Oooh shiny! NZ researcher discovers early edition of Chaucer

Courtesy of Lawrence Warner, it has come to my attention that Dr Simone Celine Marshall, from the University of Otago, has unearthed an 1807 edition of the poetical works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Exciting news for anyone with an interest in 19th-century medievalism or the transmission and editorial history of Chaucer’s works.

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Things Highly has been reading lately

Between Women: friendship, desire and marriage in Victorian England – Sharon Marcus, Princeton University Press 2007.

Someone recommended this to me a couple of months back, before I made my excellent if rather sudden decision to apply for an MDST masters next year. I’d been toying with the idea of doing a masters in Aus. lit – an idea which I might have been able to follow up without moving towns again. The author I was (still am) interested in was writing in early 20th century Australia, and besides which, I’ve got a bit of a running interest in late 19th and early 20th century women’s literature at the moment.

So I picked up Sharon Marcus’ book, and as it happens, I think I can use some of her methodology in this thesis I’m proposing (it’s on female homosociality in Chrétien de Troyes’ romances). Between Women is an interesting – and in my opinion, very solid – book in that it is both a historical and a literary study. Marcus has divided her text into three types of relationships or portrayals of relationships: the homosocial, the homoerotic and the homosexual (the distinction between the last two is interesting, and I don’t think I fully understand it after reading the intro – hopefully the respective parts of the book will enlighten me). For each, she has two chapters: one looking at historical sources and reconstructing something of actual women’s experience and practice; and the other looking at Victorian novels and the narrative functions of women’s homosocial, homoerotic and homosexual relationships respectively.

This makes sense: although you can use literature as a historical source,  and you can certainly do a literary analysis of a historical work like an autobiography, here, the division is one of fundamental purpose. The historical chapter attempts to reconstruct what women did, thought, experienced; and the literary looks at one or several author’s expression of an ideal – what women should do, think, experience.

In the literary chapter “Just Reading: Female Friendship and the Marriage Plot”, Marcus looks at female friendship as a “narrative engine” which complements, supports, drives and enforces the heteroromantic plot and its conclusion. She takes issue with feminist readings which see all female homosociality as a rebellion against patriarchal forces (I cannot speak for whether or not this is an accurate assessment of feminist studies of Victorian literature), and emphasises instead the way that female friendships provide space for character development in the early stages of the novel, and are used to reconcile the heteroromantic plot in the later stages.

It strikes me that this is exactly how Lunette and Laudine’s friendship functions (assuming you accept Cheyette and Chickering’s approach to “love” as a social contract within the poem; if you prefer to read Laudine as powerless, Lunette becomes an abusive friend): in the early stages of the poem, their debate over love and marriage provides us with an opportunity to assess each woman’s character and to understand, through their argument, the reasoning which eventually leads to Laudine’s marriage; and in the later stages, Lunette’s intervention serves to reconcile Yvain and Laudine and bring about a stable resolution to the romantic plot. Interestingly, unlike the Victorian era examples Marcus gives, Lunette and Laudine’s relationship is not without its own strife – which Yvain (in disguise) has to step in to resolve.

I’m not yet entirely sure how far I can go with applying Marcus’ methodology – or where I’m going to end up with it – but the take-home message (or the put-in-my-proposal message) so far is: to really understand the value that an author and/or their society place on female homosociality, it is important to look at women’s same-sex friendships as integrated with their heterosocial relationships. Only by considering their weight in the plot as a whole can we get an idea of what weight the author ascribes to them.

Logical, huh?

And just in case you’re enthused by this, Between women is largely available on googlebooks.

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.