'To Jane Austen'

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 30 September 2007 0 comments

(Andrew Lang, Letters to Dead Authors, 1892)

As heroines, for example, you chose ladies like Emma, and Elizabeth, and Catherine: women remarkable neither for the brilliance nor for the degradation of their birth; women wrapped up in their own and the parish's concerns, ignorant of evil, as it seems, and unacquainted with vain yearnings and interesting doubts. Who can engage his fancy with their match-makings and the conduct of their affections, when so many daring and dazzling heroines approach and solicit his regard?

Here are princesses dressed in white velvet stamped with golden fleurs-de-lys –ladies with hearts of ice and lips of fire, who count their roubles by the million, their lovers by the score, and even their husbands, very often, in figures of some arithmetical importance. With these are the immaculate daughters of itinerant Italian musicians – maids whose souls are unsoiled amidst the contaminations of our streets, and whose acquaintance with the art of Phidias and Praxiteles, of Daedalus and Scopas, is the more admirable, because entirely derived from loving study of the inexpensive collections vended by the plaster-of-Paris man round the corner. When such heroines are wooed by the nephews of Dukes, where are your Emmas and Elizabeths? Your volumes neither excite nor satisfy the curiosities provoked by that modern and scientific fiction, which is greatly admired, I learn, in the United States as well as in France and at home.

You erred, it cannot be denied, with your eyes open. Knowing Lydia and Kitty so intimately as you did, why did you make of them almost insignificant characters? With Lydia for a heroine you might have gone far; and, had you devoted three volumes, and the chief of your time, to the passions of Kitty, you might have held your own, even now, in the circulating library. How Lyddy, perched on a corner of the roof, first beheld her Wickham; how, on her challenge, he climbed up a ladder to her side; how they kissed, caressed, swung on gates together, met at odd seasons, in strange places, and finally eloped; all this might have been put in the mouth of a jealous older sister, say Elizabeth, and you would not have been less popular than several favourites of our time. Had you cast the whole narrative into the present tense, and lingered lovingly over the thickness of Mary's legs and the softness of Kitty's cheeks, and the blond fluffiness of Wickham's whiskers, you would have left a romance still dear to young ladies.

Over to you, Mr Firth.

Let Your Babies Go

Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 26 September 2007 1 comments

Parents of undergraduates are clingy. You might think you know this already, but believe me, you don't know clingy like I know clingy. I didn't even know clingy like I know clingy until this semester, and I say this as someone who's previously had a conversation with a student's mother which included the words "and this has ruined our entire weekend, I hope you realise!" in re: a plagiarism case. This semester, I worked on the first-year induction side of things for a week. Clingy and me are now on first-name terms.

On the morning of day one, the new students moved into their rooms. The campus was full of wide-eyed teenagers and parents staggering around under oversized suitcases, which is customary and to be expected, although I'm sure that back in my day none of us brought our own fridge. (My favourite moment from Moving-In Day all those years ago was the boy hiding a yellow teddy-bear under his jacket while his dad said things like "Everyone can see that, you realise," and "Listen, son: if they can't love your CUDDLY TEDDY BEAR, they aren't worth having as friends anyway.") On the afternoon of day one, the new students went to a welcome talk. The parents gathered outside the lecture theatre doors in a huge overprotective mob. On day two, the students went to some more induction lectures, including How To Use The Library In Such A Way That Our Staff Won't Be Driven To Early Retirement By Answering The Same Question Seventy-Four Times A Day. Parents sat in the lecture theatres with them. On day three, students registered for their classes and sorted out their timetables, and the parents were still here.

I don't even mean that they were sort of vaguely there in the background, either. Presented, below, a typical conversation:

MOTHER OF STUDENT: Katie's taking Biology, but it says here that her lectures don't start until next week. Is that right?
ME: Yep. [To Katie] All you need to do this week is get your textbook and sign up for your labs, which -
FATHER OF STUDENT: So what does she need to do? Is she doing that today?
ME: [Still to Katie] You need to go along to the department on Monday between two and four, and they'll tell you when the timeslots are.
MOTHER OF STUDENT: [stepping in front of Katie] Where's that? Is that in this building?
ME: [Leaning round her to talk to Katie, who's staring at the ground and looking bored] It's in room so-and-so. Here, you can have a map.
FATHER OF STUDENT: [taking map off me] Right, we'll go there on Monday. Now, where did you say she signs up for the sports clubs?


We had a fun time of it wondering how first-year socialising worked when parents were still around ("Excuse me, dear - Gavin here would like your phone number...") and e-mailing the department secretaries with sympathy and warnings ("Choppers, incoming!"), but really, now. Really. I'm sure I got less parental involvement than this on my first day at nursery school, and I was three years old and convinced I was Superted. If my parents trusted me to find the sandpit by myself and work out in my own time that I couldn't actually fly, I'm fairly sure that the eighteen-year-olds of today can find their way to the canteen without anyone holding their hands. And yet! Parents asking when lectures were, parents asking what the first week's reading was, parents kicking up a fuss because department registration didn't start until the week after and "what do you mean, he won't know his timetable until Tuesday?"

Go home, parents. They don't need you here any more. And if they do, it's about time they didn't.

The eight-legged scuttle of knowledge

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 23 September 2007 0 comments

The worrying thing is not that my desk is cluttered.

The worrying thing is not that my desk is so cluttered that the other day I realised I had nowhere to put the coffee cup I was holding.

The worrying thing is not that today, while staring helplessly at the desk which is too cluttered to leave any space for coffee cups, I saw a wolf spider disappear under a stack of photocopies.

The worrying thing is that the spider seemed to know where it was going.

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I do not love thee, Chapter One
You plod and drag, you're not much fun
But here I'm stuck until you're done -
I do not love thee, Chapter One.

I do not love thee, Chapter Two
I doubt if half your claims are true
Or that I ever proofread you
I do not love thee, Chapter Two.

I do not love thee, Chapter Three
Despite old claims to the contrary
For I knew bugger all in 2003
And I do not love thee, Chapter Three.

I do not love thee, Chapter Four
And can't think what I ever saw
In writing like a book report
I do not love thee, Chapter Four.

I do not love thee, Chapter Five
I'm wishing I had changed my mind
About the whole damn enterprise
And especially you, dear Chapter Five.

(Normal blogging will resume shortly. I just need to rewrite the entire thesis from scratch, and then I'll be right with you.)


Posted by September Blue Saturday, 8 September 2007 0 comments

Dickens, to his co-editor W. H. Wills, on one issue of his magazine All The Year Round:

In the first place the No. is an awfully and solemnly heavy one, and if you have any kind of means to that end by you, must really be lightened. I read it last night, and had a nightmare. I doubt if anything so heavy (except stewed lead) could possibly be taken before going to bed.

Wading through stewed lead of my own, in the form of a thesis chapter last touched eighteen months ago, is why I'm still at the computer in the early hours of the morning again and why there are 204 unread blog items in my Google reader. On one hand, I'm sort of impressed by how much better my work has got over the past eighteen months, judging by the clear evidence of the paper sitting in front of me now; on the other hand, it's the academic version of reading all the poetry you wrote when you were sixteen and Knew The Pain Of Life, except here I Knew The Pain of footnotes, which I think is why all of them are half-finished and say things like '[ooh, might this deserve a chapter of its own?]', and that is not what I want to read right now. And my writing gets so dense and boring when I'm not having fun with it that I'm tempted to lighten things up by turning all the footnotes into knock-knock jokes. Which maybe deserve a chapter of their own as well.

Ways to identify a postgraduate student

Posted by September Blue Monday, 3 September 2007 1 comments

At half-past two this morning I was sitting on the floor with a ring-binder open on my lap, because as we all know, people sign up for PhDs because they can't be bothered with the heavy demands of the real world, in which you are allowed to sleep sometimes. (Or so I hear.) And it's strange what tricks your mind can play on you in the early hours of the morning. The world seems so empty, for one thing. You know you shouldn't be awake, and somehow you end up thinking that's some kind of rule, as if 2.30am exists for the universe to run maintenance checks and you're really not supposed to be watching. Tired eyes get bored with scanning through notes and start inventing flickers of movement just outside your field of vision. My house creaks and thumps in the night, or maybe my neighbours creak and thump in the night, and believe me, it's possible to come up with all kinds of ideas about what's making those sounds.

(I used to work night shifts. Same thing.)

So anyway, the whispery little voice inside my head which pipes up at times like this, the one that still thinks I'm living by a water-hole in Pleistocene Africa and dodging sabre-toothed cats on a regular basis, was working overtime. Thump. What's that? Was that outside? Did it come from the kitchen? Is there somebody in the kitchen? What would I do if there was somebody in the kitchen?... Oh, don't be stupid. And back to work, until ten minutes later, when: Rustle. What was THAT? All right, that definitely came from the kitchen. There's someone in there. Unless it was a mouse. Which it probably was. Unless, unless, it's a crazed serial killer looking for the knives, and I'm spending the last few minutes of my life flipping through a ring-binder... Wait, what am I thinking? Sheesh. And so on.

Until something fell down, I'm guessing outside, with the kind of crash that could not in any circumstances be reasonably blamed on a mouse. And instinct took over. Every cell in my body was listening to that whispery little voice, and for a moment there, I really, truly believed that something or someone was about to leap into the room and go for my jugular.

And my first response, on pure, reactive instinct, was to reach for the keyboard and hit Save.

I might get murdered by a knife-wielding maniac or eaten alive by a time-travelling saber-toothed cat, but so help me God I am not losing a single footnote of this chapter.