Excellent Women: The Female Character, Private and Public
Diaries, murders, weddings, and houses: this class focuses on American and British novels featuring strong female characters. The novels are written starting in the 1920s and through the 1960s—and then we jump forward in time to a 2013 novel in order to see where we stand today. We will 1. engage some under-read writers like E. M. Delafield, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy Baker, and Barbara Pym (whose excellent novel gives this course its title), 2. focus on issues of privacy and forms of the public that attend them. 3. engage the country house novel as a genre, both in terms of how funny it can be (Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm) and how scary (Du Maurier's Rebecca); in keeping with the scary, or at least the pseudo-scary, we'll have a section on "Minds and Murder" where we stay at home with Miss Marple and go to the opera with Dame Bradley—the former a well-known spinster and the latter a forgotten (but not repressed) female psychoanalyst, two of the foremost fictional detectives of the so-called Golden Age of Mystery. We will conclude with Claire Messud’s 2013 The Woman Upstairs, which recently raised a demi-brouhaha about the issue of likeability in regard to female characters. We read a novel a week—that’s a lot—and you will need to have read the hilarious Gentlemen Prefer Blondes before the course begins. It flies by, believe me.
In addition to wanting to read some good novels, there are several other reasons you might take this class: 1. an interest in novels about and by women; 2. an interest in so-called middlebrow writing and a desire to interrogate the term; 3. an interest the psychological and philosophical issues that go along with privacy: solipsism, sexuality, and the construction of identity. 4. An interest in thinking critically about the issue of, as the critic Blakey Vermeule puts it, “why we care about literary characters”—and we will be reading words by her too.
The class is discussion based, and students will write brief response papers and two papers.
Texts may include: Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925); E. M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady (1931); Gladys Mitchell, Death at the Opera (1934); Agatha Christie, Murder at the Vicarage (1930); Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm (1932); Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca (1938); Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (1952); Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the Wedding (1962); Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs (2013)