Monday, December 03, 2007

first snow

We got our first real snow of the season this past weekend.

The weather had been pretty warm until last week, and I just kept pretending that it was still kind of summer. Once it snowed, though, I realized how much time had passed and how much had happened since Grasmere.

The tree in our back yard that we thought was an apricot turned out to be a malnourished peach tree. We nourished it. I dared to eat a peach.

Halloween came and went. Link was a knight, and Peach was a ballerina. (Also pictured: cousins as cow and pumpkin.)

Peach really liked her "dance clothes," but I think she wants to be the knight next time.

And, oh yeah, my thesis. ::sigh:: I keep saying "I'm working on it," but it might be more accurate to say "I think about working on it quite a lot." It's morphed into something about Edgeworth and sensibility and family relationships, and how Edgeworth can be Romantic too, and how ubiquitous the concept of "sensibility" was in Romantic-era culture*. I turned in a new proposal to my committee, and they all more or less said "It sounds OK, but ..."

Blackwell wanted to know why Edgeworth (because she was immensely popular, and Austen seemed too obvious), and why it's important to say whether she was "Romantic," and whether she could properly be called Romantic given her conservative politics, and to what degree I would need to consider politics in the project.

Descartes wanted to know why we should be concerned about Sensibility now, after all the work that was done on the concept in the 90s.

Victoria wanted to know whether I thought I could effectively define Romantic/ism, Romantic ideology, and Sensibility, and whether it's reasonable to try to define them monolithically.


Yeah, I'm totally working on that.
*Really, it was one of those terms like "feminism" is now, where there's hardly anyone who hasn't heard of it, and everyone knows exactly what it means, but it means something different to everyone.

Sunday, November 04, 2007


Before coming back to the States, I spent a day and a half in London, including two nights in the World's Smallest Hotel Room.It was considered a bargain at the (discounted) rate of about $110 per night.

Two of my friends from school were working as TAs for a Study Abroad group in London, and they were kind enough to show me around town. We got lunch at the Borough Market, and ate on the banks of the Thames. Here are Elisabeth and Anna, with the Gherkin in the background.

I wanted to see the Tower of London, so we walked down to the river to the Tower Bridge.
We stood by the bridge for a while and talked about life, and England, and grad school, and politics ... it was like a Hemingway novel, but without the absinthe and the existential despair. We must have stood there for close to an hour. It was a beautiful day, sunny and perfectly mild. As I stood there with my friends, suddenly I thought that I had been waiting my whole life to stand under that bridge and look at that river, and I had never known it until I was there.

We crossed the bridge and walked around the Tower, but I didn't go in and take the tour ... I'll have to do it next time. Note to Sir Walter Scott: this is what a real castle looks like.

I look really cheerful here, for someone who's standing in front of a notorious dungeon.

At some point on the way from the Tower to the British Library, we passed a random stone wall left by the Romans. You can walk right up to it and touch it and everything. With all due respect to Robert Frost, I totally love this particular wall.

So it turns out you're not allowed to take pictures in the gallery at the British Library. In my defense, I would just like to say that A) I wasn't using a flash, and B) there aren't any signs saying that you can't take pictures, which I thought there would be if they didn't want you doing it. I only got a few shots before I heard one of the guards admonish someone else for taking pictures, and put my camera away. The color isn't great because I had to adjust the image to make it more visible, but here's a page from The Canterbury Tales:You can just barely make out the gold illumination at the bottom of the page on the right.

Seeing this manuscript was a very serious thrill:Of course the originals of old manuscripts and documents must exist somewhere, but I couldn't believe I was looking at the actual, physical copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

This is the only other thing I got a picture of - it's Sir Thomas More's last letter to Henry VIII.

I could have spent days and days in the gallery. They had an amazing exhibit of sacred Jewish, Christian, and Islamic texts in addition to all the "usual" stuff. You know, like the Magna Carta.

Later that night we went to a play at the National Theatre. It was in the Cottesloe, which is very small and intimate. The play we saw was The Enchantment, by 19th-century Swedish author Victoria Benedictsson. Yeah, I'd never heard of it either, but it was a good production. On the way back to Kensington I got some night shots of London, including Parliament and Big Ben

and the London Eye.

The aquarium had storm troopers on the roof. I do not know why.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Grasmere: excursions

Rydal Mount, Wordsworth's home near Ambleside:
Sara and Natsuko on the grounds at Rydal Mount:

At the Mirehouse estate, I found myself standing in the graveyard of a thousand-year-old church, in the rain. It just doesn't get much more Romantic than that.

Abbotsford, home of Sir Walter Scott:

It's an adolescent fantasy of a castle, complete with an "armory" full of random weapons, armor, and animal skulls. Bonus: it's located in Scotland.
Remember when I had to read Scott's Heart of Midlothian? At some point, Scott came into possession of the actual lock and keys from the titular prison: That's not an Extreme Close-Up, by the way; those keys are huge.

I was quite taken with this turret-y thing on the grounds at Abbotsford. It had a spiral staircase, and gargoyles, and everything. It turned out to be the game larder.

Here we all are at Wordsworth's grammar school in Hawkshead.That's the tour guide's hand in the lower right corner of the second picture, holding a schoolmaster's cane. He seemed personally offended by the fact that the Victorians had "modernized" the Elizabethan-era schoolhouse by putting big windows in it and painting the walls white.

The wooden desks in the school had several hundred years' worth of students' names and initials carved into them. Based on his research, the tour guide reckoned that this is where Wordsworth carved his initials, although there are a couple of other spots that could have been his:

This is the waterfall at Aira Force. Wordsworth wrote a poem about it. Here's Spratley, reading it on location.

Grasmere: the papers

I was fortunate enough to present my paper about a week into the conference, so I'd had plenty of time to get to know everyone. This made the experience approximately 60% less nerve-wracking. However, I was still nervous because some of the other presenters had gotten some really picky questions, and because I wasn't sure how a paper on Austen would go over at a Wordsworth conference. As it turned out, it went fine.

No one nodded off, and people did ask questions, but they didn't ask any questions I couldn't answer. I actually felt like some of the questions I got were softballs, but Sara said she thought the questioners were taking me seriously.

Most of the other papers were about Wordsworth (surprise) and the other Lake poets, and most of them were good. My favorites were J. D. Lopez’ paper on "Wordsworth and the New Spaniard," Nick Roe's lecture on "The Lives of John Thelwall," Joanne Parker's lecture on the cultural history of stone circles, and Nick Groom's presentation, which included a performance on the hurdy-gurdy. J.D. and Nick Roe had very different topics, but their work was the kind of thing that I would like to do: it addressed the complex nature of the dialog between literature of the Romantic period and the historical and cultural context in which it was written. I knew nothing about John Thelwall before the conference, but Nick Roe's paper convinced me that I ought to. Joanne's presentation was interesting and thorough, and had the advantage of being delivered in the shadow of Long Meg, which was just plain cool.

Nick Groom's presentation had something to do with Coleridge's "damsel with a dulcimer" from "Kubla Khan," but obviously the cool part was the performance:

One thing I found very interesting/educational about the papers was the nature of the questions they engendered. When the students presented, the questions were difficult enough, but seemed fairly straightforward. Some of the students, for example, got questions about which edition of a poem they had used as their text, and why. When the professors presented, though, they got some questions that seemed really ... obscure. Sometimes the questioner would speak for a minute or more without really asking a question, and sometimes the question seemed so multi-faceted or convoluted that it was hard to understand what the point was. The best answer I heard to such a question came from J.D., who got one of the not-really-a-question questions. He did give an answer, but prefaced it by saying, "Sometimes it's hard to improve on your questions by answering them."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Grasmere: people

One of the best things about the Wordsworth Conference is that you get to spend a lot of time with the other attendees. It's a small conference, and they schedule only one session at a time, so there's never a question of which session to go to - you either go to the one that's available, or you don't. After nine days of hearing all the same papers with everyone, and eating with everyone, and going on excursions with everyone, and going down the pub or hanging out in the hotel lounge with everyone at the end of the day, if you haven't made some friends it's probably your own fault. And all the established scholars make a point of being friendly and encouraging to the students; it's a very congenial atmosphere.

It's also a very multinational, multicultural, and multiethnic atmosphere. I got to talk to people from the US, Canada, England, Ireland, Wales, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Poland, Hungary, Taiwan, China, Japan, Syria, and India, and almost all of them were delightful*. Here are a few of my favorites:

Of course I already knew Sara from school. It was wonderful to see her again, and because she had been to the conference the year before, she already knew her way around - which was really helpful when I got lost on my way into town.

Natsuko is from Japan. She speaks excellent British English, and studied Jane Austen for her MA; her conference paper was on Mary Shelley. She is beautiful, but dislikes having her picture taken.

Thomas has no interest in Wordsworth, and prides himself on the fact that he did not attend a single lecture while he was at the conference. He only came because his Mum is the conference administrator. He is seventeen years old, bright, well-informed, and hysterically funny.

That's Ayah on the right, in the headscarf. She is from Syria, but is currently studying in the UK. She was rather quiet, but very nice to talk to.

Prateeti is from India. She seemed to be about my age, although I didn't like to ask. Obviously we come from very different cultures, but it felt to me as if we had something intangible in common ... maybe something about our personalities. That's John Ruskin's gravestone that she's standing next to, by the way.

Shelly and Dave are the proprietors of the Forest Side Hotel, and they went out of their way to be accommodating and helpful to Sara and Natsuko and me, even though we weren't staying at the hotel. Shelly is very polite, while Dave tends to communicate with people almost exclusively through the medium of mild insults. I found this very funny, and enjoyed chatting with him when he and Shelly were at the desk.

There were many other graduate students there, most of whom stayed at the youth hostel in the village. From left to right, Peter, Chris, and Thomas embrace Long Meg, while Frank looks on, bemused. Frank goes to school in New York, so he's way too cool for stuff like that. :)

More students, at the pub. Chris, Peter (hidden behind Chris; not a student), Jacob, Katie, Rebecca, another Peter, and Emily.

And just for fun, here's a random international group shot from the hotel lounge. Pictured, left to right: Nick Roe (St. Andrews), Sara Nyffenegger (now at University of Zurich), Kaz Oishi (University of the Air, Japan), Nick Groom (Exeter), me (US), and Natsuko Hirakura (Toho Gakuen).

*The slightly less delightful were as follows:

- An angry woman who told one of the presenters that her paper was "unacceptable," although it was clear to everyone else in the room that Angry Woman had misunderstood the point of said paper. In her continuing quest to make everyone as uncomfortable as possible, she threw a twenty-minute hissy fit when the hotel staff threw away an empty plastic bottle she had left lying around, and demanded that they replace it. She also believes in dragons. Really.

- A man who seemed mildly but perpetually angry at everyone and everything, which made me wonder why he insisted on coming to the first half of the conference and hanging around with everyone. Maybe it was so he could ask angry questions at the lectures (which he did), respond angrily to questions people asked about his paper (which he did), and have angry conversations with people over a pint afterwards (which he also did).

- A man who kept trying to engage me in an essentialist debate about Jane Austen. He wanted to argue that there is something irreducibly feminine about her writing, and also that she was not able to write complex male characters convincingly because she was a woman. The only Austen novel he had ever read was Pride and Prejudice, and he didn't read that one very well - he described Mr. Bennet as having "faith" that "Lydia's marriage to Wickham will turn out just fine."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Grasmere: the Lake District

Of course I'd heard of the Lake District before I came there. You can't really study Romanticism, even in the most cursory way, and not have heard of it. And I was given to understand that the area was quite picturesque, scenic even. However, I admit that I arrived in Grasmere fully prepared to be unimpressed. I mean, come on, I've seen plenty of lakes before. Likewise hills, rocks, rills, etc. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and I've seen my share of Picturesque and Scenic Nature. Surely the scenery here would be like any other pastoral scenery.

It took five minutes in Grasmere to change my mind.

There really is something different about that place. The light on the fells changes every five minutes, giving endless variety to the landscape. Every prospect looks like something from an art photography textbook. It was so impossibly beautiful that I half suspected the scenery was composed of matte paintings that were put up to impress the tourists. Even the sunsets seemed specially magnificent, different from others I've seen. This inspired me to take numerous pictures of sunsets and fells, which, of course, utterly fail to live up to the experience of seeing them firsthand.

By the way, did I mention that the Lake District is a very sheep-intensive region? It is. Very.

Then there's Grasmere Lake itself. Sara and I scraped ourselves out of bed early one morning so we could go round the lake before breakfast with some other people from the conference. Ten minutes into the experience, I turned to her and gasped indignantly that I thought we were supposed to be on a walk. It turns out that Richard Gravil, the conference convenor, uses the word "walk" to mean several things: charging briskly around a lake first thing in the morning; charging briskly up and down the fells; charging briskly along scenic woodland trails; charging briskly into Cathedral Quarry, etc. He does not use it to mean "taking a leisurely stroll with frequent stops for photographs." So I don't have a ton of pictures of the actual lake. We stopped at one end for approximately three minutes, and I snapped a few shots before we strode briskly on.

Apparently there's a famous rock formation in this shot, called the lion and the lamb. There are other places around the lake where you can actually see it - and it really does look like a lion and a lamb - but of course I couldn't stop to take a picture from those places, because I was too busy striding briskly. (Double click on the picture to get a very slightly better look at the rocks.)

Look - here's Sara, striding briskly around the lake.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Grasmere: the venue

This year the conference was held at the Forest Side, an old country house that's been converted to a hotel. I use the word "old" loosely, of course; the house was built in 1853, so it's not particularly old by British standards. The driveway which leads to the hotel is long, winding, lined with trees, and has one rather odd feature: a small circle of moss-covered stones surrounding two trees.

As you walk up the drive, you occasionally catch glimpses of the hotel between the trees.

Then you round the last bend and see the front of the building.

This used to be someone's house. Probably their second house.

The conference sessions were held in a room with enormous wood-framed windows that look out onto the hotel grounds. It was lovely, but distracting at times, as you may imagine. (Double-click to see the picture in more detail - it's really gorgeous.)

The hotel also featured badgers. I think I was the only person at the conference who found this unbearably funny.

They were kind of cute, but it was hard to get a good picture because they only came out at night.