Sick Body, Sick Society

As I read this second half of Dickens’ hefty tome my mind kept returning to the illness that is sprinkled—often quite liberally—throughout the novel. Certainly anyone familiar with his works isn’t surprised to see suffering characters, particularly the poor, but I was curious to determine how illness was functioning in Bleak House in particular.

In this half of the novel, the illness begins with poor Jo. This particular instance seems to be primarily to create drama and pull on readers’ heartstrings. Jo is a sympathetic character that we love, which makes his death even more devastating. Also implicit in his suffering is the suffering of the poor as a whole. When fever runs rampant in the slums, the poor are not safe. Certainly with Jo’s fever and ultimate death, we see Dickens’ familiar transparent social criticism. In this case, illness very much functions as a physical manifestation and as well as consequence of social malady.

However, as we consider the other prominent cases of ailment in this second half, it would seem that Dickens is doing something more. Illness is also something that does not respect class divides. Charley catches Jo’s illness, which is then passed on to Esther. In this communication we can see the Victorian anxiety about disease. No one is quite sure about its potential contagious nature. But further, we also see Dickens’ suggestion that across the social strata people are just as vulnerable. Even in the clean rooms of Bleak House, they are frightened that Esther won’t survive. 

Thus, this seems to be one of the reasons that Esther becomes ill, but there also seems to be something more to her ailment. Why smallpox (a diagnosis I’m guessing)? Clearly the most apparent consequence of this illness is scarring of the skin. Is Dickens simply using it to garner more sympathy for Esther? But, if I remember correctly, Esther’s appearance was never presented as one of her strengths—particularly next to the darling Ada. Did she really need another means for self-deprecation? On a more positive note, we could read her illness as yet another difficulty that she successfully overcomes in a life stacked against her. Further, Dickens may be critiquing the premium placed on women’s beauty—but I hesitate to give him too much credit, as the drama of the whole scenario seems to take center stage. Take Esther’s fleeting blindness for example. We hardly see the consequences of this brief symptom, and it reads more like a cliffhanger for Dickens’ serial audience. Ultimately it seems that like Jo, Esther’s illness highlights her as a victim of circumstance.

These are only two primary examples from the text, but certainly there are notable others. Richard comes to mind, as he seems to slowly deteriorates from the poison that is the Jarndyce case. Miss Flite warns against the dangers, but Richard doesn’t heed them and falls victim as many do before him. In Richard’s case, as with Jo’s, Dickens uses bodily illness to critique social ills, here the absurdities of the legal system. Thus on one hand, illness seems to be functioning as a physical manifestation of the social evils and dangers that Dickens is attempting to critique. But it also seems to function as a means to garner sympathy as Dickensian descriptions tug on our heartstrings. Further, I don’t think we can ignore the problematic way that these illnesses also seem to afflict the powerless—the poor, children, and women—with Richard being the exception. Even as Dickens draws on sympathy to craft these critiques, he further disempowers the powerless for the sake of entertainment.

By Means of Education

Throughout Bleak House everyone is concerned with knowing—what is the truth behind Jarndyce and Jarndyce, who is Nemo, who were Esther’s parents? And of course, Dickens seems to delight in drawing out the mystery—weaving storylines in and out as his audience attempts to piece together who’s who and which characters will eventually collide (or have done so in the past!). Even the narration plays with this idea of knowing, Dickens switching between the third-person omniscient (though, does this narrator reveal all?) and the limited Esther, by which the story is certainly mediated through a shaded lens. One of the notable manifestations of this theme is through another of Dickens’ common themes—education. Though Eliot’s novels tend to come to forefront of my mind when I consider education and Victorian prose, Dickens’ Hard Times isn’t far behind, and now Bleak House joins the ranks. Indeed, through several of the characters in this giant tome, Dickens’ considers the role and goals of education

The first character that comes to mind is the understated Esther Summerson. Her’s is the education most formally treated, as she goes to a boarding school, ostensibly to become a governess. Because of her awful godmother/aunt, school seems to be a haven for Esther where she learns and then teaches. Notable as well is that this is paid for by Mr. Jarndyce—an education she would not have had access to apart from his guardianship. It is because of this education that she becomes a companion/governess for Ada Clare and thus encounters all the other characters of the novel. Caddy Jellyby yearns after this sort of learning, abhorring the letter writing she must do for her mother, and crying to Esther, “If you only could have taught me, I could have learnt from you” (62). In this scene, as in others, education is framed as a means for escape from poverty—the Jellyby’s house being a prime illustration of such devastation. Esther’s education is a valuable tool, one gifted to her and accepted with gratitude.

In contrast to this is Richard Carstone’s education. Privileged and male, but also flighty, Carstone does not fully appreciate the opportunities offered to him as he dabbles in the various professions open to him. Esther, Ada, and Mr. Jarndyce discuss the avenues available—medical, military, legal—and though Carstone is enthusiastic, his fervor wanes upon application. Medicine cannot keep his attention, and attempting to understand his family’s legal case turns him off of the law. Carstone has the benefit of an education that allows him these opportunities, but he fails to follow through. With him, Dickens shifts to a critique of education, or rather a critique of its application, the insinuation being people like Caddy or perhaps even Esther, would be grateful to learn such things.

This particularly pales next to the lack of opportunities available to poor young Jo. Without money, Jo must spend his days trying to obtain the means upon which to live, rather than receiving education. Apart from the many scenes where Dickens’ descriptions of Jo’s sad lot tug at readers’ heartstrings, drawing on their sympathies, one in particular highlights this particular lack. When Jo is picked up for loitering and brought to Mr. Snagsby to defend his possession of extra money, he also encounters Mr. Chadband. Dickens highly satirizes this absurdly pious man as he describes young Jo as a “gem” because he is a “human boy…capable of receiving lessons of wisdom” (313). And thus as he desperately tries to sneak away, Jo is made to sit through a bout of didactic moral education and requested to return again for more. Clearly even as we’re made to pity Jo for lacking an education, Dickens sharply critiques “discourses” such as Chadband’s that fail to educate in a helpful manner.

Only half way through the novel, I am curious to see how else Dickens approaches education. As with all his works, one of Dickens’ main purposes seems to be to offer up a biting societal critique, raising the question of what he seems to be advocating as an alternative. What is the ideal education according to Dickens? Stay tuned.

Our dear Mr. Guppy bids you adieu:

Mr. Guppy

Stalking Eliot

On one level it is difficult to imagine nineteenth century periodicals being so influential in the construction of an author’s identity. But certainly we can find analogues today with stars across all forms of media—film to music to you-tube vloggers. We want to be privy to the lives of the famous and join in the community, be in the know. In our very own Waco, people come from all over to visit a small home decorating store to own part of the magic and peek between fence slats and through curtain gaps to see if Chip and Joanna are as great in ‘real life’ as they appear on television. Today we have the benefit of even further advanced technology (social media via the internet and the numerous devices we use to access it, to name just one) that enables us to pry even deeper into the lives of celebrities. We may be more aware of the constructed nature of these performed identities—particularly in most reality television—but we still want to close the gap between public persona and person, all the while continually conflating the two.

Thus to place ourselves back in the nineteenth century where photographs and periodicals were vogue and writers such as Dickens and Eliot were celebrities in the newest and popular form of media, the novel, shouldn’t be too far of a stretch. We post articles and memes to our Facebook walls and they clipped from the ‘Notes’ section of periodicals to paste into scrapbooks (Dillane 152). It isn’t difficult to imagine the desire to ‘know’ George Eliot, and yet as Dillane examines in her chapter “After Marian Evans: The importance of being ‘George Eliot’,” this feat was quite difficult with complex consequences. In her chapter, Dillane tackles the problem of representation, raising interesting questions as to the role of the public and private, constructed identity, and the complicating overlap of gender with both.

As scholars this semester we’re nearly as guilty as Eliot’s fans in the nineteenth century in wanting to know Marian Evan’s ‘actual self’ even as we study George Eliot’s writings. Granted, our awareness of the complex relationship between these constructed and performed identities redeems us in part, but we still dive eagerly into her letters looking for insight into her art. Dillane offers a needed reminder that the voices we hear in Eliot’s novels—and her essays and under whichever name—cannot be used, at least entirely, to reveal the person of Eliot, much less Marian. We’ve read “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” and “The Natural History of German Life,” but we cannot fall into the trap of deriving a true Eliot or Evans from the pages. Dillane astutely draws upon Judith Butler’s work on constructed and performed gender identities to complicate the idea that Eliot would have even been able to present herself, had she wanted to. (Studying postmodernism concurrently with this course has Baudrillard’s simulacrum and hyperreality cropping up everywhere!) As Dillane argues, the constraints of Eliot’s gender limited the avenues open to her within the public sphere, limitations alleviated in part by her adoption of a male pseudonym. However, adopting a pen name also seems to have contributed further to her contemporaries’ and later critics’ drives to ‘discover the real her.’

So where does this leave us? I find myself wishing that we would resist our inner scholar’s desire to figure everything out, carefully delineating neat boxes to understand Eliot and her work, and instead be content sitting with the messy reality. Yes, she had many facets to her ever-changing personal and professional identities, and yes it is worthwhile to tease out the various components. But let’s recognize that with constructed identities comes healthy ambiguity, and we ought to embrace it.


Fits of an Other

This was my second time reading Eliot’s Silas Marner, though, regrettably, I can’t remember my first impressions of it. It would have been interesting to compare my thirteen year-old self’s encounter with the short novel/folk tale/fable with my reading as a graduate student familiar with George Eliot’s background (and gender!) and other work. I’d imagine my middle-school self, fan of Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, quite enjoyed this charming tale of the rejected old man plagued by a course of events set against him and redeemed by the love of an adopted daughter. Over ten years later, pinning down my reaction is not quite as easy. One shaping influence of my reading is the theme of our previous Victorian prose course, “the stranger.” Eliot depicts Silas Marner as the clearest of strangers—first rejected by his own community of Lantern Yard, and then unaccepted by those of Raveloe. From the opening chapter where Eliot (quite heavy-handedly) depicts the social landscape facing an outsider, Marner is presented as an Other that—until the last third of the novel—cannot find a home. I’d like to consider how Eliot chooses to depict this otherness, namely through Marner’s “fits.” Also referred to “catalepsy” several times in the novel, this ailment of Marner’s seems to be an intriguing overlap of emotional, social, spiritual, and physical impairment.

Our first introduction to his affliction serves as our introduction to his character through the eyes of the Raveloe community. Jem Rodney, the mole-catcher, comes across Silas in a fit—stiff and seemingly dead, and yet standing upright—which the man then comes out of quite casually, saying goodnight and walking away. The community’s opinion of this—as voiced through Mr. Macey, clerk of the parish—is that Silas is an abnormality, an Other. Indeed, Mr. Macey initially rejects a physical explanation, speaking in all of his wisdom that “a fit was a stroke, wasn’t it?” but “no stroke would let a man stand on his legs, like a horse between shafts, and then walk off” (8). But then he seems to conflate it with a spiritual origin. He wonders if Marner’s soul had separated from his body, giving as support for this spiritual explanation his doubts as to where “Master Marner [got] his knowledge of herbs from.” Puzzlingly, even as this hints at a dark, spiritual origin, at the same time it turns attention back to the physical nature of his fits. Marner is known for healing the townspeople—even as they distrust him for it, and thus Eliot offers an interesting interpretation/critique of the overlap between the spiritual and physical. She seems to ask readers to consider in this othering of Marner the space between the two occupied by the medical field of the time (which is interesting to set alongside her concern for the political aspects to the field as depicted in Middlemarch).

The potential spiritual component to his ailment is further emphasized as Eliot reveals that Marner’s initial ostracization stems from a fit in church, “ a mysterious rigidity and suspension of consciousness, which, lasting for an hour or more, had been mistaken for death” (9). This description closely aligns with the traditional view of the illness catalepsy (often used in horror tales of Poe and like to induce fear at the prospect of being buried alive, Re: “The Fall of the House of Usher”). Indeed, Eliot labels it as such a few paragraphs later. And yet, the narrator emphasizes the anti-medical stance of both Marner and the minister, again highlighting a tension between in the medical field between the physical and spiritual. Marner views the knowledge of “medicinal herbs and their preparation” with apprehension, “believing that herbs could have no efficacy without prayer, and that prayer might suffice without herbs” (10).

And yet, one cannot neglect the social and emotion component to Marner’s ailment as well. These fits clearly alienate Marner from both communities. Dane capitalizes on the people’s distrust of this othering illness to cast suspicion on his ‘friend’ for stealing the gold, ultimately ousting him and stealing his fiancé. Further, Marner’s own emotional state (and thus our understanding of this character) also seems closely connected to these episodes, as he has fits in his distress following the loss of his own gold. Clearly I haven’t the space to fully develop this overlap of social, emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects of Marner’s affliction, as well as its function within the novel and its social critique, but I will end this by returning again to the overall theme of the stranger. The plight of the Other is a clear concern of the novel, and I believe considering the manifold elements to Marner’s “fits” in light of this offers an interesting interpretation worth further unpacking.

On Education?

Even a cursory reading of George Eliot’s Middlemarch reveals education to be a central topic of concern. Of the many (and lengthy) Victorian novels, Eliot’s classic seems to be among the most widely read and loved—even outside nineteenth century enthusiasts. I believe a large part of this is due to her complex and quite likeable characters, but right up there as well is her exploration of concerns at the forefront of nineteenth century society that persist into the present as well. The sticky issue of education is one of these. Case in point from my own experience is the selection of the novel as a primary text for a multidisciplinary learning/teaching fellowship summer conference. Middlemarch served as a middle ground for exploring what it means to be a student and a teacher for graduate students across the humanities. Thus, a pressing question that we are left with after reading the novel is just what is Eliot saying about education?

On the negative extreme, Eliot offers up Casaubon as the clearest illustration of “what not to do.” The man is so obsessed with finding “the key to all methodologies” and thus making a lasting mark on the world, that he neglects any other endeavor. Indeed when he marries Dorothea, it is because he sees her as an admirer of his work and as a helpmate to completing it. He even spends the near entirety of their honeymoon in Rome researching in the libraries. We see much of Eliot’s criticism of these life choices through their unhappiness in their marriages, but the cherry on top is Casaubon’s eventual death clearly linked to his dismal scholarship. In chapter five Eliot includes an epigraph from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy that links a sedentary, scholarly life with ill health, which in Casaubon’s case inhibits him from continuing his work, turning him into an even crotchetier old man. In the end, despite his gallant academic efforts, it is futile and he barely leaves a nick in the surface of academia. Education as viewed through the character of Casaubon, has its clear pitfalls. Even scholastic prestige is not a safeguard against harm. Without perspective, without a balance of other character strengths and interests, education does Casaubon little good and plays a significant part in his downfall. While I find the character quite unlikeable, the growing academic in me cannot help but sympathize in part with his plight.

We also see a criticism of education with several of the other characters, such as Fred Vincy. In his case, the traditional gentleman’s education is not fitting for his life goals. His father is furious with his “wasting” his education (a concept those of us in the humanities may be all to familiar with), but as the novel leads us to believe, Fred doesn’t truly need it for the work he does with Mr. Garth. Indeed, the vestiges of this education—his poor penmanship—are even a hindrance to his ultimate path.

Though I’m running short of space in this post, I cannot neglect the women as well. George Eliot clearly valued some level of education (which complicates these negative depictions that dominate the novel), as her writing and translation evidence a clear aptitude as well a broad knowledge of classic texts. However, we see no female characters achieving this ideal (if an ideal it is). Rosamond is clearly none the better for her finishing school education (the narrator seeming to criticize both the woman and the form of education), and naïve Dorothea at the beginning of the novel tragically mistakes marrying Casaubon as a means to furthering her education. The latter we can admire for the attempt, though the strategy is pitiable. It would seem the most positive depiction of a woman’s education is that of Mary Garth, whose common sense reigns supreme, rather than any capability afforded to her by that education. We admire Mrs. Garth’s education of Mary, as well as the other children, but the dwindling pupils and economic hardship make a difficult argument for the superiority of an education.

So what are we left with? Certainly Middlemarch is a novel concerned with education—but what type does it value? Is it primarily a cautionary tale against the pitfalls? Perhaps we may locate the primary difficulty in answering this question with the absence of a Marian Evans figure in the text.

Who are you, Miss Smith?

In the opening chapters of Cranford, I found it curious that it was difficult to place the role of the narrator. She seemed to have a feminine voice, and then slowly she revealed that she wasn’t an omniscient eye in the sky, but rather a participant in the narrative.

In chapter one, the first paragraphs suggest an omniscient narrator. She speaks in the first person, but makes generalized observations about Cranford and its inhabitants—everything from their dress, to their manners, to their quarrels. Such an opening seems to suggest that the focus of the novel will be on the lives of these women (which indeed it is).

However, then the narrator begins to align herself with the people she describes, saying “we none of us spoke of money” (emphasis mine 7). She includes herself with the Cranford women and their idiosyncrasies: “If we wore prints, instead of summer silks, it was because we preferred a washing material…we were, all of us, people of very moderate means” (emphasis mine 8). The repetition in these lines even draws particular attention to the narrator’s inclusion. She is part of this “we.”

As the narrative begins to pick up with descriptions of Captain Brown and his daughters, the narrator makes it clear that she is very much a part of the story, saying, “I was surprised to hear his opinions quoted as authority, at a visit which I paid to Cranford…My own friends had been among the bitterest opponents of any proposal to visit the Captain and his daughters” (9). With this the narrator becomes a person present (as well as absent at times) from Cranford with personal connections to the inhabitants. Indeed we find out that she is staying with Miss Jenkyns—the party detailed in the first chapter is thrown in her honor—and she begins to enter into the story at small moments (to fetch a book etc.) that begin to increase throughout the novel.

However it seems that her role in the novel is always odd—a blend of outsider and insider. By the end of chapter one, we don’t really know who she is, though she does seem important as the voice by which Gaskell delivers her satirical commentary. Indeed, we don’t even learn that her name is Mary Smith until nearly the end of the novel in chapter fourteen.

Despite this precarious role, though, Miss Smith (or rather perhaps Gaskell) certainly wants to emphasize her authority for assuming the position of storyteller. The second chapter begins with the assertion that “It was impossible to live a month at Cranford, and not know the daily habits of each resident; and long before my visit was ended, I knew much concerning the whole Brown trio” (16). Her presence, her observations, make her an alleged authority on the people of the town.

But when she isn’t present, correspondence becomes her conduit for truth. Several times she speaks of letters written to her, of “several correspondents who kept me au fait to the proceedings of the dear little town” (18). She trusts these letters as means for obtaining truth when her own observations cannot be made. She describes the letters of several of the women, characterizing their usefulness, and even including a selection from Miss Jenkyns’. In particular, she emphasizes that “in spite of a little bad spelling, Miss Matty’s account gave me the best idea of the commotion occasioned by his lordship’s visit…,” giving the impression that while the letters are key for keeping track of the goings on—they aren’t infallible.

Overall we ought to carefully consider how Gaskell begins the odd narration of this novel of observations. Martineau was certainly concerned with how one ought to observe and the origins of truth etc., and here we see Gaskell—in the midst of these comical vignettes—considering these questions of epistemology and objectivity. Who is this Mary Smith who begins as an outsider and yet is revealed to be a participant? Why does Gaskell give her the narrative voice? Are we to see her as merely a conduit for hearing the story? And perhaps if she’s primarily a conduit, we can indeed consider more closely Gaskell’s method of telling the stories through observations both epistolary and personal. Throw satire into the mix, and Gaskell’s given us quite the experiment with what it is to determine and interpret the truth.

The Truth is in the Letters?

Reading The Life of Charlotte Bronte this week, I felt a certain kindred spirit with Elizabeth Gaskell. Recently I’ve been combing through hundreds and hundreds of Gaskell’s letters, trying to piece together the author and her life—much as Gaskell is attempting to do in The Life. Reading Gaskell’s biography, I was struck by how often she incorporates Bronte’s own letters into the biography, oftentimes with just a few clarifying lines for context in between. Though I haven’t read many biographies, this method of Gaskell’s seemed out of the ordinary and raised the questions of why such an approach? And how does such a method affect the ‘truth’ of the biography.

In The Life, Gaskell writes, “[a]cting on the conviction, which I have all along entertained, that where Charlotte Bronte’s own words could be used, no others ought to take their place, I shall make extracts from this series, according to their dates” (231). When I came across this explanation in Gaskell’s own words, my question was at least partially answered. The truth, as Gaskell would have it, ought to be as near to Bronte’s own words as possible—particularly when a precise transcript is available. Such a methodology makes for an interesting view of epistemology with the text. What is the biographer’s role in shaping the subject’s life? Gaskell seems to vacillate between several positions.

Linda Peterson explains in her chapter “Parallel Currents The Life of Charlotte Bronte as Mid-Victorian Myth of Women’s Authorship” that “when Gaskell agreed to write a biography of Bronte, the models for writing a woman author’s life history were few, and none distinguished” (132). Thus Gaskell had the daunting task of not only well-representing a woman she knew and admired, but doing so without much precedent. What we’re offered by Gaskell, Peterson argues, is a carefully constructed life of Charlotte Bronte as “parallel currents” of both woman and author.

This constructing even affects Gaskell’s use of Bronte’s letters. Indeed, Peterson goes on to note that Gaskell shaped her biographical narrative quite purposefully, omitting in the second volume the ever-abundant personal letters to Bronte’s friend E—(Ellen Nussey) in favor of those to publishers and literary figures. Though this does not surprise me, it returns us again to the question of truth in her biography. It is quite possible to be caught up in the seemingly simple truth of Gaskell’s approach. She offers up so many of Bronte’s letters that one forgets to consider her methodology. This strategy in the second volume rings particularly true with the frequently quoted paragraphs Gaskell writes on those “parallel currents” of a woman writer’s life. Though she ends the section with the assertion, “I put into words what Charlotte Bronte put into actions” (272), her soapbox is clearly visible as her own views take center stage.

Thus, though Gaskell makes frequent use of Bronte’s letters and thus her own words, her hand is still quite visible and ultimately as Peterson argues, plays a significant role in building and perpetuating the Bronte myth.

Ms. Martineau the Skilled Rhetor

With such extreme characters such as Mrs. Rowland and absurd plot points such as burning effigies, it is clear that with Deerbrook Harriet Martineau is having some fun. She has created quite the cast of characters in a quintessential English village, and in this novel we see Martineau exploring many of the same ideas that she treated in the other genres we’ve read. With Deerbrook, we have yet another rhetorical strategy at work, as Martineau uses the realist novel to prod at her different political, social, and philosophical ideas.

In “On Female Education” Martineau adopts a pseudo-male persona, crafting her argument for women’s education in a manner that would likely appeal to a 19th century middle or upper class man. However, once one knows that she is writing from this assumed identity, the language takes on even more of a tongue in cheek quality. I wrote last week about Martineau pushing at the weakening social spheres with this essay, and I would argue that she is taking a similar tactic with Deerbrook. That is, when reading Martineau’s novel, we should keep this subversive rhetorical strategy in mind as she approaches the topics of marriage and—more broadly—women’s roles.

The novel begins in a very Austen-esque manner, the focus of the novel seeming to be marriage and matchmaking. We even have a line that imitates Austen’s memorable opening line:

“It is a fact which few but the despisers of their race like to acknowledge, and which those despisers of their race are therefore apt to interpret wrongly, and are enabled to makes too much of—that it is perfectly natural,—so natural as to appear necessary, —that when young people first meet, the possibility of their falling in love should occur to all the minds present” (17-18).

Here I would argue, Martineau reveals her hand that indeed she is a rhetor who adapts and crafts language carefully and purposefully. Just as the footnote in the Penguin Classics edition notes the similarity between the opening to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, so would Martineau’s contemporary avid readers. Furthermore, also like Austen, Martineau offers this lines on marriage framed by a meddling, busybody mother in Mrs. Grey. Thus Martineau capitalizes on her reader’s associations with Pride and Prejudice to create an at times comical, but all too relatable plot revolving around the complications of courtship and marriage. However, Martineau does not simply rehash Austen’s novel, but rather introduces additional characters and conflicts that suggest that when you throw women’s roles into the mix alongside societal expectations, there are even more sides to the marriage story.

Though I don’t have space to discuss this in its entirety, I would like to draw attention to two characters in particular—two characters absent from Austen’s novel—Mr. Hope and Maria Young. Particularly in the first volume of the novel, Martineau offers an almost painful depiction of Mr. Hope’s struggle to reconcile his beliefs about love and what he perceives as his duty. Repeatedly his adherence to duty butts up against the “sin” he believes “marrying without love” (138) to be, and eventually he chooses Hester—a decision unequivocally deemed a mistake by the narrator. In this initial struggle and indeed through the remainder of the novel, Martineau seems to condemn Mr. Hope’s predicament and thus the societal struggle as a whole. In penning this absurd situation in a realist novel, Martineau suggests that the 19th century reality is in fact that absurd as well.

Briefly, in Maria Young, we have yet another of many perspectives on love and marriage, this time given through the perspective of a ‘spinster’ rendered inadequate for marriage. Though she is harder to pin down, it seems to me that with Maria, Martineau is again questioning contemporary views on love, marriage, and women’s roles. With all of the critiques Martineau offers of the other characters and situations, I hesitate to take Maria’s views as the ideal, even as the narrator seems to present them as so. Maria’s own pain at her situation would seem to complicate the situation.

Thus it would seem that Martineau has yet again taken an intriguing rhetorical approach to exploring a hot topic in 19th century England’s middle-class. I for one am impressed with her sass and rhetorical prowess as she demonstrates just how skilled and entertaining a female writer could be tackling issues quite relevant and important to her. We ought to take as discerning an eye to her novel as we do to her essays and political treatises.

Pushing but not Bursting the Spheres

What I found most interesting about Martineau’s piece “On Female Education” is just how aware she is of her audience and the context she is writing within. She approaches the topic of women’s education in a manner that would likely make modern feminists cringe, but in her social context gave her room to speak.

It is clear that Martineau writes with an acute awareness of the separate spheres dictated by Victorian society, arguing each of her points artfully as ideas that begin to push against the traditional views of women’s education, without entirely alienating her audience by rejecting all strictures. As in her other pieces, it is clear that Martineau writes with rhetorical finesse—aware of her audience and their limits and writing accordingly.

It is difficult to see here how far beyond her time Martineau was in terms of women’s roles in society. Even as I would argue that she carefully places her argument within a palatable context for her nineteenth century readers, using the accepted language etc., she may have agreed with more of the traditional roles than we’d like to think. She emphasizes quite often that woman is intended to be a companion to man and that “her proper sphere is home” (81 emphasis Martineau’s). Indeed, she uses much of the language of the helpmeet. And yet, we cannot neglect the impressive statements that she makes regarding women’s education. She is clearly advocating for a drastic change in mentality as well as practice.

In particular, I thought her response to the third objection—that “proficiency in knowledge” might inflate “the vanity so universally ascribed to the sex”—quite clever. Martineau writes: “if the taste for knowledge were more generally infused, and if proficiency in the attainments I have mentioned were more common, there would be much less pedantry than there is at present; for when acquirements of this kind are no longer remarkable, they cease to afford a subject for pride” (80). I cannot help but read a certain level of snarkiness into Martineau’s words, as she writes that limiting knowledge in fact promotes vanity. She flips a likely prevalent concern about educating women into a clever argument for encouraging widespread education.

Thus, while I am still left with questions as to how to understand this treatise of Martineau’s on female education, one idea that I think we can walk away with is that in her precarious position as a female writer (though I’m not sure if this piece was anonymous), she understood the rhetorical situation and social context she was writing into and that ought to influence how we view her arguments.

Does Martineau follow her own advice?

As I glance over the posts from this week, I’m not surprised to see that others have been drawn to Martineau’s discussion of slavery in light of our remembrance this weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. and the significant role he played and continues to play in race relations. A few days ago I watched the recently released film examining Dr. King’s influential actions, Selma, and I was moved by its tasteful representation of that important time in our nation’s history. Part documentary, part drama, Selma artfully presented the facts with a helpful but not heavy-handed lens of interpretation that brought America’s ongoing struggle with inequality into sharp relief. This was particularly highlighted in John Legend’s and Common’s song “Glory” ( during the closing credits, which brings the relevance of Dr. King’s work up to the present with reference to the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri.

It was with Selma in mind that I read Martineau’s section on “Morals of Slavery” ( in Society in America. The question that kept coming to mind was her intention for writing this chapter, and with that I considered the rhetorical situation characterizing both this text and How to Observe Morals and Manners.

In How to Observe Morals and Manners, Martineau seems to be out to redeem travel writing for the good of humankind. As she mentions in the introduction, even if one travelogue with its hasty assumptions and uninformed conclusions is harmful, an amalgamation of travel writings might eventually bring out “what is fixed and essential in a people” (12). Thus, she is careful to to lay out a precise method for travelers, lest they jump to conclusions about a people’s characteristics. In particular, she advocates not deriving one’s opinion from observations of an individual, or even several individuals (else one might make the faulty assumption that all one-legged-prosthetic-wearing Englishmen work the waterways). Ultimately, Martineau argues that “[t]he grand secret of wise inquiry into Morals and Manners is to begin with the study of things, using the discourse of persons as a commentary upon them.” That is, “[t]he eloquence of Institutions and Records, in which the action of the nation is embodied and perpetuated, is more comprehensive and more faithful than that of any variety of individual voices” (44). Thus, according to Martineau, “general indications must be looked for, instead of generalizations being framed around the manners of individuals” (45).

Martineau drives this point home throughout her treatise, and yet she doesn’t always seem to follow this advice, particularly in this section on slavery in Society in America. Rather, she focuses in on very specific examples of horrific slavery in America. Outright, she states, “It may be said that it is doing an injustice to cite extreme cases of vice as indications of the state of society. I do not think so, as long as such cases are so common as to strike the observation of a mere passing stranger.” Here, she seems willing to sacrifice the model she’s espoused in favor of making an impact with striking examples. Seemingly, her purposes have shifted from presenting a travelogue–writing as objectively and nonprejudiciously as possible, considering institutions and records, etc–to taking a moral stand in what she sees as the most impactful manner possible.

So the question that we come to, then, is how are we to understand this shift in rhetorical situation? Primed with the clear rhetorical intentions of Selma, I’m onboard with this choice of Martineau the sociologist taking a stand against slavery, but when she’s written a full treatise as to how one ought to write travelogues, one does wonder how much she believed it herself (or rather how practical she found it to be) and how that affects our own reading.

Smith on Education

Though a critique of marriage is clearly at the forefront of Smith’s concerns in Emmeline, on this first reading, I found myself drawn to her depiction of education—specifically how different characters received their educations and the consequences thereof. Whenever Smith introduces a major character of the novel, a key element of her introduction is how the character receives his or her education and who imparts it. We see this in particular with the contrast she sets up between Emmeline and Mrs. Stafford and Delamere and his sister Augusta.

Despite her near isolation in the Mowbray castle, Emmeline manages to cobble together an admirable education. In a library in complete disrepair full of moldy books, birds nests, and illegible typefaces, with “infinite pains” she finds Spencer, Milton, Shakespeare, and Pope (47).  Smith seems to advocate for a very particular type of education by emphasizing that Emmeline reads books where “instruction and amusement were happily blended.” In doing so, she “acquire[s] a taste for poetry” (47), but also “the grounds of that elegant and useful knowledge, which…enable[s] her to support…those undeserved evils with which many of her years were embittered” (48).  Smith credits this education of Emmeline’s  to her natural inclinations and motivation to learn—describing her “intuitive knowledge,” “quickness and attention,” and “uncommon understanding, and unwearied application” (46), but also to the influences of those around her—Mrs. Carey and Mr. Williamson (the old steward) “were anxious to give their little charge all they could,” even if it wasn’t much.

We see this emphasis on the need for proper instructors continue when Emmeline meets Mrs. Stafford and one of the emphases of their budding relationship is the older woman’s instruction of Emmeline in all the areas where she is lacking. When Lord Montreville sends her books and drawing materials, Emmeline recognizes “the defects in her education” and continues to apply “incessantly to her books,” but again Smith emphasizes that she is “without any instruction” (79) and can only build off of her innate aptitude. In Mrs. Stafford, she finds “one who could supply to her all the deficiencies of her former instructors.” Interestingly, like Emmeline, Mrs. Stafford already possesses a “very superior understanding,” but it is improved by “the advantages of a polished education” (81). “[H]er mind, originally elegant and refined, was highly cultivated and embellished with all the knowledge that could be acquired from the best authors in the modern languages.” Mrs. Stafford is the perfect instructor for Emmeline as an older double, and thus a role model.

Even as she lauds Emmeline’s education and Mrs. Stafford’s role in it, in contrast, Smith strongly critiques the education received by Delamere and his sister Augusta. Lord and Lady Montreville spoil their son, such that “accustomed from his infancy to the most boundless indulgences, he never formed a wish, the gratification of which he expected to be denied” (68). Though he “possessed many other good qualities,” Smith emphasizes that the “defects of his education had obscured them.” Rather than receiving his education at a boarding school, Delamere is tutored at home and then accompanied on his Grand Tour by his parents, rather than a tutor.  Though on the surface Delamere appears to have received a proper education, it is clear through his inappropriate interactions with Emmeline that his lack of proper instructors has had negative consequences.

With Augusta, we see a different critique of education. As the younger daughter, Augusta is neglected by her mother in favor of her brother and eldest sister and thus is spared the woman’s distasteful traits (perhaps unlike Delamere). However, the little her mother does teach her is “to consider herself inferior in every thing to her elder sister,” and thus “she never fancied she was superior to others; nor, though highly accomplished, and particularly skilled in music, did she ever obtrude her acquisitions on her friends” (103).  While Emmeline found a caring mother figure in Mrs. Carey and in some ways in Mrs. Stafford, Augusta is bereft and thus her education suffers. A consequence seems to be her deep reading of novels. It is from these novels that Augusta is said to have “acquired many of her ideas,” including the fanciful imagining “that Delamere and Emmeline were born for each other.” Here Smith gives a critique of the type of education young women ought to receive, as following this revelation of Augusta’s novel reading, Smith/the narrator comments parenthetically that reading novels is “almost the only reading that young women of fashion are taught to engage in” (103).  Smith doesn’t seem to fault Augusta but rather her lack of a proper education.

The message that Smith imparts with these various depictions of educations is complex and multi-faceted. On one hand we have the lauding of proper instructors, even if it is simply the loving guidance of a well-meaning housekeeper, versus the stifling of education by indulgent parents. Another element is the education of women, with Smith presenting a combination of a traditionally male education with and “useful and ornamental feminine employment” (79) as ideal. And finally, Smith is also concerned with what types of books ought to be read, offering a complicated view of novel reading, given the form in which she is writing. With each of these Smith raises questions about education in the eighteenth century that are worth considering.

To Tell a History…

A clear focus of Lennox’s novel is the idea of a romance. Arabella endeavors to see each event of her life through the lens of her many treasured books—each man she encounters is either a hero out to woo her or a villain out to ravish her, and each woman has enough “Adventures” to warrant a “History” of her own. But what I found most interesting is how these stories are told (or almost told), specifically the Histories of women in the novel thus far: namely Miss Groves’ and Arabella’s.

First, the importance of each of the stories is emphasized. From Arabella’s perspective at least, these Histories are necessary before further events may proceed. While Mrs. Morris tells Miss Groves’ story in hope of a reward, Arabella wants to hear the story in order to better understand the woman. When she wishes Sir George to referee her disagreement with Mr. Glanville, she believes, “’tis necessary you should know my whole story” (120), before making a decision. She elaborates further on her understanding of the purpose of a History during her discussion with Lucy, asking her to recount their conversations on love and gallantry that her audience may know her “Humour” and thus “know exactly, before they are told, how [she] shall behave” in all circumstances (123).  A person’s story, according to Arabella, is immensely revelatory. She is greatly concerned with determining how people will act (and concerned that others know the same about her), which isn’t surprising given her desire to fit these actions into a romance. However, it is an interesting perspective to consider as throughout The Female Quixote Lennox is clearly exploring the function of stories.

A second significant characteristic to note about these stories is that they are each told (or almost told as is the case with Arabella) through a mediating voice. Miss Groves’ story is told by Mrs. Morris, who in fact heard it from Miss Groves’ previous maid. Rather than seeking to hear the story from Miss Groves’ own mouth, Arabella purposely asks her Woman (maid), a choice that is emphasized by the irregular and improper nature of the request. When Arabella wants her own story told, she tells Sir George, “For certain Reasons, I can neither give you my History myself, nor be present at the Relation of it: One of my Women, who is most in my Confidence, shall acquaint you with all the Particulars of my Life” (120). She chooses Lucy to tell her story rather than telling it herself, even though Lucy is anything but confident in her ability to complete this task and Arabella finds it necessary to impart specific guidance. Arabella never directly reveals these reasons to which she alludes, effectively emphasizing this peculiar portrayal of storytelling. Though I am hesitant at this point in the novel to pin down Lennox’s intentions or the exact ramifications of Arabella’s insistence at mediating voices, I think we ought to consider what this may say about storytelling and narrative—particularly the telling of women’s stories.

A final aspect of these scenes that I would like to briefly discuss is their content, or at least intended content. In these stories, as elsewhere throughout the novel, Lennox explores the relationship in narrative between imagination and meaning-making versus imparting specific, empirical details about a life. As with her fellow 18th century novelist pioneers, she is wrestling with the idea of truth in narrative. And true to her form throughout the novel, she approaches this through satire in these two scenes. Lennox critiques potential exactitude of realism when Arabella expects Lucy to remember all of her gestures over the past ten years, including the motions of her eyes. However, she also mocks the omniscience of the narrator who presumes to understand the inner thoughts of her characters. In both occasions Arabella expects the storytellers to know “all the Thoughts of [the characters’] Soul[s]” (70), even identifying Lucy as the one “best acquainted with her Thoughts” (121). However, Lucy—rightly so—protests when Arabella asks her to “decipher all his Thoughts, as plainly as he himself could do,” (123) lest her story be imperfect; Lucy responds “I can’t pretend to tell his Thoughts: For how should I know what they were? None but himself can tell that.” Even as Lennox critiques these aspects of storytelling, as the author she participates as well—lending another layer to her exploration of what it is and what it means to story tell.

Progressive Digressions?

As in Tom Jones, with Tristram Shandy I found myself again drawn to the relationship between the narrator and his readers. And as I was puzzling it out, it became clear that wrapped up in Tristram (the narrator)’s shaping of this relationship was Sterne’s treatment of time and space.

One of the marks of TJ’s narrator is his deliberate and direct engagement with and instruction of the reader. Fielding creates what Chambers calls an “implicit contract” between the narrator and the reader (qtd in Sherman 236). The narrator of TS also directly interacts with readers, but the contract he negotiates relies less on holding back the secrets of the plot and more on how he holds back. Indeed, Sterne would seem to maintain his contract by mocking its very creation.

Sterne very deliberately and transparently delays what appears to be the main action of the narrative—at this point in the novel the birth of Tristram. He even takes the entirety of chapter 22 in volume I to justify his digressions by discussing how his work is still “progressive” (64). At first, this delay would seem to seek out and accomplish what Fielding attempts in TJ: compelling the reader to keep reading through a plot revealed little by little. But as volumes pass in TS  and Tristram is still yet to be born, the delay becomes ridiculous. While TJ is fairly successful at obtaining and maintaining my attention through this secrecy (and was certainly successful for 17th century readers, according to Sherman), I am frustrated at the lack of progression (despite Sterne’s protestations) in Tristram Shandy. However, it seems that it is this frustration that Sterne relies on for his contract with the reader. He mocks this convention of secrecy that Fielding embraces by taking it to an extreme, such an extreme that it becomes clear that it is the delay and thus the passage of time that takes center stage rather than the action itself.

By drawing readers’ attention to this delay, Sterne focuses attention on the passage of time within the novel. He negotiates a complex narrative in which time passes (or pauses) at different rates within the main narrative, within Tristram’s digressions, within the world in which Tristram writes, and within the space created between the reader and the narrator. Passage of time is one of Watt’s key characteristics of the novel (22), but just as Sterne employs satire to mock nearly everything else in the novel, in TS he seems to not merely explore this convention, but push it to an extreme to poke fun.

He repeatedly mentions the ‘main’ story line that he has left behind, but only to continue with his digressions. However during these digressions, time passes not only in the world of the ‘main’ narrative but also for Tristram as he writes and also as he imparts the story to his readers. He states, “I declare I have been at it these six weeks, making all the speed I possibly could,—and  am not yet born,” at once revealing the passage of time within his writing world and mocking the slow progression in the world of the narrative (35). In Tristram’s direct addresses to the reader, we also see time passing within the theater space Sterne has created for his audience to enjoy his novel. (I don’t have the space or time here to discuss this theater space, but consider the interaction Sterne depicts between Tristram and “Madam” in chapter 20, where he seemingly pulls one member out of the audience to converse with—who leaves and returns, as well as Sterne’s use of scene and stage throughout the novel.) Tristram reckons that “about an hour and a half’s tolerable good reading” has passed (referring to the time within the realm of the reader) and then discusses how the time within the narrative has only been “two minutes, thirteen seconds, and three-fifths,” as would be measured by a pendulum (92). He plays with this notion of time passing, suggesting that the reader may think it hasn’t been long enough for the action to have been probable, but then in true Sterne fashion, turns the discussion into a mockery by revealing that indeed it has been enough time, as Toby ran into Dr. Slop in the yard.

So what is Sterne’s purpose in manipulating and mocking this convention of the passage of time? Perhaps it will become clearer as the novel progresses, but at this point it would seem that Sterne creates his contract with the reader by mocking the conventions of the novel. He draws the reader on not through anticipation of the plot but by a conscious delay of the plot and mocking readers’ willingness to keep reading regardless.

The Many Faces of the Narrator

In their attempts to define the amorphous genre of the novel, several of the critics we’ve read thus far have considered the attempts made by the “first novelists” themselves—Fielding included—to define their works. Bakhtin finds these “formative definitions” of “more interest and consequence” than the “generic characteristics” replete with  “reservations” that had characterized the scholars’ attempts up to the writing of his article (8). As tackling the whole of Fielding’s definition of the novel would be too broad for the scope of this post, I’ve elected to look more specifically at the various roles Fielding ascribes to the narrator of Tom Jones as he works out what a novel ought to look like, particularly in its conveyance of knowledge.

Some of the most notable places we see the narrator at work in the novel are the introductory chapters to each book.  In the chapter beginning Book V, the narrator addresses the value he sees in these introductory materials, taking his commentary to a meta-level. Though elsewhere he calls them “digressive essays,” here the narrator identifies these “initial essays” as “essentially necessary,” composed by the author with “greatest pains” (181).  Fielding wants readers to pay particular attention to these opening chapters in which the narratorial voice is highly self-conscious and fulfills several roles.

In Book II, for example, the narrator devotes several paragraphs to the passage of time in the novel. In these paragraphs, the narrator both justifies Fielding’s authorial choices and informs the audience as to how they ought to consume this new genre of writing. He will include sufficient detail about occurrences of interest as to avoid falling into the category of newspaper histories, but he also views his readers as subjects “bound to believe in and obey” the laws he creates as “the founder of a new province of writing” (68).

This same rather heavy-handed direction crops up in the narrative as well. In the end of chapter five of Book III, the narrator interjects, concerned that the reader may mistakenly believe that “Thwackum appeared to Mr. Allworthy in the same light as he doth to him [the reader] in this history,” an understanding enabled by the information bestowed to the reader by the narrator. He even goes as far to say that thinking poorly of Mr. Allworthy would be a “very bad and ungrateful use of that knowledge which we [the narrator] have communicated to them [the readers]” (117).  Again we have the narrator taking a very bold, directive role in the reading experience.

A few pages later, we have another interjection by the narrator, and I found this appearance most interesting. The narrator devotes a paragraph to address young readers specifically about the importance of virtue and prudence. Following this lesson, the narrator switches from first-person plural to first-person singular to “ask pardon for this short appearance, by way of chorus, on the stage” (122). The shift from plural to singular is in itself interesting, perhaps indicating that this particular voice is Fielding’s.  However, this selection is also intriguing in its depiction of Fielding’s experimentation with the role of the narrator. We’ve had the narrator as both reading and morality instructor as well as the medium for authorial justification, and now he characterizes himself as the chorus. He states, “I could not prevail on any of my actors to speak, [so] I myself was obliged to declare” (123).  This metaphor introduces noteworthy ideas to consider as far as the narrator’s role in the novel. On one hand, these lines illustrate the narrator self-consciously separating himself from the narrative (the use of I, naming the characters “my actors”), but in claiming the role of the chorus—well-established by literary precedent as integral to the progression of the narrative, he indicates that the reader should take his words as part of the “history.”

Bakhtin asserts that “when the novel becomes the dominant genre, epistemology becomes the most dominant discipline” (15). Fielding’s experimentation with the roles of the narrator demonstrate that very emphasis—how ought the reader to know? What is truth within the narrative as well as without, and how is it conveyed to the reader?  By giving the narrator these many roles, Fielding explores this formation and transmission of knowledge.

“Written by Himself:” Experimentation with Ways of Knowing in Robinson Crusoe

In Robinson Crusoe we can see Daniel Defoe wrestling with one of the framing questions of our course: how does one know? Within the novel we see the character Crusoe wrestling with matters of knowledge and truth. There is a continued emphasis on not only knowledge and truth gained through observation—such as learning navigation from a captain or deducing the seasons of the island by recording the wet and dry periods—but also that obtained from the divine: he “gain’d a different Knowledge” from “a constant Study and serious Application of the Word of God, and by the Assistance of his Grace” (154-155).

However, we also see Defoe’s concern for knowing before the story proper even begins. Namely, Defoe is concerned with knowledge and truth in the very form of his work. With the genre of the novel still a fledging, Defoe seems to be experimenting with how to give authority to the voice of his work—to grant a believability, or at least a means for his readers’ suspension of disbelief.

Defoe begins the imaginary world of his novel (though he refers to it as a “story,” not a novel) not with the opening paragraph of the work but with the title page and preface. Following a lengthy title meant to snag readers with its preview of the plot, the title page states that the work is “written by himself,” that is, written by Robinson Crusoe.

Defoe elaborates on this attribution in the preface, claiming for himself solely the role of editor. In doing so, Defoe limits his voice to the preface and thus gives authorial authority to his main character. He constructs for himself an outside role as a mere conduit for Crusoe’s own story, and from this position, Defoe can safely vouch for the veracity of the story, having distanced himself from the telling itself. Speaking in the third person, he proclaims it to be “a just History of Fact” without “any Appearance of Fiction in it” (45). Defoe capitalizes on the audience’s expectation that the preface and title page function as reliable sources of knowledge from the creator of the text—a peek behind the curtains, if you will—by incorporating both title and preface into his fiction.

Thus the “life and strange surprising adventures” of Robinson Crusoe are told primarily as memories, recounted after the fact by Crusoe himself. Defoe continues to perpetuate this depiction of Crusoe as the true author with the inclusion of Crusoe’s journal. Defoe takes great pains to make it as realistic as possible, with Crusoe referring repeatedly to the journal’s brevity and truncation due to a lack of ink. While the execution of this form falls short at times—the repetition between the memories and the journal is often tedious and only acknowledged once by Crusoe—the self-conscious inclusion of the journal certainly reemphasizes Crusoe’s authority and thus the ‘truth’ of the narrative as a whole.

By presenting the narrator of Robinson Crusoe in this manner, Defoe explores not only matters of knowledge making and the truth of the novel through the authority of Crusoe, but also ways of knowing and determining truth from the reader’s perspective. How should one react to the words of a narrator endorsed by the “editor?” Though the execution occasionally leaves something to be desired, I admire Defoe’s willingness to experiment and thus participate in the formation of the novel we know today.