The strange feminism of Colonel March

I confess, I watch a lot of British television. In fact, I almost exclusively watch British television these days, given the choice: Inspector Morse, Miss Marple, Poirot, Scott and Bailey, Hinterland, Jonathan Creek, etc etc etc.

I usually don’t find older programs, but I came upon Colonel March of Scotland Yard with Boris Karloff, made in 1955-6, and have been watching its one season of 26 episodes.

It was made in the early days of ITV, when the new station was trying to promote itself, and has been roundly criticized for having very little intellectual content. It is based on the John Dickson Carr book The Department of Queer Complaints, which I would love to read but which costs a ridiculous amount of money when one searches for a copy.

I’m terrible at figuring out whodunnit. I always have been, which makes mysteries wonderful for me. I also forget whodunnit immediately afterwards, making it possible for me to see The Mousetrap in London four times before I could remember. I have solved only one Midsomer Murder out of 21 seasons of the show, though I have done two of Death in Paradise.

Which means that Colonel March is excellent entertainment for me. I don’t need to follow it closely, and March always wraps things up quickly at the end. But I’ve noticed something odd, something I didn’t expect.

Frances Rowe in At Night All Cats are Grey (yes, that’s Christopher Lee)

The women. Despite an occasional “because she’s female” line, the female characters seem pretty equal to the male in terms of agency, career, ambition, intelligence, and cunning. They are business owners, scientists, research assistants, intrepid explorers. They don’t usually commit the crime, and sometimes there is jealousy between men over a woman, but they aren’t in the background either. Their motives and actions are as complex as the male characters.

It’s a decade after the war, so I would assume that women in public roles was fairly common, but if one watches The Bletchley Circle, one would get the impression that the problem with the “Back to Home” women was the same in Britain as in America. Perhaps it was, but even “mindless” television may have been comfortable with the idea that not all women belonged at home, cooking and having babies.

         Elspet Gray in Murder is Permanent

In “Murder is Permanent”, Elspet Gray plays the daughter-in-law of the woman who owns a beauty salon, and is into shady dealings. In “The Abominable Snowman” a somewhat ridiculous premise is saved by Doris Nolan as Mary Grey, a mountain climber who isn’t allowed to be in the Himalayan Mountaineers’ club because she’s female (which Colonel March finds absurd). She led a major climb and it’s the film she made on that adventure that helps solve the mystery. Of course at the end she’s in the club, and will clearly be leading it.

So one has to be careful. Any number of 1950s films and television, on both sides of the pond, have surprised me by either confronting the very issues that supposedly restricted them, or by portraying certain types of people with a different sensibility than I was led to expect. I’ve seen so many now that I’m wondering whether the exceptions to the rule are so numerous that the rule is the exception. . . .

Is this Wells’s dad?

I’ve been doing some research on Joseph Wells, H. G. Wells’s father. Why? For a single slide.

My upcoming lecture on Wells for the Victorian Britain group needs slides, and I had little to put on the slide for his father except stuff from his extraordinary cricket career. Well, it wasn’t that extraordinary, but he did bowl for Kent against Sussex in 1862, where he bowled 4 wickets in 4 balls. This was an extraordinary achievement (although I have had a cricket enthusiast explain it to me, I’m afraid I still don’t know why).

So I went looking for the estate where Joseph Wells worked before he came to Uppark, where he would meet Sarah Neal, who would be H. G. Wells’s mother.

According to H.G.’s autobiography, this would be Redleaf. Redleaf was an estate in Penshurst, Kent, where Wells was the gardener. He was born into this, because his father (also Joseph Wells) had been a gardener. And here it gets confusing, because the owner of the estate was also named Joseph Wells, although he was no relation.

This is the place in 1838, under William Wells. I’m sure it wasn’t any easier to garden in the 1860s. Young Joseph used to leave work and go play cricket nearby.

Now there aren’t many pictures I’ve been able to find online of Joseph Wells. In fact, this is the only one that’s reliable:

So looking back at his son’s autobiography, I also find this:

Old Wells was interested in art, and one of his friends and a frequent visitor at Redleaf was Sir Edwin Landseer, the “animal painter,” who could put human souls into almost every sort of animal and who did those grave impassive lions at the base of the Nelson monument in Trafalgar Square. My father served as artist’s model on several occasions, and for many years he was to be seen in the National Gallery, peeping at a milkmaid in a picture called The Maid and the Magpie. Behind him in the sunshine was Penshurst Church. But afterwards the Landseers were all sent to the Tate Gallery at Millbank and there a sudden flood damaged or destroyed most of them and washed away that record of my father altogether.

Googling The Maid and the Magpie, I find a number of items, most an engraving by Samuel Cousins which was based on the original painting. It may have been “Edwin Landseer’s last great work”, but I wouldn’t know that unless I get access to the paywalled British Newspaper Archive (Google only showed me a bit of a teaser).

Is that him, peeking in? Could be. But the church. Wells said it’s Penshurst Church. But Penshurst Church (of St. John the Baptist) doesn’t have a spire, but rather a tower with little corner pinnacles.

Did it ever have a spire? I could find nothing saying it did, except this:

The Topographical Dictionary (of 1848, but close) is available at British History Online. So I looked, but although the church is mentioned, the spire steeple isn’t. And unfortunately, Getty has etchings of the church from 1840, with no steeple. Maybe Landseer took artistic license. A spire balances the picture better.

So is that Joseph Wells?

 

 

 

 

Lecture: recorded, zoomed, or what?

The word “lecture” conjures an idealized image of students listening attentively as a professor relays knowledge. Almost all of the lectures I enjoyed at university were in this format, and when I began teaching I lectured this way too.

With this year’s quick and unexpected transition to online teaching, many professors assumed that online lecture meant reproducing what they do in class. Zoom.com was grateful for this assumption, even as they struggled to accommodate the massive numbers holding live lectures. Almost immediately, however, there were complaints and problems.

Professors whined that students weren’t paying attention, or didn’t want to turn on their cameras. They couldn’t see the facial expressions and body language indicating comprehension (or lack thereof). Students complained about boring, wandering lectures, and they felt exposed. You can’t sit at the back in an online classroom, and they didn’t want thirty strangers to see the trailer they lived in. Many decided they would watch the recording instead.

The problem? Zoom provided the platform, but the pedagogy was still based in the classroom. This worked better for some professors than others. At our college, they let us choose before this fall whether we wanted our classes scheduled and in Zoom, or “online only” (meaning asynchronous, with no live meetings), or a mix. Many professors regretted their choice.  Those in Zoom wished they hadn’t, and those who chose asynchronous were sorry they’d done that.

For two decades, I’ve been pushing the idea that the technology should follow the pedagogy. Your preferred teaching method should dominate. In the rush, there had been no connection between a professor’s pedagogy and their choice of format.

So, assuming you lecture, what kind of lecturer are you?

Interactive lecturers count on student participation. They ask questions during lecture, or survey the mood, or set tasks for students during the lecture.

Interactive lecturers should consider live (synchronous) lecturing in Zoom or another webconferencing program. The live approach online, however, works best for the simple lecture, on one topic. Shortening lecture time by about 2/3 is also a good idea for live session lectures, but they can be immediately followed by breakout room activity.

Traditional lecturers are those who lecture to an audience, and don’t expect, need, or want the lecture to be interactive. They relay a lot of information, framed by their own interpretation from their professional experience.

Traditional lecturers should record these lectures, and students can view them in an asynchronous way. Students particularly appreciate recorded lectures when the topic is complex, so they can go back and review without being on the spot.

Online lecturers, long ago, were all using dial-up modems and there wasn’t much bandwidth. A lecture quickly became a typed out version of ones lecture notes. As bandwidth expanded, these written lectures could be enhanced with images, then audio, then video. Written lectures can be more like reading, or they can be multi-media experiences, but they’re based on the web page or blog. They may include recorded mini-lectures. Like traditional lectures, they tend to be asynchronous.

So, planning to offer a 90-minute lecture on the historiography of the fall of ancient Rome? Go ahead, but considering recording it with images or video clips rather than doing it live. Want to lecture on solving a quadratic equation, using a whiteboard and asking students to help as you go? Consider a live lecture. Already wrote a great article that covers everything that would be in this week’s lecture? Record your voice reading it, and add some pictures or video clips.

But we don’t all have a choice. Have you been told you have to fill 75 minutes of scheduled class time? Consider creating interactive lectures and activities that require working together. Or have students view a recorded lecture, then come to the synchronous class to work out problems or just do their homework together. I would consider this a flipped online classroom, a model that understands that absorbing information may be best done on ones own but applying it should be done together.

So as we approach spring, let’s consider.

Two Characters in Search of their Teaching Author

“Excuse me,” said Jo, from inside the computer. “Lisa? I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m afraid we need some attention here.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” I said. “But I have a lot of grading to do.”

“You always do,” said Jo. “And we understand. But you’ve left us hanging around here in Chapter 3 for almost six weeks.”

“Yes, yes,” I said, trying not to sound exasperated. “But we are in a pandemic, you know, and I’ve had a death in the family, and I’m behind on my teaching work.”

“But we’re losing the thread here,” said Jo, “and I’m afraid Rossetti is getting impatient.”

“Hmmm,” I said, trying to grade just one more set of student lecture notes.

“Lisa?” This was Rossetti now. “Trouble is, I’m an actual historical character.”

“Unlike me,” added Jo.

“Unlike Jo,” agreed Rossetti, “And I’m known for my impetuous nature.”

“And your charm,” said Jo.

“And my charm,” conceded Rossetti, “And my brilliance and talent and vivacity. You can’t leave us sitting here in the chapter like this. We must shine.”

“We need to know where things are going,” said Jo.

“Well,” I said, “You know where things are going. There’s the outline.”

Jo laughed. “You said you weren’t going to use the outline. Right after you took that Mystery Writing class. I can’t do all this planning, you said, and bought a book about writing in the dark, or something about the seat of your pants.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, “But you can use the outline to know what’s going to happen.”

“But I don’t know,” said Jo. “We’ve only just discovered the body of Mr Pratchett. I’m supposed to be the lady detective this time, aren’t I?”

“Yes, you are. The Inspector did all the work in the first mystery, but this time it’s you.”

“I cannot detect without having something to detect with. A plot or a clue or something. If I don’t have it, I can’t share it with Rossetti.”

“And we’re becoming such good friends,” added Rossetti.

“Yes, we’re becoming such good friends,” said Jo.

“Which you hadn’t planned,” added Rossetti.

“Which I hadn’t planned,” I said, “because Rossetti was a rather famous lover of women, and you, Jo, are a lesbian.”

“She’s a lesbian?” asked Rossetti.

“Yes,” said Jo, “Didn’t you know about my lover Nan, the one who died?”

“No,” said Rossetti quietly.

“She was in the first book.”

“I didn’t read the first book,” said Rossetti, “I wasn’t in the first book. Why would I read a book I’m not in?”

“Oh,” said Jo.

“Look, you two,” I said, “Maybe you’ll become close friends because there’s no sexual tension. Or maybe you’ll both just get excited about the case and enjoy joining forces. You’ve already joined forces really. You’ve already taken Jo to see the wombats.”

“I did,” said Rossetti proudly, “and she’s to be my very dear friend. If you write it that way.” There was a pause. “Are you going to write it that way?”

“I think so,” I said, “But it’s been awhile. I was having trouble with the plot.”

“Well,” said Jo, “you need to write us more, give us more things to do. We can’t just sit here waiting for you to finish your grading. It’ll be all term. We won’t move till winter break at this rate. And all the time, the killer is getting away.”

“How can he be getting away, if I haven’t written about him either?” I asked, reasonably.

“Maybe he’s planning another murder. Maybe the head of the National Gallery is involved. Maybe he’ll start killing artists!” She sounded afraid.

“Or Bridget,” said Rossetti, “He might kill Bridget. Bridget is Mr Pratchett’s assistant, isn’t she?”

“And a very dear friend of mine,” said Jo.

“And a very dear friend of yours. What if she’s in danger? How would we know?”

“She’s already been locked in the darkroom once. And somewhere back here,” Jo paused. She must be searching the previous chapters, I thought. “Somewhere back here there’s a Millicent somebody, who comes to the photographer’s studio.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Rossetti.

“I haven’t been written to tell you yet,” said Jo, “but maybe she’s involved? She’s in the same philanthropy group as I am.”

I shook my head, “I’m not sure what to do with her yet. I thought someone could blackmail her about her hair color. Or a forgery of a painting she owns.”

“Yes! Forgery!” said Jo, “You were going to do something with forgery. And that character, the Italian who knows all about art. He could identify the forger.”

“Besides,” said Rossetti, grumbling, “You’re leaving us here in 1863, while you sit comfortably in 2020.”

“I’m not comfortable,” I said, “Did you hear what I said about a pandemic?”

“More time to write,” said Rossetti. “The fact is, a story about me should be an inspiration, should override all need for mundane work. I want to inspire you! I want to be your muse!”

“It’s not a story about you,” I said, “I am fascinated by you, of course. Who wouldn’t be? But the story is about Jo solving the murder. You’re a side character. You’re her foil.”

“Oh,” said Rossetti, quiet again. “I thought you cared. At one point you had a scene with all of us, with Christina and mother. And Mr Dodgson.”

“I did have,” I said, “I wasn’t sure what to do with it.”

“And now it’s in a file marked ‘not used’,” said Rossetti, sadly. “My family. Not used.”

“Really, Rossetti,” said Jo, “You’re being too sensitive.”

“Am I?” cried Rossetti, “Am I? What if she starts slaughtering the Pre-Raphaelites? What if I’m the next victim? What if poor Lizzie didn’t kill herself, if this murderer gave her an overdose of laudanum? We need this thing written. I deserve to know where I stand!” He was getting very upset.

“Please don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t kill off the Pre-Raphaelites, and you and Jo won’t be harmed.”

“Bridget?” said Jo nervously, “You won’t kill off Bridget?”

“I hadn’t planned to,” I said. “But I really don’t have time to get back to this right now.”

“Hah! You always say that time is made, not found,” said Jo. “So make some time for us and get us to where we can find the forgery and do some detecting.”

“Yes, dear,” I said, and sighed. “I honestly had no idea you characters were so demanding.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jo.

“I am too,” said Rossetti, “but please don’t abandon us.”

“I won’t,” I said. “But do let me grade another set of lecture notes.”

 

 

It Never Goes Back the Way it Was Before

I hear people say things like “when things go back to normal” or “after the pandemic” or just “afterwards”.

That might have worked for something that lasted a few weeks. Or for a hurricane or fire that destroys your home, then you have to rebuild. We can’t do that yet — this is the classic slow-motion train wreck. And anyone who’s rebuilt, had tragedy strike, knows that nothing is ever the same again.

Because we cannot go backward. Trust me on this — I’m a historian. I know backward. We only go forward.

The articles talking about the way in which the pandemic is changing business, or is changing the way we do things, are closer to the mark than the ones talking about going back to the way things were before. Will we have a time when we shake hands again, and hug our grandchildren? Very likely. Will we ever shake hands the same way again, not thinking anything of it? No.

Even when we’re not actively afraid anymore, we will be more aware. More aware of how quickly things can change, how people can treat each other differently, suddenly. How protestors can take to the streets even when they might get infected. How people can lose their jobs, lots and lots of jobs. How government support can happen, and how it can disappear. How the economy is based on the spending of extra cash. How people can be treated like disposable commodities. How those without money are exposed to danger. How science cannot stand against unreasoned anger.

We already watch old movies, or at least I do, and think, “they’re not wearing masks”. It will still jar us later. We’ll tell our grandchildren, we learned to smile differently then. With our eyes. We waved more with our hands. We learned to speak more clearly.

The international embarrassment will take years to fade. Luckily, Americans have dealt with this before. A number of our military operations have been embarrassing, for example. But the usual admiration for our brashness and our money won’t hold up as well this time. American brashness is killing people, a lot of people. Our money has failed to provide even a minimum number of virus testing kits for us, much less the world.

So let’s not make assumptions about the After Times yet. Let’s focus on now a bit more. What are we gaining now, and what are we losing? How can we help others? How can we support people in trouble? Shouldn’t people with a lot be providing for those with less?

This summer the best web browser ever, Cliqz, closed down. The German designers made it as a model for open source browsers that protect privacy and operate quickly. They intended European countries to adopt it with public support. But the pandemic, they said, had left no room to even talk about a browser for the people. Everyone is focusing on Covid.

Well if that’s the case, if that’s what we’re doing, perhaps we could do a better job of it. Fight the fires, but also do some introspection. And some planning. And some spending. Heal some rifts. And start getting it right. Because there really is no going back.

A story published

I’ve had my first short story published, in The Secret Attic. Entries were competitive, so it’s real, but I’ve had to pay £7.99 plus shipping to America to see it in print. They didn’t tell me my story got in — I had to return to the website to see if I won the contest or got published or neither. An interesting process, publishing, but I’m grateful for the opportunity.

I read the submission rules, and copyright is mine with right to publish elsewhere. No one else will publish it, of course, but it does mean I can publish it here. Enjoy.

The Online Death of Gerald Thorne
by Lisa M. Lane

Just Be Kind

I’ve been attending the Humanizing Challenge offered by Michelle Pacansky-Brock at @ONE here in California. For years, Michelle has been encouraging faculty to put themselves into their courses, continuing a tradition begun by Pat James.

The tone has shifted to humanizing online instruction through equity and empathy. Unlike many programs using the word “equity”, here it is in its fullest sense of caring for everyone and treating differences with understanding. During the pandemic, I have tried hard to push back against approaches that simply ignore the situation. It is deeply unfair and inhumane to continue as if nothing is happening.

The response of some professors, unfortunately, has been to double-down on enforcing their own rules and regulations. Psychologically, this provides a feeling of control. New instructors do this a lot. I recall when I was a new professor being very concerned that I have authority in the classroom. I was 25 and anxious that students wouldn’t respect me or do what I needed them to do. When they didn’t come on time, I locked the door.

Over the first year or two I relaxed, established the minimal authority necessary for classroom functioning in my tone and personality. I changed, students changed. I put more responsibility for learning on them, and removed elements that caused me the stress of adjudication and enforcement.

The many profs new to teaching online are reacting like I did when I was 25. They have been thrown into an environment they cannot control, and they are as frightened as I was. Training has not been helpful, emphasizing regulations and technology: FERPA, how to upload things into the LMS, how to use Zoom. “We are here 24/7 to help you” does nothing when you don’t know what to ask. It’s as useless as “Hope you are doing well in this challenging time.”

The approach of the Humanizing Challenge reverses this to acknowledge the affective domain of teaching online, to put kindness toward ourselves and our students at the top of the agenda, not an afterthought at the bottom. Because basically it all comes down to Just Be Kind.

We should always have been kind. Students have always faced challenges, not just of the financial kind. They have always had a husband dying of leukemia in the next room, a severely autistic child, an environment too dangerous to learn in. They have had these individually, and we should never have responded with “it’s due Sunday or else”.

Yes, there will be a conflict between academic standards and kindness. The Humanizing Challenge has focused on empathy and teaching from a place of love, and asks faculty to reveal their vulnerability. I have seen this go too far (I know a faculty member who teaches drunk, and one who overshares about her life, burdening the students). While I do not agree with the current article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (they say a Zoom background is necessary to be professional), we do need to be models of how to handle adversity while learning.

I recall 1991, when I was teaching during the Kuwait war. My classroom filled with military wives who desperately needed to be somewhere at a particular time. I was teaching US History, but the subject didn’t matter. They told me they needed the class time to focus on something else, to not think about their husbands deployed overseas. When I missed a day, they were distressed because that day they had nowhere to be. It is our job to provide stability in a crisis, a chance to focus on something else.

But while being professional, there are so many ways to be kind. Deadlines are the perfect example. Why are your deadlines important? Mind are important for establishing rhythm. I have lots of small-stakes assignments. A student who misses a deadline knows they’re off the rhythm. If I individually say it’s ok, let’s try to get this in a few days late, no penalty, it’s just basic kindness. It doesn’t mess up my life to the extent it’s worth harming theirs. For first responders, students working in health care or working extra shifts, deadlines are removed as soon as they contact me.  The only real deadline is the end of the class. Will they get as good an education doing things late? My answer used to be equivocal. Now its “We’re in a plague, people!”

It’s taken a pandemic for more people to realize the extent of human suffering. You don’t lock the door — you open it wider. It’s a shame that it takes a program like the Humanizing Challenge to give such a basic message: Just Be Kind. But with hundreds of faculty attending the sessions, I’m very glad it’s there.

The Awakening What?

In doing some research for a possible next mystery novel, I am looking into the Pre-Raphaelites, one of the few sets of people that still has the power to surprise me. I came upon this article: Edouard Rod, “The English Pre-Raphaelites“, The Connoisseur (June 1888).

It references several paintings I have seen. In discussing Holman Hunt’s Christianity, Rod mentions his painting, The Awakening Conscience (1853). He notes:

According to the explanatory catalogue, “The Awakening of Conscience” represents a young woman led into evil by a shallow and frivolous man, and installed by him in a little English cottage; her conscience is awakened by the refrain of an old song, “Oft in the Stilly Night,” played by her lover upon the piano, and which recalls to her the time before her fall. If you look at the picture without reference to the catalogue, and endeavor to seize the moral, you will notice that painful thought is indicated by the tension of the features; the young woman is depicted as leaning back in a hopeless attitude against the easy-chair in which she is seated; you will also infer from the indifferent and smiling air of the man, whose fingers are wandering over the keys, that her disturbed feeling is not produced by the simple music; you will still further see that the man is thoroughly commonplace, while the woman is of finer fibre, but nothing more.

That’s funny, I didn’t remember her being seated, but rather him being seated and her rising. And when I saw it in person I questioned the whole idea of her entering some stage of repentance anyway. So I thought I’d have another look:

OK, so maybe he had been playing the piano, but he certainly isn’t now, and she is not lounging hopelessly in the easy chair — he is, like I remembered, and she seems to be rising from sitting on his lap. And is that a cottage? It looks like an urban flat to me, but what do I know? Anyway, his fingers are not wandering over the keys, but resting on them.

Sometimes, this sort of incongruity happens because there were different versions of the painting. But I looked and there doesn’t seem to be another one. Had Rod really not seen the work? Or did he see a different scene than was painted? The rest of the article was good, but marred for me by this inaccuracy.

One does hope, of course, that one can at least trust the facts in a secondary source, if not the interpretation. If I lived in pre-internet times, I wouldn’t have been able to look and check the work itself without going to a library. But here I go blithely sending students to J-STOR, telling them to do their research. Better check our facts, even in 1888.

What the Dickens

Funny the things that happen when you’re a historian just trying to read a book, and the ways in which being a historian can get in the way of a good read.

I recently joined the Victorians! forum on Goodreads. People there read Victorian-era books. I’ve read some of those myself, including a few by Charles Dickens. I’ve read The Old Curiosity Shop (which someone spoiled for me, thinking everyone knows the ending), A Christmas Carol (of course), and Hard Times (ok, so I listened to the audiobook). The rest await me, eight or so volumes on the shelf. I figured Oliver Twist would be next.

Then I saw that the Victorian group would be reading Nicholas Nickleby. I’m not much of a joiner, but I thought it might be fun. I’ve never read with a group, never been in a book group or anything. The closest I get is reading the “book group questions” at the back of  novels.

But I didn’t have a copy of Nicholas Nickleby. I could have downloaded it from Internet Archive, but I don’t like reading things on a screen. Ironic, isn’t it? Backlit screens are for work, but reading for pleasure is different. I want a book in my hand, turning its pages, absorbing its history.

My ultimate site for second-hand books is abebooks.com. But I’m very choosy, because to me books are historical objects. My first preference is for a book published during the author’s lifetime, so “publication date ascending” is my go-to sort. Ending 1870, when he died. Whoa! the prices! How could Dickens be fetching such prices? OK, maybe not 1870. . . But even with an edition from 1920, we’re talking some money.

I knew Mr. Dickens was not getting a cut from my purchase, but I’m not a huge fan of him as a person, despite Simon Callow’s brilliant portrayal in Dr Who. As a historian, I try very hard to separate the creator from his creation. Where would I be with Rousseau if I cared about how he gave up his own children to foundling hospitals? Or if I ignored the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson because I was busy judging how he lived? People are not their ideas. We are all flawed. Good ideas survive long past the person’s lifetime.

Dickens is somewhat different because I went to his house. Not while he was there, of course, but several years ago. It’s a shrine to him.  I found this bizarre, because it was really her house. His wife, Catherine. She raised his ten (!) children. She wrote the best-selling menu book What Shall We Have for Dinner? Since 2016, the museum has made a huge effort to include her in the house’s story. The problem is that Mr. Dickens, who was having an affair with young actress Ellen Ternan, didn’t want his wife anymore. After she discovered the affair in 1858, he turned the situation on her, separated from her, and dissed her all over London. He even tried to get her committed to an asylum. (I’ve begun reading Lillian Nayder’s 2011 biography rehabilitating her reputation. I feel I must.)

I’ve learned that you cannot be a Victorianist without enjoying, or even reveling in, Charles Dickens. Certainly I admire his detailed portrayal of the era, the wonderful characterizations, the turns of phrase that make you chuckle aloud. He wrote so fast, and so much, that I know I haven’t even scratched the surface of his talent. But the hagiographic approach to him annoys me anyway.

So I clicked past the volume of Nicholas Nickleby that said “Works by Charles Dickens” on the spine, because it was part of a collection. I scrolled beyond the $1,000 matched sets of his work. I searched for the small 8vo versions I prefer, but there aren’t any because the novel is too long. I finally found one I liked and ordered it.

I do not hold it against Dickens that I spent so much time looking for a book I hadn’t wanted to read, by an author I personally dislike, just to join a discussion with a group I do not know. It’s just another case of a historian making things more complicated than they need to be.

Writing novels

I read a great quotation today: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” It’s by Ray Bradbury, so of course I had to find out from which book and order it.

Way back in November, which feels like a lifetime ago now, I was feeling stuck in my research. I had applied for a grant for my collection of H. G. Wells’ writings, so it felt like I had no reason to work on it until I knew whether I got it (I didn’t, third time running). The other book on Wells was in the process of being written through a series of scholarly papers presented at conferences, but since I teach full-time plus, and can only present once a year, this was going slowly. I tried reworking the papers into publishable articles, but they didn’t seem to fit what journals were looking for.

So although I was still fascinated by my topic, output was lagging. Nothing felt completable. So on a gloomy November day, I haphazardly began writing a novel based on a character like me, in the process of doing research on H. G. Wells. Over the next four months, I wrote every night between midnight and 1 a.m., until it was done. The writing flowed. I downloaded Scrivener to have a place to write it, and ultimately paid for that program (and I rarely pay for anything). The book seemed to write itself. I edited as I went along, going back to the previous chapters nightly, rearranging and fixing. It was a strange process, since I have long thought of myself as having no imagination. But what came out was pretty good.

I wanted to get it published, so I began reading up on how to do that. I have a former student who’s now an author and writing coach, and subscribed to her advice. I thought I should join writing groups on Facebook, so I found a few and followed them. I searched out information on writing and writers conferences, novel construction, how to make a good plot. I discovered that I’m a “pantser” (writing by the seat of my pants, with no plan) rather than a plotter.

This conclusion annoyed me. I have for many years prided myself on my organization and planning skills. I had read that it is a good idea to start work on a second novel, while waiting for the zillion rejections on the first. The first book was in the genre “literary fiction”, I discovered, but I had been wanting for some time to write a Victorian mystery, so I started that. My many blog posts on the year 1862 attest to the fun I’ve been having doing it. The pundits said no, you should write in the same genre for several books. Oh well.

Unlike the first book, this one should have been planned out rather than “pantsed”. Mysteries are complex, and my memory is not good (few historians have good memories). I tried mind-mapping, and ended up with Scapple, from the same people as Scrivener, to map the plot. This didn’t work well. I tried to plan, but ended up putting things that I had already written on the map instead, a reverse process of tracking rather than planning.

And I kept looking for groups to join, because I’m entering a new world so I felt I should. Writers, they say, should hang out with writers, as a community, for support. I am not a joiner. I don’t like groups. And I’ve become annoyed with the process of looking for an agent, which everyone says takes huge amounts of time and lots of rejections. I expected rejections from publishers, but agents? The whole publishing thing has been frustrating and mystifying. The advice, the formulas, the sample letters, the filling out of forms that each have their own format, just to get someone to represent you whose fee will ultimately be paid through book sales. I have decided on one plan, anyway: write agents some, send directly to publishers if I can’t find an agent, and self-publish if I can’t get an agent or a publisher.

I do not, like some authors, seek fame or fortune. But I would like some people to read and enjoy my work. If the writing itself adds joy to my life, the seeking of agents and publishers seems to suck it back out. My book(s) are good, I think, but I have learned rather quickly that quality doesn’t matter that much in the publishing world. I’ve learned why Dan Brown and John Grisham sell, and beautfully written works do not.

The pandemic now has millions of would-be novelists putting fingers to keyboards. I have been joined by mobs. Am I novelist, without a published novel, just because I’m up at night writing novels? Does this graphomania have anything to do with my job? Why am I doing this?

And yet I continue to do it all wrong. I have read that my protagonist must have a horrible flaw, an Achilles heel that causes conflict. Mine merely has a penchant for buying too many books and taking his time thinking things out. The action is supposed to rise, with a status quo brutally disturbed, truths revealed, and a startling conclusion. Mine has likeable characters that mosey along finding things out. There are supposed to be twists, where I’ve led my reader to think one thing and then — shock! — it’s something else. I have some pinkish herrings, but I don’t think I have a single twist. It’s more like a churro than a pretzel. Is it a cozy? Apparently not, because there’s some plot-based sexuality and the person solving the mystery is a professional. But it seems like a cozy to me.

And now, I’m a bit stuck, with most of the mystery written, and no idea how it’s going to end. But when I allow the characters to just mosey along, talking and discovering and living their lives, the world of today utterly disappears. I am in 1862, caught up in the pushing and shoving of the audience at the Surrey Theatre, sensing the activity of overcrowded London, wondering whether it’s worth the trip to travel to the Exhibition in Kensington when the omnibus doesn’t go all the way there. When I let the characters take over, the plot just goes along fine, so I’ve decided to leave it to them. They know what they’re doing. They’ll figure it out.

Maybe when ones characters become so real they write the story, one really is a novelist. So I’ll stay drunk on writing.