19th Century Literature

Hallie O'Donovan hallieod at indigo.ie
Tue Aug 7 17:08:51 EDT 2001


>  >>Smart people are often depicted as those who can talk about older
>  >>novels.  Thus, talking about older novels is one way to appear smarter.
>>>The obscurer, the better, but best are topics that are familiar enough
>>>that people might partially recognize them without having actual
>>Well, I got the point about showing off, but was actually disputing
>>the idea that these 19th C novels are the kinds of books people are
>>really likely to use to make themselves appear smarter.  I think that
>>day is probably fairly long gone.
>Sadly, it's not.  That is, people who don't read are still likely to be
>unduly impressed by others' having read particular books, even if you don't
>intend to show off about them.  Those 18th and 19th century authors retain
>that gloss of impenetrable respectability they get from being Required
>Reading in high school and/or university.  If it's important enough to make
>kids study, it must be Important with a capital I and certainly nothing any
>sane person would want to read on her own. :)

:)  Well, we all know about our lack of sanity, right?  But, again I 
may need to qualify as well as clarify.  (The snipped part probably 
didn't explain my reply as much as I thought it did.)  What I have 
seen, in Dublin (and there'd be many more qualifiers concerning the 
type of secondary school I attended, Uni.attended, the dates of said 
attendence and so on, ad nauseam) was not leading me to say that 
people wouldn't try to show off about the books they had (supposedly 
or otherwise) read. Rather, that anyone trying to impress that way 
would not do so by using Jane Austen, Dickens, or other similar 
big-name nineteenth century novelists. Some of  the great literary 
pseuds I've known leaned towards Joyce, but even that may be somewhat 
a factor of the time and the fact that this was in Ireland.  :) 
Others may lean more towards the existential.  But part of the reason 
is that the Austen lot aren't cool, and part is what I've explained 
again below - that these books are so widely read in school here, 
that it's not even impressive (or something you'd likely get away 

>>And, whatever the reason that Jane Austen, Dickens
>>and the like are being read, they are still being read enough that
>>many will have familiarity with them.  You'd want to get a lot more
>>obscure to be safe from discovery as a reading fraud, IMO.
>I think the point Jacob is getting at is that anyone who would try to show
>off this way are doing so to people who have safely *not* read any of the
>above.  But I don't know how much I agree with him, so I'm not going to go
>any further with that line of reasoning.

I think it was.  That may be another difference between the two sides 
of the Atlantic - virtually nobody gets out of school over here 
without having read some of the above.  Maybe that's different there, 
I don't know.  (OK, I don't even know about the UK, really, but it's 
seemed similar in discussions I've had about school reading.) It 
certainly has changed a little since I went to school, as it used to 
be that every 5th or 6th year student in the country was reading the 
same texts for the exams.  Although it's different now, Becca still 
read a Dickens in first year, and Shakespeare in 2nd and 3rd.

>>Besides, what kind of sales figure would
>>you accept as proving your point or setting you straight?  Where
>>would you draw a cut-off on percentage of people "claiming" to have
>>read a 19th Century classic for pleasure to decide they were or
>>weren't popular?  And what about people who were forced into reads
>>but then ended up liking the books?
>For myself, I'm only interested in knowing how many people choose to read
>19th century literature without being forced to.  That is, it's nice when
>people are assigned a book and end up liking it, but I'd want to know how
>many of them liked it enough to go out and read the sequel without being
>pressed.  Just having read, say, _Silas Marner_ or _Persuasion_ isn't
>sufficient, because a lot of people have read these books in school and most
>of them remember them well enough to talk about them.  That doesn't qualify
>as true love...not even a mild preference.

Well, we differ in that a bit, because I'm also interested in people 
who are told to read "a classic" such as Jane Eyre and then love it. 
And they don't have to go on and read everything by Charlotte Bronte 
to make it a preference for me. :)  (Yeah, you probably translated 
that correctly as meaning I've not done so!)

>It's been long enough that I can't remember Jacob's original post that
>started all of this off, but I do remember that we talked about it before he
>wrote anything (he was showing me the article on Stevenson's biography).
>What struck me was something related yet different:  Dickens was the John
>Grisham of his day (at least in terms of prolificacy; I'm not going to
>comment on relative quality).  EVERYONE read his books.  And there were all
>these "scribbling women" in Jane Austen's day who were widely read.  I have
>an annotated edition of Jane Austen's letters and she frequently talks about
>novels she's read with her correspondents, and it even shows up in her
>novels (Catherine Morland springs to mind).  And yet almost no one remembers
>Mrs. Radcliffe and her many Gothic horrors today.  YES, I know, all of you
>know who she was and have probably read _The Castle of Otranto_ until it
>fell apart, don't start down that path again PLEASE.

Oh, Melissa.  An all caps request? I thought it was very interesting 
hearing everyone's reading habits. :) I will nobly refrain from 
complaining about how you denied me the opportunity to make myself 
look a little smarter by quoting verbatim great chunks of CoO... 
(No, I've never read it.  Only person I know for sure has read it is 
our tutor, who said she'd done so on our behalf. :) )

>The point I was
>getting at was that we have all these writers today who are incredibly
>popular, but we have no way of knowing which of them is going to *stay*
>popular.  Not even if our name is Queenie and we are a pompous 25-year-old
>know-it-all with way too much time on our hands.  If you have any contact
>with the literary crowd, you know that some of them are very disparaging of
>novels that are popular, as though the mere fact that lots of people like
>them means they can't be good.  (Think Harry Potter.)  What interested me
>was not how widely read Dickens is today, but that he's read at all.  It
>makes me look at the latest bestsellers in a different light.

I think it's interesting too, and thought Georgia's original post 
which started this all off was fascinating.  We had a little bit this 
year in my course about the sales figures for some of the 19th 
century lot (novelist and poets) and it was really eye-opening.   It 
is hard not to feel that you can pick a *few* at the top of the 
best-seller lists which won't be around for that long, though, isn't 
it?  (This is my biting-my-tongue polite version of what I really 
feel.  It won't last long so I'd better stop now.)

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