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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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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SEXUAL FANTASIES AND VICTORIAN FICTION

I ask the students to read a passage in Great Expectations which ends with the sentence “I must obey.” One of them pretends to mishear me and asks in surprise “masturbate?” The whole class laughs at the fake Freudian slip and we start then a conversation on Pip’s (and Heathcliff’s) strange sexual lives. If they have one…

Unless Brontë wants us to read between the lines, we must accept that Heathcliff has no sex (at least in company) for almost twenty years, ages 21 to 39: from the moment his wife Isabella leaves him to the moment he dies. We may speculate about what goes on in his rambles in the moors with Cathy and during the three years of his mysterious absence but have no proof whatsoever that he’s ever had sex before his disastrous wedding night (that might explain Isabella’s wish to run away the following morning). Cathy, at least, bears a daughter, which suggests that Edgar and her are sexually active –at least once, yes, seemingly inspired by Heathcliff’s return. In Great Expectations Pip falls madly in love with Estella aged 7 and gives her up aged 23 when she marries, remaining a bachelor until the age of 34 when he meets her again, already a widow. Once more, Dickens keeps silent about the hero’s sexual life despite Pip’s ranting about his passion for the girl. We might infer from her marriage to the brutal Drummle that Estella does have sex, who knows of what kind -sadomasochistic would be a safe bet.

Students and teachers used to the explicitness of current narratives with an erotic component and to the openness with which matters like masturbation and orgasm can be discussed today don’t know what to make of odd fish like Heathcliff and Pip. The only option left is to think that they “must obey” their natural impulses and “masturbate” thinking of the women they fancy, yet it’s even hard to apply this term to Victorian fiction. Our current post-Freudian, post-Foucaltian discourse on sexuality is complicated enough to complicate matters even further with a discussion of celibacy in Victorian fiction.

If staying mentally and physically healthy requires regular sex (alone or not) as we believe, then Heathcliff and Pip must be mad, as their obsession for a particular woman shows. Yet, because they’re not presented as the pathological abnormalities we believe them to be today but as deluded, sad romantic heroes, we can hardly assess them as men. The women are, somehow, normalised by marriage but not Heathcliff and Pip. Perhaps a Victorian reader could automatically guess what kind of sex life they lead or accept they have none but us, 21st century readers, just puzzle and wonder.

HOW MANY BOOKS (DOES IT TAKE TO KNOW THE BASICS OF VICTORIAN FICTION)?

A student in my Victorian Literature class complains (the third time in five weeks) that we’re reading too much and too fast for this subject. I do worry, as I know that he is bright and capable –also that, like too many of our students, he works, given the serious scarcity of grants in our system. His complaint, by the way, is motivated by my blurting out in our final, seventh session on Wuthering Heights that it’s shameful that students haven’t finished reading it yet. Typical reaction, right? Mine and his.

How much is too much, though? I don’t think that a graduate in English (as a foreign language) can claim s/he has a basic knowledge of Victorian fiction if that’s based on fewer than four texts. As for speed, working out how many pages of wordy 19thC English an average Spanish second-year student of, well, English can read in one hour leads nowhere: the problem, I feel, is, rather, how many hours students devote to reading. Or do I mean endure reading non-stop? (Excuse me if I offend the truly devoted readers)

Essentially, there are two ways of teaching Literature. You may teach a History of Literature based on plenty of data and brief passages from literary sources, and leave to students the choice of how much Literature they actually read. The risk? Students may read no book at all –maybe not even a poem. Instead, we select a few representative texts and comment intensively on them (with groups of up to 100 students…, 40/50 on average, a small miracle!). We do offer introductions but, basically, we trust students to read History of Literature on their own. The risk? Students may read no secondary sources at all and end up with a confusing, patchy image of the History of English Literature.

What’s driving us, teachers who favour close reading, up the wall, is that students hardly ever read the set books BEFORE we start commenting on them (some NEVER do, as one of the best students I’ve ever hard candidly disclosed). Also, once started, they take very long to finish. English Literature teachers in Spain complain about this all the time: how are you supposed to analyse a text without students’ being previously familiar with it? I’ve even had students asking me not to spoil their reading by commenting on the book’s ending!!

This makes classroom close reading terribly constrained, as it imposes an awkward chronological order on what we comment on, for we patiently wait for students to read on (plod on?). At least, I do, or have to. It also keeps analysis at a very elementary level, at least until the last sessions (or so I thought!!). I’ve found myself recommending to my students that they read plot summaries before they read each chapter, which, yes, I know, sounds desperate… And I don’t even want to think today about whether my students are reading the secondary sources in English (4 articles, compulsory; 1 book, recommended). Some other day…

I wonder whether my colleagues in the Spanish or the Catalan Departments face the same problem, working, as they do, in our own language(s). I also wonder if this is happening in Britain… Somebody tell me!!

The main reason for our difficulties is, I’m sorry to say, that the English students learn in secondary education is painfully inadequate. It’s amazing how a novel that seems quite accessible becomes, the moment I read a passage aloud in class, an almost impenetrable maze. Yet, we’re too pressed for time to wait for our students to have a good enough command of English to read fast, much less to appreciate the nuances. Surely, there’s a minimum they should read before graduation.

A colleague suggests that I reduce my list of four down to two books, but if we go down that road we might end up reading just ONE book and maybe need a whole year. Yes… that how Victorian readers read but this is a luxury we, as teachers, can’t afford nor allow students.

SEEING BOOKS

Yes, more about Wuthering Heights.

I’ve been reading with my students today, among others, the scene when Nelly Dean tries to persuade an upset, teenage Heathcliff that he has nothing to envy his rival in love, blond, blue-eyed Edgar Linton. “Come to the glass,” she says, “and I’ll let you see what you should wish”: a good-natured temper that would give his handsome face an attractive expression. An unusually nice Nelly tries, besides, to build the boy’s self-confidence by telling him that “You’re fit for a prince in disguise. Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen…?”

As she administers this ad-hoc therapy Nelly is actually engaged in washing up Heathcliff’s very dirty face and combing his unkempt hair so that his paramour Cathy, just transformed into a refined, pert young lady, will no longer make fun of him. One of the students, a girl trained as an actress at the Institut del Teatre, later told me (typically in the corridor) that she found this scene quite enticing as, precisely, a scene in the dramatic sense of the word. She marvelled at the good dramaturgy of this novel. I do, too.

I also marvel at how we miss this aspect of reading novels, caught up as we are in considering character, narrative technique, plot construction and a myriad other factors. It is plain that novels –even Ulysses– are a collection of scenes yet we very rarely consider the dramatic talent of novelists, perhaps except when we pay attention to adaptations as they force us to consider what can be transferred onto the screen (the scenes) and what cannot (the rest).

Maybe because I am indeed interested in adaptations I find it increasingly difficult to read without mulling over the visuals of what I am reading. I have already written an essay on what Heathcliff looks like based on a comparative analysis of diverse film versions of Brontë’s novel but I am not talking now about this kind of visualisation. I mean: what exactly happens in our brains as we read? How do we imagine? In our media-saturated world, reading seems more and more unsatisfactory: scenes, even when they are as good in their dramaturgy as the mirror scene I have described, are strangely hazy, diffuse, vague… particularly those set in a foreign past we know so little about.

I wonder what we’d see if we could take the mental images that Brontë’s excellent mirror scene (wow, doesn’t this sound Lacanian?) generated in each of my students, in each of the million readers of the book. Have they grown dimmer as the years go by? Do we imagine Brontë’s world in 2010 in a radically different way from 1847? Surely, but still the question remains: how do we do it?

BOOKS, LOVE AND LIFE

Yes, I made a mistake with the last slide of my PowerPoint presentation introducing Wuthering Heights. I inserted an image of the edition of Emily Brontë’s masterpiece publicised as ‘Bella and Edwards’s favourite book.’ What? You don’t know who Bella and Edward are? Been hiding with Bin Laden in the last few years?? Perhaps even he knows who they are…

Well, so there I was, ranting and raving about how unfair and parasitical this appropriation of Brontë’s work is, particularly because I happen to believe that Brontë portrays romantic love as an unhealthy form of madness (not so for the younger Cathy and Hareton, ok, fine).

I find, as I told my class, Stephanie Meyer’s immensely popular saga extremely dangerous as, once more, it preaches an extreme form of romantic love based on the girl’s total emotional dependence on a guy (who happens to be vampire, gosh!).

For me, Edward’s ‘heroic’ fight to control his predator instincts (quite unlike what Heathcliff does, he lashes out…) contributes to spreading the idea that we must accept men’s violence, as this is part of their nature, and praise them as heroes for controlling it. Just consider this: Bella initially doubts between Edward the vampire and Jacob the werewolf!! Whatever happened to nice guys??? Doesn’t she have a problem choosing boyfriends?

Anyway, as I was leaving after my session, one of the girl students approached me – a bright one, who had made the point that she didn’t admire Wuthering Heights as a romantic story (good!!). She needed to tell me, though, that she didn’t quite understand my deep mistrust of Meyer’s saga as she enjoyed a beautiful, intense relationship with her boyfriend and, in her view, this is what the saga was about: a defence of fulfilling, profound, romantic love.

So here we are, in the middle of the corridor discussing really intimate matters, myself telling her that romantic love should be all about complicity not dependence and that, no matter how much you love your partner, one cannot do a Heathcliff and spoil your own life and everyone else’s when the loved one is gone. I didn’t even tell her whether I have a relationship or not.

But, then: what do I know? I was moved by the girl’s sincerity, and if she’s reading this, I’ll insist that it was a beautiful moment. Yet, I always get very nervous at confessional times like this because suddenly the mission of teaching 19th century fiction transforms into something else, maybe a mission to protect young people from the unstoppable influence of some kinds of appalling heteronormative fiction.

Yes, I love that in a way and I wouldn’t know how to teach novels without relating them to real life (in the aseptic way of my own Spanish Literature teachers, who used to discuss just textual precedents and philological features). I wonder, though, where is the boundary. I’ll blame (I mean praise) feminism for tearing down the barriers between the political and the personal, the literary and life, yet, if any student is reading this, let me say this: literature teachers are as lost as anyone else, we just happen to have read much more…

The real first post – teaching Wuthering Heights

This week I have started teaching ‘Victorian Literature,’ a second-year subject within the new ‘Estudis Anglesos’ degree. Fun started when I mentioned ‘the three famous Brontë sisters.’ You should have seen my students’ blank faces!! Those who did know what I was talking about explained to me that the sisters were… Emily, Charlotte and the other one (Anne, yes).

I try never to be appalled by what my students don’t know, which is hard. Yet, thinking with my colleague Esther Pujolràs about students’ lack of acquantaince with the canonical Brontës, we both remembered that by the time we entered ‘Filologia Anglesa’ we were already familiar with plenty of English Literature.

As happens, we both had read Bruguera’s translation of Wuthering Heights (more or less aged 15), seen the 1978 TV adaptation and developed an interest in other authors in English, following a similar pattern: translation, adaptation, original version.

This may have been exceptional, as not everyone grows to be an English ‘filólogo,’ but my impression is that it wasn’t and that in a cultural environment with little to offer, one makes the best of available possibilities.

My students simply live in another world, with so much on offer that they are overwhelmed. To them the ‘famous’ Brontë sisters matter very little, they may be even feel like relics of a strange world we (re)construct in class and that may never catch on. I hope it does… but… And, yes, I’ll be using a colourful PowerPoint next week to try to interest them in reading Wuthering Heights, thinking how none bothered when I was a student to make reading more palatable for me: it was my problem whether I enjoyed it or not, never the teacher’s. But, yes, that was another world.

More next week…