Heathcliff, it’s me…

Wuthering Heights.   I’ve grown to love it.  I did it myself on my English BA at Birmingham back in the 1980s but then hadn’t reread it until my colleague Ben Colbert suggested it went on to the Victorians course a few years ago.  When I announced at the end of last week’s session that “…and next week it’s Wuthering Heights…” there was an audible cheer from near the back.  I don’t get that reaction often so I found myself ruminating over the week about what it is that makes this novel so loved.

I create a handout which features critical comments on or responses to the novel from its first publication in 1847 to the latter twentieth century.  I’m struck anew by the metaphoric power of Charlotte Brontë’s final paragraph in her 1850 edition ‘Preface’ when she images the novel as hewn from the rough granite of the Moors into something both terrible and beautiful.  By the early twentieth century the novel has been canonized as about universal human themes of mythic proportions.  I offer further quotes that (1) read the novel from a Freudian, familial perspective, (2) deconstruct it and (3) suggest it’s a work about the disappearance of God, to quote J. Hillis Miller’s well-known book.  We then get to more ‘located’ readings by Arnold Kettle and Terry Eagleton and end up with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s reading of it as a parodic re-reading of Paradise Lost in The Madwoman in the Attic (1979).

We end up with enough time to spare at the end of the lecture hour for me to ask ‘Whither Wuthering Heights?’ and I have an excuse to show some favourite Youtube clips.  I realise that most of my class weren’t even glimmers on the far horizon of life when Kate Bush released her iconic song in 1979 but I show them the video anyway.  Kate-BushYoutube has a red dress version (outside in the woods, presumably on the moors) and the original white faintly see-through dress studio version.   I’m sure Kate Bush single-handedly started a revolution in wafty aerobic dancing with those videos.  And I’d forgoten the cartwheels in the studio version.  Never mind Catherine Earnshaw saying “I am Heathcliff”, I think Kate Bush is Cathy.   She is very convincing as a slightly crazed lovesick ghost.  We then progress to the National Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s version.  I love this.  Particularly when the sheep join in near the end.  We end up with Monty Python’s Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights which is a parody of the 1939 film with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon (dir. William Wyler).  I hesitate to analyse to myself why this is so funny for fear of destroying it’s Pythonesque nuttiness.

I signal to the class that later they too will be out upon the virtual moors of our latest Victorian Vision Online exercise…

Victorian Song

Session 3 of the Victorian Vision Online involved the class each having to find a Victorian song, post up the lyrics, and tell their classmates something about it.  This made an interesting swerve as the online exercise after an in-class session on Victorian poetry where in some ways the discussion had been more ‘highbrow’, considering the ways in which Victorian poetry found itself marginalised in the period and struggling to find a sense of its own purpose and role as the novel took centre stage.  The idea for this session online came from a colleague of mine, Hilary Weeks, several years ago.

For the first time thus far with the VVO sessions I don’t send the class a reminder/prompt email about the session.  I figure by this point in the term they should be into the groove of the sessions and able to follow the programme of when they happen.  Sure enough they don’t have any problems getting on with the task.  I log in on Monday morning, after three days, and find lots of posts.  I had posted a number of links to suggested websites where I thought students might find examples of Victorian songs but they have also used other resources.  One student posts that she spent Sunday afternoon listening to a CD of Victorian songs, and her chosen song is a poem called ‘The Lost Chord’ by Adelaide Procter, set to music by Arthur Sullivan in 1887.  She is surprised and even a little outraged that she can find so little reference to Procter anywhere.

There are quite a lot of hymns and Christmas carols posted up — a good reminder that the Victorian period is one of quite a lot of faith as well as doubt — and I’m often impressed by the level of analysis that the class are giving to their finds.  A terrific discussion kicks off starting from someone posting ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, written by Cecil Frances Alexander and published in 1848 (it ends up as a ‘thread’ of 19 posts).  The discussion goes all over the place, and is popular probably because so many of the class can remember singing this hymn at school.  A debate starts as to whether children should have to sing hymns in school at all and it ends up in a discussion of religion as the opium of the people and class suppressor when someone finds the now omitted second verse: 

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Another student makes the most of my encouragement to the class to interact with each other well on the forum and posts all but the last verse of a popular music hall song.  With the subject line of ‘What happens next?’ he invites classmates to suggest how the song’s story turns out.   Great stuff.

Teaching with Youtube

If I can digress off the Victorians for this post I was teaching a course on Women’s Writing and Feminist Literary Theories to second year undergraduates this week.  It’s the point in the course where I attempt to explain Judith Butler to them and her notion of the peformativity of gender.  I had just read the latest edition of Wordplay, the English Subject Centre’s Newsletter, and Anna Palko’s article on ‘Teaching with Youtube’, where she mentions using the Dove ‘Evolution’ advert to introduce ideas around essentialism and gender performance.  The advert is quite mesmeric, and Palko rightly says that it is “extremely powerful, as it displays an issue of which many, if not all, of the class is aware and are affected by”.  I showed it as my very first slide, with a reference to Joan Rivière’s 1929 essay on ‘Womanliness as Masquerade’ and the notion of “performing the pantomime of femininity”.

It felt like it was only the start though and I am not sure it entirely ‘works’ for a discussion of Judith Butler.  Certainly the image of the woman that you see on the billboard at the end of the advert has been constructed — and it’s the photoshop adaptations in the ad that are somehow the most impacting/shocking to me — but Butler wasn’t the first to say femininity is culturally constructed by a long way.  Her point is much more about the way in which society produces gender from an a priori sex and Butler in Gender Trouble argues against that ‘logical’ causality.  For the first time I also showed my class a clip from the 1991 film Paris is Burning, which Butler discuses in Bodies That Matter (1995).  Despite the fact that Butler is often taken as advocating drag as a way of parodying the constructed nature of all gender (with no originary sex behind it), she is ambivalent about the extent to which the drag performances on offer in the film are liberatory.  There’s certainly some interesting discussion to be had around the category of ‘Realness’ which the men attempt to approximate and perform in the Balls.

The Pre-Raphaelites Online

My first online session with my third year class on the Victorians is now over.  They came up with an impressive bank of comments and discussion about how the Victorians have influenced us now, and their legacies still with us.  I kept logging on to the first Forum excitedly the day after my first class to see who was posting.  It took a little while to get going but I do always find I want to see the Forum in progress as it were.  The dynamism of it is part of the appeal and what makes it work.

As well as the Forums for each specific designated exercise our VLE also has  general forum on the menu of each online topic area which I as ‘Admin’ person can change the name of.  In past years we haven’t been able to do that, so I also set the class the task of renaming the general forum for their own use.  I’m not really bothered what they talk about in here.  As long as it’s not offensive or illegal it’s fine with me.  It helps if it’s course related but I’m not really policing it.

The suggestions for names for our ‘Virtual Victorian Inn’ were great:  The Literary Lounge, The Stiff Upper Lip, The Chamber of Converse, The Punch and Dickens, The Queen Vic, The What-the-Dickens?!, The Brontë Bruiser’s Bar, and The Having a Gas(kell).  As our second class was exploring Chartism, Reform Bills and working class pressure for the vote, we had our own secret ballot to vote for the winner.  The What the Dickens?! won, but there’s now a snug in the back called Having a Gas(kell).

Our second Victorian Vision Online session, which accompanies the third class, is one of my favourites, and works incredibly well.  The class build their own bank of weblinks to Pre-Raphaelite paintings, thus creating a resource for the class, and then make a post in a ‘Pre-Raphaelite Painting’ forum on their chosen painting, telling their classmates about it.  They are encouraged to do some research on their painting, alongside using the useful information available on good websites such as those of Art Galleries which have PR holdings.

I’m also trying out a ‘Pre-Raphaelite Poetry’ forum alongside it using the online Morris Edition being created by Florence Boos at the University of Iowa.  Margaret Lourie’s excellent annotated edition of William Morris’s The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems (1858), long out of print, has been made available online.  There are also copies of some of the original first reviews of the volume, so it’s possible for my class to see how critics of the time referred to these poems as somehow ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ and doing in verse what they perceived the PRs to be doing in paint.  I thus also set my class the quite challenging task of discussing one of choosing one of the 30 poems to discuss.  In what ways might it be perceived as ‘Pre-Raphaelite’?  Is it possible to translate techniques in painting to poetry?