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Daily Notes, 20 June 2023: Princesses, Gerald, eugenics, giving up, carrying on
It's part of a wider effort to pay attention more and worry less — my posts are going to be more spontaeneous and — hopefully — more frequent.
I'm still, like I think the majority of teachers in England, teaching An Inspector Calls as a modern text. It's getting harder, though, to seriously call it a 'modern' text. As I type this, though, I realise that 'modern' is exactly what it is — a text that's set on dismantling the grand narratives of modernism, while still not quite managing to throw off its own modernism. It's not contemporary, it's fair to say, which is what I think we're looking for when we're looking for a modern text to teach. It's a play that's set in 1912 and concerns some uppity white archetypes. It's as alien as Dickens to the teenagers in front of me.
It's no wonder, then, that AQA have made more diverse texts available for first teaching with the next cohort of Y10s. We've decided to swap out AIC for Princess and the Hustler; one of my gained time tasks is to put together resources for it. There's not a lot out there at the moment, so if you're going to teach it, get in touch on Twitter. I'm hoping to have more to share about this soon.
Despite all this, AIC is still giving me things to think about. My students found a recent mock on it difficult due to the lack of extract, so I told them that there's always an extract — it's the opening. The staging notes, character notes and first page of so of action are always the extract. No matter what, it all starts there. So we spent some time looking at how we could craft an essay about Gerald using the opening as a springboard. During this, I noticed that AIC — despite my having taught it for ten years now (and having studied it for my own Lit GCSE) — still gives me new things to think about. I think that's true of any text — you've got to be willing to have conversations with it, which is not always worth the effort. However, here are a few things we noticed about Gerald today:
The very first line and action from Birling is riddled with faux pas. He should be ordering the servant, not asking her ('Giving us the port, Edna?), and he should not be boasting about the port's provenance — how unseemly! This is before we consider that he distributes the port himself by (uncouth!) sliding it across the table; again, this is not a man used to servants but the 'provincial' life. His wife lets this one slide, but is less patient when he asks her to speak to the cook on his behalf. It terms of Gerald, he's pretty quiet. This is a 'well-bred' man, one who lives and breathes etiquette. He's able to steer Birling's boast into less embarrassing terrain via euphemism ('then it'll be all right') while saying that unlike his father, he 'doesn't pretend to know much about it.' That 'pretend' might be innocuous, but in a play that's pretty damned exacting in its attention to period language, one might read it as Gerald's coded warning to Birling to avoid bringing up his father. Gerald's family's status is a boon for Birling and Co. — Arthur makes no secret of this when his engagement toast becomes an excuse to bang the capitalism drum of 'lower costs, higher prices' — but the absence of the elder Crofts (and therefore their approval) will not be directly addressed by Gerald. Gerald refers to his father as 'The Governor', affectionate Edwardian upper-class slang for 'father', which is both a reminder of Gerald's close relationship with his father and the gap in status. Birling needs Gerald more than Gerald needs him — perhaps.
On this last point: Gerald is shrewd. He is not one of those landed people who will isolate themselves from the prosperous bourgeoisie and face their own ruin — he, like his father, has industrialised (and quite early on; we learn that Crofts Limited is older and bigger than Birling and Co.) meaning that he knows that the gentry need to rub shoulders with more common stock if they were to survive. Sybil seems the unhappy pawn in such a union across class lines. But in Gerald's case, it is the man who is marrying 'beneath himself'. It might seem odd, but what better way to absorb the competition without making a fuss? It's clear from the opening that maximum impact from minimum fuss is Gerald's m.o.
He's 'too manly to be a dandy' but is nevertheless a 'well-bred young man about town'. I want to touch on 'dandy' first: there must be no sense of effeminacy or modern ostentatiousness about Gerald. His is a rather Victorian masculinity, one that is shrewd, robust and sensible. Despite his age, he is a man much in thrall to the past. 'Well-bred' gives me pause in the context of the early 20th century, a period in which eugenicist thinkers were celebrated in the mainstream. Breeding was tied up in how human one was 'allowed' to be, codified by Enlightenment standards of human perfection; it would, of course, reach its nadir via the events of WWII, Nazism and the Holocaust. In 1945, as the war ends, Priestley adds a reference to breeding, which might have rung rather more dangerously in the postwar period — if there's anything one doesn't want to go back to, it's that. For more on this line of thinking, read this: On the dark history of intelligence as domination
This post is an experiment. Usually I procrastinate; what you don't see are the hundreds of posts I haven't published (or indeed finished) due to perfectionism, akrasia, shame, and other nonsense. I've had a difficult time recently (it's nothing I haven't written about before), during which writing — which I love — became work, not fun, so this approach of slapping some daily thoughts straight into a blog post is a way of making it fun again. It's part of a wider effort to pay attention more and worry less — my posts are going to be more spontaeneous and — hopefully — more frequent. I was inspir by Visakan Veerasamy on Twitter, who wrote:
I'm going to see if it's true.
Thank you for reading.