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/

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/.

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/

LEARNING TO BE LESS AFRAID OF THE NARRATOR…

This post is, particularly, for our second-year Victorian Literature students who must be this week hurrying up to finish their paper proposals and thus meet the 18th November deadline. They have been asked to write a paper (1,500 words with three secondary sources) on the narrator(s) in either Oliver Twist or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I know from experience that this is for them quite a difficult task as understanding the role of the narrator presents many problems at this stage of their Literary education.

This is because too often fiction is taught as if only the plot and the diverse themes each text deals with mattered, that is, as if how the text in question is built mattered less (or nothing). This is by no means the case. Actually, learning how s story is narrated is a top priority for any aspiring writer and it should be similarly important for university-trained readers.

I’m going to do something a bit odd here, basically recycle my article “The Narrator as Threshold Concept: Comparing Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the English Working Classes in 1844” (in Reading Between the Lines: Discussing Narration in the Literature Class, eds. A. Monnickendam, D. Owen and C. Pividori, 2013 –see my website for the complete text). This article describes the experiment I ran last year by which I invited my previous Victorian Literature students to become aware of the narrator’s role comparing not two novels but a novel and an essay. It worked nicely but not without contradictions, as I ended up developing a set of exercises that I have finally not used again, afraid that they were too ‘secondary school.’

Anyway, as I explained in the introductory segment, Jan Meyer and Ray Land have changed the face of higher education pedagogy by developing their ‘Threshold Theory.’ Their idea is that students necessarily encounter ‘threshold concepts,’ that is, portals that open “a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” (2003: 2). They only mention ‘signification’ (2003: 3) and ‘irony’ (2005: 374) as threshold concepts in Literature.

Gina Wisker offers a longer list (2008: 13), including the social context and construction of texts and language, intertextuality, the reading process and critical literacy, representation and signification, ideology, and enquiry and research. Together with Gillian Robinson, she explains that Literature students too often believe that “art is the copy of the real world” (2009: 323). If you put two and two together, you can easily see that a major threshold concept students need to grasp is the narrator’s role as the lynchpin around which art (=Literature) offers a particular representation of the real world. Funny how that is not included in Wisker’s list, which does include much more sophisticated items –or maybe that’s why. We tend to overlook the obvious.

Students were quick to get the idea that the person called Charles Dickens is a much more complex entity than the author Charles Dickens, and also to understand that the narrator in Oliver Twist is a mask (or series of) that author-Dickens assumes. In Brontë’s case it is perhaps easier to understand that the narrator is not the author, much less the real Anne Brontë, as she chose to narrate The Tenant of Wildfell Hall through two fictional characters: a man (Gilbert) and a woman (Helen). So, last year we got a very nice crop of papers dealing with the narrator, although it took a while to refine the proposals into workable, adequate foundations. I have checked the post I wrote back in February: only 6 out of 48 papers were a fail. Good!

Now we’re back to square one, logically, as classes are new no matter how old the experience of the teacher is. I got this question: can I discuss motherhood in Brontë’s novel? No –you can discuss how motherhood affects Helen as a narrator in the later part of her diary. Or: can I discuss alcohol in Brontë’s novel? No –you can discuss how fear of alcoholism conditions the opinions voiced by the female narrator, Helen. In Dickens’s case, you may contradict Karin Lesnik-Oberstein’s theory that this is the narrator’s tale (and not Oliver’s), perhaps explain that narrator-Dickens seems to be a variety of narrators in this text and not a unified construction (hence the inconsistency between sentimentality and the harsh social critique). And so on…

Students’ difficulties are complicated to manage, as one feels tempted to change tack, abandon the idea of the narrator and go back to the more habitual approach. Oh, yes, let’s discuss motherhood, alcoholism, the workhouse, the justice system. Yet, those very same difficulties seem to confirm that it’s in matters like this (yes, the narrator’s role or any other ‘threshold concept’) that students need to work. And teachers, indeed.

I miss more and more a subject which teaches us all the basics of storytelling from a writer’s perspective –not necessarily creative writing, or literary theory (narratology included). I mean, rather, a practical subject that would put students and teachers before the blank page and forced us to make the authorial decisions that result in this or that narrator. Wishful thinking, of course, given the rigidity of our degree structures.

My sources:
Meyer, Jan and Land, Ray 2003: ‘Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines’. Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses, https://www.tla.ed.ac.uk/etl/docs/ETLreport4.pdf
——— 2005: ‘Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (2): Epistemological Considerations and a Conceptual Framework for Teaching and Learning’. Higher Education 49: 373-388.
Wisker, Gina August 2008: ‘Connotations and Conjunctions: Threshold Concepts, Curriculum Development, and the Cohesion of English Studies’ (report). The Higher Education Academy: English Subject Centre, https://www.english.heacademy.ac.uk/explore/projects/archive/general/gen2.php
——— & Gillian Robinson 2009: ‘Encouraging Postgraduate Students of Literature and Art to Cross Conceptual Thresholds’. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 46:3: 317- 330.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them first for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. If you like my blog, you can subscribe using the RSS feed (right-hand column, below Blogroll.) You’ll get an email message for every new post. VISIT MY WEB: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

RE-READING: THE BOTTOMLESS PIT

As I age I understand less and less the mechanism by which some stories are instantly embedded in our brains and other pass through leaving no trace. I keep lists of the books that I read and the films that I see like Japanese tourists who take photos of everything to fix the memories of their sightseeing. I imagine that, as happens to me, they must be often mystified looking at pictures of places they don’t remember having seen at all.

My spotty memory might be also conditioned by the quantity of stories I consume –I have the feeling that my brain can only store so many (the hard disk capacity seems limited) and that as more come in, a selective process is triggered by which the less relevant to me are forgotten (or filed away in a corner I can’t access). Perhaps assuming that total recall of stories will work after years or decades is simply unrealistic.

Re-reading (or re-seeing in the case of films) is, obviously, crucial to fix some plots in our memories. I find that the third re-reading is the one after which the text stays put. I also find, however, that there is a very tricky aspect to re-reading: the text never stays the same. Actually, the more one reads the more blurry it becomes (when will I be done with Wuthering Heights, I wonder?)

In Film Adaptation theory one of the basic tenets is that we, adult human beings, prefer being retold stories we enjoy in slightly different ways –kids, as we know, like exact verbatim repetitions. This is why even readers who already know a particular story will pay to see the screen adaptation. Re-reading is, arguably, something we tend to avoid, or something we postpone for years and even decades after the original experience, which in practice means that the second reading is almost brand new.

We, teachers and researchers of Literature, are in quite a different position for we need to re-read frequently, sometimes once a year, the texts we teach. To this we add the re-readings for research, either of a single volume or of the complete works of an author (my re-reading this summer Iain M. Banks’ SF). I’m now re-reading the Harry Potter series for the third time around, wondering whether there will be a fourth time, hence this post.

The text, I was saying, never stays the same. Sometimes to our embarrassment. It’s taken me four readings of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to realise that Gilbert’s narrative, although produced twenty years after the events, offers not a single comment on that past from the perspective of the present (in hindsight). My students were particularly interested in chapter 14, in which Gilbert attacks Frederick Lawrence in a fit of jealousy and justifies at least three times his appalling action. I never realised until last week that he does so without a single shred of remorse, not even twenty years after the events –also that he tells his good friend Halford what he’s never told his wife. Did Anne Brontë want exactly this?

I can start using metaphors here: novels (and films) are, as Henry James noted, baggy monster and they sprout tentacles all the time. Or, reading is peeling the layers of a gigantic onion (with no centre, let’s not forget we’re post post-modern). Re-reading is unveiling in the literal sense of taking off what prevents you from fully seeing (until the next veil is noticed). Or treading treacle that becomes less viscous. Re-reading is also, of course, facing again events we know very well but that we want to enjoy this time in the full knowledge of what is coming (Ada and Inman’s meeting in Cold Mountain comes to mind). Or that we dread –yes, Sirius Black’s death. There are only so many times one can mourn a character before starting to hate the author.

Logically, novels have too many words for us to retain them integrally in our memories, films too many images. Re-reading (or re-seeing) I’m puzzled by how some passages stick out immediately and with others it is as if they never existed to begin with. Also by how at a different times it is the other way round –this is why we never stop making discoveries that for other readers are obvious. Good research consists, yes, of coming up with the new angles about the text that change other (or most) readers’ perceptions.

I really wanted to write about what happens to emotion in re-reading. Why I cry myself silly every time I see Baz Luhrman’s film version of Romeo and Juliet, although I know very well what’s coming –and I don’t buy this tragic view of love! Why I cringe every time Marlow comes across Kurtz on all fours and tells him he will be lost –and I don’t even believe we have souls! But then emotion seems to be a dirty word in literary criticism. Or I’m in the grip of emotion too big to make sense of it today, though I’m trying.

So much we don’t know about how we read…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them first for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. If you like my blog, you can subscribe using the RSS feed (right-hand column, below Blogroll.) You’ll get an email message for every new post. VISIT MY WEB: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

MARY BRUNTON, ANNE BRONTË (AND GREEN-SKINNED JANE)

My colleague Andrew Monnickendam gave a plenary lecture at the last AEDEAN conference on Scottish writer Mary Brunton (1778-1818), one of the authors he deals with in his new book The Novels of Walter Scott and his Literary Relations (Mary Brunton, Susan Ferrier and Christian Johnstone). His presentation of Brunton’s Self-Control (1811) did call my attention, as the heroine Laura paints when in dire poverty to support her father, and her would-be-seducer bears the name of Hargrave. This seemed quite close to Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, as the heroine Helen Graham, a runaway wife, paints to keep herself and her little son, and is the object of the sexual passion of a man called Hargreave. I did ask Andrew whether there was evidence that Brontë had read Brunton, and it seems she might have. We do know that Austen read Self-Control and called it an “excellently-meant, elegantly-written work, without anything of Nature or Probability in it.”

I have just finished reading Brunton’s novel and I’m now convinced that Anne Brontë had read. It might even be the case that she decided to experiment with the romantic triangle and fancy the heroine already married to the libertine, meeting only too late the right gentleman. I’ll call this ‘echotextuality’ rather than ‘intertextuality’ as I really have no way to prove my thesis and, anyway, it does not really matter except for my pleasure in finding literary echoes. I agree and disagree with Austen’s sneer, as I have found Brunton more brisk than elegant and her plot, although at points the stuff of silly melodrama, also too close for comfort to the patterns of real misogynistic abuse (Anne’s Tenant is, of course, an early masterpiece in this, with her portrait of domestic horrors).

Brunton’s Scottish directness can be seen in the opening chapters, in which she has young Laura fence off a very direct attempt at seduction by Hargrave. The poor thing spends the following four years defending herself from the same man, no easy task as he is aided by Laura’s own aunt, Lady Pelham, who tortures her mercilessly to see her married to this dashing, handsome heir (what a difference with Helen’s own aunt!). Funnily enough, I was reading one evening in front of the TV and during a pause I chanced upon a Mexican soap opera with practically the same characters, situation and dialogue!

In 19th century novels the line separating seduction from downright rape is quite thin, and Laura is subjected to a second desperate attempt from which only a miracle saves her. My complain, I think, is that she is saved only because she’s the heroine while another poor girl is less lucky –I don’t know if this is what Austen found improbable. One of my male students asked me quite perplexed whether the minute analysis of his feelings that Anne’s hero Gilbert Markham engages in is realistic. I answered yes as I believe this is a post-Romantic novel about individuals who do care, above all, about feeling. Brunton’s novel, however, also touches the improbable when it comes to the many turns and twists given to the feelings that Laura has for Hargrave (for she wants him but is morally repelled by his unruly sexuality), Hargrave for her (a classic case of craving for what he can’t have) and the third member of the triangle, the manly but gentle De Courcy. Brunton’s insistence on reporting rather than using dialogue and the histrionic quality of that dialogue when it materialises have filled me with impatience and hilarity in turns –but I confess I haven’t been able to let go of the book until seeing Laura make the safer choice and the villains get their come-uppance.

I’m writing about Brunton and Brontë at the end of a very busy day that I have spent mainly organising an article on John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War SF saga. This is, believe me, quite a good love story about John and Jane, a couple who first meet when he, aged 75, is recycled into a 25-year-old post-human supersoldier. She, a soldier of an even less human, superior breed, has been born fully adult from his dead wife’s DNA. Both are green-skinned as their chlorophyll-rich skin uses sunshine as an alternative source of energy. Inevitably they fall in love and, once they are given new human-looking bodies they start an alternative pacifist life, somewhat complicated by the discovery that Jane still remains super-human.

It’s really crazy to see how women in fiction have changed and, well, I’m sorry to say that despite my sympathies for the suffering Laura and Helen, my heart is with green-skinned Jane. As a working woman with her own independent income I am developing an increasing resistance to 19th century lady heroines rewarded with money and sweet men (and who abandon painting as quickly as they can). Jane, in contrast, is awesome and I mean it in the sense that her tremendous efficiency at work generates awe –both as a ruthless killer and later as a ruthless hero.

It’s funny to think that Jane comes from the same time and place as Laura as, after all, what is Jane if not another version of Frankenstein’s she-monster? In the end, then, I choose Mary Shelley. Sorry Mary, sorry Anne (and sorry Jane… Austen).

GILBERT AND HEATHCLIFF, AGAIN: PREVENTING ROMANCE

About a year ago I wrote an entry (20-X-2011) connecting Anne Brontë’s Gilbert, the hero of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Heathcliff, the hero-villain of her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. I still think that Anne bore Emily’s novel in mind as she wrote her own and that Gilbert is a more civilised version of Heathcliff. What puzzles me, and this is the question I asked my students, is why Gilbert is not a more obviously attractive character, like Heathcliff himself or Charlotte’s Rochester.

One of the girls answered that she found him soft, or bland; my personal view is that his manifest passion for Helen and even his brutal attack against her protector Frederick Lawrence belies this view. In the end, we agreed that his moderate attractiveness is the inevitable result of Anne’s choice to narrate the story through first-person voices (or, rather, written documents). This makes it impossible for Gilbert to qualify himself as attractive (it would be ridiculous for him to comment on his own appearance in eulogising terms). Helen’s diary is interrupted precisely at the point when she meets him, for she tears off the pages she’s written on Gilbert before giving him the diary. She does describe her falling in love with a handsome man, but he turns out to be the villain of the piece, her abusive husband Arthur; thus, we female readers are prevented from forming the deep emotional attachment with a male character that Emily forces us to face in Heathcliff’s case. Anne made the choice of not allowing Helen to narrate her falling in love with Gilbert and, so, without the expression of her desire for him we, as readers, cannot love him. It’s either that or, as another girl said, we women actually prefer the bad guys, an opinion that, nevertheless, clashes badly with the fact that no reader loves Arthur.

As a female reader I must confess that it’s embarrassingly easy to manipulate our desire for a male character, as I have found out when reading Iain M. Banks’s new Culture novel The Hydrogen Sonata (see next post). The female protagonist, Vyr, is accompanied in her adventure by the organic avatar of an AI, the Mind that runs a spaceship. The avatar, Berdle, assumes a male human appearance that Vyr perceives as “handsome”, strikingly so. Despite Berdle’s annoyed response that he’s not male, female or anything remotely gendered, Banks’s omniscient narrative focalised through Vyr insists that he is desirable. She’s hooked and so are we as readers female (I’m not sure, but I’ll assume that gay readers, I mean men, also react to this manipulation of readerly desire). In contrast, nobody tells us in The Tenant that Gilbert is sexy.

I believe this is Anne’s deliberate choice. Her novel deals with the dangers of falling in love for the wrong reasons and with the wrong person. Through Helen she advices us (female) reader to make choices based not only on irrational desire but on a rational examination of our prospective partner’s behaviour. This diminishes no doubt the romantic substance of the story and the hero but stresses Anne’s point: that true love may be kindled by desire but can only survive if fed by solid companionship. I agree. Still, I miss the sexiness… of the good guy.

RISING UP TO THE CHALLENGE: IS MAKING THINGS HARDER THE BEST WAY TOWARDS IMPROVEMENT?

I am now part of a team of UAB and UB Literature teachers grouped together in an ‘MQD’ project (‘Millora de la Qualitat Docent’ = Teaching Quality Improvement). Our aim is improving our methodology by focusing on the narrator when teaching Literature. This is the reason why we decided to ask students to write their critical papers for Victorian Literature (second year) either on the narrator in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist or Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, novels that I have already mentioned here.

The process of writing the paper has been quite hard, as we expected, for our students. Many had difficulties understanding what we meant by asking them to focus on the narrator, used as they are to focusing on textual and contextual aspects, from the characterisation of a particular figure to socio-historical issues. Luckily for us, even though we didn’t plan this beforehand, the two novels contrast nicely as regards the narrator, since Dickens’s is famous for its overbearing third person narrator, whereas Brontë’s –technically an epistolary novel– is a first person narrator that mixes a diary written by a woman with letters written by a man. This helped us, as we could always appeal to this contrast when explaining how each novel is, at heart, the result of a collection of choices made by the author about how to narrate it. I think we also got very lucky in that the academic articles selected to boost class discussion (Karín Lesnik-Obertsein’s on Dickens and Carol Senf’s on Brontë) were quite productive in content and as models for our students.

Students were asked to submit a proposal mid-term, with a title, an abstract and quotations from three sources. This they did, with many difficulties, as I say, particularly as regards formulating a thesis. To my surprise –and that of my colleague in this subject– there is not a direct correlation between the quality of the abstracts and that of the final paper. Mainly, in quite a few cases, bad proposals led to very good papers, which is mystifying enough… In the end, students submitted 48 papers, of which I asked for re-writings in 23 cases due to editing problems (the content was acceptable but presentation matters had been approached with quite a cavalier attitude). I have failed finally only 6 papers… though I believe I’m quite a demanding teacher (maybe I’m not?).

So, my conclusion is that when a teacher poses a challenge students feel compelled to rise up to it. Ergo: I need to make things not necessarily more difficult but indeed more demanding (first year students, be warned!). I must say I have worked very hard to help students progress but they have made an effort, in some cases an impressive one. This must be acknowledged. I even emailed all of them to congratulate them, ask them to please remember the lesson learned with the paper and wish them good luck in the third year.

What I simply can’t understand is why NOBODY has answered that message… Maybe that’s my next challenge…

DOING GENDER STUDIES: FOR MY MALE STUDENTS

At the last count, the male students following actively my Victorian Literature subject are 9 in a class of 50 active students (by this I mean that about 10 more are registered but never show up). This is about 20%, slightly higher than in other courses I have taught, in which the proportion was usually around 15% or less. Last year, for instance, my English Theatre class had only 4 male students out of 35 in total.

I have often wondered when lecturing how this male minority was taking in the heavy-handed feminist/Gender Studies orientation we have given to the two novels we’ve taught, particularly Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I do wonder too how this novel can be taught indeed without addressing gender issues not only because it narrates a harrowing story of domestic abuse but also because Brontë chose to embed her heroine’s diary within the letters that her second husband, Gilbert, addresses to his best friend and brother-in-law, Halford. I believe that Brontë didn’t want to alienate the men of her England by throwing into their faces Helen’s gendered suffering. Gilbert was, hence, created to frame her tale and suggest that not all men are as selfish as Arthur, Helen’s pampered husband. However, this decision has also elicited plenty of criticism regarding how women’s voice is ultimately edited and silenced in this novel by men’s, as shown in Gilbert’s manipulation of Helen’s texts (diary and letters).

I made a point in class, though seemingly not often enough, that because I am a feminist who writes about masculinities I am very much interested in men’s developing their own gender-related consciousness. In short, I hinted (or so I thought) that paper proposals considering what kind of masculinity is constructed through Gilbert’s letters would be welcome. We often discussed how he seemed not to be quite a gentleman and I’ve already written here about his proximity to Emily Brontë’s problematic hero-villain Heathcliff. Other male characters in the text –Arthur, Walter, Hattersley, even little Arthur– are also worth exploring. Well, to my surprise none of the 7 (I think) paper proposals dealing with this novel coming from young men discuss masculinity at all. Instead, they focus on feminism, (Victorian) women’s rights and Helen’s particular plea as a married woman artist.

This makes me a bit wary, as I can’t help suspecting that these male students are addressing feminist issues simply to please me and, well, earn my sympathy. This is not quite right. Although I realise they may be really committed to feminism I wonder why none of these young men has offered comments in class on gender issues; also why my hints regarding masculinities have not been followed. Most of them have, accordingly, got back from me their own paper proposal with an open, firm invitation to reconsider their chosen topic and write about masculinity. If you’re reading me, believe, I am truly interested in what men have to say about this aspect of Brontë’s novel.

This is by no means an atypical circumstance. Everyone doing Gender Studies notes men’s resistance to doing Masculinities Studies. American sociologist Michael Kimmel, one of the founding fathers, teaches an introduction as a compulsory subject within an engineering degree because otherwise he’d might not get enough students!! Gender Studies courses are regularly attended all over the world mostly by women (heterosexual, lesbian), secondarily by gay men. Why? The usual answer is that, whereas women usually enjoy discussing gender issues to better understand their own socio-cultural constrictions (and freedoms), men tend to stay away out of insecurity regarding their own sense of masculinity and, crucially, regarding whether they’ll be turn into targets of anti-patriarchal critique. This is why I stress that masculinity is NOT the same as patriarchy and that, though I’m very much against patriarchy as a hierarchical, power-based system of abuse I want to know as much as possible about masculinities (if possible, from men).

So here’s my invitation once more: address gender issues if you wish, but do so out of a personal conviction that it’s worth doing and feel free to discuss masculinity. You can make an innovative, important contribution and I’d totally welcome it. If having read this, you still want to discuss feminism, that is fine too, but make sure you do it sincerely, please, and not out of a gentlemanly or interested standpoint. Thanks!!

WHO’S TO BLAME, THEN?: ABOUT TELLING ‘THE TRUTH’ IN FICTION

Yesterday I taught an MA seminar at UB about Amy Heckerling’s Clueless as a film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, which it is indeed even though Austen’s novel is not credited at all. Inevitably, as I happen to dislike Austen very much, we eventually came to the point in which I criticised Emma (and Clueless) for being a quite conventional patriarchal story leading to the classic heteronormative marriage, or so-called happy ending.

The heroine may be rich and, thus, free not to marry, yet the hard lesson she learns thanks to her wrongheaded bout of matchmaking leads her to find Mr. Right (aka Mr. Knightley) and not to assume a happy singlehood. Someone said that Emma (1815) was a protest about how little freedom even rich women had in the early 19th century. That may have been the case as Henry James still made the same point many decades later with Portrait of Lady (1880-1). Yet, well, I am very sorry but, as a 21st century working woman, I simply cannot sympathise with these ladies’ plea. The joke in Emma’s case is that she is blind to Knightley’s charms, whereas the sick joke in Isabel Archer’s case is that she chooses the appalling Gilbert Osmond as a husband. What doesn’t amuse me at all is that both Emma and Isabel MUST marry for, according to their authors, a single man may be in want of a wife but remain single, whereas a single woman is always in dire need of finding a husband even when she’s rich. Or else. However, this is as false now as it was in the 19th century: do read the passage in the autobiography of Harriet Martineau (1802-76) in which she candidly explains how the timely death of her fiancée freed her from the need to marry and thus gave her infinite happiness. And consider.

So here I was, complaining with two of the female students that Austen is to blame for a dangerous romantic model in which the woman finds an ideal mate despite her behaving quite stupidly and making many mistakes that hurt others along the way. The fantasy is quite transparent and persists today in characters like Bridget Jones. I won’t discuss Sex and the City as I’ve never seen a single episode. The single girl is today a career woman rather than an idle upper class parasite but the principle is the same: they bumble their way and eventually stumble into Prince Charming. I would probably dislike Austen a bit less if she’d had the gall, in her famous ironic way, to make Knightley and, of course, Darcy, less perfect. To this a student replied that Austen is not to blame at all and that we, contemporary female readers, are the ones to blame for our addiction to these fantastic male characters. She also said that, after all, what Austen wrote was just fiction.

Yes, sure, but this is fiction that many women use it to script their biographies by, being hopelessly disappointed by the real men they come across and who can never measure up to the likes of Knightley. If you ask me, Jane Austen is guilty of tricking her readers into believing that ideal men do materialise sooner or later. She, who never married, must have had a good laugh at our expense. Mulling over this, I recalled how Anne Brontë declares in her preface to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that if her novel is not what anyone would call ‘pleasing’ this is because she aimed at telling “the truth.” Of course, the truth is not that ALL husbands are like the horrid Arthur Huntingdon but that the good men like Gilbert Markham are less than perfect. Even very imperfect. And so are women, even though Austen had already pointed that out. Brontë’s truth is still today far less palatable than Austen’s lie, which is probably why she’s regarded as a second-tier canonical writer, whereas Austen is now the untouchable queen (thanks to silly romantic misreaders like Emma Thompson perhaps?).

Another student told me, and I thank her for it, that Darcy and Knightley are like today’s teen idols: they fulfil impossible female romantic cravings that real boys and men simply cannot understand. I’m sure that sleepy-eyed Kristen Stewart must now and then throw that into Robert Pattinson’s pretty face to keep him in check. I wonder what it’s like to have a (teen) male pin-up as your boyfriend… and whether Austen was cynically manufacturing Knightley and Darcy as such.

GILBERT & HEATHCLIFF: BROTHERS (AND BRONTË SISTERS)

Many critics have already suggested that the unfortunate Branwell Brontë provided the main inspiration for his sister Anne’s self-destructive Arthur Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. He seems to have been also Emily’s bleak muse for the degraded Hindley Earnshaw, Cathy’s brother. In both cases, Arthur’s and Hindley’s, they are contrasted with a stronger man, and although the similarities between Gilbert Markham and Heathcliff, respectively, may not be obvious I think they should not be overlooked.

Yesterday we were reading in class the hair-raising passage in which jealous Gilbert attacks the man he wrongly believes to be his rival in love, Frederick Lawrence. The passage is brutal, surely more so because Gilbert himself narrates how he hits Lawrence in the head with the heavy metal pommel of his whip, abandoning the seriously wounded man on the road once he’s satisfied that Lawrence is not dying. I reminded my students that just a few days ago we read about Sikes’ murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist following a similar method: Sikes uses the butt of his pistol to batter Nancy to death. Yet while Sikes is an outright villain for whom Dickens plans the cruellest death, Gilbert remains the hero of the piece. A Victorian critic complained that he would have been the ruffian in any other novel, yet Anne, like her protagonist Helen, insisted that he is the hero. One wonders how Helen’s life improves in getting rid of an alcoholic, abusive husband to marry this (potentially) violent man. She, by the way, never learns of the attack as the gentleman Lawrence chooses, in a strange fit of masculine loyalty, not to sully Gilbert’s reputation.

It seems that Anne was thinking of Wuthering Heights when she imagined Wildfell Hall: both, as you can seem share the initials WH. I can’t know whether she was thinking of Heathcliff when her own Gilbert Markham was created yet the more I re-read The Tenant, the more I believe she did. Both are gentlemen farmers, to begin with, and passionate lovers hell-bent on getting the woman they love (both ladies, yes, happen to be married). Gilbert is, if you wish, a more civilised Heathcliff, raised unlike Emily’s orphan villain-hero, in a ‘normal’ early 19th century family complete with stern hard-working father, adoring mother, sweet sister and playful younger brother. Yet Gilbert also knows how to be ungentlemanly, as shown not only by his attacking Lawrence but also by his ugly treatment of poor Eliza, with whom he flirts shamelessly regardless of the consequences for her feelings when he drops her. If Heathcliff and Gilbert met they would possibly like each other, though I must note that as a reader and as the suitor of a richer woman, Gilbert also shares some features with Emily’s dark horse, Hareton.

Anne writes in her preface to her novel’s second edition, to defend herself of all the negative criticism received, that she wanted to tell “the truth.” Certainly, her account of Helen’s terrible marriage rings true but I’m not sure what she meant by offering Gilbert as an alternative: that there are no better men!? If we are to believe him, Helen and he have already spent twenty years together in blissful marital harmony when his tale begins; yet, as we don’t have her diary for this second marriage we can only wonder if this is true.

If I were she, I’d stick to my paintings and live the happy life of a rich widow but, then, happily for me, I’m not a Victorian woman.

BRONTË’S THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL ON TV: WHY I WON’T SHOW IT IN CLASS

Among the myriad things we, teachers, do in July one is (re-)reading the set texts for the coming academic year and, in some cases, seeing the corresponding film adaptation (on DVD, self-financed) to check whether it might be of use to complement the book (also self-financed). I personally enjoy very much doing research on film adaptations and have frequently used film clips in class, teaching occasionally elective subjects on the adaptation of short fiction or drama.

Last year (2010-11), however, I didn’t use films at all in class for two reasons: a) students’ ability to understand the texts is fast diminishing and we have, therefore, less time for ‘extras;’ b) after reading an exam on High Fidelity in which Rob Fleming was called throughout Rob Gordon (as in the film) I must finally accept that too many students see adaptations instead of reading the books. Next semester we’ll be teaching Oliver Twist and I’m already bracing myself for getting songs from Carol Reed’s musical film instead of passages from Dickens quoted in student papers. Oh, well!

Actually, with Victorian novels the problem is the TV adaptation rather than the film version. The 1999 TV mini-series based on Oliver Twist, for instance, seems at 386 minutes complete enough to tempt students into not reading the text. And not only students. I’ve read somewhere that the TV version of Middlemarch (375 minutes, 900 pages) boosted enormously the sales of the book but not necessarily the size of its readership. For the other novel we’re teaching, Anne Brontë’s overlooked The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the choice is between 400 pages or 159 minutes… This is why I doubt I’ll even mention the TV version in class, much less show clips from it.

It’ll be easy, in any case, to catch students who haven’t read the book (yes, we have introduced reading tests –isn’t it appalling that we need them?). Even though the main actors are perfect (see https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115387/ -God bless the Brits for producing such great acting!) and so is the very English country house setting, Brontë’s secondary characters are mostly pared down to mere non-entities. More important, some key aspects have been rewritten in some cases to make up for apparent plot gaps (Helen’s odd ignorance of Gilbert’s brutal assault on Lawrence) or to dismiss uncomfortable gender issues –uncomfortable today, not for Brontë’s Victorian imagination: in the novel Gilbert hesitates to approach Helen again knowing she’s become a very rich woman; this is not even mentioned in the TV version. Also, the crucial religious subtext is sharply downplayed, possibly to make Helen less sanctimonious, which she is no doubt.

Poor Tara Fitzgerald, a real beauty and an inspired casting for Helen, was given a most unflattering Victorian hairstyle in the mini-series, corresponding to the decade the novel covers (1827-1837). I realise I could never have come up with that awful look as a reader. That ugly hairdo has certainly colonised my own visualisation of the novel… what an eyesore! In the end I might show just that –images to help students visualise the text, not necessarily from the mini-series but perhaps original Victorian fashion plates.

Deep breath. I just feel sad. Too much in our teaching Literature is becoming conditioned by students’ readiness to cheat on us rather than by our eagerness to teach them… Their loss as much as ours.