Thursday, April 30, 2009


Given that I'm a literary scholar (try that on for size), people often ask me what I'm reading, so I think it would be nice to give an update on what I'm reading.  Plus, this will encourage me to read more things more quickly.   I'm guilty of going through fits and starts of reading - devouring books very quickly, then going on strict hiatus.  

Recently I've read: The Small House at Allington (1864) by Anthony Trollope, which is the basic victorian novel, with such stunning gems of victorian maleness as assertions that a woman could never be convinced to marry after being jilted by her fiance because in the moment she accepted that first proposal she gave up herself to that man's life, and she simply couldn't get herself back.  I paraphrase, but only just barely.  If you've never heard of Anthony Trollope, it's no surprise.  Like many 19th-century authors, Trollope was outrageously popular in his day, but suffered from the aesthetic revolution of the early 20th century, and today is rarely found on syllabi (though this is also due, perhaps, to the fact that his novels are all, like, 10,000 pages long).  But I feel a certain rumbling beneath the academic ramparts to re-examine these passed-over authors.  Contemporary critics are typically interested in Trollope's treatment of women, which, despite my earlier characterization, is often nuanced and interesting.  And often not.  But, you know.

Right now I'm reading the (in)famous Pamela (1740) by Samuel Richardson.  The basic story of this epistolary novel is as follows: Pamela, whose parents were well-educated school teachers fallen on bad luck, is sent out to service to good Madam B who notices her fine sensibilities and educates her "above her station" by teaching her to play the part of a genteel young lady (playing cards, fine embroidery, carving chickens, writing a fine hand, reading things other than novels, etc.)  Upon Madam B's death, her son, Mr. B, begins to take notice of the alluring Pamela.  He begins to give her gifts of fine clothes and to ask her to embroider him special vests!  But the plot thickens as his attraction to her becomes more ... lascivious.  He begins to make advances, but being a virtuous wench, Pamela refuses them.  So, naturally, he has her kidnapped and imprisoned in his country house where his other servants are more amenable to his plans to rape her, or, ruin her "by force," as they say.  After about a month of imprisonment, Mr. B comes to the country house to do the deed, except Pamela's consistent virtue, and her impressively written letters and journal, all convince him that he can't stand to be without her, and will marry her in spite of the shame and dishonor it will bring on his family.  And, of course, despite herself, Pamela totally loves him because he's totally handsome and rich and they get married and, you might think the book would be over there, but it's not, because it continues for another 200-300 pages explaining how hard it is for a woman to go from servant to mistress in the 18th century.

You might be saying to yourself, gee, thanks!  You just gave away the whole thing! To which I would reply, the plot is not the point!  Which is one of the most stunning changes when you become a graduate student.  While many of us still enjoy the first reading because of the plot - I will probably never become one of those people who can read the footnotes on the first go around because they always give things away (seriously, don't read them.  Oxford is the worst!), the rest of the time I'm reading for far more.

The plot of Pamela is well-known, and in no way surprising or page-turning.  The frustration many readers feel with epistolary novels is that the plot doesn't seem to have much of a role.  They're far more concerned with the inner-workings of the characters, and their ability to express themselves to each other.

There are all sorts of class dimensions going on in this book which fascinate me.  Richardson was not a member of the English Aristocracy, being rather a member of the mercantile class, and it's fascinating to see Pamela stand up for herself as an autonomous British citizen with rights in the face of her tyrannical Master, Mr. B.  A good introduction will take you through the class implications of the story, but what I'm most interested in are the ways that Pamela is able to make sense of her situation because she's been so well-educated and encouraged to read.  Again and again she refers to books to explain her position to herself and others, using them as analogies for her situation.  Without her extended education, would Pamela have had the tools to hold off Mr. B for so long?

I don't think so, which makes the cover page of the book make perfect sense.  By reading, women were reinforcing their virtue, not endangering it, as many contemporaries would contend.

One last word, in favor of 18th-century novels:

Are you under the impression that the earlier centuries were far more prude than ours?  That they didn't talk about sex, or show their ankles, and other Victorian-inspired niceties?  Allow me to disabuse you of this impression (and to encourage you to revisit your notes from that Shakespeare seminar while I'm at it).  18th-century British literature* is bawdy and raucous and salacious and outrageous -  you just have to know enough about their vocabulary and culture to catch on.  When Pamela, post-wedding night, declares herself "thrice-happy," you're not the only one who thinks she's giving away some rather intimate information.  And what's the big deal with the women always falling down?  Oh, right, 18th-century ladies didn't wear underwear.  And skirts ... falling ... you get the idea.

I'm just saying, give it a try.  I recommend beginning with Tom Jones and working your way up to Tristram Shandy, which is neither 18th, 19th, or 20th-century standard, but is its own unique little lovable morsel (just like Uncle Toby.)

I remain Your humble servant,

 * And if you've ever wondered how best to continue having sex with your dear departed lover, you have only to ask the French (hint: it involves embalming, wax, and some fancy hidden springs.  And the linked book, by the way, is to die for.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Back Away From the Mic!

Jeez Louise, is there anything more annoying than listening to Pat Buchanan on the radio?  I mean, aside from his impossibly stubborn old-guy opinions ("When I worked with Nixon!.. you know!  That guy that lied and cheated and was thrown out of office! Yeah, he taught me a lot!"), the man cannot manage to speak for a full sentence without doing that awful ... I don't even know how to describe it.  Like sniffling and licking your lips at the same time ... it's disgusting.  And my man, Tom Ashbrook, can't your sound editors do anything about this!?

And also, does it change your opinion about a lot of things (the Pulitzer, for example?) to know that Doris Kearns Goodwin is a bona fide plagiarist?  Something to think about ...

Oh, and Eva, you must sing and dance for an update.  To entice you, I offer a morsel: the wedding will take place in May 2010 (after my first year of the new school).  So consider this an unofficial "save the date" until you receive an actual "save the date."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Love and Marriage

I found a couple of delightful post on the interwebs today about the difficulty of being a truly feminist bride.  This is a topic near and dear to my heart, since I am both a feminist (though I prefer the term anti-gender-essentialism-and-discrimination-ist, it doesn't have the same zing!) and a bride-to-be.

I generally agree with both Broadsheet and Jessica Valenti that breaking from the traditional wedding script is almost impossible these days unless you're willing to offend most of your family and ... yourself.  Some feminist somewhere made the astute point that gender may be a construct, but that doesn't mean it isn't real.  

So maybe I have been engineered by my society to want a big wedding with all my friends and family.  Maybe this urge is deeply implicated in patriarchal power, but it's also something that, damn it, I want!  

And what is truly more feminist?  Doing what others tell you is the appropriate thing (in this case: it's anti-feminist to have a traditional wedding), or doing what you feel is appropriate for yourself and your marriage without deference to overarching power structures (and of course the academy and the feminist movement within is also a power structure that has come to "construct" us as women).

The answer seems pretty clear to me.  The beauty of the feminist revolution is that now we women have the intellectual and civil right to follow ourselves.  I don't want to exclude half my friends and family by having a teeny-tiny ceremony.   I want to dance like a maniac in a wedding dress, which, I believe, requires a reception.  And, oh yeah, I want to wear that big white wedding dress (which, by the way, is fabulous).

And isn't that the best part of life as a 21st century woman?  I'm not, actually, obligated to deconstruct myself and examine how I can simultaneously not even seriously consider just flat out changing my name (the new debate: to hyphenate, or to not hyphenate - discuss amongst yourselves), and devolve into raptures at an organza-chiffon blend that makes me look so hot!

Now, don't get me wrong, I do not want my marriage vows, or anyone's marriage vows, to include the words "obey" - but isn't the point really that it's not my place to force my beliefs on other people, and vice versa?*  To become truly comfortable with that premise, and truly comfortable within yourself and your own ideals and your own person, is such a lovely, lovely place to find oneself.   And when you find yourself in that place with someone who seems to have been cosmically created to fit that self like a loving little puzzle piece, why wouldn't you want to say: you and me.  It is you and me.  Forever...

Until we have babies.  But don't even get me started on that!

Cheers, ya'll!

* Important Note: vigorous discussion and debate is not the same thing as forcing your beliefs upon others.  It's actually the opposite - it's expressing your beliefs and allowing another to express theirs as well.  Cable news: I'm looking at you.  Oh, and while I'm looking, can you stop hiring disgraced politicians to give "political analysis"?  What, are you stupid?  I mean seriously!  That's like asking a cheater how to pass the test: they never actually knew the answers ... that's why they cheated.  Jeez.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Newsflash: Bug Takes Advantage of my Eco-Friendly Attempts to Persuade Him Out the Door

Is this what our natural order has come to?  That a giant, irritating horsefly is not at all perturbed by my attempts to threaten him with a rolled up paper because he knows very well that, no matter how many times I threaten it, I will never actually have the heart to smash him?  His perch on the molding above the door secured, I sit down to write my first blog post in an egregiously long time.

What am I doing?  Well, right now I am not working, as I should be.  My ridiculously awesome job (which will soon be available), which involves my showing up kind of whenever I feel like it, leaving kind of whenever I feel like it, reading blogs with an actual purpose, doing a minimal amount of data entry and mail preparation and always, always listening to NPR at inappropriate volumes, allows me a brief moment to post about the most wonderful of all topics: me.

Why would I leave such a job, you ask?  Well, as nice as it is, it has only enhanced my desire to get back into the classroom, this time as teacher and student.  I have finally been accepted and funded at a few decent PhD programs, and have decided on the University of Kentucky in Lexington.  Which means I will actually, eventually, someday, probably be called Professor.  My wonderful job is ensconced in a scholarly institute and my envy of those harried, tired, stressed academics wandering the halls, in charge of their own time and their own lives and their own interests was just too much for me.  I applied, and I emerged victorious, thanks in large part to the support of the wonderful professors here at the University of Virginia.   So the soon-to-be hubs and I will move in August, and embark upon approximately half a decade of life as a church mouse.  Hey, at least I've got a job for the next five years.  How many people can say that these days?

I also have a new website and blog, Sweater Girl Knits where I discuss my newly found passion for creating my own vintage clothes and encourage other people to do so too!  If you like knitting or vintage clothes, you should check it out.  If you don't like these things, you should consider doing so.  And if you have your very own blog or website you should probably link to me.  Because it will help my google stats.

No seriously, please link to me.

And after that shameless bit of self-promotion, I've decided to institute my very own "How Radical are you?" scale.  Inspired by Slate's "Lipstick-o-Meter" I've decided to keep track of how deeply I traverse the spectrum from insipid dinosaur Caitlin Flanagan to flame-throwing Camille Paglia. (Please note: the likes of Ann Coulter, having frequently demonstrated that they are, in fact, sub-human, are beyond the spectrum.)  

Present Status: Pretty generally pissed off about a lot of things and unwilling to keep quiet about it anymore: Joan Walsh.

Check out her column.  Who knew that the same woman that frequently irritated me when arguing with Chris Matthews and his ilk, was actually a ball-busting lady reporter whom I enjoy reading, and that this fact would further solidify my hatred of all things 24-hour "news"?  Her recent report on the disgusting William Kristol is a good case in point. 

Now, Joan Walsh and I do not agree about everything all the time.  And like many of us, she can descend into group-think and emotional responses.  But I appreciate her guts, and her political engagement.  And if there's one thing I've learned, it's that if I'm going to be a successful academic, and achieve my dream of being a multi-millionaire blogger who gets paid to jet around and have opinions about stuff, I'm going to have to actually.. you know .. articulate opinions about stuff.  Publicly.  And not just to my cat.  Who is a very good listener.  And never disagrees.

So keep checking here and enjoy a front-seat view of my quest to actually become Dahlia Lithwick (who, for the record, is totally my friend, evidenced here by her response to my email!  Though, I would disagree that I was writing to "chide," but ... you know ... eye of the beholder, etc.)  One day, I dream of being able to eruditely explicate just what is so troubling about a bunch of crony Supreme Court Justices guffawing their way to a ruling that Strip Searches of Thirteen Year Old Girls are completely appropriate.

Until next time,