We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.
I wrote you early last month about the project I had begun on Trollope’s travel books, Questions of Identity & the Australian Emigrant. After more than a year of reading Trollope’s travel books (and stories and novels not set in England), yet more travel & emigrant literature (as you know I’ve always loved the former), and about Australia (which country and whose culture insofar as it’s reflected in its art I fell in love with), I decided to go to as many sessions on travel books, Australia, and Trollope as I could fit in. It might be I had not made the deadline for this woman’s anthology, and could not get myself to work to fit her perspective for her book, but I’d not given up.
My times in these sessions provided provided the most spirit-stirring moments of my four days—as well as the most mind-riveting paper. These moments occurred the first morning. I got myself up at 7 to get to the hotel at 8:30 and found a tiny room where there were two male speakers and 5 people in attendance. I rushed in and asked if this were "The Convict Experience in Australian Literature." Someone nodded, but the presiding male didn’t look too enthusiastic at the sight of me. He said aloud, well we may hope others are late and can start anyway.
Two papers. One on images of Van Dieman’s land in 4 novels, beginning with Marcus Clark’s For the Term of His Natural Life (1873) and ending with a novel written in the 1990s. Like Trollope these writers brought together the paradox of a place of such spectacular natural beauty should become a site of horrific cruelty and misery. I took notes and in sten too, but have lost my steno pad so cannot cite the titles. (I also lost my hat, the vast program book, and almost lost a sweater I love—I get flustered.) The second was an analysis of Clark’s great novel. I had read the novel last year and loved it and was eager to learn. When the papers were done, the presiding person asked for questions. Silence. The speakers didn’t look as if they expected questions. Indeed the second speaker implied he didn’t expect people in the room to have read Clark! They began to make up their own, but soon ran out of steam. Silence again.
I feared the session would end and just took courage and spoke up. The men had been talking about the unfairness of judging Australian books by demanding they be nationalistic, sheerly rooted in Australian culture (not English, not attempting to reach a physically far off European audience) and the dismissing of early novels like Henry Kingsley’s Recollections of Geoffrey Hamlin, which I read this past year and so enjoyed1. I said I had two comments to make but then found myself telling about my interest in Trollope, about reading Australia and New Zealand last year, and asking about the problem of hostility towards the specifically pro-English, pro-colonialist earlier writers, as well as suggesting a more woman-centered psycholanalytical view of the heroine of His Natural Life. I stumbled and blurted out the name of my book and said people are unsympathetic or look askance when I talk of Trollope’s books or novels. To my joy the second man looked at me, and said, "you’re Ellen Moody! I’ve read Trollope on the Net. It’s a wonderfully innovative book." He knew it began with Ireland for 2 chapters and it treated ordinary readers’ views on Trollope in cyberspace with serious respect.
The session became very lively in talking about how necessary is "cosmopolitanism" (the code word) if the Australian writer wants to sell his books and have a career. This same theme segued from a paper in a session I attended at the end of the conference, "Literary Prestige in the Global Marketplace: Theorizing the Man Booker Prize:" in this paper the speaker talked of Peter Carey’s successful attempts to please the Booker Prize judges (he’s won twice) and his one "flop", a redo in modern terms of Dickens’s Great Expectations, _John Maggs (Magwitch you see), which satirized the prize culture and the typical self-reflexive literary novel that often wins the prize. I met the second man in this last session again. At the end of this first session, he came over and talked to me. He encouraged me to go on with my project and now we’ve exchanged emails and when I’ve done that Sophie Cottin paper, I shall turn to "On Living in a New Country (or "Anthony Trollope’s Cosmopolitan Bohemianism," among its latest titles). I didn’t behave as firmly as I should have, but there was not time for me to flub. These moments not only made that day; they made the conference for me personally rejuvenating in the best ways.
The number of sessions on travel literature and papers written from a post-colonialist point of view showed me that my intense reading in these areas this past year were with the zeitgeist2. Had not the people on Trollope-l loved the very picture my students from other countries used regularly to chose to write about:
Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England (1855)
The first session on Tuesday afternoon, "Travel Writing and Empire" included a paper on a later 18th century writer, a tourist-type cum-early geologist, George Bellas Greenough," and a paper on Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. I felt right at home: I’ve taught it twice, read an abridgement twice, listened to David Case read it aloud twice, and read much on Darwin. Both papers showed how travel books were geologic and scientific as anthropologic, social, and autobiographic. How they helped wear down mythic ideas about time (from the Bible) and also are documents in a global (a favorite word) literature of the earth.
The stunner—the paper I couldn’t turn my mind from—was in this session, a paper delivered by a young English woman with plum-y accent, in an imperturbably cool-steel steel tone, "Beauty and the Breast … in the Slave-Trade (I shorten the title). You’d almost think she was telling us it looks like rain and the latest price of canned peas. She knew she wasn’t.
Reading from a few late 18th century unpublished diaries of a couple of unusually shameless slave traders, she demonstrated that slave women with "long" or "hanging" breasts not just went for a lower price but were even worse mistreated than other slave women: sold off separately from their children quicker (all the while they were described as animals uninterested and neglectful in their offspring), beaten easier, and despised. It was distressing to hear these raw phrases for women’s breasts. Disquieting. It’s rare men write down precisely what they value women for. (It’s rare women write down what they value a man for.)
Her paper brought out how central women’s breasts are to men’s ideas about them, and how the very shape of a woman’s breast can control her destiny. Its explicit theme was the paradox that these men were demanding of their slave women whom they truly treated like cattle that their bodies cohere to European genetic traits: have high small round breasts. One slave trader at the time he was so mistreating black women was writing his homebound white wife the most romantic and courteous letters (mostly untrue and filled with self-flattery—he was doing this all for her). I was reminded of a joke in the Angela Carter book I carried round with me (Shaking a Leg (her irreverent wit cheered me and kept up my spirits in a few bad momoents) Carter says that if men had babies, abortion would be as readily available as beer and advertised everywhere. Of course then they’d not be men. This young women’s paper showed that women’s breasts and breast-feeding function in the ways men want and are part of the apparatus men use to control them.
More than the thesis or content, it was the endless repetition of "long breasts" (and sometimes "tits" and crude language devoid of any sentiment), her deadpan delivery, the intense silence, and the looks in some of the women’s averted eyes that made this part of this session so memorable. Some of the letters were by respected literary men ("Monk" Lewis). I remember my father telling me he came across a letter by George Washington no less inviting someone to his house and assuring him they have the available slave women. The same dichotomies are with us today. Prostitutes are so much game. The explicit aura The National Geographic attributes to its photos of African women with long (I guess the word is the right one) naked breasts is suggested by words like exotic and glamorous (especially when the woman wears her hair piled high and wrapped in a many-colored scarf), but the implicit one is caught up rather in words like savage and uncivilized.
Like many throughout the MLA meeting, this paper was really also about the modern world and us today. One session early on Tuesday had as its terrain drama in the later 17th and 18th century in England. The papers included one on courtesans and "fallen" tragedy queens (like Jane Shore whom I used in my conference paper, "I hate such parts as we have plaied today"), which was also about the way women’s sexuality is treated in highly contradictory ways today. Another showed how an 18th century play, George Lillo’s London Merchant is not the Syriana of the 18th century as it’s often asserted, but a complacent play upholding ruthless mercantilism, monopoly creation, land deals abroad of particular powerful wealthy individuals in London at the time. The young male assistant professor was able to do this because he did resaerch into the actual global dealings of the man to whom the play is dedicated, and on whom the character of "Thorowgood" is based. Actually the audience didn’t like this professor bringing down their self-flattering progressive takes on London Merchant (scholars like to find in the works they read reflections of their own politics). The paper was excellent—and postcolonial.
Sometimes I found myself in a session where I was deeply out of sympathy with the whole tenor of the session. Not everyone shares a taste for trash and deliberate superficiality. In one session which seemed to be about children’s literature, "Adult Uses and Misuses of …", I was put off by papers where the writers value trash & sexed-up redoings, debasing and dumbing down of the already formulaic Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames type series. The speakers lamented that in high school teachers are still assigning classics and not the new "young adult" literature. It turned out they defined A Separate Peace as an "old classic"; Lord of the Flies was disdained as "ancient"(!) They were incongruous too as they spoke with the same reverent, and church-like stance as most of the sessions.
This children’s literature session attempted the same global perspective as much of the conference. One man did attempt to describe and explain the Harry Potter phenomenon: it is one of a number of child’s or childlike naive, and young adult series read by older people in multitudes all over the world. One of the latter just read in English-speaking Anglophilic milieus are the Patrick O’Brian Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin books Yvette so loves. He attributed this love when someone is an adult to nostalgia, a turning away from the void, amoral demands, and sheer insecurity of the marketplace world—and also an inability to read hard texts. Thus there’s been a growth of fantasy books genuinely written at once for children and adults, say Philip Pullman’s (on whom there was an article in one of the December issues of The New Yorker).
In general though at least the sessions I went to valued strong literary beauty, complexity, and adult understanding. I’ve got a little more to tell you, Marianne: on sessions on women writers (Woolf, Austen, Wharton), romantic Scots poetry and prose (Scott, Byron, Baillie), the Booker Prize, and also how numbers reveal the reality that 3/4s of the MLA participants are there to job hunt, network, smooch, and interview others (so one might regard the sessions I so love as a sort of veil to what brings most people there). But it’s after midnight. So suffice to say that going to the MLA has opened up for me another place to write to about Trollope and travel literature.
This lovely man who had read my book and gave the splendid paper on Marcus Clark’s His Natural Life said please consider submitting the paper to The Antipodes.
There was not one paper in all the MLA sessions on Anthony Trollope who notoriously in his era banged all over the world.
And surely honesty for me is also on the side of writing about emigration from the emigrants’ point of view:
J. McNeill Whistler, for "The Major’s Daughter" (from_Once a Week_).
‘Tis a hard world as the shopowner said to his assistant in Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday (ca. 1600).
Good night, my dear, pleasant dreams,
1 How could I have forgotten how much I loved Jill Ker Conway’s memoir, The Road from Coorain. Judith Wright and Fleur Adcock (a New Zealander) are now among my favorite modern poets. Not read this year but last: Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore has influenced me as strongly as Primo Levi’s Se questo è un uomo/La tregua. Both remain in my mind—along with Austen’s Mansfield Park.
2 This year also included Harriet Martineau’s brilliant travel books, Retrospect of Western Travel and Society in America (I just revelled in them), the inimitable Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Amateur Emigrant, Charlotte Erickson’s Leaving England, a book of researched essays whch has changed the way I view 19th century European history. She reveals a world wide diaspora from the British Isles and northern Europe in the 19th century.
Posted by: Ellen
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