Reading for Exams Week 1
In the summer before I started college, I made myself a reading list of “great” works. I still have that list, a relic of my past filled with Greek tragedies, classic works of American literature (mostly by men), and a smattering of 1960s counterculture novels. I read almost nothing on it that year, but it hung in my dorm room, a gentle reminder of the kind of intellectual work I had hoped to do on my own time.
Now, as a PhD student, I am preparing for comprehensive exams, wherein I draft reading lists and spend the next academic year preparing for written and oral defenses of my proposed course of study. The eighteen year old me would have found this process exhilarating; the nearly thirty year old me finds it overwhelming.
I drafted a tentative reading list this summer, one that attempts to balance the interdisciplinary work I value in literature and rhetoric. It wasn’t easy, and a few health setbacks mean I’m about two months behind where I wanted to be. But part of this process is learning how to cope and sustain a massive research project, and I guess accepting any starting place, whenever it happens to fall, is a good first lesson.
The second lesson: love your advisors so even when they force you to make difficult decisions it’s okay. My first major road block led to my asking both my advisors: Which work should I read first? After all, to my mind, what I read first is both likely to guide my process and also perhaps be the piece I will remember the least! Neither would budge—it was my duty to pick my own starting point. So, I did what made sense and abdicated the responsibility entirely, asking B to pick for me. He did so (graciously), and I began this overwhelming endeavor with Jacqueline Pearson’s Women’s Reading in Britain, 1750-1835. It was, dear reader, a good starting point, for her work tangentially relates to my own interests in women’s literacy yet is removed enough from my time period (the long 19c) to not induce imposter syndrome. I list below a few noteworthy points:
- Literacy is a fluid state, where reading aloud and reading privately develop literacy practices among women of all classes. (163)
- Popular books of the circulating library were often “ruined” by women’s insertion of themselves (through dog-eared pages, the lingering smell of sprits and snuff, etc) into the texts, aka a literal insertion of the female body into the text. (165)
- “Mrs. Taylor’s Practical Hints to the Young Females in the Duties of a Wife, a Mother, and a Mistress to a Family suggests that in ‘every kitchen there should be a library’ of books adopted to the comprehensive of ‘kitchen readers.'” (187)
From there I turned my attention to the Victorian novel Marcella by Mary Augusta Ward, which, to my horror, I’ve been mispronouncing for the last week (MARCH-ella is not correct, FYI). I knew little of Ward’s work before reading, which I found to be a good thing as it allowed me to grapple honestly with the feminist tensions represented in Marcella’s struggle. While she is an independent and headstrong woman of aristocratic birth who turns to nursing as a balm for her broken spirit after the hanging of a laborer friend, it ultimately ends with a questionable message for women, namely that a woman’s loftiest position is in subjugation to others. However, Marcella’s growth into her own intellectual capability, represented through her rejection of the various public figures that influence her in the beginning of the novel, implies Ward’s feminist stance, at least when it comes to the education (and literacy!) of women. I find myself drawn to works where the characters contradict themselves. It adds to the novel’s complexity (and page tally, with the Broadview edition of Marchella clocking in just over 500 pages). It also captures the messy realities of a socially-conscious life, and, if nothing else, is a good reminder that social justice has a long and fraught history beyond the #SJW world we live in now.
Finally, I ended this weekend with Marie Belloc Lowndes’s short novel The Lodger, which purportedly is the first to represent Jack the Ripper in fiction. The main character, Mrs. Bunting, struggles with the knowledge that her lodger (weirdly named Mr. Sleuth) might just be a Ripper knockoff self-named “The Avenger.” Lowndes’s work does do a nice job of illustrating class tensions (Bunting doesn’t want to give up her income from the lodger) but also how knowledge of criminal activity circulates in middle-class London and what that means as a form of entertainment/excitement for those readers. I’ll end with this curiously contradictory quote from Mrs. B, who seems not to recognize her own complicity as an accessory…
No, Mrs. Bunting had always been told it was very wrong to read in bed, and she was not in a mood just now to begin doing anything that she had been told was wrong. . . .
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