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Friday, 18 April 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: P is for Pregnancy

The 2008 BBC adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles (1891) has gone down in my family folklore. Gemma Arterton as Tess appeared in shot cradling her child (Sorrow) and my then boyfriend looked around the room in confusion, uttering the immortal words ‘where did the baby come from?’.

Naturally we all (especially my younger sister) found the question hysterical, but he had a point - the adaptation, like the novel, had skimmed over nine months of pregnancy and the moment of the child’s conception, with its corresponding questions of consent, had been suggestive, rather than overt, in its dramatisation. While in the case of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, censorship had altered this portion of the novel, this anecdote is simply a reliving the experience of many inexperienced readers of Victorian novels for whom babies appear apparently unexpected, as if no one, even the mother, expected them beforehand.

So, for those new to picking up implied pregnancies, here are some top ‘clues’ that a child may be on its way:

1. The disappearing act: A major female character (usually recently married) seems to ‘disappear’ from the text for a while. During pregnancy, women who could afford to often led a relatively inactive lifestyle and stayed indoors. And not doing so was regarded as inappropriate, and potentially dangerous for the child (see the May family’s concern for Flora in Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy Chain (1871) which I reviewed recently). This means characters who played a large role in a novel during their girlhood can drop dramatically out of view when pregnant, for instance Thomasin Yeobright in Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878).

2. Delicacy: A husband shows excessive concern for his wife’s wellbeing. If a husband expresses worry over his wife completing a seemingly innocuous task (like walking somewhere or riding in a carriage), odds on, she’s pregnant (although she could also be consumptive…).

3. Condition: Anyone reference’s a female character’s ‘condition’. They don’t mean she has a headache. She’s definitely pregnant.

4. Relationships: If a female character appears to have had sex before marriage, she’ll probably become pregnant – it’s the way her actions can have consequences in plot terms (think Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-3)). Likewise, using true novelistic logic, if a marriage is happy, there are likely to be children, whereas unhappy marriages will be fruitless or result in potentially morally vindictive infant death (think Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861)).

I recently finished reading George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894), which was a marked contrast to this. The novel was seen as shocking at the time because of its liberality and explicitness and Esther’s pregnancy (while unmarried) comprises a large part of this. We are aware of the pregnancy from the very moment that Esther is:

‘She did not think – her mind was lost in the vague sensation of William, and it was in this death of active memory that something awoke inside her, something that seemed to her like a flutter of wings; her heart seemed to drop from its socket, and she nearly fainted away, but recovering herself she stood by the kitchen table, her arms drawn back and pressed to her sides, a death-like pallor over her face, and drops of sweat on her forehead. The truth was borne in upon her.’

We are told:

‘There was still the hope that she might be mistaken; and this hope lasted for one week, for two, but at the end of the third week it perished, and she abandoned herself in prayer.’

It’s about as close as a nineteenth-century novel comes to actively discussing a woman’s menstrual cycle.

When Esther goes into labour we are similarly allowed access to her feelings and impressions, her fear at seeing ‘the basins on the floor, the lamp on the round table, and the glint of steel instruments’ while surrounded by the noise of other women’s screams in the hospital, and her sense of shame at realising how many people will see her unclothed. This is how Esther reacts to a young doctor – ‘Oh no, not him, not him Not him, not him, he is too young! Do not let him come near me!’. She is met by laughter but her response is an internalisation of the silence surrounding pregnancy which the other novels are part of – a dramatisation of the trauma pregnancy and labour entails for those to taught to cover up and hide.

What should be ‘Q’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Friday, 11 April 2014

Review: A Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert (1869)

Gustave Flaubert

A Sentimental Education is the story of Frederic Moreau –a young man from the provinces who arrives in Paris, with great ambitions and romantic ideals, and goes on to witness the revolution of 1848, with its corresponding political change and social upheaval. 

For general readers: A Sentimental Education is obsessed with conveying feeling – of a time, a society and an individual – more than delivering plot. Characters disappear and reappear and focus shifts with the developing emotional and mental life of the protagonist the only constant.

Moreau is a deeply flawed character – cowardly, selfish and entirely preoccupied with his all-eclipsing emotional life. Yet somehow he manages to engage reader sympathy. We feel for him as he pines hopelessly over another man’s wife – the beautiful, long-suffering Madame Arnoux – and sympathise as he deals with the coquettish courtesan Rosanette (‘The Marshal’). Moreau’s fickleness and his self-obsessed nature are not unique character traits. Almost everyone who features in the novel is the same (with a partial exception perhaps of Frederic’s mother and Madame Arnoux) and it is the capricious course of human action in all things, whether politics or love, which directs action.

At times the novel feels like an assault on the senses – violence on the streets, decadent parties, a surplus of flesh and feeling. But, for a novel obsessed with desire, sex itself is often lacking, and, where it features, dissatisfying. The novel ends with Frederic and his friend Deslauriers discussing a teenage visit to a brothel when the very sight of the women available to them made them turn and flee. They agree that this was their ‘best time’, confirming the belief throughout the novel that feelings themselves are more meaningful than experiences and desire sated is desire lost. 

For students: Published nearly a decade after his most famous novel – Madame Bovary (1857) – A Sentimental Education is a good text for comparison, dealing as it does again with the emotional life of a central character (this time a man) and similar sexual ‘immorality’.

For students of English literature, the novel is an interesting read for understanding the hostility towards the moral liberality of French realism. Henry James’s admiration for Flaubert is also understandable and telling. Flaubert’s characters’ realities are Jamesian in their subjective nature and there is the same obsession with the randomness of human interactions, though perhaps, in this instance at least, put under a less tragic and more satirical lens.

Have you read A Sentimental Education? What did you think? And which nineteenth-century novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know below, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Saturday, 5 April 2014

English Literature Study Skills: Using Criticism

In my previous post I looked at strategies for reading when it comes to approaching a new novel for study, discussing note taking, note reading, pace of progression, reference to additional resources and using introductions as afterwords. In this post I look at the next steps for studying a text – looking at what happens when you start dipping your toe into the scary world of criticism and identifying the best places to start:

Introductions: Here’s where I left off last time. Reading the intro before finishing the text leads to boredom, bias and spoilers, but reading it straight after finishing can be incredibly helpful. A well-written introduction references the key critical ideas when it comes to a text and can point you to some good pieces of criticism from which to start. But beware. That bargain fifth-hand copy you bought on Ebay may not be up to date when it comes to critical reception. And your teachers, tutors or lecturers are going to want to see analysis from you which goes beyond that provided in the most commonly read copy.

Companions: The Cambridge Companions can be a great place to start when it comes to approaching a new author, genre or period. Each Companion is comprised of essays by prominent scholars in the field, covering a range of important issues affecting the topic. e.g. the Companion to George Eliot has essays dealing with her life, politics in her novels, and the representation of gender in her work (among others). What’s great about the Companions is that they serve as a general introduction when read cover to cover without being dumbed down because of the calibre in contributors. Alternatively, they are useful as reference books. The chapter on gender will cite multiple other critics who have dealt with this topic, meaning it can act as a handy guide to their arguments, if this is an area you are also looking at.

Contemporary reviews: You can find collections of these for major authors and you can also usually find them online. They are important for understanding context and can act as good starting points for your own essays – especially if you use one which is less well known.

Journals: Students are often under time pressures and all too often you are quite far into a critical work before you realise it’s not going to be helpful to you - journal articles help solve this problem as they are quicker to read and often state in the first paragraph what their argument will be. Some authors even have whole journals dedicated to them (e.g. The Wellsian on H.G. Wells) which means you can use their catalogues as an index for identifying critics and arguments you want to pursue.

Do you have any other tips when it comes to starting your critical reading? Let me know – here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

Sunday, 23 March 2014

English Literature Study Skills: Approaching new novels

Approaching a new text for study can be intimidating, especially if this is the first time you’ve studied literature seriously, know that knowledge and understanding of this novel is crucial for success in an important exam, or are taking your studies to a new level, e.g. transitioning from GCSE to A Level or starting degree level study.

Different people find different techniques suit them when it comes to academic work, but below are a few suggestions on how to improve your approach to literary study which you might find helpful.

1. Reading for flow: At secondary school we spent months ploughing through set texts at a snail’s pace, doing exercises on each chapter and losing all sight of novels as a mode of entertainment which is meant to be enjoyable.

My top tip is to read a new novel cover to cover before attempting any ‘analysis’. That way you’ll be reading a text in the way it was designed to read, duplicating the reading experience of the many others who have read the novel previously and be in a better position to assess the effects the writing has on you. You’ll find out which portions of a novel are faster paced and make you want to keep reading and be able to appreciate chapter and section breaks – whether they give you time to pause or make you want to read on.

If you are reading a novel in a classroom setting, taking the time to read ahead outside class is definitely not time wasted. You’ll gain more from any discussion as a group if you already have a handle on plot and some idea where the novel is going thematically.

2. Notes  - theirs and yours: One thing which can be detrimental to appreciating the flow of a text is notes – note reading and note taking.

Many editions of Victorian novels, for instance Oxford World Classics and Penguin Classics, – are equipped with really helpful and informative endnotes, but taking up the time to flick back and read each one can lead to your reading experience being disjointed, as the notes interrupt you, sometimes mid-sentence. My rule of thumb is to avoid the temptation to read every note just to feel studious, especially if you already understand a reference in the text. Turn to the notes when your understanding is impaired. For example, there may be quotes in another language or a reference to a famous person, place or historical person unknown to you.

The type of notes I always avoid at first reading are the ones which deal with textual changes and omissions. These are often lengthy, reading them can confuse as you are trying to get to know this version of the text first and editors very often presume knowledge of the plot meaning these notes are accompanied by explanations which include spoilers. Textual variation is a rich field for study later but I’d say leave them for now and come back to them once you’re better acquainted with the text.

Taking your own notes can also be unhelpful in some cases. Use them only to aid your own reading experience – e.g. to keep track of characters and their relationships to each other if they are proving confusing (think Wuthering Heights) – or as a helpful list of references to chase up later. So, if you read a line or passage which makes you think of another novel, seems particularly interesting to you or you know you’ll want to come back to later, take a note of the page number with a brief one or two word reminder to yourself about why you want to bookmark it. This is particularly useful if you are at a more advanced stage of study, where you know you are looking at this text to explore a certain topic or theme.

Don’t feel that if you’re not taking notes, you’re not studying. You are. Writing ‘pathetic fallacy’ or ‘jealousy’ etc. in the margins won’t help you at all and there’s no point writing notes you’ll never read again.

3. Other resources: If you are still reading the text there’s no point turning to literary criticism yet, or even to study guides – these will come in later. But there are other resources which might help. If your understanding is impaired, don’t just soldier on. Turn to search engines (or good old dictionaries) to look up unfamiliar words. And if an historical event or person is referenced in the text without a note, take the time to at least read the first line of Wikipedia.

4. Introductions: Never read the introduction first. The blurb will give you enough of an idea about what sort of novel it is that you’re starting, while an introduction will a) spoil the plot for you, b) confuse by referencing things you don’t know about yet and c) prejudice the way you read the text. If a friend talked at length about a film you hadn’t seen, the conversation wouldn’t be much fun and might even put you off going to the cinema to see it. By the time you read the introduction you should be in a position where your responses can be more conversational  and critical – ‘I thought that too!’, ‘I hadn’t thought about it that way’, ‘I’m not sure I agree with the editor on this’. Introductions can be very helpful, especially for directing you towards criticism, but avoid the temptation to start at page ‘i’ and turn straight to page ‘1’.

In a follow up post, I’m going to be looking at what to do once you have finished reading your text (including more detail on how introductions can be helpful). In the meantime, if you have any questions or tips on approaching novels for study, then let me know – in the comments below, on Twitter (@SVictorianist), on my Facebook page, or on Google+!