On First Impressions, Last Words, and Queer Readings

On first impression most students consider eighteenth-century novels starchy if not forbidding. The characters’ concerns—such as pedigree, decorum, and structures of inheritance—can feel distant or downright irrelevant; the language, finicky and antiquated. I suspect that part of the perennial esteem for Jane Austen, perhaps the lone exception to this rule, stems paradoxically from the same attitude: distance in this case lends a romanticized haze while the niceties of her language create an escapist nostalgia for a time of more certain moral and sexual order. For some, however, it is precisely Austen’s reputation that makes her novels a site of critical interests for queer studies. After all, offering queer readings of Vathek or The Monk, novels that ooze with luscious and illicit sexualities, would seem close to redundant; moreover, such readings would hardly be queer since they’d reinforce standard lines about these texts.

Here, then, is one dilemma of teaching queer reading practices to students: on the one hand, if we choose novels that are already acceptably “queer” in their ostensible subject matter or authorial subject positions, then our students’ interpretations won’t encounter much normative resistance. Asking students to “queer” already queer novels does little to cultivate reading itself as a subversive act of sabotage. On the other hand, teaching such novels is important in terms of advancing students’ understanding of LGBTQIA lives and literature. The task as I see it is to build a classroom pedagogy that works on two concurrent levels. We must help students recognize and engage with the received meanings of a given text while, at the same time, fostering a strategy of reading against the grain.

My own attempt at solving this dilemma involved teaching a class on Gothic Sexualities in which I situated a suitably fusty eighteenth-century novel, Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron, in the context of queer traditions from a broad array of Gothic texts. We read the graphic novel Fun Home and watched episodes of True Blood; examined novels such as Barthelme’s Snow White and O’Connor’s Wise Blood; looked at stories by Wilkie Collins and Carson McCullers; interpreted vampire poems by Romantic poets; and finally perused canonically queer—and short—novels such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Castle of Otranto. Rather than further distancing Reeve’s work with the armature of conventional eighteenth-century “historical context,” I provided students with practice in decoding queer subtext.

By the time we arrived at The Old English Baron, students were adept at seeing the queer implications of a text. During class discussions, for example, students themselves interpreted Sir Philip’s lingering gaze on Edmund, allusions to Jonathan and David, and late night rendezvous in the estate’s haunted bedroom as redolent of the novel’s homoerotic undertones. In papers, students compared the novel’s overweening concern with pedigree to the blood-lust of vampires, wherein blood is a trope of transmission. Other students wrote how the characters’ seeming obeisance to decorum while underhandedly flaunting it could be perceived as an outsider’s negotiation of norms. And many students linked the novel’s sustained quibbles over inheritance to similar issues in Fun Home and Jekyll and Hyde wherein queer characters are excluded from social standing and must actively “forge” their own legacies. Likewise, several students recognized the novel’s language as dated even for its eighteenth-century audience—willfully obscure, ludic, and parodic of legal discourse (both the “Old English” and “Baron” of the title are puns).

Students could queer the pitch of this novel almost as easily as they could read the much more obvious queer subtexts in True Blood, thereby performing a lively about-face of the novel’s standard reception. Perhaps more importantly, the students were empowered to exercise their own playfulness and acumen, resulting in a critical intelligence that recognized they must refashion their inheritance of any tradition since what makes old novels so lasting is that no reader gets the last word.

 

Will Cordeiro, Northern Arizona University

 

Also see Gothic Sexualities: A Reading List

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