Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Gentleman Jack: Revisiting Anne Lister

Lately, there’s been a lot of fanfare around Gentleman Jack, the HBO production that brings to life part of Anne Lister’s copious nineteenth-century diaries. I’m a little behind on the episodes, but I’ve seen the first two, and am looking forward to the rest. The show is smart, funny, with high production quality, and a certain tongue-in-cheek quality that gives it a fun campiness that is perfectly appropriate to the life story of one of British history’s queerest ladies.

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister (left) and Sophie Rundle as Ann Walker
  Yes, Anne Lister was a lesbian. And she wore an outfit that was rather masculine for the time period—though she did often wear skirts as well, in keeping with the time period and her class status. And I write about cross-dressing women in literature of the eighteenth century. So, needless to say, people keep telling me about Anne Lister and Gentleman Jack—and as I mentioned on Twitter: I am aware.
                I know that sounds snarky to say, but part of me bristles a bit at the idea that people who know my work would think that I had never heard of Lister. On the other hand, I understand that people who know my work are excited to finally have access to a pop culture artifact that relates to my research and, in general, their enthusiasm is awesome.
                Because the story of Anne Lister really is amazing and intriguing—and it changed much of the thinking about the history of sexuality. Sexuality has a history, and there are hundreds of scholars from many different disciplines, geographical areas, and time periods who are studying what sex meant in the past. My work on lesbian desire and female cross-dressing fits squarely into this area of study, as I’m interested in how women who dressed as men became an object of fascination for the reading public of the eighteenth century and, moreover, how such “butch” women appealed to “femme”/“straight” women in the past. Some women who wore men’s clothing did indeed actually live as men, and in studying them, we also trace the history of trans people; indeed, Lister’s gender nonconformity is an important aspect of who she (or he?) was.
                But going back to Anne Lister…Lister is an important figure because she changed the discussion around sexuality. Cultural historian Michel Foucault theorized that sexual orientation became a category of identification only with the rise of Sigmund Freud’s theories of sexuality and gender roles, as well as the writings of eminent sexologists of the late nineteenth century. Prior to the late nineteenth century (so the thinking goes), people did not think of themselves as straight, gay, bisexual, etc. Those terms did not exist or were not used in the same way as today, and, as such, many scholars in the past (and today) believe that those terms cannot be used effectively or accurately to discuss people in the past.
                The decoding of Lister’s secret diaries in the 1980s by Helena Whitbread changed all that. The juiciest, gossipy-est, and sexiest parts of Lister’s diary were written in a code invented by herself, and she details all her sexual exploits therein. Lister writes in her diary about being only attracted to women. Literary scholar Terry Castle discusses these segments of the diary as an important instance of a woman showing a sexual orientation that is self-aware and same-sex oriented. Castle’s arguments, along with those many others, challenged the Foucauldian ideas about when people began to have sexual identities in the modern sense. While my current research project on cross-dressing women doesn’t analyze Lister’s diaries, the scholarship that reacted to those diaries has informed my own scholarship in crucial ways.
                Lister’s story is definitely a complex one, and I’m not going to get into it here. Now that there is a splashy show about her, the articles about Lister have proliferated. Everyone from Marie Claire to The Atlantic wants to tell you about Lister, how the show portrays her, and in what ways the show is awesome and ground-breaking or how it“misses the mark” etc. From being a figure relegated to the shadows of history, a footnote, a topic of scholarly discussion, Lister is out in the open now (pun intended), and everyone has an opinion about her. Some discussions opening up are important—such as whether to Lister was, in fact, a lesbian, or whether she was a trans (straight) man. There is ample evidence in the diaries that Lister did not enjoy anything having to do with being feminine or womanly, she was a tomboy growing up, and as an adult she preferred men’s clothing. The line between butch lesbian and trans man is and probably shall remain blurred since we obviously can’t go back in time and ask Lister herself, but these discussions are important ones that should serve as reminders that LGBTQ identities have always existed—and will always exist. Other discussions about the show and its depiction are perhaps less interesting (The Atlantic wants to know why Lister is presented in such a positive light, for example, as if we need more sad queers on TV).
                In any case, if you do watch the show and enjoy it, I recommend you read a little more about Lister. Maybe check out Helena Whitbread’s amazing blog about decoding the diaries; or Jeanette Wintersen’s discussion of Lister; or buy the book for an amazing beach read this summer. Don’t let the show be your only source about this fascinating person. (Also: this isn’t the first time Lister’s story has been dramatized, though the Maxine Peak film is about a sadder time in Lister’s life--which I discuss in a previous blog post.)
                And, of course, if you want to know about the longer history of women who dressed in men’s clothing in Britain and British literature, make sure to keep an eye out for my book, Sapphic Crossings, when it comes out at the University of Virginia Press in the near-ish future.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Academic Publishing and Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome is a by-now common phrase that describes the feeling that, despite previous professional training and achievements, a person does not deserve to have the job they have, or that they will never truly be as intrinsically good in their field as other, more successful-seeming persons. In a phrase, it’s the feeling that you “don’t belong.” Numerous articles have appeared in the last five years on the topic, from Forbes,to Psychology Today, to, of course, The Chronicle of Higher Education, many of which present strategies for overcoming this feeling.

For some of us, impostor syndrome can be paralyzing. In academia, it is particularly insidious because so many of us equate our internal, intrinsic worth with the ability to publish. In the field that pioneered the idea “publish or perish,” not getting published is equivalent to social, intellectual, and spiritual death. I feel like I know so many people—primarily women—who have put off sending out articles for fear of rejection, often based on a very real, very brutal previous rejections. It doesn’t help that the peer reviewing process is immensely flawed and its emphasis on anonymity means that foul-tempered reviewers often let loose biased, unfair, and hideously negative (and completely unwarranted) critiques that pass for a reader report.

My earliest experience with such a gut-wrenching reader report was with my first ever article I sent out to a journal. The article that was essentially a seminar paper written for an independent study. The professor was very encouraging, however; it was really her idea for me to try to get the paper published in the first place. So I did it; I sent in the article, and it went out to peer review. (At the time, I didn’t even know it was possible to get a “desk rejection,” i.e. a rejection from the editor without even having the article go to peer review.) When I received the reader reports (it was a rejection for publication), Reader A very calmly laid out all the missing scholarships and gaps in argumentation; Reader B launched a vicious attack on my writing, my lack of appropriate scholarship, and, worst of all, on the central claim of the article, saying, “this argument cannot be made” (essentially that was the message).

My first thought was, “OK, fine, I’m done; this was a stupid idea. It’s just a seminar paper; I’ll forget about it and work on other stuff.” But when I emailed the results of the reader reports to my professor, she immediately wrote back and asked to see the reports; she read them and very quickly got back to me that Reader B was a jerk, she probably knew who it was, and I shouldn’t mind him. Instead, she told me to take the suggestions from Reader A, revise, and send it to a different journal. I did just that; the second set of reader reports, however, were similarly divided. Reader A suggested a revise and resubmit; Reader B ripped me a new one. Again, it seemed that my argument wasn’t valid for Reader B. This time, however, the journal editors offered me a revise and resubmit; they told me to focus on Reader A’s suggestions, and after I revised, they would send it out again to Reader A and a new Reader B. This was an incredibly generous proposal; and, eventually, my article was published.

All this is to say, is that a lot depends on the support you have around you and the willingness of editors to go out on a limb. A subsequent article I worked on, about beards and cross-dressing, received: a desk rejection; a rejection after a vile one person peer review that was really a desk rejection masquerading as peer review; a revise and resubmit that ended in a rejection; and finally, a revise and resubmit that ended in publication. For me, the worst part of that process was the R&R that ended in rejection; based on my previous experiences with the first article I discussed, it seemed to me that the editors of this second article were simply unwilling or unable to keep working with me on refining the article. Luckily, eventually it found a home.

To keep going in the face of rejection is probably the number one way to get published. It’s difficult, though, and each rejection adds to the already awful feelings of being an impostor. However, two things helped me put this battle into perspective, both occurring not long after I received my doctoral degree in 2013. The first was in 2014 when, during a writing group meeting at a previous job, one of the more advanced tenure-track professors let slip that she had submitted her previous article to no less than eleven journals before it was published. Eleven! In comparison, my attempts with 2 or 3 journals before publication seemed like a huge success! And this was a person who was tenure-track while I, at the time, was a visiting instructor of composition, barely a year out of my PhD.

The second thing that really put my impostor syndrome into perspective was Devoney Looser’s article on the “shadow CV,” published in the Chronicle in 2015. In this article, she asks the question, “What would my vita look like if it recorded not just the successes of my professional life but also the many, many rejections?” I had never thought about someone like Devoney, badass roller derby player, author of several books and articles, winner of awards, all around nicest person ever, as getting rejected. But the truth of academic publishing is that everyone gets rejected. All the time. She notes that for every article published, there are probably, on average, 3 rejections she received. Reading that initially stunned me, but eventually it made me see that rejection is not the end to an article’s getting published; instead, it should be understood as only the beginning. In other words, successful people are simply those who do not give up.

None of this is to say, however, that impostor syndrome is easy to “get over,” to dislodge or deal with. Let me share a particularly insidious example. A very close person to me had a terrible experience with a dissertation committee member telling her, post-defense, in a private conversation, that she didn’t think her dissertation was very good and that she shouldn’t have passed her defense. This was not the chair of the committee, mind you; there was really no reason to say this to my friend except to belittle her and her achievement. She was rightfully stunned and hurt, and, worst of all, she believed this professor. This person fed into my friend’s impostor syndrome, encouraging it, watering it until it was a vine that paralyzed my friend for years. Every time she received a rejection from a journal afterwards, it felt like a confirmation of what that committee member had said to her. Finally, she stopped sending out her work altogether.

Not too long ago, though, this friend went back to a previous article that had been rejected and asked me to help her figure out how to publish it. It was a joy to read her work and, with some tweaking of the organization and finessing the language of the argument, it became a very strong piece of writing that was accepted by the first journal she sent it to: accept as is. When she shared the acceptance, we both cried. It was such an amazing moment to hear that she had an article accepted, that we cried from happiness….but I think we both cried a little too to think of all the years my friend had wasted thinking that her ideas were worthless and her writing unpublishable.

The people around us have the possibility to encourage our writing or to thwart it; we have the ability to encourage or thwart others. As instructors, we must be encouraging in the best possible way, helping our students grow as writers rather than shooting them down. Similarly, when I write a reader report, I think about how to encourage a struggling writer rather than trying to thwart them. I imagine that the writer is a peer whom I admire, rather than assuming he/she is a graduate student (and even that that attitude that bad writing is grad student writing suggests just how poorly,across the board, graduate students are treated by many in our field. We must do better!).

As writers, we need to surround ourselves with people who will give us useful criticism—criticism that gives credit where credit is due, but which also points out potential sites for expanding, strengthening, or improving our writing. Cultivating such people is an important part of the professionalization process, and, I guarantee you, people are more generous than you can imagine. Become part of a writing group; ask people to read your work; reconnect with past mentors; find new mentors at the conferences you attend; communicate ideas and network on Twitter; ask people to read your work and in exchange offer to read theirs; talk to journal editors at conferences. #writingcommunity is real, and procuring the support of other writers is the number one thing you can  actively do to help deal with impostor syndrome.

The other part of impostor syndrome is you and your own attitude to yourself. You must cultivate a no fucks given attitude towards the people who reject your writing, who thwart you, who tear you down, rather than helping you develop and blossom. It’s that old cliché: you have to believe in yourself. And when people tell you they admire your writing, you have to believe them. Let yourself believe them. Remember my colleague who sent her article to eleven different journals. Remember that even Eminent Scholars have impostor syndrome. Remember that negative peer reviews are a reflection of someone else’s ego or else lack of kindness, generosity, or self-esteem. And just keep writing.

Generosity starts at home. Do you want feedback on your writing? Send me a DM on Twitter @kleinula and let’s start a conversation.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

#ASECSat50 Highlights

This year was my eight time at the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and I think I can say confidently that it was one of my favorites. It was held in Denver from March 22-24, 2019 at the Grand Hyatt Downtown, just two blocks away from the 16th Street Mall, with beautiful views of the Rockies from the 38th floor reception rooms.
The View

For me, one of the highlights of the scholarly side of things was George Haggerty’s panel on “Queer Sites,” on Friday, March 23 at 11:30am. Presenting on the session were Caroline Gonda, Chris Roulston, Stephen Shapiro, and Fiona Brideoake—basically, a power session. One of the things I love most about ASECS is the fact that at any given moment, I can be in the same room with several people whose scholarship has been crucial to forming my own ideas. Caroline, Chris, and Fiona, as well as George, have published wonderful works on doing queer readings of eighteenth-century texts and persons, and they have influenced my projects immensely. It was a delight to hear the panelists discussing sites of queerness in the eighteenth century.

Caroline presented on Strawberry Hill and the damning ways in which Anne Damer’s presence there has been minimized or ghosted by current curators—as if Terry Castle’s “Apparitional Lesbian” had been published just yesterday rather than 25 years ago. Chris presented on Anne Lister and Eliza Raine and their time at a boarding school for girls in York, thinking about how the boarding school becomes a frame narrative for reading Lister’s later relationships with women. Stephen presented on gay male cruising grounds in Paris, especially the Tuileries, and how arrest reports for sodomy can tell us a lot about the class and power relations between wealthy men who solicited sex for money from lower-class men. Finally, Fiona told us all about A La Ronde, an ornamental cottage in Devon that I really really want to visit now. It was the home of two cousins, Jane and Mary Parminter, who resisted pressures to marry and eventually even created a spinster colony for impoverished unmarried women. Fascinating!

Other highlights from the conference included: meeting the witty and multi-talented Stephen Guy-Bray and hearing him recite Latin like a boss; hearing Rivka Swenson describe Cupid as a “bro god”; learning from Hannah Chaskin that Charlotte Lennox’s character in Euphemia moves her friend’s portrait from room to room so she’s never without her (queer much!?); being inspired by John Beynon to think about Aphra Behn’s History of the Nun as campy (does he know about our forthcoming issue from ABO journal on eighteenth-century camp??? I hope you all do!); listening to
Annual contribution to #ASECSshoes
Declan Kavanagh in a Q&A remind us that heterosexuality has a history—an inspiring idea and important to remember!; learning from John Tatter about Stowe and its gardens which I totally want to visit now; reading aloud part of “Mira’s Picture” for Erin Drew’s presentation on the non-feminine, anti-patriarchal female body; finding out from Leah Benedict that electricity is sexy by the end of the #c18; rethinking the linguistic aspects of disability/abnormality/deviancy in the eighteenth century with Rebecca Shapiro and Kevin Joel Berland; and hearing Declan’s talk on the poetics of impairment in libertine poetry.

Not to toot my own horn, but the session I was on, “Queer Swift,” was also pretty great. Jeremy Chow made us re-think Gulliver’s Travels through simian representation and queer lactation; Julia Ftacek reminded us that we cannot neglect our trans students when teaching embodied texts like “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” and Abby Coykendall pushed against “queer” Swift to ask “Is Gulliver straight?” (answer: not really!). I presented on queer abjections in Swift’s excremental poems—though for ISECS I’m thinking a touch of camp might be in order to round out this analysis.

Aside from the academic side of things, ASECS is great for alternative types of socialization, and Friday and Saturday night provided ample opportunities for that. Friday night took several of us to Charlie’s in Denver, a very campy gay dance club with a Western theme. Shirtless cowboys roamed the rooms with trays of Jell-o shots; seven foot tall drag queens stalked through the club, eventually performing for an avid crowd (damn those girls got some mad flexibility!); and the DJ mixed top 40 with country western and hip hop while we danced and danced. It was an epic night to enjoy queer kinship with several folks from the gay and lesbian caucus and their allies.

Saturday night was ASECS Karaoke at Voicebox Denver, organized by the superlative Gena Zuroski, the karaoke queen. Out of the 800 ASECS attendees, I would hazard a guess to say at least 100 of them showed up at one point or another to belt out tunes, socialize, and relax after three full days of conferencing. It’s hard to explain if you don’t like karaoke, but the mood was jubilant, relaxed, and very campy. When you’re singing karaoke, it doesn’t matter if you’re a grad student or a full professor: you’re there for the diva performance: everyone sings along with you because you’re all in it together.

I will stop there. I would say “see you next year,” but this year, I can say: “See you this summer!” ISECS Edinburgh, here we come!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Images from #ASECS17

My apologies to all my readers for my prolonged silence on the blog! I aim to repay you for your patience with more regular updates. To kick off my return to the blog, I bring you some images from the most recent meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in Minneapolis, MN, March 30-April 1, 2017.
One of the things I enjoy the most about ASECS is learning about texts, events, and images that I previously did not know about. I’d like to share some of these images with you, dear readers, for your delight and edification.

1. “The Muff”, 1787 (London)
Kelly Fleming gave a wonderful talk on the first session on “Bodies as Objects,” on Thursday morning, March 30th. She discussed Sophia Western’s muff in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and how the eighteenth-century muff did, in fact, have the connotation that you think it does. More interestingly, though, Fleming discussed how the muff “conflated the materiality of the female body with the materiality of female sexuality.”  Further, muff jokes in the novel often refer to legal issues of property transfer, according to Fleming, suggesting that a muff is never just an article of outerwear.

2. The panel I presented on, “Disability in Austen,” did not contain very many images—although there was a lot of great conversation and the inimitable Devoney Looser and her Mondrianesque outfit deserve to be immortalized in these pages. There was one image, however, presented by Emily Stanback, that deserves mention—it was an image of Jane Austen’s family tree. While the image below is not exactly the one that Stanback used (from the Jane Austen Centre in Bath), it represents the same issue that Stanback discussed in her paper on disability in Jane Austen’s family life. The family tree includes Austen’s brother George, though he is represented not with his own portrait, because, as Stanback discussed, there were no portraits taken of George during his life, probably because he was intellectually disabled. Some biographies do not even discuss George at all, but by putting George back on the family tree, such images acknowledge his humanity, and his probable impact on Austen and her “sympathetic capacities” as a writer.

3. Friday morning I made my way to a round table based on a collection of essays entitled “Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture.” Laura Engel discussed how actresses, princesses, and queens were often represented in miniatures printed in eighteenth-century magazines and the ways in which these images equated the lowly actress with her royal betters. The image of Susanna Highmore, painted by Joseph Highmore, depicts the lady holding a miniature next to a book that looks like a scrapbook or magazine. Engel theorized that perhaps such miniatures in magazines were cut out and preserved by readers as eighteenth-century “celebrity pinups.”

4. In the same session, Chloe Wigston Smith discussed the role of fashion in periodicals and specifically how fashion functioned “as tactile knowledge” in the eighteenth century. The Lady’s Magazine included fashionable patterns for lace and embroidery, giving women access to fashionable patterns that they could adapt and mimic as they wished. For more on the Lady’s Magazine Project, go here.

5. Later in the day on Friday, I attended the Gay and Lesbian caucus (of which I am the co-chair with the ever dapper and dashing Declan Gilmore-Kavanagh—check out his new book Effeminate Years!) session on “Queer Animals.” Jeremy Chow presented on monkeys in the eighteenth century and referenced the image of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with a monkey. The monkey, Chow explained, was connected to ideas of sexual excess, lechery, and lasciviousness in the Restoration and eighteenth century. In Rochester’s portrait, the monkey, appearing as it does below a laurel wreath dangled by Rochester, may in fact symbolize and satirize the feud between Rochester and the then-poet laureate, John Dryden.

Monday, October 10, 2016

How do you Solve a Problem like Columbus Day?

As with many things, Columbus Day has lost much of its meaning; many of us associate it with sales at department stores and car dealerships; some of us get the day off while some of us don't; and all of us regularly forget we won’t get any mail today. In a way, though, that is precisely the problem with having a federal holiday like Columbus Day—a holiday named after a man whose contribution to world history is dubious at best, and murderous and racist at worst.
Columbus apparently had
resting bitch face; probably
the only thing we have
in common.
            If you bring up the idea of getting rid of Columbus Day, or changing it, as some states have done, to Indigenous People’s Day, the reactions vary. Columbus Day was originally signed into law after the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, lobbied FDR to make it a national holiday in order to celebrate a Catholic hero. It has become a de facto celebration of Italian-American heritage, and attacks on Columbus Day are interpreted by some in the Italian-American community as attacks on that particular heritage.
            None of these facts and feelings can change, however, the fact that Christopher Columbus, aka Cristobál Colón, aka Cristoforo Colombo, neither “discovered America” nor “proved the world was round.” His contemporaries already knew the world was round, and he certainly wasn’t the first person to “discover” the New World. All of this is beside the fact that he never actually sailed or stepped foot on the continental 48 states. If anything, he “discovered” and “colonized” (the word itself comes from the Spanish version of Columbus’s name: Colón) modern day Bahamas, Haiti and Dominican Republic.
            Then there is the more damning evidence against Columbus that suggests he might not be such a “hero” of history. Like many (though not all) of his European contemporaries, he believed the native peoples of the lands he colonized were there to be seized and owned by the Spanish crown that he worked for (he himself was Genoese/Italian!). He writes in his letters that “I have taken possession for their Highnesses, with proclamation and the royal standard displayed” of the land, and that the people there “are most wondrously timorous…I gave gratuitously a thousand useful things that I carried, in order that they may conceive affection, and furthermore may become Christians; for they are inclined to the love and service of their Highnesses and of all the Castilian nation.”
Columbus's "achievements" have been celebrated by artists for centuries...
These images perpetuate a narrative in which Columbus is a savior and a hero for Europeans.
In later voyages, upon realizing that the mines of silver and gold he hoped for were not to be found, Columbus took native peoples from the Caribbean to Spain to sell as slaves. To his chagrin as a businessman, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain told him he could not sell the natives as slaves. Columbus’s singular interest in the New World for its money-making possibilities is, in a way, a precedent for later atrocities and the dehumanization of the native peoples in the Americas. The letters of Bartolomeo de las Casa from fifty years later discuss in great detail some of the ways that the Spanish tortured native peoples for entertainment: burning them alive, cutting off parts of their bodies, slicing babies in half with swords or throwing them in the sea, etc.

No caption necessary.
Aside from being one of the earliest practitioners and proponents of a transatlantic slave trade, Columbus was also just a nasty guy. As governor of the Island of Hispaniola, he was tyrannical and dictatorial; eventually he was deposed as governor and even arrested by the Spanish crown. There are stories of how he disfigured a man arrested for stealing corn by cutting off his ears and eyes; earlier in his voyages, a personal friend reports that Columbus bragged about whipping and raping a native woman who did not welcome his sexual advances.

So, should we keep a federal holiday that celebrates Columbus, specifically? Probably not. Should we recognize the far-reaching effects of his voyages on native peoples, on our culture now, and on millions of enslaved Africans who were brought to the New World soon after its “discovery” (re-discovery?) by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors? Should we take a day to deepen our understanding of the pernicious, long-lasting effects of colonization and its racist and eugenicist assumptions? Should we work together to forge a future in which these issues are remembered and learned from, instead of ignored, forgotten, or even celebrated? I think the answer to all those questions is a resounding “yes.”

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Art of Self-Knowledge in Austen

Having recently re-read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), I was struck towards the end by the parallels between that novel, and Elizabeth Inchbald’s 1791 novel A Simple Story. Outwardly, it may seem that the novels have very little in common. Austen’s novel tells the story of Fanny Price, a gentle, timid soul, sent to live with her well-to-do relations, yet never treated as quite equal to them. She falls in love with her cousin Edmund, and the novel’s central conflict arises when Edmund falls in love with Miss Mary Crawford, whose brother, Henry Crawford, after flirting egregiously with Edmund’s two sisters, Maria and Julia, finally decides to court Fanny.
By contrast, A Simple Story tells the somewhat tragic tale of Miss Milner, a headstrong young woman who ends up marrying her guardian, cheating on him while he is out of the country, and being banished to a dank cottage with their little daughter Matilda. The final volume of the novel reunites Matilda with her father, but not before we as readers see the full extent of Lord Elmwood’s tyranny and selfishness and the terrible, terrifying sense of dependence all his friends and family feel around him. The final words of A Simple Story are a somewhat cryptic message about female education:
“And Mr. Milner, Matilda’s grandfather, had better have given his fortune to a distant branch of his family—as Matilda’s father once meant to do—so he had bestowed upon his daughter A PROPER EDUCATION.”
Little is explicitly mentioned in Inchbald’s novel about female education, except that Miss Milner was sent to “a Protestant boarding-school” and had received “merely such sentiments of religion, as young ladies of fashion mostly imbibe. Her little heart employed in all the endless pursuits of personal accomplishments, had left her mind without one ornament.” Instead, it is her daughter who avoided the “pernicious effects of an improper education” through her education in “the school of prudence—though of adversity—in which [she] was bred.”

Many eighteenth-century novels consider the question
of what kind of education is best for young ladies.
Austen’s narrator in Mansfield Park echoes many of the same views at the end of that novel. Sir Thomas, for example, reflects on the lack of a proper education for his daughters Maria and Julia, the first of whom runs away with Henry Crawford after marrying a rich buffoon Mr. Rushworth, and the second of whom elopes to Gretna Green with a man the family barely knows. In considering his daughters, Sir Thomas experiences “the anguish arising from the conviction of his own errors in the education of his daughters [that] was never to be entirely done away.”
Still, despite the “grievous mismanagement” of Maria and Julia’s educations, “he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effects…they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice…of the necessity of self-denial and humility he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.”
More and more women learned to read
and write over the course of the 17th and 18th
centuries, allowing them to weigh in
on  philosophical questions regarding
the self and society.
The language of the two texts is remarkably similar: both Inchbald and Austen are reflecting, through their narrators and characters, on the notion that education must not only include the general project of gaining knowledge of the outside world, but that it must also encompass self-knowledge and self-management. One might have a dissipated character or certain harmful tendencies, but both novels (and many other eighteenth-century novels, including but not limited to the novels of Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, & Frances Sheridan) seem to suggest that bad habits must be corrected at an early age, that denial is a better teacher for children than indulgence, and that once the damage is done, it is extremely hard to undo.
In Mansfield Park, Fanny seems to be the only character who sees the Crawfords for who they really are. She is not blinded by desire like her cousins. Instead, she judges Mary and Henry by her first impressions, and Mary is immediately tainted by her pronouncements against the clergy (Edmund’s chosen vocation) and Henry by his dangerous flirtations with Julia and Maria (the latter of whom is already engaged to another man). At the end of the novel, the narrator suggests that if Henry and Mary had managed to ally themselves with Fanny and Edmund, respectively, they might have shed some of their bad habits. But by indulging their follies and vices and allowing themselves to be more influenced by their London friends and their whims and vanity, they cannot escape their own bad characters.
Many novels suggest that indulging in too much of a "party lifestyle," which included masquerade balls,
could throw one into "bad company", i.e. people whose lack of a moral compass could potentially
"ruin" a young lady's reputation--or soul--forever. Were they alarmist--or essentially right?

What strikes me the most when I read Austen’s novels, and indeed many works by her contemporaries, are the ideas about human character that are quite different from how we think of character today. I’m generalizing somewhat here, but it seems to me that for many people today, we consider that one’s character is not “fixed” throughout life. Instead, we see character and personality as something that develops over time, and most of us would shudder to think that we are the same person, at our core, with the same attitude towards life, the same goals, the same needs, as five, ten, or fifteen years ago. Yet, in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novels, I get the sense that people very strongly believed that character was fixed quite early on and very difficult to change.

While it may be true that certain qualities of our personalities may indeed be fixed from a young age (for example, whether one is more introverted or more extroverted), today’s ideology of “self-improvement” suggest that we can keep improving our selves interminably. Maybe this is a very American kind of attitude as well. And though I would never encourage anyone to stop trying to better themselves, we might learn just as much about ourselves—and our closest friends and family—if we stop to consider those parts of us that are “fixed”—for better or for worse. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Clueless Heroines: Jane Austen’s Emma in the Classroom

This past spring semester I taught Austen’s Emma in an upper-level survey course on Restoration and eighteenth-century literature. I realize I’m pushing the boundaries of the time period somewhat by teaching Austen’s 1816 novel, which is currently celebrating its bicentennial. Still, Austen is a transitional figure, and it felt like a nice juxtaposition against the other works of fiction that we read, which included Aphra Behn’s The Fair Jilt and Daniel Defoe’s Roxana. All three of these works contain heroines which my students had a hard time liking.
In the case of Behn’s Miranda and Defoe’s Roxana, it is easy to see how these fictional characters might elicit disgust or dislike from their readers. Miranda is a caricature of feminine evil, falsely accusing a priest of raping her when he spurns her advances, and then plotting to kill her sister, seducing first a servant and then her own husband to commit the murder (first by poison and next by gunfire). Roxana is hardly better: initially she must give up her virtue to save herself and her children from starvation, but she admits later in the novel that even when she could finally retire from being a kept woman, her own vanity and greed compel her to seek even greater fame and riches. By the end of the novel, when her own daughter finds out her identity, Roxana not only refuses to acknowledge her, but instead wishes her dead.
Austen’s Emma, by contrast, seems quite saintly. She’s “handsome, clever, and rich,” as the famous first line declares, and her worst quality is “the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” And yet, my students decidedly did not like her—especially in the first half of the novel. In writing assignments, some of them denounced Emma as manipulative and controlling, deeming her interest in Harriet Smith “obsessive.”
The frontispiece to Emma.

When it comes to the most well-known heroes and heroines of fiction, readers are often split into the “love them” or “hate them” camps. Ask any avid reader what they think of characters like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Jane Austen’s Eliza Bennet, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, or George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, and you are likely to get  strongly-worded answer. And of course, this doesn’t just hold to female character, either. Most readers have similarly strong opinions about Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Dickens’s David Copperfield, or even JK Rowling’s Harry Potter.
Of course, it’s quite possible, and rather normal, to dislike a character and still enjoy a novel about that character. (Though I would argue that it’s difficult to like a novel in which one  dislikes all the characters—but not impossible.) One’s attitude towards a character and that character’s good or bad qualities also wanes with time. I chuckled a little when several of my students expressed their rabid dislike of Emma because I could remember reader Emma in college and disliking her myself. She was too full of herself, too silly, too meddling, despite having all the advantages a lady of Austen’s time could want.
On rereading Emma, I found I minded Emma’s follies less. Instead, I was more struck by how little happens in the novel. Much of it occurs inside character’s heads—it is taken up with feelings, letters, decisions, and a lot of waiting. What does not fall into the camp of thought and reflection is taken up with dialogue—often great lengths of it, spoken by characters with less than stellar qualities, like the ever-babbling Miss Bates, the rather vulgar Mrs. Elton, and, at times, the ever-lecturing Mr. Knightley.
Part of the exhibit "Emma at 200" at Chawton House in England.
Mr. Knightley is not a bad character, all-in-all. Reading Emma at twenty-one, I disliked Mr. Knightley quite a bit. He seemed even more full of himself than Emma, always lecturing her and telling her she was wrong. It was insufferable.  And then to have Emma actually marry him at the end of the novel! It was altogether disagreeable, to put it in Austenian terms. This situation was probably what irked me the most as a young adult: the novel’s central assumption is that Emma is a silly girl who knows nothing of how the world works and must be taught a lesson through not one, not two, but three major humiliations: being wrong about Mr. Elton; being wrong about Frank Churchill & Jane Fairfax; and getting reprimanded by Mr. Knightley for her improper behavior towards Miss Bates.
Despite this year being the
200th anniversary,
Emma had quite the moment in
1995-6, with  Clueless, & 2
other adaptations, one
with  Gwyneth. Paltrow (above)
and one  with Kate Beckinsale.
While other Austenian heroines must learn to set aside their prejudices (like Eliza Bennet) or their fantasies (like Marianne Dashwood), neither of them are quite so chastened as Emma Woodhouse. Reading Emma at the same age as its heroine, I was annoyed and displeased by the assumption that Emma was quite so wrong about so many things. Reading the novel again and also teaching it this year made me reflect instead on the many layers of it, the way that Austen builds the relationships with the characters and gives us insight into their thoughts and psyches. Many claim that Samuel Richardson is one of the earliest English authors to truly bring the human psyche onto the page, but I feel quite comfortable giving those laurels to Jane Austen. Even a heroine as seemingly clueless as Emma can be of interest to readers when we are allowed to sit inside her thoughts for five hundred pages. (Pamela, as I have argued elsewhere, never seems more than a caricature of female cluelessness.)
And speaking of cluelessness, of course I had my class watch Clueless (dir. Amy Heckerling, 1995) as a follow-up to the novel. This was my first time watching the film directly after reading the book, and I had to admire yet again the filmmakers for their skill and creativity at adapting Austen’s novel in such a fun, and yet strangely faithful way. In many ways, Cher Horowitz is very different, of course, than Emma. She is more fashion-oriented and interested in “retail therapy,” and her “clueless” disposition as a Beverly Hills teenager means she is “ditzy” in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily connect to Austen’s Emma.
Cher and her besties, Dionne (left, played by Staci Dash), and
Tai (right, played by Brittany Murphy) in the role of Harriet Smith.
I can see, however, why the filmmakers developed Cher’s character in this way: Cher’s “ditz with a credit card” status immediately establishes her as recognizable archetype for viewers who haven’t read the book. In this way, Heckerling’s film places us, the viewers, into the role not only of the reader of the novel, who judges the heroine, but also of the other inhabitants of Highbury, who, knowing little of Emma/Cher, judge her by her looks, her money, and her status. Cher is more or less about as likeable as Emma: as film viewers we appreciate her silliness, but are also privy to her whininess and petulance, as well as to her generosity and moments of genuine confusion.
How important is it to like characters in novels? When we teach novels that focus so centrally on characters and character development, it’s hard to divorce discussion of literary forms, themes, and plot from book club-type discussions of why or why not a certain novel or character appeals to us. After all, the point of “The Rape of the Lock” or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is not whether we like Pope’s Belinda and the Baron or Eliot’s Prufrock; such a discussion wouldn’t make any sense. Yet, when we discuss character like Emma, it’s difficult not to discuss whether we like or dislike the character. In the classroom, my best bet is to then turn the discussion around, and ask my students why Austen would create a character who is difficult to like, someone so imperfect, vain, or blinded.
Then, of course, there is the question of how to teach texts that we, as instructors, don’t much like, but that is a story for another post.