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Our Bonnet Syllabus

“I rose and joined Miss Jellyby, who was by this time putting on her bonnet. The time allotted to a lesson having fully elapsed, there was a general putting on of bonnets.”–Bleak House

Professors: Drs. Sarahs
Office Hours: After the dinner dishes are washed and put away; make sure to bring your scrap basket
Course Description: This course will offer a literary history of the bonnet as fashion item and political emblem.

Unit 1: Very Womanly Bonnets

Week 1: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe

“Mrs. Bird hastily deposited the various articles she had collected in a small plain trunk, and locking it, desired her husband to see it in the carriage, and then proceeded to call the woman. Soon, arrayed in a cloak, bonnet, and shawl, that had belonged to her benefactress, she appeared at the door with her child in her arms. Mr. Bird hurried her into the carriage, and Mrs. Bird pressed on after her to the carriage steps. Eliza leaned out of the carriage, and put out her hand,—a hand as soft and beautiful as was given in return. She fixed her large, dark eyes, full of earnest meaning, on Mrs. Bird’s face, and seemed going to speak. Her lips moved,—she tried once or twice, but there was no sound,—and pointing upward, with a look never to be forgotten, she fell back in the seat, and covered her face. The door was shut, and the carriage drove on.”

Week 2: The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Fresh was Phoebe, moreover, and airy and sweet in her apparel; as if nothing that she wore—neither her gown, nor her small straw bonnet, nor her little kerchief, any more than her snowy stockings—had ever been put on before; or, if worn, were all the fresher for it, and with a fragrance as if they had lain among the rosebuds.”

Essay: Consider the relationship between Phoebe’s “small straw bonnet” and D.H. Lawrence’s description of her as, literally, a “vacuum cleaner.”

Unit 2: Your Frenemies’ Bonnets

Week 3: The Morgesons, Elizabeth Stoddard

“In consequence of the unlimited power accorded me I was unpopular. “Do you think she is handsome?” inquired my friends of each other. “In what respect can she be called a beauty?” “Though she reads, she has no great wit,” said one. “She dresses oddly for effect,” another avowed, “and her manners are ridiculous.” But they borrowed my dresses for patterns, imitated my bonnets, and adopted my colors.”

Week 4: Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

“Bessie had now finished dusting and tidying the room, and having washed her hands, she opened a certain little drawer, full of splendid shreds of silk and satin, and began making a new bonnet for Georgiana’s doll.”

Essay: Compare and contrast Jane’s doll (described below) and Georgiana’s doll using Georgiana’s doll’s FANCY HAT to offer an argument about exactly how much of a bitch Georgiana is.

“I then sat with my doll on my knee till the fire got low, glancing round occasionally to make sure that nothing worse than myself haunted the shadowy room; and when the embers sank to a dull red, I undressed hastily, tugging at knots and strings as I best might, and sought shelter from cold and darkness in my crib.  To this crib I always took my doll; human beings must love something, and, in the dearth of worthier objects of affection, I contrived to find a pleasure in loving and cherishing a faded graven image, shabby as a miniature scarecrow.  It puzzles me now to remember with what absurd sincerity I doated on this little toy, half fancying it alive and capable of sensation.  I could not sleep unless it was folded in my night-gown; and when it lay there safe and warm, I was comparatively happy, believing it to be happy likewise.”

Unit 3: What Lies Beneath (The Bonnet)

Week 5: Bleak House, Charles Dickens

“I untied my bonnet and put my veil half up—I think I mean half down, but it matters very little—and wrote on one of my cards that I happened to be there with Mr. Richard Carstone, and I sent it in to Mr. Woodcourt. He came immediately. I told him I was rejoiced to be by chance among the first to welcome him home to England. And I saw that he was very sorry for me.”

Week 6: Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

“As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.

“Your hair! Your beautiful hair!” “Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty.” “My dear girl, there was no need of this.” “She doesn’t look like my Jo any more, but I love her dearly for it!”

Essay: Consider how phrase “I think I mean half down” illuminates women’s experience of one of the following historical phenomenon: the marriage contract, inheritance law, or the smallpox epidemic.

UNIT 4: Bonnets in Love

Week 7: The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James

“Just beyond the threshold of the drawing-room she stopped short, the reason for her doing so being that she had received an impression. The impression had, in strictness, nothing unprecedented; but she felt it as something new, and the soundlessness of her step gave her time to take in the scene before she interrupted it. Madame Merle was there in her bonnet, and Gilbert Osmond was talking to her; for a minute they were unaware she had come in. Isabel had often seen that before, certainly; but what she had not seen, or at least had not noticed, was that their colloquy had for the moment converted itself into a sort of familiar silence, from which she instantly perceived that her entrance would startle them. Madame Merle was standing on the rug, a little way from the fire; Osmond was in a deep chair, leaning back and looking at her. Her head was erect, as usual, but her eyes were bent on his. What struck Isabel first was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an anomaly in this that arrested her. Then she perceived that they had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas and were musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing to shock in this; they were old friends in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative positions, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected.”

Essay: True or false: Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady proves that love is impossible and people mainly only ever hurt one another. Extra credit for students wishing to stage this moment in which Isabel senses “something detected” interpretively.

Unit 5: Mansplaining the Bonnet

Week 8: disc. cont’d, Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

“John laughed, and watched her for a minute, as she poised a pretty little preparation of lace and flowers on her hand, and regarded it with the genuine interest which his harangue had failed to waken.

“She is trying to like politics for my sake, so I’ll try and like millinery for hers, that’s only fair,” thought John the Just, adding aloud, “That’s very pretty. Is it what you call a breakfast cap?”

“My dear man, it’s a bonnet! My very best go-to-concert-and-theater bonnet.”

“I beg your pardon, it was so small, I naturally mistook it for one of the flyaway things you sometimes wear. How do you keep it on?”

“These bits of lace are fastened under the chin with a rosebud, so,” and Meg illustrated by putting on the bonnet and regarding him with an air of calm satisfaction that was irresistible.

“It’s a love of a bonnet, but I prefer the face inside, for it looks young and happy again,” and John kissed the smiling face, to the great detriment of the rosebud under the chin.

Week 9: The Bostonians, Henry James

“Her description of the convention put the scene before him vividly; he seemed to see the crowded, overheated hall, which he was sure was filled with carpet-baggers, to hear flushed women, with loosened bonnet-strings, forcing thin voices into ineffectual shrillness.”

Week 10: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs

“I was invited to attend, because I could read. Sunday evening came, and, trusting to the cover of night, I ventured out. I rarely ventured out by daylight, for I always went with fear, expecting at every turn to encounter Dr. Flint, who was sure to turn me back, or order me to his office to inquire where I got my bonnet, or some other article of dress.”

Essay: Compare “benevolence” and “political rectitude” as ways dudes might rationalize being dicks.

Unit 6: Fuck These Bonnets

Week 11: On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Still, Laura and Mary could hardly wait to follow that path. They worked fast; they put away the broom, and they started. Laura was in such a hurry that she walked nicely only a few steps, then she began to run. Her bonnet slid back and hung by its strings around her neck and her bare feet flew over the dim, grassy path, down the knoll, across a bit of level land, up a low slope. And there was the creek!”

Week 12: The Garies and Their Friends, Frank J. Webb

“”Now, Mr. Walters,’ said Esther, taking off her bonnet, ‘I’m quite in earnest about learning to load these pistols, and I wish you to instruct me. You may be hard pressed tonight, and unable to load for yourselves, and in such an emergency I could perhaps be of great use to you.'”

Week 13: Emily of New Moon, Lucy Maud Montgomery

“Aunt Elizabeth finished buttoning the apron and gave Emliy a none too gentle push away from her.

“Put on the sunbonnet,” she ordered.

“Oh, please, Aunt Elizabeth, don’t make me wear that horrid thing.”

Aunt Elizabeth, wasting no further words, picked up the bonnet and tied it on Emily’s head.  Emily had to yield. But from the depth of the sunbonnet issued a voice, defiant though tremulous.”

“Anyway, Aunt Elizabeth, you can’t boss God,” it said.

Sarah Mesle: A little judgy

Sarah Blackwood: Team Bella

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  1. Wonderful! I would both teach and take this course. Though I might add Ellen Montgomery from The Wide Wide World, who tears a “despised bonnet” off her head not once but twice, is forced to wear a “white bonnet” by her mother, only to have her own, rebellious choice of bonnet be deemed “outlandish.” Girl can’t win.

  2. Bonnets as sexual bribery:
    “But Rhett, you mustn’t bring me anything else so expensive. It’s awfully kind of you, but I really couldn’t accept anything else.”
    “Indeed? Well, I shall bring you presents so long as it pleases me and so long as I see things that will enhance your charms. I shall bring you dark-green watered silk for a frock to match the bonnet. And I warn you that I am not kind. I am tempting you with bonnets and bangles and leading you into a pit. Always remember I never do anything without reason and I never give anything without expecting something in return. I always get paid.”
    ― Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind


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