Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Good News, from the 19th Century!


It's 1am and I had a revelation. It was revealed to me that I should study late 19th century British novels.

It might seem silly that I am so excited to have chosen a time period and genre on which to focus my studies. But that is what we do here in Englishland. I know it is just as (or more) important to keep reading for those GREs, to keep thinking of critical questions and practicing at criticism, to keep writing that senior project so I can harvest a sample out of it . . . these are all things that will help me get into grad school. But knowing what the hell I want to do might help too. I've known for some time I will be spending a lot of time with theory, that a straight literature track isn't what I'm headed down. However, for my own motivation and my own confidence about what I'm doing with myself and the literature itself, I needed to chose a period and not just a way of thinking about it.

Sure there are other periods I dig. Some that are quite related to the 19th century Brits, like 20th century Brits and Americans. And some that I will have trouble reconciling, like medieval Brits. I desperately and perhaps unnecessarily want to learn Old English. And lets not even get into where the continental dudes fit in. But now I know with near certainty that OE and Beowulf and the like are bound to be more like hobbies than serious work. Being in love with those things will help me teach them better someday. But being completely head over heels for Victorian lady writers will help me write, teach, and publish on them, and all in all make a better "career" out of Englishing.

Now that you've caught a glimpse of the unfocus that was going on in my plans, here's a better picture of the new focus I've found. The particular angle I'm interested in as far as that long, tumultous century goes is the mid- to late-century novel angle. I want to compare the language and style as found in similarly themed novels by men and women.

Before those of you who know how I avoid the cultural studies cry out "Gender studier! Feminist!" let it be known that I am not so much interested in WHY women write differently but HOW they write differently. I don't wish to compare their conditions or income or familial status. Besides, most of the women I would write about had nearly as many comforts and supports as their male counterparts. That's how they got published. I'm more interested in how men and women portray each other, how each paints a picture with that rich palette they both made use of in those days.

This is almost a stylistics angle. I'm not above doing word counts. I have been toying with studying stylistics, but only for literary analysis. Not any of that forensic stuff. I wouldn't get along with the linguists. Before I sound unfocused again let me continue.

This came to me as I was reading (or rather doing some bedtime reflecting on) Middlemarch. Mulling over some of George Eliot's flaws that popped up in chapter 7, I realized I was still totally enthralled with her despite what some critics say, despite what the apologetic introduction writer had to say. I enjoy myself so thoroughly when I read these Victorian gems such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and The Well Beloved. Yes, I enjoy reading the men too. Yet somehow the women of the 19th century gained a lead or an advantage over the men. Normally I am in awe of the male genius, in all other time periods and genres. It gives me that anxiety of influence as I both consciously and accidentally mimic it. Maybe that's why this lady-literature of Victoria's age stands out. It's us girls at our best. And it doesn't even make me anxious.

I could read all of these novels over and over, and find so much in every line. I feel like I could never exhaust that dense, filligreed, controlled prose. I wrote about the words themselves last year, after reading Heights and Tess in one day. I admitted I was no student of the Victorian, that I merely loved the language. Now I'm in it for the whole package.

I do have some problems with the word Victorian. It has a lot of connotations of stuffiness and fashionability, and it conjures certain images. Plus I don't see how it's all that helpful this late in the game to define a literary period by a queen's reign. I think Elizabethan means a lot more for literature than "Victorian" ever can. We can sift out the issues and separate threads of culture in the 19th century. It doesn't need quite a blanket-y, political term. But that beef's for another day.

Today I am just incredibly excited to have given myself over to this period and genre, and finally to a body of women's writing that I can truly look up to. My senior project has nothing to do with this and there's no changing it now. I'm writing about the Beats. And the mid 20th century is one of those periods in which I am in awe of the men. However, I feel like knowing my focus for my future academic goals has given me the power to focus for this project as well. I felt like I was getting nowhere after writing two vague proposals for the final paper. I am supposed to be working on a focused one, an outline really, to have ready by the end of July. The good news from the 19th century is that I'm ready to get back to work -- without the unfocus, and without the anxiety.

And all this on the night after Bastille Day, a day that ended the 18th century for some intents and purposes. Oh brave new 19th century that has such novels in't . . . in it!

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