heart_in_the_margins: (Default)
Welcome to [personal profile] heart_in_the_margins, general academic journal/thought storehouse/commonplace book for a graduate student in English Literature working her way through a six-year PhD program. Entries on this journal will range from prep for meetings with professors to early formulations of seminar paper arguments to thoughts on orals lists to perhaps slightly more fannish responses to the works I'm reading (I'm convinced that academia is really just one big fandom, albeit with slightly more arcane in-jokes and rules of member behavior). 

I care primarily about eighteenth-century British novels and novel paratexts (critiques, reviews, early theories of the novel, etc.) though I also have soft spots for everything from John Milton to the political/philosophical prose of the 1790s. Thematically, I'm most interested in issues surrounding the intersection(s) of gender presentation, generic convention, models of authorship/authorical personae, and the increasing authority of the novel as a genre. I'm also interested, though perhaps less programmatically, in novels of vocation, minority authorship, book and printing history, modes of reading, and popular literature.

If this sounds at all interesting, then please, feel free to subscribe! I'd appreciate an introduction if we don't already know each other -- especially if you also have an academic journal I might find interesting! -- but it isn't necessary.

At this point, it's my goal not to restrict the posts on this journal so that they can hopefully spark conversations with as wide an audience of readers as possible. I welcome any comments that are thoughtful and interested in participating in a conversation rather than an argument, and I'm really hoping that, in addition to being a place for me to take notes on what I think, this journal can be a place for getting feedback from others, and eventually participating in a larger community of internet-savvy academics on Dreamwidth and beyond.

Now, for the serious stuff: These posts may be public, but I don't want my real identity to be connected to them in any way. In order to keep this a safe space for tossing around ideas without worrying that they might someday be used against me, I need all the readers of this journal who know my real identity to refrain from connecting this journal to my real name and to my actual graduate school affiliation. In addition, while these posts are public, please do not reproduce them in whole or in part in any context without my express permission.
heart_in_the_margins: (Professor)
"Surely all other leisure is hurry compared with a sunny walk through the fields from 'afternoon church,'--as sch walks used to be in those old leisurely times, when the boat, gliding sleepily along the canal, was the newest locomotive wonder; when Sunday books had most of them old brown-leather covers, and opened with remarkable precision always in one place. Leisure is gone--gone where the spinning-wheels are gone, and the pack-horses, and the slow waggons, and the pedlars who brought bargains to the door on sunny afternoons. Ingenious philosophers tell you, perhaps, that the great work of the steam-engine is to create leisure for mankind. Do not believe them: it only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in. Even idleness is eager now--eager for amusement: prone to excursion-trains, art-museums, periodical literature, and exciting novels: prone even to scientific theorizing, and cursory peeps through microscopes. Old Leisure was quite a different personage: he only read one newspaper, innocent of leaders, and was free from that periodicity of sensations which we call post-time." (Adam Bede 459)

This passage particularly interests me in light of the seminar paper I wrote for Prof S last semester, about Middlemarch and serial form. I'm thinking that it would be worthwhile to engage with the idea of old leisure vs. the modern "periodicity of sensations" in this passage as a way of talking about Eliot's intention in serializing Middlemarch in the form that she did. (Obviously there were financial concerns but I think that the theoretical concerns do equally bear thinking about.) This passage helps my argument because it shows that Eliot is using the serial form in a way that runs counter to the way that she considered many other uses of serial form to work. Instead of allowing individuals to remain in the graven rut of their typical serialization schedule, Middlemarch was released in segments of surprising length and with a surprising amount of distance between them, denaturalizing serialization as a way of releasing novels and requiring readers to wake up and pay attention. It's definitely something I'd want to consider in moving forward to revise this seminar paper into an article.
heart_in_the_margins: (Heart)
Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is on my orals list, "A Gossip on Romance" is not, and yet I have a lot more to say about the latter than the former.

It does make sense to put Jekyll and Hyde on my orals list, and in this swath of reading -- which also contains Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Gray. There are obvious connections between these three texts: all are interested in the supernatural, particularly as it relates to developing psychologies, and all involve strange doublings. Yet the things that really interest me about each of these works individually are not actually things that overlap. (For example, I care most about Dracula as a documentary novel, I care most about Dorian Gray as it relates epigram and narrative, and as for Jekyll and Hyde...well, I don't know that I have a thing I care most about!) And it doesn't help that I am discussing these three novels in the same meeting where I'm discussing Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and that my adviser really wants me to be able to talk for at least a little bit about some overarching connection between ALL of the works we're talking over in each meeting.

But Stevenson's interest in the "romance revival" is actually incredibly relevant, not only to bringing Hardy back into this conversation, but to my broader interest in "genre fiction" and the ways in which readers imaginatively engage their texts. Essentially, Stevenson's short essay (10 pgs in my Oxford World's Classics ed. of Jekyll and Hyde) describes early on in his career his thoughts on the difference between romance and realism, and it does so in a way that foregrounds the engagement of the reader in romance.

"Drama is the poetry of conduct, romance the poetry of circumstance. The pleasure that we take in life is of two sorts--the active and the passive. Now we are conscious of a great command over our destiny; anon we are lifted up by circumstance, as by a breaking wave, and dashed we know not how into the future. Now we are pleased by our conduct, anon merely pleased by our surroundings." (140)
--> This seems useful to me as a way to connect Hardy's novels to the other ones in this cluster. Hardy's characters are often passive, his novels often interested in surroundings.
--> Playing devil's advocate, though, what RLS goes on to discuss about the difference between novels of active consciences/morals vs. novels of active bodies once again aligns Hardy with the side of realism.

argument that scenes of action and romance are the ones that we remember in books, p. 142 --> discussion of Clarissa vs. Robinson Crusoe, pp. 143-4
--> "we read story-books in childhood, not for eloquence or character or thought, but for some quality of the brute incident" (139)
--> "perhaps nothing can more strongly illustrate the necessity for marking incident than to compare the living fame of 'Robinson Crusoe' with the discredit of 'Clarissa Harlowe.' 'Clarissa' is a book of a far more startling import, worked out, on a great canvas, with inimitable courage and unflagging art; it contains wit, character, passion, plot, conversations full of spirit and insight, letters sparkling with unstrained humanity..." (143)

"English people of the present day are apt, I know not why, to look somewhat down on incident, and reserve their admiration for the clink of tea-spoons and the accents of the curate. It is thought clever to write a novel with no story at all, or at least with a very dull one." (143)
--> connect this to the novel without a plot that "poisons" Dorian?
--> and yet I'm pretty sure what RLS says about "no story at all" is different from what Wilde calls the plotless novel...I wonder if RLS would have felt Dorian Gray had "story"? It certainly does have the kind of incidents that stick in your mind -- in fact at times it feels like it's all incident!

RLS' sense of how imaginative engagement works:

"In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, berapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind willed with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought." (139)

"Some places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck." (141)

"To come at all at the nature of this quality of romance, we must bear in mind the peculiarity of our attitude to any art. No art produces illusion; in the theatre, we never forget that we are in the theatre; and while we read a story, we sit wavering between two minds, now merely clapping our hands at the merit of the performance, now condescending to take an active part in fancy with the characters. This last is the triumph of story-telling: when the reader consciously plays at being the hero, the scene is a good scene. Now in character-studies the pleasure that we take is critical; we watch, we approve, we smile at incongruities, we are moved to sudden heats of sympathy with courage, suffering, or virtue. But the characters are still themselves; they are not us; the more clearly they are depicted, the more widely do they stand away from us, the more imperiously do they thrust us back into our place as a spectator. [...] It is not character, but incident, that wooes us out of our reserve. Something happens, and we desire to have it happen to ourselves; some situation, that we have long dallied with in fancy, is realised in the story with enticing and appropriate details. Then we forget the characters; they we push the hero aside; then we plunge into the tale in our own person and bathe in fresh experience; and then, and then only, do we say we have been reading a romance." (146-7)
--> romance as the genre of self-insert!
--> interesting that RLS suggests character individuation is almost what prohibits identification: instead, you have to push aside the real character and enter the novel as yourself
--> this is a mode of imaginative engagement with the text that actually isn't about character in a familiar manner

"Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child. It is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life." (147)

THOUGHT: Perhaps the thing I want to talk about to join together all of these novels is narrative perspective and its relation to spectatorship?

heart_in_the_margins: (Hardworking)
(Not that anyone reads this journal aside from me, at this point, but names of people and specific university institutions are changed or omitted because I don't want this to be connected to my RL identity.)

I just got back from day one of a three-day teaching institute, run jointly by the graduate teaching center and a center for teaching and new media. I mostly applied for it because my department doesn't offer enough (what I am I saying, it doesn't offer any) teacher training, and I really care about teaching, so I want as many opportunities as possible to get involved in larger conversations about pedagogy and what, exactly, happens in the classroom. However, since it's being co-run by this center for new media teaching, the focus is very much on how we can make use of technology (which almost always seems to mean preexisting internet-based platform) to enrich students' classroom experience.

The problem that I have with this, off the bat, is that this is not how the institute was pitched to me. It was pitched as an institute for creating and polishing "innovative assignments" that institute participants could implement in their future courses. Unfortunately, I assumed that they really meant "innovative" and not strictly "technological." I can think of a lot of important and innovative assignments that I want to run in my classrooms that actually require no additional tech; what's innovative about them is how they are structured or how they engage the assumptions of the class, department, and discipline. And yet what I am expected to produce by the end of Day 3 of this institute is a plan for a technologically-involved assignment -- not just an innovative one.

Don't get me wrong, I think there are a number of ways that technology can fundamentally improve the ways we teach. I love the idea of having online discussion forums to encourage student participation, of posting reports online so that all students can have access to the information their peers discover in their research, etc. But I also don't really think that counts as "innovative," and in fact a lot of the things I want to do that actually feel more innovative require less high-tech material. (I'm thinking specifically about the Jane Austen class I want to teach, in which I want to offer students the option to write their own Austen adaptation in order to let them discover firsthand that adaptation is an act of interpretation; merely arguing that creative responses ARE critical responses is radical, much less assigning a creative response as the final project for an entire class!) It also doesn't help that the class I'm going to be teaching next fall isn't one in which I have a lot of leeway in terms of assignment structures -- I am only allowed to grade final drafts of student essays, none of their homework and none of their in-class participation -- and I feel bad about trying to integrate something that will take more time and effort from myself as well as my students if I'm literally not allowed to grade them on it.

I have to write up a much shorter formal response about what I learned today, but before I get to that, I just want to write up some of the things I found particularly interesting or annoying or revelatory in a less formal manner, just to get things down on paper.

---> Just because I'm not quite sure how I can effectively use tech in the classroom I'll be inhabiting next fall doesn't mean that this institute has been unhelpful regarding ways to consider tech in the classroom. I really liked the idea, suggested by one group, that the problem with the media/technology/online platforms most of our students use is that they  conceive of them as being primarily private, personal spaces; we need to teach them how to view things like discussion forums, blog posts, and who knows what else as public, academic spaces. I'm fannish so it doesn't seem like a stretch for me at all to conceive of the internet as a tool for creating and enhancing intellectually rigorous debate, but most of my students won't be (and even some of them who are will operate on the Tumblr model of fandom as opposed to the LJ/DW model, which is the problem -- I think all that I want from my students is to make use of discussion forums for the class the way I make use of LJ/DW, where long posts are responded to with thoughtful commentary, but I don't know how to make them understand this model if they aren't fannish). In my mind, technology serves educators best as an extension of the classroom, but I don't know how students are going to respond to that expectation. 

---> Technology doesn't belong everywhere. I don't believe in laptops being used during seminars, because if we're at a small table together I want to see your face instead of a computer screen. I understand and agree with the use of computers in lectures because they're just better for note-taking for many people, but I also understand the drawbacks of allowing kids to use them if they're just going to let themselves be distracted. Where this is really an issue for me is in preparation for my future Undergraduate Writing (UW) class. It's standard protocol to provide students with your assigned texts as PDFs that they are then expected to print out and bring to class with them. The last time I was in a class where all readings were PDFs, I used my iPad and GoodReader to do all my course reading because it saved money, time, and somewhere down the line probably a few trees. Especially with undergraduates, I worry that I may end up with a scenario where no one has the text because they haven't printed it out; however, also especially with undergraduates, I worry that those who read on screens instead of in hard copy won't mark up their texts sufficiently. One suggestion a classmate of mine had for alleviating this issue was to give students an annotation assignment -- forcing them to turn in their hard copy or e-copy and reading over the ways they take notes -- but while I like this in a lot of ways, I also realize that it only keeps students accountable for the particular text you've attached this assignment to. I have no way of measuring whether they will actually mark up their future readings this closely.

---> Having increasing access to data is not the same as knowing how to access data, or to filter it to best meet your needs. My sister's utter inability to use quotations to delimit a basic internet search are a symptom of a much larger problem, one that only grows when you hit academia and need to learn about all kinds of specialized search and research tools and databases.

---> I care a lot more about teaching skills than content, though I don't think you can actually teach any skills without content. When I look back on my undergraduate English experience, it seems like the most important things I learned weren't names or dates or figures but how to write essays (and I don't just mean thesis statements, topic sentences, evidence analysis, etc. -- I mean the whole process of writing, from concept to product). Especially in UW, I feel like my job is to provide students with content that engages them so that they will be more likely to care about the skills I'm teaching them to allow them to engage that content more deeply.

A few innovative assignments proposed by other people that I really liked:

-- Impress upon students the importance of close-reading by taking a famous phrase or saying and changing a single word to a synonym. How does it change the saying? Move on to working with sentences from the assigned text. What words can be changed without radically changing the meaning? Which ones need to stay the same? What does the original word do that the new word doesn't? (This assignment has the added benefit of providing reasons why your students shouldn't just replace words willy nilly with Word's thesaurus tool.)

-- For an art history class: curate an exhibit choosing 10 works and writing up a curator's statement plus the wall text for individual works. (Pick a certain portion of works beforehand that MUST have been works explicitly discussed by the class, as opposed to works that the student finds on her own.)

-- Construct an alternative syllabus for this class. Which texts and assignments would you keep? Which would you change? How would your syllabus represent a different take on the same topic?

-- Ongoing student response blogs in which students are required to reference each other's arguments in subsequent blog postings

A few innovative assignments I've done as a student and really liked:

-- Create an edition of a poem (closely related to my adviser J's final paper option to provide your own footnotes for a span of pages in a text that we read as a class but which was very sparsely footnoted)

-- Write a creative response to the text. This can be an additional chapter, an imitation of the author's style but touching on a different subject, an adaptation or a proposal for an adaptation. This particular kind of assignment forces students to take creativity seriously, allowing them to see their adaptations, additions, and imitations as interpretive acts in their own right.

-- Ask students to generate the material that will be discussed during a particular class period. The romanticism prof A, for whom I TA'd last semester, asked students throughout the semester to contribute to a shared folder anything that they thought related to the themes and interests of the course, and she based her penultimate lecture around the content they generated.

A few innovative assignment proposals I'm contemplating as potential outgrowths of this institute:

-- UW wikispace. This includes a lot of potential components:
  • Group lexicon building. As we learn new terms or develop terms in class to talk about the essay, students volunteer to write up the definitions we've agreed upon and post them online. Students can then link and group related terms. This could also be used to record difficult terms and concepts we come across in our readings (not necessarily terms related to talking about essays). 
  • Class recaps. Assign 1-2 students per class to be "course reporters," responsible for posting at the end of class their summary of the 3-5 most important pieces of information that we learned today. They would be able to link to previous lessons and to concepts in the dictionary. Students would then have a growing online narrative of the course to complement the connections made by the teacher at the beginning of each course. As part of this project, "course reporters" might also be responsible for opening the subsequent class by reminding us what just happened.
  • Shared hyper-text mark-up of key passages, possibly entire texts. These would include both the essays assigned as readings for the progressions and some sample essays for each progression.
  • Summaries of additional/outside resources and material. These could range from reviews of style handbooks to links to important databases or research locations. Instead of merely bringing them into class as the teacher, I would in advance provide a sign-up sheet to students, who would be responsible for sharing one resource per day and talking in class about how that resource is relevant to the day that they have been assigned. (Resources might include physical things like the Writing Center, or digital resources like the OED...? I'm less sure about this idea than I am about the previous ones; I think it would work better as a way of creating an annotated bibliography in a class where more critical material exists. Possibly save this notion for After Austen.)
-- Argument and counterargument. This would be a really simple assignment that probably wouldn't make use of very much tech. It would require students to condense their argument into 1-2 sentences; then, each of their peers (possibly those in their review group?) would have to suggest one assumption or counterargument; finally, the original student would have to respond to each of the counterarguments. At least one of those responses would be required to be present in the final paper. 

(Heh, it figures that this last part is the hardest, since it's only the thing I'm actually being required to do here...)

heart_in_the_margins: (Counterproductive)
I have way more issues with this novel than I thought I was going to. Triggers for sexual assault and victim blaming as well as pervasive misogyny and all the worst parts of rape culture behind the cut.

And also spoilers. )

And now the brief list of things I should probably also talk about in my orals meeting:
-- loss of rural ways of life and livelihood (especially with the advent of more mechanized farming) 
-- nature vs. culture as Pagan vs. Christian (+ convention)
-- science, history, and "deep time" (both the d'Urberville lineage and the temporal span of nature)
heart_in_the_margins: (Armful)
I should say a few things at the outset.

a. I'm talking only about a particular kind of pedagogy here -- that is, what goes on in classrooms where English literature is taught. I do think that pedagogy here is different from pedagogy in other fields, because other fields have facts. The closest thing to facts that English has is the text (which even then is subject to all kinds of mutilations, mistransmissions, elisions, editions, etc. and therefore not quite like a fact after all).

b. I recognize that professors have the right to teach classes in a way that benefits these professors and makes them care. Teaching is a relationship that needs to account for the professor as well as the student. My worries arise when the balance of interest in the class parallels the balance of power -- in which the teacher knows more and cares more and there's some relationship between these, in my opinion, that I'm interested in hashing out.

c. I understand there are people who get their PhDs in English because they care about research, not about teaching. I understand that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with this orientation. But it is fundamentally ethically illegible to me, because I don't see how what I do matters if it doesn't involve teaching.

d. My approach to pedagogy is fundamentally linked to my thoughts about the primacy of reading in this discipline. Reading, in turn, is fundamentally linked to re-reading, with the potential for infinite reading -- and, as a result, the potential for infinite meaning. In lectures especially, the professor is the one who gets to make arguments about the texts, but the students who care, who have done the reading, will come to class with their own arguments, their own opinions and assumptions, their own reasons for caring about the texts. Sometimes these reasons will be different from the professor's reasons. Sometimes this means their interpretations will be different, too. But a fundamental principle of infinite interpretation is that any professor truly committed to this view of reading needs to be open to arguments not her own. 

With this in mind:

1. I will not teach a "book class" after I have figured out the argument I want to make in the book. It's a common enough phenomenon for professors to construct syllabuses that look like bibliographies-in-progress for their upcoming scholarly work. I'm not opposed to this. I love the kind of thinking that happens in the classroom -- particularly the seminar room, particularly with upper-level undergrads and grad students -- and I hope that the books I write will be challenged and bettered by this kind of thinking in conversation. What I am against is professors coming into classes with their arguments so ready-prepared that they aren't willing to hear dissent. 

2. I will not teach a syllabus centered around a restrictive theme. Ultimately, my arguments against the "theme class" are very closely related to my arguments against the "book class." The "theme class" often guides students' scholarly activity in ways that doesn't benefit them. If I'm a Victorianist, and the only Victorian lit class being offered this semester is "Shame in the Victorian Novel," of course I'm going to take it, but when it comes time to write seminar papers, it won't help my real research interests -- whatever they may be -- if I'm forced to write a paper focusing on shame in the Victorian novel. I think it's okay to organize your syllabus around a theme -- let's face it, you pretty much have to implicitly, if not explicitly -- but I think you should be candid about the ways in which your theme restricts the potential readings of the texts you've selected, and you shouldn't force a slavish adherence to this theme upon your students when it comes time to write papers.

3. I will not dismiss a student's contribution to discussion, nor will I curtail students' participation in discussion in any way unless their participation is negatively impacting the participation of others. This is English. This is not where you go for right and wrong answers. There will, inevitably, be interpretations that seem more "off-topic" than others, based on the general concerns of the course, or the shared knowledge base of the classroom, and I do believe that professors play an important role in moderating discussion so that all students can participate in it as fully as possible. But unless a student is factually wrong (and see underlying assumption a, English is a discipline with very few facts), I will never dismiss an interpretation outright. 

4. I will not grade students down for failing to meet expectations I have not made explicit. This one seems pretty obvious, but it's amazing how often I see this happening. When a professor says any variation of "It's surprising how many of you made the same mistake," it's probably not actually surprising -- it's probably the professor's fault, for not making it clear to the students that doing X counts as a mistake.

5. I will not let my students' performance on a single assignment change the way I view them as people or as scholars. I like to think of this as the doctrine of "we've all been there." Every professor was once a grad student, and an undergraduate before that, so why is it that so many of them seem to forget how hard it was? Judging a person based on a single paper (or midterm, or report, etc.) is subscribing to the implicit assumptions that a) this class is the student's top priority, b) the student's personal life is not relevant to their academic performance, and c) everyone is capable of doing equally well on the specific type of assessment being considered. I'm pretty sure that most of the time, none of these are true. 

6. I will not subscribe to a system of grading that does not reward radical improvement. The point of teaching is that students are always learning. The point of having multiple assessments over the course of a semester is to allow students the opportunity for improvement. If this improvement isn't represented in their end-of-term grade, then something is wrong with my grading system, because a grade should reflect what a student can do at the end of the class, rather than punishing her for what she couldn't do at the beginning. 

I have more thoughts than this, and I am not sure that I fully own all of these thoughts, so maybe you should read them like my prof A reads the letters of John Keats, more as workings-out of ideas than assertions of them, but here they are, working themselves out.
heart_in_the_margins: (Beaton Reader)
(I'd like to begin with the complaint that it is weirdly easier for me to focus on writing things when I'm not writing in Word? This may be a problem. This is in fact not my first post-Word option; Scrivener is; but as I sketched out what I wanted to accomplish, page-by-page, in the ten pages of paper I have to write tomorrow and Saturday, I realized that there are exactly three pages whose content remains somewhat mysterious to me, and those are the pages discussing Mary Astell, and Scrivener wasn't helping me figure them out. So here I am.)

Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies is actually the text that got me started thinking about this paper. I found it a fascinating read -- about halfway through my notes, somewhere, there is the scrawled phrase "heavenly feminist university scheme!" probably surrounded with hearts or something, because basically Astell's proposal is that women should come together into a communal retreat that would do everything from providing a space for religious devotion to educating women in useful knowledge to supporting real friendship instead of backbiting and gossip to (ultimately) preventing rich single women from being sexually assaulted by men with designs on their fortunes.

Custom, Fashion, and the World

For Astell, though, the worldly reasons for this retreat have less to do directly with the potential of sexual assault and more to do with the ways in which the world of society trains women up from a young age to possess unbalanced perceptions of their physical vs. spiritual beauty and worth. Simply put, she's convinced that "custom" has both created and indulged women's fascination with fashion and beauty while encouraging them to neglect their educations. She introduces the argument of her pamphlet by stating, “This is a Matter infinitely more worthy your Debates, than what Colours are most agreeable, or what’s the Dress becomes you best. Your Glass will not do you half so much service as a serious reflection on your own Minds” (140). Astell slowly works in this sentence to restore seriousness of thought to words like "Debates" and "reflection" which have been debased by a slavish adherence to custom. This attempt to take the terms of fashion and of petty female conversation and elevate them or swap them out for those terms that Astell wants women to emphasize reoccurs throughout the pamphlet -- at one point, she laments that women are so quick to follow French fashions, when what they should really find fashionable and worthy of imitation is an education in French philosophy [cite]!
“Thus Ignorance and a narrow Education lay the Foundation of Vice, and Imitation and Custom rear it up. Custom, that merciless torrent that carries all before it, and which indeed can be stem’d by none but such as have a great deal of Prudence and a rooted Vertue” (147)

“ ‘Tis Custom therefore, that Tyrant Custom, which is the grand motive to all those irrational choices which we daily see made in the World, so very contrary to our present interest and pleasure, as well as to our Future. We think it an unpardonable mistake not to do as our neighbours do, and part with our Peace and Pleasure as well as our Innocence and Vertue, merely in complyance with an unreasonable Fashion” (147)
“Therefore, one great end of this Institution shall be, to expel that cloud of Ignorance which Custom has involv’d us in, to furnish our minds with a stock of solid and useful Knowledge, that the Souls of Women may no longer be the only unadorn’d and neglected things.” (152)
A Happier Eden: Undoing the First Fall, Creating Female Friendship and Conversation

While Astell doesn't precisely gender "custom," I do think that there is a sense that her use of "custom" and my use of "patriarchy." Early on, she writes,
“Let us learn to pride ourselves in something more excellent than the invention of a Fashion; And not entertain such a degrading thought of our own worth, as to imagine that our Souls were given us only for the service of our Bodies, and that the best improvement we can make of these, is to attract the Eyes of Men. We value them too much, and our selves too little, if we place any part of our desert in their Opinion; and don’t think our selves capable of Nobler Things than the pitiful Conquest of some worthless heart.” (141)
Rejecting the male gaze as the impetus for female "improvement" [a charged word in the context of pastoral at this point!] opens up a space in which women can encourage and help improve each other -- a space of female friendship that the pressures of the outside world seem to render impossible. When Astell describes her proposed retirement as a “Happy Retreat! which will be the introducing you into such a Paradise as your Mother Eve forfeited” and where “there are no Serpents to deceive you,” the invocation of women's lineage from Eve serves both as a reminder of the biblical justification for some of women's weaknesses and as a promise that that perceived weakness is just another form of "custom" that rears its serpent head and prevents women from achieving their fullest potential as rational creatures (151).

And it is as rational creatures, not just spiritual or emotional ones, that the women of Astell's proposal are called to form a community. Writing against the imagined complaints of men who would reject her proposal as hurtful, Astell counters, “I cannot imagine wherein the hurt lies, if instead of doing mischief to one another, by an uncharitable and vain Conversation, Women be enabled to inform and instruct those of their own Sex at least” (155). Wouldn't it be nice, Astell says, if “In stead of that Froth and Impertinence, that Censure and Pragmaticalness, with which Feminine Conversations so much abound. we should hear their tongues employ’d in making Proselytes to heaven” (164)? What actual conditions would be possible to make this the case?

After seclusion, the first real answer is education:
“What is it but the want of an ingenious Education, that renders the generality of Feminine Conversations so insipid and foolish and their solitude so insupportable? Learning is therefore necessary to render them more agreeable and useful in company, and to furnish them with becoming entertainments when alone” (154)
The "company" imagined here is a specifically feminine company that has little in common with the company of the world. Instead, “this happy Society will be but one Body, whose Soul is love, animating and informing it, and perpetually breathing forth it self in flames of holy desires after GOD and acts of Benevolence to each other” (157). While Astell does emphasize the spiritual nature of her proposed venture, she isn't shy about the educational value she wants women to derive from it: in a sequel pamphlet, responding to critiques, she describes the venture as “rather Academical than Monastic” (179), suggesting that this imagined retreat might serve not only as a place of spiritual but also intellectual growth and power. In the end, the retreat from heterosexual society into a homosocial one is empowering for Astell: “you may more peaceably enjoy your selves, and all the innocent Pleasures it is able to afford you, and particularly that which is worth all the rest, a Noble Vertuous and Disinteress’d Friendship” (151).

Make Way for Eden: Actual vs. Virtual Space

While Astell's Proposal is often classed as something of a utopian scheme, certain sections of the text suggest that she has every intention of making this institution a reality. Her proposal, she suggests, needs to be enacted in the real world because it would serve to alleviate the real-world concerns of a particular set of women:
And if after so many Spiritual Advantages, it be convenient to mention Temporals, here Heiresses and Persons of Fortune may be kept secure from the rude attempts of designing Men; And she who has more Money than Discretion, need not curse her Stars for being expos’d a prey to bold importunate and rapacious Vultures. She will not here be inveigled and impos’d on, will neither be bought nor sold, nor be forc’d to marry for her own quiet, when she has no inclination to it, but what the being tir’d out with a restless importunity occasions. (165)
The "rude attempts of desigining Men" are real, the inveigling and imposing and forcing is real, and that's why women need a real space to allow for their retreat from it. Astell's argument in this passage is similar to the arguments of many English men and women around this period who began to lament the lack of alternative options for women who would not -- or could not -- be married. Astell's labeling of her retreat as a "female monastery" [cite] may have upset some of her readers, but in many ways the institution she seeks to establish would perform the functions ascribed to Catholic nunneries in earlier ages, giving women a respectable (and typically inexpensive) alternative to marriage, and thus an alternative to being pursued by men whose desires might find violent expression.

The one thing to note is that Astell isn't being terribly egalitarian about all of this. She cares mostly about "Heiresses and Persons of Fortune"; later, she states that her plan might be most useful to “Persons of Quality who are over-stock’d with Children, for thus they may honourable dispose of them without impairing their Estates. Five or six hundred pounds may be easily spar’d with a Daughter, when so many thousands would go deep” (168). Not many families would have had five or six hundred pounds just lying around -- and while Astell is surprised that no one answers her proposal with ready money, I'm not, because by this time, the kinds of women who might have seriously benefited from an institution like this didn't necessarily have the financial support to make it a possibility.

And yet, for all of Astell's disappointment at the failure of this community to come together as a reality, there's something to be said for the idea that a woman can use the space of print publication to summon (and perhaps in so doing create) a public of specifically female readers, who are initially encouraged to improve their genius in order not to let down former examples of female literary talent: “Remember, I pray you, the famous Women of former Ages, the Orinda’s of late, and the more Modern Heroins, and blush to think how much is now, and will hereafter be said of them, when you your selves (as great a Figure as you make) must be buried in silence and forgetfulness!” (141) [something about the literary community of women around Katharine Phillips?] Astell, through print publication, ensures that she will never be "buried in silence and forgetfulness."
heart_in_the_margins: (Walking reader)
I think my paper is going to end by looking at a pair of poems by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, in order to suggest the ways in which the gendering of (royalist) women's representations of retreat shifts towards the end of the eighteenth century.

"The Petition for an Absolute Retreat"

This poem is particularly interesting because its female speaker -- addressed in the poem as Ardelia, a pastoral renaming of Anne Finch herself -- constructs a vision of paradisal retreat in some ways much like Astell's (a place of women's community and friendship, contemplation, lack of adornment in dress, knowledge production; a "petition" in the public sphere) but in other ways related to Cavendish's (centered around a pair of female friends, rejecting the intrusions of those "Who visit, but to be from home" (l. 9), addressed from one woman to another). I plan to use it as a text that will both make the distinction between Cavendish and Astell clear, and suggest that their interests perhaps represent different ends of the same spectrum, on which Finch falls more firmly in the middle. [I, uh, may have been distracted from this post for a bit while I tried to draw a Venn diagram of these three women's interrelated interests...it's currently a work in progress.]

Even the title of this poem is of interest: first, it's framed as a "petition," which suggests that it's a document that circulates in something like a public sphere and represents the requests/demands of someone without authority to someone with greater authority. The petitioned figure in the poem is possibly "Fate," personified throughout, but also possibly Arminda, Finch's pastoral renaming of her friend Catharine Countess of Thanet. I'm interested in what it might mean that this poem moves the genre of "petition" away from the public interaction between, say, subject and sovereign, and into the realm of interaction between two female friends. Second, "absolute" seems to be functioning in a way that separates this poem's interest from the typical representation of the retreat. This is not a retreat from which its inhabitants are interested in returning. Unlike the seasonal movement to and from the countryside, this is a request for a retreat that would not end, that would not have to be balanced by a return to the city and a return to work, so to speak.

The most fascinating thing about this poem is that it continually references Eden, and the happy pair of Adam and Eve, as support for its vision of a pair of female friends cohabiting in paradise. The stanza that does the most talking about these tropes (ll. 104-25) does refer implicitly to Adam and Eve, but neither names nor genders them -- nor does it name or gender the poem's addressee. As a result, it's possible to read Finch's desire for "A Partner suited to my Mind" (l. 106) as a reference to her husband (more on him in a minute). But the following stanza makes it pretty clear that the partner discussed in these terms is in fact Arminda. The poem ultimately stresses female friendship:
Friendship still has been design'd
The Support of Human-kind;
The safe Delight, the useful Bliss,
The next World's Happiness, and this. (ll. 192-5)
What does it mean that Finch can evoke God's reason for creating Eve, and a common justification for marriage -- "Heaven has shown / It was not Good to be alone" (l. 104) -- to discuss the love she feels for a female friend? I do think this poem is about homosociality rather than homosexuality, but it's a female homosocial sphere that is deliberately separate from the influence of men.

"To Mr. F[inch] Now Earl of W[inchilsea]"

Simply put, this is a poem written to her husband about how infrequently poems about happiness and married love are actually written -- and about how hard, therefore, it is to be asked to write one. Finch actually describes her relationship to her husband in terms similar to those in which she describes her relationship to her female friend in the previous poem, and their marriage is transformed into something like the shared retreat of "Petition": a "stolen secrecy" (l. 96), located spatially "in some neighboring grove, / (Where vice nor vanity appear)" (ll. 88-9) and thus evoking the space of the pastoral retreat.

The majority of the poem consists in Finch, aka Ardelia, arguing with the muses for inspiration to write a poem in praise of her husband. The muses give some interesting reasons why it can't be done, and those are the focus of my interest:
And 'twas their business to take care,
It reached not to the public ear,
Or got about the Town:

Nor came where evening beaux were met
O'er billet-doux and chocolate,
Lest it destroyed the house;
For in that place, who could dispense
(That wore his clothes with common sense)
With mention of a spouse? (ll. 46-54)
So we get a series of interesting associations here: "public," "the Town," "beaux," "billet-doux," and the space of the coffeehouse are all at odds with "mention of a spouse." Here, the things that are public include not just men's conversation (the coffeehouse was a male homosocial sphere) but also courtship (billet-doux = "sweet letters," aka love letters), the process of pressing one's suit prior to (or outside of) the commitment of marriage. So the public/private, or public/secret divide (to use the terms of the poem) is not between private homes and public spaces, domestic women and worldly men -- it's between what can be known to all and what must be known only to a select audience. And that select audience in this poem -- the husband and wife -- are engaged in the same kind of pastoral retreat from society in which Ardelia petitions Arminda to join her. [I also suspect "petition" is a word that at this time would possess overtones of courtship...need to OED that.]

Some concluding thoughts

"To Mr. F" feels very early for the kind of companionate marriage it's describing, but this is less important to me than the way in which the companionate marriage of "To Mr. F" occurs in a very similar space to the friendship of "Petition." We haven't yet made it to anything like a gendered separation of spheres: the domestic space and the space of retreat are spaces of intimate relationship, but that relationship could perhaps be either heterosexual OR homosocial. For Finch, these still seem somewhat interchangeable -- this is why she can use references to Eden, and to Adam and Eve, to code her relationship to her friend in "Petition," but still write a poem about her incredibly loving relationship with her husband that is also couched in pastoral terms.
heart_in_the_margins: (Letters)
One thing I will say for this particular class, I'm doing a lot more reading in the later seventeenth century than I thought I would ever get the chance to do. I'm an eighteenth-centuryist at heart, and mostly a mid-to-late eighteenth-centuryist (my dissertation will probably start with Richardson and Fielding and end with Austen and Scott, at this point), because mostly I care about the novel. But I do care, more broadly, about what it means to constitute communities in print, and as a result I am starting to care about the rise of the periodical press, and apparently, about the ways in which royalist women writers dealt with their figurative and literal isolation during the civil wars and Interregnum and after the Glorious Revolution.

For this particular paper, I'm interested in representations of virtual vs. actual communities of women, particularly in print (because print circulation itself can create a virtual community out of its readership, the way that manuscript letters don't really accomplish). As a result, I turned to Margaret Cavendish's Sociable Letters (1664) and read them through to see how this collection constructs female sociability and to what ends it does so. Some of these letters may have been written before the Restoration; all of them are written in light of the trauma of the civil wars, which forced Cavendish into exile on the Continent and cost her husband a great deal of his property and wealth. And this is important, because my current thesis about the function of virtual vs. actual (female) communities in Sociable Letters is that Cavendish associates the world of actual sociability with damaging gossip and insecure alliances reminiscent of the civil wars, and as a result casts the royalist retreat from the country (or into the countryside, away from the city and the actual sociability it represents) as a retreat from the warfare amongst women and a retreat to virtual sociability via letters which will always offer more security, and therefore more pleasure.

Now, to back up and actually talk about the evidence that seems to support this.

The Frame

SL is framed as representing
the Correspondence of two Ladies, living at some Short Distance from each other, which make it not only their Chief Delight and Pastime, but their Tye in Friendship, to Discourse by Letters, as they would do if they were Personally together, so that these Letters are an Imitation of a Personal Visitation and Conversation, which I think is Better (I am sure more Profitable) than those Conversations that are an Imitation of Romantical Letters, which are but Empty Words, and Vain Complements. (42)
This introduction suggests a few things, not just about the letters that will be present in this collection, but about the ways in which Cavendish believes these letters will differ from letters written in the "Mode-style" of "our Modern Letter-writers" (42). Her emphasis on the idea that these letters will represent virtually the same kind of discourse these ladies would have "if they were Personally together" suggests that letters typically did not function in the same terms as "Personal Visitation and Conversation." Furthermore, her argument that letters imitating conversation are better than conversations imitating letters suggests that the sincerity of the language employed is of greater importance to her than the distance that separates the conversant parties: be it face to face or via the post, conversation should and can be "personal" (which I suspect she's using in much we way we'd use the phrase "in person" today).

[It's also possible that the fact of there only being two ladies is significant -- when I move on to talking about gossip, I want to suggest that Cavendish finds it most problematic when it happens in larger groups, as opposed to when it happens as a way of passing news between two good friends.]

The first letter of the collection lays out much the same framework: "You were pleas’d to desire, that, since we cannot converse Personally, we should converse by Letters, so as if we were speaking to each other […] so that our Letters may present our personal meetings and associatings" (47). The very notion that letters can "present our personal meetings" suggests that the letter is a powerful vehicle for the creation of virtual sociability that is no less intense (and no less valuable) than the kind of sociability that inheres in face-to-face "personal" encounters.

[I just want to note here that the frame closes weirdly. There are some letters in the end of the collection that are obviously written to Cavendish's real-life acquaintances, rather than to this fictitious "lady," but the final letter acknowledges this and treats the fictitious lady as real, in so doing pointing up the virtual and print-mediated nature of this collection. "As I began this Book with those Letters to you," she writes, "so I will end it, hoping you will Pardon me for Mixing some Letters with those to your self" (286) -- and yet none of the letters have thus far acknowledged that they are being written for a book, rather than being actually written. By suggesting that the recipient of these letters a) is real, and b) knows all along that the letters are part of a "Book" and not part of a correspondence, Cavendish both affirms and breaks down the notion that these letters might be representative of a real correspondence. I don't know quite what to do with this yet, but it really interests me.]

Gossip and women's resentment of other women

The letters that represent women's sociable interactions seem to suggest that these will always end in anger and strife, due to women's need to compete with each other for pride of place and tear each other down in order to promote their own interests. These relationships may be couched under the language of "friendship," but Cavendish seems to be of the opinion that with friends like these, who needs enemies? In an early letter, she writes that “Friendship that is made out of fond Humours, seldom lasts long, especially when they live and bord together...especially Women” (69), and continues,
Thus they may be Friends and Enemies all their Life time, and perchance take a pleasure in being so, for Women for the most part take delight to make Friendships, and then to fall out, and be Friends again, and so to and fro, which is as much Pastime and Recreations to them, as going abroad and staying at home. But I wish all Friends were as constant Friends as your Ladiship and I (70)
The inconstancy Cavendish accuses so-called "friendships" of exhibiting is mirrored in the paired oppositional terms of these sentences: "Friends and Enemies," "to and fro," "going abroad and staying at home." The last sentence, in contrast, concludes by pairing the presumably like terms of "your Ladiship and I." What I find interesting is that this letter begins with the assertion that the reason this particular other pair of women have for being on-again-off-again friends is that they actually "live and bord together" and have to see each other in person on a daily basis. Thus, the slightest suggestion that a virtual correspondence is more salutary to female friendship than an actual series of personal visits.

This idea of women being at odds with each other is developed throughout the collection, leading to statements like the following:
it is so Unusual for one Woman to Praise another, as it seems Unnatural; wherefore she doth not Delight to be Prais’d by her own Sex (116)

it is not only Men that Slander Women, but one Woman Slanders another, indeed, Women are the Chief Dishonourers of their own Sex, not so much by their Crimes, as by the Reproaches of each other (229)
These "slanders" are most often talked about as gossip, and for Cavendish, gossip is thing that begins with women's physical interactions with one another. Directly after a letter discussing an actual plague, which she pleads her friend to escape by removing herself from the city, Cavendish writes, “in this Age there is a malignant Contagion of Gossiping, for not onely one Woman Infects another, but the Women Infect the Men, and then one Man Infects another, nay, it Spreads so much, as it takes hold even on Young Children” (143-4). Here women are at the start of the causal chain, and the language of disease and infection suggests the necessity of physical proximity (or actual interaction) to pass along the disease. Taking the comparison literally, Cavendish suggests that "there is nothing more Dangerous in all Malignant Diseases, than Throngs or Crowds of People" and suggests that retirement from society is "the best Preparative against the Plague of Gossiping" (144). 

The need for retirement

As the above might suggest, SL makes a pretty clear juxtaposition between the "Solitary Country Life" and the "City Life, which is but a Gossiping, and Vain Life" (285). In fact, issues of female sociability seem to cluster around these different ways of life: on the one hand, solitary life is associated with virtual sociability, friendship, and genuineness, whereas city life is associated with actual sociability, gossip, and fashion. While the association of the country life with a more genuine way of living, as opposed to the ridiculous fashions of the town, is a pretty common pastoral trope, it's clear from the letters that the pastoral retreat is perhaps most appealing as a retreat from competition between women and its expression as gossip. Cavendish goes so far as to say that "the less Acquaintance we have with each other, the better, unless they be Chosen by an Immaculate, and Pure Sympathy, and Honour Knit the Knot of Friendship, otherwise the more Acquaintance we have, the more Enemies we have; wherefore to Live Quietly, Peaceably, and Easily, is to be Strangers to our own Sex" (221). She continues in the same letter to say that "a Retired Life is most Happy, as being most Free from Censure, Scandals, Disputes, and Effeminate Quarrels" -- i.e. the quarrels of women! -- "but our Sex is so far from Retirement, as they seek all Occasions, and let no Opportunity slip, by which they can go to Publick Meetings, or Private Visitings, or Home-Entertainments, they will Ruin their Friends, Fortunes, or Fame, rather than Miss, or Want Company" (222). It's interesting to see that "retirement" for Cavendish is not about privacy, for "Publick Meetings, or Private Visitings" are equally in violation of the desire for retirement. The real problem is the need to be always in someone else's actual company (just like the problem with the two women who are such on-again-off-again friends is that they live together, are always in each other's actual company).

[Ironically, Cavendish imagines her critique of gossip as making herself an enemy to other women, precisely because she is critiquing other women: "But if this Letter were not written to you, but to another Lady, it were Probable that Lady would become my Enemy upon this subject, as speaking so much against our Sex; wherefore there is Male-Gossipping, and Male-Brabling as well as Female, and there are more Effeminate Men than Masculine Women" (222). I'm interested in the gendering of gossip being so specific that she needs to distinguish between "gossiping" and "Male-Gossipping," and I'm also interested in the way that "effeminate" and "masculine" are being used here, because they seem to have the valence that they come to acquire later in the time period as distinguishing between two fundamentally different sexes...]

***See also Letter 26

The civil wars

So as it turns out, one of the early meanings of "gossip" was "One who has contracted spiritual affinity with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism" (OED 1). One of the most interesting letters in SL discusses what happens when its writer is "Invited to be a Gossip, to Name the Lady B.Rs. Child, of which she Lyes in" (157). What starts out as an older concept of gossip soon turns into a newer one (something more like "A person, mostly a woman, of light and trifling character, esp. one who delights in idle talk; a newsmonger, a tattler" (OED 3)). Suddenly all of the other women present at such an occasion begin complaining about their terrible husbands. The letter-writer sits and listens in silence for a bit before entering the conversation to tell these women that their complaints won't do any good if they aren't directed at their husbands, and that in fact it reflects poorly upon them if their husbands are poorly behaved.

The resultant scene is metaphorically one of warfare: “the Ladies […] with Anger fell into such a Fury with me, as they fell upon me, not with Blows, but with Words, and their Tongues as their Swords, did endeavour to Wound me [...] it hath so Frighted me; as I shall not hastily go to a Gossiping meeting again, like as those that become Cowards at the Roaring Noise of Cannons, so I, at the Scolding Voices of Women” (158). Being in the midst of a group of women whom you've angered is like being in the midst of a war.

And this isn't the only letter to take up these metaphors. Another describes the way in which high society in towns and cities represents a situation in which “every One is against Another; indeed, every One is against All, and All against every One, and yet through the itch of Talk, Luxury, Wantonness and Vanity, they will Associate into Companies, or rather may I say, Gather into Companies” (79). Cavendish plays on "company," which can mean both a group of people gathered for social purposes and a group of soldiers, gathered to fight in a war, and shortly makes the metaphor explicit by referring to her desire for “Retirement from the publick Concourse and Army of the World” (79). Again, this is connected specifically to gossip as an action primarily undertaken by women against other women: in society, “if any Woman be more Beautiful than commonly the rest are, if she appears to the World, she shall be sure to have more Female Detractors and Slanderers, to ruin her Reputation, than any Monarch hath Souldiers to fight an Enemy” (78-9). The reference to soldiers that might help a monarch fight off an enemy has particular resonance in the writings of a woman whose husband gave a great deal of money to raise armies for the English monarchy during the civil wars, and who lost almost all that he invested [indeed, SL contains a great number of letters about the loss of property the Cavendishes have sustained as a result of the civil wars -- need to reference those in paper]. There are more women gossips, Cavendish suggests, than there are loyal soldiers to support their king. And though it might be something of a stretch, I think it's possible to make an equation between gossip and rebellion/treason [might not make it in this paper as it doesn't seem the kind of thing that M would really buy into, though I totally do]. As a result, Cavendish is left “wish[ing] for the honour of our Sex, that Women could as easily make peace as war” (53) -- both in the nation at large, and amongst themselves.

The one complication

The letter that launched me into thinking about this text in the first place provides a very different take on the kind of relation women might have to the civil wars. Letter 16, instead of accusing women of being in a perpetual war of gossip against each other, that depends on their socializing in person and in large numbers, suggests that women's removal from politics (their status as non-citizens) also makes them non-participants in the war that's tearing apart their nation: “But howsoever, Madam, the disturbance in this Countrey hath made no breach of Friendship betwixt us, for though there hath been a Civil War in the Kingdom, and a general War amongst the Men, yet there hath been none amongst the Women, they have not fought pitch’d battels” (61). I don't know what to do with this in light of the other letters, because this one seems to present a very different general point of view than all of the rest. I think one way around this is to suggest that this letter represents a more idealized notion of how women and men might differ in their relationships to national politics vs. personal friendships, but that doesn't actually seem strong enough.

In the end, I only have 10 pages' worth of paper to write, which means that I'm gonna wind up with a ridiculous number of footnotes.
heart_in_the_margins: (Hardworking)
For one of my classes this semester, I get to write two short (10-page) papers instead of one long paper, and I'm taking this option even though it means that I have houseguests in the week leading up to the paper deadline and really need to write it over spring break.

The first paper I plan to write started out as something of an inquiry. There's a lot of research on the emergence of public social spaces in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Great Britain (and to a lesser extent on the Continent), specifically places like the coffee house, which was essentially (if research and contemporary reporters are to be believed) a space where intelligent men would go to partake in civil debates over the major issues of the day. Most coffee houses subscribed to periodicals, and some even had small lending libraries. Reports suggest that the coffee house leveled the playing field between members of different ranks; though most of the people who frequented them were at least in what we might now think of as the upper middle class, petty bourgeois could effectively argue with minor nobility and if the nobility complained or tried to pull rank, they were teased for not following the unspoken rules of the coffee house, where the man with the best argument won.

The thing is, these spaces -- along with the emerging periodical culture that both described them and gave them material for their debates -- were intensely male homosocial spaces. The papers like the Tatler and the Spectator that often set their proceedings in coffee houses were obviously not restricted to a male readership, but they address their audience through a form that ties them very closely to this masculine space that no respectable women would dare to enter. (The only women allowed were the ones who sold the coffee.) The emerging public sphere and the critical debate that it fosters leaves women out.

This on itself isn't surprising -- hello, patriarchy! -- but in conjunction with some of the readings I've been doing for this class, it got me thinking about the ways in which women writers in this period (1690-1720ish?) see it as a problem that they have no access to a comparable female homosocial space. The rooms of their houses won't do, since those are rooms that on other days at other times might have male occupants, might bear the lingering traces of heterosociality like the coffee house (or like men's clubs) never would. Right now, I'm planning to write about the way in which women writers figure imagined or virtual spheres of female-only sociability, and consider in particular one writer who argues for the need to make these safe spaces a literal reality.

Overview of texts I want to cover:

--Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest (1696): Astell proposes creating a "female monastery" where women would be secluded from the world in a pastoral retreat where they would gain religious and intellectual instruction from other women. Perhaps most interesting to me is her insistence on the need for a physical retreat from the world. Though she gives many reasons for it, the one that strikes me most forcefully is essentially an argument that it will preserve women from sexual assault: "here Heiresses and Persons of Fortune may be kept secure from the rude attempts of designing Men; And she who has more Money than Discretion, need not curse her stars for being expos'd a prey to bold importunate and rapacious Vultures" (Astell 165). I imagine that in many ways this text will be at the center of the argument I begin to build, though it will likely be the last text I cover in my paper, because it's the one that suggests why a virtual or imagined space of sociability isn't enough; women need the physical protection offered by real-world female homosociality.

--Female-directed periodicals: I haven't read any of these yet, but I suspect I should. The ones I've been able to find so far include Delariviere Manley's The Female Tatler (1709-10), useful for its contemporaneity with the periodicals that were really shaping and defining the male social sphere, and Eliza Haywood's The Female Spectator (1744-6), which is published much later than its namesake but might be interesting as an endpoint of this paper. 

--Margaret Cavendish, Sociable Letters (1664): I've only read one of these letters so far, but it's a fascinating one. I think Cavendish will end up fitting into my paper as a representative of the argument that letter-writing (which if I'm not mistaken does have a specifically feminine valence at this point) presents a virtual community of women, which is not only sufficient to the needs of women but perhaps even superior to men's gatherings in the public sphere. This is a hypothesis that will need to be tested, but the one letter I have read suggests that the Civil War is entirely the cause and concern of men, whereas women are somehow safely removed from it: "though there hath been a Civil War in the Kingdom, and a general War amongst the Men, yet there hath been none amongst the Women, they have not fought pitch'd battels" (Cavendish 61). This suggests to me the possibility that it is the very virtuality of the female social sphere that makes it a valuable place, and specifically a place where friendship can be maintained despite differences (in contrast to the male social sphere, which emphasizes debate and disagreement). 

--Anne Finch, "The Petition for an Absolute Retreat" (1713): This pastoral poem is written to one of the poet's female friends, and celebrates a pastoral retreat as the space that makes female friendship possible. Definitely something to read in conjunction with the Astell, with which it has a lot in common. Interesting to me because it does mention Finch's husband and invites him to be present in the pastoral retreat space, but spends much more time talking about her friend, addressed in the poem as Arminda. **Also look into the other poems published in the same volume as this one?

--Mary Leapor, "Complaining Daphne. A Pastoral." (1751): Not actually sure if I would use this, since it might be smarter to stick to a tighter time period and I might want it to be an earlier one -- but it's interesting in that it ends with Daphne's call to her "Sylvan Sisters" and a promise to "bid the lordly Race Adieu" (ll. 108, 111) for their sake. Also interesting in that it's a self-consciously pastoral poem, which would help connect with Astell's pastoral retreat. (I also think it could be argued that Leapor chooses to name this nymph "Daphne" as a reference to the myth of Daphne and Apollo -- but here the girl is the pursuer, not the pursued, and when her love leaves, she decides to retreat to a society of women, and the poem supports her choice. Unlike the mythological Daphne, she is free from sexual violence.)
heart_in_the_margins: (Pencil marker)
I think I need to write about this paper I'm working on in a low-stakes environment for a moment or two.

I find it hard sometimes to start papers from the beginning because especially in seminar papers, "the beginning" is also the part where you locate yourself within a critical tradition of some sort -- which in my case is often the part where I pretend that I have read far more books than I've actually read, but have some idea of the centrality of because they've appeared in other peoples' footnotes.

I've been working this week on a paper that originally thought it was going to be something rather different from what it's turning out to be. According to my paper proposal, handed in a month ago:
For my seminar paper, I plan to examine contemporary reviews of late Victorian novels (published approximately 1865-1875) in order to develop a general understanding of periodical criticism’s treatment of the novel. By focusing on the criteria by which reviewers judge novels and the elements of novelistic form around which these judgments center, I hope to deal with the ways in which the periodical press worked to define the novel as a genre.


In addition to contextualizing the contemporary critical reception of Middlemarch, in my research I am interested in attempting to develop a poetics of the late Victorian novel review. What is its typical orientation to its objects of critique? What techniques are available to it in making its opinions known? How, for example, does it relate to plot summary and character sketch? How does it make use of quotations, both from the novel being reviewed and from other sources? Does it tend to focus on a single text, or compare the central text to other recent (or not-so-recent) examples? Does it follow any kind of standard organization? More importantly, I am interested in what we can learn about the assumptions about the novel as a form/genre from the way novels are treated in the reviews, and I suspect my research may lead me towards suggesting something like a “practical theory of the novel” as expressed in periodical criticism. By looking at the features of novels which are most often up for comment and the evaluative systems by which these features are judged, I hope to gain a sense of what constitutes a “good” novel in the reviews of this period. If any widespread metric for critiquing the novel emerges from my research, I may find it useful to compare this practical criticism of the novel in the periodical press with Victorian cultural criticism of a more theoretical bent (ex. Arnold, Pater, Wilde) to see, among other things, how criticism undertaken by periodical reviewers lines up with the precepts for criticism laid out by a less novel-specific approach.

Ultimately, by attempting to provide an “ad hoc” generic definition based on the reviewing institutions contemporary with the genre being defined, I hope to fill in some of the gaps in contemporary literary-critical work, which has produced little on either the prehistory of novel theory or the history of literary criticism.
So, I went and read a ton of reviews of Middlemarch. And while the research I did allowed me to answer the questions I asked in this proposal, it also began to suggest that I wasn't exactly asking the right questions. If practical criticism in the periodical press is interested in the form of the novel at all, it's interested primarily in the ways in which that form a) can be represented (or not) in a short space by the reviewer, and b) effects the reader.

What's most interesting is that, even in the 1860s and 1870s, when the novel has been a feature of modern life for quite some time, critics are always stretching to talk about it in terms of genre -- and often, when they're talking about novels we'd consider good novels, perhaps the best novels, the generic comparisons are to things other than novels. More than one reviewer states that Middlemarch really isn't a novel in any proper understanding of the word! It would actually be untrue to my research to suggest the ability to extrapolate anything like a "theory of the novel" from these reviews.

The paper I'm actually writing is focusing far more on the commentary about novelistic form implicit in reviewers' attempts to represent Middlemarch in the compressed space of the review and their evocations of (and cautions about) readerly responses to a serial novel. That's a good move, because it's helped me to see that the history of novel theory and the history of literary criticism are really much more separate than they seem to me at times: I would class the history of novel theory with intellectual history, but I've really come to believe that the most interesting way to approach the history of criticism is to see it as a subfield of the history of reading. Critics are those whose readings leave traces. Why aren't we reading them more frequently under the rubric of the history of reading, where they could do some good? So while this paper is on its most basic level a study of the ways in which reviewers both reflect and construct the reading public's responses to serial form, it's also a paper that suggests what is to be gained by seeing the history of literary criticism as a subfield of the history of reading (and how redefining it as such might in fact make it easier to produce such a history). Of course, the paper I'm writing can never claim space for itself as more than a minor point within this history -- but the important thing about criticism is that it has an object. And when criticism is literary, that object is a book. And the critic is also always already a reader. 

So, I kind of know where I'm going with the thrust of the argument. But situating myself in the critical conversation turns out to be more like suggesting how that conversation has been hitherto wrongheaded or incomplete. And I always feel wary of making that move. I'm just a grad student! My professors know that! Won't they think I'm ridiculous if I tell them I'm about to change the field? I mean, I understand there are ways to make the claim that aren't about my ego and that really are -- to me -- about having an idea I think might be important (and might be better taken up and pondered by people who actually know what the fuck they're doing). I am just not sure I know how to make that claim in such a way that it sounds like it isn't about my ego, while having it still sound like I've done my work.

(For the record. It's at least four hours since I started writing this post, which stayed open in the background while I read through portions of several books relevant to my project in lieu of actually writing this pesky introduction. I feel even less like writing it now than I did four hours ago.)

To recap: In this paper, I want to do two things: 1) a reading of reviews of Middlemarch that illuminates something about the serial form; 2) a framing of the question in terms that connect the history of criticism to the history of reading. It is my belief that 1) will sort of naturally lead to and support 2). And I need to stop rambling and start writing. Like. Now.
heart_in_the_margins: (Counterproductive)
One of my friends and cohort-mates runs a Tumblr called Balls on the Table (a cohort in-joke whose origins I have forgotten) which uses gifs to over-accurately illustrate graduate student life. Recent posts that had me nodding emphatically include trying to survive the last week of term and on my writing process

(This in lieu of a post where I talk seriously about what my seminar papers are about, because I HAVE NO CLUE YET.)
heart_in_the_margins: (Default)
The first thing you learn in buying used books is that other people's marginalia is ridiculous. Especially undergraduate marginalia.

A few cases-in-point, from my Oxford edition of the major works of Byron, which is mostly clean except for some very concentrated blue-pen marginalia around the "Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte":

[apparently, it's "about great disillusionment" and Elba was a "Mediterranian (sic) Alcatraz"]

They just get better behind the cut. )
heart_in_the_margins: (Regency reader)
I'm a woman in academia so naturally sometimes I think about what, exactly, that means.

One of the other women in my cohort, N, has been working to put together some kind of women's forum within our department that would provide a safe space for informal discussion between grad students and professors about how gender figures both in our scholarly works and in or day-to-day lives. I don't think that the academic culture of my university is such that there are glaring problems with the way women are treated (as cis- and hetero-identified, I won't venture to attest to the way the atmosphere seems for any queer or trans* members, but I haven't heard any complaints), but even in the absence of glaring misogyny the patriarchy is real and a thing whose assumptions need to be challenged, even if only on a small level, on a daily basis. And sometimes that gets exhausting, and it's useful to talk with other people -- professors and peers -- who are engaged in the same sort of daily grind. I don't have time in my schedule to head up this thing myself, but I told N that I don't mind at all taking on a second-in-command role and I'm excited to see where this goes.

At any rate, we had a sort of trial meeting for this potential forum today and my current romanticism professor, A, spoke about her own experience as a woman in graduate school, particularly in classroom situations; she brought up a few interesting situations and scenarios that got me thinking, and that I want to record.

-- She made what I think is an interesting point about the relationship between pedagogy and privilege. A is a cis, hetero married woman who is also a member of an ethnic minority. She said that, especially in undergraduate classrooms, she tries to keep her sexuality her own business -- to the extent that she refers to her husband exclusively as her "partner" in the presence of students, because she doesn't want to be a glaring example of her own privilege as part of one type of majority; let her students assume what they will. On the other hand, she's typically more open about her status as a member of an ethnic minority. I really appreciated this because I've been thinking for a while about how a) I want gender-neutral relational words to become more popular as a way of unsettling or at least making apparent the gendering of language itself, and b) I don't want to "be" my sexuality to my students -- I want to be myself, which includes sexuality but isn't only sexuality, and I certainly don't want my students to think that, because I do identify as a cis hetero woman, I am unsympathetic to the concerns of people with different identities. 

-- We talked a bit about strategies for dealing with everything from small daily doses of patriarchy to outright in-your-face misogyny, and A related a story about a man in her grad school cohort who often used literary theory as a crutch for making horrendously misogynist statements. When certain of A's profs did nothing about this, the female students took it upon themselves to create what A called an "alternative hierarchy of expertise": instead of responding with rage to this man's misogyny and the failure of their professors to correct it, A and her cohort developed methods for turning his misogynist contributions into starting-points from which to affirm the knowledge of the women in the room. For example, one of A's friends had read all of Foucault in the original French, so if Mr. Misogynist ever tried to use Foucault to make a point, A or a member of her cohort would redirect the conversation to that friend based on her position of superior knowledge; if he started to talk politics, other women would ask A for her input because she's well-read in 19th-c political thought. In some ways it is tiring to always have to deflect, but I like this strategy because while it does work by deflection, it redirects power rather than changing the subject.

-- Then A shared a story that made me angry. Yes, the other ones made me angry, but in this case, I felt like the response she described -- and with which she seemed to agree -- was utterly inadequate. Mr. Misogynist gave a fairly phallocentric presentation on a Dickens novel; one of A's cohort-mates asked him a question which called him out on his failure to mediate this view, bringing up a couple of examples in the novel that contradicted it; his response was to turn to the professor of the course and say to her, sarcastically, "I thought you only let in smart people."

When I heard this retold I literally shuddered. What kind of idiot thinks he has the right to say that? To interact with the professor instead of the peer who's asked the question, to dismiss her body of knowledge outright, and to do it to her face and in front of a colloquy of her peers?! If I had been that professor, my response would have been some variation on, "Apparently not, since we let you in. Now get out of my classroom and don't come back until you can respect the intellectual validity of your peers." In A's retelling, however, the professor responded calmly, did not kick the student out of the class, and instead told him that his comment wasn't contributing to any kind of pedagogy and that he shouldn't speak if he couldn't contribute something of value to others.

I understand that rage typically isn't the kind of thing you want to present in a classroom. I understand that more respect is accorded to professors -- male or female -- who can deftly handle a situation. But I promise you, if I were in a similar position, I would have been furious and I would have let some of that anger show by critiquing this student to his face, since he felt it was alright for him to do the same to his fellow student.
heart_in_the_margins: (Regency reader)
I'm interested in Jane Austen's strange status with regards to literary period. Her life (1775-1818) straddles the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and although all of her published novels were released between 1811-1819, I'm always tempted to see her as the pinnacle of the eighteenth-century novelist, rather than the progenitor of the nineteenth-century novelist (though of course she can be both!). Yet the period that, like Austen, straddles these centuries and seems nicely to encompass her dates of birth and death -- namely, English Romanticism -- is one in which she isn't necessarily "at home." In this semester's course on romanticism and method, I'm hoping to write a seminar paper that will examine Austen's relationship to romanticism via a reading of Persuasion, which in many ways is her most obviously "romantic" novel.

One thing I think this reading would have to implicitly do is contrast the position of Austen as "romantic novelist" with that of Sir Walter Scott, who is far more often treated under this rubric, but this seems like a difficult task considering I still haven't read any Scott yet. (Oh, the joys of orals list writing...) And I'm actually more interested in thinking about the way Austen contrasts the mode of authorship she employs as a (female) novelist with the modes of authorship employed by famous (male) poets -- especially Wordsworth and Byron, with whom she's obviously in some kind of oblique conversation during Persuasion (both are discussed and/or quoted by Anne in the novel). Scott actually becomes interesting again in this context because Austen's references to Scott in Persuasion are to his poetry, not to his prose! There isn't ever a suggestion that Austen disliked Scott or thought of him as a competitor -- in fact I seem to remember her rather enjoying his novels? will need to check her letters -- but the fact that he's represented he by his poetry and not by his prose suggests that Austen is interested in differentiating authorship across genres.

Sources to consult:

James Chandler, England in 1819: Why does Scott have such a large position when Austen is thoroughly absent? What does this say about the priorities of romanticism and/or romantic studies?

Mary Favret, War at a Distance: read the chapter on Persuasion; although this brings Austen into a history of romanticism, Favret's notion of romanticism is a bit stretchy and stretches into the modern period; when reading Persuasion as romantic because of its thematic treatment of war, what other modes for reading the novel as romantic (or potentially refusing to term the novel romantic?) are lost?

Adela Pinch, Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion from Locke to Hume: read chapter on Persuasion and the emotional insulation of books and quotation

General questions:

What kinds of definitions of romanticism are likely to involve Austen and which aren't? Do romanticisms which include Austen seem to still possess a kind of internal integrity? How do they do that if they do, and why not if they don't?

Is Austen's interest in modes of authorship and authorial presentation romantic, or novelistic, or both? Where do we draw those boundary lines? What might we learn from drawing them differently?


heart_in_the_margins: (Default)

June 2017



RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Oct. 18th, 2017 11:13 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios