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), or on my Facebook page.

Sunday 9 March 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: O is for Openings

The twentieth- and twenty-first-century horror movie has a convention of showing you what is to come in a sequence prior to the opening credits. After this there may be gradual build up – an hour of creaking doors and establishing relationships between the central characters (read: victims) before the demons, ghosts, or chainsaw-wielding maniacs reappear to wreak havoc. But the opening sequence is important – both for letting us know what kind of filmic experience this will be and for, perversely, giving us a taste of the horrors to look forward to.

In this post I’m looking at the openings of the two most famous ‘sensation’ novels of the nineteenth-century – Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859-60) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1861-2) – to see if they do something analogous to the modern day horror movie with their first few pages. Designed to thrill and shock likewise, how do they set the tone for what is to come? 

‘I had now arrived at that particular point of my walk where four roads met—the road to Hampstead, along which I had returned, the road to Finchley, the road to West End, and the road back to London. I had mechanically turned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely high-road—idly wondering, I remember, what the Cumberland young ladies would look like—when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me. 

I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the handle of my stick.

There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.’ 

Walter’s first sight of Anne in The Woman in White is a shocking opening event with all the hallmarks of the typical horror movie – secluded location, lonely protagonist, creepy woman in nightdress. But of course, despite the use of this passage for the opening of TV and film adaptations of the novel, this isn’t the opening at all.

The true opening, prior to the dramatic introduction of Anne and some pages dealing with the relatively minor characters of Walter’s mother and sister, and Pesca, is much less obviously affecting and draws attention to the novel’s textual nature rather than seeking to scare or thrill. 

‘This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.’ 

The first line is arresting and definitive, with the writer assuming a level of authority which the narrative – which will be voiced by multiple speakers – never returns to. The novel is set up as dry and unemotional, a legal document, with a clear moral, and then fails to deliver on all these fronts, while the opening sentence also sets up a dichotomy between the male and the female which the multiple instances of gender confusion in the novel belies.

Collins appeals to the model of criminal justice – ‘the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness’ – but the truth is the sensational narrative will not give the reader (or ‘judge’) the opportunity to ask questions, or the ability to remain impartial. If you go into the cinema expecting to be ‘scared’, you won’t really be unnerved. The opening of The Woman in White sets a high standard of emotional disconnectedness, so that when your senses react, your response is more extreme.

Less textual and more obviously filmic is the opening to Lady Audley’s Secret, which follows a pattern typical of Braddon’s writing – description leading to a scene of dialogue with a dramatic end. The description of Audley Court and its grounds however is one of Braddon’s most extensive and the length of build up worthy of serious attention. The house is introduced simply as ‘it’: 

‘It lay down in a hollow, rich with fine old timber and luxuriant pastures; and you came upon it through an avenue of limes, bordered on either side by meadows, over the high hedges of which the cattle looked inquisitively at you as you passed, wondering, perhaps, what you wanted; for there was no thorough-fare, and unless you were going to the Court you had no business there at all.’ 

In a novel named after a secret, whose first chapter is entitled ‘Lucy’, we may be expecting to begin with a mystery or a person, but Braddon makes it clear from the opening that the house is central – and not only important, but idyllic – surrounded not only by the kind of personified cattle suggesting pastoral, but by peace and history (‘when the place had been a convent, the quiet nuns had walked hand in hand’).

The introduction of a beautiful and peaceful place here, as in a movie, suggests that something is about to come to disturb this harmony, but this opening isn’t only about setting up the kind of domestic bliss sensation fiction destroys. Audley Court is too perfect – and too desirable – and there are already notes of unease: 

‘A place that visitors fell in raptures with; feeling a yearning wish to have done with life, and to stay there forever, staring into the cool fish-ponds and counting the bubbles as the roach and carp rose to the surface of the water.’ 

Anywhere which inspires viewers to ‘have done with life’ is potentially hazardous, while the idea of gazing into the pool suggests the story of Narcissus, with the corresponding dangerous of self-love and vanity. The place is:

 ‘A spot in which peace seemed to have taken up her abode, setting her soothing hand on every tree and flower, on the still ponds and quiet alleys, the shady corners of the old-fashioned rooms, the deep window-seats behind the painted glass, the low meadows and the stately avenues—ay, even upon the stagnant well, which, cool and sheltered as all else in the old place, hid itself away in a shrubbery behind the gardens, with an idle handle that was never turned and a lazy rope so rotten that the pail had broken away from it, and had fallen into the water.’ 

The introduction of the well is something of a Chekhov’s gun and it is remarkable that this scene of crime is so firmly linked to the desirability of the rest of the estate. The chapter ends with Lucy accepting Sir Michael’s proposal of marriage and, offered such a paradise, can we blame her for accepting? The structure of Braddon’s story means we cannot be let into the moral choice at stake in Lucy’s decision, but this opening means we experience the same seduction.

We don’t learn we are reading a sensation novel in quite the same style as we find out we’re watching a horror movie – that would be giving the game away. In reading it’s more a question of hooks than early peeks – mysteries are set up (What has the woman mentioned here endured? Who is Lucy’s ring from?’), further action promised (multiple narrators, a well-positioned well) and scenes set.

Packed with incident, and designed to alarm, sensation novels are ripe for adaptation and share much with movie conventions but, looking at these openings, they also have effects which rely on their textuality for their success.

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

Monday 3 March 2014

Review: Scenes of Clerical Life, George Eliot (1857)

‘Depend upon it, you would gain unspeakably if you would learn with me to see some of the poetry and pathos, the tragedy and the comedy, lying in the experience of a human soul that looks out through dull grey eyes, and that speaks in a voice of quite ordinary tones.’ 

Eliot’s first foray into fiction was Scenes of Clerical Life – three short stories published over the course of 1857 before being sold together in volume form in 1858. The stories share a setting – the fictional town of Milby - and some interest in a (different) clergyman working in the area. ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton’ is the tale of a man who fails to appreciate his wife until it is too late, ‘Mr Gilful’s Love-Story’ is about the unexpectedly dramatic early love affair of a now single and unremarkable clergyman, and ‘Janet’s Repentance’ considers the suffering of an abused wife who turns first to alcohol, but then to the religious comfort of evangelical preacher Mr Tryan.

But any summary of a George Eliot novel, or even these shorter works, is extremely reductive. The broader brushstrokes are prevalent here too – these aren’t just the tales of individuals, or even of an evolving community and its religious life. Eliot’s ‘theme’ is human nature, and the negotiation of morality and empathy which every human undergoes. Scale is important in Eliot – every thought, each decision can be subjected to scrutiny, and the seemingly trivial can have a massive impact on many lives – and so it is fitting that it is in these smaller scale works that we first have sight of the novelist she was to become. 

Marian Evans ('George Eliot')
For general readers: Scenes of Clerical Life is a collection of works which vividly depicts life in a Midlands town at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and really involves you in the trials of its inhabitants – but Eliot makes you work for it. These short stories are by no stretch of the imagination an easy read as Eliot introduces characters with the same ease as your grandmother telling you her neighbours’ gossip, plunges you into scenes without allowing you a moment to get your bearings and then guides you back to the thread of the story and its moral in indomitable narrative style.

‘Mr Gilful’s Love-Story’ is the most manageable and perhaps initially appealing, albeit it is the weakest (and least obviously Eliot) of the three. The story of beautiful orphaned Italian heroine, Caterina, seduced by the heir to the estate, is bookended by the frame narrative but otherwise proceeds chronologically in typical love plot style. ‘Janet’s Repentance’ is emotionally affecting and still starkly recognisable but difficult to get into initially due to frequent changes in focus, and the rather understandably off-putting discussions of the future of the Church in dialect.

My advice would be to take the stories at their own pace, avoid rushing and trust Eliot’s narrative mastery, while perhaps taking breaks between the three. 

For students:  For students working on Eliot this is an obvious choice – all the hallmarks of her style are here and are ready to be analysed without you having to tackle another lengthy novel or deal with the same passages of Middlemarch that every student quotes.

For others it is the focus on the clergy which may appeal, especially given the stories’ historical setting, and the changes which can be seen affecting the Milby community over the course of the three tales – not just socially, but to the very bricks of their church.

Caterina is an example of an emotionally overlooked female dependant living on uncertain footing in gentile family, who has many fictional counterparts and her Italian origin is also interesting, while Janet is a more nuanced, rounded and realistic portrait of what can happen to a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage than most found in the pages of contemporary literature.

What should the Secret Victorianist review next? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist