Here’s one of the things keeping me up at night: how do we do our scholarly work when our nation is in crisis? How can we believe that careful intellectual work matters when we are facing devastating attacks against our basic freedoms, ethical precepts, indeed our very lives? I love being an academic, but I often feel, despairingly, that academic work in the age of Trump might be ludicrously irrelevant.
This anxiety preoccupied me when I recently had to write a talk that presented a book I’d written, Romance’s Rival, to a large audience. How could I bring myself to care about a book on the Victorian marriage plot – even if it was one I’d written myself! – when people were about to lose health care, graduate education was about to be decimated, corporations were running rampant, and climate change was raging unchecked? Yet I also wanted to believe that the work I do, studying Victorian literature, still means something, still matters. I know someone who has stopped doing Victorian studies in order to become a full-time political advocate. I respect that choice, but I wanted to find a different way: I had to find out how to make scholarship to sustain us in a time of national catastrophe.
I worked through it by thinking about how I could turn my research ideas to a different need than I had ever envisioned. I want to present this, briefly, hoping that it might be a useful model for those of you who are also struggling with this problem.
In Romance’s Rival I argue that in the Victorian marriage plot, the woman needs to choose between a romantic suitor (a charismatic stranger she desires) and a familiar suitor (a well-known local for whom she feels trust and affection). Think, for instance, of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility choosing between Willoughby and Colonel Brandon. The romantic suitor offers a thrilling escapist future of pleasure, but he is risky; he might turn out to be addicted, abusive, impoverished, untrustworthy. The familiar suitor offers a stable future, allowing her to continue her participation in family ties, friend networks, and community, but he is probably pretty boring. The female character must choose between sexual desire and social comfort.
This choice strikes at the heart of what women thought they should be. Marrying for desire implied that women were individual subjects maximizing their self-interest, but marrying for social continuity meant they were relational subjects, oriented towards others. These identities bifurcated in the 17th century, when the liberal subject was invented: implicitly male, rational, self-interested, maximizing his self-interest in the public sphere. Therefore other qualities had to be relegated to a shadowy other: an implicitly female, emotional, selfless, private-sphere domestic subject. If men were allowed to enact personal ambition, women were supposed to serve the needs of a larger community. Marriage – the one big choice a Victorian woman could make – would decide how they would live for the rest of their lives.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, as marriage historian Stephanie Coontz points out, “for the first time in five thousand years, marriage came to be seen as a private relationship between two individuals rather than one link in a larger system of political and economic alliances.” For the first time, people could marry for romantic love. We might assume that was liberating. It wasn’t. In Romance’s Rival I wanted to show why people might have clung to the more unfashionable choice. In fact, romantic marriage terrified Victorians.
To begin with, it could feel like a devastating betrayal. It shocks Sir Thomas Bertram that Fanny Price can “think only of yourself” while “the advantage or disadvantage of your family, of your parents, your brothers and sisters, never seems to have had a moment’s share in your thoughts on this occasion.” It might also be dangerous. This was an era in which women were economically and legally wholly within their husband’s power, and divorce was, for all practical purposes, impossible. Marrying for love might end up in lifelong entrapment. Instead, many women craved the tender, intimate reinforcement of local ties conferred by familiar marriage. In some Victorian novels, women literally die because they cannot decide. Maggie Tulliver is torn between her companionable local (Philip Wakem) and her romantic stranger (Stephen Guest); Catherine Earnshaw is ripped apart between her trustworthy neighbor Edgar Linton and her dark soulmate Heathcliff; Esther Summerson tortures herself in her mixed allegiance to her guardian and her beloved.
How might awareness of this problem might begin to help us with our political situation? To put it another way – it may seem weird, but: can we think about our national situation in something like the way I have described the marriage plot?
In the USA in late 2017, we now know that our elected representatives may not do the right thing. Instead, we have had to become a democracy in the deepest sense, a group of millions of people rallying, marching, boycotting, donating, tweeting. It has been a slow form of action that rarely produces a discernable result and requires time-consuming and constant outreach. Today networking can often feel disempowering: millions of us want health care, yet we have less power than a single senator. Yet even if one senator can cast a deciding vote, there are millions of us, and the slow accretive power of our action can turn aside legislation.
In fact, our political actions resemble the dynamic that I analyzed in Romance’s Rival. The female characters I’d discussed often chose to affiliate themselves with existing networks and rely on indirect social techniques like influence to effect change. Knowing that this is an older form of social participation has helped me think that what we were doing was not a stopgap, temporary measure, not a grim necessity of living in 2017, but something much more profound. We could no longer rely on a larger-than-life individual – a president, or a senator – to swoop in like a romantic hero and save the day, but instead we had to work patiently through a network of compatible individuals, and from the pussy hats onwards, those actions often involved female solidarity. That this is a legitimate way of being in the world is something that familiar marriage made clear to me.
Victorians believed in women’s “influence,” in which women used their charms to alter men’s minds. Supposedly, ‘influence’ was sacred, and had such a vast effect it rendered female suffrage unnecessary. (As Woolf tartly noted in Three Guineas (1938), charming men into doing what you want is basically prostitution, and it doesn’t work for women whom men find unattractive.) I dismissed influence in my book too, asserting that “influence . . . does not really work. Money and the vote are better.” But in the aftermath of an election that was swayed by social media, I was reminded that influence, perhaps, does work, all too well. Let’s not assume only quantifiable contributions mattered. Never has the power of influence been more obvious than when it was used by Russian bots instead of angels in the house. But influence can also name the Resistance’s use of social media, the way antagonism to governmental overreach can snowball through retweeting and sharing. Influence and collective action: intermeshed giant forces pushing back against one individual.
This isn’t anything as simple as a direct application of a marriage-plot book to contemporary politics. I am not saying that the incubus in the White House is, in any sense, a romantic suitor, or that the Resistance is a familiar suitor, or that they are vying for the voter’s choice. What I am saying, however, is that the fundamental paradigm of the familiar-romantic rivalry can give us useful tools for understanding why each side is effective. When Trump says that “only I can save you,” or “I’m the only one who matters,” these words have the power they do because they tap into a long history of valorizing heroic individuals. For two centuries, our novels have taught us to maximize our pleasure by choosing the bold stranger making big promises. We are not supposed to choose someone through a process of careful vetting or considered assessment, but through instinctive attraction. Is it any wonder so many people followed their hearts, as it were, to buy what he was selling?
But for two centuries, our novels have also retained a different possibility – a shadowy, underread, but crucial one. Familiar marriage sociality is an older, larger system, and we too have people who speak its truths. Adam Gopnik wrote: “One of the things that we [as cultural critics] offer as a kind of alternative to Trump is to say that there are values that are not simply the values of power and domination. There are values of pluralism, of coexistence, of building meaning and even a little poetry for yourself, however absurd that pursuit may be.” We need to develop a profound defense of collectivity if we hope to amplify its message and maximize its viability. In the words of Sherman Alexie: “I am one more citizen marching against hatred./Alone, we are defenseless. Collected, we are sacred.”
So if my work led me to appreciate collectivity and influence, what does yours do? Perhaps the material you study has given you solace in the way that supreme art can, to lift you away from the political swamp into clearer skies. Perhaps you have found it profoundly consoling to do the hard intellectual work of mastering and achieving difficult thoughts. Perhaps you have found some comfort in developing and articulating the truth about the colonial, racial, and gendered assumptions we hear these days, or the real condition of our environment and climate.
But let’s also think about alternative paths. What are the ideas your subjects got right and to which we might return? What are the things they did obliquely, differently, oddly? What are the shadowy histories you follow? History may be written by the winners – but perhaps our job is to preserve the losers’ point of view, so that, in another century and nation, we can mine it for ideas. If your research feels irrelevant, do it for that very reason: its alterity might give us exactly what we need.
Queens College, CUNY and Graduate Center, CUNY