Girl Power

medieval times field trip

It’s mid-third quarter of this school year and I am knee-deep teaching two novels set in England nearly six hundred years apart. The 7th grade is reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, the diary of a girl in medieval times during the reign of Edward I, covering the span of one year of her life, 1290-1291. My 8th grade literature class is reading The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which is set in 1889. Even though I’ve read both books many times, I was struck anew this year when the class discussions in both 7th and 8th grades turned to the roles and rights of women during those time periods. Inevitably the comparison was made to the roles and rights of women today, this being an election year with Hillary Clinton appearing to be the nominee for the Democratic Party. If that happens, and if she is successful, she will be the first woman president of the United States of America. In the year 2016.

catherineKaren Cushman used her research skills and knowledge of the Middle Ages to craft her first book, which was awarded the Newberry Honor in 1995. Catherine is the only daughter of a domineering country knight who has decided in September of 1290 that Catherine is of marrying age, although she is not yet fourteen, which always draws gasps from my 7th grade girls. She resists being betrothed against her wishes with all her might and successfully chases off suitor after suitor, until finally she must use the acceptance of a betrothal to someone she despises as a bargaining chip to win something she desires even more, the freedom of a bear who has been kept in captivity and abused for entertainment at a village fair.

fishing for vocab

7th grade girls “fish” for vocab from the Middle Ages

Throughout the book as she runs from being promised to a man that she does not love and does not wish to marry, she dreams of being someone or something else: a villager, a Jewish boy traveling out of England, Perkin the goat boy, her Uncle George the crusading knight, a sausage maker, a monk like her brother Edward who copies holy books in the scriptorium of the abbey. An old Jewish woman admonishes her, “Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked ‘Why were you not George?’ or ‘Why were you not Perkin?’ but ‘Why were you not Catherine?’” It is sound advice, for the time period, as it is not possible for Catherine to be “Catherine” because she does not wish to be the subservient daughter of a not-so-wealthy knight who has to spend her days spinning and sewing and doctoring, and in the end be married off to a stinky, smelly old man just because her father says so.

HoundThe Hound of the Baskervilles is set during the reign of Queen Victoria, who did much to expand her realm so that “the sun never sets on the British empire”. She made an enormous impact on almost every facet of British society from parenting to entertainment, from religion to fashion, from the etiquette of eating to the etiquette of mourning. Yet, the roles and rights of women had not progressed that far from Catherine’s time. The story revolves around an ancient curse against the heirs of Baskerville Hall, who all die mysterious deaths. The origin of the curse is the story of Sir Hugo Baskerville, who kidnaps a young maiden from her father’s farm on the moor and takes her back to Baskerville Hall. She escapes and he promises that he would “that very night render his body and soul to the Powers of Evil if he might but overtake the wench” but instead he is attacked by a “giant beast of a hound” and has his throat torn out. The “coming of the hound” has plagued the family ever since, from the time of the Great Rebellion (1642-1651) until the present day setting of the novel, 1889.

manuscriptThe legend itself was documented in a manuscript dated 1742 and written by Sir Hugo Baskerville, a scion of the evil Sir Hugo. It contained the origin of the legend along with the warning to not go on the moor at night for fear of a reprisal of the attack of the hound of the Baskervilles. It was written specifically for his sons, Rodger and John, with instructions “that they say nothing to their sister Elizabeth”. Poor girl, my 8th grade students bemoaned, she was to know nothing of the family curse, she was not to be warned about going on the moor at night? I explained to them that a girl in 1742 would not have gone anywhere without a male escort, certainly not at night, and certainly not on the moor. She would not have had the freedom her brothers enjoyed, and she would not be the target of the curse as she would never be able to inherit anything of the Baskerville estate.

downtonAh, England, and their archaic rules of inheritance. Fast forward to 1912 and Season One of Downton Abbey (let us pause in a moment of silence as this majestic series comes to an end-in America, that is-next Sunday, March 6,  2016), where we learn that the future heir of Downton who is also to be the future husband of the oldest daughter, Lady Mary, dies tragically aboard the Titanic. Thus launches the conflict for the entire series: no male heir for Downton, no money for the three daughters to inherit as it is all part of an entail created when their American millionairess mother married Lord Robert Grantham and saved him from being an aristocratic pauper.

law school men to womenIn both 7th and 8th grade classes these discussions ran their normal course, talking about how girls today can grow up to be whatever they want to be, right? I noted that one girl’s dad is an architect but so is her mom. Another girl’s dad is a Ph.D. but her mom is a medical doctor. One of our career day speakers was a man who is a biomedical engineer but another speaker was a woman who is a chemical engineer. Times have changed. Women can pursue any field of study they desire. In 1980, I was a freshman at LSU Law School, and I was one of only five girls in my section of 75 students. Today the percentage of women to men enrolled in law school has increased drastically, 47.8% women to 52.2% men for the 2012-2013 Academic Year.

hillaryHowever, we have yet to elect a woman as leader of America, to serve as Commander in Chief. Will this be the year? Could Hillary Clinton in fact be the one to take a hammer to that glass ceiling of the White House? From all outward appearances, it seems that she has what it takes. She has been brutal in the debates, taking all the blows on the chin and returning fire. She has the right credentials: First Lady of both the State of Arkansas and the United States, Senator of New York, Secretary of State. She has a brilliant legal mind and is a compelling public speaker. She is not my candidate of choice, because I cannot stand by her pro-choice beliefs, I don’t think she has always been entirely truthful, and I don’t admire her “stand by my man” policies either.

girls at lunchBut, she has played the cards dealt to her each step along the way, and she has played them well; and even though she lost the Democratic nomination in 2008, she did not give up. She took full advantage of a great education and has used every single opportunity and life experience to further her own ambitions in pursuit of her goals. THAT is the lesson America’s young girls of today need to take heed of. Work hard. Study hard. Take calculated risks. Never give up. You are not Catherine or Lady Mary. You can be whatever you want to be. Girl power.

The Adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

speckled bandIt’s halfway through the second quarter of the school year and I’ve finally reached my favorite part of 8th grade literature, the beginning of an extended unit on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. First we read his short story, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, which serves as a warm-up to third quarter when we take on one of his four full-length novels featuring his glorious masterpiece of a character, Sherlock Holmes. The Hound of the Baskervilles never fails to intrigue the students, from the moment we find out the true identity of Miss Beryl Stapleton, to Sir Henry Baskerville’s tension-filled “solitary” walk across the moor, Sherlock Holmes’ plan to set a trap with human bait to ensnare the killer.

conan doyle bioSir Arthur Conan Doyle has fascinated me since my first year of teaching when I found “Speckled Band” in the 8th grade literature anthology textbook. I strongly feel that to study a piece of literature one must study the author first. So much can be gleaned from the author’s background, the time period in which he or she lived and wrote, who his or her influences were, and who he or she influenced in return. The two-paragraph bio of Conan Doyle in the textbook wasn’t sufficient for me to use for class so I did some research on him and learned more about his fascinating life, of which Sherlock Holmes was merely a chapter.

scotland vhsBorn and raised in Scotland, like my maternal grandparents, he studied medicine. After finishing medical school, he traveled to Africa in 1885 serving as a ship’s doctor, where he learned firsthand of the atrocities taking place in the Belgian Congo. Upon his return to England, he wrote what he called a long pamphlet on the situation to bring to the public view what he himself had seen there. He dabbled in political writings for a while, as well as writing for medical journals.

He later traveled to Vienna for additional medical training and became an eye doctor. After setting up shop with another doctor, and later a private practice, he found himself bored while waiting in between appointments for patients. He had written some fiction before, but with the extra time on his hands he began to write more and more. One idea he had for a protagonist was based on a professor he had in medical school, Dr. Joseph Bell, whose uncanny powers of deductive reasoning gave him the ability to sometimes diagnose patients from a cursory glance rather than an extended physical examination. deerstalker hatConan Doyle transferred these nearly-super powers to his character Sherlock Holmes, making him a private detective, albeit a slovenly and disorganized one, which brought to Conan Doyle more fame and fortune than his floundering medical practice ever would.

Conan Doyle later wrote to Dr. Joseph Bell and thanked him for serving as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes; however, scholars have long thought that Conan Doyle may have also been influenced by Edgar Allen Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin, a detective who appeared in three of Poe’s short stories. The first appearance, in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, is considered by many to be the first example of the sub-genre of detective fiction, one of my favorite for my own leisure reading.

the reigate squiresSherlock Holmes’ first appearance in published work was the novel, A Study in Scarlet in 1887, and Holmes’ career as a private detective continued until 1927, just three years before Conan Doyle’s death at the age of 71. In total, Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four full-length novels featuring the great detective and his side-kick, Dr. Watson. Writing story after story about Sherlock Holmes, however, became boring to him, so in 1893 he chose to end it with Holmes plunging to his death in the story “The Final Problem”. Public outcry stormed down upon him until he relented and brought him back to life in his grand novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

columboThe creation of Sherlock Holmes sparked the captivation of many, a captivation that grips audiences to this day. Conan Doyle also managed to influence many creative minds with the conception of characters bearing Holmes’ extraordinary powers of deduction, many of whom grace the small screen on a daily basis: body of proofHercule Poirot (created by another literary genius, Agatha Christie), Perry Mason, Lieutenant Columbo, Adrian Monk, Sean Spencer from Psych, Dr. House, Patrick Jane from The Mentalist, bonesand many others.  While not as apparent as the others, both medical and police dramas offer glimmers of Sherlock Holmes: Rizzoli and Isles, The Mysteries of Laura, Criminal Minds, Castle, Bones, Law & Order, and Body of Proof, to mention only a few. Even the great Walt Disney chose to honor Sherlock Holmes with his 1986 film The Great Mouse Detective.the great mouse detective

In 2010 while taking an undergraduate summer course on world literature that I needed to complete course work for my certification as an English teacher, the assignment for the final project was a presentation on any piece of literature or author studied during the course. One of the things we had been assigned to read was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I was not a fan, to say the least, but it did make me revisit the research I had once done on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his time spent as ship’s doctor traveling to Africa. I chose to do a presentation on the similarities between the two authors based upon this small connection. After my power point and presentation about the two authors and the subject of the Belgian Congo, I served my professor and classmates a traditional British cream tea, complete with freshly made scones, strawberry jam, and clotted cream, as well as piping hot tea made from my electric kettle right there in the classroom. It was a success, and while I don’t think I passed on to any of those community college students (all of whom were young enough to be my very own children) my love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, it did make my reading and study of Heart of Darkness much more enjoyable.

social-class-and-values-in-the-victorian-era-1-728Teaching Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works to my 8th graders is something I look forward to each year. It gives me a chance to introduce them to the Victorian Era and the many ways in which Queen Victoria’s reign impacted the entire world. During the third quarter, they research and write a paper on a topic of their choice, from anything having to do with the Victorian Era. Over the years I have assigned this project, I’ve had many interesting papers on very creative topics from that period: Victorian mourning clothing, prisons and jails during the Victorian Era, child labor, Victorian entertainment, and of course, Victorian literature.

In a day and time when etiquette, social graces, and standards of proper attire have all but vanished from society, it is important for these teenagers to realize that, with all the advancements in science, medicine, technology, education, women’s rights, equal rights, civil rights, and so much more, we seemed to have lost much in the process. While I am not advocating for the rigid social class system or the many limitations placed on women and minorities of the Victorian Era, we are not amusedI would be in favor of a return of some modicum of manners and social graces in today’s society, including the recognition that clothing choices for the day should be based upon the activity of the day, not just whatever pair of sweatpants or leggings (which are not technically pants, see The Harsh Reality of Truth for my thoughts on this) are clean enough to wear. Until that happens, I will escape the trials and tribulations of 21st century life by reading a Sherlock Holmes’ story and having a nice cup of tea.