Women’s Work: Allusion and Education in Mid-Twentieth Century Fiction

Thursday Lecture Series, Shock and Reverberation

March 23, 2017 Thursday, 12:15pm–2:15pm EDT The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
  • Arden Hegele
  • Registration required. See details.
  • Audience open exclusively to Columbia faculty, students, and invited guests
  • All others interested in attending, please email SOF/Heyman at [email protected].

This paper is drawn from a new project that shows how the expansion of university education into the formal study of English literature profoundly shaped the form of the English novel. Catherine Robson has described the educational reforms that led to a wider incorporation of English Literature as a field of study. Under the signs of democratization and educational reform, English literature became an acknowledged area of academic study in the second half of the nineteenth century. At Oxford, however, the installation of English as a legitimate academic subject advanced slowly. The subjects of this paper, Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Pym were both trained in the Oxford and both embed allusions – to the texts they studied at University and to the Victorian and modernist texts they read in their free time – throughout their work, though their uses of these allusions are quite different. If Sayers uses literary quotations to mystify the world about which she writes—maintaining a constant recognition of the gulfs between her readers’ and her characters’ knowledge by virtue of the obscurity and complexity of her literary allusions—Pym does the opposite; she longs to be understood. For her, quotations and allusions have to do with forging or fracturing bonds, both between characters and also between novel and reader. At various moments, Sayers’ Harriet Vane expunges sentiment from her romantic life, but Pym’s heroines want to find a way to blend sentiment and romantic clear-sightedness. Both writers periodically use poetic quotations, either to set the tone for a chapter, or to develop a character’s train of thought. By uncovering the dense patterns of citation and allusion in these two writers’ novels, one finds in both an intense investment in the power of literary language to order a life.