This week, I was inspired by Arden’s posts of “brief cuts” from her dissertation to go back through ideas I’ve had in courses but have set aside for the time being. I stumbled onto one nugget of research that I found for a class on “Romanticism and Thing Theory,” taught by Prof. Jill Heydt-Stevenson in 2014, in which we were asked every week to identify a “thing” in the texts assigned and dig up historical research on it. Personally, I found the assignment fascinating as a way to learn more about some of the obscure cultural shorthand on the Romantic period (seriously, who knew there were so many different kinds of carriages?). For Mary Hays’s The Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), I looked into classifications of lightning to better understand one pivotal scene between Emma and Augustus.
It’s almost March. The time of year (at least in my department) that we get our teaching assignments for the fall semester. Many of us greatly look forward to this, especially if it’s our first time teaching our own courses: there’s something intoxicating about finally getting to design your own class. The possibilities are endless.
Until you read the course description of the class you’ve been assigned.
Like many who have read Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest, I began the novel with the knowledge—one could even say the predisposition—that I would find in it the moments that Jane Austen parodies in Northanger Abbey. In Northanger, Catherine Morland finds a scrap of paper that she is certain will prove to be the last testament of General Tilney’s late wife—only to find that the memento is actually a laundry bill. This scene is one of many in which Austen communicates how Catherine’s excessive engagement with gothic novels has prejudiced her ability to interpret her immediate surroundings and experiences. I’ve read Northanger a handful of times and have always been a big fan, so I approached Radcliffe’s work anxiously, waiting for her heroine, Adeline, to find some damning piece of paper, which would fulfill my own expectations of gothic horror conventions.
Sure enough, a little over 100 pages in, Adeline stumbles upon the manuscript of a man who had years before been captured and killed in the abbey where she and her guardians, the La Mottes, are hiding from the French authorities. The “MS” horrifies yet captivates her, and for the next few chapters, she continually rushes back and forth between the room where she keeps the manuscript and the other rooms of the abbey, where she finds herself having to fight against the Marquis de Montalt’s sexual and marital advances. Her attention is torn between the written fragment of the past—much of which has been obscured by the erosion of ink on the page—and the immediate dangers of her present.
Did it fulfill my desires for cliché yet disturbing gothic goodness? Absolutely. But when I got to that part of the novel, I didn’t think of Northanger Abbey. Instead, a completely unexpected picture flashed through my mind:
Recently, I’ve started trying to keep tabs on other academic blogs. After fumbling around with my partner to figure out how to get all (okay, most) of the posts in one reader, we finally got it to work, and I can now browse through them on my phone. In particular in the last month, I’ve seen a spike in posts dedicated to self-care. Apparently, it’s particularly difficult for academics to practice it in late November/early December—something to do with papers, grading, grant deadlines, and—oh yeah—making sure to have quality time with your family and friends on Thanksgiving if you celebrate it. To name a few posts I’ve seen: Raul Pacheco-Vega redefines academic success (in both small and large scopes); Meghan Duffy reminds us that while we are busy, we don’t actually work 80 hours a week and should stop feeling guilty if we aren’t; Steven Shaw discusses realistic expectations and developing a healthy perspective (as opposed to a “tough skin”); and our own Amy Gaeta highlights self-care as part of surviving the first semester of grad school.
All of these writers give great advice, and if you find yourself in a rut, they’re worth a read. Still, as helpful as their posts are, sometimes all we can manage during the end of a semester is to go, “Right. Green tea. I should drink that instead of coffee this afternoon,” and then table the rest for when our workloads die down. But when winter break starts (or summer, or spring if you’re on a quarter system), sometimes we want to collapse or throw all caution to the wind and celebrate that we’re finally done (for the time being, anyway).
Historical events that reveal authors as encountering the world in ways other than through their pens add a dimension of intrigue to their personal stories. In Walter Scott’s case, a particular treasure hunt in Scotland blurred the lines between the thematic content of his fiction and his personal love for Scottish folklore.
This story starts around the time when Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protectorate of England. During his reign, Cromwell sold some of the English crown jewels in order to raise money for his new government. Scotland—which had yet to be unified with England (that happened in 1707)—feared that Cromwell and his armies would invade them and steal the Honours of Scotland, their royal regalia. The Honours consisted of three pieces: the Sword of State, a gold crown that predates the 1540s, and a silver scepter, thought to be a papal gift and topped with a large crystal stone. According to local legend, Cromwell wanted to melt the pieces down; for him, they stood as a symbol of the monarchical system he opposed. The story goes that the treasures were smuggled away before he could find them. They remained missing for a century. Over time, people began to believe the Honours were simply mythical objects.
In December of 1811, Leigh Hunt’s Examiner featured the gruesome news of two families murdered near Ratcliff Highway, in London’s East End. These murders attracted prolonged public attention: The Examiner and The London Times, for example, both followed the “Horrid Murders” from December 8th through January of the following year and invoked them over the next decade as a standard against which all other horrific crimes were measured. The murders also inspired a satiric essay by Thomas de Quincey, first published in 1827 in Blackwood’s Magazine, entitled “On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” In it, he describes murder as an art form and the Ratcliff murders as the pièce de résistance. The Regency’s public interest in this crime has an uncanny cousin in our modern-day fascination with police procedural TV shows, and I’d like to suggest that we can see the newspapers’ representation of this moment—particularly because of de Quincey’s essay—as an early exploration of a “True Crime” genre that, narratively, features the same foundations as the serial television shows many are drawn to today.
First, a note about De Quincey’s essay. It features a transcribed lecture presented by a member of the fictional Society of Connoisseurs in Murder—I’ll refer to him as SCM here. These members “profess to be curious in homicide; amateurs and dilettanti in the various modes of bloodshed” and “criticise [murders] as they would a picture, statue, or other work of art” (1, 2). After the murder is “over and done,” SCM—quoting anecdotes from Coleridge and Wordsworth for support—claims that we can “make the best of a bad matter” and “treat it aesthetically” (12). An aesthetic treatment of murder involves examining its “design, [. . .] grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment” (5), and SCM has elaborate rules for the characterization of the murder’s victim, place, and time. He calls the early nineteenth century the “Augustan age of murder” (40), and he lionizes Williams—the man accused of committing the Ratcliff murders—as the Milton or Michelangelo of murder, claiming that his crimes are “the sublimest and most entire in their excellence that ever were committed” (54).
This post is part of the “Graduate Guide to Guest Lectures” series, a collaborative endeavor by NGSC bloggers Deven Parker, Grace Rexroth, and Conny Fasshauer, all Romanticist graduate students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Drawing on our collective experiences organizing guest lectures at our university, our aim for this series is to offer advice and tips for NGSC readers hosting visitors at their institutions or attending one of these events.
“New” is relative—we’ve all been students for a long time, in some form or another. But when you’re a graduate student who hasn’t yet taken their exams, or you don’t have as firm a handle on your dissertation project as you’d like, it can be easy to make excuses for yourself that allow you to avoid interacting with visiting scholars. Here are some ways to combat those insecurities. (A note: I’m using CU Boulder’s recent set up for Michael Gamer’s visit—a seminar, a talk, and a few social events. Your university may have different opportunities, so substitute those in wherever appropriate.) Continue reading A Graduate Guide to Guest Lectures, III: Making the Most of the Visit as a Student (especially a new one!)