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Showing posts from November, 2014

Seminar Notes #10 (Dickens Again)

This week, our second on Bleak House, allowed me to partly recreate my own undergraduate experience by using the seminar to run small 8-10 minute intensive discussions with 1:2 ratios. The idea was to make student positions more robust through strings of questions, digressions, counters and critiques. Although it was harder for me to keep track of the ideas (given there were so many of them!) there was plenty of really interesting stuff, of which I'll try to give a sense through a few notes.

1. The Ancient City. An obvious way to read the Dickensian metropolis is through its modernity: we are thinking the old undergraduate essay canards of industrialisation and urbanisation. Slums and rookeries, of the Tom-all-Alone's variety, are to some extent a purely Victorian - that is, for Dickens, contemporary - phenomenon. Yet the London of Bleak House is also a gothic space of ancient, primordial rhythms: some students, quite correctly I think, connected the novel's famous opening…

A Bit on Leigh Hunt: Passion and Materialism

I've had a long-term ambition to read a bit more Leigh Hunt, who was a fascinating figure on the margin (if one is talking about posterity's judgements) or very close to the centre (if one thinks in terms of the 1810s and 1820s) of the circle that included Shelley and Keats. An editor, an imprisoned radical, a philosopher of the senses, a secular theologian: he's an interesting writer. Sadly, it's quite hard to get modern texts of his work, but there's a decent Selected Writings published by Fyfield which I've been reading this month. His most memorable (and controversial) poem - The Story of Rimini - is worth a look; there's a quite superb if strange poem on how fish might view humans; and two essays on 'the now' are fine examples of experimental Romantic prose. But it was Leigh Hunt as a reviewer and critic that shone through for me. His barb at the young Tennyson, for instance - 'how can he condescend to write such fantastic nothings, pretend…

Seminar Notes #9 (Dickens)

One of the questions I asked my students this week about Charles Dickens' Bleak House was designed to confront the very obvious thing that any undergraduate notices on first picking up the text: its intimidating length. What, I queried, does Dickens do with such an enormous canvas?

One set of answers, perhaps following on from an excellent lecture by Paul Young, highlighted complexity. Bleak House is a novel of interconnections, of strands, and of rippling effects. The scale of the novel is needed, or exploited, to represent this interconnection. For some critics (e.g. Georg Luk√°cs), this is precisely why the nineteenth-century novel is greater than its fragmented and alienated twentieth-century counterpart: because the complexity it presents is one of social totality, and of individuals the lives of whom are always encompassed by greater economic and ideological systems. Students picked up on this rapidly and effectively.
If we venture into the issue of complexity in Dickens, the…

Seminar Notes #8 (Rossetti)

#8 because weeks 6 and 7 were a reading week and a periodicals/practical week respectively...

1. Although some extensive discussion of Robert Browning meant that we didn't get a lot of time to talk about Christina Rossetti's 'In an Artist's Studio', the discussion did provoke one of the more interesting thoughts (for me) of the seminar.

I've taught and blogged about the sonnet before, and the approach I took (in the blog at least) is fairly well-established - and probably the one which students gravitate towards as well. Rossetti is read as deconstructing the male gaze and its objectification of the effaced female model, and this dynamic is usually read biographically to refer to her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti. So far, so good, although it is such a well-worn reading that I wonder if I would want to recommend it to students: indeed, I toyed with the idea of shifting the sonnet off the module precisely because I wanted something that could generate more dive…

St. Michael's Mount and Savage Beauty

No seminar blogging this week because we were working with Victorian periodicals, which was a practical session with only limited time spent on set texts. However, to link in with the From a Cornish Window festival, I have written a blog on William Lisle Bowles' 1798 poem 'St. Michael's Mount', which you can find by clicking here (please do: and do take a look around our website).

From a Cornish Window is one small part, organised by lecturers in the English department of the University of Exeter (Penryn Campus), of a large national celebration of the humanities called Being Human. The festival on a national scale aims to showcase the relevance of research in the arts and humanities to the public, and our segment aims to explore how literature, the arts and humanities can be used to rethink and reimagine our relationship to local space and place.

There's been plenty going on - a set of schools workshops, a trail around the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro - and four f…