Demob Happy: Books Overboard 
Thursday, July 16, 2009, 03:59 PM
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As it’s the vacation (just about) and I won’t have to face my colleagues or students for quite a while I thought I’d confess to some great works of literature that I could do without.

I was prompted to think about this by Alex Massie’s recent piece in The Spectator, in which he considers which revered works of literature ‘could safely be ditched without causing too much pain or guilt.’ I like the list from "Second Pass" he links to – I don’t have a problem with Tale of Two Cities but I could certainly live without Cormac McCarthy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and William Faulkner. As for Lawrence – well, Alex had to teach The Rainbow to undergraduates once and found it so unrelievedly boring he had to stop reading - I gave him a potted summary and I believe the class went well.

So what else would go on my own list? I've never managed to finish anything by Salman Rushdie. I've also never got very far with Moby Dick. I agree with Alex Massie that Zola’s Germinal (which I had to drag myself through for A level) is dreary. I also particularly disliked Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things for some reason. I had to force myself to finish both Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy (though I really enjoyed Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer which is meant to be unreadable). I don’t care for Middlemarch much. I’d be quite happy if I was told I could never read a word by Virginia Woolf again. And I try to avoid King Lear whenever possible.

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An Ancestor for Gwendolen Harleth? 
Wednesday, July 1, 2009, 07:20 PM
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The heroine is beautiful – but in an unsettling way. She repels as much as she attracts and even has a strangely serpentine quality. She is imperious and dominates her only surviving parent. She is aloof, avoiding friendships with other girls, and seems incapable of feeling real affection for anyone. However she is attracted to the novel’s hero. He is a handsome, highly intelligent, gentlemanly man in a slightly anomalous social position. He is fascinated by the heroine, wants to be her friend, and feels pity for her difficult situation. However he is never romantically attracted to her.

This could be a description of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) – but it is also an accurate account of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Elsie Venner, an 1861 novel set in New England. A former colleague at Lucy Cavendish College, Lindsey Traub, has researched the neglected but important impact of American novels (particularly those, such as Elsie Venner published in The Atlantic) on British writers. Might George Eliot have been influenced by Holmes’ popular first novel?

Gwendolen Harleth is a much subtler and more human portrait than Elsie, whose snaky features are explained with reference to the fact that her mother was bitten by a rattlesnake while pregnant. Elsie pores over Keats’s Lamia but puts the hero, Bernard, in mind of Coleridge’s still more sinister Geraldine. Whereas Elsie’s power to draw people to her gaze against their will is repeatedly emphasised by Holmes, a similar trait in Gwendolen is just hinted at by Eliot – ‘Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?’ – as befits the English novelist’s more naturalistic approach.

But although Gwendolen doesn’t share Elsie’s supernatural bond with snakes, her serpentine qualities are almost equally heavily emphasised:

"A striking girl--that Miss Harleth--unlike others."
"Yes, she has got herself up as a sort of serpent now--all green and
silver, and winds her neck about a little more than usual."
... "You like a nez retroussé, then, and long narrow eyes?"
"When they go with such an ensemble."
"The ensemble du serpent?"
"If you will. Woman was tempted by a serpent; why not man?"
"She is certainly very graceful; but she wants a tinge of colour in her
cheeks. It is a sort of Lamia beauty she has." (Chapter One)

Elsie cuts a similarly Lamia-like figure:

“Her dress was a grayish watered silk; her collar was pinned with a flashing diamond brooch, the stones looking as fresh as morning dew-drops, but the silver setting of the past generation; her arms were bare, round, but slender rather than large, in keeping with her lithe round figure. On her wrists she wore bracelets: one was a circlet of enamelled scales; the other looked as if it might have been Cleopatra’s asp, with its body turned to gold and its eyes to emeralds.” (Chapter Seven)

The relationship between hero and heroine is also similar in both texts. It is difficult to think of many nineteenth-century novels where a flawed but beautiful heroine endures an unrequited passion for the hero. Both Daniel Deronda and Holmes’ Bernard – a ‘Boston Brahmin’ who becomes a school teacher having fallen on slightly hard times – choose to marry less complicated young women.

The differences between the two novels are also rather suggestive. Holmes is very conscious of race and blood. The anti-hero, Elsie Venner’s cousin Dick, is clearly doomed to be violent and impetuous because he is half Spanish. Holmes repeatedly distinguishes between his ‘New England’ tendency to caution and his Southern propensity to recklessness. This contrasts with Eliot’s non Anglo-Saxon Daniel - who is every bit as cerebral, level headed and benevolent a hero as Holmes’ WASP Bernard.

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Sunday, June 28, 2009, 07:40 PM
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Usually I choose to go to conferences whose themes relate to the topics I research – such as mythology, metamorphosis and the uncanny. But the conference I’ve just come back from, ‘The Critic as Artist / The Artist as Critic’ at Lancaster University, involved taking a step back, reflecting not on what I write about but how I write – and why. The conference got off to a very good start - with drinks at the rather splendid Sun pub followed by supper at the Sun Cafe.

The first plenary paper was about ekphrasis, a phenomenon which I’ve always found intriguing. Valentine Cunningham gave an extremely suggestive account of a series of paired poems and paintings from the nineteenth century including Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting Found and his poem with the same title. Both works of art can be read as commentaries on each other; in other words they are simultaneously creative and critical.

I then broke a cardinal rule of conference etiquette and abandoned old friend Ewan Fernie (reading from his novel Dunsinane with co-author Simon Palfrey) to attend a rival panel. John Goodby’s ‘A stAnger / visioN’ argued that students ought to encounter poetry through experimental writers rather than exclusively through more establishment figures such as Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney – and cast his argument in the form of a poem. Sarah Jackson’s striking ‘In touch: Writing Con-tact’ explored the idea of poetry as ‘a symbolic touch experience’ using H.D.’s account of her experience of analysis with Freud as a starting point. Finally Duraid Jalili’s ‘Tennyson’s (Post)maud(ern) Lament’ was a tour de force, a re-envisioning of Maud as a parody of the act of criticism – and of itself.

After my own paper (‘More Creative than Creation: Confessions of a Creative Critic’), in which I reflected on moments of speculation, self-conscious reflexivity, rhetorical exaggeration, and even the odd lie (mostly to do with page numbers – it was a long time ago) in my own practice, we listened to Harold Schweizer’s arresting performance of ‘Of the Immateriality of Stones’, a metaphysical reflection on duration and (im)materiality. The session concluded with Will Slocombe’s ‘Where Three (Barthian) Roads Meet: Fiction, Criticism, Metafiction’, an engaging account of the ways in which metafictions pre-empt critical moves.

The final paper of the day was another plenary ‘You’re gonna wake up one morning and KNOW what side of the bed you’ve been lying on’. The title was derived from an iconic T Shirt and poet Paul Farley introduced a series of poems about beds, exploring how the bed might function as a metaphor for the poem – and for the relationship between a poet and its readers.

So – many thanks to John Schad for devising and organising such a stimulating day!

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Jon Pike resigns from UCU NEC 
Saturday, June 6, 2009, 12:26 PM
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After resigning from the UCU after the adoption of Motion 25 I decided, for a combination of reasons, to rejoin the union a few months back and try to oppose its SWP dominated agenda from the inside. The only active step I’ve taken so far is to vote in the recent UCU elections – something less than 10% of members chose to do.

Like, I suspect, the majority of my colleagues I don’t feel tempted to get more involved in union politics – the very thought makes even that large pile of marking I’ve been putting off seem strangely appealing by contrast. I therefore have great respect for those, like Jon Pike, who have spent so much time working on the (thankless and Sisyphean) task of representing members’ views on the union’s National Executive Committee.

Sadly, though understandably, Jon has just resigned from the NEC following the adoption of resolutions calling for an academic boycott against Israel at last week’s UCU congress. Here are two key passages from his resignation letter.

“Both Congress in 2008 and 2009, and a senior committee of the union have rejected calls for a ballot of the membership. An amendment from my branch, to this year’s conference, calling for a ballot of the membership on this proposal was ruled out as a ‘wrecking amendment.’ It seems there is something incendiary about asking the members directly to express their views. The call for a ballot has been rejected in the knowledge that, and because, such a ballot would lead to the overwhelming defeat of the boycott proposals.

When proposals for boycott of Israeli universities have been considered by branches of the union and its predecessors, they have been overwhelmingly rejected. Members at Reading, Open, Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, Bath, Warwick, UCL, Strathclyde, Lancaster, Kingston, LSE, KCL, Birmingham, Bristol, UEA, Sussex, Cardiff, LSHTM, The Institute of Education, QMWL, Aberystwyth, Swansea, Southampton, and others, have voted, at branch meetings, to reject such proposals. Previous similar proposals have been repudiated by individual branches, and overwhelmingly rejected by branch ballots of their membership.”

My favourite quote from the debate at congress on the boycott resolutions was this response to a call for a ballot on the issue: ‘We cannot rely on votes. Let’s not make this a bureaucratic procedure.’

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Rereading Georgette Heyer: A Colloquium 
Monday, May 25, 2009, 01:58 PM
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Several of my female academic colleagues, past and present, are closet Georgette Heyer fans. Although our main research interests lie elsewhere – in Ricardian poetry and the plays of James Shirley for example – we thought it would be interesting (and fun) to organise a conference on Heyer’s historical romances. We’ve teamed up with colleagues at Lucy Cavendish College, and this is where the colloquium will be held on Saturday 7 November 2009. I’ve pasted our call for papers below – I’m planning a short presentation on Lady of Quality, inspired by the writings of the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick ...

“This conference, organised jointly by Lucy Cavendish College and Anglia Ruskin University, is aimed at all those with an interest in Heyer's historical novels, whether academics or general readers. It will include formal papers and more informal discussion sessions. We would welcome papers on any aspect of Heyer's historical novels. Possible topics might include:

sources and influences
theoretical approaches to her works
critical and popular reception
class, gender and sexuality

Proposals for 20 minute papers should be sent to me, Sarah Brown (contact details to left of page), by 30th June 2009.”

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