January 18, 2008

Fun with Miss Clack (with a nod to the 'value' of the humanities)

My Mystery and Detective Fiction class was great fun this morning--and educational, too! We focused on Miss Clack, one of Collins's narrators in The Moonstone, first as an example of first-person narration, reading some excerpts closely to see how her voice reveals her character, in the manner of a dramatic monologue (allusions to Browning are inevitable, and often helpful, as students are not always accustomed to paying the same kind of minute attention to fictional speakers as they are to poetic ones). As I collected students' insights and observations about the particular words, phrases, and intonations that give the game away for her, we found many connections between her individual quirks and flaws (so tremendously comic, as rendered by Collins) and themes of the novel--from the limitations of eye-witness testimony to the disruptive potential of sexual desire. Here are two of the excerpts we examined:

1. I find my insignificant existence suddenly remembered by Mr. Franklin Blake. My wealthy relative — would that I could add my spiritually-wealthy relative! — writes, without even an attempt at disguising that he wants something of me. The whim has seized him to stir up the deplorable scandal of the Moonstone: and I am to help him by writing the account of what I myself witnessed while visiting at Aunt Verinder’s house in London. Pecuniary remuneration is offered to me — with the want of feeling peculiar to the rich. I am to re-open wounds that Time has barely closed; I am to recall the most intensely painful remembrances — and this done, I am to feel myself compensated by a new laceration, in the shape of Mr. Blake’s cheque. My nature is weak. It cost me a hard struggle, before Christian humility conquered sinful pride, and self-denial accepted the cheque.

2. When I answered for a loving reception of him at the Mothers’ Small-Clothes, the grateful heart of our Christian Hero overflowed. He pressed my hands alternately to his lips. Overwhelmed by the exquisite triumph of having got him back among us, I let him do what he liked with my hands. I closed my eyes. I felt my head, in an ecstasy of spiritual self-forgetfulness, sinking on his shoulder. In a moment more I should certainly have swooned away in his arms, but for an interruption from the outer world, which brought me to myself again.

Who wouldn't want to "gloss" these passages? This session was a good reminder to me that if you are pretty well prepared, you don't need to script everything in order to generate both interest and substance for your students. The issue of relying on lecture notes has been discussed a couple of times recently at RYS (scanning the posts over there is a kind of guilty pleasure for me--the folks over there say some of the things I'm sure we all think at times but bite back because, well, we're polite). "Winging it" is risky, though (I certainly didn't come with just my book and a prayer): you have to have some idea of where you hope the discussion will go, and you also need the cooperation of your students. This group is great, especially for a class its size (about 70): plenty of bright, curious, smart people willing to raise their hand and add something. Mind you, Miss Clack makes our work easy by being so thoroughly despicable and yet so entertaining. Now, what exactly is our Christian Hero doing with her hands?

2 hours later: I had nearly as much fun with a good discussion of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in my 'woman question' seminar, where formal issues about point of view fed into analyses of the way Helen and Huntingdon's marriage exposes the critical gaps between the ideal and the reality. Without actual power, influence is no better than nagging; without accountability, power mutates rapidly into abuse. As well as dramatizing moral crises, the novel is formally organized to both teach and model moral development. Mornings like these invigorate me, intellectually but also emotionally. With all these heavy discussions going around about the "value" of the humanities and why we do what we do and dare to love it, it's a relief to be in a context where that value at least feels palpable, even if it is difficult to articulate it.

1 comment:

Gifted Typist said...

My other half lived for a time on Porchester Terrace in West London, two doors up from the house where Wilkie Collins wrote Woman in White...