Monday, September 22, 2008

under way

Having completely started over so many times that I've lost track, I feel a little sheepish announcing that I've started drafting (again). Hopefully this time I will actually finish drafting and move on to revising. As the project now stands, here's the general idea:

Maria Edgeworth is now more or less part of the Romantic-era canon, at least from a pedagogical standpoint. Her novels are taught in numerous undergrad courses because of her importance to various aspects of the development of the novel in English. Yet there are still pieces missing in the bigger picture of Edgeworth scholarship. The 1980s and 90s saw a surge of scholarly interest in the notion of sensibility and its importance in eighteenth-century British culture and literature, and several influential book-length studies and numerous articles were published on the subject. However, Edgeworth has, for the most part, been omitted from that discussion.

Edgeworth's attitude toward sensibility varied widely at different points in her career. In her non-fiction writing, she was skeptical of its importance and perhaps even its existence. This quote comes from Edgeworth's Practical Education, which she wrote with her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth:

On sympathy we cannot depend, either for the correctness of a man’s moral sentiments, or for the steadiness of his moral conduct. It is very common to talk of the excellence of a person’s heart, of the natural goodness of his disposition; when these expressions distinctly mean any thing, they must refer to natural sympathy, or a superior degree of sensibility. Experience, however, does not teach us, that sensibility and virtue have any certain connection with each other.

In her novels, on the other hand, the signs of sensibility are often the markers she uses to designate her characters as exemplary or superior or virtuous. Conversely, a character lacking in sensibility cannot be the hero or heroine of the story. As an example, here's a quote from her novel Helen, in which the narrator comments on a shallow and vicious character:

There are things which no man of real generosity could say or do, or think, put him in ever so great a passion. He would not be harsh to an inferior – a woman – a protégée on whom he had conferred obligations; but Mr Churchill was harsh – he showed neither generosity nor feeling; and Helen’s good opinion of him sank to rise no more.

Of this, however, he had not enough of the sympathy or penetration of feeling to be aware.

In spite of Edgeworth's assertions in her non-fiction works that education trumps every inclination of nature, it is in fact Mr. Churchill's nature that marks him as inferior. His behavior is merely an expression of that nature.

Why the discrepancy? Edgeworth's declared purpose in writing novels was didactic, so the facile explanation that the novel is simply fiction and does not reflect the author's views can reasonably be dismissed. It could be that she changed her mind over time - Practical Education was written before any of the novels I'm examining. However, I suspect that the answer is more complex. I think that part of Edgeworth's project was to reclaim sensibility from the realm of the sentimental, and return it to a more Shaftesburian notion of "moral sense" mediated by education or self-refinement.

I think I finally have an argument.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

we've had a change of plans, Data.

The English department has changed the requirements for the MA thesis, and I have languished in the program long enough to be the beneficiary of this change. Backstory: the requirements for an MA in English vary from university to university. Here are three random examples: the University of South Carolina requires an MA thesis of 50-80 pages; the University of Utah requires MA candidates to pass a six-hour comprehensive exam, but no thesis is required; and the University of Washington requires a "master's essay" for students continuing to the doctoral program, but students may substitute 10 additional credits of graduate seminars if the MA is their terminal degree. The thesis requirement in my program was previously in the neighborhood of 60-70 pages.

Recently, however, the department noticed that students were taking an awfully long time to finish the program, and that a lot of the thesis projects were longer than 70 pages. Theorizing that these two facts might have a causal relationship, and wanting to get people graduated faster, the department decided to change the thesis requirement to "an article-length essay prepared with a particular scholarly journal or other publication in mind." In other words, about 40 pages, and probably a maximum of 50.

Well. That sounds a lot easier than what I planned on doing before.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

a message from the ether

I got an email from my superego today. (Subject line: "Thesis superego checking in.") My understanding of Freudian psychology is superficial at best, but I'm pretty sure that's unusual. Anyway, he informed me that he had looked into his crystal ball and foreseen that I would defend my thesis this semester. We've set up a meeting for Friday so we can talk about the specifics of how we can make that happen.

So if my thesis advisor is my superego, what does that make the other members of my committee? Or is the committee as a whole the superego, with Blackwood in this case acting as its representative? Or is the committee in turn merely a microcosm of the larger superego that is the university, or the academy? Is the superego even supposed to have representatives? I probably should have paid better attention to that part of Theory of Lit, but honestly I just thought Freud was kind of a loon.

Whatever. What I really wish is that my subconscious would send me an email and tell me what the main argument of my thesis is.