Exams and I have a fair degree of history together. From that fateful first day in third year when I waited anxiously outside a gym hall to sit my Standard Grade English, to desperately scouring the labyrinth that is Glasgow Uni, trying to find my Honours English Literature exams, or waiting in the rain outside the OTC building, trying not to get run over by passing cars as rain splashed onto my notepad, exams and I have gone through hell and back together.
And they’re a funny thing, exams. Subject to much controversy too, especially in recent years with the dominance of technology over almost all other forms of learning and examination (who hands in a handwritten essay these days? is it even allowed?). Exams suddenly seem awfully old-fashioned. Individual (wobbly) desks, ink spilling everywhere, people writing with fury in an echoey hall. It seems a strange idea, to sit you in a room at the end of the year, thrust a piece of paper in front of you and force you to desperately pour out something resembling an essay in response to a set of unseen questions. I’ve thought about them long and hard over my time at school and college and uni, and come up with some pros and cons:
The fear forces you to study, to recap the information learned over your course.
The early stages of studying can be fun. You’re relearning and rereading, and in the process making interesting connections between texts, based on a more mature understanding of the course gained from reflection.
It can be an opportunity to shine, to show that you can come up with something original in a very short space of time.
You learn the value of concision.
If the questions are well-designed, the exam can be a true test of your analytical abilities and skill for quick-thinking – there are not many other times when you have the adrenaline necessary to formulate a coherent piece of writing in such a short period.
It’s nice to realise that you’ve learned chunks of poetry by heart. Even if they begin to slip away fairly quickly once you’ve left the exam…
Risk of being a memory test. While remembering and recalling information is important for lots of subjects from law to physics, English Lit and other humanities subjects is often about critical thinking skills rather than just remembering ‘data’ aka quotes. Lots of students memorise whole essays and go into the exam, then shoehorn and regurgitate what they’ve stored in their head. Sometimes this works, other times it ends badly. Either way, it isn’t testing much more than your ability to write fast and repeat.
Anxiety. This is a real problem for some people and can really hinder their performance in an exam, even if they’ve studied hard.
Breadth vs. depth. In an essay, with the advantage of time and access to material, it’s a lot easier to formulate a response which balances careful close reading and discussion of relevant secondary criticism and theory. In an exam, it’s too easy to fall back into the trap of plot summaries, even though you’re perfectly capable of analysis. Exams don’t always reflect your ability to synthesise material, or the extent of the research you’ve done.
Too much weighting. In my degree, exams are worth 50% of each course grade. There’s a lot of stake in those two hours, and if you have a brain freeze or something goes wrong, you can really drag down all that hard work you put in during the semester.
There are probably lots more, but here are the ones that immediately spring to mind. My solution would be not to scrap exams entirely, but to use them more effectively. Perhaps have mid-term close reading tests, which would examine your ability to respond ‘naturally’ to a text and your critical skills, rather than just your memory. Maybe also a 25% end of term exam, replacing the other 25% with another 3000 word essay. Maybe it will go that way in the future with credit standardisation; some universities don’t have exams for English Literature at all. The problem of course is that unlike subjects such as law and medicine and business, exam conditions are more unlikely to be part of any aspect of a future career sprung from a literary subject. While some jobs will require you to do set tests e.g. solving financial problems as part of the interview process, you are unlikely to encounter something like that in journalism, academia, publishing and so on. An essay with a deadline seems more akin to the work English Lit tends to lead to.
I can’t remember the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in an exam. There’s always that brief five minute panic when ‘your questions’ haven’t come up, and you have to radically rethink your answers and quickly choose a question; but usually in turns out in the end, and often the most spontaneous answers get the best mark. I guess one of the hardest exams I’ve ever done is Higher Music Listening. I mean, it shouldn’t be, but it just seems to be this horrible trail of riddles, where you have to discern different instruments out of tangles of sound in a very short space of time before the clip stops playing. Also, because you have to maintain concentration as a room of people listening to the same tape, your brain gets pretty muddled. And you can get distracted: I was so excited when the tape played The Strangler’s ‘Golden Brown’ that I made such a hasty decision about which rhythm change it contained that I put the wrong answer down. The coding sections of Higher Computing were also tricky, and writing four essays in an hour and a half for Higher Modern Studies is always the bane of your fifth year existence. Every student in Scotland who did languages will probably remember the terrifying voice that blasted the announcement about this being the STANDARD GRADE FRENCH LISTENING exam through the crackly stereo at the back of a gym hall, with all the aggression of someone holding you up in an armed robbery.
There was a golden moment towards the end of my last exam, when I realised there was less than ten minutes to go, and I was onto the conclusion, and soon that would be me – done forever. I definitely wouldn’t say that I’ll miss exams (hopefully, I’ll never have to do one again unless I decide to take up driving), but there’s something completely rewarding about the adrenaline rush and the nerves and the exhausting release afterwards that seems pretty unique. A bit like doing the Olympics, but for your brain (and your wrist). To anyone who still has exams to sit, good luck and remember it’s not the end of the world; and ultimately, they are always going to be a somewhat artificial test of your ability!
(Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether exams are a good means of assessment or not for literature-based subjects).
My degree programme requires you to take at least one ‘pre-1800’ course – i.e., anything that’s not Victorian or Modern, anything that stretches back into the depths of distant history. For some people, the prospect of reading up on Shakespeare or Medieval literature is a dream, but I chose a course which was dated 1660-1785 – the most modern dates I could get my hands on. I was at first pretty worried about studying the eighteenth-century, possibly sharing Esther Greenwood’s view in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: ‘I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason’. When my copy of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela arrived, reading one paragraph of the heroine’s gushing account of her virtue left me exhausted. I looked at the fat Collected Works of Samuel Johnson and my heart sank. However, with some surprise, I soon found myself enjoying the books I was supposed to read. The truth is that the eighteenth-century has a lot more to offer than stuffy old men and their commitment to reason. Of course, it was the time of the Enlightenment, but it was also the time of radical social upheaval: of the expansion of empire, changing gender roles, political turbulence, religious opposition, the loosening of sexual mores and of course literary innovation. The renewed critical interest in eighteenth-century post-Reformation literature in recent decades has meant that the canon is no longer confined to Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson, as I feared it might be. I’ve had the chance to study more ‘obscure’ works by women novelists, parodies, life-writing, vicious epistles and pastoral poetry that does more than merely sentimentalise the countryside. ‘Tight little couplets’ neatly encapsulates the idea of formal restriction, but the eighteenth-century was actually a period of literary experimentation, facilitated by the shift from a system of patronage to individual publication, and the more general rise in literacy which meant there was a wider market for more writing. It produced the phenomenon of the ‘peasant poet’, as well as the likes of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an aristocrat and ‘woman of letters’; it saw the merchant Daniel Defoe becoming a successful novelist in his sixties after years of prolific journalism, and Jonathan Swift penning sharp satirical pamphlets that criticised government policy (suggesting that the problem of poverty in Ireland could be solved by fattening up the starving babies and feeding them to rich landowners…ah, never mind, just go read A Modest Proposal – but bear in mind the irony). So yeah, I’m going to give you a walking tour of what I’ve learned from studying literature in the eighteenth-century. It’s funny how much we already know about eighteenth-century literature, often without realising it. Reading Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, for example, I was struck by how many of Johnson’s aphoristic statements have been absorbed into our general consciousness, such as that hardened phrase of pessimism: ‘Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed’ or the wisdom of ‘do not suffer life to stagnate; it will grow muddy for want of motion’ (these terms acquired greater significance to me proportionate to the amount of time I was spending in the library, where life certainly grows muddy for want of motion). I was struck too by Alexander Pope, whose poetry is generally written in heroic couplets, which makes them snappy and easy to remember. So many couplets from An Essay on Criticism and An Essay on Man will strike most people as familiar:
‘Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join; | To err is human, to forgive, divine.’
‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, | As those move easiest who have learned to dance.’
‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast: | Man never is, but always to be blest.’
At first, Pope’s couplets do sound smug, especially in poems where he’s satirically tearing shreds from literary critics, other writers and the artifice of dress and manner which ‘ladies’ must shroud themselves with in ‘Epistle to a Lady’. But you start to get a feel for them, and the neat syntax and rhyme scheme quickly becomes pretty satisfying, especially in his Pastorals and Windsor Forest. Windsor Forest is an interesting poem because it’s a panegyric (a poem written to commemorate a public event) written to celebrate the Treaty of Utrecht (which was basically a deal allowing Britain freer access to the slave trade), but its attitude to slavery is ambivalent, and with his vivid images of animals being cruelly hunted, Pope via synecdoche (‘if small things we may with great compare’) invites us to compare the treatment of the pheasant to the foreign subject, the slave:
‘Short is his joy! he feels the fiery wound / Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground’.
I’m quite happy I remember this quote from my exam. Anyway, it’s a fairly distressing image, with all the assonance of flutters and blood stirring up this sense of entrapment and terror, raising our sympathy for this humble piece of ‘game’. The poem is a good one to start with because you learn a lot about history from it, and the poetry itself is enjoyable to read. Pope definitely falls into pompous patriotism, especially towards the end, but because it’s framed through delicious images of silver and gold and rushing rivers, it’s hard to put the poem down purely because of it’s subject matter. And there’s always a sense of unease to Pope’s ideology, as it’s filtering through mythical allusions always adds an ambiguous, extra dimension to the meaning. This is the sort of thing you have to grapple with: not only ‘getting’ the mythical and historical references, but being able to trace their ambiguities through a poetic tradition you’re not quite familiar with.
Then there’s Pamela, Samuel Richardson’s novel about a young servant girl who falls prey to her master’s endless and increasingly insistent attempts to seduce her, becoming more violent every time. While she does not suffer the terrible rape that Clarissa endures in Richardson’s much longer novel, Clarissa, Pamela goes through a lot and chronicles every scrap of it in her letters home to her parents. Pamela can seem a slog, especially with all those self-justifying lines about how pure she still is and virtuous in spite of everything. It’s frustrating that she never seems to do anything but weep and write and swoon. Still, there are some funny moments, like when she tries to escape but mistakes two innocent wee cows for scary bulls, adding a dab of Freudian psychodrama to the otherwise relatively static action. I guess the main thing we can take from this novel is its intense focus on the individual (something that wasn’t really available before in fiction, because romances were interested in characters as archetypes – princess, villain, hero – rather than real people), and the process of introspection, the attention to everyday detail. The same goes for Robinson Crusoe: part of what’s seductive about Defoe’s novel is not just the adventure and pirates, but all those long passages about how he sets up his little domestic fortress on the island; how he learns to cure raisins, build boats, grow corn. He goes into so much detail you think you’ll go mad, but when you go back and read it, there’s a certain satisfaction to it. You can imagine yourself in his position – Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously claimed that Robinson Crusoe’s success was that he represented human nature in general – and the novel becomes a sort of survival guide to living on a lonesome tropical island.
Incidentally, Crusoe’s story was loosely based on that of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish man who ran away to sea to escape punishment for bad behaviour back home. When he got into an argument with the captain of his ship, he asked to leave and go ashore on one of the South Pacific islands they were close to. Selkirk thought some ship would come and find him soon enough, but instead he was stranded there for over four years. Crusoe, by contrast, is on his island for twenty eight years. Part of the wonder of the story is how sane he stays. Crusoe rediscovers religion and his spiritual devotion is essential to giving his life order and meaning on the island. It’s the little things that matter, that give him a sense of self: carving the days into a wooden cross, having dinner with his ‘family’ of animals and writing in his diary. The whole novel basically celebrates the power of human reason and endurance, as Crusoe notes that ‘by making the most rational judgments of things, every man may be in time master of every mechanic art’. I guess in this way it’s very typical of the Enlightenment attitude of the time, but there’s also a very strong capitalist motive for Crusoe’s actions and attitudes. As Ian Watt points out in The Rise of the Novel, many of Crusoe’s behaviours prefigure that of the canny venture capitalist: his restless travels for more trade, his saving of supplies and investing of crops, his careful planning of time and stock, and the mythological story of the individual’s capacity for survival. In fact, it could even be read as a kind of Puritan spiritual autobiography, because Crusoe has all his capital successes rewarded supposedly by ‘Providence’ as a blessing for his religious (re)awakening. It’s funny how a lot of eighteenth-century texts like Robinson Crusoe are perhaps best known for their adaptations into children’s literature (NOT as the rather awful film versions which insist on adding an irrelevant romance plot to everything). I suppose it’s because Defoe’s novel is also an adventure narrative, encountering pirates and ‘educating’ his ex-cannibal slave ‘Friday’ with Western values (another problematic but critically rich part of the story is Defoe’s relationship to ‘my man Friday’, which sheds light on the colonial context of the time). Another example of an eighteenth-century novel being famous as a children’s book is of course Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. The irony here is that Swift wrote this tale about fantastic worlds with tiny people, floating islands, people who could extract sunlight from cucumbers, giants and talking horses (Houyhnhnms) to deliver a harsh satire on the politics and Enlightenment culture of the period. Unless you have a canny eye or an edition rich with footnotes, you might miss all these references, and so revel along in Gulliver’s story and thus fall prey to the kind of naivety Swift critiques in Gulliver himself. Indeed, because the book was so cleverly prefaced and presented as a true account of a man’s travels, many people thought that the events and the strange places described were all true. In addition to lashing the follies of man’s claim to reason and pursuit of enlightened knowledge, Swift was attacking travel writing itself, albeit with lesser gall. He parodies the supposed objectivity of travel writing, and its attention to seemingly inane details. He gives very precise numbers, showing the reader how he cleverly carves up the worlds he encounters, noting ‘three hundred tailors’, ‘six of his majesty’s greatest scholars’ and so on. He also feels the need for self-justification, as when he describes how his excrement has to be taken away by two wheelbarrows by the tiny Lilliputians:
I would not have dwelt so long upon a Circumstance, that perhaps at first sight may appear not very Momentous; if I had not thought it necessary to justify my Character in Point of Cleanliness to the World, which I am told, some of my Maligners have been pleased on this and other Occasions, to call in Question.
Swift’s writings had been previously critiqued for their lewdness, as in A Tale of a Tub and ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, where the human body becomes a site of grotesque revelry and disgust. Swift, therefore, is here fashioning his own self-defence with thick layers of irony, inviting critics to judge him against his own self-protection, his free reign expression on matters abject and bodily. Travel writing was a big thing in the eighteenth-century, what with the growth of the British trade empire and the trend for the ‘Grand Tour’. While they didn’t have access to a railcard, undergraduate (men) would often take the Grand Tour of Europe, learning about refined French manners and Greek culture to more fully develop their education. This of course also involved a lot of drinking and probably visiting prostitutes, but then again, such matters were perhaps necessary to a gentleman’s education – he could ‘get it out of his system’ overseas and come back to Britain enlightened and satisfied and ready to be a ‘good’ citizen. Hm. One of my favourite pieces of travel writing is James Boswell and Samuel Johnson’s account of their journey to the Western isles of Scotland. Their approach was slightly different, as they each wrote separate accounts of the time. Boswell focused mainly on Johnson himself (as he tends to do in his writing!) whereas Johnson spent much time critiquing the dreariness of the scenery and observing the primitive lives of the locals with some disdain, though respect for their hospitality. You can read A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland for free online via Project Gutenberg, and I think it’s worth a gander, if only to take a brief lunch-break holiday into the wilds of eighteenth-century Scotland. There is also a rather humorous article in The Telegraph detailing the author’s attempts to retrace the steps of Boswell and Johnson’s tour, though I am somewhat uncomfortable with his complaints about encountering a range of ethnicities rather than ‘native’ Scots on his tour…can Scottishness not finally now be defined as authentic through multiculturalism, as everywhere else in Britain, or must it still be hailed as a land of blood and soil nostalgia, pale skin and tartan…? just a wee grumble! I have only skimmed over the stuff we covered in our course on the eighteenth-century. Other things worth reading are the hilarious parodies of Pamela, which cast severe doubt on the veracity of Pamela’s ‘virtue’ and burlesque Richardson’s prose style – some good ones include Eliza Haywood’s Anti-Pamela and Henry Fielding’s Shamela. Also, Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City is a marvellous book which looks at how the countryside was often falsely represented in various examples of pastoral and Georgic poetry through the ages as an idealised contrast to the corruptions of the city. Millenium Hall by Sarah Scott is a very intriguing epistolary novel which has been dubbed a ‘feminotopia’, an early representation of a utopian community run by women on a country estate. I suppose what really strikes you about this period is the sheer diversity of works, and the strong political ties most of the literature displays. It was a time of experimentation, but because the novel in particular was still a nascent form, it’s possible to perceive all the strange incoherences, the little faults and cracks which allow us to reflect on the form in general and its relationship to ideology. Edward Said, after all, has argued that the novel is by definition born out of colonialism: it is ‘fundamentally tied to bourgeois society […] it accompanies and indeed is a part of the conquest of Western society […] the novel, as a cultural artefact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other’. The novel’s representation of social authority in the hands of the British, its focus often on middle-class life and relentless individualism are all part of this bourgeois basis of the novel. Whether we agree entirely with Said’s statement, it’s a compelling argument that challenges us to rethink how we consider what is probably the most popular form (other than celebrity biography) in the contemporary literary market. And I guess that’s one of the thing’s I enjoyed most about this course: returning to origins, understanding how modern literature came into being out of the cultural circumstances and experimentations of the long eighteenth-century. It is rather ironic that while Samuel Johnson characterised the typical novel reader as ‘the young, the ignorant and the idle’, reading novels is now one of those activities that mark you out as ‘cultured’, ‘educated’, perhaps even ‘bourgeois’. Not only in its form, but also in its critical reception, the novel has come a long way. Some extra info:
Alexander Pope was a dissenting Catholic during the time of Protestant monarchy, which meant he was barred from participating in many societal institutions, like university. In 1719, he retreated to Twickenham in the rural outskirts of London, building himself a villa and a grassplot garden whose verdant beauty was to imitate the Arcadian landscapes of much of his poetry. Pope’s residence is notable and pretty cool because he constructed a tunnel under the road connecting his garden to his villa. It led to the basement of his villa in which he fashioned his own grotto. He wrote a rather beautiful description of his delight in a letter to Edward Blount:
When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture…And when you have a mind to light it up, it affords you a very different Scene: it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Forms…at which when a Lamp…is hung in the Middle, a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place.
So small as the daisy, pulled
into petals from the precious lens
of a leaf.
Unfurl the tangles like twine;
as an organ,
the quick pulse
of some other body, the beautiful body:
that lies over there and empty,
still empty in the yellow light
of this warm morning.
So with finals approaching I’ve been spending nigh on every day in the depths of my university’s library. I thought, therefore, that it would be appropriate to report my observations on human life as it seems to occur in this environment…
I’ve identified 12 subtypes which emerge amidst the Darwinist conditions of computer shortages, desk squabbles, bright lighting and excess caffeine…
The sleepers: always a good start to a list, these types are keen on the trend for daytime napping. You will find them either tucked in a comfy chair, their legs propped on the nearest table, or else face down over their keyboard. Probably the source of much resentment, but perhaps it does increase productivity. Still, there could be beds provided, when desks are in such scarce conditions at this busy period…
The chatterers: they come in pairs. Often they arrive around 9-10 in the morning and stay till 5, interrupting each other’s study constantly and engaging in joint Facebook stalking and looking up photographs of famous people on Google Images and giggling without much hush. Tend to take 2 hour lunch breaks and leave all their stuff to hog the desks.
The fortress builders: you rarely glance a peek at these specimens, as they tend to erect large towers of hardback books on their desks. It is unlikely that the books themselves will be opened, but the careful assemblage of pens, paper, notepads and books is very important to their sense of zen.
The aggressive opportunists: to be found hovering about on every level, clutching their phones to their faces and occasionally hesitating an anxious glance around them, as if they were bird-spotting. These types basically scour every floor desperately waiting for someone to vacate their computer so they can dive in. You’ve got to feel sympathy for them, though there is something rather alarmingly aggressive about the way they rush to your desk as soon as you have clicked ‘log off’. It’s like they have super vision.
The stressor: he or she will either be a weepy type, or a sweary type. The weepy type invites deep sympathy, as it is awful to see a fellow human reduced to the state of tears or panic attack over university work. To be honest though, I have encountered more of the latter. In particular, it is common to see finance students sweating it out in the upper levels, swearing under their breath at a screen of what I assume to be frustrating figures, occasionally slamming their fist down upon a hefty textbook.
The gruesome eater: disappears for an hour, comes back with some disgusting excuse for a lunch gleaned from any number of surrounding convenience stores or supermarkets. They favour the more odorous of foodstuffs, and are inclined to make vile slurping noises as they lick their tub of oily pasta or packet of tuna sandwiches. The worst, perhaps, is the Monster Munch crunch.
The early bird endurance workers: these more elusive types tend to congregate in the upper floors with the segregated desks and rule of silent study. They arrive around 8am to get their favoured seat (the same one every day it seems) and are there for most of the day, working away like beavers. Will disappear occasionally for a coffee or cigarette, but rarely leave their desks, which begin piling up very quickly with masses of paper and scribbly notes.
The portable secretary: seems to get a phone call at least once an hour. Will either proceed to talk freely about a mate’s sex life with the entire floor listening, or else make a panic dash to the nearest ‘quiet zone’, leaping heroically over trailing cables. Sometimes is away and the phone will ring unanswered for twenty minutes until a brave stranger plucks up the courage to turn it off in his or her absence.
The rebel: turns up mid-afternoon and somehow still manages to blag a seat somewhere. Pulls the plug out of a PC to stick their laptop on charge. Doesn’t care. Eats trifle on level 8. Whose gonna challenge ’em? Snorts heartily with laughter watching silly Youtube videos in the middle of the day whilst anxious students rush around looking for a computer they can study on.
The drifter: seems not to ever do actual work, but to spend all day scanning every level for anyone he or she happens to be acquainted with, stopping, in an elaborate trail of procrastination, to gabber and pester said acquaintances. Tends to wear a school leavers’ hoodie, and very soft cotton joggers.
The library lightweight: most likely in first year, though the trait can continue up into honours sometimes. Tends not to venture beyond level 3. Dips into the library between classes and sits on Facebook for an hour or so whilst gobbling a sandwich loudly.
Lastly…(perhaps the worst) the foot shuffler: Need I say more? – Takes 10 minutes to walk 10 metres, owing to the way he or she drags their feet across the carpet. Pick your feet up when you walk, for God’s sake!
(Warning: contains possible spoilers up until the end of episode four).
Moving from plumes of cloud and sullen mist to the flaming spit of fire below, the opening sequence of Poldark sets us up for a journey through the sublime chasms of history down to the core of its hero’s heart. The scene is Cornwall in the 1780s. The story is a beautifully rendered television voyage through various Romantic archetypes, culminating in the protagonist himself, who stands alone facing the open, churning sea, in the manner of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous Romantic painting, ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’. In the first episode, Captain Ross Poldark returns, miraculously alive, from the American War of Independence, bearing the mark of his experience in the distinctive dark scar upon his cheek. After the battle scene in which Poldark alone escapes with his life, a dreamy flashback presents our hero in smart uniform, ready to go abroad, acquiescing to the breathless urge of his lover Elizabeth: ‘Pray do not be reckless, I wish you to return’. Well, like Robinson Crusoe from his shipwreck and 28 years of island isolation, Poldark does return. Only, while Crusoe returns to ‘civilisation’ to find a hefty profit from his Brazilian plantations to fill his greasy palms, Poldark returns to find his finances in ruins and his dear Elizabeth now married to his insipid cousin. What follows is a tale of Poldark’s redemption; once the idle gambler at war only to ‘escape the gallows’, he evolves into a near prototypical Romantic hero, embodying the necessary sentiment, broody solitude and bad-boy glamour that brought Byron his fame and trouble.
But while Poldark represents an idealised benevolence cut with rugged beauty, he is not a dandyish poet in the manner of Byron or Wilde, but a man of war and experience. While Byron would go off gallivanting with his many women, writing hopes of radicalism back home, Poldark says little of his time overseas – a quietness that only emphasises the intrigue of his character. As the frequent close-ups of his scar insist, this man has done battle, a distinction that reinforces his difference to the other men of Cornwall’s stuffy society.
And indeed, Poldark puts his experience to virtuous use. He represents in some ways that much-loved ‘cult of sensibility’ that wormed its way into novels and poetry of the eighteenth-century: rescuing a wayward waif, providing work for starving labourers and delivering an impassioned courtroom speech in defence of an unfortunate young poacher (played – did anyone else notice – by metal-head Rich from Skins). Sensibility, as we might guess from the title of Henry Mackenzie’s popular novel The Man of Feeling (1771), was a kind of fashion for displaying emotion; a newly remodelled masculinity which was exhibited through tears and expression and other public manifestations of feeling. While Poldark is by no means the soppy hero of Mackenzie’s novel (the Editor’s Introduction to The Man of Feeling warns that the novel ‘proceeds in due course through so many tears that it is hardly to be called a dry book’), his compassion towards the struggling labourers contributes to our image of him as a benign venture capitalist, a hero of industry for our postmodern age of corrupt public figures and criminal bankers. The symbolism of a man attempting to re-open a mine threatened by closure and poor investment, to work alongside his miners in the sweaty heat of the pit and to share the profit, was perhaps not lost on Poldark’s viewers when it was first broadcast in the 1970s. While many period dramas fall into the trap of caricature when representing the ‘lower classes’, Poldark offsets this problem by honing in on individual experiences which highlight the precarious economic and social position of Cornwall’s labourers in the late eighteenth-century: the plight of the young poacher, and, importantly, the story of Demelza, who is adopted from the streets by Poldark as a house-maid and later becomes his wife.
This is a show that milks the viewer’s voyeurism. Any chance it gets to parade Aiden Turner’s sweaty golden torso, visible as he swims in the sea or hacking at the land, it takes it. However, such enticing demonstrations of abs and strength are not merely to keep Turner loyalists from the Being Human days happy. They also serve as an interesting parallel to scenes of Demelza alone in nature. Well, not quite alone. While Poldark ranges the cliffs on foot or on horseback – once again parading the dazzling iconography of Romantic solitude – Demelza wanders off at dawn with her little scruffy dog. While Poldark is a figure of Promethean strength and virility (here another connection between strength and suffering – Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound), Demelza’s ethereal looks, in tandem with her ‘exotic’ Cornish dialect, establish her as an almost mythological figure of Romantic fascination. There are many tender scenes where she lies languid in the long grass, playing with pretty cornflowers, or trailing over the rolling cliffs; but there are also scenes where she tills the land with all the power of Poldark himself. We are led into believing the credibility of their marriage because the show sets them up as equals. Demelza is, in a way, Wordsworth’s ‘Solitary Reaper’: the ‘lass’ with the regional accent, who ‘cuts and binds the grain, | And sings a melancholy strain’ which flows through the land with ‘more welcome notes’ than a ‘Nightingale’. When we first encounter her, begging in the street and being heckled, she is clearly a ‘peasant’, a mess of coarseness and dirt; but her time as Poldark’s domestic tames her appearance, though not her spirit. While Wordsworth’s female Reaper was just one of the rural characters to feature in the revolutionary Lyrical Ballads (1798), Demelza is not merely a figure of some traveller’s amusement or poetic interest. The camera does not gaze at her always from a distance, but switches to close-ups and pan shots of the scenes around her: the swaying grain, the face of her dog, some plain little flower or the ever-present sea. At times, then, we share her perception. Episode by episode, we are lured in with her sweet pure voice; significantly, the voice which settles Poldark’s love for her.
The master/servant romantic dyad is certainly not an original one, but a trope embedded in many prominent examples of canonical novels since the eighteenth-century. Hailed as one of the first ‘novels’ in the sense recognised today, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1970) tells through a series of its heroine’s diaries and letters the story of a virtuous servant girl resisting the sexual advances of her master, eventually redeeming his character through her writing and in turn being rewarded with an equal marriage based on love and respect. What made Richardson’s novel unique was that it placed value upon a ‘mere’ servant-girl’s right to self-respect, to protect her chastity and resist the common (and indeed legal) assumption that a servant-girl was her master’s property, to do with what he would. Also, the level of psychological detail afforded by Richardson’s epistolary form allowed the reader an incisive insight into the consciousness of Pamela’s character, a consciousness that gained integrity and resistance through letter-writing itself. While Richardson’s novel gives us an excess of detail, Poldark speaks often through silence. It is those moments in the gloomy interiors of Poldark’s home, with the fire flickering shadows over a rustic meal, or against the backdrop of the ocean, with only the gulls’ moaning, that things change between Poldark and Demelza. The show fleshes her out with a backstory and a problem father, a sense of longing for an unspeakable freedom – the kind of Romantic liberty we experience in her plain, almost Blakean singing.
When Poldark and Demelza do get married, almost on a whim, the show deals with the social consequences of this unlikely coupling. Like Pamela, who has to get used to calling her master by her name, Demelza struggles to address Poldark as ‘Ross’ instead of ‘master’ or ‘sir’. Moreover, the rebellious couple face an onslaught not only of gossip but the kind of exclusion that has very material consequences, not just in terms of how Poldark is treated by polite society but even in business, as investors withdraw from his start-up mining company. This is something Demelza worries about greatly, as does Pamela in her marriage to her master, Mr. B-, as she reflects:
The great Mr. B—— has done finely! he has married his poor servant wench! will some say. The ridicule and rude jests of his equals, and companions too, he must stand: And the disdain of his relations, and indignation of Lady Davers, his lofty sister! Dear good gentleman! he will have enough to do, to be sure! O how shall I merit all these things at his hand! I can only do the best I can; and pray to God to reward him; and resolve to love him with a pure heart, and serve him with a sincere obedience. I hope the dear gentleman will continue to love me for this; for, alas! I have nothing else to offer!
Richardson’s novel, I should add, was riffing off the tradition of conduct literature, expressing a kind of Puritan message of self-restraint and virtue. It loses pace in the second half, where Richardson has shunned the romantic convention of ending on a marriage and instead spends the rest of the book describing Pamela’s efforts to run a virtuous domestic set-up. It is with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) that the servant-girl heroine is imbued with a wilder, more defiant streak. While Pamela shows her strength not through any physical feat (indeed, her only two escape attempts constitute a foolish notion to drown herself in the garden pond, and a runaway plan which is aborted when she comically mistakes plain old cows for menacing bulls), Jane displays real physical endurance when she manages to flee Mr. Rochester after discovering about the sham marriage she was almost tricked into. I cannot help but quote that famous, impassioned speech that she makes to her would-be husband:
Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!–I have as much soul as you,–and full as much heart! . . . I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh:–it is my spirit that addresses your spirit: just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,–as we are!
This transcendentalist ideal of love carried through spirit is profoundly Romantic, and one that comes to inhabit the space of Poldark through the mystic enchantments of Demelza’s singing. This taps into Romanticism’s trope of the folk ballad and the femme fatale, found particularly in Keats but also Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, that warns of the strange seduction of the ‘wild’, exotic female:
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
Perhaps this description could be applied to Demelza too, as she dances at the village carnival and skips fairylike along the cliff top meadows. In Keats’ ‘La Bella Dame Sans Merci’ (1819), the speaker meets a curious, vampire-like woman, who seduces him then leaves him cold and alone in the ‘gloam’ of the lake’s bird-less landscape (and, of course, birds are a very importance presence in Romantic poetry). It is interesting that in the twentieth century, with the impact of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), that the myth of the vampire, the lethal seducer, was transferred from the female to male (Turner himself played the tortured vampire Mitchell in Being Human). There are no vampires in Poldark. Demelza is more of the innocent fairy type, embodying the kind of alienated selfhood that Jane encounters as she perceives herself in the mirror: ‘the effect of a real spirit […] like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp’. Estranged from what she thought she was – a mere governess – and hurled into the beautiful turmoil of a fairy story.
It is in Demelza’s metamorphosis from fawn-like (as Elizabeth describes her) child to Poldark’s wife that the show reaps the reward for both parties. When Demelza finally works up the courage to try on a jewel-green dress she finds stuffed into a drawer, it is in this dress that she winds up in bed at last with her master. Yet even here she still looks shrunken, pixie-like in the dress too-big for her, representing the absurdity of the bourgeois identity that she is inadvertently stepping into, like Cinderella. Here, she remains, like ‘plain Jane’, elusive and fairy like, ephemeral in her selfhood. It is in her later endurances, her resistance to the jibes of polite society, that Demelza emerges as our true heroine.
In Brontë’s novel, stumbling alone and starving over the moors, Jane Eyre embodies both female vulnerability and endurance against hardship within the stifling social conditions of the era. Steadfastly she refuses to be Rochester’s mistress and live under a sham marriage. Eventually, like Pamela, she too is rewarded for her virtue, by in turn claiming her own (now, like Poldark, wounded) Byronic hero, whose redemption is signified in the purging of a dramatic fire. The hearth is enflamed from quiet warmth to primitive passion. At the end of episode 4 of Poldark, Ross confesses his love to Demelza in a scene of bedroom intimacy that well resembles that of Pamela and Jane Eyre:
‘You are not too ashamed o’ me?’ asks Demelza, sitting on the bed.
‘Why do you think I married you?’ her husband turns to her.
‘I don’t rightly know.’
‘To satisfy an appetite, to save myself from being alone […] I had few expectations. At best, you’d be a distraction – a bandage to ease a wound. But I was mistaken. You have redeemed me; I am your humble servant, and I love you’.
Like Rochester, and Mr. B-, Poldark is a man redeemed by humble love. Only time will tell (no spoilers) how this pans out. The novel is a form which tends to drive towards closure, the pursuit of some fulfillment of marriage, death or didactic morality; whereas television drama feeds us with cliffhangers, the always open promise of a sequel. This is of course a simplistic distinction, but even so, the point remains that with a book, you can physically see when you are getting to the end, where the pages are running out, and with television, there is a kind of abstracted spatiality and temporality that leaves you always hanging.
As if I were watching a serialised version of Byron’s biography, I intend for the rest of the series merely to sit back and enjoy the picturesque landscapes and the pretty hair, the romance and tragedy and beautiful costumes. All acts of consumption I suppose, which is fitting because Romanticism, as Timothy Morton argues in The Poetics of Spice, invented consumerism; consumerism in the sense of Marxian ‘commodity fetishism’ – consuming something for its representative, fantasy qualities more than for the use value of the thing itself. Wordsworth with his mountains, Coleridge with his opium; objects of desire which offer some form of imaginative potential to the self. But I won’t go into anymore detail; that’s another story, another romance.
How old am I here? I’m somewhere in England, awake early as usual from sleeping on the floor, stripping away the remnants of another dream about chocolate. A dream about chocolate? Oh wait, it’s Easter. The very word Easter sounds confectionary; like ‘viscount’ – a name recalling the little minty biscuit I used to have in my packed lunches – Easter connotes the crack of a thick chocolate shell, a glut of pastel colours, the consuming of cuteness. Maybe I’m seven. My mum is away in Brighton for the day and comes back with two beanie babies: a fluffy yellow chick and a pale blue bunny. Maybe I’m seventeen, walking out to Kildoon monument just to see the lambs in the fields and hope for a happier existence. You know, that’s Easter too.
Those who condemn reckless consumerism bewail the fact that Easter has forgotten its true message: the sacrifice of Christ, the promise of rebirth. It is a solemn hope that perhaps may only be touched by those with faith; it bears the risk of becoming kitsch in the Easter Story worksheets we used to cut out at school with those zigzag scissors. You know, ‘assemble the story of Jesus and the tomb’, where pupils tended more to desecrate Christ with bunny ears more than celebrating his existence. I remember as a child going to church on Easter Sunday and falling into the soft ambience of everyone’s prayer and the familiar stories about The Stone that Rolled and Jesus’s last day and all the other things that have slipped from my brain. I remember being given a Creme Egg by the priest on the way out and thinking he had handed me something precious and holy – but later eating it anyway. Did I feel guilty, biting into this symbol of the blood and sweat and sacrifice of Christ? The problem is, consumerism is good at assuaging such guilt with feelings of pleasure. Everyone’s doing it; everybody’s merry. And after the church ceremony I remember late afternoons watching a certain family member fall asleep after a generous glass of sherry…
Is it wrong that we value booze and chocolate eggs more than the faith and the story? Perhaps…but there is a certain gratitude in the exchange of happiness, the sweet serotonin glow of too much chocolate and a long Sunday afternoon spent with one’s family.
How did we used to spend our Easter Sundays? Painting boiled eggs and rolling them down the hill at Miller Park. Fighting with my brother over who got to lick the bowl of melted chocolate, leftover from making crispy cakes. A walk to another park, somewhere in Burgess Hill or Milton Keynes, watching our dog do long jumps over a river filled with old trollies and sofas. Munching fizzy belts and trying to do loop-the-loops on the swing, never feeling sick but still exhilarated (I wouldn’t mind doing all that now, but I’d probably vomit rainbows). These were the good old, carefree Easters.
When you hit fifteen, suddenly the Easter holidays are all about studying (or they are in theory). The endless, six am days spent copying diagrams for Biology or churning out practice essays for Modern Studies, or falling asleep in the sun with a Computing textbook over my head. Cooking some complex casserole in the evening and doing the washing up afterwards while my brother messes about with his playlist of ‘doing dishes’ music (or maybe it was the other way round; I always had the better iPod). The Easter of first year where I had a weekend down in Suffolk for my Grandpa’s 90th birthday, and got so excited about staying in the countryside that I went for a walk every morning at 7am, just to glimpse the pretty English fields and flowers. Oh, and the postman I accidentally saw peeing in the river – but that’s another story. The Easter afternoon where I laboured over a terrible wee screenplay for Advanced Higher English; or the one I spent laid up watching crappy old films because I had the house to myself for a week and it seemed a waste to bother with ceremony. That was, incidentally, a very good week: I watched three series of Mad Men back to back and walked up a hill and got my hair dyed and wrote about twenty practice essays for my uni exams. There is great productivity to be had in solitude.
The things I love most about Easter are basically the things I love about spring. As all the songs and hymns might sing, there is a simple joy to seeing the first daffodils and blossoms and lambs in the fields. Seeing everything through the spectrum of pastel colours, wearing lavender jumpers and polishing my nails mint green. At uni, I was too stingy to buy Easter flowers, so I would walk all the way along the Kelvin (halfway to Milngavie) just to find loose daffodils to purloin from their ungraceful state, where they were scattered along the path by wayward children.
Back at school, Easter signalled the season of study leave; of long lunchtimes sitting on the hill gossiping while people were screaming at their football behind us. Bunnies are also very cool. I think I believed in the Easter Bunny more than I believed in Santa Clause. Maybe it’s the animal factor; there’s something creepy and alluring about anything anthropomorphic, reminding us of the fragility of our status as humans. The Easter Bunny, moreover, gets less visual representation than Santa in popular culture, leaving the onus on the child’s imagination to conjure what he (or maybe she; or should Easter Bunnies even have a gender?) looks like. One upon a time, my Easter Bunny was soft and probably adorned with buttons and ribbon, juggling a multitude of eggs with his paws and vanishing without trace at dawn (unlike Santa who takes his fill from a mince pie and carrot). Now, I can’t help but think of the horrifying rabbit, Frank, from Donnie Darko. The one that appears either as a schizophrenic vision or some weird spirit guide from the near-possible-present-future. Maybe that’s growing up; realising the terror in your favourite childhood memories. Pulling the latent darkness out of cultural myths and fairy tales. Still, there’s a pleasure in that too.
So yeah, today I won’t be doing much for Easter. I can hear the church bells ring for the morning service, and there are a few birds tentatively weaving their melody into the stiff Sunday silence. As far as I know, there aren’t any lambs in Glasgow, and that lovely lecturer who used to praise heavily the wonders of ‘curved chocolate’ is sadly retired. Today I will have to drag myself out of bed at some point to fall back into the world of studying, swapping festive joy for Johnson’s Rasselas, and juvenile pleasures for The Bell Jar. The only chocolate I have in the flat might be Tesco’s 30p Value, but secretly I’ll be celebrating Easter, if only in nostalgia.
Well yesterday I handed in my final essays: the last pieces of coursework ever in my undergraduate degree. I expected to feel triumphant but instead I felt a little empty and sad and probably nostalgic. After all those years and sleepless nights and thousands of words painstakingly wrought out on laptop screens, it all boils down to two more essays and three exams. And then it’s over.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with reflecting about my university experience. Everything is usually divided between academic and social life. Employers and scholars, politicians and journalists all frequently debate which of the two is most useful for getting a job. Any careers event you attend will churn out the hackneyed refrain that ‘university isn’t just about academia’. They encourage you to get involved in societies, sports clubs, volunteering, student media. And all this is great, but we mustn’t completely neglect the whole reason we’re at university – some of us paying thousands of pounds a year to do so – to learn. And this learning isn’t all about getting a job (not for me at least), but about learning for education’s sake – for widening your perspective on the world.
The first essay I had to write was on Descartes for Level 1 philosophy. I believe the question was something like ‘Should we be worried by Descartes’ scepticism?’. This kind of question was a whole new ball-game for me. I was used to plain old terminology like ‘Discuss’, ‘to what extent’ and ‘examine/evaluate’. Not should we be worried? Should we? Are philosophical thought experiments really that important? Of course, the essay question was roundly subjected to confusion and piss-take amongst my fellow first year students, but I suppose it was a good way into a career in philosophy. You know, it was the kind of question that makes you think, that challenges your assumptions about what an essay should do. It’s easy to say that now, but at the time I was pulling my hair out. I remember maybe the worst library session I’ve ever had was one rainy Saturday afternoon, where I stared at a blank screen for four hours straight, glancing from book to book and desperately Google searching everything I meticulously typed up, in case it was similar to something else that had been written.
First years are constantly subjected to sermons on the sins of plagiarism. Whilst this is of course a vital academic lesson, it also makes essay-writing for the paranoid nigh on impossible. I remember for my English Literature essay, I decided to scour the internet for every form of critical interpretation available on my primary texts, just to check that I wasn’t repeating the same arguments as everyone else. I had still to learn that plagiarism is more about intellectual integrity, about learning to reference properly and using existing sources in an original way, than coming up with something that is wholly unique. One thing you learn from English Literature – in fact, probably any arts subject – is that the notion of pure originality is somewhat a myth. And that’s actually liberating, because it takes away the equation of creative genius; you’re suddenly allowed to see how authors frequently influence/borrow/steal/subvert one another’s ideas, and you no longer have to imagine essay-writing as an outpouring of wonderful, effortless analysis. It’s allowed to be a difficult process, built up from hours of reading, planning and collated note-taking. Not just something you fire out in an hour at the back of a high school English class.
To the eighteen-year-old me, that Saturday in the library, I wasn’t quite acquainted with all this. I was sitting next to a boy who was typing away furiously, producing what looked like three essays in the space of a few hours (the time it took me to write one paragraph that I eventually cut from the essay).
Philosophy, to be fair, is a subject notoriously confusing when it comes to essays. It shouldn’t be; it’s just that a philosophy essay is distinct from other kinds of critical analysis that I was familiar with through my hitherto social-sciency background. That tutorial we had, waiting to get our essays back, was really hellish. Everyone was telling each other how badly their friends in other tutorials had done. How harsh the marking was. Nobody knew what a philosophy essay was meant to be. We all expected D’s.
When my tutor read out my student number and I went up to collect my essay, I have never been so pleasantly surprised at a grade. An A3! I can tell you, that was the first and hardest earned A3 I have ever received at university.
Looking back, I think I probably spent most of my first two years at university in a vague state of panic. The thing is, most of the time you have no idea what you’re doing and what’s expected at you (I still don’t, but that’s now a good thing – again, liberating). There are rarely any rigid guidelines, especially in a subject like English Literature, and initially that seems terrifying. You are suddenly surrounded with all these people who went to better schools, all these people who’ve read The Complete Works of Shakespeare and can quote Byron and Shelley off the top of their heads. I would spend whole days in my little dorm room trying to get my head around basic terminology like iambic pentameter, chiasmus, ode, Ottava Rima, trochees, lyrics. I’m still terrible at counting metre in poetry, even though I have a background in music and am perfectly capable of keeping time when there are notes and staves involved. But I like to think that I’ve finally found some kind of ‘footing’ in the mountainous landscape of centuries of literature that I was first confronted with that sunny September in 2011.
As with anything, a big part of university is trial and error. You are going to do better under the guidance of some tutors more than others. You are going to write essays that you aren’t very sure of, and sometimes this will pay off, and sometimes it won’t. There are essays that you feel genuinely proud of, not even for the grade but because you know that all the research that went into them widened your intellectual horizons, and all that editing really did pay off in terms of style. It’s nice when you can read back an essay and not cringe at your choice of phrasing, or all those hiccups in grammar and punctuation. There are going to be nights in the library where you get the fright of your life from the tannoid telling you the reception desk is closing. There are going to be times when the library makes you sick, stressed, exhausted. Like when I had to sit next to a man who was eating raw, mud-covered mushrooms straight from the punnet and dipping them in hummus; or the time when the only computer I could find was next to someone who was licking and slurping the oily remains of his spaghetti from the bottom of a massive plastic tub. Times when there are tears involved; either yours or someone else’s. Fights witnessed and blows exchanged; where else but in the sleep-deprived environment of a university library would two people start brawling over a grubby old Dell with a greasy keyboard?
But then there are the best times, the late nights and early mornings and holidays when the library is lovely and quiet. You are free to roam the endless shelves and pick the desk on level 11 that looks out over a beautiful city view. When you finish an essay and print it and the paper is still warm in your hands as you leave to hand it in. When you stumble across a book that you weren’t exactly looking for, but it’s on long-term loan and looks very interesting.
I guess the semesters go so quickly that you hardly notice the time slipping. Sometimes, they seem like little footnotes to a long and formidable summer, with nothing to do but work and plough through the reading list and wish you had more money. If I could go back and do one thing I guess it would be making more use of my time. But then, I don’t regret all the evenings I spent immersed in journal articles and books, because that’s what’s shaped my mind. Sure, I might not have a degree with immediate career prospects beyond journalism or teaching, but I wouldn’t swap my education for the world. And I’d recommend Glasgow Uni English Lit to anyone, especially because it’s so steeped in critical perspectives and literature beyond the obvious canon. Where else would you start off a second-year semester reading Martin McDonagh’s gruesome play The Pillowman, or have a fourth-year seminar on Gone Girl and a course on Urban Spaces which divides its programme under mysterious headings like ‘Airport’ and ‘Shopping Mall’ rather than the tired titles you see across typical course Moodles. My degree (well, let’s hope I actually get it!) hasn’t just been about Shakespeare and Dickens and Austen, though they have all quite rightly featured. It’s about expanding the canon, and helping you sharpen as well as complicate and reflexively challenge your critical approach to all literature.
On Tuesday morning, it was spring all of a sudden. I walked to campus feeling warm and happy, remembering the first spring I spent in the city. All those daffodils and the cherry blossoms around Hillhead, and the cheerful experience of the semester ending, everyone gathering for picnics at Botanic Gardens. Optimistically sleeveless, I sat on a stone by the Kelvin River reading Keats, feeling like this is what university is best at. The kind of magical experience unfortunately made cliché by campus films. When you’re in the sunshine reading poetry and you’re about to go in for one of your last tutorials. Sure, I still have three nasty exams to get through, but once they’re over, I’ll hopefully come out a little bit smarter, a little bit happier and a tad more employable. University, both at the academic, social and creative level, has definitely been the best experience of my life. I swear I won’t get sentimental; I’ll come back and do a Masters instead. (Let’s hope; if only).