19th Century Literature

Hallie O'Donovan hallieod at indigo.ie
Mon Jul 30 17:32:39 EDT 2001

>---Original Message From: Hallie O'Donovan
>>  More synchronicity - on my Open University conference people are just
>>  discussing what course to take next year, and the 19th C Novel is one
>>  of the most popular choices.  All of us seem to have read some of the
>>  biggies before off our own bat and are eager for a year of it.  It's
>>  odd to come from an enthusiastic discussion of the reading list to
>>  see Jacob doubting whether people read this stuff for fun much any
>>  more.
>Yeah, well, it isn't like I haven't been wrong before, so it wouldn't
>crush me to be wrong here.  I still don't think I'm wrong, though.  At
>the expense of appearing the curmudgeon, I'll point out that a) all the
>accounts here of the popularity of Victorian novels is anecdotal by
>nature and I would hesitate to generalize based on those accounts b) the
>group here has a number of traits that make them much more likely than a
>general audience to like Victorian novels (like having discussed Jane
>Austin and comparing DWJ to her) and to associate with others who would
>read such novels, and c) familiarity with Victorian works is one way to
>display intelligence or at least learning--i.e. people will exaggerate
>their familiarity with Victorian novels to make themselves look better.
>In fact, the example here by Hallie displays all three traits--it's
>anecdotal, features a population that would be disproportionately likely
>to know about 19 C. novels, and is a forum where people would be prone
>to exaggerate their familiarity.

Well, you've never met the "typical" Open University student, so 
being wrong in this case isn't that big a deal. :)  But, anecdotal 
though it is, the second two are not that accurate.  OU students are 
- well, there's no typical.  But quite a few of the people on my 
conference only have GCSEs - if you want anecdotal, a friend of mine 
from last year's course was what I would call borderline illiterate. 
He picked up _Jane Eyre_ when struggling through _Wide Sargasso Sea_ 
and absolutely loved it.  And honestly, why would people exaggerate 
their liking for older novels when we're also reading texts which are 
a lot more modern?  If *I* wanted to sound smart, as opposed to 
talking about which books I love and which I'd like to study, I'd 
talk about someone other than Jane Austen.

>I'm not accusing Hallie of exaggerating her proficiency.  In fact, one
>of the things I like about the DWJ list in general is the lack of
>pretense and the intellectual engagement here.  I think this is a
>singularly excellent email list.  And that is really my point.  The
>people here are exceptional and I don't think very representative of the
>population as a whole.  In fact, I think you all are exceptional even
>for a University educated population.  I know that sounds dreadfully
>elitist, but in my discussions with people at large, even University
>educated, liberal arts degreed people, the popularity of Victorian works
>is non-existent.  Some people will say that they liked this or that
>novel, but if you press, their familiarity is not from having read the
>work, but from having discussed it with others or from films or other
>popular media representations of those works.

But why the popularity of these films, tv series, etc?  Isn't it more 
than common to hear the directors, screenwriters, and often actors 
talking about how they loved the original book and were desperate to 
be involved in the filming?  And this is without getting into plays. 
I'm not kidding, the taxi-driver today in Edinburgh asked what I was 
studying, and when he heard it was Literature, scoffed at the idea of 
this as "work".  He then asked what I was reading now, and hadn't 
heard of _Top Girls_ (1980s, British play), but knew all about _A 
Doll's House_, (including the re-written version for the German 
stage) and was amazed that I hadn't read all Ibsen's other plays. 
More anecdote, I know.  But sometimes, Jacob, hard cold stats are a 
lot less satisfying than a sense of things.  To me at least.


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