Category Archives: Novel Bodies: Writing in Public

Back in the Romanticism Saddle Again

Teaching

I took a break from teaching the Big Six for a number of reasons–mostly because it was all beginning to feel a bit rote (if it’s October it must be Blake).  It’s also been more interesting for me to teach the literature of the period around a specific historical debate (Britain’s abolitionist movement) than to teach it as a survey I feel I’m marching through.  But I found myself missing Frankenstein and Coleridge, and even had fond thoughts about Wordsworth, my favorite poet to mercilessly mock. My first thought was that I would revamp the reading list, but I’ve decided to stay with the texts I know I can teach well while trying to fold in what I’ve been thinking about when it comes to how we understand the period.  I’m thinking specifically of the role visual culture plays in how the Romantics and their readers saw themselves and the cultural shifts they faced.  British abolitionist literature lends itself to this. At least I think it does.  That might say more about how I stumbled into it (seeing the cover of the OUP Belinda and wondering about the black figure in the portrait), but I’m hoping for a class where we read image and text at once.  I’ve been thinking of new writing and research projects for my students. This is a constant pedagogical project for me as I try to move beyond the traditional writing assignments while still sticking close to what those assignments are intended to teach.  Based on student feedback, I’ve realized I need to spend more time helping them through the assigned readings, and so one thing I’ve done these last weeks is go through all of my  lecture notes and reading guides/questions and pulled together the best bits and pieces for each assigned reading.  Reading nineteenth-century literature requires a certain set of reading practices students don’t always have, and I need to find ways to help them build a reading (and not just a critical) vocabulary so that they can have a more nuanced understanding of our poems and novels.

Research: Conferences

I’m at the International Conference on Romanticism in Colorado in October and am trying to pull what I promised in this abstract into a cogent argument (for those who read Opie, I’ll focus on the pineapple in Adeline Mowbray):

“Blood Sugar, Genre, and British Abolitionist Literature”

 If, as Pamela Gilbert argues in Disease, Desire and the Body in Victorian Women’s Popular Novels, “Genre operates not only as a way of binding the reading processes, but of locating the text within the ‘boundaries’ of a ‘space’ within the marketplace” and if, as Debbie Lee explains in Slavery and the Romantic Imagination, the 1783 Zong case brought the truths about the slave trade “terrifyingly close to home,” how can we understand the different functions of fiction and poetry produced by middle-class English women not only to help abolish the slave trade but also to gain entry into public discourse? I explore this question by considering The Woman of Colour a Tale, Amelia Opie’s “The Black Man’s Lament; or, How to Make Sugar,” and the abolition narrative in her roman à clef Adeline Mowbray. By juxtaposing these texts against Southey’s sonnets “On the Slave Trade” and Hannah More’s “The Sorrows of Yamba,” I argue that women writers worked within the formal constructions of poetry and against the generic constraints of the novel to make radical claims about the effects of the slave trade without losing the sheen of respectability that didactic writing conferred on them. By considering the corporeal as a trope that ties all of these texts together, I argue that the popularity of the novel during the Romantic period was not just a result of its sensational elements but was also a byproduct of a culture that understood its ameliorative powers, even as figures like Dr. Beddoes argued that novels would destroy the nation.

Pray for me, people (actually pray for Hannah More because I probably won’t talk about “Sorrows” as much as she would hope).

Research: The BOOK

One of my mentors took me out for dinner and asked, “If someone requested the manuscript right now what could you give them?” The answer almost made me want to crawl back to my desk. I think this ICR conference paper could be the missing link for the third chapter (I have a draft of the whole book, but the intro is a quite drafty). If so, that would be pretty huge. That would mean the three main chapters are in pretty damn good shape. Part of the problem I have is that I sometimes think I’m writing three different short books instead of one big critical tome. I think that shorter books are more my style, but I don’t know that shorter books would be the best first way for me to take on one of the larger question the book tries to answer, namely how does Romantic-era fiction help us understand proto-feminist contributions to debates about the body? If I can get the proposal out soon (and very soon), my reward will be focusing on two other projects I’m wildly excited about…so excited I could talk your ear off about them if you let me.

Somewhere in all of this I’ll be talking about Written/Unwritten (seven pending invites and counting…*), but I suspect I’m about to become a person who really does write on planes and in hotels over breakfast.

*Yes, I will come to your school or department to talk with your faculty, administrators, and graduate students about diversity in higher ed, but it really does seem as if my calendar will fill up, so, at the risk of seeming a bit pushy, I advise you to get in touch with me sooner rather than later with firm dates.

 

Sick Novels and Sick Readers and Sick Nations II

tricia’s note: this is my work–my research, my writing, the wrinkles around my eyes caused by all the  squinting that do as I read unpublished manuscripts (often in cold archives where no one lets me drink tea while I work)–so if you discuss it, reference it, or want to talk about it in your own work please give me credit.

I was pretty happy with my ICR paper, and I especially appreciated the smart questions and reading recommendations I got during the Q&A and for the rest of the weekend (this really was a fabulous conference–intellectually stimulating without being oppressively aggressive).  Since getting back from the conference, I’ve spent the time I would normally spend writing sorting through the essays, manuals, and scraps of papers with book titles scrawled on them.  It’s been helpful as I move towards drafting the introductory chapter next month.

One thing I’m wrestling with is how I move between the terms “science,” “medicine”, and “disease.” They are linked but, of course, distinct.  I think I’m writing about science in some chapters (the Valperga chapter and the Woman of Colour, A Tale chapter) and medicine in others (the Belinda chapter and the Adeline Mowbray chapter), and it feels as if I’m writing about disease in a few chapters (the Belinda chapter and the Valperga chapter). Perhaps disease is more a metaphor, or perhaps it’s too broad  Breast feeding, phrenology, abolitionist science, diet: those seem to be the four areas I’m thinking about (I’m feeling rather ambivalent about diet and Adeline Mowbray and suspect I just want to write about indigestion and Adeline’s gassy husband).

Sick Novels and Sick Readers and Sick Nations

tricia’s note: this is my work–my research, my writing, the wrinkles around my eyes caused by all the  squinting that do as I read unpublished manuscripts (often in cold archives where no one lets me drink tea while I work)–so if you discuss it, reference it, or want to talk about it in your own work please give me credit.

I’m at the International Conference on Romanticism in Minnesota in September giving a paper that comes from what will be the introduction of my book on Romantic-era fiction.  I’m interested in how women writers disrupted debates about illness and disease by narrating sickness and health in their fiction and used other forms (poetry, drama, pamphlets) to “heal” the generic conventions that demanded propriety from female heroines. I do this by focusing on how novelists represented women’s bodies in crisis in order to reveal the scientific, ideological, and moral crises of the early nineteenth century. For example, in one chapter I discuss how in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, Lady Delacour’s struggle with her wounded breast points to how gaps in women’s education about their own bodies (and society’s failure to treat them as rational individuals) damage not only women but the family unit as well. In another chapter, I focus on Adeline Mowbray by Amelia Opie, “The Sorrows of Yamba” by Hannah More, The Woman of Colour; a Tale by an anonymous nineteenth-century writer and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and argue that we can read these novels as representations of how poets and novelists use the bodies of women of color to forward an ameliorist argument in the abolition debate.* I also have a chapter on Mary Shelley’s Valperga and want (desperately) to show that she is trying replace phrenology by anthropomorphising Italy in the fourteenth century. My argument moves from small, localized moments to larger societal shifts. And so with Belinda it’s the breast and motherhood, with The Woman of Colour it’s women’s body and abolition, and with Mary Shelley, whose novel I discuss alongside the poetry of Felicia Hemans and Lord Byron, women’s bodies and minds are used to critique empire as a whole.

The introduction has to do two things: provide an overview of medical discourse and debates I consider over the course of the book and explain this whole cross-genre narration strategy I claimed that novelists use. It probably needs to do more, but that’s what I know for now.

Here is what I promised to talk about at ICR:

Sick Texts and Female Conduct: Medical Discourse and Disease in Romantic-era Fiction

In 1807, in a collection of treatises about medicine and conduct titled Hygeia or Essays Moral and Medical, physician Thomas Beddoes railed against novel reading: “NOVELS, undoubtedly, are the sort most injurious. Novels render the sensibility still more diseased. And they increase indolence, the imaginary world indisposing those, who inhabit it in thought, to go abroad into the real.”   This warning is included in his prescription for the care and rearing of young women where he goes on to explain that novels of a certain kind were dangerous to the strength of the nation. While Beddoes offered sharp critiques of those outside of his profession who would offer medical advice and calls for disciplinary boundaries, he played the role of literary critic as he diagnosed texts and young women at the same time. In this paper, I’ll discuss how Beddoes’ sense that his moral duty as a physician and man of science was to instruct parents about how children, especially girls, should spend their leisure time is echoed in the fiction of the period—particularly Amelia Opie’s Adeline Mowbray, Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The discourse of medicine, disease, and healing, I  argue, permeates the fiction of the time and a close reading of Adeline, Belinda, and Marianne and their conversations about health and morality show that women novelists of the time were happy to challenge and, in some cases, debunk Beddoes’ pronouncements.

Of course, I can’t do all of that, but I can think about what I mean when I consider the novel and its place in nation building (my work is informed by Miranda Burgess’ British Fiction and the Production of Social Order, 1740-1830).  I’ve been revising the Belinda chapter most of the summer (I published a version in Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies), and these four ideas have been hovering over my revision:

The novel as a disease
The novel causing disease
The novel depicting disease
The novel is diseased and is its own cure

I’ll be rereading Beddoes (pray for me, dear reader) and thinking about who reads what in these novels.

*My friend Kim has informed me that at least one of these chapters is a whole other book.  She’s probably right.

 

Barthes

I’m just going to put this here because I want to get it out of my head. It’s begging to be used in the preface to my book (the one about Romantic-era fiction), but I know I’m doing that thing I hate–when someone takes a bit of theory and paints everything with it like a toddler with a brush. So I’m just going to put it here and see what happens to it:

The brio of the text (without which, after all, there is no text) is its will to bliss: just where it exceeds demand, transcends prattle, and whereby it attempts to overflow, to break through the constraint of adjectives–which are those doors of language through which the ideological and the imaginary coming flowing in.

Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading. Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistence of his tastes, values, memories, brings to crisis his relation with language….(14)

criticism always deals with the texts of pleasure, never the texts of bliss…(21)

The Pleasure of the Text
Roland Barthes
Translated by Richard Miller