On Writing What Needs to be Written

I was asked to write an essay for The Atlantic reflecting on Jane Austen’s bicentennial, and I was so glad to do it. I have a complicated relationship with Austen, but I’ve made my peace with it, primarily because I read her with such great students. So, I’m happy with her and about how she’s been celebrated. What I’ve not been so happy about is the trajectory of my research agenda. I started two book projects at once—a collection that turned out to be Written/Unwritten and a book on the history of the novel. Written/Unwritten found a publisher first, but it also felt more urgent. When I finished it, I planned to turn back to the book on the history of the novel, but that work felt perfunctory, like a performance of what I thought I should write back when I was a graduate school.   I gave it a year, but I kept saying I was writing the book on the history of the novel but then giving conference papers on British abolitionist lit. My thought was that I’d write the book I was supposed to write and then write the book I wanted to write, one about abolitionist literature, genre, sugar, motherhood, amelioration, and sugar some more. I wanted to write about sugar bowls and gender and kept looking longingly at these tantalizing books on the subject.

“You have to write the book that wants to be written…”
–Madeline L’Engle

There’s no one thing to point to that ended up with me in an administrator’s office explaining that I wanted to use a research grant to look in different archives for different stories about England in the nineteenth century.  Seeing my students ask more questions than I have answers for in my abolitionist literature class is part of the reason.  I also know the energy it takes to get a book done, and it just didn’t seem like a good idea to take that on without totally invested in the project. It also feels like I can do more to make my research matter if I take up the questions I’ll explore in this book. They haven’t gone anywhere in centuries, and now seems like the right time when more and more people are seeing what a lot of black folks have always known about race, racism, and racial violence.

It’s scary. I was sitting in an archive in April, feeling slightly nauseous about the work ahead of me.  And I don’t want to be a person who quits a project half way through. I’m trusting that what people who know me well say about me is true—I’m not quick but I am very persistent. I’m also trusting that I’m a clearer writer and thinker now than I was when I planned the other book.

Of course, the moment I started working on the book proposal, all of the research I’ve been doing was relevant to this project but in a new way. And at least one of those former book chapters is on its way to being transformed into a journal article—where I suspect it will actually have more impact. Somewhere between the conference-length essay and the 9,000-word chapter draft is a stunning, erudite consideration of Mary Shelley, Felicia Hemans, Genre, and Byron. I’ll find it. People have been interested in seeing me write more things like this Emma piece in the Toast, and I’m working on that too. It’s hard in a different way, but it’s a good struggle, and I feel lucky to have people waiting to help me get it done.

This means I write more than I used to. I’ve spent most of the summer writing (that and walking off two years of stress and anxiety), reading, and putting together a research agenda that makes sense. I’m this close to finishing what will be first big journal article on British abolitionist lit, co-editing a cluster issue on abolitionist lit with Manu Chander (it’s gonna be GOOD), and balancing two different kinds of book proposals. So we’ll see. If you’re a praying person, pray for me. If you’re not and you see me in a café or bar writing, buy me a drink.

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.

 

“Belle” in Context

If you’re me, and you’ve spent the last 15 years or so reading and writing about nineteenth-century British literature, the release of “Belle” does more than just provide a moment of personal joy. The cinematic rendering of a real figure from the 1800s represents a moment when the ivory (ahem) tower and popular culture intersect to produce a film that, even with its flaws, is set to change the way we read, understand, and, more importantly, imagine the period. I didn’t choose to study nineteenth-century British literature and culture in order to think about race and representation, but my work to understand the ideologies behind and underneath canon formation led me there, and in my book project that thinks about how women’s bodies function as the site for ideological debates, black women’s bodies have popped up so often that I decided they needed their own chapter—right there between a chapter about Jane Austen’s courtship novels and a chapter on Mary Shelley’s indictment of imperialism. In other words, I’ve been thinking and writing about all of those invisible Belles that do not yet have their own narratives. And, as someone who brings pop culture into her classes so often that terms like “highbrow” and “lowbrow” are practically useless, I’ve been particularly curious about why we had Zombie Austen before we had Black Austen.

BelleWhile “Belle” has not marketed itself as an Austen adaptation (Amma Asante describes it as a “Jane Austen-style period romance”), the film brings to mind Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park. Asante’s film tells the story of a young woman who could easily have been Fanny Price’s doppelgänger. Dido Belle Lindsay is a young woman with ties to the wealthy and the landed and, like all of Austen’s heroines, is wending her way through the marriage market towards a suitable and companionate marriage. She’s beautiful, charming, and feisty. She’s also black or, more specifically, bi-racial—the daughter of a slave and a navy admiral, and in the film her very presence in the household of the Earl of Mansfield is the spark behind his ruling on the Zong Massacre. What this means is that in addition to selecting the right mate, she has to do so while walking a tightrope of race and gender and the respectability politics that prompted Kelli Goff (bless her heart) to forget that this is still at it’s heart a film that holds up white supremacy and patriarchy, even at the very end.

In the trailer for the film, we see the young Belle transported from a port town to a large estate in much the same way that Fanny Price is transported from Portsmouth (a slave port) to an English estate that relies on the products of the slave trade. Belle faces a stern benefactor, but Harold Pinter, who portrays Sir Thomas Bertram, the patriarch of Rozema’s “Mansfield Park,” has been replaced with Tom Wilkinson, who Austen fans might recognize from his turn as a dying Mr. Dashwood at the beginning of Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility.” The questions that Austen’s heroine Fanny faces about her place in the family (somewhere between servant and sister) are here in the film. Belle, like Fanny, has to choose between two men—a moral man with virtually no social or economic capital and a man whose view of her is, let’s just say, problematic.

This is not to suggest that “Belle” is simply a remake of Rozema’s adaptation or Austen’s novel. Misan Sagay’s screenplay is its own beautifully crafted narrative and Asante’s direction shows the kind of restraint necessary for a story that could so easily slip into the sentimental and overwrought. Seeing this movie was like watching an essay in moving images. More than considering it an Austen adaptation and/or a period film that paints by the numbers, I see it as a true palimpsest that reminds us of the Austen we know while inviting us to understand what she only hints at in her novels. It presents relationships between women of color and white women that are both tense and affectionate. It draws explicit connections between the marriage market and the slave trade, something Mary Wollstonecraft does in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It offers a lesson in how inheritance laws trapped both women and men. It shows the limits of sentimental progressive politics. And it does so by placing the fate of a woman of color at the center of its narrative to reveal the limits of picture perfect perfection.

We’ve seen alternative narratives that shift the focus from white main characters to a person of color (Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargosso Sea, the prequel to Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and its multiple film adaptations come immediately to mind), but Austen’s world has remained white in the public imagination, even though, in Emma and Persuasion, the issue of the slave trade is not entirely invisible. When we do encounter people of color in Austen’s world they are in contemporary adaptations. The most popular are Amy Heckerling’s almost flawless “Clueless,” set in a modern high with a multi-racial student body, and Gurinder Chada’s much less successful Bollywood Adaptation “Bride and Prejudice” (full disclosure: In the bottom of some filing cabinet sits my own attempt at a modern adaptation of Austen I co-wrote while driving across the country one summer. It’s called “Emma Jones.” Everyone in it is black. It’s not very good. Let’s leave it at that). To even introduce race and slavery into Austen is such a tricky prospect that Rozema had to prepare audiences for her Mansfield Park by making explicit that her intention was interpretation not fidelity.

Those who defended her film from critiques and rants of Austen purists did so from a place of well-intentioned but historically inaccurate indulgence, accepting that Rozema is projecting late twentieth-century politics back onto the nineteenth. But an adaptation likes “Belle” makes clear that what we now know allows us to re-imagine a world that Austen would have known but that would not fit into the courtship rituals she always satirized and sometimes endorsed. The specter of a racialized body in Austen’s world of manners would change the social alchemy of her novels. If her goal was to satirize courtship rituals, slavery didn’t lend itself to a lady’s humor or wit. It’s worth remembering, however, that British white women wrote about slavery and abolition during Austen’s time. In fact, depicting the horrors that slavery visited upon women and children in particular became rather fashionable among women writers of the time. They weren’t poking fun at its practitioners and defenders; instead they either went towards the completely sentimental (see Hannah More) or the pragmatic (see the interracial marriage in the first edition of Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda). We can count Mansfield Park as Austen’s contribution to that conversation and “Belle” might well complete it. As I often remind my students, Austen chose to make explicit what makes life at Mansfield Park possible.

Of course, people of color have been present in British prose from at least as early as the seventeenth century, but on college syllabi and in the public imagination they are far and few between: Othello (1604), Oroonoko (1688), Equiano (1797), and Miss Swartz in Vanity Fair (1848). In the twenty years since Edward Said’s focus on the “dead silence” in his post-colonial manifesto Culture and Imperialism  scholars and other storytellers are paying more attention to the presence of people in color in historical British narratives. In his new edition of the 1808 novel The Woman of Colour: A Tale Lyndon Dominique lists 50 long prose fiction and plays from 1605 to 1861 that include characters of color, roughly half of which were published during Austen’s time. We have been seeing new editions of some of those stories at a steady pace. The 1994 edition of Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda shows a black servant on the cover. Edited by Katherine Kirkpatrick for Oxford University Press, it presents the original novel with the interracial marriage of Juba an African servant and Lucy an English farm girl (Edgeworth was pressured to remove the marriage). In 1999, the same year of Rozema’s “Mansfield Park,” Oxford University Press released a new edition of Adeline Mowbray a novel published in 1804 which features a West Indian woman and her son as saviors and companions to the title character. In 2002, just before I finished my doctorate, the Broadview edition of Wuthering Heights issued. I was planning my history of the British novel class and when arrived it had a Moor on the cover; not the desolate landscape of my well-annotated Norton edition but an actual Moor and I remember writing a colleague: “When did we go from Laurence Olivier to Laurence Fishburn?” The cover of the 2008 edition of The Woman of Colour: A Tale (1808) is a detail from a painting in the collection of the Earl of Mansfield. The painting is titled “Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray”—the two young women in Asante’s adaption. In the novel, “Dido” is the name of the heroine’s black servant.

Austen adaptations have remained in a liminal space similar to the one Fanny occupies when she can’t return to the squalor of her home in Portsmouth but can no longer remain at Mansfield Park if it means adhering to her uncle’s wishes. They have stayed somewhere between the all-white period adaptations and the modern multi-racial ones—more Gwyneth than Lupita. But “Belle” marks an important change. It makes clear that while it’s certainly possible to go on pretending there were no black people, at least in the background, of Austen’s world it’s no longer interesting or even a nuanced representation of the time. The “dead silence” of Mansfield Park is filled with questions, speeches and declarations, and if you know the history of the abolitionist movement in England you know that beyond happily ever after, Belle’s presence represents concrete social change that echoes in a twenty-first century Britain that is paying more and more attention to its history of slavery. Much of this national self-reflection has been prompted by the fact that 2007 gave England a chance to think about the abolition of the slave trade. In 2006, The Church of England apologized for benefitting from the slave trade. The International Museum of Slavery opened in Liverpool in 2007. In 2013, The Independent reported the results of a study that showed in stark terms how much slaveowners were paid during and after the abolition of slavery. The arrival of the first black Marchioness in 2013 prompted a series of articles making clear that the peerage has a multi-racial legacy.

The storytellers are either catching up or leading the way. Despite Heathcliff being described as a “‘dark-skinned gypsy in aspect and a little lascar” he had always been cast as white in film versions of the novel until 2011 when he was portrayed by the black British actor James Howson. Then there’s Longbourn by Jo Baker . It turns its attention to the servants who make the lives of the gentry in Pride and Prejudice possible. In this representation of those beneath the stairs, Baker introduces the kinds of characters we might meet in “Belle,” and her portrait of those figures is compelling and clearly informed by a post-abolitionist reading of Austen and her world. To present social change as the work of a young woman of color, to have the body of a British woman of color as the fulcrum for legal pronouncements nudges us to reconsider race and gender in the nineteenth century and perhaps even in our own. I mean that literally. The first black marchioness who caused a bit of a stir last year? Her first name is Emma.

A bit of poetry

I’ve started working on two big projects that I’ve been circling for way too long, a book about the academy and a study of the nineteenth-century novel and its connection to disease and healing. Every fear of writing I have hovers below the surface, causing (sometimes literally) my hands to shake as I take hold of pen and paper. The only thing for the fear of writing is to face it, so face it I do–mostly by fooling myself into the myth that I’m not actually writing. I tell myself that I’m just “jotting down” a few sentences. At other times, my friend Karen infuses me with her own intellectual fearlessness, and I find I’m drawn, almost against my will, to my desk.

When I get too scared, Lucille Clifton’s poetry pops into my head as an invitation and a scolding that if she, who had so much less than I do now, could find the courage to write (and to write poetry!) I can too. Here is the poem that came to me during one of my writing sessions today:

won’t you celebrate with me
by Lucille Clifton

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

When I can see my writing as a celebration of the writers who live on the edge of Jane Austen’s shadow or the academy’s struggle with what is written and unwritten, then it’s not so scary…and is even a little exciting.