Monday, November 28, 2011

Not for Credit: The Contenders

These last days of the semester, in between Thanksgiving break and finals, always make it hard to bring a fall syllabus to closure.  There are days to fill, yet the continuity of the semester has been broken.  My solution when teaching C18 lit is to use these final class session for exploring a text that looks towards what comes after, something that clearly builds on the Enlightenment-era roots of the period we've been studying but that also gestures towards the Romantic-era literature that will change the literary game in some important ways.  Here are some of the books I considered for this slot but ultimately rejected:

 Things as They Are, or Caleb Williams by William Godwin would be my hands-down pick if we had an additional week.  It's just too long for the time available to us, but well worth reading.  Regarded by some critics as the first-ever mystery novel, this story is recounted by a working-class narrator persecuted by his erstwhile aristocratic employer and mentor.  The author, William Godwin, might be familiar to some of you as the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft.  His well-intentioned memoirs of his famous wife completely destroyed her reputation for the next century plus.  He's also regarded as the first proponent of anarchy.  Interesting guy.

And then, of course, Jane Austen.  She properly belongs to the C19, not the C18, but Northanger Abbey was, arguably, her first novel, composed (at least in part) before 1800 (though it was the last of her novels to get published, in 1819).  It also constitutes a funny extended meta-fictional commentary on the genre as it stood at the end of the C18 and as Austen inherited it, complete with crazed Gothic patriarchs, young maidens both innocent and venal, swashbuckling hunks of manhood, well meaning pedagogues, and readers who are smarter and less dewy-eyed than the heroines they are meant to identify with. 

In The Natural Daughter by Mary Robinson, the Gothic novel meets a beleaguered feminist heroine and a marriage-plot-run-amok amidst the French revolution.  Our heroine has nothing to learn from the patriarchy but how it can let her down.  Passions and drama run high in this tale, which shows its C18 roots but often gets classified with Romantic-era literature (in no small part because of the poems that sprinkled throughout the narrative).  Robinson was a well-known poet as much as a novelist, and even more famous for being first a stage actress then the mistress of the Prince of Wales. 

There are many more novels I could have chosen from!  But these are some of the likely contenders if we weren't reading Vathek, which has its own riches to offer.

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to state that I read Caleb Williams in Professor Underwood's seminar, and found it to be one of my favorite novels of that semester. I would have definitely enjoyed reading it again!