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At the 2008 MLA and in a Chronicle Review essay, “Remember the Reader, A Manifesto,” Rita Felski challenged scholars of literature to count the cost of investing heavily in a “hermeneutics of suspicion.”[1] That cost has been magnified by the economic collapse that followed and by the resulting price higher education will be paying for years to come. While acknowledging the value of theoretical investments grounded in a desire to confront the ways literature participates in forms of oppression and injustice, Felski urged scholars not to ignore how varied readers’ “uses” of literature can be. If we could fashion a “nonutilitarian understanding of use,” she writes, we could better understand the “vast terrain of expectations, emotions, beliefs, dreams, and interpretations” that ignites readers. Even as scholars ask how literature works, Felski argues, they must also take the “everyday uses of literature into their reflections, to take seriously such motives as the desire for knowledge, or pleasure, or escape” (“Remember,” B7).

Pleasures, of course, can make academics (including Victorianists) squirm. Nineteenth-century British literature proliferated in a landscape and history rife with sexism, class bias, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and the will to conquer. Many of the nineteenth-century texts we regularly study and teach reinforce those inequities, justifying injustice through the normalizing conventions of realism, the seductions of sentimentality, or the dire warnings of gothic angst. To play devil’s advocate to Felski, one reason that many of us continue to teach even the most blatantly racist novels, such as H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines or hyperbolically imperialist poetry such as Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” is that the very theories that encourage suspicion can also, paradoxically, offer models of dialogic internal critique, counter-discourse, and ethical attention to differences in subjectivities and social and historical positioning. These texts can also teach us the dangers as well as pleasures of aesthetic seductions. Maybe that explains why, contrary to modernist rumors of its demise, Victorian literature has curious staying power. Helping students understand how and why nineteenth-century audiences found pleasure in the works that now offend may be as important as sharing the rich systems of language and imagery, the intricate plots and demanding narrative strategies, and the longing to lift the human spirit and right the social wrongs in the literature—those qualities that wooed many of us into nineteenth-century studies in the first place.

In this essay, I reflect on the embodied study of Victorian and Edwardian literature prompted by an experiment with an undergraduate literature course in which a class prepared for and supported the staged reading of a 1907 suffrage play.

Figure 1

Poster announcing staged reading of Votes for Women, Iowa University, 25 Oct. 2007

Poster announcing staged reading of Votes for Women, Iowa University, 25 Oct. 2007

-> See the list of figures

My goal is to share lessons learned, to situate the lived experience of past literatures in theoretical questions about the values and limits of publicly engaged pedagogy, and to suggest ways to translate this very specific teaching experience into other classroom situations and innovative forms of critical practice. In effect, I take Felski’s challenge seriously. The emerging field referred to as “the scholarship of teaching and learning” (commonly referred to as SoTL) highlights the importance of pedagogical research.[2] In this domain, the learning process and best practices for facilitating learning are the objects of inquiry. In this case, I want to learn ways we, as educators, might engage differently with students in our classrooms, with graduate students who are less and less likely to have the same opportunities as faculty members teaching in Ph.D. Programs or even in any tenured positions, and with that public of readers whose diversely motivated interests in nineteenth-century literature drive various mass-culture markets. To turn Felski’s approach inside out, what would it mean to ask students and even readers outside the academy to engage with Victorian literature in their daily lives as readers, as participants in learning communities, and, in the instructors’ case, as public scholars rather than inevitably and always as academic critics? Is there a cultural space that allows for deeply engaged reading; for creative play and serious reflection; and for thoughtful and sometimes hard conversations about the insights that reading literature of the past offers? How might scholars of nineteenth-century literature seek common ground or at least footings for bridges to join these two domains? We are accustomed to producing rigorous, focused, increasingly specialized forms of research and writing. Where and when might we engage with the participatory, more pleasure-driven reading practices valued by non-academic readers and thereby draw far larger communities of readers to the study of literature? These questions have motivated a number of experiments in publicly engaged pedagogy that I and other Victorianists have conducted in recent years. This essay focuses on just one of those experiments, but even at my university alone, a number of recent projects have demonstrated the innovation, imagination, and impact that publicly engaged pedagogy delivers.[3]

In the summer of 2007 as the U.S. presidential campaign revved up and the country seemed poised to elect its first woman president, I began planning a course focused on writing by and about women in the nineteenth century, culminating in suffrage literature of the early twentieth century. I am a transplanted (and at best hybrid) Midwesterner, but the election season truly is a great time to be an Iowan. In 2007, the responsibilities of voters were omnipresent in Iowa, the state that traditionally holds the first presidential primary. Contemplating the hard-won privilege of voting and the role that literature played in making the case for women’s suffrage offered a unique opportunity to immerse students in the study of literature in a differently “lived” fashion. Doing so seemed all the more important because of the virulent rhetoric aimed at the first viable woman candidate for the U.S. presidency. I happened to be doing research for an article that asked how media representations of present-day women terrorists might affect the way we now read A Tale of Two Cities.[4] To my surprise, conservative commentators repeatedly characterized Hillary Clinton as Madame Defarge.[5] Therefore, as I planned the course, I decided students might experience the impact of literature more viscerally by studying how non-majors and even non-academic audiences “use” literature. Elizabeth Robins’ suffrage play Votes for Women! suddenly assumed new significance.

Robins’ play, directed by Harley Granville Barker, opened in April of 1907 at the Court Theatre in London.[6] Limited but strong studies of Robins’ work exist both in print and online, including a fine biography by Angela Johns, which made the play a good choice for an undergraduate course.[7] I introduced her work to the class using a 2003 article in The Guardian by Samantha Ellis to obliquely demonstrate the writer’s continued presence in the present.[8] Robins (1862-1952) was an American pursuing a career as both writer and actress in London who gained notoriety in 1891 as the first actress to play the title character of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. Also successful as a novelist, Robins expanded Votes for Women! into a novel titled The Convert, published in October 1907. Increasingly, she also became known for her political work. Allegedly, the main character in the play, Vida Levering, was originally named Christian and was based on Robins’ close friend Christabel Pankhurst, the well-known leader of the militant wing of the movement. Later, her home became a refuge for suffragettes recovering after their hunger strikes in prison. Robins donated a quarter of the royalties from Votes for Women! to the suffrage cause. A year after the play opened, she and her leading lady, Edith Wynne-Matthison, helped to found the Actresses’ Franchise League. Today her novels receive the most critical attention from scholars studying the New Woman; for example, Iveta Jusová devotes a chapter to a travelogue and novel written by Robins in The New Woman and Empire (2005). The Fales Library at New York University has wonderful holdings not only of a number of Robins’ proofs, but also of theater programs, playbills, calling cards, lecture materials, and far more.[9]

The play and novel offer fascinating vantage points from which to examine the social, political, and literary positions and conventions associated with the term “Victorian.” Lingering debates over the New Woman and historical transitions intersect with the conventions of the problem play popularized by George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen. Both play and novel assess political alliances across classes. Robins’s work also ponders the forces that drive female characters’ personal and political choices at different generational stages. My students were shocked that events hinge on an abortion in the main character’s past. The play also self-consciously addresses the capacity of literature to engage its audience through a legendary crowd scene in which the wall between the stage and the audience dissolves as hecklers taunt a series of speakers at a suffrage rally in Trafalgar Square. Robins’ own stage directions bring the scene to life:

The north side of the Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square. The Curtain rises on an uproar. The crowd, which momentarily increases, is composed chiefly of weedy youths and wastrel old men. There are a few decent artisans; three or four "beery" out-o’-works; three or four young women of the domestic servant or Strand restaurant cashier class; one aged woman in rusty black peering with faded, wondering eyes, consulting the faces of the men and laughing nervously and apologetically from time to time; one or two quiet-looking, business-like women, thirty to forty; two middle-class men, who stare and whisper and smile.

168; original in italics

The stage directions then expand to reveal the presence of several hundred spectators of all classes, the working-class woman suffrage speaker on stage, a banner declaring “VOTES FOR WOMEN” in the background, and other suffrage supporters working the rowdy crowd.[10]

In many ways that scene became our pedagogical model for studying the play. Robins’s desire to move audiences from a performance or a text to political action no doubt motivated the famous crowd scene. In the Guardian article, Ellis offers a quick survey of periodical reviews from 1907, which lavishly praise the “the finest crowd scene that has been seen for years” (the Sketch), the “marvel of verisimilitude” (the Observer), and the pitch perfect Cockney tones and attitude of the crowd (Illustrated London News). Ellis also notes that reviewers carp about the beauty of the main character, Vida Levering (The Times) and the play’s polemics (the general consensus).[11] (When I next teach the course, this newspaper article will provide a springboard into a periodical assignment—finding these original reviews.) As we learned in staging a reading of the play, the crowd on stage blurs into the audience with surprising ease. Spectators find themselves participating, at least imaginatively. Hypothetical questions about audience translate provocatively into the always complicated question of which public, what public, what reality, what place, and what people constitute “the public” for a text, a discussion, and the learning process.

What we learned through this particular pedagogical experiment is still unfolding for me and, I suspect, for the students. To impose a somewhat false order on the experience (and most learning processes), below I discuss issues in the order of the construction of the course. I have focused on asking the question we implicitly ask students when we push them toward a promising, provoking thesis—so what? What did the experience provide that conventional classroom teaching would not, or could not?

First, planning the course required transformative collaborations. Anyone who has had the opportunity to team teach, especially with an historian, art historian, or colleague outside the discipline of literature, knows how mind-bending the negotiations over a shared syllabus can be. In this case, I began by enlisting the help of a colleague in Theater Arts, Meredith Alexander, who is an experienced and talented director. Together, we decided to combine the work of my class and a group of her students. I wrote a proposal that we submitted to the performance planning committee of Theater Arts. We had to pitch our project right alongside Theater faculty members’ proposals for staged plays in the coming year. This forced me into articulating the reasons for a public performance. As I explained, I have taught service-learning courses in animal studies, but I have not found a satisfying way to combine nineteenth-century literature with a community-based research project[12] . In the case of the play, I proposed that the Theater Department and my class might approach the local branch of the League of Women Voters, given the political arguments of the play. The League members happily volunteered to provide the hecklers called for in the play’s crowd scene. We agreed they would sit among the audience members, leaping into action from the floor. The League also planned a forum on women and politics that they held separately, the week after the play. That forum later developed into a panel that included a founder of the League, a well-known feminist who had served in the Iowa State Legislature, and a faculty member in political science whose research focuses on minority women’s participation in elections. Incidentally, the panel added both generational and racial diversity to the discussion. The participation of the League ensured a diverse, politically sophisticated audience for the play. Several students in the class also volunteered to help with the forum, which was filmed and shown on a local cable access channel, extending its reach beyond the immediate audience.

Meetings with the theater department were an education in the deep collaborative practices—with interpretation of a text at their heart—that are fundamental to the process-oriented practice of actors, directors, set designers, lighting technicians, and dramaturgy. Meetings with the League deepened my respect for the profound role suffrage theater and performance had played in women’s lives. As the election furor grew around us, Robins’s play reminded women in the class that we owed our votes to women like Elizabeth Robins and the women who founded the League. What I had not anticipated is that this growing realization allowed the other course texts to speak to the class with a profundity even I had missed before. Students found connections between literal incarceration and Jane’s economic constraints in Jane Eyre. The inability of women to seek legal redress loomed large in our discussion of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Meanwhile, the spaces of learning were stretching across the campus and the community as larger audiences became interested in literary history as well as in the play and its politics. The staged reading was covered in the local and campus newspapers, and the university museum began to take an interest in working with graduate students and faculty members in the English Department, a connection that has become stronger in the years since.

Pragmatic changes to the syllabus also produced surprising results. To develop this project, I was forced to break with chronology. We began a “Victorian” course by reading and studying the 1907 play. I provided a brief lecture situating the play in its historical context, and we studied the written play using traditional formalist tools for close reading. Speaking sections of the play aloud intensified students’ attention to word choice, images, and relations among characters. Then the director, Meredith Alexander, met with us to initiate the next steps. She discussed the duties of a dramaturge: researching the social and historical context of a play, its period style, variations of the play, options for costume, stage properties, and sound effects. Meredith pointed out that we would need to edit (and shorten) the play for a staged reading. She also discussed the importance of connecting a 2007 audience to a 1907 play through astute advertising and thoughtful program notes. This introduction translated into questions for our research groups, which continued to work outside of class. The dramaturgical framework recast students’ usual lonely scatter-shot reading of secondary sources in search of a research topic into collaborative problem-solving. Meanwhile, the class forged ahead, tackling the other texts in our syllabus: Jane Eyre (1847), Mary Barton (1848), Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891).

In the past, even when I organized a course thematically, we read the texts chronologically. One of the unexpected benefits of shifting the order was that the play set an agenda for us. Retrospective reading shifted class discussions. The power of Jane Eyre’s first person account of a miserable education, her paucity of employment options, and the humiliations of class and income difference registered more powerfully than usual, as did the sibling inequities suffered by Maggie Tulliver. Students discerned the narrative significance of the layered frames of Tenant of Wildfell Hall by imagining “staging” challenges even as they commiserated with Anne Brontë’s still shocking accounts of alcohol abuse and domestic abuse. The course trajectory functioned like the narrative arc of detective fiction. Opening with the outcome or the effects of the nineteenth century on women’s history as depicted in the play, the students passionately searched for causes in the form, characters, themes, and social contexts of the earlier novels.

Meanwhile, student groups were working outside class and on several “workdays” in class to prepare for the performance of the play. The impending deadline of the performance and the specter of an audience led to what I have come to think of as “motivated research.” Students knew their findings would be used by performers, the director, and audience members reading program notes. Unlike scholars who share most ideas through publications, they would encounter the outcome of their efforts in person. They began to understand the great power a literature scholar wields as an interpreter of texts. They realized that in performance their arguments about how to represent the politics and debates at the heart of the play and which lines, scenes, and minor characters to cut would transform into interpretative acts. Close reading and deployment of evidence became crucial means of battling for lines or characters and all they represented. Students found themselves debating what historical context was important in kind and degree—the battle for suffrage? The series of Acts that had expanded the vote? The degrees and nature of class difference? The impact of clothing on character? The audience’s ability to decode the implications of class and dialect? I quickly learned to relinquish responsibility to the students in the moments when they took on the roles of classroom experts. We gained a lived sense of the constitutive, meaning-making power of language, form, pattern, character, plot, genre, and context. These debates also heightened attention to the impact of language and form on readers and spectators—those minds and bodies that construct meaning.

Theater historian Diana Taylor is a leading proponent of teaching history through performance, suggesting that the “embodied practices” of performance enhance archival research. These practices, she argues, “make ‘the past’ available as a political resource in the present by simultaneously enabling several complicated, multilayered processes.”[13] She notes a variety of ways in which such practice works: “a performance may be about something that helps us understand the past, and it may reactivate issues or scenarios from the past by staging them in the present,” but the physical act of staging can also “keep alive an organization infrastructure, a practice or know-how, an episteme, and a politics that goes beyond the explicit topic” (“Performance” 68). In other words, performance can remind viewers of how situated particular characters, topics, and even literary forms are in their past social and aesthetic contexts. However, performance also captures the dynamism of a text as it moves through time and readers. Our staged reading, for example, required a self-conscious act of translation as we situated Robins’s work both in its history and in ours.

Taylor is particularly interested in historical artifacts and their status as archival objects. She pries at the fracture between the identified and classified “source” in which the historian grounds and legitimizes claims and the “out there in the world” fluid status of that source. An object exists in this fluid state of use and meaning before it is archived, but it also exists in the flow and change of the ongoing events that constitute history (“Performance” 68-69). Action only becomes an event when it is formally labeled as history and archived; however, the meaning of that event arises from lived, performed experience. Taylor herself studies the colonial past in Mexico and finds that “trans- or post-disciplinary convergences between history and performance studies” can illuminate “that disciplinary blind spot that history cannot reach on its own”—in this case what an event may have meant to people in “Mexico” before and apart from the interpreting colonial eye that recorded, archived, and interpreted that event (“Performance and/as History” 71).

The staged reading of Robins’s play suggests that performance might analogously illuminate an archival object of literary studies—the text. Performance goaded students from passive reading into embodied learning. The need to produce a performance generated unlearning as well as learning because the students had to imagine backward to grasp the play’s significance and forward to anticipate the needs of a living audience. Reading the novels and research online and in the library together became a genuine search for clues and answers to pressing questions about readership and spectatorship, including consumers’ expectations when confronted with forms and genres. The groups worked with energy and creativity. One group produced a soundscape of period suffrage music and crowd sounds in which they tried to simulate a range of dialects. The amateur accents were atrocious, but the process heightened their awareness of the ways class differences are registered in language. Another group designed a program after seeking out examples of nineteenth-century theater programs, writing a short biography of Robins, and compiling historical notes.

Figure 2

Student-produced program, Votes for Women, Iowa University

Student-produced program, Votes for Women, Iowa University

-> See the list of figures

Yet another group created a slide show of photographs of suffrage rallies and marches as well as prints of suffrage banners and posters to run before the show began.

Leaving the comfortable confines of the classroom felt distinctly disconcerting during two long nights of rehearsals. My students and I were overwhelmed by the tenacity of the faculty director, faculty actors, and student actors. Few literature classes subject themselves to the rigor, the intense commitment to collective learning, and the determination to “get it right” that is status quo in the world of theater. I think we all gained new respect for the practice of meaning-making and creation as we watched actors’ tenacious efforts to bring the play to life. At the actual performance, our task was to join the members of the League of Women Voters in startling audience members by leaping to our feet in furious heckling mode when the reading actors hit the crowd scene. Another lesson: Inventing language—even a short uncouth phrase—is incredibly hard, almost as hard as delivering the line persuasively. Not until the night of the performance did the hecklers succeed. Abandoning the attempt to taunt the actors on stage in slang of the period, the students and League members began lobbing political barbs twenty-first-century style (though nothing compared to recent “town meetings”). After a few moments of shock, the rest of an audience of about a hundred people leapt to their feet and joined the fray in a bright, miraculous moment of the shared joy of entering an imaginative world that so obviously had shaped their own political moment.

One of the fundamental planks of experiential pedagogies such as service learning is the role of reflection.[14] While the models vary, the argument is that students learn how and what they are learning most effectively when they are asked to write about the process of discovery as well as the outcomes that result. In the case of an activity like the production of the play, I find that students do not consciously seek connections between what happens “out there” and in the classroom until they are asked to do so. In this case, I posed a series of questions; students decided which to answer. What did they hope audience members thought about after leaving the play? How did preparing for the play affect their reading of other texts in class? What were the most interesting things they had learned in their research? Would they recommend keeping an “engaged learning” assignment in the course and why? What advice would they offer future classes to make a project that engaged people outside the class a better learning experience for students in the class? How would they evaluate their own participation?

As often happens, the guided reflection assignment provided many students who had enjoyed working on the play without fully connecting it to our discussion of the novels with a eureka moment. Seeing and hearing the play live, even in a staged reading, changed the play for many students; they commented on the ways that as emphasis even within a line shifted, so too did their earlier interpretations. They grasped new connections between the issues raised in the play and scenes, themes, arguments, and characters in novels we had studied. Several also joined in political campaigns—hardly the purview of our class, but learning the responsibilities of citizenship was certainly valuable (and the students’ greater engagement with the presidential campaign delighted the League members). Most strikingly, students repeatedly commented on the ways that the audience’s response to the play confirmed their growing sense of the importance of reading literatures from the past. In various ways, they registered a new awareness of the enormous power of literary texts to capture moments in history, to move audiences, to make arguments, and to overtake one in the sheer pleasure of absorption. They gained a sense of a text’s distinct formal parts but also the melting of those distinctions in the lived performance of reading that takes place between an engaged reader and a text, among a group of readers/spectators, and across time as well as within time.

Now I realize that every year is not an election year and that not everyone is willing to spend the time planning a course that this one required. However, I am convinced that we could find multiple ways large and small to involve students more deeply in the literature we teach. One way to do that is to seek opportunities to translate our research as well as our teaching into more public practices. On a far smaller scale, my current nineteenth-century classes are building a wiki we are calling “VicWik” with pages on each of the novels we are studying. Students are weaving biographical information, bibliographies, illuminating quotations and sources, images, allusions in popular culture, and their own readings of lines and passages from the novels into elegant introductions to the novels. In doing so, they are being introduced to questions of public and private use that roil in digital realms. They are intimately acquainted with WikiCommons. Both “the commons” as a conception of the “public” and of the free exchange of information have new meaning for them. They are reading and writing with a sense of their responsibility to students around the country and the world as their “public,” since we plan to make VicWik a public site at the end of the semester. From small changes to dramatic innovations, I believe we can bring literature to life for undergraduate students in particular and that unless we want to lose all of our students to business, engineering, and computer science, we should have pragmatic as well as genuinely intellectual reasons to do so.

I conclude with an anecdote. Recently, an eager young reporter from my campus newspaper contacted me because she was writing an article featuring an exhibit and lecture about writing by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women writers. She wanted to know whether I thought the “classics” were staging a comeback. (Her tone suggested how bizarre even renewed interest would be.) I responded with a quick survey of the cultural landscape, densely populated by Victorian literature. As evidence, I noted the regular allusions to Victorian characters on the news, the continuing popularity of Masterpiece Theater and stage adaptations of nineteenth-century fiction, the hundred or so non-specialists who join faculty members and graduate students at the annual week-long “Dickens Universe” focused on a single Charles Dickens novel, and the cult followers (in and out of academe) of “neo-Victorian” novels, graphic novels, and products. If she had called a few weeks later, I could have pointed out that Dickens’ Little Dorrit cleaned up at the 2009 Emmy Awards. I also noted the strong enrollments of students in nineteenth-century courses. True, British literature helps students fulfill a certification requirement for teaching in Iowa, but even that requirement demonstrates respect for the field. Like many of us working in nineteenth-century studies, she remained dubious. Also, like “us,” she seemed determined to hold to her argument that no one wants to read the “classics” anymore. And yet, taken together, even my arbitrary measures suggest that readers do find great pleasure in this literature, whether along with us or in spite of us.

The moral of this story is that I sometimes fear a hermeneutics of inconsequence has long been as damaging to the humanities generally and to those who study literature written before 1900 more specifically (now probably before 1990) as any other zeitgeist. We constantly hear that the humanities are dead. The phrase “the humanities” does sound a little tired and does not encompass interdisciplinary moves toward environmental studies or animal studies. But why don’t we fight back with evidence and public education rather than succumb to interpellation? When I spoke with that reporter, I rattled off examples and statistics with much greater confidence than I would have in the past. My class reminded me of the continuing power of earlier literatures to raise powerful questions about the present as well as the past, to move readers from a seemingly fixed position to moments of open-minded questioning, and to engage readers in debate and discussion that is attentive to form and language. I have been persuaded that a strong bond can be built between literature we teach in our classrooms and readers in the larger community. Moreover, I have seen for myself that students who help to forge that connection approach their learning process and the literature they study with rare seriousness of purpose. Why, then, should we ignore or apologize that so many webs are spun from initial moments of pleasure?