One of the central themes of last night’s Victorian Seminar at the Grad Center was that of how and why we identify ourselves with certain literary characters, particularly in Victorian novels, and how those characters end  up being the frames through which we understand our experience of self. Not surprisingly, the conversation continued at dinner as sort of a party game–who do you identify yourself with, and why?

Here are the ones that I came up with:

* Madame Max Goesler, a recurring character in Trollope’s Palliser novels (also, occasionally, Lady Laura Standish Kennedy, of the same)

* Lydia Gwilt from Wilkie Collins’s Armadale

* Lyndall in Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm

* Cynthia Kirkpatrick in Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell’s final novel (though also–at a certain level–Molly Gibson)

I present this list without too much commentary, save for the caveat that my identification with Lydia Gwilt does not extend to poisoning, bigamy, or opium addiction. (Though if it did, I would be unlikely to mention it on this blog.) The treacherous thing about this game–call it Truth or Dare for Literary Scholars–is of course that you will inadvertently reveal too much about yourself, that you will, when put on the spot, forget the one crucial detail that makes that character an inappropriate affiliation. Indeed, one of the issues that came up in the talk and discussion last night was what it means to realize that your mother identifies herself with Becky Sharp. And, of course, partial identification is only a partial answer. Once the qualifications and limits build up, it’s a different game, and you’re just as liable to make the kinds of inappropriate personal revelations that you were trying to avoid in the first place. Yet it’s an interesting exercise, I think, to be more explicit about the kinds of not-precisely-academic investments we make in our reading (especially of novels and other narratives). I do, for instance, think that references to certain characters in certain situations can be a convenient shorthand for describing some of the more complex interpersonal entanglements that one might find oneself in. (Of course, these shorthands tend to be less effective when one is speaking to non-Victorianists.) At the same time, I often find myself frankly ambivalent about a criticism that’s based explicitly on articulating those investments. It makes sense to me as pedagogy–and it does sort of resemble much of the tone of my oral exam–but I don’t see it as a legitimate generic option when it comes to writing my dissertation, though much of that will no doubt be autobiographical in a different way.

The other question I have about all of this has to do with genre. We don’t, by and large, identify with poetry in the same way, even with 19th century narrative poetry. Except when I do, and here I’d add the speaker of Tennyson’s Maud to the top of my aforementioned list. But I don’t know if that’s the same thing, and I can’t quite articulate why. I’m sure it has something to do with a different configuration of author and text (especially in a lyric poem), but can that explain why those identifications don’t come as readily to mind, even for those of us who are familiar with Victorian poetry? Why Lydia Gwilt and not Aurora Leigh? (This is one articulation of the question of the chapter I’m intending to write on Barrett Browning’s poem….)

Okay, now it’s your turn. Meme me up, Scotty. Tell me the characters you identify with, Victorian or not, as a child or an adult–or maybe characters you identified with at a previous time but who leave you cold or more ambivalent now (for me: Maggie Tulliver and to some extent Lucy Snowe). Are you more transgressively gendered than I was? Are you willing to admit to reading this way–or to not reading this way?