Weekly Fragments ~ November 15th

142004194470138886_zzjkurbS_fI’ve had a rather difficult week in some respects and so I haven’t really got as much done as I’d hoped I would the last time I wrote one of these Fragments.  I could really do with a picture of someone tearing their hair out rather than sitting reading as if there was all the time in the world to pour over the newspaper before gently contemplating what the world has to offer after that second cup of tea.  In part this was my own fault because for reasons I will tell you about in a later post I took myself off to London on Tuesday and by Wednesday had to recognise that this is a trip I no longer have the necessary stamina to undertake.  I still haven’t completely recharged my batteries and as a consequence I am yet again behind in my reading.

I have almost managed to catch up with the lectures for my Historical Fiction MOOC and will find some time later today to go over to our discussion site and add to the comments there.  I’m still bitterly disappointed by the choice of books set for this course and eventually gave up on Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.  Life is just too short and my time too precious to spend it reading a book that simply doesn’t catch my attention, especially as I had to work my way through another such novel for a reading group last week.  I said last time that I wouldn’t have picked up Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared off my own bat but was willing to give it a try because so many people had said it was worth reading.  Well, I’m sorry but I have to disagree.  When I think of all the excellent fiction there is out there just waiting for someone to come along and translate it I despair that novels like this get picked up and accorded so much attention. Given that it is advertised as an International Best Seller I recognise that I must be in the minority here, but to be truthful there wasn’t that much enthusiasm for it in the group as a whole when we met on Wednesday to discuss it.  Perhaps we all had the wrong sort of sense of humour.

I was also disappointed with the crime novel I’d picked out to leaven the work load.  I posted about Val McDermid’s latest Tony Hill novel, Cross and Burn, last weekend and explained there how I felt that this book had come out too soon and was still in need of a lot of work.  Those of you who know me will be aware that this is an increasingly anguished cry of mine because I’m convinced that popular authors are being pushed into publishing one book a year for the Christmas market whether said book is ready or no. This one wasn’t.  

However, just in case you think I’m in a real grump (I am, but I’m trying to find a bright spot) I did also read the new Ben Aaronovitch Broken Homes. If you haven’t read Aaronovitch’s crime fiction it’s rather hard to explain what it’s about.  I once saw it described as a cross between the police procedural and Harry Potter and that isn’t as far fetched as it might sound. This is the fourth in the series and I’m telling you now that if you don’t start at the beginning with Rivers of London you don’t stand any chance whatsoever of understanding what is going on, but I think it’s worth the journey.  As you get to know Peter Grant, a young PC who suddenly finds himself caught up in the London manifestation of a mythical and magical underworld linked through their alchemical heritage (the London practitioners are known as Issacs after Newton) to the past history of the capital, you learn with him just how much of that past is still potent and influential.  Of course, you are going to have to suspend your disbelief as you meet the spirits of the various London rivers and watch as Peter does battle with the Faceless Man, but at the same time Aaronovitch manages to conjure up the essence of London as it is today and patch the two together seamlessly.  I suspect these novels are an acquired taste but one that I am definitely cultivating.

So, what is on the cards for this week.  Well, I have to read the next book for my Historical Fiction course, Geraldine Brooks, The Year of Wonder. This is about Eyam, the small village in Derbyshire whose inhabitants agreed to seal the village off in 1666 to prevent the plague from spreading to neighbouring settlements thus condemning themselves to almost certain death.  I’ve read a number of Brooks other novels and enjoyed them, so I’m hoping that I’ll fare better with this than with the previous two selections.  However, I know Eyam very well and so I am going to be hypercritical, I’m afraid.  This is a true story and those courageous people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, so I’m going to be demanding a lot where this set text is concerned.

Then I have my next book group read to finish for Wednesday.  This is Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Palace Walk, the first of his Cairo trilogy and a work influential in his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  I’m about a quarter of the way through and I can see that it is a very well written book, but I’m finding it hard to sympathise with Mahfouz’s portrayal of Cairo society during the First World War.  I accept that it was a world where the men got their way in everything and ‘respectable’ women were incarcerated in the house for pretty much the totality of their lives, existing only to serve their husband’s will, but it does make it hard to sympathise with any of the characters and The Bears are having to frequently put their paws in their ears to block out my vitriolic comments as to what I would do to the main male protagonist should I get anywhere near him with a sharp knife.  I suspect that this is one of those cases where you need to read the whole trilogy to really appreciate the role of any one of the three books, but whether I shall have time to do that in the near future I very much doubt.

Where lighter reading is concerned I have the latest in Laura Wilson’s Ted Stratton series to begin.  The Riot is another London crime novel, this time set in 1958 and centred around the Notting Hill Riots of that period which grew out of increasing racial tension in the capital and the rise of Rachmanism – so maybe not so light after all.  The thing I love about this series is the detailed way in which Wilson captures the social history of the time.  The first book, Stratton’s War, is one of the best evocations of the London Blitz that I know as well as being a first rate crime novel.

And only one theatre visit this week, Tartuffe at the Rep this afternoon.  I don’t know much about the play or the production so I’m going with an open mind.  Some you win and some you lose – that’s my philosophy where the theatre is concerned.  I’m hoping this one will be a winner.

What is Historical Fiction?

historicalfictionLike a number of other bloggers I am preparing to start the Coursera MOOC, Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction and one of the papers suggested as prior reading before the lectures begin has set me wondering what exactly fits into the category of historical fiction.

Perry Anderson’s essay, From Progress to Catastrophe, first published in the London Review of Books, takes a broad look at the genre from the earliest days of its inception through to the present day and while all the usual suspects are discussed in respect of the period up to the 1950s and 60s some of the more recent novels he mentions took me by surprise.

One of the reasons I decided to take this course was that I have always considered myself to have a problem with historical fiction.  Probably this is because I grew up in the 50s and 60s and was not a particularly discriminating reader.  As Anderson says:

The Second World War, when it came, reinforced the effects of the first.  The flow of historical fiction at the lowest levels of the genre… swelled again as the mass literary markets expanded with the post-war boom: in Britain hoary sagas of doughty patriots battling against Napoleon poured – and still pour – off the presses… over time, this output has yielded a teeming universe that can be glimpsed in such omnibus guides as What Historical Novel Do I Read Next?, with it’s capsule descriptions of more than 6000 titles, and league tables of the most popular historical periods, favoured geographical settings and, last but not least, ‘top historical characters’ – Henry VIII and Jesus Christ tie for fourth place.

I know that some people will take exception to the phrase lowest levels of the genre but what I was reading was and as I began to study literature more thoroughly and became more judicious in my selection of reading matter I left historical fiction behind me not realising that even then there was more to the genre than I was giving it credit for.  As Anderson points out this was also the period in which Lampedusa’a The Leopard appeared and the first of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairene Trilogy, Palace Walk, was published. However, I read neither of these books because I had walked away from the historical novel, I was now looking for more literary material.

Except, as the latter part of this essay makes clear, I hadn’t left the genre behind.  What I somehow failed to recognise was that many of the literary novels I was reading (and let’s not get into a discussion as to how you define the term literary in that context) were also historical fiction.  I’m afraid my early acquaintance with those hoary sagas, not to mention an occasional session with the odd bodice-ripper, had blinded me to the fact that it is perfectly possible to write a literary novel and set it in a period that pre-dates our own.

So, when Anderson starts to talk about such favourites as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and A S Byatt’s Possession,  I find myself being brought up short.  These are not historical fiction, they are literary novels. But of course they are historical novels as well, it is just that in my blindness I haven’t been able to see that.  As Bones might have said:  “it’s historical fiction, Alex, but not as you know it”.

I have been equating historical fiction with some of the poorly researched and even more poorly written novels that I read in my teens – how much more stupid can I get?  Especially as I know just how much research goes into some of those current historically based books.  I was listening to Simon Mawer, author of The Girl Who Fell From The Sky only last week saying that a novelist who works in an historical period must always know that period so well that they are aware every time they deviate from the facts and be able to defend their decision.  And for goodness sake, the writer I probably admire more than any other is Hilary Mantel!

I suspect that what has been happening here is that I have been more concerned with what has been occurring in the plots of these books and with the universalities of the themes that the writers have been exploring than I have with the setting.  That they are placed in the dim and distant past (or in some cases not so dim or distant) has passed me by as I have focused on what the author has had to say about the eternal truths of human nature, forgetting that the very fact that those truths are eternal means that they cross centuries as well as geographical and social borders. If nothing else, this course is going to make me re-evaluate my approach to the genre and reconsider some of those books that I have read without really taking account of their historical context in the past.

Oh, and by the way, if anyone happens to know who came first, second and third in that list of ‘top historical characters’, i have to admit that I would dearly love to know.

The Chasing of the Tail

woman-reading-by-the-harbour-james-tissotThe most popular pastime in our house this week has been that known as chasing one’s tail.  When I first retired my problem was not finding time to blog but rather finding things to blog about because suddenly I was left with a great deal of time on my hands and very little with which to fill it.  Isn’t it funny how things change?  Now I am running around witless, chasing said tail, because I have so much that needs doing that I don’t know how I am going to find the necessary hours and minutes in which to complete it all.  And, of course, just when I haven’t got time to deal with it, my main computer has died (RIP) so I can only hope that this missive, going out on a wing and a prayer, will reach you all.

Earlier this week, Stefanie, over on So Many Books, wrote a post about wanting to prioritise and if ever I needed to follow her good example it is now.  Which is why I am making time to write here because it will  help me sort out what has to be done, what ought to be done and what it would be a good idea to do if I possibly can.

There are some things I can’t shift.  So, I have to take myself off to Stratford in an hour or so and go and work with the students over there.  That’s a regular Thursday commitment during the Autumn and Spring terms and takes up most of the day.  I also have to prepare for the regular Shakespeare class that I teach for a local group, this term on Measure for Measure, and that takes considerable thought as they are working at Masters Level. Ideally, it should get a least two hours a day.  Aren’t ideals a wonderful thing!

Then it is my turn to lead the Bookworms reading group discussion next Wednesday and I haven’t even started the book, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, let alone given any thought to how I’m going to shape the discussion.  At least I have got the two meetings this week, one on Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont  and the other on The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, out of the way.

Oh, and just for good measure, I’m starting a course on historical fiction, Plagues, Witches and War with Coursera on Monday and there is a considerable amount of preliminary reading that I have to do for that.

And this is before I even start to think about the things I ought to do, like getting the computer mended or replaced.

Looking at that list there are two things that simply cannot be allowed to slip whatever else does and they are the preparation for the Shakespeare group and Bookworms.  Other people are relying on me where those are concerned and so they have to take priority.  Then comes the historical fiction reading and only after that can I start to look at all the work on medieval history and culture that I promised myself I would get round to this Autumn.

Do you know, two sets of retired people told me yesterday how bored they were.  How do they manage it?  There are times when a bit of boredom would be a welcome distraction!  And now I’ve just looked at the clock and I really have to go.  Have a good day.

Bits and Bobs and Reading to Order

142004194470138886_zzjkurbS_fYou might have noticed that it’s been rather quite over here at Thinking in Fragments this past few days.  It isn’t that there hasn’t been any reading going on but an awful lot of it has been re-reading for one purpose or another and that doesn’t always lend itself to blogging.  For the second time I am in the middle of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and also Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man.  Both are excellent novels but I have written about them before and while they neither suffer from a second read I don’t feel inclined to pick over their bones in writing yet again.

I am re-reading both because of reading group demands.  Bring Up the Bodies is coming up in one group in July and I don’t feel I can do that justice without having re-read its predecessor first, while I need  A Perfectly Good Man for the other group next Monday.  Because I read so much I frequently find myself being appealed to for suggestions for these groups and that means that almost inevitably I end up re-reading at least two books a month.  I think I am going to have to be more ruthless and insist that other members make their own suggestions otherwise I will eventually spiral in on myself in an orgy of re-reading.

What coming back to these books together has emphasised for me, however, is just how much I enjoy books that don’t work in a straightforward manner but in some way subvert the narrative norm.  The Mantel does that with its remarkable narrative voice which is third person and yet somehow manages to appear to be a sort of internal first person on Cromwell’s part.  The Gale does it with a sweeping indifference towards chronological order and an utter disregard for the reader’s need to understand how the characters relate one to another until the action reveals those links.  Coming to it for a second time, I am picking up hints that I certainly missed the first time round but he is still asking his readers to do a lot of the work.  And why not, I say.  I have another novel at the top of the tbr pile that is going to take this even further, so the sooner I can get to it the better.

The other book I have just started is Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost which is the first novel set for a Coursera module beginning next week, entitled The Fiction of Relationship.  There is a lot of reading coming up for this twelve week course and I hope I’m going to be able to keep up with it without it getting too much in the way of other books I want to read.  I also hope the remaining texts aren’t going to get me quite as riled up as this one has so far done.  I know it’s early eighteenth century but the stunning condescension towards women in the first chapter had me foaming at the mouth.  So, twelve prostitutes (it took me some time to translate ‘a dozen of the frail sisterhood’ but that is what it apparently means) are being transported from France to America and the narrator enters the inn to view them.

Among the twelve girls, who were chained together by the waist in two rows, there was one, whose whole air and figure seem so ill-suited to her present condition, that under other circumstances I should not have hesitated to pronounce her a person of high birth.  Her excessive grief, and even the wretchedness of her attire, detracted so little from her passing beauty, that at first sight of her I was inspired with a mingled feeling of respect and pity.

She tried, as well as the chain would permit her, to turn herself away, and hide her face from the rude gaze of the spectators.  There was something so unaffected in the effort she made to escape observation, that it could but have sprung from natural and innate modesty alone.

What he means is he fancies her but can only justify that by seeing her as definitely being upper class and ‘better’ than the others with whom she is keeping company.

I’m sure that there are all sorts of eighteenth century tropes going on here and I should be more forgiving, but somehow it just got to me -the upper class male finding a way to justify his lust.  Maybe it’s just the rain that has fallen incessantly here for the past forty-eight hours that is making me grouchy.  Maybe I shall feel better about the book the further into it I get.  Has anyone read it?  Can you reassure me?

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

I am way behind in my reading for the module on Science Fiction and Fantasy. Not that it’s a problem, because I’m only auditing this on-line course and so can take it at my leisure.  So, while the rest of the students are busy reading Dracula, I am re-visiting Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

The Alice books are part of just about everyone’s childhood.  I suspect that many people won’t have even read the originals but they will know the general storyline and the characters either from Disney or from commercial outlets that rely on familiarity with Carroll’s work to sell their wares.  Certainly, I can’t remember a time when they weren’t part of my consciousness even though, settling down to explore Wonderland again this afternoon, I think it might be the case that I haven’t actually read the books themselves in the last fifty years.

Even in my childhood my favourite episode was always the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, a partiality which in many ways has proved prophetic.  As an adult I love afternoon tea, along with breakfast it is my favourite meal, so I would have been in seventh heaven if, forced by Time, I had to spend my life feasting on the delights of tea (loose-leaf, of course), scones, jam and cream. Although I might have drawn the line at having to move into the seat left by the clumsy March Hare.  Why can’t they all have clean place settings?

However, even more prescient in respect of the way in which my life developed is the way these characters play with language.  Was this an early sign that my career would centre around the way in which the English language works and the fun that we can have with it when we realise its flexibility and the opportunities for verbal dexterity it can offer to the speaker and writer?

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, ‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

‘Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. I’m glad they begun asking riddles. – I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it? ‘said the March Hare.

‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.

‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.’

‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

‘You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, ‘that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

‘You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seems to be talking in his sleep, ‘that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

‘It is the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter.

The conversation could have been a forerunner of dozens I would have with students over the years, although the best times were always when I was teaching primary children and they would come across some totally bizarre rule in a text book and challenge me about it.

‘Please, Miss, why can’t I start a sentence with because?’  demanded nine year old Mark, one day.

‘You can, Mark.’

‘No I can’t,’ brandishing a book under my nose. ‘It says I can’t, here.’

True enough.  There it was in black and white.  You must never start a sentence with because.’ 

That was the first time I threw a book at the ceiling and shouted ‘rubbish’.  Mark, having first dived for cover, emerged from under my desk and then spent the rest of the year trying (and succeeding) to provoke the same response again.

Then, of course, there was the never to be forgotten occasion when I was reading aloud from the first published form of the Literacy Hour only to discover that the Government ‘experts’ were trying to tell us that if a verb had ‘ed’ at the end it was past tense, but if it had ‘ing’ it was present tense.  Really, I promise you.

On that occasion it was a ring binder I threw at the ceiling, which promptly flew open and showered twenty odd startled students with fluttering sheets of paper.  Startled they may have been but they never forgot what a participle was, be it past or present.

Re-reading Alice has brought so many memories back.  I don’t know if encountering those wonderful word games so early on in life was formative or not but I enjoyed them as a child and I still enjoy them now.

Grimms Tales in the Raj

The first book we will be discussing at our forthcoming Summer School is Paul Scott’s Booker winning novel, Staying On, which concerns the Smalleys, an English couple, who have remained in India after Independence.  They feature very briefly in Scott’s earlier sequence of books collectively known as The Raj Quartet and some of the more central characters from those books make brief appearances in the later one. However, much as I would have liked to, I haven’t had the time to re-read those highly complex novels.  Instead I have had to ‘make-do’ with the next best thing and enjoy a nightly feast of entertainment as I’ve worked my way through the Thames Television adaptation,which took its title from the first of the four books, The Jewel in the Crown.

Initially, my principal reaction was just how well the serialisation had held up.  People with more technical know-how might recognise it as almost thirty years old, I don’t know, but as far as I was concerned, simply as a viewer it is as good as anything we would find on our screens today.  It is, inevitably, less complex than the books.  Scott’s way of working with time would not translate easily to a fifteen hour format with a week between each episode, although there is some use of flashback.  Nevertheless, I think it is remarkably true to the spirit of the original.  But, what has changed over time is my reaction to the events portrayed and the characters concerned.

I still loathe Ronald Merrick with all of my being.  In part, of course, this is due to the magnificent performance given by Tim Piggot-Smith, a performance which I think has, to a large extent, defined his career. I have no idea how he feels about the experience, but I would have thought being so closely associated with the part must have been something of a double-edged sword.  I know I can’t see him on stage or on screen without the ghost of Merrick informing the way I interpret the character he is playing.  It even hovers around him at poetry readings, adding a sinister inflection to the most tender of love poems.   However, this time round I find I have at least some understanding of what motivates the man.  I think particularly of a scene where Col. Layton, having just returned from POW camp in Germany, has been met by his daughter Sarah and Merrick.  Into the picture walks the heart-stopping Charles Dance as Guy Perron, an all round goodie I should say, for those who haven’t read the books.  None of them know Guy, he has no call on them, unlike Merrick who, whatever his motivation, has been around when help was needed, but it is Guy that Col. Layton (another good egg) immediately warms to and begins to bond with.  Why?  They went to the same school, dear old Chillingborough.  I hadn’t noticed this before.  Or if I had I’d put it down to the fact that anyone with any sense would prefer Perron.  But there is more to it than that.  It is the recognition by one man of another from the same tribe and by implication the ostracism of the outsider.  I don’t like Merrick, but I do begin to understand.

This shift in my perspective has led to more positive reassessments as well though.  For example, I am far more aware of the dilemma in which Sarah Layton finds herself.  Sarah, probably the most self-aware and self-critical character in the novels, used to annoy me to a certain extent.  She clearly knew that the British were finished in India and that she was going to have to return to England, but equally it was obvious that she had not only the financial wherewithal, but also the intellectual ability to make a place for herself there.  Why then was she so uncertain of what she wanted and what returning home might mean?

Well that’s just it Sarah is self-aware and she has the intellectual capacity to realise that she is at a point of what Prof Rabkin, talking about the Grimms’ Tales I’ve been studying this week in another place and for another purpose, calls ‘temporal disjunct’.  He speaks of the Brothers trying to reach back to a time before the Germany they knew, a Germany consisting of small disjointed city states, to a Germany that culturally could rival the purity and antiquity of Ancient Greece and Rome.  They are trying to rediscover the culture that they believed existed as part of their country’s discontinuous past.

The point of temporal disjunct which brings into being that discontinuity is a moment at which something occurs that means your life will never be the same again.  On a personal level that might be something instantaneous, such as a birth or a death, but where a country is concerned it is likely to be a much longer process.  Certainly in India’s case it would have to be seen to date from at least the Indian Mutiny, and, although many would assume that it would come to a resolution with Independence, it might well be argued that following partition it is still on-going.  For many of the British in India at the time in which the sequence is set their own temporal disjunct is bound up with that of the country and Sarah is aware enough to recognise this.  Unfairly, I expected her to be able to make a leap from one life to the next without really appreciating the tension and uncertainty of being caught in that long drawn out moment.  I’m glad to find that I have more sympathy with and understanding of her position now.

First Thoughts on Grimms’ Tales

The first video session on Grimms’ Household Stories was very short indeed which leaves the scope for writing about them wide open.  This really doesn’t help me very much because it means that I don’t have any promptings to move me away from considering the structure of the tales.  However, one tiny comment has got me thinking.

The suggestion appeared to be made that while the Grimm brothers intended that their readers should think that these were oral tales which they had collected from around the country, in fact they were stories which they had invented themselves.  If that is the case then presumably they wrote them in a style which they thought would mimic that of actual oral tales.  Brothers Grimm, if you’re listening, you got it wrong.

One of the first things that became apparent to me as I started reading the prescribed Lucy Crane collection was that I was used to very much tidied up versions of the stories, versions that had been given a narrative shape any child would be familiar with because not only do they follow the canonical Exposition, Development, Climax, Denouement, Conclusion pattern but within that the more discrete sections are canonically shaped as well.  (If you want me to explain that further I will need to set up a ten week degree level course:).)  These stories frequently lack that level of organisation, especially at the more discrete levels.  In narrative terms, they are a mess.  But that wouldn’t be true of oral stories.  In fact, they are often far more highly patterned and well shaped than written stories because the patterning helps the storyteller to remember the tale.  Even very small children telling you a story recognise the need shape the tale to the listener.  There is ample research evidence of this, although to be fair to the Grimms it wasn’t around when they were writing.  So, I can only assume that the brothers had never listened to a decent storyteller and simply decided that writing tales that were, to say the least, rough around the edges, would convince their readers that they actually had gone out and collected these stories from among the populous.

But why?

I mean that has to be the question, doesn’t it?  Why did they write the stories in the first place and why did they want them to appear to have come down as a sort of folk wisdom?  I can only conclude that despite the fact that none of the tales hits the reader between the eyes at the end with a moral, the brothers did want to suggest that particular ways of behaving were more acceptable than others, ways which presumably conformed to their moral code but which they felt would be better accepted if it appeared that they reflected the ethical path followed by generations of hard working country folk.  If we look at the tidied up versions that have come down to us,  I’m not certain they succeeded.

For example, take the story that we know as The Frog Prince.  In this edition we have what I know is a good translation of the original.  I know this because the original has given me analytical problems for years.  Now, I’m quite willing to wager that the story as you know it has the princess finally capitulating and kissing the frog who promptly turns into a prince and low and behold we all live happily ever after.  Not this version….

[W]hen she had lain down to sleep, he came creeping up, saying, “I am tired and want to sleep as much as you; take me up, or I will tell your father.”

Then she felt beside herself with rage, and picking him up, she threw him with all her strength against the wall, crying,

“Now will you be quiet, you horrid frog.”

But as he fell, he ceased to be a frog, and became all at once a prince with beautiful kind eyes.  And it came to pass that, with her father’s consent, they became bride and groom.

Again, I ask why?  I mean I would have thought the frog could have had her for domestic violence.  However, in this version the story doesn’t end there.  A carriage turns up to take the happy (?) couple back to the prince’s kingdom accompanied as footman by faithful Henry.  Faithful Henry is servant to the prince and has bound his heart with bands of iron to keep it from breaking as a consequence of the froggy spell.  As the couple make their way home they are accompanied by the sound of these bands breaking.  (The prince is very worried about the state of the coach’s axles – practical man, clearly.)  Now I assume that we are being asked to contrast the behaviour of the princess with that of Henry, but my experience is that readers are so thrown by the sudden appearance of dear old Henry that all their attention is drawn to the clumsy structure rather than any possible moral.  We don’t make the contrast, which is presumably why the tale that is so much better known is the one where the princess turns out to be nicer than she seemed and gets her ‘reward’ for finally behaving honourably.

But, there must be something going for these tales, otherwise they wouldn’t have survived, even if it is normally in a tidied up form. Rather than following through the fantasy side of this, I’m much more interested now in looking at the publishing history of the collection.  Does anyone know anything about that?

But, I can’t get stuck here.  I’ve only read about a quarter of the book so I had better get on with the rest of it and see if anything else comes to mind.

More to follow.

I’ve published this here, but I don’t really want to clog up this blog with my ongoing thoughts on the course.  So, while I will probably do a round up post here each week on the set text, I’ve started up another blog Talking Around  where this post can also be found and where I will add other thoughts on a more frequent basis if anyone is interested in following where I’m going.

A Summer of Fantasy and Science Fiction

Sometime back in April I noticed an advert for a group called Coursera who were offering entry to University courses for free.  Unlike those that can be accessed via I-Tunes U, these were real time courses that you followed week by week through video links and which, most intriguing of all, delivered a grade at the end.  This wasn’t the first time I’d come across this company, there was much publicity the previous year when they had linked with Stanford University to offer courses in IT. What was different this time round was that their portfolio had expanded to include subjects from the Humanities.

Now, as anyone who has worked in the Humanities at this level (or any other level for that matter) will tell you, once you’ve done the research for the course what really takes the time is not the teaching, it is the marking.  At this time of year University lecturers across the world are pulling their hair out as they try to meet exam board deadlines.  And that is with perhaps thirty or forty students taking a module.  I believe the Stanford IT module attracted in excess of 40,000.  As my American friends might say, “Do the math’! Even if there hadn’t been anything that attracted my academic interest I would have signed up for something just to see how they were planning on dealing with this.  As it is they have a module entitled Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World in which I am very interested, so I signed up for that.  It starts on Monday.

The primary reading list is quite extensive, although all but two of the books can be accessed without payment on line, and there is no secondary reading suggested so far.  Whether that will come in the videos remains to be seen.  Over the ten weeks we are going to study:

  1. Grimm — Children’s and Household Tales
  2. Carroll — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
  3. Stoker — Dracula
  4. Shelley — Frankenstein
  5. Hawthorne & Poe — Stories and Poems
  6. Wells — The Island of Dr. MoreauThe Invisible Man, “The Country of the Blind,” “The Star”
  7. Burroughs & Gilman — A Princess of Mars & Herland
  8. Bradbury — The Martian Chronicles
  9. LeGuin — The Left Hand of Darkness
  10. Doctorow — Little Brother

I’ve only read the first two of these so I have a lot of catching up to do, but then that’s the idea behind doing the course.  Currently, I am renewing my acquaintance with the Grimms’ tales which I haven’t read since childhood.  I find that at the moment I am giving most consideration to the way in which they are structured because that is my area of expertise, but suspect that come next week’s lecture my attention will be directed into other more psychological pathways as that seems to be the focus of the module.

And what about the question of assessment?  Ah, well that is where I start to have doubts.  If I want a grade I have to submit an ‘essay’ for at least seven of the ten weeks of the course.  Now I don’t know what an ‘essay’ means to you but to Coursera it means a piece of writing between 270 and 320 words.

This post is already over 500.

Of course, brevity is the soul of wit and I’m not one to encourage rambling, but what am I supposed to say of any real value in 300 words?  That essay will then be submitted to four other students for grading by peer assessment and I will grade four myself.  At the end of module my grades will be averaged out with account taken for my participation in the on-line forum.  I assume that will have to be calculated purely numerically by the number of times I log on.

I’m not actually against peer assessment, I think it sharpens the minds of those doing the assessing almost as much as their having to write their own piece, but I do think it needs careful monitoring and I can’t see how that is going to be possible in this instance.  I would be very interested to see the quality feedback on this module when it is over.

For myself I haven’t decided whether or not I shall submit essays for grading.  I have courses of my own to plan for the Autumn as well as the Summer School coming up in four weeks time, and I’m still back and forth to hospital with no indication when that will be over.  On the other hand, I shall definitely be writing about what I’m reading because that’s the way I sort out in my own mind what I’m thinking.  I’ll wait until after the first video session, I think, before I make up my mind.

I wonder, have any of you experience of courses like this?  Given the way in which the costs of a University education are rising in England, I can see that anyone who could crack the assessment aspect in a manner that proved satisfactory to employers would open up a very active market and I’m not surprised that companies are already experimenting in the field.  This is clearly in the early stages of development but it’s something traditional Universities are going to have to watch especially as numbers of applications are already falling rapidly and, with the decline in students staying on to do A levels, are likely to fall further over the next few years.