In his epilogue to Montague, Or, Is This Religion? (1833),the Anglican clergyman Charles Benjamin Tayler justifies writing a religious novel with the brave assertion that "I will not allow this story of mine to be a religious novel" (263), which is the sort of thing likely to make a native Southern Californian like myself say, duuuude. (Even academics are allowed to have non-academic knee-jerk responses on occasion.) As religious novels go, this one is primarily notable for the bait-and-switch with its protagonists (first mother, then son), its unwise decision to name the exemplary Christians "Temple," and its horror at the dreaded evils of playing cards. That being said, at least one of the novel's preoccupations does interest me, and that's its obsession with performativity. Indeed, one of the reasons that Tayler was doing his best to pretend that his religious novel wasn't one, all evidence to the contrary, was that religious fiction itself was subject to the charge of modeling a certain type of Protestant theatre--offering its readers supposedly Christian "plots" (just as romances were accused of doing), popularizing language or gestures meant to signify inner belief, and so on. Montague, then, is all about playing whack-a-mole with "evangelical" signifiers. Maria Graham, the jumped-up grocer's daughter who will marry into the aristocracy, shifts from superficial Christianity as a teenager to an entirely formalized belief as an adult: refusing to "search and examine her own heart and life, to see if the fruits of the Spirit were springing up there," she instead "began to think much of externals, and to measure herself by others, and to compare herself with others..." (45). Her evangelicalism, which manifests itself in much sermon-shopping and missionary work, is not just worldly, but effectively mechanical, investing a particular kind of social action (appearing at given churches or specific lectures, having particular people over to the house) with illusory transformative power. Maria's son Montague, anticipating Brocklehurst's deceitful brat (the one who figures out that psalms are the best method of getting treats), had, by age twelve, "read the Scriptures several times through," was able to "pray extempore," and could trill hymns to his parents' content (53). In other words, all of these "objective" proofs of his sanctity substitute for saving faith, which he soon proves not to have; the extemporaneous prayer in particular is meant to be a dog-whistle, indicating that the family supposedly values spontaneous expressions of faith (as opposed to relying on "forms" such as the Prayer Book) when, in fact, it really celebrates verbal facility. (Montague, despite his acquirements, is not really the ideal evangelical child.) Most of the novel's characters suffer from the same problem, ranging from the thieving evangelical with whom Montague finds himself associated with at college, to the old woman who complains that a well-meaning aristocratic home visitor cannot pray "experimentally" (i.e., extemporaneously) (162). By contrast, we are meant to admire the Temples' insistence that true Christianity only manifests itself in concrete action, whether self-sacrificing charity or moral discipline. As Mr. Temple warns the old woman, "You talk too much" (162). In fact, the novel's difficulty is precisely avoiding the charge that it, too, is talking too much. Anglicanism, I think, here functions as the necessary mode of discipline that prevents excessive babble (or ought to), whether through the prayer book or the clergyman's authority.
Amidst all our discussions of over-priced databases, may I add a pet peeve: databases only available for onsite access. The British Library has many lovely databases. So does the New York Public Library. Etc. But cardholders can't use any of them unless they're physically present, which is not hugely practical if one has to board an airplane (with or without a passport). I imagine many users would cheerfully (or, at least, resignedly) pay a fee to use these resources from the relative comforts of home...
(And let's not get started on databases that refuse to even countenance the thought of licensing individuals. Which would be just about all of them. We have [some] money! We'd gladly give it to you!)
Meanwhile, the Ashgate situation (which has been garnering many signatures on the petition) does raise questions about the long-term prospects of commercial academic publishers whose pricing eliminates nearly all individual purchasers. Cambridge, at least, has been making some efforts to sell its paperbacks to actual human beings with limited wallets, but surely, at some point, publishers will have to come to grips with the decline of the library as a primary market?
Charles Dickens is a by-word for impossibly angelic children, especially impossibly angelic female children like Little Nell. But B. L. Farjeon's "Little Liz," which I found in Jack Doig's Australian Gothic: An Anthology of Australian Supernatural Fiction, takes the Dickensian angel and pushes it to the farthest boundary of melodrama--and then right on through. The plot is simple: Liz, age six, is the daughter of Bill, a poor Englishman who came to Australia during the Gold Rush in order to pay off a debt. Bill has been prospecting with our narrator, Tom, and gone absent for several months while he retrieves his daughter from their caretakers; it's when he returns that things are truly set into motion. For Liz, says our narrator, is "a little angel" (loc. 694), and he falls "in love with her at once" (loc. 707). Our narrator is not alone. Everyone adores little Liz, from the man who gives her a dog, the trusty Rhadamanthus, to the working men who would do favors for them "and would never take anything for it but a kiss from her pretty lips" (loc. 746), to the bushrangers who ambush them but call it off at the first sight of her. Liz denies her kisses only to the man with whom Bill has partnered at a quasi-magical mining site, Teddy the Tyler, who "tried to force her" (loc. 782), with unfortunate results. Eventually, once Bill, Tom, and Liz return to the site together, things come to a fatal head with Ted...
Teddy is bad. He is irredeemably bad. We know he is bad because Liz dislikes him, and Liz is willing to like everybody, including men initially out to rob and possibly kill her daddy. Liz, by contrast, is perfectly good, and the story's title certainly invites Dickensian comparisons. So far as it goes, this contrast between absolute evil and absolute innocence is straight out of melodramatic tropes. But the story does some weird things with its melodramatic excess. Because this is a Gold Rush story, the plot is loaded with the desire for Mammon; Bill, rejoicing in the sheer overflow of gold at his site, tells Tom that he "worship[s]" his find because of what he sees it doing for his Liz, who will be able to "hold her own with the best lady in the land" once he finishes with her (loc. 865). Now, this is problematic language, to be sure--but it also rings suspiciously of Great Expectations. Instead of making a gentleman, he plans to make a lady. Yet Bill's hunger for the gold that will supposedly ensure his angelic darling a life of leisure is in stark contrast to Liz's own currency of innocent kisses. This currency, one notes, circulates entirely among men. This story has no women other than Liz (who is, of course, a girl, not a woman); you could use it to define "homosocial." Liz's innocent, chaste kisses enable relations among men based on mutual cooperation, altruism, and love. from the workers who sacrifice themselves to help to Tom himself, who fantasizes about building a life with her and Bill--an alternative family in which men, too, can mother. In Liz's little world, there is no profit, no exploitation, and no hierarchy.
The difficulty, though, is that Liz's effectively anti-capitalist kisses, which can literally bring about world peace, have been inextricably bound up with the violent world of greed, as signified by Teddy the Tyler. It's no accident that Teddy's attempt to "force" kisses from Liz has distinct rape-y overtones: Teddy's ominous, quasi-demonic presence reminds the reader of the less savory desires accompanying the gold that Bill seeks to turn to angelic ends. Tom's and Bill's joyous fantasy life is built on their quest for gold, not in opposition to it; rather than seeing Liz's nature as the guarantor of future happiness, they see cash. Moreover, the appalling Ted's presence acts as a counterweight to Liz's, consistently inspiring brutal violence (Bill beats him up repeatedly)--yet Tom and Bill never contemplate getting rid of Ted entirely, even though Tom points out, reasonably enough, that "[h]e'd murder the lot of us, Bill, [...] if we give him a chance" (loc. 900). Desire persists. It's impossible to avoid noticing that Liz, the carrier of innocence and solution to all the world's ills, is also a weak child incapable of defending herself; when Ted decides to kill her, even the big dog can't stop him.
Farjeon's conclusion explodes in a melodramatic orgy of overheated emotion. Tom suffers from "blinding tears"; Bill, in Lear-ish form, wails "[s]he is only sleeping. Feel her heart, Tom, it is beating. Feel, feel, I say!" (loc. 1020). The scene, in fact, owes something to the death of Little Nell. Here's Liz:
As she lay with her eyes turned blindly to the sun that was smiling on the hills, and bathing them in light, I could scarcely believe that she was dead. In her innocent young face the roses were still blooming, and in her pretty little hands were grasped a few of the wild flowers she had been gathering. I stooped, and kissed her pure fresh lips. Then I turned away, for blinding tears were in my eyes, and a darkness fell upon me. (loc. 1020)
And here's Nell:
She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death. Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favour. "When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always." Those were her words.
It's not a direct lift, obviously, but Farjeon has clearly paid attention: we have here the same emphasis on light, on nature, on the dead child's pure and perfect body. The very title "Little Liz," as I've already noted, invokes "Little Nell," and Bill is in some ways a far more fit version of Nell's grandfather (which would make Ted an even worse Quilp, if that were possible). But Liz's death has no redemptive function and enacts no permanent transformation, locally or nationally. Unlike Nell's grandfather,Bill free of Liz's influence declines into pure violence: he and Ted promptly murder each other, leaving poor Tom all alone (so to speak) to narrate the tale. The ending is as though the fan response to Nell's death were actually imported into the text: "Within twenty-four hours five hundred men were in the gullies. The helped me to bury Bill and little Liz in one grave, and to put a fence round it" (loc. 1068). This melodramatic overflow--five hundred?!--is not a testimony to the triumph of Liz's lasting influence, but the last gasp of its failure. Even our narrator, as he concedes, has fallen far from his few weeks of moral improvement at Liz's hands. So much for the Dickensian innocent.
I confess to thinking about academic things as something of a distraction from other things.
1) It's useful to remember that one may learn something useful from the most unlikely of places. The quality of the scholarship is more important than the supposed "seriousness" of the topic, however you want to define that. (I'll admit to being biased, not just because I write quite a bit about fiction that could charitably be defined as aesthetically displeasing, but also because the most interesting and helpful work in my field of late has not been about canonical works.)
2) It's no problem whatsoever finding humanities scholarship that my undergraduates can understand. In high-end journals, even. Most of it is not difficult to read. I know that all the cool kids these days think that everyone writes in Middle High Theory-ese all the time, but really now.
3) I could be wrong, but I suspect that Notre Dame has made more money on Book Two ($39) than Ashgate did on Book One ($80-$110). Perhaps because people can afford Book Two?
4) It's very difficult to write a syllabus for freshman comp when the university hasn't populated the course yet (the students don't enroll themselves). Spring comp courses often don't reach capacity, which means that a syllabus geared to a class of twenty-two students, with all the necessary workshops, computer lab days, &c. laid out, will not work very well for a class of seven...
5) Speaking of which, I wish advocates for mobile tech in classrooms would remember that some students are not likely to have the tech (hence the need to reserve computer lab days). Digital stuff is great, but only if there's money to do it.
6) A colleague and I were discussing how much of our work was going into edited collections. I noted that this was already an issue when I was working for Modern Philology, nearly twenty years ago: we spent the year biting our nails about how few submissions we were getting, not about being buried under a slush pile. (This is not a nostalgic memory, needless to say.) A non-contributor told one of the editors that if they had a guaranteed place for an article, why would they want to put up with the kind of hassle that is now recorded on the Humanities Journal Wiki? (Which, I'm pleased to see, has many nice things to say about ModPhil. We did copyedit people within an inch of their lives.) As it stands, although I've got an article that I'd like to start making the rounds before the end of the year, my next three articles have all been commissioned in advance (one for a digital publication, two for books). Has anyone else found their publishing agendas slowly shifting to collections instead of journals?
I suspect everyone has authors, actors, artists, musicians, dancers, what-have-you, that they don't get. Everyone else admires the authors et al.; meanwhile, you're over there in a corner, smiling and nodding awkardly, saying, "sure, sure, absolutely," while wondering if something has gone wrong with your aesthetic sense. It's not even a case of thinking that the Emperor is wandering about exposed to the breeze--just that, for some reason unknown to humankind, the relevant connections in your brain refuse to fire. All of this is to explain why I approached Robert Edric's Sanctuary, his historical novel about Branwell Bronte, with extreme trepidation. I openly admit that Edric's style and I do not get on, for reasons I will assume have to do with me instead of Edric. Beyond that, Branwell is not a prepossessing character; the uphill battle Douglas A. Martin faced in Branwell has not become any easier in the intervening years. It is exceptionally difficult to write a historical novel about someone whose mediocrity functions not as an index of "the moment," as such mediocrities do in Walter Scott's fiction, but as a sign of abject failure. As in Branwell, Edric's Branwell tries to develop a narrative for himself that will somehow prove the existence of inner genius, an arc of unrecognized literary power that can be made visible in volume form. And as in Branwell, this Branwell gets nowhere with that project, subsiding instead into paper-shuffling--or, as Charlotte says, "You gather up ancient papers and turn them into new piles, that's all" (160).
Unlike Branwell, however, Sanctuary dramatizes Branwell's failure in the context of the disruption of rural labor at mid-century. Conditions are poor, food is scarce, and disease is rampant; Branwell's father Patrick spends much of his time attempting to raise money for his parishioners and attending them on their deathbeds. From the very beginning, the genteel Branwell finds himself in awkward conflict with the working poor, most of whom regard him with deep-seated contempt. The novel's first sentence--"I met a pack man on Sober Hill, leading a string of Galloways and carrying half a load himself" (11)--appears to promise a neo-Wordsworthian encounter between the perambulating gentleman and the hard-working laborer who will soon move him to tender sympathy. No such thing happens. Instead, the encounter both pokes holes in Branwell's unspoken but assumed social superiority (the pack man regards him coldly instead of respectfully) and, more importantly, reveals that Branwell is a deeply unsympathetic and, in many ways, uncomprehending observer of the people around him. Within a few moments, Branwell is "already regretting all this effort of conversation" and, indeed, failing to "conceal my lack of interest in what he was saying" (12). The Wordsworthian pose of cross-class sympathy devolves into self-centered disconnection. And the pack man angrily calls him out on it: when, in response to the pack man's complaints, Branwell says "I see," the pack man responds, "I very much doubt that. Your sort never do. Or if you do, then you're careful to see only what you want to see" (13). What's worth noting here is that Branwell, would-be author, resorts to cliche in order to escape the conversation; the pack man appropriates his language and turns it back on him to reveal its political evasiveness. Our Branwell is not just selfish; he is also, perhaps, a rather lousy wordsmith.
Variants on this scene, which recur throughout the novel, distinguish Branwell from the poor men around him on account of their physical labor. Branwell spends the novel doing nothing much; in fact, the narrative begins after his failed affair with Lydia Robinson and his failed job on the railway, so that the plot leaves him suspended between a past of inept action and a future of unpleasant death (which is also not represented, but merely noted in an afterword). This necessarily raises some questions about gender--not least because his sisters are in the process of becoming famous, even though their writing is offstage and their novels never mentioned by name. Much of the plot is devoted to stripping Branwell of the stereotypical Victorian attributes of masculinity. ("What do you do?"  asks the pack man, putting his finger on the sore point.) Branwell's endless drinking, in particular, defines him in terms of dissipation, not production or accumulation. He has a daughter out of wedlock (a recent biographical theory, here assumed to be fact) who dies soon thereafter, suggesting both sexual profligacy and failed paternity. Unlike his father, he is unwilling to sacrifice himself for the good of others, especially those less well off than himself. His career as a poet goes nowhere. And after being dismissed from the railway, he cannot get another job, leaving him dependent on his family's charity (and Lydia Robinson's). Indeed, his humiliation reaches its climax when he comes close to being arrested for debt, saved only by Charlotte coming up with some cash as a stopgap. As Emily calmly informs him, "You are weak and without resolve [...] And you veer from self-pity to hysteria and back again. You have no true comforts or guide" (219). Emily's language implicitly feminizes him; in this family of sisters, the brother is the one who conforms to Victorian stereotypes about womanly weakness, forever requiring the others to provide him with financial and emotional support. Even his fellow failure Leyland, a sculptor reduced to making cheap mantels, at least sends what money he has to his mother.
The immediate difficulty posed by this characterization, of course, is that it makes Branwell hugely unpleasant company, not least because his occasional flashes of self-awareness are drowned out rapidly by his lapses back into self-pity. "[I]t seems to me," says one character, "that you have foundered completely and that you strike out at all around you without knowing why, and without any true idea of the trouble you cause," to which Branwell can only respond, "I cause ten times more trouble to myself than to anyone else" (270); a bit later, when the subject of Leyland comes up, Branwell whines that "Why is it that everyone speaks only of him and shows such scant regard for me?" (282). (It doesn't help that Branwell has been begging Leyland for money on a regular basis.) Accusations and counter-accusations like this run through the novel, all of them convicting Branwell of a fundamental insensibility to the needs of others, at best, and leech-like qualities, at worst. His imagination rarely extends successfully to the minds of others, as the termination of his romantic fantasies about Lydia Robinson suggests. As rendered in this novel, Branwell's bathos--it's impossible to say tragedy--emerges from this character flaw, which rears its head everywhere from his sexual misadventures to his ultimately useless visit to Hartley Coleridge. Edric's peculiar style, which has prompted my own ambivalent response to his work, is at least of some use here. Like all of Edric's first-person narrators, Branwell is at a distance from his own emotions, narrating his feelings so that he is always performing instead of inhabiting them. An early exchange between Branwell and Leyland illustrates what I mean: "'You instantly became--and remain--my dearest friend,' I told him. I put my hand on his to convince him of the sincerity of this" (20). It's the phrasing of the last sentence that does it, and which is so characteristic of Edric's work--this need for the character to self-consciously reassure himself, as well as the reader, that his language and gestures carry emotional heft. One could argue that this strategy reveals the fictiveness involved (it's a character, of course he's not "having" emotions), but if so, the strategy also empties the character right out. Branwell's imagination is fully occupied with the need to craft his own emotions; he doesn't have time for anyone else's.
Given the original's famous obsession with wordplay of all sorts, the title of Gregory Maguire's After Alice is appropriately punny. Chronologically, the novel is, indeed, "after" Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (and Through the Looking-glass, which it also invokes), but the novel is also "after" Alice as we might say one work of art is "after" another. Inspired by; a copy of; related to. Within the novel, the characters are all after Alice, in the sense of pursuing her, but they also arrive at all the Wonderland and Looking-glass episodes after Alice does. As a result, the familiar Alice's Adventures encounters have all been contaminated, as it were, in some respects, as the various characters respond to our protagonists in the context of their earlier responses to Alice. For that matter, After Alice's own return to Carroll's worlds has also been infiltrated by the ghosts of previous adaptations: the Dormouse dozing away in the teapot is suspiciously animated Disney-esque, and the Jabberwock contraption (in reality, our heroine's back brace) is straight out of the Jan Švankmajer film. In other words, like many adaptations, this one is two days slow.
After Alice divides its action between the above- and underground worlds, each a funhouse mirror of the other. (One character gets something in their eye above ground, and the same happens in Wonderland.) Our protagonists in the magical world are Ada Boyce, a young girl whose twisted spine requires a painful iron back brace to correct it, and Siam, an escaped slave who has been touring with an abolitionist, Mr. Winter. When back in the real world, the plot focuses on Miss Armstrong, Ada's put-upon and marriage-minded governess, and Lydia Clowd, Alice's very adolescent older sister. The real world is a thing of sourness. Mrs. Boyce is an alcoholic with an ineffectual and inattentive husband; Mr. Clowd is a widower and rather hands-off parent. The servants are snappish, the children ailing (Ada's younger brother parallels the Duchess' wailing child, here viewed only in pig form), the parents unhappy and preoccupied. Ada herself, who primarily exists to be sent out of the way, is regarded with disgust by Miss Armstrong (who describes her as a "glum, spastic heifer" ) as well as by herself; she looks in the mirror and sees a "rotten packet of fairy" (9), not a pretty child. Siam, who has suffered a "merciless existence" (150), is treated with contempt, then threatened with punishment for taking a "black ebony pawn" (149)--a chess piece suggestive of his own treatment by Mr. Winter. But Wonderland, as in Carroll's original, is often harsh and unwelcoming, instead of being a happy escape from above-ground cares. Although the White Queen is pleasant enough, and a couple of characters relatively helpful, the Wonderlanders in general are as uninterested in (or hostile to) Ada as they were in Alice. If anything, one gets the sense that Alice's appearance has not predisposed the Wonderlanders in Ada's favor. The characters frequently subject Ada to insults, from mildly negative ("you are extremely odd-looking," remarks the Cheshire cat, rather less pleasant than in Alice's Adventures ) to quite vicious ("that other revolting thing" ), that echo the above-ground responses to Ada's body.
In fact, the striking thing about our protagonists' bodies is that they don't undergo the kind of transformations familiar from Alice's Adventures. Ada, although she finds herself able to move more freely than she did above, is still "lopsided" (40), and does not otherwise grow or shrink. Siam, similarly, remains physically unchanged. Instead, the characters reformulate their understanding of how their respective ways of living in their bodies have been shaped by their particular histories. Ada has been trapped by her iron cage (a rather obvious figure for gendered life in Victorian England), which, we are told early on, she has actually outgrown; Siam, the former slave, bears scars from being tortured by his owners. What both discover in Wonderland is the possibility of physical, and therefore subjective, autonomy--the possibility of, for the first time, truly making their own choices. Siam rejects the above-ground world entirely and opts to return to the Wood of No Names, even though he had earlier decided that "[a] forest that makes you forget the names of things is a dangerous place to hide" (189-90). Opting to erase the trauma he had confessed to Ada, Siam chooses Wonderland precisely because above ground, there is no way of magically transforming his body to liberate himself: "Change of mind, change of heart. What I need, change of skin" (256). Siam, whose understanding of evil is beyond Ada's grasp (as she is uneasily aware), opts for a kind of reverse Fall, in which he returns to the woods in order to cease knowing good and evil. In the Wood of No Names, there is also no history and no consciousness of difference--just a perpetual being. By contrast, Ada returns above ground with Alice by literally seizing control of the brace that had once controlled her, appropriating Miss Armstrong's words ("You'll never be much, but you'll be better than you are now" ) the better to choose adulthood. Transformation, in other words, occurs not just physically, but through new relations to language, whether by quoting or forgetting. The rebirth imagery that marks her and Alice's journey to the surface leaves Ada in a slightly improved body--"straighter than she'd ever managed before" (270)--and ready, now that she has brought Alice back home, to accept the responsibility of being a "big sister" (270). If not as mature as Siam, Ada is at least now more self-conscious about the possibility of doing something. But intentionally or not, both choices are, in some respects, depressing, not triumphant. Siam's case is more obvious: his decision to remain in Wonderland tacitly admits that the above ground world cannot be redeemed of its racism. But Ada, having shucked off her back brace, prepares to skip back to a very muted destiny; no heroic life, just being "big sister" in a rather dysfunctional family.
I haven't posted an update in a bit, largely because reality ensued--i.e., doing necessary prep work for next semester's courses. Ergo, I did the reading calendars for two courses (the third is a repeat) and ordered my books. Also, I've primarily been reading volume two of the Oxford History of the Novel in English, which is very long, in order to write a review of it, which will be very short.
However, something did get accomplished: I finished the draft of chapter two, which comes in at slightly over 10000 words. Woo-hoo! Now on to chapter three. Three chapters is one more than I planned on when I applied for my sabbatical, so I'm overall pleased with how this is going. (I am not, however, writing one of the chapters I intended to, because I realized I needed to do some more reading before I could develop my argument properly.)
Have I mentioned that this book is going to be long? (I mean, I do hope it's not going to be as long as the OHNE, but...there was a lot of religious fiction in the nineteenth century.)
Before I jump into chapter three, though, I'm going to incorporate the comments I received on an article draft from a workshopping session last week; I'd like to send it out sometime before the end of the year. That's the last non-commissioned project I'll be able to work on for a while, as I've got three articles of various lengths to complete by the end of 2016, plus at least one conference paper.
Gregory Maguire, After Alice (Morrow, 2015). In the 1860s, an unhappy young girl named Ada falls down a hole and chases after her friend, Alice Clowd. (Amazon)
David Mitchell, Slade House (Random House, 2015). Every nine years, the Victorian Grayer twins have to absorb the soul of a telepath in order to retain their immortality. Eventually, things go a bit sideways. (Amazon)
Nigel Aston, Art and Religion in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Reaktion, 2009). Relationship between art and everyday religious practice, including architecture, painting, sculpture, funerary monuments, etc. (U of Chicago Press)
Nigel Llewellyn, The Art of Death (Reaktion, 1991). Early modern English funerary art, portraiture, jewelry, etc. and their cultural functions. (U of Chicago Press)