19th Century Literature

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Tue Aug 7 19:25:35 EDT 2001

On Tue, 7 Aug 2001 22:08:51 +0100, Hallie O'Donovan wrote:


>>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 

We're going in circles again.  :)  Look at my first sentence.  Jacob and I
are talking specifically about people whose only knowledge of literature
comes from school studies.  Those are the people who don't read much in the
first place, and so can potentially be impressed by someone's knowledge of
the "basics" like Dickens, Austen, Bronte, even Joyce.  I understand what
you're saying; obviously if you're trying to show off you have to
demonstrate a higher level of knowledge than whoever you're showing off to.
I can floor my next-door neighbor by revealing that I read Jane Austen for
pleasure.  You have to stretch a little farther to impress your university
peers who are reading Proust in the original.  We're just talking about
different base levels of understanding.

>>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.)

People here do have to read most of the above in school, with the addition
of American authors (I don't know if that's reciprocal for the UK; do they
make you read Hawthorne and Hemingway at all?).  But I think the required
reading is different depending on what track you're on--remedial, standard
or accelerated/college prep/AP/whatever.  In the US the structure is mostly
the same all over, I think; you'll do American lit one year, English lit
another, but the specific year you take each one might vary.  In my high
school, the honors track had a different Shakespeare play every year, and
had general lit the first two years, American the third, and British the
fourth.  Anyway, yes, most people over here have had to read some Dickens,
some Shakespeare, some of the basics.  But it's possible to breeze through
school and never have to think about it again.  This is, again, why such
authors can be impressive.  My hypothetical neighbor knows enough about her
struggle with _David Copperfield_ to be impressed (or shocked) that I read
that book every year.  (I don't.  I don't like Dickens.  But as long as
we're hypothesizing, let's assume a universe in which I do.)

>>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!)

Neither have I, so we're even.  And it isn't that I don't care about such
stories, because I do think it's nice.  But how much would you consider
someone a DWJ fan who only ever read _Charmed Life_ and said "Hmm, I enjoyed
it more than I thought I would, but I'm not interested in reading any of her
other books"?

The thing is, I personally believe that the "classics" have an undeserved
reputation for being difficult, impenetrable, irrelevant and boring.  I
*know* that they can be enjoyed as recreational reading.  So when I hear
that someone is forced to read _Huckleberry Finn_ and ends up loving it, I'm
not surprised; I already know it's a fantastic book (that I for one haven't
read nearly recently enough).  This isn't anything new.  What would be new
would be to learn that reading _Huck Finn_ turned someone on to the concept
of reading ANY 19th century writer for fun.  Not just that one isolated
novel might be good, but that any of them might potentially be good.  THAT
is the thing I'd like to hear about.  (Though I was extremely gratified when
my mother FINALLY read _To Kill a Mockingbird_ and said "I couldn't put it
down, I read it all weekend, this is such a good book!" because, of course,
it is.  And I'm moderately annoyed that she had the nerve to insist that I
learn to stop reading in the middle of a sentence to do whatever stupid
chore I was assigned, but her excuse for not reading is that she doesn't
have enough control to do the same thing.  But that's a sharply inclined
tangent to the plane of this discussion.)

>>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. :) )

Again, neither have I.  But I spent my senior year in high school learning
how to sound much more well-read than I actually am.  :)

Here's what I *don't* want to hear:

1.  Melissa says "Almost nobody today knows who Mrs. Radcliffe is."
2.  DWJ-list subscriber A says "You are totally wrong!  I know who she is."

Yeah--so what?  That's what I just said--ALMOST NOBODY.  The fact that a few
people are exceptions to a rule does not in itself disprove the rule, unless
the rule is stated as an absolute.

This is what happened to Jacob, who made the comment that he didn't think
that 19th century writers were much read any more.  (I finally looked it
up.)  Immediately everyone jumped in saying "I read them" "So do I" "I have
arguments with lots of other people about them" and expected that such
comments negated his assertion.  It's possible that he's wrong (especially
since we haven't really defined any of the variables, like what constitutes
popularity, or what section of the population we're talking about).  But
this kind of hypothesis cannot be refuted by one individual's experience for
the same reason.  If you yourself read Dickens, how sure are you that you're
representative of your neighborhood?  Of your town?  Of your country?  Or is
it just that this kind of statement seems to imply that such authors aren't
worth reading, and so naturally we want to defend our favorites?

I think Jacob and I have been suffering under the strain of living in an
abysmally aliterate neighborhood/church community for too long.  I'm
starting to think that my neighbors think reading for pleasure is a bad
thing because it takes you away from truly noble pursuits like canning,
gardening and genealogy work.  My monthly book budget alone is probably the
same as their yearly ones (if they even spend that much).  So...we're kind
of weirdos from another planet here.  But if that skews our perception, so
does being in a highly literate community.  Or living in a university
environment.  Or being completely surrounded by readers.  Not everyone lives
like this either.  

But my opinion (which I think differs from Jacob's) is that such analyses
aren't very valuable on a large scale.  Like I said, even if we could take
very accurate data about the entire world's reading habits, on the average
it wouldn't seem accurate to any of us.  Possibly it's better to look at
those smaller communities individually: to examine a group that has very
specific things in common, such as education level or geographical location,
and draw conclusions from that.  How much of a surprise is it really to
discover that people in a literate community all read Jane Austen?  Wouldn't
it be more telling to discover the percentage of members of a highly
technical community who read her books?

>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.)

Ugh.  My tongue is bleeding now from being polite.  I have SOOOOO many
authors I would like to see drop off the face of the earth...but I'm going
to stay polite.  Ow.

Melissa Proffitt
To unsubscribe, email dwj-request at suberic.net with the body "unsubscribe".
Visit the archives at http://suberic.net/dwj/list/

More information about the Dwj mailing list