Dame Eleanor Hull

Self-esteem

I got a letter from the president of LRU about football tickets. It started, “As a valuable member of the university, I am inviting you . . . ”

Well, there are two opinions about whether the prez is a valuable member of LRU or not. But at least s/he doesn’t suffer from low-self-esteem brought on by being at a regional school instead of a flagship.

Insights that come with age

I am re-evaluating the late-middle-aged to elderly women in fiction, and sometimes in life, who waft multiple layers of scarves (probably silk chiffon) behind them, and send their companions/daughters/whoever back to pick them up or get another one. In fiction, the scarves seem to indicate a charming femininity that the younger narrator or POV character feels she lacks, and of a certain type of privilege (the sort that has a companion, daughter, or someone to go fetch another scarf).

An Alice Adams story I love, “Home is Where,” features one of these ladies (“lady” seems more the mot juste than “woman,” in this context). The narrator writes, “My mother is one of those women who, having been great beauties, forever retain that air . . . . All my life I had watched her performances with a defeated, angry envy, as I too deferred and waited on her. . . . Now she came in, scarves floating around that faded golden head”  (159). Granny in The Fair Adventure is another floaty-scarf lady (maybe it’s a Southern thing).

I always used to take the narrator’s word for it.

Now I think that lady is suffering from hot flashes. Instead of constantly taking off and putting on layers of clothing, she loosens or snugs up a scarf or so. If the scarves waft elegantly, so much the better; one doesn’t want to mention personal matters that are none of anyone’s business.

Adams, Alice. “Home is Where.” Beautiful Girl: Stories by Alice Adams. New York: Pocket Books, 1978. 155-177.

It’s August! Panic stations!

A few years ago, I wrote about oh-shit-it’s-August-syndrome, when the summer hits the fan, as it were, and it’s hard to decide what most urgently needs attention because it all does, but time is limited and yet it’s still so hot that it’s hard to believe that anything really is urgent.

I thought I’d revisit that post to see how much of it can be recycled without updates.

OK, so there’s what I really have to do, and there’s what I really want to do, and there are all those things that I thought I’d like to get done but need to let go of. And then there’s the question of whether some elements of the last group don’t actually belong there.

Check, check, check. That paragraph works.

It’s August. Classes start in two weeks, with faculty meetings beforehand. Besides writing and class prep and having some last bits of summer fun, I have a couple of medical appointments I’m taking care of before classes start, and possibly one or more dentist appointments depending on whether a sensitive spot calms down or gets worse. (If it’s going to get worse, I wish it would just come on and do it already, instead of waiting for the first or second day of classes.) I’m pretty clear on the have-to (syllabi etc, and at least one House Thing) and the most definite want-to (a little more fun reading and a sewing project).

Classes don’t start for three whole weeks! I’m starting early on the panic. Only not so early, because I’ll be away during the faculty-meeting week. So actually I only have about ten days. Wheeeee! Down the panic slide we go! Never mind last bits of summer fun. I’d be thrilled to get the writing and class prep done in the time. The medical stuff happened in July (excellent, pat self on back) and I have only one more dentist appointment to go, which should be a quick and easy one. There are no house have-to’s, though there are a batch of house things for which I need to organize people to come and give estimates. Still, those could happen any time over the next eight weeks or so. Sooner is no doubt better than later, but I’m not going to put those on the must-do-now list. No sewing projects (well, unless visiting a tailor counts, and again, not urgent). There’s no fun reading I’ve been putting off.

But then there are writing-related but not-writing activities, which are desirable but not really essential, like tidying up my home office. . . . There is a heap of paper stuff that needs to get filed.

The home office is fine. I can even see wood on my desk. I tidied it a few weeks ago. It’s true that means there are heaps of paper in the guest room that I need to sort out, but out of sight is out of mind, and at the moment that is A-O.K. I can use sorting them as a procrastination activity when I start getting things to grade! Isn’t that great planning?

Since I got back (not counting writing done on the plane), I’ve produced . . . let’s see . . . Basement Cat, get off my research journal . . . about 2000 words. These are what I might call “focused pre-writing,” rather than true rough-draft writing, because the section presently under construction didn’t get as much pre-writing as the first chunk I wrote. But that’s fine. This stage of writing has to happen sometime, and I might as well do it now, while I’m on a roll.

Since I got back, I’ve produced roughly 3000 new words. Very roughly. It’s hard to be sure. There has also been a lot of editing in which words get tinkered with, cut, re-written, and so on. The current version of the MMP-1 is just shy of 10K words, but I think I’m done with it, except for sorting out its footnotes properly in the style required by the journal to which I plan to send it. I really want to send it and have it be Someone Else’s Problem for awhile. There are plenty of other things to work on.

Nobody sits on my research journal these days. Sometimes Reina sits behind my monitor, but I am in her bad graces at the moment because of unlawful confiscation of licensed weapons cutting her claws. It’s true, when the children grow up you miss the things that used to drive you crazy.

So [should I focus on] writing syllabi . . . and hacking back the horribly overgrown and weedy garden? Actually, I am terribly tempted to abandon the garden until frost kills off some stuff—this seasonal nonsense is good for something!—though I do rather fear What The Neighbors Will Think. . . . I could give up on the sewing and garden instead . . . if we ever get a cool enough day that I want to be outside.

Write syllabi, work on revisions, and hack back the garden. Not that I care what the neighbors think. The front looks all right and the back is nobody’s business. But I’m making progress with the bellflower and I’d like to keep on rather than letting it grow back. The weather is certainly a consideration. We had a pleasant weekend, so I did some more digging.

So, it looks like I’m doing rather well compared to four years ago. That’s a very pleasant discovery. Now to pull a conference paper out of . . . wherever this one comes from.

Books I may read

Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground. I definitely want to get this before I next visit London. Seeing what’s nearby is much more fun than spending huge amounts of time in transit from one thing to another.

The Ginger Tree. Sometimes I like this sort of thing. Usually I like it better as a memoir than as a novel.

How I Live Now. Maybe not. Clearly late to the party on this one, since it’s been made into a movie, but I first heard of it recently, when I was going through a British blogger’s archives. The Amazon UK link gave a lot less detail than the US Amazon link, and now that I’ve seen the US description, I think I probably won’t read it after all. My initial impression was that it was a WWII novel, rather than set in the future.

Doing this post lets me close some tabs, at least. Bookmarking, for me, is like filing. I might as well just toss the paper. I need to see things, or have them in a format that allows text searches. Using a blog as a list of links: how retro.

YA book review: The Fair Adventure

When I was looking for the Verney book, I also found The Fair Adventure, by Elizabeth Janet Gray (shelved under her married name, Vining, never mind how she identified as a writer or what her publisher put on the title page. I blame the patriarchy). This was one I liked when I was, oh, maybe in middle school, I’m not sure. The sixteen-year-old heroine, Page MacNeil, was definitely older than I was, enough older to seem glamorous, but near enough to seem like someone I could aspire to be. I remember that it took me awhile to read this book instead of re-shelving it after a quick glance at its pages, because the title suggested a fantasy-quest sort of book, when in fact it’s a book about What Happened The Summer After A Girl Graduated From High School.

There are a lot of those books. Sometimes they’re about jobs, and sometimes they’re about looking forward to college, and they’re nearly always about boys: outgrowing a high school boyfriend, or meeting a new one who’s going to the same or a nearby college. Whatever. The Summer-After-High-School book is, to me, a recognizable sub-genre.

The Fair Adventure seems far more modern than Friday’s Tunnel, though published in 1940 and set in the late 1930s. Daddy’s Depression salary cut has not yet been restored, and wealthy visitors have strong opinions about the New Deal, Trade Unions, the Race Question, and Socialism, but there is not a word about what might be happening in Europe. Page does have a rather narrow outlook. Well, she’s sixteen, she just graduated from high school, and she lives in a small college town in Virginia. She knows she hasn’t experienced anything much; she’s never even left the state. She hopes to go to a women’s college in the north and study Art History, and learn to be a painter. Daddy teaches Classics at the local co-ed college, where “girls went in for dates and clothes and feminine charm” (120), and because money is tight and she fails to get a scholarship to her northern dream school, Page may have to go there, where there isn’t a single class in Art History.

The plot mainly consists of episodes in which events in her older siblings’ lives overshadow significant firsts in Page’s life (high school graduation, a good role in a play, getting a permanent wave), alongside the problem of where she’ll go to college. Marriage is a significant theme: her next older sister gets married, her oldest brother gets engaged. However, it’s not explicitly one of Page’s ambitions. She’s being “rushed” by a very eligible boy, the college president’s son, back from his freshman year at Princeton. In fact, he has flunked out, and seems willing to go to the local college if Page will be there. Clearly, she could stay home, date this boy, and settle into a comfortable small-town life, if she wanted to.

Such a life can be busy and useful, as her mother illustrates: she’s a member of multiple clubs, including a church group, the PTA, and the garden club. Page’s older sister, Jean, graduates from nursing school on the same day that Page graduates from high school; although Jean marries a young doctor before the summer is out, Page reflects on the way the couple have “fresh responsibilities both to each other and to the community” (244). The oldest sister, Alison, is 28 and has three children, the oldest eight years old. Dr. MacNeil complains that “Every thought she has is impregnated with Fred’s ideas. It comes of marrying too young. Page, you are not to marry till you’re thirty” (108). Nonetheless, Alison is staying with her parents temporarily after three years in Panama with Fred, her engineer-husband, and at the end of the summer the young family go off to Canada. Even if Alison doesn’t work outside the home, it’s pretty clear that she’s contributing a lot to her family’s well-being, and that when her children are older she will, like her mother, put her talents to work in the community.

The large family is close-knit and imaginative. One of the charming set-pieces is the play that they write and perform to celebrate their mother’s birthday, a spoof of their family life in which they work in all the characteristic activities and sayings of the family members, and Alison’s five-year-old plays her great-grandmother to great effect.

“What I need is scope,” Page says early on (42), and she eventually gets it. Or makes it. She’s not really impressed by the eligible boy who wasted his time at Princeton on extra-curriculars instead of studying at least enough to stay in school. She forgets a date with him when she has the opportunity to get paid for a water-color, and this leads her to tell him they’re seeing too much of each other. She clearly identifies as an artist, not as a girlfriend or muse.

I didn’t notice the period elements when I was in middle school, but I enjoyed them now. It’s the US before the second world war, before Eisenhower’s highways, when a mountain guest house provided candles to go to bed by, when the younger members of a family turned out of their rooms and slept on cots on a sleeping porch in order to make room for guests, because putting them up at a hotel just wouldn’t be hospitable.

I’d like to know what SophyLou thinks of this one.

Children’s book review: Friday’s Tunnel

I sometimes lurk on the Chron fora, and I’ve enjoyed the thread on children’s books. There were a couple of posts this month that caught my eye, both because of the poster’s name, Glendower, and because of the books described. Glendower! It must be a different Glendower. Mine is sweet and handsome but I swear he’s illiterate. He doesn’t even sleep on books very often, though he enjoys the tunnels behind them on the shelves.

Anyway, the forum’s Glendower reported on a book called Friday’s Tunnel, by John Verney, that sounded familiar . . . and yet not. I found it in the library, and I think it is the one I remember, but like Glendower, I remembered it very differently. I think I also later confused it with a children’s book that my father started writing (but never finished, sadly) about a tunnel under the elementary school that my brothers and I all attended.

Reading Verney’s book as an adult, I suffered from feminist outrage as well as the usual odd time-warping sense that happens when I re-visit books I haven’t read in decades. The narrator, a 13-year-old girl named February, describes her mother as “tall and thin and easily the most beautiful woman I know and not very strong because of having so many children [six, and another on the way]. Dr. Henry says they have overtaxed her strength and that’s one reason why Daddy won’t let her drive the car” (26).

If Daddy is so worried about Mummy’s strength, he had better find his way to the drugstore. Chemist. Whatever. He ought to know where babies come from, at his age, and if he doesn’t, I’d be willing to explain to him. With a pair of scissors.

And when February makes breakfast for the gang one morning when Mummy’s back has seized up, she reflects, “Shouldn’t be surprised if I made a jolly good housewife myself—if anyone ever asked me” (212-3). Is this all she can think of to do with herself? Is this all John Verney can think of for a girl to do?

The book was published in 1959. I can put up with quite a lot of outdated reactionary hogwash in an old book if the story, characters, and setting are appealing. But I agree with the forum’s Glendower that the plot was confusing. Worse than that, as February was galloping about on her pony, I realized that she is one of those privileged snobby horsy girls: “I thought . . . of how lucky Friday and I are the others were to be living in the country and to have parents like ours, and of a girl at school called Helen Ponton whom I always tease because she’s so fat and stupid and awful and whose parents were killed last year in an air-crash and who has no brothers and sisters or proper home but spends every hols with a maiden aunt in a bed-sitting-room in Leamington Spa” (46).

Poor Helen. I don’t care that at the end of the book, February urges a rich childless couple to adopt Helen Ponton. I expect if I, or February, were suddenly deprived of parents, we’d also be fat (eating our feelings) and stupid (grief will do that to you) and probably awful (ditto). I want to read about Helen. In particular, I want to read about Helen putting all her weight behind a punch to February’s stuck-up teasing nose.

A house organized around writing

I thought I remembered a single sentence or paragraph in A. S. Byatt’s The Shadow of the Sun that summed up the way Henry Severell’s house is organized around his writing routine. But it’s more diffuse than that, a series of descriptions and references that I somehow fused in my head.

The descriptions of Henry’s study are lovely:

The study, for a study, was very large, and full of light, which flooded in through a large french window which opened onto the terrace at the back. It had nothing of the dark leather and silver and tobacco comfort of the gentleman’s study, no steel cabinets, on the other hand, no deliberate austerity, not even the threadbare untidiness of the don’s room, with paper everywhere, and stones collected on odd beaches and brought home because they were interesting. If it had any character, it was that of the outgrown schoolroom—books, on shelves, all round the walls, not glassed in, a huge, square ugly desk in light wood, a wooden armchair, and a desk chair. There was a typewriter on the desk, and a jug of flowers, arranged by Caroline, on one of the book-cases. There was a large fireplace, and a sage green carpet, slightly silky, and nothing else remarkable but space—clear, uninhabited, sunlit space. The study was the centre of the house, and round what went on in it everything else was ordered . . . . (4-5)

He went downstairs and into the hall, where he opened the curtains to let in the grey light, too weak yet to reach the corners . . . . In his study was the flask of coffee Caroline always put out for him, and a bowl of chrysanthemums, on whose crisp, clawed points light and colour were already stirring . . . . He settled then at his desk, with his coffee, in the quiet house. He went through notebooks, settling his mind: he had never been able to cure himself of indiscriminate jottings, but it had taken him much longer to learn to read what he had jotted and he now made a point of it. (168-70)

Although Byatt describes Caroline cooking, rolling pastry, going about her household tasks, the concern for menus is Henry’s:

He disliked large meals. They slowed him. . . . He struggled with the menu to find something he could eat comfortably without impeding his next morning’s work . . . . He ordered a bottle of wine and remembered that as an undergraduate he had dreamed of literary fame to be rewarded by dinners in such a restaurant, with such a beautiful woman. He smiled to himself, for here he was, neither bored nor blasé, nor disillusioned he hoped, but merely concerned exclusively with the connection between his stomach and his working routine. (186)

I have not read this book in some time, and as I looked for my non-existent single quotation, I remembered how much I dislike it. Not one of the characters is likeable. Caroline the self-sacrificing comes closest; even as she devotes herself to her husband, house, and children, she protects a fantasy life in which she is an opera singer, and when Henry wants to talk to her, she makes him keep silent until she finishes singing an aria. Then she deals with him. I have to admire that corner of self that she has preserved. But at what a cost! The others are appalling. Henry is selfish. Oliver Canning is worse. And Anna Severell, Henry’s daughter, is exasperating. I think Byatt intended all of these effects, and the book is beautifully written, but I find it very hard to read a book whose characters I dislike.

But the introduction to the 1991 reissue clarifies many of the problems Byatt faced as she wrote this her first book, and it contains this terribly sad sentence: “No woman of my generation would have expected any putative husband to consider her work prospects when making his own decisions” (viii). She wanted work, she wanted love—as who does not?—and good cooking, too. Someone has to run the well-ordered house. How can the writer and the housekeeper be the same person?

A. S. Byatt. The Shadow of the Sun. New York: Harcourt, Brace. 1991.

It’s in English!

I ordered one more document from the National Archives to help bolster the MMP-1. Well, really I ordered it because I am nosy. I’m not sure it will add anything to my argument, but I’m curious about what one person thought she was doing, and what other people had to say about it.

It hadn’t previously been scanned. This is a good thing because it means I get a high-quality photograph instead of a low-quality scan from microfilm. Even so, when I first opened it I groaned, because the document has some wrinkles that will make parts of it hard to read, and of course it has those long lines that make lines hard to track across the page.

But when I zoomed in on the writing, it was in English, not Latin. That is going to make it so much easier to decipher. Not only that, it’s in a noticeably more modern hand than the IPM from the previous century. Between those two changes, I’ll be able to read it far more quickly than I expected, although I think I will still have to transcribe it because (due to long lines) if it’s blown up to a size I can read, it doesn’t fit on my monitor.

I feel like a bad medievalist because I am so happy to get to read this thing in English instead of Latin legalese. I am convinced that Real Scholars (TM), like for instance Jon Jarrett, don’t mind reading in abbreviated Latin. For the moment, however, I am content to be a Fake Scholar. I play a medievalist on the Internet.😉

When old boyfriends convert

I’ve been looking at some of Flavia’s old posts about teaching (there are great bits in the comments, as well), and also ran across this one, in which she expresses her “horror” that her “first boyfriend–last seen as a smart, hilarious Jew with interests in politics, foreign affairs, and baseball, a guy who was fluent in Mandarin by age 21 and spent most of his college years living abroad–is now an insurance agent in Omaha, a Creationist, and an actual Jew for Jesus.”

Not that I dated the actual same guy, but I was once engaged to a man for whom I fully expected to convert to Judaism, and when through idle web-stalking I discovered that he is now an Episcopalian (not in Omaha), I was shocked. I was going to be the convert; what was up with him turning to Christianity? But I found it hard to articulate why this bothered me, and doubted that anyone else would understand it. Now it seems that Flavia would get it, and in fact, already got it.

How many of us have someone in our past who made some sort of huge change like that? Or are you the one who changed?

Getting the right words

I am still (again, forever . . . ) working on the MMP-1. I have begun to wonder if it would have been simpler to write this article as a book. Cat knows I have written enough words for a book. The problem is getting the right words, in the right order. Another problem is trying to work out, at this late date, what the forest is, when for some time now (like, since I started on this project) I have been focusing on trees.

I love trees. I love their leaves and the leaves’ capillaries, their bark, their mossy growths, the spores in the moss that grows on their bark.

Forest? Is there a forest in here?

Well, damn, who knew?

I will now suspend the metaphor in favor of practicalities, because this might possibly be of some help to some other struggling writer, somewhere. I thought I had a workable introduction, and went on to revise the body of the paper (we will gloss over the current mess in what should be the last body section). But when I ran the intro past my writing group, they had questions. Their questions sent me back to analyze introductory paragraphs in the journal to which I plan to send this version of the paper. I had already looked at whole introductions, to get a sense of what they should look like, but this week I read about a dozen first paragraphs. I listed not what they said, but what the function of each sentence was.

Of course there were variations. Writers are not machines, nor are editors, and a tendency to publish essays of a somewhat similar structure does not mean that there is One True Way For This Journal and any writer who does not conform to this format will be consigned to Outer Darkness.

Nonetheless, there was a pattern, one which seemed fairly pronounced in a couple of essays that are close to the kind of thing I think I’m doing. (Whether I’m really doing what I think I’m doing is yet another question at which I refuse even to squint right now.) So today, after figuring out which forest I’m working in, and how my individual tree relates to it, and what clumps of forest have previously been studied, I wrote a 300-word introductory paragraph.

I still have to figure out what goes in the second paragraph, before my actual thesis. I want to lead with the thesis (did I take too many journalism classes in college?), but I just don’t think it’s going to work for this paper, and this journal. I really want to get on with the middle parts of the paper, except for dreading that swampy bit in the last section where I’m not sure what’s tree roots and what’s snakes, but I expect strengthening the introduction will help in general and even, possibly, with the swamp.

Maybe I lacked some useful training in writing when I was in college or grad school. Maybe other people know to analyze other essays, or even, simply, know how to write an introduction, without needing to look at other essays’ structures. But I don’t just know, and I have found it very helpful to look carefully at the structure of published essays. Including, apparently, my own (I thought I’d written before about studying other people’s, but my own reverse outline is the first thing I found).

I am definitely going to use this first-paragraph-analysis as a writing lesson in my lit classes. I’ll model it first, with an essay we’re all reading, and get student input on what they think the function of each sentence is. For undergrads, I’ll then form groups of three or four, each with a different first paragraph, from essays selected to be appropriate for undergrad readers. I’m thinking several essays from the same journal (exploring that question of House Style), and at least one by one of those authors that appeared in a different journal (exploring the question of personal style). For grads, I’ll probably let them pick their own essays and present the first paragraph and their analysis of it to the class, and we’ll see where discussion goes.

W/r/t the MMP-1, I really hope I’m modelling optimistic persistence that will eventually be rewarded, and not either quixotic fixation on a dead horse, or else sheer bloody-minded stupidity. This has gone on for so long, through so many drafts, outlines, chunks of free-writing, notes, annotated bibliography, etc., etc., that I question my sanity. No, that’s just a moment’s discouragement. I have published the MMP-3 and the Companion Piece, and have an R&R on MMP-2. This is determined resilience, this is. I will get out of the swamp. I will escape the trees’ clutches (and the snakes). I will wind up on the hill above the treeline with a fantastic view of the forest.

And then I will see the essay I should have written.

Oh well. Onward and upward.

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