Jan 27, 2012

Teaching Soulless by Gail Carriger


The first time I read Soulless, I was still getting my sea legs, or airship legs, or whatever one would call still working out just what I was doing with my blog, my research, and my approach to both. I was still engaged in quasi-snark mode, that way that 99.666% of the web approaches evaluating a book, film, or piece of music. I was still in my first year of teaching, and was learning as much about the practice of reading well as my students were. So my original review of Soulless was as lacking in essential spirit as any preternatural.

I hope this time around, I'll do a better job of being a steampunk scholar, and less book reviewer.

C.S. Lewis said that if a book wasn't worth reading a second time, it wasn't likely worth reading the first. By that criterion, I have a stack of steampunk that wasn't worth reading the first time around, but Soulless certainly isn't among them. I've read Soulless four times now, five if you count adaptation as a reading. The first reading was a quick page-turning read to churn out a review; the second was out-loud to my wife; the third was as audiobook, the fourth with my Winter 2011 Introduction to Literature students, and the fifth, as Manga from Yen Plus. Each experience taught me new things about the book, and I can say without reservation that there's a sixth reading in the offing. For now, I want to talk about the experience of teaching the book, since that was easily the most illuminating experience of the book.
My favorite cover, from the Japanese release.
While it would have been ideal to teach the novel in the fall, in proximity with Halloween, I ended up teaching it to two classes primarily comprised of business students in the Winter of 2011. I paired it with Bram Stoker's Dracula, and as a result found myself thinking of the relationship between Lucy Westenra and Alexia Tarabotti: Lucy characterizes two Victorian female types, first as the chaste innocent, exemplar of propriety and manners, and then later as the "suddenly sexual" vampiric "dark woman" (check out Phyllis Roth's "Suddenly Sexual Women in Bram Stoker's Dracula" for more on this dichotomy). Alexia is puerly neither of these things; rather, they act as polemics which Alexia occupies a space between. She is the model of societal propriety in manners, fashion, and appearances. Beneath that surface, she actively pursues, with alarming sexual aggression for her day, an unconventional relationship with the werewolf Lord Maccon. This was the beginning of the chapter titled, "Useful Troublemakers: Social Retrofuturism in the steampunk novels of Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest," in which I argue that both writers have "realized" (insofar as a fictional character realizes anything) the fin-de-siècle phenomenon of the New Woman: While it must be readily admitted, as Lyn Pickett states in her foreword to The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin-de-Siècle Feminisms, that the New Woman never existed, but “was (and remains) a shifting and contested term. It was a mobile and contradictory figure or signifier” (xi), the idea of the New Woman can be understood as the hope for social regeneration, a striving towards a future through the conception of “new, or newly perceived, forms of femininity which were brought to public attention in the last two decades of the nineteenth century” (1). Alexia Tarabotti is a unconsciously the New Woman, and as we'll see in upcoming posts, also exemplifies another fictional female type of the late Victorian period: the fallen woman. Anyone looking to do feminist studies in steampunk would do well to consider the intersections between Soulless and the New Woman as places to begin. For essay writing, many students utilized Carol Senf's excellent article, "Dracula: Stoker's Response to the New Woman," comparing Lucy Westenra and Alexia Tarabotti.
The German Edition
Something I've ruminated on since teaching the novel is the contrast between Dracula, the Transylvanian nobleman become monster, and Lord Akeldama, flamboyant fashionista and flibbertigibbert (if any male can represent that word, it would be Lord Akeldama). Whereas Dracula hides in the shadows and seeks to overthrow London by stealthily murdering its women, Lord Akeldama basks in the spotlight, and holds power and influence in London by openly flaunting conventional fashion while openly holding court over a bevy of toffs and dandies. The following quotation, which I made the blasted mistake of not citing--but I'm hellbent on tracking it down now--perhaps approximates why Lord Akeldama succeeds where Dracula fails:
"Vampirism stands a fair chance of being regarded as essentially an eccentricity in England, provided of course the vampire observes good form, adheres to what is proper, eschews excessive public displays, and doesn't harm birds or animals" - David L. Hammer
We also did a hypothetical casting of the major players, discussing who we'd have play each persona as a way of understanding their character better. I've used this exercise with a number of novels, always with good results. Our results weren't glaringly different from Carriger's, and I'm still holding out for Sean Bean as Maccon, since he needs to play at least one major character who doesn't die before the end of the series. I would also recommend comparing and contrasting the characters as described/conveyed in the novel with the design sketches of the Yen Plus Manga edition, as an opportunity to further discuss character, or possibly the process of adaptation.


I made a number of observations about VIXI during our class study, that even as mix of Steampunk terminator and golem, he's still effectively a creature of magic. Gail has said she went with a Latin word rather than Hebrew to avoid magical connotations, but I'm not sure that's entirely avoidable with a golem, Latin or not. If the rules for killing a monster involve nothing more than erasing the text on its forehead, that's magic, end of discussion. It was a good opportunity to explain techno fantasy as an aspect of the Steampunk aesthetic, as well as discuss how much authority we should give an author when critically analyzing their work. I teach students to treat the text as artifact, not an author's intentions. While an author can illuminate the process of creation, once they complete that work and release it into the reader's grasp, we become partners in the making of meaning.

Ultimately, the majority of students thoroughly enjoyed the experience of comparing and contrasting Dracula and Soulless. There was one particularly outspoken naysayer, but he admitted disliking the text because Alexia reminded him of a former flame, which gave us the chance to discuss how a text "reads" us, even as we are reading it. One male student related his embarrassment at reading it on the bus: being an Albertan male with what appears to be fully chick-lit was a challenge, though he was quick to add, not deterrent enough to keep from reading to see what happened next. This allowed us to do a cover comparison, which is also an excellent study. We talked about how the original cover plays off the design of the Marie Antoinette film's marketing; we discussed how covers play into audience expectations, and construct a horizon of expectation, which many remarked Carriger subverts. While they expected "a sappy romance," they were surprised to find adventure, mystery, and comedy.
Omnibus Edition
All in all, the experience of teaching Soulless was very rewarding, both pedagogically and personally. My sole regret is that I forgot to bring my camera to class to capture an image of my students with Gail's book in hand. She collects pictures of her books in stores or odd places. I figure a University classroom constitutes an odd place. And clearly, to get that photo, I'll have to teach the book again. In the meantime, I'd encourage anyone looking for a whimsical intertext to Dracula or anything by Jane Austen to consider bringing Soulless into the classroom.

6 comments:

  1. Which class is this for? I just realized that you taught at my school and would be interested in taking it in another semester.

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  2. English 103: Introduction to Literature - As I said here, I pair it with readings from Stoker's Dracula.

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    1. Sadly this is the course I missed taking from you. Not just because you are a brilliant proof as most your students agree, but also because I am a massive Dracula fan and the whole vampire/werewolf fantasy area is one of my favourites. However, the fact you have paired this with Bram Stoker's Dracula makes me want to read it from the idea of "this is worthy!" as a comparison to such a classic work that has produced so many spinoffs. Of course it reminds me of the whole "authoritative text" argument. From my understanding Bram Stoker's Dracula is not what we could consider an authoritative text... if you consider Nosferatu and the use vampires previously (if memory serves).
      I wonder, did you do a film comparison? If so which Dracula did you use? I only own 3 versions of the film:

      - Dracula - Bela Lugosi
      - Dracula - Frank Langella
      and what is called
      - Bram Stoker's Dracula - played by Gary Oldman

      Tanarra: I highly suggest taking a class with Mr. Perschon. Even if English or Comparative literature are not your 'thing' he gives you an appreciation for what your learning, he helps you apply it to your daily life, and he assists you in developing skills that can be applied across disciplines.

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  3. Avigayil - as you well know, I'm not a stickler for whether a book is "worthy" of being paired. After all, I just compared Goethe's Faust to Revenge of the Sith! Nevertheless, I'm 99% certain you'll end up a Carriger fangirl.

    Numerous English lit folk don't see Stoker as worthy of inclusion in a canon including Chaucer, Bronte, etc., but there are just as many who do, so that ship has sailed. Stoker is considered worthy of serious study, which is fun, even though the novel is terribly flawed.

    We compared the novel to the Coppola version, with Oldman as Dracula. We talked about how the film is ultimately bipolar, trying hard to be faithful, while trying equally as hard to do something new, and arguably failing at both.

    Thanks for the kind words about my teaching!

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    1. You compared it to my least favourite of the three, but understandably so. I find watching Gary Oldman as Dracula very painful... perhaps because I always viewed Dracula in the romantic light of 'suave and debonaire' (thus Frank Langella or Bela Lugosi are admirable fits... though I suppose Bela could be argued against) but with the reality that this guy would really like to kill me, suck my blood, etc. The cover of the Frank Langella movie has a line that I think most of the romantics into vampires associate with Dracula "throughout history one name has inspired both horror and desire".
      When I mention romantics and vampires: I am of course not mentioning the sparkly vampire lovers of the Twilight series. Have I read them? Yes. I could have read that content when I was 7... the writing is far from brilliant, however, I can see the appeal. It is the old classic ' forbidden love" and various other elements entwined. I do really like a phrase from the book/movie though: "you're like a drug to me...you're like my own personal brand of heroine." Sorry, that line sends chills down my spine.

      My perfect Dracula is a cross between the Dracula and Hannibal Lector - that would be a sweet book.

      As for the novel being terribly flawed, do you mean historically? I read a book that retraced the 'steps' of Jonathan Harker and then Dracula from Romania to England and if memory serves, there are some missing or mis-represented landmarks.

      Very funny with the whole "ship has sailed" reference. ;-)

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  4. The "ship has sailed" joke was unintentional, but very clever of you for making it an intended Drac reference!

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