by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Books”

A Dab of Dickens and a Touch of Twain

Posted 30 May 2008 in by Catriona

I have so far failed abysmally in locating Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, but in my futile search I did come across another book that I bought months ago, read, put away carefully, decided to blog about, and completely failed to relocate: Elliot Engel’s A Dab of Dickens and a Touch of Twain.

This is a collection of biographical readings of authors ranging chronologically from Chaucer to Robert Frost. Despite the early debates about my Leavisite tendencies—and the fact that I found the book buried under fictionalised biographies of Lady Caroline Lamb and Byron’s other troublesome woman, Annabella Milbanke—this is not my usual reading material.

Certainly, I think biographical material is important to literary analysis—since I believe strongly that the conditions of production have a direct influence on the works produced—but I prefer to obtain this material from direct sources—letters, receipts, contracts, and so forth—as and when it is necessary to my work. When I read biographies, I want them to be about someone fun and unrelated to my research, such as courtesans. (Ah, Harriette Wilson—publish and be damned, indeed.)

But I picked this up at a secondhand store when I’d taken my car in to Woolloongabba at the crack of dawn for a service, and thought it would be as well to wait to collect it. (Note to self: that was a mistake.) I was bored and over-caffeinated, and thought this would do well to pass the time.

I know nothing of Elliott Engel, although I understand he works at an American university. More importantly from the perspective of this post, he give “popular” lectures on literature, from which these pieces were derived.

That word “popular” is always a problematic one when it’s applied in this type of context, and I have taken it directly from the blurbs in the front of the book: here, I think we can take it to mean simply “lectures given outside the academy.” I don’t propose to speculate about the types of audiences that such lectures would draw, because I don’t think it’s at all relevant—there is no reason why literary analysis should be deemed the sole province of the academy.

But it does mean that these pieces are almost entirely without referencing—barring an extremely short list of biographies at the end, which troubles me slightly, because I disagree with Engel’s contention that “one fine biography is all you’ll need for each author” (347). But then, as I say, these are not academic pieces: they’re narratives.

And Engel is, as he says, “a proud member of the school of biographical literary criticism and [has] always been truant from the Freudian, Marxist, deconstructionist, poststructuralist, and other literary schools that seem to concentrate on illuminating the supposed genius of the critic while all too often ignoring and distorting the real genius of the famous writer” (xii).

There’s much with which I could dispute in this passage, but I’ll settle for suggesting that working from a single biography might well lead to as many patterns of distortions as any poststructuralist or deconstructionist reading.

(It also seems to me a little disingenuous to apply these potentially exclusionary academic terms in a non-academic text, but that’s another point I don’t want to address in detail.)

From my own perspective, it also seems that biographical readings that ignore the perspectives offered by Marxist-based criticism run the risk of being readings divorced entirely from any awareness of the socio-economic climate in which the works were produced.

But then, this is a book that centres on the Western canon. It does include some women writers whose addition to the canon is more recent than, for example, that of Chaucer or Shakespeare, but even then the women are fairly conventional choices: Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson. It makes a nod towards including more “popular” writers—to use that problematic term again—but even here it makes a conventional choice, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Generally, however, the authors are the names you would anticipate in this type of book: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence.

And that’s fine and, really, the book’s fine—except that it gave me an odd feeling that behind the text was an exclusive and exclusionary method.

I couldn’t put my finger on why—until I came to the following passage in the section on Shakespeare, describing the behaviour of the relatively impoverished “groundlings” standing in the cheapest spaces at the foot of the stage:

But when the play would begin, the groundlings, an unsophisticated lot, would become so excited and so caught up in the action that their mouths would hang open; they would be gaping up at the actors, slack-jawed, watching the play unfold. This rapt attention was not what bothered the actors, but when the play became exciting and suspenseful, as in the early fight scenes in Romeo and Juliet, the groundlings would start to salivate. The saliva would drip down their chins and eventually fall onto the stage, where it made this little rivulet at the actors’ feet. (34)

This is a grotesque image.

It is also, Engel tells us, the origin of the term “break a leg,” which he translates, in the fictional voice of an imagined actor, as “Perform so the groundlings become so enthralled that they slobber on the stage; may you slip in it and break your leg” (34).

This seems an improbable and mean-spirited expression of good will, even for a more brutish age. It is also in direct contradiction to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which suggests—albeit via the speculative phrase “is said to relate”—that it arose as black humour after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and John Wilkes Booth’s subsequent breaking of his leg as he leapt onto the stage to escape.

Brewer’s version seems far more plausible to me.

Engel cites in support of his argument an anonymous actor’s diary—which, given his minimalist bibliography, is impossible for the reader to verify for themselves—which allegedly reads “I feared when it was time for me to give my soliloquy and step to the edge of the stage, I was in grave danger of slipping in the drool left by the groundlings” (34).

But I can’t be the only one who suspects that this anonymous actor was indulging in hyperbole, perhaps tempered by a distaste for the patrons occupying the cheap seats.

This image of drooling groundlings bothers me in ways that I can’t quite articulate. But first and foremost, it seems so improbable—even assuming that it is possible to “gape up” at the actors and yet drool to such an extent that the players’ limbs are at risk, without somehow drowning in the process.

These standing seats, Engel tells us, cost a penny, compared to four pennies for an actual seat. But a penny is a lot of money to the vast majority of the working population in Shakespearean England.

So Engel’s image has us imagining a large number of audience members willing to regularly pay a relatively high fee to see linguistically and artistically complicated plays that, apparently, they are too unsophisticated to comprehend. So unsophisticated, in fact, that they lose all control over their salivation.

If all they want is the unsophisticated violence of the fight scenes, surely they could obtain that at any nearby tavern—with a greater probability of gore—and get drunk at the same time?

And why assume that poverty automatically translates into a grotesque, slavering inability to interpret the primary form of entertainment of the times?

Elizabethan theatre is not my field, and I know no more about it than any other B.Arts graduate who enjoys reading Shakespeare for pleasure.

But this passage does suggest to me something concrete about the dangers of relying too uncritically on biographical material at the expense of an understanding of the socio-economic factors of the time, their influence on the modes of production of a text, and the ability of the common reader to interpret the texts presented for their amusement.

A Pop Quiz for Loyal Readers (In All Senses of the Word)

Posted 28 May 2008 in by Catriona

Where do most people keep their copies of Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf?

Because I’ve completely lost track of mine, and I wanted to blog about it.

It’s not where I suspected it would be—which was, logically enough, under a pile of P. D. James novels that I’ll never read again because Adam Dalgleish induces near-homicidal levels of frustration in me.

And I’ve pulled books off all available shelves—finding, in the process, forgotten novels by Mark Rutherford, Victoria Glendenning, and Anthony Trollope, and my copy of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood—and I still haven’t found it.

So I’m stumped.

First person to make a suggestion that leads to that elusive book wins my trademark prize: a shiny but completely invisible and intangible trophy.

Preventing an Untimely Death of the Hands of My Hobby

Posted 23 May 2008 in by Catriona

Since a large number of my teaching duties have ended for the semester and I have a few clear days ahead before the assessment comes in, I decided I’d have a lovely clean house before I had to start marking.

But—and there’s always a but—since I’m not feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed today, I’m looking for ways to do a bit of cleaning without having to move around too much.

I thought I’d achieve this by doing a few loads of washing, which really only requires frenetic activity every forty-five minutes or so—but then the weather greyed over.

So I settled instead on a little light organising—a phrase that always reminds me of the episode of The Goodies where they end up at the Jolly Rock Lighthouse: “I thought it said ‘a little light housekeeping!’”—and, more specifically, moving and re-shelving the 60-odd books that currently live on the bedhead.

Ever since I was woken abruptly by a hardback copy of The Vicar of Wakefield, these books have been the bane of Nick’s existence. Even my sister, whose own pile of bedside reading is only kept upright by a convenient wall, popped her head in and said, “Yep, you’re definitely going to die.”

Still, it could have been worse: The Vicar of Wakefield is not that long a book. It could have been Dickens or Tolstoy. (Well, no: it’s highly unlikely to have been Tolstoy.)

Disturbingly, though, I found I’d forgotten half the books that were up there: technically, if they’re on the bedhead, they’re supposed to be books I’m currently reading. But I’d forgotten I even owned a copy of Manon Lescaut, much less that I’d abandoned it halfway through: apparently, I don’t have a great deal of patience with sentimental, eighteenth-century French fiction.

I’d also forgotten that I owned Patricia Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician, which I don’t think I’ve even opened. I will read that, though, since I did enjoy The Enchanted Forest Chronicles and the co-authored Sorcery and Cecelia; or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot—although, true to form, I’ve bought the second volume in the latter series and not read it, and only discovered today that there’s a third book.

On the plus side, I found Dorothy L. Sayers’s Strong Poison, which I’ve been futilely looking for on my living-room shelves for three days.

There was a Philip Pullman—one of the Sally Lockheart Mysteries—that I abandoned halfway through, because I just couldn’t cope with the battering that the heroine was taking any more. Those books are brilliant—especially if you’ve just spent three years working on penny dreadfuls—but they are hard on the nerves.

A couple of the wonderful Diana Wynne Jones’s books were stacked up there, too, one of which also had a telltale bookmark halfway through. A word of advice: if you’re trying to complete your Ph.D. thesis, stay away from Archer’s Goon. The story of a man being pursued by wizards because he owes them two thousand words just hits a little too close to home.

Then there was a mysterious pile of Victorian sensation novels, which I suspect have been sitting there for three years. I know, at least, that I intended to do a course of reading sensation novels in the early stages of the Ph.D. Then the topic shifted, as topics are wont to do, but the books stayed where they were: Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Armadale, and No Name; Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd; and Mrs Henry Wood’s East Lynne—“Dead! And never called me ‘Mother’!” Or is that just the stage version?—and Lord Oakburn’s Daughters.

Still, they’re all safely rehoused now in the living room, the hallway, the spare room, and the study, along with various Anthony Trollopes, biographies of Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, and Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm.

And it’s inspired me to once again pick up Erik Larson’s book about the Chicago World Fair of 1893 and the simultaneous predations of an urban serial killer—which means that maybe, sometime soon, Facebook will stop asking me if it’s true that I’m still reading it.

Tunnels

Posted 12 May 2008 in by Catriona

I’m always suspicious when a book is touted as “the new Harry Potter“, and it’s not because I didn’t enjoy the Harry Potter series. I did—immensely. But “the new Harry Potter“ as s shorthand description of a new novel doesn’t always seem applicable.

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, for example, is occasionally mentioned as a “new Harry Potter“ and, despite seeing its popularity among my late-teen students, I don’t see the analogy—except in that it’s sold a lot of copies and is being made into an expensive-looking film. That, to me, is not what makes a new Harry Potter.

I’ve probably bored a lot of people with this story before now, but I did come into the Harry Potter series reasonably early—reasonably early, that is, compared to many of the six million people who bought Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I read the first two just before the third book came out in hardback.

But that’s not the main point of this anecdote.

At the time, I was teaching in a coaching college; among my classes was a Year 4 group, who met on a Thursday night at about 7 p.m. While not reluctant or in any way illiterate, they were not keen readers. They’d been reading Hating Alison Ashley and, frankly, hating it. In consultation with my boss, I suggested Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, fresh off my own reading of it.

At first, the students were very reluctant. They all bought the book and brought it into class. But they sat there while I read the first chapter out loud and moaned, “Miss, this is boooring. Do we haaave to read this, Miss?”

I wasn’t particularly sanguine about the outcome.

Until I came in the next week. And they were all sitting there, with the book lined up in front of them. Most of them had little piles of books one and two and the hardback of volume three. And they mobbed me when I came in; “Miss, I sat up all night reading this! Miss, I’ve read it twice already! Miss, I’ve read all three books! Miss, I had a dream that Voldemort came after me because I didn’t do my homework!”

The last one was a little disturbing.

But I’ve never seen anything like this in all my years of coaching classes of students ranging from Year 3s to graduate students. By the time I left that job several years later, those students were ploughing happily through the many hundreds of pages of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

I’m always suspicious, then, that “the new Harry Potters“ that are frequently vaunted refer only to the books sales, franchising, and movie deals, which to me is only part of what made Rowling’s novels a phenomenon.

But, and this immensely lengthy preamble has been building to this point, I still bought a copy of Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams’s Tunnels, despite the fact that it’s occasionally touted as “the new Harry Potter“.

Of course, according to the Wikipedia page, it’s attracted this accolade simply because Barry Cunningham, the man who signed the novel to the “plucky new children’s book publishing company” Chicken House, was the man who signed J. K. Rowling up to Bloomsbury—which seems a more tenuous connection than usual.

Of course, I haven’t read Tunnels yet; I only know that it’s the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who shares a passion for digging with his father and, when the latter mysteriously disappears down an unknown tunnel, unearths a terrifying secret deep underground.

Sounds great, frankly. I’m looking forward to it, even if it doesn’t generate the same general enthusiasm for literacy that marked my experience of the Harry Potter phenomenon.

But I’m not sure how those Year 4s of mine would have responded to it.

And I really hope it doesn’t have a borderline psychotic vampire anywhere in it.

Rethinking Stephenie Meyer's Novels

Posted 11 May 2008 in by Catriona

I mentioned in my post on the first of this saga that I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would—and I did.

I even lent it to my sister-in-law, because I thought it was very much her cup of tea. I don’t know yet if she enjoyed it.

But I also mentioned that I needed to read the others before I could legitimately judge what I thought. I’ve now read two and three, New Moon and Eclipse—the fourth, called I believe Breaking Dawn, hasn’t been published yet—and I now find I’m more ambivalent than before.

These books have been going through my first-year students—the female ones, anyway—like a dose of salts.

(On that note, giving a lecture on cliches last week seems to have had an adverse effect on my writing: “cup of tea” and “does of salts” in one post? Let’s see how many more tired metaphors and battered similes I can use in this post.)

But my students are reading and loving these books; in fact, when I said that halfway through the third book I started thinking to myself, “You know, this vampire is psychotic!” they were up in arms.

(And there’s another cliche for you.)

But that’s where my thoughts starting shifting; and it retrospectively changed my understanding of the previous books.

It wasn’t so much that at one level Edward thirsted to drink human blood; that’s not actually that psychotic, for a vampire. (It reminds me of a news broadcast that talked about the damage caused in the U. S. by a “rogue cyclone”; really, a cyclone causing massive property damage is a fairly well-adjusted cyclone.) No, I started thinking he was psychotic when he removed the distributor cap from his girlfriend’s car to prevent her visiting her Native American werewolf buddies.

Of course, I didn’t like her werewolf best friend, either—he was just as possessive, in a different way.

But Edward’s behaviour bothered me, more than the idea that he might one day be unable to resist the impulse to have Bella for lunch.

When I was reading Twilight, I said to Nick that there were shades of a domestic violence debate coming through the novel for me; I couldn’t judge whether it was deliberate on the author’s part or something that I was reading in for myself, but it came through the emphasis on the dangers of consorting with vampires. Somewhere in there was the sense that we all, on one level, take that risk; we all, when we enter into a relationship, determine—usually on a subconscious level—that this person will never pose a threat or a danger to us and, horror stories aside, we’re mostly right.

The idea of layering that through a romance with a vampire, inherently more threatening than any human partner, fascinated me; it seemed to give weight and substance to the discussion of a relationship that otherwise seemed to accelerate too quickly, even for a romance between teenagers.

Until he removed the distributor cap.

So now I’m not sure how I feel about these. I know as the books progressed, I became more and more annoyed at the idea that the romance would end in marriage—or, analogous to marriage, being turned into a vampire or both—for an eighteen-year-old protagonist, which is not something with which I find myself in sympathy. We haven’t got to that point, yet, but I suspect we will.

On the other hand, I did read all 1200 pages of the second and third novels and, while I’m not generally someone who puts books down unfinished, that does say something about Meyer’s ability to write page-turners. And she is capturing a broad readership among late teens, arguably a harder task than grabbing the early teen market, given the greater time pressures on 17-20 year olds.

But that’s not, I suspect, enough to make me ignore my growing feeling that this vampire is psychotic and that this might be less a great romance than a damagingly co-dependent, potentially abusive relationship.

Phryne Fisher

Posted 4 May 2008 in by Catriona

I haven’t blogged for while, excepting the short pieces I just uploaded, largely because I’ve been taking advantage of the long weekend to have a bit of a break—the first time in seven weeks I haven’t had assessment to mark. W00t!—and partly because I’ve mostly spent that time rewatching Veronica Mars season two, and I have nothing to say about that, except that I miss the show.

But I have been reading something recently—Kerry Greenwood’s Death by Water, her fifteenth Phryne Fisher mystery, according to Wikipedia. And it reminded me that somewhere along the line, I started to get really annoyed with this character.

Way back when I edited the book review section of a review journal, I never either published or wrote a hatchet job—and I don’t intend to do so now. It’s not Greenwood’s novels that I have a problem with; they’re enjoyable murder mysteries/period pieces.

But at some point, Phryne started ringing false for me.

I read Cocaine Blues and Flying Too High after finding them in a secondhand book shop many years ago—I don’t know how many years, but well after they were published. Wikipedia, frustratingly, offers alternate dates of 1989 and 1991 for the first book and I don’t have it on my shelf, so I’m not even sure when it was published. But I can’t have read it before my undergraduate years, which still makes it over a decade ago.

Back then, we were told that Phryne was the daughter of minor aristocracy: her father had been an unsatisfactory younger son, shipped out to the colonies, in traditional fashion, where he had lived in abject poverty until a couple of the people between him and the title died and he was whisked back as the now comfortably affluent heir.

I’ve always wondered why the colonial branch was so straitened, when Phryne’s own resources indicate that the baronetcy was an unusually wealthy one, but that’s not important.

The important point was that that back story made sense: Phryne hadn’t always been rich, but she was now. She enjoyed the money, but wanted something a little more exciting, and slipped into detection almost by accident. Not, perhaps, as convincing a back story as that of Hercule Poirot, ex-Belgian Police Force, or Miss Marple, an unusually intelligent person constrained by the late-Victorian restrictions on her gender, but it was plausible.

But at some point, it came to seem that Phyrne was capable of anything, at which point I started wondering about how the back story worked. Phryne’s years driving ambulances behind the lines in World War One, working as an artist’s model, and barely avoiding a career as a prostitute seemed to fill to short a gap.

I think it was around the time that I read Queen of Flowers that the character struck me as suddenly infallible. I’d not read all the books leading up to that one and those that I had read I hadn’t read in order, but in that book, Phryne managed to leap onto a stampeding horse—one of a herd of stampeding horses—as a result of her earlier experience in a circus, and it rang suddenly false for me.

It’s not as simple, I suspect, as describing the character as a Mary Sue. In fact, I don’t think she is a Mary Sue, because to me—although the definition might have shifted a little recently—the key point of a Mary Sue for me is a desire for wish fulfillment on the part of the author, and I don’t think that’s what’s happening here.

(Similarly, I note from the Wikipedia page on Mary Sues that Bella and Edward from Twilight have been read as Mary Sues, and I don’t think that’s entirely the case, either—although I suspect the author is partly fulfilling the perceived wishes of her readership, I still don’t think that’s quite how a Mary Sue character works.)

But Phryne is increasingly infallible, surviving drownings and being thrown over her horse’s head—something that, due the nature of the act, can kill accomplished fox hunters. And even if you find fox hunting morally repugnant, as I do, it does provide an extraordinary challenge to a participant’s horsemanship.

Unfortunately, for me, this increasingly infallibility brings with it a commensurate lowering in the amount of sympathy that I can generate for the character, because she seems less human. That’s not a problem with superheroes, but it is a problem here.

Call me old fashioned, but I enjoyed the old days, when Phryne changed lovers every book—before she became formalised in the slightly disturbing position of “concubine,” in her words, to a married man—and the outfits were lovingly detailed. Then I enjoyed both the mysteries and the period.

As it stands, the deumanising of the character means I can’t sympathise with her. And that effects my enjoyment of the depiction of 1920s Melbourne society and of the murders, and drives me straight back into the arms of Rex Stout.

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