At CUNY, a New York state public university where I teach an introductory course in literature and writing, undergraduates like thinking about power. Their material disadvantages make social critique come naturally. Knowing this and wanting to get them hooked, I present Romantic literature as an early expression of dissatisfaction with social processes and conventions, a perspective to be developed later by Marx. This semester, I threw Jane Austen into the mix, and oriented reading and discussions of Persuasion around questions of social class. We spent a lot of time discussing the historical attributes of Austen’s class system that seem strange to modern sensibilities: the phenomenon of rank, the marriage between cash and land, the ambiguous category of the “gentleman” and the expanding mercantile economy.
I was very excited to hear about Margaret Doody’s new book, Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places (University of Chicago Press, April 2015). In this text, Doody traces the etymological contexts for the nomenclature of each of Austen’s characters, while exposing curious patterns of naming throughout her corpus. Who knew that Austen’s Marys were uniformly negative, or that, with the name “Fitzwilliam,” Mr Darcy naturally followed as the inheritor of William Collins’s suit for Elizabeth’s hand?
When I peeked into the book itself, I was impressed with the etymological research, and I was inspired to think about how the names could be explained further with historical correlatives. The Romantic-era histories behind the names give the characters even more flair, while showing Austen’s awareness of some of the most fraught and intriguing elements of English public life — including espionage. Continue reading Austen’s Names and Romantic Espionage
The contemporary gentlemen’s club may be encapsulated in the image of scantily clad women performing impressive acrobatic routines in front of a beery audience rather less capable of similar athleticism in a windowless building that clings to the seedier edges of town. It seems a fine irony that these strip joints, with their sticky, slick furniture, skewed sexual voyeurism and spilt beer take their moniker from establishments adjoining London’s centre of power, which excluded women, and had large windows from which the elite could watch the world outside without being seen.
Our modern gentleman’s club’s idea of the gentleman is as flat as its beer and as restricted as a bouncer’s facial expressions. There is a much more interesting story to be told, one that tracks the evolution of masculinity and gentility throughout the nineteenth century while touching on wider patterns of socialization. Continue reading Guest Post: Another Kind of “Gentlemen’s Club”: A Brief Illustrated History of an Institution
I was excited to learn, earlier today, that a Canadian marine expedition has located one of Sir John Franklin’s ships on the Arctic seabed, after a 160-year search for material evidence of the ill-fated Victorian voyage to find, chart, and claim the Northwest Passage. One archaeologist, William Battersby, has described the recent find as “the biggest archaeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb almost 100 years ago.” The ship, now resting on the sea floor, seems to have been preserved in fairly good condition, and the searchers hope to find artifacts from the voyage — perhaps even photographs — on board.