Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Today's trials

Morning everybody. I treated myself to a lie-in today until 9.15 (!) on account of being bereaved, but the schedule is once again packed. The main event is a lecture and two-hour seminar on The Sorrows of Young Werther with my first year students. I picked Werther because it's a very early example of youth cults and adolescent angst: the young man has no emotional brakes, falls in love and kills himself. All this is communicated (until the end, of course) in overflowing letters explaining the brat's isolation, alienation and sensibility. It is, basically, 110 pages of a German teenager screaming 'you just don't understand me' at the world - although there's a clear sense that the author uses the novel to distance himself from the torments of his own youth.

The Death of Werther

It's also one of the key texts for European Romanticism: the idea that truth is internal and emotional rather than public and rational reached a wide readership here, and it popularised the concept of adolescence as distinct period of one's life. It set off a wave of imitators and fans: people bought 'Werther' clothes and trinkets: some even supposedly killed themselves in homage to their hero. If the Daily Mail had been around at the time, it would undoubtedly have tried to spark a moral panic about this SICK FILTH. Just like this one. So I'm hoping that this novel strikes a chord with the students.

The learned Professor Ben Knights (whom I quoted extensively in my PhD and with whom I'm Twitter friends) directed me to this sharp-tongued response to Werther by the English novelist Thackeray:

WERTHER had a love for Charlotte
  Such as words could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
  She was cutting bread and butter.
Charlotte was a married lady,        5
  And a moral man was Werther,
And for all the wealth of Indies
  Would do nothing for to hurt her.
So he sigh’d and pin’d and ogled,
  And his passion boil’d and bubbled,        10
Till he blew his silly brains out,
  And no more was by it troubled.
Charlotte, having seen his body
  Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,        15
  Went on cutting bread and butter.

Teaching's going really well at the moment. Yesterday's second class on Trollope's The Way We Live Now was great. At least, I thought it went really well, whether the class thought so too is a different matter. But they'd all finished or nearly finished this 900 page novel and really knew what they were talking about: comparisons with previous generations' fiction, cultural context, close analysis: they were all there. Next week we start Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, which in many ways inherits more than you'd think from staid old Trollope. They've already started reading it and seem to be enjoying it. After that, I hit them with some 1930s proletarian stuff in total contrast. If they can get copies, then it's Gwyn Thomas's Sorrow for thy Sons. If not, then Lewis Jones's Cwmardy. Having written my PhD about them (and Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley), I should be able to drone on for two weeks about either of them.


Anonymous said...

Having both Vile Bodies and Sorrow for their Sons in my bookcase, and not yet read, what should keep in mind? Or which books would you recommend for background reading?

The Plashing Vole said...

Hello. DJ Taylor's Bright Young Things is perfect for Vile Bodies (which it mentions frequently). Sorrow is a classic of proletarian literature: 3 sons with different paths trapped in stasis by capitalism and an oppressive state. Masculinity is an important facet too.

Anonymous said...

Ta, Voley! Will keep that in mind.