I Know What I Know

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Here We Are

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Linda asked me how I got into all of this. It’s a long story, but bear with me. And there are pictures.

I started college as a psychology major, mostly because of that typical “be like dad” impulse that I see in so many of my students. I had always liked to read, and I’d always fashioned myself a writer, but I really had a thing about seeing how people worked.

During my first two years of college, I managed to take care of most of the core curriculum and the requirements for the psychology degree. I had done most of this without ever having been advised (in fact, here at the end of my doctorate, I’ve only met with an advisor twice). At some point, I was required to meet with my advisor in the psychology department, who took one look at my transcript and said “Well. You’re done except for this one class, which you can take in the summer. And then you have 55 hours of electives.”

I asked him if I could take them all in one thing. He asked me what I meant. I said, “Can I take 55 hours of English and take care of that requirement?”

He said that that was how people managed a double-major.

And so I did.

I started out in the usual way, with the surveys. American Lit II, Brit Lit I and II. Survey of the Twentieth-Century Novel. That kind of thing.

I had always dearly loved Faulkner, and by the time I got to college I had read most of the novels and the standard biography (the two-volume one) by Joseph Blotner. And considering one of the most important Faulkner scholars in the world was a professor in the department, I figured I was home free.

But something happened in there. I took Brit Lit II (Romantics through Moderns) from a certain professor, and simply fell in love. Like every other guy in the department, I had a crush on her; but I also fell in love with the wackiness of the nineteenth century, a period, I came increasingly to think, where the world changed. And so I took every class she offered. The nice thing about where I did my undergraduate was that lower-division graduate classes (5000 level) were “split,” so that undergraduates would be in the classroom with graduate students.

Goblin Market

At the tail end of my time there, and in my last class with this certain professor, I wrote a paper about Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” and Milton’s Paradise Lost. I have since realized that it was a fairly dumb argument, but it was the first paper I remember writing that I was genuinely excited about, and it was the moment where I realized that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

When I got here, for my MA, in 1995, I carried that paper with me, and focused my thinking on Rossetti with some coursework on the Pre-Raphaelites (Rossetti’s brother had been one of the founders of the movement, and she herself had been an “honorary” member).

Goblin Market

As I began preparing for my MA thesis, I decided that I’d work on Rossetti, and specifically, that I’d try to continue my interest in “Goblin Market.” As I read and re-read the poem, I was struck one day by a question:

“What does Rossetti mean when she says ‘sister’?”

And so, like a good graduate student, I started digging around. I found out that Rossetti’s older sister had become an Anglican nun. I found out that Rossetti herself had wanted to become a nun, but that she was plagued by health problems that kept her from going that route. I found out that she had wanted to join her aunt with Florence Nightingale in Scutari during the Crimean War (for those of you who don’t know, this is the “Charge of the Light Brigade” war. It was nasty). And I found out that she had worked for over a decade in an institution called Highgate Penitentiary–a refuge where prostitutes were taken off the streets and retrained for domestic service.

Goblin Market

And so I wrote a thesis on Rossetti’s treatment of sisterhood in a handful of her poems. You need to understand that Rossetti was an incredibly religious woman who wrote hundreds of devotional poems (if you’re a Methodist, you should know that she wrote “In the bleak midwinter”). Rossetti usually depicts sisters who are constantly at each other. There’s ill-will. There’s back-biting.

This is far from the utopian possibilities of female communities she seems to have imagined in “Goblin Market.” This lead me to suspect that Rossetti might have had some kind of odd change of heart when she wrote the poem. Or that she was influenced by some kind of rhetoric.

And so I did some more digging. As my dissertation director remarked to me yesterday, I seem to like the archival stuff. Indeed I do. I like old books. I like asking questions about history. I like digging through archives. You know. Letters to the editor of the London Times. The biography of Thomas Thellusson Carter, who founded the Penitentiary at Clewer. Memoirs of women who had worked in these kinds of institutions.

And what I found was that there was this tremendous rhetoric coming out of those institutions like Highgate Penitentiary that describes work among fallen women in ways that were unbelievably idealistic and utopian. And then I wrote an article about how any claims we make about Rossetti’s politics based on “Goblin Market” need to be re-assessed in light of the other poetry she wrote on the subject, and how, well, she never wrote another poem like it. It’ll be out in Autumn. I wrote it in 1997. It was accepted in 1999 (I sent it to two journals, the first of which kept it for nine months). It will be published in 2003. Go figure.

As I began preparing for the dissertation, all of this stuff (or, to employ Foucault, this discourse of the fallen woman) about the rhetoric surrounding the reclamation of prostitutes and fallen women was in my mind. I did a ton of reading about the history of the notion of “public health.” I did a ton of reading about the economics of the mid-nineteenth century. I did a ton of reading about disease in the nineteenth century. I did a ton of reading about prostitution. I went to London to read some accounts, in the British Library, of actual work among fallen women. And in the process of all of this, I kept reading account after account of these moments of cognitive dissonance, of these moments where what workers in these institutions expected to find–dolled up hookers from Haymarket or Marylebone–didn’t resemble in the slightest what they actually found themselves confronting–domestic servants who had been seduced under promise of marriage and expelled without a character (a letter of reference, essentially) and the working poor.

And so given all of this I started wondering about what, precisely, the Victorians meant when they used the phrase “fallen woman.”

And so I wrote a dissertation about that.

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Written by srogers

April 17, 2003 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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