Tutors Talk (& Read) Books: Alison Chapman
October 4, 2021 | Interview & Video by Hannah Loomis / Story by Eve Tolpa
Alison Chapman calls the opportunity to teach at St. John’s “a dream come true.” She came to the college in 2020 from Harvard University, where she received a PhD in English literature and served as a teaching fellow and a preceptor of the Harvard College Writing Program. Since joining the Santa Fe faculty, she’s been leading freshmen and sophomores through language, math, and seminar. In the interview below and accompanying video, Chapman reads from and discusses Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which Johnnies read in their junior year. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Talk about your academic focus prior to coming to St. John’s.
I focused on the 19th-century British novel, or the Victorian novel. The 19th century was a moment when literacy rates were suddenly quite high, and novel readership rose as a result. This means novelists thought of themselves as publicly engaged intellectuals, who aimed to help people think through the century’s dramatic discoveries in the sciences, developments in technology, and other aspects of the intellectual landscape. People turned to the novel to learn how ideas from a range of domains would meaningfully touch and shape their everyday lives. This is another way of saying that focusing on the 19th century let me do a little bit of everything, and engage those inter-penetrations and cross-sections between art, philosophy, and science.
What made you choose to discuss this book?
I found myself in the midst of pandemic lockdowns turning to Pride and Prejudice as a source of comfort and solace. There’s a long history of reading this novel for that reason. Winston Churchill is said to have read it during the London blitz, and the novel was actually prescribed to soldiers who were returning from the battlefield after World War I, with the idea that it could help heal a traumatized mind.
I became curious about why—what it means to read for comfort and why this novel in particular is comforting. I’m tempted to say it’s because it’s familiar. But the truth is that there’s little in this text that’s really familiar to me. I’ve never been to a ball (I’d love to be invited), and I never much thought about someone’s inheritance when making dating decisions. So it’s not quite familiar. It’s also not a novel that contains great amounts of magnanimity or that swells with kindness. In fact, I think there’s a lot of cruelty in a Jane Austen novel.
The other thing I wanted to think about is why this novel has a very special place on the St. John’s College reading list.
What are your thoughts on that topic?
One of the central topics in Jane Austen’s writing is how elastic and expansive the category of the everyday is, and what it can stretch to accommodate without disruption or disturbance. The everyday, that machinery of habit and just pure ongoingness, it turns out, can be extremely durable.
Sometimes I think Austen wants us to realize that can be troubling, actually. I think that’s why it’s such an important text to have on the St. John’s Program, because one of the really meaningful things we do here is take subjects that we take for granted and pull them out of the woodwork and really look at them and make them a topic of study. What is rage? Or what is it to be a political actor? How we shape our lives into certain rhythms and habitual modes of seeing ... what’s more important to look at than that?
In many respects, [Austen’s] novels are about attention itself. Where does it get paid? How is it distributed evenly? Or unevenly? What are its edges? Every so often she’ll let you catch sight of what’s just on the other side of those edges of attention. In the case of Pride and Prejudice, it might be the scene where Lydia and Kitty report on the fact that a private has been flogged, and we are suddenly reminded that this novel is situated in the middle of a military conflict.
Why do I think this novel is soothing? Because it teaches us how to live in the middle of a crisis—because, in a way, we always have, whether that’s a war or a pandemic. We make a mistake when we think that the everyday is some kind of utopia that exists independently from the realm of conflict or crisis. Those two things are much more intimately related. It’s an experience that a lot of people [encounter directly] when dealing with grief or despair. Then you find yourself doing the most ordinary of things.
The novel helps us by holding up the inane and the quotidian and then the intense and the extreme, and putting them right next to each other to show us that they will brush up against each other in surprising and unexpected but totally unavoidable ways. Through that, I think we learn to live in a world that contains doses of each.
Do you think Austen had any favorite characters in this book?
Elizabeth is the best reader in this text, and she reads in an energetic way. She rereads letters that she’s received and she rethinks them, and she’s never settled on something even though she’s the most prejudiced character to begin with. But this is part of her flexibility: her willingness to go back and revise her previous assessment of these male figures, especially Wickham and Darcy. That’s enacted through her willingness to reread earlier correspondences and also to let her mind wander as she’s reading, which is a beautiful description of what it is to be a reader.
She’s often piecing things together between what she sees on the page and what she sees in life, and I know that Jane Austen was someone who often wrote her novels in the middle of a drawing room with a party going on. So she had to field off [the] distraction of the social material that was right at the door. It’s that idea of finding yourself through this kind of distracted mode—which involves reading and listening and thinking—and being able to pull all of that together and see something coherent and deep in it.
I feel like her avatar in this text has to be Elizabeth, which is a boring answer. I wish I could say that she would be someone like Lydia, but obviously that would be insane.
Austen seems really generous in how she treats even the sort of despicable characters. She doesn’t totally write them off.
I think that’s really important. There’s a real generosity in Jane Austen. I say I think the novel is about attention—and that’s true. But she’s also really attuned to the fact that it’s possible to pay too much attention to other people, and for that to become cruel.
The figures who embody that are the Bingley sisters, who get described as supercilious on a number of occasions. The idea of being supercilious is to look at someone with eyebrows raised. Their eyes are everywhere in the text, and they monitor and police their social circle. They’re so discerning, and it’s what Elizabeth hates about them immediately.
So I think there’s some way in which actually laying off a little bit—being more distracted rather than attentive, softening your gaze on the world—is a moral disposition, too. We get it in characters who are themselves morally troubling, in some respects: Mr. Bennet, who everyone loves but is, of course, deeply irresponsible when it comes to the attention he needs to pay to his family and his finances. But there’s something generous about his distraction, even as it’s also a moral problem.
Mr. Bennet also seems aware of his own failings in a way that his wife isn’t.
I think that’s absolutely right. What’s most difficult to see is always yourself in your own habits, the little unconscious tics that are visible to everyone else and not to you. There’s a moment of that revelation for a lot of the characters who carry the greatest moral weight in the text, and the ones who never catch a glimpse of themselves are the ones who fail in this universe most deeply.