An Interview with Julie White: What is it about British Literature?

Sep 2, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Julie, tell us about your “love affair” if you will with British Literature.

Well, I would say that it began very early. My father likes to say that when I was a newborn, I was very colicky and fussy. He claims that when he read to me (he has a beautiful voice and reads aloud particularly well)—mostly Shakespeare but also whatever else we had at home (Mom had a whole set of Reader’s Digest classics)—I would finally stop crying. I don’t know how much of that is true, but I do know that I learned to read very early, and always loved the “music” of language.

I remember reading Jane Eyre for the first time when I was about 10. I didn’t really understand everything in it, but I completely identified with the “plain Jane” who would hide from older brother-figures in a window seat behind the curtains to read. I always wanted a window seat—because of the opening scene of that book! I still don’t have one, but I’ve got just the place in my house to put one in!

The summer of 1968 was also a momentous turning point in my life because of two films that were blockbusters that year: Oliver! and Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet. To a romantic 12-year old, these two films were life-changing in their power and poignancy.

It was pretty much written in the stars that I would be an English professor.

2) What is different about it and intriguing?

I always tell my students that great literature is transportive—it carries you away to a different time and place and allows you to temporarily live another life. It also, in a very compelling way, explains people and life in a way that nothing else does.

A friend of mine from graduate school told me this story: When she first went to college, she was a psychology major. She enrolled in one of those enormous 800-student intro-to-psych courses at her large state university. To avoid being lost in the crowd, she went up to the professor and introduced herself to him after class. He asked her why she was taking his course. She said, “Because I’m a psychology major.” He then said, “And why are you a psychology major?” She replied, “Because I want to understand why people do the things they do.”

He then surprised her by saying, “Then you should be an English major. You’ll learn everything you need to know about people and why they do the things they do in literature.”

Really well-written literature—that that is generally considered to be sublime examples of human achievement—is beautiful, awesome in its power, transportive, transformative, and sometimes even changes history. It is didactic, yes, but also entertaining, intriguing, and endlessly fascinating. I never tire of it. I can go back and read and re-read the same book and find something new in it every time.

Nothing else can accomplish as much, or as powerfully.

3) Obviously, Shakespeare was from Britain and his plays have stood the test of time. What is it about the Bard that still intrigues people today?

Interesting, complex characters and plots that are character-driven, which I believe is the same set of ingredients that make Star Trek interesting, or the Harry Potter series interesting–great characters doing interesting, complicated things.

I really love the explanation of the Bard’s greatness by the editors of the Longman Anthology of British Literature:

Rather than portraying characters who become victims of their own misdoings, rising to power only to fall in disgrace, the early modern stage [and Shakespeare in particular] showed virtue and vice as intertwined—a hero’s tragic error could also be at the heart of his greatness. The origins of evil were seen as mysterious, even obscure. . . . the five-act structure, rapid-fire dialogue punctuated by pithy maxims, and images of tyranny, revenge and fate illustrated by haunting dreams and echoing curses” (640).

When I taught high school (which I did for 12 years, in Houston, before moving to New Mexico in 1994 to do my PhD), I taught 9th and 10th grade. On the first day of Julius Caesar, I used to say to my students: “Last year, you read Romeo and Juliet, which is about two kids in mad-love. Totally easy to snare your interest. But Caesar? This play is not about teenagers in love. It’s about treachery and betrayal. It’s about literally stabbing your best friend in the back. It’s about power, used and abused. It’s about the fate of an empire. It’s about thinking that you are doing the right thing, only to realize—way too late—that not only have you done absolutely the wrong thing, you’ve also been manipulated and fooled into doing that terrible thing, and then there’s no way out.

It’s about jealousy, greed, and bitterness, and how those things cost people their lives. It’s about ambition and lust for power. It’s about losing your focus on what’s really important, in the name of honor. In other words, it’s about people with good intentions who do bad, bad things. It’s about us.”

They pretty much thought I was a nut-case, but you should have seen them act out the stabbing scene in class, or reciting Marc Anthony’s funeral oration. Absolutely fabulous.

4) Evelyn Waugh is one of my personal favorites- what is your reaction to some of his work?

I love him. Brideshead Revisited is a totally under-rated masterpiece. I have a terrific paper on that book I’d love to get published somewhere. I also love Passage to India, and Room with a View. Wonderful stuff.

5) And, Charles Dickens still entertains and mesmerizes students and adults alike- What did he do in Tale of Two Cities to hook so many readers for so long?

I think people always love the idea of a person who sacrifices himself for the sake of an innocent party who would otherwise be irreparably harmed. Dickens was a big fan of noble sacrifice.

I think his childhood experience of working in the blacking factory forever imprinted him with notion of lives led that were loftier, more noble, more important than that of a small boy who had to work at such a degrading, demeaning job to rescue his family from his father’s poor judgment.

Dickens’ sympathies, like Blake’s, were always with the children, the unfortunate and unfair victims of adult stupidity and selfishness.

And even though we may love this on paper and in books, we all too often do not practice what is modeled for us in literature. We wait for Charles Darnay to come and make that sacrifice for us. We never want to be the one who sacrifices. We want to be the one who is rescued at the last minute from certain doom.

Who wouldn’t?

6) Let’s now talk contemporary authors- who is gaining prominence among British writers?

Iris Murdock, who published in the 1960s, mainly, is just now being appreciated for her remarkably off-beat sense of humor and the tragi-comic sense of timing. Under the Net is one of those books that is so, so funny, but also one that has that tinge of poignant sadness that is hard to overlook.

I love Anita Brookner’s extensive work. I think she has published over 20 books in the last 30 thirty years, and they are lyrical, bittersweet, and often seemingly pointless, but have a quiet sense of the power of the ordinary life. My favorites are Hotel du Lac (which won the Booker Prize in 1984), and A Friend from England.

And finally, I think A.S. Byatt’s Possession is one of the most brilliant works of the late 20th century. She pioneered the dual-timeline, interconnected past-present plot line that has since become all the rage.

Tom Stoppard is also brilliant. His re-envisioning of Shakespeare—Hamlet told from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or Romeo and Juliet playing itself out in Shakespeare’s personal life—is so incredibly creative and, often, hilariously funny. He seems to have a special pipeline into Shakespeare’s own thoughts.

Finally, works like The English Patient, The Hours, and Atonement are all really important, and I think they will eventually be considered the “literature” of the 20th century.

7) Across from England is the Emerald Isle- home of James Joyce and many others- have you investigated the great writers of Ireland also?

Oh, yes. I wrote my dissertation on the poetry of William Butler Yeats. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, Ireland, the summer of 1998, which was only a few months before I started writing my dissertation. If you would like to see a shortened version of one of my chapters (on Yeats and Dance), you can go to:

I was thrilled earlier this summer to receive email from a young woman in Germany. She is working on her own dissertation, and she found my article online and wanted to quote from it in her dissertation. What an ego boost!

Another chapter (a different one, on Yeats and Music) from my dissertation was published in a book called Music and Literary Modernism: Critical Essays and Comparative Studies (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006).

I’ve also written on Frank O’Connor (an article that was published in a book collection on O’Connor: Frank O’Connor: New Perspectives [Locust Hill Press, 1998]), and two reviews of books about Joyce. I have used Roddy Doyle’s “Barrytown Trilogy” (made up of The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van) in my class on 20th Century British literature, in addition to stories by Frank O’Connor and selections from Joyce’s Dubliners.

8) What books should American students be required to read – and why?

Oh, lord. Everything. What concerns me the most is that I cannot even make a reference to a book they should have read in high school (for comparison purposes or for some other pedagogical purpose in class discussion) without getting blank stares.

I’m never too sure if it’s because they are not required to read in high school, or if they were supposed to read it but just didn’t. They often don’t make that distinction themselves. They think that because they didn’t read it, then surely it wasn’t on the schedule?

I’m OK with the curriculum in American high schools as it has been taught for quite some time. This is what we always did in my high school:

9th grade: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Miracle Worker, Antigone, Romeo and Juliet, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Greek mythology.

10th grade: Julius Caesar, All Quiet on the Western Front, Rebecca, The Good Earth, and sometimes: The Pearl, The Hiding Place, and A Separate Peace.

11th grade: American literature, including Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, Catcher in the Rye, and a play or two, usually The Crucible, The Glass Menagerie, or Death of a Salesman. (I never taught 11th grade, so I can’t remember everything they did.)

12th grade: A Shakespeare play, usually Hamlet, Othello, or King Lear, Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, a Dickens novel (usually David Copperfield or Tale of Two Cities), lots of Romantic poetry, and possibly, depending on how ambitious the 12th grade teacher is, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Mrs. Dalloway.

Oh, yes, and at every level, there’s a stunning array of short stories, some famous, some obscure, but all wonderful. I used to love teaching stories like “The Scarlet Ibis” and “Sorrow Rides a Fast Horse.” Some of these terrific stories have gone out of fashion, which is real shame.

The problem is not the curriculum. It’s how to get the students to actually do the reading. This is problem that has only gotten worse since I left high school teaching, mainly due to the advent of social networking, cell phones and texting, and other distractions (as if there weren’t enough distractions already).

To motivate the students to actually read, one must have the passion for the literature, yes, but also a gift for making the book/story/poem/play sound intriguing/interesting to students who are only interested in their own love affairs, popularity, and fashion sense. Most of them have such poor reading skills, it’s hard to get them past the first paragraph.

I’m a big believer in reading aloud (see the story about my infant-hood, above). My little sister required/demanded a story every night to get her to go to sleep, so I practiced my reading aloud skills quite a bit. (It kills me that she now has no memory of this. How is that even possible?) Plus, as I said before, I had a good role model in that skill. So I often read aloud from long-ish, more complicated passages to my high school students. I think it made a big difference.

Also, sometimes, it takes a “teaser” from the teacher. What I mean by this is best demonstrated by another story from my high school teaching days. When we read Rebecca, many students thought it was going to be a long, boring romance novel. Of course, it’s not that at all. But when we get to the point where Jack Favell shows up and tries to blackmail Maxim, hinting that he knows what Maxim actually did, I asked the class a simple question: “So. How much do you think Favell actually knows?” Then I waited. You could literally see the wheels spinning. Some brave soul would raise her hand, and say, “I don’t think he knows. How could he?” Then somebody else would chime in, “But look at what he says! See, on page . . .” And we’re off!

The best part of the discussion was the people in class who hadn’t read that far. I could see them opening their books under their desks and frantically trying to read as fast as they could to get caught up, so that they could see whether Favell actually “knew” anything or not.

As a teacher, you have to operate on the assumption that they will read. Then you have to design the discussion around that assumption, but present it in such as way to make it intriguing, interesting, and compelling. And you have to establish this expectation early on—you can’t spring it on them in late March and expect it to work.

From the very first day of the fall semester, I would make it clear that they were expected to read. The first journal entry of the year? “What did you read over the summer?”

I continue to do this today, but we have less time in a college class, so I don’t do it as often; and online, this is not do-able. However, I still design my questions with the assumption that they have, indeed, read the material. They think they can answer by dancing around the question, in the typical BS-style. They find out pretty quick that this won’t work in my class.

If they don’t read, they don’t pass.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

Can’t think of a thing. I’ve probably told you way more than you thought you’d get anyway, so I guess I’ll stop now.

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