Friday, October 20, 2006

Friday *Jane Austen* Blogging

OK, I'm not really starting a new blog meme. It's just that in lieu of Friday Poetry Blogging, I'm telling a story involving Jane Austen (not in person -- that would be weird and disturbing).

So one of the grad students who's set to take the MA exam tomorrow admitted to me that she hadn't read Pride and Prejudice. WTF? It's on the list! And the list is only a little over 30 books long! She's not supposed to skip *any* of the texts on there, but not reading Jane Austen was especially surprising in the case of this graduate student. (She's an Americanist, but the 19th c. novel is one of her interests.) So I was shocked on many professional levels, almost as shocked as I was by the Spark Notes guy.

But, more important: how can *anyone* with an avowed interest in literature skip over Pride and Prejudice??? Come on! It's smart, it's funny, it's pure reading gold!

And that's exactly how I reacted to her. I couldn't mask the shock and the horror. I may have even said, out loud, "what the fuck?!" (Granted, I have a comfortable relationship with this student.)

Well, it turns out that I shamed her into reading it. She e-mailed me today to say she's reading it cover to cover this morning and almost done. And of course she's loving it. And I'm kind of glad she's zipping through it and not studying it ponderously with a mind towards the exam. Not that it's not worth studying deeply -- it's a complicated, rich book -- but on a gray Friday morning, on the day before a stressful exam, it's good that she's curling up with a wonderful book and getting pleasure from it (even if I had to shame her into that pleasure).

And there's something a little radical in that pleasure in a university environment that intimates that the woeful state of the region's economy is all because the best and the brightest are sitting around reading books -- and liking it! -- instead of industriously toiling to patent new products that make our lives faster! more convenient! more active! healthier!

And now (she says with bitter irony) back to work with me!


JM said...

Sheesh! Your students really could be my classmates!

Just for this record, THIS Americanist taking her exams in two wees did read P&P. Do I get a cookie? :)

Another Damned Medievalist said...


Karl Steel said...

I dunno. I'm reminded of a scene in one of David Lodge's novels (which I read, I swear, only in the years between the BA and grad school). Some academics are playing a variant of "I never...," which you might remember as a drinking game in which you try to think of something you've never done that everyone else has done. Anyone who has done the thing you haven't done--donated money to a Republican, had soup, whatever--has to take a drink. If you get everyone, they all have to take two drinks. Instead of drinks, it was a point system, and the winner of the contest, in this case, lost her job. Why? Because she was in an English Department and admitted "I've never read Hamlet."

Fiction, folks! Just fiction!

Now, I have a lot of things like that, I'm afraid. There are a lot of books and movies I should have read or seen 10 or 15 or even 20 years ago that I never got around to, and the older I get, the more reluctant I am to read them because, you know, I should have already read them. Acting my age means not doing things too young for me like, say, reading Middlemarch: but of course it's only acting. Austen's part of the group I can't get at (notably, I read Jane Eyre only a few years ago), as is Beloved, as are virtually all of Kurosawa's movies. Sad! I think I have my next New Year's resolution in place, though...

Ancarett said...

I think I read "Pride and Prejudice" for the first time when I was twelve. I have about four different, heavily worn paperback editions so I can pick it up anytime and dive back in. I can't picture myself without this storyline buried deep in my psyche.

Good for you for encouraging, one way or the other, this student to pick up the book and read it. And I'm even more pleased that she read it the way she did. As you said, it's a radical idea, reading for pleasure, but sometimes that method is much more effective than plodding through in analytic mode!

Dr. Virago said...

Point taken, Karl, though in this case, the novel was on her required exam reading list! And she has an avowed interest in the 19th c. novel, and has written on James and Wharton. Given those narrowing factors, she has little excuse.

You, on the other hand, I'll let off the hook. Especially re: Middlemarch, since that's one of the two books in college I couldn't finish and still haven't gone back to. The other is Lessing's The Golden Notebook. could you have possible enjoyed Lodge without reading Austen?! Isn't the first novel in the academic series a play on Austen? (I'm only teasing you, btw.) See, this is what I tell my students: the more you read, the more jokes you get. The more jokes you get, the more pleasurable life is.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Ancarett. I read it for pleasure even before it was assigned in high school. And how can you even consider Wharton and James without a familiarity with their older cousins from across the pond? I'm projecting a bit, but isn't it another sign of how insular and narrow we are becoming as a culture?

Bardiac said...

I have two complaints about Austen.

First, she wrote so few novels. There should simply be MORE!

Second. I find it incredibly difficult to teach Austen. I just sort of drool with pleasure and have nothing useful to say. I hold that against her.

Your student is SO lucky in one way! Just think, she gets to read all of Austen now for the very first time! Wait til she gets to Northanger Abbey!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I hated Pride and Prejudice in high school-- we went around the room with our reactions and I was the only one who didn't Looooove it. But that's just because most of us (it was a girls' school) only looked at it as romance and I hated any degree of gushiness. But once I saw the movies and then read it on my own, after college, I appreciated it as a great primary source for the 19th century. And somehow, that is still the only way I look at it. Some mental blocks just endure.

Karl Steel said...

Point taken, Karl, though in this case, the novel was on her required exam reading list!

Ah! Right. Okay, how about this: I've neither read Confessions nor Malory! Bits, sure, but not anywhere near the whole of them.

Isn't the first novel in the academic series a play on Austen?

Maaaaaybe. I read only Small World and Nice Work (in 1993 or 94 I think), and got totally creeped out by one of them, whichever is based around the Fisher King story (am I making this up?): there's a bit in which an old guy with ED gets his groove back because his young Asian gf scoops his earwax with a little bamboo spoon and I thought, oh, god, that's freakin gross and offensive on so many levels I can't bear to think of it. So I stopped reading him.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Small World is the one with the old guy -- it's the 'traipsing all over to conferences' book. But Karl, it's in Changing Places that one of the obnoxious profs at Euphoria loses his job/tenure bid (although I think his circumstances are mentioned in SW).

Re Austen: Pride and Prejudice is not my favourite. It's wonderful, but not my favourite. That has to be Persuasion. I do love Mansfield Park too. Well, I love all of them, but I think those are the best.

And Dr. V and Karl -- Middlemarch is brilliant and also depressing as hell. Not in a Hardy kind of way -- there's no huge tragedy. Instead, it's banal, daily-life tragedy. It's very real, and very grown-up and utterly, utterly, wonderful.

Dr. Virago said...


I *heart* you! There's a whole post in there which I want to write -- about teaching the "good" literature vs. the less-than-perfect works. I prefer the latter; some prefer the former.


Yup, that was Small World. Ew. I'd totally forgotten that. Gee, thanks for reminding me. And yeah, its model is romance/Arthurian lit. The first one -- I can never remember if it's Trading Places or Changing Places (damn those home decorating shows!)-- takes 18th and early 19th c. novels as its model. At one point two characters are writing to each other, and one writes, "No one writes epistolary novels anymore." Te-hee.

I read Confessions as an undergrad (you know, the Core Curriculum thang) but I, too, have never read all of Malory. Has anyone other than Malory scholars? (Meanwhile, I've read Piers Plowman 4 or 5 times all the way through but can't remember most of it.)

And Deeni,

Too funny! She is indeed a great primary source! I can see having a block against romance novels in a girls' high school (having been to one myself). After all, it's easy to be suspicious that the school is trying to shape your life into a marriage plot. Early feminist critics dismissed Austin for similar reasons, though I think she's more complex than that. I had a different reaction because she was just about the only woman author we read in AP English (go figure) and it was nice to have a smart, reading heroine, marriage plot or no. But still, I know where you're coming from!

Dr. Virago said...

ADM -- I think you and I were posting at the same time. Anyway, I like Persuasion, too. I'd even go as far to say that it's Austen's best -- and perhaps most underrated -- work. There's something so warm and real about it, whereas the P&P characters are more strictly literary functions (not merely types, but still subordinate to the plot). But P&P is funnier, I have to say.

And now I will go read Middlemarch. OK, not *right* now, but I will. I promise.

Anonymous said...

Nice Work is the Lodge novel based on Victorian novels (Gaskell's North and South being the most prominent exemplar of these for Lodge's purposes).

Dr. Virago said...

Rob -- but the epistolary novel bit must be in the first book since I haven't read Nice Work. Or did I dream that up?

Anonymous said...

Dr. V. - Changing Places does have an epistolary component, yes. Nice Work tells the story of a misbegotten love affair between a Gaskell specialist at a red-brick university and an industrialist.

MT said...

I haven't read much, but I thought Middlemarch was brilliant and to die for too. In the New Yorker this week or last Gopnik or somebody said Eliot was pals with Darwin, and asserted a parallel between Middlemarch and Origin of the Species, which I found nifty.