My eye! what a lot of print for the money.

I’ve been mainly blathering on about the book so far, but in fact most of my time recently has been taken up with what I eloquently label in my head as ‘PhD stuff’. In fact, ‘taken up’ is a nice way of putting it. What I mean is that recently I’ve been getting up at 6am, working through til midnight, standing friends up for coffee, and eschewing the dear, dear pub. All in the name of getting one Chapter done.

That’s deliberate, by the way. The capitalization. The ‘chapter’ has dominated my life and haunted my dreams so comprehensively for the last few months that it has become, in my head, The Chapter. Lower case just won’t cut it.

(For those who do not do / have not done a PhD. The Chapter is a long piece of work (13000 words, so that’s about 40 pages). It will form approximately one sixth of my thesis, which is what I’ll hand in at the end of this 3 or 4 year glorious epoch of my life.  PhDs are, from what I can understand, sort of bottom-heavy. Your first year is largely spent reading around, your second year is spent tentatively translating that reading into prose and doing more reading, your third year is spent writing more and doing panic-reading, and your fourth is spent making the whole thing presentable, crossing ts and dotting is, etc.)

The Chapter is about a juicy, 941-page novel by Frances Burney, called Cecilia: or, Memoirs of an Heiress. Now, I KNOW THAT’S LONG. But you should honestly give it a try. It’s a cracking book.


If you’ll pardon me the digression – what’s wrong with long books, anyway? For me, part of the joy of reading Cecilia – or any 18th century novel – is the size of the thing. It’s a satisfying if slightly feverish feeling to unleash yourself on a book without fear that it will end. To let your eyes wash over a page, taking in only the odd word, but losing little from it; to plough through a hundred pages at a go without feeling that anything is slipping through your fingers. I’d been reading rather thin, sparse stuff just before the first time I ever read Cecilia; lesser-known McEwans, some blinding short stories etc; and the length and fussiness of Cecilia was actually a welcome contrast after reading literature in which the writers seem almost scared of using a surfeit of language sometimes. Burney has no such compunction. A masque can take up 80 or 90 pages; each character speaks for a paragraph of 16-20 lines. And in some ways you feel by the end as if you know them better for it. Sometimes I think that these days we over-fetishize brevity, that in paring things down so much we lose something valuable. And it’s not even as if it definitely reflects reality better. Excess brevity/sparseness runs the risk of seeming too withdrawn, too self-consciously rugged. In real life, there are an awful lot of words. A lot of thoughts, and a lot of events, and a lot of pointless, phatic, banal conversation. If you subscribe to this, Burney’s highly realistic I suppose.

Do we have no use for them in this penny pinching age of austerity, at least? Think on this. Wilkie Collins, in an essay called ‘The Unknown Public’, describes an encounter with an old bookseller. Collins asks what the best journal he stocks is, and the guy says:‘Why, Lord bless your soul, just take ‘em up and look for yourself, and say if they ain’t good pennorths! Look what a lot of print in every one of ‘em! My eye! What a lot of print for the money!’

Anyway, the good and bad thing about a long book is that, of course, it follows that there’s a lot to say about one. The Chapter, therefore, started off being about hereditary naming in Cecilia. Then it grew to be about hereditary naming versus taxonomic naming. Then it swelled slightly to become about these two types of naming in the novel as negotiated through polite conversation, records of which I found on a research trip to the New York Public Library. Then it became clear to me that of course if I was talking about hereditary naming then that necessitated reading up on inheritance law, marriage contracts and the like. And that if I was talking about taxonomic naming, then I should know a bit about Linnaeus and natural history… and Lavater… and satire…. and that the whole thing probably had something to do with commerce…. and before I knew it, the Chapter was basically about the world.
It’s okay. I’ve set some firm boundaries and I’m nearly there. I’ve nearly knocked the thing on the head, so I can start the next chapter (not stressing me out yet = small case). It’s a good thing too, because I’m going slightly mad. I keep having dreams where I’m Cecilia going mad in a pawnbroker’s shop. Going mad and tracking changes.
I shall now go to watch Mad Men and eat pasta with friends. Thanks for reading, by the way – it’s really nice that you are. The hit count is a bit mental. I wonder who’s reading me in Pakistan, Nigeria and Luxembourg? Hm? Belgium, Canada, Macedonia – I totally know who you are.
Til next time!

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