Monthly Archives: September 2006

Teaching 18th century Keywords

Miriam’s post about “effeminate” reminded me of the moment in my Clarissa class where I had to explain her use of the term, “friends.” My students, some of whom are reading an 18th century novel for the first time in this grad seminar, were a bit quizzical, until I could point to Doody’s fine discussion of its relatively broad meaning in the period, so that it encompassed one’s family and family-connections as well as one’s intimate, unrelated companions. Of course, the irony in every character’s use of the term grows stronger throughout the novel. Clarissa’s family are NOT her friends, and cannot be friends in the strong sense that Anna Howe is (with all the additional meanings that fill out and personalize our sense of authentic friendship: loyalty, integrity, and the desire to defend her friend).

Teaching the “keywords” of a particular era seems an important part of what we do when we try to provide context for literary works and interpretation, because these mediate between the primary text (which students have read) and all the secondary texts and subsidiary texts (which we have read and reflected upon). It is as necessary in survey courses as it is in grad seminars.

So how do we do it? Any ideas about imparting to students the period flavor of a term like “virtue” or “romance”? Do you handle it in lectures or supplemental reading or criticism? What terms have you found necessary to explain to your students, at any level?



Dorothy Van Ghent on the Clarissa-myth

Today I’m working off of Allen’s fine post on Clarissa in the classroom, and introducing into discussion one of my favorite pieces of 20th century Richardson criticism, Dorothy Van Ghent’s Clarissa Harlowe chapter in The English Novel: Form and Function (1953). Here we find an interesting contrast with Watt’s discussion, which came out 3 years later, and is probably better known.

What I find so intriguing about this piece, apart from its teachability, is the fact that Van Ghent insists on the centrality of rape for the symbolic structure of this novel, and yet articulates how oddly that “centrality” operates: more like an absence than a presence, more a process around something than a thing or an event in itself:

This slow and hovering [epistolary] form endows the physiological event–the rape–with profound attraction and significance by holding it up slantwise to view in a murk of shadows, turning it mysteriously, allowing it to emerge slightly, withdrawing it, allowing it to emerge again, and so on. It is as tantalizing and evasive as a trout (47).

I must say there is nothing in Watt comparable to this in insight, even if Watt does make similar points about the epistolary form. Part of the reason for Van Ghent’s superiority, I’d argue, is that Watt seems unaware of how centrally this metaphor of rape inflects Richardson’s treatment of “privacy,” one of Watt’s key terms. And Watt has nothing comparable to Van Ghent in her treatment of what she calls the “Clarissa-myth,” her treatment of how the novel’s “imagery and symbols” aggregate into an extraordinary double-structure of myth, through “reiteration and accumulation,” into something immensely powerful. The Clarissa-myth, however, takes its power precisely from the contradictions it holds:

[Clarissa’s] mythical features still appear to us–for it would be a mistake to think that the Clarissa-myth does not still have deep social and psychological roots–in her two chief aspects: they appear on the covers of Vogue magazine, in the woman who is a wraith of clothes, debile and expensive, irrelevant to sense-life or affectional life, to be seen only; and they appear on the covers of True Confessions and True Detective Stories, in the many-breasted woman with torn dishabille and rolling eyeballs, a dagger pointing at her, a Venus as abstract as the Vogue Venus in her appeal to the eye and the idea alone, but differing in that she is to be vicariously ripped and murdered. Clarissa is a powerful symbol because she is both (50).

Unlike Watt, Van Ghent seems to realize how the “realism” of Clarissa does not in any way contradict the novel’s “mythic” or symbolic structure, largely because the details function as part of the process of reiteration and accumulation that alert us to the presence of myth: think about Clarissa’s “silk brocades,” for example, and how they stand for the Harlowes’ persistent misunderstanding of Clarissa’s desires.

And yet even as good a reader as Van Ghent insists that Clarissa’s fear of rape can only represent a fear of sexuality, a “Puritan” hatred of sexuality that can only represent desire in the act of disavowal, can only depict sexual transgression if it is accompanied with the promise of punishment.

So how to teach the novel without simply reiterating its myth of punishment?


Effeminate women

bradamante.jpg[Xposted to my blog]

Yesterday in my graduate seminar we discussed Margaret Cavendish’s Bell in Campo and The Sociable Companions. It was a lively discussion — they are an interested group — and at one point someone brought up the ways in which the two armies in Bell in Campo are described. “Masculine” is used to describe the army of men, while “feminine” and “effeminate” would seem to be used interchangeably to describe Lady Victoria’s army of women. It is also used to insultingly refer to men who prefer to stay home rather than fight. This led to a sweeping pronouncement from me about the ways in which the definitions of words often narrow and focus over time; it would seem that at one time “effeminate” could have been used to mean more or less “feminine” without any shading — though it was also used in our contemporary sense — but now it is used pretty exclusively as a pejorative applied to gay men who are perceived as lacking in “masculine” traits. We discussed various female equivalents and unpacked the some of the meanings “Amazon” held in the period.

This is one reason, among many, that I like the 18thc: English, always in flux, is just at enough of a remove after three centuries, give or take, that it is deceptively familiar. But upon closer examination there are significant little moments of vertigo, moments which can be useful as an entrée into a discussion of, say, gender roles.

[Speaking of language, awhile back on C18-L Jim Chevalier linked to a useful glossary of 18thc terms. I downloaded the list myself but have mislaid the link and invite you to post it again, Jim, if you are reading this.]

ESTC online

[Xposted to my blog]

Just found out that the British Library is offering free online access to the English Short Title Catalogue. Most, most excellent. Heads up from Stephen Karian on C18-L.

Teaching Philosophies and the Job Search

Oy vey. I’m preparing to enter the job market and I’m facing the prospect of having to write a statement of teaching philosophy. I find these statements to be the hardest things of all of the application materials to write. I’ve written some informal statements before, for use within the writing program at DU only. These were very brief–about a paragraph–and focused on my teaching of writing. Now, however, I’m faced with the prospect of writing a statement that is much longer, much more complex, and much more important.

The problem is that my “philosophy” of teaching is pretty intuitive. I am having a really hard time describing why and how I do the things I do on a daily basis in the classroom. I’ve looked at a variety of online guides for writing the statement of teaching philosophy and I’ve looked at a few sample statements–most of which were not written by English professors. So I wondered if anyone has any suggestions or indeed any comments about how these statements are used/have been used by hiring departments. My fear is that, as one article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggested, these statements can hurt more than they can help.

“Clarissa” and every fourth female reader

It is estimated that one in every four women will experience rape or attempted rape at some point during their four years in college. According to the latest numbers from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, one in six women overall will experience some variety of attempted or completed rape, and 80% of these are women under the age 30. Almost two-thirds of all rapes were committed by non-strangers, and 17% are committed by someone the victim knows intimately.

And the situation for young women attending college parties and dance raves has gotten much, much worse. The most alarming development since the 1990s is the easy availability of what the Drug Enforcement Agency calls “predatory drugs.” These include Rohypnol (commonly known as “roofies” or the “date rape drug”), GHB (“liquid ecstasy” or “grievous bodily harm”), and Ketamine (“special K” or “cat tranquilizers). The most common of these, Rohypnol, is a sedative ten times stronger than valium, and in the year 2000, four million doses were intercepted coming from Mexico alone. Since the effects can last up to eight hours, women at parties who have perhaps accepted drinks containing the tasteless and odorless drug can wake up in a basement or fraternity house with no recollection whatsoever of what has been done to her, by whom, and how many times.

If you typically have twelve women in the classroom when you teach Clarissa, the odds are that three of them has, or will have, an experience with rape or attempted rape. It’s also a safe estimate that at least one of those three will have had that experience connected with a predatory drug. That bears repeating: every time we teach Clarissa, we need to assume that at least one of the women in the room has experienced something similar to, or even worse than, what Clarissa experienced in her rape.

Do we have a responsibility, therefore, to adjust our approach to class discussions of this still-controversial novel? If so, we are forced to juxtapose two dangerously contradictory messages in our common pedagogy of the eighteenth-century novel. On the one hand there are the familiar feminist and Marxist readings that Clarissa’s death, while certainly objectionable, is nevertheless the victory of the spirit over the polluted body, the dominance of an independent will over the oppression of the patriarchy, and the rise of the empowered feminine bourgeoisie against the fall of the corrupt masculine aristocracy. Clarissa is admired, and rightly so, for seizing her right to self-determination in the way that she sees fit. On the other hand, these same feminist readers would surely endorse the counselors, crisis centers, and ministers that give these same students a radically different message about healthy reactions to rape: anorexia and thoughts of suicide are the wrong path; the victim is not to blame; the body has been violated, but not ruined; virginity is a state of mind, not a state of being; and sins need not be atoned for because the victim has done nothing which God needs to forgive.

How can, and should, the rape of Clarissa be taught to today’s students in light of Richardson’s aims to portray her as an ideal Christian martyr and the essence of virtuous femininity?


I wanted to write a quick post here to update where The Long Eighteenth is, so far. If people would like, I’ll make this a regular (maybe bi-weekly?) feature.

So far, we have sixteen contributors with access to the front page. Many of you have yet to introduce yourselves, so please remember that it’s not too late. This was formed as an international and interdisciplinary site, so your perspectives on eighteenth-century scholarship and pedagogy will be greatly welcomed.

We also have an active and responsive commentariat. Allen Michie has proposed that we find a way to get larger space for comments, but Haloscan keeps a strict 10,000-character limit on comment length, unless we are willing to spring for Haloscan Premium. I imagined, in my paranoid brain, that it was expensive, but now I find it’s a one-time fee of $12. I will be happy to pay this when my checks come in, but due to endless administrative errors, I have not been paid yet this semester and have $24 to my name. The widow’s mite? I’d rather buy eggs, at the moment; then I’ll pony up for Premium.

The other suggestion I have for our prolific commenters (who are truly thoughtful and amazing—I seem to be the only one-liner among us) is to ask yourself, “Could my reply to this post be posed as a post on the front page?” We needn’t confine all our conversations to comment format, which can be rather limited, both in format and readership. If you have a substantive response to another post, it would generate more conversation (and traffic) to respond with a post, linking to the previous post’s permalink page. (I have never written so many P’s in one paragraph in my life.)

Speaking of traffic, here is a screenshot of the traffic we’ve had since August 15th:

If the text of this image is illegible on your computer, click on it to view it full-size.

The orange part of the graph reflects the returning visitors, the blue part represents new visitors, and the green part reflects the total number of clicks, which includes people reading through older entries and refreshing their browsers. You’ll notice there is a natural ebb and flow of traffic, which roughly corresponds to the work week. (For some reason, half as many people read blogs on Fridays.) Spikes in traffic occur whenever another blog links to us or when people post to C18-L about this site.

Our first blog event is coming up, of course, on October 3-5, when we’ll be discussing Michael McKeon’s The Secret History of Domesticity, in conversation with the author. Thanks to David Mazella for setting up this exciting event! I urge everyone to contact your colleagues and students to let them know about this. I sent an email to my department and found that everyone from Renaissance to Romanticism was excited to hear about it.

Again, I urge, with regard to posting, that we not be shy about it. Many people seem concerned about accidentally posting at the same time as someone else. In my experience, this is not a problem at all. People tend to read through feed aggregators that list posts by title and subject, and even those who read by clicking on the page seem to have no problem finding and reading whatever is new.

You will also notice that there is a new, improved “Recent Comments” section in the sidebar. Haloscan has finally put out its own ad-free widget, and I love it. I hope you do, too.

Thank you, everyone, for your ongoing contribution to this project. Although I am young, I am continually impressed by how effective the internet has become at creating communities of people who want and need to speak to one another. Please spread the word, and feel free to start conversations here at will!

Where to?

I’m curious about the conferences people are planning to attend this year, either in terms of presentations or panels chaired. At least some of the ASECS decisions must have been made by now, and I’ve seen some CFPs for SCSECS and NEASECS. (Is it my imagination, or isn’t there a lot more last-minute scrambling for ASECS presenters than previous years?)

I just received the SCSECS CFP, in fact, from Laura Stevens at U. Tulsa, and I read there that Eugenia Zuroski, at U. Arkansas, who posted here a while ago, is chairing a panel on “Importing and Exporting National Identity.” Lots of other good stuff, including presentations from Carla Mulford and Susan Staves. For more info, it’s best to contact Laura at before Oct. 15.

So where are you going? What are you presenting on?


Samuel Johnson Teaches Composition: The Preceptor

After our discussion of Carrie’s ungrateful “remnant,” I thought it would be helpful to recall one of the eighteenth century’s most famous failed schoolmasters, Samuel Johnson. In his Preface to the Preceptor (1748), Johnson gives us a description of the eighteenth century schoolroom (all male, of course) that sounds mighty familiar to me:

Every man, who has been engaged in teaching, knows with how much difficulty youthful minds are confined to close application, and how readily they deviate to any thing, rather than attend to that which is imposed as a task. That this disposition, when it becomes inconsistent with the forms of education, is to be checked, will readily be granted; but since, though it may be in some degree obviated, it cannot wholly be suppressed, it is surely rational to turn it to advantage, by taking care that the mind shall never want objects on which its faculties may be usefully employed. It is not impossible, that this restless desire of novelty, which gives so much trouble to the teacher, may be often the struggle of the understanding starting from that to which it is not by nature adapted, and travelling in search of something on which it may fix with greater satisfaction.

It is fascinating how Johnson turns this discussion of the classroom toward one of his favorite themes, the danger of boredom. For Johnson the ex-schoolmaster, one of the chief causes of schoolboys’ inattention must be the demand that they read as a group from an identical text, even while they demonstrate widely varied capacities:

For, without supposing each man particularly marked out by his genius for particular performances, it may be easily conceived, that when a numerous class of boys is confined indiscriminately to the same forms of composition, the repetition of the same words, or the explication of the same sentiments, the employment
must, either by nature or accident, be less suitable to some than others; that the ideas to be contemplated may be too difficult for the apprehension of one, and too obvious for that of another: they may be such as some understandings cannot reach, though others look down upon them, as below their regard. Every mind, in its progress through the different stages of scholastick learning, must be often in one of these conditions; must either flag with the labour, or grow wanton with the facility of the work assigned; and in either state it naturally turns aside from the track before it. Weariness looks out for relief, and leisure for employment, and, surely, it is rational to indulge the wanderings of both.

Johnson seems to regard this lack of coordination, and the kind of boredom it engenders, as completely predictable consequences of the classroom. His solution is simply to offer a treatise like The Preceptor to the public, with essays on many different subjects, and with the hope that students with different capacities and temperaments will find what they need.

Perhaps he was not such a bad teacher, after all.

Happy New Year.


The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s

I’ve just finished reading the first three chapters of a new book by John Barrell, The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s (OUP 2006). It’s a book that is particularly interesting in light of my own work but also in light of the conversations here a few weeks back about Habermas and the coffeehouse, so I thought a brief summary of his argument with a quotation from his section critiquing Habermas might be in order. However, I admit openly that I have read only the first three chapters of the book (which is not terribly long, not McKeonesque at all–it’s around 300 pages), and I will therefore not claim to give a complete account of his book or his argument, which is much more complex than I can indicate here.

Barrell’s purpose is to investigate the ways in which the political conflict and consequent atmosphere of suspicion in Britain during the revolutionary decade pervaded all aspects of life and thus blurred the lines between what had been conceived of as “public” and “private.” Increasingly, as the political furor in Britain grew over the decade, the private realm became politicized, private conversation became public, and even off-the-cuff remarks in spaces (such as the coffee house) that had been conceived of as “private” in some measure were potentially politically dangerous.

In the interest of space I’ll skip over his first chapter and go directly to the second, which relates more directly to our earlier conversation about coffeehouses and Habermas. The chapter is titled “Coffee-House Politicians”; in it, Barrell suggests that the coffeehouse–or rather, two fascinating trials that develop out of “seditious utterances” made inside two of London’s coffeehouses–is one example where the politicization of private speech during the 1790s is clear. In the first case, an attorney named John Frost was reported for using seditious language in Percy Coffee House. After a delay of several months, one of the witnesses reported Frost to the authorities and Frost was indicted, tried, convicted, and sentenced to “six months imprisonment and an hour in the pillory” (79). The second case is similar, though it involves two men who were arrested for making seditious remarks in the New London Coffee House; one man was a penniless gentleman and the other an impoverished doctor. The gentleman, Charles Pigott, was released without being charged; the doctor, William Hodgson, was indicted, tried, and convicted. The defense made by Frost’s attorney, Thomas Erskine, and Pigott (Pigott published a pamphlet on the eve of Hodgson’s trial that offered a defense of himself and to a lesser extent Hodgson) was based on the same assumption: that a coffeehouse was understood by all “polite” people to be a place in which the conversation is “private.” Whatever was overheard in the coffeehouse could not actually be “heard.” Both Erskine and Pigott therefore protested that a “gentleman” should not be subject to eavesdropping much less prosecution on the basis of conversation that should ostensibly be “private,” despite its having taken place in a “public” place. Erskine argued that “words spoken in a public coffee house were words spoken in a private space; that they were, so to speak, privileged; that they should not have been heard by those to whom they were not addressed; that, if inadvertently overheard, they should not have been reported” (83).

The point that Barrell is making in highlighting the defense offered by Erskine and Pigott is that it is class-based. Two men who claimed liberal, reformist sympathies in the event fell back upon essentially aristocratic defenses, motivated at least in part by a distaste for the circumstances of their arrests. Both express disgust at the lack of “politeness” of the men responsible for reporting them, Erskine by frequent emphasis upon the “spirit of a gentleman” and Pigott by highlighting the informers’ (lower-class) professions. Barrell concludes, “It is an intriguing index, however, of the difficulty with which the discourse of rights became established, that [Charles James] Fox, Erskine, and others, especially Pigott, who seem to have regarded this [freedom of speech] as a civil right essential to the survival of civilized society, found it so hard to express, except in terms of class difference, the right of an elite not to be overheard by their social inferiors and dependants. The spirit of despotism was not the exclusive property of loyalists” (102). The fact that the defense of these two men was class-based tends to undermine Habermasian descriptions of the coffeehouse as an essentially egalitarian place wherein two men could meet as private men, leaving their public identities (as a hairdresser and a lord, for example) behind, and this is the basis for Barrell’s critique of Habermas (which I will quote and then be quiet!):

“‘Provided a man has a clean shirt and three-pence in his pocket, he may talk as loud in the coffee-house as the “squire of ten thousands pounds a-year”‘, wrote the celebrated late eighteenth-century antiquary Francis Grose. Well, perhaps; but this kind of patriotic egalitarian ideology seldom meant quite what it said, and anyone who has been brought up within the English class-system, even as it is 250 or 300 years after the heyday of the coffee house, is likely to have doubts about how far distinctions of rank could possibly have been suspended in public coffee rooms…I am doubtful, too, about the supposed demise of the coffee house in the second half of the century. There were, famously, thousands of coffee houses in London around 1700, but the vast majority of these must have been little local caffs, often in basement rooms, open only for a few hours a day, and patronized by tradesmen on their way to work, who no more expected to be drawn into a discussion of Shakespeare’s neglect of the unities than to be offered a latte when they ordered a milky coffee. No more than a handful of early eighteenth-century coffee houses can have come close to Habermas’s or Sennett’s ideal” (81).