Saturday, May 29, 2010

IM Conversation with Little Sister

7:05 PM Krista: HI

7:14 PM me:
what are you reading?

7:15 PM Krista:
right now im not reading anything

7:30 PM me:
aren't you supposed to be reading?
go read!

7:41 PM Krista:
well i am in the summer
im gonna try and start on thursday while in study hall
i need to get a head start so i can have some fun in the summer and have sleepovers
becuase mom wont let me have any fun

7:47 PM me:
dude, reading IS fun.

7:48 PM Krista:
dudet, not when its an old book back in the old in times

*er, something tells me she doesn't understand what I do for a living*

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Happy Birthday Mrs. Gaskell

200 years ago, on September 29, 1810, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell was born. This year is her bi-centennial. If I lived in England I would likely be attending events associated with the Gaskell Bi-Centennial Celebration 2010. Even the English Unitarians are contributing to the Gaskell worship. One wonders what opportunities for public Gaskell appreciation exist for American devotees. One thinks one should make more such opportunities in one’s corner of America… At least I can participate on some online read-alongs, such as the one for Cranford in June hosted by A Literary Odyssey.

The Cranford read-along happens to be perfectly timed, for me, since I’m just about through with Ruth. When I set out to read all of Gaskell’s novels this year, I had no idea it was a commemorative occasion. (For a Victorianist, I am rather thick-headed.) In the fall of 2009, a colleague and I had decided to start a *non-academic* book club, to remind ourselves that it was possible to read for pleasure. We decided to read Wives and Daughters first; the reward would be watching the BBC adaptation of the novel, which I had recently garnered from the Amazon Free Shelf (source of all BBC DVD goodness in my life). The rules of the book club were: no analytical discussion of the sort one hears at conferences or in graduate seminars, no close reading, no “how would you teach this?” Rather, we gave ourselves permission to identify with the characters, to simply love Mrs. Gaskell’s complicated heroines—even the dull ones—and, because we’re American, of course, to dream about England. Needless to say, perhaps, thanks to our professional training, we were unable to adhere to these strict standards of pleasure. Our conversations quickly spiraled into close readings of passages and questions of contextualization. I think we even had a brief argument over the presence of domestic violence in the Hamley's marriage. The book club dissolved, or maybe it was absorbed into our academic obligations. As I've continued my reading, I have become eager to develop a course focusing on Gaskell's novels.

My colleague did not, to my knowledge, finish the novel. I finished it, skipped the movie, and went on to read North and South and Mary Barton. And now I’m almost finished reading Ruth (1853), Gaskell’s story of the redeption of a “fallen woman.” Overall, I find Ruth to be a bit too sentimental for my taste. Also, Ruth is portrayed as too young and naïve to have understood the consequences of her seduction, and so morally upright ever after as to seem rather unrepresentative of her type. Gaskell painted a more tragic fallen woman figure in Mary Barton, in which Aunt Esther, who has fallen so far as to have become an alcoholic prostitute, resists her niece’s invitation to redeem herself. The more of Gaskell I read, the more interested I grow in her variegated notion of feminine power. Her narrators, and some of her heroines, are preoccupied with it. More on that later, I suppose.