Walls of Words

Nicole Lobdell

Nicole Lobdell is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English in 19th-century British literature at DePauw University in Greencastle, IN.



I've been reading Lutz's The Bronte Cabinet on and off for a while now. I've really enjoyed the close reading of the objects that belonged to the Brontes, but I find myself skimming the longer sections on the items in general, such as the history/necessity of walking sticks. The impression Lutz emphasizes in her project is how much and, ironically, how little can be gleamed from objects left behind. We can know somethings, such as which walking stick was a favorite based on the worn grooves of the handle, but sometimes it's a stretch to presuppose that the walking stick speaks to the emotional state of its owner. I have my doubts about some of the readings, but as a whole work, I'm really enjoying Lutz's prose and her "thing-biography" of the Brontes (for what else are we to call this unique type of emerging work?).

The Rhetoric of Retelling Old Romances: Medievalist Poetry by Alfred Tennyson and William Morris (EIHOSHA 2015). Reviewed for Medievally Speaking (forthcoming 2015)

This study examines Tennyson's Idylls and Morris's The Earthly Paradise and considers how two canonical poets working at the same cultural moment and interested in the Arthurian motifs approach medieval romances. Seki argues that Tennyson's Idylls address major cultural moments and ideas such as Darwin's publication of Origins and the changing roles of women in society.






Literary Bric-à-Brac and the Victorians. (Ashgate 2013) Reviewed for The Oxonian Review November 2014.

I really enjoyed this critical study of bric-à-brac; it really made me think about what is and is not bric-à-brac and who decides. I think the editors, Jonathon Shears and Jen Harrison, have done a marvelous job of compiling a compelling number of articles that showcase the breadth of this subfield of material culture studies. You can read my review of Literary Bric-à-Brac that I did for the Oxford Review online at http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/bric-a-brac/

The Real Jane Austen (Harper 2013) August 2014

I've just started Paula Byrne's new biography of Austen, but I'm already loving her organization around the physical objects of Austen's life. Her discussion of Eliza Harcourt is particularly interesting. The potential influences that Harcourt's life and experiences had on Austen and her early fiction is a great example of how many outside influences penetrated the supposed quiet village of Steventon. I can't wait to finish reading this and see how Byrne develops her narrative.







Longbourn (Vintage 2013) July 2014

This is another great example of the kinds of adaptations (technically this is a reorientation) that help illuminate something hidden in the original text. To hear the voices of the servants is a wonderful and inspired experience, achieved by Jo Baker. I love the detail Baker pays to the chores and day-to-day life involved in the running of the Bennett household. I actually found Baker's descriptions of scenery and activity more interesting than her dialogues. I admit, I did start to scan the last 50 pages not because of boredom but because I wanted badly to find out what happened to James! This is one of those rare novels that I was sad to see it end.




Women's Ghost Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain  (U of Cardiff P 2013). July 2014

I won't write too much here on Makala's recent publication because my review is forthcoming in a special issue of Supernatural Studies, but I really enjoyed the breadth of writers, stories, and themes that Makala incorporates into her survey. She has a real ability to create connections and draw out relationships between texts and authors that illuminate not only the individual works but also the larger thesis of her work. I really enjoyed this work, and I think it has a lot to offer for students and scholars.

Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures
By Claudia L. Johnson







Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures (July 2014)

Johnson's recent publication is a truly remarkable study of the cults and cultures that have formed around Jane Austen's life and novels. Her chapters on WWI and WWII are my favorite because she explores why soldiers took Austen into the trenches and the bonds they formed over the novels. The study provides a broad tracing of how readership evolves and changes over the past two centuries and suggests why the culture surrounding Jane Austen remains undiminished. I found Johnson's work (as I find all her work) compelling with implications for understanding modern interpretations and the responses of popular culture to Austen today.




Bram Stoker, Dracula and the Victorian Gothic Stage (June 2014)

I won't say too much about Wynne's work here because I have a review forthcoming (anticipated publication is January 2015) in English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, but I really enjoyed Wynne's work and found much to admire in it.











Becoming Jane Eyre (June 2014)

I normally don't like these sorts of "fan fiction novels," but I started reading Kohler's first chapter of Becoming Jane Eyre and I could not put it down. I really enjoyed Kohler's prose and her blending of fact and fiction. She puts together a fascinating image of Bronte as an emerging author, creating a kind of fictional biography. Kohler's prose is lovely; it flows so smoothly but not with the insipidness that I usually associate with spin-off novels. After finishing Becoming Jane Eyre, I checked out Kohler's other works, but I couldn't fall into these in the same way as I did this work, but I assume that's a fault of my own taste and not Kohler's writing.

Book of Ages (May 2014)

Jill Lepore's recent biography is much more than a biography of Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister. Lepore crafts a new kind of biography/history that uncovers the life not of a "great man" but of an (extra)ordinary individual, not a founding father but the sister and loyal friend of one (I couldn't put this one down; read it in 3 days). Lepore has done a truly amazing job uncovering and bringing to light the letters and artifacts of Jane Franklin's life, offering us a treasure trove of  information on the daily lives of those friends and family that surrounded Benjamin Franklin. Lepore invokes Woolf's Judith Shakespeare as a parallel for Jane Franklin, one that is acutely apt. Jane Franklin was a witty, engaging, and intelligent woman, as evidenced in her literary remains; although Jane was an incredibly avid writer of letters, very few of her letters have survived and frequently Lepore is forced to infer their content from Jane's correspondents (mainly Franklin).


Margaret Fuller (April 2014)

It was announced on Monday (April 14), that Megan Marshall's biography of Margaret Fuller won the Pulitzer for biography! This is great news because I have about 50 pages left to read in it. While the praise coming in for this work is well deserved, I cringe when hear reviewers saying things such as "Marshall has recovered a forgotten writer." Forgotten? Perhaps by the general public, yes, but certainly not by scholars and graduate students of American romanticism, American women writers, and feminist theory. I work primarily in the British 19th century, but I know Fuller's work and legacy as well. Of course, this is not to say that I haven't learned loads of new information about Fuller's life. My research on Fuller has focused on her dispatches from Europe, but I've been fascinated by her childhood education (which makes me think of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography), her work as a teacher, and her hosting of "Conversations" for women. I do love the way in which Marshall intertwines these different aspects of Fuller together, but I am a little surprised at how little Marshall reflects on the dispatches, insistently focusing more on the birth of Angelo - but I'm biased in this and Marshall's biography is aimed at a more popular general audience. One thing I am so impressed with in Marshall's biography is the research she has completed. Any biography takes a great deal of time and research, but it's evident that Marshall went beyond in terms of her culling of letters and diaries not only from Fuller but also by family, friends, and acquaintances who offer us insight into aspects of Fuller's life that she is cryptic about in her own writing (case in point: her marriage to Ossoli and the birth of Angelo). Marshall's narrative of Fuller's death is moving, perhaps the most poignant section of the biography. The way in which she narrates Fuller's inability to part with Angelo but also wishing to saving the manuscript of her work on Italy, ultimately losing both, exemplifies the struggle of Fuller's life - having to choose between her family and her work. This seems, perhaps, a simplistic reading of the end of Fuller's life, but Marshall has woven this struggle through the whole of the biography in such a way that when we reach the end, we still feel the torment of Fuller's struggle. In this section, I believe, Marshall's narrative powers are at their height.

I have mixed feelings about Marshall's choice to not change verb tenses in her quoting of Fuller's letters and writings. When I read, I find it jarring that sentences switch tenses, sometimes multiple times. But I can't decide if excessive bracketing would be more annoying. Maybe, or maybe not. The benefit of such extensive quoting of Fuller's works is that we hear so much of Fuller's voice (I wonder what percentage of this biography is composed of Fuller's own voice - maybe she should be listed as coauthor). Compared to the other bios I've read or am reading, such as the Da Vinci biography listed below (which I am still reading, slowly) there is very little quoted from Da Vinci's notebooks and surviving documents. I have no sense of Da Vinci's "voice" and rather too much of Nicholl's.

Flights of the Mind

I just started reading Nicholl's biography of da Vinci. Nicholl approaches da Vinci as a writer, which is an uncommon angle. So far I've really enjoyed the domestic and everyday details that the author includes, such as focusing on a scrap of paper covered with geometric designs but on the bottom of which Leonardo has written "the soup is getting cold," as if in explanation for why he breaks off his design mid-page. I'm only a little way into the section on childhood, but since this era is not my area of specialization, I'm really enjoying all the time the author has put into discussing the history, culture, and landscape of the period.

The Goldfinch
By Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch  (update 4.16 - ok, I admit, I got distracted from reading the Goldfinch, but I'm hoping to start it again this summer).

I had to take a break from the Georgia O'Keeffe biography and throw some fiction into the mix, and I'm loving Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch . When the High Museum hosted Girl with a Pearl Earring , they also had Carel Frabritius's The Goldfinch  (1654).  So, I was intrigued by the premise of Tartt's novel. I'm only about 100 pages into it, but the main character, a 13 year old boy, survives an explosion at an art museum, and in the process of escaping the rubble, he takes the small painting The Goldfinch.  The explosion kills his mother, leaving the boy, Theo Decker, an orphan. 


Georgia O'Keeffe (December 2013)

I've just started this biography of Georgia O'Keeffe. I've also been drawn to the mythic quality of O'Keeffe's work and personality. In graduate school, I did a project on an unknown woman writer of the Plains. In her memoir, she wrote about the struggle to survive on a homestead in Minnesota, about cooking 12 hours a day to feed the team of men who were farming the land, and about the resiliency needed to live on a Minnesota homestead in the nineteenth century.  When I began reading the O'Keeffe biography, I hadn't considered what a connection she had to female writers and artists of the Plains.  I'm only a little ways into the biography, but I'm enjoying it and it's my reward in the evening after a long day.

Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life
By Roxana Robinson

The Orphan Master's Son (September 2013)

I downloaded the sample chapters of this novel, and although I really enjoyed them, I never bought the novel because I was too busy writing the dissertation.  NOW, I've learned that the author is coming to Georgia Tech to give a reading from his Pulitzer Prize winning novel and to participate in a separate seminar on his novel and the writing of trauma narratives.  So, I'm definitely going to purchase the novel and read it. I'm really looking forward to discussing it with the author on September 17th.

Update October 2:  I was bummed to miss Adam Johnson's public reading from his novel, but I was delighted to attend his seminar on the writing and teaching of trauma narratives and trauma memoirs. He broke down the different types of trauma narratives and how to identify them, and he discussed the identifying characteristics of an authentic trauma narrative, which was fascinating One characteristic I found compelling was that trauma narratives do not follow a linear narrative strategy. He discussed his reading of a student's personal trauma narrative and his realization that it was an actual experience based on how the narrative started and stopped and seemed to possess several "beginnings."

I wish I had had time to discuss Johnson's work with him, but teaching and meetings with students had to take precedence on that particular day.

I adore Lucy Worsley, the Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces.  I loved her show "Fit to Rule: How Royal Illnesses Changed History" on BBC 2.  She clearly has such a passion for England's history (royal and common), and it comes through so clearly in her presentations.  I've just gotten her most recent book, If Walls Could Talk , and I'm just hoping it contains all the humor and historical curiosities of her television programs.

Joseph Anton (July 2013)

Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton  is a great read.  Before reading this, I only had a rough sketch of the events surrounding the fatwa, and his memoir not only gives more details about the days before and after he learned of it but also how the literary community (largely) rallied around him.  I was continually surprised at his openness and naming of names of the individuals who helped him and those who did not.  He is surprisingly open about his strained (if not slightly bizarre) relationship with his then wife, and her disturbing behavior towards him, such as telling him that the CIA had plans to kidnap him.  It seems to amount largely to jealously and a lashing out on her part at the media attention he received.  I really enjoy the parts he discusses how going into hiding changed (and had to change) his writing and his daily writing practices.  The number of times he hid in bathrooms or had to be "dry cleaned" (term given to the driving patterns in order to guarantee no one was following them) in order to meet his son make him seem much more human, and the difficulty of living under the fatwa that much more claustrophobic.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir
By Salman Rushdie

All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness (Spring 2012 and Fall 2012)

These are the first two books in Deborah Harkness's All Souls Trilogy.  I don't usually go in for fantasy fiction, but I started reading the first book last year before beginning my semester at Oxford because the novel is set in Oxford.  I couldn't put the first book down, and it became my daily reward for working on the dissertation.  The protagonist is a fellow at at All Souls College, and she spends most of her time working in the Duke Humphrey's Library at the Bod.  I got into the series b/c of the setting and the fact that the protagonist is an academic (a historian).  I just finished the second book in the series which sees the protagonist time-walking back to Elizabethan England where she meets a whole host of historical figures including Elizabeth I.  I didn't enjoy the second book nearly as much as the first because of the time traveling element.  I'm not sure why but I have never enjoyed books and movies that involve time travel.  I'm not opposed to magic in novels ( a la Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter), its just something about time travel that rubs me the wrong way.  Its this reason I could never get into Doctor Who (despite the fact I enjoy so many other quintessentially English shows like Doc Martin, Are You Bring Served?, Sherlock, Inspector Lewis, etc..).  I liked the historical element of the books, but I got bored with the characters running all over Elizabethan England and then going to Prague to meet the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II.  I'm hoping the third book has the main character returning to Oxford.  I really appreciate the fact that the author herself is an academic; she teaches medieval history and history of science at USC.  Coincidentally enough, she also spent time at Keble College.  Perhaps there is a Victorian historical novel in me too! 

By Richard Holmes

I was casting about for something else to read, and I decided to see what else Richard Holmes, the author of The Age of Wonder, had written.  I didn't realize (perhaps naively) he was a famed biographer of the Romantics, namely Shelley and Coleridge.  I'm in the middle of reading his biography of Shelley, and this past weekend, I began his biography of biography Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer.  I like the play on romantic and the notions of romance that infiltrate concepts of biography, how figures like the Romantic poets are romanticized and the difficulties of acknowledging but deconstructing these notions.  I'm just in the first section of Holmes's book where he follows in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson's as Stevenson crosses the Cevennes mountains in southern France.  Holmes is quite young (as Stevenson was) as he begins his trek, and he describes both his romantic idealizations of what the walking trip (which he rightly calls a 'pilgrimage') will be like vs. how it actually is.  Through this he comes to some realizations, one of which, I think, captures the ideal of biography for me.  He comes to a bridge in the town of Langogne and realizes that it's a newer bridge, not the one Stevenson crossed a 100 years prior.  Then he sees the old, dilapidated bridge and realizes he cannot cross it.  He writes, "You could not cross such bridges any more, just as one could not cross literally into the past.  Even in imagination the gap was there.  It had to be recognized; it was no good pretending. . . . There had to be another way.  Somehow you had to produce living effect, while remaining true to dead fact. . . . You stood at the end of the broken bridge and looked across carefully, objectively, into the unattainable past on the other side.  You brought it alive, brought it back, by other sorts of skills and crafts and sensible magic" (27).  I think a lot about writing biography (not only b/c I enjoy reading them but because I am really particular as to who the subject is) and how I use biographies in my critical analysis of literary texts.  As I've been working on the dissertation, I've tried to keep a piece of advice I received from a venerable faculty member at the forefront of my work:  "The dissertation should tell a story."  I've interpreted this for myself to mean that while I am making arguments about hoarding and the place of hoarding in 19th century culture and literature, I'm also telling a story about 19th-century England.

On my last trip to England, I had the chance to visit Waddesdon Manor in Oxfordshire.  A French Renaissance-chateau styled manor built for the Rothschild family in 1874, the manor houses a really impressive collection of art.  It also served as a double for inside-scenes of Buckingham Palace in Helen Mirren's The Queen.  More significantly, there was a contemporary display by artist Edmund de Waal among the displays within the house.  The displays were frequently white everyday objects, like plates or long circular tubes, that were arranged in glass tanks and placed in different rooms.  His memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, was a gift from a dear friend to commemorate our trip to Waddesdon Manor together.  It is an amazing story of his family's impressive art collection that was loss during World War II and the only surviving pieces are a collection of 264 netsuke that a maid had hidden inside her mattress.  Netsuke are small Japanese wood or ivory carvings (no bigger than a matchbox).  De Waal details his own inheritance of these netsuke from an uncle, and how they revealed the history of his family.  It's an amazing story; I couldn't put this book down and found several connections with my own work on collections and hoarding. 

Van Gogh: The Life
By Steven Naifeh, Gregory White Smith

Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith offer a compelling, at-times-disturbing, psychological portrait of Van Gogh.  Heavily reliant upon Van Gogh's letters, the biography highlights Van Gogh's difficult relationship with his brother Theo, his unwillingness to compromise in art or life, and his perpetual status as outsider-looking-in.  I've been particularly struck by the idea that prior to his embracing the fashionable and popular Impressionist style, Van Gogh worked almost solely in shades of brown, gray, and black.  His comments on the variance of colors in plain brown are particularly interesting.

I think my favorite part of this book was the discussion Vincent's fascination with bird nests.  It's such a strange connection between him and my dissertation chapter on Jane Austen, who describes her own novel writing as nest building.  The nest is an image of such delicate and fragile domesticity, that I'm surprised by Vincent's fascination with them.  But his difficult relationship with his mother and extended family members might explain his search for images of domestic completion.

Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets
By William Deresiewicz

I am re-reading this amazing book by William Deresiewicz for my dissertation research.  His chapter on Mansfield Park and substitution has been especially significant for my work on hoarding and the nineteenth century.

I love Sylvia Plath's poetry, and I love teaching her poetry to first-year students in particular.  Once we start talking about her life and her poetry, they get invested in dissecting her poetry, especially "Metaphors" and "Daddy."  Granted, they usually just want to discuss her work biographically, which can be a useful avenue for opening the poems up.  But I try to bring in bits of her journals as well for them to see how she crafts prose.  I think her journals are a bit addicting in terms of their depth of spirit and personality.

This is an amazing read.  Holmes's understanding of how scientific discovery influenced literary responses is inspiring.  Very well written and with a rich consideration for readers whose backgrounds are in the humanities.  My favorite parts of this book was his reading of Caroline Herschel and her individual contributions to astronomy.

I picked up this read because I was curious about Potter's role in preserving large tracts of the Lake District.  This biography, however, brings to life Potter's summers spent in the Lake District and the subsequent inspiration these summers had on her children's books and later-life commitment to preserving the Lake District.  I was surprised by Potter's involvement with her publisher; she really had to take control of her copyright and helped to keep her publisher above water during war time.  I was also surprised by her desire to quit writing once she moved into the Lake District permanently, and her love of raising and showing sheep.  I love biographies, and this book was a great read.  She even writes that as WWII approached that instead of hoarding butter (as a sensible person would do), she began hoarding dog biscuits so her pups would be well taken care of during the war.

Washington: A Life
By Ron Chernow

I started reading this when I was reading for comps (b/c I love biographies).  I didn't know much about Washington beyond what we all learn in high school and college.  I was struck by how controlling Washington's mother was, and it brings home how lucky the Americans were to win the Revolution.  Chernow recounts the many errors the patriots made, and it's really a miracle .  The British soldiers were so close to kidnapping Washington at one point that it's almost absurd.  When I taught the early-American literature survey, I read parts of this text to the students.