I’m really rather fond of the 19th century

Dear Medieval Blog:

I must confess, I am unfaithful in my affections. You see, I have this horrible crush on the 19th century. I know, it’s awful. I mean, I’ve spent so long collecting little pictures to illustrate medieval posts, and I’ve got absolutely nothing for the 19th century.


So. I said I wasn’t Well Read, and I was going to read more Literature. I thought about a structured program of reading, but in the end my reading habits shall be directed by What I Can Lay Hands On In Second-Hand Or Remainders Stores (this is not a bad plan. Canberra has whole shops devoted to Academic Remainders).

And that is how I came to read Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. I could say a lot of things about this book. It is long. It is  the longest non-academic book I’ve read for… possibly four years. Maybe more. And since I rarely read an academic book cover-to-cover, suffice it to say that 636 pages of Portrait were an exercise in patience. It’s not a book which moves very fast: it’s a book in which people drift about Europe and converse in drawing-rooms, and all the interest and beauty is in the detail of their characterisation and relationships. There are no explosions, swords, quests, comic relief characters, or even satisfactory snogging scenes. Once upon a time this wouldn’t have bothered me, but apparently I’ve grown shallow in my old age.

Aside from the lack of explosions, swords, quests and the like, the other thing which bothered me about reading 636 pages of 19th century literature is that, when one reads novels, one reads the novel. I’m so used to reading medieval texts in small chunks, responding, commenting, reading secondary lit, reading some more of the original, discussing, making pencil notes and cross-referencing this or that other obscure text, it was very strange to be reading only one thing at a time and having no further purpose to it. My inner cross-referencer went into overdrive, and came up with some interesting points of comparison.

First up, Portrait reminded me of The Picture of Dorian Gray1, so much so that I wonder if one title references the other or if they’re both referencing something common to them. Not in plot, per se, but they share a common genre – both Gothic, but largely bereft of spooks, ghosts, bloodsuckers, sputtering candles, fluttering curtains, and all the usual bread and butter of Gothickery. Each relies on one chilling figure to underpin the Gothic narrative – although both Wilde and James do use some of the other tropes of Gothic literature (murder for Wilde, ghosts for James) with a light hand. The Picture lurks at the centre of Dorian’s tragedy, and Gilbert Osmond at the centre of Isabel’s. Understatement is the order of the day: both Wilde and James underplay the horror – it is not as if they wish to wind their audience into hysterical fright, or wow them with dramatic thrills, but rather to leave the reader unnerved.

Wilde and James also have in common a knack of Not Talking About Sex while still, very much, talking about sex. They go about it differently – you can tell Wilde is trying to see just how much he can say, just how far he can push people before someone arrests him (again). I read Dorian and sniggered and muttered things to myself like “artistic romance my FOOT”, and then had a look at the appendixes and discovered that all the business about Basil’s “artistic passion” for Dorian was a late addition… the original Wilde MS did not exactly beat around the bush in the early stages, but as far as Penguin’s appendices can tell you, he never went so far as to spell out what Dorian’s sins were, exactly what dreadful influence he had on young men, or the extent of the experiences Dorian pursued for the sake of experience. He leaves the question open: he could mean anything, and whatever answer you settle upon leaves you wondering both if you’re dreadfully dirty-minded, and if you’re incredibly naive and the truth is much more salacious.

James is, in a way, more straightforward: he simply elides sex and desire from his narrative, and the absence tells you very clearly exactly what it is he means. James’ description of Osmond, on introducing him, didn’t make of him the great object of desire which Wilde does of Dorian Gray (you can hear Wilde drooling…). He tells us little of Isabel’s initial reaction to Osmond: she admires his taste, enjoys his conversation… We are told nothing of her decision-making process surrounding her marriage: James keeps the details as shuttered off from the reader as Isabel keeps them from her family. All we know is that she’s somehow gone from a self-analytical young woman opposed to marriage, to one with an all-absorbing devotion to an apparently unremarkable betrothed.

Wilde’s treatment of desire in Dorian Gray was entertaining and intellectually engaging, but James’ handling of the subject in Portrait really got me. It’s the one power which could make Isabel surrender her self-determination, and James doesn’t engage with it as an intrinsic part of her character, or even as one of the life experiences her friends thought so beneficial to her.  He simply marks out the space where desire arrived in her life, and leaves that space for the reader to remember as, in the ruin of her marriage, Isabel holds fast to the determination that she chose her surrender.

Secondly – and more surprisingly than the Wilde connection – Portrait brought my internal cross-referencing system to Little Women and the work of Louisa May Alcott. This post has taken me far too long, so I shan’t continue right now, but as soon as I can manage it without decimating my sleeping patterns, we will consider such questions as the value of experience, a young woman’s potential, and a woman’s duty.


1. Also an acquisition of the What Can I Buy Cheaply campaign. ❤ Popular Penguins.

Oh. Wow.

Trying (and largely failing) to catch up on my RSS reader, I discovered this on Dr Nokes’ blog. Clay Paramore sings Caedmon’s Hymn [translated version here]:

I’ve always been immensely jealous of Caedmon, being as I can neither sing, nor dance, nor play any instrument, and years of church-going and piety never inspired Jesus to appear and give ME a miraculous talent for singing ;).

Is it good to be the king?

What is it that’s so fascinating about kings? I’ve been reading Shakespeare’s Richard II, thanks to angevin2, who has promised to divulge the mysteries of Shakespearean gender subversion now that I’ve finished it. This promises to be immensely fascinating, but let us first have a post about what really struck me while reading Richard II.

It’s very much about kingship. Well, no, duh. I’ve not read much Shakespeare, but enough to know that’s not unusual. My personal favourite Shakespeare is Macbeth, which is very much about kingship: the right to kingship; what makes a king; the gulf between the man and the king; the role of destiny in creating a king.  Richard II takes the same themes around again: instead of giving us a man who would become king (but cannot truly be king), this time we get one who is king and another who becomes king at the former’s expense. Is a king only a king? Is he a man and a king at once? Can he continue to be a man if he is not king?

Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?

– off you go and read the whole speech, starting at line 1554.

What struck me about Richard’s identity crisis – aside from the fact that it’s beautiful – is that it’s incredibly familiar. This whole question of what is a king is a constant thread through all the fantasy literature I grew up on. 20th and 21st century authors don’t approach kingship in quite the same way as Shakespeare did: regardless of whether or not you’re fond of Queen Lizzy II, it’s not really Done to regard her as God’s hand on earth, or the fate of Britain or the Commonwealth as intrinsically wound up in her person and function. Large numbers of pseudo-medieval fantasy authors are living in countries with no monarchy at all.

And yet, almost every fantasy series you pick up has a king in it: often the  hero, who is not king, will become king. What makes a king, what kind of man must a king be, who can be king, how shall the king rule, is the king still king in exile? Aragorn, Denethor and Boromir: is it birth which sets Aragorn apart? Personality? Circumstances? Wisdom? His impressive manly stubble?

Tolkien would have answered Richard II’s question with a yes: kingship, in Aragorn, is an innate quality which he carried underneath the character of Strider: a strength he possessed in spite of his own self-doubt. Exactly what it is composed of, I’m not entirely sure: honour, duty, generosity, justice, the ability to command, manly stubble. And self-doubt: in contrast to Boromir’s self-assuredness, Aragorn’s self-doubt somehow became part of what made him the fit king. (Lewis spells the same thing out, and has Aslan tell Caspian that his self-doubt is what makes him fit to be king.)

There are others: I grew up on Tamora Pierce, and Crown Prince Jonathan who got all rebellious and sulky about being defined by his social function; a slew of modern Arthurian renditions which I could talk about for hours, but won’t just now; Ann Marston’s magic kings bound by bad faux-celtic magic to the land itself; Lewis – once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen; Robin Hobb’s flawed but earnest Farseer dynasty… Modern fantasy comes back to the question as often as Shakespeare: what is a king?

And yet kings are far less important in the English-speaking world today than they were for Shakespeare. What is it that makes the question of kingship so perennially interesting?

New contact email

On the off-chance that someone might want to contact me: gmail disabled the email address I was using for this blog, for no known reason (I assume the keyword ‘naked’ in the title was a bad idea).

If you take it into your heads to contact me, I now have highlyeccentric AT gmail ETC.

You might remember my stated intention to read more Literature? It’s coming along – one of you (probably Jonathan) told me I should blog it, so I shall. This blog is about to take a sharp turn away from the strictly medieval and head into Arthurian fantasy, 19th century gothic, and the odd bit of Shakespeare. But first I have to actually finish one of the seven books I’m reading.

In the meantime, months ago I stumbled across a list of frequently banned books (American  Libraries Association data) from the last decate of last century, and undertook to read ten of them by next September. That project’s coming along slowly – if you’re interested, reviews of Bridge to Terabythia, Judy Blume’s Forever and The Handmaid’s Tale are all over on my LJ. One of the seven books I’m reading at the moment is The Color Purple, also on the banned list. I’ll let you know when I’ve posted a review.

Lessons learnt in Reality

I keep meaning to post things (really, I have posts all lined up in my head!). But the Real World is unexpectedly more time-consuming, or possibly more energy-consuming, than you’d think.

Here, though, are some useful things I’m learning, courtesy of the Real World, which I don’t think I’d have learnt so swiftly if I’d not taken time out:

* Moving does not have to be a major stressor for me. Now, I always knew that, but my last major move in life, moving to uni, was extremely stressful. Moving cities has been great: I love Canberra, I love living in a real flat. I miss my friends but I’m not homesick. I’ve discovered that I’m a whole lot more confident than I was in first year, that I can make friends easily, and also elect not to make friends with people if we don’t connect easily. This really isn’t a surprising life development, but it’s nice to know that before I try uprooting myself and trotting off to the other side of the globe.

* Set work hours! My god, they’re fascinating. I’d never realised how long nine hours was – nine hours on your feet waitressing is long, but you don’t finish a shift with tangible progress to pick up the next day. You can get an awful lot of stuff done between the hours of 8.30 and 5.30 every day. You can also waste an awful lot of time, if you’re so inclined.

I suspect I spent most of my degree wasting an awful lot of time. I did quite a bit of work, too, but I had this awful ‘just start work and keep going until bedtime’ mentality. I’d be blogging, surfing, emailing, and who knows what else at the same time, all day, every day. Now, I’m finding that once I get home from work I don’t have time to keep up with the internet, which is a sure sign that I had over-committed myself online…

Do we think that if I spend two years working in the Real World, I might get into the habit of working by day and blogging by night?

* Stress happens in the Real World, too. But it’s not the end of the world. Right now, for example, my team is completely crunched: major project, already extended deadlines by about a month, and there is absolutely no way the final product is going to be as shiny and professional as we would like it.

We deal. In this case, it means getting the parts which draw the most public attention as shiny as possible, and as much of the rest of it functional if possible. I have my own little sandbox, which I thought would take me a week and has taken me nearly a month already. I’m going to try to have it finished in the next two working days. I might even put in some hours over the long weekend. But if I don’t get it done… the world does not end.

Stress is happening. I want to go into Deadline Mode (stopping only sleep, eating while working, and compulsively checking Livejournal every five minutes).  But even if I did, this is a teamwork project, and I’m the tiniest cog in the team machine. I’ve worked in teams before and I’ve worked on projects with deadlines before, but I’ve never done both at once. It’s at once incredibly frustrating and incredibly comforting. This thing lives or dies on a communal effort, and its success or failure doesn’t change my net worth as a human being, or my standing in the workplace.

Academia is a bit (a lot) more personal than that, but I shall endeavour to learn perspective.

* I went to a project management workshop the other day: a whole bunch of stuff about defining objectives, scope, processes, what have you. Dry as toast but very useful. It hit me, while we were working through this pre-designed Project Management Scheme, that this was what I’d struggled and fumbled about with at the beginning of last year: the fact that I couldn’t just pick up a book, open a document and start Thesising. I had to figure out some idea of what I wanted, where I was going, and how to get there, and I didn’t have a set framework for doing that. Now, the Enormous Project I’m involved in at the moment goes to show that no matter how carefully you Manage, it will still come down to a frantic scramble at the end. However, I can see how careful management, a clear idea of the objectives, scope, and resources, and knowing what gives and what doesn’t, is what’s keeping it all from flying to pieces before my bossess’ eyes.

Academic work projects. Rather more time consuming, ego-crushing, absorb-your-whole-life than most workplace projects, but still projects. Here’s hoping a few years in the workforce teaches me a bit about project management.

That was rather a lot of blather. Congratulations if you got to the end of it 🙂