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?



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