“Awful Unknown Quantities”: Victorian Studies in Hard Times

[This post is a revised version of a paper presented at the 2016 gathering of the North American Victorian Studies Association].

In the Winter 2016 semester, I had one of those moments in an undergraduate seminar on the topic of “Victorian Bodies” when I recognized that my students finally understood the overall rationale and scope for a reading strategy I had been trying to instill in them. We were discussing Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which became my student’s favorite text in our reading list. I was trying my best to show students how Stevenson’s descriptions of Hyde’s strangely unknowable body relates to the broader problem of the body in Victorian literature and culture. In short, the problem I wanted my students to see was the human body’s conceptual and categorical evasion of any kind of rational or utopian system of management or classification. Clearly, this slipperiness of the body’s indexicality relates well to Jekyll and Hyde’s gothic narrative, but my intentions were grander. I was pushing my students toward a reading of the unmediated thingness of the body – the Real that cannot be completely touched by any Imaginary or Symbolic register. At one point in our discussion of Hyde’s body, one of my students put up their hand to ask a question. I could see in this student’s face that some kind of lightbulb had gone off. “Does Hyde’s body relate to Dicken’s notion of “awful unknown quantities” in Hard Times?” my student asked. As I nodded my head in the affirmative, my student continued: “huh, I think I’m finally starting to see how the novels we’ve been reading all relate to each other. At first, I thought they were all so different.”

Continue reading ““Awful Unknown Quantities”: Victorian Studies in Hard Times”

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Teaching the Dramatic Monologue

If your syllabus looks anything like mine, at least once a semester you’re dusting off your Tennyson and Browning skills and teaching the dramatic monologue. My personal favourites to teach are “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” (Day One) and then “Tithonous,” “Ulysses,” and “St Simeon Stylites” (Day Two).

This semester I decided to do something a little different. I have the privilege of teaching my Victorian literature class in one of the fancy new classrooms at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning at the University of Calgary. My 40-person class has six big touch screens, and as a result we’ve been able to do a lot of hands-on work in small groups leading into discussions with the whole class. Continue reading “Teaching the Dramatic Monologue”

Close Reading Christmas Comedy

Mr. Fezziwig's Ball by John Leech. Image courtesy of  Philip V. Allingham and the Victorian Web http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/carol/1.html
Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball by John Leech. Image courtesy of Philip V. Allingham and the Victorian Web http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/carol/1.html

One of my Digital Humanities classes is working on a digital archive of A Christmas Carol. In addition to encoding and annotating each stave, they will be creating introductions to the text, to John Leech’s illustrations, and to a few key early 20th-century adaptations (from the first film version (1901), to Edison’s adaptation (1910), and Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore’s radio play (1939) to a TV version narrated by Vincent Price (1949). I will spare you the rationale for these particular choices (“why no Victorian theatre adaptations?” you ask, to which I say “is there no copyright? Are there no license fees?”) and will zip right along).

I have given many Victorian Studies lectures in Digital Humanities classes. I am a Victorianist by training and passion, and while Digital Humanities classes tend to focus on digital methods and building as a methodology, they rely on a deeply humanist engagement with the material and cultural past. In short, the humanities part of Digital Humanities mandates that DH projects, while D, must be about and through H. This time ‘round, I decided to give the students a contextual lecture about class, the workhouse, and early Victorian childhood, with a little excursus on early-Victorian Christmas traditions (or lack of them—Cratchit and his daughter Martha only get to pick their employers’ pockets, as Scrooge put it, on the 25th of December and not on the day before or after, as they might have 100 years on). Not all my students have a background in Victorian literature and culture, or even in English, but the child Dickens, Tiny Tim, and indeed, even junior Scrooge, make for very sympathetic lecture material, so all went well. Continue reading “Close Reading Christmas Comedy”

Insects & Undergrads: Neo-Victorian Novels in the Classroom

“There is something wonderful about naming a species. To bring a thing that is wild, and rare, and hitherto unobserved under the net of human observation and human language…” – William Adamson, “Morpho Eugenia”

still from Angels and Insects (dir. Philip Haas, 1995)
still from Angels and Insects (dir. Philip Haas, 1995)

In one of her first postings for the Floating Academy, Tara MacDonald discussed her experiences teaching Alasdair Gray’s neo-Victorian novel, Poor Things (1992), in an introductory-level literature class. This year I decided to teach Angels & Insects (published the same year as Gray’s) in an upper-year undergraduate class, bookending the term with Byatt’s pair of novellas. Our department’s program offers a couple of classes on the Victorian novel, and devotes another two to the study of poetry and prose from the period. In my experience, the latter courses require a much more careful hand in the selection and curation of materials. I felt Byatt’s novellas, composed as they are from fragments of Victorian texts and glimpses of historical perspectives, offered a creative example of the kind of collage we were undertaking as a class. Continue reading “Insects & Undergrads: Neo-Victorian Novels in the Classroom”

The Challenge of Writing About George Eliot’s Writing

As Tedra Osell has noted at Crooked Timber, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been posting sporadically about his experience reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch for the first time. (Osell also helpfully provides links to Coates’s posts on Middlemarch).

I have enjoyed reading Coates’s attempts to wrestle with what it is about Eliot’s prose that makes it so, well, wonderful, I suppose. For instance, in his post “Greedy of Clutch,” Coates explains that he believes it is his lack of grammatical knowledge that renders him only able to appreciate “the beauty of this sort of writing on a rather unspeakable emotional and spiritual level.” Continue reading “The Challenge of Writing About George Eliot’s Writing”

Sensation vs. Gothic

I’ll be teaching a new MA course on Sensation and Gothic fiction at the University of Amsterdam next year, and I would love to hear suggestions about what Victorian novels I should include. I am also hoping the course will help me answer some of the questions I have about the differences between these two genres. A key difference seems to be setting, as sensation novels typically take place in England, with Gothic fiction more often adopting a foreign setting; yet the urban gothic novels of the late-nineteenth century (novels like Dracula, for instance) seem to blur these lines. Is it the element of the supernatural or fantastic that defines a novel as gothic vs. sensationalist?

An Embarrassment of Riches…

I’m putting together a syllabus for a general course on the Victorian novel, and am finding it difficult to decide what 5 or 6 novels to include. This syllabus is for a job application, so it is a course that I’d like to teach someday, rather than one that I will actually be teaching soon. I need to keep it general, but have decided to include a broad focus on representations of the family, especially alternative families (surrogate parents, siblings living with in-laws, adults living with parents, etc). Continue reading “An Embarrassment of Riches…”