There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Friday, 11 March 2016

Reading and Rereading Some of my Former 'Faves'

“Your ‘Fave’ Is Problematic”: Victorians I [Have] [Re]Love[d][1]
That otherwise ordinary August day almost eight years ago when I first opened Jane Eyre was my portal into intertextuality, feminism, and the classics of the Victorian period. True, in contrast to much of the Western Literary Canon itself, I was little lopsided in favor of women writers. Yes, I read Vanity Fair and Bleak House, but it was the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot whom I most devoured. (But please don’t ask me about Anne Bronte’s novels now. It’s been a looooooong time since I’ve read those.) However, I did balance things out a little with my love for a variety of Victorian poets, especially Robert Browning. I may be the worst kind of “fan” because I have yet to read “The Ring and the Book,” but reading “Rabbi Ben Ezra” when I am depressed or repeating “My Last Duchess” on my walk home from school are things I have done so frequently that they are a part of my being. 
Already as I write I find myself revising, rolling back the tapestry I have constructed of my story to see that my love affair with the Victorians is actually of longer duration than eight years. When I was seven or eight I read my first book about Florence Nightingale and thereafter read probably every book about her in the Junior/Young Adult section of the Red Deer Library.
The cover of one biography of Nightingale I would sometimes read during long baths
Looking back, it amuses me that my fascination with her never led to a desire to be a nurse, but perhaps that was actually fitting, since in Victorian Literature class this semester I have been discovering that Nightingale’s talents and passion really were not for nursing; rather, her genius lay in administration and mathematics. Even as a child what fascinated me about Nightingale was her fraught family dynamics, feelings of frustration and even monstrousness, and the intensity revealed in her diaries and personal relationships. Watching a documentary about Nightingale which took a rather revisionist stance, I learned that she did not actually succeed in lowering the death rate at Scutari, due to a fatal blind spot about sanitation.[2] The BBC documentary is controversial because of its portrayal of Nightingale as scheming for power rather than the maternal “Lady with the Lamp” of popular iconography; it is ironic that a woman who so vociferously fought against the “angel of the house” stereotype throughout much of her life—perhaps even being a difficult, ornery killjoy—has been treated to such hagiography.[3] However, Nightingale’s troubled personality and imperfect professional legacy have actually renewed my fascination with her. In “Cassandra”, her self-identification with the doomed prophetess of The Iliad, her complaint that women are considered to be “by birth a Tory”—staid and devoted to maintaining an oppressive status quo—and her call for woman to be able make “a study of what she does,” are at once political and personal, intellectual and emotional. A closer look at Nightingale’s life and writings serves as an indictment of Victorian culture’s narrow opportunities for women. (This feminist strain in her writings, however, did not cause Nightingale to openly align with women's suffrage in its ascendancy during her later years.) Yes, my ‘fave’ may be problematic and it is a shame for Nightingale to be exalted while women of lower class or women of colour, like Mary Seacole, were so long largely unknown, but my ‘fave’ still remains a woman who exercised extraordinary strength in going against her family and culture and asserting herself as an independent, individual.
Now I pass to a ‘fave’ who is perhaps less problematic of personality despite being a white male, but who seemed to delight in writing about problematic characters. The problematic male narrators of “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” are so chilling only a fellow-sociopath would admire or defend them. However, I think part of the real interest in some of Browning’s other works is his choice to put inspiring, quasi-religious statements in the mouths of less-than-perfect characters. For years I’ve loved Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “Andrea del Sarto” about the painter who, persuaded by his mercenary wife, defrauds the king of France and speaks the dramatic monologue mostly in a state of discouragement, looking back on the “strange” life “God made us lead” (50).[4] His musing that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” is a stirring, yet comforting response to balked ambition. In addition, the intense subjectivity of the dramatic monologue lends itself to sympathy with del Sarto whose wife is so easily distracted by “the cousin’s whistle”--cousin here probably meaning lover (267). However, as I was reading an essay entitled “Blues and Punishment: ‘Fra Lippo Lippi,’ ‘Andrea del Sarto,’ ‘The Heart Knoweth its own Bitterness,’ and ‘Reflection’,” I was reminded that like so many other men in Browning’s oeuvre, ‘the flawless painter’ also desires to control women. The essay’s author notes that del Sarto’s “voice holds Lucrezia hostage, and in appropriating her as his other half, he subverts her actual existence as a physical person.”[5] She is his muse and he can only suppose “that Lucrezia might possibly be of the capacity to look back on others.”
As we begin Middlemarch I find myself making comparisons between it and other works we have been reading in class. Although Dorothea’s “ardent [and] theoretical nature” might elicit comparisons to Florence Nightingale, Pamela Erens notes that Nightingale herself finished Eliot’s magnum opus and “was annoyed that Dorothea didn’t devote her post-Casaubon life to social work.”[6] The novel’s idealistic young doctor, Tertius Lydgate, is another fictional white guy whom I consider a ‘fave’. However, as with Andrea del Sarto, it is easy to valorize him and become implicated in objectifying or paternalistic sexism toward the “spoiled” wife whom he accuses of having “flourished wonderfully on a murdered man's brains.”[7] Again, the problematic element is not so much in my love for this Victorian epic, but in the culture of that time and of our own that objectifies women while simultaneously blaming them for men’s failures. My ‘faves’ are problematic, but exploring these problems and one’s own problematic assumptions and biases is what makes the discipline of English worthwhile and relevant. 

[1] Your Fave Is Problematic is a tumblr site that documents celebrities’ racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist words and behavior: This site and its aims connect to Victorian literature firstly because in the literature we have read in this class we have seen many of these very issues displayed, sometimes in more subtle ways like Roseanna Spearman’s “deformity” in The Moonstone seeming to invite ostracization and suspicion, but also all too often in the utterly revolting racism of works like the Mutiny Ballads. Secondly, although the term “celebrity” may now carry the negative connotations of prurient tabloid culture, authors and public intellectual types may achieve a kind of celebrity status in certain more literary circles, just as the two ‘eminent Victorians’ I discuss here both did later in life. Such an example, of course, might be J.K. Rowling whose stereotypical view of Native Americans goes beyond "problematic" precisely because she is so well-respected and influential, as the blogger at Righting Red here explains. I may have to write a follow-up post discussing this issue in relation to J.K. Rowling and hopefully deconstructing my own biases as I go. Thank you to Honorat Selonnet for highlighting the above blogger in class.
[2] I watched this documentary on Youtube and the details of producer, etc, are not given: However, I think it is likely this one: Robinson, Jancis, and Clare Beavan. Florence Nightingale: Iron Maiden. Great Britain: BBC, 2001.
[3] See, for example, this article in which one of the documentary’s critics is consulted: