All posts by Jennifer Leeds

Jennifer Leeds is a Ph.D. student in the English department at Washington State University. Her research interests include representations of gender and sexuality, travel narratives, lifewriting, performativity, collection, and notions of remediation. Her dissertation is a transatlantic study of how heterosexual desire is constructed in Romantic and Victorian novels by Austen, Bronte, Jewett and others. She argues that many of these famously heteronormative novels do not actually begin with compulsory heterosexuality: they arrive there gradually, contingently, and only first by carving out an authorized space in which queer relations may, or indeed must, take hold. Her article, “Most Precious Treasures: Eroticized Collection within Emma” appeared in Rhizomes 24 (2012), she was awarded Best Graduate Essay in her department in 2013, and she has a review in Modern Philology 111.1 (2013).

Interview: Dr. Patricia Fara

The Romantic Period’s scientific achievements affected all aspects of writing and poetry, especially as the public witnessed new discoveries. Captain James Cook’s circumnavigation of the globe influencing Coleridge’s writing of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and William Bligh’s mutiny on the Bounty influencing Byron’s “The Island” are two examples of this fascination. Joseph Banks, an English naturalist, botanist, and patron of the natural sciences participated in Captain Cook’s voyage and has remained an important figure in Romantic science scholarship as well as the history of science.

Dr. Patricia Fara is one of the scholars who has written about Banks and Romantic science. Famous for publishing work beloved by both academia and the wider public, Fara urges scholars to resist limiting themselves with disciplinary boundaries, categorizations, and stiff formalities. Filled with fascinating historical context and beautiful prose, reading Fara’s work is both intellectually stimulating and fun. Continue reading Interview: Dr. Patricia Fara

Interview: Dr. James McKusick

One of Romanticism’s favorite ecocritics, Dr. James McKusick, explains how getting lost in the woods at the age of five helped inspire his brilliant book, Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. He shares, “I was playing with some friends and they went home. I went the other way and I was lost on my own for a couple hours. I finally found my way to a house in the woods, where there was this little, old lady, who decided not to make me into soup. She actually called up my friends’ parents, who rescued me. It’s one of those formative childhood memories. The takeaway is that I’ve always wanted to wander in wild places. It’s part of my makeup.”

Scholars of Romanticism should be thankful for a couple of things: first, that the old woman in the woods did not make McKusick into soup and, second, that the curiosity and bravery that five-year-old McKusick demonstrated in his exploration of the woods has grown and can be seen within his scholarly work in our field.

INTERVIEWER

How did you become interested in ecological approaches to Romanticism?

 MCKUSICK

I’ve probably spent five years of my life out under the open sky. However, it never occurred to me that I could translate any of this into the practice of literary study or literary criticism until long after I was out of graduate school. My dissertation had nothing to do with wilderness—it had to do with the philosophy of language. It was only after I got tenure, on the basis of that work, that I put my head up and I said, “What do I want to study next?”

At that time, there was no such thing as ecocriticism. This was the late 80s, early 90s, and Jonathan Bate had just published his first book on Wordsworth and green Romanticism, but with that exception, there wasn’t that much out there in specifically the field of British Romantic or Transatlantic ecocriticism. Obviously, there’s a long and distinguished history of people who study environmental writing, especially in the American context. That’s really, I think, the center of gravity for the field of environmental writing. If you look at most anthologies of nature writing, they have to deal with mostly 19th-century essay writers, Thoreau, Emerson, and that whole tradition down to Rachel Carson and modern times. But what’s missing in that tradition is the deeper history that goes back to at least the Middle Ages, perhaps the Classical period. The deeper intellectual and spiritual history of nature writing is what I’m after.

There was just a morning when I woke up, and I had this Gestalt experience, where I said, “You know, I love wild, natural, places, I love literature, I want to bring those things together.” It made sense in terms of my own life journey, but it was also an edgier, more dangerous field to go into because there wasn’t such a field yet. I got to be in there at the creation, so to speak. Organizations such as ASLE were just starting to be formed […] There was an aha! moment as well, where I found the poetry of John Clare, a lesser studied British Romantic poet, who, especially at that time in the 80s and 90s, was virtually unknown to Americans. British scholars have always known about Clare, but they, perhaps, have not taken him as seriously as he should have been taken. They used to speak of poor Clare, the poor mad poet. They knew a few of his poems that he wrote in the madhouse, but they didn’t know the reams and reams of wonderful poetry that he wrote during the primary phase of his poetic career, when he was not in the madhouse, when he was just a peasant farmer living his life out under the open sky.

John Clare was an amazing discovery for me. I became well acquainted with the world’s leading scholar of Clare studies, Eric Robinson, who is also the main editor of Clare’s work. Eric became one of my great mentors […] Through the study of John Clare, I’ve come to a more comprehensive understanding of what environmental writing is or can be. What I love about John Clare is simply his authentic connection, his groundedness in a particular wild place. John Clare was there at a transitional moment in the history of British agriculture, when they were moving from the ancient common field system to the enclosed or private field system. He deeply mourned that transformation of the landscape. The enclosed fields were being intensively cultivated. It was kind of a green revolution in agriculture, which made the lands more productive, and, in a sense, industrialized the land. It also destroyed many of the wild creatures that lived there, their nesting places, their habitat. Clare was really the only person who seemed to care. It was a tragedy that affected the landscape, and this is all captured beautifully through Clare’s poetry, through the poetics of nostalgia. He writes about land the way it was, but he also uses the poetics of advocacy. He advocates for preserving the landscape and for the rights of the creatures that inhabit there. Clare’s poetry is either naïve or deeply, mystically, connected with the landscape. I prefer the second idea.

Discovering Clare was a huge milestone. My first article in ecocriticism was my article on John Clare and I had a terrible trouble finding anyone who would publish it because it was perhaps ahead of its time. There was something about it that didn’t sit well with the literary establishment. I finally published it with a literary journal out of Toronto […] That turned into a chapter in my Green Writing book, which probably took me ten years to write. I took my time with that book because I was discovering my methodology as I went along. There was no one I could sit at the feet of and learn how to do ecocriticism.

 INTERVIEWER

What does an ecological reading open up about texts that other readings do not?

MCKUSICK

One of the real landmark pieces of work in ecological criticism has been done by Lawrence Buell. He addresses the question, “What is an environmental text?” The answer to that question is all texts, because every text has an environmental context. That environmental situation can be overtly expressed in the text or not […] If you just think of ecological criticism as “the study of nature writing,” it tends to marginalize it before you even get out of the starting gate. You’re only going to look at texts that are often in a fairly boring way describing “pretty things in the natural world.” There’s not really a lot to say about that, other than “how pretty!” That’s not what an ecological reading is or should be. What Buell teaches us is that every text has an environmental dimension. If it’s by a sophisticated writer, this dimension will be overtly manifested in the text in some respect.

We also need a broader understanding of ecology to realize that it is the study of everything that happens in the world. It isn’t just simply the study of wilderness, which is the other category mistake that people make in looking at ecological writing, the study of wilderness theory or wilderness areas. That’s a big piece of ecological criticism, but it is not the only piece. To be a good ecological critic, you need to look at urban as well as rural landscapes, land as well as ocean, and the sky is important. There’s nothing that gets left out of an ecological reading of a text. An ecological reading of a text can also poke at what is not there, what is not manifested in the text, but should be, or is repressed […] One of the best things about ecological criticism, I think, is that it is linked to a larger environmental movement that is gaining more and more headway in our larger society as we speak. To me, it seems a lot more authentic for literary scholars to be engaged in the struggle to protect the environment than it does for us deeply bourgeois professors to be involved in something we call the class struggle and the liberation of the common man. Somehow, that doesn’t ring authentic.

The other beautiful thing about ecocriticism is that it’s a methodology that has legs and can travel into any literary course, no matter the period or the genre or the subject matter under consideration. It can be used as a skeleton key to open up texts and see dimensions that our students truly care about. Our students care about sustainability, they care about environmental preservation. So I try to embed ecocriticism into any course that I teach. It also allows an interdisciplinary conversation to take place. If you have students from the sciences, or engineering, or music and theater, they can call relate to this content in a way that makes literary studies more relevant to their own individual circumstances […] Certainly, ecocriticism is not intended to drive out every other method of literary analysis. It is meant to complement what we already have. It’s another set of tools to put in the toolbox.

INTERVIEWER

Your book engages the idea of the pastoral, citing the 18th-century context of the construction of “English gardens’ that imitated the idyllic disorder of natural landscapes, rather than formal geometric patterns” and, from my understanding, trace how “a true ecological writer must be ‘rooted’ in the landscape, instinctively attuned to the changes of the Earth and its inhabitants” (20, 24). I’m struck by several things here. If true ecological writers must be attuned to the landscape, might we view them as a collector? And, if we can view them as a collector, how might we negotiate issues of authenticity?

MCKUSICK

The idea of the pastoral, of course, goes back to the ancient times. The ancient Greek writers invented the concept of the pastoral landscape, and it’s very related to their form of agriculture, which was pastoral—in other words, they kept sheep, or goats, or cattle on the landscape. The pastoral ideal was invented by urban poets who were nostalgic for this older lifestyle that still existed in remote places. In historically recent times for these poets, this lifestyle had been replaced with more intensive forms of agriculture, the cultivation of crops. Urban life, of course, is not possible unless you’re cultivating a crop like wheat. The pastoral is always inherently nostalgic. It is always looking back to an earlier time where things were better and more peaceful.

Let’s bring it up to the 18th century. William Gilpin invented the concept of the picturesque. He was also a landscape designer, so he, along with a fellow called Capability Brown, invented the idea of the English garden. The English garden was an exercise in nostalgia. It captured a lost pre-history of wild landscape that the lands didn’t currently possess—in other words, all of English land has been cultivated since the Middle Ages, and the only wild lands that now exist are those that have been created by fencing. […] That’s where you get forests in English landscapes.

In the 18th century, the English garden is a reaction against French landscape. The garden at Versailles is a good example of a French landscape, which is geometric in pattern, and intentionally uses very artificial plantings to create a mosaic of color patterns. The English garden is a reaction to that—it uses simple and natural ingredients to fashion a pseudo wild landscape onto the pre-existing agricultural land. A feature you know from Jane Austen is the ha-ha, which is a sunken fence. The sunken fence is meant to be invisible from the perspective of the great house, so you look out upon an unbroken greensward. It prevents sheep from coming all the way up to the door of your house. It creates lawns. I blame the American lawn on the picturesque movement in British landscape architecture. People like William Gilpin and Capability Brown felt that instead of these patterned flower gardens, you should have greensward up to your very door. That, for some reason, has been the most enduring legacy of the picturesque movement in landscape. Even to this day, every American homeowner believes they should have a patch of greensward, even if they’re living in the Arizona desert. They have to have their green patch of grass next to their house, otherwise it’s not a proper home, and they need a white picket fence.

To come to this idea of collecting, collecting is at the very heart of the picturesque ideal. The central concept of picturesque landscape is that it resembles a painting, and it only resembles a painting at certain points of perspective. As you walk through a picturesque landscape, it is intentionally designed to give you prospects—specific places where you can gather a picturesque view. As you progress through the landscape, it’s designed so you go from one picture to the next. It’s like a slideshow. The very act of looking is an act of collecting. You’re creating a picturesque memory for yourself.

There’s a technology called the Claude glass. Claude is a French landscape painter who used a convex mirror to create an image of the landscape, which he would then either directly project upon a piece of paper and trace, almost like a camera obscura, creating a photographically “real” image of the landscape onto a piece of paper; I use the word “real” in quotation marks because it’s not inherently real, it’s just one form of perspective that has been naturalized to us Westerners. Since the Renaissance, we’ve used perspective drawing to create an image of the natural world, so when we do that photographically, it looks real and natural to us, but to folks from non-Western cultures, who don’t have a tradition of landscape painting, a photograph looks weird […] When Native Americans saw profile pictures for the first time, they didn’t accept them. They said, “That’s only half a man.” They only accepted full-face pictures […] The Claude glass was a technology imported from France and used by landscape designers to test the validity of a certain landscape solution. They would stand in front of the landscape, back to it, look at the Claude glass, and because it is a convex mirror, it also emphasizes foreground elements and minimizes background elements. It’s also a darkening mirror; it shades out certain things in the landscape. It is an intentionally intensifying artificial production of landscape, which can then be put on paper and be made into a painting. Even people who were not painters, people whom we would call tourists, would bring their Claude glasses into picturesque places in the late 18th, early 19th century and collect landscapes. They would literally stand with their back to the landscape, looking into their Claude glasses, and say, “Ah! That is picturesque.” In a way, the created landscape, in the mirror or on paper if they could sketch it, was even more real than the thing itself. It mattered more. That was the act of collecting a landscape. We do that today, only we do it with cameras.

INTERVIEWER

It’s like when people go to a concert and watch the entire performance through the screen of their iPhone as they try to record it.

MCKUSICK

Exactly. The whole phenomenon still exists today of snapping landscapes. Usually, there needs to be a figure in the landscape. Tourists are notorious for posing their wives in front of famous monuments and taking a picture. Somehow, that validates the experience. The act of collecting landscapes has certainly existed since the 18th century and already began to be parodied by the early 19th century. There was a whole wonderful set of satirical sketches, or cartoons really, of a character called Dr. Syntax, who would go out into the world and was a bumbling idiot, but still was attempting to collect picturesque landscapes.

The picturesque movement also had a very deep impact on the poetic tradition. There was a whole genre of 18th-century poems called prospect poems—a late example of that is “Tintern Abbey,” which is probably the single most famous prospect poem in literary history. Wordsworth is taking in a prospect a few miles up-river from Tintern Abbey and that’s what the poem is about. The prospect poem, then, lies at the heart of Lyrical Ballads, which is the book that kicked off Romantic poetry for England. The whole notion of the picturesque landscape and the prospect poem really inaugurates the Romantic movement, although the Romantics don’t simply take it over in a naïve way from the 18th century tradition. They sophisticate it, which is good. In its raw form, it’s pretty inauthentic. Wordsworth is already doing something very sophisticated in the prospect form, and Shelley will further internalize it. The “Ode to the West Wind” is a kind of prospect poem that, however, has become deeply psychological to the point where there’s hardly any landscape left to the poem; it’s all an internal landscape. “Mont Blanc” is another example of a prospect poem that presents an entirely internal landscape. Good for Shelley—he took something that was something inauthentic and boring and made it fascinating and complicated and inscrutable.

INTERVIEWER

So, an ecological writer is less authentic if they collect the land.

MCKUSICK

Yes. I think, still, there’s huge amounts of Romantic poetry that derive generically from the prospect poem, but the Romantics have taken that to much deeper psychological depths, demonstrating a much more sophisticated understanding of landscape. My favorite poet in this line is John Clare, who doesn’t do prospect poetry because it is also marked as a bourgeois writing form. John Clare is inhabiting landscapes, so his perspective is not that of a prospect poem, but it is experiential poetry of a dweller in the land. John Clare is a wonderful litmus test to put up against any other poet because John Clare is the most authentic poet in the whole British tradition.

A prospect poem is often stationary, where it goes in a series of slides, whereas in John Clare, it’s a dynamic landscape. You’re walking through it, you’re experiencing it, it’s washing over you, and its inhabitants are talking to you or you’re seeing it through their eyes. You can put a John Clare poem up against any other Romantic poem as a test of authenticity, and some will test out fine and some will not. I’m sorry to say another favorite poet of mine, William Wordsworth, often comes across as seeming inauthentic when you put him up against John Clare because he certainly does have a bourgeois point of view. It’s not that of a dweller, it’s that of a tourist, strolling through the landscape, pausing to take in a prospect, and having a deep mental reaction to that. Wordsworth is profound, but still perhaps less authentic in terms of his relationship to the land, than someone like Clare who was working with the land. […] Wordsworth was reading Gilpin, who writes about the English Lake District. There’s a very direct pipeline of ideas from the picturesque into the Lake District poets; Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey were direct inheritors of the picturesque ideal, but they do new things with it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any advice for graduate students in the field of Romanticism? What are some things that you wish you knew/were glad that you knew when you were in graduate school or approaching the job market?

MCKUSICK

I have tons of advice, but I want to address this, in part, from the view of ecological criticism. I guess my most fundamental advice to graduate students is to expose yourselves to all different types of literary criticism. No single method is correct or viable or valid on its own, and that certainly applies to ecological literary studies as well as any other “ism”. The last thing you want to do as a graduate student is to say, “Oh, I’m open to all ideas, and I have none of my own.” A grad student does need to stake out their turf and know what “ism” they’re going to be loyal to and really pursue that. But one still has to be capable of intellectual growth. The thing not to do is to be locked into a narrow or ideological reading of literature that blinds you to other dimensions of a text. Ideally, as a literary critic, we want to understand everything that’s there, including the things that are unspoken in a text. As one of my professors liked to put it, “the white space between stanzas are just as important as the stanzas themselves.” The subliminal thinking that is not overt still needs to be understood.

How do you become broadly learned? Hopefully, in a strong English department, there are going to be lots of ideological factions at work. Get to be friends with everyone and learn what everyone is up to and doing. Find which approach works best for you. Hitch your wagon to a star. No one really told me this when I was in grad school, but it really matters who your faculty mentors are because they’re networked into the profession. You want the most prestigious, the most connected, the most famous person, who is also going to be the most busy and the least likely to give you lots of personal time. Hopefully, you can find a golden mean of someone who is A. famous, but B. also a genuinely good person who will give you tons of time and attention and care and feeding and good criticism. It’s great to have arguments with your mentor! You’ll learn more by arguing with them than just agreeing with everything they say and saying, “Oh thank you, great famous professor.” Argue with them. Disagree with them. Test your mettle by going out on a limb and saying something a little dangerous or difficult. Graduate school is a wonderful time to try on new suits of clothes, especially as you’re doing your coursework or coming up toward a dissertation topic. Try to avoid something that is boring or conventional. Try something that is edgy, that puts you into terrain that you’ve never explored before. Often, through the beauty of interdisciplinary study, you can find terrain that no one has explored through that point of view before. Be a little offbeat. Be a little inventive. The world does not need another reading of “Tintern Abbey” or “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The world needs to find texts that are less travelled by.

One thing that has changed in literary study in the last twenty years is the world has become flat. It used to be that only students at the most prestigious universities would have access to the best rare book libraries, the unpublished manuscripts. Now, everything is available through the wonders of Google Books or interlibrary loan. You can get virtually anything that has ever been published. Yes, you still need to go to rare book archives to get at the original, unpublished stuff, but you can do amazing things through the miracles of electronic publication and the whole field of Digital Humanities. Digital Humanities allow you to do all kinds of digital textual analysis and discover things that have never been seen before. I’ve done some of that work myself through things like corpus linguistics, where you can do statistical analyses of style. Things that were never possible have suddenly become achievable […] Don’t assume that your professors know these tools. Grad students might have an edge on the new technologies of textual analysis that are only possible through “big data” approaches such as corpus linguistics and stylometrics. The beauty of it is that you can predict things and find out that, yep, that’s real. It’s a brave new world out there, so make a daring prediction and go and do your textual analysis and find out if it’s true. No previous generation of grad students could do that, so you guys are going to own the world!

Advice: Five Scholars on Comprehensive Exams

Constructing comprehensive exam lists is no easy feat. A friend of mine compares the process to building a personalized obstacle course and then having to master it; after all, the texts that appear on your exams are texts that you have personally chosen. Another friend compares constructing exam lists to building a wish list; here are all the books and articles that I wish I had time to read (or re-read) earlier in my career. Whether you view exam lists as friends or foes, one thing remains certain: you must be aware of yourself as a scholar.

Several weeks ago, I read Renee Harris’ thoughtful how-to on running the comprehensive exams gauntlet. Harris’ article offered the very comforting reminder that even while we construct (and take) these personalized exams, we are never alone in the process. Beyond our supportive departments, committees, and mentors, there are always other people going through similar neuroses, struggles, and victories. And, consequently, there is a vast group of established scholars who have already gone through them.

In an effort to extend this conversation of how to approach such a daunting task, I’ve asked five established scholars across North America about their experiences taking and preparing for exams. What did they wish that they had known? What were they glad that they already knew? Below are their words of wisdom:

Dr. Brandy Schillace, Case Western Reserve University

I was standing in the stairwell, waiting to be called up to the defense. It’s hard to capture the tumult of emotion and anxiety… I felt I had dueling octopi in my stomach. I was terrified I’d say the wrong thing, or nothing at all in a fit of brain freeze. Then I remembered something. I’m Anglican, and coming from my studies of theology, I suddenly remembered the early charge that disciples ‘not worry’ about what they would say in advance. When the time came to speak, speak they would.

In that moment before defense, we are  ‘disciples’ of English studies and about to stand trial. But remember–we are also masters. We know our subject better than anyone, and possibly even as well as some on our committee. They are not judges; they are peers. We are not going to prove we belong; we are going to show we’ve belonged all the time.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I climbed the stairs… And I entered the room as a colleague. That’s what you are–colleagues in the making. Don’t be paralyzed by the exam. Don’t be cocky, either, but just remember: this is our job, it’s what we do. When the time comes to defend, defend you shall.

(Though I confess, praying never hurts)

Dr. Anne Stiles, Saint Louis University

1. Study several contiguous time periods. When I took my exams, I decided to focus on the Victorian period and the 18th century, but skipped the Romantic era. I definitely regretted it afterwards, especially since many jobs in my field are geared toward the “long nineteenth century.” If you’re studying two different time periods separated by a decade or more, remember that the meat in the middle of the sandwich is important, too!

2. Always carry around a book with you in case you have a few spare minutes for reading (while waiting in lines, for ex.).

3. Remember to read secondary criticism on the primary works you read, even if you’re not required to do so. This secondary criticism can help you tie together and better understand the works on your list, so you have more to say about them.

Dr. Richard Menke, University of Georgia

One of the questions I’m asked most frequently by students approaching their comps is whether they should “focus on breadth or on depth” in their preparation and in their exam answers themselves. My answer may sound glib and unhelpful, but it’s really intended to be neither of these: “Both.” What I mean is that they should be ready to frame their deep, specific answers in terms of a broad sense of genre, history, context, ideology (and so forth). But they should also make sure that when they find themselves articulating their broad understanding of the field, they offer a sense of how they could add details to flesh out and add nuance to their responses.

This dual focus can help students offer successful exam responses that set up useful follow-up questions, since examiners will often pick up on these suggestions in an oral exam, for instance. But I’m convinced that it can also do something more. Rarely in our careers do any of us have the chance (or the obligation) to read extensively and promiscuously across our fields, as we are asked to do for our exams. So preparation for the comprehensive exams represents a chance to charge your intellectual batteries in a special way, to gather some of the knowledge, the theories, and the hunches that can help propel years of thought. As students are studying for their exams, they should work from specific texts and problems, to patterns that link them into networks of relationship, to larger themes and ideas. They should see their own knowledge and understanding in relation to the shape of their field, and should be ready to articulate the significance of their ideas by discussing their connections to these wider intellectual contexts. After all, that’s just what they’ll need to do in their own scholarship, as they present their deep research and argue for the breadth of its intellectual significance.

Dr. Anne Mellor, UCLA

The only suggestion I have is to know everything that is in my anthology, Mellor and Matlak, BRITISH LITERATURE 1780-1830. That will familiarize you both with the canonical and the newly-added-to-the-canon texts, as well as their historical contexts.

Dr. David Sigler, University of Idaho

The exam year is the best experience you’ll ever have in this profession, and probably in your life. If the listmaking and reading and examining feel traumatic to you or even merely stressful, be comforted to know that this is the least traumatic phase of your whole long career to follow, and that the memory of its pleasures will compensate you during the decades of anxiety to come. Just by doing all that reading all day every day for about ten months, and reading super-carefully so as to file away all of the details, you really do become an expert in the field and begin making connections, text to text, that spark a million ideas. Everything begins to relate to everything else, like you’re Coleridge or something. I read for months with a kitten, Eloise, often aloud—and when I see Eloise today, ten years later, we both know that we read a whole lot of stuff, very intensively, together. It’s solidarity and belonging one is building, then. Reading for the exams was, no doubt, the best intellectual experience I’ve ever had.

Making the lists is like making a mixtape, and thus when they’re poorly constructed one’s deficiencies are exposed. Mixtapes were a technology of the late twentieth century. I worry sometimes that scholars of the most recent generation are at a considerable disadvantage in the list-making, having never made anything but playlists. You want to show that you appreciate some delightful neglected corners of your field and also aren’t afraid of the greatest hits. Everything should be selected to demonstrate one’s immaculate and capacious taste. I had all kinds of Joanna Southcott on there, and Mary Prince, and The Writings of the Luddites, and the Marquis de Sade, and some early Felicia Hemans from before she sold out (The Domestic Affections). I went with The Last Man instead of Frankenstein like it was no big deal. I know that none of those are obscure at all, but it felt that way to me at the time because my frame of reference was expanding so quickly. One covers a lot of ground and gets smarter. The experience was exhilarating for me, and it always is. My point is that mine was a really great Romanticism list, and I’m not sure anyone else really appreciated it properly. My advice, if you’re doing it now, would be to use an earlier, shorter version of The Prelude, as early and short as possible, because that’s a lot of time-spots to remember for ten months. Don’t put Night Thoughts or Political Justice on there, either—seriously just read them after your exams, or during your exam year on your own time if you must. You don’t want to be pressed on those hundreds of details. Finally, don’t argue with the DGS when s/he insists that you include Manfred on your list—it’s simply so delightful that you should definitely include it, even if you’ve already got Don Juan and Beppo on there—it’s not a burden to include it, I promise, and the arguing just makes you seem timid and unimaginative. I know you know that already.

 

Interview: Dr. Judith Page and Dr. Elise Smith

Dr. Judith Page and Dr. Elise Smith’s article, “Writing a Book Together,” featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, documents their experience working on Women, Literature, and the Domesticated Landscape: England’s Disciples of Flora, 1780-1870 across the disciplines and across several states. Page and Smith explain that from the beginning, they had two objectives: To bring together the disciplines of art history and English, and to find a topic that would yoke their “mutual love of gardening.” These two goals resulted in their brilliant argument, that “gardens provided women with a new language and authority to negotiate between domestic space and the larger world,” while it simultaneously “offered expanded possibilities that re-centered domesticity outward” (2).

Page and Smith’s friendship is partially rooted in gardening. In fact, one of Page’s first memories of their friendship is planting her first vegetable garden with Smith and her children. “Our children were also friends,” Page says. “They grew up together and thought of her as a second mother, so it made sense for us to want to do a book together.” In this way, Page and Smith’s book is more than a well-researched, fascinating study of women and gardens; it is a carefully constructed document between friends.

INTERVIEWER

How did you initially meet?

PAGE

We met each other as faculty members at a small liberal arts college, Millsaps College, where Elise still teaches. I taught for a long time until I moved to the University of Florida. I loved the kind of collaborations that can occur at a liberal arts college because you really are very connected to people in other departments […] We became good friends and realized that we shared a lot of interests. At first, we actually team taught together. […] We taught a couple classes on images of women in art and literature. We went from very early images through the twentieth century and mostly focused on European art.

SMITH

It was a big change for the two of us because although we already had a lot of teaching experience, at that point, it was always just us in our own classes, me, as an art historian, and her, as a literary historian. […] Thinking about women was the baseline for what brought us together from our various fields. Those courses were such fun to teach. I think it was marvelous for the students to have a way to see alternative perspectives, not just in what they read, but in seeing us with our different viewpoints there in the classroom. That really helped later when we came up with this idea of writing a book together. It was an important foundation for us in terms of thinking collaboratively.

INTERVIEWER

How was this project similar to or different from your other collaborative processes?

PAGE

I would say that the project is different from the collaborative project of teaching together because when you teach a course together, you have to sit down and shape the course and perhaps make changes as you go along. When you’re writing a book together, you really have to read the work, collaborate, change it, revise for each other, and we found that process worked really well. People joked with us and said, “You’re such close friends. Are you still friends after writing a book together?”

INTERVIEWER

How did you come up with your idea?

PAGE

I think it moved from that very early amorphous images of women to something that was much more specifically grounded in the garden and what we might be able to do with that […] I don’t remember what actually sparked the initial idea except our love for the garden and our interest in writing a feminist piece on the garden and our interest in women artists and writers, so it all just came together. […] This was after I had left Millsaps. I’ve been at the University of Florida for 13 years. We both had finished book projects. I had finished my book on Romanticism and Judaism and she had finished a book on the Victorian painter, Evelyn De Morgan, which was her first piece of work in the 19th century.

SMITH

One of the advantages of us not living in the same town anymore is that we’ve got a lot of emails that relate to the project. One dates back to August, 2003. I had written Judy an email at 1:16 in the morning. I started by saying that I had been trying to get to sleep and just wasn’t able to because my mind was full of thoughts about this book that we had begun to think about. Initially, we had been thinking very broadly and loosely about something relating to gardens and landscape issues in the 19th century.

In this middle of the night email that I sent to Judy, I was sort of moaning about this article that I was working on about Gainsborough […] and I said what was really getting me a lot more excited was the thought of working with her on 19th century women gardeners or rather women and gardens, since some of the women might not necessarily be gardeners themselves […] She responded that same night at 2:51 AM, which is kind of bizarre. And she said, “This is so strange because I’m sleepless in Gainesville and decided to get up with hot milk, dry cereal, and a computer check. I love the idea of focusing on women and gardens although we might find that pushing back in the 19th century could be interesting too.”

The time framing of the book—that may have been one of the hardest things for us to figure out, because, of course, there was only a certain amount that we could do. But, any time we got ourselves a tentative beginning and ending date, one of us would kind of stretch an elbow out and say “Oh, but you know, if we just go ten years further or ten years earlier, I could include such and such.” It really was not until late in the writing process that we finally settled on the framing device that we had.  I think it was, in part, some of the frustration that both of us felt at having to leave out some of the later 19th century stuff that got us going on our second project that we’re working on now.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us more about working between the disciplines? Within “Writing a Book Together,” you touch upon the clash of verb tenses and working together to achieve a seamless writing voice–a “we” rather than an “I”.  What were some of your other struggles or victories? How did you approach them?

PAGE

We found it a very congenial process and almost always took each other’s criticism and felt that it was right. We’re coming from different disciplines. Elise is a trained art historian. I’m trained, of course, in English. […] There really were some funny moments in sharing our work where we would see different conventions that would guide us. For instance, in my previous books that were not collaborations with Elise, I had illustrations, and some of the illustrations were what she might consider to be decorative. In other words, I did not engage the illustration in the text. Elise’s ground rule was if you have an illustration in the book, you have to engage with it in the text. Of all the 75+, or however many it turned out, nothing was just gratuitous. We talked about each one of them. There was a purpose for having them. That is something that I really had not thought about before. When I wrote my book about Wordsworth and women, I had illustrative illustrations […] and I didn’t necessarily engage them. […] Some of the pictures of the home places I did talk about, but I didn’t have such a strict guideline that I was working with. I liked it. It makes a lot of sense and it’s a good way to justify the illustrations to your publisher.

SMITH

I was also particularly concerned about being sure that we incorporated images in all of the chapters, not just in the chapters that I was working on, and that we incorporated them in what I thought was a substantive rather than a relatively cursory or merely illustrative way. I wanted significant analysis as much as possible to be done with all of the images, rather than just having them there as an illustration on the page.

PAGE

There was that issue, and another one, which I also think is a disciplinary difference that we had. I’ll give you an example: I am the primary author of the chapter on Dorothy Wordsworth. That chapter had even more in it when I first shared it with Elise that was very speculative about Dorothy Wordsworth and her relationship to her brother. Elise wanted evidence. […] On what grounds are you making this statement? What can you point to? What evidence is there? I took it out when it was purely speculative and I didn’t really have the evidence. I worked according to that and I think it was good for me. It certainly made our writing more compatible because she is devoted to really careful scholarship and all of her evidence and references are very precise. It was a good discipline for me to have that because I think that we, as literature scholars, perhaps tend to have more flights of fancy and things that we can’t absolutely justify [with hard evidence], but that we still think we’re right.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us more about your collaborative process?

PAGE

We were collaborating from the very beginning. As soon as we would write a chapter, we would share the chapter. We agreed from the outset that each of us would write four chapters. The book has eight chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. One of us drafted the introduction—I did—and one of us drafted the conclusion. Then, we each revised them, so they were all truly collaborative.

I also think that our voice is pretty close. […] Maybe someone who analyzed the chapters with some kind of technological program could tell there are certain ticks or ways of writing that are distinctive, but I think we’re actually quite close in our writing styles and I think that it made for a greater harmony in terms of the voice.

SMITH

We assigned ourselves key chapters to draft up and then we would send that draft to the other person. I’d send my draft to Judy and would get all kinds of responses from her and vice versa. Often, something that I might have been working on, for example, related to images, I realized didn’t really fit in my chapter anymore but could easily fit into one of Judy’s chapters as additional visual material […] or a literary passage could really fit well into one of my chapters, so that worked well in the later stages of drafting.

PAGE

We were also both committed to the “we”. We were committed to writing the book together, so it was something that we accepted. I know at one point, Elise said, “I feel really funny using the word “we” in the chapter on Dorothy Wordsworth. It’s so clearly your chapter. You’re the Wordsworth scholar.” There were moments like that where we both chuckled a little, but even the chapters […] where one obviously wrote more of that chapter than the other, at the end of our process, we ended up taking some things out of one chapter and putting it in another with no regard for who wrote the chapter originally. I would say our process, if I had to have a metaphor for what it was like, was like making a quilt. We got the parts, we thought of the chapters, and then we pieced things together in them, so it’s quilt making, if you think of quilt making as an organic process.

INTERVIEWER

In your book, you mention collected specimens, exotic flowers, and how “the microscope suggested a hidden life rich with possibility and meaning” (58-9). If we consider female botanists collectors, can we compare them to famous male botanist and collector, James Banks? Could they be following his example, set in 1771, when he returned from Captain James Cook’s first voyage to South America with samples in tow?

PAGE

Some of the women that we wrote about, for example, Agnes Ibbetson, who is a very accomplished botanist, did have an interesting system of categorizing and collecting in that sense, but we didn’t find this grand design of women as collectors in the sense of Banks or some of those great collectors and adventurers. […] It’s almost a kind of gendered distinction. Male adventurers have a strong desire to conquer and collect and to bring it all back as a part of the empire and put it on display in Kew and other gardens in Britain.

We found less of that in women writers and artists. We found more of an interest in teaching that a lot of this knowledge goes into an educational function […] That educational interest that is very strong, so that you find women who have great knowledge of different parts of the botanical world. That knowledge takes the form of dialogues between mothers and children and various kinds of scenes of instruction in books, so that the botanical knowledge is often put toward that kind of advancement of intellect.

That said, I just read Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things, which was published a couple of months ago. The main character is a woman botanist who has an amazing collection of moss and becomes an incredible expert. I was fascinated by the portrayal of this character not just because she was a collector and wanted to get to the heart of it, but because of what she saw when she studied the moss really closely under the microscope. Gilbert’s character demonstrated this notion that we see in Chapter Two, this discovery of this interior world, an amazing world that was represented when you could actually see into the life of this species, this plant. I think there was this sense of wonder in the world. A lot of women botanists write about wonder, often putting it in a religious perspective too.

INTERVIEWER

Interesting! You discuss the garden as a liminal space of education and exploration, especially for girls before they become women. Did the garden have the same erotic connotations as other well known liminal spaces of education and exploration, such as boarding schools?

PAGE

We do indeed focus on the garden as a place of exploration and education, a place where women and girls can extend their sense of themselves. […] The garden for both men and women always has this erotic charge. It makes me think about the Garden of Eden and all of those kinds of metaphors that go with that. The book is not comprehensive and we didn’t talk a lot about that, but if I had added another chapter, […] I would’ve loved to talk about writers in that context—one of them is Austen. I did a paper for the Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice that just came out last year on the landscapes and estates and gardens. One of the things I talk about there is not the garden narrowly defined as a garden per se, but certainly the outdoor space and the outdoor world in Austen’s novels is a place of freedom. It’s a place where many of the really important scenes and activities take place and discussions between characters that are highly charged and couldn’t take place in the drawing room. They take place out of doors.

Think about the moment in Emma, at the end of the book, where Emma is described as hurrying into the shrubbery. She’s overcome in that moment. She’s recognized that, “I’ve loved Mr. Knightley all along—Harriet can’t have him because I love him!” And she’s pacing the garden, the shrubbery. In that moment, Mr. Knightley appears. That moment can only take place out of doors. It’s highly erotic, and Austen handles it so beautifully.

SMITH

I think that you can particularly see erotic fears perhaps most prominently and ironically in children’s literature–this fear of the children escaping past the wall and the kind of punishment, the literal and metaphorical fall, that these children might have if they climb up on top of the wall. And, of course, the idea of the fall takes on so much resonance symbolically. That could be read as sexual metaphor. I have not made that explicit in the chapter that I wrote, but I think it’s a really neat way of thinking further about that work.

PAGE

We describe this in the beginning of the book that we use the term garden very fully and loosely and we take in botanical writings, landscape, and a whole range of ways that people can engage with the natural environment in the book.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us more about your next project?

PAGE

We decided that we loved writing this book together so much that we’re going to write one more book together. […] If critical books could have a sequel, I suppose it’s a sequel. […] What we found looking at the later 19th century is that if in this earlier period, we talked about the way that so many women writers and artists negotiate their relationship between the public and private, in the newer project, one of the things we talk about is an increasing professionalization of the way that women writers and artists talk about the garden, the garden as a potential profession. If women were amateur gardeners in the 19th century, and many of them did move into professional garden writing […] at the end of the 19th century, you have women thinking of themselves as professional writers, professional gardeners, and that there’s a kind of conjunction between women and the garden and women who worked in the city, New Women, if you will. The whole notion of the New Woman fits into this.

Some of the figures, for instance, that I’m interested in, begin to write important gardening histories. They see themselves as historians of what has taken place in the garden not only over the last century, but going back for many centuries. […] There are examples of women who have university educations and see themselves as historians of the garden. We’re going to look at some of those writers.

SMITH

Mostly, I’m working on the time between the very tail end of the 19th century through World War I. That’s where most of my stuff is leading right now. […] I’ve drafted a chapter on garden memoirs written by women who were gardeners themselves and were really thinking about how to create a space for themselves outside of the city. The city/country dichotomy is very important because many of these women travelled back and forth between their country retreat and the city. In fact, I’ll be giving a talk at the 19th Century Studies Association in Chicago in March, which is a conference centered on the city in the 19th century. I’ll be talking about these women in the country and the way in which they contrasted what they valued about their lives in the country, in their gardens, as opposed to what they saw as really problematic about the city, the noise, the dirt, and also the city as standing for some of the violence that they associated with the war torn years.

One of these garden memoirists wrote in defining this contrast between the city and the country, “Asphalt or turf? Pose or repose?” She was referring to the idea of the pose, the sort of artifice of the poseur life in London, as opposed to being able to let that all go when one is rooted in the countryside. That was a lot of fun for me to write. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the women before, but very few other people now have heard of them either. As an art historian, I’m finding myself pulled into text based writing and text based image making, because there is very little imagery involved as I dig into these memoirs and write about them. My other chapter, so far, is about an artist from the Bloomsbury group who knew Virginia Woolf. Her name is Dora Carrington. She was working in the 1910s and ‘20s before she committed suicide. She did a lot of paintings of the land around the three homes that she lived in. One was her childhood home and two were houses that she lived in with the Bloomsbury writer Lytton Strachey. I argue that these landscapes that she painted are really a way of attempting to make a psychological home base for herself because of the way she felt increasingly removed from friends and lovers, and even the actual homes themselves, which she didn’t own. […] She was afraid of being a hanger-on with Lytton Strachey. […] My next chapter will be on children’s stories and illustrations centered around Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden, but I will also look into other children’s books written by women that deal with children in the garden in some way, which will be an extension from the chapter that I wrote about children’s literature in the last book. I’m not sure what my fourth chapter will be. That is sort of giving you an indication of how Judy and I are feeling our way into what we might want to write about.

 PAGE

I’m very interested in figures like Beatrix Potter and Vita Sackville-West, women who saw themselves in terms of a kind of mission that they had to revitalize the English landscape. Beatrix Potter is an example of someone who is best known as a children’s author. She wrote the Peter Rabbit books that we all grew up on. However, after she wrote the Peter Rabbit books and settled in the Lake District, she became a conservationist and someone who dedicated her life to the restoration of the countryside. […] Sackville-West wrote books where the garden features very importantly, but she also developed and designed with her husband and then worked in one of the most important gardens of the 20th century, Sissinghurst, which is still regarded as one of the great gardens in England. I’ll be looking at what the relationship between her life as an actual gardener and what she wrote about her gardening life. In this project, we’re also going to be very interested in looking at the effect of the First World War, but we’re going to take it through the Second World War and the effect of the war on the sense of the landscape, the place of the garden in the landscape, and women’s relationship to it in particular. One of the things that developed during the First World War is the Women’s Land Army, and women increasingly took the place of men as workers on the land as men were drafted into the army. Many of those women became committed to those skills and to that life, even after the war. Looking at those kinds of changes in how women contributed to the land and the landscape during the war years is something that we’re going to be very interested in.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any advice for scholars interested in collaborative work?

PAGE

I would say that productive collaborations arise from shared interests and passions, and when each contributor brings a different knowledge or disciplinary perspective to the mix. Once you get going on the collaboration, think of it like other relationships that always require give and take—and compromise.

SMITH

I think my main advice would be that you have to give up turf possession. That’s a good metaphor to use when we’re talking about gardening. You have to give up the sense of, “Oh, I’m an art historian, and thus what I write has to be situated in art history.” I learned long ago by coming to Millsaps and being the only art historian here for many years, to give up turf ownership of any particular period in art history because I teach from ancient all the way up to contemporary. […] Now, by working with Judy collaboratively, I’ve had to broaden out beyond being just an art historian to being a thinker about the world, open to all kinds of questions, and then following those questions to whatever kind of evidence might come to bear on those questions. I think about texts as well as images. That advice is important advice for any scholar in whatever field, whatever they’re doing – go where the questions lead you.

 

 

 

 

Interview: Dr. Michael Chwe

Emma Woodhouse reflects upon notions of truth and strategy, stating, “Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.” Famous for being the only one of Jane Austen’s heroines who “no one but [herself] will much like,” Emma reveals a dangerous fact that we all know instinctively: the complete truth rarely exists without some sort of agenda.

But, sometimes, an interpretation of Austen’s agenda is inspired by complete coincidence. Dr. Michael Chwe explains that finding the children’s book Flossie and the Fox at a garage sale was the beginning of his project, titled Jane Austen, Game Theorist.  Much has been said about our Austen in the past several years—we’ve asked questions about her sexuality, questions regarding her censored letters, and questions about her publication history, but we’ve never considered her a game theorist until now.

Chwe’s book Jane Austen, Game Theorist supports Emma’s assertion, and argues that “Jane Austen systematically explored the core ideas of game theory in her six novels, roughly two hundred years ago” (1). Chwe looks at how Austen’s characters negotiate the main principles of game theory: choice (a character does something because they want to do that action), strategic thinking (a character does something based upon how they think others will perceive and respond to it), and preferences (a character does something because they prefer it over another option). The result is an interesting, interdisciplinary analysis of Jane Austen and her work.

INTERVIEWER

You mention in the preface of your book that this project started when you found Flossie and the Fox at a garage sale for your children. You used this experience and paired it with all the years you spent teaching and reading folktales and Austen to create Jane Austen, Game Theorist. Can you tell us more about how you came up with your idea and how it changed over time?

CHWE

The original title of the book was called Folk Game Theory, which revolved around the idea of people who use game theory who are not traditional game theorists. The examples were folk tales, and I actually had a whole chapter on Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, the musical. But, most of it was Austen.  Seventy, eighty percent was Austen. So, one of the [manuscript] reviewers said, “You should just say that this is about Austen.” It was a good choice. The original idea was to say that this book is many instances of people who are developing game theory, not necessarily in a theoretical way, but through narratives […] In my teaching, I use examples from movies and other things to show students, so I’m always on the lookout for more examples […] I got interested in Austen after I saw the movie Clueless. Then, I started watching Austen movies. And then, I started reading her books. That’s how the whole Austen thing came about.

INTERVIEWER

That’s incredible. So, Clueless was your gateway into Austen.

CHWE

It was indeed. Yeah, I never read Austen in college or in high school […] In college, I never took a literature class, so I didn’t read Austen until I was like forty. I’m glad because if I had read Austen in my twenties, I wouldn’t have understood a lot of it, to be honest.

 INTERVIEWER

Was Emma the first of Austen’s novels that you read?

 CHWE

I originally thought the book [Jane Austen, Game Theorist] would talk about Emma as just one case because it is so clear that Emma is about manipulation and meddling […] I thought I’d focus this book on Emma, but then I wanted to read the other books and see what I could say about them […] I think that if Austen had written twenty or thirty books, I wouldn’t have been able to read all of her books, but because she only had six, I thought I’d just go ahead and do it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a favorite Austen novel?

CHWE

No, I really like them all.  Pride and Prejudice is a little shallow to me in the sense that most of her characters are fully formed at the start. To me, Mansfield Park is better because it’s about the development of a human being. People change more. Persuasion, I also like a lot. So, those are my favorites, but, of course, I like them all.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of your book, what was the publication process like?

CHWE

I was lucky in that I had already published a book with Princeton […] back in 2001.  So when the time came around to think about writing a book again, I sent it to Princeton. I also sent it to Oxford University Press. Neither place had problems with the idea being a little bit non-standard, but it was hard to find reviewers on the literature side […] Everyone talks about how important it is to do interdisciplinary work, but it is harder in a sense because people have a harder time judging it.

 INTERVIEWER

What do you make of EverJane, the online role-playing game based upon Jane Austen novels? Have you played it? What might it say in terms of your argument?

CHWE

I haven’t played it, but I think that it’s a great idea and that it has potential. I saw the Kickstarter page. I think, potentially, it is a great way for people to get into Austen and I think Austen’s world view is very much about the decisions you make to get ahead and how important a single decision can be. I think that Austen’s literary worlds are worlds where […] you think about yourself in terms of decisions. Other people’s worlds might think in terms of visuals or characters or history, but when you think about Austen’s worlds, it’s about […] what would you do? What would you think about? What connections would you make?

INTERVIEWER

What I’m wondering right now is do you see EverJane as a physical representation of your argument? Or, I guess, a virtual representation?

CHWE

I haven’t worked with the game, but maybe. I’m not sure how they structured the game […] I think because Austen emphasizes decision making so much, maybe her novels are most suited for this kind of thing…For example, if I made a game out of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, I’m not sure what that game would look like.  So, some novels don’t necessarily lend themselves, but I think Austen’s do.

INTERVIEWER

I understand your argument as an interpretation of Austen, herself, as a game theorist, as well as the notion that she portrays her female characters as game theorists—that is, Austen extends her own strategic thinking to her characters, which is demonstrated through their culminated marriages. How might readers navigate your argument if we don’t view Austen’s novels as strictly heteronormative? How might Austen’s game theory change?

CHWE

I don’t see Austen’s novels as all that heteronormative. There’s a whole thing with Henry Tilney […] [and] gender roles. There’s the discussion with Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney, where he says that women have so much talent that they don’t need to use more than half…I think its representative of the questions: Are women better at strategic thinking than men? What are the social determinants of that?

When Henry Tilney buys the muslin for his sister, that’s like him being in drag or being gay or bisexual…But back to marriage—I’d say that you can think of [game theory] more in terms of social advancement. I think that Austen is trying to be general and is saying: this is how you can understand human behavior […] Marriage is just one of those possible objectives, so [game theory] doesn’t hinge on the idea that marriage is the final goal. For example, in Northanger Abbey, if you think of Henry Tilney as not as stereotypically masculine as other characters, maybe he could have been in touch with his feminine side. He’s one of the better strategic actors in the novels. He doesn’t make huge mistakes like Mr. Darcy does. I think Henry Tilney, more than any other male character, explicitly says things about strategic thinking. He talks to Catherine Morland and says,  “When you think about other people’s motivations, you think about them in terms of what you yourself would do, as opposed to what a person of their age or their status would do.” That’s a very clear explication of the problem of strategic thinking. We always tend to think of people in terms of ourselves. We’re not necessarily good at putting ourselves in the mindset of others. Henry Tilney says that. He has a definite feminine side. He’s not as stereotypically masculine as some of the other male heroes […] I don’t think [Austen] takes heterosexuality as necessarily as a given.

INTERVIEWER

So, the game theory wouldn’t necessarily change at all, even if marriage wasn’t the end goal.

CHWE

No, not at all.   Austen thinks getting married is important to their world, but she doesn’t necessarily see [marriage] as a sacred life goal. Her interest is more about the process. She’s not interested in what happens to people once they’re married […] She’s interested in how people get to that goal.

INTERVIEWER

You argue that Austen, herself, was a game theorist. How might considering Austen’s own strategic thinking complicate traditional ways of viewing her work as domestic narratives?

CHWE

I’ve never myself been concerned with the critique that just because she talks about five or six people […] that somehow her work is not significant. All game theorists and a lot of social scientists realize that you can explore interactions amongst a handful of people. Those can have applications to a very large group of events. When I teach game theory, the most interesting parables are those between two people and then you generalize them. A parable or story about people deciding whether to cooperate or fight each other over painting a fence […] can be a parable for international relations or war. The very fact that Austen doesn’t talk about historical things or a huge world event has nothing to do with whether her ideas are applicable or generalizable. Any social scientist would say that.  There’s no reason to think that just because it’s a domestic narrative that the insights there may not apply to lots of other things. I think that we shouldn’t think necessarily of a narrative or novel in terms of its subject matter but in terms of its vision for how people interact with each other. Those insights can apply to many different cases.

It’s like slave folktales. Slave folk tales are tales about animals, but they’re not about animal behavior. They’re used to talk about uprisings or strategic techniques that slaves can use against their masters […] They tell narratives about rabbits and foxes—it’s obvious that these slave folk tales are about, in terms of their subject matter, animals. But what’s relevant about these specific strategies is that they express techniques that these animals use against each other.

INTERVIEWER

Interesting! How does game theory apply to scholars in Romanticism? How might game theory be used to enhance literary criticism, appreciation, or cultural study?

CHWE

I think that the obvious thing is to use game theory to illustrate aspects of novels. Game theory might come from a situation like a prisoner’s dilemma—these are situations where people can gain if they all cooperate, but no individual person wants to cooperate–so [scholars in romanticism] might say, “In this novel, I’ve found an example of a prisoner’s dilemma and this is how they solved it.” You could do that. With Austen, I did something a little bit different, which is to say that we’re not using game theory to understand her work, but rather, we’re trying to understand her as a game theorist herself. This won’t be the case for every single author. Some authors may be more interested in emotions or social context or irrationality or self-perception or delusion […] If you’re aware of how people in the social sciences try to make explanations for things, you can maybe use them to understand how certain authors seem to be expressing theories of human behavior. It might be another way of analyzing their work.

For example, since I was working with game theory, I was really monomaniacally thinking in terms of choices and in terms of purposeful action […] so I was really sensitive to those issues. […] People who are interested in psychology or how we constitute the self can also take that to literature. Some people have taken that to Austen.

It can’t hurt to be aware of certain [social science] ideas and where they come from […] If you’re sensitive to these things, then you might find another avenue for reading other people’s work and understanding their objectives […] In Austen’s time, there wasn’t anything called social science or a systematic discipline for understanding human behavior. If you were interested in human behavior and wanted to analyze it, probably, you ended up going to the novel. That’s what you did back then. If we think of understanding human behavior, we shouldn’t think of this as a specialized thing—it’s something that we all do. It’s not surprising that if you’re a novelist or a writer and thus you have to think about human behavior, part of you develops some sort of theory about it.

Memoirs and Confessions of a Second-Year Ph.D. Student

Here are the facts as I know them: 1. There are never enough hours in a day; 2. I have students who still think I don’t know that changing their font from Times to Courier adds at least a page to their essays; 3. The long 19th century is such a joy to study.

I didn’t always know these facts. When I was an undergraduate English major, using Courier in every paper I wrote about books that I only partially read, I was aimless. I took classes in order to get my degree, I earned A’s, and I didn’t minor in anything. You could say that I wasn’t the most pragmatic person on the planet. At the time, I wasn’t fully focused on school or my future; my older brother had left for Israel instead of attending law school as he had originally planned, and I struggled, trying to understand his decision. Later, as I pondered what I might do after my B.A., I was torn between graduate school and law school. A Romanticism seminar in the fall of my senior year tipped the scales.

One of the first books that we read was Frankenstein, the first assigned book of my undergraduate career that I read cover to cover. What sold me on Mary Shelley’s work wasn’t the fact that she wrote in response to a ghost story competition—instead, it was an anecdote shared by my professor. He told us how he had inscribed the creature’s words: “I will be with you on your wedding night” in a card at his friend’s wedding. How clever, I thought. I, too, wanted to be that witty, literary friend at weddings, but I realized that I should not and could not quote a book that I had not read. It was the first time that I fell in love with a canonical work.

We read a lot of other interesting works in class, and– in case you’re wondering–I did actually read them in their entirety. However, it was the last assigned work of the semester that changed my life. But Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice didn’t grab my attention right away. So, to make it more animated, I began reading it aloud to my cats with different voices. Soon, I was invested in the characters. And then I brought my interpretation of the novel to class: I said there was an erotic attachment between Darcy and Bingley. My classmates reacted with violent disagreement. They took it personally—that is, they were uncomfortable with any reading of a famously heteronormative text that involved queer desire. In all honesty, their disagreement delighted me. It motivated me. It led me to attend office hours and read literary theory for the first time. I read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Freud, Lauren Berlant, and Michael Warner. I wrote multiple drafts of my end-of-semester paper. And I realized that—just as my brother had done something unconventional that he loved—I loved writing about literature that I had actually read and thought about in unconventional ways; I needed to read for intellectual engagement, not just for pleasure or for finishing an assignment.

I didn’t know it then, but I had stumbled upon the subject I am most passionate about, the deconstruction of heterosexist interpretations of texts. You could say that Pride and Prejudice was my patient zero. As a MA student, I continued working with Austen; the next text that I plunged into was Persuasion, and then it was Emma. In my M.A. thesis, I argued that the heteronormative relationships depicted in Austen’s three novels are built and premised upon queer desire.

As a Ph.D. student who will enter into her final semester of coursework in January, I am actively compiling my exam lists and just as actively kicking myself for not actually reading for my first three years of college. The list of works that I’ve read, while growing, is woefully underdeveloped, and I see my exam lists as an opportunity to atone for my undergraduate sins.  Even though I’ve been exposed to theory and a variety of tropes and texts, I remain interested in looking at texts—especially famous heteronormative love stories—and analyzing the ways in which desire functions. My dissertation will be a transatlantic study of desire and will further the ideas that I’ve been so passionate about since that seminar on Romanticism in my senior year of college.

PS. In case you’re curious–I have read Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and therefore feel okay about using parts of Hogg’s title.