The Virginia Woolf Story, and an Announcement

Today, I have an excuse to acknowledge one of my greatest obsessions: Virginia Woolf. If I could, I’d probably write up a post on her weekly, but that has the potential to become boring and repetitive to people who aren’t as enthusiastically single-minded as I tend to be.

Today is special because it’s her birthday. Virginia was born on this day in 1882, making her 134, assuming that my math is right (which is rarely a safe assumption). It’s wild to me to think that 100 years ago the Hogarth Press was still only an idea, and the majority of the novels that I love had yet to take shape. Virginia was living through WWI, and had only completed her first novel, The Voyage Out.

I thought about making this post something of a book review, the way I did for Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday, but at the moment I’m leaning more towards an explanation of how my VW obsession began and how it’s grown, because she’s sure to come up again in the future. I’ve been rereading A Room of One’s Own for the umpteenth time, just because I love it. I’ll probably review it later in the week.

The Virginia Woolf Story, as we’ll call it, is closely tied in with my determination to pursue English despite any obstacles. I discovered Virginia my junior year of high school. I had heard of her before, but when I attempted to read Mrs. Dalloway as a freshman I couldn’t push past the first twenty-some pages. I didn’t understand the point of a novel where nothing happens– I hadn’t yet fallen in love with the sheer beauty of words. When I was a junior, though, I hit a roadblock in my writing. I had a teacher who always said “To be a good writer, you must read good writers,” so I decided to find an author to emulate. A friend leant me the third volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries when I told him that I needed a writer who was simultaneously colloquial and formal, casual and flowery.

That was the turning point. I devoured the diary. She was perfect. What I encountered then, which I have since recognised as one of my favourite aspects of Virginia, was the mix of Victorian and modernist. She was born in 1882, and the Victorian era ended in 1901. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, and the academic elite to which he belonged, was decidedly Victorian. The new generation ushered in a new age in literature, though– Virginia and her peers heralded the beginning of modernism. Her writing combines the elegance and flowery language of the Victorians with the new horizons in thought and perspective of modernism. She introduced and perfected stream-of-consciousness writing, but she was undeniably a snob, comfortable in her world of books and papers and academia.

I loved the diary because it was writing– just writing. There was no plot, no characters beyond Virginia and Leonard, their hopeless maid Nellie, and the countless names that V drops in passing,. Virginia used her diary as a space for writing practice, and she conjures up scenes and sensations masterfully in the privacy of an unpublished space.

After the diary, I found Mrs. Dalloway again, and this time I fell headfirst into 1920s London and Clarissa’s poignant, painful inner life. My betta fish is named Septimus, after Septimus Warren Smith. At the end of my junior year, I begged my English teacher to let me write a Dalloway paper for the end of term, and she agreed that I could, in addition to the assigned work, so I did.

Volume 3 of the diary and Mrs. Dalloway sent me spiralling into a world of Virginia and Bloomsbury and interwar British literature. I fell irretrievably in love with her and her world. I’ve written two papers on her and last spring I gave a thirty minute presentation on her relationships with her nuclear family, her sister Nessa, and her husband, Leonard. I have nearly twenty books either by her or about her. I drive my mother crazy because she thinks I don’t read anything else (which was true, for a while).

This year, my work with Virginia has reached a peak. Last semester, I went to a professor’s office hours to ask about research opportunities in the English department. He  pointed out that the work he does involves reading some stuff, thinking some stuff about it, and then writing some stuff. It’s fairly solitary work. He pointed me to another professor in the department, though, who happened to be one of the key scholars in the Woolf Online project. Woolf Online is a digital archive of To the Lighthouse; I had heard of it, but never explored it further.

The next week, I met with Professor C, and after twenty minutes of pleasant chatter, I walked out of her office with a bemused but pleased expression and a research project. She hadn’t been looking for any additional labour for Woolf Online, which has been launched for a few years now and is more or less in stasis. I brought up the call for papers for the Virginia Woolf Conference, though, and she pulled it up directly. It happens to be on heritage this year, and it invites papers on Virginia’s effect on heritage; its effect on her; her experience of archives, museums, and libraries; literary heritage; family heritage.

What better prompt could there be for a paper on Woolf Online? We started brainstorming, I happened to say that the archive could be thought of like a family album, and that was it. I left with the direction to read an article on archives and pull up an abstract.

This all leads up to my announcement. I have officially submitted a paper proposal to the 2016 Virginia Woolf Conference. All proposals were due today; Professor C and I finalised ours over the weekend. I have my fingers crossed that I’m accepted, and then I might have the opportunity to go to England this summer and attend the conference.

I never would have imagined this when I fell in love with Virginia Woolf three years ago. I didn’t realise what I was preparing for when I devoured A Room of One’s Own and Orlando. I’m excited to see what might come of this, though, and eager to do homage to the amazing woman who inspires me every day.

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Poe and Pleasure

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This post comes a day late, since the man it intends to honour was born yesterday in 1809, but I will simply have to beg his forgiveness. I spent the day with my anthology of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s his complete works of poetry and short stories, so I had plenty to work with, and I ended up choosing four short stories more or less arbitrarily. “The Fall of the House of Usher” I remembered vaguely from high school, and one of the characters is named Madeline. I wandered through the table of contents and found “The Black Cat,” “Byron and Miss Chaworth,” and “The Power of Words.” By pure coincidence, these four shorts proved to be fairly representative of the body of Poe’s work. The first two had the traditionally gothic and grotesque settings for which he is famous, and the latter two were more philosophical in nature. “Byron” is, in some respects, a literary criticism– although it theorises about a person instead of a work.

Perhaps it’s because I’m reading Lolita right now (more on that in the near future), but the theme that jumped at me was Poe’s understanding of pleasure in perversity. He addresses it, if only briefly, in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Black Cat.”

The respective narrators of these two stories are drastically different, particularly in terms of their perspectives. In “House of Usher,” the narrator is more or less a witness to the disturbing goings-on, without ever participating directly. In “Black Cat,” the narrator is not only a participant, but the instigator. Intriguingly, the witness delivers his tale in a far more hysterical and superstitious fashion, while the instigator deliberately clarifies more than once that he offers only facts, implying a cause-and-effect chain of events without overtly voicing his suppositions.

In “The Black Cat,” the narrator tells a story of his fall from sensitivity and humanity into the habits of drunken violence. As a child he had loved animals, as a young newlywed he had his wife kept several pets, and as a drunk he hung his cat for the sheer sake of “committing a sin.” In explanation, the narrator speaks eloquently of a “spirit of perverseness” that compels man to perform vile actions simply “because he knows he should not.” When I initially read this passage, I thought of St. Augustine’s Confessions, when he relates a story of stealing fruit for no better reason than the pleasure of doing wrong.

The theme is less apparent in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” but there was one passage in the story that kept drawing me back to it:

I know not how it was–but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

I love this passage. I think Poe manages to capture an emotion that many would deny– that tendency we have to revel in righteous anger or justified sorrow. It’s the concupiscent allure of angst and indulgence in melodrama that most people grow out of, or at the very least learn to repress.

Poe’s theory of poetry was focused on Beauty, by which he meant “the excitement, or pleasurable elevation, of the soul.” When he says “poetic,” then, in the above quotation, he means beautiful. He speaks of the Beauty typically found in the “desolate or terrible,” a beauty that is notably absent in the House of Usher, and I think this pleasure we encounter in viewing something terrible but beautiful is the same perverse pleasure that the narrator generates with his misbehaviour in “The Black Cat.”

In writing of the allure of sin and the beauty of the desolate, Poe offers us a tangible theory for the pleasure we find in reading and rereading the most famous of his works. His stories have no happy endings, they rarely offer any catharsis, they shock us and scare us and yet we go back to them time and time again, as we have for 150 years and will for many centuries more. There’s a delicious indulgence in the shivers of madness we feel in classics like “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Raven.” We like dancing on that edge between sanity and insanity, we like to be startled and disturbed. There’s a world of darkness that many of us won’t dare to wander near, and through Poe, we can experience that dangerous exhilaration anyway.

Thank you, dear Edgar, for daring to tumble into an imagination’s hell so that the rest of us can taste it and shiver. Happy birthday.

The following are links to the works available online, along with the citation for the volume I used:

“The Fall of the House of Usher”

“The Black Cat”

“Byron and Miss Chaworth”

“The Power of Words”

Poe, Edgar Allan. Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and Poems. New York: Fall River, 2012. Print.

Book Review: Hamlet

I feel there’s a certain unavoidable amount of absurdity and presumption in sitting down to write a review, informed only by my own reading and interpretation, of a work as significant as Hamlet. Anything I could say has most likely been said before, in superior language and with clearer purpose. In an effort to tackle an aspect of this play that I might speak well on, I want to focus on the experience of reading Hamlet as a required text for a high school class in comparison with this experience of reading it on my own, entirely outside of an academic setting.

Hamlet is not actually my favourite Shakespeare play, although at present it is my favourite of his tragedies. My favourite has for a long time been The Tempest, rather ironically, given that it was the last of his works and is widely held to have not been completed by The Bard himself. It was the first Shakespeare that I ever saw performed, though, so it holds a special place in my heart. Regardless, a couple weeks ago I developed a craving for Hamlet, so I dug through my boxes of books and managed to find a copy that I bought my senior year, when the Barnes & Noble near my house was closing (I dropped nearly $300 in books over the space of two months when everything went on clearance, but I bought reading material that could last ten years). My roommate loves Hamlet, so she strongly endorsed my decision, which boosted my confidence when I was at the beginning of Act II and trying to figure out how this play could be so much longer than I remembered.

I’ve never particularly struggled with Shakespeare. Some people find it impossible to read, and while I admit it can be a challenge, I think “impossible” puts it a bit strongly. It just requires a little extra work. That little bit of extra work, though, is what puts so many people off these plays. High school students already have plenty of work to do. They have homework and sports and musicals and drama, and in my case a never-ending sense of personal mortification. High school is difficult enough without Shakespeare.

I didn’t hate Hamlet when we had to read it for class, although it’s a safe bet that I probably fell behind on the reading fairly quickly and had to catch up in a heroic effort to continue my facade as a good student. No, I didn’t hate Hamlet then, but I enjoyed it far more this time around. I read the essays included at the beginning of the book, I perused the timeline of Shakespeare’s life, and I skipped over the cast of characters because I already knew them. I took Act I slowly, because I knew that I needed to give myself time to adjust to the language and syntax. I used the Barnes & Noble Shakespeare edition, and it has footnotes on the left hand page and the text on the right. Of the formats I’ve seen, I think I prefer this one. The footnotes are easy to find because they run the length of the page, instead of finding themselves crammed at the bottom of the page. Particularly with a text that has as many additives as Hamlet might, the format helped me to keep organised. It had the added benefit of making me feel like I was reading twice as fast, because for every ten pages, only five of them had been the play, with the other five serving as explanatory notes. A false sense of accomplishment does wonders for my self esteem.

The trick, I found, was to figure out which notes I needed, and which I didn’t. Sometimes there would be a block of historical context, and I read that because it was interesting, and it adds another dimension to the reading. Other times, the note was essentially nothing more than reading comprehension, in which case it was irritating to break the flow of my reading to receive redundant information. My rule became that I would read until the end of the sentence in which the footnote was marked. If I didn’t understand it, I checked the note. If I did, I left it alone. It was refreshing, almost empowering, to at times give myself credit for understanding without the offered assistance, and to decide for myself how to read the play, how to interpret it, and most significantly, how to enjoy it.

As a society we have such a stubborn notion of Shakespeare and his antiquity, that when I encounter a moment when he really is just being outrageous and inappropriate, I usually have to reread it. I’m positive that there must be something I missed, because he can’t really mean that— and yet he does. I owe so much to footnotes for those times when I’m staring at a line, assuming I have my teenage hormones to blame for the fact that my only interpretation is a sex joke, and then the footnotes inform me that yes, Shakespeare is indeed making an innuendo out of “Fortune’s private parts.” So much for a highly sophisticated, masterful manipulation of the English language. Shakespeare used his genius to smirk like a fourteen-year-old boy.

To those high school students who hate Shakespeare, I have a few points of advice, having endured high school’s presentation of Shakespeare and moved on to create my own experience.

First, and I actually recommend this with any assigned reading, don’t read it like assigned reading. If you’re reading in three chapter chunks every night because that’s what Teacher assigned, when normally you only read if you have a good three hours to sit down, then do that instead. If you read for twenty minutes before bed, do that. Don’t read sitting at your desk with all your other homework out and in front of you, don’t read with a notebook ready because you’re trying to guess what theme class might cover tomorrow. Read in a way that enables you to focus solely on the book, which, remember, was originally written for the sake of entertainment.

Shakespeare did not write to torture the poor high school students of the 21st century. He doesn’t mean to use archaic syntax and words that have long since vanished from our vernacular. He wrote for his peers, for the English stage, in a time period when theatre was a significant cultural phenomenon, drawing the social classes together. In the edition of Hamlet that I’m reading, there’s an essay included after the play that explains some of the editing decisions. This edition is based off the Quarto 2, and the majority of the changes function solely to modernise the text. Reading “You come moft carefully vpon your houre” and then “Tis now ftrooke twelfe, get thee to bed Francifco” and going on like that for another 200 pages would have been miserable (I’ve never understood why “s” is “f” in Middle English. I should probably investigate that at some point). This editor’s focus was to minimise the peculiarities of the English language that Shakespeare and his generation wouldn’t have remarked upon. It doesn’t change any meaning in the play to read “most” instead of “moft”– it just makes our lives easier. Shakespeare didn’t write to be inaccessible, and it is the job of the editor to maintain the play’s relevance when the evolution of language might have rendered it obsolete.

Many high school teachers have students act out scenes when they’re teaching a play. I have a friend earning degrees in Education and English, and she’s already excited to transform her classroom into a stage. Sometimes these amateur performances are successful and sometimes they’re just awkward, but either way they’re a crucial reminder that plays are meant to be performed. Seeing Shakespeare on the stage is a completely different experience from reading him in print, but there are ways to minimise the gap. Visualisation is an important aspect for me– I like to pay attention to stage directions and imagine a set in my head. The B&N edition has a diagram of what the stage at the Globe would have looked like, and that helps as well. It can also be useful to read difficult lines out loud, just to play with inflection. In cases where sentences are lengthy or awkward, speaking them can help to break up the clauses, depending on where the breath falls.

Dear High School Student, my best piece of advice might be to simply embrace the ridiculousness of so many of Shakespeare’s scenes. Even in his tragedies, there are wonderful moments of absurdity. Hamlet teasing Polonius, for example, always makes me grin. We all know some pompous person who likes to assault our ears with pontification. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to call them a fishmonger?

Or Hamlet with his school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…even if he does have them executed. Up until intrigue and backstabbing play a part, the three of them are just like us. They’re students. They make rude jokes and they get excited about the players coming to perform.

I think the gravedigger in Act V falls into a similar category. He’s what one of my professors referred to as a “low-life,” meaning all those Shakespearean characters that fall into the lower classes and generally wander on stage for the sake of some comic relief. They speak in dialect, often crudely, and they confuse words’ definitions. In a beautifully cynical light, these are the people who often represent the majority. These are the normal people, going about their lives, untouched by the crises of the monarchy. The gravedigger doesn’t care whose grave it is that he’s digging. Hamlet remarks that he “has no feeling of his business,” because he can carve out the walls of a body’s final home and sing a merry tune all at the same time. The truth, though, is that this fellow is just doing his job, has been doing his job for the last thirty years, and will continue doing his job after Hamlet is dead. He doesn’t care whose ass is sitting in the throne. He tosses up skulls and plays the jester and gives us a breath before Shakespeare storms in and slaughters all the main characters with the stroke of a pen.

I never hated Shakespeare, so perhaps I have an advantage, but I truly enjoy reading him now, just for myself, without any pressures or deadlines to worry about. So, to the high school student who has Act III due Monday, try taking a moment to remember that these plays have survived the last four hundred because they really are stupendous, because thousands of people before us have read them just for entertainment. Look for the hilarity, for the questions that reverberate in all of us. Take “to be or not to be” and ask it of yourself. Sure, there a thousand adaptations of that famous line already, but that doesn’t mean it can’t apply to us, too. We make the choice “to be” in every moment. We choose to live, to work, to sing or dance or laugh. Hamlet’s crisis of identity is a crisis that we all endure. Once we realise that in holding “the mirror up to nature” we see our own reflection, how can we help but read and tease out Hamlet’s answer, in the hope that it might guide our own?

A link to the play: Hamlet

Writing Websites

I’ve always enjoyed the idea of writing websites. I think the pitch is pretty simple– it’s an online, interest-based community. The inherent anonymity of the Internet and the use of text-based relationships instead of face to face interactions ensure that the user can present themselves however they want, which for many people sounds like a dream come true. I would love it if I could wear pyjamas all the time and embrace my bedhead and still be able to make good first impressions.

Anyone would be excited to jump into a community where everyone shares their own interests. The possibilities for discussion seem endless. The few times that I’ve met someone who loves Virginia Woolf as much as I do, we’ve exploded into excitement and conversation and totally lost track of whatever it was we were originally talking about. As a platform designed specifically for people that share an interest, a writers’ websites offers the allurement of infinite indulgence in nerdisms.

So, I’m on a new website, called Inkitt. Some people have the presence of mind and self-discipline necessary to maintain a steady presence in a web community, and I confess that I have never been one of those people. My venture into Inkitt is really an attempt to see if this time I might be able to generate an actual base for my writing. From what I can tell, it must be a relatively new site. It doesn’t have an About page, so I’m not sure when it was actually launched, but there are several features that I would have taken for granted which are still in the “developing” stage, and even the most popular stories don’t tend to have very many reviews. The forum pages are all relatively quiet, and the community is small enough that one general page is enough to include all personal introduction posts, another contains review requests, and neither of them seem overwhelmed. I would have thought that these two topics in particular would inspire a constant torrent of posts, but I dropped a line into the introductions  three days ago, and I haven’t even drifted halfway down the page. This is undoubtedly the most restrained writing community I’ve ever encountered.

My initial foray into the world of writing websites was with Inkpop, which, alas, is no longer with us (a moment of silence). I found a thread there called the Procrastinators that was reposted daily, and I loved the community. It was a place to rant, to receive support, to offer virtual cupcakes and accept virtual tea. We had Word Wards and intent discussions about the educational system. We all mourned our inability to focus and work for long periods of time, and we learned to band together against our own self-destructive tendencies. At that point I was incredibly insecure about my identity as a writer, and I learned that really a writer is just a person who writes. Writers are goofy and spastic and some of them aren’t very good at keeping up with their personal responsibilities and some of them rock the world of self-publishing, but the only real qualification is that they must write. I was writing, even if I didn’t like what I was writing, and that was good enough.

As I indicated, Inkpop didn’t last. HarperCollins bought it, turned it into Figment, and made it a place primarily for 8-14 year olds. I know that 8-14 year olds who write deserve to have a place for them, too, but I don’t think I will ever forgive HarperCollins for eliminating my Proc thread. The community pretty much dissolved, because Figment’s forum system wasn’t set up the same way. Most people jumped ship to Wattpad, and some simply vanished into the Ether. There were people who had thousands of followers under Inkpop’s system, novels and short stories and poems that had gathered huge amounts of support. Figment preserved some of it, I think, but for the most part, it was gone.

I was one of those who jumped to Wattpad. For a while I tried to give Figment a chance, but most of my friends were gone, and the longer I spent with the new system, the more I disliked. Wattpad became the new place to be, even if we never managed to reestablish the Procrastinators thread. If any of the old Procs ever read this, I was The Hatter, and I miss the stupendous ridiculousness of our community.

On Wattpad, I actually made a longterm pen pal. Her name was Alicia, and after a few months of messaging back and forth we traded emails. Eventually we Skyped a couple times, and once we had reassured ourselves that we were, in fact, both teenaged girls, we traded phone numbers as well. It was huge fun, coming home every day to exchange stories about classes and friends and working on writing. I admit that we’ve fallen out of touch now, and it’s probably mostly my fault, but it was a wonderful friendship while it existed. I enjoyed the rest of the Wattpad community as well, and I poked around and left a lot of reviews and tentatively plugged some of my own writing. I kept up an irregular presence through graduation from high school, but over the last year and a half I’ve started avoided going on the website. Nothing so dramatic as the transition from Inkpop to Figment has occurred, but the primary voice on Wattpad, last time I checked, belonged to a 15-year-old girl who writes One Direction fan fiction. Why, for the love of all that is chocolatey in the world, is there fan fiction of One Direction? There are some questions in this world that we will never know the answer to, and that’s one of them.

As I am no longer a 15-year-old girl, and I have never been a “1D” fan, Wattpad isn’t the best place for me. I have yet to find another site to camp in, but I’m willing to give Inkitt a shot. If it really is a website in its early stages, it would be awesome to watch it explode and then become one of those old-timers with a join date “back in the 2010s” and a presence as one of the best reviewers (I do leave excellent reviews. I’m critical, but I always offer a potential method of improvement. For any writers out there, feel free to hit me up. I have way too much free time right now and I’d be happy for something to edit).

And now, Inkitt, the ball is in your court. I promise that I will continue to chat with your current members and leave reviews on trending stories, but in exchange I think you should turn into a new “place to be.” It’s a thin line between forum and fad, but I think you’ve got a shot. Good luck!

UPDATEThis is my profile on Inkitt, for those who might be interested

Book Review: Villette

Last night I was lying in bed, flashlight in hand and Hamlet propped open on my pillow, when it occurred to me that while I consider myself largely skill-less, reading might be considered a skill. (For the record, I was reading with a flashlight because my house is freezing, and I knew that when I decided to sleep I wouldn’t want to get out of bed to turn the lights out. Hence, the room was already dark, and I made use of the flashlight that’s under my pillow particularly for these occasions.)

Reading as a skill all by itself might be a bit of a stretch, but reading and then thinking and then writing about those thoughts is the minimally-phrased version of what I’d like to do for the rest of my life. Presently, I have no degree, and therefore technically no authority, but I still have a reading experience that might be worth sharing. Despite not having a degree, I do read an awful lot, and paper writing has long been one of my favourite pastimes.

And so, while part of my brain was occupied with sympathising with Hamlet and untangling his soliloquies, the other part decided that this blog, which I recently announced needed a makeover, might be an acceptable platform for reviewing the books that I read. This way the blog has content and some degree of purpose, and I have a good reason to continue reading all the time when I could be doing other things, like laundry. Everyone wins.

With that explanation out of the way, I’d like to turn to Villette by Charlotte Brontë. It was my after-Christmas read, and I finished it in about a week and a half. It helped that I was in bed with a cold for a couple of those days, because in the world of Madeleine, sickness=exponential reading time.

My only other experiences with Brontë works are Jane Eyre, which I read in high school, and then reread the summer after my sophomore year, and Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights is by Emily, Charlotte’s sister, and it was a part of my British Victorian Literature class last semester. The Brontës’ writing is widely accepted as gothic, often featuring a dark, brooding hero, a visit from the supernatural, and a mysterious house. It’s undeniably more tempestuous than the restrained civility in Jane Austen’s sitting rooms. Charlotte Brontë was actually highly critical of Austen– she asserted that Austen’s rigidity rendered her emotionless, too strictly controlled to generate an honest portrait of life. I don’t particularly agree with Brontë, but I will acknowledge that the emotions she puts into her writing are far more obvious than those of her Romantic counterpart.

When I opened Villette, then, I anticipated another stormy and probably desperate heroine, and an irascible older man that she would have to wage emotional war against. I’d read a summary of it before, but it had no more detail than “Heroine Lucy Snowe teaches at a boarding school in Villette and falls in love with an irritable professor, whose late fiancée’s family wants to keep them apart.” I paraphrase, but that really was the gist. If the writer of that summary every reads this (unlikely, I know, but ah well), I would like to accuse them of being deliberately misleading. They would have you believe that Villette is a romance, and while these barest bones of the novel might qualify it as such, the majority of the writing and the plot are decidedly un-romantic. Nevertheless, Villette is my favourite Brontë work thus read. I suppose that may change as I spend more time with the Brontë sisters, but I think it unlikely.

Jane, the heroine of Jane Eyre, and Catherine, of Wuthering Heights, are both overtly passionate and emotional. In the earlier part of Jane Eyre, the protagonist’s behaviour might be dismissed because she’s a child, but her internal life remains consistently turbulent when her external behaviour becomes more tailored to her position as a governess. Catherine is a nightmare from beginning to end– she’s selfish, melodramatic, and prone to temper tantrums.

Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette, exists on the polar opposite of the spectrum from her literary sisters Catherine and Jane. She consistently exercises self-control and self-denial. Her station in life is similar to Jane Eyre’s– she’s on the lowest end of the gentry class, without any fortune or family, and therefore required to work to keep herself fed and sheltered. The novel opens a short time before Lucy has begun work, while she’s staying with her godmother Mrs. Bretton. Despite her early status of tenuous leisure, however, she already has a mindset of sedateness, of simple pleasure and simple enjoyments. When her life changes and she takes a position as an elderly woman’s companion, she doesn’t rage against it, or resent it. She reminds herself that this is her lot in life, accepts it, and goes about her work.

For the majority of the novel, I found it incredibly difficult to relate to Lucy. She is the quintessential “set your expectations low, that way they can’t be disappointed.”  I wanted to wish better for Lucy than she wished for herself– I anticipated happiness where she didn’t even particularly desire it. I indulged in fantasies for her, when she was reluctant to even allow herself to indulge in the friendship of Mrs. Bretton and Graham, now all grown up and an established doctor in Villette.

The most striking question in the novel is on the nature of happiness. Cultivate happiness, Graham says, and Lucy responds, “Happiness is not a potato.” Which, out of a context, is hilarious, and I’ve been quoting it as often as possible. Her sentiment, though, is that happiness cannot be cultivated. We have as little control over it as the weather– sunshine is bestowed, not acquired. Graham’s argument is that happiness must be worked for, chased, and embraced.

I’m not sure who I agree with in this debate. In part, I think “happiness” is an ambiguous term, and it doesn’t seem that Graham and Lucy necessarily mean the same thing. Is happiness an external state, or an internal mentality? Is one easier to “cultivate” than the other? I’m not sure. I do find it ironic, though, that both characters’ experience of happiness is opposite to their abstraction of it. Lucy characterises Graham and Paulina as a species of people who blossom in auspicious circumstances but would wither in contrary ones, and are fortunately blessed with the former. Lucy doesn’t portray this as a defect in their character, and she never compares them with herself, but I couldn’t help wondering if either Paulina or Graham would have risen to the challenge had they been in Lucy’s position. Graham says cultivate happiness, but has he ever had to cultivate it for himself? According to Lucy’s portrayal, no. Lucy, on the other hand, has to work, or she risks falling destitute. She works for her own security and comfort– why shouldn’t she be able to work towards her own happiness?

Lucy’s belief that happiness cannot arise as a direct result of an individual’s actions might speak more to her definition of happiness than anything else. She can and does work for her own material comfort, with the longterm goal of financial independence and stability as the directress of her own school. Happiness for Lucy, then, is not the ability to indulge in good food, is not a pretty room or a soft bed. In fact, she’s often derisive about the pervasive sensuality of Labassecour, most obvious in Madame Beck. Lucy’s definition of happiness is instead found in those few moments in the novel when she expresses some degree of investment and excitement. Happiness is when she finds an intimacy of relationship with Graham and Mrs. Bretton. Happiness is the reassurance that Monsieur Paul cares for her.

For Lucy, happiness goes beyond anything she can create for herself because it requires other people. When Graham tells her to “cultivate happiness,” the problem is that they have different definitions. Graham grew up with friends his own age, he is established and goes out in society, and he has a constant companion in a mother who adores him and whom he adores. Lucy has no such reliability of relation– she has no family that loves her unconditionally. She has no one who might put her needs before their own. She never indicates that she particularly desires this variety of relationship; her spirit does not yearn in the way Jane Eyre’s or Catherine Linton’s does. She makes do with what she has, and does not want for more. But in those moments when she feels cared for, loved, valued– those are the moments during which I believe she feels truly happy.

A link to the novel: Villette

Having Spent All Day at Home…

Having spent all day at home, in a week that has been spent by and large in the same fashion, I am finally hitting the point of stir crazy where I might have to start embracing responsibilities like cleaning my room and doing laundry just in order to do something. This is a serious problem, because by my calculations, I still have at least one more week of “vacation time.” Technically, I would have to be a proper student for it to be a proper vacation, and I am officially (or, semi-officially. Loyola doesn’t know yet) taking a semester off. Therefore, I technically don’t get a vacation. But last semester, which included mono and ridiculous amounts of overwork and a lot of poor life choices, was rather wearing. It was wearing enough to warrant the vacation that I’m giving myself, but not so wearing that I can happily vegetate for a solid five weeks doing absolutely nothing, as much as I want to.

Today, I spent entertaining the dog, pretending that I am tougher than the cold by wearing socks and a sweatshirt and then bundling into a blanket and burrowing into the couch, and binge-reading Hyperbole and a Half, which is a blog that I periodically reread. I was supposed to spend the day doing laundry and reading Hamlet, which sounds far more respectable, but alas, it was not to be.

I find Hyperbole and a Half incredibly impressive. It was built with minimal self-promotion, with a lot of honesty and inappropriateness and relatable hilarity. Whenever Allie talks about blogging, I feel a twinge of guilt and think of this platform, my barely established and poorly maintained page. I think the problem was that I wasn’t sure what I wanted it to be to begin with. I had some ideas regarding purpose, but not regarding form. I am not comical, like Allie. I am also not visually artistic; I feel like my blog would be much more interesting to look at if it had pictures or videos or anything behind lines of words, but I can’t draw to save my life, and honestly, blogging, the technical side of it, kind of terrifies me. Like banking and paperwork and talking to people at the post office. These are things that I’m inherently uncomfortable with, which makes life difficult sometimes because capable adults are expected to be able to fill out paperwork without first drinking unhealthy amounts of coffee and then taking anxiety meds and then moaning and groaning a lot. If I could hire someone to fill out all paperwork for me, I totally would.

And all this rambling (I’m probably rambling because I’ve had a minimum of human interaction. For someone who talks as much as I do, that can be a problem) is meant to tend to the idea that this blog, whatever it is, will be changing from whatever it was. To begin with, some of the categories and expected topics are far less relevant now, because I won’t be a “student” again for approximately eight months– assuming you don’t count classes at the community college, because I don’t.

It also has to change because I think it was too dramatic and serious when I was writing only about major portions of my life. It kind of drags. I know those major portions are important, but they actually say very little about who I am and what my life is. My life has these big sweeping moments that involve school and faith and research etc., but more often it’s been sitting in a circle on the floor with my roommates at 1 in the morning pretending to be an indie band, or ninja-cuddling with my mom, which is when we’re cuddling but she doesn’t know it because she doesn’t like cuddling. My life is the fact that I’m currently obsessed with the word “effervescent” (it’s a four syllable word that means bubbly!!) and that I currently have a red velvet cake in the oven, which is a terrible idea because I can’t cook or bake but oh well. I was bored.

I’m fairly certain that I don’t have any readers to care about fluctuations or irregularities in my blog, but I’m marking today for posterity as the day when I decided that I had no idea what was going on, but went for it anyway. That tends to be a theme. It will probably crop up again later.

Sincerely,

Madeleine