Literary Lessons
by Solomon Philbrick

Finals started about two weeks ago, which is odd since the actual papers aren’t due until the first week of June. That’s how we roll, though, and I’m looking at a total of about twenty-nine written pages along with three oral reports, one on Mary Queen of Scots, one on Medieval theology and one on an eighteenth century pornographic novel. It seems like one would learn how not to behave after two previous quarters, but I’m still the same procrastinator that I’ve always been and now that’s about to bite me in the ass once again. So, aside from the occasional unofficial zombie massacre, gaming season is over until summer and I must switch momentarily from geeky fanboy to lit-nerd. Thus, this column is one of those unfortunate mixtures of business and pleasure.

Elizabeth_I_%28Armada_Portrait%29.jpgThe popular trend in reading literature from previous eras (especially pre-nineteenth century) is that those societies in which the works were written are so alien to us that we cannot understand them without an insane amount of research into what the people actually thought about themselves. I’ll toe that line in the classroom and on paper, but I really think that for the most part it’s a bunch of balls. Yes, we can’t expect as much sympathy toward women in a book that is four hundred years old and the religious folks at the time are still trying to determine whether or not women have souls. In addition, while I may personally wince when a literary character is thrown from a cliff for disagreeing with political doctrine, I know that such an act is actually meant to be viewed as one of justice and not tyranny, given the historical context. However, I am a uniter and not a divider (as someone said,) so I like to look for those things that never seem to go away, no matter how much time passes. Using the last two months alone, I would like to examine a few simple truths that I have found in reading old books.

Pamela-1742.jpgThe Faerie Queene: Successful politicians are often surrounded with useless sycophants. Queen Elizabeth turned this into an art form, and every goofy boob who wanted her attention wrote poetry and letters professing undying love and devotion to her. Of course, her more reliable allies often disagreed with her and were subject to her tantrums more often than the sycophants were, but I think Liz ultimately knew the difference between the two. Edmund Spenser was one of the sycophants, as the massive six-book epic The Faerie Queene makes clear. That the queen knew that Spenser was a sycophant is obvious because she sent him off to be an administrator in a dumpy backwater known as Ireland instead of giving him a position in her court. Spenser hated Ireland and the Irish, and the feeling was mutual: an angry mob torched his house when he was on vacation. Spenser would eventually write some thinly veiled swipes at Elizabeth in his work. Lessons? 1. Power attracts sycophants like flies to shit. 2. A wise person can see the difference between a sycophant and someone who is truly loyal (and useful.) 3. We can’t all get along. Sorry. 4. Finally, a politician’s most vocal supporters may harbor some pretty nasty grudges against him or her.

Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is an epistolary novel about a young girl of peasant stock who goes to work as a servant for an emotionally damaged squire, known only as Mr. B. Throughout the book, Mr. B. continually assaults Pamela Andrews’s virtue through imprisonment, attempted seduction and even attempted rape. Pamela, of course, is so damn good and virtuous that the squire eventually casts off social prejudice and marries her in spite of his family’s objections. Pamela weighs in at five hundred pages of clunk and can be seen as the forerunner to the modern Fabio novel, appearing on the literary scene almost one hundred years before the dreaded Jane Eyre. It was quite controversial in its time, and prompted Henry Fielding to write a short burlesque of it called An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. That’s an unnecessary detail, but Shamela is funny enough to deserve mention in all this, especially since I had the pleasure of reading it after having to slog through Pamela. What’s the lesson in all this? Virtue, goodness and purity of heart win out over power and money only in novels and other works of fantasy. In reality, Squire B. would have knocked up Pamela and sent her to a brothel. Life just isn’t that fair.

Book-auctioneer.jpgThe School of Venus: This is an English translation that came out around 1680 of a French book called L’Ecole des filles. It’s a dialogue between a young virgin (at first) and her slutty cousin, wherein the older cousin, Frances, tries to procure her cousin Katy for a slimy suitor named Roger. Frances tells Katy all about sex in the most graphic details, using terminology that I did not know existed back then. Katy then goes and has an affair with Roger, and Katy recounts her adventures in equally lurid detail. The two discuss numerous sexual positions, masturbation with human-sized dolls and dildos (for those who can’t afford a doll,) the beauty of hypocrisy, and the sexual practices of nuns. To make things even better, The School of Venus has pictures. The lesson here is obvious. There is something strangely democratic about porn. This particular book was sold to anyone who could find it and buy a copy and it’s easy to assume that the aristocracy would have enjoyed something like this just as much as a brewer or a ditch digger, provided that the ditch digger knew how to read (of course the pictures would have made up somewhat for a deficiency in that area.) This item was probably quite popular, even though no one actually owned a copy (wink.)

Anyway, there is my kooky and illogical rant for the week. Looking at it, I’m beginning to wonder why I even consider this to be homework. If it wasn’t for modern entertainment, I’d probably be reading a lot of this stuff for fun.

Philbrick is getting all smarty and stuff on us

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"The popular trend in reading literature from previous eras (especially pre-nineteenth century) is that those societies in which the works were written are so alien to us that we cannot understand them without an insane amount of research into what the people actually thought about themselves."

You know, I always hated history classes. In fact, I still do. Yet I'm a literature major and about 85% of my courses are history lessons.

That said, I totally did an independent study on Victorian heroines, which included the erotic. My professor would hand me pictures of flagellation and the like in the Theories of Lit class I took with her and the rest of the class had no idea what was going on. It ruled.


If you want to see some crazy stuff, check out seventeenth and eighteenth century autopsy drawings. The corpses are almost always grinning while holding their guts open for display. It's pretty freaky.

As much as I dislike Victorian novels, I must say that I do love the Victorians themselves. I still rule part of my life according to their hypocrisies.


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