Last winter I decided to teach a course on the English domestic novel, a hard thing to do. My university has 10-week terms, making it generally unfeasible to teach the big 19th-century novels by Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, and Henry James. When I was in college, terms were 16 weeks long, and we read one of these novels a week. This was too many: it was a practical impossibility to read The Bostonians in a week, but then I (and many others) had already read some of these novels in high school, or even earlier, in middle school, bookworms that we were, sprawled out for days on end on the living room couch. That was back when you didn’t have to be well-rounded to get into a good college. These days we would be outside practicing our serves or our lacrosse passes instead. I don’t know very many kids today who read in marathon fashion in high school, which means they come to college with scant knowledge of what Henry James called the “baggy monsters,” the big books that I think of as the staples of my moral and sentimental education.
But last winter, I decided to teach a course which would oblige my students to read four such books, chosen to reflect my sense of the novelistic tradition (the domestic novelistic tradition, specifically) in its bare bones. The books were Jane Austen’s Emma, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
Although the class was a senior seminar for English majors, not one of the 15 students in it had read any of these novels before, with the exception of Emma, which two claimed to know, though their knowledge may have come from the Gwyneth Paltrow movie. In any case, the class became an exercise in stamina that ultimately translated into a great esthetic and moral adventure.
I should note that Emma did not come off as well as I had expected. Most of the students were not drawn to Emma’s character, even in its improved form at the end, thereby bearing out Austen’s prediction that she had created a character “whom no one but myself will much like,” and countering the famous verdict of Cardinal John Henry Newman who noted that, despite Emma’s faults, “I feel kind to her whenever I think of her.” Middlemarch, by contrast, found supporters as well as detractors. While there were those who simply couldn’t abide the continual authorial intrusions and didn’t like that contemporary saint, Dorothea Brooke, others said that, after getting used to the convoluted syntax, they were drawn in by the plot complications, the social and political context, the humor, and the sagacity of the narrator. Still, the favorite novel of the four was The Portrait of a Lady. I never would have expected that a group of 21-year-olds would relate to the case of Isabel Archer’s adventures abroad, or be so incensed by her marriage to the heinous Gilbert Osmond, but they were. They even liked James’s style, which they said, after Eliot, was refreshingly straightforward (James, straightforward?!).
Woolf, our final novel and our advent into modernism, brought them up a bit short. It was difficult, they said, but worth the investment. When we read portions out loud and discussed them, they responded positively, the stream of consciousness style being less new to them than the social milieu in which Clarissa Dalloway circulated—that, to some, was truly alien and offputting. And yet when we gathered at my house at the end of the term to watch the movie adaptation with Vanessa Redgrave in the role of Clarissa, everyone agreed that the book was better. When you get that verdict, you know the course has gone well.
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