I’ve been writing an article about sex in literature for the last few days, which is a rather big subject to condense down to a single 2800 word article. I’ve managed to get the sections on ancient literature, medieval literature, renaissance and early modern literature, and modern literature done but I just can’t get the 19th century bit down right.
The reason for this is that unlike the other historical periods, I’ve not read a great deal of the great canon novels out there. Ultimately, what it comes down to is that--despite my years of reading everything I could get my hands on, earning a first in English Literature, and somehow ending up in a job that requires me to read and write all day--I really don’t like 19th century realist novels. The glowing esteem that those brick-thick books are held in by literary types meant that I’ve had to suffer a lot in the course of my studies.
In the first year I had to read Hard Times by Charles Dickens. I can honestly say that it was the single most tedious book I’ve ever read. It led me to devise a method of rating literature which, whilst highly subjective, nonetheless proved invaluable in my assessment of different books.
The system is this—how many pages can you read before you fall asleep? Bearing in mind your bedroom is generally the only place in a student house that you can get any peace, and the bed is usually the only piece of furniture in your bedroom, it’s pretty easy to doze off.
I started thinking about this system when I was sitting in a very dull seminar (it was in the middle of winter, in a very cold room and it started at 4pm-- which meant it was dark the whole time) thumbing through the copy of Hard Times that I had only managed to get a bit more than halfway through. The rest of the class were silent and sheepish – none of them had managed to finish it either (I asked before the tutor came in) and this was leading to long and uncomfortable silences. Not one to let a room full of people suffer under the claws of the awkward turtle like that, I bravely stepped in and started responding to the tutor’s questions with my finest freestyle academic bullshit, backed up by quotes taken pretty much at random from whatever page happened to fall open while I was speaking.
You’d be surprised how often that method worked. Once, in my final year, I did a presentation which got 73 (that’s a very high mark at an English uni) on a book I hadn’t even read using exactly that technique. It’s all about pretending to be forgetful rather than unprepared--doing a Boris, essentially.
On this particular occasion though, my method was encountering a snag. You see, it had taken me so much effort to read the two-thirds that I’d managed to plough through that my book was half stuck together with drool. (yes, I drool in my sleep. I’m like an unusually articulate spaniel). When someone else finally started talking--and I was able to relax for a while--I sat there, slouched in my corner of the room, and counted how many pages there were between each group of stuck ones. I wasn’t being hugely scientific, but I found that in the case of hard times I managed to read around 15 pages on average in each sitting, before falling asleep.
Now 15 pages isn’t too bad, it’s only 288 pages long so you’d get there eventually. The big problem--and probably why I’ve never been able to see the genius in these books that everyone else sees—is that whilst 15 pages passed before I actually conked out, my brain generally shut down after about 10 pages. I was reading, but the words weren’t reaching my mind.
My impressions of most of the most of the big 19th century novels that sit on the top of all the ‘best books ever’ lists that people publish from time to time (I suspect with the intention of making people feel intellectually inferior) are pretty much the same. For some reason, realist fiction has an amazing soporific effect on me. I managed to read Middlemarch and some Henry James once, although I wouldn’t say I enjoyed them much. But yes, to meander drunkenly back to my original point (if I ever had one) it’s hard to write about sex in 19th century literature when you’ve never read Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Perhaps one day I’ll become addicted to amphetamines or something and finally be able to understand what all the fuss is about.
I wrote this in one huge blaze of typing, so it probably doesn’t make much sense. I’ll come back and check it later. Oh, and the irritating mixture of double-hyphens and Em dashes are the fault of Microsoft word, and are really making me wish I had a mac.