Teaching 19th Century Novels

I Enjoy Teaching Nineteenth Century Novels

by Alina Stefanescu

I enjoy teaching 19th century novels for three years at a small private college before a student steps forward to query the bias in my curriculum.

He is a serious, hardworking student with perfect attendance. He portends an earnestness for which I am not prepared. It is the unreported thunderstorms, the torrential rains presaged by quiet, windless skies, which cause the most damage.

*

But storms are far from my thoughts as the squeak of shoes smudges students towards the door. Any autumn day on campus comes with similar red maple leaves, the light sprinkling of yellow and gold across the grass, the giggles of punchlines receding.

The students file through the door as I prepare to grade papers. When a pair of male legs pauses near my desk, I ignore them. After leaving tiny red fire ant-marks on the mediocre essay, I look up.

The student is waiting. His patience startles me. Late-afternoon sunlight broadens his narrow, vulpine face.

He says he wants to be a writer. He wants to write the world without hiding the bones. He has a degree in architecture. He hopes to expose the weakness of load-bearing beams.

I ask if he has been to France, since the ruins are formidable.

He prefers to be here, since the ruins are spiritual. There is a story he cannot finish, a story with a moat around it. The moat is a voice. He doesn’t trust his imagination with certain subjects, especially feminine ones. Even Flaubert and Lawrence hide behind fig leaves when it came to sex. Why is it so difficult to write sex without subterfuge? His classmates cannot discuss sex sincerely–the conversations wind towards satire or limp into pornography. Would I be willing to help him?

Though the flint in his eyes feels familiar, I can’t place it–can’t quite recall a similar moment from grad school or access a protocol. I am here to help them. Given certain limitations. Is it a breach of academic boundaries to discuss sex with a student? Is it an academic failure given my position as a professor of literature to avoid it?

I weigh the options and conclude that a brief, after-class conversation is simply an innocent follow-up of coursework.

He watches my face without blinking.

I agree to assist him. But only for a few minutes. My kids have choir practice.

The student understands. Assures me he does not want to be a nuisance. He wants to learn what the non-feminist writers won’t tell him. The narrator of his story is its young female protagonist. If he can honor her perspective through first person, the text will honor female readers who haven’t sharpened their voice into a pitch which says listen. He needs advice from a grown woman. He needs to understand the experience before he can write it. He wants to know about the first time I had sex. What was it like? From my perspective?

Although it excites me to be suddenly sexed, I warn the student that a single perspective, namely mine, cannot be generalized to womankind. There is nothing instructive about the female condition within the cartouche of a single gendered story.

No, he disagrees vehemently. Why write a novel if it said nothing about the world? Literature is not a trick. If I don’t value literature, then why do I teach it? Conversely, if I value literature, isn’t it my duty to inflame the spark within a story?

He says it is in my professional interest to lay it on the table. It is in my interest as a female to refrain from dismissing the power of individual narratives.

Charmed by his dedication, I grant the student the courage of his convictions. Remind him, of course, that convictions are not static. Like shadows in a childhood bedroom, conventions lose their grip on the mind over time.

I recount what I remember: The first time is riveting, akin to watching a cat give birth in a shoe closet, the level of focus, the notable obliviousness to usual norms and taboos. Having tasted your own pleasure in private, it doesn’t register in the scene unfurling before you. Your own pleasure is a distraction from Him. What you want, to watch a man shatter, crash of cluttered emotions, and that empty space above car hood where there should be glass…. now you see only hunger, a hunger you can prolong or resolve as wished. You don’t want to miss a micrometer of his ecstasy. In the car. Anyone could see you. When the familiar waves grab you and begin lifting you from the scene, posing you above him, you shift your hips swiftly, break the contact, remove the pressure. And so the first time is fast and furious, a race to absorb his expressions as he struggles with the pleasure he hasn’t yet learned to control. You discover your self-control is more substantial than His.

I catch my breath. Those, at least, were my impressions.

The student thanks me. It is exactly what he needed. A different perspective. He wishes me luck with choir practice and says he looks forward to seeing me next week. In class.

*

Traffic is clot upon clot. My kids remind me, again, of their contempt for choir.

“The teacher lady is fat and stupid.” “All the other kids have fruit snacks and soft drinks.” “I don’t like how they force us to make bird noises in our throats.” “Someone called me a cute little white girl.”

“Choir teaches you self-discipline,” I say. “It’s not about singing so much as learning to sing. And finding your voice.”

Nicholas grumbles, he doesn’t want to sound like a silly old birdy at the recital. Says that lady is changing his voice.

“Hi, honey,” my husband relieves me of the mail, the lunch bags, the useless umbrella. “Greetings and salutations, dear Nicholas, dear Henrietta.”

The kids hug his knees, race towards the playroom, the kingdom of swirling media.

I slide onto the wobbly stool, rock it back and forth, thump thump thump, the way I used to rock the stool at the bar where he served drinks. The old give-me-a-bottle rock. He grins, snaps off the cap. I chug straight from the bottle remembering the girl who lost her virginity, the riot she sought from a series of human bodies.

My husband rattles about with the blender, possibly dinner.

“Did you ever wonder what it was like for your girlfriend that first time?” I ask. “Did you ever try to pin down her experience?”

He laughs, pauses, reddens, as if I’ve touched a pair of underwear he’d rather wash himself– “I might wonder if she hadn’t told me.”

“What did she tell you?” Glass and beer against my lips. Take a bottle, drink it down.

“She–well–she, my girlfriend, said it was perfect. It was her first time as well. And she said she never thought it possible to have more than one orgasm in a sitting. Not for her, at least. To experience that.”

The baby-pink zinfandel bloom in his cheeks looks boyish and dumb. I cannot recall ever having been as fragile or immature as this man fondling virgin memories.

*

My husband’s embarrassed response comes to mind when the student approaches me after class the following week. I pretend to edit panel remarks related to the rise and fall of the coquette. But he knows I sense his presence, knows that I am waiting for him to make the first remark so I can fashion my surprise accordingly.

The student thanks me for my time, again, for my time.

“It’s my job.” I resist the urge to bite my pen, an old habit. “How’s the story?”

He sighs, eyes tracking a point above my head. He can’t sleep. The story is so fragile. He has to stay vigilant and protect it, give it space, which is difficult given dorm parties, limited cafeteria hours, random fireflies from his window–not to mention the character, herself.

“What’s wrong with her?”

He resents her, the unruly protagonist who loses her virginity then discovers herself in a romantic relationship. How is that a plot? How can romantic love, the cliché, summa cum laude, move forward? How is loss a form of progress?

I admonish his excessive abstraction. “What’s holding her back? Give me the particular rather than the worry.”

He says the story has lost momentum. It can’t progress without advancing the male-female relationship, but the relationship’s progress is dependent, in part, on additional sexual experiences. This is the problem, he says. The problem is that he keeps writing the next time as if it was the first. He is trapped in the first time. He is stranded. He begs me to offer a more developed perspective on sexual encounters.

Since the kids don’t have choir practice, I cap my time with reference to motherhood, the after-school needs, scheduled programs, dinner, a husband waiting at home. I shove past thoughts of my husband and his shenanigans. Imagine a beer instead. Replay my recital of the first time from the week prior. Discover the second time is easier to recollect after replaying the first.

As usual, the student is patient.

I confirm the second time is a different story from the first: The second time, the male is more available. He watches you closely, reading your face and body like a hidden-pictures poster. He is hunting, seeking things. While you are more conscious of the breasts and body, the corpus he eyes silently from the pillow.

He wants you to be on top. He is generous, eager to please, and yet somehow more guarded. At one point he asks if you know it is provocative to lick your lips in class. Are you trying to attract attention? The way you ride him does not seem unpracticed. Were you truly a virgin before him?

Your silence disturbs him deeply, you switch positions, apologize, he is sorry, it’s just that he wants you so much he can’t help thinking… when you tilt your head back like that, maybe the same gesture happens in class where another guy can see it and take it as a hint.

He wants to drive you crazy–the way he feels, crazy–love is so crazy, no one warned him how crazy it got. He kneels between your knees and practices tricks gleaned from his brother’s men’s health magazines. You feel an urge to soothe him, a need to show him things. You feel a duty to perform an orgasm.

So, you close your eyes and try to spectate yourself being licked by a hot young man. His maneuvers frantic, undisciplined, a dull throb with no rising action. You are aware of a strong urge to keep him happy–to keep from hurting his feelings. Channelling Italian movie stars, you arch your back and moan a little. He groans appreciatively. For each moan a groan, call and response, his eyes devouring it. You moan and writhe and roll about the bed until he can hardly stand anymore. Until he says you are killing him. Suddenly, when he is just about to lose it, you let out that long slow moan that sounds like a wheel shuddering to a stop, instants prior to impact. It is fantastic. He enters you for less than a second before shooting his load.

That’s remarkable, the student says.

I interrogate my use of slang to describe what felt slang-like at the time of its occurrence, but the student displays no interest in syntax. Instead, he wants to know how long has it been since I listened to PJ Harvey? And what happened to my feminism under the bondage of tenure? He wants to make sure he understands–is it true that I faked the orgasm? Did I, in fact, experience an orgasm or sexual pleasure during this event?

Aware of a subliminal threat to my personal integrity, I acknowledge the orgasm was faked–“though the pleasure itself was quite real.” Not all sexual pleasure is genital, I say. When he has more experience, he will realize that many forms of sexual pleasure involve no orgasm at all. I reference Tantric sex.

He issues a staid apology. In no way did he mean to insinuate unsavoriness on my part. He is confused, since I am the type of woman who looks as if she would fake an orgasm. That said, my heart was obviously in the right place, and he feels privileged, honored, set apart by access to these intricate details about the complexity of the female experience.

I feel uncomfortable. My left calf tingles. I need to get my kids. And take them to choir. I need to put a key in the ignition to elsewhere.

He asks if he has offended me in any way. I begin to say no but he interrupts me.

He says his curiosity can be off-putting, but it is driven by a genuine desire to understand and apply this empathy to his writing. Does a passion for writing endanger social relationships? Has anyone else been through this tension and come out the wiser? He begs my forgiveness for any offense.

It is this incongruous combination of humility and ambition which reminds me of my younger self. I tell him never to apologize for wanting to be a better writer.

The scent of coffee peeps from his lips, a form of politeness.

*

The following week, the student’s eyes are all Rimbaud, charcoal rims, sunk into the skin. He takes copious notes in class, and hardly looks up. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, nothing. Only on Thursday does he wait for the others to leave before approaching my desk.

I smile, ask after his story, the girl–any progress?

He confirms that the story is moving forward. The story is progressing, though not in the way he envisioned. The protagonist has asserted her independence by leaving the relationship.

I am intrigued by this plot shift. “Is it a form of liberation? How is independence different from liberation in the context of romantic love?”

He clears his throat. How can he be certain? What he knows: the protagonist trapped herself in a pattern of faking orgasms with her boyfriend. Thus, the boyfriend lacked the experience to recognize a true orgasm from a faked one. As a result, the distance between their bodies and Eros grew. The performance of Eros perforated the experience of Eros. At least, for the girl. Since there was no way for the protagonist to confront him without confessing to have faked things, she thought it best to end the cycle by ending what had, by now, become rather stale and inauthentic. All of this, of course, from her perspective.

“This sounds realistic.” I reassure the student about the verisimilitude maintained by the plot shift. In a joking tone, I compliment the narrator on her wise choice.

Awkward as it sounds, I want to convey how much I’ve enjoyed his class participation.

He smiles and fumbles with his pen. He lacks the proper verbs to convey his gratitude. Do I have a few minutes?

The protagonist continues to harrow him. If he abandons her to bad sex, he risks the implication of punishment. He does not believe she deserves to be punished. He does not want females to internalize this implication. He would prefer to end the story on a positive note.

Although he enjoys nineteenth century novels, Victorianism moralism leads females to undermine their sexuality. He cringes. He hopes to describe a positive sexual experience from a female perspective. If it wouldn’t be too tiresome, would I mind sharing one such example from my own life– clinical if needed– so he might better understand the pieces and parts which go into such an account from a literary perspective?

Since it is the last class before the final exam, I agree to help him. Just this once. Since the memory feels fresh.

I begin humbly by confessing it took a while for me to give up control and allow myself to fully experience sex. After that first relationship ended, I tried to remain single and focus on my studies. But a close friend named Madeline altered my plans.

A girl?

“A woman. You can’t anticipate such things.”

Touching Madeline was an exercise in tandem motion. You are enchanted with curiosity, engrossed by the beauty of the female body. An unexpected reciprocity: when she places her palm across your nipple, you place your palm across her nipple, her finger between your thighs, your finger between her thighs– each touch is part of a conversation, a genuine response.

Your eyes meet over the bed as equals, exploring a mystery, giggling, laughing, tickling, kissing, awkward as a first tampon. No way to express the rapture of the mirror: one’s own face peering back from hers. Unlike the prior experience in which two puzzle pieces barely seemed to fit, the Us comes easy, the touches guided by a form of naive wonder–What happens if…? Perhaps you are fortunate in that she hasn’t come Out–or hasn’t picked a position in the lesbian-gender hierarchy yet–so you could be two lusty young girls discovering our bodies together. There is no gender or rank to negotiate.

Madeline teaches you to close your eyes without seeking the right picture, without projecting an act you’ve seen in videos or magazines into the space between us. You climax together, yet neither leans on the word “love” for support. Love appears flimsy and insecure, a prop to hold an open door if one feared it might slam on your fingers. You and she are fearless. No power imbalance to negotiate, no ego to claim sudden injury. Orgasms bare no relation to love. From Madeline, you learn that orgasms with another human being are an indulgence of mutual wonder.

Scribbling on his steno pad, the student is absorbed. He does not look up.

When he finally raises his head, there is a pensiveness about his jaw. He recalls seeing my husband at a faculty event. He wonders why I married a man, given this deeply-engrossing erotic experience with a woman.

A bell tolls on campus. Before I have the chance to explain, he rushes out of the classroom and down the hallway, he has a drama project due next period.

Exam study sessions have started. I realize I will not have the opportunity to frame the student’s impression in an orderly, cogent fashion.

On the drive home, I confront this vague unease about the story he is writing. I jimmy the brakes at a red light to stimulate my limited psychic latitude. What was I not thinking? The possibility of publication could be a violation of my personal, emotional development. He did not ask permission to publish. I did not withdraw it.

Traffic is terrible, terrible. After dinner, I roll around the bed, unable to fall asleep.

Two glasses of wine and the room feel drafty, the mattress uncomfortable. Eerie thoughts swirl like fruit spread through vanilla ice cream. Thoughts involving a mutated virus do not settle into easy solutions.

My husband watches a crime show.

As a cop shoots a bad guy, family life harnesses me into resignation. The room suffers from un-deconstructed resentment, empowered by dreams which we carry on in private because they exclude others.

I mute the volume and ask my husband if sex got better with his girlfriend.

“Was she always multi-orgasmic?”

There is a sliver of spite I tone down, a spite I hope he can’t hear.

He scowls and reaches for the remote control.

“My first girlfriend had issues. Problems.”

The boyish pink flush snags his cheeks.

“I’d rather not think back on that time, honey, because she wasn’t honest with me. After dating for almost a year, I learned that she had never once experienced an orgasm with me. Not even once.”

I watch my breath pummel a pillowcase. “Not even once?”

“That’s what she said. That’s what she told the goalie of the soccer team whom she screwed quite regularly while we were dating. And I had to see that guy every single day at practice. Every day. It was…awful. A very public break-up. Lots of recriminations and choosing sides. Friends divided over questions of blame. I can’t even describe it. The whole thing–enough to make you hate love. Hate it.” His wounded eyes. “To this day, I don’t know what to believe. Sex always seemed fantastic–she acted like she enjoyed it–but there was another version to the story we lived. And there was no way to discern which version was true.”

I roll over and rub his arm. Life is this broken promise, I think, Life is this pinky-sworn once upon a fuck.

About the Author

Alina Stefanescu

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Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Alabama with her partner and four small mammals. A Pushcart nominee, she is the author of 'Objects In Vases' (Anchor & Plume, March 2016), 'Letters to Arthur' (Beard of Bees, August 2016), and 'Ipokimen' (Anchor and Plume, November 2016). Her first fiction collection, 'Every Mask I Tried On', won the 2016 Brighthorse Books Prize. She can't wait for you to read it. More online at alinastefanescu.com.