Thursday, 31 March 2011

Evening Classes

We were excited when the brochure for evening classes at our local tech arrived. We pored over the possibilities with interest. 'If only the beginners' bagpipes class was on a weekend, instead of a Wednesday evening', my husband sighed - he works long hours and would rarely be able to front up for something that begins at 6 pm. 'If only I knew what a soy-wax ear candle was for, I'm sure I'd want to learn to make one', I cried.

We both fell silent, as the next page revealed this opportunity for extending our horizons:

It was an enormous relief to discover that neither of us were even faintly tempted by that option.

We weren't too thrilled by the prospect of being taught how to solve crossword puzzles or construct formal documents by illiterates either:

In the end, in fact, there was only one course that really captured our attention:
There is a sit-com right there in Kevin Norton's four-session social chit chat programme. If I could manage to disguise my inability to shut up for more than two minutes, I'd sign up and go along.


  1. This is a whole other Australia opening up before my eyes. Ignoring the first one - wisely, I'm sure you'll agree - it seems that sitting indoors trying to kill time is the main endeavour these days. "Cryptic's" really doesn't bode well, does it.

  2. It looks like killing time for the teachers as well... do they get paid to teach chit chat??

  3. I keep re-reading this post, Zoe - makes me laugh every time, thinking of you and the husband poring over the classes. Well done!

  4. I don't care what anyone say's: Cryptic's defiantly sound utter gobbledygook and, there for, r unsolvable. That class is a waist of thyme. And parsley and sage, for that matter.

  5. Defiantly, Chris.
    But we are all strong and sunburnt, Gadjo.
    I noticed David's post-China status on Facebook, Polly - I felt exactly the same on return from UK. Shall we Skype soon?

  6. I was reading Eliot's Scenes from Clerical Life earlier today and came across the perfect man to teach the chit-chat class:

    "Mr. Bridmain studied conversation as an art. To ladies he spoke of the weather, and was accustomed to consider it under three points of view: as a question of climate in general, comparing England with other countries in this respect; as a personal question, inquiring how it affected his lady interlocutor in particular; and as a question of probabilities, discussing whether there would be a change or a continuance of the present atmospheric conditions. To gentlemen he talked politics, and he read two daily papers expressly to qualify himself for this function. Mr. Barton thought him a man of considerable political information, but not of lively parts."

    Eliot, just before she hands over this piece of information, lets the reader sample a successful exchange between Mr. Bridmain and a lady. "The weather is very severe," he says. "Very, indeed," says the lady.

  7. Umbagollah: Perfect. Did you, by the way, read the article in a recent New Yorker about one woman's reading and regular rereading of Middlemarch? It wasn't actually all that illuminating, but not totally uninteresting. Imagining being stuck in conversation with Mr Bridmain reminds me of one of the things that I am always struck by in Middlemarch and even more in Anna Karenina: both authors manage to convey how circumscribed and tedious life as a reasonably well-off woman must once have been - not uncomfortable but restricted. I think Tolstoy especially conveys really well how Anna Karenina's problem is at least partly not having enough to do. I never know if he was aware that that was what he was doing though - showing how lack of distraction helps lead her to becoming obsessed by inadequate Vronski.

  8. I don't think I did, but it sounds interesting enough to go hunting for.

    It's been so long since I read Karenina that I can't trust myself to say anything about it, but as for Eliot: yes, yes. It makes me wish that she'd done more with Mrs Transome in Felix Holt, not just let her dwindle away into a vehicle for a plot device. I love the sharpness directly after the semi-colon in this: "A little daily embroidery had been a constant element in Mrs Transome's life; that soothing occupation of taking stitches to produce what neither she nor anyone else wanted, was then the resource of many a well-born and unhappy woman."

    The fact that her stories flip back and forth between clear-eyed observation and Victorian formulae drives me mad. In Middlemarch, for example, you have that wonderful, subtle scene between Rosa and Lydgate, after they're married, when they encounter one another's characters for the first time, followed by a scene between Rosamond and Dorothea that feels to me like a sop to the audience.

    In Clerical Life you have a beaten, drunk wife (and it's as if Eliot has jumped forward to the 1990s and read Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, she hits so many of the same notes) but the beaten drunk wife is also naturally beautiful and ministers to poor dear deaf Mrs Tooke, and she has a forgiveness scene with her husband at the end (on her knees, hands clasped), and all of this is so Victorianishly muddying.

  9. Umbagollah - Do you not think that that flipping back and forth of Eliot's is just evidence that she was a Victorian? I imagine it's very difficult to escape the thought patterns et cetera of one's own time, even if you are as perceptive and wise as she was (or maybe she had the writer's usual, hard to dismiss, fear that no-one would read her unless she chucked a few sops to the general consumer's taste into the mix). I love that Transome quote: I am often guilty of Mrs Transome's 'produce that neither she nor any one else wanted' - in fact, you've given me the idea for a blog post. Thank you for that.

  10. "Evidence that she was a Victorian" -- that's what irritates me. I can't read her books without thinking, "If only you didn't have these constraints on you, or this fear that people would stop reading if you didn't throw them a bone --" and I suspect (although I've never read an Eliot biography and found out for sure) that the throw-them-a-bone mentality was a looming thing for her, because she has those, "Ah, dear reader" asides (the one in Adam Bede is the most obvious and memorable, I think) to warn you that not everything is sunshine and roses in real life, and that this book might not be the pretty experience you, the reader, would like to have -- you with your romances, and your Ann Radcliffe Gothic from the circulating library.

    There appears to have been a significant self-consciousness there -- she doesn't seem to have fitted the Victorian temperament as comfortably as a writer like Dickens, who segues from violence to sweet tears not only because the audience likes it, but because all of these heightened emotions give him genuine pleasure. (I've got the Old Curiosity Shop at the front of my mind here.)

    But with Eliot the sentimentality sometimes feels like an awkward fit -- a sign of the author pulling back and restraining herself, rather than a heartfelt extension of thought. I was frustrated in the first part of Clerical Life when she started heading in a direction that was picked up later and expanded at length by Proust (a character's spouse has died, and the character, coming back to the grave of the spouse, realises that memory had been having an effect on his love for her, and he is disturbed) but then cuts this train of speculation short and has the character veer off into a more traditional Victorian reaction (he throws himself on the grave and weeps) and so the idea short-circuits.

    It's this short-circuiting effect that makes me wish that she, out of all the Victorian writers, had been born at a different time. It's not that I'm hostile to Victorian attitudes in general. Generally I admire them. I like their vigour and their power. But I suspect that without some of the constraints that were impressed on her by her society, she would have been able to chase after her thoughts with a freedom that she doesn't believe she has, and her books might have been stronger for it.

  11. I think you're right, although of course she may have found some other pitfall to founder upon or before, or whatever one does with a pitfall. Interesting what you say about Dickens - I've been wondering why Anwar al-Awlaki is fond of him but dislikes Shakespeare:

  12. He was once an aspiring playwright whose debut production, Sinatra: The Man, The Myth, came to grief against the local high school's plein air musical production of A Winter's Tale? Thwarted, he turned to extremism? I know that picking Eliot up at birth and transporting her magically to another time and place would alter more of her than just the parts I happen not to like, but I wish there was some way to go back and whisper to her brain, please don't cop out there! don't make him cry on the grave! I'll respect you for it in 2011! When she follows an idea through, as she does with Gwendolyn in Daniel Deronda, after the character has become poor, and hates it, and platitudes aren't working on her, then she's dynamite. The clarity and intelligence of the author there are just golden.

    But she was definitely capable of coming up with pitfalls of her own, and she would probably have found some, wherever she was. Even a Victorian audience would not have hated her if she had made her children lisp a little less. There's no book on earth that needs one character greeting another with, "Dit id my noo fock."

  13. Of course, she may just have had that one flaw - an actual relish for sentiment? Is 'Dit id my noo fock' in The Mill on the Floss? I've never loved that book. You have inspired me to go back and read Middlemarch again and make further assaults on Daniel Deronda and Adam Bede,neither of which I have got right through - plus have a go at Scenes from a Clerical Life, which I've never even tried.

  14. Then the relish for sentiment coexisted with a very sharp unsentimentality, and it's this that throws me. Even the gentleness at the end of Middlemarch can't hide the fact that her ultimate conclusion is pitiless: we don't always succeed, even when we want to, even when we're intelligent and brave, our small and unthinking actions can ruin us, sometimes life just has its way with us and there you go.

    But you're right, it's not impossible that a person can love grave-weeping and phrases about "fine eyes" and "a woman's tender heart" and still have a sharp brain. Proust melted over flowers but he was icy when it came to love and friendship.

    The noo fock turns up in Scenes from Clerical Life.

    "Lizzie advanced without hesitation, and put out one hand, while she fingered her coral necklace with the other, and looked up into Mr. Tryan's face with a reconnoitring gaze. He stroked the satin head, and said in his gentlest voice, 'How do you do, Lizzie? will you give me a kiss?' She put up her little bud of a mouth, and then retreating a little and glancing down at her frock, said,—'Dit id my noo fock. I put it on 'tod you wad toming. Tally taid you wouldn't 'ook at it.'"

    My American sidekick couldn't get through more than a few pages of Floss because the dialect speech drove him mad, and the first time I tried it I had the same problem. Even now, it's not my favourite Eliot. Overuse of phoenetic dialogue, maybe that was her very own personal flaw, one that she would have been drawn to, even if she had been born in a time when characters were no longer obliged to chuck themselves around on graves.

  15. Blimey, I think I'm crossing Scenes from a Clerical Life off the list - that is truly vile.
    It is more than just the dialogue that makes me dislike Mill on the Floss. It is actually what seemed to me a much more pervasive sugariness than you find in the others - all the tendencies you highlight somehow appeared to me to be intensified in it. I read it with great expectations, after reading Middlemarch, which was a revelation to me and I wanted more of the same. What the New Yorker article I mentioned talked about was how, if you read Middlemarch again at different stages in your life, you find your insights about the different characters and their actions changing - and therefore your understanding of the novel shifts each time. I must read it again.