors wrote as they did. The solution comes from a fellow female author and not from academics who, it seems, can never share the same writerly sensibility and sensitivity.

Freire, as Sonia explained, presents herself as an illustrated super-fan with a more refined approach to the material traces left by these celebrity writers, in particular the Brontës. She touches the dresses, the furniture, the books exhibited at the Brontë Museum at Haworth and these objects lead her to understand who her 19th century peers really were. The mention of Emily’s bed was, however, a little too much for me… even though I am guilty of having made a (small) donation to the museum. I asked Sonia privately whether she had found any sentence in the book suggesting that a) Freire aspired to the same kind of fetishistic immortality, or b) Freire lamented that her survival into that kind of literary eternity was not likely. Apparently not, though Sonia granted that, yes, perhaps there is something parasitical in Freire’s volume or similar books. Now imagine the Brontës brought back to life and wondering why so many authors are piggybacking on their success with the excuse of paying them homage.

Espido Freire is, of course, Spanish and this leads me to the third part of today’s post: Victoria Álvarez. I’ll just note before this that the two cases I have mentioned, the appropriation of Agustina de Aragón by the British and of the Austen/Brontë set by Freire, seem to be mirror phenomena: I take your heroine and claim I know her best than you do, and viceversa. There seems to be a draw, then, in this game, but you will see that, oddly, this is not quite the case.

I want to open up here a debate about the appropriation of the British Victorian and Edwardian ages to produce fiction in Spanish. Please, note that Espido Freire’s book is non-fiction. In contrast, the very popular El mapa del tiempo (2008) by Félix J. Palma, followed by El mapa del cielo (2012) and El mapa del caos (2014)–the three of them translated into English–has started a trend that needs to be considered in depth, and that Victoria Álvarez is cultivating.

I started reading Palma’s first volume and gave up after just a few pages because I had the uncomfortable feeling that his novel, set in 1896 London and closely following the work of H.G. Wells, was fiction translated from English. Perhaps I am being unfair to Palma, and also running the risk of sounding censorious, but I wonder what the point of choosing this background is. I assume that he and his literary descendants, like Álvarez, will claim that writers should be free to use their imagination as they please–and who am I to say otherwise? I worry, however, very much at the decision to ignore the Spanish 19th century to focus instead on the British 19th century, simply because while there are plenty of British writers to lend new life to the Victorian past, the relatively few Spanish writers are seemingly choosing to turn their backs on Spain. And I don’t think that British writers will suddenly return the favour and start fantasizing about our 19th century.

The British, as we all know, excel at selling their past and their heritage worldwide–in the Málaga conference Mark Llewellyn noted that the biggest British export to China in recent years has been Downtown Abbey… We, here in Spain, are not immune to the charms of British fiction from the Victorian and Edwardian periods, as I know first-hand very well. But, from what I have seen these days, I think that the Spanish specialists in English Studies are among the only Spaniards aware of a very simple truth: this is not our culture.

It feels like our culture, in the same way that 20th century and current American culture does, because its products have colonized our cultural market. Also, because many of us can access them in English or enjoy the experience of travelling regularly to anglophone areas. Nonetheless, when I heard Victoria Álvarez tell us about her problems with the many anglicisms (or English borrowings) in her prose, because she reads all the time in English, I worried. Unless she ends up writing in English, she happens to be a Spanish writer and she should be concerned with mastering the language which is her artistic tool. As for the use of Victorian and Edwardian times in her fiction, although she was clear about her trying to stick to a plausible, well-researched view of them, the risk of her using second-hand clichés is still enormous. Read a summary of Palma’s books and you will also see that name-dropping is essential in his novels. So, should Victoria Álvarez cease publishing her peculiar neo-Edwardian fiction in Spanish? No, of course not. It’s her choice and she has many readers, it seems. My aim is not, as I have said, censorship but raising our collective awareness as Spanish readers about why we need to fantasize about other people’s cultures. And appropriate them.

I am finally reconciled with the TV series El Ministerio del Tiempo, as it is, precisely, fulfilling the much needed task of turning local Spanish history into material for (fantasy) fiction. In one of the conference talks there was a scene from an episode on real-life Joaquín Argamasilla, who claimed to have x-ray vision but was exposed as a fraud by Harry Houdini. This is, I believe, a most fruitful strategy: make Spanish personages known, and bring international personalities into the tale if this requires it.

The British have found a very rich treasure in their past for their fiction and this is what we need to do: explore our own and claim it. It seems a better kind of appropriation.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO DESCRIPTION? (WITH A STORY ABOUT COGNITIVE POETICS)

I keep on telling my students that I very much want to supervise research on the diminishing use of description in contemporary fiction but nobody is taking the hint–or they do, but then they panic thinking of the technical difficulties a dissertation would entail. So here is more bait, see if anyone bites…

I don’t seem to have addressed here before directly the matter of description, although it is one of my favourite bugbears as a reader. I have mentioned often, I believe, my habit of casting actors as the characters of the fiction I read, as I am increasingly desperate that authors are abandoning description. I always have, besides, serious problems to imagine space at a reasonable scale, which is why reading stage directions is always a nightmare for me (happily Shakespeare didn’t use them…); also, why reading space opera is such a challenge…

So, now and then, I test the waters and ask my students whether they pay attention to how they visualize as they read, hoping perhaps that someone will show me a trick I don’t know. I see that they’re keen to discuss this issue but I have never found a proper way to address it in class. I don’t see myself teaching an elective course on description, either; it sounds a bit weird even to me.

So, as I often do in class whenever the bugbear overpowers me, I’ll cite Dickens. Here’s a favourite Dickensian description, that of 11-year-old Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, in this scene asking Oliver himself, then wandering lonely and forlorn on the London road, what is the matter with him:

“The boy who addressed this inquiry to the young wayfarer, was about his own age: but one of the queerest looking boys that Oliver had even seen. He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough; and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see; but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man. He was short of his age: with rather bow-legs, and little, sharp, ugly eyes. His hat was stuck on the top of his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment—and would have done so, very often, if the wearer had not had a knack of every now and then giving his head a sudden twitch, which brought it back to its old place again. He wore a man’s coat, which reached nearly to his heels. He had turned the cuffs back, half-way up his arm, to get his hands out of the sleeves: apparently with the ultimate view of thrusting them into the pockets of his corduroy trousers; for there he kept them. He was, altogether, as roistering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in the bluchers.
‘Hullo, my covey! What’s the row?’ said this strange young gentleman to Oliver.”

The ‘strange young gentleman’ is rendered in a most vivid fashion, and as a reader I thank Dickens for helping me to activate my mental theatre in that efficient way. I do see and hear the Dodger, as I see and hear the rest of his characters.

Funnily, Dickens always published his fiction accompanied by illustrations (George Cruikshank produced 24 for Oliver Twist), which might even seem redundant in view of his florid descriptions. Illustration is today mostly confined to children’s literature though I see no reason why an adult should not enjoy it; at least I very much enjoyed recently the version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (is this YA?) illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell. I am, however, sadly ignorant of when and why illustration was abandoned in books for adults. Christopher Howse suggests that after peaking with Sidney Paget’s work for the Sherlock Holmes stories (in 1891 for Strand Magazine), “illustrations for adult books (until the quite separate development of graphic novels) sank into the weedy shallows of the pulp fiction market” (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/children_sbookreviews/10465326/Why-dont-books-for-grown-ups-have-illustrations-any-more.html). In Norman Spinrad’s wickedly funny The Iron Dream (1972) budding artist Adolf Hitler never becomes the tyrant that terrorized the world but a second-rate pulp fiction illustrator getting a meagre living in California…

But I digress. I once heard Kazuo Ishiguro say that description has been diminishing in contemporary fiction because of the impact of cinema, as writers trust readers to supply their own images with just minimalist hints. I’m not sure, however, whether writers realize how annoying the job we have been entrusted with is. I am currently reading the sixteenth novel in the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian and I am still struggling to imagine his two protagonists with the clarity which Dickens provided for even his most minor characters. I know that Jack Aubrey has long blond hair and blue eyes, that he’s tall (but not how tall) and I learned yesterday that he’s verging on the obese as he weighs almost 17 stones (that’s 108 kilos). I know that his once handsome face and well-shaped body are now criss-crossed by a variety of scars after decades fighting the French and other assorted enemies. Yet I’m awfully frustrated that I don’t ‘see’ him as I ‘see’ the Artful Dodger. I checked Deviant Art and I found what I suspected: most illustrations are contaminated by the image of actor Russell Crowe in the film adaptation, Master and Commander. I tried to resist this by casting, following another reader’s suggestion, Chris Hemsworth as Jack (and Daniel Brühl rather than Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin). By the sixteenth volume, however, Jack is past forty and a very bulky man and, so, his face constantly shifts from Hemsworth’s to Crowe’s as I read, while I miserably fail to control my mental theatre. Ironically, if you know the lingo, O’Brian offers a brutal amount of information about any object that can be seen on Jack’s ships…

A student told me yesterday that she had tried the experiment of reading the same character description with a friend (in a contemporary novel). The results were completely different and she was wondering why this was so and whether, in the end, description really helps. She’s got a point, of course. Still, it does help to know that Harry Potter’s eyes are bright green (even though they’re blue in the films) and Voldemort’s red (green in the films…). Perhaps, in view of how much the adaptations have pleased readers, we might claim that Rowling and certainly J.R.R. Tolkien are powerful describers of place and character, no matter how different their post-Dickensian styles are (succinct in Rowling’s case, prolix in Tolkien’s). This is, I insist, a PhD dissertation waiting to be written.

The last time I found extremely detailed character descriptions in a novel this was in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991). The protagonist and narrator Patrick Bateman obsesses about what everyone is wearing, seeing people through the lenses of the brands they sport. This, of course, is Ellis’ ironic comment on 1980s avid consumerist society but I wonder to what extent this is also a critique of character description per se as old-fashioned and even in bad taste. Yes, I’m arguing that description has been progressively abandoned because writers find it a) distasteful, b) a drag to write, c) manipulative of readers’ reactions, d) to sum up, bad writing. You should check now whether poorly written fiction carries more description than the more ambitious variety–and here I have just recalled how prejudiced I am against the fiction produced by writers with MAs in Creative Writing precisely because it overdoes description. I mean, however, superfluous description of detail such as the colours of every single flower in a vase, rather than the (for me) necessary details that present the features of a character’s face and body.

As serendipity will have it, I read yesterday a delicious short story by Colombian writer Juan Alberto Conde, “Parra en la Holocubierta” (in Visiones 2015, https://lektu.com/l/aefcft/visiones-2015/5443). He narrates the efforts of a team of specialists in ‘cognitive poetics’ to develop a device that allows readers to record what they imagine as they read. After audiobooks, here come holobooks… Conde very wittily suggests that if we could find a very proficient ‘imaginer’ of what writers describe, like his protagonist Parra, a whole new field of business would bloom around literature. If audiobooks allow adults to indulge in the childlike pleasure of having stories narrated to them, then holobooks appeal to our nostalgia for illustration.

Or, rather, they reveal the hidden truth about contemporary fiction: its reluctance to describe is leaving readers in need of visual interpreters, whether they are film adapters or… holobook readers. And then they say that science-fiction is mere escapism…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

PRESENTISM: WHY THE PAST DOES NOT EXIST FOR YOUNG READERS

Marking the essays on Victorian Literature by my second-year students I’m puzzled by three which read the corresponding literary texts they analyze in terms of whether they are adequate for the present. One, in particular, focuses the paper almost entirely on why a recent film adaptation of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is more apt for our times than the ‘faulty’ original text. I explain in a lengthy note why this approach is biased, noting that adaptations are particular readings of texts and not intended to be their replacements. Somehow or other, I recall the word ‘presentism’ which, I’m sure, I have read in some newspaper article I now forget about the current generation of students.

To my further puzzlement, Wikipedia informs me that ‘presentism’ is not just a feature of our undergrads’ worldview but, attention, a philosophical current. According to its proponents, “events and entities that are wholly past or wholly future do not exist at all”; presentism “contrasts with eternalism and the growing block theory of time”, currents which do defend the existence of past events and entities. I’m flabbergasted. Or possibly very poorly informed, for the consequence of this aberration is the denial of History and, hence, of tragedies like the Holocaust and any dictatorship you can thinks of.

When Hayden White argued back in 1973 that History is an agreed upon fiction (or a consensual hallucination, borrowing Willian Gibson’s definition of hyperspace), he didn’t mean that certain horrific events could be denied or were not ‘true’. He meant that the way we narrate History is subjective and interested. Hence, in a second, more rational sense, in literary and historical analysis, “presentism is the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past”. It seems that this word, first cited “in its historiographic sense” in 1916 according to the OED, may be dated back to the 1870s. This concept or label is behind the kind of trick by which historians with certain political interests read the past according to a supposed teleological drive that culminates in the present. You may think of Hitler’s dream of building a Third Reich as one of the most disastrous applications of this type of presentism.

In the papers that so puzzled me, however, presentism was not “the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past”, not even in the historiographic version. It was, rather, a belief that the past can be discarded because it does not measure up to the present in any sense. Of course, I am exaggerating the presence of this trend among my students’ papers because I want to insist here on a point I have been struggling to make throughout the course: We all belong in a certain historical time and this is like any other time–everyone, therefore, needs to understand not only the nature of other historical periods but also that our own period will sooner or later be the past. A quaint one.

We may gaze at our navels thinking that all that came before us, Victorian Literature included, was a) important only because it led to us or b) irrelevant because we are all that matters on Earth. In this way, however, we limit very much our vision. And our empathy. I think you can only read well the Literature of the past if you do the mental exercise of imagining what life would be like for you if you lived at that time. This always reminds me of actors’ saying that they only understand characters alive in other periods when they wear the right costumes. I am always joking, hence, that I need to teach Victorian Literature wearing the appropriate corset and crinoline–actually changing fashions as I move from the 1830s to the 1890s. I have proposed to my colleagues that once a year we celebrate the periods we teach in this way. So far the proposal has met with great theoretical acceptance which has not translated into practice… Since my colleague Joan Curbet seems certainly very keen on donning Medieval cloak, tunic, trousers, and leggings I have not lost hope…

I don’t know what this is like for other people, as it not a subject I have ever discussed with anyone, but although I had excellent History teachers in secondary school, it was only when I became an undergrad that I became fully aware of my historical placement. To be honest, my young self was a bit disappointed to understand that the 1980s were not the culmination of world History, perhaps an impression enhanced by Spanish Transition and the death throes of the then still raging Cold War. Even Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of History had arrived in 1989 when the Berlin Wall collapsed.

So, imagine my disorientation when I finally did see that my generation is just one among many in the History of the world, perhaps only particularly gifted at complicating matters for everyone else, from the way we cannot stop the destruction of Earth to the way we have generalized the use of the digital technologies. The realisation of one’s very modest place in the universe is, however, extremely liberating because it enables you to finally open up to other times and places, as I say. I’m not thinking here of the idiotic fantasy of imagining yourself alive in other times: people always imagine being in Pharaoh’s court as a courtier but not being an abused Egyptian slave. Also, being a woman, only the future is preferable for me. I mean the kind of liberation that allows you to read the Literature of the past without being judgemental and finding fault with it all the time because it is old-fashioned.

The author of the paper worrying me is a very sweet young man now on the verge of losing the presentism which, as I’m arguing, affects anyone young of any generation. He is in this sense like anyone else, as I could see when I tried to rationalize in class what I am explaining here. The students looked at me very much at a loss about what I was talking about, or perhaps it was beginning to dawn on them that growing up entails precisely this, the process of abandoning the presentist cocoon to see yourself as just an individual among many others in the History of the world.

This humility, however, is increasingly harder to grasp in view of the narcissistic attitude encouraged by those who run the social media and to which the digital natives have taken with such gusto. The Sillicon Valley white male patriarchs growing rich at the expense of the general loss of privacy of the post 1990 generations have pounced on the natural narcissism of teenagers. They want to convince everyone young that they need to be different and special and, thus, that they must invest much effort in keeping their personal accounts lively and interesting. Encouraged to think that they are the centre of the world, at least to themselves, young people face a harder time accepting that they’re not and thus shedding their presentism. Said like the Facebook-less, Twitter-incompetent, middle-aged woman I am…

Back to Victorian Literature, I wonder whether presentism of the kind I have described here is the root of the problem in relation to how little students read. Logically, if you believe that the past is totally irrelevant or just a prelude to your own time, it’s much harder to engage with its Literature. If I think about it, perhaps I am guilty myself of an extended form of presentism by which I’m interested in anything from 1800 onwards because unconsciously I have decided that my own historical time are the last 200 odd years. I certainly find it much harder to feel attracted by pre-1800 texts, Shakespeare excluded. Yet, I felt great pleasure when reading 16th, 17th and 18th century texts at my teachers’ request (or invitation). The same pleasure that, I hope, my own students feel when reading the Victorian texts–at least, those students who do read them.

I’ll think again of the dress-in-the-costume-of-your-period teaching day… students included!

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE WRITER’S VIEW ON STYLE: A PASSAGE BY R.L. STEVENSON

I was planning to write a post today on what I have seen and heard in the recent XXXIX AEDEAN conference (11-13 last week) but this needs a bit of careful thinking I have no time for today. Unexpectedly–because it often happens that I end up writing about something that I never thought I would consider–I have woken up with this urge to write about R.L. Stevenson. I have already written plenty about the text by him which I teach every year, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but today I’m dealing with something quite different: the article “A Note on Realism” (1883, Magazine of Art), included in the volume Essays in the Art of Writing, which you can download from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevenson/robert_louis/s848aw/index.html.

This is a passage I have often used in class, as I did yesterday (forgive the long quotation):

Style is the invariable mark of any master; and for the student who does not aspire so high as to be numbered with the giants, it is still the one quality in which he may improve himself at will. Passion, wisdom, creative force, the power of mystery or colour, are allotted in the hour of birth, and can be neither learned nor simulated. But the just and dexterous use of what qualities we have, the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end—these, which taken together constitute technical perfection, are to some degree within the reach of industry and intellectual courage. What to put in and what to leave out; whether some particular fact be organically necessary or purely ornamental; whether, if it be purely ornamental, it may not weaken or obscure the general design; and finally, whether, if we decide to use it, we should do so grossly and notably, or in some conventional disguise: are questions of plastic style continually rearising. And the sphinx that patrols the highways of executive art has no more unanswerable riddle to propound.

To begin with, I find it a great pleasure to read texts about the craft of writing penned by the authors themselves. I would make it compulsory for all kinds of literary work to carry a writer’s comment in the style of the director’s comments on the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of films. Interviews would also do. I miss very much the many presentations by writers the Barcelona British Council used to offer, because they gave me the chance not only to collect autographed books but to hear authors discuss in person the tricks and challenges of their trade. At one point I asked the British Council whether we could edit a volume with the transcriptions of these presentations but the task was so gigantic that we soon abandoned the idea. I was at the time fascinated by the series of volumes offering interviews with major writers published by the Paris Review (now online https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews). I still am.

Anyway, back to Stevenson. Consider what he says: talent (i.e. “passion, wisdom, creative force, the power of mystery or colour”) is innate but style, the “mark of any master” can be learned and even “improved at will”. He speaks next of working on “the just and dexterous use of what qualities we have” to reach “technical perfection” which is, in his view, “to some degree within the reach of industry and intellectual courage”. I may be misreading but my impression is that Stevenson is here over-optimistic in the sense that, correct me if I’m wrong, but ‘industry’ and ‘intellectual courage’ also depend on inborn qualities.

Let me rephrase this: if a writer is born with talent that amounts to 80% of what is required to become a ‘master/mistress’, the 20% that depends on hard work will also depend on their having the required innate capacities to make the best of their talent. Inborn talent + limited ability to develop style = not a master/mistress (or an oxymoron). And the other way round: if a writer is born with a 20% talent for producing good writing, there is no way s/he can ‘learn’ the remaining 80%, as acquiring skills cannot compensate for limited innate talent. Or, as Stephen King argues, creative writing courses can help only if you already have a natural talent; ergo, only those with a natural talent are in a position to complement it with the ‘industry’ required to polish it into producing outstanding writing.

Stevenson does not seem to think that there is a direct link between the inborn talent and the subsequent industry (unless I misunderstand him) because he apparently thinks that the hard work he does on his texts should have similar results for all writers, which is not the case. His style is not a ‘natural’ product in the sense that, as I taught my students yesterday, he wrote Jekyll and Hyde in a six-day fever but spent then six weeks re-writing the text. This re-writing, the search for style and ‘technical perfection’ which he describes in the passage is what makes the work outstanding–both, I’ll insist, depend on inborn abilities. The ability to reach ‘technical perfection’ can be improved but not learned from scratch and much less in the absence of inborn talent. Now, what exactly causes some individuals to be naturally inclined to producing good writing is a mystery. Perhaps one day scientists will discover that it is a mutation.

The features that Stevenson describes as contributing to ‘technical perfection’ will surely remind you of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1842) and his defence of “the unity of effect or impression” (he’s actually discussing poetry). “The true critic”, he writes in defence of the short story, “will but demand that the design intended be accomplished, to the fullest extent, by the means most advantageously applicable”. This is what Stevenson seems to bear in mind when he writes that ‘technical perfection’ consists of “the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end”.

This was useful for me to remind students that Victorian writers who serialized their work for as long as it could find an audience (Charles Dickens) or those forced to fill in a three-decker (Anne Brontë) could not afford the luxury of trimming their texts as both Poe and Stevenson recommend. It seems then that both the short story and the novella (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one) clashed with the novel in this sense until the one-volume novel became the norm (in 1894, when Mudie’s and Smith’s refused to distribute three-deckers). The famous designers’ rule that ‘less is more’ (according to Wikipedia adopted in 1947 by minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe but first found in Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto” of 1855) also applies, then, to Literature. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is, in that sense, an absolute masterpiece–whereas the other novella I teach, Heart of Darkness, would be by Stevenson’s standards in need of some pruning for its verbal flamboyance.

I agree wholeheartedly that trimming and pruning are essential tools for good writing–no matter how frustrated I feel every time I am asked to reduce my articles… The mystery, then, is why the current dominant trend in fiction writing is not the pared-down text that Ian McEwan is so fond of but the sprawling series. I wonder what Stevenson would think of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, now reaching its sixth volume and nineteenth year as I do wonder how Martin values style…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

GOING BACK WITH ALICE TO CHILDHOOD (WITHIN LIMITS)

Next week I am returning to Wonderland once again, this time to introduce the students in my Victorian Literature class to Carroll’s classic. To be honest, I’m not completely sure that I like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) in the same way I like, for instance, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911). I’m truly sorry I will never get the chance to teach Burnett’s classic, as it is not Victorian and we don’t teach children’s Literature. In contrast, though I am happy indeed that I can teach Carroll, I am concerned by the many difficulties this involves.

I own a Penguin Classics edition which also includes Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). Both this text and Alice are accompanied by John Tenniel’s perfect illustrations, which is quite a nice touch considering this is an adult edition. I realize that the most popular image of the girl Alice, with her famous head-band (now known as an Alice band) and her pretty striped tights comes from Looking-Glass, which is a bit confusing. Actually, every time I read the two texts I end up confused about what goes in which, possibly a sign that they work better as a single unit rather than as book and its sequel.

This Penguin edition, I was trying to say, is a proper academic version and, as such, it is accompanied by a multitude of notes. These notes reveal that much of the nonsense of Carroll’s twin texts has to do with his relentless mockery of other texts, mainly poems, both for adults and children. It seems, then, that much of the humour appreciated by original audiences has to do with topical references lost to contemporary readers. I can imagine the glee of many child readers when offered very rude, impolite re-writings of poems and songs they may not have enjoyed at all. Yet, I constantly have the feeling that I am missing much that not even the original texts parodied by Carroll and included in my edition can make up for.

Alice was a text improvised orally by Carroll, as he had improvised many others, in a famous golden afternoon spent in the river with the three Liddell sisters. The author wrote it down accompanied by his own illustrations to offer it as a Christmas present to his beloved Alice Liddell, calling it then Alice’s Adventures Underground. Little by little, he rewrote it as the text universally known today, choosing Tenniel to offer a more professional rendering of his amateurish illustrations. The process, as you can see, starts with an adult improvising a tale for the amusement of three little girls whom he knew very well; the mechanisms on which the humour of the events in the plot depend must, then, connect closely with the narrative strategies that, as he knew, would trigger the girls’ pleasure. If you have a child in your family, or remember your own childhood, you will agree with me that there is nothing more delicious than making them giggle, particularly by appealing to shared, secret jokes. And that is what Alice appears to be in my view: a text intended for restricted consumption by three specific girls full of private jokes that possibly only they could decode.

I am not saying that Alice is unreadable but whenever I read it, I do feel very much as Alice does when the Mad Hatter tells her that his watch tells the year: “I don’t quite understand you. What you said had no sort of meaning in it and yet it was certainly English.” The whole text by Carroll is obviously in English but demands from the reader an ability to not-understand but still enjoy oneself that possibly only children have (or readers or James Joyce…). One thing that puzzles me tremendously is how contemporary cartoons for kids appeal to that kind of pleasure–watching an episode of Gumball, which I love for its very many allusions and clever scripts, I realized that my six-year-old niece could not possibly understand it all, as she granted. Yet, she had chosen it, claiming it was her favourite (it’s ‘The Fridge’). I’m sure, then, that Carroll’s genius consisted of getting absolutely right what would tickle a Victorian child–though, and here’s the root of my problem, there is no secondary level in Alice meant to appeal to an adult as there is in Gumball.

This means, if you follow me, that the ideal teacher and academic critic of both Alice and Through the Looking-glass should be a child. Unfortunately, I am not one, nor are my students, hence my concern. Take any passage from either book and you will see, as you pile different meanings overt and covert on it, that the whole edifice of literary interpretation comes crashing down as… nonsense. It is often said that Carroll plays with logic (he was a logician by training and profession) and that his nonsense is based on perverting its rules. I quite disagree. I think that Alice works because it generates a logic of its own and it has become a universal classic because beyond the actual comprehension of what is going on in the book readers are ensnared by it. I am amazed to see how many bits of Alice resonate in many other texts of all kinds and yet how different the are allusions to, say, the allusions made to Shakespeare’s plays. Why is “off with his head” so funny to quote?

There is something else I am possibly missing, like any other reader. Often, a book blossoms into a favourite among its target readers because it smashes its predecessors. I am not familiar with children’s fiction in the Victorian age but I’m sure that both traditional fairy tales and contemporary stories addressed to children depended too much on teaching morality to their little readers. Alice must have felt like a breath of pure air as, if it has anything to teach at all, this is pleasure–particularly to little girls who, unlike boys, were never offered adventure. Curioser and curioser…

Another way to try to make (adult) sense of Alice and Looking-glass is by recalling that both are dreams and, as such, they are full of incongruous details and happenings. The last part of each book, when the sleeper finally awakes, has Alice realize that noises and other background factors (like a kitten) have been transformed in her dream into strange event triggers and characters. This, I think (sorry Freud!) is how dreams work: their often bizarre plots are nonsense, yet somehow connect with the events of the previous day. Alice was written before Freud became a popular household name and thus Carroll could have no notion that the subconscious of her girl protagonist was shaping her dream. I am here supposing that he told himself ‘this is what a vivacious little girl like Alice Liddell would dream’.

I’ll end by saying that even so, Carroll’s insight into the child’s mind is limited by his condition as an adult–and necessarily so, as Jacqueline Rose and many other specialists in children’s Literature have pointed out. Thinking of the very odd questions my little nice asks me (the last one was ‘do you go to prison if you cross when the red light is on?’) I believe that we would have a very strange view of the world if we could get into a child’s mind only for an instant. Perhaps for them every day is a bizarre adventure in wonderland, hence the popularity of Carroll’s book.

Um, I would give anything right now to be able to re-read the book as a child of 7, Alice’s age… Too late…


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TEACHING VICTORIAN ROMANCE IN THE AGE OF TINDER

Tinder is not only easily combustible material but also the name of a very popular dating app, launched in 2012. Its use involves swiping photographs of possible matches on your cell phone: right for those you like, left for those you don’t. If someone swipes you back, then you can text each other, set up a date, etc. In an inspired feat of social engineering and personal psychology, Tinder does not communicate to you the rejections. The right-hand swipes, on the contrary, are duly noted which, I’m sure, must be a great ego-booster.

The rational behind this dating system is not only the classic chance to pre-select a date companion, already provided by any dating service, but the ease with which it can lead to a face-to-face meeting, as it also based on geo-location systems (you can see which Tinder users are close-by). As of today, Wikipedia informs, Tinder processes one billion swipes a day with twelve million matches–the actual figure for dates is unknown, but the phrase ‘Tinder date’ has already entered English. 50 million people all over the world use the service in 30 languages.

Why am I interested? Well, I am not. What called my attention was the article by Nancy Jo Sales for Vanity Fair, “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse” (https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/08/tinder-hook-up-culture-end-of-dating). So much so that I have decided to set my teaching next autumn of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) against it as background to discuss how human mating rituals have altered (recently). My point is that for my students to understand a novel from the ‘remote’ Victorian past first they need to be made aware of how the debate on similar topics stands today. Also, I need to explain to them that romantic fiction about love must operate within the personal, social and legal constraints of its time. Hence, I need to test what they know about those applying to their own generation. First, then, here are some points of Sales’ lengthy article–a piece which made me feel positively Victorian if not Jurassic.

Sales does not clarify how compulsory having a Tinder account is in the twenty something American urban middle-class culture she explores (Manhattan, basically). Reading her piece I got the impression that not having an account in this or similar dating services is little short of a social aberration, rather than a personal choice. She, subtly but firmly, exposes the persistence of the double sexual standard despite the apparent growth of sexual freedom (for this what Tinder is for–getting sex partners).

Although, obviously, hetero men could not get hetero girls to have sex with them via a Tinder ‘come on’ unless the girls were willing, the picture Sales draws is one in which men get all the (promiscuous) fun and the girls get constantly frustrated because a) sex does not lead to regular dates, much less a relationship and b) in the end the endless succession of lovers is unable to provide them with orgasms. Remember that in the Victorian texts I teach couples get engaged without even exchanging a first kiss (and in the girls’ case it is often the first kiss). Now try to make sense of this to the kids born in the mid 1990s.

Before I ramble on… Here are a few selections from Sales juicy report:
*a male Tinder user explains he’s organizing several dates at the same time as “There’s always something better” (call that the channel-hopping effect)
*the same guy adds that “You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day—the sample size is so much larger”. He aims at sleeping with 100 ‘Tinderella’ girls in a year. Hot ones.
*this serial Romeo further explains that although he clearly announces he is not into relationships, most girls accept having sex “expecting to turn the tables” (he might also be kidding himself rather than admit that girls see him mostly as a disposable sex toy)
*average texts from guys (i.e. total strangers) often include unsolicited photos of their genitalia or explicit phrasing such as ‘Wanna fuck?’ or ‘Come over and sit on my face’. And worse. Girls also send pics, boys claim, but mainly of breasts and bottoms, not vaginas.
*Tinder users highlight the similarity of the service with ordering food or shopping online. Or having a hobby. Or meeting for sport.
*the overall impression is that today men have the power to decide whether a one-night stand (or a one-hour stand…) can develop into a relationship, whereas women have the power to grant men sex (isn’t this old as the hills?)
*a college girl explains that for her generation the anxiety about intimacy comes from having “grown up on social media,” so “we don’t know how to talk to each other face-to-face”. Not even in bed.
*very restrictive dating rules have turned romance into “a contest to see who cares less, and guys win a lot at caring less”; nobody wants to appear to suffer for love.
*not only is the double standard real and inalterable; a guy claims he does not want to be in a relationship because “You can’t be selfish in a relationship” (his italics)
*afraid of giving girls the wrong idea, guys tend to be quite insensitive; a girl recalls a lover using Tinder while she dressed up after sex… Men are not, Sales writes, “inspired to be polite”.
*as a girl points out, despite the aloofness, “Some people still catch feelings in hook-up culture”–as if they were a disease.

Several caveats here:
*Sales does not take into account how Tinder works in different cultures and neglects to see the identity factors conditioning her informers.
*Second, as a man told me, if girls feel uncomfortable with any point of the Tinder-date process they just need to refrain from using the service, which, let’s recall, is not compulsory.
*Apps like these, as the internet did in the early 1990s, have opened up the potential number of sexual and romantic partners, yet most people still marry in fairly conventional ways and try to raise families.
*Neither the idea (for hetero women) that you need to sleep first with a guy or with many before you find love is new; it’s been around for decades now.
*As for hetero men, they seem to be imitating dating models typical of gay culture whereas a good number of gay men are vindicating monogamy (serial or otherwise) thanks to the legalisation of gay marriage.

In the end it’s the old story: men try to get as much sex as the personal, social and legal constrains allow while women are divided into those who want to follow genuinely a similar inclination, those who tells themselves they do but actually don’t, and the post-Victorian ones who value long-lasting romantic intimacy above sex. I’m not saying that this third vital stance is not attractive to many men. And I have not said a word about the bodily fascism of the whole idea of app or online dating.

A few years ago a group of eight Californian girls who enrolled in one of my classes, all beautiful and intelligent young women, told me that dating was over–and this was long before I-Phone and Tinder. Men, they complained, get too much sex and, hence, they make no effort to be in a real relationship. They were truly upset by this. All this leads me to wonder whether, unlike what Victorian novels suggest, men and women like each other at all. It seems that given the chance and at least until they decide to form a family, current young men and women are using each other mutually for sex but without true enjoyment in each other. The taboos on sex that the Victorians suffered have this advantage: you need to talk in order to communicate. Victorian couples (and many others more recently) might spend years this way in long engagements which possibly explains, to a certain extent, why sex mattered less to them than to us (this IS a sweeping statement, I know).

In all this I am commenting on here, what irks me most is men’s (alleged) aloofness. The guy using Tinder while still in the same bedroom with his new lover… Ugh… If, as it seems, misogyny is the basis of the ‘hook-up’ system then there can be no real progress–and no real fun no matter how many lovers a girl gets. And the other way round: I have no doubt that Anne Brontë’s hero Gilbert is erotically incensed to despair by Helen because she is not sexually available. Ah, the Victorians and their erotic unavailability… how hard they are to explain in the age of Tinder.

PS (added 13 September 2015). Here’s a very interesting piece with a man’s view of the article (judge for yourself what kind of man):
https://verilymag.com/2015/08/dating-apocalypse-hookups-casual-sex-modern-relationships-dating-tinder-commitment

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/