Archive for the 'Jackie Stodnick' Category

The Making of a Medievalist (or rather an Anglo-Saxonist)


I am frequently asked—I think more often than most English professors—why it is that I ended up doing what I do. There’s something about being an Anglo-Saxonist just freakish enough to require explanation. Or maybe it’s my palpable lack of a beard, which, as I have noted before on this blog, is practically a requirement of membership in the field. In any case, I have been thinking a lot recently about origins. I can’t help it; I’m reading Paradise Lost. And even the word of the day colludes with me in my topic–it is faculty, and, what do you know, it turns out to have a medieval origin.

The first time that I was asked about my reasons for being an Anglo-Saxonist, I immediately felt a deep anxiety about, well, not having good enough reasons. That is, not having a profound and meaningful origin story involving something like finding a long-lost twin or saving a person from a life-threatening disease. The real story involves a series of random, little events. When I began my undergraduate degree, Old English was a compulsory subject for all entering freshmen students specializing in English. As you can imagine, the complaining was legion. Everyone had to take it, and most people seemed to hate it. I was in the tutorial group of my university’s eminent Anglo-Saxonist, a man who had the unnerving habit of playing with a letter opener in the shape of a Celtic sword while he quizzed you about case endings. “Yes, but what case is handa?” he would twinkle, testing the dull point of the letter opener with his thumb as though ready to disembowel you for making a mistake in your parsing. All looked with searing intensity at their books, intently avoiding eye contact. Of course this strategy can only get you so far in an Old English class, because just about everybody teaches it by going around a circle and having each student translate a sentence or two at a time. Hence we would spend most of the class frantically calculating where our turn would land; counting sentences; adjusting for length and difficulty; assessing the probability that our professor would randomly ask someone else to do more or less than was usual; hoping against hope that we didn’t get that sentence that just made no sense at all, or the one that we were pretty sure we had mistranslated as being something to do with a three-legged dog and a slice of Wensleydale cheese.

Sitting next to me, I still remember, was an over-achieving student with large and incredibly expressive nostrils, which would flare to varying degrees depending on whether he was experiencing excitement or annoyance. Even though this student, let’s just call him Nostrils, was probably the best prepared in the class, I sensed that my teacher preferred self-deprecating vacillation above smug nasal hubris any day. Perhaps it was just that the nostrils were too much of a temptation to the letter opener. But whatever the reason, I immediately warmed to my professor for his refusal to respond to such humorless swotty-ness.

That being said, it’s not as though I understood everything that we were taught that first year. I should mention at this point, in the way of absolving myself, that teaching things did not involve quite the same level of explanation and activity in that time and place as it does here and now. Cases were taught as though to students who had taken several years of Latin and perhaps Greek, whereas we had all gone to comprehensive high schools (public schools, as they would be known here) where you couldn’t possibly take such subjects. Sound changes were taught as though we were already familiar with the notion of historical linguistics. I found the terms “i-mutation” and “restoration of a” (both important sound changes) quite diverting, but I was unable to do more than imagine them as Sesame Street songs.

Oddly enough, though, when I got back my exam for the first year of Introduction to Old English, I had scored an 81% (which, believe me, is about a 99% when translated to American grading). I was mystified, but I felt that this must be a sign. Truth be told, despite my willful blind spot toward sound changes and the fact that I once spelled the protagonist’s name wrong all the way through an essay on The Battle of Maldon, I wasn’t bad at literary analysis of Old English poetry, and this seemed good enough reason to carry on doing it.

And that was that. It feels like a quotidian set of events to found a career, but it’s not a decision I’ve ever regretted either.

So, what about you? What is your scholarly origin story? Please tell me it involves a long-lost twin, a shipwreck, amnesia, or a parallel universe…

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on April 23rd, 2010 |5 Comments »

“Authors we’re a little in love with,” or “Why John Donne is my homeboy.”

It’s that week I’ve been waiting for all semester. What, the mythical time when I have finished all my reading for class and my grading, and still have hours leftover for guiltless gardening? No, it’s John Donne week in History of Brit Lit. Could life get any better?

Which brings me to the purpose of my post. Admit it, some authors you just have a little bit of a crush on. For me it’s John Donne. To begin with, I can’t help but love how he threw away his career to elope with his wife. The fact that he spent the next several years in penury, showed signs of despondency and bitterness (he wrote a tract in support of suicide at this time), and had twelve children is a little less romantic, I agree. He apparently once commented that if one of the children died he would at least have one less mouth to feed except that he would then not be able to afford the burial costs. Again, not quite so romantic. Also his wife, after enduring all those pregnancies along with other miscarriages, died only sixteen years after they married.

Donne’s poetry, though, seems to offer everything an academic could want. It is deliberately difficult, and so rewards repeated years of reading by making you feel super-smart. And he achieves all this with comparatively little allusion to other texts, especially those pesky classical and biblical texts that pop up unannounced all over the place in British literature. I hate to echo New Critical notions about metaphysical works, but Donne is a place where you can sit back and just get on with the poetry (assuming that you know enough about Early Modern language and literary conventions, that is). Frankly, I’m just a sucker for all the classic John Donne poetic moves: the vividly realized situation; the imagery; the sense of a speaking voice; the extended argument; the surprise of the conceit. This latter makes the reader work, and therein lies the pleasure of the Donne poem: it’s like a bicep curl for your brain.

And it’s Spring, and the reverdie tells us that in Spring thoughts turn to love. Who else but Donne could describe the solipsism of love so aptly, and show so concretely the ways that love makes “one little room an everywhere,” in which “Nothing else is.” Love is a phoenix; love is a flea; love is a candle; love is a hermitage; love is a pair of compasses; love is a John Donne poem.

So here is probably everyone’s favorite John Donne poem (I should also mention that Donne rocked the big floppy hat look).


A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move ;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears ;
Men reckon what it did, and meant ;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
—Whose soul is sense—cannot admit
Of absence, ’cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

So, on this spring day, which author are you a little in love with?

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on April 14th, 2010 |2 Comments »

It’s English, but not as we know it

butterflyAt some point in every semester, I give my students a really difficult assignment that I am not sure they are capable of completing. I’ve been to assessment workshops, and I know that when you issue an assignment, you are supposed to have a clear vision of what you will receive in return—visualize a butterfly, I think the metaphor was, and if you can’t, don’t complain when you get beetles or cockroaches in return. My philosophy in crafting assignments, on the other hand, is more like, “Wow! That’s interesting. Let’s see if the students can do it.” In my graduate class this semester, for instance, I thought it would be intriguing and informative to require the students to work firsthand with archaeological reports. Thus I issued them in groups of two with their four hundred page (and those are 8 ½ by 11 pages, mark you) behemoths, and asked them to discover what this data suggested about early medieval attitudes to the body. It might seem easy enough, but bear in mind that these reports contain lengthy sections on, for example, “Post-holes and hollows not obviously associated with ditches,” “Tabby weaves,” and “Dental pathology”–all fascinating topics, I concede, but not the usual fare for students in an English department. Nevertheless, my students took it all in their stride, and gave beautiful presentations where they bandied around grave numbers and stratigraphic information like they were archaeologists who hadn’t changed their socks for the past three months. Because I always use the student work itself to set a grading benchmark, no one is harmed in the process of conducting these experiments, and I am always pleasantly surprised by the shape of the “butterflies” I receive come the due date.

While my graduate students were poring over their archaeological reports, my undergraduate students from History of British Literature were busy using the Middle English Dictionary to translate the thirteenth-century lyric poem “Love is Sofft”–for those of you who haven’t spend a decade specializing in medieval languages, that would be “Love is Soft.” This assignment is complex first because of the Middle English Dictionary itself, which has to be coaxed and cajoled into revealing word meanings like it was a recalcitrant but extremely smart goat. Much of the problem is, of course, that it is hard to organize a dictionary for a language lacking standardized spelling. Yes, there are mani, manie, manige, mane, magnie, maniȝ, mange, monie, monei, mone, moniȝ, menie, myny, mainie, meine, manes, maniȝes, mones, monne, maniȝe, moniȝe, monien, mænige, manes, maniȝum ways to spell a single word in Middle English. As a consequence, entering a word as it is spelled in the poem will likely bring up three or four different entries in the dictionary (or none at all, which is even more frustrating), requiring the students to make reasonable deductions about which is the “right” one based on context. Even a brief perusal of contemporary translations of this poem, however, shows that some lines seem to have stumped even the most venerable of editors.

Take these lines, for example:

Love is hap wo hit haveþ, hon forto hete;
Love is wis, love is war and willful an sete.

Elaine Treharne glosses “hon forto hete” as “one to inflame,” and “willful an sete” with “willful (one); suitable (one),” yielding a translation something like,

Love is good luck for whoever has it, one to inflame;
Love is wise, love is wary and willful and suitable,

which makes sense after a fashion. Brian Stone, on the other hand, translates these lines as,

Love by chance brings misery inflamed with fever heat;
Love is wise and love is wary, wants its way complete.

Wait a minute, is this the same poem? The problem is that wo in the first line could be woe or who; an could be one or and; and sete could be all manner of things including suitable, arrow or set. It’s not just the meaning of the words that is at issue, then, it’s also what part of speech they are.

When even major editors offer such divergent translations, how do undergraduate students get on with this assignment? Actually those who spend a long time with the dictionary measure up quite well, producing credible translations of their own. And clearly this is an assignment with a number of right answers, in which the translation itself is a means to an end. After slaving over their version of the poem, the students find that “Love is Sofft” is a far from profound poem–more of the Justin Timberlake than the Tennyson ilk—that sauces its basic message that “love is good, love is bad” with a soupcon of misogyny in its final line. What I think that every student learns, however, is how much work goes into any translation of a medieval poem, and how aware we should always be of the distance between the original and the version that we read.

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on March 26th, 2010 |No Comments »

“The Likelihood of Feeling Lonely Scale”

In response to Tim’s last post, one person mentioned the phenomenon of “celebrity scholars,” and how they, alone among English professors, are able to finance lavish and jet-setting lifestyles. Although surely not all celebrity scholars are bad (I’m afraid that I can’t say here that some of my best friends are celebrity scholars), I have taken a class with one and it involved neither a syllabus nor the learning of a single student’s name, which meant that very little learning of any kind happened. Thinking about celebrity scholars, though, made me wonder in what ways these superstars of academia compare to other types of celebrity. These scholars have been able—because their work transcends niche publishing markets—to turn themselves into desirable commodities within a market that is otherwise stacked in favor of the academic institution. Such scholars can move around from university to university apparently at will, garnering well-paid temporary contracts during the term of which they may or may not do very much work, and landing up at prestigious institutions of higher learning where all they have to endure are the glowering looks of their colleagues and their possible appearance in an academic satire.

Any affinity with general celebrity culture is short-lived, however. For good or ill, celebrity culture is obsessed by physical appearance, forcing those who would maintain their place within its ranks to endure a punishing routine of exercise, dieting, teeth-whitening, hair-dyeing, and couture-following. One would expect, given the shiny desirability of their names, that celebrity scholars would be positively Barbie-and-Ken-esque in their plasticky-ness. Not so. They are likely to be as cardigan-ny as the next English professor (if not a little more so, since they need to assert membership in a community of the oppressed). Not all of them, of course. Some wear expensive sport coats and look like they just came from lunch at the country club. In either case, though, it’s hard not to feel a sense of dislocation on meeting a “name” in person.

This phenomenon is not restricted, though, to celebrity scholars; it’s simply more pronounced for them because we are so over-exposed to their work and names. Every time you meet a scholar whose work you have previously read, you experience the disconcerting sense that they “don’t look anything like their book.” Yes, we can read oodles of post-structuralist theory that explains all this, but however much we know about author functions and implied readers and narrative voice etc. etc., upon being confronted with the physical form of an author whose books we love or hate (or have just spent a lot of time with), we are still going to think, “Ooh, I thought he would be fatter/better looking/more elegant/hairier/a woman.” It just can’t be helped. Prose has a personality; it has a shape.

And then there’s the fact that you, the reader, feel that you know this person, the author, because you’ve spent so much time hanging out together in coffee bars and libraries respectively annotating and being annotated. Meanwhile the author doesn’t know you from Adam. It’s a phenomenon similar to the type of “social surrogacy” that researchers at SUNY Buffalo and Miami-Ohio have recently demonstrated results from watching your favorite TV shows. This study–one section of which, “The Likelihood of Feeling Lonely Scale,” gave me the title for this post—finds that “thinking about valued television programs appears to yield the experience of belongingness.” Watching Friends, in other words, makes you feel like you have friends, even if you don’t (which you probably don’t if you spend your whole time, well, watching Friends). Reading academic books, especially those you return to repeatedly, makes you feel as though you know, in some sense, their authors. In reality, however, even the authors themselves don’t know the version of themselves that you know, since they actually wrote the book you have been reading long ago, have moved on to other projects by now, and can’t remember for the life of them what they wrote on page 251 or what chapter four was about.

Anyway, it’s always exciting to go to a conference and get the chance to talk with those scholars who wrote the books that excite your interest in your field. If you liked their books, you’ll probably like them too. And until then, you have shelves full of “friends” (OK, and some acquaintances and, let’s be frank, some total strangers) waiting for you.

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on March 4th, 2010 |4 Comments »

Further further adventures in myth-busting

Following Laura and Desiree’s discussion of myths associated with creative writers and English majors, it falls to me to discuss fables about that mythical beast, the English professor. I suppose that it is fitting for me to tackle this topic, since one of these myths involves the spurious authority that simply being English gives you as an English professor. Although there are lots of people in England who aren’t remotely professorial (like soccer hooligans and gameshow hosts), the feeling persists in some circles that the ideal English professor is an English English professor. As a colleague reported to me, an American student in her class complained that it was “unfair” for a visiting British student to be able to take History of British Literature, when she was so clearly at an advantage in the subject because she was British and would thus have an innate understanding of the intricacies of medieval drama and seventeenth-century poetry (the same apparently did not apply to the American students in History of American literature).

It is true that when I think about English professors in the abstract, my first point of reference is Michael Caine in the film Educating Rita. Caine plays Dr Frank Bryant, an English professor who is definitely phoning it in. Having taken on an Open University student to finance his serious drink problem, Bryant is profoundly changed by his encounter with Susan, a hairdresser turned ardent English major (actually, this film is also a touchstone for me when it comes to encounters with hairdressers). Who could forget Susan’s inspired early answer to a set question about the staging difficulties associated with Ibsen’s Peer Gynt?–“Do it on the radio.” Bryant, after training Susan to react and to write as an ideal student of English literature, bemoans the loss of the vibrant, untutored ingénue that she used to be, despising himself and his profession for its particular brand of conventionality. It’s a lovely, Pygmalionesque film about class, gender, and the effect of institutionalization on the study of literature, and it certainly wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for the stereotype of the male, alcoholic, tweed-coat-with-leather-elbows-wearing, profoundly unhappy English professor.

The thinking behind such representations of the English professor seems to be that a lifetime spent largely on your own reading does not fit you for success in interpersonal communication. Years of contemplating love, death, the meaning of life, etc., will only buy you an addictive and self-destructive habit. Chain-smoking, or at least pipe-smoking, used to be a standard facet of the character set for an English-professor, but now not only is smoking banned in offices, but you can’t smoke within twenty feet of a building, and soon you will not be able to smoke on campus at all. In earlier times this would have decimated the intellectual ranks, but now it will barely make a dent in the sushi-eating, yoga-performing professorial phalanx. If the smoking hasn’t already done it, campus-wide smoking bans will finish off the stereotypical chain-smoking professor.

Another attribute of the mythical English professor is excessive facial hair. Within my particular discipline of Anglo-Saxon studies, a beard is so de rigeur that you still feel a little dressed down at conferences without one. Famous beards of the field include Frederick Furnivall’s. Furnivall was the, by all accounts not very good, second editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and founder of the venerable and still pivotal, Early English Text Society. In his spare time he coached a women’s sculling team, and I think you can tell a lot about Furnivall from this photograph of him among the ladies.Furnivall “Boo-ya!” says his beard, “don’t question my knowledge of multiple dead languages.”

So much for the myth of the hard-drinking, smoking, tweedy, bearded male English professor. Perhaps you could share with us some of your favorite representations of professors, and whether, and in what ways, you find them to be true to life.

– Jackie Stodnik

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on February 14th, 2010 |4 Comments »

21 days of Christmas, B and Bs, and Crime Queens


21 days,

147 hours of light,

357 hours of darkness,

5 adults,

1 bathroom,

6 pounds of Quality Street,

1 large box of Cadbury’s éclairs,

1 box of Maltesers,

1 box of Ferrero Roche,

2 orders fish and chips,

3 roast dinners,

1 entire island covered in snow,

and 72 hours of traveling later,

I survived Christmas in England. Where was I? Torquay, Devon. A place perhaps best known as the setting for the enduringly popular 1970s TV series Fawlty Towers. Fawlty Towers, based on John Cleese’s bizarre experiences at the real Torquay guesthouse The Gleneagles Hotel, featured the fractious antics of hotelier Basil Fawlty, who divided his time about equally between cringing avoidance of his wife Sybil and physical abuse of his “Spanish” waiter Manuel. Having stayed at a number of Torquay bed and breakfasts myself over the years, I can testify to the veracity of Cleese’s experiences. One, which will remain unnamed (although it is no longer operational), springs particularly to mind. Upon waking, guests were forced to endure the excessive servility of the male proprietor, clad in a frilly apron, during breakfast—“Oh, what else could I get you? Oh please let me get you something else.” As anyone who has stayed at a bed and breakfast has probably noticed, the breakfast part is generally a ritual of almost religious intensity, which suburbanizes the niceties of nineteenth-century manorial dining. You are not the lord of the house, and these are not your servants (nor do you want them to be), but they sure act like they are, forcing you into the uncomfortable role of the landed gentry stepping upon the necks of the peasants. The culinary excesses of noble cuisine (sparrow roasted inside quail roasted inside partridge roasted inside duck roasted inside swan, and the like) endure not in B and B food, which is always basically the same workaday menu, but in the flourishing way that it is served as though it were haute cuisine. At the guesthouse in question, for instance, the host brought out a small thimble-sized glass of UHT-preserved orange juice to us on a silver tray, inviting us to quaff this elixir as though it were the finest of vintage wines rather than a thoroughly utilitarian (and in fact slightly below average since it wasn’t even fresh) beverage.

Anyway, enough of that. Torquay is also the birth-place and home of the crime writer, nay the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, who would have been 120 years old this year. As a pre-teen, I used to snort down Agatha Christie novels like they were going out of fashion (which they certainly weren’t considering she is the best-selling author of all time). But, despite spending many years vacationing in Torquay–and moaning about it a good deal–I failed to notice just how embedded Christie’s fiction is in the Devon landscape.

Christie had an interesting start for an author. Denied formal education, she had to teach herself to read, since her mother had decided that she should not learn this skill until she was eight. She apparently had a full imaginative life as a child, inventing a frightening older sibling, known as “The Elder Sister,” who was mad and lived in a cave. She had a famously failed first marriage, which was probably connected to her eleven-day disappearance in 1926, a mystery that still remains unsolved–unlike those cases tackled by her detective creations, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

Christie’s writing process seems to have been refreshingly un-in-your-face. Her son-in-law apparently noted that, “You never saw her writing, she never shut herself away, like other writers do.” Anyone who has read her fiction will be unsurprised to learn that it was primarily based on meticulous observation of character and daily life. Despite the sensational and improbable nature of many Christie plots, the novels always ring true because the characters and the dialogue are rooted in the everyday. In this respect Christie seems to have been a practitioner of something I have always been very fond of myself: the Miss Marple microcosmic theory of human encounter. Miss Marple is so good at solving crime, despite the fact that she is a sheltered little old lady, because the diverse communities that she briefly enters are always populated with people that reminder her of someone back at home in the village of Saint Mary Mead. She is thus able to extrapolate the causes and agents of crime by comparing character traits. Of course, on one hand, this means that Miss Marple views the world as populated by types, the total number of which does not exceed the population of a small English village (yes, this is deeply imperialistic I know). A less negative interpretation, though, might celebrate the ways that Miss Marple suggests we are all familiar to each other–if not friends, than at least acquaintances before we have even met.

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on February 1st, 2010 |5 Comments »

Proof that novels about clergymen and spinsters can be good

rdMuch as I hate to plaster my post over Tim’s diverting discussion of academic bureaucracy, it is time for me to report back on another “Neglected Classic,” which this time is F.M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter. I had never heard of F.M. Mayor. Not that this necessarily means much, since twentieth-century literature was a blind spot of my undergraduate degree in English. In 1991, which is when I started the degree, literature published earlier that same century apparently just seemed far too new to form part of the permanent curriculum (the jury was still out on American literature also, by the way).

F.M. proved to be, when I received the book, Flora Macdonald, one of twin girls born in 1872 to, oddly enough, a clergyman. Even the little information about her life circumstances that is provided in the brief introduction to the novel makes its autobiographical underpinnings obvious. Its central character, Mary Jocelyn, is the thirty-something spinster daughter of the rector of Dedmayne parish, an unappealing village with nothing to recommend it but the damp. Canon Jocelyn, eighty two at the novel’s opening, is a stately figure. Of his daughter Mary’s physical appearance, Mayor makes it clear that it is a case of “nice eyes, shame about everything else”:

Mary was a decline. Her uninteresting hair, dragged severely back, displayed a forehead lined too early. Her complexion was a dullish hue .. She was dowdily dressed (7).

Reading this, it might be thought that Mayor has an unsympathetic attitude toward her protagonist, but this proves to be far from the case.

The novel charts the trajectory of an on-again, off-again romantic attachment between Mary and Mr. Herbert, recently appointed vicar of the neighboring village of Lanchester. Having fallen hard for Mary, Mr. Herbert leaves for a brief trip to compose his thoughts before proposing. When he returns, he is married to and rapturously in love with the young, beautiful, and moneyed Kathy Hollings. After only one year, Mr. Herbert realizes the intellectual and class gulf separating him from his wife, and comes once more to appreciate his bond with Mary. During a separation, while she is partying it up on the Continent with the fickle and fashionable, Kathy’s mouth is deformed in a bungled surgical operation, ultimately leading to a warm rapprochement with her husband back in England.

Although things often seem about to turn in Mary’s favor—the plot continually suggesting avenues by which Kathy might die off or leave—this is not to be that kind of novel. But neither is it, as it might sound from my description, a depressing tale of a hopeless love affair between two middle-aged people stunted by the emotional constipation of their times. Mary’s emotional clarity, in fact, is what makes her character so appealing. Surrounded by characters who either smother their feelings, like her father, or simply don’t have any deep emotions in the first place, like her friend Dora, Mary’s emotional intensity is the more refreshing and unusual. All the characters, though, are so finely-drawn as to make them utterly compelling, with the relationship between Mary and Canon Jocelyn a particularly understated tour-de-force of the novel.

What I like best about The Rector’s Daughter, though, is that Mayor is as witty as Jane Austen even while her plot is less predictable than Austen’s and her characters more well-rounded and less pretty. Mayor has a way of nailing people right on the foible—take this passage about Mary’s father:

Canon Jocelyn disliked Roman Catholics and the Salvation Army on account of their wildness and extravagance. When Mary was thirteen she had said, “I simply detest Henry IV. of France because he did not persecute any one.”

“That is a foolish way of talking,” Canon Jocelyn answered, “and I dislike your slang use of the word ‘simply.’” She had only meant Henry IV. was not in earnest, but there was a strangeness in the speech, which made Canon Jocelyn feel she might get into the hands of the Roman Catholics.

Or this of life with her Aunt Lottie:

a trickle of chatter…; making and unmakings of the mind up twenty times a day; putting on one’s things and instantly taking them off; a tracking down of the wind, the rain, the damp, the dust, the glare, the dark, the draught, the fog, the crowds, the motors (314).

Perhaps you are familiar with Mayor’s work—if so, let us know what you think. If you don’t, I can carry on thinking I am the only person in the Department to have read it. If you would like to dim the smug glow that this causes me, I can lend you the book. It’s worth a read.

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on December 1st, 2009 |No Comments »

Not the “Neglectedest” Classic


As promised in my last post, I am making my way (very slowly) through the nominations for “neglected classic” made by ten contemporary authors for the radio 4 program Open Book. This past two weeks I read The Snow Goose, by Paul Gallico, and Samuel Johnson’s This History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia. I will only have room here to address The Snow Goose—it’s just that kind of book, and not in a good way.

Paul Gallico seems to be best known for penning The Poseidon Adventure, and is thus ultimately responsible for the excesses of the 1970s adventure movie featuring Gene Hackman et al upside down somewhere in the Atlantic. The Snow Goose, published in 1941, was his first novel, and apparently his most successful. It’s barely a novel, really, being more of a novella or a short story at only 58 small and rather sparsely lined pages. I should also mention that it’s a book for children (or I really hope that’s what he was going for).

Unlike truly great children’s literature, this book doesn’t address and satisfy multiple audiences, however. It’s that time-old story of hunchback meets girl, girl grows up, hunchback falls in love with girl, girl at first finds hunchback creepy but then too late realizes that she is in love with him. Oh, and there is a goose involved. In fact, the goose brings them together, as geese so often do (really, who needs when you have a goose?).

Clearly The Snow Goose was a product of its time, and is moderately interesting for that. Rhayader, the hunchback, dies at Dunkirk after rescuing hundreds of troops in his little sailboat, a testament to the many private vessels that assisted in the evacuation.

In most other ways, though, the characters of The Snow Goose occupy the timeless realm of fairy tale and the netherland of racial stereotype. In this latter element, The Snow Goose finds me a particularly unsympathetic reader, since it demonstrates the ways in which a little knowledge of Old English can do a whole lot of damage. Frith, whose name means peace and thus rather crudely ties to the whole war thingy, first approaches the hunchback with a wounded snow goose that she has found in the marshes. Frith is, “beneath the grime as eerily beautiful as a marsh faery. She was pure Saxon, large-boned, fair” (15). She lives in the “ancient Saxon oyster-fishing hamlet of Wickaeldroth,” a place that seems to have survived untouched since Anglo-Saxon times; she speaks in an annoyingly in-your-face regional accent full of ays, ‘ees, and idiosyncratic verb usage. “’She be’ent going’,” she says, of the snow goose, and, littering the Essex landscape with her dropped consonants (and vowels, for that matter), “’The Princess be goin’ t’ stay’.” Even more vexing is that Frith intuitively knows things, such as the fact that Rhayader is doomed when he sails off in his little boat to Dunkirk (duh!), “from the ancient powers of the blood that was in her” (54). Need I quote more?

In addition to all this yukky Germanicism, The Snow Goose is prone to flights of sentimentalism as soaring as the course of the snow goose itself. Witness this passage from the conclusion of the book, when the goose returns from Dunkirk, where it had faithfully followed the hunchback:

Wild spirit called to wild spirit, and she seemed to be flying with the great bird, soaring with it in the evening sky, and hearkening to Rhayader’s message.

Sky and earth were trembling with it and filled her beyond the bearing of it. “Frith! Fritha! Frith, my love. Good-by, my love.” The white pinions, black-tipped, were beating it out upon her heart, and her heart was answering: “Philip, I love ‘ee.”

My recommendation to ‘ee be’ent t’ read this book.

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on November 18th, 2009 |3 Comments »

Hurrah and All That for Radio Four


Before I begin I should make it clear that this post is not about to turn into one of those “isn’t everything about England great” rants. Lots of things about England aren’t great—like overcrowded roads, telephone boxes that smell of urine, Christmas cake, and the tiny sizes that deodorants come in (ok, those tiny deodorants are really quite cute). But something to be duly celebrated about England is BBC Radio Four.

Radio Four provides the soundtrack for my trips home, echoing through our house on three different radios, one of which always used to play at a slightly different pace than the others because it wasn’t digital. Radio Four is like NPR minus the pledge drive, the local phone-in shows with poor telephone reception, and the repeats, and plus oodles and oodles of literature. I mean no criticism of NPR—because, really, what would life be without it? But, apart from on the weekend (when NPR loosens its tie a little bit, and possibly changes from suit pants to neatly pressed chinos), it offers quite a serious bill of fare. Don’t get me wrong, Radio Four is deeply serious too, catering to the same demographic in England that NPR appeals to in America. But Radio Four wears literature like a jewel in its crown, instead of relegating it to 7.30 on a Sunday (or whenever it is that Selected Shorts is on). So if you need a little slice of drama, poetry, literature or comedy during your week, you should consume a little Radio Four.

For instance, Radio Four has a forty-five minute afternoon play every day and, since you can allow yourself an extra fifteen minutes of drama because it’s the weekend, a sixty minute play on Saturdays. Woman’s Hour, on every day of the week and not just for women, also includes a fifteen minute play. Sundays are particularly decadent, featuring an hour-long dramatization from the Classic Serial. Several times a week we can tune in for the Afternoon Reading, a fifteen minute extract from a novel or a short story. Every day we can catch a fifteen-minute portion from the Book of the Week, a serialized reading from a wide variety of genres. But my favorite has to be Book at Bedtime, a fifteen minute reading from a classic or a new work that airs at 10.45p.m. GMT. Because, really, where else outside of the nursery and creative writing events can a respectable adult get a bedtime story these days? (Although of course it would only be 4.45pm here in Texas, which is not an appropriate time to retire–but because you can listen again online, you can go to bed whenever you want and still have your Book at Bedtime).

If you like the soapy type of drama, or just want a bizarre listening experience, you should check out The Archers. This show began in 1950 as a vehicle to encourage farmers to do the work that would feed a Britain still under food rationing; the 15674th episode was broadcast on January 1st of this year. The content? Impossible to describe. It’s basically a soap set in a fictional village called Ambridge and features characters with an improbable set of regional accents struggling with such hot-button issues as who will star in the panto and what to plant in the top field.

If you prefer verse, you can tune in for Poetry Please, which, I have just discovered, has been running almost as long as The Archers at three decades.

Those who would rather hear books being discussed than being read should try A Good Read, Bookclub, With Great Pleasure, Off the Page and Open Book. This latter brings me to the second subject of my post: the Neglected Classics poll currently being run by Open Book. As the website reads, Open Book, with the help of ten lauded contemporary authors, is unearthing “books that have been overlooked or become inexplicably out of vogue.” Each author has nominated one book for consideration and, following an online audience vote, the winner will be dramatized on Radio Four next year. Fortuitously, this endeavor seemed to combine the subject of the last two posts by Desiree and Tim: prize-winning books and (perhaps justifiably) forgotten classics. Unfortunately we won’t be able to participate in the vote, since it closed at midnight GMT today. But we can still read the books and have our own poll of sorts. So I invite you to read with me and let the English Matters community know what you think. Or, if you have a neglected classic in mind that doesn’t appear on the list, tell us about it. The ten authors and their selections are as follows:

William Boyd The Polyglots by William Gerhardie

Susan Hill The Rector’s Daughter by F M Mayor

Hari Kunzru A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

Ruth Rendell Many Dimensions by Charles Williams

Colm Toibin Esther Waters by George Moore

Beryl Bainbridge The Quest for Corvo by A J A Symons

Howard Jacobson Rasselas by Samuel Johnson

Val McDermid Carol by Patricia Highsmith

Michael Morpurgo The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico

Joanna Trollope Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope

Happy reading!

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on November 3rd, 2009 |No Comments »

Words we use thinking we know what they mean when in fact they mean something quite different

Apologies for the long title, which is almost a post in itself. I wish there were a word (and there probably is) for the linguistic category I want to discuss: those words that we use thinking we know what they mean only to find out, sometimes after many years and multiple degrees, that they mean something quite different. I am not referring here to malapropisms: comedic confusion of one, generally multisyllabic, word for another. Uttering a malapropism involves substituting one word for another with a similar sound, thereby generating a humorous and nonsensical sentence. I am also not talking about faux amis, those words in two languages that sound similar but have different meanings, such as embarrassed in English and embarazada in Spanish. No, what I have in mind is something more sinister: words that we trust, and that we have good reason to think mean what we think they mean, but that turn out not to be our friends at all.

For me, one such word was malinger. For years I thought that this word meant “serious and longlasting” in reference to an illness, when in fact it means, in the words of the OED, “To pretend or exaggerate illness in order to escape duty or work; to feign or produce physical or psychological symptoms to obtain financial compensation or other reward.”

Really, though, my supposition about malinger made sense. I had read it literally as a compound of mal and linger, and thus produced my definition. According to the OED, mal in malinger is probably the negative prefix derived from French and ultimately Latin, but in this case it is compounded with “heingre, haingre thin, emaciated.” Thus the meaning has nothing to do with lingering, although the form of the word probably is influenced by linger. None of this would have helped if I had ever solicitously said to a colleague or associate, “Oh dear, I’m so sorry to hear of your malingering illness.”

Had I been a Renaissance spelling reformer or an eighteenth-century grammarian, though, my mis-definition could have had much larger consequences. They didn’t always get their etymologies right either. Take island, for instance. Ever wondered why it has an s in it? Renaissance spelling reformers mistakenly thinking it descended ultimately from Latin insula, and so concerned about signaling this etymology that they stuck the s in. In fact island came from a perfectly good Old English word, igland (pronounced eelond), which was doing just fine without the s. (Such smug meddling has of course made spelling bees a lot more challenging).

I don’t remember if I have ever used the term malinger in speech or in writing; it’s not a term that comes up a lot (with either the correct or my erroneous definition). But finding out that you have been cherishing a word with the wrong meaning is a big shock (it’s okay, I’ve known for a while, and so I’m over the worst of it). Frankly it makes you wonder about all the others.

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on October 20th, 2009 |1 Comment »