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Jane Miller

Jane Miller is a lecturer at the Institute of Education in London.

New Romance

Jane Miller, 14 May 1992

Within the first half-page of Toni Morrison’s novel, an 18-year-old girl has been shot dead by her middle-aged lover, and his wife has been manhandled from the funeral after attempting to cut the dead girl’s face with a knife. Both events are witnessed and kept secret by a community which has reason to distrust the police and to look kindly upon a hitherto gentle, childless couple, whose sudden, violent sorrows they recognise and are able to forgive. And as the spring of that year, 1926, bursts a month or two later upon the ‘City’ of this extraordinary novel, its all-seeing gossip of a narrator is moved to declare – if only provisionally – that ‘history is over, you all, and everything’s ahead at last.’’

Gissing may damage your health

Jane Miller, 7 March 1991

My great-aunt Clara and George Gissing were friends during the last ten years of his life. He wrote to her about once a week, always as Miss Collet, and quite often bared his soul to her. She was an expert on women’s work and a civil servant. During his lifetime she gave him money to educate his sons, and after he died she not only arranged with Downing Street for a Civil List pension for them. ‘in recognition of the literary services of their father and of his straitened circumstances’, but also managed to get several of his novels reissued. That is why I grew up amongst two-inch-thick, plum-coloured volumes of The Whirlpool and the rest, in what might well be thought of as a two-Veranilda household. I must admit, however, that though Eve’s Ransom and The Crown of Life did well as bed legs and door-stops, they were not much read. And though Clara herself was probably at least half in love with George Gissing, it isn’t clear that she liked his novels very much either. Indeed, as she wrote some years later, she disliked The Odd Women ‘so much that I nearly did not make George Gissing’s acquaintance because of it’: which is not so surprising, perhaps, since more than one Gissing scholar has claimed that his novel drew on his relations with Clara, even though it was written before they met.

My Friend Sam

Jane Miller, 16 August 1990

The landscape of Ellen Douglas’s Mississippi is designed to keep us out, to resist recognition; and the lines of its knobs and bluffs and ridges may be deciphered only by those who have been born and bred amongst them. For the rest of us they are edged but also obscured by lovingly named plants, by smilax, trillium, scuppernog vines and plum thickets. And the birds in their midst, the towhees, the goatsuckers, the magnolia warblers and juncos, do not sing to us out of some shared childhood, but out of memories we are adjured to hear as entirely different from our own. They will be mythic and mysterious memories, but they will also – so consciously Southern is this (and so much other) writing from the American South – be delivered with due attention paid to the clichés to be navigated therein. Leafless briars viciously obstruct the solitary wanderer in this landscape, and so does the barbed wire surrounding the government defence station, whose recent installation has added itself to a history of depredations of the land. It is as if it is only possible to enter these places and their past with a local guide and through literature.’

Blaming teachers

Jane Miller, 17 August 1989

On the first day of the school holidays – and the hottest day for 13 years – 650 London teachers of English from secondary and primary schools met to discuss the implications of the second volume of the Cox Report. The volume elaborates a set of proposals for the teaching of language and literature to all children between five and 16 who attend state schools and who will be embarking on the first stages of the new National Curriculum from this September. The day was organised by teachers and paid for by them. It was necessary to raise an extra £1600 in order to give everybody a photocopy of the report. Publications of this kind thud onto desks and doorsteps continuously, and they are free. However, the DES does not send copies to ordinary classroom teachers and was not prepared to let the day’s organisers have more than 50 copies.’

Understanding slavery

Jane Miller, 12 November 1987

Toni Morrison’s novels have been constructed, and are magically unsettled, by the unique character of historical memory for black Americans. That is to say, she has wanted to account for black experience that has been ignored or quite inadequately narrated by white historians and novelists, and even more significantly, in order to do that she has needed to confront precisely those aspects of the experience which have blocked memory, made remembering intolerable and memories inexpressible, literally unspeakable. Indeed, the verb ‘rememory’ is invented in her astonishing novel, Beloved, to stand for something like a willed remembering which includes its own strenuous reluctance to return to the past.

Diary: On the National Curriculum

Jane Miller, 15 October 1987

Late in July, well into the schools’ summer holidays, two copies of a consultation document entitled ‘The National Curriculum 5-16’ were delivered at the offices of the education department in a London borough large enough to sport three MPs. Slack and irresponsible as ever, the borough’s three thousand or so teachers were, in some cases, actually away. No doubt some of the borough’s parents (currently the nation’s darlings – provided, of course, that they are not teachers themselves, or black or unemployed) were away too. Schools have been back since the first week of September. By the last week of the month the consultation proceedings had been completed, and a national curriculum is making its way through the legislative machinery in some haste. ‘As soon as possible,’ the document insists.’

Thinking Women

Jane Miller, 6 November 1986

I have been reading the Twentieth Century’s special number on women, which is pink with a palely gleaming Mona Lisa on its cover. It’s odd that I’ve not read it before, since it came out in August 1958 and contains what could be described as my first appearance in print. The actual copy I have belonged to Betty Miller, and it is in her article, which is called ‘Amazons and Afterwards’, that I appear, anonymously and representatively, as Afterwards. The journal’s editorial includes me too, as one of the pony-tailed generation of young women, clones of Francoise Sagan and Brigitte Bardot, who showed no interest in ‘women’s civic rights’.

What is lacking

Jane Miller, 20 October 1983

Working-class children do less well at school than middle-class children, and exceptions must not be allowed to interfere with that truth. Notions of linguistic or cultural ‘deprivation’ imply lacks or absences in relation to other people and to what schools are and offer, and, by squeamishly skirting the connections between social class and children’s experiences, chances and expectations, schools have turned to forms of ‘topping-up’ and remediation, which derive from rudimentary and distorting views of the realities of culture and language in people’s lives. For years, studies of school failure looked at what certain children and their families lacked which made them impervious to schooling, unwilling or unable to profit from it. Then, during what can now seem like a golden age, between 1966 and 1976, teachers, researchers and even, occasionally, educational policymakers started to ask different questions. These were about the difference between school knowledge and everyday knowledge, about learning as well as pedagogy, and about forms of assessment and the curriculum. Teachers would need to become as sophisticated and sensitive about the culture of their pupils as they were about the culture represented by the school. People who have good jobs, money and power often attribute these things to the success of their education; they are able to persuade their children that the strange rituals of schooling, that material and activities dull or meaningless in themselves, pay off in the end. It takes more imagination for the black daughter of an unmarried hospital cleaner to believe in the advantages of learning the chemistry needed to get an O level than it does for the white son of a doctor.

Sir Keith Joseph has chosen a good moment to kill off the Schools Council. It seems that it is a good moment to kill off all sorts of things. While thousands of young men are exposed unnecessarily to violence, and to its infliction – supposedly on our behalf, more probably to satisfy the vanity of a few unjust men and women, who want to go on running this country for a bit – a whole generation of young people faces a future of unemployment. That other jingoism, which asserts that effort is rewarded and that you have only yourself to blame, will ring out as they slink off to collect their dole money. Lesser cynicisms will melt into larger ones. And besides, few people will be prepared unequivocally to defend the record of the Schools Council. It was set up in 1964, a gentler time, by Sir Edward Boyle, and its brief was then, and has, in a variety of manifestations, remained, the combining of examination reform with curriculum development. These were areas traditionally kept apart, for the soundest political reasons and with dire consequences for children and teachers and schools. That brief, it should be remembered, included neither the control and determination of curriculum content nor a consideration of what a common system of schooling might look like. The present dismantling of the Schools Council could be seen as the latest in a series of government moves since Callaghan’s ‘Great Debate’ of 1976, which have been intended to divert attention from the paring down of educational provision. Reductive talk about a ‘core’ curriculum, initiated by that debate, has served since then as a means of channelling limited expenditure away from the question of what curriculum into a particular set of pressing short-term concerns.

Love and the Party

Jane Miller, 2 July 1981

‘Oh, come on now! It won’t be such a tragedy if you’re a little late! They’ll manage very nicely without you, you know.’ Moving closer to her he’d started to nibble her ear and then, with mounting passion, to kiss her neck. But she hadn’t responded. His words had stung her and she thought of all the other occasions when he’d referred so disparagingly to her work for the Party – their Party; she wondered if he’d ever understand that it was only out of a sense of total commitment to her political work that she derived the strength to endure their separation for good.

Pool of Consciousness

Jane Miller, 21 February 1980

Dorothy Richardson can seem to have conspired with those critics of her vast novel, over 2,000 pages long, who have complained that it is boringly avant-garde, inchoate, and vitiated by what Virginia Woolf called ‘the damned egotistical self’. It was not just perversity which provoked her to court such charges. She set out to write a novel about ‘the startling things that are not important’, and to do so through the experiences of a woman who is evasive, assertive and contrary. She would have agreed, I think, with Francis Bacon, who once said in an interview that he wanted ‘to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. And the moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you.’ Leslie Fiedler found another kind of boredom in Pilgrimage, one he defended, grudgingly, as ‘a warranty of its commitment to truth and the dull reality we all inhabit’. The notion of a ‘commitment to truth’ is acceptable enough, but the novel’s admirers would find that ‘dull reality’ hard to recognise. The reality of Pilgrimage is full of instances of delight and surprise. It is also necessary to say that admirers of the novel rarely express devotion to its heroine, and they have not found it easy to account for its plot and its themes in ways which are likely to tantalise prospective readers. Dorothy Richardson would have approved of that too.

Bullies

Jane Miller, 8 November 1979

Eleanor, in Christina Stead’s most recent novel, is a writer and a rewriter, whose somewhat parasitical achievement it is to have turned a story written by her father into a modest best-seller; a wry sort of apology, perhaps, for the wonderful novels, which have not been best-sellers. Christina Stead herself has written about oppressively exuberant fathers, but a judgment as well on those who live within borrowed scenarios. In earlier novels it has been writers and children who were seen to have the best hope of resisting bullies and taking control of their own lives. Fourteen-year-old Louie is already a writer when she leaves her father in The Man Who Loved Children (the novel published in 1940, which is probably the best-known of the 11 Christina Stead has written). And Teresa, Louie’s older incarnation in For Love Alone (1945), escapes her father, and eventually his more insidious understudy, the autodidact Jonathan Crow, when she follows him to London and then evades him to become a writer. Letty, of Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946), records a life which threatens to dissipate itself in pursuit of a husband and by telling her story gradually shapes and controls it. Christina Stead’s career as a published writer has occupied 45 years. She has been greatly admired but is far too little read. Long periods of her life have been spent in England and in America, and only in her seventies – she is now 77 – did she return to Australia where she was born. Penguin, and now Virago, have recently embarked on reissuing her work. It deserves serious attention; it also cries out to be read and enjoyed.

Letter

Homage to Gissing

7 March 1991

Jane Miller writes: Professor Coustillas has devoted much of his life to George Gissing’s work, and he admires the novels more than I am able to do. I am obliged to him for the points he makes about the first volume of the letters and about Gissing’s friendship with Clara Collet.

Old Age

Rosemary Hill, 21 October 2010

There is something irreducible about old age, even now when, in the West at least, the several stages of life have become blurred. The Ages of Man, which until the 1950s seemed as distinct as the...

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Feminist Perplexities

Dinah Birch, 11 October 1990

Not so long ago, the most prestigious intellectual work, in the arts as in the sciences, was supposed to be impersonal. The convention was that the circumstances in which such work was produced...

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Pen Men

Elaine Showalter, 20 March 1986

One of the more useful side-effects of the widely-publicised troubles at the International PEN Congress held this January in New York may ironically have been the new timeliness which Norman...

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Gift of Tongues

John Edwards, 7 July 1983

Bilingualism, multiculturalism, ethno-linguistic identity – they may not be words to conjure with, but much conjuring has nevertheless been done with them. Even the most casual observer can...

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