This is the semester I am struggling to put together my reading list for the comprehensive exams. I have to admit it’s a rather exhausting process, much more exhausting than I initially planned for. I entered into the PhD thinking I had a firm grasp on what I wanted to do – pursue eco-criticism and animal studies in Romanticism. I’ve found out that’s a rather hard thing to do. Going into a relatively interdisciplinary field requires a lot of thinking about different kinds of texts, themes, and theories. Anyone who has read texts dealing with race or gender will tell you that animal metaphors work to separate different kinds of people. So, are these metaphors in some way worth talking about, given their obviousness in the texts? In what ways do they change as the Industrial Revolution takes hold and separates, in a somewhat larger way, mankind from nature? The most important question (for me at this point, anyway) is how can I begin to get a hold on this issue in time to create a cogent and defined 120-odd booklist?
As I began working on it, I knew that environmental metaphors animated critical gender discussions in the Romantic era. In Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft argues that women are poisoned by their own culture, “for, like the flower which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty.” Yet, “the perfection of our nature and capability of happiness” is partially based upon “man’s pre-eminence over the brute creation.” Those are obvious metaphors, but the way in which they position a woman in relation to the environment intrigues me. I thought about several canonical works from the period, and then I consulted several anthologies as well as these lengthy lists:
There’s a lot of texts on there, some that I was only peripherally familiar with and some that I had never encountered before. I looked for texts written by women or texts that dealt with the question of women that also involved the environment or animals. As you can imagine, that led to a rather long list filled with novels, poetry, plays, travel essays, literary essays, and theory tracts.
Then, I had a sort of revelation that I was not expecting and it came from an odd place. I began looking at pretty pictures of dresses.
Yes, you read that right. Pretty dresses. When it is winter and I feel bogged down by reading, and grading, and writing, I like to look at art, clothes, and houses from the period I study. It’s mentally invigorating, but that might just be an excuse I tell myself to look at beautiful dresses.
I noticed through my cursory searching a rather huge difference between women’s fashion pre- and post-Romantic Era fashion, especially in terms of how much of the body is shown and what is on the linen. Dresses changed from being highly structured and covered in flowers to being more flowing with less natural decorations. I am in no way claiming to be an expert on women’s fashion. How correct or incorrect these observations are is less important than the effect it had on my list-making. I began to wonder how animals and the environment were utilized to produce certain kinds of bodies. That began to narrow down my list, and it also gave me a clearer picture of what else to put into the list.
My advice for this whole process is pretty simple:
1.) Look around a lot. Consult examples of lists, anthologies, your Amazon wish-list. You’ll need to balance the canonical, but also find the exciting, bizarre, and strange you believe you might want to read.
2.) Be available for inspiration in whatever form it happens to take. Go to a museum. Go outside. Talk to your pet. Eat a good meal. Give your mind a moment to relax and you’ll find the Ah-ha!