In high school, despite my aptitude for English and my love of reading, it did not even occur to me that I should major in English in college. My experience with 'academic' reading consisted mainly of books like Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, and 1984. Even the ones that I liked, like 1984, were books written by men, about men, and for men. I thought (not entirely incorrectly) that majoring in English would just be me reading a bunch of books that objectified women, erased women, or just plain didn't find women interesting. From my limited perspective, the whole history of English literature was a string of white dudes with no interest in writing about women, and a few female exceptions, who wrote romances for the most part, like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. And, well, fuck that. I'd rather study something else.
Luckily for me, I finally had an English teacher that introduced me to different kinds of books. The one that really changed my life was Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. Not only was this book critical of racism and missionary work, but it made female narratives and voices its focus. The story is told alternately by each of a missionary family's five daughters and wife, and the father (the preacher and misogynistic, racist head of the household) has a voice only indirectly. Reading this in high school was a revelation: Kingsolver was directly addressing the fact that men have an excess of opportunities to speak and be heard. The father is a preacher, and when he speaks, people listen. In the Congo, they listen because he is a white man. In the U.S., they listen because he is a white man. In his family, they listen because of his abuse, which he can get away with because no one would listen to them anyway, as they're only women or girls. Even though the story is told by only women, the reader still hears the preacher's direct voice numerous times. His voice seeps into and co-opts their narratives. As a woman who felt unheard, who existed in a verbally abusive home, forced into silence about it because who would listen to me, and who wanted desperately to feel like what I had to say and had experienced were important, The Poisonwood Bible saved my life. I thought, this can be what literature is about. And so my freshman year of college, I declared myself an English major.
I still had to wade through a sea of white manfiction, and as a graduate student, I no longer have the option of eschewing canon. And while I originally intended to focus on contemporary American literature, I instead find myself hard-core Victorianist, specializing in Victorian science fiction. Most of the time, I am at a loss as to how this happened. I mean, Victorian lit? Science fiction? And of all the unlikely books, Margaret Oliphant's Miss Marjoribanks was my introduction to Victorian literature. If you haven't read it (and most people haven't), it's about a lady who makes it her life's mission to improve the social life of her middle-upper-class neighborhood. While this book isn't particularly radical or overt in its social criticism, it also makes absolutely clear the social limits placed on Lucilla Marjoribanks, because of her gender. She's so privileged, with all the money she could want, and no mother to usurp her place of queen bee in her father's home, and she still has to limit herself to her Thursday evenings and the exact right pattern for the walls of her drawing room. Lucilla is fierce and clever and a bit of a social genius; in another time and place, she could have been a diplomat or a Secretary of State, changing the world in much bigger ways. And Oliphant pokes fun at her, but gently, because she seems to know this, too, and to regret for Lucilla her lack of opportunities.
There's something that draws me to the Victorian era again and again, perhaps because I think the Victorians still live with us. How we picture ourselves in the world seems to echo from this tiny country that conquered the world, gave us soap, racist and sexist science, the imaginary East/West binary, as well as technology that changed the landscape of industry, political and economic policies that continue to disadvantage the third world, and an astounding amount of self-righteousness. They're so familiar and so utterly alien at the same time, and I find myself both comfortable and uncomfortable in their world. And, for some reason, I love this. But I never, ever apologize for them. Victorian authors are usually racist, misogynistic, and heterosexist, and I can never quite forgive them for that. They disappoint me constantly, and this, I think, keeps me from relating to them too much (although I have had multiple conversations about how much I would like to meet H. G. Wells and go ride bicycles with him).
As for the science fiction, I love science fiction. OH MAN do I love it. It is ripe with subversive possibilities and radical tendencies, even though those are ignored by a great majority of science fiction writers. The same was true in the Victorian era; while most science fiction was obnoxiously retrograde, it also attracted the radical social critics of the time. And, more significantly, it signaled how the culture was dealing with the increasing importance of science and technological feats in Western culture. That science fiction is becoming more and more mainstream today is a signal that we are again dealing with the scientific and technological nature of our environment. And how we see science and technology stems a lot from Victorian sci fi, which gave us our obsession with time travel, the Daleks (á la the Martians of Wells's The War of the Worlds ), and dreams of flying into the stars. Victorian sci fi was the first Western genre to systematically explore the conflicts between the body and science/technology, and our own ambivalence towards technological and scientific progress.
There's much to admire and to abhor in Victorian science fiction, but most important to me is that there is always something to learn from it. Even when my own experiences or body are misrepresented or erased in this genre, I can tie that back to contemporary or Victorian erasures of women in the culture of science and in science fiction. I can make the failures of literature productive, which is really what being a cultural critic is all about.
Courtney is a feminist, geek, gamer, atheist, and sci fi aca-fan. She's an English graduate student, specializing in Victorian science fiction. She blogs at From Austin to A&M.